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October 31, 2002
Hirsi Ali rips the multiculturalists
In a somewhat astoudning development, Ayaan Hirsi Ali today annouced she was switching political allegiance from the left-of-center Labor Party (PvdA) to the right-of-center Liberals of the VVD. Reasons for her defection from Labor are explained in an op-ed in today's NRC Handelblad (free registration required). It is unfortunate that it's in Dutch because it deserves much wider airing. No, I'm not going to translate it. I will point out some highlights from her commentary, which deals with the plight of muslim women in the Netherlands, and how they have been let down by Left. Writing about social democracy, she says:
Social democracy means standing up for the weak in society. Right now, that's mostly women and children in muslim families. They don't have the same basic rights that Dutch women and children have - they do on paper, but in practice they don't in everyday life. This causes mental suffering, but also physical suffering, as the population in women's shelters shows.
She explains the shame-honor values of the muslim immigrants in this country, which put enormous pressure on members of that community not be critical of their own. It also imposes a stifling conformity on them, consigning especially women to lifelong misery and oppression. But she is especially critical of the failure of the Left to support and protect the weak. Group identity politics, so beloved of the contemporaneous Left, lead to putting the maintenance of the ethno-religious group over that of the rights of the individual, in this case muslim women. She writes:
All freedoms that for some are a matter of course: falling in love, going out, staying with a friend, a shopping trip, swimming, cinema or going to the theater, is met with gossiping within the group of women and the inevitable screaming of a father or a brother or a husband: where were you?
It's the girl who're limited in their freedom of movement, they have to have their hymen repaired, they get beaten and kicked. We know it, but we don't want to say it. Thus these women pay the price for tranquility and thus the so-called supporters of the multicultural ideal can sleep soundly.
It shows how little real willingness there is to integrate within the mulsim leadership. And how much contempt they have behind closed doors for the culture and inhabitants of this host country: the heathens. The infidels will burn, the Dutch muslim television said on September 11th last year.
The marginalization of the muslim immigrant community is self-imposed and widespread, but also facilitated by the Dutch socialist welfare system. Two thirds of the muslim immigrants live on government handouts.
In other comments she made today about her decision, she's also quoted as saying that the Labor party can only start to make a constructive contribution to this discussion, once "it saves itself from the stanglehold of the multicultis and muslim conservatives."
Much of what she has said is also relevant in the wider discussion in the west about the folly of multiculturalism. Those who prided themselves on being defenders of individual liberty on the left have become enablers of brutal repression, all because the hatred of America and western culture has become more important to them then the individual rights, the rights which we hold to be self-evident and which are most respected and protected exactly in the West they despise so much.
October 30, 2002
The old enemy
Here's an excellent op-ed in today's Times (of London) by Simon Jenkins speaking about Tony Blair finally meeting the Old Enemy. He starts:
Love America. Hate France. All else is local government. For two centuries this has been the guiding maxim of British foreign policy. Every Prime Minister should repeat it each morning as he shaves, and each evening as he prays. ?Love America . . . hate France.?
You know the Reynoldsian adage: read it all.
The Anglosphere lives.
Thoughts on the X350
It's now been a while since Jaguar officially unveiled the new XJ, currently better known as the X350. It will be badged as either an XJ6 (six cylinder) or an XJ8 (eight cylinder), with an XJR (supercharged V8) version coming too. The technical specifications all look OK. The V8 engines will have plenty of horsepower, although the 3-liter V6 looks rather underpowered for a car that big. On the other hand, the current XJ8 also comes in a 3.2 liter version for the European market and is selling well. My main concern about the smaller engines is "waftability," a term that is most used by Rolls Royce owners. It boils down to high torque at low revs. The V6 simply can't deliver. The older AJ6 and AJ16 engines of the XJ40 and X300 were straight sixes, which I've found to be preferable over the V6. The V8 is very smooth indeed.
The looks of the X350 are what occupies me most. The pictures at the Jag Lovers site left me initially with a "so far, so good" feeling. Later on doubts began to creep in. Is it just a big X-Type? It does look a little bit like it. I don't want Jaguar to end up in the situation BMW found itself in, where the 3, 5 and 7 series were just differently sized versions of the same car. That won't work. Overall, the X350 does have the Jaguar style printed over it. On the other hand, it has gotten bulkier. The old X308 was sleeker, lower and more graceful, but the realities of the car market are probably such that more interior space was needed. Old style Jaguar buyers don't really care. If you want interior space, go buy an SUV. It's the graceful styling of the car that attracts us. A little bit of that has been lost. Especially painful is the shortened hood. That just does not look right.
Additional pictures posted on the web do allay my fears somewhat. In these shots taken at the Birmingham motorshow the X350 actually looks better to me than in some of Jaguar's own publicity shots. I also talked to a salesman at the local Jaguar dealership yesterday when dropping off my car for regularly scheduled servicing, and one of the things he pointed out is that in real life, the X350 cannot be mistaken for a big X-Type. The headlights are a lot rounder, and the car does not have the same hunched feel as the X. The publicity brochure I got also had some nice shots.
Still, I'm going to wait until I see the car in person and as a regular feature on the roads. The latter is the most revealing, because it shows how well the X350 can set itself apart from all the other cars. The current X308 is immediately recognizable as a Jaguar. There's simply no mistaking it. One of the things that struck me about the X-Type is that it looked better in the showroom than on the road. Out there in traffic it's big shortcoming is that it's small. It simply does not have the presence of an XJ or even an S. It looks OK, but it's too small too stand out.
There has been much criticism of the styling of the X350 on the forums at Jag Lovers. The traditionalists complain it's a "Forduar" which has had the traditional Jaguar design lines compromised by the evil corporate masters of Ford. Of course, without Ford's investment in Jaguar, there would be no X350 and Jaguar probably would not have survived. I still think the XJ40 was a much bigger depature from the Series III than anything we've seen since then. Had that transition occurred under Ford's ownership and had the internet existed, the reaction would have been even fiercer. This is Jaguar fans' version of Golden Agism.
Jaguar should not expand the range too much further though. It is already scraping the bottom of the barrel with the front wheel drive 2-liter X-Type. Diluting the brand may generate sales at the bottom end of the market, but the high end is not going to like it very much.
The X350 has the potential to become a worthy successor the X308. I'll reserve judgment until I see it on the road.
Posted by qsi at 09:14 PM
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Dating Saudi style
The Financial Times has another interesting article on Saudi Arabia following last week's comments on the Saudi economy. This time the topic is the role of women in Saudi society. If you thought getting a date over here was hard, the Saudi alternative is far, far worse:
t is a Thursday evening outside Feisalia shopping mall in Riyadh. Only families are allowed in on the eve of the Muslim weekend. Single young men, thought to be too disruptive, sit in their cars outside, blocking traffic.
The mutawa'a - religious police - are nearby and will intervene if the mall's security guards let the men slip by.
The usual practice is to wait for a glimpse of a woman entering or leaving the mall. The chances are that all the men can see is her eyes - the rest is hidden under a robe.
If a girl looks at them the men will throw a piece of paper with their phone number on it. Some plaster the number on car windows and hope to get a call.
This is boy (tries to) meet girl, Saudi style. With men and women segregated, opportunities for relationships are limited. Marriages are most often arranged; sometimes young men and women meet on family trips abroad and try to see each again at home.
There is apparently increasing domestic criticism of the strict segregation of men and women. As the FT says, "In education the result has been graduates well-versed in the Koran but ill-suited for a modern job market." The article links the current ultra-repressive religious orthodoxy to the takeover of Islam's holiest shrine, the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979 when a group of over one hundred armed fighters seized it. The group's leaders, Juhaiman and Muhammad Al Qahtani claimed that they wanted to return to the strict practice of Wahhabism. They claimed that the influx of petrodollars had led the house of Saud to abandon the true path. After a siege, the Grand Mosque was stormed in a massive assault. In this assault, many of the conspirators were shot on the spot, others executed later. In The Closed Cirlce
, the affair is summed up:
The ulema, pliant as usual, issued a decree to sanction the killing of these dissidents even within the mosque's precincts.
This bit of theology will come is handy when the war moves to Iraq. Also compare the handling of the situation with the siege at the Church of the Nativity. Israel was blasted for laying a siege, when the Palestinians were the ones commiting the war crime of using a holy place as a battleground.
In response to the siege at the Grand Mosque, the Saud rulers of Arabia took an even harsher line in interpreting Wahhabism domestically for fear of setting off a wider islamicist revolt against their rule. The danger of pinning your legitimacy to a religious creed is that it's easy to be challenged by others who claim that you've strayed from the true path. Then you can either reform, or go for maximum orthodoxy. The Sauds chose the latter course which has led to further radicalization of their own population, without actually achieving substantially greater popularity. With the economy not doing so well, the population becomes more critical of their rulers. The bribe of oil money that worked in the past is no longer sustainable, so the Sauds have to seek refuge in their role of guardians of Wahhabism and the muslim holy places.
But Islam in general, and Wahhabism in particular in Saudi Arabia, has always been used by those in power to justify their rule. Even though there are many "secular" rulers in the Middle East, religion and piety are central parts of the image they cultivate exactly because Islam is so deeply linked Arab culture. The actual question of whether they believe any of it is irrelevant. It's the image that counts.
So will the power of the Sauds be challenged by even more radical Islamists, or do reformers have a chance? The FT article ends with the following:
But the planned introduction this year of English in primary schools was postponed in what was seen as a concession to the conservative clerical establishment.
"We have been told that by learning English we stand to lose our own language and cultural traditions. Can any of those who promote this idea cite even one instance of people losing their language and traditions by learning English or any other language?" wrote Khaled al- Maeena, editor of Arab News, an English-language daily.
"By learning English we open the door to different ideas, different ways of thinking and different ways of living. That, after all, is what education is about - or should be about."
Perhaps there are indeed reformist forces at work within Arabia that could help the country to open up and move away from its current stultifying state. One thing that does give me some hope is that in getting hits from Saudi Arabia
a lot seem to come from search engines. What are they looking for? Well, sex. Arab and Saudi sex. At least some aspects of human nature are culturally invariant.
So perhaps there's hope yet, but I remain highly skeptical.
Posted by qsi at 07:46 PM
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October 29, 2002
In an excellent comment on yesterday's item on democracy (scroll down), reader FeloniousPunk writes:
I think that one of America's hidden virtues is its youth as a nation. America is not burdened by history in the way that, say, the Arabs are. There is really no golden past to harken back to that forms the bedrock of cultural and national identity; if anything the idea that progress is not only possible but inevitable and that the greatness of the nation lies in the future rather than the past, that is the bedrock of the identity. Without this burden of the past, the society is relatively unencumbered to change and adapt and to work for a future. By contrast, for so many societies the desired future lies somewhere in the golden past, so real change and progress is not possible.
I fully agree with this. This syndrome of Golden Agism has always been pervasive. It is rare to find fundamentally optimistic societies, as it so much easier to succumb to cynicism and seek redemption in the recreation of a mythical past. Some people take it very literally
Some time ago on GeekPress I found a link to a speech given by science fiction author David Brin at the Libertarian Party national convention in July. It's fairly long, but well worth reading even if you are, like me, not a capital-L libertarian. One the things he mentions in his case for a "cheerful libertarianism" is the difference between the Look-Back View and the Look-Forward View. The former is what I call Golden Agism here, the belief that once upon a time things were better. Look-Forward is the conviction that the best is yet to come, if we make it happen.
More importantly he also takes to task the curmudgeonly, the ranters, the spewers and generally angry. How easy it is to believe that you are one of the few enlightened souls to see the full awful truth about your favorite issue! Although I am generally sympathetic to the libertarian conclusion, reading the frothing comments by self-styled followers of the philosophy turns me off. Seeing the world (or America, as it may be) as moving irrevocably towards to a totalitarian police state, a bunker mentality sets in. It's the enlightened few railing against the blindness of the masses who are being led like lambs to the slaughter. All sense of proportion is lost. Lileks addressed the tendency to extremist characterizations in his piece on Wellstone's death:
But if you’re going to accuse someone of being kith and kin to tyrants and murderers, you have to realize that intentions do count, as I’ll explain. And if you’re going to call Wellstone a tyrant and group him with the A-list collectivists, insist that his vision of government was a gun to your head, then you have no gas left in the tank when it comes time to run over the guys who really meet those descriptions. We can have fun with the guy when he’s alive, but death changes the tenor of the debate. Put the broad brush back in the muck bucket.
But moving back to Golden Agism, although America as a society has stuck to the Look-Forward View for most of its history, the temptation to think in terms of smaller Golden Ages is still there. (Does that make them Silver Ages?) Just look at the various political camps. The anti-war left is desperately yearning for its heyday of the Vietnam era. The 1960's are the Golden Age for a generation of lefties. On the right there is a similar hankering for an even earlier era. The glorification of the 1950's as the Golden Age of family values, motherhood and apple pie is palpable in the commentary of the "social and moral decline" conservatives. Libertarians pine for the Golden Age of the Founding Fathers, when the Constitution was pure and unspoilt by political reality. All three groups will complain bitterly that things are going to hell. Only American socialists thankfully have no Golden Age in America's past to look back to. Instead they celebrate the contemporaneous past of Cuba's communist dictatiorship, where hell already exists.
In thirty or forty years' time, we'll have different political groups talking dreamily about the wonderful 1980's, 1990's or those heady days of the new millennium, while speaking bitterly of the decline in their pet indicators of National Health since these glorious times.
I wonder whether this is something that the young are more prone to. The first adult impressions of the world have a tendency form the baseline for all comparisons. When things change, youthful bitterness will cast it in the light of "things are going to hell." Even the cancelation of a favorite TV show will lead to complaints that TV is no longer what it used to be and will now be in terminal decline forevermore. Perhaps I have been exposed to too many whiny kids in their late teens and early twenties. As I am edging towards tumbling into pre-early physical middle age myself, I am hoping that with age comes the ability to see things more clearly. Then again, why do people always talk about bitter old men?
I need my own personal Golden Age. There's a business opportunity here. Design a fake coat of arms, a fake genealogy and a fake Golden Age to go with them. I could be rich...
Posted by qsi at 10:00 PM
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Negiotiable civil liberties
Here's another classic headline. It says "Opstelten: Limit citizens' privacy for more security." Opstelten is the mayor of Rotterdam and he wants additional powers in order to be able to deal with various problems such as tackling serial troublemakers. He wants the government to link all of its databases, more scope for video cameras in public places, the authority to shut down bars, coffeeshops and brothels if they cause ongoing problems.
It's a wishlist for more government power. The notion that the state can shut down establishments it does not like is disturbing. If such places are breaking the law, they should be shut down. But the way this has been phrased gives the impression that the mayor would have considerable discretion over who is to be shut down. That's simply pre-programming future abuses of power.
The scary thing is, these kinds of measures probably will be popular, much like the searches in Amsterdam.
The pot is boiling, not melting
The Dutch pot is not melting, it's boiling. The latest manifestation of racial tension came in the wake of a tragic death in the eastern town of Venlo. René Steegmans was a 22 year old student who was beaten to death for an act of gallantry. When he saw that two youngsters on a small motorbike almost crashed into a handicapped 73 year old lady, he came to her defense and admonished the young men about their reckless driving. In response, they beat him to death. He was buried today.
What otherwise would have been yet another senseless, brutal act of violence quickly acquired an anti-immigrant dimension. The main suspect, who had done most of the beating, is of Moroccan descent. The other young man was Dutch, but that was quickly lost in the outpouring of hatred towards Khalid L. (as he is known in the press). The condolance books on the internet had to be closed because of the anti-Moroccan sentiment that spilled into the comments. There is a significant problem with crime committed by Moroccan youth gangs (such as this horrific case), but in this case it's more a case of a life gone awry, and his Moroccan ethnicity seems unimportant.
Then Khalid's parents were interviewed on a current affairs program on TV. His father said their 18 year old son was "a good boy who wouldn't hurt a fly." Well, this could be the usual parental blindess, but the fact is that Khalid had already been convicted once of assault. This being the Netherlands, he had to do community service. His father said that those were the kinds of brawls any kid could get involved in. But then his father went on that his son was insulted by Steegmans. "Is he then not allowed to fight?" the father asked. His mother also added the comment that her son Khalid was "Allah's instrument to end René's life."
It is hard to think of more stupid, inflammatory things to say. Emotions had already been running high, and these comments have really put the cat amongst the pigeons. Invoking Islam transformed the crime from a single individual to the whole muslim community. The organizations representing Moroccan immigrants were at least quick to disavow these comments. After a talk with leaders of the Moroccan community, the parents issued a written retraction of their earlier comments. According to the imam who drafted the letter, their comments had been misinterpreted which is the traditional backpedaling maneuver. What they actually had meant to say, is that they lost two sons, their own and the boy who died. Yeah, right.
To boggle the mind even further, Khalid's parents have been living in the Netherlands for 36 years now. They hardly speak Dutch and his father has been on disability benefit for 25 years. The Dutch "WAO" system of disability benefit used to be excessively generous. For a minor work injury you could essentially retire, and the state would pay you 70% or 80% of your last pay. Even if you were able to do other work. The system has since been pared back because it had become very expensive as you might imagine. Still, over a million Dutchmen out of a total population of 16 million get some form of WAO benefits paid. That's why our taxes are so exceedingly high.
The entire welfare system is utterly excessive, if not to say insane. The incentive to work is not very high if you can live more or less comfortably on state handouts. And this Moroccan guy managed to do so for 25 years without even speaking the language! No reason to learn Dutch, the checks keep on coming.
The reaction to the Moroccan involvement in this crime also shows how tense this country has become. The assimilation of immigrants has to become a top priority if nastier forms of anti-immigrant sentiment are to be averted. Immigrants need to be forced to assimilate into Dutch society, and cutting off the flow of state money to those who refuse is likely to be good first step.
The dangers of self-defense
Defending yourself can be a dangerous proposition in the Netherlands. The preferred way of dealing with crime is to leave it to the professionals. If they bother to show up, or even if they do show up eventually, they may decide that things like burglaries are just not worth investigating. But apparently investigating and prosecuting people who do defend themselves is something that is considered worthy of the state's time. The owner and the manager of a supermarket in Amsterdam chased a robber, who'd threatened the cashier with a knife and made off with 500 euros worth of loot. They finally caught him in a park, and subdued him. Forcefully. In the tussle, the robbered suffered a broken nose. And then he filed a report with the police (who had arrested him by then) about the abuse he'd been subjected to. The owner and the manager of the supermarket are each being charged with the Dutch equivalent of causing grievous bodily harm. The prosecutor's office says they used "excessive force" in subduing the criminal.
With the damage being limited to a broken nose on the part of the criminal, I am having a hard time seeing this as excessive force. Perhaps the broken nose may not have been necessary. I don't know, not having been there to witness it. I do worry about the chilling effect of coming down hard on self-defense in these matters. Defending oneself is not risk-free in the first place, but having the additional discouragement of being treated yourself as a criminal if you do manage to defend yourself successfully will serve to encourage criminals.
Oh, if you're wondering how murderers are treated here, read this.
October 28, 2002
Disconcerting quantum physics
Over on Ars Technica there's a discussion about a possible hoax perpetrated in the field of string theory. The scary thing is, it's turning out to be very hard to tell whether it's a hoax, shoddy scholarship or actual work. The physics and math is so esoteric that only a small handful of people seems capable of understanding it. Any quantum physicists in the house?
The project of Democracy
Building a functioning, self-sustaining democracy is hard. It requires more than just elections. The institutions, the constitution, the rule of law all play a part. When we say "democracy," it is shorthand for much more than elections. But ultimately, none of this matters if the idea and the ideal of democracy is not understood and cherised by the population. If the people don't think democracy is a good thing and worth defending, it will vanish. Some outward signs of democracy (usually elections) may remain, like the facade of a building otherwise gutted by flame. What democracy needs is deep support. It has to be an inextricable part of life, that the mere thought of not having does not even arise. Deep support also leads to the willingness to defend democracy when it comes under attack.
Building deep support is something that requires time. Lots of time. Many generations. Peoples and cultures have their own transgenerational memories. Those cultures that have no memory of democracy will find it much harder to build a functioning, modern, liberal democracy. In the case of Russia, there is no such memory. The country never has had anything resembling a modern liberal system of government, and the deep memories of the culture reflect the totalitarian rule of the czars and the communists. The idea of democracy lives a marginalized life. The elections do exist, but deep support is missing.
The cause of this lengthy introduction is this article in the German newspaper Handelblatt. I have not seen a compilation like this in the English press, so here are some highlights. The headline is "Enough of this democracy," and the article is a summary of comments made in Russia since the storming of the theater. A high-ranking officer of the Alpha commando unit that stormed the theater is quoted as saying "Enough of this democracy and human rights." Other comments came in a similar vein. Writing in the newspaper Kommersant, Boris Volkhonsky said, "Laden with the backpack of 20th century liberal values one cannot fight terrorism." Leonid Radsikhivsky described as "very liberal" demanded the introduction of a "hard police state." As in 1941 with the German invasion, it is the survival of the country that is at stake. A "Kremlin politicologist" by the name of Sergey Markov opines: "We can be proud of Russia again." He said that the Russian had feared a storming of the theater only because they were not sure that the secrer services could carry it out competently. "This is the rebirth of our homeland."
Read these comments again and imagine them in a western democracy. How unthinkable are they? The overwhelming torrent of commentary after September 11th was a worry about the erosion of civil liberties in the wake of the attack, not an active call for their erosion. Despite the shrillest auguries from the doomsayers and Bush-bashers, America remains a free country. It remains free because the concepts of the Bill of Rights and the Constitution are an inseparable part of American life. The situation is not perfect, and there is much room for improvement, but the fundamental disposition of the American republic remains intact.
I wrote a few days ago about Russia's relationship with the west. It is a country that shares a lot of cultural heritage with the west, although it is lacking that heritage in the political field. It should be relatively easy to merge Russia into the western mainstream with so much in common, yet these reactions prove how hard it is. And how much harder is it going to be in Iraq? The Japanese model has been put forward as an example of a successful rebuilding and remodeling of a pathological society. From its imperialist pre-war state to the post-war democracy, Japan is a success. But has the idea of democracy really taken root in Japan? The real power lies with unelected bureaucrats and the political elite. Elections are almost secondary, as the LDP has to screw up really badly to lose. In fact, it has screwed up really badly as it has steered the country to a decade of economic decline, but even so it remains by far the largest party. More important than the number of seats the LDP gets in the Diet is the balance of power among the LDP's factions. And the Japanese economy is pre-capitalist with a few pockets of corporate excellence in a sea of rotting zombies. But the Japan model was successful to the extent that the system in principle should be able to heal itself and the woes afflicting the country. And it has been successful in neutralizing the threat from Japan.
Reform-minded politicians in repressive regimes see the need for more popular support and one solution is to experiment with democracy. Or perhaps more precisely, elections. By giving the people a say in elections they hope to defuse anger and resentment as well as build support for their rule. It's a good first step, but again it must come with the other elements of the Democracy Package. Building an understanding of and appreciation for liberal democratic virtues is an integral part of this. So is having a free capitalist economy.
It did not get much play in the Blogosphere, but elections have been held in Bahrain, and the Islamist candidates won most of the seats. Gulf News puts of a brave face on it, by claiming that secular candidates did better this time around than in municipal elections held earlier, when they did not win any seats at all. The article goes on:
"Despite this improvement, nonetheless, they have to admit they lost and lost big to the religious movement."
The main reason, he says, is the past 30 years in which the arena has been occupied exclusively by the Islamists. "These movements have been closer to the people; they have the mosques, the charities and ability to influence people with all their talk of the Holy Quran."
The liberals, meanwhile, have been "absent" since they clashed with the government in the mid-1970s over the constitutional rights after the National Assembly was dissolved in 1975.
"They isolated themselves. They were alienated and people could no longer understand what they were talking about because younger generations have been influenced by the rise of Islamism with the Iranian revolution and other religious movements," he explained.
Is it possible for an Arab country to reform its political system from authoritarian rule to a democracy? The lure of the glory of the past is great. By promising a return to old-fashioned Islamic virtues, the religious parties play on an ancient cultural meme in the Arab world. Arab culture achieved its greatest glory when it was supposedly pure and untainted. All later misfortune is due to straying from the true path of Islam. It is a simple message with great emotive power and attraction. After all, it offers a solution without having to import any ideas from the infidel West.
The reason we were welcomed in Afghanistan is because the logical extreme of this line of thought had triumphed there. The Taliban imposed the strictest Islamic regime in history. It was not very popular. Likewise in Iran the erstwhile attractions of the Islamic revolution have long since dissolved in the caustic reality of everyday life. The murmurs of revolution are growing stronger in Persia now.
Do the people really have to suffer the reality of theocratic thuggery before they reject Islamofascism? Even in Saudi Arabia, which is already close to a theocracy, the cause of an even more extreme form of Islamism is finding converts. It is going to be a long and difficult task to establish any understanding or support for liberal democracy in these countries. As the Gulf News articles says, there is precious little internal intellectual support for it.
Do people want to be free? Do people want to be prosperous? I would answer yes to both questions. The second will find universal acclaim, the first won't. The basis for totalitarian ideology is exactly the denying of freedom to the people. Whether it be the call for a police state in Russia, or for a strict version of Sharia in the Arab world, the instincts for state-imposed restrictions of freedom run deep in countries where there is no memory of democracy. But even in the supposedly free-wheeling Netherlands the people are willing to trade freedom for apparent security.
It's not going to be easy at all.
UPDATE: Related commentary can be found at OxBlog and Sgt. Stryker.
October 27, 2002
Putin's long-term strategy
In a comment posted below and reiterated at his own blog, Ron Campbell asks what the Russians hope to get out of it. Damned if I know. That of course won't stop me from speculating. This is a blog, after all.
Putin's early career in the Soviet Union was as an officer in the KGB, working in the foreign intelligence arm. For several years he was stationed in East Germany, and he speaks German well. This has allowed him to cultivate his relationship with Germany under Schröder. Putin's style in Russia is hard and uncompromising. The second Chechen war was started after a series bomb explosions in Moscow which ripped apart several apartment buildings, leading to hundreds of dead. This wave of terrorism was blamed on the Chechen, and used as a pretext for launching the second Chechen war. However, no evidence of this was ever produced of this supposed link, and there have been persistent allegations that it was the Russian secret service that was responsible, as documented on this Danish site. Sound monstrous? The KGB was monstrous. The Soviet Union was monstrous. And Putin spent most of his career in the Soviet Union in the KGB, whose business it was to keep the communist dictatorship in power. In the grand scheme of things, the Soviet-era mentality is perfectly capable of blowing up a few hundred of its own people in order to pursue a larger goal. The larger goal is to re-establish Russia as a first-rate power. The shock of not being taken seriously on the world stage after losing its empire is a deep psychological wound in the Russian psyche.
I read once an editorial in the Wall Street Journal (can't find it online) that Putin has a copy of Atlas Shrugged on his bookshelf. If he has read the book, its message has not taken hold. The transformation necessary from KGB apparatchik to someone who would truly understand and promote liberal democracy is enormous, and I don't think Putin is capable of it. He will remain, at heart, someone for whom the state is an end in itself, not something that exists to protect its' citizens rights.
As I mentioned in my previous post, there is an opportunity to entice Russia back into the mainstream of Western civilization. The obvious road to that goal is to establish a capitalist economy in Russia. But taking this tack is mistaking Russia's ultimate goal: having a prosperous economy is just a step on the way of re-establishing Russian national greatness and imperialism. That is the way Putin is likely to see it at the moment. The hope is that once Russians do get the benefits of increased prosperity, the wounds of losing the empire will start to heal. But that will take a long time. For several generations the Russian people have been bombarded with propaganda demonizing the West, and especially the US. Even in eastern Germany, which has benefited enormously from capitalism and America's role in Europe, the generations-long brainwashing has left a strong undercurrent of anti-American feeling.
So I think Putin's current strategy has to be seen in the light of the long-term goal of putting Russia back on the map of Great Powers. He certainly realizes that he can make common cause with the US in the war against the Islamofascist enemy. How freely he will give his cooperation to the US in this depends on how great he thinks the danger to Russia is. Bush has rightly determined that eradicating the Islamofascists and the regimes that support them (like Iraq) is necessary. Putin has to ask himself whether Russia will be an ongoing target in the war, or whether it will be secondary. If he thinks the danger to Russia is containable by the use of force in Chechnya and that Iraq is peripheral to this, he will try to play the US for his support.
This is something I have never understood about shady opportunistic regimes, such as those in Russia, China and France. Why do they think that there is no danger to them from the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction? They're happy to deal with and protect rogue states all over the world. But North Korean and Iraqi missiles (if further developed) could strike just as easily in China, Russia and France. It is a peculiar myopia that these regimes display. For all their criticism of the US for fighting an "oil war," it these regimes who have the dollar signs in their eyes, and are willing to sell their souls to any third-world tyrant who throws them some baubles.
So what does Putin think he can get out of this? The most optimistic scenario is that he will see this as the opening bid in a long term rapprochement between Russia and the US. Fighting a war on the same side is always a good start. Then again, we also fought with the Soviets against the Nazis, so it's not necessarily the start of a beautiful friendship. If we can show Putin that Russia and he himself will benefit by cooperating with the US, he will probably do so. On the other hand, the resentment of America's victory in the Cold War and Russian dreams of a new empire might lead Russia to try to play it too cute: withhold full support in the war and trying to maneuver for position on the world stage as a result, for instance by playing Saddam's protector at the UN. This would be extremely short sighted and it's a losing strategy, but it could cause a whole lot of problems in the short term.
In the end, the Russian economy depends on oil. A $1 move in the price of oil leads to a billion dollar swing Russia's state finances. From that perspective, it is in Russia's interest to keep oil prices as high as possible by not having a resolution of threat of war in the Middle East. Again, a short-sighted strategy that will not achieve anything in the long term, while losing credibility and good will in the US. But Russia is a huge country rich in mineral resources other than oil, and should be able to build a more balanced economy. The short-term pain of lower oil prices after the liberation of Iraq is bearable for the Russian economy, but it will make Putin's life more complicated. Russia's economy needs to be weaned off its petrodollar dripfeed; it's a theme I have been returning to again and again. A sound economy is vital.
Putin's long-term goal is resuscitating the Russian empire. But our and his short-term goals coincide sufficiently to start building a real partnership that can be used to defuse the imperial revanchism in the longer term, leading to a situation in which Russia becomes a confident modern state that no longer feels the pain of its amputated phantom limbs.
UPDATE: Another thing I wanted to mention (answering Ron's question, which is how I started off on this) is that in concrete terms what Putin may be looking for from the US is a free hand in dealing with Russia's "near abroad" in the Caucasus. Allowing Russia to reassert its imperialist aspirations in the region (such as their troop deployments in Georgia) would be a mistake, because it's going to leave us with a much bigger mess to clean up later. Morally it would also be a deeply flawed move, even on the chessboard of realpolitik. We owe it to the recently liberated peoples of the region to prevent a new Russian dominion.
October 26, 2002
Russia and the terrorist attack in Moscow
67 dead. That's the sad toll of the terrorist attack on Moscow. It could have been much, much worse, and I was expecting much, much worse. The Russian authorities have handled this probably as well as they could have given the circumstances. With over 800 hostages in total, the total death toll could have been calamitous, in scale almost approaching the mass murder of September 11th. It did not come as a surprise to hear that the terrorists were yet again Islamofascists. It should begin to dawn on even the slower-witted that there is a pattern here.
The terrorists claimed to be acting on behalf of the Chechen government in exile which opposes Russian rule in the country. I don't think they have done themselves any favors. Their wider cause of Jihad against the infidels has also been damaged, for this will only push Russia and the US closer together in the war against the Islamofascists. After the attack on the French tanker in Yemen, the mass murder in Bali and now the attack in Moscow, all that remains for the terrorists is to attack German interests somewhere to complete their tour of major countries opposing America.
The sad thing is that the Chechens did not start off as Islamofascists. The breakup of the Soviet Union left Russia shell-shocked about its sudden loss of empire, first in central and eastern Europe, then closer to home. Even their Slavic brethren in Ukraine and Byelarus preferred to become independent. The shock of losing an empire can perturb the national psyche for a long time. The British only recently managed to find a more confident international identity after the wilderness years of the post-war era. And that was in large part due to the Thatcherite remaking of Britain and the economic dynamism she managed to bring back.
A few years after the liberation of the captive nations of the Soviet Union, other parts of the Russian empire were beginning to stir and assert themselves, including the Chechens. Moscow's response was brutal and disproportionate, sending in the troops to quash the Chechen's aspirations for independence. The Chechen won the first war, inflicting a humiliating defeat on the Russian forces. And I definitely cheered for them. But the West's political leadership really dropped the ball here. In true Clintonesque rudderlessness, the West allowed the Russians do as they pleased. Somewhere in the State Department, buried deep in the bowels of the buildings, there is a room of worship where the Mandarins come to burn incense every day at the Altar of Stability. I suggest we rename the State Department to the Status Quo Department. Then the opinions of the Secretary of Status Quo would make much more sense. "Sure, terrorists are being trained in Remotistan, but taking action would endanger the stability of the region. We at Status Quo would have to redraw all our maps again. Do you have any idea how much that costs?"
We in the West definitely let the Chechens down shamefully in that conflict and in the second Chechen war, in which the Russians avenged their earlier defeat. Had we supported them, we might now have (after a period of instability) an independent Chechen republic along the lines of Tadjikistan or Azerbaijan. These certainly aren't shining examples of enlightened liberal thought or practice, but they are not overly infested by Islamofascism. And their governments tend to value good relations with the US.
But that's all water under the bridge. The reality now is that a new nest of Islamofascism is taking root in Chechenya. Not all independence seeking Chechens are part of this, but as we have seen in Moscow, there are plenty of them, and they seem to be allied to the Chechen government in exile. Given that they have chosen the side of the greatest threat to modern liberal society, I have absolutely no sympathy for them. Any vestigial sympathy I may have had has been washed away by the terror attack in Moscow. And we have to deal with the situation as it is now, not as it might have been. Eradicating the threat has to be priority number one, and that unfortunately means more military action in Chechenya, and even more unfortunately, it's going to be done in a very Russian way. We will get to observe the difference between American military action and Russian. Expect little regard for minimizing civilian casuaties. Expect maximum brutality. Also expect no European sophisticates to protest loudly. After all, it's not America they'd be protesting against.
There are two objectives: forcible elimination of the Islamofascists in Chechenya and trying to find some compromise with the other factions in the country. Given the way objective number one is going to be tackled, number two is going to be very hard, if not impossible to achieve. I hope Putin has enough tactical sense to see this, but I am not very hopeful.
The future of the relationship between Russia and the West is still up for grabs. Actually, the question is whether Russia is actually already part of Western Civilization., or has a sufficiently similar background to the West in order to become part of it. This was addressed recently at Regions of Mind. Russia has a lot in common with the civilization of Western Europe. The cultural links were very strong before the long night of communism. Russian works are a staple in Western music and literature. Politically, Czarist Russia was definitely backward compared to the more enlightened parts of the Western world like Britain and the United States. Then again, other great monarchies of Europe were backward too. But even communism was a western phenomenon, imported from the industrializing west and foisted upon the hapless Russian population. During the period of totalitarian tyrrany in Russia, the rulers did try to maintain an outward veneer of democratic (read Western) legitimacy. Fake elections, "People's Republics," the great proletariat. Sot the strains of Western culture have deep roots in Russia, but they have been so undernourished, so deeply buried that it is going to take considerable time to turn these roots into a solid tree.
It is our interest to coax Russia into the mainstream of Western civilization. The current war against the Islamofascists is a good starting point for this, but the danger is that Russia's authoritarian and imperialist tendencies will prove stronger than its will to reform. Simply put, I don't trust them one bit. It's going to be a long, tough process, but the price of failure will be high. The reward of success would be immense.
October 25, 2002
Islamic schools and the Dutch melting pot
The Dutch educational system as it exists now is a relic the vertical regimentation of society that existed throughout much of the 20th century. What we've ended up with is a hybrid system, which is state funded yet has elements of independence. Most publicly funded schools are religious, with catholicism and various offshoots of protestantism dominating. Most schools do retain that religious element in their character, although the intensity of the religiosity is diminishing as society has become more secular. This was the compromise that the various soceital groups had managed to work out that enabled them to live peacefully with one another, although there was substantial segregation between the columns of society. newly-built schools in newly-built areas still generally are affiliated with a religion even in these secular times.
With the influx of migrant workers from north Africa there are now, inevitably, also Islamic schools. Since the issue of immigration and integration of these migrant workers was shorn of the taboo that had been cast over it, more attention has been focused on these Islamic schools. Of particular concern is whether they promote anti-western and anti-semitic (aren't those two synonymous these days?) sentiment. An investigation by the "Education Inspectorate" concluded that it is impossible to check on what's going on in the religious classes offered in these schools. Of the 37 schools investigated, they were unable to ascertain what was being taught in religious classes in 14 of them. There is for instance the As Siddieq school in Amsterdam, which the Inspectorate criticized as follows: "The school must find a better balance between the transmission of identity-determined values and mores, and the transmission of values and mores which facilitate the pupils' ability to participate [in society, ed.]" This is bureacratese for "they're cramming the kids full of anti-western propaganda." In the As Siddieq school, boys and girl are separated in class and in the playground. The head of the school, who has never denied that the school gets money from Saudi Arabia has also written a pamphlet, in which he said that "Jews, the erring, the Christians are the fire wood of Hell." You can imagine what the children are being taught. It is hard to pin down exactly what is taught though. In the presence of the inspectors, no radical or extremist language was used. However, they also note that there are no books or syllabi for the religion classes which are often taught in Arabic. So other than bugging them there's no way of knowing what's really going on.
The melting pot needs to have the fire stoked, because not much melting is going on here. The phlegmatic tolerance of these seeds of destruction and strife has to end. It pains me greatly to say this, because I have always felt that people should be left alone to educate their children as they deem fit without interference. Yet I find myself now advocating a position that I find very troubling, leading on a path I would rather not travel down. However, being left alone works two ways, and September 11th was the wake-up call that showed the West that the Islamofascists are not going to leave us alone. Not addressing this problem of anti-western hate being taught in Dutch Islamic schools is the ostrich response.
At its heart, the problem is that the current wave of immigrants is fundamentally different from previous waves that the Netherlands has seen. Although not an immigrant country like the US, the country has had a long tradition of being a save haven for the persecuted. In 1620 a group of such refugees, having spent 11 years in this country preparing, set out from the port of Delfshaven to seek a new life, cross the Atlantic and lay the foundation of what was to become the United States. The wave of immigrants that has come to the Netherlands and western Europe as a whole is different. It is also different from the traditional immigrants to the United States. They were not fleeing persecution, but were invited as "guest workers" to fill jobs that few natives were willing to fill in the 1960s. The difference is crucial: rather than being emigrants who seek a new and better life, partake of a new culture and liberate themselves from their past, these guest workers brought their culture with them with no intention of abandoning it. After all, they were not expected to stay very long, nor did they themselves expect to stay very long. Few of them sought the clean break with their past which drove millions of Europeans to America. So right from the start, integration was not really an issue. Why integrate, why fire up the melting pot if they're going to be gone soon? Thus the pathologies of Arab culture and society have been transplanted into segments of the West European population.
Another complicating factor is that those who did come here were the least educated, most marginalized members of their own societies. The rich elite, the rulers, the well-connected had no need to leave countries like Morocco. They were doing OK. The uneducated and unskilled were the ones who answered the lure of European guest worker status; it is exactly this group which is now most susceptible to the call of Islamofascism.
"Guest workers" did not work out that way. Many stayed, started families (or brought them over), and became a permanent part of society. Or rather, they formed their own parallel society within Dutch society. The Islamic schools are a reflection of the unwillingness and inability to adapt. This lack of integration is being encouraged of course by the sinister forces of Wahhabi petrodollars, which lubricate the machinery of anti-Western extremism. It must be stopped.
But it would be wrong to treat the Arab immigrants as a monolithic block. Amongst the second and third generation Arabs, there are plenty who have become part of western, secular Dutch society. It is hard to tell how many of them fall into this category, as the immigrant community is defined in peoples' minds not by the assimilated but by the Islamic fanatics and the criminal Moroccan youth gangs. There is a danger that by tarring all of them with the Islamofascist brush, the formerly moderate and assimilated will be driven into the arms of the fanatics. Any strategy to deal with the fifth column in our midst must be two-pronged: encourage the westernized assimilationists to assert themselves, while dealing harshly with those who spread the gospel of anti-Western hatred.
October 24, 2002
Welcome visitors from Saudi Arabia!
It seems my item on the Saudi economy and the link from Instapundit has brought me visitors from the Desert Kingdom itself. I had two hits, both coming through Instapundit, and in quick succession. Looking up the information on the supplied hostname cacheXX-X.ruh.isu.net.sa, the remarks section has this bit of information:
remarks: Part of this IP block has been used for proxy/cache
remarks: service at the National level in Saudi Arabia. All
remarks: Saudi Arabia web traffic will come from this IP block.
remarks: NOTE: If you experience high volume of traffic from
remarks: IP in this block it is because your site is very
remarks: popular/famous of Saudi Arabia community.
With just two hits, I hardly think I qualify, but I am trying. Then again, perhaps those two hits were from the censors and I won't see any more. Who knows?
Actually, I've had hits from Saudi Arabia before through Google. One search for Hirsi Ali, and then two more interesting ones. One was for "12 year old Arab sex," the other for "Muslim girl sex." Apparently the censors aren't quite perfect, so there's hope. The reason Google returned my site for these search terms is probably this blog entry.
This Instapunditing is making me vain. Poring over access logs and all... for shame. Perhaps I should go read a book. I still have a foot-high stack to work through. Literally.
Posted by qsi at 08:10 PM
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Listening to Pim
A big furore burst forth in the Netherlands recently, when allegations surfaced that the Dutch secret service, the AIVD, had placed phone taps on murdered politician Pim Fortuyn. This was vehemently denied by Klaas de Vries, who was secretary of the Interior at the time and who would have had to give his permission for any taps. However, it now seems that he could be lying and the AIVD could be lying, and it's all perfectly legal. Apparently the AIVD and the secretary are allowed to keep the commission investigating the murder of Pim Fortuyn in the dark, if the information is categorized as a "state secret." So the AIVD can tap and observe people, and there is no way for the public ever to know if they consider it a state secret.
It is somewhat scary that nobody seems to exert any oversight at all over the doings of the AIVD. I understand that secrecy is necessary in some cases to protect the security of the state (much as I hate to admit it), but the fact that nobody is in a position to exert any oversight is worrying. I am not quite sure how to solve this dilemma. On the other hand, in cases such as the investigation into the security of Pim Fortuyn, where past actions of the secret service are at issue, more transparant access to the doings of the secret service must be possible, and should be made possible by law. It's preposterous to have a situation where even in retrospect, the actions of the secret service cannot will not be divulged. That's just an invitation for abuse.
Religious nuts not an American monopoly
Mention Christian religious nuts, and thoughts immediately turn to Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. However, America does not have a monopoly on religious nuts. as a branch of Dutch protestant church is cautioning its followers against the pagan American import of Halloween. Supermarkets are now decorated with pumpkins with scary faces, as the American tradition of Halloween makes new converts around the world. Yet P. Vergunst warns that "evil spiritual powers" lurk behind the apparently innocent facade of Halloween, and urges Christians to oppose them with prayer.
I think I'll go buy a large stockpile of chocolatey snacks. I've never had anyone trick-or-treating here, so I may be forced to finish the stockpile myself. Ah, the horror of pagan rituals.
92% of Amsterdammers support erosion of civil liberties
Under new Dutch legislation, the police can now cordon off areas of a town and search everybody in that area for weapons. No protection of the Fourth Amendment against unreasonable searches. If you're in the area, you'll get searched, just for being there. The weapons they're looking for are of course guns (in gun-free Holland), knives, or basically anything that may be used as a weapon. A poll finds massive support for this erosion of civil liberties, with 92% of those polled in favor. Other key results are that 82% think that the searches need not be announced in advance and 67% opine they can be carried at random times. Also 78% claim to have no problem with being searched.
I guess that puts me in the 8% who think this is an outrageous erosion of civil liberties. It is depressing to think that the population has become so inured to state intrusion in all aspects of life, that a draconian measure such as this one finds broad support. Once you start down the path of outsourcing self-defense to the state, the contract between the state and the citizen changes. No longer is the citizen the ultimate source of authority, but he becomes the state's supplicant for mercies and protection. You are not supposed to defend yourself, as Big Brother will take care of that for you. Except when he's not around (not even we here have managed to slip THAT far).
Crime is a big and growing problem in the Netherlands, but eroding civil liberties is not the right way of fixing that problem. It's another step on the way to a more authoritarian structure of government oversight. Sure, crime in a completely totalitarian state will be lower. But it's not a fun place to live. Then again, I guess people deserve the kind of government they've got.
Glimmer of sanity on the left
Next Saturday, an anti-war demonstration is being planned in Amsterdam, with the obvious target being the US. All the usual suspects have signed up for it, the great coalition of Dutch Idiotarians. Many of the organizations that are going to show up were born as the so-called "peace movement" of the 1980s, whose principal message was unilateral disarmament in the face of the Soviet threat. These were people whose choice in the Cold War was to side with the Evil Empire, and most of Moscow's useful idiots still march to the tune of anti-Americanism.
Nothing new so far. However, what struck me in this report is that one of the organizations known as the IKV (its name would be the inter-church peace council in English) has refused to sign on to the anti-war platform. The reason: opposing military action also means opposing the liberation of the Iraqi people. If an organization with a track record such as the IKV can come to its senses, there may be hope yet.
October 23, 2002
Astounding economic illiteracy
In a an amazing display of economic illiteracy, the Dutch Labour party proposes a new law that would force banks to maintain branches in rural areas. The wave of rationalization and consolidation means that many smaller branches are being closed by the big banks. In a mind-boggling display of statist thinking, the Labour party want to force banks to keep a minimum of branches open, with at least one branch per three kilometers or 10,000 inhabitants. I am not sure what they mean by three kilometers, since they're unlikely to be strung along a line, but I suppose three square kilometers might work. The plan is to force banks that leave an area to pay a subsidy to the bank that does stay. So we'll end up with transfer payments from one bank to another. Once the system is established, it is sure to create perverse incentives for maintaining branches in weird locations to siphon money from their competitors.
It also shows a fundamental misunderstanding of how the economics of doing business work. The banks are closing the outlets because they're losing money on them. That means there is not enough demand locally to justify having a branch in the area. If there really is pent-up demand after the disappearance of all bank branches from an area, a competitor will step in eventually, perhaps with a leaner, meaner structure. Yes, in the interim there will be misalignment of supply and demand, but that is nothing new. There has been an oversupply for decades. But the cost of forcing banks to maintain unprofitable branches is higher in the long term than the pain of not having a bank branch around. The proposed cure will depress profitability, distort incentives and make the banks more inefficient. Worst of all, it adds yet another layer of government interference to the economy. If the costs of doing business weren't so high in the first place, if the fixed costs of employing people were lower, then a lot of these branches would not have to close in the first place. So the socialist welfare state is exacerbating a problem it created.
The sad thing is, there is a majority in parliament for this. The Labour party, the Christian Democrats, the Green Left Party, the D66 (the Vague Party) and the stalinist Socialist Party all will vote for this. Not exactly surprising though.
A glimpse into the Saudi economy
Today's Financial Times offers a fascinating glimpse into the Saudi economy, based on information in an IMF report. Given the language of the article this is not likely to be a public document, and as there is very little known about the true state of the Saudi economy, this makes for fascinating reading. It contains many interests nuggets of information. For instance, expatriate workers make up 48% of all manpower in Saudi Arabia, which shows how dependent the country is on foreign workers. In David Pryce-Jones's excellent book The Closed Circle there is more information on the Saudi economy's reliance on foreign workers. It was written in the late 1980's with a first publication in 1989, so the information there is possibly outdated, but the key features will not have changed much. Writing about foreign workers:
Forty thousand American and 30,000 British expatriates in Saudi Arabia perform the vital services which actually enable the country to function and modernize. Technical tasks, and of course laboring in all forms, demeaningly connote low status and therefore shame. [...] In these Gulf states, 60 percent of the labor force is estimated to consist of immigrants, and in Saudi Arabia perhaps as much as 80 percent."
The FT's 48% refers to "manpower," rather than labor force, so there could be a difference in the definitions. It is also unclear whether Saudi women are counted as part of "manpower." The structure of foreign workers straddles the top and the bottom of the value-added chain: de facto slave labor for menial tasks, and high value-added technical staff to run the oil fields and machinery. Both kinds of work are held in low regard, being beneath the dignity of Saudis. This means that they look down on the very people making their oil wealth possible. Quoting Pryce-Jones again:
The assumption remains constant that oil wealth brings no particular responsibility to understand the Western forces and sciences which generated it. As J. B. Kelly summarizes, "the Saudi Arab is convinced of the superiority of his own culture over that of the West and of the industrial world in general. He believes that he can acquire and use whatever the West has to offer in the way of material goods and technological methods, and at the same time reject the culture which produced them. It is, quite literally, incomprehensible to him that the products and skills of the West are inseparable, in their genesis and development, from the West's empirical and scientific traditions."
The dependence on Western knowledge and expertise is enormous. And as the quote above indicate, it's not a matter of tardy development, but it is the denial of the need for development that causes this.
So what do Saudis to then? They're mostly employed in what they consider to be honorable pursuits, the wheeling and dealing, the bestowing of favors in the form of contracts, and generally being unproductive. A massive disintermediation of the Saudi economy would render most of them useless. In the 1970's, this worked to an extent: the number of petrodollars per capita was gigantic, allowing the ruling Saud family to cream off enormous riches while still spreading great wealth in the country. Population growth is making this untenable though, and it has already pushed unemployment up to 10%. Quoting from the FT article:
With a budget that is dominated by wages and debt service payments, the government has little room to manoeuvre when oil prices drop. Economic growth, meanwhile, is not keeping up with the population increase of about 3.5 per cent a year. Real GDP growth, according to the Fund, was a mere 1.2 per cent last year and is projected at only 0.7 per cent this year.
Right now, per capita GDP in Saudi Arabia is declining, and that is with oil at almost $30 a barrel (although the data might refer to earlier years in which the average price of oil was lower). The economy simply does not have the structure necessary to spark endogenous growth. There is no entrepreneurship, no risk taking, no start-ups, only the stultifying patronage-based system of favors. Government debt is now 95% of GDP, meaning that servicing this debt is becoming a burden. Only a few European countries have debt levels that high (Italy and Belgium), while most of the industrialized world has government debt in the order of 30-60%. The budget deficit in Saudi Arabia is now said to be 4.5% of GDP, which means it is still growing the mountain of debt.
The FT also says that oil export receipts for 2000 amounted to $72 billion, while the government reported oil receipts of $57 billion in the budget. The missing $15 billion is channeled to the state oil agency, Saudi Aramco, and of course the ruling Saud family, which uses it to fund the estimated 7,000 members of the royal family. The King's summer vacation alone costs $150 million, or about 0.2% of Saudi Arabia's oil revenues. To put this into context, the planned increase in the US defense budget for 2003 is $48 billion, or about two-thirds of Saudi oil revenues.
In all, the report paints a rather bleak picture of the Saudi economy. Even with high oil prices, it is in danger of spiraling out of control. The rapidly rising population, coupled with the disdain for Western culture means that the there is not going to be an easy way out. Measures can be taken in the short term to stabilize the situation, such as introducing an income tax (although not on Saudis as that is too sensitive politically) and privatizing some state companies. Yet without establishing a structure that can generate domestically-driven economic growth and development, the Saudi economy is doomed. But establishing these strutures means adopting Western culture and repudiating the cultural identity that the Saudis have built. Saudi Arabia now has the choice of either coming to terms with the modern world, or clinging to a medieval system that will in the end destroy itself.
It also shows that the "oil weapon" is no longer a threat. Saudi Arabia needs the revenue too much. They can't risk cutting off their revenue stream. And once Iraq has been liberated, the situation for the Saudis will become even more problematic. Interesting times ahead in Arabia.
Posted by qsi at 08:26 PM
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October 22, 2002
Sneak attack of feral chicken tandoori
This is a general warning to blog-readers who might occasionally indulge in Indian food. Or more precisely, chicken tandoori. I was dicing the chicken and putting it in the tandoori marinade, when the sauce jumped up at me and assaulted me in my own kitchen. Be very very careful when stirring the sauce in the container, for it will jump up at you at the slightest provocation. And having tandoori sauce in one's hair is not the best of fashion statements. It does not go well with navy blue. Quick intervention restored the status quo ante, and subdued the rebellious comestibles to their proper station. They await grilling and eating the fridge.
The offending sauce was Patak's Tandoori Paste (ok, so it's a paste). I blame the designers of the bottle. Perhaps I should sue for the emotional distress this has caused me, and the puzzlement that I had to endure when I originally tried to find the Patak's web site. The container lists the UK web site on the lid and on the label, www.pataks.co.uk. Yet that address does not resolve here. Tsk, tsk. As if making Indian food like this isn't hard enough. I even had to buy yoghurt today to make it, and then measure two tablespoons of it.
Perhaps I should stick to non-culinary blogging.
Can European Monetary Union be undone?
The strains on the euro have been there right from the start, but tectonic plates of European politics and economics are close to producing an earthquake. It's not going to be the Big One yet. To throw in the towel so soon after the euro's creation is politically unthinkable, even if it were economically rational to do so.
This begs the question whether it was economically rational to create the monetary union in the first place. Actually, there are two aspects to this question: is a monetary union economically desirable in Europe, and what structure should it have? The advantages of having a single currency are fairly obvious to anyone who travels quite a bit throughout the continent. It has certainly made my life a lot easier, since the only foreign currencies I now usually carry are the British Pound and the US Dollar. The benefits are also obvious in business and finance throughout the continent. By removing exchange rate risk, the euro allows European consolidation of previously fragmented industries. But this is where the first signs of trouble begin to show: politics. Obviously. Although extremely pro-European in the abstract, once it comes to the sale of a Big Domestic Company to some foreign competitor, the politicians start to protest.
But in the most immediately visible impact, having a single currency is a good thing. It also gives Eurocrats a nice warm fuzzy feeling for having taken yet another step on the path of Ever Closer Union. But a currency is the lifeblood of the economy, and in an ideal world, the currency decision would be a purely economic one. So when should countries merge their currencies? When the benefits of having a single currency and monetary policy outweigh the disadvantages. These disadvantages result from having a single interest rate for the entire area. If the regional differences are too big, then different parts will end up either being overstimulated or being driven into the ground by the prevailing interest rates. Under multiple currencies, these differences would be adjusted by fluctuations in interest rates and exchange rates.
The exchange rate is the external value of the currency, reflecting supply and demand. The interest rate reflects domestic supply and demand for a currency, usually managed by a central bank. Both in a sense are prices, and prices carry information on supply and demand. The price signals of currency fluctuations reflect the relative demand for currencies, and thus convey information about the economies. This information is an amalgam of the labor market, producitivity, tax rates, business climate, government policies, literacy rates, education levels et cetera. By moving to a monetary union, the fundamental information will still exist, but it can no longer express itself in the exchange rate, so it is going to have to find other means. Unemployment could be one of those means, if the cost of labor is structurally higher in one part than another. Adjustment of wage levels is the flip side, but generally much harder to achieve. It's easier to fire people (even in places like Germany) than to cut their wages.
Europe is naturally not the first area to implement a monetary union. There is another large economy, with big regional differences, that has a single currency: the United States. In a highly interesting paper, Hugh Rockoff of the National Bureau of Economic Research examines the question of how long it took the US to become an optimal currency area. In other words, how long did it take until the benefits of having a single currency in the US outweighed the disadvantages? The question itself may seem strange, because nowadays we have a mental mapping of currencies to countries. A country has a currency. It does not occur to us that a single country would have more than one currency; at least officially, because in many poorly developed economies a second parallel currency operates on the black market. It's usually the US dollar.
The answer is actually surprising. Depending on how you measure it, the US may not have been an optimal currency area until the 1930's. It was only when regional differences became smaller due to automatic stabilizers in the form of transfer payments such as unemployment benefits, but also due to higher labor mobility and tighter overall intergration of the economy with the advent of the telephone, radio and faster travel. Even now, regional difference obviously persist, but they tend to be cyclically aligned. The flexibility of the economy is also important, as it needs to adjust to an interest rate that may not be optimal for a particular region.
In the case of European Monetary Union, the regional differences now are much larger than they were in the US of the 1930's. Labor mobility is negligible across national borders. An unemployed plumber in Paris is not likely to move to Munich which may have a shortage of plumbers. Moreover, the disparity in economic structures and levels of development is also substantial. Is the Greek economy really sufficiently similar to the Belgian to have the same currency and interest rate?
Some countries in the current European Monetary Union could certainly be called on optimal currency area. Germany with the Benelux countries are close enough in that regard, and adding France might also work. Beyond that, it becomes harder to see an economic rationale for other member countries. But the project of monetary union was only partly about economics; to a larger degree, it was about politics. And with any politically-driven process, rational economic decision making, as it might happen in a free market, goes out the window in order to advance the Grand Schemes of politicians. This is what happened in Europe. when the idea of monetary union was born, the drivers were Germany and France, and they were none too keen on having a large group of countries join them. So they came up with the Maastricht criteria and the Stability Pact, which they thought would be harsh enough to keep party-crashers like Italy out. But it soon became obvious that by fugding the numbers sufficiently and some real reform too, Italy was going to make it. The political pressure was too big, so Italy had to join. But if Italy were allowed to join, then Spain must join too. And Portugal. And then Greece.
Thus the Big EMU came into existence. I am fairly certain that the current EMU does not constitute an optimal currency area, and the pressures are showing. The title of this post refers to the question whether EMU can be undone if the pressures become large enough. Monetary unions have been dissolved before, most recent when Czechoslovakia split apart. The Czech and Slovak economies were tightly integrated, albeit in a highly inefficient communist-imposed system. Still, having had the same currency for almost half a century (or even going back to 1918, if you count the First Republic), the split did occur, and both countries have been the better for it. The divergences in the two countries' situations were too big to accomodate a single currency, so breaking up was the sensible thing to do. Ironically, both countries may yet end up with a single currency again by the end of the decade, if both do join EMU.
So monetary union is not immutably set in stone. It can fail. And given the economic malaise in the EU, the regional economic, fiscal and structural disparities in EMU, the chances are significant that a major break could occur in the next ten or fifteen years, with the emergence of a smaller core monetary union, and reappearance of some previously extinct currencies.
Now this is a story that will send shivers down the spine of anyone who's ever been on an airplane:
Barbara Hewson, from Swansea, south Wales, suffered injuries including a blood clot in her chest, torn leg muscles and acute sciatica and remains in pain two years on.
The obese passenger had only been able to fit into her seat by raising the arm rest, which meant her body parts weighed down on Mrs Hewson.
Airlines in general do seem to encourage fat people to buy two tickets if they can't fit into a single seat, but why not require them to do so? It seems rather straightforward to me that if you can't fit into a single seat on an aircraft, you should pay for the extra space that you are taking up. By enforcing this rule airlines would be doing their non-hypertrophic passengers a great favor, because it's not much fun sitting next someone's who that fat. Southwest Airlines in the US is already doing this, but inevitably is being sued for it by fat people who think it's OK to inconvenience (and even injure) their fellow passengers with their gargantuan bodies. Aspiring to victimhood, the highest of perquisites one can attain in postmodern society, they cry discrimination. You bet it's discrimination. It's discrimination on the basis that they're taking up more space than the one seat they've paid for. Simply because they stuff themselves at every meal does not entitle them special treatment. Pay for the appropriate amount of space on the plane, and the discrimination vanishes. If you want to be fat, fine. But also accept the consequences.
Eurobarometer poll continues to be misreported
When I blogged yesterday about the Telegraaf reporting on the latest Eurobarometer poll, I did not find any other stories related to it. The key fact that the survey actually took place in April was not reported, and more importantly, most of the key findings had already been published in June. Yet the Telegraaf presented it as new information, which it definitely was not. Then again, the Telegraaf is not exactly known as the pinnacle of journalistic excellence, as it is more of a tabloid (in content if not in form). A newspaper of similar calibre, the Algemeen Dagblad, also reported the euro data, but at least added that these results were contradicted by a Dutch poll last month, in which 44% of Dutchmen said they missed the guilder "very much." Well done AD? Not really. The poll itself was conducted on the internet, i.e. by a self-selecting group. This means the results cannot be taken to be representative of the population as a whole.
I decided to have another look today to see if there is more reporting of the new old Eurobarometer poll. Using Google's news search I managed to locate a batch of stories about this. Some were better in their reporting than others. In the Helsingin Sanomat the data gathering period is mentioned. I also found a link to a pro-Europe site called EurActiv.com, which does mention prominently the data gathering period but still calls it a "new Eurobarometer poll." Technically that is true, but that's missing the point.
But most of the stories did not mention this salient fact. Google found this Irish newssite with a summation of key facts about Britain. Then there was this story in the Guardian, which does not mention the data gathering period either. It does, of course, put a heavily pro-EU tilt on the data, giving plenty of space to EU-boosters to make their case, while not reporting any dissenting voices. Then again, mistaking the Guardian for a serious newspaper is hard to do these days. Finally there is the Financial Times, which actually did better. The FT too omitted to mention the survey period and the highlights that were released in June, but at least this article added plenty of data that had not been released in the highlights before.
Still, this haphazard survey of reports shows that there's a lot of poor reporting going on. Most crucially, most of these pieces fail to mention that the data are almost six months old, and that most of the key numbers had already been released in June. On the other hand, I don't want to make too much of this either. It'd be interesting to see whether this double news cycle also repeats itself if the headline numbers are less favorable to the EU and the euro. We'll have to wait till the next survey rolls around, for which the fieldwork should be going on right now. The highlights are likely to be published in December if last year's cycle is anything to go by.
October 21, 2002
To enlarge or not?
Sometimes the electorate is a bit slow. They're not very bright, you see, and thus they end up doing silly things now and then, such as the Irish voting against the Nice treaty. Fortunately, we have the wise and steady guidance of the political elites to see us through such errors. It was an error of course. A momentary lapse of reason that has now thankfully been corrected. The Irish electorate, sternly spoken to and dutifully admonished, has produced the Elitically Correct (eliticiously? elitely?) result by ratifying the Nice treaty. The grand project of European expansion can continue, much to the relief of the euro-patrician guild everywhere.
The overriding imperative of further EU expansion thus steamrollers over local opposition. The outgoing Dutch government has now also dropped its opposition to enlargement, meaning that the way is clear for the newly liberated countries of central and eastern Europe to join the EU club. It is far from clear that this is really a good thing, either for the EU or the applicant countries themselves. I am surprised that I am even writing this, for a decade ago accession to EU would have been a no-brainer for me. Binding the countries so ravaged by communist tyranny to the democratic institutions and community of the EU was an obviously good thing. Yet things have changed since then, both in the EU and in the applicant countries themselves. The Soviet Union is but a nightmarish memory, and Russia's expansionism is contained for now, and might even be channeled constructively (but that's a blog item in itself). The economies of the east have done reasonably well outside the EU, although they still have not really sufficiently advanced to "developed market" status.
The EU itself is like an old, collapsing star. The gravity of the star keeps pulling mass ever inward, now that the fusion reactions of hydrogen and helium have exhausted themselves. The energy is gone, spent. With the gravitational contraction still ongoing, will the EU become a black hole, sucking everything into it without chance for escape? The bureaucracy and the institutional self-preservation it breeds is reaching critical levels. The interference from Brussels is becoming ever larger, without even the semblance of a commensurate increase in democratic legitimacy or accountability. What once was a good idea (European intergration through free trade), has now morphed into an ominous threat to self-determination, civil liberties and economic dynamism. The countries of central and eastern Europe might well be better off staying outside of the EU. In order to be allowed to join, the countries must agree to implement the basic set of EU laws, known as the acquis communautaire which runs to tens of thousands of pages. This will shackle their economies with the same kind of stifling regulatory environment that has sapped the strength of many prosperous west European countries. The countries of the east don't have the momentum that the established wealth of the west provides to keep them going. They need to keep growing, not just muddling along.
For the existing member states of the EU, there is also a danger from enlargement. Having too disparate a group will impose further strains and dilute the effectiveness of the group as a whole. The admission of Greece to the EU is in retrospect not the best of moves. We're stuck with the banana republic in the south, and some of the next wave entrants have the risk that they might join the ranks of Greece.
But there are also positive aspects to enlargement. By diluting the existing base of countries, the Franco-German axis will be of less importance, especially since the French in the past have been the dominant partner in the axis. The Germans were (and still are to some extent) fearful of asserting themselves after the second world war (and rightly so), which the French used to get Germany to back their plans for the EU, which in most cases were extensions of French national interest. But the synergistic effects of enlargement can also work to the benefit of both joiners and existing members, by injecting a points of view and new dynamism into the processes of the EU. It will also force the abominable Common Agricultural Policy to be amended, as it would cost too much to extend it east in its current form. I am too much of a cynic by now to hope that it will be actually scrapped.
My main worry is that the EU has become so intrinsically stagnant, that these effects will have not a chance to assert themselves. And giving the blighted countries of the east the chance to rejoin the broader culture and community of Europe is a good thing, even a necessary one. EU membership might help to strengthen the concepts of civil society, democracy and the rule of law. But again, the EU's shortcomings in this regard raise doubts over the effectiveness of such support. I wonder if bilateral ties with western countries might not be more effective.
So I don't know. I really think the countries of the east should be given every opportunity to join the European and global trading systems. They need to take steps to build an institutional memory of democracy and rule of law. The EU would be ideally placed to serve these purposes, but its evolution into the bureaucratic monstrosity that it has become makes this role much harder to fulfill. On balance, I do think enlargement will be positive. Grave doubts continue to simmer.
Dutch happy with the euro (half a year ago)
Now this comes as something of a surprise to me: a poll showing 76% of the Dutch to be happy with the euro. On the other hand 69% does not seem to have any emotional affinity to the euro; it's a largely utilitarian happiness. In the EMU zone as a whole, 6 out of 10 people are happy with the euro. The report also contains the information that 50% of the population supports enlargement.
Since this appears to be a Europe-wide survey, I tried to find an English-language source to link to, but no other news outlets seemed to be carrying this story. Finally, I managed to track down the source at the EU's website, which contains the startling information that the data gathering took place in April. This is old news. In fact, highlights were originally published in June. The story I linked to in the Telegraaf contains no new information at all. Talk about sloppy reporting!
Since the survey was taken, many European economies have deteriorated substantially, which has a significant effect on public opinion. The data is almost half a year old now, and in political terms, that is a long time indeed. It's too bad the data is so stale by now, because you can download the entire report with its many detailed glimpses into European public opinion. For the psephologically inclined, it's a veritable goldmine of factoids. I don't have the time to read it all though.
The Anti-Idiotarian Manifesto
Eric S. Raymond (the S is important, because he's also known as ESR) is working on the Anti-Idiotarian Manifesto. I wanted to link and comment on it sooner, but of course never got around to it. As it stands, it's close to a final version and is looking pretty good. It's a good distillation of what the Blogosphere is all about. As Glenn Reynolds put it at Instapundit, it's not about left or right, but it's Anti-Idiotarian.
Well worth reading, and distributing once it's finalized.
October 20, 2002
Well, he's gone
Jürgen Möllemann has resigned. Having become implicated in a illegal contributions scandal, his position had become completely untenable, as came on top of his anti-semitic campaigning. In his resignation statement, he accused the FDP leadership of trying to undermine his recovery from cardiac arhythmia, saying that "Apparently my political death is more important for them than the consequences of their destrucive behavior for the FDP." In reality, Möllemann's resignation will help the FDP, who had been seriously tainted by his remarks. However, it seems Möllemann is unlikely to keep quiet once he has recovered, so there may yet be further convulsions.
Why I am not an Acolyte of a Capitalized Ism
Good titles for posts are prone to pop up in several places, and the same title was used over at Shoutin' Across the Pacific. One thing I would to add to those comments is that once you get into Capitalized Isms, I tend to get somewhat nervous. Too many Capitalized Isms have had pernicious influences throughout history, and that makes hesitant to nail my colors to any Capitalized Mast. Furthermore, the Acolytes of Capitalized Isms in their action define the Ism itself more powerfully than the philosophical underpinnings they may have. The empirical evidence of what the Acolytes actually do is the best indicator of the practical implications and worth of the Ism in question. And that's my problem with Objectivists: looking at how they're behaving makes me unwilling to join them, although in many ways I am sympathetic to the philosophy.
A very Japanese problem
Even I did not spend all day tinkering with my computer, as I managed to hop over to the couch and watch some TV. On BBC 2 tonight's edition of Correspondent focused in on a very Japanese problem: hikokimori, or the wave of teenage hermits that are popping up in Japan. What happens is that teenagers, usually male, close themselves into their rooms and stay there for years. Only in Japan could this happen.
It's a combination of parents putting extreme pressure on their children to succeed by forcing them to attend "cram schools," where kids go after school on weekdays and during weekends. The program showed some footage of a 3-day cram camp, where 13-year olds were kept up in class till 10 PM, after which they had to do an exam. Those who failed, had to do it over. And over. And over. Until they passed (or passed out?). The last kid went to sleep well after midnight. It's a system that is designed to bestow status by passing exams; actual practical merit, achievement or learning is irrelevant. Taking exams is not a test of knowledge learnt; it's just a test of how well you can pass certain kinds of exams.
So that's one part of it. The other part is the parents' reaction when their son decides to lock himself up. They showed footage of several households with a reclusive child. In one, a kid had locked himself up in the kitchen for three years. What was the parents' reaction? They started off by ordering food, and then broke down and built a new kitchen! How fucking insane is that? You could even hear the kid (now 17) playing video games in the old kitchen. Another instance was shown where they ominously declared that no-one knows how he eats or drinks. Then later, the mother was speaking and said she had a job during the day... well, guess what? The house is empty during the day. Perhaps he sneaks into the kitchen while there's no-one about? And finally, they managed to interview a less reclusive recluse, who had not left his room for a few years. His mother keeps putting trays of food at his door, and he was filmed eating dinner in his room. It was very neat and tidy. When asked what he does all day, he said he listens to CD's (he had a big stack), and playing games on his Playstation 2. And he orders stuff from the Internet. His parents are very conscientious in making sure he has everything he needs, yet he won't so much as talk to them. He says communicating is really hard.
Is it just me, or is the solution blazingly obvious? Cut off his food, drink, money and electricity. Throw the circuit breaker. He'll come out when he's hungry and thirsty, and then you can have a good talk to him. I mean, jeeez folks... this really isn't rocket science, is it? The truly amazing thing is that so many Japanese parents refuse to parent. The conflict-aversion in Japanese society is apparently so deeply rooted that even in such cases, where the solution is ridiculously clear, they still won't take the required action. Cue for parallels with Japanese economic malaise. It's also interesting to see that this parenting failure is cast as a psychological problem of the teenage hermits. Hikokimori is a disease, they say. I think it is, but it's a societal disease rather than an individual one.
One point the program missed completely is the actual numbers involved, or rather the implications of the numbers. In a population of around 130 million, they claimed that there are now more than a million teenage hermits. The Japanese population pyramid is already dangerously imbalanced, and losing a large part of the working-age population is going make the woes of the Japanese economy even worse. The dependency ratio (those retired relative to working age) is already one of the highest in the industrialized world, and the projections show it getting much worse in the next 50 years. Unfortunately, the site linked to above does not show the actual numbers per age band in a table, just the graph. So it's a bit imprecise, but assuming there are about 800,000 per sex in each one-year band in the 2000 numbers for ages 10-20, we end up with a total population aged 10-20 of around 16 million. If indeed one million kids are now living as domestic, well-fed, Playstationed hermits, that works out at 6.25% of the total, or more worryingly, 12.5% of the male population. That's pretty scary. There are of course waster kids in the West too, but having one sixteenth of your youth locked in voluntary confinement is a sign of a deeply dysfunctional society. And as I said before, the economic consequences will be dire; they're going to be uneducated, unmotivated and thinking they can get away with outrageous behavior. The loss of such a large percentage of the future working population would be an economic cataclysm in itself, but coming on top of the malaise of the Japanese economy, words begin to fail. Perhaps it's indeed easier to do what the Japanese do when faced with the economic and demographic abyss of their future: pretend it's not there. Ignore it. Hope it'll go away. Stay quiet. Don't rock the boat. All will be well. Consensus above all. No conflict please, we're Japanese.
UPDATE: I should have added this sooner, but Ron Campbell has more background on Japanese culture.
All Jaguared now...
OK, I seem to have made it. The installation of Jaguar itself was not too much of a problem, and went smoothly on my newly created parition, which I appropriately named Feles Ferox, or Wild Cat. The biggest problem with harddisk management on the Macintosh is not connecting or installing the harddisks themselves, but finding good names for them. The canonical "Macintosh HD" is far too boring, so now I have succumbed to Latin allitterations. Combine that particular afflictions with my waning knowledge of Latin in the first place, and naming a partition becomes a major undertaking, but one that is concluded in general to the satisfaction of all concerned (being me). That was the easy part.
As the installation was a new partition, none of my preferences or installed apps was carried over. So I created myself as a user again (pesky Unixisms creeping in), then deleted my user directory and replaced it with a symlink to my old home directory on the other partition where I'm keeping 10.1.5. That sort of worked, but few files were accessible. It was, of course, a permissions problem. On the 10.1.5 system, user qsi had a different ID (I think it's kept in NetInfo) from the one in 10.2, so all permissions were screwed up. Fortunately chown and chgrp have the -R flag for recursive modifications, because otherwise I'd have ended up digging more deeply into bash scripting than I had ever cared to. Considering I know next to nothing about bash scripting, this is very lucky indeed.
I spent the rest of the day playing around, making sure everything worked properly (well, some things did). I had to re-enter some registrations for shareware, and re-install haxies and such. I also discovered that there's an Unsanity Blog with some interesting OS X related programming items.
My main observation of Jaguar is that it feels snappier (not as snappy as OS 9, or indeed as my XJ40, but that's a different story). The other big observation is that apps seem to be crash-happier. Internet Explorer has crashed on me today more often than during the past month on 10.1.5 while visiting essentially the same sites. In one of the crashed, even Console crashed when creating the crash report. This is worrying.
For the most part, I am up and running. It was definitely not as easy an upgrade as OS 9, but manageable.
Posted by qsi at 10:30 PM
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Moving to Jaguar
The next project on my Mac is to install Jaguar on it. I'm planning to install it on a separate partition so that I can keep 10.1.5 in working order too, but if updates should suddenly stop here, it's probably because my main Mac is caught in upgrade hell. With OS 9.x and prior, I never felt apprehensive about upgrading. Undoing it, or getting out of any problems was easy. Now, with OS X, I feel a slight twinge of trepidation as I set out on the upgrade path. I think I'll be back though.
Posted by qsi at 09:10 AM
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October 19, 2002
The essential guide to MoDo
Josh Chafetz at OxBlog has written the definitive guide to NY Times columnist Maureen Dowd, called The Immutable Laws of Maureen Dowd, which actually makes reading her columns interesting again. I had stopped reading her a long time ago.
Posted by qsi at 10:49 PM
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The agony and joy of antique computers
To those who've been wondering why blogging has been sparser of late, there are two reasons: 1) I got stuck with work quite a bit and 2) in the time that I've had, I've been playing with my antique computers. Putting up a section on some vintage computing equipment on the site is a project I've been working on, but I have not quite gotten around to having something presentable.
Antique computers have charm, spirit and soul. But it's not the age that does it; I feel no emotional connection to an old IBM PC XT, for instance, and a Hercules CGA card with monitor is not going to make my pulse go any faster. Those are soulless machines. Husks. On the other hand, some computers have a deep inner beauty that enchants and enthralls. In part, it is because I've grown up with some of them, such at the Atari ST or Apple ][e. In others, it's the wonderful quirks and amazing hacks that made them great, such as CP/M computers. Besides Z80 assembler code is beautiful, just like 68000 assembler is elegant. Intel assembler rubs me the wrong way.
I am trying to resurrect my old Atari 1040 STfm. The SM 125 monitor works, just about. It has a diode that keeps shorting out every now and then, and rather than re-soldering it on the motherboard, it now sits outside the monitor case with two long leads. Replacing it is dead easy now, but the downside is that I have small bits of unprotected wiring with several kilovolts over them. Touching them hurts. So I don't do that very often. The 1040 has also been upgraded to 4 MB of RAM from the stock 1 MB, but some of the ASICs are a bit quirky and need to be cooled with a BIG fan in order to prevent memory errors. The main problem I now have with the ST is that my SCSI hostadapter no longer works. The ST had its own harddisk interface, the AHDI, and SCSI hostadapters were needed to connect them to SCSI harddisks. My old GE-Soft IV hostadapter does not seem to do much anymore, while my newly acquired ICD The Link hangs the machine on boot. I fear I may have a blown DMA port on the ST now. Very very annoying. And sad. Now I am going to have to buy a new ST, because I do want, I do need a working Atari ST. I can no longer live without one.
In better news, my Apple IIc now has company, as I managed to acquire an Apple ][e and an ITT. Much joy awaits. If only I had more composite color monitors.
October 18, 2002
FDP still in self-destruct mode
A lot of German news today, it seems. Perhaps it is fitting penance for the light blogging of the last few days. I hadn't paid too much attention to what's going on in Germany, but the fight in the FDP looks to be intensifying. The flap began well before the election, when Möllemann went off on an anti-semitic campaign theme and was not reined in by the party leadership. As part of his election campaign, he sent out an anti-semitic flyer to households in his state of Northrhine-Westphalia. Now there are accusations that the funding for this flyer has come from illegal campaign contributions to the tune of 840,000 euros. The money was donated anonymously in 145 batches of 1000 to 8000 euros at 14 different banks. The addresses of the donors can in general not be traced, but the few people who could be tracked down deny ever having made contributions to the FDP. Significantly, the FDP treasurer Rexrodt (who brought the accusations to the fore) also says that the money may be of foreign origin. That could yet be an interesting development if it proves to be true, as Möllemann is known to be on friendly terms with several unpleasant regimes in the Middle East.
Möllemann himself is currently off the stage suffering cardiac arhythmia, meaning he has not yet had a chance to defend himself properly against these accusations. Given the damage that he has caused to the FDP, these allegations could be seen as part of a payback conspiracy, an easy way to get him out. But I doubt that: this is not doing the FDP any good either, whose finances aren't great to begin with, and if true, this affair will only make the FDP look even worse for not having dealth with Möllemann in the first place.
Government losing ground in Germany
About a month after the close election victory of the Red-Green coalition in Germany, the reality of what this means is beginning to sink in, and German voters aren't too happy about what they've done to themselves. In the first monthly update of the Politbarometer, broadcast on the German ZDF network, the governing coalition has lost considerable ground.
In terms of political mood, the SPD loses 2.5% compared to the election, while the CDU/CSU gains a massive 6.5% to poll at 45%. The FDP loses 1.4% to stand at 6%. This would have given the CDU/CSU with the FDP a clear majority. But the "mood" poll is only a proxy for the immediate short-term mood, and adjustments are made for the "Sunday Question" (elections are always on Sundays), when people are asked whom they would actually vote for, not whom they like best at the moment. The Sunday Question is less volatile, but shows that here too the CDU/CSU would gain compared to the election. It would leave the two competing blocks still very close together, but it looks as though the current government would have been voted out if the election were held this weekend.
The differences between East and West Germany are also big. What is amazing is that in what used to be West Germany, the CDU/CSU would poll 48%, a result that would have been unimaginable for many years. The reality of the poor relationship with the US is also having repercussions, with the SPD losing a lot of support, although it is still in the lead.
Another shift that has taken place is the in Iraq-question. Whereas at the beginning of September 53% of those polled were against German participation of US military action (with a UN mandate), that percentage has now fallen to 43%. Just over half (51%) of those polled now favor Germany participation if the US gets a UN mandate. Only 4% favor German help regardless. On the question of the relationship with the US, 65% of Germans still apparently delude themselves that relations are good, while 33% show a sense of realism and call the relations bad now. This is compared to 76%/20% in September and 88%/9% in May. It is clear the majority of Germans still have not grasped the long-lasting damage that has been done.
One poll does not make a trend, but it does seem as though the Germans are less than delighted with the election result now that they have had time to reflect upon it, and have been bombarded with proposals for new taxes. Also a glimmer of realism is dawning on the foreign policy issues. Big disillusionment with the Red/Green government is nothing new. After Schröder's first victory four years ago, the ruling parties quickly started to sink in the polls once they started to govern. The only thing that kept the losing streak from continuing was the implosion of the Christian Democrats, who became embroiled in the endless sleaze-pit of illegal campaign donations that took place under Chancellor Kohl. For a while, the very survival of the CDU as a political force was in doubt. Anyway, poor polls and poor state election results are nothing new for the Red/Green coalition, and it looks as though we are heading for a repeat of the last four years in this regard. If the CDU can avoid self-destruction, it should be well-placed to give the government a hard time. There are more than enough problems for the government to deal with, and they're not dealing with them very well. There are some state elections coming up in Lower Saxony (Schröder's home state) and in Hessia on February 2nd. This could provide the first electoral setback for the government at the state level. Hessia is currently governmed by the CDU, which won the state after Schröder's first election victory four years ago. Lower Saxony is an SPD stronghold, but bears watching.
Givent the miniscule majority the SPD and Greens have in parliament, any controversial issues (Iraq will come up at some point, and there are others too) could lead to the calculation within either of the two parties that it might be better tactically to allow the government to fall rather than to persist in the coalition. The logic can be convoluted, but by causing the government to fall over a hot issue, the governing party causing it can sometimes gain in popularity. This has happened at times in Dutch elections, although deft maneuvering is required, as the opposite effect also takes place.
It's going to be an interesting period in German politics. I still stand by my prediction that this government won't last the full four years.
October 16, 2002
New government in Germany
While the government in Holland is falling apart, the new government coalition in Germany has agreed on its platform for the next four years. A roundup of the German press at the BBC shows that it is not meeting with great enthusiasm. I suppose the situation is not as bad as it might have been, had they implemented all the tax hikes they were talking about earlier. Still, the new government looks like it's going to be more left-wing than its predecessor which contained traces of Third Wayism. The new cabinet is very safe as it won't give Schröder any trouble from within the party, but that's also the problem. The people in charge now are, if anything, even less suited to dealing with the severe economic problems Germany is facing. Just today, finance minister Eichel said that Germany's budget deficit would exceed the 3% norm agreed in the Stability Pact. A massive fine of several billion euro could result, although the political reality of Germany's dominant position in the EU might avert it.
Symptomatic of the new government's plans is the new tax on "speculative" profits. This would affect capital gains made on the "wrong" kinds of investments, such as "plots of land not in own use." This shows the deeply-rooted hostility to free enterprise and risk taking that is at the heart of the German government; trying to punish "wrong kinds" of investment is punishing the risk-taking that is essential to economic growth, and it is going to reduce all investment at a time when Germany's economy is doing very poorly. But importantly, this could also affect shares held in mutual funds (the details are unclear at this time), which would undermine the pensions reform that was passed by the previous government (which consisted of the same parties).
It does not look good for Germany. The government is made up of people who not only don't understand the nature of a free economy, but are in fact hostile to it. Raising taxes, as they are doing now, when the economy is stalled and unemployment hovers around 10% is an act of economic folly. The sick man of Europe's condition is deteriorating slowly. How bad will things have to become before he'll take his medicine? If Japan is anything to go by, it could be a while.
Recruiting terrorists in the Netherlands
The Dutch intelligence service reports that there is solid proof that islamic terrorists are recruiting in the Netherlands. A 22-year old Egyptian immigrant, who was arrested on the 30th of August in Rotterdam, appears to have left a cassette tape with a message to his family, saying he'd left home in order to become a martyr.
The fall of the Dutch government
Now here is a perfect example of how to make complete fools of yourselves and miss an historic opportunity while doing so. That, in a nutshell is the story of the LPF, the List Pim Fortuyn. It had been spiraling into self-destruction for a while now, and before leaving for London I was thinking to myself that I should blog about it, but I never had the time. So barely after I get back (including a canceled flight from London City airport) the government finally falls. The immediate cause: two of the LPF ministers hated each other's guts and would not longer even talk to one another.
There's more background on the whole thing at the Visser View, and as he rightly points out, a complete chronology of the farce that the LPF had become would be impossible to blog, even on an increasingly verbose blog such as this. Still, here are some of the highlights. I never thought the LPF would last very long, as it was founded in a hurry following Pim Fortuyn's disagreements with his erstwhile political home, the party Leefbaar Nederland. Carrying his name, the party was mostly a vehicle for his ambitions and highly dependent on his. So after he was murdered, the LPF would sooner or later have had to come to terms with its post-Pim direction. But the haste of forming the party, and its huge electoral success, meant that the people representing it in parliament were completely untested and in many cases unvetted. This opened the door to a lot of, shall we say, colorful personalities to enter parliament on behalf of the LPF.
Once in a coalition government with the Christian Democrats (CDA) and somewhat-free-market Liberals (VVD), the LPF quickly started to tear itself apart on many levels. The parliamentary party sent its chairman, Matt Herben, packing after only a brief time at the helm. The ministers in government showed their inexperience. None of this would have been fatal, were it not for the ever increasing level of internecine warfare within the LPF. The members of parliament were at each other's throats pretty much continuously in the last few weeks. Splits and defections popped up regularly, and were sometimes mended. However, it became ever harder to take the LPF seriously.
What surprises me most is that the people in the LPF did not seem to have any instinct for self-preservation. Forget national interest. Forget responsibility. The LPF did not even seem to have an urge to prolong its own existence. Everybody could see the crash coming if they continued like this, and the opinion polls were looking ever more bleak. Precipitating the fall of the government meant for all LPFers the loss of their seats in parliament. It's amazing that this simple threat of political extinction did not impose more discipline on them. Instead, the egos of the parliamentarians asserted themselves, and if that meant sinking the party or the government, so be it. Still, the blindness is amazing. They should have known, as the rest of the country did, that their ego-trips would render them irrelevant after any new election.
And new elections are on the way. There is little hope of glueing the pieces back together again after all that has happened. The CDA and VVD quite rightly pulled the plug on this ongoing nonsense, and the LPF faces electoral oblivion. I don't think they're going to get any seats in parliament at all, and that is a big shame. The LPF, even without Pim Fortuyn, had the opportunity to reshape Dutch politics, and to inject much-needed new thinking into the political debate. There were instances where the influence of the LPF was refreshing in the new government, but they were completely overshadowed by the internal rivalries. And heirs of Pim Fortuyn's heritage squandered a big opportunity to shake things up.
The ossified political culture of the Netherlands was certainly the richer for Pim Fortuyn's cheerful, thoughtful and occasionally outrageous iconoclasm. What we got in the LPF was a stone-throwing mob without direction or purpose. Some of the LPF ministers would have done really well, but were never given the chance. So what's going to happen next? The elections are probably going to be held in December, and the LPF will be wiped out. Part of the former LPF voters seems to be shifting to the CDA, which is rather ironic as the CDA is the ultimate Respectable Establishment party. In terms of program, the LPF had more in common with the VVD, which also seems to be benefitting in the polls. But that still does not account for all the LPF's seats. It appears a large part of the LPF voters won't bother to show up to vote, leading to a scaling up of other parties' seats. The disenchanted part of the electorate which Pim Fortuyn managed to mobilized is going to withdraw out of politics again, which could lead to problems down the road.
At the heart of Fortuyn's program were several long-neglected but highly relevant issues. Not just the formerly-taboo issue of immigration, but the wider functioning of society such as transport policy, declining standards in health care and education and the increasing crime rate were all resonating with voters. The big danger now is that once the those arriviste troublemakers of the LPF are gone, the old established parties can return to their politics as usual. This is only storing up trouble for the future. In that sense, Pim Fortuyn's legacy will remain relevant to an extent, as the VVD and CDA won't entirely ignore the issues. But the big impetus, and above all, the impetus to look anew and think anew without the shackles of politics past will be gone.
In the shorter term, there are other problems too. The economy is stalling, and additional uncertainty about what a new government will be like, and what it will do is not going to help. Moreover, the European Union is due to decide on the expansion to the east, and this had become a bone of contention in the government too with the VVD taking a hard line on Polish entry. Scuppering EU expansion could be the biggest international fallout of the fall of the Dutch government.
But what's blogging without a prediction? The VVD and CDA will form the next government. Back to politics as usual after some lip-service to the LPF's hot issues.
Sic transit gloria mundi.
October 13, 2002
Light blogging coming up
I'm off to London in a few hours, and will be there until Tuesday. So do not expect much blogging in the interim. I'll try to unglue myself from my computer after reading this cautionary tale.
I never really understood modern art anyway
It must be because I am too dim-witted. Plain unsophisticated. But I still don't get how keeping a corpse in a drawer for 18 years is art. Quote:
The council, which is governed by health and safety rules, would be likely to insist on burying Diogenes, as it tried to do in 1984.
The rules state that a body cannot just be kept or stored - it must be either buried or cremated.
But art experts and friends of Mr Lenkiewicz may argue that the tramp is a piece of art and should be put on public display - a move which could mean Diogenes becoming valuable commodity.
Yes, by all means. Put a corpse on public display. Show everyone what the cutting edge of modern art is these days, and let us revel in its Profound Truth. That is, if simple peasants like yours truly ever can hope to ascend to that level of sophistication.
Question: do you suppose The Great Lenkiewicz got any public funding?
Eating considered harmful
Since I'm in a weird mood anyway, here's another mind-boggling link. To quote:
Our bodies don't require physical food and they have only adapted to live on it because we have forced them to do just that. Food is not only unnecessary, but actually harmful to our health and well-being. Everything in life , including food, has an energy pattern which is influenced by the powerful transmissions of our consciousness, plus the consciousness of others around us. When we consume this food, it then mixes with the energies of our bodies and causes our energy patterns to be so distorted, that it's difficult to see clearly.
Of course, once you've managed to kick the addiction to food, you'll be able to see clearly. Very very clearly. The nice people in the white coats and the foam-padded rooms will take good care of you. So next time you feel esurient, even peckish, just take a deep breath and feel the energy flow into you. But first you need to see clearly.
I think I'll go have a snack.
Struggling with reality
English is a notoriously difficult language to learn with its many quirks and the almost complete disconnect between spelling and pronunciation. It gets even more confusing when words of the same root get assimilated differently into various languages, and the hapless student assumes the assimilation process has been the same in the language he's learning. So I had a slight cringe when I came across this realtor in Prague. The Czech word for realty is realita, and yes, it got translated as reality. Not just on the page, but even in the actual name of the company.
This also reminds me of a flyer I got in Budapest about taxi services. In the section explaining how much a cab ride would cost, there was the wonderful sentence: "If the final destiny is outside of town..." Ah, existentialist taxis!
The endless variety of the web
Clicking from one link to the next, I sometimes end up in places that are weird beyond belief (I'm sure you're thinking the same thing about this site, but that's different.) For instance, there's this, which is written in a language that appears to be some resemblance to English, although it makes no sense whatsoever. It has a nice picture though, but what to make of this?
Rabbit's,Deer,ect. like to run in pack's,herds ect.(safety in number's)AS not to be gotten by the KING of BEAST'S. I Glen Pearson am not a frickin animal! I will devour the King Of Beast as is my perogative as a non-animal. What herd are you part of?
That must explain that recent of herd of cats that came through. You Glen Pearson are a fricking idiot. Make sure you use your perogative (is that something like peroxide?) to devour proper English orthography. Here is the voice of the Herd of Those Who Speak English.
Where are all the billions of dead people of the dark ages ect.. they are not so long ago and many were in the perfect enviroment for preservation where the hell are they?Please do not bore me!
Billions of dead people? Where are they? Dead? Decomposed? Gone to meet their makers? Fallen off their perch? Become ex-people? They're dead. Get it? Yes, where the hell are they? Questions need to be asked! Please do not bore me!
Isn't the Web wonderful?
October 12, 2002
Why I am not an Objectivist
They've gone off their rocker again. The Ayn Rand Institute has called Lawrence Lessig a Marxist because of his position on the Eldred vs Ashcroft that is now before the Supreme Court. As he himself points out, that puts him along other well-known Marxists such as Milton Friedman and those red-flag waving insurrectionists at the Cato Institute. Jeeeez folks... try to stay at least a little in touch with reality. Taking a principled position is one thing, but if that principled position is anchored to a semi-planetary object in a highly eccentric orbit around the Sun, you've got a problem. This kind of stuff may play well to the converted, but it is alienating people (like me) who otherwise would be sympathetic. I am afraid Objectivism looks more like a cult than a philosophy to me. Michael Shermer expanded on this theme in Why People Believe Weird Things. Not that I think libertarianism is weird per se, it's just that the Objectivists have taken it to unhealthy extremes.
October 11, 2002
Why all the fuss?
The blogosphere is up in arms today about the Nobel Peace Prize, which was awarded to Jimmy Carter. I don't see what all the fuss is about. I mean, does anybody take the Nobel Peace Prize seriously anymore?
Jimmy Carter got a Nobel Peace Prize.
Then again, so did Yasser Arafat.
The story of another gang rape that I blogged about a few days ago is beginning to be called into question. According to the police, a medical examination showed that there is no evidence of rape. Forensic investigations of the house have failed to turn up anything either. As Drudge would say: Developing...
October 10, 2002
More twists in the Hirsi Ali case
In yet more twists in the case of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the weekly Dutch magazine Vrij Nederland now claims that she's made up the death threats, mostly based on the fact that her father, who lives in London, now denies having received any such threats after initially reporting them. So what is going on? The newspaper Trouw has an analysis of the case. That there have been threats is beyond any doubt, as many of these have been made on public fora on the internet. Furthermore, some phone calls have been traced to Sweden and Italy. So what to make of her father's story?
Two facets of Muslim culture are important here. First is the patriarchal structure, where the father of the household is supposed to be able to control what members of his family are doing. That's why phone calls would be directed to him as well as his daughter. Second is the tribal nature of Arab societies, with its emphasis on shame and honor. To avert shame and gain honor for the tribal group, in the case the wider Somali expatriate community, the right thing to do is to deny the death threats.
In the assessments of both the police and the Dutch internal security service, the threats are real and the danger is real. This is not in the least strengthened by the argument Ayaan Hirsi Ali had on television with M. Cheppih, the chairman of the Muslim World League in the Dutch town of Tilburg. This organization is known to be funded with Saudi money, preaches a violent and fundamentalist Islam and seeks to recruit young Dutch Muslims for its cause. The security service is also observing continued radicalization amongst Muslim youth in the country, with special venom being directed against apostates such as Hirsi Ali. The police hope that if Hirsi ali lies low for a while, tempers will cool. But further publicity would rekindle the flames and the danger; respect for freedom of expression is apparently still too much to ask for in parts of Arab immigrant community.
The flow of money
Which would you rather have, power or money? How about both? The irresistible combination of using other people's money for their own purposes is one of the things that makes politicians so loathsome. But the flow of money goes not only from politicians to their favored cuts of pork, but there is a flow back to politicians personally, which is the money that is used to finance their campaigns. But it is the combination of politicians having the power to do stuff and the backflow of money to them that makes for the current unsatisfactory contretemps.
In the American system, campaign donations are subject to various limits. There's hard and there's soft money, there are limits on third-party groups campainging on behalf of candidates, and the perennial subject of campaign finance reform ebbs and flows with the political tide. Compared to most European countries, campaigns in American elections are relatively unencumbered by government oversight, and campaign finance is a largely private affair. In many European countries, however, there are much stricter limits on campaign contributions and political parties often receive subsidies from the taxpayer. This means that my tax euros are being used to fund political parties I disagree vehemently with. This, advocates say, is a fair price to pay for a clean political system, that does not suffer from the money-driven influence peddling that befalls America.
Superficially this may be so, but in practice there's still plenty of collusion between Big Money and politicians in Europe, all the more pernicious because it's seldom out in the open as in the US. There campaign contributions are made public and can be studied; indeed, they can become parts of the election campaign itself. The influence-buying process in Europe is done behind closed doors and illegally. The list of underhanded political contributions is long. Big business is not only close to the government, in many cases it is (partially) owned by the government and its top executives are appointed by the government. Those appointees are usually benevolent in their favors, once they have their hands on the corporate accounts.
In France, the collusion between various governments and presidents was of gigantic proportions. In Italy, a whole generation of politicians was swept away in the investigation of tangentopoli, the wide-ranging corruption investigation that got off the ground in the early 90's. Now the Prime Minister of Italy, Silvio Berlusconi, is not in danger of being corrupted by big business; he is big business. A conflict of interest of this magnitude would never be allowed to stand in the US. In Germany, the Christian Democrat party was rocked by revelations that its long-time leader and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl had been involved in receiving illegal donations for the party. The Social Democrats of the SPD had a more recent run-in with bribes being paid to local politicians in Northrhine Westphalia in return for public works contracts. By outlawing certain types of contributions, the effect has been to drive them underground, not to eliminate them.
The flow of money is efficient, a bit like traffic. Soon after a new route around a congested area is discovered, traffic will divert from the congested route to the new one, and balance itself out over the two routes. But the flow of money is even stronger. It gushes forth from the highest peak and flows downward. Occasionally new laws may impede the old, well-worn routes for it to flow to the politicians waiting at the bottom of the mountain, but the flow will adjust. It's still going to go down, because that's where political gravity takes it.
What we need is an anti-polticial-gravity device. The reason big money seeks to influence politicians is because their decisions can be hugely profitable for the donors, or spell disaster for those who sit out the money-slinging contest. Spending money on politicians is the behavior of an economically rational actor. Trying to outlaw economically rational behavior is bound to fail; one has to remove the underlying incentive for the money to flow in the first place. And again, that brings me to the point that policians and the state should far less power than they have now. Eliminate the politicians' ability to bring instant wealth or ruin on a business, and businesses will find better ways to spend their money.
Craven criminal-coddling catering
Sometimes I wonder whether the reality I see here in the Netherlands is distorted. I've tried to have my head examined to see if there's a giant distorting lens attached to my perceptive faculties. That came up negative, so I have to conclude that either the medical community in this country is part of the Conspiracy, or that this place is really utterly grotesque and surreal. Please step over here, and behold the Low Countries through the looking glass.
In recent news, we've heard that the police won't even bother to investigate burglaries anymore, but in order to maintain law and order, you will now be subject to compulsory searches for no other reason than being in a certain area at a certain time. And if you happen to be one of the car-owning class (which puts you in the Highly Suspect category), the government has plans to keep track of your whereabouts. No wonder 65% of the population is unhappy with the police.
But if you're wondering where the proceeds from the extortionate taxation are going, well, look no further than this: it's being used in part to make sure criminals are comfortable. Specifically, it's being used to make sure one particular criminal is comfortable, Volkert van der G., the man accused of murdering Pim Fortuyn. You see, he's a vegan vegetarian, and the food that's cooked in the slammer is just not up to snuff. I mean, at one point, there was even melted cheese on his cauliflower! The horror! Can you imagine what that does to this poor, abused man of such high principles? Obviously, it's more important to make sure he is comfortable than, say, actually investigate and prosecute crime. So now, the cooks at the prison are being instructed in vegan vegetarian cooking. I'm delighted, delighted! to see my tax euros spent so considerately. Brings tears to my eyes.
For those who've not been following the Volkert Story, he's been on hunger strike too for a while. One of his demands for ending his hunger strike was better catering. He also wanted more privacy when his girlfriend visited. The one demand that was not honored was the removal of the 24-hour a day video monitoring of his cell. At one point he was apparently not far away from being too weak to do much anymore and in danger of dying within a few weeks. This led to a debate on whether he should be forcibly fed or allowed to die. On the one hand, it would set a questionable precedent with regard to the amount of force the state can use on its detainees. On the other hand, being in prison (although not yet tried or convicted) by necessity is an abridgement of individual rights. The main reason I don't want to see him dead yet is because there is a possibility that he might have had accomplices, and I want to avoid a Timothy McVeigh situation. After we've got all the facts and nailed any possible accomplices, I'm all in favor of frying the bastard.
Oh wait, we don't have capital punishment here. There is a non-trivial proportion of population in favor according to polls; the last one I could find puts support at 43%. Of course, this is not reflected by political parties that constitute the ruling elite. Perhaps I should trade that distorting lens for blinkers. Might make life less complicated...
October 09, 2002
Nineteen editions in ten months
OK, one final thing before I pass out in comatose bliss on my bed: I also bought Oriana Fallaci's La Rabbia e l'Orgoglio, which since its first edition in December of last year has now added another 18. A pretty impressive performance, and it's a powerful book too. As I was reading it, I started to make notes about parts I'd want to quote here, but soon I realized I'd end up quoting a large part of the book. The English version will be out soon, so you'll be able to read it for yourself. It's well worth it.
Nomen est omen
Before I fall asleep here, just another random observation on Italy: driving along the A8 highway that takes you to Malpensa airport, you'll see a big cineplex called Medusa Multicinema. Why one earth would one name a movie theater after Medusa? Are they literally trying to petrify their audience? Are the films they show really that bad?
I could imagine calling a multi-headed cineplex after Hydra, but Medusa has the distinct whiff of mythological confusion about it. Then again, their logo was rather head-with-serpent-hair-like. (In German, that would be one word.)
I also bought some grappa at the airport. Good stuff.
More on democracy
Thanks to the link at Bjørn Stærk's blog, there have been some interesting comments to my two posts below (here and here.)
In a comment Håkon writes:
There are benefits with the european system:
It is not as vulnerable to pork barrel politics, as the candidates are more dependant on the party doing well in general more than their ability to grab money for huge misguided projects.
Pork barrel politics certainly is a big problem in the American system. When in five thousand years archeologists and paleolinguists try to reconstruct contemporary English, they'll probably use Robert Byrd as the word for pork. And here, in this authentic late 20th century menu, you can see the references to breaded Byrd cutlets with fried potatoes...
Perhaps we should just rename West Virginia to Byrdsylvania and be done with it. To be fair, pork is an inherent feature of the American political system as it stands now, although few have mastered the art of pork as well as Robert Byrd. But it is something that affects both parties and is an inevitable consequence of the process of canvassing for votes. If you support $1 million in my district, I'll throw in some subsidies for you. And that is a problem.
However, pork exists in Europe too, although it is more diffuse and less traceable to individual politicians. But I do disagree that this leads to fewer "huge misguided projects." In fact, I would argue to contrary. As American pork is localized, it usually tends to consist of small portions. When you add those small portions up, it's a huge chunk of money. Bigger pork comes into being when Congressmen team up to try to get a certain cut of pork for their constituencies. At some point, there is a line where you cross from pork to policy. It may be misguided policy, but it's no longer pork. (At least, I associate pork with relatively small but numerous attacks on the taxpayer's wallet.) There is a European analogon too, but it is less blatant. Well-connected politicians will be able to pull strings to get pork for their friends.
The European system instead facilitates large projects. Perhaps pork is no longer the right word to describe them, but political leaders can become enamored of certain huge projects and will use their position to push them through, even if they don't make sense. One good example is the Betuwelijn in the Netherlands, a railway link connecting the port of Rotterdam with the industrial region of the Ruhr in Germany. It's widely unpopular, and studies are now showing that the enormous infrastructure cost is not going to be recouped in any reasonable timeframe. Existing raillinks can do the job just as well. But the project is being pushed through anyway, since so much political capital has already been spent on it. Even a change of government has not made a difference.
But I guess that is somewhat tangential to the original point. Pork in the US system is indeed more of a problem than in Europe. Within the current system, a number of reforms could be introduced to counteract this. Stricter limits on what can be added to congressional bills might be one way, although I am not familiar with procedure and therefore have no idea whether this is feasible. The much-discussed presidential line item veto could also bring relief, allowing him to erase particularly blatant porky items.
But none of these remedies really cut to the heart of the problem, and that problem is that politicians have too much power. They can do too much. And once they can do something, they will do something, even if nothing needs to be done. Simply by having the option of disbursing pork, they will do it. In the comments below, Gunnar writes:
But the bigger question is "What is the purpose of government?" The American founding fathers asserted that the only proper purpose of government was to secure the individual rights of man. This is highest moral purpose of government. In the ideal then, the legislature could only pass legislation that better protects human rights, and could never violate them.
It is the ideal of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That's an ideal that was never achieved, nor was it quite as narrowly defined as above. The preamble to the Constitution
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
This implied a broader interpretation than merely securing individual rights. Section 8 then details some of the things that fit under "general welfare." But I am treading on dangerous ground here, since I am no constitutional expert. I would agree though that having a government whose sole purpose is to safeguard individual liberties is a good thing, and an ideal worth trying to attain. But the problem with ideals is that they tend to become unstuck when faced with reality. There are areas where conflicting rights will compete for supremacy, and some abridgement of rights is necessary in to make the greater structure work; raising taxes to provide for the common defense is an obvious example. Circumscribing the powers of Congress would be a step in the right direction, not only in the pragmatic sense of reducing pork, but also in the idealistic sense of bringing government back to its main task.
In this discussion, there are a number of other issues I'd like to comment on, but feel too tired to write much about today. There's the role of money in politics, where there are some interesting comparisons to be made between the US and Europe. Another issue is that of the Supreme Court and the role of the judiciary. Finally, I'll have some thoughts on the wider reform of voting systems with some ideas for more direct democracy (and their problems).
I almost did it...
Why bother taking a passport if nobody's going to check your ID anyway? This time around, I almost managed to do the entire trip without getting my ID checked. On the flight to Milan, I slipped through the various stages of boarding at Amsterdam without anybody asking me for an ID. That's the third time in total this year... and I almost added a fourth time on the way back from Milan, but at the very last moment when boarding the plane, they demanded to see my passport. I guess I'll try again next time.
I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I understand the need for security, and I am not too keen on having people on board whose identity is completely unknown. On the other hand, I do bristle at the fact that my ID needs to be checked at all when traveling. It is an imposition. Argh. I hate real life. It's so much easier to live in a dream world...
Warning to commenters
I am back, hale and hearty (well, hale at least, to some extent...). In the comments below, Gunnar alerted me to the fact that long comments seem to get chopped off arbitrarily and without warning. I am looking into this, but for now the bug still exists. My apologies.
UPDATE: I don't seem to be able to duplicate the problem. I've posted some really long comments (and deleted them again) as a test, but it seems to work fine. I'll keep testing.
Posted by qsi at 09:07 PM
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October 07, 2002
Slow blogging for a few days
These announcements seem to come with depressing regularity now, but I'm off to sunny Italy again tomorrow. At least I hope it's sunny. I could use a respite from the rain here. In any case, blogging will be light to non-existent for a day or two.
Posted by qsi at 11:52 PM
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The best 404 page ever
Inevitably, it's at Lileks.
(Well, perhaps not the best ever, but still pretty damn good...)
Posted by qsi at 11:49 PM
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Startling encounters with wine
There are certain expectations about time and place, and deviations from the expected can cause double-takes. I proverbially did the Great Comic Backflip when faced with the physical expression of the Violently Ordinary Rejoinder. One simply does not expect to find crate up crate of Lynch Bages at one's supermarket, now does one?
Sure, it's the relatively uninspiring 1999 vintage, but still. It feels completely out of place in the Albert Heijn. They have lots of wines, but usually not wines of the caliber of a Lynch Bages. It leads me to suspect that the 1999 vintage is even less inspiring than I had thought before. If I remember correctly, they also claim in their information package that the Lynch Bages is almost ready for drinking. A good vintage would have to be kept for at least three more years before drinking. Perhaps even five for optimal results.
There's also the mysterious Chantaloutte from Pomerol. I say mysterious because I can't find any mention of it in my Hachette, which only lists a Chante Aloutte in St. Emilion. But they do claim to have Maucaillou of 1996, which according to Hachette was a splendid year. At $25 a bottle, it could be a good deal. I think I need more wine.
Posted by qsi at 11:44 PM
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Food & Wine
The inevitability of political elites
In my previous scribblings below, I looked at the differences between the US and European systems of democracy, and especially at the gap that exists between electors and elected. The American system keeps the gap smaller than democracy in most European countries. But that is not to say that the American system is perfect, or even working well on an absolute scale. It's doing OK, but the distance between the politicians and voters is still substantial. Washington politicians are an elite, and even newly inducted Congressmen become assimilated by the political machine in DC. And America has its political dynasties too, such as the Kennedys and the Bushes.
So obviously, American democracy too has produced an elite. This is inevitable. No matter what implementation of democracy one chooses, the delegates that are sent to act on voters' behalf will be imbued with a sense of importance, which in time grows into the arrogance of power. But a country does need a political class. Somebody has to be President. Somebody has to negotiate on behalf of the country, sign treaties, command its armed forces. Even in a completely direct democracy these people will still have to exist. So the question is not so much whether a political elite will emerge, but how it can be contained so that it remains an approximately good representative of the people as a whole.
Keeping political careers short through term limits precludes professional politicians from becoming too entrenched in their jobs, but it is a blunt tool. The main way of keeping the politicians in check is to make them less important, give them fewer things to influence. And above all, put safeguards in check that limit the power they can arrogate. And secondly, to the extent that politicians need to be given power, it should be devolved as close to the local level as possible. The movement to repeal the 17th Amendment is a step in this direction.
As technology improves, it will become possible to hold electronic plebiscites with great frequency. That's the topic for the next article in this occasional series.
Posted by qsi at 10:41 PM
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The economy takes its toll
The poor economy is hitting all sorts of people very hard. The sad tale of deprivation of King Fahd during his summer vacation in the Spanish resort of Marbella. During the 52 days he was there, he and his entouage spent a measly 150 million euro or about 3 million a day. Last year his expenditure still ran at 5 million a day.
Fahd is a regular visitor in Marbella. His entourage numbers around 3000 there, which are flown around in 15 airplanes, including a 747. In the hills outside of Marbella he has an estate, on which he's had a copy of the White House built. The Mar Mar palace has an area of 250,000 square meters. 300 Mercedes cars were shipped in from Geneva, and a fleet of aircraft ferries supplies from Saudi Arabia over to the south of Spain.
Life is hard if your oil revenues are declining. Even harder if you consider that without them, you could well be deposed from your comfy throne. Oh my, whatever will he do?
Posted by qsi at 10:23 PM
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October 06, 2002
Psychotic episodes are back!
Well, it sure took them a while, but it seems our favorite soap opera is back! As the Apple Turns is back from its hiatus, apparently caused by new arrivals at the writing staff, who have turned out to have negative productivity. I think they should be more careful about expanding next time. But it seems the daily fix of saponaceously operatic insanity is there for the consuming again. Hopefully they can return to producing new episodes every day. Especially the psychotic ones.
Posted by qsi at 07:49 PM
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Government of the elite, by elite and for the elite
There was a discussion about the relative level of democracy between the US and Europe over at Bjørn Stærk's Blog. I can't seem to get the permalinks to work, but scroll down to the September 27th entry to see. [UPDATE: It's fixed now] I am not too concerned about he question how democratic Norway is compared to the US. Both countries have a democratic system in place, and indeed virtually all of Europe has functioning democracies. They may not always function well, but democracies they are.
Although it is dangerous to generalize, I am going to do it anyway to make my point without getting bogged down in too many details. There are a few big differences in the way the European democracies are structured compared to the American system. Three differences stand out:
1) Separation of the branches of government
2) The electoral system
3) The role of political parties
Most European countries have a parliamentary system. Elections are held for a parliament, and whoever can put together more than half of the votes there gets to form the government. The executive branch is closely intertwined with the legislative. In American terms, it's as if Congress would elect the President, rather than the Electoral College. Only France has a powerful directly elected president, but even there the government comes from the parliamentary majority. The cabinet reports the to Prime Minister, who forms a counterweight to the president. It is the cabinet which is the executive branch, and not the presidential staff. With a hostile National Assembly, a French President will be able to do much less than an American President faced with a Congress controlled by another party. With the executive being so closely tied to the legislative, the amount of parliamentary oversight is also less. By definition, the ruling party or coalition will be in charge of both. Similar arrangements exist in most European countries.
The ties binding politicians to political parties in Europe are also stronger than in the US. Voting can and does go along party lines, especially in controversial votes, but there are always plenty of members of Congress who'll cross the aisle on a particular issue. In many European parliaments a vote against the party whip is very rare. Party discipline is strictly enforced, to an extent that the whips in Congress can only dream of. The reason that it can be enforced goes to the heart of the biggest difference between European and US systems: politicians in Europe are loyal first and foremost to their party, and not to their voters. This also leads to much more ideologically unified parties in Europe. The variability in positions in either the Democratic or Republican parties is much larger than in any European party. A southern Democrat will have more in common with a southern Republican than with a Democrat from the Northeast.
With the first-past-the-post system in the US, the electorate votes for a specific person, not a party. In the proportional representation systems of Europe, the vote goes to a party, which then decides which politicians get to serve in parliament. This is a crucial difference. To advance your carreer as a European politician, you have to make sure that you are popular within your party's structure. In America, you have to make sure you're popular with your voters. This ties together the points 2 and 3 above: European political parties can enforce discipline within their own ranks much more thoroughly, because they can punish dissent by ending troublemakers' carreers. But by moving the incentive for politicians away from pleasing the voters to pleasing the party hierarchy, there is a disconnect between the people they are supposed to represent and the politicians themselves. Since politicians are elected on a party list system, there is also little to bind voters to politicians. The concept of "my Senator" or "my Congressman" simply does not exist in a system of proportional respresentation. It works in both directions: politicians care much less about what people think, and people can't punish politicians effectively if they break their promises.
This is an essential feedback loop in American democracy, and the electoral system that leads to the party structure in Europe lacks this. Feedback is essential to keep a system working properly. The European system, with the power concentrated in party hierarchies leads inevitably to elite rule (which is not to say that the American system is perfect, but it suffers far less from this particular syndrome). The political elites in Europe can in many cases ignore the wishes of the electorate, as long as they agree amongst themselves. A good example was the creation of the euro, where large majorities in many countries were opposed to it, yet ratification of the Maastricht Treaty in parliament was hardly an issue, and passed with huge majorities. This big a divergence between popular opinion and its reflection in parliament could not exist in the US.
An argument often heard against the first-past-the-post system is that it is unfair. Parties or candidates might accumulate a significant proportion of the vote, but end up being underrepresented or even unrepresented in parliament. In Britain, which uses this system, the party that can garner about 42 to 45% of the vote usually ends up with a working majority in Parliament. Is this fair? It's unfair to the extent that it does not represent the proportion of the votes cast for political parties. It is fair in the sense that the candidate in each constituency with the most votes gets to represent it in Parliament. But the purpose of democracy is not to find a perfect reflection of party votes in parliament. The goal is to find a way to govern the country that represents popular opinion, results in workable governments and also maintains internal regional stability. This last point is exemplified by the Senate in the US. Wyoming with 500,000 inhabitants gets two Senators, just like California with 32,000,000.
In the end, I don't think it's possible to say a priori which system of democracy is best. It can only be judged by the results its produces, and in that sense the American systems works better. Although this will sounds hilarious to American readers, the chasm between politicans and voters in Europe is much larger. That's why the European political class has been able to move ahead with its European Union project, although not that many European voters want it. And that's also what's wrong with the European Union. If politicians are out of touch within their own countries, this goes doubly so for European politicians. They are the political class of the political class, with hardly any corrective feedback mechanism from the voters. That's also why the EU is in danger of failing eventually. At some point, the stress between voters and politicians becomes too big, and a discontinuity occurs, such as the emergence of the late Pim Fortuyn in the Netherlands, which then shakes up the party landscape and realigns political priorities. For a while, to some extent.
Proportional representation can also lead to stagnation. In Germany, most changes of government occurred because a small party, like the FDP, changed its coalition preference from the CDU to the SPD or vice versa. Getting a change of government as a result of an election is fairly rare. Even in the case Holland, where the LPF stormed onto the stage, the new government still has one of the parties from the previous government as a coalition partner. So the voters do have some influence, but it's usually marginal in that they can shift the political center of gravity a bit to the left or a bit to the right. But the hope for a clean break with the previous government seldom exists.
There is a wider institutional crisis developing in Europe, and especially in the European Union. The Democracy Puzzle is one part of it, because without more democratic legitimacy the EU is going fail. And although more remote, there is also a danger to the democratic legitimacy of the individual member states if the gap between the rulers and ruled remains as wide as it is.
Illegal in Canada
The Canada Customs and Revenue Agency has confiscated a batch of newsletter defending "Israel's moral right to exist," according to the National Post. The pamphlet in question is can be found here. Diana Hsieh has more commentary.
This is in the country where mob rule that shuts down free speech goes unpunished, as long it is the "right kind" of speech that is shut down. This is a performance worthy of Europe.
Repeating the mistakes of the past
Trying to revisit the some of the most egregious blunders of the past, "peace activists" are planning to demonstrate at RAF Lakenheath and other US bases in Europe against the supposed presence of nuclear weapons. Not content to have been on the wrong side of history in the 1980's, when they demanded unilateral surrender to the Soviet Union, the "peace activists" are determined to repeat their folly yet again. Apparently being on the wrong side of history once is not enough for them.
But the small expected attendance at the protests by the Appeasement Movement are yet another sign that these people are well and truly living in the past. Nostalgia for their heyday in the 1980's and the anti-American sentiment they rode back then drives them to the pavlovian response of blaming America yet again. Of course, protesting was a lot easier when they had the support of the KGB in the olden days. Now they have to make do on their own. Life is tough if you're an Appeasenik, even in Europe.
"The Web site also stresses that the protest is neither anti-American nor pro-American, or anti-Iraq or pro-Iraq." Of course, by all means, don't take sides folks. That might actually require thinking to lift yourself out of the morass of moral relativism. But it's such a nice morass to wallow in, isn't it?
Posted by qsi at 12:41 AM
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October 05, 2002
Who said the Left had the best idiots?
With all the attention being paid to prominent Idiotarians on the left such as Noam Chomsky and Susan Sontag, it seemed the left had the market for idiocy cornered. Fortunately for the right, the infallibly idiotic Jerry Falwell is stepping up to challenge the leftist supremacy of field of Idiotarianism.
In a a characteristically brilliant piece of analysis, the incisive Rev. Falwell says that "Muhammed was a terrorist." Gee, thanks, Jerry, for that valuable contribution to the debate. When asked to explain on these comments, he had this lame reply:
Falwell stood by his opinion in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. He said Simon asked directly whether Falwell considered Muhammad a terrorist and he tried to reply honestly. The minister said he would never state his opinion in a sermon or book.
No, it would not do to put this in a sermon or a book, but expressed as an answer to a question it's perfectly OK. Pffft.
Falwell is a good analogon to the Chomskys of the left. Their reasons for hating America of today may be different, but hate it they do. Chomsky & co get all worked up about America's perceived misdeeds abroad, while Falwell fulminates about America's misdeeds domestically. Pathetic. Truly pathetic.
And then there's this:
Hooper noted that Falwell and Robertson will speak at next week's Christian Coalition convention in Washington alongside House Majority Whip Tom DeLay and other politicians.
This is just plain stupid on the part of Tom DeLay. The Republicans are winning the argument decisively on the war against islamic extremism, and they really don't need the "support" of America-hating nuts like Falwell and Robertson who think that the 9/11 attacks were somehow America's fault. If DeLay goes ahead with this, he should get voted out. Trust the GOP to clutch defeat out of the jaws of victory.
Posted by qsi at 07:52 PM
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October 04, 2002
European elite opinion
I knew I wanted to blog something else last night, but fortunately fellow Netherblogger Michiel Visser has taken care of it. It's yet another astonishing example of those highly cultured European elites' blatant anti-Semitism.
Andrew Sullivan is on it too.
Open invitation to burglars
Introducing the new resort for professional criminals everywhere: the Netherlands! Come spend your vacation in this lovely country of polders, cows, cheese and easy to rob houses! Included in your vacation package is a weekend stay in a luxury hotel, your free "Burgle in Holland" guide and a complimentary crowbar. Reserve now and enjoy the vacation of a lifetime!
Yes, burgling has never been easier. Nor less dangerous. The chances of getting caught in Holland are low to begin with, but as of today, you need not fear investigation in the land of tulips and windmills. The new guidelines for the police state that only serious offenses will be investigated. Your standard burglary is not one of them. There are going to be "minimum requirements" for crime in order to be investigated; breaking the law is not enough (unless you're speeding, but that's different, of course). Now if a crime does not meet the criteria, the police won't even bother.
The Amsterdam police chief Jelle Kuiper crititized the plans, because of the emotional impact on the victims. But that was foreseen, in the words of J. L. de Wijkerslooth, the mandarin whose brainchild this is: "In other words, the police will only come into action if the victim complains. That can't ever be the basis for investigative policy or for victim prioritization." Yes, heaven forbid that victims of crime actually complain about the police's inaction!
But all is not lost, as the whole thing is scientifically underpinned. "In industry it's perfectly normal to do a market analysis before making an investment." Ah right, it's an investment now. Everything is an investment. Child care, education, welfare, health care, it's all investment. Now catching criminals is an investment too. Or not catching them. It's not neglect or dereliction of duty, it's just opportunity loss in terms of catching criminals.
But finally it is the minister of justice who's responsible. Says De Wijkerslooth:
The criteria fall under the political responsibility of the minister, which also legitimizes them politically. This puts the district attorneys on a firmer footing when they have to say 'no' to all the organizations and interest groups who want them to do 'a bit more' or a 'a bit less' than has been agreed upon."
Good to see that this is going to make the DA's lives easier then. I've been worried about their mental state quite a bit recently, and in terms of overall investment, it's more than reasonable to sacrifice the odd victim or two to relieve pressure elsewhere in the System.
So now it's official: don't count on the State to protect you or your property. Not that this is anything new. It's just blatantly out in the open now. Does this mean that citizens will be allowed to defend themselves? Of course not. Guns remain largely illegal, and besides, self-defense if frowned upon and harming burglars is not being ignored by the police. It's harming other human beings after all. And while they're robbing your house, perhaps you should ask yourself why they hate you so much. It's poverty, of course. And as a house-owning member of the bourgeousie you're part of the system them oppresses the poor criminals, leading them to rob your house. It's all your fault really. Defending your home and your family only escalates the cycle of violence.
October 03, 2002
Honoring the heroes of the past
Blogging about outrages and idiocies is the staple. It is sad to note, but good news is no news. Getting riled up, outraged and righteous about one's favorite pet causes is so much more satisfying that trying to find things that are right. So in the interest of balance, here is some good news from Holland, published in the Times of London. It's about the 7-year hunt for the wreckage of a World War II Wellington bomber. Here's why:
Moulton, from Brockville, Ontario, was regarded as a local hero because witnesses said that at the last minute he steered the stricken aircraft away from Wilnis, 11 miles south of Amsterdam, as it descended in flames towards the town.
Captain Hans Spierings, of the Air Force recovery unit, said that the pilot’s action had probably cost him his life: “The people in the town all say that Moulton stayed in the plane to avoid hitting the town and this still has a great impression on the citizens. In their mind, Moulton was a hero.”
Jan Rouwenhorst, a history teacher who set up the foundation to find the Wellington, said yesterday that the aim had been to honour men who died fighting for freedom.
“We knew human remains were inside. We thought it our moral obligation towards our liberators 60 years later for them to have a grave known to their families.”
Fortunately, some people do remember.
Another harrowing tale
Here's another story of a gang rape of a 13-year old girl in the Netherlands, allegedly committed by 8 Turkish boys. The story so far: they threatened her last Monday, because they did not want her to associate with Moroccan boys. They allegedly forcibly entered her parents' house on Wednesday morning (she had absconded from school since she was afraid), where they then tied her up, raped her, and also stabbed her in the leg with a knife. And they also tried to administer drugs to her. And then before leaving, for good measure, they set a fire.
A pretty horrible story, yet again. Yet it is so brazen, so mind-boggling that I have trouble believing that this actually happened. So far there has been no confirmation that this actually occurred, only the filing of the report with the police. The whole thing is so extreme and horrific that perhaps I am trying to find a rationalization that will allow me not to believe it. I hope it's not true. Further investigation will tell.
Cradle to grave
It's only that a decade or two ago when Dutch tourists who fell ill while vacationing in Spain would try to get themselves repatriated as quickly as possible. Now, Dutch people are going to Spain for treatment as the domestic health care system is getting ever worse and mired in red tape. Tales of woe ricochet from one to the next; there's the story of the man diagnosed with intestinal cancer who had to wait for four months to be operated on, and another four months to get radiotherapy.
But the latest tale in the Dutch press concerns a woman suffering from a disease called amyloidosis which eats away at the heart and liver. Now, having come to the conclusion that treatment in Holland was not possible, there was the possibility getting a heart and liver transplant in Britain, a lifesaving operation in this case. Except she could not get an E112 form. Without an E112 form, the Brits won't operate. I am not clear on what the E112 form does, but apparently she was ineligible for one of those, as she had "private" health insurance. The Dutch version of private health insurance is not what you think it might be; you're still reliant on the state system for treatment, except you pay your premium to a private health insurer instead of the state system. Above a certain income level (around $30,000), this is your only choice. The difference between the "state" and "private" systems is minimal, since all patients end up in the same hospitals with the same doctors. Truly private health care is still far away. And as with any system where the price mechanism has been abolished, the way to get faster service is through under-the-counter transactions, by pulling strings, relying on networks of friendly doctors and trying to find any angle to jump ahead in the waiting list. Those who happen to know the right people will get treated sooner than others. Behold the "fairness" of socialized medicine.
Now that the story has hit the press, suddenly treatment options in Holland may be available after all. Oh well... and the Belgians have offered treatment too now. Amazing.
October 02, 2002
Obsession with the past can take many forms. Aside from the righteous fanaticism that poisons the historically obsessed mind, there are other, stranger, less threatening forms this can take. In fact, they're a bit quaint, yearning for a mythical Golden Age.
Some people have become enamored and mesmerized by Old Rome. I must admit I have always had a weak spot for the old Roman Republic, the age of Real Latin. The early empire was OK too, but after the first hundred years or so, I began to lose interest. Still I am not quite sure I would want to go as far as these people are going. Of course, they are not trying to recreate the exact conditions of the Roman Republic, as they are leaving out minor details like slavery. It is hard to see how it might be possible to recreate the essence of Roman society without these elements. There's a half-hearted attempt at creating a patrician class in Nova Roma, but the patricians don't have any more rights than the others. So that is a bit of an empty shell too. It's more a of modern reinterpretation of Rome might have been like in this day and age rather than a real throwback to old Roman times.
The attempt to resurrect the old Roman religion is also interesting. They're rather vague on whether anyone actually practices the religion, or whether it is put up just for show. I've always liked the idea of the Graeco-Roman pantheon with its many gods and semi-deities. So much more fun than Christianity. And the relationship between morals and gods was different; whereas in Christianity the relationship is very hierarchical, the Romans had gods you can look in the eye and argue with. You could get hurt really badly if you picked the wrong fight but on the other hand, you could also play politics with the pantheon. Seems a much healthier attitude to take to one's deities, if one is to believe in any. But that's a whole different story.
I wish Nova Romans good luck, but I won't be joining.
Posted by qsi at 11:45 PM
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Free trade back on track?
The Blogosphere erupted in a synchronized paroxysm a few months ago when President Bush caved into to domestic steel producers and imposed tarriffs on imported steel. Had I been blogging at the time, I would have paroxyzed in sympathy. Don't mess with my Free Trade! I don't remember who blogged it at the time, but there were voices who saw it as a tactical retreat rather a strategic defeat. Perhaps they were right. It is encouraging to see that Bush is indeed using his Fast Track authority to push forward with additional free trade deals. The countries mentioned in the current round are a slew of Central American countries, as well as Singapore and Chile. But th real standout for me is Morocco. It does seem rather out of place in the list of countries with whom America would trade much. But Morocco has been changing since the accession to the throne of king Mohamed VI in 1999. He has been trying to take a few tentative steps on the road to modernizing the country. There's just been another round of elections which by north African standards have been reasonably free and fair, although they would fail to pass muster over here. True power still resides with the king, and this is not the first time that an Arab ruler has tried to modernize society. In fact, history is replete with examples of Arab and Ottoman rulers trying to catch up with developments in the West. The fundamental problem has always been the structure of the society itself, and the theocratic nature of the state. Church and state, or rather mosque and state, have always been closely entwined, making it very hard to push for reform without running the risk being called a heretic.
With per capita GDP of $3500 and an economy totally $105 billion, Morocco is not exactly a big market for American goods. But initiating free trade negotiations is nevertheless a positive step to encourage further reforms. If even one Arab country can disenthrall itself from its past it will set an example to the rest of the region. We need to encourage that. I am not sure whether Morocco will succeed where others have failed, but an Arab success story based on secularism rather than islamist fundamentalism is badly needed. Let the experiment continue and hope for the best.
Posted by qsi at 10:01 PM
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54 years of occupation
An often-heard complaint is that most people seem to know so little history. The chattering classes, who get their history from the latest Socially Correct book, bemoan the crass ignorance of the great unwashed masses. But there is something to it, since current events are inextricably linked to the past, and not knowing the past makes assessing the present impossible. How much history is enough? There comes a point where individuals get caught up in history, indeed become completely obsessed by it. The harmless form are the history buffs who re-enact historical battles and dress up in period costumes. The not-so-harmless form of History Overload is the fanatic, who's latched onto some cause from the past and sets out on a crusade to puts things right. The History Overload Fanatic comes in various shapes and sizes. A relatively widespread variety in the United States are the Southern revisionists, who claim that the Civil War was not about slavery at all, but about states' rights or tarriffs. They've popped up at Sgt. Stryker's place in response to his rant about the Civil War.
On the grand scale of things, the Southern revisionists are not that widespread. By and large, the American population is singularly unobsessed with the past. In fact, the same can be said of many European countries too. Ask a Dutchmen about the last war with Spain, and he might be able to get the century right. Approximately. This is a good thing. People who obsess about the past have trouble coming to terms with the present, because the present (in their worldview) is a result of the injustices that have been done to them or their cause. The present is therefore a place to seek revenge, turn things around, subvert. Fortunately, most of the time they don't really do much about it, but brood and rage and feel hard done by because nobody else understands them.
If this psychosis becomes widespread, it can infect the consciousness of an entire nation or culture. One such example is Hungary. The average Hungarian will be able to recite dates and places from a distant past, recounting the struggle of the Magyars since the honfoglalás ("taking of the homeland") until recent times. And the problem is, they see themselves as the perennial victims of history. Especially the loss of territories with large ethnic Hungarian populations in Slovakia, Rumania and Yugoslavia inflames passions. Cars in Hungary are often adorned with a sticker of the map of Greater Hungary with the foreign territories safely back in the homeland. (Did I mention I hate the word homeland? Why did it have to infect the American language? Peggy Noonan said it best: Homeland ain't no American word. The reason I am using it in this context is exactly because it has that pejorative connotation.)
Beware of people who know too much history (including historians, but for other reasons). Still on my plane ride last night, I chanced upon the opinion page in the Corriere della Sera, where I saw the headline "Arafat and this lapse by Mrs. Barghouti." Now, if anybody has ever been obsessed with history, it must be the Arabs. They've been on this wrong side of it for so long that the past festers within their souls, leaving them incapable of dealing rationally with the present. But the interesting bit in this opinion piece regards Mrs. Fadwa Barghouti, who's the wife of Arafat's crony Marwan Barghouti, who was in charge of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade. He is responsible for the cold-blooded murder of many Israelis in so-called suicide bombings. A true piece of terrorist scum. Or rather, alleged terrorist scum, because he's on trial and has not been found guilty yet. That's because Israel has an actual independent judiciary, unlike the Palestinian Authority where the mere suspicion of collaboration with Isreal gets you lynched. But that aside. Back to the lovely wife of alleged terrorist scum. She said: "I am opposed to the bombings, but I can understand the motives of the bombers after 54 years of Israeli occupation."
Paolo Mieli, the columnist, then delves into the true significance of this statement, aside from its moral vacuity. You see, she said 54 years. With a history-obsessed culture, that number is delibately chosen. But what does it mean? It can't refer to the 35 years since the Six Day war (June 1967), at the end of which Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza (and Sinai). Nor is she referring to the aftermath of the Arabs' first attempt to wipe out Israel in 1949, as that is 53 years ago. So what did happen 54 years ago? The state of Israel was founded, in May of 1948. Setting up a Palestinian state in the West Bank or Gaza is not the PLO's agenda. The destruction of Israel is. And this pipedream of wiping out the "zionist entity" pervades Arab and Palestinian culture to the point where a reasonable compromises are rejected. Arafat would have gotten almost all that he says he wanted (to the West anyway) in the famous summit with Barak a few years ago. He declined the offer and started up the terrorist machine once again. As long as the morbid dream of destroying Israel still exists in the Arab world, there is not going to be peace in the region, because we cannot allow the only free and democratic country in the Middle East be destroyed; that would just be another step in the islamists' campaign to cleanse of world of Western civilization.
Posted by qsi at 09:13 PM
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The Loony Left's isolation
On the flight back yesterday from Milan I was going through the Corriere della Sera, one of the main Italian newspapers. On the Culture page there was on interview with David Remnick, the editor of the New Yorker magazine. The interview ended with the following exchange:
Q:Many people have noted the recent full-page ad in the New York Times where many writers and intellectuals declared themselves opposed to a war with Iraq. Do you think the literary conscience of America is reasserting itself as in the times of Vietnam?
A: In my opinion the comparison with Vietnam is wrong. Ho Chi Minh did not have chemical weapons, biological or perhaps even nuclear weapons, nor did he intend to supply them to organizations such as Al-Qaida to attack the World Trade Center or the Pentagon. There's huge difference that leads many people to avoid such comparisons. Even we who have been very critical of Bush's domestic policies have to admit that the problem Saddam has to be resolved.
Q: So what is the position of American intellectuals?
A: The debate is ongoing and there is not a choir of identical voices. Susan Sontag is not the spokesman of the literary world and only speaks for Susan Sontag. And this goes for all the others. Obviously, some artists and writers are firmly opposed to the war, but they do not represent the majority. One could say that the activism is taking places at the universities, but I am not sure of that. And broad public movement, at least for now, we have not seen.
This shows the increasing isolation and irrelevance of the shrill intellectuals, whose preferred course of action is to roll over, play dead and hope nobody ever attacks us again, despite the fact that our enemies have stated many times they wish to destroy us. Any past misdeeds on our part, whether real, perceived or fabricated are irrelevant in this calculation. It is the very basis of our secular, liberal and democratic society that offends them. Or rather, that our infidel ways are producing much greater wealth and power than any sharia-based system ever will. Doing nothing is not an option.
Will Warren, the Blogosphere's poet laureate, put it exquisitely.
Posted by qsi at 08:48 PM
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Hirsi Ali leaving the country
Well, she's going on vacation. Sort of. Having received death threats for her remarks about Islam and women, she's now has a private company protecting. Apparently the vacation has been planned for a long time, but they're keeping the details about her plans and security arrangement secret. A strange twist is that nobody's been able to contact her father, who received some of the death threats. Nobody's answering the phone there, but there is no indication of where he lives. Meanwhile, there does not appear to be any progress on tracing the islamist zealots who are sending the threats.
The road to happiness
Here's the real reason for my sunny and cheerful disposition, the vibrant optimism, the fusion reaction that sets emits the rays of sunshine which I resemble, and it's proven by scientific research no less: cleaning makes you unhappy. Given the general state of my apartment, this makes me a very, very happy man. I think I'll drink to that.
Posted by qsi at 08:04 PM
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October 01, 2002
Italy is always fun to go to. The great Get a Cab Adventure Ride keeps the blood flowing (at reasonable pressure and speed), and it also occupies the mind by keeping track of the number of near-accidents that happen. Motorized traffic in Italy is different from the cold north of Europe. And to think I've only been to northern Italy this time around. In the south the relative order that still exists in the north break down completely. Naples is one of those places where you won't see a single car that is not dinged, dented or broken in some way. At least in Milan they can afford to fix their cars.
A cab out to Malpensa airport takes 45 minutes to an hour, and it ends in the distant countryside. Malpensa is a new airport; I think it opened in 2000, and has consequently been placed in the convenient middle of nowhere. One of the things they've never been able to get to work is the far door of the departures hall. It's been broken ever since I first visited the airport. The reason I know or care is that the KLM check-in desk is in that part, and since the door is continuously broken I have to walk a considerable distance to get there. At the check-in desk, I got my boarding pass as usual, minus the routine question to see my passport.
At the security check leading to the gates, there was some confusion as the x-ray machine operator seemed a bit confused about which direction the belt should run. At one point, a lady in front of me was desperately pushing back the bags that were spilling back onto the floor. The buzzer did not go off as I walked through the metal detector, and I was on my way to the gate. They did not check my boarding pass. Getting onto the plane was easy too... no identity checks there either. Today I managed to board a flight without anybody checking my identity. And it's not just an Italian problem; earlier this year the same happened to me at Stuttgart airport in Germany. Seems that airport security isn't working all that well.
Posted by qsi at 11:37 PM
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