Thursday, April 27, 2006

Dancing with Tiktaalik – a fishy comment breaks bloggers’s block

Some of you may have noticed that I haven’t been posting recently. It’s been three weeks, and in between wallowing in guilt for my lack of literary (?) output (wallowing in guilt is a particular hereditary skill of mine, passed down through untold generations of eastern European Jews who constantly worried that some personal vice of theirs was responsible for the latest bad turnip harvest) I have been searching diligently – more or less – for something compelling to write about. My problem has been neither lack of will nor broken fingers; there simply hasn’t been much going on that seemed worth the effort.

Two days after my last post, scientists announced the discovery and description of Tiktaalik roseae, a 375-million-year-old fish that fit nicely into one of the gaps in the fossil record of the transition from purely aquatic to terrestrial vertebrates. (See also here and here.) The “new” fossil was “discovered to order” – that is, it was found in a predicted location (an area of Greenland that was once a subtropical region of meandering streams) and at the predicted time (that is, in rocks of the right age) for a creature of approximately these characteristics to exist. From the standpoint of evolutionary science, such a find is obviously most welcome, and yet it is anything but revolutionary: Tiktaalik answers some questions about the details of the fish-to-amphibian transition, but it doesn’t create any new paradigms or overturn any old ones.

Nonetheless, anti-evolutionists of various cuts and stripes felt compelled to react to Tiktaalik here’s an analysis of some conventional creationist critiques of the new fish, and here is an Intelligent-Design-style critique from the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture (analyzed here).

None of this would have triggered a blog post, since evolutionary biology is supposed to be merely a side-line for me, and the new fossil – and responses to it – don’t change anything in my thinking on the subject.

However – and remember the part about my having difficulty finding anything to write about? – today I came across one comment in that last link’s discussion thread that was so wonderful that it got my rusty fingers pounding the keys again. (I really do pound the keys; Vaguely Sinister Wife complains if I do any writing while she’s trying to get to sleep. We didn’t have none of these newfangled electronic gizmoes when I learned to type – it was good old-fashioned cast-iron manual typewriters, and don’t your forget it, sonny! But, as usual, I digress.) The pseudonymous genius (and I’m not being sarcastic!) quotes a passage from the original commentary, referring to the nature of the evolutionary changes represented by Tiktaalik:

But that kind of mosaicism is what you'd expect, and what we should see in a transitional form! Every element of the organism shouldn't be changing in a slow and steady lockstep, but instead should shift haltingly, with sometimes most of the selection on the feeding structures, for instance, and maybe some other time on locomotor morphology.

And responds:
Why do you hate Jesus?

…Which has to be the best capsule-summary-cum-demolition of the creationist “argument” I’ve ever read.

Sigh… I wish I’d written that!
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Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Winners, losers, and the rest of us: thoughts on the election results

The voters have spoken, or at least mumbled. After an election campaign that was remarkably eventful in its own way (including a split in Israel’s ruling political party and Ariel Sharon’s apparently permanent incapacitation), unusually significant in the issues it presented for the electorate’s judgment, and yet amazingly soporific, the results are in. We don’t yet know the shape of the new governing coalition, but it’s not too early to draw some conclusions about the people, parties, and ideas that won and lost.

First, the results

With all votes counted, the new Knesset looks like this:

Yisrael Beitenu11seats
National Union / National Religious Party 9seats
Gil (Senior Citizens) 7seats
United Torah Judaism 6seats
Meretz 5seats
United Arab List 4seats
Balad 3seats
Hadash 3seats

Nineteen parties participated in the election and failed to reach the required 2 percent threshold for Knesset entry; about 200,000 votes (the equivalent of around seven Knesset seats!) were thrown away – either because people voted for a party that failed to reach the threshold, because they deliberately stuck a blank piece of paper in the voting envelope instead of a party’s slip, or else because they accidentally included slips for two or more different parties in their envelope.

Only 63.2 percent of the electorate voted; but this figure is somewhat deceptive, since an estimated ten to fifteen percent of eligible Israeli citizens are currently overseas and couldn’t vote. (Israel does not allow absentee voting except for embassy staff and other special cases.) This means that the “real” turnout of those eligible to vote and present in Israel on Election Day was more like 70 to 75 percent: still not stellar, but not quite so abysmal as it’s been made out to be. Israeli Arabs, as a whole, participated at a somewhat higher level than had been expected; usually Arab turnout is 10 percent below Jewish turnout, but this time the difference was only 7 percent. Given that the overall turnout figure includes Israeli Arabs as well as Jews and others, the Jewish turnout (among those present in Israel) was somewhere between 71 and 77 percent.

According to the Jerusalem Post, settlers were among the population sectors with especially low turnout; considering this sector’s normally high motivation to vote, this fact likely points to a degree of despair – or even disenchantment with a democratic system that appears to have turned against much of the settlement enterprise. (Rather annoyingly, the Post neglects to include numbers for the settlers’ participation level; for those blessed-with-numerical-affinity as I am – statistic-freaks, in other words – such a fuzzy description is cause for wailing and gnashing of teeth.)

What didn’t happen – and what did

Before talking about what did happen, it’s worth noting a prediction or two that – predictably, in my opinion – turned out to be untrue:

  • Some Internet forum commentators (which is a rather more dignified title than they deserve, but I’m stuck for a better one that satisfies even my low standards for propriety) predicted that sinister Kadima officials would “arrange” for Ariel Sharon to die a few days before the election, in an attempt to gain some extra “sympathy votes”. Nothing of the sort happened, of course; and in fact the election appears to have run its course with a minimum of skullduggery.

  • Despite the warnings of various right-wing spokesmen that Kadima would form a coalition with one or more Arab parties, there is no reason to believe (nor was there ever a reason to believe) that this will happen. Kadima has plenty of options in forming a coalition with other Jewish/Zionist parties; and even if Kadima somehow runs into difficulties in building a “Jewish” coalition, the fragmentation of the Arab vote means that no single Arab party has enough Knesset seats to justify the political cost of including it in a coalition. For now at least, the taboo against recruiting Arab parties into Israeli governing coalitions will remain unbroken.
On the other hand, predictions of declining support for Kadima turned out to be somewhat correct: while the party was a clear winner, with ten more Knesset seats than its nearest rival, it “lost” around five seats between most of the late pre-election polls and the final results, and around eight seats compared to polls taken a couple of weeks before the election. On the other hand, the Center-Left as a whole held its own: while the polls taken around 10 March showed Kadima-Labor-Meretz receiving around 60 Knesset seats, these three parties plus the Pensioners (who didn’t even show up on the radar a couple of weeks ago) gained 60 seats in the election itself.

Winners and losers

Twelve parties will be represented in the new Knesset, and the largest party received less than 25 percent of the vote. Inevitably, such fragmented election results represent something of a Rorschach test, in which the picture one sees depends largely on the observer. Despite the perils of ink-blot punditry, I shall attempt to put my own preferences aside and identify some clear winners, losers, and in-betweens:

Thatcherism lost; “social” economics won. Only one party identified with doctrinaire free-market economics will be in the next Knesset. The Likud’s miserable showing was due, at least in part, to people’s resentment of Binyamin Netanyahu’s program of aggressive social-benefit cuts when he was Finance Minister under Ariel Sharon; the secular parties (including Hetz and what was left of Shinui) that more-or-less shared Kid Brother’s economic philosophy failed to pass the two-percent electoral threshold. On the other hand, a large bloc of parties ran on platforms espousing stronger social benefits: Labor, Shas, Gil, and (depending on your criteria) United Torah Judaism and Meretz. This means that the “social bloc” includes somewhere between 38 and 49 MK’s, plus Arab MK’s who are likely to favor restoration of the large-family benefits that Netanyahu slashed.

*          *          *

“Disengagement” won; “Greater Israel” (as a political program) lost big. Three parties ran on platforms with “disengagement” – past and future – as a central element. Kadima won 29 seats based almost entirely on its pro-“disengagement” stance; The Likud and NU/NRP, both of which campaigned mostly on their opposition to “disengagement”, won a total of only 21 seats. If we view the race among these three parties as a “disengagement referendum”, it’s clear that “disengagement” won; on the other hand, the fact that Kadima won a significantly smaller victory than expected would tend to dilute the significance of this pseudo-referendum.

Another way to view the issue is to group Zionist parties into two groups (Left and Right), or, perhaps more usefully, into three (Left, Right, and Other). If we classify the Pensioners as Left and Shas as Right, we have 60 MK’s on the Left (not counting the Arab parties) and 50 on the Right – a small victory for the Left-Center, and for “disengagement”.

But if we classify explicitly pro-“disengagement” parties as Left, anti-“disengagement” parties as Right, and parties that are willing to go along with “disengagement” in return for government support for their social programs as “Other”, we have a Left of Kadima, Labor, and Meretz with 53 MK’s, a Right of Yisrael Beitenu, Likud, and NU/NRP with only 32 MK’s, and an “Other” of Shas, Pensioners, and UTJ with 25 MK’s. This breakdown may overestimate the strength of opposition to “disengagement”, though, as one of Yisrael Beitenu’s main beliefs is that territorial swaps are necessary to improve Israel’s “demographic security”; even the Likud’s program calls for some form of eventual consolidation of Israel’s West Bank settlements. Only the NU/NRP, with its whopping 7.5% of the vote, takes a principled stand against West Bank withdrawals and the creation of a Palestinian state.

Clearly, if Ehud Olmert is willing to open his checkbook, he can easily assemble a 78-MK majority for further territorial withdrawals. Of course, such withdrawals will be expensive, as will the monetary demands of the “social bloc”; the money will have to come from somewhere, and I’m already running a pretty big overdraft.

One of my blogging colleagues points out (in private correspondence) that we should differentiate between “Greater Israel” as a religious/national ideal (a.k.a. “the dream”) and “Greater Israel” as a practical political program. The latter suffered a crushing defeat last Tuesday; the former – shared even by many who voted for parties supporting “disengagement” – survived two thousand years of exile, and will not disappear because of this or any other election result.

*          *          *

Hot lesbian wedding kisses, Yossi Beilin, Binyamin Netanyahu, and the Palestinians lost; the Pensioners and Avigdor Lieberman won. The Green Leaf Party once more failed to make it into the Knesset, even after running brilliant ads like this one. (R-rated: open-minded adults only!) While they never seem to succeed, the Green Leafers seem to have a good time campaigning! Apparently many of the “protest” voters who might have chosen Green Leaf (including a large number of young voters) switched to Gil when it appeared that the latter would get into the Knesset and Green Leaf wouldn’t; this indicates a sort of “practical protest” mentality, as opposed to “pure” protest voters who don’t care whether their votes actually get anyone into the Knesset. Gil, the pensioners’ party, won enough seats – and has sufficiently specific demands, even if their initial version of these demands is a bit inflated – to make it a desirable coalition partner for Kadima.

When initial results showed Meretz winning only four Knesset seats, it appeared that Yossi Beilin, whose first campaign as Meretz leader had clearly flopped, would quickly be dismissed from his position as party chief. Now that the adjusted results are in and Meretz has a fifth mandate, perhaps Beilin will keep his job; but even at my most charitable, I can only call this election a mitigated disaster for the party. Other than its lack of a convincing and charismatic leader, I believe that the problem lies in Meretz’s failure to adjust to changing times: its diplomatic stance (currently based largely on Beilin’s “Geneva Accord”) seems increasingly dated, and it hasn’t found any other issues to excite the broad Israeli public. As the Labor Party – and, for that matter, the Israeli electorate as a whole – has shifted to the left in many of its positions, it seems increasingly difficult for Meretz to defend a niche to the left of Labor without becoming so extreme as to be irrelevant.

If Meretz’s election results were a fender-bender, the Likud’s results were a train wreck. Under Kid Brother’s leadership, the party lost a full 70% of its previous Knesset seats (counting those won last time by Natan Sharansky’s two-MK Yisrael Ba’Aliyah party, which was merged into the Likud to make a 40-MK faction). I must admit to some astonishment here: I had expected Netanyahu to resign from politics by now. But so far, the Great Communicator has vowed to lead the party through its time in the wilderness. I seriously doubt, though, that Bibi will really stay the course; it’s frustrating enough sitting on the Opposition benches when your party loves you, but it must be truly awful when everyone in the party you’re supposed to be leading knows that you caused their fall from power to insignificance.

Ultimately, the Likud – and perhaps even Kid Brother himself – will, I hope, realize a very basic truth about Bibi: He’s not very good at politics. He may have been a competent (albeit controversial) Finance Minister, but other than that, his record is fairly dismal. He won exactly one election, a head-to-head contest with perennial also-ran Shimon Peres that Netanyahu won by a whisker. Other than that, Netanyahu has led the Likud to two major electoral defeats, and his performance as Prime Minister (admittedly with an especially fractious governing coalition) was both weak and inept. Given his resistance to learning from (or even admitting) his mistakes, it’s hard to see how Kid Brother will have any great future to look forward to – unless he chooses a different line of work.

With 11 MK’s, Yisrael Beitenu and party leader Avigdor Lieberman can certainly consider this election a victory – although some of the late polls were forecasting an even more impressive 14-seat showing. The question now is how Lieberman wants to play his hand: does he attempt to fit himself in as the right-flank of a Kadima-led, pro-“disengagement” coalition, or does he remain in the Opposition? It would certainly appear that he made every effort in his campaign to position himself for a role in a center-Left government, emphasizing security concerns rather than territorial rigidity; but it’s not clear how badly he wants in – or, for that matter, how badly Ehud Olmert wants Yvette as a member of his Cabinet.

The Palestinians, of course, were not candidates in Israel’s election; but they managed to lose anyway, by being less relevant to the Israeli electorate than at any time in recent history. Only the Likud and the National Union / National Religious Party ran on platforms in which the Palestinians (as eternal antagonists, of course) played a major part; if we want to be generous, we can add Yisrael Beitenu and Meretz (which still views the Palestinians as a negotiating partner) to the list. But for a solid majority of the Jewish electorate, the Palestinians are now more or less officially an inconvenient irrelevance – people to be walled off and guarded against, but not spoken to or cared about.

*          *          *

Pretty much everyone else broke even. Kadima won the election, of course; but the victory was not impressive enough to count as a ringing endorsement of the party, its membership, and its leadership.

Labor made a decent second-place showing; but the party failed to show any growth in its Knesset strength despite the collapse of the Likud and Shinui. If Labor is to regain its position as a potential ruling party, it needs to find ways of significantly broadening its appeal; and this election should have been a golden opportunity to do so.

It’s far too early, of course, to judge whether Israel as a whole won or lost this election; that can be determined only after a government is formed, its policies are implemented (or not), and historians have a chance to chew things over for a few decades. In the mean time, the Israeli electorate sent some fairly clear messages to the political establishment:

  • While the voters might have been more excited by a reassuring, charismatic leader – Ariel Sharon, for example, had he remained healthy – none of the remaining party leaders had any noticeable positive effect on their parties’ electoral success. (The only exception to this was Avigdor Lieberman, who appealed to Former-Soviet-Union immigrants who like strong leaders but don’t like Stalinesque moustaches.) I would like to be able to say that the trend towards idea-based rather than personality-based voting represents a growing maturity in the Israeli electorate’s thinking, but I suspect that the true message is simply that our current party leaders are a rather unattractive bunch.

  • The voters strongly repudiated Netanyahu’s brand of reduced-benefit capitalism in favor of stronger social benefits.

  • The voters strongly rejected the “Greater Israel” idea (in its applied form), but did not send a very clear message as to precisely how and when they want Israel to reduce its presence in the West Bank. “Disengagement” proponents did better than opponents, but not well enough to ensure an easy path to a unilateral West Bank withdrawal.
Ehud Olmert will almost certainly be our next Prime Minister; but his unimpressive electoral victory means that he will have to work hard to prove himself (and accomplish anything) as our nation’s new leader.

(This post can also be found at the Guns and Butter Blog.)

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