Tuesday, December 27, 2005

“Science” Against Science: More thoughts on “Intelligent Design”

James Na of the Guns and Butter Blog has written a follow-up post regarding the Dover decision, in which he reiterates that while he is a Senior Fellow in Foreign Policy at the Discovery Institute, he is in no way connected to their advocacy of “Intelligent Design”. He further points out that the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture actually opposed the Dover, Pennsylvania school board’s policy on teaching “Intelligent Design”. So James (along with Seth Cooper, who contributes to his blog) is in the clear on this issue – not that I had accused him of being a Creationist, but evidently some people had. He’s not one, okay? (Or if he is, he’s deep in the closet and not planning to come out.)

The Center for Science and Culture presents a nuanced position on “Intelligent Design”: It “supports research by scientists and other scholars challenging various aspects of neo-Darwinian theory”, along with “research by scientists and other scholars developing the scientific theory known as intelligent design.” The Center’s “Top Questions” page claims that it does not advocate the mandatory teaching of “Intelligent Design”; rather, “evolution should be taught as a scientific theory that is open to critical scrutiny, not as a sacred dogma that can’t be questioned.” All this sounds benign enough – after all, science is supposed to be all about challenging dogmas, subjecting old theories to new tests, and so on.

So why do I still feel uneasy about the Center and its work?

The problem, I think, is with the nature of “Intelligent Design” as a purportedly-scientific theory. The theory relies on the concept of “irreducible complexity” – basically, the idea that certain structures, especially the molecular-level biochemical “machines” inside our cells, are so constructed that (A) they can’t have appeared all at once as the result of a random mutation; and (B) if even one component were missing, they wouldn’t function properly – and so they can’t have appeared gradually, as the intermediate stages would have been useless to the organism. This argument looks convincing at first glance, but there are some good reasons for skepticism:

  1. The same argument has long been used against evolution regarding larger-scale adaptations such as insect wings, and has been proven false every time (at least when sufficient data was available to prove anything one way or another). For example, insect wings that weren’t large enough for flight were still useful for thermal regulation; and the maximum size at which the wing is useful for thermal regulation turns out to be a size at which the wing begins to give the insect aerodynamic benefits. Without getting into too much detail (remember that this is supposed to be a blog about the Middle East, not evolutionary biology!), the anti-evolutionists have never come up with a convincing argument based on “unbridgeable gaps” in the macro-scale evolution of organisms or organs.

  2. Switching the “irreducible complexity” argument to the molecular scale smacks of opportunism. Molecular biology (including molecular genetics) is a science in its early childhood, if not still in infancy. We know just enough to be able to appreciate some of the beauty and complexity of life on the molecular scale, without knowing enough to understand just how it all works – much less how intermediate versions of today’s cellular machinery might have functioned. Further, the fossil record provides no help in deciphering molecular-level evolution; we might find fossilized semi-whales (destroying one of the old anti-evolutionary “examples”), but we won’t find extinct versions of cellular machinery. It’s one thing to take a mature scientific paradigm and identify its weaknesses (as the Michelson-Morley experiment did for Newtonian physics, paving the way for Einstein’s theory of Relativity); it’s quite another to select an area of science that is still in its early stages and then cry fowl because of its supposed “gaps”.

At an even more fundamental level, the stated program of the Center for Science and Culture seems a little strange to me. If effect, the Center is supporting “research by scientists and other scholars” in order to show that certain phenomena cannot have come about through “scientific” causes – such as the laws of physics and chemistry combined with a limited amount of good luck and lots of time. “Research” with such goals is exactly what true science doesn’t do. Real science looks on unexplained phenomena as a challenge to be surmounted; the scientist seeks to extend the bounds of what can be understood and predicted. “Research” that seeks to exclude phenomena from scientific predictability is not science; if anything, it’s “anti-science”.*

In my perusal of the Center for Science and Culture’s website, I noticed that while the Center claims to promote “research”, it doesn’t actually state that it promotes “scientific research” – supporting “research by scientists” isn’t necessarily the same thing, although the latter phrase is certainly meant to imply that genuine scientific research is being done in support of “Intelligent Design”. Somehow, I find it very hard to believe that somewhere people with white lab coats and electron microscopes are laboring away to reduce the scope of scientific predictability!

*          *          *

Of course, I can’t prove that the contentions of “Intelligent Design” are false – at least not with the knowledge available in December 2005. But I suspect that before too long, scientists will show how some of the “irreducibly complex” molecular machines inside our cells evolved; and when this happens, the “Intelligent Design” advocates will not give up their theory, but instead will find some even smaller hook to hang it on. In the mean time, what the Center for Science and Culture is promoting is not science, no matter how respectably “scientific” the Center claims to be. Either the Center is run by fools who don’t know what science is – which seems highly unlikely – or else, despite its protestations of scientific objectivity, the Center is disingenuously attempting to package a religious doctrine as a “scientific” theory.

* Of course, real science does sometimes find areas in which predictability is limited; Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle is a prime example. But genuine scientists don’t seek to maximize areas of unpredictability; it’s worth remembering that even though quantum mechanics elegantly describes particle behavior using probability mathematics, Einstein found it extremely unsatisfying because “God doesn’t play dice with the universe.”
(Read more...)

<< Home

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Azmi Bishara and Israeli Democracy: An Open Dialogue

A few days ago, Ze’ev of Israel Perspectives wrote a post on Azmi Bishara, a vocally-anti-Zionist Arab Knesset Member from Nazareth who’s been making rather a splash recently. After detailing a few of Bishara’s bons mots, Ze’ev asks:

Why is it that in the Jewish State of Israel, that we must suffer the indignity of having people like Azmi Bishara sit in the Knesset and have a say shaping the policies and character of the Jewish State?

I wrote the following comment on Ze’ev’s blog:

Let’s say that we throw Azmi Bishara out of the Knesset, prosecute him, throw him in jail, whatever. What happens next? The same people who voted for him will elect someone else who’s just as anti-Israel, if not worse.

What are you going to do? Take away their right to vote? Take away their citizenship? Throw them out of the country? Kill them? So much for democracy.

The problem isn’t Azmi Bishara - not that I have any particular love for the man. The problem is that in 57 years since independence, we have largely failed to give Israeli Arabs a reason to feel Israeli rather than Palestinian. Of course the failure hasn’t been total, or we’d have more Azmi Bisharas in the Knesset than we do. But we need to accept that Azmi Bishara was elected by people who really do feel the way he does about the State of Israel, and by their own lights have every right to feel this way.

I’m not sure how to solve this problem. Creating a less discriminatory society might help, but it would be painful and expensive, would take a long time, and certainly wouldn’t be 100% effective. All I can say for sure is that focusing on Azmi Bishara as the villain of the story is exactly the wrong thing to do – it won’t do a thing to solve the underlying problem.

Ze’ev replied to me by email (quoted with his permission):

Don, very simple. If I had my way, Azmi Bishara and other Israeli Arabs would not be in the Knesset. I am not in favor of the idea of non-Jews shaping the national character and policy of the Jewish State.

I am prepared to provide all those non-Jews who are willing to swear loyalty to the Jewish State and forfeit any national claims [with] basic civil rights and communal autonomy – just the inability to vote in the Knesset.

I agree with you that Israeli Arabs have every right to feel the way they do towards Israel, but I also believe that the Jewish People have the right to ensure the continued existence of the Jewish State.

I do not believe that we need to provide non-Jews with the ability to peacefully and democratically do away with the Jewish State or to incite against it.

The underlying issue is not a lack of equality or acceptance, but the belief that we can buy the loyalty of the Arabs and make them forget their national aspiration for a bowl of lentil soup... which is racist and condescending, if you ask me.

Finally (for now), I answered Ze’ev’s email:

If we take away the right to vote and serve in the Knesset from Israeli Arabs, how long will it be before we start doing the same thing to Israeli Jews who aren't “the right kind of Jew”?

My concerns in this regard are not entirely unrealistic. I am already partially disenfranchised: I am a non-Orthodox Jew, and yet a portion of my taxes goes to support a purely Orthodox (and the most inflexible kind of Orthodox) rabbinical establishment which holds tremendous power. I have to pay for the Rabbanut, yet I get no say in who runs it. Streams of Judaism to which I would be more sympathetic get little or no state funding, and have no right to perform weddings, funerals, or conversions here.

In fact, my wife and I can’t even get married in Israel, because the Rabbanut has a problem with her conversion (Orthodox rabbi/Conservative witnesses) 22 years ago in Texas, and there is no alternative here to a Rabbanut wedding. So much for equal rights!

*          *          *

The argument you’re making is fundamentally flawed. As soon as we start discriminating against Arabs in the way you discuss, we’ve crossed the line: we are no longer a democratic state. We’ve established that we can take civil rights (and the right to vote and be represented is a very fundamental civil right!) away from people simply because they hold views we don’t like. Once we’ve done that, there’s no stopping. It’s like the old story:

First they came for the communists and I said nothing because I wasn’t a communist.
Then they locked up the Social Democrats, and I said nothing; after all, I was not a Social Democrat.
When they arrested the trade unionists, I said nothing; after all, I was not a trade unionist.
They came for the Jews, and I said nothing because I wasn’t a Jew.
And then they came for me, and there was no-one left to say anything for me.*

If the vote were taken away from Israeli Arabs, before too long the vote would be taken away from Israeli Jews – and that would mean the end of the State of Israel.

As far as I’m concerned, today’s Arab is tomorrow’s non-Orthodox Jew. After all, I too hold views (on many subjects, including, for example, Jerusalem) that you probably consider inimical to your concept of the Jewish State.

That’s as far as our discussion has progressed so far. As the issues involved are important ones, I would like to see the dialogue continue, ideally with some additional participants. What do you think?

* This quote is approximate. It is usually attributed to German U-boat-captain-turned-minister-turned-Nazi-supporter-turned-peace-activist Martin Niemoller, but in fact its provenance, along with its exact contents, is rather doubtful.
(Read more...)

<< Home

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

“Intelligent Disappearing” – Creeping Creationism and Holocaust Denial

In a depressingly rare victory for rationality, a United States federal court has just ruled that a Pennsylvania school district may not teach “intelligent design” to high-school biology students as an alternative to the Theory of Evolution. At about the same time, a spokesman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry informed us that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s denial of the Holocaust is “a matter for academic discussion,” and “the West should be more tolerant of his views.” (Thanks for the tip, Eye Doc!) These two events have more in common that one might think.

“Intelligent design” is, of course, creationism-lite – that is, it’s the belief that living creatures are too complex and elegantly-designed to have come about by random genetic mutation and survival of the fittest, and thus that an unspecified “designer” rather than Darwinian evolution must be responsible for the cats that continually knock piles of unpaid bills from my dresser to the floor. (Thanks, Big Guy – or am I supposed to refer to you as Large Unspecified Entity now?) When the teaching of “creation science” was banned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1987 as an attempt to promote an explicit religious view, the creationists went back to their manuscripts, crossed out words like “creation” and “God”, and scribbled in “design” and “designer”. (Don’t believe me? See the Federal District Court’s findings, particularly pages 30-34.) Call it what you will, “creation science” is really just Biblical literalism; there was never any science there, despite the name. “Intelligent design” is an even less intellectually honest attempt to teach religion in the guise of science.

The reason that both “creation science” and “intelligent design” are illegitimate is that they advertise themselves as solutions to supposed “problems” (or “gaps”) in evolutionary theory, as if the “orthodox” version of biology were in the midst of some kind of crisis and only these “new ideas” provided a solution. In fact, evolutionary biology is doing quite well, thank you; evolutionists are happily discovering fossils of new types of extinct critter (including some lovely intermediate species – take a look at this and this if you’ve ever wondered how whales got that way) and playing with exciting new concepts like “evo devo”. Of course, science hasn’t answered all the questions yet – and here is where the “intelligent design” advocates attempt to wedge their way into our high schools. Their argument (such as it is) works basically like this:

  • Living creatures are complicated and seem to be well designed.

  • We don’t understand everything about how this came about. (Usually expressed as “Science can’t explain how this came about,” a more accurate version of which would be “Science hasn’t yet explained everything about how this came about.”)

  • Therefore, some cause from outside the realm of science must be responsible.

Another way of expressing the same argument would be, “What I don’t know today is by definition unknowable” – which might work in a freshman-level theological debate, but hardly qualifies as scientific thought. The existence of open questions and even of vigorous debates does not constitute a scientific crisis; and in fact, there is virtually no creationism – disguised as “intelligent design” or otherwise – among practicing professional biologists.

All of this doesn’t mean that you, Dear Reader, must believe in evolution; it does mean, however, that you cannot promote Biblical creationism (or creationism by other supernatural means) and call it “science”.

*          *          *

So what does all this “intelligent design” stuff have to do with Our Buddy Ahmadinejad? Simple: what “intelligent design” advocates are trying to do to biology, Ahmadinejad (and his many allies in the Middle East and elsewhere) are trying to do to history. Both “intelligent design” and Holocaust denial are attempts at “academic relativism”: the effort to defend a treasured-but-contentious belief on the basis that all views are somehow equally valid, regardless of the evidence to support one view over the other. If we allow this sort of advocacy to dictate what is seen as truth, it will ultimately mean the end of science as we know it, as well as history and any other fact-based intellectual endeavor.

I suppose it won’t be too long before the Holocaust “revisionists” discover the “intelligent design” movement; when they do, we’ll be presented with the ultimate solution (as opposed to the Final Solution) to the mystery of how one-third of the world’s Jews vanished in the early 1940’s, leaving distressingly few physical traces of their existence: Intelligent Disappearing. I’ll leave it to others to work out the details.

*          *          *

President Ahmadinejad makes an easy target; after all, we Jews know about the Holocaust – not just as an abstract event that we read about in a book, but as something that happened to us and to our families. We have no trouble recognizing Ahmadinejad’s “revisionism” as pseudo-intellectual twaddle. But we should view his case as instructive and cautionary: how many of our own opinions do we defend despite factual evidence to the contrary?
(Read more...)

<< Home

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Ariel Sharon’s Peculiar Appeal

He’s old. He’s fat. He’s an awful administrator. At least until recently, he was a major public-relations liability for Israel. His campaign promises (to the extent he has made any) are pretty much worthless. In fact, many of those who plan to vote for his party will do so precisely because they believe he will break the promises he’s been making recently, as he broke the promises he made in the past. His non-campaign promises (like the one about abiding by a Likud-party referendum on Disengagement) aren’t worth much either. For a purportedly reassuring grandfather figure, he doesn’t actually spend much time or effort reassuring us – certainly not by letting us know what he’s thinking and planning. If he isn’t a crook, he comes about as close as you can get to being one. He’d be the perfect dictionary illustration for the word venal, except that dictionaries can’t spare enough space for his picture. His new party has not yet articulated a clear, consistent philosophy, nor has it established a clear hierarchy among its “leaders” (most of whom would be more correctly labeled as “followers”). I voted for him once, and I’m planning on voting for him again. According to all the surveys, so are an awful lot of other Israelis. Are we all crazy? *        *        * Ariel Sharon’s appeal is a bit of a mystery. The foreign press (along with much of the Israeli press) always used to call him a right wing extremist, but the real ideological right-wingers never liked or trusted him. Now they accuse him of having gone over to the Left – but the real left-wingers have hated his ample guts for decades, and show no signs of changing their minds. He’s established a new centrist party, after all previous centrist parties have fizzled. You’d think that this was a sure recipe for defeat and an ignominious forced retirement from politics; but if the polls turn out to be correct, Sharon will be re-elected by a wide margin. I don’t really know what Sharon’s secret is; if I did, I suppose I’d be making faster progress in my own evil campaign to rule the world. But I can think of at least two reasons why so many of us support The Big Guy despite his numerous faults:

  1. He’s enjoying himself. Sharon is the only Israeli Prime Minister of recent years who seems to be having fun doing the job. This is tremendously reassuring. If the leader of our nation is smiling and happy, we assume that he knows things are going to be okay, or possibly that he is insane in a rather cheerful way. And assuming that Israel does have nuclear weapons, do we really want a grumpy pessimist with his finger on the button?
  2. He’s pragmatic. The settler movement has never trusted Sharon, because even when he was their most enthusiastic supporter, they always sensed that for Ariel Sharon the settlements were just a means to an end. The Left doesn’t believe that he has any real intention to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians. Both Right and Left are correct in distrusting Sharon; but for the rest of us, he represents our greatest hope of escaping from our seemingly eternal national crisis. Let’s face it: Both the Left and the Right in Israel are prisoners of failed ideologies. In almost forty years, the Right has never managed to make the West Bank or the Gaza Strip into a functional part of the Jewish State; the most that has been accomplished is to move the future border a few kilometers east in a few spots. And the Left has remained stuck in its belief that peace can somehow be negotiated with the Palestinians, despite every indication to the contrary. Neither side has come to grips with its failure: the Right has not come up with any replacement for its dream of Greater Israel, and the Left has no constructive response to the failure of the Oslo Accords. As a result, both Left and Right advocate policies that have the same basic result: stasis.
Ariel Sharon is the first Israeli leader I can remember who broke through the logjam of ideology to make a real change in Israel’s national strategy. Perhaps the characteristics that enabled him to get us out of the Gaza Strip are the same ones that keep getting him (and his friends and his kids) in trouble with the law; certainly none of his more punctilious predecessors have been able to accomplish what he has. And he’s managed to do it all without spending a single night in jail! …So far.
(Read more...)

<< Home

Monday, December 19, 2005

Plug o’ th’ Day: Treppenwitz’s Shifting Perspective

Treppenwitz does not, I suspect, need any help from me in attracting readers to his blog. Nonetheless, I’d like to recommend a post of his on the perspective shift between seeing Arabs as a faceless, undifferentiated, enemy collective, and a more complex view that recognizes their human individuality without glossing over the real hostility and conflicting interests between Palestinian Arab and Israeli Jew. Trying to maintain this kind of perspective – avoiding the simplistic “enemy Arab” stereotype without becoming caught up in the equally simplistic “noble oppressed innocent Arab” stereotype (or, if you like, balancing between the gravitational fields of Planet Yitzar and Planet Sheinkin) – is one of the most difficult mental feats for me; but I believe it’s a challenge all Israelis and Palestinians need to address if we’re ever going to lift ourselves out of our current quagmire and move forward into our next quagmire. Enjoy!
(Read more...)

<< Home

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Lurid Normality

So what am I supposed to write about today? I’ve been told by some of my fellow bloggers that blogging is supposed to be a pleasure – something we do for the love of it. Maybe it is for them, but for me writing is a constant struggle – at least until the words start flowing. (After the editor screen is no longer empty, the words do flow, a little; but then comes the dreaded moment when I’ve got to go back and read all that I’ve written. Horrors! Typos! Clumsy phrasing! Split infinitives! Yuck!) But my public awaits – all seventeen of them – and so write I must. So what am I supposed to write about today? Iranian nukes? Bit of a gloomy topic, that, not to mention that everyone else is writing about it already. Worse, it’s all about the future: will they, won’t they, will we, won’t we, what if, when? – which means that I’d be forced to hedge shamelessly, or else I’d probably get my predictions wrong and then feel honor-bound to issue a groveling apology from the smoking crater left after the Iranians nuked my office despite my prediction that they really just wanted to help reduce global carbon dioxide levels so the Twelfth Imam wouldn’t get all sweaty when he returned from wherever he’s been for 1100 years. Israeli Politics? Yeah, right, like you really want to read yet another essay on Israeli politics. Sure, I could write one; I’ve even got some ideas in mind. Like the one about how ironic it is when Israeli politicians (whose names I won’t mention, but whose initials are Binyamin Netanyahu) try to get us all hysterical about the prospect that ARIEL SHARON WILL DIVIDE JERUSALEM, presumably by jettisoning neighborhoods that the aforementioned nameless Bibis would never enter without a whole passel of even more anonymous security guards. Next time, maybe. Terrorism? Fairly decent topic, except that every time I write about why we haven’t had a lot of attacks lately some maniac carries out an attack just to make me look bad. So far we’ve had “only” 52 or so Israelis killed by terrorists this year, compared to over 450 Israelis killed in traffic accidents; I strongly suspect that this is because I haven’t written more than a couple of optimistic blog posts on the subject. So what am I supposed to write about today? I know – I’ll check the “papers” and see what looks interesting… I’ve got it! I’ll write about dead bodies! There are at least three or four stories today about deaths due to stuff other than terrorism and traffic. I’m not sure if that qualifies as a plethora (the standards for which have never, to my knowledge, been precisely defined); but it surely qualifies as a plethorette at the very least. First, we’ve got Yonatan Alzam (or Elzam, depending on which paper you read): a 22-year-old star prosecution witness in an underworld murder trial, being held in solitary confinement for his own part in the murder (and for his own protection) who suddenly began gurgling, twisting, and choking just after midnight and was pronounced dead an hour or so later. There were no signs of violence, and Alzam was not known to use drugs; on the other hand, he was evidently feeling a great deal of pressure and fear about testifying. His family tried to prevent having an autopsy performed, but the courts have sided with the police; after all, 22-year-olds don’t normally die in a closed prison cell the night before they’re due on the witness stand. This one’s going to be interesting: we may have a classic locked-room murder on our hands. Of course, it may be that Yoni just choked in the clutch. * * * The next story (in the Jerusalem Post) has a headline that I simply love: “Police: Bodies found are train wreck survivors”. Stop for a second. Read the headline again. Think about it. It’s almost a shame to read the article and find out what it’s all about, isn’t it? After reading the accounts in the Post – and in another English-language Israeli newspaper which my Post-masters wouldn’t want me to mention by name – I’m not sure that I’m all that much smarter than I was before. An 82-year-old woman was seriously injured when a train ran into a car that had been deliberately left on the tracks; two other people – her son and daughter, according to That Other Newspaper – climbed an electric pole 150 meters away, and either fell, jumped, or were electrocuted. Perhaps it was a triple suicide attempt, or perhaps it was a murder-suicide attempt. More details will no doubt become available, but I don’t expect anything to measure up to that headline. * * * There were some additional stories of stabbings and such – nothing all that interesting, really, just grubby and fatal stuff combined with a little grubby and not-quite-fatal stuff. What’s the point of writing about such grim events? These stories are certainly a bit (or more than a bit) lurid; although, now that I think of it, so are Israeli politics and the prospects of a nuclear Iran. Still, there’s something vaguely reassuring about seeing stories like these on the front page – perhaps because of what isn’t on the front page instead. If life has gotten close enough to normal in Israel that sordid stories like these are big news, I suppose things here aren’t too awfully bad. Or maybe I’m just an old New Yorker who doesn’t feel completely comfortable without a few murders in the neighborhood.
(Read more...)

<< Home

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

What to Do When You Have Trolls On Your Face

I just had some off-line correspondence with a fellow blogger who was rather upset at the direction a comment thread had taken on Lisa Goldman’s On the Face blog, which we both agree is one of the warmest, most human and kind-hearted blogs in the Middle East. My colleague was feeling rather discouraged, and couldn't think of what to suggest to enable Lisa to “take back” her comment board. I sent the following reply:

I’m a bit of a veteran of various forms of Internet unpleasantness; I’ve seen flame wars on the Internet Breast Cancer List (my first wife died of the disease in 1999, after seven years of treatment); barefoot-horse lists; Israel Insider and other forums; and of course on blog comment forums. I don’t know that I have magic answers, but I can make a few general observations: 1) Nobody ever got a discussion to stop being unpleasant by yelling at the trolls. Trolls like to be yelled at; it encourages them. By “yelling” here, I mean even the gentlest, most polite forms of rebuke; anything that can be construed as paying attention to them encourages trolls. Talking about them in the third person doesn’t help either! 2) Trolls, even when they posture as sincere discussants, are never really interested in learning anything, hearing what the other side has to say, or otherwise participating in a genuine two-way (or multi-way) discussion. They are there only to argue their own point, and to do so unpleasantly. There is absolutely no point in trying to educate a troll. 2a) Occasionally a troll will briefly impersonate a genuine discussion participant, politely asking you to explain your point of view or otherwise trying to seem civilized. In my experience, if you think (as I know I tend to think, being basically a Panglossian type), “Oh good, Mister Troll is deciding to be reasonable and open-minded now; I’ll respond nicely to encourage his change of heart!” you are bound to be disappointed. The troll will simply waste your time; you’ll write long and insightful messages that Mister Troll will read only to find ammunition to use against you, and the troll will soon return to being as nasty as ever. It’s a classic abuse scenario, really; and just as the abused spouse needs to learn not to be taken in by the abuser’s occasional “caring” behavior, forum participants need to understand that a troll is a troll is a troll. 3) The one thing that is likely to discourage a troll is to “waste” his time. If his stuff never gets posted, or if it gets posted and then is rapidly deleted, the troll will go away and spew his stuff elsewhere. In the case of a “runaway” discussion like the one on Lisa’s blog, I would suggest enabling comment moderation at the first sign of trouble, and then disabling it (on a trial basis) when it looks like the troll has given up and gone elsewhere. Fast and heavy-handed deletion is the next best thing; but preventing the troll’s stuff from seeing the light of day in the first place is the best bet. (One problem with comment moderation is that it requires someone to be available if legitimate comments are to appear on a timely basis. A possible solution, or at least an amelioration, might be to set up small circles of bloggers, so that at any given time one of them is “on call” to moderate comments for anyone who is going to be unavailable for a while. I don't know if anyone has actually tried this for blogs, but I've seen similar ideas work for email lists.)

(Read more...)

<< Home

Monday, December 12, 2005

A Historical Footnote: The Palestinian State of 1948

Elder of Ziyon came up with a very interesting post a few days ago regarding a historical episode of which I hadn’t been aware (or had, perhaps understandably, forgotten): the short-lived (and largely illusory) “Gaza Government” set up by the ex-Mufti of Jerusalem in 1948. The post is replete with contemporary newspaper clippings, and is well worth a read for anyone interested in local history. Thanks, Whispering Soul, for the tip – among the many links in the current “Haveil Havalim” Jewish bloggers’ carnival. As long as I’m plugging other people’s blogs, I’ve discovered a new one – actually slightly less new than “On the Contrary” – that’s worth a look: Turning the Tide, by the probably-pseudonymous “Kalman Rushdie”. The writing’s good, and there are some cute photographs as well. The bad news is that the site doesn’t seem to get super-frequent updates; but maybe if we give “Rushdie” some encouragement, s/he will post more.
(Read more...)

<< Home

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Is Ahmadinejad Softening? / Good Stuff to Read

The Jerusalem Post reports today that Iranian President Ahmadinejad (whose name I can still touch-type!) wants Germany and Austria to create a new Jewish state within their borders – as a replacement for the Jewish state right here in the Middle East, presumably. Could the A-man be softening? Is he really willing to share a planet with us sons of pigs and monkeys?

I’ll know he’s serious when he offers to buy us the southern half of France…

*          *          *

After reading the above, you’ll no doubt be eager to read some quality blogging. Fear not: what I have failed to do, the noble members of my Favorite Blogs List have done. Savtadotty at Cousin Lucy’s Spoon has written a fine post on Tags of Identity; and Judy at Adloyada has written “A tale of shame and darkness”, a great essay on a post originally written by Lisa at On the Face, entitled “Dilemma”. I’ve also engaged in a bit of back-and-forth with Ze’ev of Israel Perspectives regarding “The Oslo Syndrome”; once you see the length of my comments on his piece, you’ll see why I needed a blog of my own – mostly to induce writer’s block so I would shut up for once.

(Read more...)

<< Home

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Demolitions and Deterrence: Cheap Politics Meets Institutionalized Rage

In the wake of Monday’s suicide bombing in Netanya, Israel’s Defense Minister (and Likud leadership contender) Shaul Mofaz has decided to attempt to resurrect the practice of demolishing terrorists’ family homes. According to Mofaz, “the defense establishment has changed its mind” regarding the effectiveness of demolitions as a deterrent against suicide terrorism, despite the fact that less than a year ago an IDF panel investigating the issue determined unequivocally that the demolitions didn’t work.

In fact, I can think of no good reason for anyone’s mind to have “changed” regarding these demolitions; there is no empirical evidence that they ever served to reduce the number of terror attacks against Israel, and there is no theoretical reason to think that they should have worked.

Those who favor home demolitions love to trot out examples of parents who, to save their house, have alerted Israeli authorities to their child’s plan to carry out a suicide bombing. The IDF’s investigating commission discovered that there had in fact been very few of these cases – something like twelve over several years, as I recall. Twelve individual cases of deterrence do not make a very convincing case for a policy that has been tremendously costly to Israel’s reputation; and in fact, there is every reason to believe that Israeli home demolitions have actually increased rather than reduced the supply of volunteers to carry out suicide attacks.

Suicide Terrorism: A Rational Choice?

According to Rational Choice Theory, punishment can work to reduce crime in two ways. Specific deterrence ensures that someone who has already committed a crime and been punished for it will think twice about repeating his misdeeds; for obvious reasons, this type of deterrence is of limited value in reducing suicide terrorism. General deterrence reduces the probability that any given person will commit a crime in the future, since he will be aware of the likelihood of punishment. General deterrence works when potential criminals (what is a “potential” criminal? look in the mirror!) weigh the benefits of committing a crime against the likelihood and possible severity of punishment, and decide that the cost/benefit ratio is too high.

Home demolitions are unlikely to work as a general deterrent because they oppose a transcendent benefit (furthering the Palestinian national cause, enjoying the eternal pleasures of paradise including 72 houris, and even automatic entry to paradise for one’s relatives) with a mere economic punishment. Since his family house is likely to be replaced by the Palestinian Authority or foreign donors, and families of shahids receive special pensions and the like (assuming, of course, that the checks don’t bounce), the potential suicide bomber is likely to feel that “martyrdom” is a pretty good deal even if his family’s house is demolished.

Further, for deterrence to reduce the number of suicide terror attacks, it would have to be extraordinarily effective. A simple thumbnail calculation will illustrate the problem: There are at least three million Palestinians living in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Even assuming that the Gaza Strip is now completely sealed off from Israel, we are still dealing with something between one-and-a-half and two million West Bank Palestinians. Of these, at least fifteen percent are in the age group (let’s say from eighteen to thirty years old) that commits most suicide attacks. This means that there are around a quarter-million potential suicide bombers living in the West Bank! How many recruits do the terror organizations actually need? Even in their most “active” years, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the Martyrs of al-Aqsa don’t go through more than a few hundred volunteers (and probably fewer than one hundred) for suicide missions. Since the terror organizations need to convince only a tiny percentage of their “target market” to join up, there is no likelihood that a policy of deterrence through house demolitions will prevent them from reaching their recruiting goals. In fact, home demolitions, by increasing the Palestinian perception of unjust victimization, makes the job of the terrorist recruiters that much easier.

Certainly many individuals decide against volunteering as suicide terrorists because they don’t want their family’s home to be demolished; and a few others do volunteer but are turned in by their relatives. But there is no convincing evidence that the terror organizations have ever had to curtail their activities because of a shortage of recruits, although I must admit that I speculated about the possibility a few weeks ago.

Rage and Retribution

If punishment cannot be justified as a deterrent, it may still be justified as righteous retribution: people ought to be punished for their crimes. But demolishing the family home of a suicide bomber fails a simple righteousness test: the people being punished are not the ones who planned, facilitated, or carried out the attack, so justice is not being done. This is why home demolitions are such a disastrous policy for Israel’s international standing; they come across as collective punishment, which is considered déclassé these days.

If home demolitions can’t be shown to be an effective way of saving Israeli lives – and they can’t, because they’re not – and home demolitions can be shown to be unjust and costly to Israel – which they can, because they are – why are some of us so enthusiastic about the idea? I have no qualifications as a psychologist and few as a sociologist, but I have a theory (a borrowed theory, truth be told, but it’s mine now) about this nonetheless: Home demolitions, along with some of the other measures Israel takes (ostensibly) to reduce Palestinian terrorism, are essentially an “institutionalized rage” response. We Israelis are understandably angry when terrorists kill us in cafés and shopping malls, but we don’t act out by throwing rocks or firing guns into the air. Instead, we let our security forces act on our behalf, justifying whatever they do in the name of “fighting terrorism” even when they pursue policies – like home demolitions – that manifestly don’t reduce terrorism.

Of course, some counter-terrorist measures do work. I’m hardly a “bleeding-heart liberal” on these issues; for example, I favor a policy of “targeted killings” if it’s carried out carefully and efficiently. But anything we do in the name of fighting terrorism – especially policies and practices that are politically costly because they smack of collective punishment – needs to be justified by rational cost-benefit calculations. Home demolitions cannot be justified in this way.

Public Policy and Political Stunts

Shaul Mofaz is no dummy; I assume that he knows everything I’ve said here, probably considerably better than I do. Why, then, did he throw his weight and considerable reputation behind a resumption of home demolitions? I can only think that Mofaz is pulling a cheap political stunt, trying to harness public rage at the latest Islamic Jihad outrage in order to strengthen his position in the Likud. I’m quite disappointed – I had thought that Mofaz was above such things. It’s always sad to see a good soldier turn into a mediocre politician.
(Read more...)

<< Home

Monday, December 05, 2005

The Future of the Likud

(UPDATED Sunday, 11 December)

I had a root-canal treatment this morning, so of course my thoughts turned to the Likud.

This is not to suggest that I find Israeli politics at all reminiscent of dental surgery; I’ve already used that  analogy once, and I’d hate to repeat myself. (OK, actually I’d hate to repeat myself and get caught doing so; an aversion to embarrassment is almost as good as a sense of ethics.) What I was thinking this time – I think it was at about the moment the drilling started – was that like my poor lower-right premolar, the Likud appears to need some help if it wants to survive.

Of course, we shouldn’t take political polling performed four months before an election too seriously; the current forecasts of a mere ten or fourteen Knesset seats for the post-Ariel-Sharon Likud may well be overly pessimistic, just as the polls giving as many as 39 seats to Sharon’s new Kadima party could well prove overly optimistic. But even if we take the polls with plenty of salt, it’s clear that the Likud faces some serious challenges; even winning half as many mandates as the party received in the last elections looks difficult, and – quite apart from the poll results – it’s obvious that the party needs to make some urgent decisions about how to position itself in Israel’s crowded political marketplace.

The Likud’s best-remembered ancestor, Herut, was the party of Ze’ev Jabotinsky: strongly nationalistic, ideological, mostly secular, and never very successful on Election Day. After it was created in a 1973 merger, the Likud first won a national election in 1977, when enough voters finally got fed up with a Labor Party that was perceived as Ashkenazi-elitist and corrupt. Since then, the archetypal Likud voter has been working-class, Sephardi, and – while certainly right-of-center – less ideologically motivated than the classic Herut voter. Likud politicians have included hard-core Herutniks, middle-of-the-road pragmatists, and plenty of the usual sleazebags who gravitate towards power, prestige, and money. (Of course, these categories aren’t mutually exclusive: some Herut types can be surprisingly pragmatic in office, and some of the sleazebags are quite competent and even have a principle or two – usually hidden in a bottom drawer under a pile of clothes that no longer fit.) To complicate the mix further, groups of people who probably never voted for the Likud have joined the party in order to gain influence from within, or even to take it over; Moshe Feiglin’s Manhigut Yehudit (“Jewish Leadership”) faction is the prime example of the latter phenomenon.

In other words, the Likud, pre-“Big Bang”, had become something of a mish-mosh.

Two recent events now threaten the Likud: First, Ariel Sharon has left the party, taking with him a substantial portion of the party’s pragmatic wing, and, apparently, a large chunk of the party’s voters. (Carrying lots of stuff along with you is easy when your gravitational field is as large as Arik’s – not that I should talk.) Second, Amir Peretz – a Sephardi Jew from a development town, with a world-class moustache and execrable English – has become the new leader of the Labor Party. All of a sudden, working-class Sephardim and others who like populist economics (and facial hair, of course) have an alternative to the Likud (which was pretty good at the economics part, until Netanyahu came along) and Shas (which is OK on populist economics and quite good at growing beards). And centrist-to-mildly-right-wing voters who’ve been voting Likud because the Labor Party seemed to be stuck on Planet Sheinkin appear to feel happy with the Kadima Party, at least for now.

As I see it, the Likud has two basic options now: First, it can position itself as a right-wing party strongly opposed to further withdrawals (or at least to unilateral ones) from the Territories. This would mean running directly against Ariel Sharon, Kadima, and the Gaza/Northern West Bank “Disengagement”. Alternatively, the Likud can adopt a more nuanced attitude, and try to position itself as a potential working partner in a Kadima-led coalition. Neither approach looks especially promising, but the second one seems to offer a bit more hope for the Likud’s future.

The right-wing option presents a number of problems for the Likud: First, now that Uzi Landau has withdrawn from the Likud leadership race, none of the remaining candidates are terribly convincing in the role of Herut Stalwart. (I wish Dr. Landau had stayed in the race, by the way; I enjoy writing about him. He’s also intelligent and seems to be a genuinely nice person. He didn’t have the slightest chance of winning, mind you; he’s got about as much charisma as I do, but I program computers for a living and he’s supposed to be a politician.) Second, there are already plenty of right-wing parties out there with better credentials than what’s left of the Likud. If someone wants to vote against the Disengagement, why vote for the Likud when the National Union consistently and forthrightly opposed the plan? Apart from these specific problems in positioning the Likud as a genuine far-right-wing party, I’m also very skeptical about the overall size of the far-right-wing vote; having one more party scrabbling for a piece of the pie won’t make the pie any bigger. In short, I don’t see any obvious way in which this option could work for the Likud.

The second option would be quite difficult for the Likud, and is unlikely to yield more than modest benefits; still, it may be the only way for the Likud to avoid complete irrelevance. Ideologically, there would appear to be enough ground between the hard-right-wing parties and Kadima for the Likud to stake out some territory; the goal would be to appeal to the tactical voter who is uncomfortable with the prospect of a Kadima-Labor-Left coalition and doesn’t want to waste his vote on a party that will sit on the Opposition benches for four years. If the Likud does decide to pursue this option, it will have to purge itself of some the “rebels” who induced Sharon to leave the party in the first place; it will also have to come up with some reasons for people to vote for it. (The trick would be to campaign mostly against Peretz and Labor, and keep criticism of Sharon and Kadima rather muted.)

*          *          *

Looking at the remaining candidates for the Likud leadership, we can see how they might fit into an overall Likud strategy:

Binyamin Netanyahu has somehow managed to become the front-runner in the Likud leadership race. This is partly, I think, because he has a mysterious reputation for being a politician who wins elections. I don’t think this reputation is deserved, however: after all, he’s only won one national election, and that was a razor-thin defeat of the Great Also-Ran, Shimon Peres. Even though he received special-effects help from Hamas (which may have been trying to get Netanyahu elected, or may just have been indulging its perennial predilection for blowing up buses), Bibi came as close as anyone in recent memory to giving Peres an election victory. When Netanyahu ran for re-election, he was soundly defeated by Ehud Barak – a man whose principal qualification for office was that he wasn’t named Binyamin Netanyahu. (I voted for Barak, by the way, for exactly that reason.)

As Ariel Sharon’s Finance Minister, Netanyahu made himself unpopular with the poor, with organized labor, and with other population segments hurt by his “Thatcherite” economic policies. He also managed to make a mess of his Disengagement politics, waffling pathetically and making a lot of noise without creating any real obstacles to Sharon’s plan. And Netanyahu would have a hard time capitalizing on Sharon’s little corruption problems – a fat target (you should pardon the expression) for most potential Sharon adversaries.

Yisrael Katz is positioning himself as the only candidate who voted consistently against Disengagement, now that Uzi Landau has dropped out of the race. (Moshe Feiglin, of course, vehemently opposed the Disengagement; but as he isn’t in the Knesset, he doesn’t count, I guess.) It’s pretty difficult to imagine Katz doing better than third or fourth in the race, though; he just doesn’t have the following and stature that the Likud needs in its next leader, and I don’t really think the Likud will decide to run on a strongly anti-Disengagement platform.

Moshe Feiglin would spell disaster for the Likud should he become the party’s leader, since he would take the party into ideological territory that is already fully occupied by Israel’s various far-right-wing parties. The people who’ll be choosing the next leader know this very well, and are not, in general, enthusiastic about political mass suicide.

Silvan Shalom has been a reasonably successful Foreign Minister, although he isn’t exactly Mister Flashy. He managed to go along with the Disengagement Plan while emitting occasional squeaks of complaint; these squeaks would be far from sufficient to convince any real anti-Disengagement enthusiasts to vote for a Shalom-led Likud, but they just might be enough to fit into a “yes, but” strategy designed to position the Likud as a coalition partner for Kadima. Shalom has plastered the country (or at least the roads I take to get to work) with “Only Silvan Can” posters; he hasn’t yet revealed exactly what he can do that others can’t. I’m looking for him to debut some intricate, secret yo-yo trick on the eve of the Likud election, challenging his opponents to reproduce it.

Shaul Mofaz has been a well-regarded Defense Secretary, and has “Sephardi appeal” to boot. He’s been positioning himself as a “social” candidate, without (as far as I’ve heard) actually saying anything specific enough to be criticized. As the person who implemented the Disengagement Plan without even a public grumble, he would certainly lose the Likud any anti-Disengagement votes that might have come its way; but on the other hand, as someone who seems to have been left in the rump-Likud by accident (it’s not clear whether he forgot to run after Sharon, whether Sharon forgot to pick Mofaz up on the way out, or whether Sharon really did leave Mofaz in the Likud as his not-so-secret agent) Mofaz would make a very convincing coalition partner in a Sharon-led government. UPDATE: Shaul Mofaz in fact left the Likud today, to join Kadima. The race now appears to be between Silvan Shalom and Binyamin Netanyahu; good luck, Likud!

The Likud’s best leadership choice, I think, would have been Shaul Mofaz, with Silvan Shalom in second place; but the party will probably wind up being led by Benyamin Netanyahu. (Of course, I expected Shimon Peres to remain as head of the Labor Party, so I’m clearly of no use as a prophet.) At best, the Likud is going to have a difficult task ahead of it; but with Netanyahu at its helm, the party may be in for a close encounter with an iceberg.
(Read more...)

<< Home

Thursday, December 01, 2005

The Duke of Damascus

So it appears that being a great admirer of Sheikh Nasralla (the “spiritual leader” of Hezbollah) isn’t enough for Syrian President Bashar Assad; now he’s under the spell of David Duke, former head of the Ku Klux Klan, former U.S. Congressman from Louisiana, and current white supremacist. Duke paid a visit to Damascus – all expenses covered, no doubt, by his host – spoke at spontaneous rallies organized by the Syrian government to demonstrate support for itself among the public hired for the occasion, gave interviews to the notoriously independent Syrian media, and otherwise ingratiated himself with Wonder Boy.

I’m not really all that interested in David Duke or what he had to say; you can read about it here if you want, or take my word for it that he didn’t come up with anything unpredictable. The Zionists control this, dominate that, and have hijacked the agenda of the other; Judaism is a supremacist, racist religion, yadda yadda yadda. It was all boring stuff; and if he can’t come up with anything better after all his years in the business, it’s no wonder that he seems to be playing the small-town circuit these days.

What interests me about the ex-Grand Imperial Wizard’s visit to the Beloved British-Educated Ophthalmologist (has anyone ever found someone this guy actually treated? a prescription for glasses that he wrote? a professor in London who remembers teaching him? any indication that he speaks enough English to survive for more than two hours in England?) is that a head of state – the head of a fairly major state, or at least what passes for one in our part of the world – felt that it was worthwhile to bring Mr. Duke to Syria to bolster his regime. Is there any other part of the world where David Duke could conceivably be thought of as a spokesman to increase a government’s credibility and popularity?

There are a few thoughts that shield me from complete panic and despair when I observe what’s going on in the Middle East. One of the most important ones has always been the belief that despite what the popular press publishes, despite Mein Kampf’s status as a perennial Arabic-language bestseller, despite all the other craziness and ignorance around us, the actual leaders of the various nations of the Middle East were educated, serious, well informed, and professional. In some cases my belief appears to be accurate enough: the Hashemites seem to be pretty intent on getting good educations for their princes, and (particularly after King Hussein’s monumental blunder in following Egypt into the 1967 Six-Day War) they make a genuine effort to be responsible leaders of their country. But Jordan’s ruling family seems to be the exception, rather than the rule.

It’s not really very important whether Bashar Assad is a genuine ophthalmologist; after all, that’s not what we pay him for these days. But the son of Syria’s long-term dictator should have received some form of education to prepare him for responsible positions, even if his brother was the heir apparent.

The important part of an education (at least for the aspiring politician/despot) is not, after all, memorizing a bunch of facts and techniques; it’s the development of critical thinking skills. This means, in part, the ability to reason with a set of facts; but even more importantly, it means the ability to evaluate information, determine what is true and what is spurious, and thus to form a coherent and accurate picture of the world. A competent critical thinker may not be the world’s greatest expert in any subject, but s/he will not be easily led astray by false “experts”. This set of mental skills is perhaps best described as a sensitive “bullshit detector”: a piece of equipment that President Assad appears to lack.

Of course, there is nothing new, original, or exciting in lamenting Assad Junior’s inadequacies, particularly in comparison to his illustrious – or at least continent – father. Nor am I the first, or even the thousandth, observer to point out that many inhabitants of the Middle East have a remarkable capacity to believe things that are manifestly untrue. But perhaps I can contribute one useful suggestion: Instead of worrying about “incitement” the next time we sit down with the Palestinians to negotiate an agreement, maybe we should focus on teaching critical thinking to all children in Israel and Palestine. This would be less contentious than the “incitement” issue, since critical-thinking training doesn’t require accepting or abandoning any particular set of beliefs; further, while incitement can be resumed after a hiatus, critical-thinking skills, once taught, last a lifetime.
(Read more...)

<< Home