A Little Something to Fight the Poison

Saturday, October 05, 2002
To update a story from several days ago: bowing in part to public pressure (but also to the realization that he is one of the network's biggest commodities), CBC renegotiated Hockey Night in Canada host Ron MacLean's contract. MacLean gets a multi-year deal. Now, if only the Leafs could sign another defenseman...
Margaret Wente of the G&M reaches into her limited bag of rhetorical tricks, and manages to use several of her all-time favourites in her most recent column. She relates the experiences of Prof. Laurie Zoloth, director of the Jewish Studies programme at "far-left" San Francisco State, self-described "progressive Democrat" and former student activist. Prof. Zoloth witnessed an anti-Semitic rally at her school, in which an imam called for Jews to be sent to Germany and in which protestors carried signs that claimed that Jews were slaughtering Palestinian babies for food. A subsequent pro-Israeli demonstration turned ugly, and the school's administration doing nothing to decry the situation.

Wente then takes these events and links them to Lawrence Summers' recent comments on what he saw as academia's reflexive anti-Israel stance. Wente also favourably mentions Alan Dershowitz' argument that anti-Israel divestment campaigns are hypocritical at their best and anti-Semitic at their worst.

Now, it should be obvious to any sane person, and (hopefully for myself, Matt and Eric) to anyone reading this blog, that the incidents at San Francisco State are appalling, and should have been condemned strongly by the university administration. Same goes for the recent melee at Concordia University in Montreal. But in the tradition of Oxblog's takedown of Maureen Dowd, let's pick through Wente's arguments and examine her rhetorically clumsy sleight-of-hand. A useful exercise, given that nearly every Wente column follows the same pattern:

Taking the calamitous or tragic experiences of a single protagonist, and using this (solitary) experience to bash whatever ideology, social movement or government policy Wente deems responsible. In this case, Zoloth's participation in the ill-fated pro-Israeli demonstration is used to tar all Palestinian demonstrators with the same brush. In one example from the last year, Wente used the same trick to slam, incongruously, the practice of chiropractic.

Ensuring that the protagonist is described as a paragon of open-mindedness; it helps if they were previously sympathetic to the causes or policies that are currently victimizing them. In our case, Zoloth, the "progressive Democrat" was someone who demonstrated for Berkeley's divestment of the South African apartheid regime. I am in no way casting doubt of Prof. Zoloth's sincerity, but Wente depends on Zoloth's leftist views to lend her own argument credibility. Also this year, Wente tries the same routine in blasting the teaching of gay tolerance to schoolchildren. The mother quoted in the article reportedly disagreed with much of what was in the recent auditor's report of the Toronto District School Board (read: not a Tory voter), and it is strongly implied that she (and parents like her) are "liberal-minded". The entire tone of the column is bizarre, for that matter; reading it, you get the distinct feeling that Wente is quoting one of her neighbours.

This last trick seems to be an new, and much more dangerous, extension of play (1); not content with using the extreme actions of a few to castigate an entire movement or cause, Wente goes further by directly comparing the extremist's actions to thoughtful dissent on the issue of Palestine. I don't know much about San Francisco State, but I doubt that it is a leader in American academic political discussion; further, I would be surprised if a school that has a "Malcolm X Plaza" would necessarily be representative of mainstream political thought (hmmm...I wonder how much Malcolm paid for the naming rights...jk) Yet Wente implies just that: because the SF State protest had an anti-Semitic tone, it seemingly follows that protests against the Israeli occupation at other universities must be anti-Semitic as well. Reading over the text of the Harvard Divestment Petition, it is obvious why it has generated so much controversy; many people will disagree strongly with its stance, and will have well-thought out reasons for doing so. But to compare a document that deplores "the recent attacks on Israeli citizens unacceptable and abhorrent" with the rantings of the lunatic SF State imam, is intellectually dishonest. Wente is trying to avoid discussing the divestment issue on its merits, and it is unfortunate that many G&M readers will probably let her get away with it.

One other point: Dershowitz' accusations of hypocrisy are based on the argument Israel is "demonized" for its occupation of Palestinian territory, while other countries that repress their neighbours (notably China) are never called on the carpet. But wait a minute -- its not as if right-wingers oppose selective enforcement of the world order.
In fact, Jonah Goldberg from National Review Online is critical of those who think that we shouldn't punish one transgressor if we can't punish them all. Of course, he isn't speaking of action against Israel -- he has his sights on another Mideast country that starts with "I".
IF YOU WEREN'T PREVIOUSLY AWARE of the nature of the views of Richard Perle (Chairman of the U.S. Defense Policy Board), then you should--no, must--read this Ha'aretz article.
Thursday, October 03, 2002
A VERY LONG POST ON A VERY LONG WORD: This post is the latest installment of a debate between myself and Porphyrogenitus on the rightness of multilateralism/ unilateralism. To catch up, read my post and his response first.

I was impressed by the thoroughness with which P. responded to my argument, although I think we were unfortunately hampered by one major difference in interpretation:

Eric's response was almost entirely focused on the UN as the forum for multilateral consensus. This is a different perspective from mine, because I was thinking more in the terms of the U.S. and it's allies, and that they don't have to help this time if they don't want to or see the need to, and the like.

I think that P. is projecting his own views of what he regards as "the other side" on me, because I clearly wrote:

I'm not saying that the UNSC is the be-all and end-all of legitimating military interventions (heaven knows the UN has enough structural flaws), but that it's very easy to see why other nations who see the world through this multilateralist model would have good reason to be irate if a single nation unilaterally invaded another one based on the claim that the target state was dangerous to world peace.

(Note that P. presents my "ultimate arbiter" quote out of context--I actually said: the internal governance of regimes has become open to multilateral scrutiny, with the UN Security Council supposedly acting as the ultimate arbiter.")

As such, I'm afraid I'm going to have to pass over the large part of P.'s post attacking the UN (at least in this post). I certainly would not defend the UN system without reservation, because, as I said, we all know that it's riddled with flaws. (Although I think that it’s gross exaggeration to say that "it would be positively wicked and unjust to enforce most UN resolutions." No U.S. regime [including the current one] would agree with this statement; certainly the U.S. regime agreed with its resolutions recognizing Israel's existence and sanctioning the Gulf War. We should also note that the U.S. is the dominant force in the UN system and has been in large part responsible for both its virtues and pathologies.)

The reason people like to refer to the UN when talking about multilateralism is because of its symbolic power as a formal multilateral body that is general in scope and in which nearly every state in the world is a member. But this in no means renders it the be-all and end-all of multilateral action.

So if I gave the impression that I view "multilateralism" as being in any way coextensive with the UN, then I did not express myself clearly enough. I would accept a NATO action, for example, as being a good example of multilateral action. The Al Gore-type posse that P. mentions might be acceptable to me as well, assuming that it was large enough. To make this point further, and to concretize ideas, I will explicitly give my (rough) criteria as to what I think would be an adequate posse to render intervention:

1) The support/consent of at least half of those nations who share and instantiate roughly the same liberal democratic values that the U.S. purports to be defending through this intervention (for convenience's sake, you can assume I'm referring to all those the countries that the Freedom House index--or any of other democratic/civil/political rights indices, since they’re all highly correlated anyway--labels as "free").

2) The support of all, or nearly all of those nations who are in close proximity to Iraq and whose regimes we currently consider to be adequately just and friendly to us (this means definitely Israel, Turkey, and Jordan—as well as possibly Egypt, a few of those other small gulf states, and, in Bush's mind, Saudi Arabia).

Let me give my rationale for why I think these two criteria are necessary for an adequately multilateral intervention to occur, from a moral (as opposed to legal or practical) point of view.

1) A significant part of the U.S.'s justification for invading Iraq is that it is claiming to be defending universal values of human rights and democracy. Even its justification about upholding world security is strongly tied to this; the U.S. generally does not believe it to be an imminent threat to world security when liberal democratic nations possess--as Bush puts it--"the world’s worst weapons." If the U.S. is going to be defending the invasion on the grounds of democracy and human rights, then we would expect it to be able to get the support of a decent number of other nations who also express these values. To respect these values means respecting the views of the other nations that hold these values.

2) From the point of view of morality, the U.S. must have the support of just about all of those states in Iraq’s immediate vicinity who we consider to be adequately just and friendly to it, because it is precisely those that will bear the brunt of the risk as a result of an invasion of Iraq. These are also the countries that currently bear most of the risk of Saddam's current regime. If these countries think that leaving Saddam in place would be less risky to their security interests than an attempt to depose him, then these views deserve a great deal of respect.

Aside: P. suggests that the U.S. may be justified in ignoring the opinions of such countries by invoking the metaphor of "battered wife syndrome." The attempt to apply this metaphor to entire countries is exceptionally problematic. Individuals suffering from battered wife syndrome (or some other victim-related condition, such as Stockholm Syndrome) are thought to have been sufficiently traumatized that others can assume that they may not be competent to make their own decisions. If we think this metaphor applies to a country, then we are essentially abrogating the right of its citizens to self-government as a result of mental incompetence caused by threat or trauma. The imperialist presumptions underlying such a view should be clear. (I know that this aside may be slightly unfair because P. used this metaphor in the context of an analogical response, but I wanted to address it because it reflects a disturbing strand of current hawkish thinking).

Now that I’ve made it clear that my view of multilateralism does not involve any necessary attachment to the UN, let me turn to P.'s use of the "housemates-on-a-desert-island" analogy that I brought up in my original post. His use of it is actually very illuminating, so I'm glad he ran with it (P. is probably right, BTW, that it was the more important part of my earlier post—one mistake I made with the formal part of that post was that I tried to explain the historical justifications for multilateralism, which aren’t reasons that I necessary share—for example, from a moral perspective, I don’t agree with the Westphalian model at all).

Quickly summarizing, P. suggests that in my analogy, the apartment building’s most likely acknowledged governance structure would be a "Co-op Council on which some of the residents sit, and it has the pretence of an entity that enforces a code of conduct in the building...But, like all Co-op Boards and Councils, it's rife with internal rivalries and spite, driven by petty politics more than by a sense of shared justice."

As a result of these rivalries, "what we see is, rather than an impartial forum where justice matters and is dispensed even-handedly on the merits of an issue, we find instead a forum driven by naked self-interest, envy, greed, and mutual loathing based on antagonisms and rivalries that are often unrelated to the issue under consideration."

So P.'s big complaint is that the Co-op council doesn’t work to implement perfect justice because its members disagree over the nature of justice and are also partially driven by self-interest. But it's pretty clear that this description is characteristic of nearly any deliberative body whose members represent reasonably diverse interests. Many observers of the U.S. Congress of whatever partisan affiliation would describe the House and the Senate in exactly this way. Disagreement over both values and interests is characteristic of any substantive politics. Why might we think the global situation is so different? Presumably because someone like P. thinks that most of the members of the household hold conceptions of justice that are so foreign to one another that any form of sincere, rational, normative deliberation is impossible. This is an important issue that I will address at the end of this post. For now, however, I will assume that this is assumption is false. That is, I assume that most of the residents hold conceptions of justice that are similar enough to allow for principled cooperation.

The important question then becomes: "what should the housemates do to resolve house disagreements given the flaws of the Co-op board?" Possible answers include:

1) Act to improve the prospects of cooperation by working to improve the functioning of the Co-op board.
2) Work to find other cooperative alternatives to the Co-op board.
3) Set aside cooperation as a goal and act according one's own conception of justice.

Clearly, these three alternatives are not mutually exclusive (especially if we assume that housemates may change their stance from dispute to dispute), although (3) tends to be quite corrosive to options (1) and (2). Given the assumption that I have made, the frequent exercise of option (3) is downright pathological. Repeated reliance on option (3) creates radical mistrust and destroys the possibility of cooperation. If everyone acted in this way, then the house would exactly resemble the Hobbesian/Lord of the Flies models.

Leaving the analogy behind, we observe that the Western world for the last 50 years, and much of the world since the end of the Cold War to a significant extent does not resemble the Hobbesian world. Treaties are made, ratified, and actually kept--most frequently on economic matters, but also regarding security, the environment, immigration, and other important issues.

I don't want to gloss over the problems of the international scene by depicting it in too rosy a light. Obviously, disagreements do arise over treaties, diplomatic relationships may be strained or broken, and trade wars or military confrontations do occur. But it's worth noting that a significant amount of agreement and cooperation does take place and that we have in general witnessed a convergence, not a divergence, in values over the course of the last century.

At this point, I will attempt to sketch out the beginnings of an answer to the problem of the foreignness of different countries' conceptions of justice. When the United States was formed, it was the world's sole full-fledged democracy, and the "West" was made up of a collection of completely disparate states and nations with very different conceptions of justice who went to war with another with alarming frequency. Now, all of the countries in the West are relatively healthy liberal democracies that cooperate with one another frequently and consider military conflict with one another to be an essentially absurd proposition (indeed, Kant's hopeful prediction that democracies will coexist in "perpetual peace" has been affirmed by modern international relations scholars). The reasons for this convergence are complicated, but one critical factor is that the most influential conceptions of democracy during the 20th century rest on a shared universalistic conception of human rights.

Can this convergence spread to the rest of the world, including those countries whose conceptions of justice P. thinks we find completely abhorrent? I cannot answer this question fully here, except to say that the last century demonstrated a strong trend toward the spread of these democratic values outside of the West (see the link to the Freedom House index for evidence of this). It has been happening in fits and starts, but the trend is clear: democratic values are becoming firmly established in South America, Asia, and Africa. There is no region of the world in which democratic values don't have at least a foothold.

My conclusion is simple: there exists a substantial set of multilateral norms in the international arena that is based on human rights and democracy. Without a doubt, these norms are flaunted on many occasions (especially outside the West), their coverage is spotty, and agreement on them is provisional and often contentious. But before this moment in time, the worldwide trend was unambiguously in the direction of the improvement and expansion of the effectiveness and reach of these norms. Our world does not look like the island from Lord of the Flies. Not by a longshot--if it did, then the various powers of the West, including Britain and France, would be locked in a cold war with one another, and the number of terroristic enemies the U.S. would be facing would number in the tens or hundreds of millions, not in the hundreds or thousands.

I want to conclude by briefly addressing what I think is the most important point in P.'s post:

the two sides have such opposing views on this, as well as so many other issues (both foreign and domestic) is because there are two very different, competing and largely opposed world-views at work here. That is probably one thing that leads to the fact that both sides have trouble understanding how the other can come to conclusions that each thinks are absurd from the perspective of their own world-view. So I'm not sure that even with lengthy posts like this, anyone will convince the other side.

The amazing contradiction in this statement is revealed by the fact that P. and I are attempting to talk to one another. We couldn't do this if we didn't at least partially understand one another's worldviews. I don't necessarily think P.'s conclusions are absurd, although I do think he may have overlooked some important aspects of the situation. Unless P. thinks that only those people who share his worldview have a share of the truth, then I assume that he thinks that there is some usefulness to our addressing one another, and as a result, I can conclude that our worldviews are not opposed in the polar manner that he suggests. The really interesting thing about this last point, though, is that it our different perspectives on this meta-issue do say a lot about our perspectives on the substantive uni-/multi- issue.

UPDATE: I unfortunately cannot recommend that you read what Porphyrogenitus himself describes as his "rambling and sometimes incoherent" reponse to this post. I would also add the descriptors "bitter and uncharitable." It's clear that he took my post to be a completely sophistic and insincere response to him, rather than the clarificatory extension of our debate that I intended it to be. I don't think I flagrantly violated argumentation etiquette with my post, but given the degree to which my last post frustrated P., I have decided not to respond to him further since I doubt that anything fruitful would result from it at this point.
OK, I'M BACK: Manu's right that I took a totally random break for a couple of days. Sometimes, you just need to put some space between yourself and the 'Net to make things fresh again.

Just a quick note for now: everyone's now making jokes about the completely false Turkish uranium "bust," but my question is: how on Earth did the Turkish authorities and the press manage to spread information that was so terrifically distant from the truth?

The Package of Doom went from being 15 kg of weapons-grade uranium to 150 g of "zinc, manganese, iron and zirconium," which is not radioactive...not [a] chemical [toxin] and...not explosive."

In the end, the only evidence that the package might have contained uranium at all was that it was labelled "primarily youranuom." Amazing.

Don't you need a police force that owns a scale and a geiger counter to join the EU? (to my Turkish friends: kidding! I'd love for Turkey to be Euro as much as as the next Kurd...). Anyway, it seems like a bunch of people, both in Turkey and in the world press corps, deserve a big fat general incompetence award for this one.
In keeping with the sports theme of the previous post: this article by Richard Just in American Prospect defends the always controversial U.S. News & World Report college rankings. Just argues that by quantifying academic worth (however arbitrarily or subjectively), the rankings force colleges to value academics over that other easily quantifiable measure of school success: athletics.

On an anecdotal level...Maclean's magazine publishes a similar annual ranking of Canadian universities. In 1996, McMaster University (the alma mater of myself and Eric) was ranked 5th, only trailing established powerhouses such as U of T, McGill, Queen's and UBC. Since then, we've gradually slipped to 7th in this year's ranking. This is middle of the pack -- there are only 15 schools in the medical/doctoral school category to which McMaster belongs.

Oh yeah. Since 1996, McMaster's formerly sad-sack football team has risen to the level of full-fledged power: national semifinalist two years running, and ranked 2nd in the country this week...
Wednesday, October 02, 2002
It seems as if there has been a bit of a break in our postings. There is no master plan or conspiracy, I assure you -- I guess it is just the fate of grad students who get caught up in the grind of writing theses or (in my case) fellowship applications.

At any rate, Roy MacGregor of the Globe and Mail wryly notes the disproportionate attention that the Canadian media has paid to Ron Maclean's departure from CBC's Hockey Night in Canada. He notes that this is despite the Liberal government's ambitious, agenda-setting, Throne speech having been delivered on the same day, yet argues that this "comes as no great surprise to those who understand that the Canadian heart is also made of vulcanized rubber."

For those of you not so fortunate as to be Canadian (jk!), Maclean has been the host of HNIC (at 51, the longest-running show on Canadian television) for 16 years. He anchors most portions of the HNIC broadcast; however, he is most noted for his role on the first-intermission segment Coach's Corner, when he acts as a straight-laced foil to the bombastic Don Cherry. He also plays a role in CBC's Olympics coverage. While there is no official word, most accounts suggest that he makes $500,000 Cdn a year and was looking for both a raise (of about $75,000) as well as a long-term contract. Talks then broke down, although public pressure has apparently forced CBC back to the negotiating table.

And for the non-hockey fans, hockey pucks are made of vulcanized rubber :)

If you aren't satisfied by MacGregor's argument, a glance at today's Letters to the Editor of the G&M may be more convincing: 8 letters about Maclean, as compared to 2 about the Throne Speech and 1 each about Kyoto and Saddam.
Sunday, September 29, 2002
LE NARCISSISME DES PETITES DIFFÉRENCES: CalPundit Kevin Drum makes a delightful observation about those U.S.-European relations that's seem to be all-a-schisming (yes, I invented that--deal with it) these days. He notes that not all of the Euros hold values that are so different from those of the U.S.:

There is, in fact, one European country that shares most of America's attitudes and values:

* Uniquely for western Europe, they value independent military action and have a strong martial culture.

* They generally speak only their own language, and when they do speak other languages they do it badly.

* They believe in the superiority of their culture and aggressively try to export it abroad — though with minimal success these days.

* They bargain aggressively and are often seen as obstreperous and arrogant by their fellow Europeans.

* They have a permanent seat in the UN Security Council and aren't afraid to use it.

Needless to say, the country is France, the bête-noir of Americans because they're the only European country that acts the way America does. Delightfully ironic, no?