Friday, April 03, 2015

Happy Passover - "They Tried to Kill Us, We Survived, Now Let's Eat"

An annual Passover feature, first posted in April 2006 HERE. Here is the gist of it:

The Basic Scenario:
According to one Jewish joke, the theme of all Jewish holidays is: "They tried to kill us. We survived. Now let's eat!"
(As a general rule, that's not completely accurate, but it captures a lot.)

The song:

That message was turned into a Passover song by the group What I Like About Jew. The lyrics are at the end of this post, and you can hear a performance of the song (not the best version I've heard, but the best available on YouTube) here:



Other versions here & here & here.

=> For further explanation, commentary, and interpretive wrangling about things Jewish, go back to the original post HERE.

--Jeff Weintraub

==============================
"They Tried to Kill Us (We Survived, Let's Eat)"

Artist: What I Like About Jew
Composer: Sean Altman and Rob Tannenbaum
CD Title:Unorthodox
Label: Big Sean Music and Tbaum Music

They Tried To Kill Us (We Survived, Let's Eat)
(words & music by Sean Altman & Rob Tannenbaum)

We were slaves to pharaoh in Egypt
The year was 1492
Hitler had just invaded Poland
Madonna had just become a Jew
Moses was found on the Potomac
Then he marched with Martin Luther King
He came back to free us from our bondage
'Cause S&M has never been our thing

They tried to kill us, we survived, let's eat
They tried to kill us, we were faster on our feet
So they chase us to the border
There's a parting of the water
Tried to kill us, we survived, let's eat

Then the Pharaoh, who looked like Yul Bruyner
Heard the Jews were trying to escape
Charlton Heston came right down from the mountain
He said, "Pharaoh, you're a damn dirty ape"
The menorah was almost out of oil
Farrakhan was planning Kristalnacht
The gefilte fish was nearing extinction
It looked like Moses and his flock were fehrkakt

They tried to kill us, we survived, let's eat
They tried to kill us, we were faster on our feet
And we knew how to resist
'Cause we'd rented Schindler's List
Tried to kill us, we survived, let's eat

The 10 Egyptian plagues
1. Blood
2. Locusts
3. Boils
4. Dandruff
5. Acne
6. Backne
7. Piles
8. Cataracts
9. Sciatica
10. Sickle cell anemia

We fled on foot, there was no time to tarry
Leavening the bread would take too long
All we had was egg foo yung and matzoh
While battling the fearsome Viet Cong
And so tonight, we gather to remember
The ancient Hebrews who paid the price
We have a Seder, every year in December
To commemorate our savior, Jesus Christ

They tried to kill us, we survived, let's eat
They tried to kill us, we were faster on our feet
So we never did succumb to the annual pogrom
Tried to kill us, we survived, let's eat

They tried to kill us, we survived, let's eat
They tried to kill us, we were faster on our feet
So come on, blow the shofar
'Cause they haven't nailed us so far
Tried to kill us, we survived, let's eat

Monday, January 26, 2015

Syriza's coalition ... and what it might mean

A few follow-ups to my post on the Greek election yesterday ...

=> Many of the reports in foreign newspapers, whether they were sympathetic or unsympathetic to Syriza, carried some variant of this formulation (which I'm quoting from the Telegraph): "Greece on collision course with rest of Europe after handing general election victory to far-left party that has vowed to reject austerity"

It's interesting to note that in order to be a "far-left party" nowadays, you don't need to be Marxist—you just need to be Keynesian.

More precisely, I guess, what's involved in this case is Keynesian economics combined with a certain amount of economic nationalism and some commitment to what Karl Polanyi termed "the self-protection of society" against the disruptions, dislocations, insecurities, and assorted miseries that can result from the uncontrolled and un-buffered dynamics or a capitalist market economy. That approach used to be called mainstream social democracy (also adopted to some degree, in many countries, by Christian Democratic and Conservative parties, not to mention New Deal Democrats and Eisenhower/Rockefeller Republicans in the US), but now it looks more radical.

Is that package even, necessarily, "leftist"?  That's the next question, to which the answer is ... it depends on the details (and the circumstances).  Today's news from Greece helps bring that out.

=> Syriza won 149 seats in the 300-seat Greek parliament—tantalizingly close to an absolute majority, but not quite there. Today came the news that its coalition partner is not a left or center-left party but an unabashedly right-wing party that calls itself Independent Greeks. This move is unexpected and a bit startling, but there is a certain logic to it, and it even helps confirm some of my earlier surmises about the background and possible significance of Syriza's election victory. What unites Syriza and Independent Greeks is a combination of economic nationalism and opposition to economic "austerity" policies. Here's the report from the BBC's Mark Lowen:
What unites Greece's new coalition partners is fierce opposition to budget cuts. Alexis Tsipras and Panos Kammenos are anti-bailout to the core [JW: i.e., fundamentally opposed to the terms imposed as part of the EU/IMF "bailouts"], frequently hitting out at the architects of austerity in Berlin and Brussels and pledging a new economic path. But that is where their common ground ends. In other areas, the two are unlikely bedfellows.

One is a socially liberal leftist, lambasting the "old faces" of Greek politics. The other is a hardline right-winger on issues such as immigration - and has been around in previous governments for some time. So why would Syriza join forces with Independent Greeks?

Possibly because others refused - or were deemed too soft on the bailout. The River, a new, broadly centrist party which some expected to be the coalition partner, made clear it opposed Syriza's hard rhetoric towards Berlin.

The problem for Mr Tsipras is that many of his own supporters revile Mr Kammenos's conservatism and will be frustrated by the choice. And disappointing his supporters, to whom he has pledged so much, is not something Greece's new prime minister wants to repeat.
The optimistic interpretation is that, in Polanyian terms, this is a "counter-movement" coalition, focused on a shared commitment to the urgent priority of social protection. (If there's anyone for whom that formulation doesn't make immediate sense, see here.)

But that's an optimistic reading, and we'll have to see how this tactical gamble actually works out in practice. It's easy to imagine all sorts of ways it could blow up disastrously; but on the other hand, urgent circumstances sometimes require dangerous gambles. Interesting times ahead ...

—Jeff Weintraub

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Syriza wins big

As expected, Syriza was the decisive winner in Greece's parliamentary elections. Early reports suggest that it got about 36% of the votes, compared with about 28% for outgoing Prime Minister Antonio Samaras's right-of-center New Democracy. And with the bonus of 50 seats that go to the party with the most votes, Syriza is currently projected to get 149 seats out of 300—tantalizingly close to an absolute majority. (PASOK, the long-time governing party of the Greek social-democratic left, which won a 160-seat majority as recently as 2009, has collapsed so thoroughly that it seems to have barely cleared the 3% minimum to get into parliament this time.)

BBC reporter Gavin Hewitt was just one of many analysts to observe that this election result "will send shock waves through Europe". Here's an election roundup from the Guardian:
Summary

Here’s summary of a momentous election result for the future of Greece and Europe:

° The anti-austerity far left party Syriza has won the Greek election by a decisive margin, but just short of an outright majority. With more than three-quarters of the results in Syriza is projected to win 149 seats in the 300 seat parliament.

° Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras said his party’s victory marked an end to the “vicious cycle of austerity”. Referring to the neoliberal conditions set by the IMF, the European Commission and the European Central Bank, he said: “ The verdict of the Greek people renders the troika a thing of the past for our common European framework.”

° Outgoing prime minister Antonis Samaras conceded defeated by acknowledging some mistakes. But he added: “We restored Greece’s international credibility”.

° To Potami, the centre-left party could be the kingmakers in the new parliament, with a project 16 seats. Its leader Stavros Theodorakis has not ruled out a deal with Syriza. “It’s too early for such details,” he said.

° The far-right Golden Dawn party is projected to come third in election, despite having more than half of its MPs in jail. Speaking from prison its leader Nikolaos Michaloliakos said the result was a “great victory” for the neo-fascist party.

° Syriza victory has been greeted with alarm in Germany. The ruling CDU party insisting that Greece should stick to the austerity programme. But Belgium’s finance minister said there is room for negotiation with Syriza.

° Leftwingers across Europe have hailed Syriza win. Spain’s anti-austerity party Podemos said Greece finally had a government rather than a German envoy. Britain’s Green Party said Syriza’s victory was an inspiration.
It's worth adding that many figures on the anti-EU right, including the leaders of France's National Front, have also hailed Syriza's victory.

—Jeff Weintraub




What's at stake in today's Greek election? (Ambrose Evans-Pritchard)

Greeks are voting today in their election of the century. It's widely expected that the winner of the election (probably not with a majority, but most likely with a plurality) will be Syriza, a left-wing party that was formed a decade ago but that has become a significant political force only since 2012. It has emerged out of the wreckage of Greece's former party system under the impact of the post-2008 economic crash and the policies of fiscal "austerity" imposed on Greece in return for bailout loans. (The other party to emerge from this catastrophe has been the far-right, xenophobic, neo-fascist Golden Dawn.)

Syriza is ahead because many Greeks feel (not without some cause) that the current situation is intolerable, that the policies imposed on Greece have been unworkable and counter-productive as well as pointlessly sadistic, and that the traditional parties and their leaders are politically bankrupt.  But if Syriza does come to power after today's elections, the result could be a crisis, not just for Greece, but possibly for the Eurozone and the EU as a whole.

I think one of the best compact explanations of how and why that's true remains an article written by Ambose Evans-Pritchard in the Telegraph back in early December (below). Some highlights:
Events have rudely exposed the illusion that Greece's people will submit quietly to a decade of colonial treatment and debt servitude.

As matters stand, it is more likely than not that a defiant Alexis Tsipras will be the elected prime minister of Greece by late January. His Syriza alliance has vowed publicly and persistently that it will overthrow the EU-IMF Troika regime, refusing to implement the key demands.

A view has taken hold in EU capitals and the City of London that Mr Tsipras has resiled from these positions and will ultimately stick to the Troika Memorandum, a text of economic vandalism that pushed Greece into seven years of depression, with a 25.9pc fall in GDP, longer and deeper than Europe's worst episodes in the 1930s.

Mr Tsipras is a polished performer on the EU circuit. He can no longer be caricatured as motorbike Maoist. But the fact remains that he told Greek voters as recently as last week that his government would cease to enforce the bail-out demands "from its first day in office".

The logical implication is that Greece will be forced out of the euro in short order, unless the EU institutions capitulate. Syriza's deputy, Panagiotis Lafazanis, is plainly willing to take this risk, warning in October that the movement must "be ready to implement its progressive programme outside the eurozone” if need be. His Aristeri Platforma holds 30pc of the votes on Syriza's central committee.

Mr Tsipras also knows it. He is gambling that EU leaders - meaning Germany's Angela Merkel and Wolfgang Schauble - will yield. His calculation is that they will not dare to blow up monetary union at this late stage, and over a relative pittance.
Maybe, maybe not.

Actually, Evans-Pritchard himself clearly felt that the outcome of this (hypothetical) confrontation was unpredictable. But he did make it clear that he thought Syriza's analysis of the current situation and its unsustainability was essentially correct. And his portrait of Syriza's leader, Alexis Tsipras, was highly laudatory.

It's a little odd to see a generally right-of-center analyst, writing in a definitely conservative newspaper like the Telegraph
, effectively endorse a left-wing party like Syriza. It struck me at the time that at least two factors were probably involved.
The first is that there is a significant Euroskeptical (even Europhobic) strain in the British right, in which Evans-Pritchard participates.  Not only do a lot of people with perspectives like Evans-Pritchard's share a critical, even hostile attitude toward the EU and its institutions. A number of right-wing Euroskeptics in other European countries are probably hoping that Syriza's victory will help spark a more general anti-EU reaction that will eventually blow the whole system apart. The result is that the prospect of Syriza's victory has been viewed with sympathy not only in sectors of the European left, but also in some sectors of the European right. (Even Marine Le Pen, the leader of France's far-right National Front, declared that she will "welcome" a Syriza victory.)

The second factor is that the EU's anti-Keynesian "austerity" policies in response to the post-2008 economic crash have, in fact, been wrong-headed and disastrous.  The effects on Greece and other southern European countries have been especially bad, but Greece may wind up playing the role of the canary in the coal mine.  As Evans-Pritchard summed it up in December:
The EU's mishandling of Greece has been calamitous. Investment has fallen by 63.5pc. Public debt has spiralled to 177pc of GDP, even after two sets of haircuts on private creditors.

Unemployment has dropped slightly to 25.9pc, or 49.3pc for youth, but only because of a mass exodus, a brain-drain to the US, Canada, Australia, Germany, and the UK. The work force has shed over a million jobs, dropping to 3.5m.  [....]

For all the talk of EU-led reform, Greece's ranking on the World Economic Forum's competitiveness index has dropped from 67 to 81 over the last six years, below Ukraine, Guatemala, and Algeria.

"The concept of reform has been gradually discredited during the current crisis," was the acid verdict of the Athens think-tank IOBE in its latest report. Any marginal gains from EU reforms have been overwhelmed in any case by the hysteresis damage of lost labour skills, which lowers Greece's future growth trajectory.

Stripped bare, it has been brute austerity, imposed by powerful foreign creditors in their own interest. My view is that Greece would have recovered long ago if it had left EMU at the outset of the crisis, turning to the IMF for a classic bail-out package. It received the IMF's austerity medicine, but not IMF's the cure of debt forgiveness and devaluation. The fiscal multiplier did its worst with nothing to offset it.

Debt relief was blocked. The Troika imposed yet more debt onto a country that was already bankrupt, allowing foreign banks and investment funds to dump their bonds onto Greek taxpayers through the mechanism of EU "bail-outs". These were not in fact bail-outs. They were loans. The burden remains entirely on the shoulders of the Greek state, though you would not know that from reading the North European press.

The IMF admits in its mea culpa that Greece needed debt relief from the start. Normal rules were violated, under EU pressure, because the primary goal was to hold EMU together. The assumption was that any hint of debt restructuring for Greece risked setting off an uncontrollable chain-reaction through southern Europe.[....]

Greece was sacrificed to buy time for the alliance, like the Spartans at Thermopylae. It was subjected to an unworkable economic experiment, in defiance of known economic science and principles. Given what has happened, Europe’s leaders have a special duty of care to Greece. They have betrayed it.

Europe's contractionary policies have failed on every level.
And not only in Greece. That's the crucial background here.
The region has not regained "escape velocity" since the Lehman crisis, and is now sliding into deflation. Output is still below 2008 levels. The economy has performed worse over the last six years than from 1929 to 1935. Debt ratios are rising across the South.

The centre-Left has proved unable to articulate any critique because of EMU's political code of Omerta. The once great parties of European social democracy have become grim enforcers of reactionary policies, apologists for mass unemployment.

So it falls to rebels to catalyze the simmering rage. Europe's leaders may have met their match at last in the ice-cold Mr Tsipras.
Or, perhaps, the EU won't back down, Tsipras will discover that Greece really is boxed in, Syriza will turn out to be an ineffectively unwieldy coalition when put to the test, Tsipras himself will blow it, and the results will be further disaster for Greece and everyone else.

Either way, this is potentially a very important election, and not just for Greece. Stay tuned ...

—Jeff Weintraub

===================================
The Telegraph
December 10, 2014
Greek candidate willing to call European leaders’ bluff 
Alexis Tsipras told Greek voters as recently as last week that his government would cease to enforce the bail-out demands
By Ambrose Evans-Pritchard

Events have rudely exposed the illusion that Greece's people will submit quietly to a decade of colonial treatment and debt servitude.

As matters stand, it is more likely than not that a defiant Alexis Tsipras will be the elected prime minister of Greece by late January. His Syriza alliance has vowed publicly and persistently that it will overthrow the EU-IMF Troika regime, refusing to implement the key demands.

A view has taken hold in EU capitals and the City of London that Mr Tsipras has resiled from these positions and will ultimately stick to the Troika Memorandum, a text of economic vandalism that pushed Greece into seven years of depression, with a 25.9pc fall in GDP, longer and deeper than Europe's worst episodes in the 1930s.

Mr Tsipras is a polished performer on the EU circuit. He can no longer be caricatured as motorbike Maoist. But the fact remains that he told Greek voters as recently as last week that his government would cease to enforce the bail-out demands "from its first day in office".

The logical implication is that Greece will be forced out of the euro in short order, unless the EU institutions capitulate. Syriza's deputy, Panagiotis Lafazanis, is plainly willing to take this risk, warning in October that the movement must "be ready to implement its progressive programme outside the eurozone” if need be. His Aristeri Platforma holds 30pc of the votes on Syriza's central committee.

Mr Tsipras also knows it. He is gambling that EU leaders - meaning Germany's Angela Merkel and Wolfgang Schauble - will yield. His calculation is that they will not dare to blow up monetary union at this late stage, and over a relative pittance.

Too much political capital has been invested. The EU-IMF loans have already reached €245bn, the biggest indenture package in history. To let it fall apart now would reveal the failings of their EMU crisis management.

The clock is already ticking. Greece must repay €6.7bn to the European Central Bank in July and August. The ECB will not roll the debts over because that would be monetary financing of a government. The capital markets are shut.

Mr Tsipras is expecting to receive a call from the ECB within weeks of taking office reminding him that Greece owes some €40bn in support for the banking system. This will be a veiled threat to pull the plug, as it threatened to do in Ireland, and came close to doing in Cyprus.

I am reliably informed that his answer to any such call will be: "do your worst". Mr Tsipras wishes to keep Greece in the euro but not at any price.

"We are not going to crumble at the first hurdle," said one of his close advisers. "A freshly elected government cannot allow itself to be intimidated by threats of Armageddon. The ECB bought these bonds to stem the eurozone crisis, not to help Greece."

Needless to say, markets are taking fright. The Athens bourse fell 13pc on Tuesday, the biggest one-day drop since the 1987 crash.

Yields curve on three-year Greek debt have exploded by almost 300 basis points to 9.52pc in two days. They are now 90 points higher than 10-year yields, a violent inversion of the yield curve unseen since default scares of the EMU crisis. Italian and Portuguese yields have been ratcheting too, early evidence of where contagion risk still lies.

The Syriza road show in the City last month went horribly wrong. "Everybody coming out of the meeting wants to sell everything Greek," said a leaked memo by Capital Group's Joerg Sponer.

The reported shopping list was: a haircut for creditors; free electricity, food, shelter, and health care for all who need it; tax cuts for all but the rich; a rise in the minimum wage and pensions to €750 a month; a moratorium on private debt payments to banks above 20pc of disposable income; €5bn more in EU subsidies; and demands for 62pc debt forgiveness on the grounds that this is what Germany received in 1952. "The programme is worse than communism (at least they had a plan). This will be total chaos," said Mr Sponer.

"It was a disaster," said Professor Yanis Varoufakis from Athens University, a man tipped to play a key economic role in any Syriza-led government. The reality is more prosaic. "We are not going to go on a spending spree. We will aim to achieve a modest primary surplus, and we will liberalize the labour market," he said.

"Greece faces a humanitarian crisis and we will spend €1.3bn to alleviate abject poverty. There will be US-style food stamps and we will reconnect electricity to homes where it has been cut off," he said.

"There will have to be debt relief because it is simply unpayable. We will ask Germany to renegotiate," he said. Most of the remaining debt is owed to EU bodies, which replaced private creditors long ago.

The proposal is based on "Bisque bonds" floated by John Maynard Keynes in the 1930s. The idea was explored by Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz and Daniel Heymann in their book "Life After Debt".

The bonds would be new issues with payments linked to the rate of GDP growth. Greece has already issued such bonds under its 2012 restructuring. Mr Tsipras wants this extended to all the debt, and on better terms. If EMU leaders believe their own tale that Greece can grow its way out of debt at rates of 3.5pc or 4pc, they should have no fear agreeing to such terms.

This is the Tsipras plan. It is high stakes poker. We know from kiss-and-tell books - such as "Morire di Austerità" by ex-ECB board member Lorenzo Bini-Smaghi - that Chancellor Merkel came within a whisker of ejecting Greece from the euro in 2012. She relented only when it became clear that Italy and Spain were going up in flames.

The eurozone now has firewalls in place. There are - in theory - back-stop mechanisms to bolster confidence. Richard McGuire from Rabobank says the prospect of QE may embolden some to think they can cope with the systemic fall-out if Greece were "allowed to go it alone", in other words if Greece were kicked out.

It may not come to this. Premier Antonis Samaras may yet find 25 opposition MPs to support his candidate for the Greek presidency in parliamentary votes this month. Only if he fails to win a 60pc super-majority will there be a snap general election. [JW: As we know, Samaras failed to get the necessary votes.]


The latest Alco poll gives Syriza 31pc support, with Mr Samara's New Democracy holding at 25.7pc. This lead has been stable for months. The winner gets an extra 50 seats under the electoral law. Syriza will need a coalition partner - probably the pro-EU Potami party - but its ascendancy looks clear.

The EU's mishandling of Greece has been calamitous. Investment has fallen by 63.5pc. Public debt has spiralled to 177pc of GDP, even after two sets of haircuts on private creditors.

Unemployment has dropped slightly to 25.9pc, or 49.3pc for youth, but only because of a mass exodus, a brain-drain to the US, Canada, Australia, Germany, and the UK. The work force has shed over a million jobs, dropping to 3.5m.


The economy has stabilized. It grew 0.7pc in the third quarter on pent-up demand. But this should not be confused with recovery or a return to viability within the EMU fixed-exchange system. Exports were lower in 2013 (€51.6) than in 2007 (€56.6bn). The current account deficit has narrowed because imports have collapsed.

For all the talk of EU-led reform, Greece's ranking on the World Economic Forum's competitiveness index has dropped from 67 to 81 over the last six years, below Ukraine, Guatemala, and Algeria.

"The concept of reform has been gradually discredited during the current crisis," was the acid verdict of the Athens think-tank IOBE in its latest report. Any marginal gains from EU reforms have been overwhelmed in any case by the hysteresis damage of lost labour skills, which lowers Greece's future growth trajectory.

Stripped bare, it has been brute austerity, imposed by powerful foreign creditors in their own interest. My view is that Greece would have recovered long ago if it had left EMU at the outset of the crisis, turning to the IMF for a classic bail-out package. It received the IMF's austerity medicine, but not IMF's the cure of debt forgiveness and devaluation. The fiscal multiplier did its worst with nothing to offset it.

Debt relief was blocked. The Troika imposed yet more debt onto a country that was already bankrupt, allowing foreign banks and investment funds to dump their bonds onto Greek taxpayers through the mechanism of EU "bail-outs". These were not in fact bail-outs. They were loans. The burden remains entirely on the shoulders of the Greek state, though you would not know that from reading the North European press.

The IMF admits in its mea culpa that Greece needed debt relief from the start. Normal rules were violated, under EU pressure, because the primary goal was to hold EMU together. The assumption was that any hint of debt restructuring for Greece risked setting off an uncontrollable chain-reaction through southern Europe.

“Debt restructuring should have been on the table,” said Brazil's member of the IMF board, in leaked minutes from a meeting in May 2010. The loans “may be seen not as a rescue of Greece, which will have to undergo a wrenching adjustment, but as a bailout of Greece’s private debt holders, mainly European financial institutions”.

The Troika's fear of contagion was justified, as the unfolding drama would later show. The deformed construction of EMU amplified the stress, and the dangers. It is easy to forget how close we were to a systemic blow-up at that moment, in the white heat of the crisis, before the ECB had begun to fulfil its primary duty as a lender of last resort, and before any EMU rescue machinery was in place.

Greece was sacrificed to buy time for the alliance, like the Spartans at Thermopylae. It was subjected to an unworkable economic experiment, in defiance of known economic science and principles. Given what has happened, Europe’s leaders have a special duty of care to Greece. They have betrayed it.

Europe's contractionary policies have failed on every level. The region has not regained "escape velocity" since the Lehman crisis, and is now sliding into deflation. Output is still below 2008 levels. The economy has performed worse over the last six years than from 1929 to 1935. Debt ratios are rising across the South.

The centre-Left has proved unable to articulate any critique because of EMU's political code of Omerta. The once great parties of European social democracy have become grim enforcers of reactionary policies, apologists for mass unemployment.

So it falls to rebels to catalyze the simmering rage. Europe's leaders may have met their match at last in the ice-cold Mr Tsipras.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Today's Charlie Hebdo cover: "All is forgiven"


Various distractions have kept me from blogging yet about the terrorist attacks in Paris against the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and (let us not forget) against Jews. I will probably get around to posting some things over the next few days.

Meanwhile, I want to celebrate the truly brilliant cover of today's issue of Charlie Hebdo, the first published after the massacre. As the BBC reports:
Charlie Hebdo's latest cover shows a cartoon depicting the Prophet Muhammad weeping while holding a sign saying "I am Charlie"  [....]  below the headline "All is forgiven".

[....]  The normal print run of 60,000 was extended to five million - a week after Islamist gunmen murdered 12 people at the magazine's offices and five others in subsequent attacks in Paris.
(They intended to print three million copies, but it seems that those are already selling out.)

—Jeff Weintraub

Addendum: I noticed Facebook comments about this CH cover by two friends of mine that strike me as very apt—and worth highlighting, because they capture important qualities of the cartoon that help make it so brilliant.

Georges Dreyfus, who is not normally a fan of Charlie Hebdo, said that he loved this cover as an expression of "humanistic humor". Even people who are often put off by Charlie Hebdo's style, because they think it includes too much "tasteless provocation", should recognize that this cartoon conveys a different spirit. (But they probably won't.)

Akos Rona-Tas had this to say:
I find today's Charley Hebdo cover brilliant and funny in a warm hearted way. The sheepish looking prophet is sorry, and expresses this with the sign "I am Charley" without saying the words 'sorry,' with an impish gesture that is both moving and comical. And the response from Charlie is: "all is forgiven."The generosity of the 'all' just as the Mohamed's gesture has a hint of exaggeration. But that is what makes the the two gestures -apology and forgiveness - human and funny at the same time. We don't quite believe either but very much would like to.
Too true.  Are those sentiments being expressed sincerely, sarcastically, or purely aspirationally?  Probably a bit of all three. And "impish" is just the right adjective to describe this gesture.  The cartoon manages to be simultaneously sympathetic, humane, defiant, and provocative.

(Actually, I'm not sure it's completely clear whether "All is forgiven" is supposed to be coming from Mohammed or from Charlie Hebdo. But it works either way, so the ambiguity just adds to the "warm hearted" brilliance of the cartoon.)

Friday, December 26, 2014

Historians Admit To Inventing Ancient Greeks (The Onion)

Here is one of the funnier stories from The Onion that I came across this year (though it appeared back in 2010), offered as a contribution to merriment during the holiday season—which can otherwise feel pretty depressing for anyone following the news. It seems that Henry Ford was right:  History really is bunk.

(I vaguely recall that an Iranian news service once quoted an Onion spoof as a genuine scoop, so if anyone from abroad feels puzzled when they read this, let me assure you—even though I feel silly about stating the obvious—that the Onion is a satirical publication.)

—Jeff Weintraub

==============================
The Onion
October 7, 2010 (Issue 46-40)
Historians Admit To Inventing Ancient Greeks

WASHINGTON—A group of leading historians held a press conference Monday at the National Geographic Society to announce they had "entirely fabricated" ancient Greece, a culture long thought to be the intellectual basis of Western civilization.

The group acknowledged that the idea of a sophisticated, flourishing society existing in Greece more than two millennia ago was a complete fiction created by a team of some two dozen historians, anthropologists, and classicists who worked nonstop between 1971 and 1974 to forge "Greek" documents and artifacts.

"Honestly, we never meant for things to go this far," said Professor Gene Haddlebury, who has offered to resign his position as chair of Hellenic Studies at Georgetown University. "We were young and trying to advance our careers, so we just started making things up: Homer, Aristotle, Socrates, Hippocrates, the lever and fulcrum, rhetoric, ethics, all the different kinds of columns—everything.

"Way more stuff than any one civilization could have come up with, obviously," he added.

According to Haddlebury, the idea of inventing a wholly fraudulent ancient culture came about when he and other scholars realized they had no idea what had actually happened in Europe during the 800-year period before the Christian era.

Frustrated by the gap in the record, and finding archaeologists to be "not much help at all," they took the problem to colleagues who were then scrambling to find a way to explain where things such as astronomy, cartography, and democracy had come from.

Within hours the greatest and most influential civilization of all time was born.

"One night someone made a joke about just taking all these ideas, lumping them together, and saying the Greeks had done it all 2,000 years ago," Haddlebury said. "One thing led to another, and before you know it, we're coming up with everything from the golden ratio to the Iliad."

"That was a bitch to write, by the way," he continued, referring to the epic poem believed to have laid the foundation for the Western literary tradition. "But it seemed to catch on."

Around the same time, a curator at the Smithsonian reportedly asked for Haddlebury's help: The museum had received a sizeable donation to create an exhibit on the ancient world but "really didn't have a whole lot to put in there." The historians immediately set to work, hastily falsifying evidence of a civilization that— complete with its own poets and philosophers, gods and heroes—would eventually become the centerpiece of schoolbooks, college educations, and the entire field of the humanities.

Emily Nguyen-Whiteman, one of the young academics who "pulled a month's worth of all-nighters" working on the project, explained that the whole of ancient Greek architecture was based on buildings in Washington, D.C., including a bank across the street from the coffee shop where they met to "bat around ideas about mythology or whatever."

"We picked Greece because we figured nobody would ever go there to check it out," Nguyen-Whiteman said. "Have you ever seen the place? It's a dump. It's like an abandoned gravel pit infested with cats."

She added, "Inevitably, though, people started looking around for some of this 'ancient' stuff, and next thing I know I'm stuck in Athens all summer building a goddamn Parthenon just to cover our tracks."

Nguyen-Whiteman acknowledged she was also tasked with altering documents ranging from early Bibles to the writings of Thomas Jefferson to reflect a "Classical Greek" influence—a task that also included the creation, from scratch, of a language based on modern Greek that could pass as its ancient precursor.

Historians told reporters that some of the so-called Greek ideas were in fact borrowed from the Romans, stripped to their fundamentals, and then attributed to fictional Greek predecessors. But others they claimed as their own.

"Geometry? That was all Kevin," said Haddlebury, referring to former graduate student Kevin Davenport. "Man, that kid was on fire in those days. They teach Davenportian geometry in high schools now, though of course they call it Euclidean."

Sources confirmed that long hours and lack of sleep took their toll on Davenport, and after the lukewarm reception of his work on homoeroticism in Spartan military, he left the group.

In a statement expressing their "profound apologies" for misleading the world on the subject of antiquity for almost 40 years, the historians expressed hope that their work would survive on its own merits.

"It would be a shame to see humanity abandon achievements such as heliocentrism and the plays of Aeschylus just because of their origin," the statement read in part. "Moreover, we have some rather disappointing things to tell you about the pyramids, the works of Leonardo da Vinci, penicillin, the Internet, the scientific method, movies, and dogs."

Freedom of expression & freedom of conscience in Mauritania – Mauritania's first death sentence for "apostasy"

Even if a country tolerates minority religions, it can't claim to have religious freedom unless it is possible for individuals to decide to change from one religion to another without having to fear significant penalties.

Now, it so happens that in a large number of Muslim-majority countries—not all of them, by any means, but a sizable proportion—converting from Islam to another religion is, at the very least, legally problematic (as carefully documented, for example, in Ann Mayer's excellent and totally non-Islamophobic book Islam and Human Rights).  It is perfectly OK to convert from a non-Muslim religion to Islam, of course, but converting from Islam to another religion can get you into serious legal trouble (here's one relatively mild example) and/or make you a target for unofficial violence (which is likely to go unpunished).  In some Muslim-majority countries, apostasy (from Islam) is actually a capital crime—that is, it carries the death penalty. (As far as I know, there are currently no non-Muslim countries where apostasy is a capital crime.) And that's not just an empty threat. As some recent cases from several countries including Iran and Sudan have reminded us, people accused of converting from Islam to Christianity or other non-Muslim religions really do get charged with apostasy and face possible execution.

Furthermore, laws against apostasy are often used to prosecute, and persecute, Muslims who have no intention at all of leaving Islam.  Sometimes it's enough to advance interpretations of Islam that some people find insufficiently orthodox, or to express views that are deemed excessively secular or anti-clerical. In most cases, such actions merely trigger charges of blasphemy (which can be lethal enough), but in other cases they can get you labeled an apostate, which is even more serious—as the Saudi blogger Raif Badawi was startled to discover earlier this year.

=> Furthermore, laws against apostasy are often used to prosecute, and persecute, Muslims who have no intention at all of leaving Islam.  Sometimes it's enough to advance interpretations of Islam that some people find insufficiently orthodox, or to express views that are deemed excessively secular or anti-clerical. In most cases, such actions merely trigger charges of blasphemy (which can be lethal enough), but in other cases they can get you labeled an apostate, which is even more serious—as the Saudi blogger Raif Badawi was startled to discover earlier this year.

Someone else who just got this surprise was Cheikh Ould Mohamed Ould Mkheitir in Mauritania. On Wednesday he received Mauritania's first-ever death sentence for apostasy. I guess that's a milestone of sorts, but not one that I would regard as worthy of celebration.  However, according to the AFP report (below), "The verdict was met with shouts of joy from the gallery, while on the streets there were jubilant scenes as cars sounded their horns."

The joke is that Cheikh Ould Mohamed Ould Mkheitir is not an apostate at all, but he probably doesn't find that joke very funny.

—Jeff Weintraub

P.S. As I couldn't help musing back in January:
If Voltaire or Thomas Jefferson or David Hume had been told that this sort of thing would still be a common occurrence in the 21st century, I wonder what they would have thought. I suspect that Voltaire and Jefferson would have been skeptical, but probably not Hume.
==============================
 France 24 (AFP)
December 25, 2014
Mauritania issues first apostasy death sentence

NOUAKCHOTT (AFP) - A Muslim man has become the first person to be sentenced to death for apostasy in Mauritania since independence in 1960 after a court ruled he had written something blasphemous.

Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mohamed, who is around 30 years old, fainted when the ruling was read out late Wednesday in a court in Nouadhibou in the northwest of the country, a judicial source told AFP.

The defendant -- who has been detained since January 2 and pleaded not guilty to the charge when proceedings opened on Tuesday -- was revived and taken to prison, the source added.

Sharia, or Islamic, law is in effect in Mauritania but the enforcement of strict punishments -- such as floggings -- have been rare since the 1980s.

Mauritania has the death penalty but has not executed anyone since 1987, according to human rights organisation Amnesty International.

Such sentences were mainly reserved for murder and acts of terrorism.

During the hearing the judge told Mohamed that he was accused of apostasy "for speaking lightly of the Prophet Mohammed" in an article which was published briefly on several Mauritanian websites.

In it he challenged some the decisions taken by Islam's prophet and his companions during the holy wars, the source told AFP on condition of anonymity.

He also accused Mauritanian society of perpetuating "an iniquitous social order" and defended those at the bottom rungs of society who he described as "marginalised and discriminated against from birth".
[JW: Reading between the lines of some other reports like this one, I get the impression that Mohamed's most serious offense was criticizing the oppressive quasi-racial caste system in Mauritania and the persistence of slavery, which has been officially illegal in Mauritania since 1981 (and technically a crime since 2007) but is very much alive in practice.]
Mohamed, named by some local media outlets as Cheikh Ould Mohamed Ould Mkheitir, explained that it was "not his intention to harm the prophet", the source added.

His lawyer asked for leniency as he said his client was repentant but the judge agreed to the prosecutor's request for the death penalty.

No information was immediately available on whether Mohamed would appeal.

Local Islamic organisations said it was the first time text critical of Islam had been published in the country.

The verdict was met with shouts of joy from the gallery, while on the streets there were jubilant scenes as cars sounded their horns.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Religious toleration in Iran – Mohsen Amir-Aslani executed for heresy, Soheil Arabi condemned to death for "insulting the Prophet" on Facebook

Heresy, blasphemy, and apostasy (from Islam, not from other religions) are all crimes in Iran, potentially subject to the death penalty, and that's not an idle threat. Iranian courts sometimes do sentence people to death for those offenses.

On September 29 of this year Mohsen Amir-Aslani was executed for heresy—technically, for “innovations in the religion” and “spreading corruption on earth". The "innovations" cited against him included suggesting that the Jonah story, which is in the Koran as well as the Bible, is symbolic rather than factual. This interpretation was held to constitute an insult against the prophet Jonah.

Soheil Arabi has been on death row for allegedly blasphemous Facebook posts, and a month ago Iran's Supreme Court upheld his death sentence. According to the latest report on this case from Human Rights Watch (December 2, 2014):
Iran's judiciary should vacate the death sentence of a 30-year-old man who faces imminent execution for Facebook posts linked to his account. On November 24, 2014, Iran’s Supreme Court upheld a criminal court ruling sentencing Soheil Arabi to hang. The court transferred his file to the judiciary’s implementation unit, opening the way for his execution.

A Tehran criminal court had convicted him in August of sabb al-nabbi, or “insulting the prophet,” referring to the Prophet Muhammad, which carries the death penalty. Arabi’s legal team has asked the judiciary to suspend the death sentence and review the case. [....]

Nastaran Naimi, Arabi’s wife, told Human Rights Watch that intelligence agents linked with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards arrested her and her husband at their home in Tehran in November 2013. They soon released her but transferred her husband to a special section of Evin prison that the Revolutionary Guards control, where they kept him in solitary confinement for two months, subjected him to long interrogation sessions, and prevented him from meeting his lawyer, she said. They later transferred Arabi to Ward 350 of Evin prison.

Vahid Moshkhani, Arabi’s lawyer, told Human Rights Watch that instead of upholding or overruling the lower court verdict, the Supreme Court unlawfully added the charge of efsad-e fel arz, or “sowing corruption of earth,” to Arabi’s case. In addition to carrying a possible death sentence, the charge also forecloses the possibility of amnesty, he said. [....]
One might think that locking in Arabi's death sentence this way would be considered sufficient. But just to make sure everyone knows they're serious, his accusers have piled on various other charges, too.
On September 4, 2013, judiciary officials sentenced Arabi to three years in prison for “propaganda against the state” and “insulting the Supreme Leader” in a separate case stemming from the same Facebook posts.  [....]

On November 28, 2014, an Iranian news site published a story alleging that Arabi had been given a death sentence not for having “insulted the prophet,” but because he had raped several women. The news site said it had evidence to back up this claim but did not produce any information. In response, Saham News, a site critical of the Iranian government, published pictures of the lower court verdict to counter any claim that the judiciary had prosecuted Arabi for rape or illicit sexual relations, and one of his lawyers denied that his client had ever been prosecuted for such a crime. The judiciary has not commented on allegations that Arabi has been charged or convicted for sexual assault.  [....]
Some parallels between these gambits and a similar kitchen-sink approach in connection with Amir-Aslani's execution may be ominous signs for Arabi.
On September 24, prison officials at Rajai Shahr prison in the city of Karaj executed Amir Aslani, whom the judiciary had convicted of “sowing corruption on earth” for allegedly advancing heretical interpretations of Islam and insulting the prophet Jonah. After the execution, a judiciary spokesman, Gholamhossein Esmaeili, denied that authorities had executed Amir Aslani for his religious beliefs, and said his hanging was related to “illicit” forcible sexual relations with several women. In fact, the Supreme Court had [....] ruled that the rape charges were invalid due to lack of evidence.  [....]

=> Of course, Iran is hardly the only country in that part of the world where theocratic repression is a problem—actually, it's not the worst in this respect. As I noted in 2013, it's true that
the Islamic Republic of Iran doesn't have a sterling record [....] when it comes to freedom of conscience in general or freedom of religion in particular.  There is not even the pretense of granting non-Muslim religions legal or cultural equality; certain religious minorities, like the Baha'i, are persecuted with special ferocity; Muslims who convert to Christianity may be charged with apostasy and face possible execution; and so on.  But there is no question that, overall, there is much more religious toleration in Iran than in Saudi Arabia (a country routinely described as our "ally" and as a quintessentially "moderate" Arab power).  Everything is relative.
—Jeff Weintraub

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Erdogan-Gulen civil war within Turkish political Islam (Dani Rodrik & Claire Berlinski)

Since Turkey's AK Party, led by former Prime Minister and now President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, began winning national elections in 2002, one of its achievements has been to break the political power of the Turkish military and, more generally, to dismantle the "deep state" apparatus of the old Kemalist establishment. (For more on that, see here.) A big question is whether, in the end, this process will lead to a strengthening and consolidation of constitutional democracy or the replacement of one quasi-authoritarian system with another.

The AK's campaign against the Kemalist establishment was carried out in collaboration with the followers of the cleric Fetullah Gulen, who has lived in exile in Pennsylvania since 1999. Over the past year and a half, that alliance broke down spectacularly and turned into an increasingly all-out power struggle.

(For some background, see these posts from December 2013 and mid-2014: Why are Erdogan and the Gulenists slugging it out?, Who is Fetullah Gulen, what is the Gulenist movement, and what are they up to?The civil war within Turkish political Islam, & Continuing civil war between Erdogan and the Gulenists within the apparatus of the Turkish state.)

Dani Rodrik, the (very fine) Turkish political economist who recently moved from Harvard's JFK School to the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, offers this compact assessment of the current Erdogan-Gulen civil war within Turkish political Islam, the process that led up to it, and its implications for Turkish democracy:
Here is the one paragraph version of what is happening in Turkey.

During the last decade in which he has been in power, Erdogan has allowed the Gulen movement to take control over the police, judiciary, and large parts of the state apparatus. The Gulen movement in turn established a republic of dirty tricks, with illegal wiretaps and video recordings, fabricated evidence, framing of innocent people, slander and disinformation as its modus operandi.  The monster Erdogan created eventually turned against him as the common enemy, the military and the rest of the secular establishment, were vanquished. He is now trying to slay the monster. That means purges, bringing the judiciary under his control, tightening the screws on the Internet and social media, and greatly expanding the powers of MiT, the national intelligence organization. The collateral damage for Turkish democracy – or what remained of it – is huge.

We cannot look at all this and focus only on what Erdogan is doing without at least acknowledging that the Gulenists also bear considerable responsibility for bringing the country to its current crisis. The idea that there was something like the rule of law or Turkey was democratizing before Erdogan began to tighten the screws on the Gulen movement is dangerous nonsense. [....]
This may not capture the whole story, but it certainly captures some important dimensions of it.

Some might argue that Rodrik's perspective is distorted by the fact that his father-in-law, a military officer, was among those caught up and imprisoned in the McCarthyite witch-hunt of the Ergenekon/Sledgehammer prosecutions that ran from about 2007-2012. But it might also be suggested that this connection helped give Rodrik some special insights into what he calls the"republic of dirty tricks" used by the previous AK-Gulenist alliance as part of its long-term campaign to supplant the Kemalist establishment and dismantle its "deep state" apparatus. At all events, it's clear that this is a game in which none of the contenders has been especially concerned about playing within the rules of formal legality.

=> Back in 2011 Claire Berlinski & Okan Altiparmak, drawing on the Wikileaks cables about Turkey, offered this unflattering portrait of Erdogan and his style of political leadership
The Wikileaks cables on Turkey reveal a surprising paradox. U.S. diplomats present themselves as highly-informed, perspicacious observers of Turkey with more insight than one would expect into the Islamist complexes and prejudices of Turkey’s governing AKP, the role of the Gulen movement in Turkey, the political talent and personality of Prime Minister Erdogan, his increasing isolation from competent advisors, and the central problems that characterize AKP governance: lack of technocratic skill, corruption, and influence-peddling. Yet time and again, these diplomats fail to draw from these observations the obvious conclusion: This represents a risk to Turkey, the United States, and its regional interests. [....]

On January 20, 2004, U.S. Ambassador to Turkey Eric S. Edelman penned a report of nearly impeccable insight into Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the AKP. He correctly emphasizes the luck that ushered the party into power in November, 2002, notes the Islamist milieu from which Erdogan emerged, and aptly characterizes his political talent and pragmatism. Edelman’s description of the prime minister’s personality is almost painfully prescient: “Erdogan has traits which render him seriously vulnerable to miscalculating the political dynamic, especially in foreign affairs… [his] authoritarian loner streak ... prevents growth of a circle of strong and skillful advisors, a broad flow of fresh information to him, or development of effective communications among the party headquarters, government, and parliamentary group.”

Edelman also observes central problems of AKP governance–lack of technocratic skill, corruption and influence-peddling–that are now well-known to foreign observers but were at the time little-remarked. Finally, he notes the “Islamist complexes and prejudices” of several key Erdogan appointees [....]

In subsequent cables, Edelman deepens these observations, noting that Erdogan has surrounded himself “with an iron ring of sycophantic (but contemptuous) advisors,” isolating himself from a flow of reliable information [....]

"According to a broad range of our contacts, Erdogan reads minimally, mainly the Islamist-leaning press. According to others with broad and deep contacts throughout the establishment, Erdogan refuses to draw on the analyses of the MFA, and the military and National Intelligence Organization have cut him off from their reports. He never had a realistic world view, but one key touchstone is a fear of being outmaneuvered on the Islamist side by 'Hoca' Erbakan’s Saadet Party. Instead, he relies on his charisma, instincts, and the filterings of advisors who pull conspiracy theories off the Web or are lost in neo-Ottoman Islamist fantasies, e.g., Islamist foreign policy advisor and Gul ally Ahmet Davutoglu."

Cables from January 2004 to March 2005 return repeatedly to the themes of the cronyism, incompetence, and corruption in the AKP:

"AKP swept to power by promising to root out corruption. However, in increasing numbers AKPers from ministers on down, and people close to the party, are telling us of conflicts of interest or serious corruption in the party at the national, provincial and local level and among close family members of ministers. We have heard from two contacts that Erdogan has eight accounts in Swiss banks; his explanations that his wealth comes from the wedding presents guests gave his son and that a Turkish businessman is paying the educational expenses of all four Erdogan children in the U.S. purely altruistically are lame." [....]
And yesterday Berlinski offered this colorful addendum about the other major figure in the AKP-Gulenist slugging match, Fetullah Gulen. Many western analysts seem to have pretty favorable impressions of Gulen and his agenda, but not Berlinski. And in this particular piece, she's not trying to avoid sounding intemperate.
Until recently, I lived in Turkey. It seemed to me then unfathomable that most Americans did not recognize the name Fethullah Gülen. Even those vaguely aware of him did not find it perplexing that a Turkish preacher, billionaire, and head of a multinational media and business empire—a man of immense power in Turkey and sinister repute—had set up shop in Pennsylvania and become a big player in the American charter school scene. Now that I’ve been out of Turkey a while, I’ve realized how normal it is that Americans are indifferent to Gülen. America is full of rich, powerful, and sinister weirdoes. What’s one more?

It’s normal, too, that Americans view news from Turkey as less important than other stories in the headlines. After all, Turks aren’t doing anything quite so attention-grabbing as hacking Sony, destabilizing the postwar European order, or rampaging through the Middle East as they behead, rape, crucify, and enslave everything in their path. Thus, the reader who has noticed the news from Turkey might believe the story goes something like this: President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the authoritarian thug running Turkey, has been rounding up journalists who bravely exposed his corruption.

That American readers now understand that Erdoğan is a corrupt authoritarian is an improvement. (They may vaguely recall that not long ago, he was viewed by the large parts of the Western intelligentsia—and by the very same news organs reporting the latest developments—as a liberal-minded reformer.) But this is actually a story about two thugs.  The details may be hard to follow, but the devil is in the details. The journalists recently arrested by Erdoğan are loyal to Gülen, who has made himself quite cozy in the United States. The phrase commonly used to describe this state of affairs—“self-imposed exile”—should not leave the reader nodding pleasantly. It should leave him wondering, “What does that mean? Why have we offered him exile?”

In failing to stress the double-thugged nature of this situation, American officials have unwisely conveyed to the world that we prefer Gülen to Erdoğan. So does the commentary oozing from think tanks, journalists, soi-disant experts, and European luminaries. We’d be better-advised at least to pretend to be against all corrupt authoritarians. We might even be wise to suggest, if only by means of a hint, that yes, we do understand that this has been a long decade of Turkish crackdowns, many inspired and executed by Gülen’s thugs. We might even indicate—in some subtle way—that while authoritarian crackdowns are not to our taste, there is at least some dark and cosmic justice in the world when the authors of crackdowns get a smackdown of their own.

It is certainly possible that we give the impression that we prefer Gülen to Erdoğan because we do indeed prefer him.  [JW:  This strikes me as implausible. My guess is that the US government has no favorite in this fight. But then what do I know?]  But readers should be reminded (or informed, if they were not aware) that Gülen is the one in the United States, where he is accruing power daily, and Erdoğan is at least separated from us by an ocean. It would seem Gülen now has enough power that when his boys get locked up, the West squeaks, whereas we didn’t so much as raise an eyebrow when anyone else’s boys were rounded up, and haven’t much bothered to do so at any similar moment in the past decade. We may prefer Gülen because he is smarter and vastly more subtle than Erdoğan. But if only for this reason, he may well be the more dangerous of the two. It seems all-too-plausible that many Americans don’t even realize he’s here, much less that he is a thug.

I hope that our policy makers, at least, are fully aware that Gülen is no noble figure. Perhaps they are of the belief that he’s a thug, but at least he’s our thug. Gülen seems to think that we may be the thugs, but that we are his thugs. He is behaving accordingly, directing campaign contributions to politicians in the districts where his schools operate. [....]

I hope this isn’t the case, but it’s consistent with the evidence. Also consistent is another disturbing hypothesis: We still have no idea who Gülen is, and truly believe Erdoğan—head of our NATO ally—is locking up modest martyrs whose only crime was to expose his corruption. The corruption is real, the lockup is real, and, yes, Turkey is our NATO ally. But Erdoğan hasn’t been rounding up journalists of no special distinction (or none, at least, beyond their principled stance against corruption). He has [most recently] been rounding up Gülen-allied journalists, who are not so much epic heroes in the battle against Turkish corruption and for Turkish press freedom as they are operatives for the Turkish president’s existential rival.

Turkey does have epic heroes. One of them is named Ahmet Şık. The people now being locked up only very recently had him locked up, because he wrote a book suggesting that Gülen’s thugs were precisely the kinds of people who might practice corruption and lock up journalists. Şık is a better man than I, so to speak, for he found it in his heart to respond to the latest news with these words: “The former owners of the period of fascism we experienced a few years ago today are experiencing fascism. To oppose fascism is a virtue.” My first reaction was different: “Lock them up and throw away the key.” It took me several minutes to remember that I am an American and thus opposed to fascism, too. As all right-thinking people should be. [....]

Turkey has requested that we extradite Gülen. What should we do about that? Americans must be baffled, given what they’ve been told. Common sense might say, “Of course we would extradite a corrupt authoritarian to our trusted NATO ally.” If that fails to happen, it might suggest that one—or many—of our inbuilt assumptions is wrong. [....]
Maybe. Or maybe this portrait of Gulen and the Gulenists is just a little overwrought?  I don't feel qualified to say for sure, though I do think it's clear that this account has, at least, considerable elements of truth in it. (And Berlinski's analyses of Turkish politics have always been well informed and acute, so anything she says needs to be taken very seriously.)

At all events, Turkey is a sufficiently important country, for a lot of reasons, that this unfolding political drama is also very important ... so we should all stay tuned to see how it develops.

—Jeff Weintraub

Friday, December 19, 2014

Is Saudi Arabia deliberately helping crash world oil markets in order to hurt Iran?

It's not totally implausible.

Plummeting oil prices are generating economic and political effects around the world. I don't think any serious analyst would suggest that this situation can be attributed entirely or straightforwardly to actions (or plots) by any of the major players in the international oil market. A lot of factors have come together to put downward pressure on oil prices, including a slowdown in demand by industrialized countries undergoing an economic slump, the increasing flood of shale oil (and natural gas) from North America, the reduced effectiveness of the OPEC cartel, and so on.

But it does seem possible that policy decisions by Saudi Arabia based on geopolitical as well as strictly economic concerns might be one significant piece of this larger picture. It's interesting that the Saudis have not responded to falling oil prices by trying to orchestrate production cutbacks that might help counteract the slide. On the contrary, they've been ramping up their own production. It's possible that this policy is the result of strictly business calculations—i.e., they concluded that it would be fruitless to try to maintain high oil prices, and they would lose a lot of money in the attempt, so they might as well recoup their losses by just selling more oil at lower prices. According to some analysts, it's as simple as that.

But it's also possible, and not incompatible with most of the factors just outlined, that an additional factor involving Middle Eastern geopolitics is also involved. Again, the Saudi regime couldn't have created the current situation all by itself. But perhaps it decided it would be a good idea to take advantage of the situation by deliberately helping accelerate the drop in oil prices. After all, the countries most hurt by falling in oil prices include not only Iran, which the Saudi regime regards as a dangerous foe, but also Russia, which happens be the other crucial supporter of the Assad regime in Syria (which the Saudis regard as an anti-Sunni Iranian client regime they would like to see overthrown). And they can't quickly compensate for lost revenues with short-term production increases, as Saudi Arabia can.

That's the argument put forward yesterday by Andrew Scott Cooper in Foreign Policy:  "Why Would the Saudis Deliberately Crash the Oil Markets? Simple: to undermine Tehran". Some highlights
Today, oil prices have again plummeted, from a high of $115 per barrel in August 2013 to under $60 per barrel in mid December 2014. Western experts, predictably, have seized the opportunity to ponder what cheaper oil might mean for the stock market. As for why prices have dropped, some analysts have suggested it has little to do with any manipulation of Saudi spigots: A December essay in Bloomberg Businessweek credited the American shale revolution with “breaking OPEC’s neck.”

There’s no doubt that shale has eroded Saudi Arabia’s “swing power” as the world’s largest oil producer. But thanks to their pumping capacity, reserves, and stockpiles, the Saudis are still more than capable of crashing the oil markets — and willing to do so. In September 2014, they did just that, boosting oil production by half a percent (to 9.6 million barrels per day) in markets already brimming with cheap crude and, a few days later, offering increased discounts to major Asian customers; global prices quickly fell nearly 30 per cent. As in 1977, the Saudis instigated this flood for political reasons: Whether foreign analysts believe it or not, oil markets remain important venues in the Saudi-Iranian struggle for supremacy over the Persian Gulf.

This isn’t the first time since the late 1970s that Saudi Arabia has used oil as a political weapon against its rival.  [....]   Signals of a new flood emerged as early as June 2011. While addressing an audience of senior American and British officials at a NATO operations base, Prince Turki warned Iran not to take advantage of the regional unrest triggered by the Arab Spring. Paraphrasing some of Turki’s comments, the Guardian noted that Iran’s economy could be squeezed hard by “undermining its profits from oil, something the Saudis … were ideally positioned to do.”

The Saudis understood, too, that the best time to crash the markets would be when prices were already soft and consumer demand low. In early December, just a few months after Saudi Arabia unleashed its latest oil flood, Obaid wrote in a Reuters article that his government’s decision to depress prices is “going to have a huge effect on the political situation in the Middle East. Iran will come under unprecedented economic and financial pressure as it tries to sustain an economy already battered by international sanctions.” Around the same time, the Saudis were no doubt pleased to see bread prices shoot up by 30 percent in Tehran. (Bread is a staple of the Iranian diet, and its prices are a bellwether for the economy.)

On Dec. 10, the Saudi oil minister said his country would keep pumping 9.7 million barrels per day into the global markets, regardless of demand. For their part, the Iranians have shown alarm, if not yet panic. Without naming names — he didn’t have to — President Hassan Rouhani decried the “treacherous” actions of a major oil producer whose “politically motivated” behavior was evidence of “a conspiracy against the interests of the region…. Iran and the people of the region will not forget such conspiracies.” The previous day, Vice President Eshag Jahangiri had described the rapid plunge in oil prices as a “political plot … not a result of supply and demand.”

Riyadh’s real hope, if history is any indicator, is that escalated production will force Rouhani’s government to implement an austerity budget that will ultimately stoke underlying social unrest and once again push people into the streets. If this happens, it might not lead to an event as significant as the shah losing his grip on power — but it would reinforce the Saudis’ faith in oil as a potent weapon in the battle to dominate the Middle East. And oil floods, in turn, would likely continue their periodic, dangerous rattling of both the markets and the region.
This analysis may or may not be entirely correct—a confident judgment about that is beyond my expertise. But it strikes me as plausible that it does, indeed, capture a significant part of the picture.

On the other hand, it's also true that for decades the Saudis (as well as their enemies) have often tried to  exaggerate the effectiveness of their "oil weapon". So we shouldn't swallow this line of analysis too uncritically either. But one way or another, what's indisputable is the key role played by the ongoing struggles and mutual hostility between the regimes in Tehran and Riyadh in the politics of the Middle East.

—Jeff Weintraub

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Elizabeth Warren takes the fight to the Money Power

Great speeches that combine solid substance, clear explanation, rhetorical power, and political passion have become rare in American politics. Elizabeth Warren's speech on the Senate floor on Friday, December 12 was an exception. It's not very long, and it's worth listening to it carefully and in full (below).

The immediate target of this speech was an especially outrageous provision slipped into the 1600-page Omnibus Spending Bill at the last moment, without public discussion, that would repeal Dodd-Frank's prohibition on banks using federally insured deposit funds to gamble on certain types of particularly risky derivatives. (Not surprisingly, this provision was actually written by CitiGroup lobbyists.) But Warren used this specific scandal as a starting-point to develop a much more comprehensive argument that deserves wide and serious attention.
[Once again] we're watching as Congress passes yet another provision that was written by lobbyists for the biggest recipient of bailout money in the history of this country. And its attached to a bill that needs to pass or else we entire federal government will grind to a halt.

Think about that kind of power. If a financial institution has become so big and so powerful that it can hold the entire country hostage. That alone is reason enough to break them up.

Enough is enough.

Enough is enough with Wall Street insiders getting key position after key position and the kind of cronyism that we have seen in the executive branch. Enough is enough with Citigroup passing 11th-hour deregulatory provisions that nobody takes ownership over but everybody will come to regret. Enough is enough.

Washington already works really well for the billionaires and the big corporations and the lawyers and the lobbyists. But what about the families who lost their homes or their jobs or their retirement savings the last time Citigroup bet big on derivatives and lost? What about the families who are living paycheck to paycheck and saw their tax dollars go to bail out Citi just 6 years ago?

We were sent here to fight for those families. It is time, it is past time, for Washington to start working for them! [....]
Warren's speech included an obligatory reference to Teddy Roosevelt, and her invocation of TR was on-target. Back during the Gilded Age of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was not uncommon for prominent public figures to denounce the corruption of political as well as economic life by concentrated economic power and the misdeeds of what Roosevelt called "malefactors of great wealth".
A century ago Teddy Roosevelt was America's Trust-Buster. He went after the giant trusts and monopolies in this country, and a lot of people talk about how those trusts deserved to be broken up because they had too much economic power. But Teddy Roosevelt said we should break them up because they had too much political power. Teddy Roosevelt said break them up because all that concentrated power threatens the very foundations up our democratic system.
But during the New Gilded Age we have been living through over the past several decades, and even since the financial crisis and economic crash of 2008 that the forces of concentrated economic power and numerous malefactors of great wealth played big roles in bringing about, they have gotten away almost scot-free. Not completely, perhaps, but to a remarkable and infuriating degree.(And not only have the plutocrats been systematically coddled and largely shielded from public criticism, but whenever they do receive any mild criticisms, they and their propagandists whine that they're being vilified and persecuted by dangerous extremists. The whole situation would be ludicrous if its consequences weren't so harmful.)

In this speech, Warren takes them on clearly and directly, and part of what makes her message here vivid and effective is that she gives these forces a paradigmatic (corporate) embodiment, CitiGroup—while making it clear that the problem is a lot bigger than just CitiGroup. She also doesn't hesitate to emphasize that the corruption of our politics by the influence of Big Money reaches deeply into both major parties, not just the Republicans.




One further note. Even people who are generally sympathetic to Warren's position (as we all should be!) may not necessarily agree with one of her key conclusions: It's not enough to try to regulate the most dangerous activities of the big banks and other financial institutions, they need to be broken up.
You know, there is a lot of talk lately about how Dodd-Frank isn't perfect. There is a lot of talk coming from CitiGroup about how Dodd-Frank isn't perfect. So let me say this to anyone listening at Citi — I agree with you. Dodd-Frank isn't perfect. It should have broken you into pieces! If this Congress is going to open up Dodd-Frank in the months ahead then let's open it up to get tougher, not to create more bailout opportunities. If we're going to open up Dodd-Frank, let's open it up so that once and for all we end too big to fail and I mean really end it, not just say that we did.
But whether or not you agree, the arguments leading up to that conclusion have to be taken seriously. Perennial debates between those who want to emphasize breaking up oligopolies and "trusts" and those who want to emphasize regulating them in the public interest go back to the Progressive era and the New Deal. In this case, Warren is suggesting that the financial behemoths commonly described as "too big to fail" are also too big, and too politically powerful, to regulate effectively—not least because they will use their political power to sabotage, distort, and eventually dismantle even half-serious efforts at financial regulation. That's a prolonged and complicated process, largely carried out behind the scenes. But this particular scandal may have helped to bring it out into the open.

—Jeff Weintraub

[Addendum, 12/14:  For some further explanation of what the fight over the CitiGroup-written provision was about, see Paul Krugman's column on "Wall Street's Revenge: Dodd-Frank Damaged in Budget Bill". Beyond the intrinsic significance of that specific provision, this also has to be understood as one battle, or skirmish, in a long-term political struggle.]

Monday, November 10, 2014

Is capitalism really "the human condition"?

The item below was part of an e-mail exchange I had in November 2009 with Norman Geras (whom we lost with his very sad and untimely death in 2013). Norm had written a post in response to a piece in the Telegraph by someone named Janet Daley offering her views on "what we have failed to learn from the death of communism in 1989". The main thing we should have learned, according to Daley, is that capitalism is not a socially and historically specific economic system. Instead, "it is just the human condition in economic form."

Norm's reaction was that Daley couldn't have meant that literally. Did she really believe that "the human condition, with its mix of vices and virtues, was absent from pre-capitalist or other non-capitalist social formations"?

My guess, then and now, is that Daley almost certainly did mean it—and it's illuminating to understand how she and other people could believe something so odd. As I said to Norm in an e-mail message, he was probably underestimating the radical difference between his underlying picture of society and history and that of people like Daley. So he and Daley were really talking past each other.
You talk about 'pre-capitalist or other non-capitalist social formations', but that takes for granted precisely what Daley would probably deny or find baffling - i.e., the idea that, even before 20th-century Communism, there were coherent non-capitalist socio-economic systems that could be seen as alternatives to a capitalist market economy, rather than simply imperfect or underdeveloped forms of a capitalist market economy. As Daley says, capitalism is not just one system among other systems. It is human nature unleashed.
That is, it's the way that people "naturally" act unless they're coercively interfered with. Furthermore:
In this respect, the mentality I am attributing to Daley is actually very widespread in the modern world (whether or not the people who hold it could or would spell it out explicitly). And people who think this way have a powerful and respectable theoretical warrant for their perspective, whether or not they are fully aware of its origin.

What I'm talking about is what might be called everyday Smithianism [....]
Norm asked whether he could post my message on Normblog. Since the issues involved remain all too timely, and the kind of ideological mystification exemplified by Daley remains all too prevalent and influential, I feel moved to re-post it here.

—Jeff Weintraub

==============================
Normblog (the weblog of Norman Geras)
November 3, 2009
Janet Daley on capitalism and 'the human condition' (by Jeff Weintraub)

[I reproduce below an email to me from Jeff, with his permission - NG.]

In your post 'The human condition has been around for ages', you nicely picked up on Janet Daley's confusion. If I were a Marxist, I might even go further than mere 'confusion' and describe her statement as a typical example of a certain type of widespread ideological mystification.

But in some ways I thought your interpretation of her remarks was actually too generous. You said:
Daley surely wouldn't want to assert that the human condition, with its mix of vices and virtues, was absent from pre-capitalist or other non-capitalist social formations. Did, and do, the denizens of non-capitalist societies not experience such features of the human condition as birth and death, joy and grief, love, hatred, illness, old age, indigestion and that dream where you're trying to get away from some looming threat and your legs just won't move fast enough, if they'll move at all? What Daley means to say, I think, is not that capitalism is just the human condition, as if other types of society might not be the human condition, but that capitalism is the optimal form of society for bringing out the best in human nature.
My guess is that she really did mean to say that capitalism just IS 'the human condition' - unless it is artificially and/or coercively interfered with. This comes out even more clearly, I think, if one quotes the key sentence from her piece without ellipses
Properly speaking, capitalism is not a system at all (which is why most of its supporters prefer the term "free market economics"): it is just the human condition in economic form.
You talk about 'pre-capitalist or other non-capitalist social formations', but that takes for granted precisely what Daley would probably deny or find baffling - i.e., the idea that, even before 20th-century Communism, there were coherent non-capitalist socio-economic systems that could be seen as alternatives to a capitalist market economy, rather than simply imperfect or underdeveloped forms of a capitalist market economy. As Daley says, capitalism is not just one system among other systems. It is human nature unleashed.

In this respect, the mentality I am attributing to Daley is actually very widespread in the modern world (whether or not the people who hold it could or would spell it out explicitly). And people who think this way have a powerful and respectable theoretical warrant for their perspective, whether or not they are fully aware of its origin.

What I'm talking about is what might be called everyday Smithianism. (This is largely equivalent to economic liberalism, in the proper 19th-century sense of that phrase, but to avoid distracting details I will just refer to the interlocking visions of human nature and social order laid out by Adam Smith in Books I-II of The Wealth of Nations.) Smith is actually a very complex, interesting, and illuminating social theorist - more than most Smithians, in fact - so one shouldn't oversimplify or casually dismiss him. But in the core doctrine of The Wealth of Nations he did offer one of the most powerful and systematic arguments in favour of the propositions that the market economy and market activity are 'natural' and - unless 'artificially' interfered with - also universal and transhistorical, not least because they're rooted in central and transhistorical features of human nature. With variations in detail and explicit terminology, these beliefs are at the heart of an orientation that for centuries now has been one of the most durable, pervasive, and influential theoretical and ideological perspectives in the modern world.

This Smithian perspective is important and worth taking seriously, and in certain circumstances it can even help illuminate important aspects of social and historical reality. But, like you (and Marx), I believe that, taken as a whole, it's oversimplified, incorrect, and profoundly misleading (theoretically, historically, practically, etc).

However, it is important to recognize that for a great many people (including, over the years, a lot of vulgar Marxists) this perspective and its central premises look like obvious common sense and/or the deepest and most sophisticated theory. That is, if you just clear away 'artificial' obstacles to individual action and the free expression of the defining propensities of human nature, something like 'free market economics' spontaneously emerges.

(And one doesn't have to go to the Daily Telegraph to find these underlying assumptions. This is a pervasive phenomenon, of which I will offer one small academic example. I've recently been having a small exchange with a friend of mine, an archaeologist, about the latest fashions in the economic archaeology of the ancient Mediterranean, which involve yet another of the perennial resurgences of Smithianism. Nowadays a lot of archaeologists working on such issues - including the kinds of ex-Marxists or semi-post-Marxists who have gone 'post-modern' - see themselves as reacting against the kinds of positions they attribute to Karl Polanyi and Moses Finley as caricatured in the misbegotten 'formalist vs substantivist' debates in economic anthropology and economic history. Both Polanyi and Finley had appropriately pointed out that it is wildly misleading to simply equate 'economic' activity with market activity and to treat all past socio-economic formations as though they were simply imperfect or rudimentary market economies. The latest fashion is to dismiss this sensible perspective as 'primitivist', and instead to keep repeating the brilliant point that even back in the Bronze Age one can find examples of people engaged in exchanges, trucking and bartering, using money, and acting intelligently - as though any of that were the point of the argument. In short, straightforward vulgar Smithianism is once again being triumphantly rediscovered and trotted out as super-sophisticated innovative wisdom.

Of course, I'm not questioning any specific archaeological analyses, which would obviously be far beyond my expertise, just the larger theoretical and ideological orientations that inform how the implications are interpreted.)

In short... does Daley really believe 'that capitalism is just the human condition'? Probably.

Jeff Weintraub