Monday, July 29, 2013

Is there any justice in the world?

Well, it's all a matter of perspective.  Your answer will probably depend, in large part, on where and how you fit into the system.

This is from a compilation of favorite New Yorker cartoons from over the years, submitted by readers.  This cartoon happens to be one of my all-time favorites.  (On the other hand, the underlying theory of ideology and morality being presented here is not completely accurate, either.)

—Jeff Weintraub

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Gavin Kennedy, Brad DeLong, & Jeff Weintraub on Adam Smith's social theory & moral philosophy

About a week ago I wrote a little critique of Adam Smith's conceptual sleight-of-hand on exchange, cooperation, and the foundations of social order in response to something that Brad DeLong had posted on his blog. I'm pleased to see that my piece has already provoked two responses in turn—a post by Gavin Kennedy titled Brad DeLong versus Jeff Weintraub and a post by Brad titled Gavin Kennedy and Jeff Weintraub on Adam Smith's Behavioral Economics and Moral Philosophy.

Neither of them is entirely happy with my interpretation of Smith's argument, but that's fine, since both of their posts are characteristically intelligent, interesting, erudite, and usefully thought-provoking.

I'm just about to go catch a plane, so I can't offer a substantial response to either of them right now.  For the moment, I will just recommend that anyone interested in these issues should go read their posts ... and I will also toss out a few quick remarks about Brad DeLong's post.  (I'm afraid these hasty remarks may be a bit cryptic unless you read his post, and perhaps even if you do.)

=>  On the whole, it seems to me that Brad and I are actually in fundamental accord on a lot of the important issues, though not quite so much on others.  Some examples of the latter (not a complete list, but a start):

The specific way in which Brad characterizes the distinction between "Hobbesians" and "Lockeans", and uses it to try to get economists off the hook, has some grains of truth but is, in my possibly fallible opinion, a bit strained and misleading.  I have various reasons for thinking that, but explaining why would require a longer discussion, so right now I'll just register the point.

Brad correctly notes that humans engage in patterns of reciprocity, including gift exchange, but I'm not sure that the implications of this point really help the argument he wants to make.  Patterns of reciprocity, which run through all forms of human society from the beginning, are characteristically structured by systems of mutual obligation—a concept notably, and significantly, absent from that key passage in Smith's Wealth of Nations that Brad had quoted.  And recognizing the important role that patterns of reciprocity (and redistribution) often play in coordinating social activity simply underlines the point that, contrary to what Smith says in those early chapters of WN, not all forms of "exchange" are market exchange, based on trucking and bartering and the calculation of self-interest.  Brad knows that, of course, but he tries to smooth over this problem by assimilating gift exchange, reciprocity, and market exchange as merely different examples of "exchange" that fall at different points on a single continuum.  There's something to that conceptual gambit, potentially ... but without some further refinement and specification, this bland assimilation serves to obscure some important analytical distinctions with very important theoretical and practical implications.  (As Marx once said, slightly misquoting Hegel, in the dark all cats are gray.)

Furthermore, no matter how far or how loosely one stretches the theoretical category of "exchange" (remember Lévi-Strauss?), "exchange" cannot simply be equated or conflated with conscious cooperation.  (They may well overlap in practice, but they're not simply the same thing.)  As I pointed out in my original post, both obligation and conscious cooperation, as possible bases for coordinating sustained and beneficial patterns of human action, are excluded from the false dichotomy that Smith constructs in Chapter 2 of Book I of WN and then uses to help lay the foundation for developing the core theory in that book.

Etc.

Brad DeLong and Gavin Kennedy also point out, quite correctly, that Smith's knowledge and understanding of society, history, personality, culture, psychology, and morality are much richer, more comprehensive, and more complex than those of most of his disciples in "classical" political economy, mainstream neo-classical economics, and the great bulk of so-called "rational actor" analysis.  (I would still say that it's not without gaps and problems, but it's impressively wide-ranging and sophisticated, for sure.)  Anyone familiar with Smith's work as a whole (or even just Book III in WN) will readily acknowledge that.  But in my own discussion I wasn't trying to address Smith's work as a whole.  Instead, I was examining some of the key foundations of Smith's (highly sophisticated and immensely influential) core theory in The Wealth of Nations, which is laid out primarily in Books I-II and then elaborated and applied through most of the rest of the book (with some attempts in Book III to address, and resolve, some theoretical anomalies and loose ends).  And at the heart of that core theory, as Brad nicely captured it, is the notion of "exchange [which Smith explicitly identifies with self-interested exchange] and its vicissitudes as fundamental to human psychology and society".

=>  To help drive home that last point, I will close by highlighting this passage in Brad's discussion:
In Books I and II of WN, Smith definitely does write as if self-interest mediated by exchange is at the foundation of the social order. But Adam Smith the moral philosopher (as opposed to Adam Smith the proto-economist attempting to disrupt the 18th century discipline of "political oeconomy") does not believe that. And it is not true.
Precisely. This gets at the heart of the matter, and on this we agree. (OK, not completely, but almost completely).  Everything else is details and commentary ...  though, of course, they're important, too.

Meanwhile, it's gratifying to be able break off on this note of agreement.  More on these matters in the near future, perhaps.

Yours for the republic of letters,
Jeff Weintraub

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Erdoğan's Miracle Reprieve (Claire Berlinski)

Remember Turkey?  Yes, it's still there.  Here are some highlights from Claire Berlinski's latest update, direct from Istanbul.
If you’re reading the American press, you might think that the protests in Turkey have died down. Nothing could be further from the truth. On July 6—last Saturday—delivering a stern rebuke to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the Istanbul 1st Regional Court issued a decision cancelling the controversial Taksim construction and the Artillery Barracks project, thus reopening the park for public use. Happy Istanbullus planned to gather in the park to celebrate this victory at 7:00 p.m. But mere hours before, the Governor of Istanbul, Hüseyin Mutlu, issued a Proclamation by Tweet: “We are holding the much-anticipated opening of Gezi Park tomorrow. The park, which was embellished by the Istanbul Municipality, may bring peace and joy.” That was it.

Puzzled, I wrote back: “Pardon me, Efendim, but I understood that the court had decided the park would be open today. I don’t understand, am I mistaken?”

No answer.

Now, note: The Turkish constitution is exceptionally clear on this subject:

"ARTICLE 34. (As amended on October 17, 2001) Everyone has the right to hold unarmed and peaceful meetings and demonstration marches without prior permission. The right to hold meetings and demonstration marches shall only be restricted by law on the grounds of national security, and public order, or prevention of crime commitment, public health and public morals or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others."

The governor, in principle, does have the right to prohibit meetings on the grounds listed above, but as his Tweet suggested, he offered no argument that any of these grounds were applicable. Indeed, Istanbul citizens have walked through this park almost every day for the past century with no notable incident. His dicta was interpreted thus: You will enter that park when the Party tells you to, not when these uppity “courts” say you can.

The outcome was predictable: Outraged citizens gathered at Taksim Square at 7:00 p.m., brandishing the court order in their hands. They were immediately doused with water cannon and tear gas—which, according to two witnesses, was used without warning, despite recent promises from the government that a warning would henceforth always be issued. (In fact, that has always been the official policy, and almost never observed, but I suppose it sounded good to say it.)

Thousands of tear-gassed, panicking Turks flooded down İstiklal Avenue—which for lack of better translation may be described as the City’s main drag, and which on any normal day looks like this. This is the center of Istanbul, usually packed with happy pedestrians enjoying themselves, and there is no earthly, legal reason it should not have looked this way on July 6. The only reason it didn’t is because the government chose to engage in a massive, violent display of contempt of court (literally), one that targeted children, street cleaners, and the elderly alike. So instead, it it looked like this—and I know, because while I didn’t film this, I’m probably in the footage somewhere, obscured by the clouds of tear gas. Silly me for thinking it might be nice to take a walk down İstiklal Avenue on a lovely summer evening. [....]

The riot police, or more properly, the rioting police, pursued everyone on the streets of Istanbul within two miles of Taksim well into the early hours of Sunday morning with tear gas, sound bombs, plastic bullets and paintball guns (which are non-lethal in principle, but if targeted at someone who is not wearing proper eyewear can easily blind). So no, these protests have not “died down,” not in the least. Even my cats have decided that tear gas, screaming and flash-bangs are normal smells and sounds that require no special investigation. This is telling, because the sound of a vacuum cleaner sends them into a hysterical panic. And yes, I do vacuum at least once a week.

Interior Minister Güler described these events as “perfectly normal.” I suppose it has become perfectly normal here to see elderly sanitation workers vomiting in the streets, but I’m not yet persuaded that it should be. According to the government, the usually placid homeowners and manual laborers in my neighborhood are “marginal groups” and “communists.” [....]

But you might be forgiven for not knowing that this is happening in Turkey, because neither does the Turkish public, unless they’ve seen it first-hand. Erdoğan is famous for his ability to switch the topic of national conversation in a heartbeat, and famous as well for the discipline he asserts over the Turkish media. For example, on December 28, 2011 an airstrike on the town of Uludere, near the Turkish-Iraqi border, killed 34 Turkish civilians, all of Kurdish ethnicity. By late May, the main opposition party, the public and the media were expressing growing outrage with the government’s failure properly to investigate or shed light upon this “operational mistake.” Suddenly, out of absolutely nowhere, Erdoğan proposed to ban abortions and C-sections—an issue that until that day had been of no concern whatsoever to the Turkish public, particularly because Islamic law has nothing to say about either subject. Suddenly, Uludere was pushed from the headlines, replaced by endless discussions of abortion and parsings of Erdoğan’s bizarre objection to C-sections. It was a political masterstroke.

He is so well known for this trick that we knew immediately, following the May 11 terrorist attack on the Turkish-Syrian border town of Reyhanlı—which killed 52 Turkish citizens and prompted massive criticism of Erdoğan’s Syria policy—that the media would be put on lockdown (which it was) and that Erdoğan would soon do or say something so attention-grabbing that the country would focus on nothing else. Thus did the Turkish parliament rush through strict legislation that would severely curb alcohol sales in Turkey, and voilà—Reyhanlı became yesterday’s news.

Still, the Gezi protests were so massive, and so widely publicized, even internationally, that none of us could figure out how he’d change the subject this time, even with the customary media lockdown. “Frankly,” I said to a friend, “the only way he could do it is by announcing that he’s always felt like a woman trapped in a man’s body and announcing that he’s scheduled himself for immediate gender reassignment surgery.” I was wrong. God intervened. He handed Erdoğan a coup in Egypt, instead. [....]

Meanwhile, the PKK raided a military post in Hani, a town in Diyarbakir province, and claimed to have killed a soldier—which if true would deal a severe and perhaps fatal blow to the “peace process”—but this was scarcely reported. Wave upon wave of Gezi protesters were detained, along with their doctors and lawyers, but this too was scarcely reported. The Turkish lira fell to a record low against the dollar, but this too was scarcely reported. What was reported was that opposition CHP and ruling AKP deputies had to be separated in parliament lest they come to blows while discussing Egypt. (But what wasn’t reported was the content of the omnibus bill they were there to pass, or whether they passed it.) Even more strangely, there has been little news about what’s actually happening in Egypt—the entire conversation has been a metaphor for Turkey. This is notably different from Turkish coverage of Syria, which has in fact been very informative and much superior to American coverage of Syria. [....]

The strangest thing about this is that Turks paid almost no attention at all to the initial uprising in Tahrir Square. [....]

So this sudden Turkish obsession with Mursi’s downfall is, I suspect, a bit more complicated than one might think at first blush. And no, the unrest in Turkey has not died down. [....]
You can read the rest here.  —Jeff Weintraub

Rand Paul continues to wonder why the Republicans get such a small percentage of the African-American vote

(Via Brad DeLong, a second time today.)  I have already seen several accounts of Rand Paul's aide Jack Hunter and his flamingly outrageous and highly vocal neo-Confederate, racist, xenophobic, and otherwise reactionary views.  But this piece by Alana Goodman pulls the story together especially well. I've quoted some highlights below, but it's worth reading the whole thing. Hunter's ideological outlook is not at all idiosyncratic, and it's useful to know how these people think.  —Jeff Weintraub

===================================
Washington Free Beacon
July 9, 2013
Rebel Yell
Rand Paul aide has history of neo-Confederate sympathies, inflammatory statements

By Alana Goodman

A close aide to Sen. Rand Paul (R., Ky.) who co-wrote the senator’s 2011 book spent years working as a pro-secessionist radio pundit and neo-Confederate activist, raising questions about whether Paul will be able to transcend the same fringe-figure associations that dogged his father’s political career.

Paul hired Jack Hunter, 39, to help write his book The Tea Party Goes to Washington during his 2010 Senate run. Hunter joined Paul’s office as his social media director in August 2012.

From 1999 to 2012, Hunter was a South Carolina radio shock jock known as the “Southern Avenger.” He has weighed in on issues such as such as racial pride and Hispanic immigration, and stated his support for the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.

During public appearances, Hunter often wore a mask on which was printed a Confederate flag.

Prior to his radio career, while in his 20s, Hunter was a chairman in the League of the South, which “advocates the secession and subsequent independence of the Southern States from this forced union and the formation of a Southern republic.” [....]
[JW:  Just some long-ago youthful follies?  Not exactly.]
By the early 2000s, Hunter was providing anonymous political commentary under the moniker the “Southern Avenger” on local rock radio station 96 Wave.

Transcripts of some of Hunter’s monologues from 2003 to 2007 are available in archived versions.

In a 50-minute interview with the Washington Free Beacon on Monday, Hunter renounced most of his comments.

In one 2004 commentary, Hunter said Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth’s heart was “in the right place.”

“Although Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth’s heart was in the right place, the Southern Avenger does regret that Lincoln’s murder automatically turned him into a martyr,” he said in 2004.

He later wrote that he “raise[s] a personal toast every May 10 to celebrate John Wilkes Booth’s birthday.”

He also compared Lincoln to Saddam Hussein and suggested that the 16th president would have had a romantic relationship with Adolf Hitler if the two met.

Many of Hunter’s monologues touched on racial issues, and his contention that white people are subject to a “racial double standard.”

“Black Americans are encouraged to celebrate their racial identity by appealing to their shared experience of injustice and African roots,” wrote Hunter. “Hispanics indulge in an even more nationalistic form of racial identity by flying Mexican flags, listening to a foreign music that both black and white Americans have never even heard of and turning everywhere they settle into northern outposts of their Mexican homeland.”

“Not only are whites not afforded the same right to celebrate their own cultural identity – but anything that is considered ‘too white’ is immediately suspect,” Hunter continued. “The term ‘diversity’ has become nothing more than a code word for ‘not white,’ and it’s a shame that just because we have fair skin, we are always denied fair treatment.”

In a 2007 commentary, Hunter opposed Spanish-speaking immigration to the United States.

“That Americans, white or otherwise, don’t want Spanish-speaking people dominating their airwaves, neighborhoods, or country is no more racist than Mexico’s lack of interest in Seinfeld,” he wrote. “Native Americans had no illusions about how their land would change as boatloads of white men landed on their shores and modern Americans aren’t wrong to deplore the millions of Mexicans coming here now. A non-white majority America would simply cease to be America for reasons that are as numerous as they are obvious – whether we are supposed to mention them or not.”

In 2005, Hunter’s anonymous commentary caught the attention of a local Charleston newspaper.

“Some call it hate speech, while others call it comedic genius,” wrote the Post and Courier in a profile on the radio pundit. “But [the Southern Avenger] swears that every word that issues from his lips, no matter how controversial or politically incorrect, actually represents how he feels about that particular issue.” [....]

In 2008, Hunter began writing for paleoconservative websites such as the American Conservative and Taki’s Magazine. [JW:  It seems fair to add that The American Conservative is no longer as overwhelmingly appalling as it was when it got started a decade ago—at its best, in fact, it has become one of the more interesting and intellectually stimulating magazines on the American righ—although some traces of that older perspective do remain. He also began posting his Southern Avenger commentaries under his own name. [....]
[JW: As part of this Old Right/Buchananite cocktail, Hunter agrees with Mearsheimer & Walt, as well as some alleged "progressives", that US foreign policy is controlled by Israel and its supporters.]
In another 2008 commentary, Hunter accused neoconservatives of pushing America into wars on behalf of Israel.

“Whether for Israel or oil, or both, a permanent U.S. foothold in the Middle East has been the primary neoconservative goal since day one and certainly since long before 9/11,” he said.

Hunter defended his pro-secessionist views as recently as 2009.

“In my early 20s, I was a full-blown, right-wing radical. As a member of the Southern secessionist group the League of the South, I argued seriously for the states of the old Confederacy to break away from the rest of the Union,” wrote Hunter in a Charleston City Paper column. “I thought it might be better to tone down the radicalism and at least try to appear more respectable. But when I came across an old column of mine last week, I realized that I never really changed. I’m still just as radical or crazy, depending on your perspective. In fact, I might be getting worse.”  [....]

The Washington Monthly reported Monday that Hunter is part of a group of close aides who advise Paul on foreign policy.  [....]

Michael Barone, senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner, said the younger Paul has tried to avoid being associated with some of the elder Paul’s fringier political views.
“I think they’re trying to fight that, and we’ll just see how successfully [Rand Paul] does,” said Barone. “Clearly he wants to avoid that perception.”

Paul’s father, Rep. Ron Paul (R., Texas), came under fire in 2008 when the New Republic reported that he had published a series of racially-insensitive  [i.e., blatantly racist]  newsletters in the 1990s. The elder Paul maintains that the newsletters, which were published under his name, were actually written by others at the time.

While the younger Paul has tripped over sensitive racial issues in the past—most notably when he dodged questions about whether he would have voted in favor of the Civil Rights Act—he is viewed as a much more mainstream figure than his father. [...]
[JW: True, he is widely perceived that way. But which stream is that, precisely? You can read the rest of Alana Goodman's piece here.]

Mark Thoma, Brad DeLong, and Ernst Kantorowicz on Xia Yeliang, the importance of tenure, and the dangers of political tests

The various pieces of this picture were pulled together by Brad DeLong in his post titled Mark Thoma on Xia Yeliang and the Importance of Tenure. Obviously, there is an argument embedded in that title, and in Mark Thoma's introductory comment on the significance of the case of Xia Yeliang.  Speaking as someone who doesn't have tenure and never has, I can endorse that argument in a personally disinterested and principled spirit.  But that's only part of the story, so read the whole thing.  (I've added my own editorial comment at the end.)

—Jeff Weintraub

==============================
Brad DeLong's Semi-Daily Journal
July 9, 2013
Mark Thoma on Xia Yeliang and the Importance of Tenure

Mark Thoma:
Economist's View: 'Liberal Peking University Professor Threatened with Expulsion':  On tenure:
Liberal Peking University professor threatened with expulsion, South China Morning Post: A renowned professor has confirmed online rumors that his peers will decide whether he will be expelled from China's most eminent university after he made a series of remarks in favor of free speech and constitutional governance. Economics professor Xia Yeliang of Peking University was told by his department that his fate would be decided by a faculty vote, he told the South China Morning Post on Monday. "They told me it's because of all the things I have said and written," Xia said. "They have threatened me before, but this is the first time they will vote on my expulsion."

Over the last years, Xia has been one of the most outspoken liberal voices among Chinese academics. A friend of imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, he was among the first signatories of Charter 08, the call for personal freedoms that landed Liu in jail.
I wanted to link to his Twitter account, but I couldn't find it:
… Recently, he has been writing critical remarks - on Twitter and Sina Weibo - about party censorship and President Xi Jinping's "Chinese Dream" slogan. Several, at least seven he said, of his Sina Weibo accounts have been deleted...
Ernst Kantorowicz (1950):   [JW:  In the US, the late 1940s and early 1950s were an era of debates over instituting various sorts of "loyalty oaths".]
As a historian who has investigated and traced the histories of quite a number of oaths, I feel competent to make a statement indicating the grave dangers residing in the introduction of a new, enforced oath, and to express, at the same time, from a professional and human point of view, my deepest concern about the steps taken by the Regents of this University.

Both history and experience have taught us that every oath or oath formula, once introduced or enforced, has the tendency to develop its own autonomous life. At the time of its introduction an oath formula may appear harmless, as harmless as the one proposed by the Regents of this University.

But nowhere and never has there been a guaranty that an oath formula imposed on, or extorted from, the subjects of an all-powerful state will, or must, remain unchanged. The contrary is true. All oaths in history that I know of, have undergone changes. A new word will be added. A short phrase, seemingly insignificant, will be smuggled in. The next step may be an inconspicuous change in the tense, from present to past, or from past to future. The consequences of a new oath are unpredictable. It will not be in the hands of those imposing the oath to control its effects, nor of those taking it, ever to step back again.

The harmlessness of the proposed oath is not a protection when a principle is involved. A harmless oath formula which conceals the true issue, is always the most dangerous one because it baits even the old and experienced fish. It is the harmless oath that hooks; it hooks before it has undergone those changes that will render it, bit by bit, less harmless. Mussolini Italy of 1931, Hitler Germany of 1933, are terrifying and warning examples for the harmless bit-by-bit procedure in connection with political enforced oaths.

History shows that it never pays to yield to the impact of momentary hysteria, or to jeopardize, for the sake of temporary or temporal advantages, the permanent or eternal values. It was just that kind of a "little oath" that prompted thousands of non-conformists in recent years, and other thousands in the generations before ours, to leave their homes and seek the shores of this Continent and Country. The new oath, if really enforced, will endanger certain genuine values the grandeur of which is not in proportion with the alleged advantages. Besides, this oath, which is invalid anyhow because taken under duress, may cut also the other way: it may have the effect of a drum beating for Communist and Fascist recruits.

The new oath hurts, not merely by its contents, but by the particular circumstances of its imposition. It tyrannizes because it brings the scholar sworn to truth into a conflict of conscience. To create alternatives—"black or white"—is a common privilege of modern and bygone dictatorships. It is a typical expedient of demagogues to bring the most loyal citizens, and only the loyal ones, into a conflict of conscience by branding non-conformists as un-Athenian, un-English, un-German, and—what is worse—by placing them before an alternative of two evils, different in kind but equal in danger.

The crude method of "Take it or leave it"—"Take the oath or leave your job"—creates a condition of economic compulsion and duress close to blackmail. This impossible alternative, which will make the official either jobless or cynical, leads to another completely false alternative: "If you do not sign, you are a Communist who has no claim to tenure." This whole procedure is bound to make the loyal citizen, one way or another, a liar and untrue to himself because any decision he makes will bind him to a cause which in truth is not his own. Those who belong, de facto or at heart, to the ostracized parties will always find it easy to sign the oath and make their mental reservation. Those who do not sign will be, now as ever, also those that suffer—suffer, not for their party creed or affiliations, but because they defend a superior constitutional principle far beyond and above trivial party lines.

I am not talking about political expediency or academic freedom, nor even about the fact that an oath taken under duress is invalidated the moment it is taken, but wish to emphasize the true and fundamental issue at stake: professional and human dignity.

There are three professions which are entitled to wear a gown: the judge, the priest, the scholar. This garment stands for its bearer's maturity of mind, his independence of judgment, and his direct responsibility to his conscience and to his God. It signifies the inner sovereignty of those three interrelated professions: they should be the very last to allow themselves to act under duress and yield to pressure.

It is a shameful and undignified action, it is an affront and a violation of both human sovereignty and professional dignity that the Regents of this University have dared to bully the bearer of this gown into a situation in which—under the pressure of a bewildering economic coercion—he is compelled to give up either his tenure or, together with his freedom of judgment, his human dignity and his responsible sovereignty as a scholar.
------------------------------------------------------------

[=> JW:  Kantorowicz's argument has several present-day resonances closer to home than China. I'll mention just one of them.

In the apparently never-ending series of campaigns for an international blacklist of Israeli academics (often presented under the misleading slogan of an academic "boycott"), several versions offer Israeli academics and other scholars an escape hatch if they express the approved political positions on the Israel-Palestinian conflict and other subjects. In effect, they can escape being blacklisted if they publicly make a 'disloyalty oath'.

As the American Association of University Professors correctly noted in its 2005 statement condemning these efforts to blacklist Israeli academics, that's an "exclusion which, because it requires compliance with a political or ideological test in order for an academic relationship to continue, deepens the injury to academic freedom rather than mitigates it." And if academics themselves demonstrate that they don't take seriously the most basic principles of academic freedom and open intellectual exchange, then who on earth is going to take them seriously?  Kantorowicz spells out some of the implications even more fully.]

Monday, July 08, 2013

Ahmadinejad cites the promotion of Holocaust denial as one his major achievements

Some highlights from Ahmadinejad's farewell speech reflecting on his time as President of Iran:
Outgoing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said during a farewell ceremony that publicizing his Holocaust denial was a major achievement of his presidency.

“That was a taboo topic that no one in the West allowed to be heard,” Ahmadinejad said in a speech Sunday, according to the Iranian Fars news agency.  “We put it forward at the global level. That broke the spine of the Western capitalist regime.”
What's the connection between promoting Holocaust denial and crippling western capitalism? I have some suspicions about the causal logic that Ahmadinejad may have in mind here, but we will have to leave a closer analysis to people who read or heard the whole speech, and who know Farsi.
Ahmadinejad’s remarks on the Holocaust appeared on the Fars news site in Arabic, but not on its English website, which covered other aspects of the speech. [....]

President-elect Hassan Rohani described Ahmadinejad’s anti-Israel remarks as “hate rhetoric” that had brought the country to the brink of war, the German news agency dpa reported
That criticism sounds refreshingly honest and straightforward—in contrast to the disingenuous evasions and strained apologetics that have marked a lot of western commentary about Ahmadinejad over the past decade, including bogus claims that his most appalling and inflammatory statements were being misquoted and/or misunderstood. (I name no names, but the apologists who spread that kind of misinformation, or otherwise made indefensible excuses for Ahmadinejad, included some people who really should have known better.)  So if Rohani really said that, it might be a promising sign. Again, I'd be curious to hear more details from analysts who have seen Rohani's remarks in context and in Farsi.

=> According to another article drawing on the DPA report:
Ahmadinejad also said in a Tehran ceremony organized by the government in his honor that "the name Ahmadinejad is now popular throughout the world." This was not only a success for Iranian foreign policy, he said, but had also improved Iran's image.
I wonder whether he really believes that.  If so, he's pretty much the only one who does.  (A recent Pew Research survey found that attitudes toward Iran around the world are overwhelmingly negative, with the exception of just a few anomalous countries.)  Then again, the human capacity for self-deception knows no bounds.
"I had two missions: to build up Iran and to improve the world," he said, adding that the two goals were "inseparable."

During Ahmadinejad's eight years in office, Iran was isolated not only from the West but also from most of the neighbouring Arab world.

His uncompromising nuclear policy, which other governments feared was being used to produce atomic weapons, led to financial sanctions and an economic crisis that has gripped the country for more than a year.

All six candidates in this year's presidential election and especially Rohani said during the campaign that Ahmadinejad's policies were the direct cause of the crisis.
Of course, the candidates who said that were being a little disingenuous, since everyone knew that many of those policies were not really Ahmadinejad's but Khamenei's—and Khamenei is still ultimately in control. Furthermore, Ahmadinejad was undoubtedly right to claim that his anti-semitic and anti-Zionist ravings helped increase his popularity in the region, even if other factors canceled out any public-relations benefits he derived that way.

At all events, I think it's safe to say that few people, inside or outside Iran, will miss him much. However, the regime he was part of is still there.

—Jeff Weintraub

Saturday, July 06, 2013

An Egyptian 12-year-old offers his analysis of Egyptian politics

Is this interview for real?  If so, this kid is remarkably impressive.  I know plenty of adult professionals whose discussions of social and political issues aren't nearly this cogent, informed, and well reasoned.  That's true even if you don't happen to agree with his perspective on the substantive issues, but I must say that I find most of his opinions pretty sophisticated and convincing.

For example, if you want to know what's wrong with the constitution drafted by the Islamist-dominated assembly in 2012 (the constitution suspended after the coup), he gets right to the heart of the matter.  Why might one argue that "the social objectives of the revolution are yet to be achieved"?  Well, watch the video.  —Jeff Weintraub


Adam Smith's conceptual sleight-of-hand on exchange, cooperation, and the foundations of social order

This was a response to one section of a post by Brad DeLong containing Snippets: Smith, Marx, Solow: Shoebox for Econ 210a Spring 2014.  My attention was caught by the first snippet in this compilation.  It posed the question "Exchange and its vicissitudes as fundamental to human psychology and society?" and followed that with a justly famous quotation from Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations.

As usual, Brad's question zeroed in on some crucial issues.  I was provoked to start writing a message about some of those issues, which I thought would run a few lines ... but it turned out to be a little longer, so I might as well share it.   —Jeff Weintraub

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Hi Brad,

Your post with Snippets: Smith, Marx, Solow: Shoebox for Econ 210a Spring 2014 ("Exchange and its vicissitudes as fundamental to human psychology and society?") begins by quoting one of Smith's most theoretically important passages in The Wealth of Nations. That passage (from the second chapter in Book I of WN) also contains one of Smith's most impressive, and cleverly deceptive, bits of conceptual and rhetorical sleight-of-hand. Too many readers, including quite sophisticated ones, uncritically accept this conceptual sleight-of-hand and take it at face value. Perhaps even Brad DeLong is one of them?   I notice that you actually collude in the deception (no doubt unintentionally) by selectively quoting from that passage.
Nobody ever saw a dog make a fair and deliberate exchange of one bone for another with another dog.... When an animal wants to obtain something either of a man or of another animal, it has no other means of persuasion but to gain the favour of those whose service it requires. A puppy fawns upon its dam, and a spaniel endeavours by a thousand attractions to engage the attention of its master who is at dinner, when it wants to be fed by him. Man sometimes uses the same arts with his brethren, and when he has no other means of engaging them to act according to his inclinations, endeavours by every servile and fawning attention to obtain their good will. He has not time, however, to do this upon every occasion. In civilised society he stands at all times in need of the cooperation and assistance of great multitudes, while his whole life is scarce sufficient to gain the friendship of a few persons....

[M]an has almost constant occasion for the help of his brethren, and it is in vain for him to expect it from their benevolence only. He will be more likely to prevail if he can interest their self-love in his favour, and show them that it is for their own advantage to do for him what he requires of them. Whoever offers to another a bargain of any kind, proposes to do this. Give me that which I want, and you shall have this which you want, is the meaning of every such offer; and it is in this manner that we obtain from one another the far greater part of those good offices which we stand in need of. It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love....
 Let's start with those dogs, since that's where the deceptive argumentation begins, and a more careful examination of what Smith says about dogs already begins to undermine his carefully constructed dichotomy.  Sure, it's probably true that nobody ever saw two dogs exchange bones of equivalent value.  (Why would they want to do that?)  But so what?  That point is just a distraction from the real question.  The central agenda of this passage is to argue that the only two ways to get help or assistance from someone else are (a) self-interested exchange or (b) an appeal to their "benevolence" by begging and "fawning".  Let's forget humans for a moment.  Is that second option the only way dogs ever do it?  

Smith wants us to think the answer is yes, but the answer is obviously no.  To see why, we should pay attention to what happens in the three sentences immediately preceding the quotation.  Smith, in effect, denies that dogs (and presumably other canine species) hunt in packs. If you think I'm making that up, go back and re-read the relevant sentences.
Two greyhounds, in running down the same hare, have sometimes the appearance of acting in some sort of concert.  Each turns her toward his companion, or endeavours to intercept her when his companion turns her toward himself.  This, however, is not the effect of any contract, but of the accidental concurrence of their passions in the same object at that particular time.  [my boldings]
No, dogs don't trade one bone for another. But dogs and other animals definitely do cooperate (not just in pairs, but in packs) in obtaining things they could not obtain, or achieving things they could not achieve, as individuals. In the process of cooperation, they help each other out.  And they regularly do so in ways that do not involve market exchange (or servile fawning).

It's probably correct to say that two dogs pursuing a hare together haven't made a "contract" (that would depend, in part, on precisely what Smith means by "contract" here). But is that logically equivalent to claiming, as Smith implies by a cunning conceptual slide, that the two dogs aren't really acting in "concert"? A moment's reflection should be sufficient to make the answer embarrassingly obvious. In the real world, dogs—and other animals—frequently act in concert.

OK, perhaps Smith didn't know dogs that well.  (Actually, I suspect that's not so, but let's just concede the possibility.)  But humans can hunt in packs, too, and do lots of other things in packs. Humans act in concert all the time, in ways that are not based on trucking and bartering. That may seem like an obvious fact, once it's pointed out ... but a major purpose of Smith's discussion in the first several pages of that chapter is to obscure the theoretical significance of this obvious fact.

Why would Smith want to obscure that conceptual point?

We don't need to try to read Smith's mind, but we do know that Smith is a careful analytical system-builder and a writer of great rhetorical skill and sophistication.  (His writings on rhetoric are justly admired.)  And one can't help noticing that obscuring, or evading, that conceptual point serves a useful function in helping Smith lay the foundations for his core theoretical argument in WN.

As I've already noted, Smith tries hard to convey the impression that the only significant basis for sustained mutually beneficial interaction between individuals is self-interested exchange, which on the one side is rooted in certain basic impulses or motivations built into human nature (self-interest + the impulse to exchange), and on the other side gives rise (unintentionally but intelligibly) to a dynamic system of self-interested exchange (the market) with its own distinctive laws & dynamics. Smith further wants to suggest that the only possible alternative basis for (intermittent) mutual aid or beneficial interaction is gratuitous "benevolence" or (to use a later, 19th-century, word) altruism.

But that's a false dichotomy, since it implicitly rules out other bases for concerted action and mutually beneficial interaction that do, indeed, play significant roles in real life.

What am I getting at? Well, let's review the first sentence from the second paragraph you quoted:
[M]an has almost constant occasion for the help of his brethren, and it is in vain for him to expect it from their benevolence only.
Yes, man (or human) does have constant needs for coordinated action, mutually beneficial interaction, and assistance from others. (So do wolves.) And it's true that gratuitous altruism or "benevolence" cannot serve as the only basis for them, quite aside from the fact that constantly wheedling other people for favors or handouts is demeaning. But are those really the only two alternatives? No, of course not. This is a cleverly constructed, and rhetorically effective, false dichotomy.

Let me step back and point out that, in the most basic analytical terms, there are at least three ways to achieve sustained coordination of human actions—even if we just ignore "benevolence" for the moment.  (I emphasize "at least" because this isn't meant to be a comprehensive or fully systematic typology, just something sufficient to begin moving beyond that false dichotomy.)

(1)  One obvious possibility is top-down command, or what we might euphemistically term "imperative coordination" (to use Parsons's idiosyncratic and somewhat bowdlerizing translation of Weber's Herrschaft). And in fact this mode of coordination turns up right in Chapter 1 of Book I of WN, since that is precisely how the the division of labor within the famous pin factory is instituted and run. Yes, the rest of WN goes on to show how it is possible to have an effective division of labor (i.e., dynamic systems of simultaneous differentiation and coordination) without the necessity for conscious top-down coordination based on command—i.e., a division of labor can be coordinated by the impersonal system of the self-regulating market—and that's a brilliant and profound theoretical achievement. But we shouldn't forget that domination or authority plays a role in social and economic life, too. And, to repeat, the coordination of action within Smith's pin factory (or any other formal organization) is not based, in principle, on either gratuitous "benevolence" or the self-interested exchange of commodities.

(Marx, of course, hammers that point home with his analysis of the two complementary forms of the division of labor in the capitalist mode of production, and brilliantly spells out some of the implications.)

(2)  A second possible mode of coordinating human action is through the market—i.e., an impersonal, dynamic, and self-regulating system of self-interested exchange. Let's be conceptually clear and precise here. Smith's point about how the market operates as a system is that it allows tens, thousands, or millions of people to be connected in chains of mutually beneficial interaction without having to consciously coordinate their actions or reach agreements about them, without having to care about what those other people need or want, without even knowing they exist. In so far as those millions of mutual strangers "cooperate" in the market system, that "cooperation" is purely functional and metaphorical. In fact, the beauty of the market is precisely that it allows for systematic and beneficial coordination without the need for either conscious cooperation or conscious top-down "imperative coordination" (i.e., domination).

(3)  But that brings us to a third possible mode of coordinating human action, which is conscious cooperation. Humans can sometimes manage to pursue joint or common ends, not through the indirect mechanisms of self-interested exchange of commodities, nor by simultaneously submitting to a common superior who directs and coordinates their actions (the Hobbesian solution), but by engaging in concerted action guided by common agreement, custom, habituation, etc.. Not only can humans do it, even dogs and wolves can do it—despite what Smith's second paragraph in Chapter 2 of Book I of WN might seem to imply.

Conscious cooperation, by the way, is not identical to gratuitous "benevolence" or altruism. It may draw on emotions of fellow-feeling or solidarity (those frequently help), but it may also entail quite hard-headed calculations of material advantage and instrumental rationality. But the point is that, in this context, the interests of the participants can be pursued, not through exchange, but through actual (not virtual) cooperation. Furthermore, humans sometimes manage to build up complex systems for enabling large-scale and sophisticated forms of cooperation, including institutional mechanisms for collective deliberation and decision-making, representation, etc.

(In the real world, many human practices and institutions involve more or less complex mixtures of elements from more than one of those categories, or even from all three. But for the sake of conceptual clarity, and to avoid the typical conceptual obfuscations, it's useful to begin by laying out those ideal-typical analytical distinctions sharply. To pretend, or imply, or even tacitly insinuate that option #2 is the only way to coordinate human activity in sustained and beneficial ways—and that the only conceivable alternative is gratuitous "benevolence"—is self-evidently wrong.)

And as long as we're on the subject of the tacit exclusions underlying Smith's foundational false dichotomy, let me mention just one more factor. Smith suggests in the passage you quoted that if we want someone else to do something that might be necessary or beneficial for us, there are two kinds of motivation, and only two kinds of motivation, that we might appeal to. We can appeal either to their individual self-interest or to their disinterested benevolence. Well, in the real world, we often make claims or recommendations, or have expectations that we regard as sensible and legitimate, based on people's obligations (moral, legal, customary, religious, or whatever). Obligations are not individual psychological characteristics, but socially structured norms, and they are not simply reducible to motivations of generalized "benevolence" or of the calculation of individual self-interest. (Of course, some people might want to argue for reducing them to the latter—those would be the kinds of "rational actor" obsessives who would tautologically reduce everything to calculations of individual self-interest—but I don't think I need to spell out to you the reasons why that won't work.  Life is more complicated than that.) Also, it so happens that systems of obligation are of fundamental importance in shaping and coordinating all modes and areas of human social life, from what Smith calls the "early and rude state of society" up to the present. (I suppose that's a Durkheimian point, though it might also be treated as Burkean or Polanyian.)

=>  OK, I could go on ... but that should be sufficient to get the main points across.

Smith might well want to argue that coordinating human action through the market, based on the motivations and practices of self-interested exchange (and their indirect and unintended consequences), is (generally speaking, and all things being equal) better and more efficient than coordinating human action through domination, conscious cooperation, obligation, etc. Elsewhere in WN Smith does, in effect, make arguments along those lines.  And one could certainly find strong and plausible grounds for them (though I confess to having a soft spot for conscious coordination, where it's practicable).

However, such arguments would be different from the explicit argument that Smith actually does make in the passage you quoted—i.e., that the only significant basis for the sustained and mutually beneficial coordination of human action is self-interested market exchange ... and that the only conceivable alternative would be the throw-away residual category of gratuitous "benevolence" (which present-day mainstream economists usually shove into the even-more-grab-bag residual category of "altruism"). The argument that Smith actually makes there is incorrect, is based on an obvious false dichotomy ... and has proved to be a brilliantly successful and convincing piece of rhetorical and conceptual sleight-of hand. We should admire the brilliance, but we shouldn't be taken in.

=> Nor is this a peripheral or merely technical point. One of the central arguments that runs through and structures Smith's whole discussion in Books I-II of WN is that the market (based on the built-in human motivations and "natural" practices of self-interested exchange) is not just one important basis of social order, but is the fundamental basis of social order (and of the main tendencies of long-term socio-historical development). That's what it means to treat "exchange and its vicissitudes as fundamental to human psychology and society".

Again, that's a brilliant, powerful, and fascinating theoretical argument. But it's wrong ... and swallowing it uncritically has led many very intelligent people astray.

Yours for theory,
Jeff Weintraub

[P.S.  For some follow-up, see Gavin Kennedy, Brad DeLong, & Jeff Weintraub on Adam Smith's social theory & moral philosophy.]

Some remaining points of consensus across the political and inter-sectarian divides in the Arab world

Picked up at random by A. Jay Adler, who can't help wondering whether there is some kind of pattern here.

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New Syrian Antisemitic TV Series: Jews Of Khaybar Instigate War Between Arab Tribes
Following are excerpts from the first two episodes of a Syrian anti-Semitic TV series, titled "Khaybar," which is scheduled to be aired during the month of Ramadhan in a few weeks' time. The first two episodes were unofficially posted on the Internet on June 13, 2013.     http://t.co/QWImfSq7W0

Antisemitic Skit On Egyptian Islamist TV Depicts Stereotypical Jew Instigating Strife In Egypt
Following are excerpts from an antisemitic sketch, which aired on Al-Hafez TV, an Egyptian Islamist channel, on June 6, 2013.    http://t.co/UOqnL8jNCk

Muslim Brotherhood Claim: New Egyptian President Adly Mansour is Jewish

Egyptian Politician Khaled Zaafrani: Jews Use Human Blood For Passover Matzos  (and "have instigated wars in the world" ....)
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Etc.

—Jeff Weintraub

Adam Garfinkle ponders some continuities and discontinuities in Egypt's ongoing political crisis

In an item that Adam Garfinkle posted on his National Interest blog on Thursday, he tried to put Egypt's military coup into perspective (specifically, his perspective) and to engage in informed speculation about what might be coming next.  His prognoses may or may not prove to be on-target, but his analysis was intelligent, cut through some standard clichés and obfuscations, and offered some useful food for thought.  So it's worth considering.  Some highlights (along with a few remarks of my own):
A lot has happened since I posted “Abdel Fattah al-Sisi—Memorize That Name” on July 1. The scenario I posited has worked out so far in every respect save one, but it is an important one because it informs the not-at-all-trivial semantic argument over whether what has happened is or is not a coup.

I assumed that the military would invite the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Freedom and Justice Party, into its planned transitional government arrangement. It did. But the MB, led in this case, I assume, by a decision taken together by Mohammed Morsi, Khaitar al-Shatar and Mohammed Badie, vehemently rejected that invitation and engaged instead in what one organizer of the Tamarod movement has termed “incitement to civil war.” Morsi’s 11th hour change of heart, where he seemed to offer a dollop of conciliation, struck al-Sisi as not just too little too late, but as the act of a desperate man—which, of course, is what it was, since by then Morsi’s entire cabinet had resigned and repudiated his rambling fulmination of the previous evening.

The MB’s rejection of the Army’s invitation was both unnecessary and very stupid, but Leninist-organized religious fanatics enthralled by conspiracy theories are prone to stupidity.
JW:  A few points are worth adding here. First, I think Garfinkle is right to suggest that the military's first preference was not to depose Morsi with a straightforward coup, but instead to use the threat of a coup to force Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood into a power-sharing arrangement with the opposition. (Samuel Tadros offered a similar analysis on Tuesday, before the coup, and I think he was also right about this) But you don't always get your first choices in life. Once Morsi called the military's bluff by rejecting their ultimatum, they had to call Morsi's bluff or back down in a way that would have looked like a humiliating defeat. So they went ahead with their coup.

Second, the Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood may have miscalculated in their response to the army's pressure, and everything else that Garfinkle says about them here is correct, but their refusal to consider a power-sharing arrangement was neither odd nor self-evidently "unnecessary". They clearly saw themselves as engaged in an all-or-nothing power struggle, the latest stage in an effort to control and reshape Egyptian society pursued tenaciously over more than 8 decades. Morsi, their presidential candidate in the last election, had barely squeaked through to victory over a figure from the deeply discredited Mubarak regime. So they probably figured that their chances of winning again in early elections, under current circumstances, were unpromising—and that their chances of winning another election further down the line probably depended on consolidating control of the state apparatus first. They had been presented with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to consolidate control over that state apparatus, a process that would undoubtedly take at least the full duration of Morsi's allotted term, and they were not about to give up that opportunity. So their decision to reject the military's pressure for power-sharing should probably not have been surprising.  It was, so to speak, overdetermined.
It is, nevertheless, poetic justice of a sort that Morsi has behaved in a politically incompetent way that has objectively aided the Army, since he was the benefactor of a prior year-long episode of incompetence perpetrated by Field Marshall Mohammed Hussein Tantawi that aided the Brotherhood.

So is this a coup? Well, if Morsi had decided to “come along quietly” and participate in an Army-directed recalibration of Egyptian politics on behalf of the MB, then no, it would not have so readily been called a coup—especially if Morsi had officially remained President for a little while in the transition to a transition. (Yes, in Egypt there are such things.)
JW:  This would have amounted to what is sometimes called a "soft coup".
But the way things turned out, it’s hard to call what has happened anything other than a coup, and this is unfortunate for two reasons.

It is unfortunate, first, because it forces Congress’ and the Administration’s hand to suspend aid to Egypt, and doing that right now, either to the military ($3.1 billion) or the paltry sum we give to the rest of the Egyptian government ($250 million), is a bad idea.
JW:  What Garfinkle really means it that it would force the hand of the US government unless that dilemma gets evaded through a bit of creative diplomacy and linguistic hypocrisy. In reality, as Garfinkle goes on to explain, a suspension of US aid is very unlikely to happen. And yes, simply cutting off US aid to Egypt right now would be a bad idea.
The President has wisely avoided using the word “coup” in his very scanty public remarks, and so retains some flexibility to declare a national security exception to the law if he chooses to do so. He should, and aside from the obvious benefit of not forfeiting what little leverage we have left in Egypt, here is why.

It is unfortunate, second, because the language is so loaded that it obscures important distinctions. There are coups and there are coups, just as there are democracies and there are democracies. With any luck at all, and especially if the United States maintains and wisely uses its leverage (of which more below), what General al-Sisi has set in motion could in time be seen as a “corrective movement”, a very popular locution in Arab politics, instead of a coup. But for that to happen Egypt may need to be a Praetorian Democracy for a while—in other words, an under-institutionalized democracy whose incubation period is protected by the military. This is hardly a rare circumstance. It defines the relationship between the military and the political culture at large in Turkey for many years, in South Korea and Indonesia in different ways, and to a less successful extent in Pakistan, among many cases.

Could the Egyptian military play such a role in future, despite having never been so inclined in the past? It could, because, as I mentioned last time, there have been significant social changes in Egypt over the past generation or two that conduce to the birth of attitudes supporting genuine political pluralism. And while the Army has parochial interests aplenty, it also genuinely thinks of itself as a patriotic national institution that takes the best interests of the Egyptian people to heart. If the Egyptian people are developing a more sophisticated sense of their own public square, there is reason to believe that the Army will acknowledge and support that development in due course. [....]
JW:  "Less successful" is a rather euphemistic way to describe the case of Pakistan, to put it mildly, and it's not clear how well the examples of South Korea and Indonesia really fit into Garfinkle's argument, either. In fact, the whole scenario that Garfinkle sketches out here sounds extremely optimistic—which is ironic, since he wants to contrast his own clear-eyed realism with the muddled and starry-eyed naivete of other commentators.

But the Turkish model does raise some interesting issues—and not only because that analogy is undoubtedly in the minds of the Egyptian military. From the 1920s through the present, how many military strongmen in Muslim countries have dreamed of emulating the modernizing role of Ataturk!  (The last two Shahs of Iran were among them.)  In most cases, sad to say, these experiments have ended in disaster. And experiences with "Praetorian Democracy" elsewhere in the world (e.g., Latin America) are mostly not encouraging.

But then there is Turkey. The extent to which one thinks that the Kemalist republic provides a good model for a long-term transition to stable democracy by way of extended quasi-authoritarian tutelage, with the military serving the role of a 'moderating power', will depend in part on how successful one feels that long-term process has been for Turkey ... and about that, to paraphrase a remark about the French revolution once attributed to Chou En-Lai, it may still be too early to tell. And then there's the further question of how well what worked (more or less) in 20th-century Turkey will work in 21st-century Egypt.

Still, one reason to consider this suggestion seriously is that most of the available alternatives don't look very promising, either. Maintaining the autonomous power of the military in Egypt's political system is obviously a bad idea for all sorts of reasons, both direct and indirect. Even when the military aren't actively shooting people or putting them in jail, a political role for the military always has corrupting effects on a country's political culture. But there's always that question of alternatives—not ideally desirable alternatives, but realistically available alternatives. One could legitimately ask whether, given the realities of Egypt's current situation, prematurely eliminating the military's autonomous role might not lead to even worse consequences.

=>  But now we come back  from from future-oriented speculations to recent and present realities.
The American mainstream press over the past few days has come up with the usual multitude of predictable boners—misleading and sometimes flatly wrong statements about what is and has been going on in Egypt. These screw-ups have followed faithfully from the errors made originally, back in the spring of 2011—which I detailed at the time in this blog—of which three were key:
JW:  What Garfinkle goes on to list are not the pundit's errors but the important facts that, in his opinion, the pundits have missed or misunderstood. His judgments here seem largely on-target.
(1) the ouster of Hosni Mubarak itself was not a revolution and it did not signify a regime change—it was an internal putsch within the military than ended a dynasty rather than a regime;
JW:  Certainly that's what the military, and the rest of the Mubarak-era power structure, wanted. They may have set forces in motion that were more powerful and transformative than they bargained for.
because (2) Mubarak was not really a civilian President and the Army was not just one of an array of political actors—just because he wore no military uniform most of the time did not mean he wasn’t always and ever an Air Force general; and (3) the opposition at the time out in the street was demanding the fall of the dictator, which was the only thing it could agree on—it was not in the main a “pro-democracy movement” as we understand the term. [...]
That last point broadens the focus from the military-dominated power structure that has ruled Egypt since the 1950s to include the larger range of politically mobilized forces in the society. Unfortunately, one of those political forces greatly outweighs all the rest in terms of coherence, effectiveness, and disciplined organization—i.e., the Muslim Brotherhood. Many of Egypt's political dynamics since the fall of Mubarak have been shaped by the interplay between these two quite different authoritarian forces (and their satellite elements), the military and the Muslim Brotherhood. As Garfinkle emphasizes, it's important not to misunderstand or oversimplify that relationship.
The Muslim Brotherhood is at the same time a radical group but not a revolutionary one. One has to be very careful with how one uses English words when talking about Egypt, because its political and social physiognomy is not the same as ours. As I explained in one of my 2011 posts, the Army and the Brotherhood were long-time political contestants, so long that both sides grew to guardedly respect each other in the midst of their tussles so long as certain red lines were respected on both sides. The MB was technically illegal but tolerated so long as it foreswore violence, and the Army let the MB proselytize and provide some social services the regular bureaucracy could not ever seem to manage. That arrangement was encouraged by the fact that, by Sadat’s time, both the Army and the Brotherhood had common enemies: unreconstructed Nassarite leftists and Communists to the one side, and truly revolutionary salafi Islamists to the other. In this light, then, conflating the MB with a group like al-Gamaa al-Islamiya is deeply, profoundly ignorant.

Of course, that established if fragile equipoise, which had to have been a major factor leading Tantawi to think he could control Morsi, has now gone by boards. But anyone who imagines that the Egyptian MB can turn itself into a revolutionary insurgent force that stands any chance against the Army just doesn’t know what he’s talking about. One fellow I know on the scene saw from his apartment window a bunch of MB types running “training” laps around a city square while chanting some lamely dramatic slogan, with some clutching tree branches for would-be weapons. If there’s anything funny about what’s going on in Egypt right now, this has to be it. Senior MB leaders are not going to start a civil war. They may be stupid, but they are not suicidal.

At the same time, it is true that if the Army tries to completely exclude the MB from the nation’s future political configuration, it is bound to sire a new generation of Islamist terrorists. Nothing about General al-Sisi suggests he is that foolish, however. So in a sense the limits of action within the ambit of Army-MB relations remain intact, at least in some form. But who knows? Making big mistakes is the one hallmark that, whatever their other differences, unifies recent Egyptian leaders.
Too true.

=>   In thinking about the dilemmas involved here, and the potential disasters that might lie ahead, at least two worrisome analogies come to mind.

One of those possible analogies, which no one in the Middle East can forget, is Algeria in the 1990s. In late 1991 the Algerian regime, which had been tentatively experimenting with an electoral opening, cancelled the national elections to forestall an expected victory by the main Islamist Party. This provoked an armed insurrection by more radical Islamists, which in turn escalated into a horrifyingly brutal and murderous civil war that lasted more than a decade and killed more than 100,000 Algerians before the rebels were eventually crushed. Right now there is no reason to expect an Egyptian re-run of Algeria's civil war, at least on the same scale. But the Egyptian regime has been involved in violent conflicts with radical jihadists on several occasions over the past several decades, accompanied by plenty of atrocities on both sides, so a new round of that can't be ruled out—and one never knows where these things lead.

Another possible analogy that has occurred to me (more distant, possibly even far-fetched) involves Argentina's political experience after Juan Perón was overthrown by a military coup in 1955. For the next two decades the political class tried to run a regime of parliamentary representative government, elections and all, while excluding the Peronists—who did indeed pose a threat to political liberty (as well as to the social and economic interests of the oligarchic elites), but who also happened to have extensive and solidly enduring popular support. That experiment did not work very well, and ended disastrously.

OK, this analogy is far from perfect, but perhaps it works well enough to be usefully thought-provoking.  The Muslim Brotherhood's role in Egyptian society and politics poses genuine, and genuinely difficult, dilemmas for the prospects of an Egyptian "transition" to a stable and successful democratic regime. On the one hand, as I just suggested, if the Muslim Brotherhood and their supporters are simply excluded or suppressed, then a significant portion of Egyptian society will regard the pretense of democratic politics as a sham. And I can imagine scenarios where the Muslim Brotherhood could play a tolerably unthreatening role in democratic politics in Egypt, if a system of democratic politics does begin to emerge, and perhaps even a constructive role in the long term—but only under two conditions. First, this would only work if the Muslim Brotherhood and its Islamist allies do not get unchallenged control of political power, which will be hard to prevent as long as they don't face effective political competition (and/or they're not held in check by the autonomous power of the military, which poses its own problems). Second, in the long run the Muslim Brotherhood would have to undergo a profound internal transformation, leading to a genuine and principled acceptance of democracy and of social and political pluralism. (Willingness to use elections to gain power isn't enough, by itself, to meet those criteria.) That sort of long-term ideological evolution can't necessarily be ruled out as impossible. (After all, even some of the most rigidly Stalinoid Communist Parties in western Europe evolved in the direction of Euro-Communism ... before sliding into the dustbin of history.)  But contrary to some naive or apologetic commentary on the subject, right now the Muslim Brotherhood is far away from getting to that point (if it ever does).

And, of course, the prospects for a successful Egyptian "transition" to democracy in the near future are complicated a lot of other factors, too ...

=>  Garfinkle concludes:
[W]e should realize that neither America as a nation nor the U.S. government specifically can “fix” Egypt, whatever that is supposed to mean. We never could. We did not cause their problems and we cannot solve them. We cannot turn Egypt into our kind or any kind of democracy, and we can only help Egyptians who want to travel that road if they ask us—not the other way around.

More to present needs, however, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is neither devil nor savior, neither destroyer of democracy nor the man-on-white-horse answer to Egypt’s suffering. He can’t change the past or control the future, but he needs help where he can find it in the still parlous present. We have a somewhat awkward and unglamorous interest in providing some of that help, if only because doing so can restore some of the leverage we have lost in recent years. [....]
=>  But it would be wrong to close by focusing so exclusively on the Egyptian military and the Muslim Brotherhood (and US foreign policy).  As Trudy Rubin correctly pointed out on Thursday, if there's going to be any chance for the successful emergence of democracy in Egypt, what will be even more crucial is the role of the political opposition,
which also bears a large share of blame for Egypt's troubles. The youth leaders who organized both Tahrir Square revolts have proven their talent at rallying millions. But they have been unable, or unwilling, to create a coherent political movement out of an opposition that includes liberals, leftists, former regime supporters, and some moderate and Salafi Islamist groups.

These disparate groups had little in common other than their opposition to Morsi. They undercut efforts by the Morsi government to reform the collapsing economy, while proposing no workable plan of their own.

Had the opposition united behind one candidate or political program, it might have defeated Morsi in presidential elections; it also might have bested Brotherhood candidates in parliamentary elections that Morsi had promised for this fall. Instead, if new parliamentary elections were held tomorrow and the military allowed Islamist candidates to run, they might win again, because only they are politically organized.

The splintered opposition has perfected the art of street politics, but hasn't shown it can govern. Nor is there any sign that the opposition contains leaders who could unite the country or fix its economy. [....]

Now that Morsi is gone, opposition groups can no longer hide behind anti-Islamism. They will have to up their game and prove that they have leaders with the ability to govern.

Those leaders will have to reach out to include Islamists in the political system, or risk bloody violence if they are excluded. Polls show that the non-Islamist opposition and Islamist parties each command around 30 percent of the electorate (while 40 percent are fed up with both sides).

And opposition activists will have to move beyond the politics of Tahrir Square and street protests, which won't save Egypt from collapsing. Otherwise, demonstrators may be soon be demanding that they, too, leave the political scene.
Hoping for the best,
Jeff Weintraub

Matthew McNaught reconsiders his microbus map of Damascus

Earlier this week the Syria Comment website run by Joshua Landis and associates introduced one item by saying that they were
proud to post the following beautiful reflection by Matthew McNaught. Those who have lived in Damascus (or other Syrian cities) will relate to the pervasive presence of the “service” (serv-EES; plural ser-a-VEES). Personal accounts like this remind us of the Syria we love and miss. Matthew’s thoughtful celebration of the Syrian microbus is touching and helps us realize that even a transportation system can be an unexpected cultural treasure. Matthew maintains a blog called Ibn Sifr.
McNaught lived and worked in Damascus from 2007-2009, came to love it, and still feels nostalgic for it.  Riding the microbuses gave him the sense that he really knew the city and understood its social geography.  Most of his account conveys that sense of fascination and nostalgia for a social world that has probably been shattered irretrievably.  But as McNaught reflected anew on his experience of Damascus in light of the civil war that erupted in 2011, he was increasingly struck, in retrospect, by what was missing from his microbus map of Damascus.  The result is that this venture in urban ethnography leads to some painful socio-political realizations.

Here are some passages from McNaught's piece, "The End of the Line: A Microbus Map of Damascus". As readers will notice, that title has several layers of meaning.
Here is a Syrian microbus, more commonly known as the servees or micro:
Syrian service
As you can see, it doesn’t look like anything special. A white box on four wheels, about ten seats, a sliding door on the side, a sign on the roof with the route written in large letters. But three years after leaving Damascus, the servees is often on my mind.

I went to Damascus at the start of 2007 with a plan to study Arabic for a year. The city won me over, and I decided to stay on. I worked there as an English teacher until the end of 2009.

Some days, I still have pangs of nostalgia for the servees. [....]

It seemed that every Damascene carried a microbus map in their head, like the knowledge of a London cabbie. But as a foreigner, I had to construct my own map, one line at a time.

In the beginning, my mental map of Damascus was a stubby little thing. It was a Lonely Planet Damascus, a wandering line from the ancient souqs of Old Damascus to the hotels and banks of the modern city centre, punctuated by famous ice-cream parlours, cheap restaurants and historic bathhouses. It was enchanting, but I wanted to see more. When I figured out how to navigate the servees lines, the larger city began to open out in front of me. [....]

The micro lines showed me a city of contrast; from wide tree-lined streets to densely built-up working class neighbourhoods. They showed me a city of diversity; from conservative Muslim areas to places rich in minorities; Druze, Ismaelis, Christians and Mandeans from Iraq. [....]

When friends came to visit, I would insist on getting the servees rather than the taxi. ‘I’ll show them the real Damascus’, I would think to myself, and proudly take them to places outside of the usual tourist trail. It took me almost three years to feel like I really knew Damascus. But in the three years since I left, I have begun to realise how much was missing from my map.

When the uprising first reached the capital in 2011, I noticed something odd as I followed the news. The first areas in Damascus that rose up against the regime sounded strangely familiar, although I had never visited them: Jobar, Douma, Barzeh, Ghouta, Qaboun, Harasta. It took a moment before it hit me. They were the names that I had seen every day on the roofs of passing microbuses. They were the destinations of the routes; places on the outer limits of the city’s sprawling suburbs. Some of them were lines that I had ridden regularly within the city. But I didn’t have any friends or students in these places. There were no famous restaurants or beauty spots there. I’d never had a reason to ride the servees to the end of the line.

When I had taken the coach to other cities in Syria, I had occasionally glimpsed some of these areas out of the window. It had surprised me how far the urban sprawl stretched, a sea of grey in all directions. Some areas, like Douma, were cities in themselves, with their own souqs and parks and upmarket neighbourhoods. But as a general rule, the further we got from the centre of Damascus, the more the buildings became shabby and densely built up; naked concrete and breezeblock, unfinished roofs bristling with metal rods. The municipal services didn’t appear to reach this far; some streets were unpaved and rubbish piled up on corners. Why did the uprising reach the city through these outer suburbs? It might be suggested that the Sunni Muslim areas were the ones that rose up first. There is no denying the ugly sectarianism that has risen to the surface in this conflict. But most neighbourhoods in Damascus are dominated by Sunni Muslims. There must have been more to it than that.

When I mentioned this to Rami, a Syrian-Palestinian friend who now lives in the UK, he said that this was no coincidence. ‘This is not a war of politics, or religion, or sectarianism,’ he said. ‘It’s a war of poverty.’
[JW:  Of course, his friend was partly right and partly wrong. Like many other conflicts and upheavals, the civil war in Syria has been about all of those things, in complex combination.]
In the years I lived in Damascus, nothing much seemed to change. I had noticed the doubling of the servees fare along with an increase in the price of mazout heating oil. The price of bread also went up, and I was vaguely aware of a drought in the countryside from occasional news headlines. But none of this had impacted my Damascus. Looking back, the 5 lira increase in fare had reached me like a small tremor from a distant earthquake.

It wasn’t until I left Damascus that I realised the scale of the drought. Between 2007 and 2009, it had displaced 1.5 million people. Countless internal migrants had come to Damascus, and most lived in the outer suburbs of the city, where the housing was cheapest, and where they remained invisible to most people in the centre. These neighbourhoods were home to those who felt most keenly the grotesque imbalance of power and wealth in the country. They were the people who protested first, and who first faced the brutal reaction of the regime.

I was not blind to the poverty in Syria. I saw the contrast between rich and poor, but it was on the periphery of my vision. I didn’t see how far it stretched beyond the horizon. My Damascus felt normal but it was an anomaly. It was an island of relative plenty in a ocean of poverty.

The poor neighbourhoods were not the only places missing from my Damascus map. There were dark places in the city. Since speaking to Syrian friends now living in the safety of the UK, I have realised how their cities were haunted by places whose very names were a gut-punch of dread. Certain neighbourhoods such as Kafer Souseh, Adawi, Mezze and Barzeh were infamous for the security centres they housed; the prisons and interrogation rooms of the labyrinthine branches of the mukhabarat. These places meant torture, indefinite detention without trial, humiliation and helplessness. When I lived in Damascus, I passed heavily guarded military buildings most days. I may have looked at their armed guards and wondered vaguely for a moment about what was inside, but the wondering didn’t last long. These places didn’t occupy my city the way they did for Syrians.

The conflict in Syria cannot be oversimplified; it has become a sectarian civil war and an international proxy war as well as a local struggle against tyranny. But at its heart, it seems that the Syrian regime was a dictatorship that relied on old methods to deal with a new reality. Dictatorship depends on a precarious balancing act; finding the right combination of bread and terror to keep a people pacified. If the population are scared enough, a certain amount of hunger and hardship can be tolerated. But if the hunger becomes unbearable, then an escalation in terror is not enough to keep people silent. The balance is lost, and there is no turning back.

I never foresaw the intensity of the popular uprising in Syria, or the brutality of the government response. But the conflict could only be understood in light of those places that were absent from my map; those dark spots of brutality and the invisible band of poverty that encircled the city. With these blindspots, the unrest and violence seemed alien and surreal. Perhaps it is not surprising how many Damascenes swallow the regime propaganda that blames all unrest on foreign mercenaries and terrorists. [....]
You can read the rest here. It's worth reading in full.  As the introduction suggested, it's reflective, insightful, ethnographically illuminating, and ultimately quite moving..

—Jeff Weintraub

Friday, July 05, 2013

Egypt's protests seen from space

A satellite photo relayed via Twitter and then posted on Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish.  —Jeff Weintraub

Anka @Celentan
The Protest in from space a day ago! pic.twitter.com/E9jP2wZLXp

View image on Twitter

The backlash against Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood and its (temporary?) political debacle

A good political joke from Egypt was reported by the Washington Post 's Max Fisher on Tuesday, just before the military coup that removed President Morsi and his government:
Before the joke, the set up:  Since the Muslim Brotherhood was first founded in Egypt in 1928, it has been severely persecuted, including by the three Egyptian presidents who ruled from 1956 through the 2011 revolution: Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak. After Mubarak fell, Muslim Brotherhood members swept the country’s first elections, even taking the presidency, although President Mohamed Morsi’s one year in office has been extremely controversial, culminating in mass protests this week, with many calling for him to step down and the military hinting it might step in.

Now the joke, told by a spokesman for Egyptian opposition figure Amr Moussa and relayed by Al Jazeera’s Hoda Abdel-Hamid:   “Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak tried to get rid of the Muslim Brotherhood. Only Morsi succeeded.”

Moussa, a former Egyptian minister of foreign affairs and secretary general of the Arab League, has been a critic of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. [....]
Before proceeding, we should note that this description of Moussa is a bit too bland and uninformative.  Moussa is a quintessential figure of the now-discredited system headed sequentially by Nasser and Sadat and Mubarak, and ideologically he might almost be described as a fossilized fragment from the lost world of Nasserist pan-Arabism.  So it's not surprising that Moussa is "a critic" of the Muslim Brotherhood.  And there is undoubtedly a fair amount of wishful thinking in Moussa's joke. I would guess that the Muslim Brotherhood still has more popular support and a more effective organization than any other political grouping in Egypt. I doubt that it's headed for the dustbin of history any time soon. (I would be delighted to be proved wrong about that, but I'm not holding my breath.)

On the other hand, there's more than a grain of truth in Moussa's joke, too.  In its brief period of power since the fall of Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood has apparently managed to unite all the other social and political forces in Egypt against itself—from left-over elements of the old order to groups that led the mobilization against Mubarak.  The millions of Egyptians who demonstrated against Morsi are just one indication of this backlash.  What is also striking is the wide range of forces that have endorsed the military's post-Morsi political "road map", which includes new elections and a rewriting of the constitution that was largely drafted by the Muslim Brotherhood and its Islamist allies in the Salafist Nour Party.

Perhaps it's not surprising that the figures endorsing the ouster of Morsi included representatives of the non-Islamist opposition parties, such as Mohammed El-Baradei; organizers of the Tamarod ("rebellion") youth movement whose anti-Morsi petition campaign helped galvanize the recent mass protests; and the leadership of the Coptic Church (whose flock constitutes around 9-10% of the Egyptian population, depending on which estimates one follows).  But they also included the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Mosque and University, one of the premier religious authorities of Sunni Islam in Egypt.  And I notice that even the Nour Party—which won the second-largest bloc of seats in the parliamentary elections, and whose criticisms of the Muslim Brotherhood's Islamist agenda were basically that the MB was too moderate and gradualist in ramming it through—has publicly accepted the "road map".

=> A nice piece by J. Dana Stutster in Foreign Policy on Wednesday helped illustrate the extent of this convergence.  Stuster offered a (neo-Kremlinological?) analysis of this photograph titled "Who's Who in Egypt's Coup".  Check out the cast of characters:

When Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi announced the ouster of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy on Wednesday, he did so with the support of a carefully selected collection of Egyptian officers, politicians, clerics, and academics. They represent a broad swath of the Egyptian population and are clearly meant to give political and religious credibility to the new interim government. Here's a who's who.

1) Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi: The minister of defense and commander-in-chief of the Egyptian military, Sisi was appointed in August 2012 by Morsy to succeed Gen. Mohamed Tantawi, who oversaw the transition from the Mubarak regime to a democratically elected government.

2) Mohamed ElBaradei: An opposition politician and Nobel Peace Prize laureate for his work as head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, he served as an intermediary between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Tamarod ("rebellion") youth campaign, which organized the protests that began this past weekend.

3) Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb: The grand imam of Al-Azhar Mosque and University, he is an authority on Sunni Islam, the most common faith in Egypt.

4) Pope Tawadros II of Alexandria: The leader of the Coptic Church, the most popular sect of Christianity in Egypt with approximately 12 million adherents, or about 9 percent of the population of Egypt.

5) Mohamed Badr: The organizer of the Tamarod campaign that started in April and culminated with the protests that began last weekend.

6) Sekina Fouad: A journalist by training and a former member of Morsy's presidential advisory committee, Fouad resigned from her advisory role in response to the Egyptian president's November 2012 decree that placed his actions above judicial review.
=>  At the moment I don't want to get too involved in speculating about what happens next. But here are a few quick passing remarks, with an emphasis on the more pessimistic elements in my current reflections. (Sorry if that's a downer, but I think it makes sense to be cautiously ambivalent about Egypt's political prospects right now.)  In the present situation, the military coup against Morsi may well have been better than the realistically available alternatives, but the main point is that all the existing options were, and remain, so lousy and unpromising.

It seems clear that the military does not want to take on the responsibilities and liabilities of ruling Egypt directly. Instead, they would like to manage a fairly quick transition to another civilian government (while maintaining their own autonomous power and privileges). Essentially, they are giving the opposition forces a second chance to put together a coherent and effective political alternative to the Muslim Brotherhood that can actually win elections and govern the country successfully.

The problem, as Trudy Rubin pointed out in a column on Wednesday, is that so far the various opposition forces have proved incapable of doing that, and the prospects that they will do better this time around are not encouraging. Aside from their general fecklessness and political incompetence, they don't really agree on much except their dislike for the Muslim Brotherhood. And they face a whole range of urgent and challenging problems, including an economy in free fall and an increasing crime, sectarian violence, and insecurity. If they blow it again, and conspicuously fail to solve Egypt's problems, then in the long run it may be the opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood that winds up being most discredited, rather than the Muslim Brotherhood itself.

And what if the Islamist Parties (e.g., some combination of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists) actually win the next elections? The country is deeply split, so that outcome is not impossible.  Then the fat will really be in the fire. And I haven't even begun to spin out the worst-case long-run scenarios ...

On the other hand, perhaps these forebodings will turn out to be excessively gloomy and pessimistic. We can always hope for the best (or, at least, for something less bad than the worst-case scenarios). Stay tuned ...

—Jeff Weintraub