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Archive for May 2010

Bibi and Barack

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Joe Klein at TIME’s Swampland:

Time’s Massimo Calabresi has a fine piece on the thorny relationship between Bibi Netanyahu and Barack Obama, in which he clears the air about what happened at their March 23 meeting in the White House–a meeting that has become the subject of viral rumor-mongering among neoconservatives and assorted Israeli-firsters. Here, for example, is John Podhoretz’s "account" of the meeting:

We still don’t know quite what happened, but it appears that the president came into the room with a list of unilateral demands, that he grew impatient with Netanyahu’s answers, and that he left unceremoniously by claiming he was going to have dinner with his wife and kids but that he would “be around” in case the prime minister “changed” his tune.

The bold-face emphasis above is mine. Because it’s interesting that, from not knowing quite what happened, Podhoretz gets all the way to this:

This is meaningful. It suggests not merely that Obama differs with Israel on matters of policy but also that he takes these differences personally. And that, in turn, demonstrates there is an animus at work here, a predisposition to think badly of Israel—to view the Jewish state at best as an impediment to the good working order of a fairer world and at worst as a sower of discord. This is a bitter truth…

A bitter truth! Oy-freaking-vey! Turns out the actual truth is not so bitter. Here is Calabresi’s account, based on multiple interviews with aides to Netanyahu and Obama:

On March 23, Netanyahu and Obama held a one-on-one in the Oval Office with no staffers. Scheduled for half an hour, it ran 90 minutes, the longest meeting Obama had held with any foreign leader. Much of it focused on Iran and issues unrelated to the peace process. But Netanyahu also put a proposal on the table for East Jerusalem, according to Israeli and American sources familiar with the conversation. Obama thought Netanyahu’s ideas were promising, and the two men continued the discussion with a handful of staffers, then joined a larger group in the Roosevelt Room.

Obama went to the residence for dinner with his family; Netanyahu continued to work on specific language with U.S. and Israeli staffers in the Roosevelt Room. At Netanyahu’s request, Obama returned, in casual clothes, and the two men spent an additional 35 minutes together alone, going over Netanyahu’s proposal for getting past the East Jerusalem impasse. When Netanyahu put his new proposal to his closest Cabinet members days later, they approved it. Netanyahu refused to accept a blanket freeze on eviction, demolition and construction in East Jerusalem, but he broke with previous Prime Ministers and offered to allow the Palestinians to reopen paragovernmental institutions in East Jerusalem, say senior Israeli and American officials. It was a rare moment of unity between two opposing worldviews: a symbolic gesture by Netanyahu that satisfied Obama’s practical needs.

Again, the emphasis is mine. And the truth appears to be the precise opposite of what Podhoretz posited: a moment of hateful–dare I imply, maybe, perhaps,crypto-Muslim, anti-semitic–spite on President Obama’s part was actually a rare, successful negotiation between two allies. It should be noted that Calabresi’s nuanced, balanced account does not gild the lily: there is real tension over Netanyahu’s desire to gobble up all of Jerusalem, in contravention of the Geneva Conventions.

Podhoretz is, thus, peddling the sort of uninformed, nefarious crap that elements of the Jewish community have been slinging about  Barack Obama since he emerged as a potential President. It should be noted, yet again, that Obama’s position on Israeli settlements in the occupied territories is precisely the same as that of every American President since Nixon (though, it must be noted, that George W. Bush mouthed the policy, but didn’t really believe it). As the editor of Commentary, a place where informed argument once took place, JPod presides over a greasy gusher of swill like this on a daily basis. No actual defense of Israeli encroachment onto Palestinian territories is ever broached there. That is because the only defense possible is an imperial one–we took the land, we own it. The Palestinians are barbarians. (And, in the evangelical variant: it’s prophesy. Jewish control of all the Holy Land is necessary for the End of Times to commence.)

In its refusal to reflect on the moral consequences of these actions–and its refusal to engage in a serious discussion of these issues–Commentary stands well outside the Jewish intellectual tradition, a tradition of rigor and the appreciation of philosophical inconvenience, that many of us cherish.

(I will concede this much to Podhoretz: Maybe Barack should have offered Bibi a nice pastrami sandwich…although Netanyahu probably had other dinner plans.)

Written by LeisureGuy

31 May 2010 at 4:44 pm

Did the ancient Athenians invent humanity?

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I highly recommend at least the first episode of Greeks: The Crucible of Civilization. I’ll summarize what I got from it, secure in the knowledge that one of my readers is a professional Classicist and can correct my mistakes.

Here’s what happened. In ancient Athens, as in all early civilizations, there were basically two classes: the wealthy and powerful, and everyone else. Everyone else worked from dawn to dusk, taxed a-plenty to support the aristocrats, who in turn bought equipment and trained in the various arts, including war. For almost everyone, you shut up, took orders, and kept your head down.

Pisistratus, one of the Athenian aristocrats, wanted to run the whole show—and he did, for a while, but was ousted. But then he found a tall and beautiful woman in an outlying village. He dressed her in robes, put a helmet on her head, and rode into Athens with her in the chariot, proclaiming that Athena herself was installing him as the absolute ruler of Athens (in the vernacular, a tyrant, but at the time without a pejorative connotation).

Naturally, he anticipated that the aristocrats would sooner or later tumble to the dodge, so he needed backers—and he had a plan. He cut taxes fairly substantially for the common people, and also offered free loans so they could improve their lot. Needless to say, they very much liked Pisistratus—and there were a lot more of them than aristocrats.

Moreover, the free loans and improved productivity greatly improved the olive crop, and Athenian olives were at the time touted as the best. So Athens began to enjoy a brisk trade with other nations, using their navy, their olive oil, and what they gained in trade with Egypt, the Persian Empire, and the Romans and Etruscans, along with trade with other city states.

Things were going well. Eventually Pisistratus was again ousted as tyrant, but again returned. He promoted the arts, saw to it that the Iliad and Odyssey were copied out in their entirety, and in general did a good job.

After he died, his two sons Hippias and Hipparchus took over. Hipparchus was murdered in a political plot, which resulted in Hippias becoming quite paranoid and oppressive (the modern version of a tyrant). Eventually, he was deposed, after exiling and killing quite a few of the Aristocrats. Isigoras, another tyrant, equally oppressive, took over with the help of 40 Spartans and pretty much cleaned house, getting rid of anyone who might be a threat.

In the meantime, some things had changed. First of all, the common people rather liked having a piece of the action and not being worked to death to pay taxes. Moreover, the Greek ideal of heroic deeds was being channeled into the Olympic games. Originally, only aristocrats could participate, but as the games took hold, the natural desire arose to see really the best performances—even if not by an aristocrat. (Cf. the gradual racial integration of sports in America.) You can imagine the conversations: “I won the foot race!” – “Yeah, great. But I bet you couldn’t have beat <commoner>. He’s damn fast.” – “Really?” – “Yeah. I’d love to see him in a race.”

So ultimately the games became a true aristocracy: the best athletes, regardless of social rank, participated, so that a king might end up racing a potter, or an aristocrat throwing against a cobbler. And, of course, sometimes the winner would be from the lower classes, but still honored, recognized, and remembered. This emergence of an egalitarian spirit certainly played a role in what happened.

What happened around 507 BCE was an innovation: the common people spontaneously rose in revolt against Isigoras and his Spartan guards. The latter retreated to the Acropolis, where they were able to hold out for two days. On the third day, Athenians—again, the common people, leaderless—scaled the cliff and vanquished the former ruler and his guard.

Although the movie clearly stated that something like this had never been done before, I was at first doubtful, thinking of many other uprisings and rebellions that preceded. But those, I reflected, were not the same as a spontaneous uprising of the common people. Always before, it was some ambitious leader who stirred up the people, fomented a rebellion, and installed himself in power—no real change in government, just in people.

This was different: the Athenians had done this on their own, without leaders, and they were not particularly eager to install another leader, having just rid themselves of Isigoras. And, as luck (and Isigoras) had it, there were no leaders waiting in the wings to attempt to seize the moment.

So they called Cleisthenes back from exile, and they asked him to figure out where they should go from here—but no rulers, please.

I think surely the nascent egalitarianism of the Olympic games, together with the citizens getting a piece of the action under Pisistratus, made them want to have control over their own lives, not answer to someone else.

Cleisthenes was the perfect guy, as it turned. First, he had them construct a place where the (male) citizens could assemble: big blocks of stone in an open area, laid in giant steps. Then he thought up a way to settle disputes without having a judge or a ruler or a fight: voting. He installed a giant urn, and each citizen could drop in one stone: black for “no” or “oppose”, or white for “yes” or “support”.

So the citizens would gather every 9 days, talk about what was going on and what things required action, and argue about what action to take. And then they would vote.

It worked because everyone felt that they got a chance to make their views heard, and they had a chance to vote for what they wanted. And no one was telling them what to do. (At about this time, the Athenians began to describe people who lived under a ruler as “slaves” rather than “free”, in sharp contrast to the Athenians themselves.)

So this was a great innovation: all citizens participated, and all were involved, and no one was telling them what to do. I believe that this truly initiated the Golden Age of Athens because under this new scheme, every citizen felt free to contribute and innovate, rather than 95% of the citizens working themselves to death and a small minority free to innovate. (Cf. countries in which women are still oppressed—not allowed access to education, not allowed to work other than at domestic chores: those countries in effect discard 50% of the possible advances and contributions that they could have had if women were free. In the case of Athens, it was not just twice as much potential for innovation and creativity, it was twenty times as much: all the citizens instead of just the aristocrats.

But immediately this new idea had to fight for its life: Darius, king of Persia, sent a force of 40,000 to take Athens. Athens responded by calling for every single man in Athens to join in battle on the plains of Marathon—and the response was with spirit. No way were they going back to living under a ruler, as a “slave.” Those who were trained to fight and had shields, armor, and swords, were the core, but every man joined in: with spears, with knives, with sticks, and, I imagine, with a big rock if they didn’t have anything else.

Though they were outnumbered, the Persian Army consisted (in the Athenian view) of slaves—and in fact of soldiers who really didn’t have a dog in this fight. They were there because they were ordered there, and they fought or else. But their hearts were not in it—certainly not like the Athenians, who were determined to die rather than lose their new way of life.

The Athenians slaughtered some 6000 of the Persians, and the rest fled.

Athens—and the new idea—was saved. The story continues, and I’ll leave it to you to view, but I want to point out one more thing. Themistocles fought in the battle of Marathon and then “went into politics”, as it were. He was popular with the Athenians, related well to the citizens, and had good ideas—but he was NOT an aristocrat. He didn’t have their education (and could not, for example, play a musical instrument or write poetry). Indeed, the only way he could have possibly become a leader was because now the Athenians chose their own leaders. He’s among the first generation that grew up in a democracy, which is why “running for office” seemed a natural idea to him. So now, leaders could emerge who previously could only have assumed leadership through some sort of rebellion or civil war.

And, as it turns out, Themistocles was exactly the leader Athens needed.

It strikes me that this little period is when people began to explore the greater possibilities of being human—and to realize the creativity that could be unleashed if every citizen was free to participate in what was going on.

The Wife pointed out that this is a Western view, but I then pointed out the benefits we got from this approach. The first was that great spurt of creativity in Athens, which included the only time that any civilization discovered the idea of proof. And the town meetings in Athens were the source of the Roman Senate, the parliaments of nations today, and the US Congress. And ultimately, along that direction, came the idea of scientific method, possibly the great contribution of Western civilization. And we owe all that to the ancient Athens.

I highly recommend the whole series. I didn’t even touch on the amazing beauty of Athenian pottery—when potters were the lowest of the low, and their pottery was simply a way to hold and transport things. But then—unasked—the potters began decorating the pots, not using repeated geometric patterns, as all other civilizations did, but with naturalistic paintings. Indeed, not only did no one ask for that, no one seems to have been terribly interested at the time. It was a potter’s thing, and the potters did it to one-up each other—and so they got better and better.

I think this visible blooming of a strong sense of individuality and individual authorship probably is a reflection of the new social structure, another way it was changing things: potters could now make more of their own decisions, they could decorate their pots if they wanted, and they were individually creative and aware of their gifts.

UPDATE: The emergence of democracy in Athens seems a lot like a cultural mutation, which came about because previous tyrants had removed all likely leaders, creating a sort of cultural petri dish that would favor such a mutation: when citizens, leaderless, revolted and seized control of the city, for the first time there was the option of continuing without a leader—no one elbowed his way to the front and said, “I’ll take over now,” or if someone did, he was ignored.

The new mutation met an immediate threat, which tested whether it had staying power. And then, as the democracy became established, the new social/cultural environment supported new types of leaders (like Themistocles) and lots and lots of individual creativity, signed works. And think what it must have been like, in every possible field of art and thought, not having to deal with the old guard. From that period on, playwrights have to take into account what has been written before, but at that time: nothing had been written before, and they were doing totally new things—as did Herodotus, who wrote about much of this.

The great bursting forth of creativity in Athens’s Golden Age showed what the new structure could produce, and the fame of Athens ensured that the mutation was documented and could be replicated elsewhere.

UPDATE: I guess the equivalent of what I’m saying: By happenstance, a combination of pre-existing memes and actual events created a very powerful meme in Athens, derived from strong individuality (based in part on memes of heroes) and a sense of egalitarianism: democracy. The result of the meme in that socio-economic milieu was the rapid development and evolution of many more memes, spontaneously erupting as the interaction of the democracy meme with other memes and events.

UPDATE 2: See this post on why the above is naïve and superficial.

Written by LeisureGuy

31 May 2010 at 3:46 pm

Posted in Daily life, Politics

The Obama-Gates Department of Detentions

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Scott Horton:

The White House has released its 52-page National Security Strategy (PDF). If you saw President Obama’s West Point speech, you already know the highlights of this policy, and it’s unsurprising if you have tracked foreign policy issues since the 2008 presidential campaign. The strategy can be distinguished from Bush-era policy by its heavy reliance on “soft power,” its recognition of the importance of building and maintaining alliances, and its geeky fascination with the national-security consequences of technology and innovation. The portions dealing with Pakistan and Afghanistan in particular reflect significant shifts in approach. But I join Spencer Ackerman in flagging one strange passage, under the heading of “Strengthen the Power of Our Example”:

The increased risk of terrorism necessitates a capacity to detain and interrogate suspected violent extremists, but that framework must align with our laws to be effective and sustainable. When we are able, we will prosecute terrorists in Federal courts or in reformed military commissions that are fair, legitimate, and effective. For detainees who cannot be prosecuted—but pose a danger to the American people—we must have clear, defensible, and lawful standards. We must have fair procedures and a thorough process of periodic review, so that any prolonged detention is carefully evaluated and justified. And keeping with our Constitutional system, it will be subject to checks and balances. The goal is an approach that can be sustained by future Administrations, with support from both political parties and all three branches of government.

It’s hard to pass by the reference to detaining prisoners “who cannot be prosecuted.” If they’re involved with terrorists, the law provides the tools to arrest and charge them. This is about cases in which the United States has no meaningful evidence that would link the person held to a terrorist group. It looks like an endorsement of indefinitely detaining persons against whom the United States has no evidence of criminal conduct but whom it “suspects” may constitute a threat, usually based on the say-so of the intelligence service of some tyrannical but allied foreign power. That is the very definition of tyrannical conduct, yet here it is perversely touted as an example for emulation by others.

The Obama Administration has failed to provide a coherent justification for its detentions policy. This hasn’t stopped the District of Columbia Circuit—the amen corner for judicial acquiescence in the face of power grabs by the Executive—from giving it a green light to build and expand future Guantánamos, as is shown by the recent exercise in judicial pointlessness called Al Maqaleh v. Gates (PDF). Daphne Eviatar’s recent post discusses the consequences of this decision. In a word, it is a sweeping abdication of judicial responsibility in the face of the Executive’s proposal to build a global prison regime. It’s a death knell for the good old doctrine that the Constitution follows the flag.

The Obama Administration came to Washington promising to clean up the Bush-era detentions policy and make it conform to the clear requirements of law. Then it seems to have decided that the law wasn’t so convenient and that simply providing for unbridled executive authority à la Bush-Cheney wasn’t such a bad idea after all. In terms of Washington power politics, that decision …

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

31 May 2010 at 2:38 pm

Israel launches unprovoked attack on ship in international water, 10-19 civilians on ship killed

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Israel loves the unprovoked attack, apparently. As with the Japanese in 1941, Israel has has declared war by an attack. (I also recall their unprovoked attack on the USS Liberty, also in international waters, in a deliberate attempt to sink the American ship.)

Several reports are below. You’ll note that Israel refers to the persons defending the ship as “attackers.” I would consider the armed intrusion of the Israeli commandos the attack. But Israel always casts itself as the victim,A so the people on board the ship are the attackers.

Here are some reports:

ThinkProgress: Israeli Commandos Raid Gaza Aid Flotilla, Netanyahu Cancels Meeting With Obama

Haaretz: A Special Place in Hell / The Second Gaza War: Israel lost at sea

Greenwald: Israel attacks aid ship, kills at least 10 civilians

Al Jazeera: Deadly Israeli raid on aid fleet

J Street: In Wake of Flotilla Tragedy, J Street Urges Stronger US Leadership to End Conflict Now

BBC: Deaths as Israeli forces storm Gaza aid ship

Written by LeisureGuy

31 May 2010 at 2:08 pm

My new Char Griller

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Char Griller 1515 Patio Pro

I just finished assembling this grill. It seems quite well made, though assembly resembles a logic puzzle. Still, I was successful, despite a paucity of lock washers—they were about 10 short. The Amazon comments reflect the mild challenge of correct assembly. (Indeed, reading them I realized I had not attached the hooks—the assembly instructions don’t mention them).

Soon I will venture out and get something to grill on it. But: so far, so good.

Written by LeisureGuy

31 May 2010 at 1:45 pm

Posted in Daily life

A close look at Personal Brain

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Personal Brain is another database adapted to free-form text. It’s not an outliner (cf., but it does a similar job. Like Thinklinkr, Personal Brain is platform independent—Thinklinkr does this by running as a Web 2.0 app, Personal Brain by having versions for PC, Mac, and Linux.

James Fallows has a good regard for PB, and here’s a user’s detailed evaluation.

Written by LeisureGuy

31 May 2010 at 11:23 am

Posted in Daily life, Software

Menthol fresh

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Very nice shave today: great lather from the Proraso with the Omega. Then three smooth passes with the Apollo Mikron and its Swedish Gillette blade. Finally a splash of Blue Floïd.

Written by LeisureGuy

31 May 2010 at 11:20 am

Posted in Shaving


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