Friday, March 15, 2002

Via e-mail, Christopher Jones wonders:
You ask an interesting question ("Which side are we on?"), but the more interesting question is "Why?". Can you explain -- in terms of concrete American national interest -- why we are on the side of the Israelis? I've never seen such an explanation.

I'm not advocating that we should be on the side of the Palestinians; I prefer neutrality and disengagement. Two peoples are fighting over the right to rule a single area of land. I don't see how it affects the United States no matter which side wins, any more than we should choose up sides between the Tamils and Sinhalese in Sri Lanka.
Fair question. If we don't fairly address that question from time to time, we tend to "assume" that a debatable point has already been agreed to, without ever actually winning the point on merit. That would be intellectually dishonest.

In fact, your question gives me an opportunity to expound on the central themes of Rational Discourse, Skeptical Inquiry and Intellectual Honesty -- the guiding principles of Mind Over What Matters. So, if you'll allow me this somewhat roundabout digression:

The human race is perpetually at war -- not simply between the good guys and the bad guys, nor even between liberals and conservatives. If only it were so convenient to draw the lines in this struggle so starkly, but it's more complicated than black hats and white hats. Forgive me the cliche, but it's the whole dual-nature-of-man hat. It's a war between the Thinkers and the Feelers.

What's more, it's a war that is necessary to our growth and evolution as a species. It's what gave us the impetus to crawl out of the primordial ooze and build miniature golf courses, invent TIVO and solve Fermat's Last Theorem.

Remember the moment in 2001: A Space Odyssey when the Monolith-enhanced "smart" hominid -- he was called Moonwatcher in the Arthur C. Clarke novel -- picks up a bone and smashes it into the cranium of his menacing neighbor, the "dumb" hominid from across the pond? For all the times that I watched that scene in years past, I misinterpreted it. I always figured that the Monolith introduced the concept of war to the human race, and that's what (according to Clarke) kick-started us on the path to intelligence.

But that's not it. On a more recent viewing and upon years of reflection, I now realize that the Monolith had given Moonwatcher the morality-neutral gift of insight. He could not yet put his insights into words, but in effect he was saying this:

"You --- hey, you! The ugly one! Yes, you! Listen up! You're competing with me for the rights to scarce resources -- for land, for water, for survival. To that extent, we have common ground. I understand that. Ideally, we ought to be able to negotiate. Perhaps if we shared a common language, a common culture, we could give it a shot. But here's the thing, sir: You have demonstrated by your prior actions that you are dangerous, you are unpredictable, you cannot be trusted -- and if you ever get your hands on a bigger bone than mine, and figure out how it works, I know you'll kill me before you'd ever negotiate in good faith. So, for the sake of my own survival, and for my family and my descendents -- and as much as it pains me to make this terrible choice -- I have no choice but to kill you first."

Two million years of evolution later, we're still engaged in the same struggle, fighting over tiny parcels of land so that our side's DNA may survive into another generation. On one side, The Thinkers: The Vulcans; the INTPs; the enlightened, the architects, the strategists; the scientists and logicians. Those for whom knowledge is more than a means to an end, as the process of gaining knowledge can be fulfillling for its own sake. On the other side of the chasm, The Feelers: The Klingons, the ESFJs; the religious fundamentalists, bureaucrats, judges, self-aggrandizers and NASCAR drivers. Those who take comfort in ritual, in immediate gratification. They never stop to ask "why," because knowledge of larger truths doesn't change anything.

The struggle continues to this day, because these two fundamentally different sides of human nature can never be reconciled -- although, lord knows, we try. Thinkers will dabble in "touchy-feely" activities -- not to enjoy them, but to try to understand why they are so compelling to their opposites -- or at least to keep their Feeler spouses happy. Nor do I mean to suggest that, being unskilled at intellectual pursuits, Feelers are stupid. On the contrary: To preserve their fiefdoms, they can be deviously clever. When pressed to argue their case, Feelers hide the data that doesn't support their position. They lie with statistics and distorted bar charts. They master the art of demagoguery. That's how so many of them manage to win elections.

But in the end, it is the Thinkers -- those whose words and deeds are governed by Intellectual Honesty, those who demand adherance to high standards of critical thinking, both by their opponents and of themselves -- it is the Thinkers who hold the high moral ground in any argument. By definition.

The Constitution of the United States of America is, at its core, a Grand Experiment of Great Thinkers -- and a successful experiment by any thoughtful standard. Some might even say that it was inevitable -- that, over time, Thinking Men and Women would evaluate all the bad results of less successful forms of governments, and something like American Democracy would eventually emerge from trial and error. (Milton called this process the "Self-Righting Principle.") Some might say that the demise of Soviet Communism, or the uniting of the European economies under a common currency, are clear indicators that the rest of the world is gradually coming to see the advantages of our Grand Experiment in Unified Democracy, and that it's only a matter of time before all industrialized countries follow our lead.

To the extent that it is in our interests to promote our core values, preserve our freedoms and our way of life, of course we'd like to see other countries follow our lead, and support those which have already. And so we must support and be allied with Israel, the sole democracy in the Middle East, the only nation in the region with a free press, free elections, and a thriving economy based on human productivity (rather than upon a single, volatile natural resource and unabashed thuggery).

Agreed, Israel is not 100% in the right. Their policy of erecting settlements on disputed territory has served as a deliberate provocation and an unnecessary obstacle to peace. But this is a matter of policy, and reasonable men and women can argue policy, effecting change through fair hearing and debate.

Nor is Palestine 100% in the wrong. Their is a case to be made that these refugees have been forced to live as the subjects of a brutal occupation, stripped of human rights and liberties. If individual Israeli soldiers have committed war atrocities against Palestinian civilians, such instances cannot be brushed under the carpet.

But any outside meddler who seeks a meeting of minds between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, who attempts to dictate a solution by granting Palestinian terror moral equivalency with Israeli pre-emptive defense measures, is engaging in the worst sort of Intellectual Dishonesty from the git-go. It would have been no less disingenuous to require that Roosevelt concede that Pearl Harbor was justified by legitimate Japanese grievances with American foreign policy, as a first step toward ironing out the framework for peace with Hirohito. This is so obviously wrong that it goes without saying. Yet, for some reason, it has to be argued that Sharon must address Arafat's grievances before there can be a framework of Middle East peace. Excuse me, but who is the aggressor and who is the aggrieved party here?

This might have been a more complicated position to stake out prior to 9/11, because much of the background texture was hypothetical, and both actors had blood on their hands. But after 9/11, the argument is no longer abstract. We must choose sides. We must support Israel because their struggle for survival is now ours. If the Moral Thinkers of this world are to triumph over the Corrupt Feelers, Israel must win the next war. They are our proxies in the region. They need America's support when it comes time to provide intelligence and materiel. We cannot fight the battle for them, and they cannot do it alone.

It will be tragic, and it will be bloody. We'll get tons of grief from French journalists. But as one of those astute characters from "West Wing" remarked recently, "They'll like us when we win."

There is no other solution. Because we now know that the ugly guy across the pond isn't just looking for a bigger bone. When he gets his mits on a portable weapon of mass destruction, he'll gladly vaporize himself along with Tel-Aviv or Seattle, just to pound his bone that much deeper.

Wednesday, March 13, 2002

WHICH SIDE ARE WE ON? I have no doubt that he spoke from the heart when, at this afternoon's press conference George Bush said that a halt to bloodshed in the Middle East depends on a willingness to "create conditions for peace" and that Israel's actions of late have been "counterproductive."

To the amazement of no one, the press corps -- ever fearful of allowing thoughtful challenge to be perceived as liberal bias -- failed to ask the obvious follow-up question: When will America's forces end its own "counterproductive" assault on Afghan civilians who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time?

But even if some brave soul had lobbed that hardball, I doubt that Bush would have understood the parallel. Indeed, by risking an unscripted encounter with the media, Bush has made his fitness for high office questionable again, revealing that undercurrent of intellectual shallowness that we've been trying, very hard, to ignore for the past six months.

For all his weak protestations to the contrary, Bush now invites serious speculation that he shares his father's callous indifference to Israel. "The Jews aren't going to vote for us, anyway," James Baker famously advised Bush 41. Let them take a few Scud hits if they want us to keep writing those foreign aid checks.

When we're ready to take on Saddam again, might Bush 43 tell Ariel Sharon to be prepared to take a few chemical weapon hits? Does Colin Powell whisper in his boss's ear that there are no Jewish Republicans to speak of, and no Israeli oilfields to lose?

Having failed to take this opportunity to make a distinction between civilian casualties of deliberate Palestinian terrorism and those tragically caught in Israeli pre-emptive strikes or defensive actions, can Bush even say whose side we're on now?

These are now fair and reasonable questions.

Certainly, matters of political expediency require no intellectual consistency. Caving on steel tariffs runs contrary to every conservative principle of free markets -- but here, Bush is playing a game of semantics that he can probably win. The average citizen does not understand that tariffs are the equivalent of tax increases, and won't hold it against him. He'll get heat from the conservative punditry, yes -- but Bush didn't get into office by portraying himself as conservative. He got into office by conveying that he could see into people's hearts and recognize their innate goodness. Tariffs, shmariffs. The votes of four key industrial states are worth far more than mere principles.

But caving on the preservation of democracy in the Middle East? What could he be thinking?

Therein lies the problem. Bush isn't thinking. He's feeling. Regarding the loss of "innocent life" in the Middle East, Bush wears his heart on his sleeve. "It breaks my heart," he lamented. Of that I have no doubt. He should share that with Laura, privately. But it was utterly thoughtless to say so before the entire world. It only served to makes him appear weak and easily manipulated.

Imagine what Arafat is thinking this evening: "So the American President Bush singles out Israel's intransigence as the stumbling block for Middle East peace, and he has no stomach for civilian casualties? Excellent! Then our strategy is working! We'll just keep producing more civilian casualties, and more and more, until that big-hearted American President can take no more, and finally prevails upon Israel to accede to the Right of Return."

And then, truly, the terrorists will have won.

There's only one way to describe what Bush did today: Caving on terrorism. Amazing. I can't imagine how Ari Fleischer -- or, for that matter, Bush-lovers like Andrew Sullivan or Peggy Noonan -- will spin this one.

UPDATE I: This page has been severely critical of Andrew Sullivan from time to time, but let's give the man credit where it's due: On this issue he is absolutely right. No spin. No agenda. Just insight:
The best interpretation is that Bush is being tactical. In order to deal with Iraq, we need to say these things to keep the Arab world (however duplicitously) part of the coalition. Once we have dealt with Iraq, we can let the Israelis deal more firmly with Arafat, Hamas, and Hezbollah.

But I don’t buy it. What we need to be saying now more than ever is that terrorism will not be tolerated – anywhere, by anyone. There’s a whiff of James Baker about all this wobbling.
[emphasis mine -ed.] If I were an Israeli fighting for my country, I’d be truly afraid of what lies ahead.
To which I can only add, if his anti-Israel stance was a political bluff, then I could take Dubya's watch and his car any day of the week. Jerry Seinfeld has a more convincing poker face.

UPDATE II: Jim Treacher illustrates a different beef with Bush's press conference remarks here, and adds: "I guess if we can't hunt Bin Laden down, we'll try to get him with our withering indifference."

Meet my flatmates.

TRANSTERRESTRIAL MUSE Rand Simberg wonders why Adobe Systems would make a sizeable investment in Salon, which he characterizes as a bottomless money pit.

No big mystery here. Between Salon and Adobe, there's synergy to be had. For all its faults as a business model, and whatever you think of their politics, Salon is still a fairly well-recognized source of interesting, provocative and frequently updated reading material. Adobe's own business plan is heavily dependent upon establishing Acrobat Portable Document Format (PDF) as a universal electronic publishing and content distribution standard. So, it's only in Adobe's interest that they should be able to point to a steady source of content which is available as a PDF download.

(The obvious follow-up question, though, is: Where do I go to sign up for the Adobe subsidy to distribute Mind Over What Matters to the masses in PDF?)

Tuesday, March 12, 2002

Mind Over What Matters belatedly joins the Blogosphere with a Comments/Feedback feature. Have at me.

Monday, March 11, 2002

ALL YOU NEED IS CASH: Megan McArdle takes umbrage over reports that some ill-informed Democratic office-holders have just discovered that their Campaign Finance Reform bill contains insufficient loopholes to favor fundraising by Democratic incumbents. Megan laments:
Okay, so they kept up the pressure on the issue for years to pass a law that it turns out they only voted for because they thought they'd be able to sneak around it. I'm supposed to feel sorry about this?
That the pending CFR bill would lopsidedly favor future Republican fundraising initatives should have come as no surprise to anyone. For years, this point has been solidly pounded home, often with some bemusement, by the entire mainstream politcal analysis corps. I frankly doubt that all that many Dems have been caught unaware -- and certainly those who were deserve to be be on the losing side of the next election.

What's more perplexing than the D's apparently taking a principled stand in defiance of their own incumbent self-interest is that the R's are continuing to resist a sea-change in fundraising law that will apparently unlevel the playing field in their own favor.

Perhaps what the D's are prepared to risk (and what the R's most fear) is the Mickey Kaus-endorsed position -- that any significant change in the usual money-flow dynamics will radically diffuse the power of fundraising -- at least temporarily, until the flow carves out its own natural channels again. And meanwhile, at least for a time, the electorate will have to focus on the message instead of the money.