Sunday, February 27, 2011

Iraq and Egyptian Democracy

Among the many commentaries about the popular movements toward democracy that have sprung up so suddenly in the Arab world, one possible cause has received less attention that it deserves: the example of democracy in Iraq.

The idea that the example of the people of Iraq setting up a functioning democracy may have had a role in inspiring the wave of democracy movements moving across the Arab world now is generally met with open derision. An example can be seen in this Dialogue between Robert Wright and Mickey Kaus. They are arguing about the causes of Egypt's revolution and Kaus states that one of those causes is the example of Iraq's democracy, which Kaus claims is at least as important as twitter. Wright rolls his eyes and says something along the lines of "Oh I am sure there are people all over the Middle-East saying, 'Yes, I wish I could get blown up in my bed and murdered by terrorists," and argues that the security situation in Iraq has probably made retarded the cause of democracy in the Arab world if anything.

I find this somewhat disturbing in a way that I find hard to put into words, exactly. The Americans and the advocates for democracy have not been engaging in acts of terrorism to spread democracy, it has been the opponents of democracy that have been using terror as their weapon. It is true that this terror has been a direct consequence of America's invasion and so the US has a moral responsibility to do all it reasonably can to combat this campaign of terror against democracy, but that is still something quite different from engaging in a campaign of terror.

Of course, Mr. Wright's point is that it doesn't matter to a fellow whose family is being murdered how good your intentions were. People are going to look at the situation in Iraq and many in the Arab world will reasonably conclude from it that democracy may not be a good system for us. They will look at it and certainly not find in it any great reason to go out and try to bring the same system to their country. But that is a different thing from saying that the example of Iraq cannot inspire the Arab world or create very real pressure for on the other governments of the Arab world to change in a democratic direction.

They may find that they do not like the security situation that comes with a violent transition to democracy and still find in the situation in Iraq things that are desirable and, more importantly perhaps, things that undermine the case that has been for decades in the Arab world that the Arabs are not suited to democracy.

For one thing, there seems to be a great deal of free speech in Iraq. The rest of the Arab world might be aware of that and may be truly envious of it. They may find that things are now being said out loud in the Arab world that people have been thinking privately for years. I do not know this for a fact, but it strikes me at least as being very plausible. The people of Iraq have been plodding along getting governments elected, going out to the polls in the face of the most dire threats, and talking back to their leaders with a great deal of heartfelt vituperation. These must have some effect on the rest of the Arab world. It hardly seems impossible that others in the Arab world can feel inspired and in a certain way a bit shamed by the example set by the people of Iraq, and, in part, precisely because of the things that Mr. Wright points out. They have set up and got their democracy going by millions of ordinary citizens fighting for themselves, taking great personal risks, and facing down a monstrous terrorist campaign from the off shoots of al Qaeda and the agents of Iran. It is not hard to see that they might be in some way a bit disappointed in themselves, they might say to themselves, if the Iraqis can govern themselves in the face of such opposition maybe I can face the secret police or at least join a protest.

And there is another way in which the example of Iraq may have given impetus to the events in Tunisia and Egypt: the example of Iraq has undone the argument Arabs can't have democracy because America and the West will somehow prevent it, and the concomitant argument that Arabs need do nothing but wait for the Americans to allow them to have democracy.

Here is where it is very important that the Americans have not been the ones committing the terrorist campaign, however much we may bare ultimate responsibility for it having occurred in the first place. It is only through the most strained arguments that one can deny that the forces against democracy have been home grown in the Middle-East, have in fact come from the very forces and ideologies that have been most anti-Western, while it has been the West, and primarily the Americans and the other English speaking peoples, that have fought and made sacrifices for democracy.

My point is not that the Arabs should be grateful to us, much less that they are. I only point out that the argument that America's support for democracy is a sort of put-on, or worse, that we are the reason that there is no democracy in the Arab world, or that the fix is in and America would some how undercut any real movement toward democracy, or that there is no use trying to do anything because the Americans and the Zionists will always just install another dictator, or--and this is the one that has really been undone by the Iraq adventure--if only the true believers would wage jihad to rid us of the forces of the West then we could truly be free, all of these arguments have been put on thin ice by the example of Iraqis practicing democracy and the Americans getting killed to give them a chance to succeed.

Here is where I find the attitude of Mr. Wright so unfair. It does matter very much that the people terrorizing Iraq and making democracy there a bloody trial are the forces of Islamism, the most anti-American forces in the Middle-East. To allow the violence that they have caused in their attempt to strangle Arab democracy in the crib reminds me of those die-hard Southerners that used the example of the violence that followed reconstruction and the terrible conditions in that followed under the Jim Crow regime as an argument against fighting to end slavery. "How is that 'freedom' working out for you, boy?" Of course, in many ways the situation for blacks after the Civil War was arguably as bad as or even worse than slavery. But to use that fact as an argument against ending slavery seems at best a bit incomplete. It is at least relevant to point out that the reason that freedom resulted in a situation that was not an obvious improvement on slavery was not because of the failings of blacks or freedom really not being as intrinsically valuable as its advocates claimed, it was because of a terrorist campaign waged by the very people that opposed freedom for blacks all along. To allow their argument against freedom to be reinforced or to be given support by the violence and terror they used to destroy freedom is somewhat perverse.

It is also somewhat perverse, indeed, even cruel, to say that the example of the blacks who fought for freedom in the Civil and in the Reconstruction era could not inspire other blacks to fight for their freedom. In the same way, I think that saying the example of the Iraqi people standing up to terrorism and fighting for democracy cannot inspire the rest of the Arab world to stand up to their dictators is cruel. To dismiss the sacrifices of people that have been murdered for daring to try to rule themselves, to speak their minds freely and to claim for themselves the rights that we hold sacred is, to laugh at the idea that others might be inspired by their example is, if not perverse, then certainly ill-advised. For it tells those who would have use terror to snuff out self-rule that all they have to do to win is keep the bodies count on the increase.

Many people had good reasons for opposing the decision to invade Iraq and for criticizing the way it was fought. But too often this legitimate and often valuable criticism of the Iraq war seems to cross over into a belittling of the Iraqi people and the cause of democracy. It seems that the anger that should be directed at our own leaders is mistakenly directed at our friends and, worse, is allowed to give aid to our worst enemies.

Here is a link sent to me by Allan Eyrich from the Economist where the same argument is examined and rejected--rather perfunctorily in my opinion. More about that later.

Monday, February 14, 2011

V and the failure of imagination

I am watching "V" on TV. It is emblematic of the lack of imagination in contemporary science fiction. The writers seem to take such small, unimaginative steps from reality. Instead of using the genre of science fiction to take great leaps of imagination they seem to make small changes from contemporary politics and social controversies. So the V show has come to be about the travails of parenting teens in suburbia rather than a life and death struggle over the survival of humanity.

The son of the main character is on the side of the alien invaders. He caught on a video vandalizing the office of someone that has criticized the aliens. The mother--the main character--sees the video and is distraught that her son has committed vandalism--not that he is on the side of lizards from outer space bent on the destruction of the human race. And the solution to this is for the main character and her estranged husband to get the family back together so that the 18 year old boy can have a secure environment. Instead of the premise giving the writers a chance to explore possibilities completely outside of normal experience they use the possibilities to dress up the most mundane and trivial soap-opera plots.

Another premise of the show is the concern with "collateral damage" that separates the heros from the bad humans. The chance to kill the leader of the aliens and possibly end the war would cost 300 lives. This the hero refuses to continence. Now in WWII our leaders sent thousands to their death to win the battle against Nazis and would not have blinked at the chance to kill Hitler at the cost of 300 innocent allied civilians, let alone 300 that had declared themselves on the other side. It seems that total war for survival is already out of the bounds of the imagination of our contemporary science fiction writers. What is the point of science fiction if you use it to stay bound to the sidewalk?

The story that "we" gave small pox infected blankets to the Indians was repeated on the show as if it were a settled fact. There is are two letters from British officers contemplating doing so during the Pontiac rebellion in 1773. The stories of the US army doing so are solely form Ward Churchill and are fabricated. It is miserable that our own intellectual elites are so happy to slander our own society. But they don't think of it as their society. Our contemporary intellectuals are among us but not of us. Their superiority over and contempt for the society that they are nominally a part of is the source of their self-esteem and denigrating that society stirs in their breast not pain but pride.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

The effect of prisons on political participation

Wonderful divalog. The nice liberal professor lady and a real, fact based conservative journalist who actually has some social science knowledge.

I think their conversation would be more interesting and mutually productive if there were more brachia and less polite exchange of 3 minute speeches. Still, they reply quite directly to one another’s points.

Vesla, an assistant professor at Virginia, argues that putting all these black dudes in jail is turing them off politics and depriving the revolution of some of its otherwise most faithful voters.

She refers to all this evidence that blacks are being locked up in spite of not committing a lot of crimes, or that their incarceration rates are not explained by their higher propensity to commit crimes. She says that most people have committed crimes. She makes the point that she has committed crimes. therefore, there is no reason to be jail’in on black folks. heather comes back with numbers that blacks are 81 times more likely to get shot and they get shot overwhelmingly by other blacks. How could both of these things be true? I think that Vesla shades a bit. She says “has committed crimes.” That means that she is treating the noun criminal to mean anyone who has committed a crime and by that definition the differences between blacks and white are probably much less than heather’s evidence, which counts each crime as the unit of analysis.

They get into the causes of crime and Heather points out that blacks have a higher rate of OWW. All the time she is going on about the Vesla has a little smile on her lips like she is about to come out devastating question. The question turns out to be “and how much do you think that higher black incarceration rates has to do with these out of wedlock

If I thought that investment in government programs to end poverty would actually work to reduce poverty and lower crime I think that the Great Society programs would be cheap at the price. I think they would have been cheap at twice or maybe even 10 times the price. I just don’t think that.

It is starting to get better as Vesla gets pissed off about halfway. The question of victims leads her to saying that conservatives don’t really care about victims because they are not willing to spend more on social programs.

You don’t tell these people that have been victims of Jim Crow and tell them to lift themselves up. “Shut up and take your $100 a week job and pass on the $5000 drug dealing job. I am tired of that conversation.” She needs to have the conversation with more interesting conservatives, or at least some more empirical economists. Steve Levitt’s article, “If Drug Dealing Pays So Well Why do So Many Drug Dealers Live With Their Mothers?”

The McDonald’s job pays a lot better, about $280 a week to start with, and a lot more with EITC and other benefits thrown in.

What if crime was caused by economic depravation? If I lived in a poor neighborhood I would want the criminals locked up. Whatever the cause of crime getting rid of it is a first, necessary step to economic development and political participation.

Vesla says that black males are more often stopped without cause. Isn’t that a necessary consequence of sharing an observable characteristic with a group that commits crime more often? Males in general have a higher likelihood of being wrongly stopped for a criminal investigation.

Vesla says that she has a lot of people that had their first interaction with the police when they were 8. She says that that can’t be explained by cultural factors. But isn’t that exactly what we would blame that on? Are 8 year olds looking out at the job market and saying, “Heck, I am not going to get a job so I think I will….” Isn’t criminality among 8 year olds evidence precisely of a culture of doing stuff that brings attention from the law?

I of course agree with Heather but it really does annoy me how long it takes her to ask a question. I think all of what she says is fair and interesting, but I find myself almost exploding waiting for her to shut up so I can hear the answer. She has an interesting little point asking Vesla why they she doesn’t mind barring felons from carrying guns, won’t that have a “disenfranchising” psychological effect? But she doesn’t get the question out and wait for the answer. She drones on heaping evidence on a point that is already made. It amazing me how people are not really as interested in the answers to their questions as they are in hearing what the other person thinks. Besides, Vesla has a good answer. She doesn’t much trust non-felons to carry guns so she is hardly being inconsistent when she has a rather low threshold for deciding that felons should not have guns.

at 59 minutes Heather finally points out that the majority of people even in poor neighborhoods do not commit crimes.

Vesla asks the correct question, the Rawlsian question, if you were going to be born in a bad neighborhood would you be any more likely to commit crimes. But she gets the question somewhat wrong. If you are going to grow up in one of those bad neighborhoods you are still probably not going to be a criminal and, at least it seems to me, that the rational answer is that, “Yes, I want the criminals around here locked up.” If I were going to be born black in a bad neighborhood I would still want Bratton and Gulianni locking up anybody that spits on the side walk.

Vesla goes back to the 8 year old getting in trouble with the law for dealing drugs on the corner. We need to give them a better story than “you did the crime, you do the crime.”