Thursday, June 28, 2007

# Posted 8:13 AM by Taylor Owen  

WITHER PUBLIC DEBATE, WITHER PUBLIC POLICY: David Eaves and I have the following op-ed in today's Toronto Star. It is worth noting that in most respects, I think the US system gets this much better. Because the executive appoints their cabinet, you get people who are actually knowledgeable on their 'ministries' in charge of them. We make up for this with non-elected deputy ministers, but when the relationship between the elected Ministers (who are politically accountable) and the non-elected DMs (who actually know the area in question) breaks down, the system can be easily co-opted. Also not inconsequential, is that in the US, because of administrative turn around in the bureaucracy, you get many more expert working in government that we do.

Prime ministerial power stifles decision-making

Last week Prime Minister Stephen Harper boldly reversed his position and proposed that the renewal of the Afghan mission be contingent on cross-party consensus.

If, however, the Prime Minister is serious about developing an Afghan consensus, he will need to radically rethink how foreign policy is developed in Canada. For more than a decade, the creation of foreign policy has become more opaque and less discussed as it shifted from Parliament, ministers and mandarins to the advisers in the Prime Minister's Office (PMO).

Jean Chrétien's decision to pursue Kyoto – without an implementation plan – and to stay out of Iraq – without a strategy for managing the U.S. relationship – occurred with minimal parliamentary or even cabinet debate.

Paul Martin's decision to move forces to Kandahar was made without widespread public discussion or parliamentary approval. More recently, Harper's China strategy was formulated in isolation and ignored the wisdom and experience of the Department of Foreign Affairs on the issue.

This trend has profound policy implications. In each case, a closed and unilateral approach produced poor outcomes: We've failed to meet our Kyoto targets, relations with the U.S. are poor, the counter-insurgency mission in Kandahar is struggling and Chinese engagement is at a new low.

With the lessons of closed decision-making increasingly clear, the Prime Minister's decision to seek consensus on the Afghan mission should be embraced by all Canadians. However, building this consensus needs to begin today, not in 2009, and the PMO must lead the way. To put force behind his proposal, the Prime Minister could take several simple steps.

First, the PMO should release an uncensored version of the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade's report on prisoner abuse. When Parliament last tried to investigate, the government sought to prevent witnesses from testifying to the ethics committee.

When witnesses finally arrived, Conservative MPs walked out of the committee, effectively shutting it down. Canadian democracy relies on Parliament's powers of investigation and oversight. Allowing Parliament to perform its function would go a long way to signal the Prime Minister's commitment.

Second, the minister of defence, responsible for military operations in Afghanistan, must be allowed to answer questions about the mission in the House of Commons. Gordon O'Connor's rare responses during Question Period have been reduced to short dismissive statements, and his relations with the press are highly restricted. An accountable and effective policy debate is impossible if the mission's key leader – the minister of defence – is silenced.

Finally, the PMO should release its grip on government bureaucrats working the Afghanistan file. Astonishingly, the PMO must clear all communications and policies relating to Afghanistan – effectively shutting out input from policy experts both within and outside government.

While controlling a debate is often confused with leadership, nothing could be further from the truth. When it comes to our country's most important policy decisions, such as the war in Afghanistan, the government must draw on the collective wisdom of the whole country, not simply the ideas of a handful of PMO staffers.

This means allowing government to interact openly with those it represents. There are numerous emerging networks, particularly in the academic community, that the government could draw upon for collaboration on the Afghan mission. Send them the signal that they have a partner in Ottawa.

In short, Canadians will look to their Prime Minister to reach out and engage everyone, even those who disagree with him, to become a consensus builder.

Brian Mulroney, another Conservative prime minister, demonstrated such leadership during the first Gulf War. Recognizing the gravity and sensitivity of the situation, he invited the opposition leaders – even those who'd openly opposed the war – into his cabinet. He even deputized Audrey McLaughlin into the Privy Council so she could read classified information.

Disagreements persisted, but the debate shifted from being partisan to solution-oriented. At the moment, few could imagine Harper opening up the cabinet discussion to Jack Layton, Stéphane Dion and Gilles Duceppe. The current implausibility of such a suggestion is the canary in the coal mine of the Prime Minister's proposed new, open foreign policy debate.

If Prime Minister Harper is serious about developing an Afghan consensus, he will need to start now, not in 2009.

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Wednesday, June 27, 2007

# Posted 10:10 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

STOP PAYING ATTENTION TO MICHAEL MOORE: To what extent does criticism, no matter how harsh or how justified, only build Moore up into a bigger celebrity? If one wanted to completely marginalize a public figure, how would one go about it? The answer is not that if you ignore him, he'll go away. Rather, I think the challenge is to ensure that liberals are the ones who are bashing Moore.

Thankfully, David Denby, the New Yorker's film critic, is making a good start. He writes that:
Michael Moore has teased and bullied his way to some brilliant highs in his career as a political entertainer, but he scrapes bottom in his new documentary, “Sicko.”...

Moore and the rescue workers (the other sick [passengers on the ship] having mysteriously disappeared) wander onto the streets of Havana and ask some guys playing dominoes if there’s a doctor nearby. They go to a pharmacy and then to a hospital, where the Americans are admitted and treated. Few people in Moore’s audience are likely to be displeased that they receive help from a Communist system. But what is the point of Moore’s fiction of a desperate, wandering quest for medicine on the streets, as if he hadn’t known in advance that Cuba has free health care? Why not tell us what really happened on the trip—for instance, what part Cuban officials played in receiving the American patients?
Well, it'll come out sooner or later. Besides, doing PR work for Castro is much less offensive than whitewashing Saddam Hussein's Iraq, a la Fahrenheit 9/11. (Remember the footage of joyful Iraqi children in a playground and the deafening silence about Saddam's occasional human rights violations?)

Denby later observes that:
Moore winds up treating the audience the same way that, he says, powerful people treat the weak in America—as dopes easily satisfied with fairy tales and bland reassurances. And since he doesn’t interview any of the countless Americans who have been mulling over ways to reform our [health care] system, we’re supposed to come away from “Sicko” believing that sane thinking on these issues is unknown here.
If you read the whole interview, you'll see that Denby reserves a certain affection for Moore, or at least for his politics. Denby concludes the review by noting that:
A shift to the left, or, at least, to the center, has overtaken Michael Moore, yielding an irony more striking than any he turns up: the changes in political consciousness that Moore himself has helped produce have rendered his latest film almost superfluous.
This makes it seem like Moore is the advocate of responsible politics, not the loudspeaker of the wing-nut left. To marginalize Moore, he must become someone who mainstream liberals are embarrassed to identify as one of their own. But that's no small task. The extremes often generate a devoted audience. And then the rest of the party either pays lip service or avoids unnecessary conflicts with the base. (It's the same with conservatives, of course.)

Ultimately, I suspect that Moore may have to be the author of his own political demise. He needs to insult America in a way that makes any association with him taboo. For example, a bad enough cheapshot at American soldiers might do the trick. Sort of like John Kerry's remark about them all being dropouts, but worse.

You could say that it's mean-spirited to strategize about how to marginalize anyone other than the KKK or some other hate group. I'd respond that anyone who whitewashes a murderous dictatorship and generally debases our standards of public debate deserves exactly that. The same goes for conservative wing-nuts as well as liberals. I just pay more attention to the latter, since the conservative ones rarely get much positive coverage in the publications I read or much praise from the liberals in my Ivy League demograpic.


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Tuesday, June 26, 2007

# Posted 6:37 AM by Patrick Porter  

LOCK EM UP? When trying to persuade people rationally, suggesting that people who disagree should be imprisoned is not a good start:

Guardian columnist and author George Monbiot wrote: "Almost everywhere, climate change denial now looks as stupid and unacceptable as Holocaust denial."

Closer to home, Margo Kingston wrote: "David Irving is under arrest in Austria for Holocaust denial. Perhaps there is a case for making climate change denial an offence. It is a crime against humanity, after all."

There's something ridiculous about comparing people who deny the Holocaust with people who are skeptical about the cause, extent or implications of complex, long-term climactic trends.

But there's an implicit argument here that its a good thing to imprison holocaust-deniers.

Personally, I would be reluctant to imprison fascist big-mouths for their opinions. Prison is where they write their most damaging work.

And when it comes to climate change, isn't being disagreed with a necessary condition for constructing and sustaining an argument? If we say that certain opinions are unacceptable, ie. cannot be uttered, or if we stick climate change deniers in prison, wouldn't the likes of Monbiot lose their antagonists and therefore lose their ability to make their case?

Alternatively, wouldn't it martyr their opponents?

John Stuart Mill signing off.
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Monday, June 25, 2007

# Posted 8:12 PM by Taylor Owen  

3D IN AFGHANISTAN: I have a couple of articles out on the concept of 3D peacebuilding currently being used in Afghanistan. Both are co-authored with a friend, Patrick Travers. The idea that defense, development and diplomatic initiatives must coordinate in fundamentally new ways is seen by many as the future of peacebuilding. This, however, brings with it a host of challenges that are not easily reconciled.

The focus of these pieces is on the Canadian mission, but the argument is applicable to other nations participating in Afghanistan, and increasingly, elsewhere. I was recently at a NATO conference where the very themes were discussed by US Army participants. Though different countries use different terminology, all are struggling with the same questions: How to achieve multiple objectives (counter-terrorism, reconstruction, development, humanitarian assistance, etc.) when tactics are often counterproductive? How to change strategic cultures used to full independence, to collaborate with other actors in a conflict zone? How to peacebuild when military tactics are driving people to the enemy, and a situation is deemed too insecure for development workers? How to collaborate with nations who have varying tactics, objectives and operating procedures?

The first article is in the Walrus Magazine and available here. The second, more academic piece is published as a CIR Working Paper, here. As the latter is a work in progress, I would be very appreciative of thoughts.

The lead of the Walrus piece is below.
A hundred and twenty years before Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan, a British prime minister identified the issue at the heart of current attempts to defeat the Taliban and reconstruct the country. In the midst of the “Great Game” between the British Empire and Tsarist Russia over influence in Central Asia, William Gladstone urged his fellow citizens to “remember that the sanctity of life in the hill villages of Afghanistan, among the winter snows, is as inviolable in the eye of Almighty God, as can be your own.”

Preserving the sanctity of life, however, is difficult when the enemy strikes unexpectedly, blends into the local populace, and enjoys growing support. Last October, for example, some twenty Afghan civilians were killed during two separate NATO attacks. First, a 2 a.m. helicopter strike on Taliban fighters destroyed several huts in the village of Ashogoh. The same day, a rocket accidentally struck a house during a firefight between NATO troops and the Taliban. President Hamid Karzai has summed up Afghanistan’s vulnerable position, stating, “We can’t prevent the terrorists from coming from Pakistan, and we can’t prevent the coalition from bombing the terrorists, and our child­ren are dying because of this.”

Karzai’s comment encapsulates the challenge Canada now faces in Afghanistan. We must win local support for reconstruction efforts while also making war. These two tasks are not easily reconciled. As Afghan legislator Shu­kria Barakzai has warned, killing civilians will undermine NATO’s mission in Afghanistan (to say nothing of harsh treatment of detainees).

Although this poses a dilemma, it’s no reason to leave – a point on which a near consensus has emerged. While the Liberal Party supports moving for­ces out of Kandahar province (where the heaviest fighting is) in 2009, all national parties save the New Democrats agree that the humanitarian costs of withdrawing completely from the country outweigh the many challenges of staying. Indeed, successive Canadian govern­ments have ultimately justified the mission in similar terms. Unlike Gladstone, we are trying to help the Afghans build a viable and independent state. With the official debate over Canada’s presence resolved for the time being, the question remains: how do we go about building peace while we’re still at war?

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# Posted 12:24 PM by Patrick Porter  

THE PATTERN OF TERROR: Last night I watched a few episodes of the latest 24 series. (If you don't want any plot spoiled, don't read further!)

The fourth episode or so culminates in a nuclear attack on a city, as the distressed Jack Bauer looks up to see a mushroom cloud.

It makes an interesting contrast with John Robb's recent book about the future of warfare, Brave New War. Robb argues that in many respects, popular obsession with the image of terrorist groups plotting to inflict megadeath with WMD is a little misleading.

Robb argues instead that the dominant pattern now and in the future will be networked groups (he calls 'global guerrillas') who will strike critical infrastructure (telecommunications, electricity grids, transport systems, oil pipelines, etc) to paralyse and destabilise states.

Personally, I suspect we are now in another interwar period, before the next large-scale wars between states, but that's another story. I would highly recommend Robb's book nevertheless.

It tackles the less spectacular face of warfare, systems disruption rather than dramatic violence, to chart a chaotic world unfolding. And its damn well written.
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# Posted 11:55 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

OXBLOG GETS MARRIED: On Saturday afternoon, I had the tremendous privilege of watching Josh Chafetz, the esteemed founder of this website, get married. Josh was beaming. The smile on his face was so broad and energetic I don't think he could've stopped smiling if he tried. During the ceremony, as Josh held the hands of his lovely bride Kate, it seemed as if he could barely believe that one human being is entitled to so much good fortune. The expression on Josh's face was one of pure joy, of receiving a gift so wonderful and complete that he could ask for nothing more in this lifetime.

The bride was pretty happy, too. I had only met her once before the wedding, but had no problem seeing how Josh fell in love with a woman so charming, intelligent and kind-hearted. But since I've known Josh for quite a while, I was struck by how radiant he was as he held Kate's hands in his own. And it was impossible not share in his joy, because one wants exactly for one's good friends what Josh has found with Kate.
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Saturday, June 23, 2007

# Posted 4:28 AM by Taylor Owen  

ME TOO!: By any chance, could any of our enlightened oxblog constitutional lawyers explain this one to me:
The White House said Friday that, like Vice President Dick Cheney's office, President Bush's office is not allowing an independent federal watchdog to oversee its handling of classified national security information.

An executive order that Bush issued in March 2003 — amending an existing order — requires all government agencies that are part of the executive branch to submit to oversight. Although it doesn't specifically say so, Bush's order was not meant to apply to the vice president's office or the president's office, a White House spokesman said. (Emph mine)
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Friday, June 22, 2007

# Posted 9:38 AM by Taylor Owen  

LESSIG TAKES ON DC: This rationale for a shift in career paths by one of the biggest figures in the IT world is pretty remarkable. If you don't know what he is about, or about the Creative Commons movement, it is worth a look. His book, Free Culture, is downloadable here. Finally, anyone who hasn't seen this presentation really should check it out. Besides being a wounderful argument, it is one of the best power points I have ever seen. Enjoy.

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Wednesday, June 20, 2007

# Posted 11:56 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

TWO NEW YORKERS' THOUGHTS ABOUT BLOOMBERG: The political striptease continues. Bloomberg has left the GOP. And why shouldn't the tease continue well into the spring of 2008? There are no primaries for independent candidates. And this one doesn't have to worry about fund-raising. If I were hizzoner, I'd just wait to see what happens in the early primaries, then see if either major candidate (or both) were vulnerable.

My question is what ideas would actually make Bloomberg different than either major party candidate. According to my girlfriend, who lived in the city for eight years until this past April, Bloomberg simply "exudes competence". I grew up in the city but haven't spent much time there since 1999. No question the city has done extraordinarily well under Bloomberg. But Mayor Mike is sort of the HW Bush to Giuliani's Reagan. He's the kinder, gentler successor to the Real Thing. If Giuliani won the GOP nomination, would it seem non-sensical for his successor to make an independent bid for President? Or is kinder, gentler and competent just what voters are looking for?

UPDATE: I just surfed over to Dan Drezner's blog and it seems that Bloomberg has piqued his interest as well.

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Tuesday, June 19, 2007

# Posted 10:34 AM by Patrick Porter  

ABUSE OF A WORD: So now one is a neocon if one believes Stalinism was brutal.

Similarly, the recent film 300, based on a comic book about a battle between Sparta and Persia, in a war between a coalition of small city-states against a very large invading empire, has a 'neocon message.'

Is this becoming like the phrase 'politically correct', a lazy, all-purpose swearword for anything we aren't supposed to like?
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# Posted 10:24 AM by Patrick Porter  

MY LATEST RANT: For anyone interested, I've been lucky enough to have something published in Parameters.
And thanks to the readers who chimed in on past discussions about war, strategic culture, Herodotus and much else besides. Enjoy!
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# Posted 8:50 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

BILL RICHARDSON DOES HIS BEST JOHN KERRY IMITATION: Ryan Lizza writes in TNR [subscription required] that:
On March 20, 2003, the day after US bombs dropped on Baghdad, Bill Richardson signed an optimistic neocon statement on the war. "Together with sucessful democratic reform in Iraq," it read, "the Gulf has the potential of making a clean break with a past rooted in repression and entering into the growing global community of democratic states." The statement was released by Freedom House, the human rights organization beloved by hawks and the interventionist wings of both parties. Richardson was a truste of Freedom House and had been the organization's chairman before he became governor. Other signatories included Kenneth Adelman, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Diana Negroponte, and James Woolsey.

But, early this year, Richardson's neocon moment ended -- right about the time he started campaigning in Iowa. His new position is about as far as possible from his old one: He wants all the troops out of Iraq this calendar year -- "The difference I have with other candidates is I'm saying no residual troops at all," he told me. [Emphasis in original.] And his first big speech on foreign policy, in contrast to his idealistic Freedom House declaration, called for "a new realism".
Give the man credit. His realism is actually is quite new.

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Sunday, June 17, 2007

# Posted 12:03 PM by Taylor Owen  

SO LET ME GET THIS STRAIGHT...: The moment the democratically elected government is undemocratically reconfigured is the right time for aid to be re-instated? hmmm, now what lesson does this send to those for whom this aid is rightly intended?

Tangentially, can we please put the absolutist democracy promotion rhetoric to rest. Yes, democracy is good, but for a whole host of good and bad reasons, its promotion alone does not make a cohesive foreign policy narrative. My guess, post-bush, is that democracy will slip off the top-tier list of guiding principles for US foreign policy. There are simply too many counter-factuals for it to be instructive in and of itself.

ps. just to be clear, I'm not making a judgment on the reinstating of aid, or on any policy that rewards undemocratic behavior, or on democracy being a good thing (ok, I am on this, I DO think its a pretty good thing). Rather, I am making a judgment on those who claim that in certain cases the promotion of democracy is an absolute, and in other cases it is well, a little more flexible. Democracy can have good and bad implications, depending wholly on how free people choose to act. Foreign policy must therefore be based on more than simply its "promotion". It is not a particularly useful meta-narrative.

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# Posted 11:45 AM by Patrick Porter  

UPWARD SLOPE, OR CALM BEFORE THE STORM: Measuring success against the Taliban can be frustrating, partly because it is hard to interpret silence. The lack of a massive spring offensive as expected has led one Dutch General to announce that we are on the 'upward slope' towards ultimate, long-term victory:

"We launched major combat operations and we have clearly defeated them in objective terms," he said. "That doesn't mean that the Taliban are not there, but they do not have the capability to control large regions of the southern areas, to dictate what the people are thinking.

"I think we will see suicide attacks and IED (improvised explosive device) attacks for some time, but it's completely different from the opportunity they thought they would have last year when there were claims about a spring offensive. That is no longer possible."

But a revealing piece (about the 'Desert Eagles' experiences in Afghanistan) from the Armed Forces Journal from last year suggests that we should still be cautious about interpreting Taliban inactivity:

"Among the most troubling changes was the state of the insurgency in southern Afghanistan," states an unclassified TF 31 "memorandum for record" dated Oct. 7 and provided to Army TimesAFJ. "Exploiting the misconception that the insurgency was over, the enemy Â… had expertly managed to reorganize, refit and prepare to conduct a more focused campaign against Afghan National Security Forces. Coalition forces, though more far reaching than 12 months earlier and occupying three additional fire bases in the most remote areas of southern Afghanistan, had limited themselves to locally focused operations, allowing the enemy to remain out of reach and unmolested for nearly six months."

As a result, the Taliban forces have emerged stronger than at any time since a combined U.S.-Northern Alliance force drove them from power in late 2001. Conventional and Special Forces officers say the Taliban has a functioning chain of command that stretches from senior leaders in Pakistan down to foot soldiers in the provinces.

Estimations of Taliban strength have fluctuated many times since the autumn of 2001. Given their continual sanctuary they have across the border, it still might be counterproductive to be announcing fundamental turning-points. If the Taliban's great advantage is time, maybe we shouldn't be continually reinforcing our own impatience with sunny declarations and false expectations.

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Saturday, June 16, 2007

# Posted 6:38 AM by Patrick Porter  

THE YEARS OF INVASION: I am keen to see whether Oxblog readers could direct me to any decent books about the years 1978-9 in global terms.

It seems to have been a period of opportunistic aggression from major powers - the Chinese invasion of Vietnam, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and of course Saddam Hussein's invasion of Iran. I mean books about these years specifically, rather than general accounts of the Cold War in the 70's/80s. Any leads would be welcome!
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Tuesday, June 12, 2007

# Posted 8:13 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

SMART WOMEN FOR HILLARY OBAMA: The two smartest women in my life -- my mother and my girlfriend -- are also the strongest Hillary supporters I know. I assumed this was no accident. High-achieving women empathize with Hillary's struggle to succeed at the highest levels of law and politics.

But the polls say smart women support Obama. According to a front-pager in today's WaPo,
Clinton is drawing especially strong support from lower-income, lesser-educated women -- voters her campaign strategists describe as "women with needs."...

Clinton drew support from 61 percent of women who had at most a high school degree, compared with 18 percent for Obama. By contrast, female college graduates were more evenly split: 38 percent said they preferred Clinton, and 34 percent backed Obama. (Twelve percent said they supported Edwards.)

A large gap also appeared on the question of which candidate seemed the most honest and trustworthy: Clinton was considered most honest by 42 percent of women who had only a high school education, compared with 16 percent for Obama. But only 19 percent of college-educated women said Clinton is the most honest; 50 percent chose Obama.
You might say that those who read the paper more have a lower opinion of Hillary's honesty.

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Friday, June 08, 2007

# Posted 4:16 PM by Patrick Porter  

GUN CRIMES AND CULTURE WARS: After the Virginia Tech shooting, I drafted a post about how some commentators often generalise about societies from single incidents, like gun crimes and other tragedies.

At that time, it seemed that debates on the web about the murders and what they 'meant' quickly got overheated. So after a few months, it seems now might be a better time to post them:

On gun laws themselves, I have a boringly moderate attitude, don't know a lot about the issue, and suspect that tighter laws might be needed but that the linkage between gun availability and gun crime is not always obvious (even Michael Moore worked that one out!).

We probably should restrict certain kinds of firearms more strictly, but also be aware that this will probably not be enough to forestall the most determined killers.
As a point of principle and practical policy, it should not be extremely easy to purchase a firearm without proper background checks.

What interests me more, though, is how various unreflective folk rush to announce that the gun massacre yesterday, or similarly terrible events, reveal how dysfunctional American society is generally.

So rightists argued after Columbine that it indicates a fundamental moral poison at work; leftists, that poverty, rampant gun culture or even foreign wars are to blame.

The focus on America itself seems misplaced - the idea that this is mostly reflective of peculiarities in American society.

Gun crime is not a problem unique to the US, even though gun crimes happen more often there. Britain, Australia and Russia (off the top of my head) have had severe gun massacres in the last decade.

It seems that there are various pundits who when it comes to cultures they just don't like (such as powerful capitalist liberal democracies) are keen to generalise about an entire society on the basis of a few incidents. Yet they are not so keen to do so when it comes to other societies.

Some years ago in France, in a heat wave, its government and health service responded so inefficiently that thousands of people died. Some people I knew were quick to infer that America was a sick society as a result of Katrina. But I don't remember the same folk claiming that France's response to the heatwave indicated a fundamentally unviable, pathologically unstable, flawed experiment of a nation.

Australia was also in the frame after the Cronulla riots. Unlike France with its urban riots, this violence was not replicated all over the nation. It was pretty much an isolated incident, indeed a bad one, but isolated. But Australia's rabid racist culture, or its racist government, was sometimes blamed in the Oz progressive press.

Meanwhile, these racist Australians elect a man with Lebanese ancestry as state Premier, a Chinese immigrant as a city mayor, and a number of second generation Vietnamese-Australians to the parliament. We have one of the highest rates of inter-ethnic intermarriage in the world. Opinion polls consistently indicate that relative to most other countries, Australians hold racist opinions far less frequently. We don't have a long-term, institutionalised racist organisation that regularly achieves an alarming share of the vote. And many thousands of people every year want to come and live in this notoriously racist hotbed.

Even talking about the problem of America being a 'violent' society is simplistic. It does have higher incidents of lethal crime, but far less of a culture of casual violence that one sees amongst some unarmed populations. There may even be a link between these things - an armed society is a polite society...most of the time.

But must a single gun crime indicate a malaise in the soul of the republic, a pathological disorder throughout its culture? Can we even talk about America being a distinctively violent society? The most violent nation in the first world, according to a UN study, is in fact Scotland.

The point is, there is a tendency to cloak debates about violence in a wider discussion about the viability and legitimacy of certain western societies.

I guess it comes partly from the urge to assimilate single incidents rapidly into whatever political outlook suits us.
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Wednesday, June 06, 2007

# Posted 9:12 AM by Taylor Owen  

THE SUMMIT OF DISCONTENTS: Paul Well's, on the phenomenon that is the G8:
This is progress, international summiteering subjected to the doctrines of work process design, a seamless parallel system for doing whatever it is one does at a G8: the politicians decide nothing in one town; we cover nothing in another; and aging grad students in black masks get mad at nothing in still a third.
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Tuesday, June 05, 2007

# Posted 9:59 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

OXBLOG=SPAM? The two posts below were invisible for several days because Blogger decided that OxBlog is spam. We apparently persuaded them, however, that even if our work is useless and annoying, we're not trying to make money off of anyone.


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Saturday, June 02, 2007

# Posted 10:04 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

AN INCONVENIENT DVD: I've never really doubted that global warming exists, so I wasn't going to pay $10 to have Al Gore tell me that it does. But now that An Inconvenient Truth is available on Netflix, I figured I should see what I can learn about global warming from our former Vice President.

First of all, let me say up front that I have almost no specific knowledge about global warming. I took a pretty good geology course as an undergraduate that covered climate modeling in a fair amount of detail, but that was ten years ago and I've forgotten it all. In other words, I am in no position to evaluate the scientific merit of any material presented in the film.

What I do know is simply that Gore presents every iota of information in the film as absolute truth. There is no instance in which Gore tells you about a serious scientist with a different interpretation from his own. Now, I never expected Gore to say that there are credible scientists who disagree with the fact that the earth is getting warmer. But even when it comes to questions like how much warmer the earth will get, how quickly or how it will affect coastal environments, Gore never acknowledges that there is any real disagreement with his own perspective.

The only critics Gore acknowledges are those who deny that there is any such thing as global warming. But Gore only introduces them for two reasons. First, to make fun of them. Second, to suggest that they are part of a very-well funded corporate lobbying campaign to distort the truth about global warming. Thus, the impression Gore conveys throughout the film is that either you agree with him or you've been manipulated by corporate spin doctors.

Now, I guess you could say that Gore is a politician and not a scientist, so there's nothing wrong if he focuses on hammering his opponents of choice. Yet this is not a 30-second commercial. It's a 90-minute documentary. Moreover, Gore constantly emphasizes that the purpose of his work is to educate. Again and again, we see him delivering his infamous Power Point presentation to students across the globe. The standard he sets for himself is one of rigorous scientific examination.

Another hypothesis to consider is that Gore did introduce his audiences to several credible points of view but that the producers and director of the film chose to create a simple narrative of good vs. evil and truth vs. lies. More generally, I'd be interested to know how much of a role Gore played in the creation of the film. Did he simply let the crew follow him around and make whatever kind of film they wanted, or did he play an active role in deciding what to film, how to edit and how to market it?

Regardless of was responsible for the specific content of the film, I think it would've been interesting if there had been more footage of Gore interacting with his audience rather than just delivering his presentation. Given that the purpose of the film is explicitly pedagogical, one might expect it to be more of a dialogue rather than a lecture. If memory serves, there is only instance in the film in which Gore answers a student's question. Very earnestly, a young woman in China asks what we can do about global warming. Not exactly Hardball, eh?

Speaking of which, I remember when Gore did an exclusive interview last summer on This Week with George Stephanopoulos. I remember two lines of questioning that gave Gore some trouble. First, Stephanopoulos wanted to know why the Clinton administration didn't do more about global warming if the problem is so deadly serious. In fact, even a lot of Democrats didn't agree with Gore's proposals. Naturally, Gore attributed such disagreements to the short-sightedness of others. But Stephanopoulos made his point. The politics of global warming are much more complicated than a supposed struggle of the scientifically informed against manipulative corporate lobbyists.

Stephanopoulos also pushed hard on the question of whether Gore's lectures endorse the most alarmist positions in the scientific community without letting on that the majority of scientists consider the implications of global warming to be less catastrophic. To make his point, Stephanopoulos asked Gore a very specific question about the thickness of the ice in Greenland or something like that.

Frankly, I have no idea which man was right. But I can tell you that An Incovenient Truth presents is full of apocalyptic projections of what the world will look like in 20 or 30 years if we don't stop global warming. In Manhattan, Ground Zero will be underwater. So will the most populated areas on the east coast of China. All in all, hundreds of millions of people will lose their homes and become environmental refugees. This is not something that may happen, but something Al Gore says will happen if we don't change our ways dramatically.

The good news, Gore says, is that we already have all the technology we need to prevent further global warming. All we lack is the political will to do something about it. Personally, I'm curious as to whether most scientists agree with that conclusion. Gore himself spends very little time in the film explaining what he means. Only the last 7 or 8 minutes of the film focus on how to stop global warming. In one sequence, Gore lists seven or eight policies that will help fight global warming and asserts that their cumulative effect will be decisive. Given how much detail he provides elsewhere in the film, that sequence is rather disappointing.

After watching An Inconvenient Truth, I didn't feel like I had much more hard knowledge about global warming than I did before watching the film. Given my relative ignorance about global warming, the only real choice I had was to trust Al Gore completely or to treat almost everything he said as a yet-to-be proven hypothesis. Putting it less kindly, I thought Gore was preaching to the choir. Fortunately for him, the choir decided to give him an Oscar.

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# Posted 11:20 AM by Patrick Porter  

HEALTH AT ALL COSTS: Fifa, the world governing body of football, wants to ban playing the sport at high altitude. Understandably, some South Americans are unimpressed.

There's more to life than uniformity and health, discuss.


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