Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Brecher on Boko Haram

The number of people who write interesting, nuanced pieces on Islam is shockingly low. Either all Muslims are crazy, or all Muslims are peace-loving, but it's got to be one of the two. More importantly, to the extent that anyone resiles from this position, it's as a wholly dishonest token ass-covering method that simply emphasises by comparison the main sentiment. In other words, you'll read either 'Of course, not all Muslims are crazy terrorists, but [implicitly they are nearly all terrorists]', or 'Of course, there are a tiny number of Muslim terrorist fanatics, but [implicitly they are nearly all peace-loving]'.

If you want to test whether a given piece has any nuance, you can check whether it makes any attempt to distinguish between different groups of Muslims. In other words, if there are 'a tiny number of terrorist fanatics', to me it seems mightily interesting as to how we might diagnose which ones are which. Bangladesh, for instance, produces relatively few jihadis. Neither does Turkey. Saudi Arabia and Yemen, however, produce quite a lot. But how often do you hear about that distinction? Or how we should set policy as a consequence?

Gary Brecher, however, is one of the best sources of actually informed, disinterested commentary on the subject. The standard problem, as he puts it, is thus:
A few days ago, a suicide bomber got on a luxury commuter bus in Northern Nigeria and blew himself up, along with 60 people who were heading home from work.
It didn’t get much publicity. African casualties rarely do, especially when there’s a depressing religious angle. The suicide bomber came from the Northern Nigerian Islamist group “Boko Haram.” The name is interesting: “Boko” comes from the English word “book,” as pronounced by the Hausa, the biggest northern ethnic group. “Haram” (“forbidden”) is an Arabic word, the Wahhabis’ favorite word of all. When people talk about “Northern Nigeria” they mean “Muslim Nigeria.” There are three big divisions in the country: The Muslim/Hausa North, the Christian/Igbo South, and the Yoruba West. (The Yoruba are the only big group that’s mixed, with Christians and Muslims). Boko Haram blew up those buses because the people on them were going to an Igbo/Christian neighborhood of Kano, a Muslim/Northern city.
That’s already more than most squeamish Westerners want to know. “Ah, it’s religious…” is about all they need to hear before settling back into their comfy stances. Conservatives figure it’s just one more proof that all Muslims are crazy. The left mumbles “Islamophobia” and tries to change the subject to Palestine. So from left to right on your radio dial, there’s not a lot of what my social-studies teacher called “hunger for knowledge.”
 I challenge you to argue that he's wrong.

Here's his latest piece, describing the disingenuousness of people who are suddenly interested in Boko Haram as a way of distracting attention from Charlie Hedbo.

It's awesome. Read the whole thing.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Imitation Game

I recently saw 'The Imitation Game', the new Benedict Cumberbatch movie about the role of Alan Turing in solving the Enigma Code in World War 2. Some thoughts thereon:

The movie managed to get a fairly even-handed description of a lot of the important parts of Turing's life and work. It managed to hit on artificial intelligence, computers, the general problems of encryption and information leakage, and the question of how much to act on information from the cables so as to not reveal that you've broken the code.

That may seem like an easy thing, but it's actually surprisingly hard. Compare it with, say, 'A Beautiful Mind', which covered the life of John Nash. That movie barely touched on what was Nash's singular contribution, the Nash Equilibrium, and when they did, they managed to completely screw it up. In the game of 'do we all compete for the hot girl at the bar and crowd each other out, or target the plain ones?', they depict the answer as 'everyone goes for the plain ones, thus we all get paired up'. That's not a damn Nash equilibrium! If everyone else is going for the plain ones, the dominant strategy is to go for the hot one. But apparently the concept of randomisation was a bridge too far. So by that dismal standard, The Imitation Game is practically a cryptography textbook.

The movie also made me think curious the question of who gets credit for big accomplishments like breaking the Enigma code. Doubt not that Turing was brilliant and a huge part of it. But did you know that a lot of the early work that made it possible was done by several Polish cryptographers before the war? I will go so far as to wager quite confidently that none of my readers has ever had cause to use the world word 'Poland' (or its derivations) and the word 'cryptography' (or its derivations) together in any sentence they have uttered or thought, ever. Even after the story gets popular, they are forgotten. And in terms of geniuses who will never, ever be remembered, the movie made me wonder about who designed the Enigma machine in the first place. Though it was eventually cracked, it is an outstanding piece of cryptography. You will never hear about the Germans responsible for its creation. Brilliant German scientists were only famous once they had been succesfully rehabilitated - Wernher von Braun was a genius when he was designing rockets for the Nazis, but it was only possible to acknowledge this brilliance in hindsight once he'd also used it to land Americans on the moon.

I was rather impressed with the quite sensitive way that they tackled Turing's homosexuality. They resist what I imagine would have been a tendency in a lot of treatments of the story: to make homosexuality the central part of his character, and his whole raison d'etre. Given the extent of Turing's intellectual achievements, such as basically founding computer science as a discipline, a movie that simply made him a gay activist or martyr would have deeply missed the point about his life. But this is exactly the kind of depressing mistake Hollywood tends to make. This is particularly so, given the tragic treatment he received at the hands of the authorities in in being convicted of indecency and chemically castrated, which probably contributed to his eventual suicide. Rather, they show quite sweetly the scenes of a lonely Turing at school developing a romantic friendship with another boy, but one that never has an actual physical aspect of sexuality in any form. This depiction actually meshed very well with the way Robert Graves describes such things in 'Goodbye to all that':
"G.H.Rendall, the then Headmaster at Charterhouse, is reported to have innocently said at a Headmasters' Conference: 'My boys are amorous, but seldom erotic.' ...
Yet I agree with Rendall's distinction between 'amorous' (by which he meant a sentimental falling in love with younger boys) and eroticism, or adolescent lust...

In English preparatory and public schools romance is necessarily homosexual. The opposite sex is despised and treated as something obscene. Many boys never recover from this perversion. For every one born homosexual, at least ten permanent pseudo-homosexuals are made by the public school system: nine of these ten as honourably chaste and sentimental as I was.
"The school consisted of about six hundred boys, whose chief interests were games [sports] and romantic friendships."
The extent to which they manage to capture this atmosphere, without simply transforming it into modern ideas of what being gay involves, was a pleasant surprise.

The other idea that I really enjoyed seeing depicted was the old sense of Britishness - restraint, propriety, a stiff upper lip to the point of being emotionally distant. You could see how the British were able to run a huge empire for so long, and win World War I. The most memorable scene in this regard was when Joan, the female cryptographer and one-time fiance (Keira Knightly) sees Alan (Benedict Cumberbatch) after his conviction and chemical castration. Turing is close to a breakdown and starts crying. Joan gently encourages him to sit down, and rather than talk through his problems, suggests that they do a crossword puzzle. I found this scene oddly touching and heartbreaking. It is a hallmark of the lost Britain that you only see today in the elderly. As Theodore Dalrymple recounts:
No culture changes suddenly, and the elderly often retained the attitudes of their youth. I remember working for a short time in a general practice in a small country town where an old man called me to his house. I found him very weak from chronic blood loss, unable to rise from his bed, and asked him why he had not called me earlier. “I didn’t like to disturb you, Doctor,” he said. “I know you are a very busy man.”
From a rational point of view, this was absurd. What could I possibly need to do that was more important than attending to such an ill man? But I found his self-effacement deeply moving. It was not the product of a lack of self-esteem, that psychological notion used to justify rampant egotism; nor was it the result of having been downtrodden by a tyrannical government that accorded no worth to its citizens. It was instead an existential, almost religious, modesty, an awareness that he was far from being all-important.
I experienced other instances of this modesty. I used to pass the time of day with the husband of an elderly patient of mine who would accompany her to the hospital. One day, I found him so jaundiced that he was almost orange. At his age, it was overwhelmingly likely to mean one thing: inoperable cancer. He was dying. He knew it and I knew it; he knew that I knew it. I asked him how he was. “Not very well,” he said. “I’m very sorry to hear that,” I replied. “Well,” he said quietly, and with a slight smile, “we shall just have to do the best we can, won’t we?” Two weeks later, he was dead.
Do you, like me, feel a great sorrow when you think of what once was, and how far we have fallen?

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Thoughts of the Day

"Thus, posterity's jest. Pre-war Europeans would never have entertained for a moment the construction of mosques from Malmö to Marseilles. But post-war Holocaust guilt, and the revulsion against nationalism and the embrace of multiculturalism and mass immigration, enabled the Islamization of Europe. The principal beneficiaries of the Continent's penance for the great moral stain of the 20th century turned out to be the Muslims — with the Jews on the receiving end, yet again."
-Mark Steyn, with context at the link

"There are 2500 British war cemeteries in France and Belgium. The sophisticated observer of the rows of headstones will do well to suspect that very often the bodies below are buried in mass graves, with the headstones disposed in rows to convey the illusion that each soldier has his individual place...
Every war is ironic because every war is worse than expected. Every war constitutes an irony of situation because its means are so melodramatically disproportionate to its presumed ends. In the Great War eight million people were destroyed because two persons, the Archduke Francis Ferdinand and his Consort, had been shot. The Second World War offers even more preposterous ironies. Ostensibly begun to guarantee the sovereignty of Poland, that war managed to bring about Poland's bondage and humiliation. "
Paul Fussell', "The Great War and Modern Memory"

Sunday, January 18, 2015

A conversation in two parts, lightly edited.

Part 1.

CC: I'm off to see that movie, Selma, tonight.

Shylock: Here's a prediction for you. I'll bet you that at absolutely no point in the movie do they ever mention that George Wallace was a Democrat.

CC: I'm sure they do. If they do, you have to go watch the movie.

Shylock: Betcha they don't. We'll see.

Part 2.

CC: So I watched Selma - as I so wisely predicted, they did mention party affiliations. Implicitly. So now you have to watch the movie like you promised.

Shylock: "Implicitly?" You mean they never say Wallace was a Democrat? Well colour me shocked.

CC: Well, there wasn't an explicit line in the movie where they said that George Wallace is a raging Democrat. But there were definitely a few scenes where he was talking very intimately with LBJ in the way that only party comrades do. It was totally obvious.


CC: Listen, it is totally possible that they said he was a Democrat and I missed it.

Shylock: "Dishonest biases of liberal filmmakers correctly predicted in advance by cynical reactionary, pundits astounded, full report at 11".

CC: If people who watch the film are so obtuse that they don't know that LBJ was a Dem, then I doubt explicitly stating anything was going to make a difference.

Shylock: Put it this way - can you think of any way they could have told the important facts of the story with any LESS emphasis on party affiliations than they actually did?

CC: Yes, I can think of many ways. Not emphasising LBJ and George Wallace as characters at all. Or revising history, and making them all Republicans.

Shylock: How's Birmingham, AL, doing these days? I'm guessing that doesn't get mentioned much either.

CC: That's besides the point. And I don't know - great food, strong family values? Doing as good as it ever was, I assume.

Shylock: Of course it is. We took away the racist institutions, and yet somehow now it looks like the third world. There are lots of possible explanations, but it's at least a puzzle, no?

CC: It's very hard to me to jump to the conclusion that Birmingham had become *a third world country* because of the enfranchisement of a minority. More likely has something to do with the decline of agrarian agriculture or whatever.

Shylock: If Birmingham were a country, its 2012 murder rate of 67 per 100,000 would make it literally the second highest in the world, behind Honduras. In 1951, the rate was 13 per 100,000. Probably agrarian agriculture. Or whatever.

Shylock: And personally, I'm in favour of universal disenfranchisement, but that's a separate issue.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

On the Charlie Hedbo killings

It's taken me a while to write about the Charlie Hedbo killings. It takes me a while to write anything anymore in this august journal, but it wasn't just that.

I felt genuinely stirred by one thing, first and foremost. The Charlie Hedbo staff had some pretty damn enormous stones. Drawing original Mohammed cartoons, under your own name, when the location of your office is publicly known, after you've already been firebombed once for doing so? That, my friend, is some serious commitment to thick liberty of speech. The ghost of John Stuart Mill is applauding the glorious dead of Charlie Hedbo. They paid the ultimate price to insist that the right to speak one's mind exists not only as a theoretical construct, but one that you can actually exercise. Behold, the roll of honour:
  • Cabu (Jean Cabut), 76, cartoonist
  • Charb (Stéphane Charbonnier), 47, cartoonist, columnist, and editor-in-chief of Charlie Hebdo.
  • Mustapha Ourrad , 60, copy editor.
  • Tignous (Bernard Verlhac), 57, cartoonist.
Alas, I fear we will not see their kind again soon.

The whole #JeSuisCharlie show of support was a mixed bag. I was at least heartened by the extent of explicit public solidarity, though I was inclined to agree with the various commentators who noted that there is a definite strain of false bravery by association in the hashtag, at least compared with the stupendous bravery of the actual Hedbo staff. But this is relatively minor.

One odd and yet somewhat positive result to come from this affair is that it finally, surprisingly dragged a number of US publications kicking and screaming into publishing some kind of depiction of Mohammed. They were for the most part unwilling in initial reporting to show any of the original cartoons that provoked the ire of the killers. They were certainly unwilling to print absolutely any of the Danish Mohammed cartoons a few years ago, to their great disgrace. 

But when the cover of the next edition of Charlie Hedbo was released, it seemed to finally shame some fraction of the American media into growing some balls, no matter how tiny and shriveled. Partly I suspect this was out of sympathy for their fellow journalists, partly because they perhaps sensed that they'd have enough of a justification and safety in numbers. Still, credit where diminutive credit is due, a surprising number at long, long last were willing to show something. According to the Daily Beast, the Washington Post ran photos of the cover, while USA Today and the Los Angeles Times put photos on their website. Even the BBC, to my astonishment, put a picture up, in one online story (which seems to be the the 'trial balloon' option, since you can take it back down again if you suddenly get scared). But of course, cowardice continues to win the day at CNN, ABC, AP, The New York Times, and so on. If you're unwilling to even reprint a cover specifically related to the story, whose depiction of Mohammed is not only mild and inoffensive, but which even contains the words 'All is Forgiven' above it, you'd sure as hell better not claim that you, too, are Charlie.

You can bet your ass that even the current crop of the recently less craven won't run more Mohammed pictures again soon. But the current reversal was made possible by the fact that for a short-lived time, a good number of the usual suspects who would ordinarily trumpet how free speech shouldn't include the right to say anything that might hurt the feelings of (certain chosen) religious minorities were at least temporarily shamed into silence. As expected, it didn't last long. It never does.

From this point on, alas, the story had mainly disappointment for me. 

With the distance of a few days, what strikes me the most about it is the fact that the only approved, socially acceptable response is sadness, and a "show of support", whatever that means. (Of course, half the left can't even muster that, going only for mealy-mouthed equivocation of "I support free speech, but..".).

But even take the #JeSuisCharlie people, whose solidarity I'm still glad to have. What exactly does it get you? You can have candlelit vigils in Paris. You can have hashtags. You can "show support", as an individual, and you can even assemble an impressive number of world leaders to do the same.

But then what?

What, exactly, does anyone plan to do in response? What, if any, policies or actions will change as a result?

The men who invaded the Charlie Hedbo offices were willing to trade their own lives, with very high expectation, to make sure that the people who drew and printed Mohammed cartoons were brutally and publicly killed. They were willing to die to send the message that if you create and distribute pictures of Mohammed under your own name, you will eventually be hunted down, even if you have police protection.

Will future such men be deterred by your hashtags? 

Will they be frightened by your "support"?

It is worth asking whether the killers succeeded in their purpose. Depressingly, I have to conclude that they did.

If you were a cartoonist, what would you learn from all this?

I'd learn, if I didn't already know it, that if I wrote a Mohammed cartoon, there's a strong chance I'd get killed. I might also learn that there's a reasonable chance I'd get a sympathetic hashtag going afterwards. How do you think that bargain strikes most cartoonists?

You don't have to guess to find out. Have a look through The Australian's gallery of cartoons drawn in the aftermath. I see a strong sentiment that the pen is mightier than the sword. I see a distinct lack of new drawings of Mohammed. 

I don't mean to single these guys out as cowards. They've just performed exactly the calculation that the terrorists wanted them to perform: if you draw a cartoon about Mohammed and publish it in such a way that we can identify you, you may be killed. Eli Valley drew about the dilemma quite poignantly here. It ends with the depressing conclusion: "The only context for me is this: call me a coward, but I want to continue to be alive." Not exactly stirring, is it? But then again, what have you done lately that's equivalently brave as what you're asking of him?

Mr Valley is absolutely right in his calculation of the stakes. Doubt not that this is deadly serious. Ask Molly Norris, a Seattle cartoonist in hiding since 2010 after death threats were made to her over her cartoons during 'Everyone Draw Mohammed' day. This is happening in America too. The only difference is that very few got printed the first time around, so there's fewer people to threaten.

Hence, the current implied scenario. Reprinting someone else's otherwise respectful depiction of Mohammed probably won't get you killed. Drawing your own anonymous Mohammed cartoon won't get you killed. Owning up to your public drawing quite possibly will.

Is there any serious doubt that of the people in the west who were, i) willing to publicly put their name to pictures of Mohammed, and ii) were set to run such cartoons in a major print publication, a large fraction were killed last week?

This is why the the terrorists succeeded.

So let's take it as given that "support", while better than opposition, will not in fact diminish the chances of future attacks occurring, nor will it significantly reduce the likely deterrent that the current attacks provide against new people drawing pictures of Mohammed. On its own, support, in other words, won't achieve anything. We return to the question from before. What, then, does anyone propose to do?

There is a very good reason that sadness is the only socially acceptable response. Anger, by contrast, requires action. When people are angry, they might actually do something. Is there anything that current political opinion will actually allow to be done?

The terrorists who perpetrated the act are already dead, so aside from cathartic displays equivalent to hanging Mussolini's corpse, there is nothing to be done there.

And since since we are loudly informed by all the great and the good that such attacks are representative of absolutely no wider sociological phenomenon but are merely the work of a tiny number of deranged madmen, apparently there's nothing to do directly to anyone else either.

So what if one's anger were turned towards the question of how we might ensure that this doesn't happen again, what might acceptable opinion consider?

Various Deus Ex Machina type answers get proposed. Better surveillance! Stop the flow of weapons to terrorist groups! Convince more Muslims to embrace free speech!

Very good. How, exactly, should this be accomplished?

The only one that might have any chance is the first. At least in America, we tried that. It was called The Patriot Act. While it is hard to judge its effectiveness, when the very name of your policy has effectively become shorthand for 'knee-jerk response to terrorism that permanently eroded important civil liberties', you may see why 'better surveillance' is not in fact an ideal policy response.

As for the second option, if anyone has the vaguest idea about what policy France might have implemented that would have succeeded in preventing the terrorists from having access to the weapons they had, I'm yet to hear it.

As for the third, nobody in any position of political power seems to have much of an idea how to get radical Muslims to love free speech other than 'be scrupulously nice to Muslims, insist that they're all peace-loving, don't discriminate against them, try not to offend them by depicting pictures of Mohammed...'

Give or take a few hiccups, it seems to me that this is the policy we've already been trying, no? This, in other words, is what brought us to the current position. Even if one were to think that we haven't done enough in this direction (like communism, true outreach has never been tried!), it surely seems worth at least considering the possibility that this policy actually does not work, and then what else one might do.

The West has collectively taken an enormous bet. It has bet that it can allow mass immigration from certain Muslim countries and successfully include such people into society in a way that doesn't compromise the West's own core values or result in permanent social conflict.

Maybe that bet is right. Every fibre of my being hopes that it is right. But Gnon cares little what you'd like to be true. It care only about what is.

However, the West, and the left in particular, cannot back away from its bet, no matter how high the stakes, no matter what evidence piles up. Because something much bigger is at issue. To acknowledge the possibility that the policy of large scale immigration from certain countries might have been mistaken would be to contemplate the notion that radical egalitarianism is false; that, much as we may hope it to be true, people are not all the same, and cultural systems are not all equally valid.

This will never be given up by the left. Never, ever, ever. 

Muslim immigration was never the cause, it was only ever the symptom. The cause was always our iron belief in radical egalitarianism. 

And this is why, in the end, we come to the conclusion that we knew all along. 

What, exactly, will the West do in response to all this? 


It will do nothing at all.