Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Not Everyone in Europe is Crazy in Love with Obama

Via the excellent site Watching America comes an editorial in Financial Times Deutschland that asks some pertinent questions of their countrymen who are about to turn out in droves to see the messiah:
However, this question must be asked: how much political savvy do those who celebrate Obama, a man who hasn't yet had to accept any great responsibilities, really have? Obama is often praised for rekindling enthusiasm in democracy in people due to his drawing power. But mass obeisance to a charismatic leader really has little to do with democracy. On the contrary, the sociologist Max Weber describes charismatic domination as a condition that gains no legitimacy either through elections or tradition. The Obama-hype is similar to the month-long dance around the iPhone, except that the Apple cell phone will still have to submit to field trials.

One of Obama's central messages is his distance from The Establishment, from the usual political scheming, from the deals of the political class. This promise, one that is naturally impossible to separate from every-day presidential life, also falls on open ears in Europe. Surveys regularly show that people are tired of political squabbling and the cumbersome search for compromise. A presidential anti-politician like Horst K”hler draws his popularity from the fact that he can call for or reject reforms without responsibility for day-to-day politics.

That "cumbersome search for compromise" is the only thing standing between us and dictatorship. It is the lifeblood of democracy. But those under a certain age are impatient with all this talking and naively yearn for a society without political conflict and where everyone gets along (and they all lived happily ever after...)

It shows, I believe, that at a fundamental level we have failed to pass on many democratic values such as compromise, tolerance, minority rights, and civility. Part of that blame should certainly go to the schools who today, mired in new leftist group-think about not how to learn but how to brainwash the young into becoming good little global citizens, are actually distrustful of democracy. But more blame should fall to parents who for what ever reason, did not inculcate the values of our system into their children's education at home.

Obama is the perfect post-democracy candidate. He promises nothing specific while leaving open the possibility that he can bring peace and justice to the galaxy like a Jedi knight. With a wave of his hand, he will stop all that confounded talk in Congress and get things done.

The German people of 1933 also were tired of bickering politicians and yearned for a strong leader who would make "the will of the people" into law. Watch Obama when he speaks in front of tens of thousands of Germans this week and remind yourself how that square was full of Germans 75 years ago basically wishing for the same thing those youngsters will be seeing in Obama.


Is Obama A Muslim?

The rather clever post below is recycled from Discriminations. See the original for links. I am rather surprised, though, by his failure to mention Obama's declared liking for the shahada (Muslim declaration of faith): "Mr. Obama described the call to prayer as "one of the prettiest sounds on Earth at sunset."". See also here

One of the reasons the New Yorker cover showing fist-bumping Obamas in Muslim garb caused such a ruckus is that its appearance coincided with the release of a Pew Research Center report showing that 12% of Americans (interestingly, 12% of both Democrats and Republicans) still believe Obama is in fact a Muslim. As Eleanor Clift laments, typically, in Newsweek,
A survey released this week conducted by the Pew Research Center finds the notion Obama is a Muslim "bipartisan and enduring." Equal percentages of Republicans and Democrats (12 percent in each party), believe he is a Muslim, with Democrats who hold the belief significantly less likely to vote for Obama.

Jonathan Alter, also in Newsweek, also laments that "the New Yorker cover, now being displayed endlessly on cable TV, speaks louder than any efforts by Obama supporters to stop the smears," and then he indulges in a little smearing, or at least exposing, himself:
For a while, I thought only rightwingers and other Obama haters bought into the lies being spread about him. Then I got a call from Ross Perot, who was trying to plant some dirt about John McCain leaving live POWs behind in Vietnam (untrue, by the way). In the course of the conversation, it became clear that Perot thought Obama was a Muslim. When I informed him that Obama was actually a Christian, Perot was relieved.... In this, alas, Ross Perot has plenty of company, and among people with a much less conspiratorial bent....

Given Obama's prominent association with Rev. Wright's Trinity United Church of Christ and his extended discussions of his journey of religious discovery in his two autobiographies (does anyone else get the idea that Obama is Obama's favorite subject?), not to mention the passions that are aroused by even the mildest questioning of Obama's religious identity, it is probably a mistake to suggest that there is any reasonable basis whatsover for any informed person to suggest that there may be at least one sense in which Obama is a Muslim.

Since I don't need the wrath such a suggestion would invite, I don't intend to suggest it. But it does seem worth pointing out (more in the nature of a reminder than an original observation, since others have made this point) that, in addition to the 12% of dumb, misinformed, probably bitter Americans, millions of people around the world are firmly convinced that Obama is a Muslim. Why do they think so? Because a strong, perhaps dominant, interpretation of Muslim Sharia law tells them so.

As the well-known military and foreign affairs analyst Edward Luttwak wrote in a New York Times OpEd just two months ago, but well before the New Yorker implosion,
As the son of the Muslim father, Senator Obama was born a Muslim under Muslim law as it is universally understood. It makes no difference that, as Senator Obama has written, his father said he renounced his religion. Likewise, under Muslim law based on the Koran his mother's Christian background is irrelevant.

Of course, as most Americans understand it, Senator Obama is not a Muslim. He chose to become a Christian, and indeed has written convincingly to explain how he arrived at his choice and how important his Christian faith is to him.

His conversion, however, was a crime in Muslim eyes; it is "irtidad" or "ridda," usually translated from the Arabic as "apostasy," but with connotations of rebellion and treason. Indeed, it is the worst of all crimes that a Muslim can commit, worse than murder (which the victim's family may choose to forgive).

An identical argument was made about the same time by Shireen K. Burki in a Christian Science Monitor OpEd:
Osama bin Laden must be chuckling in his safe house. After all, the 2008 campaign could very well give Al Qaeda the ultimate propaganda tool: President Barack Hussein Obama, Muslim apostate.

The fact that Senator Obama - the son of a Muslim father - insists he was never a Muslim before becoming Christian is irrelevant to bin Laden. In bin Laden's eyes, Obama is a murtad fitri, the worst type of apostate, because he was blessed by Allah to be born into the true faith of Islam....

Acording to Islamic jurisprudence, children of a Muslim father - even an apparently nonpracticing one, such as Obama's father, and irrespective of the mother's faith - are automatically Muslims. Most Muslims around the world agree: A child of a Muslim father is a Muslim. Period.

Now, everyone who is in favor of arrogant, isolationist America deferring to world opinion on all important matters, just as you did here, please stand up.

Fortunately, the United States is not governed by Sharia law. Individuals, even candidates for president, are free to choose their own religion, and their choices deserve a certain measure of respect - though not absolute respect, lest we be inhibited from offering the robust criticism that Rev. Wright, Minister Farrakhan, and those who follow them so richly deserve. So, is there any sense in which Obama is a Muslim? I suppose the answer depends, at least in part, on what the meaning of "is" is.

Let Me Count the Ways

I rather deplore the misuse below of the best poem ever written by a woman but the points made are apt

"How do I love thee, Barack Obama?" his media maids and man-servants coo: "Let me count the ways."

1. In your toasted anti-Iraq speech of 2002, you proclaimed that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction - but has any of us reminded you of that?

2. In declaring Saddam armed but not dangerous, have we asked you how that could be?

3. You preach that "Iran's President Ahmadinejad's regime is a threat to all of us" - but did we probe into how Ahmadinejad unarmed was a threat while Saddam armed was not?

4. When Bill Clinton stated that Saddam "presents a clear and present danger to the stability of the Persian Gulf and the safety of people everywhere," did we ask what you knew that he didn't?

5. When Hillary Clinton stated that Saddam "has also given aid, comfort, and sanctuary to terrorists, including Al Qaeda members," did we inquire how he was therefore not a threat?

6. When you proclaimed that "Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States, or to his neighbors," did we point out that Israel was among those neighbors and that Saddam was paying $25,000 to suicide-bombers families so their sons would kill Jews?

7. Did we ask how Saddam was no threat to the US when he was firing on American pilots?

8. When you said "What I am opposed to is a rash war," did we inquire how it was "rash" to act more than four years after Congress passed the Iraq Liberation Act declaring that "it should be the policy of the United States to seek to remove the Saddam Hussein regime from power in Iraq"?

9. When you waxed about Saddam "that in concert with the international community he can be contained," did we ask how that could be when that same community bribed and conspired and kicked-back to keep Saddam in power and strip all sanctions?

10. When you perorated that "even a successful war against Iraq will require a US occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences," did we ask if that wasn't also true of any new venture - or did Edison, Bell, Carrier, Ford, and Harley and Davidson know exact times, costs, and consequences before they began?

11. When you articulated that war in Iraq "will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world," have we asked why then Arab nations are sending ambassadors back to Iraq and forgiving Saddam-era debt?

12. When you contended that Iraq would "strengthen the recruitment arm of Al Qaeda," have we pointed out that Al Qaeda is being destroyed in Iraq and will be in Afghanistan now that US troops have built a solid ally in Iraq?

13. When you argued "Let's fight to make sure that the UN inspectors can do their work," have we asked how they could when inspectors testified that Iraqis repeatedly lied and that none of Iraq's Full, Final, and Complete Declarations to the UN was ever full, final, or complete?

Ah, but then love does indeed blind, and so media maids and man-servants would never ask:

1. What Obama would do with a Saddam long freed from sanctions and by now chemically, biologically, and nuclear rearmed as he had long ago pledged?

2. How dramatically he would have rebuilt his military flush with $140-a-barrel cash?

3. Or would oil be even higher with Saddam reigning, Uday and Qusay squabbling to succeed, and Ahmadinejad racing to have nuclear weapons first?

4. How many more Kurds and Shias, along with troublesome Sunnis, now would be dead?

5. With Afghanistan alone attacked, would Osama Bin Laden have accepted Saddam's safe haven offer and allied his forces with Saddam now free from sanctions?

6. Would Israel survive or would Saddam unleash WMD, solve the Palestinian problem, and rally Arabs behind the new Nebuchadnezzar, emperor of the Middle East?

7. How brisk would Saddam's arms export business be - especially to counter nuclear-armed Libya and still hustling A.Q. Kahn?

Countless indeed are the ways the press loves Barack, and why not? Saddam was no threat. And neither is Obama.


Media Messing Itself in Describing Obama's Trip

I have been following politics for my entire adult life and before - more than 40 years - and I thought I had seen it all. I've seen triumph and tragedy. Low comedy and high drama. The lowest skunks and the highest examples of selflessness and political courage. But I have never seen anything like the way the media is slavering over Barack Obama's overseas trip. This from Newsbusters is nauseating:

ABC, CBS and CNN showcased video of Obama making a basketball shot at a gym with troops in Kuwait. Over video troops cheering Obama as he walked into the gym, on ABC's World News Jim Sciutto touted: "Though the destinations were new, the greeting was familiar. Senator Barack Obama signing autographs with soldiers on his first stop in Kuwait, even taking time to play some basketball..." Forrest Sawyer, anchoring the CBS Evening News on Saturday night, apparently with a new job after many years with ABC and MSNBC, highlighted how Obama "sank a shot from way outside the paint." Sawyer announced over matching video:
Now, before Afghanistan Senator Obama stopped off in Kuwait to talk to the troops there. You remember all that grief Obama got for being a terrible bowler? Well, at a local gym someone handed him a basketball and he promptly sank a shot from way outside the paint. He made it look easy. You just have to pick the game.

At the start of a special half-hour CNN Newsroom at 11:30 PM EDT Saturday night, July 19, Rick Sanchez trumpeted:
Tonight you're going to be seeing the very first pictures of presidential candidate Barack Obama overseas with U.S. troops. Those are stills that you're looking at behind me that we've beeen getting from this trip by this junior U.S. Senator, a trip that seems to be captivating the rest of the world as much, if not more so, than many in the United States...

Let me give you a quick set up on this next piece of video. Senator Obama goes into the gym afterward and shoots a free-throw. Then he mingles with some of the soldiers. One female soldier, in particular, challenges him to try and do it again. Now, watch this as it plays out.

The Third Reich didn't have such willing syncophants. They are trying to outdo each other in glowing coverage. It's almost as if the guy is a god, so reverently they are describing his every move.

I have been wracking my brains trying to come up with an analogy between the way the media is covering Obama on this trip and the way they may have covered another politician. So far, I have been unsuccessful.

I was a little young for JFK's campaign but reading contemporary coverage of him later, you would be struck by how harshly some reporters treated him. It wasn't until after he was in the White House that the press went in the tank for him. Even then, there were many important voices in the media who went against the grain and criticized him.

But this over the top, shameless hustling for Obama by major media is jaw dropping. I guess we better get used to it because if they have their way, Obama will return a conquering hero from this trip and never look back until he's safely in the White House.


Obama's decline

Obama's breathtaking flips and flops are materially different from McCain's. While McCain had opposed offshore oil drilling and now supports it, the facts have obviously changed. Obama's shifts have nothing to do with altered circumstances, just a change in the political calendar.

As a candidate who was nominated to be a different kind of politician, Obama has set the bar pretty high. And, with his flipping and flopping, he is falling short, to the disillusionment of his more na‹ve supporters. One wag even called him the "black Bill Clinton," a turnaround of the "first black president" moniker that had been pinned on Bill.

Meanwhile, McCain and the Republicans have finally found an issue -- oil drilling -- exposing how the Democrats oppose drilling virtually anywhere that there might be recoverable oil. Not in Alaska. Not offshore. Not in shale deposits in the West. The Democratic claim that we "cannot drill our way out of the crisis in gas prices" begs the question of whether, had we drilled five years ago, we would be a lot less dependent on foreign market fluctuations.

The truth is that the Democrats put the need to mitigate climate change ahead of the imperative of holding down gasoline prices at the pump. If there was ever a fault line between elitist and populist approaches to a problem, this is it. In fact, liberals basically don't see much wrong with $5 gas. Many have been urging a tax to achieve precisely this level, just like Europe has done for decades.

Obama said that he was unhappy that there was not a period of "gradual adjustment" to the high prices, but seems to shed few tears over the current levels. After all, if your imperative is climate change, a high gas price is worth 10 times a ratified Kyoto treaty in bringing about change.

Republicans can drive a truck through the gap between this elite opinion and the need for ordinary people to afford the journey to work in the morning. And, with a 16-state media buy, the Republican Party and the McCain campaign are doing precisely that.

If Obama softens his aversion to drilling, it may be the final straw for some of his liberal supporters. Where would they go? Nader is still a possibility. But McCain can attract liberal votes. He doesn't need to bleed Obama only from the right. His own stands against drilling in Alaska and torture of terror suspects and for immigration reform make him suspect on the right, but quite acceptable to the left. If moderate liberals are disgusted by Obama's obvious attempts at chicanery and repositioning, they might just cross the aisle.

The race is tied because of the decline in support for Obama, not because of increased support for McCain. McCain and Obama have been able to drive up Obama's negatives, but there is still no surge for McCain. I think this is the way this race is going to go. It is still Obama's race to lose and he is just the guy to lose it. He is also helped in that task by his party and their ridiuclous anti energy policy. The Democrat energy policy can be summed up as conservation and hope for a miracle. It is that policy that has gotten where we are today. McCain is an imperfect messenger in fighting that policy, but he is all we have.

The Demcorats are dead wrong on energy and on the war in Iraq. They are also dead wrong on taxes. A good offense should expose these bad Democrat policies and defeat them. The Republican problem appears to be a lack of leadership on bringing this message to the voters.


Obama as a false prophet

It's interesting to think about Barack Obama's trip to South Asia and the Middle East after watching Philip Tetlock's wonderful January 2007 video on the efficacy of forecasting. Tetlock asked himself why pundits never lost their reputations by making bad predictions. Jonathan Schell, in his famous book the Fate of the Earth predicted Ronald Reagan's policies would increase the probability of a nuclear war. At that time most analysts in the CIA were predicting that the Soviet Union would last forever. Neither came true. Yet Johnathan Schell is still selling books and one of the analysts who felt confident the USSR would last a long time is now Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates. Tetlock came to the conclusion that political punditry was so unaccountable because no one was keeping score.

So to find out its real value he began to compile a sample of 28,000 predictions by 284 experts over 18 years to see which of them came true. The results were disappointing. Expert predictions barely outperformed simple statistical prediction schemes such as those which assumed no change or that the latest rate of change would continue. In other words experts could not predict the future with any clarity but we consulted them anyway because of the need to appear in control of even future events. Indeed in Tetlock's early 2007 video illustrates the weaknesses of expert prediction perfectly; with its references to "regional experts" who were very confident that the Surge would fail. Maybe it will, if we wait long enough. But one type of expert was clearly worse than others; the kind he termed the "hedgehog". They made the least accurate predictions of all. "Hedgehog" in this context denotes someone who bets on extreme outcomes based on a theoretical construct, such an ideological position. The term is taken from a poem by the ancient Greek Archilocus who wrote "the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing". Hedgehogs are those who "just know" what is going to happen with the certainty of a true believer. They are guided by the "big thing".

It was better Tetlock found, for predictors to be consciously aware of the unkown; to be informed not only by knowledge but anti-knowledge - what we don't know. The experts who did that, who were open to the idea that the world was messy, full random and complex influences - he called the "foxes". Normally they were more boring than the hedgehogs. Hedgehogs tended to categorically tell people what was going to happen or not happen, while foxes were often only willing to offer probabilities and forecast over short horizons. Tetlock argued that while the foxes predicted things better, the public was much more willing to listen to the hedgehogs, especially when they could tell a good story.

Even more entertaining than Tetlock is the video lecture by Nasim Nicholas Taleb, the author of the Black Swan. Taleb's attitude toward life was changed by his discovery of how little he could predict and set about discovering the bounds of knowledge and anti-knowledge. Taleb in his lecture describes his now famous view that events in the world can be categorized into the categories of mediocristan and extremistan. Mediocristan is populated by events in which individual outcomes do not change the aggregate result by much. In this category phenomena can be easily mathematized and classic statistical predictions rule. Some domains of physics are like this.

But the other place - which by far encompasses most of the things that affect us - is dominated by a class of events that is not so easily mathematized. He calls this Extremistan. Here the rare, high impact event rules and individual events can have disproportionate effects on final outcomes. His example is the Black Swan. For most of human history all swans were believed to be white because all were observed to be white. But when Captain Cook arrived in Australia the first Black Swan they encountered was enough to invalidate a multitude of prior observations. We went from a world in which all swans were white to one in which they might be of a different color by a single observation.

It is not surprising that Taleb and Tetlock are friends. In common their work has highlighted the importance of what we don't know. Taleb's Black Swan idea partially explains why Tetlock's "foxes" do better than is "hedgehogs". "Foxes" understand that they don't know the answers and are open to the existence of Black Swans and consequently they incorporate information which a "hedgehog" might throw away. Since hedgehogs already understand the future they are less likely to see what doesn't fit and are consequently much more likely to be caught off guard by unexpected developments.

It is tempting to characterize Obama's approach to international relations as one resembling that of Tetlock's "hedgehog". Although he is going to Afghanistan and the Middle East ostensibly to examine the conditions on the ground, it is not for the purpose of reworking his policies. He already knows what those are. They are given. Rather, he is there to discover what obstacles might obstruct their implementation. Obama already knows what he is going to do. It is this clarity of vision that makes him so attractive to his supporters. But it is also the source of the greatest danger to his policies. What happens if Obama says, "Yes we can" and reality says, "No you can't"? What happens if the hedgehog meets the Black Swan?



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