What is the distance between Damascus and Budapest?

According to distancecalculator.com, it’s 2,123 km (or 1,319 miles).

The distance between Damascus and Abu Dhabi? 2,021 km (or 1,256 miles).

If I had to flee a war zone on foot to a wealthy cosmopolitan city I’d rather go through Turkey and Romania than Iraq and Saudi Arabia, too. The West is on the precipice of a damnable moral failure (link, in case you’ve been living under a rock). In the name of fairness, though, a regional perspective ought to be adhered to.

I have a slight digression. Can anybody here imagine what the plight of the war refugees would be like going through post-socialist states like Romania and Bulgaria if they had not been a part of the EU? Let me put this into context a bit more. In order to join the EU, post-socialist states in Eastern Europe had to reform their political and legal systems in a manner that was satisfactory to the traditional Western states of the confederation. A major aspect of these reforms was making sure that governments have a harder time assaulting individual rights. This clause, or whatever you want to call it, for joining voluntarily the EU was less about a cultural chauvinism on the part of the core EU states and more about tempering the overt racist and nationalistic undertones of the post-socialist societies in Eastern Europe. Context matters, especially when there’s a lot of finger-pointing going on.

Here is a map I’ve edited for you:

map west eurasia 2015


The three big red dots represent the cities of Budapest in Hungary, Damascus in Syria, and Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Visual perspectives are great. I already added my two cents about what needs to be done, in fact I did so around this time last year.

From the Comments: The Contribution of American Allies to Pax Americana

Dr Stocker answers my concerns about free-riding and rent seeking with this gem:

Good points Brandon. On the rent seeking, I think you are broadly correct, but I would offer two qualifications. European nations/the EU often foot a lot of the bill/take on associated civilian tasks where America has taken military action, so that the US is not subsidising the defence and security needs of Europe quite as much as it might seem. So for example, in the Yugoslav breakup led to US military operations and a comparatively passive role for Europe, but a lot of the afterwork was taken on by Europe and there is no point in military intervention without work on building civil society to create long term security and stability. Going back a bit further to the first Gulf War/expulsion of Saddam from Kuwait, Germany and Japan did pay a lot towards the cost in return for not participating. Despite [this] they got a lot of abuse in the US Congress from politicians who don’t appear to understand that their non-intervention in the Gulf owed a lot to constitutions and attitudes which the US encouraged/imposed during post-World War II occupation. Recently, though European govts have been cautious in what they say in public about the Ukraine crisis and containing Putin, there is a growth in military spending and co-operation done in fairly quiet ways largely with the aim of deterring Putin from adventurism in the Baltic states. Just one example, Germany has recently taken 100 Leopard II tanks out of retirement and work is underway for the Leopard III. Moving to the Pacific, Japan is enhancing its military and weakening constitutional restrictions on the deployment of the military (imposed by the US in the post-war Constitution) in reaction to Chinese assertiveness.

While I think it is broadly correct that the US has been paying for a military burden which should be born by Europe and Japan, the situation is not as extreme as it often assumed in the US and as far as I can see is moving in a more balanced direction. In general while it is true that the US has a very impressive military machine with some impressive technology and officers, I think some Americans are a bit over confident about this. A lot of Americans, at least amongst those who take an interest in military kit, appear very convinced that the Abrams 2 is the best tank anywhere, I would suggest that in military capacity, for cost, the Leopard II is probably better (it certainly does much better in export markets) and even in absolute terms ignoring cost, the French Leclerc (which is extremely expensive) has a good claim to be the best tank around, and the Korean K2 is another strong but very expensive candidate. The Abrams is expensive, heavy, difficult to transport and difficult to keep in sufficient fuel, though it can certainly do a very good job. A lot of Americans appear to be incapable of thinking of France as anything other than a surrender monkey joke in military terms, which is really very far from the reality, as can be seen by the very strong role that France is now taking in northwest Africa against violent Islamist fundamentalists. The US military may well be able to have the same military capacity for lower cost if it moves away from the Abrams II model of a tank that is expensive to run and transport as well as build.

So broadly a correct point Brandon, but I think the situation is a bit better than is often understood in America and is moving in the right direction as Japan and Europe are getting used to the idea of taking responsibility for dealing with new threats from China, Putinist Russia and the hydra of Islamist fundamentalists.

A very good point, and an even better angle with which to view the world.

My only quibble is that the right direction American allies are moving can easily be changed without a more fundamental shift in institutional arrangements between us. Some sort of federal or confederal arrangement would go a long way toward addressing this issue, and would further deepen the economic and cultural ties between constitutional democracies.

Or am I just looking for problems where there are none, in order for my arguments to gain ground?

From the Comments: The Troubling Philistinism of American Libertarians

Dr Khawaja, back from his summer escapades in the West Bank, the Pine Ridge Reservation, and Ohio, takes some time to riff off of my complaints about libertarian criticism of the arts and humanities:

I think you’re being much, much too kind to Caplan. The connection between the Morson essay and the Caplan post is actually pretty clear: Caplan is explicitly defending the sort of philistinism that Morson is worried about. I know that Caplan comes out and insists that he’s not a philistine. But he’s actually the walking paradigm of one.

“The fact that most of the books failed to minimally pique even my interest reflects poorly on them.” Uh, not really. Maybe he should walk over to the psychology section and read up on “projection” and “attribution error.” It doesn’t even occur to him to ask whether his reaction is just an idiosyncratic response to this particular library.

“Could the problem be my lack of expertise?” Gee, there’s a toughie. I looked up the Fenwick collection. Here’s one item at random from their electronic databases:

Kotobarabia Arabic eLibrary Campus Faculty, Staff and Students only Some full text available
This Arabic-only database contains a wide range of Arabic content ranging from contemporary novels to national heritage scientific treatises.
[East View Information Services]

What are the chances that Bryan Caplan could read even the first sentence of the first ten items of any search of this database? Are Tayeb Salih, Ghassan Kanafani, Neguib Mahfouz, or Abderahman Munif embarrassing? Is the secondary literature on them embarrassing (whether in Arabic, English, French, or any other langauge)? Or is Caplan’s ignorant, off-hand dismissal of the contents of his university library what’s really embarrassing?

I looked up the works of Charles Issawi, Albert Hourani, George Hourani, Clifford Geertz, Edward Said, Annemarie Schimmel, Michael Cook, Patricia Crone, Fouad Ajami, and for that matter, Mansour Ajami–all there. These are just random names I remembered off the top of my head from my undergraduate study of Near East Studies. (Mansour Ajami was my Arabic teacher. His name came up randomly because I searched for Fouad Ajami. I had no idea he’s written three books, but he has. Should I be embarrassed by that discovery?) My degrees are in Politics and Philosophy, so NES is way outside of my official areas of expertise. But you’d have to be a moron to be embarrassed by the presence of such work in a library, and it’s all there. You’d also have to be a moron to be embarrassed by the presence of more contemporary work in NES (or Geography, or Anthropology….), especially if, like Caplan, you knew nothing about it.

Just for fun, I did a search on my own last name, not because I expected anything of mine to show up, but just because that’s as random a search as you can imagine. The first hit is a guy named Mahboub Khawaja who’s written a book “Muslims and the West.” I don’t have the book here, but wouldn’t a person of average curiosity be tempted to take a look?

I did a search on my first name, too. Suroosh Irfani’s book on the Iranian revolution looked interesting.

I then clicked one of the Subject Headings underneath, “Europe-Relations-Islamic Countries.” You’d have to be brain dead not to be intrigued by half of what comes up. You could spend a lifetime reading that stuff. Oh wait. That’s kind of what scholars of the field do.

That’s just one casual set of micro-searches of one sub-field by one amateur follower of that field. Imagine multiplying searches of this kind simply for comparative politics and area studies. As you did, you’d multiply counter-examples to Caplan’s ridiculous claims. Then imagine you branched out to other fields. Same result.

Doing all that would be a waste of time, but don’t assume that because I’ve restricted my searches to one field or sub-field, my results are idiosyncratic. I probably could have done the same for Romantic poetry, the history of Reconstruction after the Civil War, Beethoven, Hannah Arendt’s views on Zionism, the luminist school of American landscape painting, American Indian law, Thomism, or literary studies of the works of the Bronte sisters–to name a totally random set of topics. My ex-wife Carrie-Ann Biondi is an indexer (actually the French language indexer) for The Philosopher’s Index. Every month or so, TPI would ship a box of philosophy journal articles to our house for her to index, and I’d spend part of an hour looking through them. Some of it was crap, but most of it was not. I NEVER had Caplan’s response to it. I was awestruck at how much good stuff was being produced. I’ve organized the Felician Ethics Conference for seven years in a row, and have probably read over 200 papers for it. I’ve mostly had the same reaction–curiosity, gratification, sometimes admiration, sometimes even awe.

The bottom line is that Caplan has no idea WTF he’s talking about. The interesting questions are not the ones he ignorantly poses, but rather: Why have libertarians so adamantly and resolutely come to valorize the all-out philistinism and ignorance of people with views like his? Why are we expected to take views like his seriously? If there is a “waste of paper” involved here, why doesn’t that phrase apply to what he’s written on this subject?

Back to prepping for class. The semester begins tomorrow.

I can only add that Irfan is right when he says I am “much, much too kind.” If only more people would come to realize this…

Also, I don’t think this philistinism is limited to Dr Caplan. There is a troubling trend within American libertarianism that is leading towards a kind of cultural chauvinism. Luckily, we live in a polycentric community here in the States and thus have lots of access to other ways of thinking about the world. I want my federal government to be much more libertarian, and I want more polities participating in my more libertarian federal government, and I want Washington to be more like my type of libertarianism. But that doesn’t mean I think those that disagree with me in matters of taste are a waste (of paper, of space, or of anything else).

If anything, those that disagree with me make my life that much more fulfilling, as I am an argumentative son of a bitch. My tolerance is not an endorsement of the status quo, either; any money going from Washington to the arts and humanities (and the sciences) should stop flowing immediately. I still think, despite Dr Khawaja’s excellent point, that libertarians like Caplan and Brennan are subtly attacking this latter notion, that government funding of the arts and sciences is not that bad. They’re just doing a bad job.

Or maybe they’re just philistines.

Ian Bremmer’s American Foreign Policy Quiz

Ian Bremmer, a political scientist at NYU (and numerous think tanks), has teamed up with Time to put together this quiz on what you think the proper role for the US (“America”) is in the world today. According to Bremmer, a neoconservative, there are three basic points of view with regard to the US’s role in the world: Independent, Indispensable, and Moneyball (you can read his explanation for these three types, as well as his analysis of how major presidential candidates fit into these categories, here).

I ended up being “caught between Independent and Moneyball America,” just like Rand Paul. Leave your scores in the ‘comments’ thread! Bremmer got his PhD in political science from Stanford back in 1994.

The Importance of Literature

I’ve got two long-form posts in my queue that are not quite finished. One is on how individuals rent-seek identity, and the other is on political labels and dialogue. In the mean time, here is an excerpt from an insightful essay on the (supposed, in my opinion) decline of arts and the humanities in American universities:

Democracy depends on having a strong sense of the value of diverse opinions. If one imagines (as the Soviets did) that one already has the final truth, and that everyone who disagrees is mad, immoral, or stupid, then why allow opposing opinions to be expressed or permit another party to exist at all? The Soviets insisted they had complete freedom of speech, they just did not allow people to lie. It is a short step, John Stuart Mill argues, from the view that one’s opponents are necessarily guided by evil intentions to the rule of what we have come to call a one-party state or what Putin today calls “managed democracy.” If universities embody the future, then we are about to take that step. Literature, by teaching us to imagine the other’s perspective, teaches the habits of mind that prevent that from happening. That is one reason the Soviets took such enormous efforts to censor it and control its interpretation.

This is from Gary Saul Morson, who teaches literature at Northwestern, writing in Commentary. This essay, for reasons I cannot fathom, reminded me of two recent posts by two prominent libertarians, economist Bryan Caplan and philosopher Jason Brennan, that deride the arts and humanities. Here is Caplan:

I’m an academic.  A university library is supposed to be a warehouse of great thoughts.  But the vast majority of the books seemed literally indefensible.  Lame topics, vague theses, and godawful writing abounded.

Brennan’s post is more tongue-in-cheek but still worth reading.

Just replace ‘evil’ with ‘stupid’ or ‘lame’ or ‘useless’ and…voila.

Now, I’ve been around libertarian circles long enough to know that these critiques, of the arts and humanities, put forth by libertarian academics are more about debunking Leftist narratives (“you can, and should, do what you want because you, simply by being alive, have a right to whatever you want, including access to the arts and humanities”) than they are about trashing the arts and humanities, but I am a bit worried that the newest readers to old libertarian arguments are not as familiar with the subcontext of Caplan’s and Brennan’s arguments. These newer readers might not be as familiar with the old Leftist arguments about the arts and humanities being something that everybody should have access to, and as a result these newer libertarians might become anti-education, or worse: anti-democratic, though not anti-democratic as in being critical of the democratic process as it stands today, but anti-democratic as in becoming intolerant to views that are shown to be less superior in some way to our own.

I wish the more prominent libertarians among us would remember to include reminders that the ultimate target of their attacks are Leftist narratives that ignore reality, and not education.

Silent Majorities: Mass Incarceration Edition

What vexed [political scientist Michael] Fortner was that The New Jim Crow seemed to be two different books. One did a powerful job showing how mass incarceration undermines black communities and perpetuates racial inequality. The other — and this was the vexing part — advanced a political theory about how we got here. That history stressed the resilience of white supremacy. First came slavery; when slavery ended, a white backlash brought Jim Crow segregation; when Jim Crow crumbled, a backlash to the civil-rights movement spawned yet another caste system, mass incarceration. Each time, writes Alexander, an associate professor of law at Ohio State University, proponents of racial hierarchy achieved their goals “largely by appealing to the racism and vulnerability of lower-class whites.”

“I remember feeling like, where are the black folks in this story?” Fortner says. “Where are their voices? They’re constantly victimized. They’re not powerful. And then I thought about, well, who the hell brought down the original Jim Crow? It was black power. It was black folk organizing, mobilizing successfully against racial structures in the South, in the North. And what happened to all that power? What happened to all that agency? It sort of disappeared.”

Except it didn’t. By examining historical records, Fortner found that black people had retained their power when it came to crime policy. At one place, in one moment, their voices were critical: Harlem in the years leading up to the Rockefeller drug laws. It was there that residents were besieged by heroin addiction and social disorder — what a late-1960s NAACP report called a “reign of criminal terror.” And it was there that a “black silent majority” of working- and middle-class residents rallied to reclaim their streets. New York’s ambitious governor seized on their discontent to push for harsh narcotics policies that would enhance his standing within the Republican Party. The result: some of the strictest drug statutes in the country, mandating long minimum sentences for a variety of drug crimes.

More here. By Marc Perry writing in the Chronicle Review.

The blatant fascism of Bernie Sanders

Ezra Klein, a Bruin and also a journalist, recently interviewed Bernie Sanders, an American Senator currently challenging Hillary Clinton for the Democrat Party’s 2016 presidential nomination. Sanders is an old, extremely rich white man who describes himself as a “democratic socialist.” Check this out:

Ezra Klein: You said being a democratic socialist means a more international view. I think if you take global poverty that seriously, it leads you to conclusions that in the US are considered out of political bounds. Things like sharply raising the level of immigration we permit, even up to a level of open borders. About sharply increasing …

Bernie Sanders: Open borders? No, that’s a Koch brothers proposal.

Ezra Klein: Really?

Bernie Sanders: Of course. That’s a right-wing proposal, which says essentially there is no United States. …

Ezra Klein: But it would make …

Bernie Sanders: Excuse me …

Ezra Klein: It would make a lot of global poor richer, wouldn’t it?

Bernie Sanders: It would make everybody in America poorer —you’re doing away with the concept of a nation state, and I don’t think there’s any country in the world that believes in that. If you believe in a nation state or in a country called the United States or UK or Denmark or any other country, you have an obligation in my view to do everything we can to help poor people. What right-wing people in this country would love is an open-border policy. Bring in all kinds of people, work for $2 or $3 an hour, that would be great for them. I don’t believe in that. I think we have to raise wages in this country, I think we have to do everything we can to create millions of jobs.

You know what youth unemployment is in the United States of America today? If you’re a white high school graduate, it’s 33 percent, Hispanic 36 percent, African American 51 percent. You think we should open the borders and bring in a lot of low-wage workers, or do you think maybe we should try to get jobs for those kids?

I think from a moral responsibility we’ve got to work with the rest of the industrialized world to address the problems of international poverty, but you don’t do that by making people in this country even poorer.

There is much, much more stupidity here. The choice between Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders – who is supposedly the representative of a new Left – illustrates well why the American Right is currently the faction of Ideas. This is so stupid that I’m flabbergasted. I am literally flabbergasted.

There is no way this guy represents the future of the American Left. No. Way.