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Aug. 10 2010 — 12:11 pm | 33 views | 0 recommendations | 0 comments

Where to find me

With True/Slant folding up shop, I continue to be found every day under the initials M.S. at the Economist’s blog on American politics, Democracy in America. For posts that don’t fit in that venue, I’m back at my old blog, Accumulating Peripherals.

So that’s where you can find me if you want to tell me what an idiot I am. Enjoy!

Aug. 6 2010 — 2:45 pm | 211 views | 0 recommendations | 7 comments

A supposedly horrible thing we may yet do again

Responding to an argument I made over at the Economist’s Democracy in America blog, Kevin Drum says he’s not so optimistic that the Iraq-war disaster has made America unlikely to engage in foreign military adventures for the next few decades.

We left Vietnam in 1975 and were supposedly so scarred that we’d never do anything like that again in any of our lifetimes. Your definition of “like that” might be different from mine, but a mere five years later we dipped our toe into Afghanistan and then, over the next 30 years, intervened militarily in Grenada, Nicaragua, Panama, Iraq, Somalia, Haiti, Kosovo, Afghanistan 2.0, and Iraq 2.0. In other words, once every three or four years, which is about as frequently as we did this kind of thing before Vietnam. Some scarring, eh?
Right now it looks like we’ve learned a lesson because, aside from a bit of chest beating from frustrated neocons over Iran, no one’s banging the war drums. But no one was banging the war drums in 1976, either, which is why it looked like maybe we were going to enter a new era back then too. Then the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and suddenly everything changed. So let’s not declare a victory for common sense in foreign policy just yet. I’ll believe things have changed when something actually happens overseas, a president tries to build support for intervention, and Congress and the public—including Joe Klein and me—balk. That will mean things have changed.

I think Kevin is basically right about this, but would clarify a couple of things. First, what I meant wasn’t that the US has been dissuaded from engaging in any kind of foreign military shenanigans for the foreseeable future. I was really thinking of the particular brand of nuttiness encapsulated in the invasion of Iraq: an unprovoked “pre-emptive” attack predicated on the idea that our troops will be welcomed with flowers, democracy will break out all over, and we’ll be able to bring the troops home fairly quickly at a modest cost, leaving behind a pro-American, pro-Israeli government. I think that kind of madness is off the table for quite some time. Somewhat more broadly, I doubt we’ll see any unprovoked American attacks on other countries, regardless of how “threatening” they seem, unless perhaps Cuba tries to buy a nuke from North Korea or something.

But I don’t think it impossible that we might see other kinds of limited military interventions, and I think some of the examples Kevin provides are illustrative of the kinds that may still occur. As he says, the US got out of Vietnam in 1973, and got into Afghanistan by 1980. But we intervened in Afghanistan by supporting local tribal-religious rebels in the hopes of handing the Soviets their own Vietnam. We weren’t trying to establish anything in particular in Afghanistan; we didn’t really care what happened to the country so long as it made things hard for Moscow. And, by its own lights, that strategy worked. In hindsight, Afghanistan would probably be better off today if the Russians had won, but the Afghan quagmire was among the reasons why the Gorbachev faction decided to forego military intervention as a means of quelling anti-communist political turmoil in the near abroad, so a Soviet victory in Afghanistan might have meant no velvet revolutions in Eastern Europe in 1989. Anyway, the point is, it’s not at all hard to imagine that the US might use limited force or special forces to back local allies against a foreign adversary in some third country in the near future.

This would be similar to the model of US intervention in Nicaragua and El Salvador, which Kevin also cites. And again, one thing to note about the US military efforts in Nicaragua and El Salvador is that, by their own lights, they worked. Certainly, they were bloody and unconscionable messes that involved American support for terrorism and war crimes, but the aim was to crush left-wing Soviet-backed authoritarian agrarian-socialist movements in favor of right-wing US-backed authoritarian plutocratic pseudo-democratic regimes, and that aim was achieved.

You could get deeper into the reasons why US interventions in Central America, and later in the Balkans, more or less achieved their own aims at an acceptable cost, while the interventions in Vietnam and Iraq (and, probably, Afghanistan) failed, at unacceptable cost. I would concentrate pretty heavily on proximity and zones of influence: Central America is the US’s restive backyard, the Balkans are Europe’s, and these things make a very big difference. But the main point is that I think the US won’t be cooking up excuses to launch pre-emptive attacks on supposed rogue states in the next couple of decades. Whether the US will send in Green Berets to back, oh, Christian rebels in southern Sudan, or whatever, is another question.

Jul. 4 2010 — 4:53 am | 366 views | 0 recommendations | 5 comments

Can the World Cup save Holland?

Short answer: No. Longer answer: Our taxi driver at the Amsterdam train station on Thursday was of uncertain nationality. He seemed to be originally Turkish or Kurdish, but described himself as Belgian from Wallonia, and switched from speaking Dutch with us to speaking French as though it were a gesture of intimacy, as though we were switching into his native language; but he spoke with an accent, and when he got a call on his mobile phone, he had a short conversation with a friend in what sounded like either Arabic or Kurdish. My wife thought he might be a Kurdish refugee, and there was something in his manner that seemed that way. Anyway, the conversation touched on soccer and the upcoming Brazil match, and he said: “Wij gaan winnen dit jaar. Zij spelen niet goed, maar zij spelen efficient.” We’re going to win this year. They’re not playing well, but they’re playing efficiently. He meant the Dutch team. And it was clearly a way of asserting his permanent membership in Dutch society, in much the way that sport serves to cement the American-ness of first-generation immigrants in the US.

I watched the match at the community-center pub in Tuincentrum Holland’s Glorie, across the road from the friend’s houseboat where we’re staying. A tuincentrum is a community garden, and their presence is a icon and artifact of Dutch egalitarian socialist urban planning in the period before the neo-liberal turn of the 1990s. They’re close in to urban areas, and the plots are large enough to construct a little shed, so apartment dwellers can have some garden space in a separate location. Holland’s Glorie has a playground, a soccer field, and a little shop and community center with a pub, and they were showing the match on a large screen in the pub. At the end of the first half, with Holland down 1-0 and playing lethargically, people had a characteristically sour Dutch self-critical attitude. I didn’t manage to film the ecstatic reaction when the Dutch scored their goals, but here’s how it looked as the match drew to a close.

Down on the River Amstel where we’re staying, people were stripping naked, climbing onto other people’s houseboats and jumping into the river.

Today in his blog at the NRC Handelsblad, Steven de Jong asks: “Can the World Cup fix our banged-up country?” Since the last time the Netherlands reached the quarterfinals in 1998, de Jong writes, the country has seen crisis after crisis, with the murders of Pim Fortuyn and Theo van Gogh, the constantly collapsing and reforming Christian Democratic governments of the past decade, and so forth. He cites sportscolumnist Auke Kok’s linking of conservative politics to conservative soccer in mid-June: “A few weeks after the electoral victory of [far-right politician] Geert Wilders [who didn't actually win but scored unprecedentedly well], Orange is playing a game that stands miles apart from the progressive bravura with which whole generations grew up.” He refers to historian Coos Huijsen’s book “The Myth of Orange” and the argument that abstract concepts such as democracy and freedom are insufficient to form a polity, that soccer supplies the “emotional dimension that gives sense and meaning to membership in a society.”

What de Jong doesn’t specifically address is the ethnic-religious tension that has driven Dutch politics over the past decade, and whether the success of the national soccer team can do anything on that score. My sense is that this is unlikely, but I would be curious to know more about how strongly ethnic Moroccans and Turks, apart from my taxi driver, are rooting for Holland to win. I don’t know how important this is, but one of the ways in which sport has classically served as an integration machine is by promoting ethnic-minority stars (think Zinovine Zidane in France, or in the US Michael Jordan or for that matter Joe DiMaggio); and the Dutch team is strikingly white. In the previous generation of Dutch greats, the teams that won the European Championship in the late ’80s, you had the half-Surinamese star Ruud Gullit. Today the top two strikers are Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder.

All of this is a bit tongue in cheek; sports don’t really have much influence on politics, and for the moment politics in the Netherlands is preoccupied more with budget deficits than with racial or religious issues. But I do share a bit of Aude Kok’s concern that a victory for Orange at this moment will be felt as a victory for a very conservative, nostalgic, “autochtoon” vision of Orange that Dutch society really needs to move beyond.

Jul. 1 2010 — 3:45 pm | 162 views | 0 recommendations | 2 comments

The magnificence of high-speed rail

This summer for various reasons, both business and pleasure, we’ve had to arrange the vacation time so we could visit both my wife’s family in the Netherlands and mine in the good old US of A. We used to do this regularly a few years back, and the method was to get a round-trip ticket from Hanoi to New York with a stopover in Amsterdam. Singapore Air, Thai Airways and Air Malaysia all fly to Schiphol, so it wasn’t too hard to arrange this. But this year for whatever reason all the flights to New York through Amsterdam were unbelievably expensive. In May, however, it occurred to me to check out the possibility of flying to New York through Paris, and taking the Thalys high-speed train back and forth from Paris to Amsterdam. This turned out to be much cheaper and no more time-consuming, since Vietnam Airways runs a very cheap direct flight from Hanoi to Paris, which cuts out the Bangkok, Singapore or KL transfer.

Anyway, long story short, to get to Amsterdam, we flew to Paris yesterday and took the TGV. To get the cheap fare on the Thalys, you had to pre-book, so I booked a train that left us plenty of time to get to the station in case our flight was late. As it happened, our flight was on time, so we wound up at the Gare du Nord with three hours to kill. Now, if you’re stuck in an airport for three hours with young kids waiting for your next flight, you wander around trying to find a playground, usually fail to find one, and end up succumbing to their whining pleas for smoothies and coloring books.

If, on the other hand, you’re stuck at Gare du Nord some morning for three hours with young kids, you go for a stroll, like this:

Sacre Coeur, Montmartre

The Thalys from Paris to Amsterdam takes about 3 1/2 hours. So by the afternoon, we were sitting on a friend’s houseboat on the Amstel.

Houseboat on River Amstel

I mean, not that it wasn’t a really long trip or that really long trips with kids are every free of unpleasantnesses. There was dropped ice cream, whining, and so forth. But in the meantime we got a few hours in Montmartre and the kids got to actually see something of Paris, rather than seeing the inside of an airport. Since the point of travel is generally to see places like Paris rather than to see the insides of airports, I think the ability of rail travel to get you to fun places directly, and to do so via other places that are, themselves, often fun, is a big advantage over air travel.

Jun. 29 2010 — 3:17 am | 116 views | 1 recommendations | 1 comment

Electronic embarrassment

My thoughts on Dave Weigel’s resignation are here. The affair has me thinking about the first time I realized it’s possible to say too much in an electronic message. It involved belly dancers, but I can’t remember how.

Back in 1994-7, I was a member of Echo, New York’s first popular electronic chat messaging environment, founded by the visionary Stacy Horn. Echo was the New York equivalent of The Well in the Bay Area. At some point in what I believe must have been 1997, I was online chatting about the budding Silicon Alley scene when someone mentioned a lavish party that had been hosted a few days before by the web-design outfit Razorfish. At the time, my roommate was dating a woman who worked at Razorfish, and she had told him something about the hiring of belly-dancers for said party that was in some fashion mildly scandalous. I literally cannot remember anymore what the issue was. It may simply have been the fact that the belly-dancers were paid for by the firm; perhaps that was in some way untoward. Or there may have been a feminism-related complaint. Or something. I have a feeling that the issue itself was so inoffensive that if I could recall it, the whole affair would seem ludicrous.

In any case, I noted in a comment thread on Echo that I had heard that…whatever it was about the belly dancers. Within half an hour, my roommate’s girlfriend was on the phone. Had I posted that information on Echo? Yes, I had. Did I realize that everyone at Razorfish had seen the post, and was asking who’d leaked that information? What the hell was I thinking? Suddenly I realized: I was an idiot. I used a screen name, but some people knew who I was. Some of them might know who my roommate was. Some of them might know he was dating the girl who worked at Razorfish. If somebody figured all of that out, she could get fired.

And so I went back onto Echo and started to lie. I introduced some deliberately inaccurate information into the rumor, in response to others’ queries, to make it sound like I’d heard it fifth-hand rather than third-hand. I let slip some faux-offhand misleading hints to the identity of the person who I’d heard it from, in the course of saying that it was just some weird rumor I’d heard from someone who had no reason to know whether it was true or not. I tried to make it sound like this was just something circulating in the Silicon Alley gossipsphere. I also coordinated my story with her, to make sure it seemed believable and to reassure her that I was doing everything possible to cover the tracks.

I did this because I had a responsibility to this girl not to let some stupid piece of information I’d unthinkingly disclosed get her fired. Had I done something immoral by disclosing this information? Not exactly, I don’t think. I had failed to think out the potential consequences of revealing a certain piece of moderately juicy information in an online forum. Had she done something immoral by disclosing this information to her boyfriend? I think not, or at worst, perhaps very slightly. Had he done something immoral by telling me? Again, at worst, he’d failed to think through the potential consequences, or had mistakenly relied on me having the good sense not to post it online. The person who might have done something wrong, if anyone, was the Razorfish principal who’d done whatever it was involving the belly-dancers. But I’m not even sure whatever that was had been “wrong”, as opposed to “moderately scandalous”. I can’t remember what it was.

The point of tension was simply this: the principal relied on his employees not disclosing embarrassing information. I hadn’t been careful enough with some embarrassing information that had come into my hands on a confidential basis. And as a result, I was now busily and actively telling white lies on the internet, which, arguably, was immoral, in order to avert the clearly much greater harm of getting somebody fired.

It worked. Nobody at Razorfish knew who the Echo member who went by the screen name “steiny” was. They didn’t figure out who my roommate was or that he was dating one of their co-workers. She kept a p-p-poker face for a few days, and then the whole affair slipped into the mists of time. By now the very posts involved are probably unrecoverable due to the mercies of incompatible archives.

Thirteen years later, that margin of anonymity, the space you have to recover from such errors, is almost gone. While I’ve been typing this post, the Zemanta widget on the right of my window has already called up images of belly-dancers, New York parties, and the Razorfish logo. The internet already knows who I am and what I’m writing about. If I’ve made a mistake by writing this post, it may be too late to rectify the damage, even before I’ve hit the “publish” button. What’s our response? Do we log off and go live in log cabins? I think not. I think we get cagey, we get ambiguous, we don’t talk about anything juicy that isn’t at least 13 years old, and we get ourselves some thick skins. And communication strategies change, and older people have trouble keeping up, and younger people don’t realize what can happen to you if you say something unwise until they’ve done it a few times, and that’s life.

Amazingly, Echo appears to still be functioning; the discussion groups are not on the web; and it seems to still be possible to telnet into the servers and engage in old-fashioned text chat. I may try it one of these days for nostalgia’s sake. I wonder who’s still out there?

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    About Me

    I've reported from Vietnam since 2003. I'm now the Hanoi correspondent for the German-based, English-language wire service Deutsche Presse-Agentur, and was previously a Hanoi-based stringer for the Boston Globe and for Voice of America. Before that I reported from West Africa, and before that from the Netherlands; my articles have appeared in the Washington Post, the Nation, the New York Times Magazine and the New York Times. I've got a thing for languages, and have picked up Russian, French, Dutch and Vietnamese. I used to write scripts for the children's cartoon shows "Arthur", "Doug", and a few others. I got a degree in interactive telecommunications back when most people had never sent an email. In April 1991 I predicted the USSR would collapse into its constituent republics and that Boris Yeltsin would become president of Russia. Since then most of my predictions have been rather less accurate, so it was probably a fluke.

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