Archive for the ‘Wright’ Category

Wright and Dowd

April 28, 2007

Robin Wright wonders if our technological sophistication may be our undoing.  Then MoDo writes on Tenet and Condi.  Here’s Mr. Wright:

This week the mystery deepened: Why no space aliens?

On Tuesday, scientists reported finding the most “Earthlike” planet ever, Gliese 581c. Its sun is cooler than ours, but also closer, so Gliese is in that climatic comfort zone conducive to water — hence to life, hence to evolution, hence to intelligent beings with advanced technology. Yet they never phone.

It’s actually a serious question, long pondered by sci-fi types. Since a civilization whose technological evolution was ahead of ours by even a few centuries could contact us from far, far away (and certainly from Gliese, a mere 20 light-years away), what does it mean that we haven’t heard a thing from any corner of this vast universe?

That life got started on few or no other planets? That on other planets giant asteroids kept pressing evolution’s reset button? Or, distressingly, that when civilizations reach the technological level we’ve reached, they tend to wipe themselves out, or at least bomb themselves back into the Stone Age?

O.K., that last one is pretty wild speculation. But you have to admit that current events aren’t wildly at odds with it. There’s an apocalyptic vibe in the zeitgeist, and it’s not hard to imagine how the technological sophistication that got us to the brink of global civilization could be our undoing. Let us count the ways.

(1) Classic nuclear Armageddon. This threat is in remission. Economic interdependence dulls enmity among nuclear powers, and crisis-averting lines of communication have gotten stronger since the cold war. Still, things can change.

(2) Eco-apocalypse. Solving climate change and other global environmental problems is a political nightmare. Nations are tempted to play “free rider” and not join in the sacrifices, since they’ll share the rewards anyway. The good news is that past environmental problems have featured negative-feedback loops: when negligence makes the problem bad enough, political will appears.

(3) Terrorism. Alas, the negative-feedback loop — bad outcomes lead to smart policies — may not apply here. We reacted to 9/11 by freaking out and invading one too many countries, creating more terrorists. With the ranks of terrorists growing — amid evolving biotechnology and loose nukes — we could within a decade see terrorism on a scale that would make us forget any restraint we had learned from the Iraq war’s outcome. If 3,000 deaths led to two wars, how many wars would 300,000 deaths yield? And how many new terrorists?

Terrorism alone won’t wipe out humanity. But with our unwitting help, it could strengthen other lethal forces.

It could give weight to the initially fanciful “clash of civilizations” thesis. Muslim states could fall under the control of radicals and opt out of what might otherwise have become a global civilization. Armed with nukes (Pakistan already is), they would revive the nuclear Armageddon scenario. A fissure between civilizations would also sabotage the solution of environmental problems, and the ensuing eco-calamity could make people on both sides of the fissure receptive to radical messages. The worse things got, the worse they’d get.

So while no one of the Big Three doomsday dynamics is likely to bring the apocalypse, they could well combine to form a positive-feedback loop, a k a the planetary death spiral. And the catalyst would be terrorism, along with our mishandling of it.

Disheartened? There’s more: to avoid mishandling things, we may have to forsake our beloved evolutionary heritage.

We may more often have to resist the retributive impulse that worked fine in the environment where it evolved but now often misfires. We may have to appreciate how our moral condemnations — which can help start wars — are subtly biased by our primate brains in self-serving ways that, in some contexts, no longer serve our selves.

We may have to cultivate our moral imagination, putting ourselves in the shoes of people who hate us. The point wouldn’t be to validate the hate, but to understand it and so undermine it. Still, this understanding involves seeing how, from a certain point of view, hating us “makes sense” — and our evolved brains tend to resist that particular epiphany.

If salvation indeed means transcending engrained irrationality, then the odds may well be against us. But look at the bright side: if you do run into any space aliens, they’re likely to be reasonable creatures.

Robert Wright, author of “Nonzero,” is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and runs the Web site Bloggingheads.tv.

Here’s MoDo:

Poor Slam Dunk.

Not since Madame Butterfly has anyone been so cruelly misunderstood and misused. Slam Dunk says that when he pantingly told the president that fetching information on Saddam’s W.M.D. would be a cinch, he did not mean let’s go to war.

No matter how eager Slam Dunk was to tell W. what he wanted to hear while polishing the president’s shoes, the intelligence they craved did not exist. “Let me say it again: C.I.A. found absolutely no linkage between Saddam and 9/11,” the ex-Head Spook writes in his new book, self-effacingly titled “At the Center of the Storm.” Besides, Junior and Darth had already decided to go to war to show the Arabs their moxie.

The president and vice president wanted Slam Dunk to help them dramatize the phony case. Everyone had to pitch in! That Saturday session in December 2002 in the Oval Office was “essentially a marketing meeting,” Slam Dunk writes, just for “sharpening the arguments.”

Hey, I feel better.

Slam Dunk always presented himself as the ultimate guy’s guy, a cigar-chomping spymaster who swapped jokes with the president. But now he shows us his tender side, a sniveling C.I.A. chief bullied by “remote” Condi.

He says Condi panicked in October 2002 and made him call a Times reporter, Alison Mitchell, who covered the Congressional debate about invading Iraq. In essence, he hypocritically told Alison to disregard the conclusions of his own agency, which had said that the links between Saddam and terrorist groups were tenuous, and that Saddam would take the extreme step of joining with Islamic fanatics only if he thought the U.S. was about to attack him. His nose growing as long as his cigar, he said nothing in the C.I.A. report contradicted the president’s case for war.

“In retrospect,” Slam writes, “I shouldn’t have talked to the New York Times reporter at Condi’s request. By making public comments in the middle of a contentious political debate, I gave the impression that I was becoming a partisan player.”

Can’t a guy be a lickspittle without being an ideologue?

There were so many nasties trying to push Slam around: Vice, of course, and Wolfie, and Wolfie’s neoconcubine Doug Feith. Once, Slam writes, Wolfie “hounded” a C.I.A. briefer to translate the diary of Abu Zubaydah, a captured Al Qaeda official, even though the C.I.A. had decided it was just misogynistic ramblings “about what he wanted to do with women.” Oh, that sexy beast Wolfie. Look out, Shaha!

But even though he was paid a $4 million advance to settle scores, Slam can’t turn on W. Maybe it’s the Medal of Freedom. “In a way, President Bush and I are much alike,” he writes. “We sometimes say things from our gut, whether it’s his ‘bring ’em on’ or my ‘slam dunk.’ I think he gets that about me, just as I get that about him.” (He had me at “slam dunk.”)

The worst meanie was horrid Bob Woodward. Slam socialized with Bob and gave him lots of intel for his best sellers, but then Bob “painted a caricature of me leaping into the air and simulating a slam dunk, not once but twice, with my arms flailing. Credit Woodward’s source with … a fine sense of how to make me look ridiculous, but don’t credit him or her with a deep sense of obligation to the truth.”

A deep sense of obligation to the truth is something Slam keenly understands, even though he scurried around like the butler in “Remains of the Day,” trying to toadie up to the president while, as he belatedly admits, W. was going to invade Iraq without debate or a casus belli.

He says the C.I.A. warned Paul Bremer that demobilizing the Iraqi Army would be “madness.”

The two worst intelligence disasters in our history happened on his watch, but Slam says he was Cassandra. He says he gave intel to guys who wanted to ignore or warp it and make bad policy. What could he do?

A C.I.A. paper was given to the president’s national security team in September 2002 to sum up the possible negatives of invading Iraq, including anarchy and a breakup of Iraq, instability in the neighborhood, a surge of terrorism against U.S. interests, oil disruptions, and seething allies.

But it was discreetly tucked away in the back of the briefing book, after the stuff at the beginning about how great it would be to liberate Iraq and end threats to Iraq’s neighbors, and the stuff in the middle about reforming Iraq’s bureaucracy.

Slam gives tips to others who want to engage in public service, including: Don’t forget that there are no private conversations, even in the Oval Office. Another might be: If you worry about your own survival more than your country’s, you might end up as the whiny fall guy.

Kristof and Wright

April 24, 2007

Robin Wright on neocons, and Nicholas Kristof on problems in India’s economy.  Here’s Mr. Wright:

Neoconservatives have been airing an explanation for the failure of the Iraq war that’s so obvious you’ll wonder why you didn’t think of it yourself: the war wasn’t neoconservative enough.

Last week Richard Perle, on “The Charlie Rose Show,” echoed what his fellow neocon John Bolton told the BBC last month: We should have turned Iraq over to the Iraqis much sooner. Then, presumably, the power of democracy to blossom pronto in even nutrient-depleted soil — the neocon élan vital — would have kicked in.

Nice try, but they’re just digging themselves in deeper. They’re highlighting a paradox within the neocon game plan that would have doomed this war even if it had been run competently (enough troops, a dollop of postwar planning, etc.).

On the one hand, we were going to bring democracy to Iraq. On the other hand, we were going to use Iraq as a platform for exercising military power. (Days after Baghdad fell, the neocon Weekly Standard festively titled an article “There’s No Place Like Iraq … for U.S. Military Bases.”)

But wait. What if the Iraqi people, once empowered by democracy, decided they didn’t want their country to be a U.S. aircraft carrier? And isn’t that pretty likely? After all, America is bound to use bases on behalf of itself and key allies, and one key ally is Israel. What were the chances this would sit well with an Arab Muslim nation — not with the small ruling class of an authoritarian state like Saudi Arabia (our previous aircraft carrier) but with a whole electorate?

Maybe if we had resolved with miraculous speed the tensions besetting Israel — from Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Iran — U.S. troops could have stayed in the Iraqis’ good graces. But neocons weren’t exactly pushing for dialogue on those fronts. They were going to let their new aircraft carrier, the U.S.S. Iraq, do the talking. And surely Iraq’s majority Shiites would applaud the use of their soil to threaten Shiite Iran, right?

Meanwhile, neocons, and the Bush administration broadly, were endorsing the policies of Ariel Sharon, whose assertive policing of the occupied territories was proving counterproductive, helping to radicalize both Palestinian opinion and, via Al Jazeera, Muslim opinion globally.

You can empower people through democracy if you want. You can systematically antagonize them if you want. Doing both at once is ill advised.

Critics murmur that neoconservatism is “all about Israel.” I wish! Then the damage might be confined to one region. Alas, the neocon paradox — empower people and enrage them — is global. Neocons want to make China democratic ASAP; meanwhile, they pass the time arousing anti-American Chinese nationalism with vestigial cold war rants. Fortunately, they won fewer intra-administration battles over China than over the Middle East.

Even if neocons weren’t bent on spreading democracy, their chronic inflammation of world opinion would be unhealthy, because much of the world is already democratic and more of it will probably become that way.

But leave democracy aside. There’s another reason grass-roots opinion matters crucially.

A confluence of technologies, from the Internet to biotechnology, is making it easier and easier for far-flung hatred to assume organized form, intersect with weapons technology and constitute unprecedently potent terrorism. This growing lethality of hatred may be the biggest long-term problem we face.

Here’s a response favored by many left-of-center and right-of-center thinkers. Address the “demand side” — the desire to obtain and use nuclear and biological weapons — by reducing the number of people who hate the U.S. and the West. Address the “supply side” by improving arms control.

Neocons take the opposite tack: degrade the arms control infrastructure (the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, the Biological Weapons Convention, etc.) and antagonize the masses.

You can even do both at once! President Bush undermined the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty by agreeing to give nuclear technology to India, a nonsignatory. This ratcheted up anti-Americanism in Pakistan — a Muslim nation with nukes, jihadist recruiters and an unstable government.

Neocons have their own formula for controlling arms: invade countries you think may have them. Of course, this approach will have to grow more cost-effective on repeated application if America is to warm up to it. But — who knows? — maybe we just need to make the next few wars more neoconservative.

Robert Wright, author of “Nonzero,” is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and runs the Web site Bloggingheads.tv.

Here’s Mr. Kristof:

India is stirring after many centuries of torpor, and it has a chance of ending this century as the capital of the world, the most important nation on earth. You see up-and-coming cities like Hyderabad or Ahmedabad, and it’s easy to believe that India will eventually surpass China.

But here in rural Bihar state in northern India, there’s no economic miracle to be seen. And it’s difficult to see how India can emerge on top unless it takes advantage of its greatest untapped resource: its rural population.

The village of Khawaspur has no electricity. It has a school with 600 students, but — as is common in Indian state schools — many teachers show up only rarely. “We go to school, but the teachers don’t,” explained Doli, a second-grade girl.

On a typical day there will be just one or two teachers in the whole school, and the students learn next to nothing. “You have to bribe your way to be a teacher there,” explained Yogender Singh, who tutors children for payment.

No child I met in Khawaspur had ever been vaccinated for anything. And the local government hospital exists only in theory.

“There is a hospital,” said a villager named Muhammad Shaukat. “But there’s not even a door or a window. Forget about a doctor.”

That’s a common problem: the government pays for schools, clinics or vaccinations, but someone pockets the money and no education or health care materializes.

In a village in Gujarat that I visited on this trip, all the children were out of school because the teachers had decided to take a monthlong vacation. One sixth-grade student, Ramila, could not write her name, not even in Gujarati.

Another sixth grader, Janah, said that when it came time for exams, the teachers wrote the answers on the blackboard for students to copy so the exam results wouldn’t embarrass the school.

Then there’s the toll of malnutrition. India has more malnourished children than any country in the world and one of the highest rates of malnutrition, 30 to 47 percent, depending on who does the estimating.

Those malnourished children suffer permanent losses in I.Q. and cognition, and are easy prey for diseases. There is some evidence that widespread malnutrition lowers economic growth in affected countries by two to four percentage points a year.

So in the middle of this century, India will still be held back by its failure to educate, feed and vaccinate its children today. This failure will haunt India for many decades to come. Sure, China has many similar problems, with growing gaps between rich and poor and an interior that is being left far behind. But rural Chinese schools provide a basic education, including solid math and science skills.

India’s boom is real, and its overall growth rate puts India right at China’s heels. Its middle class is expanding, governance is improving, and the transformation is one of the most exciting things going on in the world today. The 21st century will belong to Asia, and young Americans need to study Asia, live in it and learn its languages.

But Indians refer to the “Bimaru” states — a play on the word “bimar,” which means “sick” in Hindi. The Bimaru states are Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, and Orissa deserves a spot as well.

In the Bimaru states, there is no boom. “We see nothing here,” said Vidya Sagar Gupta, a businessman who once operated many factories in northern Bihar. Now he has closed most of them down and is trying to sell his properties.

Electricity is unreliable, crime is growing, corruption is endless, the agricultural sector is in crisis, supplies are difficult to get, and criminal gangs and politics are so interwoven that it is difficult to foresee improvements, he says.

For anyone who wants to see this country succeed, a visit to rural India is a bitter disappointment. Ela Bhatt, who founded the Self-Employed Women’s Association, a union of poor women that now has nearly one million members, told me that India’s economy is profoundly limited: “It is like a car having one motorized tire, and the others are cart wheels.”

So in the great race of this century, the race to see which country will lead the world in 2100, I’m still betting on China for now. I’m having my kids learn Chinese, not Hindi (or Indian English, a remarkable language in its own right).

Until India’s economic boom becomes much more broadly based, and until Indian schools manage to teach their students, this country will continue to waste its precious brainpower and won’t achieve a fraction of what it should.

Please post your comments on this column on my blog. In particular, tell me which country you think will dominate the world in 2100, and why.

Dowd and Wright

April 21, 2007

Robert Wright on “Why Darwinism Isn’t Depressing,” and MoDo doing a hatchet job on John Edwards in a bit of drivel called “Running With Scissors.”  Here’s Mr. Wright:

Scientists have discovered that love is truth.

Granted, no scientist has put it quite like that. In fact, when scientists talk about love — the neurochemistry, the evolutionary origins — they make it sound unlovely.

More broadly, our growing grasp of the biology behind our thoughts and feelings has some people downhearted. One commentator recently acknowledged the ascendancy of the Darwinian paradigm with a sigh: “Evolution doesn’t really lead to anything outside itself.”

Cheer up! Despair is a plausible response to news that our loftiest feelings boil down to genetic self-interest, but genetic self-interest actually turns out to be our salvation. The selfishness of our genes gave us the illuminating power of love and put us on the path to a kind of transcendence.

Before hiking to the peak, let’s pause for some sobering concessions. Yes, love is physically mediated, a product of biochemistry. (Why this would surprise anyone familiar with alcohol and coffee is something that has long baffled scientists.) And, yes, the biochemistry was built by natural selection. Like it or not, we are survival machines.

But survival machines are unfairly maligned. The name suggests, well, machines devoted to their survival. In truth, though, natural selection builds machines devoted ultimately to the survival of their genes, not themselves.

Hence love. A love-impelled grandparent sacrifices her life to save a child’s life. Too bad for the grandparent, but mission accomplished for the love genes: they’ve kept copies of themselves alive in a vibrant vehicle that was otherwise doomed, and all they’ve lost is a vehicle that, frankly, didn’t have the world’s most auspicious odometer anyway. Love of offspring (and siblings) is your genes’ way of getting you to serve their agenda.

Feel manipulated? Don’t worry — we get the last laugh.

Genes are just dopey little particles, devoid of consciousness. We, in contrast, can perceive the world. And how! Thanks to love, we see beyond our selves and into the selves around us.

A thought experiment: Suppose you are a parent and you (a) watch someone else’s toddler misbehave and then (b) watch your own toddler do the same. Your predicted reactions, respectively, are: (a) “What a brat!” and (b) “That’s what happens when she skips her nap.”

Now (b) is often a correct explanation, whereas (a) — the “brat” reaction — isn’t even an explanation. Thus does love lead to truth. So, too, when a parent sees her child show off and senses that the grandstanding is grounded in insecurity. That’s an often valid explanation — unlike, say, “My neighbor’s kid is such a showoff”— and brings insight into human nature.

Yes, yes, love can warp your perception, too. Still, there is an apprehension of the other — an empathetic understanding — that is at least humanly possible, and it would never have gotten off the ground had love not emerged on this planet as a direct result of Darwinian logic.

Some people, on hearing this, remain stubbornly ungrateful. They hate the arbitrariness of it all. You mean I love my child just because she’s got my genes? So my “appreciation” of her “specialness” is an illusion?

Exactly! If you’d married someone else, there would be a different child you considered special — and if you then spotted the child that is now yours on the street, you’d consider her a brat. (And, frankly … but I digress.)

O.K., so your child isn’t special. This doesn’t have to mean she’s not worthy of your love. It could mean instead that other people’s kids are worthy of your love. But it has to mean one or the other. And — especially given that love can bring truth — isn’t it better to expand love’s scope than to narrow it?

I’m a realist. I don’t expect you to get all mushy about the kid next door. But if you carry into your everyday encounters an awareness that empathetic understanding makes sense, that’s progress.

Transcending the arbitrary narrowness of our empathy isn’t guaranteed by nature. (Why do you think they call it transcendence?) But nature has given us the tools — not just the empathy, but the brains to figure out how evolution works, and thus to see that the narrowness is arbitrary.

So evolution has led to something outside itself — to the brink of a larger, more widely illuminating love, maybe even to a glimpse of moral truth. What’s not to like?

Robert Wright, author of “The Moral Animal,” is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and runs the Web site Bloggingheads.tv.

And now here’s MoDo:

Whether or not the country is ready to elect a woman president or a black president, it’s definitely not ready for a metrosexual in chief.

In presidential politics, it’s all but impossible to put the man into manicure. Be sensitive, but not soft. Effete is never effective. Not much has changed since George H. W. Bush drove his New Hampshire campaign off the road by requesting “a splash” more coffee at a truck stop.

John Kerry sank himself by windsurfing in spandex and ordering a cheese steak in Philly with Swiss instead of Cheez Whiz.

We haven’t reached the point where we can handle a green-tea-soy-latte-drinking, self-tanning-sea-salt-mango-body-wrapping, Norah-Jones-listening, yoga-toning chief executive.

Bill Clinton sometimes flirted with metrosexuality, with Zegna ties, Christophe haircuts, Donna Karan suits and keen anima, but the heterosexual beat out the metrosexual.

Americans have revered such homely leaders as Abe Lincoln. They seem open to balding pates like Rudy’s and flattops like Jon Tester’s. They don’t want self-confidence to look like self-love.

John Edwards has reminded us that even — or especially — in the age of appearances, you must not appear to care too much about appearances.

When you spend more on a couple of haircuts than Burundi’s per capita G.D.P. , it looks so vain it makes Paul Wolfowitz’s ablutions spitting on his comb look like rugged individualism.

Following his star turn primping his hair for two minutes on a YouTube video to the tune of “I Feel Pretty,” Mr. Edwards this week had to pay back the $800 charged to his campaign for two shearings at Torrenueva Hair Designs in Beverly Hills. He seems intent on proving that he is a Breck Girl — and a Material Boy.

He did not pony up for the pricey bills from Designworks Salon in Dubuque, Iowa, or the Pink Sapphire spa in Manchester, which offers services for men that include the “Touch of Youth” facial, as well as trips “into the intriguing world of makeup.” The Edwards campaign calls makeup a legitimate expense.

Speaking of roots, my dad, a police detective who was in charge of Senate security, got haircuts at the Senate barbershop for 50 cents. He cut my three brothers’ hair and did the same for anyone else in the neighborhood who wanted a free clip job. Even now, Mr. Edwards could get his hair cut at the Senate barbershop for $21 or the Chapel Hill Barber Shop near his campaign headquarters for $16.

So it’s hard for me to understand how a guy could spend $400 without getting Bergdorf Blonde highlights. (The tabloids claim that Brad and Jen used to get matching streaks.) And don’t campaign donors get snippy about sponsoring tonsorial treats?

Someone who aspires to talk credibly about the two Americas can’t lavish on his locks what working families may spend on electricity in a year. You can’t sell earnestness while indulging in decadence.

Mr. Edwards, the son of a mill worker, moved from a $5.2 million, six-bedroom Federal mansion in Georgetown to a 28,000-square-foot behemoth in North Carolina with a basketball court, a squash court, two stages and a swimming pool.

His 25-year-old daughter, Cate, a former editorial assistant for Vanity Fair, co-founded Urbanista, an online Rolodex that dispenses advice for “hip” girls in Manhattan, offering to be a “bestie” (a best friend) and answer questions like “Where should I go to get my Marc Jacobs shoes reheeled?” and “Does anyone know the best place to get a really great haircut?” One salon the site recommends is Warren-Tricomi, where Edward Tricomi says haircuts range from $121 to $300.

The cost of grooming hair is peanuts compared with the cost of grooming an image. Hillary is paying a fortune to try to buy the secrets of likability. Her financial reports for the first three months of 2007 show debts to consulting firms of $447,000.

John McCain, who’s supposed to be giving it to us straight, has a jaw-dropping herd of consultants to tell him how to do that. Dubbed “the 2007 Full Employment Act for Campaign Consultants,” the McCain crew spent $645,000 on fund-raising consultants in the first quarter and $400,000 on political consultants in key states (four in South Carolina alone). His top political adviser, John Weaver, got more than $60,000 in just three months.

Obviously, there’s a lot of waste in political campaigns. But you don’t have to be as flinty as Mitt Romney — who has made his staff triple up at cheap hotels — to know there’s something special about throwing away money on vanity.

All the haircuts in the world may not save John Edwards from a blowout.

Kristof and Wright

April 17, 2007

Robert Wright on how technological advances make society more efficient and less personal, and Nicholas Kristof posits that genocide, instead of being caused by racial or ethnic hatred, is caused by greed.  Here’s Mr. Wright:

I have a theory: the more e-mail there is, the more Prozac there will be, and the more Prozac there is, the more e-mail there will be. Maybe I should explain.

Twenty millenniums ago, communication was simple. Utterances were usefully accompanied by nonverbal cues: tone of voice, facial expression, nudging your fellow hunter-gatherer in the ribs upon reaching a punch line.

Twenty years ago, communication was still pretty simple. Much of it was by phone — no nudging, true, but intonation could help distinguish, say, wry irony from bitter resentment. Plus, when you asked a question, the answer came in seconds, as opposed to minutes, hours, or never.

Don’t get me wrong. E-mail is great. It has vastly expanded my social horizons. Twenty years ago I rarely spoke by phone to more than five people in a day. Now I often send e-mail to dozens of people a day. I have so many friends!

Um, can you remind me of their names? Of course, it works both ways. My many e-mail “friends” also have many “friends,” and I’m just one of them. So they can’t afford to treat me like a friend — you know, reliably acknowledging my existence, that sort of thing.

So questions arise. Is Joe — who once answered e-mail promptly but has fallen silent — mad at me? Or has my social status, in Joe’s view, dropped a bit, so I’m not quite worth his time? And if the latter: Who the hell does Joe think he is?

There are two cures for this condition: (1) Chanting, “It’s the spam filter.” (2) Prozac (or one of its rivals).

Serotonin, the neurochemical Prozac boosts, was shaped by natural selection to help us handle social hierarchy. Respect and other forms of positive feedback elevate serotonin, raising self-esteem and leading to the sort of self-assured conduct that befits a high-status primate. Disrespect and criticism can lower serotonin, leaving us open to self-doubt.

Self-doubt can be valuable when it’s reality-based — if, say, Joe is really mad at you, and self-doubt leads you to wonder why and then make amends. So the serotonin gyroscope was a useful thing in the environment natural selection designed it for: the hunter-gatherer landscape of clear communication.

But the landscape of e-mail is full of noise and imagined signals. Serotonin can gyrate dysfunctionally.

Hence the Prozac temptation: Just open that serotonin throttle and cruise through your in-box, unhampered by fancied slights, groundless anxieties and other impediments to bliss. (Your mileage may vary.) And, bliss aside: Imagine the efficiency! With the time you don’t spend worrying about Joe, you can crank out e-mail to Jim, Sally and Sue. And efficiency is what e-mail is about, right? By ending the need to coordinate schedules, it lets us interact with lots of people — and interact along such narrow channels that we skip the bother of getting to know an entire human being.

It’s an old story. Technological change makes society more efficient and less personal. We know more people more shallowly. The sociologist David Riesman’s 1950 book about his era’s part in this process was called “The Lonely Crowd.”

To be sure, there are lots of to-be-sures I should throw into a column this full of blithe generalization, speculative fancy and jokey hyperbole. For example: Prozac is a serious drug, not to be taken lightly. Also: however much time people spend networking shallowly, they can find places for deeper contact. Some parts of the Internet foster that, and e-mail can enrich it.

But that gets at the one point I’m not joking about.

The reason we’ve always carved out a place for deep human contact is because we deeply need it. Some contours of the mind are so firm they lead us to selectively defy the imperative of growing efficiency. Ultimately, technological evolution has had to accommodate human nature.

Until now. Now we enter the age of pharmacology and approach the age of genetic engineering. We can, in effect, change human nature to accommodate technological evolution. If the deft use of e-mail makes each of us more successful, we may, one by one, amend the structure of our selves until we are the optimal e-mail animals. And so, too, with the next empowering information technology: bend us, shape us, anyway it wants us.

If we’re indeed already entering this era, I can’t say I’m especially enjoying it. Then again, I haven’t tried Prozac. Yet.

Robert Wright, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, runs the Web site Bloggingheads.tv.

And now here’s Mr. Kristof:

Perhaps the most surprising thing about President Omar Hassan al-Bashir of Sudan isn’t that he has presided over the systematic slaughter of hundreds of thousands of men, women and children who are members of black African tribes.

It is that President Bashir’s own family appears to come from an African tribe. Yes, Mr. Bashir has led a genocide against people like himself.

As best I can establish from my contacts in Sudan, Mr. Bashir’s grandfather was from the Falata tribe and grew up in Nigeria. He migrated to Sudan to work on the Gezira irrigation project and settled in a village called Um Audam.

Then the grandfather was killed in a dispute, and Mr. Bashir’s father and grandmother moved to Hash Banaga in the Arab north. Mr. Bashir grew up speaking Arabic, so in that sense he is Arab — but by heritage he is Falata and a black African.

Americans often misunderstand genocide, assuming it is impossible to stop because it is driven by millenniums of racial or ethnic hatreds. But historically genocide has mostly been rooted in cool, calculated decisions by national leaders that the most convenient way to solve a problem or stay in power is to scapegoat and destroy a particular group. So it has been in most past genocides, and so it is again in Darfur.

Nor is Mr. Bashir the only person in such a position. The on-and-off leader of the janjaweed militias, Musa Hilal, has unleashed his soldiers with particular brutality on another black African tribe, the Zaghawa. You can drive for hours through Zaghawa regions of Darfur where every single village has been burned; only corpses are left, and some of those have been stuffed into wells to poison them.

Yet, according to people from Musa Hilal’s hometown, his own mother is Zaghawa.

Likewise, the rebels of Darfur have sometimes turned on their own tribes — raping and murdering their own people, or those of allied tribes.

So what motivates these people? Not ancient hatreds, but greed. They are not Taliban-style extremists, but rather amoral, ruthless, calculating opportunists.

Mr. Bashir and others in his government faced a genuine problem back in 2003: African tribes (including the Zaghawa) were staging a rebellion in Darfur. Calling in the army to fight the rebels was problematic because many soldiers in the regular army are from African tribes in Darfur and might not be reliable in combat against their brethren.

So Mr. Bashir adopted an approach he had already used against rebels in southern Sudan. He armed irregular militias and gave them license to wipe out civilians and depopulate large areas. This would deprive the rebels of their base of support and send a warning to any other tribe in Sudan that might contemplate a rebellion.

Presumably Mr. Bashir guessed that foreigners might not like the idea of mass murder. But he could deny visas to prying journalists, and he had Chinese diplomatic protection at the United Nations.

So after weighing the pros and cons, Mr. Bashir decided that genocide was the simplest counterinsurgency method. Some of the marauders were driven by prejudice, and Arab attackers routinely shouted racial epithets against blacks. But the leaders —— they were just cynics. Musa Hilal and some of the rebel commanders seemed to view murder and rape simply as paths to accumulate power and livestock.

All this makes genocide easier to stop than people imagine. Where it arises from a weighing of costs and benefits, then it is possible for outsiders to impose additional costs and change the outcome. That’s what we need to do. The U.S. should lead other countries in pushing hard on all sides for a negotiated peace agreement among the warring factions, for that is ultimately the best hope to end the slaughter in Darfur and in neighboring areas in Chad and the Central African Republic.

I find President Bashir’s ruthlessness pretty easy to understand. What is harder to fathom is President Bush’s refusal to stand up to the genocide for four years. Why not impose a no-fly zone, why not hold an international conference on Darfur, why not invite survivors to the White House for a photo-op, why not give a prime-time speech about Darfur?

Perhaps the explanation for Mr. Bush’s passivity is the same as the explanation for Mr. Bashir’s brutality. Maybe Mr. Bush has made his calculations, looked at the number of calls and letters he gets about Darfur, weighed the pros and cons, and decided that Americans really don’t care enough about genocide to make him pay a major price for allowing it to continue.

You are invited to comment on this column at Mr. Kristof’s blog, www.nytimes.com/ontheground.

Wright and Dowd

April 14, 2007

Robert Wright doubts that America’s machinery for stigmatizing bigotry is working coherently, and MoDo takes on Wolfowitz in love, who she says is no more competent than Wolfie at War.  Here’s Mr. Wright:

There has to be an Imus event every once in a while. Ethnicity being the volatile thing it is, gratuitously inflammatory remarks have to be discouraged, so bounds of acceptable speech have to be clarified. Clarity comes when, inevitably, someone oversteps and gets slapped down.

Maybe this particular boundary could have been clarified with less punishment, given how abjectly Don Imus has apologized. Still, there had to be a price, and, compared with the prices paid in some multiethnic societies (remember Yugoslavia?), this is a bargain.

But is America’s machinery for stigmatizing bigotry really working coherently?

If social harmony is the goal, sanctions should be focused along the ethnic fault lines that are most precarious.

The black-white boundary is such a line, given both the history of oppression and ongoing economic disparities between blacks and whites. But what about the line between Muslim America and Judeo-Christian America?

Here, economics isn’t the issue. American Muslims are better educated and wealthier than Muslims in Western Europe — one reason homegrown terrorism has been a problem in Europe and not here. Still, given that jihadist leaders around the world would love to ignite American strife, and given how few radically aggrieved Americans it takes to commit terrorism, this ethnic boundary is dicey, and worth minding.

Which brings us to Ann Coulter. Full disclosure: Ms. Coulter once cited an Op-Ed essay I wrote for this newspaper about the Danish cartoon controversy as evidence that people like me had “affection” for terrorists. Thus ended any claim I might have to evaluate her work objectively.

If you want a subject on which I report and you decide, today’s not your day.

In a speech last year before the Conservative Political Action Conference, Ms. Coulter used the word “raghead.” This is a dual-use slur, applied to both Arabs and Muslims, but she was talking about an Iranian, so presumably she was focusing on the religious dimension (consistent with her post-9/11 advice that we “invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity.”) The word raghead — whose only function is to denigrate — seems as legitimately offensive to Muslims as Mr. Imus’s utterance was to blacks. The difference is that Ms. Coulter didn’t apologize.

Brace yourself for the seismic damage done to her career. The leaders of CPAC reassessed their relationship with her and … invited her back to speak this year, an occasion she used to trot out the word “faggot.” And Ms. Coulter continued to be interviewed respectfully on CNN and (again and again) on Fox News — treatment that presumably wouldn’t be accorded a pundit who used the “n-word” without apology.

Why the Imus-Coulter disparity? Maybe part of it is that Ms. Coulter isn’t as structurally susceptible to sanction as Mr. Imus. She doesn’t have her own radio or TV show, so advertisers on CNN and Fox have two degrees of separation from bigotry. Still, there are pressure points big enough for an Al Sharpton to find. Ms. Coulter’s column appears in newspapers with major advertisers.

Maybe the problem is that Muslims don’t have an Al Sharpton. And, truthfully, I wouldn’t wish one on them. But couldn’t they at least have an NAACP?

Actually, they have something like that: the Council on American-Islamic Relations. But CAIR is tarred by such people as Daniel Pipes for alleged sympathy to terrorists. I don’t personally trust Mr. Pipes’s judgment in Muslim-related matters, but I haven’t done the dissertation it would take to get to the bottom of his indictment. What I do know is that if Muslims never achieve the kind of political organization that gets mainstream respect, and indeed feel that all attempts at political organization draw special scrutiny because Muslims are viewed with special suspicion —— well, that won’t help matters.

I’m not making a moral argument. If I were, I would get into homophobia and anti-Semitism and other varieties of bigotry. This is a pragmatic argument about social cohesion. By my lights, the two American fault lines most likely to become chasms in the long run are between blacks and whites and between Muslims and non-Muslims.

And if anything, I’d say that the second fault line is the more treacherous. America has already done things abroad that are helping to make the “clash of civilizations” thesis a self-fulfilling prophecy. Let’s not make that kind of mistake at home.

Robert Wright, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, runs the Web site Bloggingheads.tv.

And now here’s MoDo, who doesn’t seem to realize that pandas aren’t really bears:

Usually, spring in Washington finds us caught up in the cherry blossoms and the ursine courtship rituals of the pandas.

But this chilly April, we are forced to contemplate the batrachian grapplings of Paul Wolfowitz, the man who cherry-picked intelligence to sell us a war with Iraq.

You will not be surprised to learn, gentle readers, that Wolfie in love is no less deceptive and bumbling than Wolfie at war.

Proving he is more con than neo, he confessed that he had not been candid with his staff at the World Bank. While he was acting holier than thou, demanding incorruptibility from poor countries desperate for loans, he was enriching his girlfriend with tax-free ducats.

He has yet to admit any real mistakes with the hellish war that claimed five more American soldiers as stunned Baghdad residents dealt with the aftermath of bombings of the Iraqi Parliament, where body parts flew, and of a bridge over the Tigris, where cars sank.

But he admitted on Thursday that he’d made a mistake when he got his sweetheart, Shaha Ali Riza, an Arab feminist who shares his passion for democratizing the Middle East, a raise to $193,590 — more than the taxpaying (and taxing) Condi Rice makes. No doubt it seemed like small change compared with the money pit of remaking Iraq — a task he once prophesied would be paid for with Iraqi oil money. Maybe he should have remunerated his girlfriend with Iraqi oil revenues, instead of ripping off the bank to advance his romantic agenda.

No one is satisfied with his apology. Not the World Bank employees who booed Wolfie and yelled, “Resign! Resign!” in the bank lobby.

Not Alison Cave, the chairwoman of the bank’s staff association, who said that Mr. Wolfowitz must “act honorably and resign.”

Not his girlfriend, who says she’s the suffering victim, forced by Wolfie’s arrival to be sent to the State Department (where, in a festival of nepotism, she reported to Liz Cheney).

And not his critics, who say Wolfie has been cherry-picking again, this time with his anticorruption crusade. They say he has used it to turn the bank into a tool for his unrealistic democracy campaign, which foundered in Baghdad, and for punishing countries that defy the United States.

Wolfie also alienated the bank by bringing two highhanded aides with him from Bushworld, aides who had helped him with Iraq. One was the abrasive Robin Cleveland, called Wolfie’s Rottweiler. The other was Kevin Kellems, known as Keeper of the Comb after his star turn in “Fahrenheit 9/11,” where he handed his boss a comb so Wolfie could slick it with spittle for TV. (Maybe his girlfriend didn’t get enough of a raise.) Like W., Wolfie is dangerous precisely because he’s so persuaded of his own virtue.

Just as Ms. Riza stood behind her man on the Iraq fiasco, so Meghan O’Sullivan stood behind W.

Ms. O’Sullivan, a bright and lovely 37-year-old redhead who is the deputy national security adviser, is part of the cordon of adoring and protective women around the president, including Condi, Harriet Miers, Karen Hughes and Fran Townsend.

Even though her main experience was helping Paul Bremer set up the botched Iraq occupation and getting a reputation back in Washington “for not knowing how much she didn’t know,” as George Packer put it in “The Assassins’ Gate,” Ms. O’Sullivan was promoted nearly two years ago to be the highest-ranking White House official working exclusively on Iraq and Afghanistan.

It was clear that she was out of her depth, lacking the heft to deal with the Pentagon and State Department, or the seniority to level with W. “Meghan-izing the problem” became a catchphrase in Baghdad for papering over chaos with five-point presentations.

But W. was comfortable with Meghan, and Meghan-izing, so he reckoned that a young woman who did not report directly to him or even have the power to issue orders to agencies could be in charge of an epic bungle, just as he thought Harriet Miers could be on the Supreme Court.

This vacuum in leadership spawned the White House plan to create a powerful war czar to oversee Iraq and Afghanistan, who could replace Ms. O’Sullivan when she leaves. The push to finally get the A-team on the case is laughably, tragically late.

The Washington Post reported that at least five retired four-star generals have refused to be considered; the paper quoted retired Marine Gen. Jack Sheehan as saying, “The very fundamental issue is, they don’t know where the hell they’re going.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Wright and Kristof

April 10, 2007

Today Robert Wright has good things to say about the United Nations, and Nicholas Kristof writes on how ballots bring bullets in Pakistan.  Here’s Mr. Wright:

The United Nations. Among mainstream American political thinkers, those three words elicit reactions that run the gamut from deep antipathy to less deep antipathy. O.K., I’m overstating the case. Many liberals will go all the way to deep ambivalence, and some venture further.

Still, even defenders of the institution can’t seem to start a defense of it without half-apologizing and ritually reciting its structural flaws.

Today I’ll break new ground by saving the recitation of flaws for last. First, let’s celebrate an underacknowledged feat. During a crucial phase of history — the run-up to the Iraq war — the United Nations performed just about flawlessly and showed auspicious adaptability.

In early 2003, a few die-hard fans of multilateralism asked why America was launching an essentially unilateral war. A common reply was that the multilateral body whose support America sought, the United Nations Security Council, wouldn’t vote to authorize war, so President Bush had to proceed without it. Blame Security Council “gridlock.”

Now that we know how the war turned out, it’s tempting to ridicule this logic by comparing Mr. Bush to a driver who runs a red light, kills a pedestrian and blames the tragedy on the light’s redness.

But that would be ridicule on the cheap. Let’s earn our ridicule with some laborious analysis.

A sacred duty of bodies that authorize things — the Security Council, Congress, zoning boards — is to sometimes not authorize things. (Imagine a world where everything was authorized!) People who want a thing authorized sometimes call the failure to authorize it “gridlock.” People who don’t want the thing authorized prefer to say “the system worked,” and refer to people who complain about gridlock as “whiners.” Who is right?

Truly dysfunctional gridlock happens when a body fails to take action it was designed to take. Under the U.N. Charter, the Security Council is to authorize armed intervention when one nation attacks another one. If, say, Iraq invades Kuwait, the Security Council should authorize a war rolling back the aggression. It passed that test in 1990.

But in 2003, Iraq hadn’t invaded anybody. It wasn’t doing the basic thing the United Nations was designed to stop.

Now, it’s fair to complain that the U.N.’s design is rapidly obsolescing. It took shape when war among states was the big threat to world order, but these days threats come from “non-state actors”: terrorists.

So when a nation seems to be developing nuclear arms and fraternizing with terrorists who seek nukes, we need a systematic way of dealing with that. The U.N.’s focus on the external behavior of nations should be supplemented by selective concern with their internal conditions.

In theory, then, President Bush could say he invaded Iraq because the United Nations hadn’t yet evolved to a point where it could address the nefarious nexus between states and non-state actors. In theory. But in fact, this evolution was taking place before his eyes, and he aborted it.

In a remarkable precedent, the Security Council had demanded that Iraq submit to pervasive arms inspections, and had prevailed. On the eve of war, inspectors were being let into every facility they asked to see.

Indeed, inspectors had checked out the sites American intelligence deemed most suspicious and had found nothing. So the idea that the inspectors should scram so America could invade and then do a better job of finding weapons struck some Security Council members as less than compelling. They gave America the red light. (Insert ridicule here.)

Oddly, and accidentally, Mr. Bush had catalyzed the evolution he then aborted. Iraq would never have admitted the inspectors had American troops not been poised to invade. This points to a flaw that future evolution should remedy: the U.N. lacks the power to get arms inspectors where they’re most needed. The sort of toughness Mr. Bush showed needs to be institutionalized multilaterally and integrated with such structures as the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Space doesn’t permit a recitation of other U.N. flaws or proposed remedies. (Google “single-nation veto” and “Security Council expansion.”) Anyway, in the real world, the question isn’t whether an institution is perfect, but how it compares with other institutions. And in the case of the Iraq war, the U.N. did much better than some institutions, notably the U.S. government.

Robert Wright, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, runs the Web site Bloggingheads.tv.
Maureen Dowd is off today.

And now here’s Mr. Kristof:

President Bush has become a bosom buddy of President Pervez Musharraf and sealed that friendship with $10 billion in military aid, but any American official who praises Pakistan’s “democracy” might want to visit this bullet-scarred village in the Punjab.

Dummerwala held free local elections here last year. But many people voted the “wrong” way, causing the candidate of the local feudal lord to lose. So a day after the election, a small army of gunmen arrived and began rampaging through the houses of the clan members who opposed the lord’s choice.

Waheed Rahman, a top student, 14 years old, who dreamed of becoming an engineer, was wounded in the opening minutes of the attack.

“When he was shot, Waheed fell down and begged for water,” said his father, Matiullah. “They were surrounding him. But they just laughed and shot at the water tank and destroyed it. Then they ripped the clothes off the women and dragged them around half-naked.”

For the next two hours, the attackers beat the men and abused the women, destroyed homes, and told their victims that the feudal lord had arranged for the police to stay away so he could teach them a lesson.

Indeed, the police did stay away. Even when two of the villagers escaped and ran to the police station, begging the officers to stop the violence, the police delayed moving for three hours.

By the time it was over, a woman was dying, as was Waheed, and many others were wounded.

The attack here in Dummerwala is a reminder that democracy is about far more than free elections. In Pakistan, many rural areas remain under the thumb of feudal lords who use the government to keep themselves rich and everyone else impoverished.

For real democracy to come to Pakistan, we’ll need to see not only free elections and the retirement of President Musharraf, but also a broad effort to uproot the feudal rulers in areas like this, 300 miles south of Islamabad. That’s not easy to do, but promoting education is the best way to combat both feudalism and fundamentalism.

Instead, we’ve been focusing on selling arms and excusing General Musharraf’s one-man rule.

Husain Haqqani of Boston University calculates that the overt and trackable U.S. aid to General Musharraf’s Pakistan amounted to $9.8 billion — of which 1 percent went for children’s survival and health, and just one-half of 1 percent for democracy promotion (and even that went partly to a commission controlled by General Musharraf).

The big beneficiary of U.S. largesse hasn’t been the Pakistani people, but the Pakistani Army.

General Musharraf has done an excellent job of nurturing Pakistan’s economy, but he is an autocrat. As Asma Jahangir, a prominent lawyer in Lahore, told me: “Until now, Pakistanis have hated the American government but not the American people. But I’m afraid that may change. Unless the U.S. distances itself from Musharraf, the way things are going Pakistanis will come to hate the American people as well.”

Just last week, General Musharraf’s secret police goons roughed up and sexually molested Dr. Amna Buttar, an American doctor of Pakistani origin who heads a human rights organization. Dr. Buttar says that she had been warned by a senior intelligence official not to protest against the government and that she was specifically targeted when she protested anyway.

When our “antiterrorism” funds support General Musharraf’s thugs as they terrorize American citizens, it’s time to rethink our approach. Imagine if we had spent $10 billion not building up General Musharraf, but supporting Pakistani schools.

One place we could support a school is here in Dummerwala. After the attack, the victims in the village were so panicky that they pulled all their children out of school.

“They say, ‘If you don’t cooperate with us, we will kill your sons,’ ” said Tazeel Rahman, one of the victims. “This is not democracy. This is a dictatorship. This is terrorism.”

(When I interviewed the attackers, they insisted that the victims had simply killed themselves. They compensated for this wildly implausible version of events by sending an armed mob to persuade me of its merits.)

We Americans could learn something about democracy from the brave people here. The villagers insist that if they are still alive and allowed to vote, they will again defy their feudal lord in the next election.

We in the West sometimes say that poor countries like Pakistan aren’t ready for democracy. But who takes democracy more seriously: Americans who routinely don’t bother to vote, or peasants in Dummerwala who risk their lives to vote?

You are invited to comment on this column at Mr. Kristof’s blog, www.nytimes.com/ontheground.

Wright

April 7, 2007

Robert Wright is alone behind the firewall today.  He has “An Easter Sermon” that W. should pay attention to.

Jesus knew viral marketing.

In the Gospel of Mark, the disciple John complains that nondisciples are selling bootlegged copies of Jesus’ miraculous powers. “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”

Jesus tells John to quit obsessing about the intellectual property and to focus on getting the brand out. “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.” Jesus adds, “Whoever is not against us is for us.”

Fast-forward two millennia. Weeks after 9/11, George Bush says roughly the opposite. His famous “You’re either with us or against us” means that those who don’t follow his lead will be considered enemies. The rest is history. Today, Jesus has more than a billion devoted followers. Mr. Bush has … well, fewer than that.

The religious left — yes, there is such a thing — complains that Mr. Bush ignores the Bible’s moral injunctions. But leave morality aside. If he could just match the Bible’s strategic savvy, that would make a world of difference.

Consider a teaching of Jesus that seems on its surface devoid of strategic import. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

Christians often cast this verse as innovative, a sharp break from Jesus’ Jewish tradition. But the same idea can be found in the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament), and here it is clear that the point of the kindness is to thwart the enemy: “If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat; and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink; for you will heap coals of fire on their heads.”

Coals of fire? As the editors of the New Oxford Annotated Bible explain, submitting to this treatment was an Egyptian ritual that “demonstrated contrition.” (And how!) “The sense here seems to be that undeserved kindness awakens the remorse and hence conversion of the enemies.”

Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. It’s unlikely that sending Osama bin Laden a Hallmark card would induce paroxysms of self-doubt. Still, there are other ways that reining in hatred can hurt your enemy’s cause.

Suppose, for example, you were nurturing a nascent religious movement in the Roman Empire, and your antagonists welcomed excuses to harass you. Suppose, that is, you were the Apostle Paul. When Paul preaches kindness to enemies, he uses not the formulation found in the Gospels, but the one from the Hebrew Bible, complete with the coals of fire.

Of course, Mr. Bush is more in the shoes of the Roman emperor than of Paul. America isn’t a small but growing religious movement. It’s a great power threatened by a small but growing religious movement — radical Islam. But the logic can work both ways. Great powers, by mindlessly indulging retributive impulses, can give fuel to small but growing religious movements. If you want to deprive jihadists of ammunition, make it hard for them to persuade others to hate us.

Right after Paul espouses kindness to enemies, he adds: “Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.” Sounds like naïve moralizing until you look at those Abu Ghraib photos that have become Al Qaeda recruiting posters.

The key distinction is between man and meme. Yes, a great power can always kill and torment enemies, and, yes, there will always be times when that makes sense. Still, when you’re dealing with terrorists, it’s their memes — their ideas, their attitudes — that are Public Enemy No. 1. Jihadists are hosts for the virus of hatred, and the object of the game is to keep the virus from finding new hosts.

The Internet is fertile ground for memes, and jihadists are good at getting the brand out. One of the few things Osama bin Laden has in common with the Jesus of the Gospels is belief in the power of viral marketing.

The ultimate in viral marketing was Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice. Deemed a threat to the social order, he was crucified under Roman auspices. But the Romans forgot one thing: If you face a small but growing movement that threatens the imperial order, you shouldn’t attack the men in ways that help the memes.

Mr. Bush says his favorite philosopher is Jesus. One way to show it would be to spend less time repeating the mistake of the Romans and more time heeding the wisdom of Christ.

Robert Wright, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, runs the Web site Bloggingheads.tv.
Maureen Dowd is on vacation.

Wright and Kristof

April 3, 2007

Robert Wright, a guest columnist this month, writes on life in the military, and Nicholas Kristof writes on sex slavery.  Here’s Mr. Wright:

In one sense, I was well positioned to enjoy the summer of love. In 1969, I was living in San Francisco, epicenter of hippiedom, antiwar fervor and utopian hope for perpetual peace.

Circumstances kept me from sharing the spirit. The part of San Francisco I lived in was the Presidio, which was then a military base. I was 12, and my father was an Army officer. I remember my family once driving toward the Presidio’s Lombard Street gate past tens of thousands of protesters who seemed to think my father was part of a very bad outfit.

I was sure they were wrong, and I still am. In fact, the whole, larger stereotype — that the military is a right-wing institution, best viewed with skepticism if not cynicism by the left — is way off. Growing up in, or at least amid, the Army helped make me a liberal — not because I reacted against my environment, but because I absorbed its values. If all of America were more like the Army, it would be a better country.

People think of the Army as hierarchical, but compared with the private sector it’s a bastion of egalitarianism.

Yes, the Army’s “blue-collar workers” — privates, corporals, sergeants — defer to its “white-collar workers,” the officers. That happens in corporations, too. But on an Army base you don’t send the white-collar kids to good public schools and the blue-collar kids to bad public schools.

We all went to school together — either on the base or at a public school near it. My claim to fame is having played basketball at the same high school, on Fort Sam Houston, where Shaquille O’Neal, son of a sergeant, later played. (I encountered O’Neal in a hotel lobby a few years ago, and it turns out he’s less fascinated than I am by our intertwined histories. Puzzling.)

I had friends from the Army’s biggest minority constituencies, blacks and Hispanics. Among soldiers, too, exposure to diversity, along with the practical need to live with it, could be benign. My father grew up in Texas in the 1920s, amid common use of the n-word, and I never heard him use it.

Which brings us to social mobility. My father was the son of a sharecropper, and he dropped out of high school after both of his parents and most of his siblings had died of various diseases. He lacked the polish to impress, say, a Morgan Stanley recruiter, but during World War II, the Army gave him a chance.

That meant better health care than his parents had gotten, thanks to socialized medicine. My “blue collar” friends and I went to the same doctors. The doctors weren’t all great, but I’m still alive, and we avoided one creepy thing about inequality in America today: people like me get arthroscopic surgery lest stray cartilage impede our golf swings, while low-income people, in unseen ways, die for lack of good health care.

My father said Army people were as fine a group as you would ever meet, and the evidence was on his side. They were conscientious and unpretentious. And they can be surprisingly soft. Good commanders have a commitment to their troops that borders on love, a feeling that in the corporate world doesn’t generally emanate from the executive suite downward. (I said love, not lust.)

That’s partly because in the Army, the stakes are so high. Sending people into battle isn’t something a good person does with detachment. Before the Iraq war, when the Army chief of staff, Gen. Eric Shinseki, testified that the postwar occupation would require hundreds of thousands of troops, he was showing not just prudence but devotion. He didn’t want his soldiers needlessly imperiled.

As a reward for his devotion, General Shinseki was disparaged by Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz. Rumsfeld wanted to show how cheap war can be, and now our soldiers are paying the price. I wish some people on the left had a deeper respect for the military, but lately the left isn’t where the most consequential disrespect has come from.

The crowning indignity was Abu Ghraib, an outrage that was initiated by civilians high in the Bush administration and has stained the U.S. military’s hard-earned honor, strengthening stereotypes that I know are wrong.

My father, Col. Raymond J. Wright, retired several years after that summer in San Francisco, having given three decades to an institution he loved. He died in 1987. There are lots of things I wish he had lived to see, but the way the Army’s been treated recently isn’t one of them.

Robert Wright, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, runs the Web site Bloggingheads.tv. He is a guest columnist this month.

Now here’s Mr. Kristof:

If the thought has ever flitted through your mind that your spouse isn’t 100 percent perfect, then just contemplate what Shakira Parveen is going through. And give your own husband or wife a hug.

When Ghulam Fareed proposed marriage to Ms. Parveen, he fingered prayer beads and seemed gentle and pious. Ms. Parveen didn’t know him well, but she and her family were impressed.

“The first month of marriage was O.K.,” Ms. Parveen recalled. “And then he said, you have to do whatever I tell you. If I tell you to sleep with other men, you have to do that.”

It turned out that Mr. Fareed was running a brothel and selling drugs, and he intended Ms. Parveen to be his newest prostitute. “I said, ‘No, I don’t want to sleep with other men,’ ” she said, but he beat her unconscious with sticks, broke her bones and at one point set fire to her clothes. Finally, she broke and assented.

Her “husband” locked her up in one room, she said, and the only people she saw were customers. “For two years, I never left the house,” she said.

This kind of neo-slavery is the plight of millions of girls and young women (and smaller numbers of boys) around the world, particularly in Asia. A major difference from 19th-century slavery is that these victims are dead of AIDS by their 20s.

Finally, Ms. Parveen was able to escape and return to her family, but Mr. Fareed was furious and began to torment her family, saying he would let up only if she returned to the brothel as his prostitute. Then Mr. Fareed’s gang pressured Ms. Parveen by kidnapping her younger brother, Uzman, who was in the fifth grade. Uzman says that his hands and feet were shackled, and he was raped daily by many different men, apparently pimped to paying customers.

The gang members explained that they would release the boy if Ms. Parveen returned to the brothel, and she contemplated suicide.

After six weeks, Uzman escaped while his captors became drunk and left him unshackled. But when Ms. Parveen and her parents went to the police, the officers just laughed at them. Mr. Fareed and other gang members worked hand in glove with the police, the family says.

Indeed, the police even arrested Ms. Parveen’s father, who is one-legged because of a train accident (that is one reason for the family’s poverty). Apparently on the gang’s orders, the police held him for two weeks, in which time he says he was beaten mercilessly. The police are also searching for Ms. Parveen’s brothers, who have gone into hiding.

Mr. Fareed also threatened to kidnap and prostitute Ms. Parveen’s younger sister, Naima, a 10th-grader who was ranked first in her class of 40 girls. Panic-stricken, the parents pulled Naima out of school and sent her to relatives far away. So her dreams of becoming a doctor have been dashed. (For readers who want to help, I’ve posted some suggestions on my blog: www.nytimes.com/ontheground.)

This nexus of sex trafficking and police corruption is common in developing countries. The problem is typically not so much that laws are inadequate; it is that brothel owners buy the police and the courts.

But Ms. Parveen’s tale arises not only from corruption, but also from poverty.

“If I had money, this wouldn’t be happening,” said Ms. Parveen’s mother, Akbari Begum. “It’s all about money. In the police station, nobody listens to me. The police listen to those who sell narcotics.”

“God should never grant daughters to poor people,” she added. “God should not give sisters to poor brothers. Because we’re poor, we can’t fight for them. It’s very hard for poor people, because they take our daughters and dishonor them. There’s nothing we can do.”

Yet in a land where poor women and girls are victimized equally by pimps and by the police, they do have one savior — Mukhtar Mai. She is the woman I’ve visited and written about often (she also uses the name Mukhtaran Bibi).

After being sentenced to be gang-raped by a tribal council for a supposed offense of her brother, Mukhtar refused to commit suicide and instead prosecuted her attackers. And then she used compensation money (and donations from Times readers) to run schools and an aid organization for Pakistani women.

It was in Mukhtar’s extraordinary sanctuary that I met Ms. Parveen. In my Sunday column, I’ll tell more about Mukhtar today.

You are invited to comment on this column at Mr. Kristof’s blog, www.nytimes.com/ontheground.