Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Who are the lone wolf terrorists?

In an article published last year, I argue that there is a particular (and frequently dominant) framing of terrorism that links it to "Islamist extremists organized in international networks." News out of the Netherlands today suggests that this may be changing, but only partially.

The Dutch newspaper NRC reports that the city of The Hague is trying to assess how dangerous "lone wolves" are. On the plus side, authorities are paying more attention to "lone wolves" than before. On the minus side, lone wolves are defined in the article (and hence presumably by the city) as solitary individuals with "jihadist thoughts". This is problematic to say the least, given that the most serious terrorist attack in the wider region in recent years — Anders Breivik's actions in Norway in 2011 —was committed by someone who had virulent anti-jihadist thoughts, and that the Netherlands has its own close experience with a non-jihadist terrorist — Volkert van der Graaf, who killed Pim Fortuyn.

I suspect that the majority of lone wolf (or potential lone wolf) terrorists today are indeed individuals with "jihadist thoughts", but it strikes me as a spectacularly bad idea to make that a definitional assumption of a project intended at preventing terrorist attacks by lone wolves.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Suis-je Charlie?


In the wake of the horrific attack on the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, many have adopted the slogan “Je suis Charlie,” expressing solidarity with the beleaguered magazine. At the same time, there has been push-back against the slogan because Charlie’s cartoons often leave readers uncomfortable. I don’t pretend to add much to this debate, but do want to underscore three points often lost in the discussion.

When Le Monde said “We are all Americans” after 9/11, nobody took this to mean that the newspaper supported everything Americans do and have done. By the same token saying “je suis Charlie” does not imply you agree with everything Charlie Hebdo ever published, nor even with broad patterns in its coverage and satire. Indeed, regular contributors to the magazine did not always agree with everything it published.

At the same time, the widespread, rather un-thinking, chorus of “Je suis Charlie” risks turning Charlie Hebdo into a symbol, in a way its regular contributors, not surprisingly, detest (Luz, Willem). So it is worth thinking a bit more about what it is about Charlie that you support, and acting on that.

As a common formulation of what satire is supposed to aim for, this describes much of what Charlie aims to do. There is, then, a certain hypocrisy in criticizing the magazine for allegedly "afflicting the afflicted" (i.e. targeting weaker groups in society). After all, the magazine itself is, at the moment, undeniably “afflicted”. Kicking them while they are down because they are deemed to have been guilty of the same sin is uncharitable, at best.

Moreover, religious beliefs do not fit neatly into this dichotomy. Certainly Islam, as such, is hardly afflicted: it is a global religion, it is the second religion in France, and many of its adherents are immensely wealthy and powerful. At the same time, many Muslims in France disproportionately find themselves on the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder.

So when Charlie publishes a cartoon poking fun at certain features of Islamic doctrine, is it punching up (at a successful religion whose authorities do not like being questioned), or down (at poor people for whom religion is central to their identity)?

Significantly, Charlie’s cartoons lampooning Islam generally attempt to be careful not to focus on particular non-religious characteristics of its adherents. For this reason, Joe Sacco’s comparing such cartoons to his drawing (as a deliberate provocation) “a Jew counting his money in the entrails of the working class” misses the point: There is an enormous difference between believing that some people, simply by birth, share characteristics worth criticizing, and believing that some people subscribe to a particular interpretation of a religion that is worth criticizing.

Charlie’s cartoons are vulgar, puerile, smug. Often they appear designed to be crude and provocative merely for the sake of being so, rather than in order to make a deeper point. However, the level of offensiveness is very context-specific. It is very difficult for outsiders to interpret political cartoons, and many observers have jumped to erroneous conclusions about  some widely-republished Charlie cartoons (as Olivier Tonneau nicely points out).

Claims that the magazine is systematically racist or xenophobic have come almost exclusively from people living outside France who have not bothered actually to look at the evidence, relying instead on what they have read or seen second- or third-hand (I've decided not even to bother linking to some of these misguided rants). Fortunately, the covers of Charlie Hebdo are available for anyone to look at.

By my count, over the past 100 issues, 39 of these covers have attacked mainstream French politicians (mostly president François Hollande), 13 have targeted the French far right (mostly Marine le Pen and the Front National), 18 take aim at French VIPs, 10 at Christianity (mostly the Vatican), 6 at xenophobia, 6 at Islam, and 5 at anti-semitism (some of these are double-counted). Less common targets include sexism (3) and racism (2).

The picture that emerges is of a virulent distaste for any kind of authority — religious or otherwise — that prefers obedience to questioning. (As Scott Sayare notes in the Atlantic, “Charlie Hebdo preaches a stringent interpretation of laïcité”) If your favoured authority is among those attacked, you may find Charlie quite offensive. Fortunately, most people, including the vast, overwhelming majority of Muslims, simply ignore or laugh off such offense.

Some people, however, are either unable or unwilling to laugh off any perceived offense. Allowing such sociopathic, humorless, irrational zealots — call them shits, for short — determine what can and cannot be published is a losing proposition. (A relevant example in the present context: the 1977 movie The Message did everything it could to avoid giving offense, but still failed to satisfy the shits). Declaring “je ne suis pas Charlie” on the grounds that its cartoons were likely to set off some shits is thus a very bad idea. First, because there is no end in sight, and second, because doing so concedes not just that the pen is not mightier than the sword, but also proposes that the former ought to bow to the latter.

As Ted Rall points out (in an article with a rather unfortunate title), political cartooning is widely on the retreat, both because people fear the shits and because the traditional employers of political cartoonists — newspapers — are in decline. If you support political satire, rather than (or in addition to) changing your Facebook picture to "Je suis Charlie", consider doing one or more of the following:

1) donate money to Charlie (via the link on their website) to support continued publication (and the increased protection its contributors will undoubtedly require)

2) if you find Charlie problematic, support the work of other political cartoonists and satirists. Two excellent books by American cartoonists which publish cartoons alongside the artist's notes on why, and to whom, they were controversial are Rall's America gone wild and Aaron McGruder's All the rage (which appears, unfortunately, to be out of print). Also, although I challenged Sacco's response to the Charlie attacks above, just about everything he has ever published is great (including, most recently, The Great War, and Bumf).

3) if you don't like political cartoons, but do want to support political cartoonists' rights, donate money to organizations that support freedom of speech, such as the ACLU.

Friday, March 7, 2014

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) is Chicken Little

I'm not sure how, but at some point I got on the mailing list of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. I recently removed myself from the list, because their messages were getting  tiresome and repetitive. Here is a selection of subject-headers from messages they sent the past 3 weeks (about half of all messages they sent me between Feb. 12 and Mar. 5):

devastating loss
crippling blow
devastating defeat
dead in the water
horrible loss
enormous loss
this could be the end
devastating blow
 devastating loss

In this era of micro-targeting, I am having a hard time understanding what target group they believe would find such a barrage of sameness anything other than annoying. And I'm doubly puzzled as to why they believe I am in that group.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Fact-checking Clarence Thomas' memory

So apparently Clarence Thomas waxed nostalgic today about race relations in Georgia in the early 1960s:
My sadness is that we are probably today more race and difference-conscious than I was in the 1960s when I went to school. To my knowledge, I was the first black kid in Savannah, Georgia, to go to a white school. Rarely did the issue of race come up,”
I'm sure I'm not the only one who finds that hard to believe. Even postulating that Savannah was, in Martin Luther King, Jr.'s words, "the most desegregated city South of the Mason-Dixon line" at the time, this doesn't jibe with what little I know about school desegregation in Georgia.

In fact, just a few minutes searching online turns up some rather different accounts from that same period in Savannah:
“I lived in Garden City,” she said of the late 1950s and early ’60s in west Chatham County. “I knew how ugly some white people could be.”...
Even that did not fully prepare her for those first days at Groves.
The name-calling began even before she got to school.
“That’s when the real taunting began,” she said. “It continued the entire school year.”
Bryant described the three-story school on Washington Avenue as being less hostile than what his cohorts found at Groves on the westside, but said it was not a comfortable fit....
Frequently, a white classmate would jostle him and send his books flying. When he tried to pick them up, another student would kick them down the hall.
It was especially hostile in the cafeteria, he said.
“They didn’t like us in there. One guy actually spit in my food,” Bryant said.
and so on. There are more reminiscences in this article (by Jan Skutch), all covering high school experiences in 1963. Here's more, from another article (by Ralph Nichols), about desegregating a middle school two years later:
Going to the bathroom was the worst part of the day for Phyllis Slack.
Teenage girls wearing pleated skirts and blouses with Peter Pan collars laid in wait for Slack, a black girl in an all-white Savannah middle school. Occasionally, boys joined the girls waiting to ambush her in the bathroom.
Sometimes, Slack got away. Other times, she got caught and was subjected to a flurry of kicks and punches.
How can we reconcile these accounts with that of Thomas? I see just 3 possibilities:

1. He magically lived a completely non-representative experience and is disingenuously extrapolating from that to everyone else's experiences in Georgia at the time
2. He is lying, in order to make a political point
3. His memory is going
None of these are particularly encouraging, given Thomas' position as a Supreme Court judge.

Monday, August 5, 2013

The importance of reading and writing carefully

Two interesting recent blog posts underscore the importance of both reading and writing very carefully when grappling with an argument.

First, AidData's blog The First Tranche (disclaimer -- I'm associated with AidData, though I am not directly involved with the blog) posts a valuable overview of Chinese aid and influence in Zimbabwe, by Amber Will. The post on the whole is very good and well worth reading.

However, there is one key sentence that is problematic: "AidData uncovered $3.82 billion in official Chinese finance to Zimbabwe, accounting for 4.9% of all official Chinese financing to Africa." The issue here is that the second part of the sentence needs the same qualifier as the first: "AidData uncovered". After all, we don't know the total amount of all Chinese financing to Africa -- all we know is the total amount found by AidData's media-combing/crowd-sourcing approach.

Indeed, even the qualifier "AidData uncovered" is less than ideal: strictly speaking it should be "AidData uncovered references to" aid -- whether those references are accurate is unknown. I suspect that both the $3.82bn figure and the 4.9% estimate for the portion of total aid are, if anything, under-estimates. Still, we really don't know enough to be as confident of either as the post suggests.

In a second example, the Duck of Minerva blog recently featured a debate about what caused the Iraq War (here and here), inspired by an article in the current issue of International Organization by Alexandre Debs and Nuno P. Monteiro. Again, the blog posts are well worth reading, but Debs and Monteiro's argument is weakened by the following statement introducing it: "we argue that the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq can be accounted for strictly within a rationalist framework."

I have not yet read the original article in IO, but this is a very lame claim: it is trivially true that the US-led invasion can be accounted for within a rationalist framework -- all you need is to specify appropriate preferences and information. The claim becomes interesting only if you can show that key actors held those preferences and had that information, and that other models fall short.

The invasion can also be accounted for by a divine inspiration framework: all we need to do is posit that Bush believed God talked to him directly and told him to invade Iraq. In the absence of additional data showing what Bush believed, that claim is just as credible as the claim Debs and Monteiro make: constructing a model is only a first step, and not a particularly challenging one at that (in this particular example).

In the remainder of their post, Debs and Monteiro do in fact provide some data to move their argument beyond simply positing a particular model. This suggests that they simply do a poor job of summarizing their main claim at the start (although some critics may not be convinced by the data they supply).

Be that as it may, both of the examples given here underscore the importance of writing (and reading) carefully.

Friday, June 14, 2013

The emptiness of sales language

I spend a lot of time in my research reading what politicians have to say about one issue or another. There are often reasons to doubt that they are being entirely (or even at all) sincere. But generally they are at least saying something.

I just heard an ad on the radio for some medicine (I don't even remember what kind of medicine), which included, near the end, a statement along the following lines: "People who have been addicted to alcohol or other drugs may be more likely to become addicted to this product." Note the "may" — in effect, this sentence says absolutely nothing. Presumably it satisfies some legal requirement somewhere, but I can't imagine what.

I have a similar gripe with the very common sale announcements along the lines of "you could save up to 15% or more" — again, what information is being conveyed here? Taken literally, the statement is beyond meaningless: you could replace the "could" with "will" and it would still be true. I suppose the goal is to convey a particular focal point (15%) to listeners, but wouldn't there be better (less meaningless) ways to say this?

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Terrorism, safety, and statistics

Just a juxtaposition of a few items:

A cartoon: "This is why people should learn statistics"

Joe Nocera's "Gun Report", a blog with daily examples of gun deaths.

John Mueller and Mark Stewart's "The terrorism delusion: America's overwrought response to September 11", published last year in International Security.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Transparency in Central Banking (and in the sky :-)

Last week I was at the International Studies Association annual conference in San Francisco. I participated in a panel on the euro crisis, at which Matthias Kaelberer (Univ. of Memphis) presented a thought-provoking paper (available on the ISA conference website) arguing, inter alia, that the transparency of the ECB has made a valuable contribution to its political legitimacy (and that of the euro).

Some audience members disagreed, arguing instead that transparency was bad for legitimacy (national central banks have traditionally not been very transparent and yet quite legitimate; the appearance of indecision or disagreement within the bank will not increase people's faith in the institution) and for economic outcomes (probably because transparency makes it harder for banks to make unexpected moves and thus to affect the expectations of economic actors).

By coincidence, I read an interview today, on Bloomberg Businessweek's website, with the Dutch economist Petra Geraats, based in Cambridge. The interview (by Simon Kennedy) highlights her work on the economic benefits of central bank transparency. Her research indicates quite strongly that transparency is actually good for economic outcomes. Towards the end of the interview, the article provides some nice examples of how central banks are increasing their transparency. Interesting stuff.

Speaking of transparency: apparently Geraats is interested in astronomy, but the skies over Cambridge are insufficiently transparent (too cloudy), so her telescope remains "at her father’s home in the Dutch province of Lindbergh." From this, we can conclude two things:
1. The interview was by phone, and
2. the interviewer has no idea what provinces there are in the Netherlands
    (Geraats, must, of course, have said Limburg)

Friday, March 29, 2013

Where do they find these people?

Alaskan Congressman Don Young (Republican), in an interview with Ketchikan (AK) radio station KBRD:

Young also believes that Americans need to bring industry back to this country rather than relying on imports. Doing so would increase jobs, although he understands that automation has reduced the number of labor positions available.
“My father had a ranch; we used to have 50-60 wetbacks to pick tomatoes,” he said. “It takes two people to pick the same tomatoes now. It’s all done by machine.”

Two questions:
- How does someone holding national political office in the twentyfirst century not know to avoid
  such an offensive slur?
- How can the radio station report this section of the interview without comment? Surely someone
  there knew that this was offensive?

The mind boggles.

Update: It appears the House Republican leadership has forced Young to apologize. He now states he "meant no disrespect". Assuming for the moment that is true, doesn't that simply underscore just how clueless this guy is?

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Making sense of statistics

Morton Jerven has a fascinating post up at the Guardian, "Lies, damn lies and GDP", in which he discusses the striking unreliability of GDP figures for African countries. Best line:
The knowledge that currently there are 40 "Malawis" unaccounted for in the Nigerian economy should raise a few eyebrows.
The low quality of development statistics is well known to those in the field. Jerven's account reminded me of an apocryphal story about an aid official tasked with analyzing trends in economic growth in a particular aid recipient. After much work, he finally found a powerful pattern, noting that economic growth was almost exactly 1.25 times population growth. Proud of this insight, he traveled to the recipient country's economic ministry in order to share his new-found knowledge. As he was waiting at the desk of the official he had come to brief, however, he noticed a faded post-it note taped to the official's desk: "when unable to get growth data for the annual report, just use population growth times 1.25".

Jerven (whose book on the quality of these statistics, Poor Numbers, has just been published by Cornell University Press) correctly points out that
governments, international organisations and independent analysts need these development statistics to track and monitor efforts at improving living conditions on the African continent.
However, the problem is less serious for at least one particular use of these statistics. As I argue in my book, if we wish to study how a country's GDP factors into decision-making on the part of aid donors, international financial institutions, etc., what matters is not some "true" GDP, but rather what these international actors believe the GDP to be. For this purpose, then, the flawed statistics these actors had access to at the time they made their decisions are, in fact, preferable to retroactively "corrected" GDP estimates, regardless of how much better those new estimates reflect "true" GDP.