Monthly Archives: May 2011

SkeptiCal 2011

As I mentioned a couple of days ago, I took off on a lark to the Bay Area to see a conference with a friend from the UCI rationalists club. I sat in on a few of their meetings several years ago, and reconnected with the group recently when I was asked to give a talk on religion in the Israel/Palestine conflict. The drive up was delightful, as the conversation was lively and traffic was minimal in both directions. I was also able to crash at a friend’s joint in San Jose, which made it an affordable indulgence.

The conference itself was more entertaining than I had expected. (I am not good at sitting still for multiple speakers, to be honest; nothing personal, it’s just hard on me physically.) The stand-out might have been Anthony Pratkanis, a professor at UC Santa Cruz, where he lectures on social influence. His talk was about the techniques used to perpetrate fraud, done with the intention of making us more aware of the tools used to manipulate us all, but presented in a humourous and bombastic manner that drew images to mind ranging from slick politicians to health-supplement salesmen to Tom Cruise’s character in Magnolia. The audience was in stitches for much of the lecture, but it also passed on some really nice points.

After the break we saw a professional mentalist and magician named Mark Edward, who often works without informing his audiences that he is playing them — a practice for which he made no apology (several times *lol*). For us, he was presenting a practice he calls “guerrilla scepticism”, whereby one is supposed to confront the more egregious con artists out there like James Van Praagh (a supposed “medium” who sells people false hope through really shoddy cold-reading). Edward was clear that we should not be messing with the small fries, i.e., psychics on Venice Beach, as he seems to think they have a right to make a living. His agenda seemed as much motivated by professional arrogance at the poor showmanship of the big-name mediums as by any legitimate ethical concerns, but his demonstrations of skill were entertaining.

Eugenie Scott and a couple of others from the National Center for Science Education was also fun, but the discussions of evolution and creationism really had nothing new for me (too many books on the subjects). The presentation was clear and effective, though, and I’m sure it was useful to many people. Following the NCSE was the nerd-comedian Norm Goldblatt, who was freakin’ hysterical. If you think that physics can’t be funny you need to see his act. *grin*

But the low point was the first speaker we got in to see: Wendy Northcutt, the editor of the Darwin Awards book series and Web site. I had always taken the project to be humourous itself, and very tongue-in-cheek. Apparently, she takes the potential contribution to intelligence seriously, and takes a dim view of where we are going as a species. She also made plugs for a range of new age practices, which I found profoundly irritating, and not exactly à propos given the audience. I’m sure that I’m being more harsh than I ought, but I was really unimpressed with her performance or demeanor from start to finish. Ah, well.

To-day I was set to go hiking with my brother, but he pulled out to be with his girlfriend and then go house-hunting, so we’ll probably get dinner later. In the meanwhile, I am debating between taking a long walk by myself to build my back-packing tolerance, or working on some papers for class. I would prefer the former, but I have a few things undone yet for to-morrow’s meeting so that seems more responsible. *grumble* However, if I get to it now I should have time for a decent-sized walk before hooking up with J. later on…

Netanyahu And The West Bank

I had promised to begin my commentary on Obama’s Middle East speech to-day, but I’ve spontaneously hooked up with a friend to make a mad dash for Berkeley overnight to attend a conference to-morrow! So, instead of working on my school applications and writing another post, I will be racing up the freeway. But I haven’t forgotten and I’ll get to it.

In the meantime, I want to ask the first, most obvious question for all you Two-Staters out there. What does Netanyahu mean when he immediately claims that the 1967 borders are “indefensible” and cannot be returned to? Obama’s statement, which he categorically rejected, included the proviso “with agreed land swaps”, which would permit the retention of those huge settlement blocks along the border. The answer is telling, and should make it clear to anyone paying the least bit of attention that Netanyahu has no intention of permitting a contiguous, sovereign state to emerge in the West Bank.

First, if the 1967 borders are hard to defend, how much harder would it be to “defend” settlements deep inside the Territories like Ari’el and Ma’ale Adumim? Netanyahu has always insisted that these will be kept by Israel, and even with the most generous swathes of land on either side Ari’el would still be a delicate finger jutting into the Palestinian state.

He has also claimed, as have others, that retention of the Jordan Valley is essential to Israel’s security. This is a canard, as Israel has had a formal peace treaty with Jordan since 1994, and the chances of that state — Israel’s weakest large neighbour — attacking it are nil, as are the chances of large-scale incursions by Palestinian militants like the PLO used to mount decades ago. The real reason is control over the water supply. Israel cannot afford to share the bare trickle that is the Jordan River with a rapidly growing independent Palestine, any more than it can afford to share the West Bank aquifers, which presently supply 1/3 of Israel’s water.

Finally, all parties — including the Palestinian Authority — have conceded that any new Palestinian state would be demilitarized. Is Israel, one of the world’s most formidable military powers, afraid that the local police in an independent Palestine would pose an existential threat? That would be irrational paranoia of the highest order!

Clearly, then, defence is not the real reason for his reticence. The 1967 borders would give the Palestinians a contiguous state, which would make it more likely to be viable and hence genuinely independent. This is Netanyahu’s real stopping point. The strategic purpose of the settlements, from the Likud’s standpoint, was all along to make territorial compromise impossible. Ma’ale Adumim cuts deeply into the narrow waist of the West Bank, making the southern and northern portions almost impossible to reach without passing through Israel or descending deep into the arid and nearly empty Jordan Valley. Ari’el cuts like a knife into the northern West Bank just south of Nablus, nearly separating the largest population centres on three sides of it. When you add in the Jews-only bypass roads and the other infrastructure that connect these to Israel, the resulting state would be so carved up as to be economically useless. How do you construct a vibrant national economy when people can’t trade outside their immediate region?

The real issue obstructing peace in Israel/Palestine, as I have always contended, will be culture and religion. The Religious Zionists and Haredim that make up a sizeable chunk of the 500,000 Israelis living in the West Bank do not believe they are stealing land; they think they are sanctifying it. The Religious Zionists, following the teaching of the Ravs Kook, believe that their presence makes the coming of the messiah ever more possible and likely, and that any surrender of land would be a betrayal of the most pressing duty of Judaism. And I mean, any surrender of land.

Right now these people have the might of the Israeli state backing them up, so their racism and fanaticism do not make headlines very often. But can you imagine the uproar if the state were forcibly to uproot them and pull them back into 1948 Israel? The result would be a veritable civil war, with Jewish fundamentalists taking a cue from Hamas to blow themselves up for god. It would be a nightmare without end, and no Israeli government will be able to deal with that population without a strong mandate from the rest of society. Does anyone think that a right-wing government that includes reactionary religious parties and Greater Israel refuseniks would even contemplate trying such a thing? Netanyahu could not deliver peace even if he wanted to (and I do not believe that he does). Much of his party would abandon him and his coalition would collapse, and I think that he cares much more for power and ideology than for securing peace with the Palestinians.

Okay, those are a few of my initial thoughts on his reaction. To come later will be my analysis of Obama’s speech and what it articulates that is actually new in U.S. foreign policy. Right now I need to finish getting ready for my late-night drive!

Closing Out Last Year’s Grudges

If anyone remembers the problems I’ve had with Israeli security so far, this will be another gripe about harassment. I never got around to posting my experiences leaving the country last year. Take this as a brief, delayed summary of that sorry episode.

To be fair, these guys have a tough job to do, and ethnic/racial profiling is certainly not unique to Israel. Yet I feel that the level of intimidation leveled at students like meself is indicative of the sort of cultural issues that I study, which makes these experiences useful if nothing else. And, despite the title of this post, I don’t hold any grudges. I find the whole thing fascinating, truth be told. The level of paranoia that comes through in their actions can be useful in some circumstances, of course, and they do live in a hostile neighbourhood (though this kind of thing doesn’t help exactly!), but anyway, I am sort of bemused by it all, really. *lol*

The trouble began on the road into Ben Gurion International aeroport. My driver was hired by the hostel I was staying at in the Old City of Jerusalem, which meant that he was an Israeli Arab, i.e., a Palestinian. Given the differences in license plate, this was immediately apparent to the security at the ramps and they ordered us to pull over. Men with machine guns took first my driver and then me out of the car and hit us with a barrage of questions. I was asked why I was in Israel, why I was studying Hebrew, why I was staying in the Old City, why I was driving in with an Arab. The hostility was a bit much, but I suppose intimidation is part of the job training. Finally in exasperation I played the “Jew” card and they let me go. *sigh*

Outside the car I slipped on my black kippah, as making myself more obviously Jewish is helpful at times in reducing my threat level. *lol* Once inside the aeroport I allowed myself the brief illusion that this time would be different, that no-one would notice me and the harassment would have ended at the gate. Boy, was that stupid.

True to form, I was pulled out of the first queue I got into by a nice-looking young lady who objected to my surname. (Maher is an Arabic name.) She called over a supervisor who launched into the usual game of 20 questions about my family, what I was doing in Israel, why I wanted to study the language, etc. He directed me to the area where they do a thorough job of tearing through your luggage, so I headed over to that area. I then made the mistake of scribbling some notes to myself about the experience on my ubiquitous breast-pocket index cards (my short-term memory, heh.) This drew the supervisor back to harangue me about how they do not allow this, and that I had better not be writing anything about my experiences. He then took them and found that, of course, I was doing exactly that. Good thing I use very neutral language on those notes, eh?

Having now possibly made things harder for myself, I got to the table where they tore through my luggage. I was overladen with books and such as always, so my bags were packed very carefully and tightly. Having to break them open and then re-pack quickly was not easy, and I lost a few things there–including one of my nice long-sleeve white shirts. Grr.

The most memorable part of that examination was my computer. I was using my new netbook, a recent gift from my ex, Amanda. The security boss reacted sharply to the presence of Arabic letters on the keys. I have stickers on all of my keys that have Latin, Hebrew, and Arabic characters on them, allowing me to type easily in each alphabet. He wanted to know why I would not have chosen stickers with only Hebrew, and kept pushing me to find out what my interest in Arabic was. He seemed unimpressed by my simple observation that it was one of the official languages of the country, spoken by 25% of the population, and on signs everywhere you look. *grin*

Either way, this was enough to merit a check of my computer itself, so they ordered me to log in and hand it over to them! When I got it back it was pretty easy to trace what they had done (Linux keeps good logs), and a few obvious things were left open since they could care less that I know how racist they are. They had opened up my photo folders and were browsing my collection of pictures in Wadi al-Joz, a neighbourhood in East Jerusalem, I guess because being interested in how the Arabs live is a crime.

Having gotten my computer back, I had to throw my stuff back into my bags and head off to the next step. I had to leave the bags with the kind ladies at the security desk and head off with another gentleman to be strip-searched. Joy! I was taken into a small booth and taken down to my shorts, and he got to look through all of my stuff individually and scan everything with their x-ray machine. Clearly my leather belt from Kohls was an existential threat to the State of Israel.The slow pat-down (well, rub, since he moved his hands along my body) was an affront to my dignity, but it’s no worse than old ladies are getting at American aeroports by now, so I can’t complain. And overall the man doing this part of the check was very nice; he asked polite questions, showed sympathy for my clear discomfort at having to leave my things and be frisked, and made the process move along as quickly as he could (though there seems to be something designed into these checks by sadistic bureaucrats to make them proceed at a glacial pace).

After getting dressed I was allowed to retrieve my bags and was escorted to a counter for check-in. I was not to be left alone until I was on the other side of the gate, since I might conceivably go postal and kill everyone in the room. I checked my bag and was lead down to the terminal where my ‘plane would be coming in. At this point the ordeal was over. All told it was less invasive, less vicious, and less frustrating than the one i suffered at JFK on the way out. (Re: JFK, I’ve certainly learnt my lesson about not flying El Al! They even screwed up my in-flight meals both directions, failing to register that I was a vegetarian. Hrmph.)  Anyway, the only parts of this bit at Ben Gurion that were truly distinctive were the computer invasions and the driver being stopped. Overall, not to bad, but still annoying. I can’t wait to see what’s in store this time!

Coming to-morrow or later to-day, the first of several meditations on the current kerfuffle over the 1967 borders (Obama’s speech, Netanyahu’s response, etc.) I’ve been thinking about it a bit but haven’t had time to put any thought to keyboard. Soon, my pretties….

Nasrallah, Shut The Hell Up.

I noticed to-day that Hassan Nasrallah has come out in support of Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria! For those who haven’t followed Lebanese politics at all, Nasrallah is the leader of a political party cum militia called Hezbollah (alternatively spelt Hizbullah and a bunch of other ways). They represent the Shia population in Lebanon, primarily concentrated in the south and in the Beqa’a valley, and are currently part of the government (though they have not disarmed as was suggested they ought..). Their fame comes primarily from their long battle with Israel after the latter invaded Lebanon in 1982. The hard fighting eventually resulted in Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon in 2000, a ‘victory’ for which Hezbollah has claimed credit.

The gist of the article was that Nasrallah thought Syrians should trust Assad to implement reforms slowly, thus preserving stability. The problem, of course, is … who could trust that government to do anything that would jeopardize its hold on power? Assad and his family, and the security services, and the Ba’ath party, and the Alawite minority from which many of the élites spring, have held a monopoly on power for so long that it’s hard to imagine they would take a democratic movement seriously. No democracy would tolerate the kind of “security” that the police there have been doling out; look at how quickly the security services were disbanded in Tunisia and Egypt!

And the Alawites make up 10% of the population but have held most of the top jobs for decades; this presents a situation very like that which prevailed in Iraq for so long, with its domination by the Sunni minority. Assad has been playing the sectarian card, claiming that protestors want to divide the country. In fact the reverse is true: the protestors have been calling for unity and -equality- in Syria, with its diverse population of Sunni and Shia Muslims, Alawites, Druze, Kurds, Assyrian Christians, etc. Too bad most of the Jews have fled or the population would be even more colourful!

Could this be a sectarian issue? Could it be as simple as the mild connexion between Nasrallah’s Shia Islam and Assad’s Alawite faith? I wouldn’t think so, given that his is an exceedingly secular government and a long-time opponent of political Islam within Syria. Hmm, not that they don’t play with it when they like, as with the support for the Palestinian Hamas, which has its political offices in Damascus. But that’s Assad playing both sides; what does Nasrallah have to gain by throwing his support behind a repressive authoritarian regime? This is not a good way to burnish the democratic credentials of Hezbollah as a political party in Lebanon, even with his calls for reform in Syria.

Could it be as simple as following the money? If Syria has been supporting and arming Hezbollah forever, then Nasrallah might see an obligation to support the hand that’s fed him. Of course it’s that simple. Hezbollah has always been a proxy of Iran, in that money and arms are funneled through Syria from the mullahs in order to support it. The Shia militia can look to Iran not only as coreligionists, but as fellow Islamist revolutionaries and anti-Israel demagogues. Syria’s support is stranger, but then, the Ba’thist state has always picked strange bedfellows (remember their support of the Maronite Christians in the Lebanese Civil War).

But given that Islamist parties have made their name by standing on hard principles, this would mean somehow condoning mass-murder in order to ensure a steady paycheque. I mean, seriously, guy! There’s no way around the decades of police-state brutality, nor can we easily ignore the 1,000 dead protestors that Assad’s thugs and snipers have shot in the past two months for daring to call for reform. That’s my beef with this move: Nasrallah has thrown his lot in with a thuggish régime and is asking people to trust it to move slowly into reform. That’s a lot to ask of a people who have been systematically brutalized for decades.

What I’m hoping is that this cuts into the credibility Nasrallah gained after the last Israeli invasion of south Lebanon. I hope that some of his more ‘moderate’ followers figure out that he’s on the wrong side of history, and that the Arab Spring is for real. The youth in the Arab world are tired of trusting in dictators to bring them ‘reform’ from the top and are seizing the initiative from below. By gods I hope the Syrian people stay out in the streets and keep up the pressure on Assad! It might get uglier and take a long time, but the people of Syria deserve better than they have gotten and this is easily the best way to reach for that.

Audible Sucks

The advice I’ve seen on ‘blogging says to post every day. Hmm, already missed yesterday. Ah, well; when have you know me to follow advice easily, eh? I am the master of my own destiny, damnit, and no rules will confine me! *grin*

To-day I’ve been getting over a wee cold and my throat still feels like it has razor blades in it. My voice is pretty weak, too, which some people might appreciate! I have an appointment with my GP to-morrow, which is an interesting coincidence since I don’t get sick all that often these days. I’m going to take care of some things before leaving the country for summer again. I want no repeats of last year’s intestinal nightmare, thank you! We’ll see what she says.

I’ve just been wrestling with some files downloaded from Audible. I wanted to take along some Arabic language tapes to work on some conversational eastern colloquial, and the program I was aiming for (Pimsleur) has gone all digital. Unfortunately, the 30-lesson set that I was looking at comes as two files! Who wants to scroll through a 400-minute track on their iPod, anyway?! Someone was not thinking… I’m working on a work-around (that’s a funky sentence!). Seems there’s a way to burn them to CD, and if that works there seems to be no reason I couldn’t then rip ’em back into files I can manipulate to a more reasonable size. We shall see.

In other news, I signed my contract to teach in the fall at Chapman. Yay! Now I just need to find another couple jobs like that and I can make my bills. *grin* The UCI budget position definitely has me concerned. Anyway, things will work out. I have plans afoot…

One Step Closer

Today I finished moving my photo gallery from the old domain to this one (http://liammaheriv/gallery) though of course it is still far, far from being full. I have as one of my summer projects to weed through more photos and get them posted. I also redirected two of my other domain names to this one, and I’m almost ready to close the original journal and site down & redirect that here as well. Just a few more things to do…

I was going to write on either the Syrian protests or the Obama Mid-East speech to-day but I’ve just been too caught up is school papers and being sick, etc. Maybe to-morrow. *grin* But getting more of the site together and coming back to post a short note again to-day is a healthy sign, no? ‘Blogging regularly is one of my more serious resolutions lately. A friend of mine has been inspiring me to try harder and keep at it, so once I have the technical excuses out of the way I’ll have to get back to saying something substantive!

On The Phone

Ah, this is fun! I just set up the Android app for updates to my ‘blog, which will make it easy to send along quick notes during my upcoming trip. Yes, that means I’m on my way back to the ‘holy land’ for the summer. I just bought a bunch of my new gear today, since I’m doing this trip a bit differently than I have in past. I will post photos later of the stuff I got, since I think it’s helluva cool, but I ought to look into ways to connect my photo gallery with the new domain first…

Where On Earth Have I Been?

Look at how much has happened in the past year, not only in my life but in the world, and I still haven’t gotten into the habit of writing here. I prattle on endlessly in e-mails and conversations and notes to myself and papers for school, but noooo, I just never manage to ‘blog. Well, okay, I’m going to take another stab at this. I am going to finish up the post from last year’s trip conclusion that was never written, detailing my exploits with Israeli security once again, and then I’ll see about diving into this again. I have comments on the Arab Spring to make, things about my upcoming trip to share, plans afoot for major changes in my life, issues related to my research that I would like to share, and a million other things. We’ll see how that pans out, eh? *grin* Try to be optimistic for me, okay?