Archive for the ‘ Politics ’ Category

Raise My Taxes, Mr. President!

Fareed Zakaria in Newsweek:

For the last few months, we have heard powerful, passionate arguments about the need to cut America’s massive budget deficit. Republican senators have claimed that we are in danger of permanently crippling the economy. Conservative economists and pundits warn of a Greece-like crisis, when America can borrow only at exorbitant interest rates. So when an opportunity presents itself to cut those deficits by about a third—more than $300 billion!—permanently and relatively easily, you would think that these very people would be in the lead. Far from it.

The Bush tax cuts remain the single largest cause of America’s structural deficit—that is, the deficit not caused by the collapse in tax revenues when the economy goes into recession. The Bush administration inherited budget surpluses from the Clinton administration. What turned these into deficits, even before the recession? There were three fundamental new costs—the tax cuts, the prescription-drug bill, and post-9/11 security spending (including the Iraq and Afghanistan wars). Of these the tax cuts were by far the largest, adding up to $2.3 trillion over 10 years. According to the Congressional Budget Office, nearly half the cost of all legislation enacted from 2001 to 2007 can be attributed to the tax cuts.

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He impersonated a human

Gideon Levy in Haaretz:

Sabbar Kashur wanted to be a person, a person like everybody else. But as luck would have it, he was born Palestinian. It happens. His chances of being accepted as a human being in Israel are nil. Married and a father of two, he wanted to work in Jerusalem, his city, and maybe also have an affair or a quickie on the side. That happens too.

He knew that he had no chance with the Jews, so he adopted another name for himself, Dudu. He didn’t have curly hair, but he went by Dudu just the same. That’s how everyone knew him. That’s how you know a few other Arabs too: the car-wash guy you call Rafi, the stairwell cleaner who goes by Yossi, the supermarket deliveryman you know as Moshe.

What’s wrong? Is it only fearsome Shin Bet interrogators like “Capt. George” and “Abu Faraj” who are allowed to adopt names from other peoples? Are only Israelis who emigrate allowed to invent new identities? Only the Yossi from Hadera who became Joe in Miami, the Avraham from Bat Yam who became Abe in Los Angeles?

No longer a youth, Sabbar/Dudu worked as a deliveryman for a lawyer’s office, rode his scooter around Jerusalem and delivered documents, affidavits and sworn testimonies, swearing to everyone that he was Dudu. Two years ago he met a woman by chance. Nice to meet you, my name is Dudu. He claims that she came on to him, but let’s leave the details aside. Soon enough they went where they went and what happened happened, all by consent of the parties concerned. One fine day, a month and a half after an afternoon quickie, he was summoned to the police on suspicion of rape.

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OMG! It’s Muhammad’s footprint

Pervez Hoodbhoy in New Humanist:

The sudden appearance of the Prophet Muhammad’s alleged footprint in the sleepy village of Dharabi near Chakwal has sent a wave of religious excitement across Pakistan. At a three-hour drive from Islamabad, Dharabi is now attracting tens of thousands of visitors from Swat to Karachi. They seek blessings, spiritual enlightenment, miracle cures and relief from life’s other stresses. A road that is sparsely travelled in normal times is now clogged with traffic, vendors of food and drink are having a field day, new businesses selling pictures and holy paraphernalia have sprouted, and a permanent shrine is under construction. The village could not have hoped for better.

My encounter with this phenomenon was accidental and preceded the heavy rush that came in subsequent weeks. While on the way to Chakwal, I became curious about the heavy police presence. Upon inquiring, I was told of a recent momentous event – a giant footprint was said to have suddenly appeared, which the local Muslim scholars promptly declared to belong to the Holy Prophet. But this had ignited a fierce war of words between various religious factions in the larger Chakwal area. Some believers insist that the Prophet had left the earthly world once and for ever, while others contend that he revisits it periodically to remind followers of his presence. The police had been called to prevent physical violence.

Several weeks later the story hit the national press. And when I spoke villagers I had met in Dharabi I discovered that new embellishments and inventions are being added to the original narration of events. Village sceptics, on the other hand, are being silenced and speak only on condition of anonymity.

The story begins on 12th Rabi-ul-Awwal (the 12th day of the third month of Pakistan’s lunar calendar), the Prophet’s birthday, when celebrations were held as is village custom. This involves cooking sooji ka halwa (a sweet dish of semolina and almonds) in large flat iron dishes called karahis. Since there are no stoves large enough for the purpose, shallow holes are dug and then filled with twigs, charcoal or other flammable material. After the cooking is done and the fires have dimmed, the holes are filled with loose earth. On that particular evening there was a heavy rain shower.

That evening a woman looked out into her backyard and saw a glow that appeared to move. In her excitement, she summoned her mother-in-law, who says she saw it too. It appeared very briefly and was not seen subsequently (although a six-week-later version is that it lasted for three days and was so bright that the house did not need electric lights). The women also claimed that the glow was accompanied by a sweet smell. In the morning, the cooking area was discovered to have a mysterious ground impression: a huge footprint.

What scientific explanation exists for this phenomenon? If you Google the ‘Dharabi miracle’ you will see countless photographs and hastily made celebratory videos of the miracle. By straining the imagination, some may be able to see a footprint. But its enormous size – three to four feet long – would indicate that it belongs to the long-sought mythical Himalayan Yeti rather than any human (or human-sized divinity). The shape of the impression can be more plausibly explained as that of loose earth, brought together by rainwater, from two adjacent irregularly rounded cooking holes. It could also be the water-distorted image of two heavy round karahis of different sizes placed on the soft earth. Or it could simply be deliberate fraud.

Assuming that the women had their wits about them, and had not been overpowered by the devotional intensity of the day’s celebrations, the softly glowing ephemeral light could have multiple explanations. First, it is possible that a swarm of phosphorescent insects was somehow attracted to the cooking area. Bioluminescence in insects is a well-known phenomenon. As in the common firefly known as jugnoo, ‘cold light’ is produced via chemiluminescence.

It could also be that the organic matter buried in the holes, assisted by the heat of imperfectly quenched coals or twigs, could have converted into methane and phosphine gases. The latter is known to oxidize spontaneously upon coming into contact with air and can burn at a low temperature causing glowing light. Apparitions in western folklore, such as Jack-o’-the-Lantern or Will-o’-the-Wisp, have been traced by scientists to various flammable gases and insects.

A detailed investigation would involve looking at the soil composition, local entomology and recorded statements of different witnesses. It seems, however, that the Dharabi event will be ignored by Pakistan’s scientific institutions, of which there are well over two dozen. With exorbitant budgets but zero or little scientific output, some are housed in shiny new buildings on Islamabad’s Constitution Avenue. These include the Pakistan Academy of Sciences, the Committee on Science and Technology in the Islamic World (COMSTECH), the Pakistan Science Foundation and the Pakistan Council on Science and Technology.

Unfortunately not one of the above or, for that matter, any other Pakistani scientific institute has ever debunked the unreasonable and anti-scientific attitudes that prevail in this increasingly devout country. For example, after the October 2005 earthquake killed nearly 100,000, none challenged the view in the public media that this tragedy was a consequence of our bad deeds, such as watching television or allowing unveiled women to go out of the house.

To be sure, superstitious beliefs exist in other countries as well. One recalls the hysteria in 1995 following the discovery that Lord Ganesh, the Elephant God, would ‘drink’ milk if a spoon of milk was held up to his trunk. Even minor temples in India overflowed with superstitious devotees. So great was the rush that a traffic gridlock resulted in New Delhi and sales of milk jumped by 30 per cent.

Fortunately for India an independent body, the Indian Rationalist Association, was quick to show that Ganesh’s milk drinking had a physical explanation. It was shown to be simple capillary action – which everyone learns about in school. The surface tension of the milk was pulling the liquid up and out of the spoon, before gravity caused it to run down the front of the statue. To its credit, India’s Ministry of Science and Technology confirmed the explanation and the country’s religious craziness slowly abated.

With such precedents, surely it is time for Pakistan’s Ministry of Science and Technology to investigate the so-called Chakwal miracle, as well as the many similar superstitions that delude our people.

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How facts backfire

Joe Keohane in The Boston Globe:

It’s one of the great assumptions underlying modern democracy that an informed citizenry is preferable to an uninformed one. “Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government,” Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1789. This notion, carried down through the years, underlies everything from humble political pamphlets to presidential debates to the very notion of a free press. Mankind may be crooked timber, as Kant put it, uniquely susceptible to ignorance and misinformation, but it’s an article of faith that knowledge is the best remedy. If people are furnished with the facts, they will be clearer thinkers and better citizens. If they are ignorant, facts will enlighten them. If they are mistaken, facts will set them straight.

In the end, truth will out. Won’t it?

Maybe not. Recently, a few political scientists have begun to discover a human tendency deeply discouraging to anyone with faith in the power of information. It’s this: Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite. In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.

This bodes ill for a democracy, because most voters — the people making decisions about how the country runs — aren’t blank slates. They already have beliefs, and a set of facts lodged in their minds. The problem is that sometimes the things they think they know are objectively, provably false. And in the presence of the correct information, such people react very, very differently than the merely uninformed. Instead of changing their minds to reflect the correct information, they can entrench themselves even deeper.

“The general idea is that it’s absolutely threatening to admit you’re wrong,” says political scientist Brendan Nyhan, the lead researcher on the Michigan study. The phenomenon — known as “backfire” — is “a natural defense mechanism to avoid that cognitive dissonance.”

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Who is responsible?

Sana Saleem in Dawn:

Lahore is often known as the heart of Pakistan; the hub of culture and arts, the centre of education, the city of gardens, with the prominent aspect of the city being its ancient history and its deep-rooted connection to Sufism. Living in a city steeped in heritage and culture, Lahoris are known for their fun-loving spirit. This very spirit was attacked on July 1, when two suicide bombers attacked Data Darbar, shrine of the patron saint of Lahore.

The attack killed 45 people and left more than 175 injured.

This is not the first time a shrine has been attacked, previously the shrines of Rahman Baba and Mian Umer Baba in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have also been attacked.

Attacking Data Darbar on a Thursday night was an obvious target – that is the night when the shrine is teeming with worshippers as well as those seeking shelter and food from all walks of life. There is no question that the attack was well-planned – CCTV footage showed scenes of carnage and the bombers just moments before they blew themselves up. The footage showed a security guard chasing after one of the bombers shortly before the bomb went off – body parts and blood splattered everywhere as the survivors fled in all directions.

The most common reactions after the attack are that of denial, with many pointing fingers at foreign involvement. Statements such as “these terrorists can neither be Muslims nor Pakistanis” echoed from the common man to those in authority. Despite a history of intolerance towards Sufism, the notorious TTP has also declined any involvement in the attack claiming they do not attack ‘public places Usman, 16, who was identified as the alleged suicide bomber by the authorities, was later reported to be a victim of the attack.

I was asked a similar question : What does the attack on the Ahmedis and on Data Darbar mean? Is this sectarian violence or do terrorists not have a religion? According to The Pakistan Security Report there have been over 249 terrorist attacks across the country, killing around 1182 and leaving over 995 injured. Not a single so-called ‘foreign’ terrorist has been arrested so far, clearly ruling out the possibility of foreign and/or non-muslin suicide bombers at work. As for the possibility of a conspiracy that foreign agencies could be involved, we must understand that the nature of such involvement is opportunistic.

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War in the fifth domain

From The Economist:

Are the mouse and keyboard the new weapons of conflict?

AT THE height of the cold war, in June 1982, an American early-warning satellite detected a large blast in Siberia. A missile being fired? A nuclear test? It was, it seems, an explosion on a Soviet gas pipeline. The cause was a malfunction in the computer-control system that Soviet spies had stolen from a firm in Canada. They did not know that the CIA had tampered with the software so that it would “go haywire, after a decent interval, to reset pump speeds and valve settings to produce pressures far beyond those acceptable to pipeline joints and welds,” according to the memoirs of Thomas Reed, a former air force secretary. The result, he said, “was the most monumental non-nuclear explosion and fire ever seen from space.”

This was one of the earliest demonstrations of the power of a “logic bomb”. Three decades later, with more and more vital computer systems linked up to the internet, could enemies use logic bombs to, say, turn off the electricity from the other side of the world? Could terrorists or hackers cause financial chaos by tampering with Wall Street’s computerised trading systems? And given that computer chips and software are produced globally, could a foreign power infect high-tech military equipment with computer bugs? “It scares me to death,” says one senior military source. “The destructive potential is so great.”

After land, sea, air and space, warfare has entered the fifth domain: cyberspace. President Barack Obama has declared America’s digital infrastructure to be a “strategic national asset” and appointed Howard Schmidt, the former head of security at Microsoft, as his cyber-security tsar. In May the Pentagon set up its new Cyber Command (Cybercom) headed by General Keith Alexander, director of the National Security Agency (NSA). His mandate is to conduct “full-spectrum” operations—to defend American military networks and attack other countries’ systems. Precisely how, and by what rules, is secret.

Britain, too, has set up a cyber-security policy outfit, and an “operations centre” based in GCHQ, the British equivalent of the NSA. China talks of “winning informationised wars by the mid-21st century”. Many other countries are organising for cyberwar, among them Russia, Israel and North Korea. Iran boasts of having the world’s second-largest cyber-army.

What will cyberwar look like? In a new book Richard Clarke, a former White House staffer in charge of counter-terrorism and cyber-security, envisages a catastrophic breakdown within 15 minutes. Computer bugs bring down military e-mail systems; oil refineries and pipelines explode; air-traffic-control systems collapse; freight and metro trains derail; financial data are scrambled; the electrical grid goes down in the eastern United States; orbiting satellites spin out of control. Society soon breaks down as food becomes scarce and money runs out. Worst of all, the identity of the attacker may remain a mystery.

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Spiritual malaria?

Nadeem F. Paracha in Dawn:

A recent fatwa from a ‘Saudi Council of Muftis’ has this advice for fellow Muslims: Do not say [or write] ‘mosque.’ Always say ‘masjid’ because mosque may mean mosquito. Another myopic case of Saudi malaria perhaps?

Certainly.  But that’s not all. The grand fatwa goes on to suggest that Muslims should not write ‘Mecca’ but Makkah, because Mecca may mean ‘house of wines.’  I am serious. But then so are the Muftis. They certainly need to get a life.

But I’m not all that surprised by such fatwas that usually emanate from Saudi Arabia. While vicious reactionary literature originating in totalitarian puritanical Muslim states impact and mutate the political bearings of various religious parties and groups in Pakistan, ‘social fatwas’  like the one mentioned above also began appearing in the early 1980s to influence the more apolitical sections of Muslim societies.

Reactionary literature generated by the Saudi propaganda machine started being distributed in Pakistan from 1979 onwards, mostly in the shape of pamphlets and books.

Duly translated into Urdu, they glorify and propagate violent action (jihad) not only against non-Muslims (or infidels) but also against those Muslims who fail to follow the thorny dictates of a certain puritanical strain of the faith.

What’s more, there was nothing so clandestine about the whole process. Because along with mainstream religious parties and jihadi groups during the so-called ‘anti-Soviet Afghan jihad,’ the state of Pakistan also encouraged the unchecked proliferation of this arrogant, myopic and hate-spouting literature.

To the Pakistani state (during the ‘Afghan jihad’) such literature and propaganda were essential to introduce and expand a kind of ‘Islam’ that was historically alien to the religious ethos of Pakistan’s majority Muslim population.

It was alien because for centuries, the political and cultural dynamics of the subcontinent had been such that for survival and posterity’s sake, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and other religious groups of the region, had to adapt and tolerate each other’s religious convictions and rituals. Such a process eschewed religious Puritanism and repulsed any attempt (Hindu or Muslim) to impose a hegemonic social strain of their respective faiths.

The extreme strains in this respect remained on the fringe, both Hindu and Muslim.

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