Thursday, November 14, 2013

Two modes of self-deception (captured by David Hume & Upton Sinclair)

As Brad DeLong likes to say, this item is hoisted from the archives. I first posted this back in 2009, but several things reminded me of it recently, and the issues here are always pertinent.  There are many modes of self-deception, some more crude and others more subtle.   —Jeff Weintraub

[Tuesday, February 3, 2009]
Two modes of self-deception (captured by David Hume & Upton Sinclair)

Earlier today Mark Kleiman and Jonathan Zasloff quoted two penetrating maxims about common mechanisms of psychological and ideological self-deception, one coming from David Hume and the other from Upton Sinclair.

Hume (quoted by Mark Kleiman):
It is natural for men to persuade themselves that their interest coincides with their inclination.
Upton Sinclair (quoted by Jonathan Zasloff):
It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.
Both of these maxims are correct, insightful, and illuminating. But they are saying somewhat different things.

Upton Sinclair's maxim is one variant on the relatively familiar observation that our interests, real and perceived, often shape and distort our grasp of reality—in particular, they limit or interfere with our willingness to acknowledge facts that are inconvenient for our material interests and/or those of our paymasters. (Sometimes we do understand them and pretend we don't. But often self-conscious dishonesty, hypocrisy, or deception slides into self-deception.) I would guess that Upton Sinclair understood his maxim as a restatement of at least one aspect, or application, of a broadly Marxian notion of ideological mystification.

Hume is making a different and slightly more subtle point. Very often, when we want to do something because of impulse, inclination, habit, sentiment, wish-fulfillment or some other fairly non-rational or emotional reason, we convince ourselves that what we feel like doing is also in our interests—even when it's not. In this case, it's precisely the interests that are illusory, or at least distorted.

Hume's insight here is brilliant, and I would go so far as to say that his maxim is even more illuminating than Upton Sinclair's, since the mode of self-deception he's highlighting is often harder to recognize than the cui bono variety. It's important to recognize how often people who claim to be acting on the basis of hard-headed, cynical, calculating "realism" are really just being muddleheaded, self-indulgent, moralistic, or infantile–and are fooling themselves into believing otherwise. I suppose this mechanism is one example of what Freud called "rationalization." And one form it takes is what C. Wright Mills captured very nicely with his phrase "crackpot realism."

=> Both David Hume and Upton Sinclair are right, of course. These mechanisms may work in almost opposite directions, but the same people often exhibit both of them at different times—or even simultaneously.

Yours for reality-based discourse (which isn't easy),
Jeff Weintraub

P.S. One of Mark's readers reminded him of a related thought by Benjamin Franklin: "So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do."

P.P.S. And here is a very acute response and elaboration from Gerry Mackie, which he has kindly permitted me to quote:
At my age I can testify that there are at least 13 modes of self- deception.  [JW: Only 13?]

As for the pursuit of interest, on the political blogs, left and right, the pseudosophisticates always say follow the money, or follow the oil. That is only penetrating the first veil. The second veil is to understand the place of passion, the third honor and shame, the fourth the intrinsically moral, the fifth collective fanaticism, and on.

So much nasty stuff in the world is not due to interest.
Correct—and important to recognize.

China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Cuba, Vietnam, and Algeria win seats on the UN "Human Rights" Council

No that's not an Onion parody, but a straight news story.  It's not even a very unusual bit of news, given the way that UN "human rights" bodies have generally operated.  This latest development falls in the category of 'astonishing, but not surprising'.

I should add that the professional staff attached to the UN's "human rights" bodies are often quite serious and honest about their work, file valuable reports, and genuinely oppose social and political repression, brutality, mass murder, and similar abuses and crimes against humanity.  The bodies themselves, on the other hand, often function mostly as protection rackets that major human-rights abusers are especially eager to join in order to prevent their records from being scrutinized or criticized.  (But it's not as though these bodies are completely inactive, since they do steadily churn out resolutions condemning one particular country, Israel.) As Human Rights Watch pointed out, China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam and Algeria have all "refused to allow UN investigators to visit the countries in order to investigate alleged abuses." Now it will be easier for those governments to make sure that investigators simply don't get sent in the first place.

The old UN Commission on Human Rights had become so notorious in these respects (Qaddafi's Libya was once selected to head the Commission, and at the height of the Darfur genocide the government of Sudan was given a seat) that the Commission was 'reformed' and replaced with the current Human Rights Council.  It quickly became clear that little had changed, and that still seems to be the case.

–Jeff Weintraub

France 24
November 14, 2013
China, Russia and Cuba to police human rights abuses
By Sophie Pilgrim

China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, Cuba and Algeria won seats on the UN Human Rights Council on Tuesday, in a vote that has left human rights activists incredulous. The governments of all six of the countries are accused of ongoing rights abuses.  [JW: That's a euphemistic way of putting it.]

A secret ballot vote at the UN General Assembly in New York on Tuesday saw six highly controversial additions to the body’s human rights watchdog.

China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, Cuba and Algeria were all awarded three-year terms on the 47-member Human Rights Council (UNHRC), which is tasked with policing human rights abuses around the world and monitoring “problem countries”.

Rights campaigners say that welcoming the six countries – which they deem “problem countries” – will dismay victims of human rights abuses and wholly discredit the council.

“This is a black day for human rights,” Hillel Neuer, Executive Director of Geneva-based monitor UN Watch, told FRANCE 24 by video link from Jerusalem. “The world’s worst human rights abusers have been given the status of world judges on human rights.”

Neuer, whose organisation is a frequent critic of UN rights practices, listed the most prominent examples of human rights abuses of the countries mentioned, citing the imprisonment of Pussy Riot members Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (who has recently gone missing) in Russia; the imprisonment in China of dissidents Liu Jiabao and Wang Xiaoning, and the persecution in Cuba of rapper El Critico, who has recently staged a month-long hunger strike in protest against charges brought against him. Neuer also accused Saudi Arabia of “lashing and punishing” rape victims.

“It’s absurd,” Neuer said. “For victims of human rights around the world who look to the UN for protection, it’s a very sad day.”

One of those is Oleg Kozlovsky, a Russian civil rights activist and FRANCE 24 Observer who has been arrested in Moscow numerous times for protesting against alleged torture practices carried out by the Russian government. Kozlovsky says he is concerned that the move will allow the government more clout in dealing with rights campaigners like himself.

“This development will give the Kremlin another advantage in repelling any criticism of Russia’s human rights situation,” he told FRANCE 24. “It means international pressure, however small it is already, will probably get even smaller.”

UN investigators unwelcome

Seats on the council are allotted by region and all 193 members of the General Assembly can vote. The UK, France, the Maldives, Macedonia, Mexico, Morocco, Namibia and South Africa were also awarded three-year terms on Tuesday.

Human Rights Watch, another critic of UN rights practices, noted on Tuesday that five of the new members – China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam and Algeria – have refused to allow UN investigators to visit the countries in order to investigate alleged abuses.

China, Russia and Algeria have 10 or more unfulfilled requests for visits by UN experts, some of them dating back to 2000, global advocacy director of the New York-based group, Peggy Hicks, told AP. Saudi Arabia and Vietnam each have seven outstanding requests, she said.

“Countries that haven't allowed UN experts appointed by the council to visit have a lot of explaining to do,'' she said. “It's like hiring someone, then not allowing them to enter the office.”

Across the street from the entrance to the UN headquarters in New York on Tuesday, pro-Tibetan activists hung a huge banner reading “China fails human rights”.

‘Return to the past’

The UNHRC was set up in 2006 to replace the widely-discredited Human Rights Commission, which was repeatedly criticised as toothless and hypocritical; in its final years it was led by Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya.

Tuesday’s vote, Neuer said, signified the nail in the coffin for the “new and improved council,” and a return to the “ignominious past of the commission”.

Current members include Argentina, Indonesia, Brazil, Germany, Japan, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, and the US.

US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power released a statement on Tuesday alluding to the election of the six controversial members. “Fourteen countries were elected to the Human Rights Council today, including some that commit significant violations of the rights the Council is designed to advance and protect, she said, without mentioning any names. “Today's election in the General Assembly is a reminder that the Council's important work remains unfinished.”

The countries who lost out on Tuesday were Uruguay (beaten by Cuba and Mexico for seats in the Latin America and Caribbean group); and South Sudan, which failed to garner enough votes to win one of the four African seats.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Do Republicans really care about reducing the deficit? (Jonathan Chait)

As Jonathan Chait correctly points out:
The Republican Party has gone on so long waxing hysterical about the debt while refusing any compromise at all to reduce it — even a 10-to-1 ratio of spending cuts to taxes — that the hypocrisy no longer even registers. It's simply a fixed element in the political landscape.
His brief treatment of this subject would be difficult to improve upon, so I won't try. See below.

(And is there anyone out there who didn't catch the reference to Meatloaf?)

—Jeff Weintraub

New York Magazine
November 8, 2013
House Republican: I Would Do Anything for Deficit Reduction, But I Won’t Do That
By Jonathan Chait


The Republican Party has gone on so long waxing hysterical about the debt while refusing any compromise at all to reduce it — even a 10-to-1 ratio of spending cuts to taxes — that the hypocrisy no longer even registers. It's simply a fixed element in the political landscape.

Thus, a news story like this one from the Wall Street Journal can report straightforwardly that Republican Rep. Doug Collins "believes Congress should do everything in its power to tackle deficits."

Really? Everything?

No, it turns out. Four sentences later, the story adds as an aside: "That said, he rejects any talk of offsetting the cuts with new tax revenue."

Oh, so Collins thinks Congress should do "everything in its power" to reduce the gap between revenue and outlay, except increase revenue. So, really, of the two things Congress has in its power to reduce the deficit, he wants to do one of them. And he's only willing to do that one thing as long is there is absolutely nothing done about the other thing.

Cynthia Kaplan Shamash - "Keep the Iraqi Jews’ Legacy Safe – in America"

As I've indicated in a few posts recently, I feel strongly that it would be wrong and unjust for the Iraqi Jewish Archive to be sent back to Baghdad.  Some of the reasons why this is true were explained quote cogently in a New York Times op-ed by Cynthia Kaplan Shamash, who escaped from Iraq with her family as a child.  Her piece is eloquent and convincing, and it's worth reading in full.  But here are some highlights:
Keep the Iraqi Jews’ Legacy Safe – in America

Seventy-five years ago, about 120,000 Jews lived in Iraq. In Baghdad, they were prominent in business and the professions — doctors, lawyers, bankers, professors, musicians, writers, artists, engineers. Last summer, a visitor just back from Iraq told me he could account for only five Iraqi Jews alive in the country. Not 5,000. Not 500. Five. They are too old to leave. When they die, there will be none.  [....]

Then, in May 2003, American soldiers searching the flooded basement of Saddam Hussein’s intelligence headquarters for weapons found instead an obviously looted trove of more than 2,700 books and tens of thousands of documents in Hebrew, Arabic, Judeo-Arabic and English. The materials dated as far back as 1540, and as recently as the 1970s; they included scroll fragments, a Babylonian Talmud, hand-illustrated prayer books, Hebrew calendars, school primers, personal and business correspondence, Kabbalist commentaries and a Bible from 1568. Conservationists from the National Archives in Washington went to Baghdad to assess the damage and save the articles. Iraqi representatives agreed that the materials should be flown to America, where they were nursed back to life: freeze-dried, cleaned, categorized, photographed and digitized.  [....]

On Friday, an exhibition, “Discovery and Recovery: Preserving Iraqi-Jewish Heritage,” opens at the National Archives. A website has given the world access to the archive. But the collection’s future is uncertain because President George W. Bush’s administration promised that the materials would be returned to Iraq after restoration. That promise’s legality has been contested by Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, and others.

I can understand American sensitivities to accusations of pillaging. During the Iraq war, the United States also removed Baath Party documents, and Iraq is seeking their return, too, on grounds that the Iraqi public can learn from them about their past leaders’ mistakes. But there is a difference between the papers of a murderous dictator and the heritage of an oppressed minority. The Iraqi-Jewish archive never belonged to the Iraqi government; it belonged to the Jews of Iraq.

For me, the Baath Party documents are like the black box from a plane that has crashed: studying them can avert future calamities. The Iraqi-Jewish Archive is more like lost luggage — the treasures of a dispersed people who yearn to reconnect with something, anything, of the life they left behind.

On Thursday, the Iraqi ambassador to the United States suggested a possible loan that would let the material remain in America for some time after the exhibition closes. This may be a first step, but it isn’t a long-term solution.

One hopes that Iraq will know peace and that perhaps Jews can return some day. Maybe then it would make sense to return these materials. But until that distant moment, returning such a vast trove of Jewish heritage to a place where there will soon be no Jews would be perverse — and a failure to acknowledge the devastation caused by anti-Semitism in the Arab world.
As Shamash mentions in her piece, Iraq's Ambassador to the US seems to have broached the possibility of a long-term loan arrangement that would allow the archive to remain in the US for a while without the Iraqi government relinquishing its legal claims. This strikes me as a potentially workable pragmatic compromise solution to this problem—not a permanent or ideal solution, but probably the best type of solution, or quasi-solution, that's realistically available. Of course, if such an agreement can be worked out, much would depend on the details. (For more on this development and its possible implications, see here.)

But the bottom line remains that, one way or another, the Iraqi Jewish Archive should not be sent back to Iraq. If you agree, I urge you to sign THIS PETITION.

—Jeff Weintraub

Iraq's ambassador to the US suggests a (potentially) workable compromise solution to the question of the Iraqi Jewish Archive

I have posted a few items recently about the controversy over the Iraqi Jewish Archive, portions of which are currently on display in a special exhibition at the National Archives in Washington DC ("Discovery and Recovery: Preserving Iraqi Jewish Heritage").  This is a collection of sacred texts and other documents and objects from the history of Iraq's now-vanished Jewish community that were seized by Saddam Hussein's regime, dumped in a basement in the Secret Police headquarters, and left to rot there.  The archive was saved in 2003 when US soldiers, tipped off by a regime functionary, found it and removed it from that flooded basement.  After some complicated negotiations the archive was sent to the US, where its contents were preserved and painstakingly restored.  However, the US Government, acting though the Coalition Provisional Authority, agreed that after the restoration of the archive was completed it would be returned to Iraq.  That handover is scheduled to happen in 2014.

As I've already indicated, I think that sending the Iraqi Jewish Archive back to Baghdad would be wrong and unjust. I've signed THIS PETITION at Avaaz.Org, and I urge others to sign it, too:
"I call upon the US government NOT to return the Jewish archive to Iraq. To do so would compound the injustice done to the Jews of Iraq, whose property it was before they were robbed of it through a deliberate state policy of persecution and ethnic cleansing. The archive should be returned to its rightful owners and assured of proper care and conservation. We suggest it should go to Israel, where the greatest concentration of Jews of Iraqi descent are to be found."
Some of the reasons why it would be wrong to return the the Iraqi Jewish Archive to Iraq have been convincingly explained by Lyn Julius (with more at her excellent website Point of No Return) and by Cynthia Kaplan Shamash.

(Regarding the legal issues, which are complicated, see also Bruce Montgomery's article, "Rescue or Return: The Fate of the Iraqi Jewish Archive," in the International Journal of Cultural Property; excerpts here.)

=>  Normally, and everything else being equal, the kind of agreement entered into by the US government in 2003 should be scrupulously honored.  But in this case the government of Iraq had no valid claim to the archive in the first place, since it was stolen property.  The broader, less legalistic claim that this archive constitutes part of Iraq's cultural heritage is also dubious, to say the least.  It's true that for two and a half millennia the Jewish community in what is now Iraq was an important part of the social fabric, and as recently as 1948 this community numbered over 120,000. But starting in the 1940s that community was completely driven out of Iraq.  (This was part of the larger process by which the Arab world was ethnically cleansed of Jews almost 100% during that period ... which, in turn, was one of the many episodes of expulsion, deportation, and traumatic "population exchange" running through the history of the terrible 20th century.)  Except for 5 elderly Jews, at last count, still surviving in Baghdad, Iraqi Jews now live entirely outside Iraq.  A large proportion of them are citizens of Israel, whose Israeli passports rule out their even visiting Iraq. The vast majority of those who fled or were expelled had almost all their possessions confiscated, and that was true for Jewish communal property as well.  If you steal your neighbor's books, burn down his house, and drive him away, that's bad enough.  It's a little perverse to then turn around and claim that his books are part of your cultural heritage.

So the moral case against sending the Iraqi Jewish Archive back to Baghdad strikes me as open-and-shut.

On the other hand, all the available alternatives carry their own drawbacks, complications, and dilemmas—legal, political, diplomatic, and otherwise.  In so far as the Iraqi Jewish Archive really belongs to anyone, it belongs to Iraqi Jews.  But the Iraqi Jewish community has no collective institutional framework that could take the archive and administer it, and no generally recognized representatives authorized to speak officially on its behalf.  My impression is that tracing the ownership of most objects in the archive to specific individuals or families would be difficult (though I could be wrong about that), and at all events it would be a pity to break up a collection of such historic importance.  It also makes sense to take into account the trauma and devastation that Iraq itself has experienced.  Over the past two decades, and especially since the beginning of the 2003 Iraq war, there have been devastating losses to Iraq's archeological and cultural heritage (I mean the heritage to which Iraq as a nation can legitimately lay claim), including appalling amounts of looting.  That doesn't give Iraq a valid claim on the Jewish archive, but it does make it understandable that Iraqis might be especially touchy regarding objects taken out of Iraq during the war.  And since the US shares considerable responsibility for that post-Saddam devastation, its role in this affair is inevitably compromised.  If it appears that the US is simply grabbing the Jewish archive from Iraq, anti-semites (and idiots) all over the world will start screaming that this is another case of greedy Jews using their control over the US government to plunder others.  The opinions of anti-semites (and idiots) shouldn't be treated as decisive; but if it's possible to address this problem in ways that can avoid giving them encouragement and public-relations assistance, that would be a factor to consider.  At all events—and I think this is a key point—it's likely that the US government will be very reluctant to unilaterally break its agreement to return the archive to Iraq, if only for legalistic and diplomatic reasons.  And there are some sensible reasons for concern about such a move, which can't simply be dismissed by people of good will.  I suspect that archeologists, for example, might feel very nervous about the wider consequences of the precedent this might set.

In short, this is a problem with no totally clean or cost-free solution.  So it's one of those cases where there is a good deal to be said for finding a workable and less-than-totally-unsatisfactory way to kick the problem down the road, if possible.

=>  It seems that Iraq's ambassador to the US may have suggested a pragmatic face-saving compromise solution along those lines.  His suggestion is that the Iraqi government might agree to leave the Iraqi Jewish Archive in the US on a long-term loan, without formally relinquishing its legal claims to the archive.  This would not be a permanent solution, and a lot would depend on how the details of such an arrangement are worked out.  But it strikes me that an arrangement of this sort might be the best, or least bad, practical solution that's realistically available right now.

According to a report in the Forward on Thursday:
While stressing his country’s ownership of the Jewish artifacts now on display at the National Archives in Washington, Iraq’s ambassador to the United States hinted that his country could be open to discussing a loan agreement which would delay the return of the objects to Baghdad.

Ambassador Lukman Faily said an Iraq government delegation would be discussing the issue of a loan deal with U.S. authorities soon.

“We don’t see that as a problem, but as of now, the agreement is for these artifacts to go back home,” Faily said. [....]

The fate of the objects now on display has mobilized Jewish activists in the United States as well as members of Congress, who are demanding the material remain in the United States despite an agreement signed in 2003 that promises all artifacts are returned to Iraq once the restoration process and the exhibitions are complete. The activists noted that the materials in the Jewish Iraqi archive were seized unlawfully by Saddam and should be returned to their owners. If owners are not found, they are asking to keep the archives in the U.S., because members of the Iraqi Jewish community will not be able to access them in Iraq.

Responding to these arguments Ambassador Faily said: “We appreciate where they are coming from but you also have to appreciate this was an agreement, a legal agreement, agreed with the [Coalition Provisional Authority] back in 2003 and its owned by the Iraqi government.” He added that his government will take good care of the papers when upon their return and will be sensitive to their religious importance to the Jewish community. “We fully appreciate that and we, as Muslims, have a similar perspective regarding the Quran and others, but this is owned by the Iraqi government, it’s a historical agreement we made and we preceding with it.” [....]

Anthony Godfrey, director of the Iraq affairs office at the State Department told the Forward the administration is proceeding with the plan to return the artifacts to Iraq based on the 2003 agreement. “I have to underscore that without this commitment and without the preservation of these documents the materials now known as the Iraqi Jewish archive simply would not have exist,” Godfrey said.

Both the Iraqi ambassador and the U.S. official noted that an efforts is being made to ensure that the archives are well preserved after they are flown back to Baghdad. Two specialists from Iraq are currently undergoing training at the National Archives in Washington in order to make sure no damage is done to the material in Iraq. The conditions under which the Jewish archives will be kept in Iraq, Godfrey said, “will be in conformity with the standards we set here.” [....]

“These artifacts were found in the basement of the intelligence, which meant this was the police state of Saddam Hussein,” Faily added, “We are no longer a police state.”
I reiterate that it would be wrong and unjust to actually send the Iraqi Jewish Archive back to Baghdad. But if the Iraqi government is willing to reach an agreement that leaves the archive safely in the US, under the guise of a long-term loan arrangement, that could be the best pragmatic solution available. So Ambassador Faily's initiative looks promising and encouraging—at least potentially.

On the other hand, the only reason why the Iraqi government—and, for that matter, the US government—might be willing to be flexible and accommodating in this matter is that a certain amount of political pressure has been mobilized to support the moral case against returning the Iraqi Jewish Archive to Iraq. And a great deal will depend on how the details of any potential agreement get worked out—for example, this would need to be an indefinite loan, explicitly or in practice, and not just a short-term delay. So it's important for that political pressure to be maintained and increased.

You can contribute to that effort, and (potentially) be part of the solution, by adding your signature to THIS PETITION.

—Jeff Weintraub

P.S.  Another passage in the Forward article made me smile a bit ruefully:
Iraq’s ambassador, who took part at the kickoff event of the exhibit, said it sends “a message to the world that the new Iraq is accommodating to everyone.” Faily later said in an interview that the Jewish community is welcome to take part in the re-birth or his country. “The Jewish community is an integral part. There is no reason for them not to come back to Iraq and play an important role in our development."
When I read those quotations, I couldn't help being reminded of two old sayings—that "an ambassador is an honest gentleman sent to lie abroad for the good of his country" and that "hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue". In the real world, the Jews are not welcome in Iraq, and few members of the Iraqi Jewish diaspora would be crazy enough to take Ambassador Faily's assurances seriously. On the other hand, it would be nice if what he said were true. In the meantime, if the Iraqi government is actually willing to be reasonably "accommodating" with respect to the fate of the Iraqi Jewish Archive, that would be commendable enough.

Friday, November 08, 2013

Mike Luckovich on financial deregulation

I happened to be reminded of this excellent cartoon from 2010, and I couldn't resist sharing it again.  It captures only one small fragment of a larger story, however.  The real problem is not that these guys made out like bandits and (on the whole) got away scot-free, but that they helped to bring about a major economic crash from which we're still recovering, and from which many people are still suffering.  Are they repentant?  Hardly.  For more on that larger story, see here & here & here & here.

—Jeff Weintraub

Should the Iraqi Jewish Archive get sent back to Iraq?

As I've already indicated, I think the answer to that question is no. I've signed THIS PETITION at Avaaz.Org, and I urge others to sign it, too:
"I call upon the US government NOT to return the Jewish archive to Iraq. To do so would compound the injustice done to the Jews of Iraq, whose property it was before they were robbed of it through a deliberate state policy of persecution and ethnic cleansing. The archive should be returned to its rightful owners and assured of proper care and conservation. We suggest it should go to Israel, where the greatest concentration of Jews of Iraqi descent are to be found."
Further explanation by Lyn Julius is here (with more at her excellent website Point of No Return). See also Bruce Montgomery's article, "Rescue or Return: The Fate of the Iraqi Jewish Archive," in the International Journal of Cultural Property (excerpts here).

=> The legal situation is a little complicated, as legal situations tend to be—though Bruce Montgomery's article suggests that there are strong legal grounds for concluding "that the archive comprises the cultural property and heritage of the Iraqi Jewish diaspora."  On the other hand, the moral case strikes me as open-and-shut.  In so far as the archive belongs to anyone, it clearly belongs the Iraqi Jewish community, from whom it was stolen by the Ba'athist regime in the first place; and Iraqi Jews now live entirely outside Iraq (except for a remnant of about seven Jews, at last count, who may who may or may not still be surviving in Baghdad).  The outcome will probably depend, in part, on whether or not political pressure is mobilized to back up that moral argument.

=> Some books and other documents from the Iraqi Jewish Archive are currently on display in the National Archives in Washington, DC.  This exhibition ("Discovery and Recovery: Preserving Iraqi Jewish Heritage") runs until January 5.  Meanwhile, the opening of the exhibition has helped to prompt some further reporting about the dispute over the ultimate fate of the Iraqi Jewish Archive ... including this article from the Forward.

—Jeff Weintraub

The Forward
Sunday, November 3, 2013
Should Iraq's Jewish Archives Stay in U.S.? 
Ancient Community's Records Rescued During Saddam Hussein War
By Nathan Guttman

At the National Archives in Washington, the story of Iraq’s ancient Jewish community has just gone on display, presented via a priceless collection of artifacts and documents recovered during America’s 2003 invasion of Iraq. But behind the scenes, a battle reaching to the highest levels of government is taking place over the future of those same documents and artifacts.

“Discovery and Recovery: Preserving Iraqi Jewish Heritage” is the subject of a vigorous campaign launched by Iraqi Jewish activists, Jewish communal leaders and members of Congress trying to convince the government of the United States to back out of an agreement it signed with the Iraqi government, promising to return these objects after the exhibit ends.

At issue is not just the fate of the religious artifacts and community documents, which were forcefully seized by the regime of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein before American GIs ever arrived. With these items, surviving members of Iraq’s once thriving but now extinct Jewish community are also seeking to win recognition from the world for their story, a story they believe other Jews take for granted.

“I believe this is an opportunity to make people aware of how Iraqi Jews were forced to leave the country [and] under what circumstances that happened,” said Carole Basri, a lawyer, filmmaker and Iraqi community activist.

The documents now on display in Washington include papers from the Jewish school Basri’s grandfather founded in Baghdad following the 1941 farhoud, a pogrom against the city’s Jewish community.  [JW:  For more on the Farhud, see here & here.]  Basri faults the U.S. government, which rescued these documents and other papers and Jewish scriptures from the basement of the Iraqi secret police after Saddam’s ouster, for rushing to sign an agreement without consulting with members of the Iraqi Jewish Diaspora. Now this Diaspora wants its voice heard in the belated debate over the agreement.

The tale of the Iraqi Jewish archive dates back to 2003, weeks after Saddam’s fall.

[JW:  Actually, what he means is that the story of US involvement with this archive dates back to 2003.  The books, documents, and other objects in this collection were seized by Saddam Hussein in the 1980s; and their history goes back centuries.]

As American troops and Pentagon civilians began searching palaces, military facilities and office buildings for weapons of mass destruction, a former regime official who had been in charge of Jewish affairs gave the searchers an unrelated tip: a cache of Jewish objects was stored in the bottom of Saddam’s intelligence headquarters building.

A search group from the United States entered the building through a huge hole created by a one-ton bomb still lodged in the basement. There, in the ruins, the team found, soaked in water, piles of documents, once part of Baghdad’s sprawling Jewish community.

“It was an enormously wonderful feeling that we are doing avodat kodesh [holy work], that we are part of a mission,” said Harold Rhode, then an expert on Islamic affairs at the Pentagon who led the team.

Rhode believes that the Jewish cultural and religious documents were not there by chance. “It all has to do with humiliation,” he said in an interview with the Forward. In the mid-1980s, Saddam raided Baghdad’s last standing synagogue and looted the documents and religious artifacts. He did so, Rhode said, to degrade the Jewish community. That is also the way Saddam stored the archives in the building’s basement: “It simply mentalizes that you put it below. It is done to humiliate, to embarrass; this is the key.”

The archives found by the U.S. search team were drenched in water and growing mold. And the road to restoring them has proved arduous.

Initially, the controversial Iraqi opposition leader Ahmad Chalabi provided funds for rescuing the archives. Then, after a persuasion process that even included a call from Natan Sharansky, then an Israeli cabinet member, to Vice President Dick Cheney, the U.S. government took on the project. Experts at the National Archives phoned in instructions on emergency restoration, and the military provided help in getting the papers dried, frozen and flown to Texas for further work.

On August 5, 2003, the Coalition Provisional Authority, which was in charge of Iraq after the war, signed an agreement with the National Archives allowing the transfer of the archives to the United States for preservation and exhibition. The agreement stated that the archives would be returned to the custody of the Iraqis once the process was completed. An August 17, 2003 letter to Ambassador Paul Bremer, head of the CPA, from Jaber Khalil Ibrahim, chair of the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, approved the removal of the archives “under the condition that following the restoration the documents are returned to Iraq.”

It is this contract that activists now seek to overturn.

“Agreements can be amended, agreements can be renegotiated, agreements can be scratched and discussed again,” said Michael Salberg, international affairs director of the Anti-Defamation League. The group has joined with Sephardic Jewish advocacy groups and organizations of Iraqi Jews in calling for the artifacts not to be sent to Iraq when the exhibit closes next year. “This is the second chapter of this great rescue operation,” Salberg said of the campaign to keep the archives in the United States. “The concept that the things that are most sacred to us as a people are considered just a relic of the museum is heartbreaking.”

Several lawmakers joined the call to keep the archives here shortly after the exhibition opened on October 11. “These sacred artifacts were taken from the Iraqi Jewish community and thus do not belong to the Iraqi government,” New York Senator Charles Schumer, a Democrat, told the New York Daily News. In the House, Democrat Steve Israel and Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen began collecting signatures on a letter urging the State Department to reconsider its decision to return the objects.

But the administration isn’t budging. “This agreement expressly states that, upon completion of the preservation project and exhibition in the United States, the collection will be returned to the custody of the Government of Iraq,” a State Department official said.

The administration learned of the Jewish community’s objection to the return of the material early on in the process. In 2006, when the first stages of restoration were completed, the State Department reached out to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and to the Center for Jewish History and the American Sephardi Federation, asking for help not only with the restoration, but also with raising an estimated $1 million to fund the program. The Jewish groups said they were willing to provide expert knowledge but would not raise funds for documents that would be returned to Iraq, an activist involved in the talks said.

Jewish organizations have long been concerned about artifacts belonging to extinct communities. Members of the Iraqi Diaspora look at looted Jewish property and art from the Nazi era as an example of goods taken unlawfully that have been returned to their owners. Other cases are more complex. They include the Chabad-Lubavitch movement’s bid for ownership of 40,000 books and manuscripts collected by Rabbi Joseph Schneerson, the Hasidic group’s sixth grand rabbi, that are now held by Russia, and the claim by the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research for a historic Yiddish book library in Lithuania.

Winning a legal battle for keeping the Iraqi Jewish archives in America won’t be easy, international lawyer Allan Gerson said. He explained that a U.S. court will not agree to judge the legality of actions taken by the Iraqi regime that seized the archives. The fact that the U.S. government signed an agreement promising to return them makes things even harder, he said. But he added that these obstacles “are not insurmountable.”

Still, given their daunting legal odds, activists pushing to keep the artifacts here are trying to avoid taking the case to court. Rhode suggested making the digital images of the artifacts available online and open to the Iraqi government, while leaving the objects in the United States. Basri said she supports setting up a commission to locate owners of the objects while signing a long-term loan agreement with the Iraqis.

The State Department, on the other hand, believes it can satisfy all sides by adhering to the agreement and ensuring that the collection is treated with care when returned to Iraq. To this end, the department is bringing Iraqi conservation specialists to learn from National Archives experts.

The battle over the archives’ fate could lead to a broader examination of Iraqi Jewish property. Activists and Jewish groups have pointed to a locked storage room in the Iraqi historical museum that contains, according to estimates, some 500 Torah scrolls. In Iraqi Jewish tradition, individuals in the community whose names are written inside the tik, the hard Torah case, owned the scrolls. This, members of the community believe, could make locating the owners possible, if and when access to the scrolls is allowed.

Contact Nathan Guttman at or on Twitter, @nathanguttman

This article was amended on November 4 to indicate that Iraqi scrolls are covered by a tik not an embroidered cloth.

Discovery and Recovery: Preserving Iraqi Jewish Heritage

Discovery and Recovery: Preserving Iraqi Jewish Heritage
An exhibition at the National Archives, Washington, DC
Open through January 5, 2014

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Blame the insurance companies, not Obamacare (Juan Williams)

A very interesting and enlightening tip from Scott Lemieux at Lawyers, Guns, & Money. You may recall that Juan Williams left NPR amidst unpleasant circumstances, then went to work for Fox News. But surprisingly enough, he has remained a genuine journalist—and one who clearly thinks for himself. I agree with Scott Lemieux that this analysis by Williams hits the nail on the head:
Insurance cancelled? Don't blame Obama or the ACA, blame America's insurance companies

Liar! Pinocchio! Deceiver!

With all the charges flying against President Obama in the on-going effort to stop ObamaCare it’s time for a reality check.

Having failed to kill the Affordable Care Act in Congress by shutting down the government the opposition is currently taking delight in charging the president with lying to the public when he said anyone who likes their current healthcare plan will be able to keep it under the new law.

It turns out that some people in the individual care market – about 5 percent of the overall insurance market -- are having their insurance policies cancelled.

It is estimated that half of those folks will get better coverage for a lower price. Some people will even get subsidies to help them pay the lower price.

But some people losing their current policies [and being offered better coverage] are going to have to pay a higher price. Taking crocodile tears to a new level, ObamaCare opponents are now rushing to their defense and calling the president a liar.

These critics include Republican politicians who did not vote for ObamaCare; these are Republican governors who refuse to set up exchanges to reach their own citizens; these are people oppose expanding Medicaid to help poor people getting better health care; these are people who have never put any proposal on the table as an alternative fix for the nation’s costly health care system that leaves tens of millions with inadequate medical coverage and tens of millions more totally uninsured.

The fact is if you are one of the estimated 2 million Americans whose health insurance plans may have been cancelled this month, you should not be blaming President Obama or the Affordable Care Act.

You should be blaming your insurance company because they have not been providing you with coverage that meets the minimum basic standards for health care.

Let me put it more bluntly: your insurance companies have been taking advantage of you and the Affordable Care Act puts in place consumer protection and tells them to stop abusing people.

The government did not “force” insurance companies to cancel their own substandard policies.The insurance companies chose to do that rather than do what is right and bring the policies up to code.

One of the most popular and important provisions of the Affordable Care Act is setting basic minimum standards of medical insurance coverage. Here are some of those standards:


The American health insurance industry is one of the most profitable in the history of the world. Before the ACA, they made money by finding any excuse, any loophole to deny coverage to the sickest and most vulnerable people in our society.

[JW: Amidst the polemics over health care reform during the past five years or so, you may have seen arguments claiming that US health insurance companies actually have low profit margins. But the numbers offered to support those arguments are generally quite misleading, not least because the "costs" used to calculate those profit margins include executive salaries, marketing, and various other sorts of overhead linked to the fact that they are profit-making enterprises. The only figure that really matters is the so-called Medical Loss Ratio—that is, how much of their revenue do they actually spend on health care. The Affordable Care Act requires them to spend at least 80-85% on health care, with slight variations according to various details, and many companies whined and complained about that. The equivalent figure for Medicare is about 98%. Draw your own conclusions.]

Rather than being vindictive and canceling policies under the pretext of ObamaCare, the insurance companies should be thanking their lucky stars that they do not have to contend with a public option or a single payer system. That is what the law allows in every other modern industrialized democracy.
[JW: Actually, some other successful systems include a role for heavily regulated non-profit insurance companies.  But Williams is basically right.]
You can read the rest here.

—Jeff Weintraub

Ron Paul unleashed

No one should complain that American political rhetoric is getting too bland and over-cautious. As Kevin Drum and others pointed out a few days ago, "Ron Paul basically called for armed revolution this week":
Way back in 2012, when he was running for president, Ron Paul seemed to some people like a breath of fresh air. Sure, maybe he was a bit of a crank, but at least he didn't sanitize his beliefs in order to avoid offending people. He said what he meant, and he meant what he said.

But, um, maybe not. At least, not based on this look into Paul's libertarian id, delivered last night at a campaign rally in Virginia for Ken Cuccinelli:
"Jefferson obviously was a clear leader on the principle of nullification," the former Texas congressman said of the third president. "I’ve been working on the assumption that nullification is going to come. It’s going to be a de facto nullification. It’s ugly, but pretty soon things are going to get so bad that we’re just going to ignore the feds and live our own lives in our own states."

....He tore into the Constitution’s 17th Amendment. Ratified in 1913, it’s the one that allows for the direct election of U.S. senators by popular vote. "That undermined the principle importance of the states," said Paul.

He criticized the 16th Amendment, which allowed the federal income tax. After the crowd chanted "End the Fed," Paul decried the printing of more money by the Federal Reserve. "We need someone to stand up to the authoritarians," he said. "They’re dictators."

....He stressed that the constitutional "right to keep and bear arms" was not for hunting, but to allow rebellion against tyrannical governments. "The Second Amendment was not there so you could shoot rabbits," he said. "Right now today, we have a great threat to our liberties internally."  [JW: those boldings are Kevin Drum's]
Huh. I don't remember him being willing to deliver harangues quite like this during last year's debates. I guess he was holding back after all, just another mealy-mouthed politician unwilling to buck the polls and tell the people the raw truth. [....]
This incident suggests three sorts of reflections:

=> There is one curious feature of American political rhetoric over the past three decades to which people have become so accustomed that I think many of them have stopped noticing how odd it is. Since 1980 or so, which of the two major political parties in the US is the one that constantly and proudly uses the language of revolution, rebellion, and revolutionary change? It's certainly not the Democrats. Instead, "revolutionary" rhetoric and imagery now come almost exclusively from the Republicans—and not just from the fringes. We've moved from the Reagan Revolution though the Gingrich Revolution ... up through the Tea Party. Fred Barnes's enthusiastic book about the Bush II presidency, published in early 2006 when Bush still seemed to be riding high, was titled Rebel in Chief. And so on. This rhetorical pattern is one more symptom of the fact that right-wing radicalism, not any sort of conservatism, now sets the tone on the American right. These people (and not just the ultras) confidently boast about their eagerness to blow things up. An interesting question is why they, or anyone else, go on calling this attitude "conservative".

=> Of course, not all Republican politicians and pundits go for this kind of rhetorical radicalism (and substantive extremism), and even some of those who use the rhetoric don't always take it very seriously. Occasionally, they even worry that apocalyptic political theatrics and invocations of "Second Amendment remedies" can become public-relations liabilities that turn off significant numbers of general-election voters. But it is important to bear in mind that a great many right-wing voters and office-holders really do take this stuff very seriously. One reason to pay attention to Ron Paul, reactionary crank though he may be, is that the things he says resonate deeply with the way that a lot of Americans see the world. And in their minds, as in Ron Paul's, a willingness to contemplate extreme remedies is linked to the continuing, widespread vitality of what Richard Hofstadter once called the paranoid style in American politics. When tyranny and national catastrophe are upon us, "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice!" (as Barry Goldwater, or rather his speech-writer, once put it).

Furthermore, Republicans who don't share this view of the world (or don't fully share it) usually treat this kind of talk as a normal, acceptable, and respectable part of mainstream political discourse. Yes, there are some exceptions (the most prominent tend to be former Republican office-holders who have retired and will no longer be running for office), but they're exceptions. And the rest of us are too ready to let them get away with it.  There is an interesting asymmetry here. Kevin Drum again:
This comes via Ed Kilgore, who asks, "Can you imagine a statewide Democratic candidate anywhere, much less in a 'purple state,' associating himself or herself so conspicuously with such ravings? No, you can't." This is what I was talking about yesterday: liberals don't have the equivalent of a tea party because there just aren't very many liberals who hold views this extreme—and the ones who do are pretty marginalized. In the Republican Party, however, this kind of thing barely even lifts any eyebrows.

And the most remarkable part of all this is that the rest of us—centrists, liberals, non-insane Republicans, the press, etc.—are expected to shrug off this kind of thing as nothing more than a sort of boys-will-be-boys stemwinder, not to be taken seriously. Remarkable indeed.
=> Then there's Ron Paul himself. When Kevin Drum pointed out that Ron Paul has "seemed to some people like a breath of fresh air" (not just in 2012, but as far back as his 2007-2008 presidential run, which first brought him widespread attention), my first reaction was:  yes, stupid people. But the situation is actually a little more complicated than that. Ron Paul has also attracted indulgence, and even approval, from some ordinarily intelligent and decent people who were beguiled by the fact that he seemed to agree with them on one or another issue they thought was important—legalizing marijuana, neo-isolationism in foreign policy, cutting back military spending, opposing "big government," or whatever. Plus, he did show some disdain for the usual norms of political correctness in presidential politics. A combination of selective attention and wishful thinking led such people to overlook the obvious, unambiguous, and overriding fact that Ron Paul is, and has always been, a poisonously reactionary political troglodyte with consistently demonstrated willingness to use neo-Confederate, racist, and xenophobic appeals.

Some of those people may now be starting to notice what Ron Paul actually stands for. I notice, for example, that on Tuesday Andrew Sullivan, who actually endorsed Ron Paul for the Republican presidential nomination back in 2007 (along with Barack Obama on the Democratic side), got off the Ron Paul bandwagon:
As for Virginia, Cuccinelli’s relatively strong showing suggests to me that the Tea Party is far from dead, and that the prospect of the poor getting health insurance still energizes them enormously. And tonight, I have to say, the respect I had for Ron Paul was obliterated by the following inflammatory rhetoric:
Jefferson obviously was a clear leader on the principle of nullification. I’ve been working on the assumption that nullification is going to come. It’s going to be a de facto nullification. It’s ugly, but pretty soon things are going to get so bad that we’re just going to ignore the feds and live our own lives in our own states.
That’s loaded Confederate rhetoric, and when combined with this statement – “The Second Amendment was not there so you could shoot rabbits. Right now today, we have a great threat to our liberties internally” – it crosses the line to promoting sedition. I’m done with him.
Better late than never. But let's not forget that Ron Paul is just one (slightly exaggerated) symptom of a bigger problem. And although his son Rand Paul has tried to cultivate a less "inflammatory" style, fundamentally he's a chip off the old block. How long will he get a pass?

—Jeff Weintraub