Sunlit Water

November 19, 2013

Hometown Pride

Filed under: Culture,Politics — by teofilo @ 10:15 pm

Albuquerque voters rejected the proposed ban on late-term abortions that was on the ballot in today’s election. Amanda Marcotte explained why this is important: this is the first attempt to ban these abortions at the municipal level, which could potentially be very effective because there are so few clinics left that do them, one of which happens to be in Albuquerque.


November 11, 2011


Filed under: Culture,Politics — by teofilo @ 1:33 pm

As a quasi-employee of the federal government I of course have Veterans’ Day off.  This year it’s particularly noteworthy because of the numerological coincidence, but as I’ve mentioned before I think remembering the actual origin of the holiday as Armistice Day is important and unfortunately often overlooked in this country.  It’s interesting to note in this connection that Obama’s proclamation of the holiday this year explicitly mentions the withdrawal of troops from Iraq.

September 11, 2011

Ten Years

Filed under: Personal,Politics — by teofilo @ 12:45 am

I don’t have anything particularly important to say about the tenth anniversary of 9/11, but I felt I should probably mark the occasion.  I knew I had written up an account of my experience of the event, and I thought it was in a post here but it turned out to be in a comment at Unfogged.  In looking for it here, though, I came across the post I did on the fifth anniversary.  It’s interesting to see how my perspective has changed in five years.  The post is mainly about foreign policy and why it’s best not just to trust politicians’ judgment on it, which I think holds up, but the more interesting thing to me is how I talk about being more interested personally in foreign than in domestic policy.  That has definitely changed, and these days I’m much more knowledgeable about and engaged with domestic issues, which actually involve much more than just “moving large sums of money around” (as I said then).  Indeed, I’ve gone into a policy-related career field that is almost exclusively domestic in nature, at least the way I’m likely to do it.  The way I got there is actually pretty consistent with what I was saying in the earlier post, though, in that I realized at some point that really gaining the sort of knowledge about foreign policy issues that would let me go in that direction professionally was a very tall order, and that I didn’t really feel up to it.  For one thing, there’s no particular region of the world or substantive policy field that I was ever able to narrow in on, which is what you really have to do to gain that sort of expertise.  I’m much more of a generalist than a specialist by inclination, and to the extent that any profession would require some amount of specialization, I decided to stick with a geographical area, at least, that I already had detailed knowledge of: the US.  I’m happy with this decision, and haven’t looked back.  I still find foreign policy interesting, but I have little interest in making it my life anymore.

May 9, 2011

Gary Johnson Is Running For President?

Filed under: Politics — by teofilo @ 12:37 am

So it would seem.  He probably would be a better choice than most of the other Republicans running at this point, but if Ron Paul is in the race I don’t see how Johnson can really distinguish himself.  His base of support, such as it is, likely overlaps almost exactly with Paul’s, especially in a Republican primary.  What distinguishes him from Paul, despite their similar libertarian ideologies, is that he actually does have executive experience as governor, and his tenure was notable for showing that unlike virtually all other Republicans, he actually is serious about keeping government spending as well as taxes low.  He was notorious for vetoing bills left and right, with the result that when he left office the state actually had a small budget surplus (which Bill Richardson immediately pissed away on tax cuts and other pet projects to boost his own national political profile).  He was also involved in some shady deals regarding state contracting, including the widening of NM 44 to four lanes, which also involved renaming it US 550.  The contract for the paving work was awarded to Koch Industries (yes, that Koch Industries) despite the fact that the company had never done a road-paving project before.  He was an okay governor, I guess, at least for a Republican, and he takes his libertarianism sufficiently seriously that he has staked out controversial positions within the party on drug policy and civil liberties, all of which is to his credit, but I can’t see him as anything remotely like a plausible presidential candidate.

March 26, 2011

So, Libya

Filed under: Politics — by teofilo @ 12:48 am

My knowledge of Libya begins and ends with phonetics, so I don’t have a whole lot to say about the ongoing events there, but I figure I should at least acknowledge them.  I’m really unsure about whether military intervention is the right way for the US and NATO to approach this, but that’s the way things have gone so at this point I just hope it all works out reasonably well and that this intervention leads to somewhat less bloodshed than would otherwise have occurred rather than somewhat more.  For the US specifically, Libya is in some ways the easy case among the various Arab countries undergoing political unrest right now.  The Libyan regime has long been a thorn in the American side, so while the decision on whether or not to intervene is tricky, the decision on which side to take is not.  When it comes to places like Yemen and, especially, Bahrain, however, it’s really unclear where the US will end up throwing its support, whether or not that support takes the form of direct military aid.  There is certainly the potential for using a forceful response in Libya to put pressure on US allies elsewhere in the region to take a conciliatory approach to demands for democratic reform, but whether the Obama administration actually ends up following through on that opportunity is totally unknowable as far as I can tell at this point.

February 4, 2011

Egypt Is Huge

Filed under: Culture,Language,Politics — by teofilo @ 2:49 pm

Egypt is not only the largest Arab country by far (and one of the largest in the world), it is also the center of Arabic-language radio, television, and movies.  Entertainment programs and films produced in Egypt are distributed widely throughout the Arab world, and as a result most Arabs can understand the Egyptian dialect as well as their own local dialect and, if they are educated, Modern Standard Arabic, which is a semi-artificial literary language used for writing and formal speeches but spoken as a native language by no one.  As a result, the upheaval going on in Egypt right now has enormous implications for the Arab world as a whole.  Tunisia was one thing, but Egypt is something else entirely.

January 22, 2011

Peace Is Just A Word

Filed under: Culture,Land,Politics — by teofilo @ 10:49 am

One of the more depressing things about going to Israel was seeing the typical attitudes Israelis have toward the peace process.  There are a wide range of political opinions within Israeli society, of course, but it’s quite apparent both from reading the news and from talking to Israelis that the center of the political spectrum on security issues (the issues that matter most) has moved far to the right in recent years, as shown by the current far-right government with its general lack of interest in pursuing negotiations with the Palestinians.  This seems to clearly be the reason that negotiations have currently stalled; I’m not going to go as far as to say that every time the peace process has broken down it’s been Israel’s fault, but this particular instance of the process stalling absolutely is.  It’s not just that the government has no interest in pursuing an agreement, or that the rising power of the ultra-Orthodox and the Russian immigrant community gives the right a major political boost, although both of those things are true and problematic.  The bigger problem is that the majority of Israelis just don’t seem to care enough to push back against the far right.  Basically, the status quo seems to be working fine for most people.  The economy is booming, the borders are relatively quiet aside from the small-scale rocket attacks that have become somewhat routine by now, and there have been no major terrorist attacks within the heavily populated parts of Israel recently.  There is no sense of urgency, no idea that the current situation is untenable.  People are doing fine and don’t see any particular reason to push for change, so the right is free to throw whatever wrenches it wants into the peace process without losing political power.  This is in striking contrast to the feeling among the Palestinians, whose lives are of course much worse and who are quite eager to make a deal.  The Palestinian leadership has in fact made many concessions already in trying to get Israel to agree to a two-state solution, including agreeing that a Palestinian state would be demilitarized, and Israel is in a strong negotiating position from which to demand even more concessions, but the Israelis don’t seem interested in striking a deal.  They would of course benefit from no longer living in a pariah state with a vast and burdensome security apparatus impinging on their daily lives in all sorts of ways, but they’ve grown used to living like that.  When we were there we spoke to some people at the Geneva Initiative, and this is basically what they said: that one of the biggest challenges they face in getting the peace process going again is apathy on the Israeli side.  They’re basically living in this weird, paranoid, heavily armed bubble, but they don’t seem to care and they don’t seem interested in doing anything to change that.  Strange and depressing, but that’s the way it is.

January 21, 2011

The Real Victims

Filed under: Culture,Politics — by teofilo @ 10:53 pm

Sometimes I think the New York Times must be trolling its readers.

January 17, 2011

From Tel Aviv To Jerusalem

Filed under: Culture,Land,Personal,Planning,Politics — by teofilo @ 7:37 pm

One of the most often repeated tropes about Israel is the contrast between its two major cities.  Tel Aviv is portrayed as the embodying the more cosmopolitan, secular, modern side of Israeli society, while Jerusalem embodies the parochial, religious, traditional side.  There is a great deal of truth to this characterization, and the two cities definitely feel very different, but the contrast is really more complicated than people often imply.  For one thing, as one of the Israelis who accompanied our group was very vocal in insisting, both cities are more diverse and complicated internally than the caricature has it.  There are plenty of synagogues and religious people in Tel Aviv, and there are plenty of secular people in Jerusalem.

There is nevertheless a real difference in feel between the two, and one thing that I found somewhat surprising in visiting them was how much I preferred Jerusalem.  I’m a pretty secular, modern guy, so I had kind of thought Tel Aviv would be more my kind of place than Jerusalem, but that was definitely not the case.  It’s not that I disliked Tel Aviv; it’s a very pleasant city, but it’s also a very mundane city.  Tel Aviv feels like a very typical European city, and this is no accident.  It was deliberately founded 101 years ago by a group of Zionists who reasoned that Jews had basically always lived in cities founded by other people and who wanted to see what a city founded by Jews would look like.  So they founded one, and it turns out a Jewish city looks and feels like a medium-sized European city along the Mediterranean coast.  Pleasant, but not particularly distinctive.  Indeed, Tel Aviv feels like it could be anywhere, and that’s sort of the point.  The Zionists who started Tel Aviv were those who saw Zionism as a secular nationalist ideology, and while Palestine was the obvious place for their desired Jewish state full of Jewish cities, it was by no means necessary to them that it be there.  The important thing was just that a Jewish state exist somewhere.  When the British offered Herzl Uganda instead of Palestine these are the people who wanted to take it.  Herzl himself was one of them, of course.  Because of my lack of adherence to Zionism, I don’t have any particular love for Tel Aviv just because it’s a Jewish city, and there’s nothing else about it that would make it particularly appeal to me more than any other city.

Jerusalem, on the other hand, is amazing.  Whereas Tel Aviv could be anywhere, Jerusalem couldn’t be anywhere else and it could never be mistaken for any other city.  It’s unique in a way that Tel Aviv very much isn’t.  Today it’s identified more with the religious portion of Israeli society, the ideological descendants of the religious Zionists who refused to accept Uganda and would settle for nothing but Palestine.  Within the context of Israel, then, Jerusalem tends to stand for a religious rather than a secular outlook, and its position right on the border of the West Bank makes it an ideological flash point for more general issues of security, identity, and the peace process as well.

In a very fundamental way, however, Jerusalem is not a Jewish city the way Tel Aviv is.  It’s governed and inhabited primarily by Jews today, of course, and at various times in the past it has also been primarily Jewish, but for most of its long history it has been governed and inhabited by non-Jews, and that history is very visible in the physical structure of the city as well as in the symbolism and importance it has for all sorts of people, Jewish and otherwise.  Whereas Tel Aviv was founded 101 years ago as an experiment in creating a Jewish city as part of a Jewish nation-state, Jerusalem is thousands of years old, and no one knows who originally founded it, when, or why.  It has passed through many hands over the millennia of its existence, some of them Jewish but most of them not.  The way I see it, Jerusalem may currently be part of the State of Israel, but fundamentally it transcends that status and belongs to no one group.  It is a Jewish city in some ways, but in other ways it is a Christian city and in still other ways it is a Muslim city.  Overall I think it simultaneously belongs to no one and everyone.  It is an international city, perhaps the only one in the world.  It’s also just an amazing place to be and to explore, in a way that I can’t really articulate properly.  I’m not generally inclined to agree with the idea that it’s impossible to understand a place without seeing it personally, but in the case of Jerusalem I think that may be true.

In this context, while I think the most practical path to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would involve dividing Jerusalem and letting each side use its portion as its capital, I think the idea that sometimes gets floated of having Jerusalem be part of neither state but instead be an international city controlled by the UN or some other international organization is not nearly as unrealistic as it sounds.  Indeed, in many ways I think that would be the most appropriate status for Jerusalem given its history and importance.  Not that it’s likely to happen, of course, but at this point a divided Jerusalem as part of a two-state solution doesn’t look all that likely in the foreseeable future either.

January 16, 2011


Filed under: Personal,Politics — by teofilo @ 4:16 pm

One thing that visiting Israel has definitely not changed is my attitude toward Zionism.  Basically, I still see it as primarily a type of secular nationalism that has little to no connection to Judaism as a religion, and I don’t like it because I don’t like any kind of nationalism.  The whole idea behind Zionism is to make the Jews a nation like all the other European nations that were forming nation-states in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and Israel is supposed to be the resulting state.  Seeing Israel up close really just confirmed this view for me.  There are certainly different types of Zionism, with the cosmopolitan intellectualism of Tel Aviv contrasting strongly with the agrarian romanticism of the kibbutz movement, but they all share this basic premise.  Our guide on the trip was very good at explaining these different ideologies and approaches to Jewish identity, which I think ultimately helped me get a better sense of exactly what Zionism is and why I reject it.  (Note that this is all on the moral rather than the practical level, and now that Israel exists I’m not proposing that it be destroyed or anything.)

Like other forms of nationalism, Zionism is largely about defining an identity for a group that the individuals in that group can use to define their own identities in contrast to those belonging to other groups.  This is one of the main things I dislike about it.  It becomes particularly problematic when the ideological nation becomes embodied in a physical state.  There has been a lot of talk lately about the risk that Israel will soon cease to be a democratic state in order to preserve its identity as a Jewish state, and while that does seem like an increasingly plausible (though by no means inevitable) outcome, I don’t think it’s a dilemma unique to Israel.  There’s something inherently problematic about the concept of a democratic nation-state.  It only works as long as the overwhelming majority of the population of the state belongs to the nation, and when, through immigration, differential fertility, or other processes, the portion of the population that is not part of the nation begins to approach or exceed the portion that is the state has to make a fundamental decision about where its priorities lie.  France and Germany have been dealing with this issue in recent years as their immigrant populations increase, and I don’t think either has yet found a satisfactory solution.  One of the advantages the US has is that it is not a nation-state, and while immigration is a contentious political issue and always has been it isn’t inherently threatening to the ideological basis of the state the way it can be in nation-states.

Personally, I prioritize democracy over national identity, of course, so I think Israel should give up on being a Jewish state before it gives up on being a democracy.  It’s not my country, though, so this is one decision that I think the Israelis really need to make for themselves, and I really don’t know what they’ll end up choosing.

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