US launches air strikes against Isil in Syria

The Guardian is live-blogging the US airstrikes against ISIS in Syria. Juan Cole expects them to do little good:

The some 22 sorties flown on Monday will have killed some ISIL terrorists, blown up some weapons warehouses, and destroyed some checkpoints. But ISIL are guerrillas, and they will just fade away into Raqqah’s back alleys. The US belief in air power is touching, but in fact no conflict has ever been quickly brought to an end where US planes have been involved.

Mark Thompson agrees the airstrikes will have limited impact:

The new attacks, against fixed ISIS targets, undoubtedly did significant damage. But they also will force ISIS fighters to hunker down, now that their sanctuary inside Syria has been breached. This means that the jihadists, who have shown little regard for civilians, will move in among them in the relatively few towns and villages in eastern Syria, betting that the U.S. and its allies will not attack them there and risk killing innocents.

That could lead to a stalemate. While air strikes are likely to keep ISIS from massing its forces, and traveling in easy-to-spot convoys, air power can do little to stop small groups of fighters from billeting with and intimidating the local population.

Jeffrey Goldberg admits that “there exists no strategy for victory, and no definition of victory”:

The advantage of launching strikes against ISIS positions early in this fight is that its commanders now have to spend extraordinary amounts of time, energy and resources merely digging in, and protecting their human and materiel assets, rather than pushing on, toward Baghdad, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. A terrorist preoccupied with his own survival has less bandwidth to threaten yours. But these strikes will not bring about the end of ISIS. Like other terror groups, it can “win” this current round of fighting by surviving, and maximizing civilian casualties on its own side.

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Slippery Borders

Sep 23 2014 @ 9:39am

Chazimal_dispute_map_01

In a fascinating history of the Chamizal dispute, Paul Kramer considers what happens when nature refuses to respect national boundaries:

The whole point of setting the border between Mexico and the United States at the deepest channel of the Rio Grande was that the river was not supposed to move.

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Is Divesting A Distraction?

Sep 23 2014 @ 8:54am

Universities are under pressure to divest from fossil fuels. Yglesias spells out the main reason to support this goal:

Fossil fuel companies need to hire staff, they need to lobby politicians, and they need to contract with other companies for services. A world in which it was universally accepted in polite society that fossil fuel companies are problematic and respectable people should avoid dealing with them would be a very different world from the one we live in. Fossil fuel firms would find it challenging to recruit talented staff in a cost-effective way, and would have trouble securing favorable tax and regulatory treatment from the government. This is a real risk, and it’s why no company or sector likes to see high-profile divestment campaigns lobbed against it.

The most famous divestment campaign, waged against the government of apartheid South Africa, is a case in point. It is unlikely that divestment as such had an important impact on South Africa’s corporate sector or financial markets. But it was part and parcel of a larger ongoing campaign that left South Africa socially and economically isolated from the world. That overall isolation did have an impact, and divestment was an important part of that isolation insofar as it gave campaigners concrete asks that were smaller in scale than whole national-level sanctions.

But McArdle dismisses the divestment movement:

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Where Golf Is Driven Out Of Range

Sep 23 2014 @ 8:09am

In a review of The Forbidden Game: Golf and the Chinese Dream, Maura Elizabeth Cunningham describes the peculiar role of the sport in Chinese society:

[A]s Dan Washburn writes in his compelling new book … golf “offers a unique window into today’s China,” a country of dish_kunminggolf paradoxes perhaps best exemplified by the fact that although construction of new golf courses has been banned in China since at least 2004, more than 400 were built between 2005 and 2010, making China the only place in the world experiencing a golf boom. Government officials who enjoy hitting the links register at golf courses under false names, afraid of leaving a paper trail connecting them to a game most often associated with capitalism and corruption. And while massive golf course complexes lined with luxury villas populate large tracts of land outside Chinese cities, their owners attempt to hide the courses in plain sight, giving them convoluted names like the “Anji China Ecotourism and Fitness Center.”

Like so much else in contemporary China, golf occupies a gray zone: officially forbidden, yet tolerated — even encouraged — behind the scenes, as local government officials and land developers reap massive profits from the construction of new courses.

(Photo of a golf course in Kunming by Philippe Semanaz)

Confusion Contagion

Sep 23 2014 @ 7:31am

Jessica Love reviews a study that suggests “we can experience bewilderment on behalf of others”:

Psychologists at the University of York plunked students in front of a computer and presented them with pairs of sentences. The first was always presented aurally, with the students wearing headphones; the second appeared silently as text on the monitor. Crucially, some of the participants were seated next to someone withoutheadphones—someone, that is, who could read the second sentence, but couldn’t listen to the first one.

For some sentence pairs, the second sentence was easy to comprehend on its own: one doesn’t need to hear The fishmonger prepared the fish to make sense of The fish had gills. But in other pairs, the first sentence provided some crucial context: without first hearing In the boy’s dream, he could breath under water, it was tough to interpret The boy had gills.

Yet even the students who’d heard the first sentence experienced an N400 (a pattern of neural activity associated with processing difficulty) in response to the second sentence—but only if seated beside someone without headphones. They knew their neighbors were probably confused, and registered that confusion vicariously. In fact, the N400 pattern was just as strong for students sitting next to people who hadn’t heard the contextualizing sentence as it was when these students themselves read a sentence like The boy had gills without context.

The Best Of The Dish Today

Sep 22 2014 @ 10:00pm

But first, get psyched for Wednesday:

I went to grad school and shared some classes with Zeke Emanuel, who just wrote a great piece for The Atlantic on why he doesn’t want to live much past the age of 75. Money quote:

By the time I reach 75, I will have lived a complete life. I will have loved and been loved. My children will be grown and in the midst of their own rich lives. I will have seen my grandchildren born and beginning their lives. I will have pursued my life’s projects and made whatever contributions, important or not, I am going to make. And hopefully, I will not have too many mental and physical limitations.

Dying at 75 will not be a tragedy. Indeed, I plan to have my memorial service before I die. And I don’t want any crying or wailing, but a warm gathering filled with fun reminiscences, stories of my awkwardness, and celebrations of a good life. After I die, my survivors can have their own memorial service if they want—that is not my business.

I also happened to catch this little piece on Leonard Cohen’s decision to take up smoking again now that he is 80 years’ old:

At any age, taking up smoking is not sensible. Both the smoker and those who breathe his secondhand smoke can suffer not only long-term but acute health problems, including infections and asthma. And yet, Mr. Cohen’s plan presents a provocative question: When should we set aside a life lived for the future and, instead, embrace the pleasures of the present?

It’s a vital question this one – and not because of the extraordinary costs of maximal healthcare at the end of many of our lives. It’s vital because it challenges our Western denial of death, our cult of life-extension, our refusal to fully absorb the fact that we are finite, mortal, obsolescent. I was horribly lucky to be forced to confront this at a very early age – 29 to be exact. The prognosis back in 1993 was not great for HIV infection, and I watched a close friend die at the age of 31. Is my life somehow worth more than his, I wondered, simply because I’m going to be here longer? Some called this survivor’s guilt. I thought it was merely addressing a core existential question.

One day, a simple thought occurred to me and a huge amount of stress and worry and anxiety lifted. It occurred to me to see life the way we see college. No one gets extra points for staying in college for longer than four years. We understand that it’s finite; and our response is to value the content of that experience rather than its length. I vowed that that was how I was going to treat life from now on. And, although, of course, those feelings waned as my prospects brightened, I haven’t ever fully let go of it.

It lies behind many of the things I did with my life since then – the apparently quixotic fight for marriage equality (the kind of nutty thing you throw yourself into if you only have a few years left); even more quixotic attempts to re-describe conservatism; the crazy idea that I could write directly for readers with no middle man; the equally risky prospect of making an independent business out of a very idiosyncratic blog. I think knowing I was living past my expiration date helped me live more fully and less fearfully. And it makes the idea of trying to live into one’s eighties as a goal a little beside the point.

There’s wisdom in Zeke’s outlook; and, of course, wit in Cohen’s. I think of Hitch. Maybe he could have lived a different, more upright life – which would have been much longer. But would he still have been Hitch? And isn’t it better to have one real Hitch for a short time than a less authentic version that lived into his dotage?

I know this much: I just want to be alive when I die.

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Tweets Of The Day

Sep 22 2014 @ 9:43pm

Another country, another US bombing. And the beat goes on …

An epic takedown of Trump and, more importantly, the Miss America scholarship sham:

John Oliver and his team are really kicking ass with this new show. Previous Dish on Last Week Tonight segments here, here and here. He’s proof that ad-free long-form journalism can work, and be highly engaging and entertaining, if supported long and steadily enough.

Is Diet Soda Making Us Fat? Ctd

Sep 22 2014 @ 8:00pm

The latest in artificial sweetener scares:

Artificial sweeteners might be triggering higher blood-sugar levels in some people and contributing to the problems they were designed to combat, such as diabetes and obesity, according to new findings published Wednesday in the journal Nature. Although the precise reasons behind the blood-sugar changes remain uncertain, researchers suspect that artificial sweeteners could be disrupting the microbiome, a vast and enigmatic ecosystem of bacteria in our guts.

Svati Kirsten Naruta reminds us that the “news” isn’t really new at all:

There have been a lot of major news stories about the science behind artificially sweetened products. But I didn’t see a single one this week that acknowledged the ones written earlier this year, or in 2008, or 2005. More often than not, each individual story gives the impression that the latest science is either totally new or surprisingly compelling.

Read On

Drawing on his recent book, Tocqueville in Arabia: Dilemmas in a Democratic Age, Joshua Mitchell applies the French thinker’s insights about the emergence of democracy to today’s Middle East:

Alexis de Tocqueville long ago wrote that the democratic age is upon us. By this he meant that the “links” to family and tribe that held us fast in the aristocratic age were breaking apart before our eyes. dish_Alexis_de_tocqueville_croppedThe political consequence of this social de-linkage, however, was not necessarily benign democratic governance. Indeed, he worried that attempts would be made to refortify the old links, to reaffirm roles at the moment when delinked persons were emerging. What we today often identify as “Islamic Fundamentalism” is just such an attempt to re-fortify the old links, to re-enchant the world. Herein lays the dilemma of the Middle East. Caught in the matrix of the political and social arrangements of the twentieth century that defy credulity, drawn and at the same time repulsed by the fugitive freedom they see on Western shores but only dimly understand, nascent citizens more than occasionally dream of returning to an enchanted world for which an imagined Islam provides a ready guide.

Under these wildly unstable conditions, U.S. foreign policy-makers should take the long view. Democratic governance will not arrive soon in the Middle East. If it does at all, it will emerge only when families and tribes become much less important than they now are. Citizens and entrepreneurs―the building blocks of democratic governance and of market commerce―do not spring up spontaneously out of societies where families and tribes still retain their hold on the imagination. The slow process by which that changes, moreover, cannot easily be accelerated by U.S. foreign policy.

In the meantime, in the interludes of peace, diplomatic and cultural outreach and, above all, higher education initiatives intended to help the younger generation understand and thrive in the disenchanted world it will inherit offer perhaps the most constructive ways to engage the region.

Update from a reader:

Let’s face it. Nothing explains the Middle East.

(Image of Tocqueville by Théodore Chassériau via Wikimedia Commons)