Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Do Norms Matter?

IR bloggers are taking an interest in the ongoing saga of the Somali pirates who have hijacked a Ukranian ship and are demanding millions of dollars (20 at last count) in return. The pirates (I can't get over how old-school the whole concept of pirates seems- blame Johnny Depp) gave an interview to the NYT.

In it they employ some arguments that should be of interest to all of us who argue that discourse is a good gauge of the salience of particular international norms. For instance,
We don’t consider ourselves sea bandits,” he said. “We consider sea bandits those who illegally fish in our seas and dump waste in our seas and carry weapons in our seas. We are simply patrolling our seas. Think of us like a coast guard.”

The Somali pirates are using arguments that appeal to our sense of justice in several ways - comparing themselves to legitimate law enforcers such as the coast guard and behaviors such as 'patrolling', appealing to our environmental concerns, and contesting language that is pejorative.

Yet, they are holding the Ukranian ship and its crew hostage and are demanding a ransom that is incommuserate with their stated reasons for wanting money.

“Killing is not in our plans,” he said. “We only want money so we can protect ourselves from hunger.”

When asked why the pirates needed $20 million to protect themselves from hunger, Mr. Sugule laughed and said, “Because we have a lot of men.”

So this begs the question, what use is it to know that actors acknowledge or (instrumentally) appeal to international norms? In the blogs I've read, the consensus seems to be that this is a case of insincere rhetoric, because it is belied by the actions of the pirates.

How, then, should we interpret the desire of the pirates to be seen as legitimate human beings? Should this guide the way the situation is handled? For instance, if the pirates said that they wanted the money to buy rum, eye patches and sail the high seas- would the ship have been stormed by now? If the pirates subscribed to a set of norms that were even less palatable, how would it effect responses?

These are the difficulties in thinking about how norms work in real life. It's a much bandied about term but it leaves us with little substance with which to think about how to formulate policy in crises.

I'm trying to grapple with these questions in my own work, so no real answers...just thinking aloud.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Final Score Sheet

While the live blogging is over (see post below this), it is now time to reflect and, as is my wont, give out some grades:

Final Score Sheet:

Debate B +. No great quotes or sparks but intelligent debate all round....two worthy opponents.

McCain was surprisingly articulate, no senior moments, on point, clear and calm (apart from that little outburst on Iran). There's just that little matter of the blatant misleading and you know, LIES. He was much the ruder person too. B+

Obama was nuanced, fair, honest and so, as a result, not as easy and pat, which is great for people like me and the people that read my blog...but not so great given the black and white narratives that drive American politics. Polite, civilized and a gentleman. Great closing statement but bad slip in not addressing McCain's lack of experience barb. So, an A - from a (wannabe) academic and a B+ from a policy wonk.

Well done on both for producing a good debate- nothing too memorable but intelligent and thorough. God knows we haven't had that in 8 years.

Lehrer: firm, civilized, non-flashy A

Your Blogger:
A- for effort, A+ for enthusiasm, B for lack of organization...

Tips for
McCain: Good job for sticking to your GOP talking points. Stop lying, maybe?

Obama: Stop praising or giving McCain credit for anything. There is little room for civility or nuance in this kind of dirty politics. There will be plenty of time later to be honorable. Right now, look at your opponent (he did not give you credit for anything even once) - stop being nice and play the game.

Here's Daniel Drezner's live blog of the debate - wonder how many others were doing the same thing? He suggests debate drinking games like drinking every time someone says "I resent' - which actually would have meant we all would have ended up pretty sober.

With hindsight, "that's not true" would have got you hammered tonight....

Experiment: Live Blogging the First Presidential Debate

10: 38

DONE! That was tough but fun! Now lets see how I compare to the talking heads....
Edited to add: Now that I've blogged about it, I find I'm not as interested in the analysis of others immediately. Interesting.


Barack, Barack, Barack...McCain just said you had no experience and he is the most experienced politician alive. And your retort? "My father came from Kenya, which is why I have my name". ?? You just let that slide? Why?

10: 28

Chaos, interruption- Indian Parliament news flashback....before Obama politely moves on....

I spaced out and when I snapped back Obama was trying to get a word in edgewise....wha??


Wow....McCain suddenly woke up and went on a little McCain rant.... Heeeeeeerrree's Johnny.......!!!

(Obama spluttered in amazement....I nearly choked on my drink...)


Obama needs to stop saying "John is right". You only play nicely with those who play nicely with you...

Clear answer from McCain about Iran as an existential threat. Clear but scary. Brings Russia in immediately, proposes "painful" sanctions on the "lousy" Iranian government....Bush the 3rd anyone?


" I got a bracelet too?" Rise above this nonsense Barack....come on....

Oh Yawn......McCain pulls out the old bracelet story now...


BURN! Obama: "coming from you who has talked about exterminating N. Korea and sung songs about bombing Iran, I'm not sure how credible that is' (on McCain talking about Obama's willingness to attack Pak)


So far if I was grading these two I would give McCain points for sticking to the question, articulating simply and effectively and for his consistency. Avoid redundancy and repetition.

Obama A- "Pay closer attention to the question and be more clear. On the positive side: Good, complex reasoning and nuanced understanding of the issues. Also extra credit for being able to pronounce Pakistan.' Points taken/ warning for saying "We have to be able to take them out"

9: 50

Now we're talking - Iraq still remains the real issue here for these two....they both look a lot more confident here. National Security and Foreign Policy is clearly much more of a comfort zone for both of them.

9: 42

McCain just repeated that he was not chosen as Miss Congeniality (which is worth another blog post, coming soon)- which is just begging for some sort of joke about Palin.


Dominant themes:

Obama: McCain is mini-Bush, Bush the 3rd, Bush's best pal.... please don't believe their lies
McCain: Talking the talk, does not mean walking the walk, cut spending, cut spending, cut spending!
Lehrer: Focus and please answer the question directly

9: 33

I'm struck by just how remarkably better both of these candidates speak than Bush. At least this is a real debate. And both men can pronounce nuclear- hallelujah for that. They also don't smirk/ grin sheepishly

9: 30

Ah! the familiar trope of Chinese children forging ahead, a perennial favorite- and it comes from Obama.

So far McCain has had the better one liners and the better campaigning buzz words (maverick, spending) , Obama sounds a lot more detailed and focused on policy- maybe too much?

Obama laughs at McCain's jokes, McCain grins as Obama speaks....much amusement.

It's getting heated now- calling each other liars, talking directly at each other, interrupting etc. That didn't take long.

Ooohh...watch out Barak- don't antagonize small business. McCain's cracking up in the corner for some reason- he's explaining why now.


This is harder than I thought- you have to listen, reflect and type while not missing what's going on- my respect for live bloggers of random awards shows has shot up.


First good punch line of the night- goes to McCain...He's already made two jokes about his age...ok, strike that, three. If you can't beat em, join em, I guess.

Obama's using first names and McCain is refusing to warm up to that usage- it's a cold Sen. Obama....I wonder how micro-planned such strategies are...
He also looks at McCain when he talks to him and McCain stares straight ahead (and now I'm done with my imitation of FOX news body language analysts)
Edited to add at 11:00- lots of the media analysts also picked up on this. Not bad for your not-so-humble blogger...


5 minutes in and I have the same comment for Sen. Obama that I often do for my undergraduate students - answer the question, please.


We're off and in the hands of the eminently capable Jim Lehrer who gets straight to the heart of the matter- the economy. The new format allows both back and forth debating as well as follow ups by Lehrer. Let's see if it gets nasty with this format- I doubt it.

My first live blogging attempt: This will be fun not only for the experience but also to see how my immediate judgement differs from that of the talking heads and media who will analyze this tomorrow.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

I made a mental note to myself to stop this blog from becoming all about Palin but this warrants an exception....Tina Fey at her best.

Friday, September 12, 2008


On a sad day, I thought of bringing some levity to politics. 

Here starts a series I shall hopefully return to many times: "Reasons to love John Mayer"

 Reason no. 34756: Talented, funny and just the right amount of cynical...

And Steve Jordan's laugh is just infectious...

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Smash Box

Today is the day that the Large Hadron Collider or what I like to call the giant particle/atom collider machine got switched on in Geneva. As I understand from a physicist friend, this is equivalent to someone switching on a car and then waiting a few weeks before the car starts moving. So today is the symbolic start to this enterprise, rather than a day full of action and we won't know its effects for months, maybe years. 

The machine has a rather modest goal....to simulate and recreate the creation of the universe after the big bang. 

Can you imagine the grant proposal for that one? "We propose to recreate the universe. Please fund us." 

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

"Don't know whether to laugh or cry" moment

This is a conversation I had a couple of days with an ex-student of mine. She's always struck me as earnest, opinionated and very, very liberal from almost everything she said in class and outside. She's almost a stereotype in the stuff white people like mold- vaguely hippyish, vegan, back packing through Chile, artistic type who loudly denounces men, marriage, meat, Western hegemony and walmart all in one go...in other words the perfect person to have a friendly political rant with the day after the Palin speech...

Or so I thought...

The conversation made me long for a large white flag and a pole from which to wave it.

(With a little poetic license)

Me: (brightly and slightly conspiratorially) "Have you been following the political news lately?"

Student: (eagerly) "Yes, I'm sooo excited about it all"

Me: (Feeling happy about evidence of political activism in the youth) "Cool, what parts?"

Student: "Well, I think it's awesome that we have a woman running for VP. She's going to be awesome."

Me: (back peddling in my mind) "Hmmm? Interesting....so, do you find her views on the issues convincing? What things do you like about her?"

Student: "It's just really important to have women- they would change stuff, and make things better.."

Me: "Hmm....So what kind of stuff do you think she will change?"

Student: "She's going to make things.... better and she'll be great for women's rights"

Me: ('polite' voice) "Umm....Ok... Well, you do know that she's very pro-Iraq war, pro-gun, anti global warming as a concept, pro-life, anti-gay rights etc. right?"

Student: "Yeah, that's true but she's a woman and I think that's cool. We really need that right now."

Me: (smiling tightly): "Interesting....well, it's going to be.....interesting"

And then I slunk away....

It's working! Oh god, it's working!

Now I'd like to think I'm sufficiently open minded not to judge people for their political views. Some of my brightest students have been conservative in intelligent and thought provoking ways. But this is just not very smart, is it?

It bothers me that I did not try to gently disabuse her of those notions- but its hard to do without sounding condescending, patronizing and rude. No wonder the dems are bafflingly polite in the face of blatant lies.

Another day, another reminder of the 'jackass problem' in democracies, as a professor once eloquently put it.

My walk to school

This is the walk I take everyday to and from school. 

Yes, it is through a cemetery but this cemetery has revised my opinions on what they're all about. While I would definitely not walk through here at night (more because of the alive people than dead ones), it is actually a very peaceful experience to stroll there listening to my pod-casts, look at all the old names, hear the rustling leaves and watch the long, cool shadows. 
It's one of  my favorite parts of the day.

I took these pictures yesterday. There is a little nip in the air now- another summer is coming to its close. Fall is brief but glorious in upstate NY and I can't wait for how beautiful the trees are going to look in just a few weeks. Then the winter will come and it will be
 difficult to negotiate the icy, snowy slopes but beautiful in its own way. I'll post more pictures then. But for now...the serene, rolling greens are lovely. Here are a few pictures of my walk....

Above, buildings on comstock ave which runs along one side 
of the cemetery.

I love the old mausoleums dotting the cemetery- some are really spectacular- like mini castles, with graceful turrets and detailing- but you have to go deep into the cemetary for that. Not advisable alone in the evening, when these pictures were taken... 

Here's another mausoleum- I wonder if it has just one person or a family?

My favorite gravestone is the one that looks like a mini-amphi-theatre...I always smile at it as I wander by. 
It's not Chrissy Field (which I will blog about some other day) but for upstate NY, it will do just fine. 

Sunday, September 7, 2008

What's the matter with Maureen Dowd?

Another day, another crazy column from Dowd. The woman is absolutely obsessed with Hilary Clinton and bashing her no matter what the context is. To make things worse, she is now preoccupied with fantasies of McCain becoming President and how this is all an elaborate Clintonian plan. Sheer obsession- it's almost creepy. 
And fromt he nearly 800 comments that greeted her last column, I am not alone in this assessment. Dowd is not funny, not insightful and sounds vindictive, weird and hysterical. In other words, a perfect complement to Palin. 

Monday, September 1, 2008


Depending on where you stand, McCain's VP pick is sheer madness or sheer genius. The sheer madness angle is easy to explain- Palin has less experience than the average high school student council President (and if you've seen 'Election' with Reese Witherspoon, high school politics can be much more grueling than anything Palin has been through). She has been a governer of Alaska for two years and before that was mayor of Wasilla, whose population is a little over 9000 people. Given that she is a heartbeat away from being President, and lets face it that's a not too far fetched in her case, her lack of experience is astounding. Which is important in an election where 'experience' is one of the key buzz words along with 'change', 'hope', 'judgement' and [insert empty signifier]. 

The sheer genius argument is much more simple. Sarah Palin is a woman. Women hate what happened to Hilary. So women will vote for Sarah Palin. Forget the other, more complex issues at stake- her supposed expertise on energy as the Governer of Alaska, her avid support of gun rights and willingness to let polar bears die....the main issue everyone is fixated on is her gender. 

Now, on the face of it this argument is overly simplistic, and as the dems have loudly proclaimed, insulting to women. Can we really assume that women will vote for a candidate just because she is a woman? Will liberal women who are pro-choice, pro-gay rights, anti-guns and pro universal health care and  really vote for someone that stands for exactly the opposite? Even if she is rabidly pro-life and ultra-conservative on everything else? Are women really that fickle, irrational, angry and [insert other sexist stereotype ]? 


It pains me to say it and I hope it's not true. Sarah Palin is quite simply unqualified for the job, her selection is pandering to the worst degree and I want to believe that it's not going to work at all. But you know what?

Maybe it will. 

Notwithstanding Hilary's great speech at the Democratic Convention, there are enough women out there that still truly believe that there was a massive male-wing conspiracy that robbed Hilary of her nomination. While I acknowledge the rampant sexism that was directed towards Hilary during the primaries, something about the way her extreme supporters react is just slightly out of touch with reality. After all, come on people, this is Hilary Clinton- she went to Yale, she became a high powered lawyer at an influential law firm, she was one of the most involved first ladies in recent times. THEN she became a Senator and ran a tough campaign for President of the United States. Does that really look like the glass ceiling to you? If so, I really don't know what success would look like. The fact remains that Hilary Clinton is a powerful, capable and enormously successful woman who lost to another very capable, intelligent candidate for a variety of reasons, not all of which have to do with the fact that she's a woman in a still sexist system. 

You wouldn't know that from the framing of Hilary's loss by her supporters. Which makes the injection of Sarah Palin into this election becomes a much bigger deal than it needs to be. If you hear the women (mostly) who still seriously talk about the 'trauma', 'hurt', 'pain' and 'closure' associated with Hilary's loss, you have to start worrying about the possibility that McCain's move is not as crazy it may look initially.

 Liberals who worry about what Palin  means for the election are right to worry. They are more clued in than liberals who are dismissive of the move or even worse, complacent about it. If there's one thing to emulate of conservatives, it is their zeal and willingness to take almost any threat very seriously. So it's time to counter-act the Palin effect- however banal it might be. 

And if it does happen that significant numbers of Hilary supporters do cross over to the McCain-Palin ticket, I can only say this- if they truly vote for someone just because they are a certain gender (or color, for that matter) turning their back on everything they are supposed to stand for, they deserve what they get. That's democracy for you. 

UPDATE; P.S. Just finished posting this to find the news that Palin's teen daughter is pregnant. Wonder how the media will spin this...