Friday, July 27, 2012

An explosive combination in East Asia

One of the very few places where the Obama administration seems to have gotten the policy largely right is in the Far East, where China is acting a lot like Japan circa 1937. The US has had success building a loose alliance of states -- Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Vietnam (yes, Vietnam!) and Indonesia, in addition to the usual Taiwan -- who are victims of Chinese bullying. And they need it, for things are continuing to get worse, as a detailed in a new report:
The disputes between China and four of its Southeast Asian neighbors over claims in the South China Sea have become so intense, the prospect of open conflict is becoming more likely, an authoritative new report says.

The disputes, enmeshed in the competition for energy resources, have reached an impasse, according to the report, by the International Crisis Group, a research organization that has become a leading authority on the frictions.
“All of the trends are in the wrong direction, and prospects of resolution are diminishing,” said the report, titled “Stirring Up the South China Sea: Regional Responses.”
The pessimistic conclusion came a day after China stepped up its political and military control of the Paracel and Spratly Islands, which both Vietnam and the Philippines claim, and the Macclesfield Bank, claimed by the Philippines. The islands are known in Chinese as Xisha, Nansha and Zhongsha.
On Monday, the Philippine president, Benigno S. Aquino, III, announced plans to buy aircraft, including attack helicopters, that could be used in territorial disputes in the South China Sea. China and the Philippines have competing claims there over the Scarborough Shoal and potentially energy-rich underwater ground around Reed Bank, among other areas.

Fed up with the Taliban?

As the Olympics begin and I get buried in my book, lotsa interesting stuff are happening around the globe.

Via Hot Air, it seems that there are rumblings of Afghan exasperation with the Taliban:
A series of “uprisings” by local tribes against the Taliban Islamist terror group in Afghanistan are beginning to spread throughout the country, a sign U.S. and allied efforts to stabilize the country are increasing, according to U.S. officials.
The growing popular opposition began in May and has been detected taking root in eight provinces in the northeast and eastern parts of the country. It is being driven in part by Afghan nationalism and opposition to foreign terrorist support for the Taliban, an Islamist extremist group that took over the country in 1996 and backed the al Qaeda terror group in its attacks against the Untied States.
The Taliban was ousted by the October 2001 U.S. invasion, but remains a potent insurgency that seeks to retake control in Kabul.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai told state television July 17 that the popular uprisings were “of the people,” and a reaction to the Taliban’s “excessive cruelty, destroyed and burned schools, martyred young people and students, and harassed families.”
The Taliban uses terror tactics to coerce local tribes and the population generally into supporting its insurgency and opposing U.S., allied and Afghan government forces. It is seeking to reestablish an Islamist state under Sharia law and has set up its own shadow-government system.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The politics of chicken

I've been following the controversy surrounding Chick-fil-A with considerable amusement. In case you missed it, Chick-fil-A, the fast-food chain specializing in chicken, has for years been known as a right-wing Christian chain, so much so that its restaurants remain closed on Sundays in observance of the Sabbath. They have long opposed gay marriage. Now, they reiterate their opposition to gay marriage and for some reason leftists have their boxers in a bunch and are calling for a boycott of Chick-fil-A. Worse, now the mayors of Boston and Chicago are threatening to bring the hammer of government down on Chick-fil-A.

It's fun to enjoy the hypocrisy of leftists who scream "freedom of speech" whenever someone rips the United States or calls for horrible things to happen to conservatives but then tries to shut down any speech with which they disagree or that uses the same language that they do, as I know from personal experience. "Freedom of speech for me, but not for thee." It usually works, though, because conservatives usually cave.

Let me be perfectly clear: Chick-fil-A's opposition to gay marriage is detestable and bigoted, based on an erroneous interpretation of the Bible that does not take into account historical context, an interpretation that is shared by many religions, unfortunately including my own ROMAN Catholic Church. Gay marriage hurts no one and makes gays happy. There is no rational reason to oppose it.

That said, it's Chick-fil-A's right. Currently gay marriage is the subject of public debate, and the heads of Chick-fil-A have every right to take part in that debate. They should not be punished for asserting the rights that each and every one of us has to speak and engage in public debate, no matter how wrong speech is. Punishing them only chills and stifles public speech, but especialy at a time like this we need more speech, not less. Sure, you'll hear a lot of wrong things, a lot of crazy things, but you'll also hear a lot of good things, good things you would not hear if you tried to ban all the wrong and crazy things.

Let Chick-fil-A say what they want, no matter how wrong it is. Do not boycott them. As much as I find their opposition to gay marriage reprehensible, I plan to pay them a visit and maybe get that Chicken Caesar Wrap and waffle fries. And, of course, a giant Diet Coke with free refills. I will disagree vehemently with what they say but I will stand with them to defend their right to say it.

And I will even give them a tip to help their business: I think Iran might be a lucrative market for Chick-fil-A. After all, Iran is now facing a serious chicken crisis ...

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The disappearing Aral Sea

Little known fact to most of the world: due to environmental crimes by the old Soviet Union, the Aral Sea in Central Asia is disappearing. I've been aware of it only vaguely, but Columbia has an interesting report on the issue:
The Aral Sea is situated in Central Asia, between the Southern part of Kazakhstan and Northern Uzbekistan. Up until the third quarter of the 20th century it was the world?s fourth largest saline lake, and contained 10grams of salt per liter. The two rivers that feed it are the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers, respectively reaching the Sea through the South and the North. The Soviet government decided in the 1960s to divert those rivers so that they could irrigate the desert region surrounding the Sea in order to favor agriculture rather than supply the Aral Sea basin. The reason why we decided to explore the implications up to today of this human alteration of the environment is precisely that certain characteristics of the region, from its geography to its population growth, account for dramatic consequences since the canals have been dug. Those consequences range from unexpected climate feedbacks to public health issues, affecting the lives of millions of people in and out of the region.

By establishing a program to promote agriculture and especially that of cotton, Soviet government led by Khrouchtchev in the 1950s deliberately deprived the Aral Sea of its two main sources of water income, which almost immediately led to less water arriving to the sea. Not only was all this water being diverted into canals at the expense of the Aral Sea supply, but the majority of it was being soaked up by the desert and blatantly wasted (between 25% and 75% of it, depending on the time period). The water level in the Aral Sea started drastically decreasing from the 1960s onward. In normal conditions, the Aral Sea gets approximately one fifth of its water supply through rainfall, while the rest is delivered to it by the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers. Evaporation causes the water level to decrease by the same amount that flows into the Sea, making it sustainable as long as inflow is equal to evaporation on average. Therefore the diversion of rivers is at the origin of the imbalance that caused the sea to slowly desiccate over the last 4 decades.
It's an interesting read, if you don't mind getting a bit technical as to, say, levels of salinity. Though, remember, the salinity levelis why Egypt, once the granary of the Roman Empire, can no longer even feed itself.

And for those who, like, me, want pretty pictures, take a look at the dramatic satellite photos of the disappearance of the Aral Sea:

This is pretty amazing stuff here. Worth a read.

Friday, July 20, 2012

ABC's other crime of the day

A lot of people are talking about how, in its rush to blame the Aurora, CO shooting at the premiere of The Dark Knight Rises on the Tea Party, ABC News fingered the wrong guy. Despicable and indicative of media bias, to be sure. But that is, in my opinion, not ABC's only crime of the day.

I went to see The Dark Knight Rises myself today. (Highly recommend it, by the way.) Before the trailers the movie theater was running its normal loop of Entertainment Tonight-type promotions fro upcoming musical releases and new TV series.

The TV series featured today was one ABC is producing for this fall's season. It is called Last Resort.

The plot is this: the skipper of a US Navy nuclear submarine, the Colorado, receives an order to launch nuclear missiles at three cities in Pakistan. He refuses, on the grounds of, as far as I can tell, inability to confirm the identity of the person issuing that order. What happens next is not clear, but the Colorado is fired on by another US submarine. The promo hints at some sort of nefarious conspiracy within the US government but outside the chain of command. The Colorado is forced to hide near a tropical island where the skipper threatens to use his nuclear missiles on the US if anyone else comes after them.

Question: am I the only one who find this plot line for Last Resort tremendously offensive?

The end game in Syria

It looks as repeatedly knocking out the legs of the Assad regime in Damascus is finally having the effect of putting it on the edge, as Walter Russell Mead calls it. The latest leg to be broken:

The killing on Wednesday of President Bashar al-Assad’s key security aides in a brazen bombing attack, close to Mr. Assad’s own residence, called into question the ability of a government that depends on an insular group of loyalists to function effectively as it battles a strengthening opposition.

The strike dealt a potent blow to the government, as much for where it took place as for the individuals who were targeted: the very cabinet ministers and intelligence chiefs who have coordinated the government’s iron-fisted approach to the uprising. The defense minister and the president’s brother-in-law were both killed, and others were seriously wounded.
The attack on the leadership’s inner sanctum as fighting raged in sections of the city for the fourth day suggested that the uprising had reached a decisive moment in the overall struggle for Syria. The battle for the capital, the center of Assad family power, appears to have begun. Though there was no indication he was wounded, Mr. Assad stayed out of public view — unusual but not unprecedented in a secretive country where the government has long tried to present an image of quiet control.
In Washington, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said that Syria “is rapidly spinning out of control,” and warned Mr. Assad’s government to safeguard its large stockpile of chemical weapons. “It’s obvious what is happening in Syria is a real escalation,” he said at a joint news conference with the British defense minister, Philip Hammond.
Wait! Wha-What? Syria has chemical weapons? A large stockpile of them? I wonder where they came from.

Maybe it's time we re-examine those mysterious convoys observed leaving Saddam Hussein's Iraq for Syria just before our 2003 invasion. But I digress ...

Monday, July 16, 2012

A question for Joe Paterno

I must admit I feel betrayed. I probably have no right to, but I feel betrayed nonetheless.

Last fall, when the Jerry Sandusky Scandal at Penn State was getting white hot and the sharks were circling anyone who was seen as helping to cover up the crimes of Sandusky, including Penn State Athletic Director Tim Curley, Vice President Gary Schultz, President Graham Spanier and Head Coach Joe Paterno, I wrote a piece called In Defense of Joe Paterno.

The post described my own experience with people who had been accused falsely of child molestation, whose lives had been ruined beyond repair by what in at least one case was a blatant falsehood combined with a zealotry that makes any such accusation a case of guilty until proven innocent. Honest people have to be very careful in dealing with such charges in order to investigate them properly and fully while making certain innocent people are not harmed by false allegations.

While I offered no defense for the actions of Curley or Schultz, who are now facing criminal charges, I did offer some for Joe Paterno (hence, curiously enough, the title In Defense of Joe Paterno). My position was, basically, that he may have been a powerful football coach, but allegations of child molestation were not in his area of expertise. His taking an active role in an investigation of child molestation would be the proverbial bull in the china shop.

And, based on the information available at that time, it looked like Paterno took no active role in the investigation.

It was because of that post that I spent this past weekend reading the Freeh Report. I wanted to see if my giving the benefit of the doubt to Joe Paterno was right. If I was wrong, the only honest thing to do is to not ignore it or sweep it under the rug but to admit it publicly.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Reading the Qur'an in its historical context

To me one of the most interesting facets about the Bible, in both its King (not LeBron) James and proper Catholic formats, is its historical context. The Vatican has always had an odd, almost contradictory dichotomy in its analysis of the Bible in that it works very, very hard to understand and analyze its historical context (we get historical discussions in Sunday homilies very frequently) -- and then works equally hard to ignore it (for instance, Biblical prohibition on homosexuality is likely rooted in pagan worship and the need to expand the Judeo-Christian population; prohibition of women priests likely due to secondary place of women in ancient society, changing of which Christ thought was putting too much on his plate for one time; and, again, the need to expand the Judeo-Christian population). But contrary to the ideas of atheists, understanding the historical and scientific context of the Bible does not disprove it, but for me at least only deepens belief in it. The Bible, like the Iliad, the Epic of Gilgamesh and many other legends, may distort, it may exaggerate, it may mislead, it may omit, it may gloss over, it may evade, but it does not lie. For pretty much everything you read in the Bible, you can be certain that there is at least some basis in fact.

Now, some brave souls are trying to apply that same historical scholarship to the Qur'an. Peter Berger explains:
The Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) was founded in 1880 as an association of Biblical scholars with a Protestant theological commitment. Since then it has developed into the largest professional association concerned with Biblical and related studies; it is now strongly committed to a theologically neutral methodology of modern historical scholarship. The SBL has just received a grant of $140,000 from the Henry Luce Foundation for a three-year consultation, which is to plan for a professional association of Koranic studies. [Note: The announcement uses throughout the spelling Qur’an/Qur’anic, which is a closer transliteration of the Arabic original. Since this blog is a most unlikely candidate for the planned organization, I use here the more conventional English spelling.]
John Kutsko, a professor of Biblical studies at Emory University and executive director of the SBL, will head this initiative. The announcement pointed to the unprecedented interest in Islam both in Western academia and in the broader public, which makes the establishment of the planned organization very timely. Kutsko emphasized that the SBL will not direct or determine the agenda of the consultation (or, by implication, of the organization to result from it); its role is to be that of facilitator. I have no doubt that this is a sincere intention. However, it is fair to assume that what the aim here is modern scholarship, though presumably traditional Islamic scholars may be part of the conversation. I don’t think that what the SBL or the Luce Foundation wants to support is, say, the methodology of a fundamentalist madrassah in Pakistan. In its self-description the SBL says that it is “devoted to the critical investigation of the Bible”. A co-director of the consultation says that it would, among other things, seek to approach the Koran in the context in which the text arose, “as an historical, literary and religious text.” “Critical”, “context”, “historical” – these are words, used in connection with the Koran, that could get you killed in many parts of the Muslim world. But let me leave aside for the moment the question of the likelihood that such an approach could get a hearing among traditional Muslims. Rather I will ask a different question:  Given the core affirmations of Islamic faith, is this approach religiously plausible for believing Muslims? It goes without saying that only Muslims can decide what they can or cannot believe; a non-Muslim can be a historian of Islam, he cannot be an Islamic theologian. However, a sympathetic outsider can ask a question that does not presuppose belief: Are there intellectual resources for such an approach within the Muslim tradition?
A short answer to this question is yes. This answer, though, needs to be explicated.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Hong Kong realizes China is no friend

Now, who did not see this coming?
Just hours after Chinese President Hu Jintao swore-in Leung Chun-ying as Hong Kong’s new chief executive, tens of thousands of residents took to the streets on the 15thanniversary of the city’s return to Chinese rule. Whether you believe the organizers, who claimed there were 400,000 marchers in the scorching heat, or the police, who estimated the crowd at 63,000 at its peak, the turnout for the annual demonstration was the biggest in eight years, much higher than expected. Protestors wanted Leung, in office just hours, to resign.
That’s a bad sign for the territory’s new leader. “This is a political crisis for Leung,” said Ivan Choy of Chinese University in Hong Kong to the South China Morning Post. “I don’t see anywhere else in the world where so many have taken to the street on the first day a government comes into office.” A banner headline in the Chinese-language Apple Daily News blared, “Leung Chun-ying Becomes a Lame Duck.”
Opinion polling conducted by Hong Kong University on the eve of his inauguration put Leung’s popularity at 51.5 percent, down 4.2 percent from the previous month. Almost 40 percent said they did not trust the Hong Kong government.

Barbarians destroying historic treasures in Timbuktu

Barbarians. There is no other way to describe Islamists who want to force adherence to Shar'ia law like the Taliban, al Qaida or, now, Ansar Dine:
In the ongoing struggle between northern Mali’s secessionist Taureg fighters and a local Islamic jihadist group, Ansar Dine, the Islamists claim to have driven all remaining rebels from a third and final large town in the region. If the reports are accurate it would complete their control over a lawless area that may serve as a stronghold for al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups in the Maghreb.
Strengthened by the return of experienced and well-armed Tuareg soldiers hired by Libya’s Muammer Gaddafi, the secessionists worked with Asnar Dine in January to beat back the feeble Malian national forces. Their alliance, however, was superficial – divided by fundamental tribal and religious differences, it took only a few weeks before the two groups violently turned on each other.
The Islamists, meanwhile, are celebrating their win by taking a leaf out of the Taliban’s Afghan playbook. Just as the Taliban destroyed ancient Buddhist sculptures in Afghanistan, the Ansar is going after the memorials and tombs of Sufi saints and other world heritage buildings in Timbuktu.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

It's the 4th of July

And my Pittsburgh Pirates are in first place.

It's time for the old scoreboard video known simply as "The Train:"

The last time my Pittsburgh Pirates were good was in 1990-1992, when, I swear, I was the only Pirate fan on the Ohio State campus.

That was just about the last time the Pirates used the Train, which the crowds always loved. They just brought the Train back. We just got good again. Coincidence? I think not.