Friday, February 23, 2007

italian government falls and (maybe) arises again

The Italian Government, a left-center coalition headed by second-time Premier Romano Prodi, fell last week after the Government lost an effective vote of confidence in the Italian Senate, in which it held an extremely narrow majority. The vote was called by Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema, apparently without much consultation with Prodi, in order to clarify support for his foreign policy, including the continued presence of Italian troops in Aghanistan and the expansion of an American military base near Vicenza in northern Italy. A number of senatori a vita (life senators), together with two far-left deputies unhappy with D'Alema's refusal to distance Italy further from the United States, either abstained or voted in the negative on the decisive ballot, giving the right a narrow victory and leading Prodi to resign a few hours later.

The fall of an Italian Government is never really a surprise, but the timing and manner of this particular debacle left even veteran italophiles somewhat puzzled. The matter on which the Government fell, foreign policy, has generally attracted less attention than domestic issues: polls show that some 60 percent of the country supports D'Alema's overall approach. Defections from the far left have been a constant threat, but somehow the Government--whether from enthusiasm for its policies or fear of a return of the Italian right--has usually muddled through. Not this time.

At week's end, Prodi was attempting to cobble together a new Government with the help of moderate parties, while former premier Silvio Berlusconi said that he was "frightened" by the continuation of a Prodi Government in any form, adding for good measure that Rome (now under left-wing control) was "a capital of drugs and shantytowns." Since no one, probably including Berlusconi, really wants new elections, the betting here is that Prodi will stumble through until the next crisis. But there has never really been a stable left-wing government in Italian history, and the recent events mark the second time in less than 10 years that former communists have, one way or another, caused a center-left coalition to collapse from within. The biggest loser is probably the country, which notwithstanding a $2 trillion economy seems unable to articulate a stable, competitive political culture. Plus ca change . . .

while the men were watching football . . .

Anthropologists studying chimpanzees in Africa have apparently concluded that females were the first to develop weapons--sharp sticks that they gnawed down with their teeth--as hunting tools. The report suggests that such behavior was a necessary adaptation because females lacked the physical strength and leisure (leisure?) to compete with males by hand. "It's not just a male behavior," said Jill Pruetz, professor of anthropology at Iowa State, in a telephone interview, adding that males have more "brawn" but females developed "creative" ways to compensate.

Now what was I saying about female university presidents . . . ?

Monday, February 19, 2007

batman siting (no comment)

The Associated Press is reporting that an Arizona middle school was shut down for 45 minutes when a student reported seeing a person dressed as Batman run across campus, jump a fence, and disappear into the desert. "We didn't want to take any chances," said a spokeswoman for the local school district. Chances of what?

Sunday, February 18, 2007

political correctness, israeli- (and italian-) style

Israel has endured a run of scandals unusual even by the country's historically feisty standards. The past year has seen the President (head of state), Moshe Katzav, indicted for rape (no this is not a misprint), and the Justice Minister, Haim Ramon, forced to leave office after he was accused of forcibly french-kissing a young soldier at an official function. That the soldier was apparently in uniform at the time, and that the event took place immediately before the vote to commence the recent Lebanon War, did little to help Ramon's cause.

This past week Israel was hit with a somewhat different scandal, involving no sex but compensating with those two other perennial favorites, politics and religion, and a bit of violence thrown in for good measure. The issue involves a book, Pasque di Sangue (Passovers of Blood), written by Ariel Toaff, an Israeli professor of Italian descent who teaches at Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv. Toaff is the son of the former Chief Rabbi of Rome and appears to be related, by blood or marriage, to a sizable percentage of Italian Jewry: to say that he comes from a distinguished lineage is a bit like saying Florence had a lot of painters. Bar Ilan is a religious university although it has had secular professors (including myself) and tries to maintain an open mind on most issues.

The shock was accordingly all the greater when Toaff's book was released by Il Mulino, a prestigious Italian publisher, last week. Without putting too fine a point on it, Toaff's book suggests that so-called "blood libel" accusations--the accusation that Jews ritually killed Christian children for use in making Passover matza (unleavened bread)--were in some limited cases probably true. While Jewish law plainly prohibits such actions, according to Toaff, small communities in northern Italy--motivated by a powerful if in the circumstances understandable hatred of Christianity--may have done so, anyway. The book focuses in particular on the case of Simon of Trent, venerated for centuries as a martyr but whose cult was suspended in the 1960s when Church experts decided the events in question had in fact not taken place. (Interestingly, Toaff places the blame on Ashkenazic or German-oriented rather than mainstream Italian Jews, which is consistent with the Italian view that all evil commences north of the Alps, but that is another story.)

Saying that blood libels may have had even an ounce of truth to them is a bit like saying that some lynchings may not have been wholly unjustified, and the response has been predictable and one-sided. Part of the response has been academic: Toaff has been attacked, in both Italy and Israel, for failing to clearly identify sources and (more seriously) for relying too completely on testimony of Jews derived under torture by Catholic authorities. But there have also been suggestions that he has simply gone too far by raising an issue with such painful repercussions for the world (and especially the Italian) Jewish communities. At last notice Toaff had withdrawn the book, now in a second printing, for unspecified "revisions"--he claims that many of the key passages were mistinterpreted-- and agreed to pay any resulting profits to Jewish organizations. His job at Bar-Ilan appeared safe, although the university called him on the carpet and expressed "extreme displeasure" at Toaff's "lack of sensitivity" and related failures.

I don't know if Toaff's research makes sense, or even if he argues what he is said to argue. (Some of the misunderstanding apparently comes for a sympathetic review by Sergio Luzzatto, an Italian history professor, who arguably exaggerated some of the book's findings.) Nor, since the book is apparently out of circulation, am I likely to find out soon. But I would make the following points.

First, I am always suspicious of people's historical methods being questioned only when they reach unpopular conclusions. If Toaff is such a careless researcher, why was he hired at such a prestigious university, and why weren't his deficiencies discovered at an earlier stage?

Second, Toaff is not the first researcher to question traditional Jewish attitudes toward antisemitism, with respect to blood libels or other issues. Put simply, the attitude frequently expressed in Jewish circles--that Jews are inevitably victims and all anti-Jewish claims are fantasies--seems improbable on several levels. That doesn't mean Toaff is right, but surely he should be permitted to investigate an alternate theory without fear of being accused of betrayal.

Finally, it is to say the least interesting that a number of Toaff's critics cannot possibly have read the book, which has appeared exclusively in Italian, although in fairness some Italian critics (pace Luzzatto) have reached a similar conclusion.

The whole affair confirms my view that ethnic studies programs, be they Jewish, Black, Italian or otherwise, are a dubious innovation with potentially quite negative implications for open scholarly inquiry. In a sense this is an unfair point, since Israeli universities will obviously have an interest in Jewish topics, and there is no necessary reason this should result in reduced academic standards. The problem is that, in practice, scholars who teach "Jewish History" or "African-American Culture" are under enormous pressure to produce conclusions that make their group look good and others, if only by comparison, bad. That even a tiny deviation from this orthodoxy can cause such an uproar--Toaff clearly believes that the overwhelming majority of blood libels were false and in no way rationalizes the resulting antisemitism--is further evidence of this point. Toaff may or may not be right, and he may or may not be silenced; but it's unlikely he'll be the last person to raise this issue.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

"sweet mud" wins european film prize

"Sweet Mud," an Israeli movie about the disintegration of a kibbutz woman in the mid-1970s, has been awarded the Crystal Bear prize at the Berlin International Film Festival. The prize is awarded to the best film as selected by a panel of seven young people, presumably because of its emphasis on the psychodrama involving the reaction of the woman's teenage son (Dvir) to his mother (Miri's) collapse in the later stages of the film. The same movie won another award for World Cinema at the Sundance Festival a little while ago.

"Sweet Mud" is a more or less deliberate mistranslation of "Adama Meshuga'at," or crazy earth, which gives a much better idea of what the film is about. On the surface yet another film about the alleged emptiness and conformity of kibbutz life--the story opens with a kibbutz veteran performing an indecent act with a cow--"Sweet Mud" draws its power from the ambiguity of the woman and her son's situation and the sense that, perhaps, her insanity is the only sane response to a world that will not allow her to pursue love and decency in a normal, adult way. In this context the film's Hebrew title--crazy earth, not crazy woman--is revealing: is there really anything wrong with Miri, or has life in this desolate outpost made her so? That Dvir ultimately takes her advice--"ha kibbutz hazeh hu mavet," this kibbutz is death, you must leave it as soon as you can--only adds to the mystery.

I saw Sweet Mud, sorry, Adama Meshuga'at in Tel Aviv one week after Borat, which has, well, a someone different appeal. The highlight here was noticing that everyone was laughing at things that appeared to be spoken in Kazakh when there were no Hebrew subtitles on the screen. The obvious answer--that Sasha Baron Cohen actually speaks in a sort of accented Hebrew when pretending to speak his native language--came to me only in mid-film, at which point I began laughing so continuously that I honestly don't remember the second half of the movie. One critic noticed that Cohen makes several grammatical mistakes, saying that he will marry to instead of with Pamela Anderson, whom he tries to place in a large sack as part of a supposed Kazakh wedding tradition. I don't think that's what the people were laughing at.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

al-sadr flees to teheran

I was fascinated by news reports that Moqtada Al-Sadr, leader of the anti-American (but mostly anti-Sunni) Mahdi Army, has fled to Iran for an indefinite period. Apparently someone forgot to tell him that the U.S. "surge" in Baghdad was not to be taken seriously. The less jovial news: Al-Sadr's presence, together with increasing evidence of Iranian involvement in killing U.S. troops, is likely to increase pressure for military action against Iran, a good idea if we're prepared for it but a bad idea if we're not. Right now, we're not.

india, italy plan to double trade in next two years

Italian and Indian companies have signed a series of agreements which are intended to lead to a doubling of trade, from $5 to $10 billion, by 2009. The agreements are an outgrowth of a recent visit by Italian Premier Romano Prodi to Mumbai at the head of a large trade delegation. A deal between Fiat and India's Tata Motors to produce pick-up trucks in Argentina was among the larger new deals. Clothing, luxury goods, and banking/finance are other areas of cooperation. There is no indication whether Prodi met Sonia Gandhi and, if he did, whether they spoke Italian (she was born near Torino and is reported to speak Hindi with a slight Italian lilt).

Monday, February 12, 2007

Rutgers-Camden holds war powers symposium

The Rutgers Law School (Camden), in conjunction with its Journal of Law and Public Policy, held an interesting symposium on Presidential powers in wartime today, the guests including our own Professors Roger Clark and Dennis Patterson and our local Congressman, Rob Andrews, whose wife happens to be our Dean of Admissions. The pizza having run out--and my being a diabetic, in any case--I had to leave somewhat early, but I think I got the general drift of the proceedings. Herewith, some random observations:

1. Andrews was rather combative towards you-know-who, suggesting that various behavior, including the abuse of presidential signing statements and threats of war against Iran without congressional approval, were troublesome and (at some point) might be impeachable offenses. The problem was that his answers left one wondering if, on some level, the Bush Administration's contempt for Congress might be somewhat justified. For example, when asked about Iran, he replied that we should work for internal political change in that country--a pretty unconvincing answer when all the factions in that country support the nuclear program. He also didn't seem to see a connection between the increasingly inherited nature of the presidency (two Bushes, two Clintons, maybe another Bush) and the imperial nature of the office, although admittedly this was a somewhat off-the-wall question, even if I did ask it.

2. Clark noted that Congress shared the blame for the problem because it had the power to change Iraq policy but wouldn't use it for its own reasons. I think those reasons are more or less clear--they'd prefer to watch Bush be hurt by the war than take the responsibility for stopping it--but he was too polite to say so.

3. Patterson tried to raise the level of the discussion by framing it as a question of balance (collective security vs. individual rights) rather than abstract legal principles, although I left before I could tell if he succeeded.

One of the things that continues to amaze me about Iraq (Iran) is the insubstantial, disconnected nature of the debate at a time when the stakes, in lives and American interests, are higher than ever. In particular I am amazed by people's ability to claim, simultaneously, that they will put pressure on Iran while withdrawing our forces from Iraq--a plainly contradictory position, especially since it is becoming increasingly clear that the Iranians are the key supporters of the anti-American Shiite militias. The good news: with the "surge" taking at least a temporary toll on the militias, and economic pressures beginning to bite on the Teheran regime, the prospect for negotiations may actually be better than it has been for some time now. Bush may thus have a window to negotiate on several issues (Iraq, the Iranian nuclear program, etc.) from a relative position of strength. Will he take it?

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Taxation and Development Website

I am too technologically daft to provide a link, but I want to give a hearty welcome to a sister blog, Taxation and Development, run by Michael McIntyre at Wayne State University with several similarly big hitters as contribuing editors The site gathers original and secondary materials on tax policy in developing countries, a subject which--depending upon your definition of "developing"--embraces the better part of the world. Mike McIntyre is an unapologetic liberal, and the site is likely to emphasize his view (i) that the distribution as well as the size of national income remain important, and (ii) that tax cooperation, rather than unbridled tax competition, must play some role in protecting distributional concerns. But he is also extremely open-minded, and an early check of the site reveals a range of scholarly opinions as well as a convenient one-stop shopping for treaties, documents, and teaching materials in the comparative tax field. Welcome to the blogosphere.

Friday, February 09, 2007

harvard names new president

Harvard will apparently announce the appointment of Drew Gilpin Faust, a history professor and head of the Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Study, as its new President shortly. Faust succeeds Lawrence Summers, who (depending on your perspective) either resigned or was ousted following controversial topics on women in the sciences and other matters last year.

The choice of Faust seems encouraging on some levels. Like Amy Guttman at Penn, she appears to be a serious scholar, although having some executive experience as suggested above. Harvard thus continues to defy the tendency in higher education to appoint professional administrators or glorified fundraisers to academic positions.

That said, the selection of Faust, and the process that produced her, are disappointing in a number of ways. University sources described her as a "consensus-builder," which in my experience usually means someone without a lot of ideas of their own. Coming after Summers, who had been hired precisely to challenge the accepted wisdom at Harvard and elsewhere, she appears to constitute something of a retreat on this score. That much of her administrative, although not necessarily scholarly, experience relates specifically to gender issues contributes to the suspicion that this effect was intentional.

Indeed, the choice of Faust--who marks the fourth (of eight) female Ivy League presidents--has mixed implications for gender on several levels. Maureen Dowd has noted a pattern in which women are named to higher positions just at the point where they begin to lose their attraction. While it may be a coincidence that a "consensus-building" woman is chosen as a reaction to an outspoken, internationally prominent man, it is nonetheless a depressing one. The impression is difficult to avoid that the people (mostly men) who run Harvard and similar institutions are using women the way that oil companies use green advertising campaigns: to provide an image of change when their purpose, in fact, is to avoid it.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

clinton, nixon, and the difference forty years makes

I have noted previously the forty year cycle in Presidential elections, which predicts the last seven elections perfectly if one reverses the parties. Thus, the Reagan 1980 and 1984 wins parallel those of Roosevelt in 1940 and 1944; Bush in 1988 won a come-from-behind victory similar to Truman in 1948; the Clinton victories (1992 and 1996) are similar in scope to those of Dwight Eisenhower; and the contested 2000 election (Bush2 v. Gore) bears eerie similarities to the equally contested 1960 contest between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon. The last three years, in which an incumbent President won re-election but had to defend an unpopular war from the confines of his ranch in central Texas, make the parallel (Bush2 and Lyndon Johnson, 1964 and 2004) almost spookie in nature.

What then of the 2008 election? The perfect parallel would be a comeback by Al Gore, who (like Nixon in 1968) would avenge his defeat eight years earlier and surge on to the Presidency. But in his absence (so far), Mrs. Clinton does pretty well. At a dull faculty presentation I jotted down the similarities betwen the Clinton 2008 campaign and that of Nixon forty years earlier. Here is what I came up with:

1. Both Clinton and Nixon are essentially running as nonideological moderates who will restore the country to sanity by ending an unpopular war and bridging domestic differences in largely unspecified ways. Nixon spoke of riots in the streets and declining respect for America overseas; Clinton speaks of an administration out of control and decling respect for America overseas. Both attempted to counteract their previous image as extremists by a series of carefully controlled, innocuous statements with relatively little substantive content.

2. Like Nixon, Clinton is especially unspecific about how she will deal with the war. Nixon claimed that he had a "secret plan" to end the war, presumably by negotiations with Russia, China, or other third parties (the war in fact lasted for his entire first term). Clinton takes both sides of the war issue but claims that she will somehow end the war in her first year in office, presumably by negotiations with Iran, Syria, or other third parties.

3. Both Nixon and Clinton were flanked by one candidate who was plainly more liberal (Rockefeller, Obama) and one who is by and large more conservative (Reagan, John Edwards) although Nixon was never seriously challenged for the nomination.

4. A vast number of people--perhaps 40 percent in each case--never really trusted either Nixon or Clinton, the election of the first (and possibly the second) doing relatively little to change this.

5. There's a Romney running around somewhat aimlessly in both races (this is admittedly a coincidence more than a substantive similarity).

None of this, of course, means that Clinton can't win. Nixon's bland strategy proved successful and he was elected to two terms, although the second ended in the Watergate scandal. (We can be reasonably sure that Mrs. Clinton will not be impeached for the same reason as her husband, although the Nixon parallel is rather less certain). One possible drawback is that the likely Republican candidates (McCain, Giuliani, etc.) are less tied to the incumbent President than was Hubert Humphrey in 1968; and even Humphrey nearly won. On the other hand, there is no likely third party candidate a la George Wallace, so that the anti-incumbent vote is likely to be more unified than in 1968.

But the Nixon parallel does suggest some of the difficulties Clinton may face if she does become President with an extremely vague platform and a large number of people who don't trust her. Like Nixon--or for that matter, like her immediate predecessor--Clinton would probably have a large number of enemies together with a broad but shallow political base, and many in her own party uncertain where she stood or what she believed in. All of these would tend to give her relatively little room for maneuver, and the possibility of quickly collapsing support if things didn't go well.

One other interesting parallel is the fate of the 1968 "also rans." While Nixon got the nomination pretty easily, both of his challengers outlasted him in politics, Nelson Rockefeller becoming Vice President during the Ford Administration and Ronald Reagan becoming, well, Ronald Reagan. Attention here naturally falls on Obama, but I wonder if Edwards may not be the sleeper candidate, either this year of in the future if Clinton fails. I've always thought of Edwards as something of a windbag: Chris Matthews memorably said that he sounded like he wanted to sue Al Qaeda rather than combat them. But he has a strong populist appeal and would immediately put in play numerous states that Clinton or Obama would have a very difficult time carrying. Is he yesterday's news, or a future President? Only time will tell.