Commentary Magazine


Posts For: December 2, 2010

RE: A Change, Literally, in the Meaning of the Word “Life”

I certainly agree with John that this is a very significant development, but I’m not sure it is quite so epic-making. For one thing, this was life created (or rather evolved) in a Petri dish. It was the ancestors of these bacteria who came from the ghastly waters of Mono Lake and had evolved there to be arsenic-tolerant. See this report in the Wall Street Journal:

The bacteria were dredged from the briny sludge of California’s Mono Lake, where the water is richly laced with arsenic and with bacteria that can survive in it. In the lab, the researchers grew the bacteria in Petri dishes in which phosphate salt normally essential for life was gradually replaced by arsenic, until the bacteria could grow without needing phosphate.

We have been finding life in places no one thought it could exist — such as hot springs in Yellowstone that sometimes exceed the boiling point of water, the tar in Pitch lake in Trinidad, and near “black smokers” many thousands of feet beneath the sea — for decades. These last organisms are completely independent of what was long thought to be another sine qua non of life: the energy of the sun, either directly, as in plants, or indirectly, as in animals. These “extremophiles” testify to the enormous power of evolution to create organisms that can exploit almost any environment. Read More

I certainly agree with John that this is a very significant development, but I’m not sure it is quite so epic-making. For one thing, this was life created (or rather evolved) in a Petri dish. It was the ancestors of these bacteria who came from the ghastly waters of Mono Lake and had evolved there to be arsenic-tolerant. See this report in the Wall Street Journal:

The bacteria were dredged from the briny sludge of California’s Mono Lake, where the water is richly laced with arsenic and with bacteria that can survive in it. In the lab, the researchers grew the bacteria in Petri dishes in which phosphate salt normally essential for life was gradually replaced by arsenic, until the bacteria could grow without needing phosphate.

We have been finding life in places no one thought it could exist — such as hot springs in Yellowstone that sometimes exceed the boiling point of water, the tar in Pitch lake in Trinidad, and near “black smokers” many thousands of feet beneath the sea — for decades. These last organisms are completely independent of what was long thought to be another sine qua non of life: the energy of the sun, either directly, as in plants, or indirectly, as in animals. These “extremophiles” testify to the enormous power of evolution to create organisms that can exploit almost any environment.

The environmental movement has been the propaganda engine behind the ludicrous idea that life is delicate, a bunch of butterflies that can only thrive in a benign — and preferably human-free — environment. In enviro-speak, every ecosystem is a fragile one, every species threatened. In fact, of course, life is tenacious in the extreme and both can and will evolve as necessary and rebound from abuse with surprising speed.

I think the true eureka moment will come when we find an exoplanet (one that orbits a star other than the sun) that has a large percentage of molecular oxygen in its atmosphere. That moment might come soon. Before 1995, we knew of no exoplanets and could only speculate as to how many, if any, existed. Today we know of more than 500 and the number is growing rapidly. It will soon explode, thanks to the Kepler Space Telescope, designed specifically to find them. We are not yet able to analyze their atmospheres, but we will, at least in some cases, be able to soon.

And when we find one with lots of free oxygen, it will be headlines around the world. Why? Because oxygen is chemically very reactive, forming molecules with abandon. So it doesn’t hang around in the free state very long. Earth is the only place we know where there is lots of free oxygen (about 20 percent of the atmosphere). And the reason is that earth teems with plant life that absorbs carbon dioxide, uses sunlight to crack it, builds more plants with the carbon, and spits out the oxygen. We animals then exploit the oxygen (and the plants). Such a find won’t prove the existence of non-earth life, but it would be a powerful piece of evidence for the proposition, one that would cause a surge of scientific investigation such as we haven’t seen since the Manhattan Project.

And of course, finding Earth-like life won’t rule out in any way planets with utterly alien biologies, built on molecular structures we cannot even dream of. Since we don’t know their signatures (such as free oxygen), however, finding them will be a long time coming (assuming they don’t land in Central Park and ask — politely one hopes — to be taken to our leader).

My guess is that life, Earth-like or otherwise, exists wherever conditions allow it to. After all, it arose here on Earth almost as soon as things settled down enough to make it possible.

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Tax Cuts, Talking Points, Silly Maneuvers

So this afternoon, the lame-duck House of Representatives — still controlled by Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats — pulled a fast one by using an already existing bill as the vehicle for a vote on the Bush tax cuts in the way they want to vote on them, with the top rate jumping up while the others stay constant. This is pointless, since negotiations continue between the president and Republicans that everybody thinks will lead to a compromise bill that keeps all the tax cuts in place. That bill will have to be taken up at the beginning of the next session instead of now, which will create accounting headaches but not make all that much difference. Republicans voted against the trick.

It’s a nice piece of theater, I suppose, and it led Markos Moulitsas of the Daily Kos, the premier website of the populist hard left, to quote approvingly on Twitter from a follower of his: “If Dems were any good at messaging, they’d be all over TV saying Republicans just voted to raise taxes on 95% of Americans.”

Oh, Democrats will, and there will be screaming and yelling on cable shows about it. But there’s a simple reason “messaging” like this doesn’t work. It doesn’t conform with reality. People who care about these things know that Republicans are for lower taxes, and they know this because it’s true.

You can make a case that the Republican fondness for lower taxes is fiscally irresponsible, or it’s bad because government needs more dollars to fund social programs, or any number of other complaints. But saying Republicans are supporters of higher taxes is like saying Democrats don’t care about the environment. You can say it, and you can even offer little bits of evidence to prove it (the Kennedys blocked wind farms on Cape Cod), but it doesn’t ring true and people won’t believe it.

Indulging in the belief that politics is about “messaging” as opposed to core beliefs is one of the great temptations for people whose own views are not actually that popular and wish to believe the problem is just one of communication rather than essence.

So this afternoon, the lame-duck House of Representatives — still controlled by Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats — pulled a fast one by using an already existing bill as the vehicle for a vote on the Bush tax cuts in the way they want to vote on them, with the top rate jumping up while the others stay constant. This is pointless, since negotiations continue between the president and Republicans that everybody thinks will lead to a compromise bill that keeps all the tax cuts in place. That bill will have to be taken up at the beginning of the next session instead of now, which will create accounting headaches but not make all that much difference. Republicans voted against the trick.

It’s a nice piece of theater, I suppose, and it led Markos Moulitsas of the Daily Kos, the premier website of the populist hard left, to quote approvingly on Twitter from a follower of his: “If Dems were any good at messaging, they’d be all over TV saying Republicans just voted to raise taxes on 95% of Americans.”

Oh, Democrats will, and there will be screaming and yelling on cable shows about it. But there’s a simple reason “messaging” like this doesn’t work. It doesn’t conform with reality. People who care about these things know that Republicans are for lower taxes, and they know this because it’s true.

You can make a case that the Republican fondness for lower taxes is fiscally irresponsible, or it’s bad because government needs more dollars to fund social programs, or any number of other complaints. But saying Republicans are supporters of higher taxes is like saying Democrats don’t care about the environment. You can say it, and you can even offer little bits of evidence to prove it (the Kennedys blocked wind farms on Cape Cod), but it doesn’t ring true and people won’t believe it.

Indulging in the belief that politics is about “messaging” as opposed to core beliefs is one of the great temptations for people whose own views are not actually that popular and wish to believe the problem is just one of communication rather than essence.

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Net Neutrality and Your Internet Bill

I must applaud John for making the philosophical case for opposing the “net neutrality” plan, which he accurately identifies as a yawn-inducing, eyelid-closing irritant for most of us. The philosophical case is ultimately more important than the “wow, this hits my wallet” case — but it’s the latter that is starting to be clarified in the business press. The Wall Street Journal reports today that the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) plan to impose net neutrality will include an authorization for Internet providers to meter net usage and charge more to those who move more data around on the Web.

Today the average customer pays for a certain minimum level of bandwidth, regardless of how much data he interacts with. Under net neutrality, he will be charged for a capped amount of data per month, beyond which he will pay extra. Most of us probably think of this as a limit on our ability to download things: to view videos or play games online. But the entertainment-industry press reports from a different perspective – one that every content provider, including bloggers, ought to pay attention to. Among content creators in Hollywood, it is understood that a net-neutrality scheme based on data surcharges will put smaller, less-well-heeled producers at a disadvantage when it comes to uploading their content and ensuring it is available to consumers.

Big media corporations have the deep pockets to keep their content available to Web consumers even if the basis for user billing shifts to the amount of data involved, as opposed to the data rate. If net neutrality is implemented on the proposed basis, those corporations can absorb the extra costs to their customers; an obvious method would be subscription schemes that relieve customers of data surcharges. But however many permutations there are for adjusting to net neutrality, its bottom line for smaller content providers will be limiting the types of content they can offer. Live-streaming, as well as Web distribution of longer videos, will be increasingly limited to the bigger, established corporations. Data surcharges will limit others — both customers and providers — to word processing and low-resolution images. Surcharges may well limit the amount of Web research bloggers like those at CONTENTIONS can do.

Net neutrality will make the same level of service cost users more. This first-order impact is probably the most significant to the immediate political equation. It will be unpopular, particularly among online video and gaming customers, and it will affect a lot of medium-size businesses. But in the longer term, net neutrality promises to be inimical to our opportunities for free intellectual communication. Today, the Internet is a unique vehicle for initiative in that regard. There is no information medium of similar reach to which unlicensed content providers have access, with low overhead and little regulation.

It is instructive to review the history of regulation for the cable industry. Channelization, licensing, and regulation of content providers are the norm to which the FCC will revert whenever it is given the opportunity. With net neutrality, the FCC appears to be starting down that path — not by explicitly declaring an intention to, but by preparing to price many of the less-regulated providers out of the Internet content business. If the principle of regulatory authority is established, the FCC is unlikely to stop with pushing prices up. John is right: even if you can’t remember exactly what net neutrality is about, knowing that it would expand the basis for federal regulation is a good reason to be “agin’ it.”

I must applaud John for making the philosophical case for opposing the “net neutrality” plan, which he accurately identifies as a yawn-inducing, eyelid-closing irritant for most of us. The philosophical case is ultimately more important than the “wow, this hits my wallet” case — but it’s the latter that is starting to be clarified in the business press. The Wall Street Journal reports today that the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) plan to impose net neutrality will include an authorization for Internet providers to meter net usage and charge more to those who move more data around on the Web.

Today the average customer pays for a certain minimum level of bandwidth, regardless of how much data he interacts with. Under net neutrality, he will be charged for a capped amount of data per month, beyond which he will pay extra. Most of us probably think of this as a limit on our ability to download things: to view videos or play games online. But the entertainment-industry press reports from a different perspective – one that every content provider, including bloggers, ought to pay attention to. Among content creators in Hollywood, it is understood that a net-neutrality scheme based on data surcharges will put smaller, less-well-heeled producers at a disadvantage when it comes to uploading their content and ensuring it is available to consumers.

Big media corporations have the deep pockets to keep their content available to Web consumers even if the basis for user billing shifts to the amount of data involved, as opposed to the data rate. If net neutrality is implemented on the proposed basis, those corporations can absorb the extra costs to their customers; an obvious method would be subscription schemes that relieve customers of data surcharges. But however many permutations there are for adjusting to net neutrality, its bottom line for smaller content providers will be limiting the types of content they can offer. Live-streaming, as well as Web distribution of longer videos, will be increasingly limited to the bigger, established corporations. Data surcharges will limit others — both customers and providers — to word processing and low-resolution images. Surcharges may well limit the amount of Web research bloggers like those at CONTENTIONS can do.

Net neutrality will make the same level of service cost users more. This first-order impact is probably the most significant to the immediate political equation. It will be unpopular, particularly among online video and gaming customers, and it will affect a lot of medium-size businesses. But in the longer term, net neutrality promises to be inimical to our opportunities for free intellectual communication. Today, the Internet is a unique vehicle for initiative in that regard. There is no information medium of similar reach to which unlicensed content providers have access, with low overhead and little regulation.

It is instructive to review the history of regulation for the cable industry. Channelization, licensing, and regulation of content providers are the norm to which the FCC will revert whenever it is given the opportunity. With net neutrality, the FCC appears to be starting down that path — not by explicitly declaring an intention to, but by preparing to price many of the less-regulated providers out of the Internet content business. If the principle of regulatory authority is established, the FCC is unlikely to stop with pushing prices up. John is right: even if you can’t remember exactly what net neutrality is about, knowing that it would expand the basis for federal regulation is a good reason to be “agin’ it.”

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Darn, No Vuvuzelas!

So the 2018 World Cup will be held in Russia; the 2022 in Qatar. Makes perfect sense to me. Soccer thrives in undemocratic or authoritarian countries. It’s the sport of czars and emirs, if you will. The din of the plastic vuvuzela horn captures perfectly the game’s endless monotony, and the U.S. is missing out on nothing.

But the World Cup decision sure is telling. It’s rather wince-making now to read things like this, from February 3, 2009:

The U.S. Soccer Federation thinks the election of President Barack Obama will help persuade FIFA to award the 2018 or 2022 World Cup to the United States.

“Given everything that, frankly, President Obama has said, everything he stands for, everything he’s talked about in terms of reaching out to the world,” U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati said Monday, “that trying to bring the global game to the United States and opening our borders up for a festival of 32 countries and hundreds of thousands of people from all corners of the world would be viewed in a very positive way.”

Although many wish it weren’t so, there is something inherently paradoxical about “trying to bring the global game to the United States.” If we can now just get back to the business of bringing the American game to everyone else.

So the 2018 World Cup will be held in Russia; the 2022 in Qatar. Makes perfect sense to me. Soccer thrives in undemocratic or authoritarian countries. It’s the sport of czars and emirs, if you will. The din of the plastic vuvuzela horn captures perfectly the game’s endless monotony, and the U.S. is missing out on nothing.

But the World Cup decision sure is telling. It’s rather wince-making now to read things like this, from February 3, 2009:

The U.S. Soccer Federation thinks the election of President Barack Obama will help persuade FIFA to award the 2018 or 2022 World Cup to the United States.

“Given everything that, frankly, President Obama has said, everything he stands for, everything he’s talked about in terms of reaching out to the world,” U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati said Monday, “that trying to bring the global game to the United States and opening our borders up for a festival of 32 countries and hundreds of thousands of people from all corners of the world would be viewed in a very positive way.”

Although many wish it weren’t so, there is something inherently paradoxical about “trying to bring the global game to the United States.” If we can now just get back to the business of bringing the American game to everyone else.

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Turns Out Russia Is Still Russia

You can’t “reset” diplomacy in a diplomatic ghost town. Here’s the New York Times on newly leaked cables sent from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow: “The Kremlin displays scant ability or inclination to reform what one cable characterized as a ‘modern brand of authoritarianism’ accepted with resignation by the ruled,” reports C.J. Chivers. “Moreover, the cables reveal the limits of American influence within Russia and an evident dearth of diplomatic sources. The internal correspondence repeatedly reflected the analyses of an embassy whose staff was narrowly contained and had almost no access to Mr. Putin’s inner circle.”

Also exploded is the appealing notion that President Dmitry Medvedev either wields genuine presidential power greater than Putin’s or represents some new, reform-minded Kremlin. “The cables portray Mr. Putin as enjoying supremacy over all other Russian public figures,” and “Mr. Medvedev, the prime minister’s understudy, is the lesser part of a strange ‘tandemocracy’ and ‘plays Robin to Putin’s Batman.’”

So we’ve been hanging our hopes on the boy wonder. In June, Barack Obama praised Medvedev’s “vision for modernization in Russia, especially high-tech innovation as a personal passion of the president.” But the Times notes that “a veritable kaleidoscope of corruption thrived in Moscow, much of it under the protection of a mayor who served at the president’s pleasure.” Chivers writes that “Western businesses sometimes managed to pursue their interests by personally engaging senior Russian officials, including President Medvedev, rather than getting lost in bureaucratic channels.”

That bureaucratic labyrinth is apparently reserved for American diplomats. Meanwhile, liberals rage on about the urgent need to ratify New START so that our helpful Russian partners don’t lose faith in us.

The WikiLeaks fiasco continues to demonstrate the foreign policy naiveté of the Obama administration and confirm the suspicions of conservative critics. Yesterday, in Tablet, Lee Smith detailed eight points on which the “Wikileaks cable dump vindicates the right,” regarding Middle East policy. Today we’re seeing more evidence of this unfortunate vindication in areas beyond. It’s not that this whole episode compromises our standing around the world; rather, it reveals the ways in which we’ve been doing that all by ourselves for two years.

You can’t “reset” diplomacy in a diplomatic ghost town. Here’s the New York Times on newly leaked cables sent from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow: “The Kremlin displays scant ability or inclination to reform what one cable characterized as a ‘modern brand of authoritarianism’ accepted with resignation by the ruled,” reports C.J. Chivers. “Moreover, the cables reveal the limits of American influence within Russia and an evident dearth of diplomatic sources. The internal correspondence repeatedly reflected the analyses of an embassy whose staff was narrowly contained and had almost no access to Mr. Putin’s inner circle.”

Also exploded is the appealing notion that President Dmitry Medvedev either wields genuine presidential power greater than Putin’s or represents some new, reform-minded Kremlin. “The cables portray Mr. Putin as enjoying supremacy over all other Russian public figures,” and “Mr. Medvedev, the prime minister’s understudy, is the lesser part of a strange ‘tandemocracy’ and ‘plays Robin to Putin’s Batman.’”

So we’ve been hanging our hopes on the boy wonder. In June, Barack Obama praised Medvedev’s “vision for modernization in Russia, especially high-tech innovation as a personal passion of the president.” But the Times notes that “a veritable kaleidoscope of corruption thrived in Moscow, much of it under the protection of a mayor who served at the president’s pleasure.” Chivers writes that “Western businesses sometimes managed to pursue their interests by personally engaging senior Russian officials, including President Medvedev, rather than getting lost in bureaucratic channels.”

That bureaucratic labyrinth is apparently reserved for American diplomats. Meanwhile, liberals rage on about the urgent need to ratify New START so that our helpful Russian partners don’t lose faith in us.

The WikiLeaks fiasco continues to demonstrate the foreign policy naiveté of the Obama administration and confirm the suspicions of conservative critics. Yesterday, in Tablet, Lee Smith detailed eight points on which the “Wikileaks cable dump vindicates the right,” regarding Middle East policy. Today we’re seeing more evidence of this unfortunate vindication in areas beyond. It’s not that this whole episode compromises our standing around the world; rather, it reveals the ways in which we’ve been doing that all by ourselves for two years.

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A Change, Literally, in the Meaning of the Word “Life”

And so, as we go on in our daily lives and politicians wrangle in Washington, NASA announces what may be the most important news not only of the year, but of the young century:

NASA has discovered a completely new life form that doesn’t share the biological building blocks of anything currently living in planet Earth….They have found a bacteria whose DNA is completely alien to what we know today. Instead of using phosphorus, the bacteria uses arsenic. All life on Earth is made of six components: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur. Every being, from the smallest amoeba to the largest whale, share the same life stream. Our DNA blocks are all the same But not this one. This one is completely different. Discovered in the poisonous Mono Lake, California, this bacteria is made of arsenic, something that was thought to be completely impossible.

A thousand years from now, this may be the only thing people will know about the year 2010.

And so, as we go on in our daily lives and politicians wrangle in Washington, NASA announces what may be the most important news not only of the year, but of the young century:

NASA has discovered a completely new life form that doesn’t share the biological building blocks of anything currently living in planet Earth….They have found a bacteria whose DNA is completely alien to what we know today. Instead of using phosphorus, the bacteria uses arsenic. All life on Earth is made of six components: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur. Every being, from the smallest amoeba to the largest whale, share the same life stream. Our DNA blocks are all the same But not this one. This one is completely different. Discovered in the poisonous Mono Lake, California, this bacteria is made of arsenic, something that was thought to be completely impossible.

A thousand years from now, this may be the only thing people will know about the year 2010.

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J Street’s New Hire Not a Huge Fan of Israel

Is it any surprise that J Street’s newly hired Jerusalem organizer has made some anti-Zionist statements? Probably not, but it’s still astounding to watch the president, Jeremy Ben-Ami, continue to stridently claim that J Street is pro-Israel, even as so much evidence to the contrary has piled up.

Omri Ceren dug up some blog posts that were apparently written by the new leader of J Street U in Jerusalem — Drew Cohen — and found them to be sharply critical of Zionism and Israel’s military actions:

[I]t’s kind of predictable that JStreet’s new Israel campus organizer Drew Cohen would (a) harbor some really ugly antipathy toward the Jewish State and (b) commit to getting other American Jews to embrace his antipathy. This pattern is in line with the rest of JStreetU, which finally had to drop even the pretense of pro-Israel advocacy because it meshed poorly with their “genocidal anti-Jewish terrorists equal Israeli Jewish victims” moral equivocation.

According to Ceren, Cohen has called Operation Cast Lead “unjust and even criminal” and lamented that some Israelis “are engaged in a structural violence against the Palestinian people.”

Cohen also wrote that he’s only comfortable “with people who I am certain do not espouse Zionism or any form of oppression,” which I’m sure won’t be a problem at his new office.

Ceren cites more from Cohen:

* Here’s him snidely passing on a description of Israel’s Gaza Flotilla interdiction, a last-ditch passive option forced by Israel’s having been denied forward defense and active defense, as “a heinous brutality.”
* Here’s him minimizing the danger posed by that Flotilla, which would have detonated Israel’s last chance of blocking Iran’s Gaza proxy, due to it being merely a “mythic threat.”
* Here’s him insisting that Jews who want to reverse Jordan’s gleeful 1948 ethnic cleansing of Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter “are engaged in structural violence against the Palestinian people.”
* Here’s him musing over the “parallels between the issues at the U.S.-Mexico border and the Israeli-Palestinian security barrier” and here’s him rhetorically leveling ghettos and Bethlehem.

I don’t object to Ben-Ami hiring Cohen, but I am curious as to why he would do so when the Soros and Goldstone controversies are still fresh in people’s minds. Is it simply that J Street doesn’t care how it looks? Were they unaware that Cohen held these views? Or has J Street become so toxic to liberal pro-Israel Jews that only anti-Zionists and people on the hard left are willing to associate with it?

Is it any surprise that J Street’s newly hired Jerusalem organizer has made some anti-Zionist statements? Probably not, but it’s still astounding to watch the president, Jeremy Ben-Ami, continue to stridently claim that J Street is pro-Israel, even as so much evidence to the contrary has piled up.

Omri Ceren dug up some blog posts that were apparently written by the new leader of J Street U in Jerusalem — Drew Cohen — and found them to be sharply critical of Zionism and Israel’s military actions:

[I]t’s kind of predictable that JStreet’s new Israel campus organizer Drew Cohen would (a) harbor some really ugly antipathy toward the Jewish State and (b) commit to getting other American Jews to embrace his antipathy. This pattern is in line with the rest of JStreetU, which finally had to drop even the pretense of pro-Israel advocacy because it meshed poorly with their “genocidal anti-Jewish terrorists equal Israeli Jewish victims” moral equivocation.

According to Ceren, Cohen has called Operation Cast Lead “unjust and even criminal” and lamented that some Israelis “are engaged in a structural violence against the Palestinian people.”

Cohen also wrote that he’s only comfortable “with people who I am certain do not espouse Zionism or any form of oppression,” which I’m sure won’t be a problem at his new office.

Ceren cites more from Cohen:

* Here’s him snidely passing on a description of Israel’s Gaza Flotilla interdiction, a last-ditch passive option forced by Israel’s having been denied forward defense and active defense, as “a heinous brutality.”
* Here’s him minimizing the danger posed by that Flotilla, which would have detonated Israel’s last chance of blocking Iran’s Gaza proxy, due to it being merely a “mythic threat.”
* Here’s him insisting that Jews who want to reverse Jordan’s gleeful 1948 ethnic cleansing of Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter “are engaged in structural violence against the Palestinian people.”
* Here’s him musing over the “parallels between the issues at the U.S.-Mexico border and the Israeli-Palestinian security barrier” and here’s him rhetorically leveling ghettos and Bethlehem.

I don’t object to Ben-Ami hiring Cohen, but I am curious as to why he would do so when the Soros and Goldstone controversies are still fresh in people’s minds. Is it simply that J Street doesn’t care how it looks? Were they unaware that Cohen held these views? Or has J Street become so toxic to liberal pro-Israel Jews that only anti-Zionists and people on the hard left are willing to associate with it?

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U.S. Adopts Israeli Anti-Terror Tactics, but Waffles on Defending Israel’s Use of Them

One cable from the WikiLeaks trove raises a disturbing possibility: the Obama administration’s obsession with Israeli settlements could end up undermining America’s own war on terror.

Shortly before Israel announced a 10-month freeze on settlement construction last year, Germany urged Washington to threaten that absent such a moratorium, the U.S. would refuse to block a UN Security Council vote on the Goldstone Report, which accused Israel of war crimes in Gaza. U.S. officials correctly responded that this would be “counterproductive” but agreed to tell Israel “that their policy on settlements was making it difficult for their friends to hold the line in the UNSC” — thus implying that Washington might so threaten in the future. And last month, the U.S. indeed implicitly conditioned future efforts to block Goldstone on another settlement freeze.

Yet America has a vital interest of its own in burying Goldstone: facing many of the same military problems in its war on terror that Israel does, it has increasingly adopted many of the same tactics.

Last month, for example, the New York Times reported that in Afghanistan’s Kandahar region, “American forces are encountering empty homes and farm buildings left so heavily booby-trapped by Taliban insurgents that the Americans have been systematically destroying hundreds of them” in order “to reduce civilian and military casualties.” They even destroyed houses that weren’t booby-trapped because “searching empty houses was often too dangerous.” And as an Afghan official correctly noted, “It’s the insurgents and the enemy of the country that are to blame for this destruction, because they have planted mines in civilian houses and main roads everywhere.”

This is precisely what Israel did in its 2008-09 Gaza war, for the same reason: it found hundreds of booby-trapped houses, schools, even a zoo. But Goldstone, like the so-called human rights organizations, pooh-poohed this claim, accusing Israel of wantonly destroying civilian property in a deliberate effort to target civilians. Far from blaming Hamas for booby-trapping houses, they blamed Israel for destroying the traps.

The same goes for drone strikes on wanted terrorists — not just in Afghanistan but also in Pakistan and Yemen. Israel has used this tactic for years, also for the same reason: sometimes, it’s the only way to neutralize a dangerous terrorist short of a major ground operation with massive casualties on both sides. But aerial strikes can also produce unintended civilian casualties.

The U.S. recently defended this tactic to the UN Human Rights Council, stressing that targeted killings are “lawful, they constitute neither extrajudicial killing nor political assassination.”

But human rights organizations have repeatedly denounced similar Israeli strikes as “extrajudicial executions” even when there have been no civilian casualties. And the outcry has been much worse when there were. Just last year, for instance, a Spanish court considered indicting several senior Israeli officials over a 2002 strike on Hamas mastermind Salah Shehadeh that, due to flawed intelligence, also killed 14 other people. (The case was halted after Spain moved to amend its universal-jurisdiction law.)

In short, America’s own self-interest demands that it thwart legal assaults on Israeli counterterrorism tactics. Otherwise, it’s liable to find itself in the dock next.

One cable from the WikiLeaks trove raises a disturbing possibility: the Obama administration’s obsession with Israeli settlements could end up undermining America’s own war on terror.

Shortly before Israel announced a 10-month freeze on settlement construction last year, Germany urged Washington to threaten that absent such a moratorium, the U.S. would refuse to block a UN Security Council vote on the Goldstone Report, which accused Israel of war crimes in Gaza. U.S. officials correctly responded that this would be “counterproductive” but agreed to tell Israel “that their policy on settlements was making it difficult for their friends to hold the line in the UNSC” — thus implying that Washington might so threaten in the future. And last month, the U.S. indeed implicitly conditioned future efforts to block Goldstone on another settlement freeze.

Yet America has a vital interest of its own in burying Goldstone: facing many of the same military problems in its war on terror that Israel does, it has increasingly adopted many of the same tactics.

Last month, for example, the New York Times reported that in Afghanistan’s Kandahar region, “American forces are encountering empty homes and farm buildings left so heavily booby-trapped by Taliban insurgents that the Americans have been systematically destroying hundreds of them” in order “to reduce civilian and military casualties.” They even destroyed houses that weren’t booby-trapped because “searching empty houses was often too dangerous.” And as an Afghan official correctly noted, “It’s the insurgents and the enemy of the country that are to blame for this destruction, because they have planted mines in civilian houses and main roads everywhere.”

This is precisely what Israel did in its 2008-09 Gaza war, for the same reason: it found hundreds of booby-trapped houses, schools, even a zoo. But Goldstone, like the so-called human rights organizations, pooh-poohed this claim, accusing Israel of wantonly destroying civilian property in a deliberate effort to target civilians. Far from blaming Hamas for booby-trapping houses, they blamed Israel for destroying the traps.

The same goes for drone strikes on wanted terrorists — not just in Afghanistan but also in Pakistan and Yemen. Israel has used this tactic for years, also for the same reason: sometimes, it’s the only way to neutralize a dangerous terrorist short of a major ground operation with massive casualties on both sides. But aerial strikes can also produce unintended civilian casualties.

The U.S. recently defended this tactic to the UN Human Rights Council, stressing that targeted killings are “lawful, they constitute neither extrajudicial killing nor political assassination.”

But human rights organizations have repeatedly denounced similar Israeli strikes as “extrajudicial executions” even when there have been no civilian casualties. And the outcry has been much worse when there were. Just last year, for instance, a Spanish court considered indicting several senior Israeli officials over a 2002 strike on Hamas mastermind Salah Shehadeh that, due to flawed intelligence, also killed 14 other people. (The case was halted after Spain moved to amend its universal-jurisdiction law.)

In short, America’s own self-interest demands that it thwart legal assaults on Israeli counterterrorism tactics. Otherwise, it’s liable to find itself in the dock next.

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Wicked Sense of Humor?

Now this is grading on a curve. From a New York Times article on competing books about Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis‘s tenure as a book editor — during which she published such important tomes as Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker — comes this wondrous anecdote from her fellow editor Nan Talese:

Ms. Talese said she recognized her office colleague’s “wicked sense of humor.” “She got into the elevator one day, and someone said, ‘Oh, you’re Jackie Onassis!’ And she said, ‘No I’m not.’ ”

Oh, my sides! How wicked! What a sense of humor!

Now this is grading on a curve. From a New York Times article on competing books about Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis‘s tenure as a book editor — during which she published such important tomes as Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker — comes this wondrous anecdote from her fellow editor Nan Talese:

Ms. Talese said she recognized her office colleague’s “wicked sense of humor.” “She got into the elevator one day, and someone said, ‘Oh, you’re Jackie Onassis!’ And she said, ‘No I’m not.’ ”

Oh, my sides! How wicked! What a sense of humor!

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Middle East Linkage Explained

In one minute and fifty-two seconds.

From Omri Ceren at Mere Rhetoric — WikiLeaks the Cartoon:

Peace is always just one more Israeli concession away.

In one minute and fifty-two seconds.

From Omri Ceren at Mere Rhetoric — WikiLeaks the Cartoon:

Peace is always just one more Israeli concession away.

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Who Decides What’s News in the Age of WikiLeaks?

Max Boot recently noted on CONTENTIONS that the New York Times’s decision to publish the WikiLeaks documents was a stark contrast to how newspapers handled leaks in the first half of the 20th century. “There was a time when editors and reporters thought of themselves as citizens first and journalists second,” he wrote. “There were damaging leaks even during World War II, but when they occurred they were generally denounced by the rest of the press.”

But I wonder, in the age of WikiLeaks, if the media still have the ability to take such a noble stance. Leakers who wanted to wreak havoc on our national security used to need reporters to play along. And there were practicalities — like ethical ramifications and not wanting to anger sources or readers — that prompted journalists to be cautious about what they published.

Foreign, ideologically driven rogues like Julian Assange obviously have no such obstacles. Assange’s sources of information are anti-American criminals with minds as twisted as his own, and his readers’ sensibilities clearly have no sway over his editorial decisions. Unburdened by any ethical code, and endowed with the limitless platform of the Internet, WikiLeaks has practically taken the journalists out of the equation. It acts as both the leaker and the reporter.

Which is why, if major platforms like the New York Times had refused to write about WikiLeaks, the story probably wouldn’t have quieted down. Because of the enormous influence of online media outlets, there hasn’t been a single arbiter of what constitutes news in years. Thousands of blogs and online publications eagerly jumped to report on the military documents as soon as they were posted on WikiLeaks. Network anchors read the cables on the air, Twitter was inundated with “cablegate” hashtags, and State Department officials held televised press conferences to discuss the crisis.

WikiLeaks is the root of the problem here, not the news outlets that covered its data dump. Even if the media refused to report the story, it wouldn’t have made a difference. All the wrong people would still be reading the unadulterated cables directly from Assange’s website.

Max Boot recently noted on CONTENTIONS that the New York Times’s decision to publish the WikiLeaks documents was a stark contrast to how newspapers handled leaks in the first half of the 20th century. “There was a time when editors and reporters thought of themselves as citizens first and journalists second,” he wrote. “There were damaging leaks even during World War II, but when they occurred they were generally denounced by the rest of the press.”

But I wonder, in the age of WikiLeaks, if the media still have the ability to take such a noble stance. Leakers who wanted to wreak havoc on our national security used to need reporters to play along. And there were practicalities — like ethical ramifications and not wanting to anger sources or readers — that prompted journalists to be cautious about what they published.

Foreign, ideologically driven rogues like Julian Assange obviously have no such obstacles. Assange’s sources of information are anti-American criminals with minds as twisted as his own, and his readers’ sensibilities clearly have no sway over his editorial decisions. Unburdened by any ethical code, and endowed with the limitless platform of the Internet, WikiLeaks has practically taken the journalists out of the equation. It acts as both the leaker and the reporter.

Which is why, if major platforms like the New York Times had refused to write about WikiLeaks, the story probably wouldn’t have quieted down. Because of the enormous influence of online media outlets, there hasn’t been a single arbiter of what constitutes news in years. Thousands of blogs and online publications eagerly jumped to report on the military documents as soon as they were posted on WikiLeaks. Network anchors read the cables on the air, Twitter was inundated with “cablegate” hashtags, and State Department officials held televised press conferences to discuss the crisis.

WikiLeaks is the root of the problem here, not the news outlets that covered its data dump. Even if the media refused to report the story, it wouldn’t have made a difference. All the wrong people would still be reading the unadulterated cables directly from Assange’s website.

Read Less




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