Thursday, December 12, 2013

Please turn to the Book of Genesis in your Bibles...

Most of you reading this will already know that I'm an atheist. It may seem strange to you that I'm currently reading the Hebrew Bible, and enjoying the Hell out of it. The Hebrew Bible got moved to the top of my History pile after I listened to a series of iTunes University lectures titled "The Hebrew Bible in Jewish and Christian Thought". I enthusiastically recommend it, if you have the slightest interest in the topic.

Dr. Shaye Cohen, Littauer Professor of Hebrew Literature and Philosophy. Also, a terrific lecturer. Check out his iTunes University class.
Some of you reading this may not know that I was raised as a Pentecostal, so it's not my first time reading this stuff. It does make a lot more sense to me now than it did at the time, though. That's part of the reason I'm reading the King James version, even though that's generally conceded to be a lousy translation. I like the grandeur of the language. But I am reading it at The Skeptic's Annotated Bible website, where they have fun observations about some of the more florid passages.

The Skeptic's Annotated Bible appears to have been written by fans of Mystery Science Theater 3000

And this is florid stuff; the Preacher's Kid in me was stunned at the sheer porn of it all. You've got incest, and murder, and rape, theft, deceit and spousal abandonment...

and that's committed by the good guys. The stories in the Hebrew Bible are as depraved as those one finds in Greek mythology, or Japanese mythology, or Sumerian mythology. The Hebrew Bible, at least the historical narrative parts of it, is a national epic. It's the Hebrew "story" in the way that "The Iliad" is the Greek story, and "The Epic of Gilgamesh" is the Sumerian story and "The Spring and Autumn Chronicles" is the Chinese story. These stories are not historically accurate (although it must be noted, they're not invariably wrong, either). That's not their function. These stories serve as a shared identity mechanism within the communities that tell them.

Gilgamesh strangles the lions. That's how old the "Tarzan kills a lion with his bare hands" archetype is.

And, they tend to be over-heated soap operas. I suspect that "scandalous" and "sensational" are useful characteristics for an oral tradition to have, if it is going to last.

The oral traditions that make up the stories in the Torah and the Deuteronomist Histories don't appear to have been written down in the form we know them until the Babylonian Exile, which took place during the 6th century BCE. And they are a work of power, and genius, and vision that has been equalled in human history, but never surpassed. I say this as an atheist, remember...

I've never seen even 60 seconds of ABC's "Scandal", but Twitter becomes unusable while it's on. Myths never change. Someone is always sleeping around, and there's always some kind of horrible consequence.

At the time of the Babylonian Exile, the Kingdom of Judah had been conquered by Babylon. It's aristocracy, including its priestly class, the wealthy, the literate, the elites of Judean society were forcibly relocated to Mesopotamia. The Temple which had served as the focus of Hebrew identity had been destroyed, the "Covenant" in which their God had promised them the Land of Canaan had been violated, and they were living in a foreign culture where their traditions and practices were being overwhelmed.

They had an example of just how easily Hebrew identity could be snuffed out by a conquering imperial power. 150 years earlier, the Assyrians had destroyed the Northern Kingdom of Israel, scattered its population and colonized the now ownerless property. They effectively destroyed Hebrew identity within the territory of the former Kingdom. The remnants of "the Ten Tribes" left in the region became the "despised Samaritans" of the New Testament.

The writing of the Torah and the Deuteronomist Histories was undertaken by highly educated Israelite elites while in exile, almost certainly members of the priestly class. They did it because they were attempting to maintain the Hebrew identity of their community in exile, and they were brilliantly successful. Seven decades later these writings had preserved a community of "Hebrews" sufficiently committed and nationalist to return to Jerusalem and reestablish an Israeli State. Two and a half millennia later, the stories the Exiles composed on the basis of confused and contradictory oral traditions still serve as a central tradition for the identity of Jews, Christians and Muslims.

The Hebrew Bible is not history. The Hebrew Bible is not the revealed Word of God. The Hebrew Bible is a work of nationalist propaganda so compelling that it inspires group formation and community identification thousands of years after the community it was intended to create ceased to exist.

Image from Wikimedia Commons

This is an important point to understand; the Ancient Hebrews, or "Children of Israel" if you prefer, are not today's "Jews". As Dr. Cohen points out, it is impossible to claim Jews are somehow the genetic descendants of the Ancient Hebrews when Judaism allows non-Jews to convert. Jews and Christians both preserve important elements of the traditions and beliefs of the Ancient Hebrews. Jews and Christians both identify with the Ancient Hebrews, to the point of believing that the ancient covenant described in the Torah applies to them. But neither Rabbinical Judaism nor Christianity is the same religion practiced by the Ancient Hebrews, with its bloody animal sacrifice, ritual impurities and open, savage genocide.

The actual story of the children of Israel is considerably more confused and hazy, and a lot less monotheistic than the version written down almost 1000 years later.

I was about 3 pages into Genesis when I realized I was going to have to supplement the Bible with some historical context. And maps. And continuous Google searches. Anyway, this book was very helpful to me. Amazon has it cheap.

The earliest reference to Yahweh that we know of occurs in cuneiform texts uncovered at the archeological site of Ugarit, and dating back to about 1500 BC. In the pantheon of Ugarit, there was a supreme but rather passive creator God named El. He had a more active Prime Minister, called Ba'al. That name should ring a bell for those of you who attended Sunday School; Ba'al worshippers are the implacable enemy of the "true" god, Yahweh throughout the pages of the Hebrew Bible. Ugarit also had around 70 other gods, each of whom was the special patron of a particular ethnic community living in the general area of Canaan.

Yahweh appears to have been the special patron of a group of pastoralists living in the hills south of the Negev. These pastoralists may or may not have been related to the "Habiru" mentioned in a number of Bronze Age sources.There are tantalizing hints of this in the Book of Genesis; Abraham is befriended by someone named Melchizedek in Genesis 14 who is described as "King of Salem" and "a priest of the most high God". That's generally thought to mean Abraham's god, Yahweh. (It might also be a reference to El; the story belongs to the oldest versions of Genesis, long before monotheism.)

After the Bronze Age Collapse, the pastoralist Yahweh worshippers suddenly had fewer neighbors living in the fertile lands to their north. Cities like Ugarit had been burned, and the surviving population had fled into the countryside. The pastoralists gradually moved north, bringing their religion with them and bullying the shell-shocked Canaanites in a gradual process symbolized by the fictional events depicted in the Book of Joshua.

This process lasted for centuries, between perhaps 1200 BCE and 1000 BCE. Joshua is a fascinating read, on a number of levels. Despite having been written perhaps 700 years after the events it purports to chronicle, it tells an old, old Mesopotamian story. For 3000 years, starting with the Sumerians, the same sequence of events played itself over and over again. An urban culture would begin to thrive, trade and the economy would flourish, an elite would begin to separate itself from the mass populace based on possession of prestige goods and other privileges...

Image from here

and then Semitic pastoralists would sweep in from the periphery and install themselves as the new bosses. The story repeated itself for three millennia, whether it was the Chaldeans or the Amorites or the Arameans or the Hebrews. Joshua is a distant echo of what were deafening crashes at the very beginnings of recorded history.

The Hebrews brought Yahweh with them from the south. But they weren't monotheists, yet. It appears there were family gods worshipped in each household, and Astarte/Asherah was widely worshipped as the consort of Yahweh. Over the next few centuries, (approximately the time the Book of Judges purports to chronicle), in a process known as "syncretism" Yahweh began to be attributed with some of the characteristics of both El and Ba'al. He became "the most high God".

As the area recovered from the Bronze Age collapse, the population increased and cities were rebuilt. The power vacuum that allowed the Hebrews to move north was filled, most notably by the Philistines. In an impressive confirmation of the Conflict Theory of State Formation, increased conflict with their neighbors spurred the formation of a true State. Around 1000 BCE, the Davidic monarchy conquered Jerusalem and made it the Capital of a true Kingdom. This resulted in two major modifications of Yahweh worship.

1. Kingship Theology: Every social elite attempts to legitimate its privilege by citing the Divine Will. In the religion of the ancient Hebrews, this manifested itself in the form of yet another covenant. Yaweh promised the House of David that they would rule in Jerusalem forever. It's always great when God steps in and clears up any doubt about which humans are in charge.

2. Jerusalem theology: The Temple at Jerusalem (either built by Solomon or perhaps seized by the conquering Hebrews from the Jebusite inhabitants) became the chief cultic center of Yahweh worship, diminishing and eventually replacing other centers like Shiloh or Bethel. Jerusalem theology asserted that Yahweh was physically seated at the temple in Jerusalem, within the Holy of Holies. On that basis, Jerusalem could never be conquered, because Yahweh would never allow "his" capital to be conquered.

Unless otherwise noted, images are from Wikimedia Commons

I can't do justice to the richness and complexity of the history of the Ancient Israelites here. There are many more centuries of Israelite history. The Davidic Kingdom splits, a social reform movement starts in the North Kingdom and moves to Judah after the Assyrian conquest...

as a Pentecostal, we kind of ignored the "Minor Prophets", but there's material there for an entire blog post about "The 99% Movement in History". This is class consciousness that precedes the Gracchi by 600 years. But I'll come back to that another time.

For now, let me just note that the entire basis of Yahweh worship as it was practiced at that time was decisively refuted in 597 BCE. When Babylon captured Jerusalem, the conquerors sacked the Temple and exiled the leading members of the society. The "eternal" covenants had been definitively falsified. The land was taken. The House of David was in exile. The area said to contain Yahweh's physical presence had been tramped through by plundering Babylonian soldiers.

Those exiles were confronting their extinction as a people. In response, they conceived an entirely different paradigm regarding the nature of God and his relationship to the Hebrews and the rest of humanity. They conceived a unified narrative from thousands of contradictory and confused oral traditions. They conceived a national identity that preserved their culture and allowed it to reemerge 70 years later.

They told a story of such compelling majesty that we still tell it today. And, we still believe it.

1st Assembly of God, Hannibal MO

Friday, August 2, 2013

Selling Academic Snake Oil

I should probably be listening to some quiet music, petting a cat and drinking a cup of the excellent tea my daughter-out-law got me for my birthday. It's best practice when I'm this annoyed. But two months is too long to go without posting something, so I'm going to harness my irritation.

I was driving back from Donora earlier today, so I turned on WESA's noon news show, Essential Pittsburgh. It's a decent local show that I should probably listen to more regularly. I'm just not much of a radio guy since the internet became a viable news source. But when stuck in the car, I at least check in with WESA in the hopes that Terry Gross isn't interviewing some author I have no intention of reading, or All Things Considered isn't doing some tedious art story. Sometimes, it works out.

All imagse from Wikimedia Commons. If you don't know who this is, don't worry about it.

I was very pleased to hear that Essential Pittsburgh was discussing Detroit's bankruptcy, and its implications for Pittsburgh. There are some obvious parallels, although it'd be a mistake to stretch them too far. Both were industrial cities. Both had the industries on which they depended collapse. Both have suffered from inept government, hostile state legislatures and an American economic paradigm that privileges suburbs at the expense of the cities which make suburbs viable. Pittsburgh is currently in better shape than Detroit, but that's a function of Big Steel having executed its faceplant before Big Auto.

I was considerably less pleased as I listened to the program. One of the guests was a gentleman named Antony Davies. And he's the worst kind of academic hack; ignorant of the facts, rigidly bound by the parameters of a paradigm that bears no resemblance to reality, and promoting conservative ideology disguised as objective scientific truth, in exchange for hefty speaker's fees.

The essence of Dr. Davies argument is this: Pittsburgh has been more successful than Detroit because Pittsburgh's response to losing its primary industry has been to get out of the way of entrepreneurs, allow them to allocate capital on the basis of self-interest and expected rate of return and "take their pain now rather than later". Dr. Davies contrasts this with the case of Detroit, where government "bailed out" two of the big three auto-makers. According to Davies, government always misallocates capital, because "they lack the incentive to get it right". The result was that Detroit "took it's pain later", in the form of its current bankruptcy.

Detroit. How about we bail out their pension funds by canceling the F-35 program?

This is such a load of intellectually dishonest crap it's hard to know where to even begin refuting it. But let me begin by pointing out that the cases of Detroit and Pittsburgh are very different. The steel industry and the auto industry are very different. The decline of the two industries took place at different times, and to compare Detroit's situation now, a few years after 2/3 of the auto industry went bankrupt, to Pittsburgh's situation now, 3 decades after the collapse of Big Steel, is an intellectual error.

Furthermore, in his eagerness to laud entrepreneurial captains of industry, courageously staking their fortunes on nothing but their business acumen, Dr. Davies neglects an important point. The very entrepreneurs he extols are in large measure responsible for the collapse he thinks they'll rescue us from. Big Steel died for a variety of reasons, but perhaps the biggest reason was epic mismanagement by the industry. The entire debacle is brilliantly described in John Hoerr's And the Wolf Finally Came, which describes systematic under-investment in new technology, new facilities and new equipment in order to keep quarterly profits (and management bonuses) high. The effect was a steady increase in production costs until American steel simply couldn't compete with imported steel from countries with much newer, more efficient production facilities.

I suspect Dr. Davies would reject Hoerr's meticulously documented findings in favor of the old "it was the union's fault" trope, although I don't know that. But even if that were true, it ignores the fact that management signed the contracts that supposedly broke the industry. So much for visionary entrepreneurs.

The exact same blind spot exists regarding the management of the auto industry. As early as the 1970's, the UAW was pushing for the development of a small, fuel efficient and inexpensive product. Management continued to produce boats, both because that's what they'd always done and because they were more profitable. As with steel, a paradigm locked corporate culture failed to innovate and compete, instead focusing on short-term considerations deleterious to the long term viability of the industry.

Dr. Davies' faith in the acumen of entrepreneurs would seem to be misplaced. But he also neglects the role of business visionaries in the misgovernment of Detroit. Detroit pension officials didn't bribe themselves, they were bribed, by businessmen seeking to influence the way government allocated capital. Dr. Davies insists government "gets it wrong because they have no stake in getting it right." But of course the pursuit of self interest by both government officials and business people is a major reason why Detroit is in the shape it's in. And I will bet any of you money, right now, that when this sad tale is finally unravelled, we'll learn that unethical business practices by Big Finance had a role in reducing the value of pension fund investments.

Visionary entrepreneur Bernie Madoff

Finally, Dr. Davies seems to have a breath-taking ignorance of the specifics of Pittsburgh's "success". He cites "education" and "bio-tech" as two sources of the city's vitality. But the two big educational institutions in the city are  Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh. If he insists on counting his employer, we can include Duquesne University. So his entrepreneurial visionaries are a non-profit university kept afloat by an unending stream of DARPA money, a non-profit university affiliated with the State, and a non-profit university owned by the Catholic Church.

The biotech companies he lauds were started with public seed money. Dr Davies didn't discuss specific areas of the city undergoing revitalization. I suspect he is largely unaware of them; he stinks of the suburbs. But one big success has been Lawrenceville, a neighborhood once notorious for its heroin culture but now experiencing an influx of upscale businesses and gentrification. That didn't happen because of visionary entrepreneurs allocating capital because of their business acumen. It happened because of tax-increment financing and a public-private partnership. The visionaries in this case were city and state officials, and a neighborhood organizationThat's true of Bloomfield, and East Liberty, and Hazelwood too.
Heinz Field, center of North Shore development which includes  PNC Park & The Rivers Casino. Government was crucial to developing the North Shore, which generates hundreds of millions of dollars per year.
The biggest employer in the city is UPMC, which is a not-for-profit healthcare system dependent upon government research money and Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement. The construction of the South Side Works, and Washington's Landing and The Waterfront (just outside the city) were all made possible by State clean-up of old industrial sites.

To summarize, Dr. Davies narrative of Libertarian success, made possible by entrepreneurial genius enabled by government disengagement is utterly mythical. I am told by my brother that I often see bad faith where in fact there is merely incompetence. Dr. Davies may be a cynical pimp of Libertarian propaganda making his living by speaking to groups of aggrieved one percenters. Or merely a "paradigm-locked dipshit". I leave that question to the interested reader.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

In 1991, the Pittsburgh Penguins met the Boston Bruins in the Wales Conference Finals. That's what we used to call the Eastern Conference. I was okay with that change, but I still think it's a damned shame this team doesn't still play in the Patrick Division. The coach of the Bruins in that series was Mike Milbury.

The Prince of Wales Trophy
The Pens coach that year was a beloved figure. "Badger" Bob Johnson won 3 NCAA Hockey championships. He coached a US Olympic Team and the US National Team. He took the Calgary Flames to the Stanley Cup Final. He coined the phrase "It's a Great Day for Hockey".

And, after a disappointing game 3 loss, an angry Milbury said of this relentlessly upbeat and positive guy, "The 'Professor of Hockey', as Bob Johnson is often called, is also a professor of goonism."

Image from

There is some irony here that Milbury is too clueless to see, of course...

during Milbury's career as a player he was a leader in penalty minutes, and was once suspended for 6 games for beating a fan with his own shoe. No kidding.

Anyway, the Penguins went on to beat the Bruins that year, and win the Stanley Cup. You can't say Milbury was scarred by the experience, because he remains the same stupid thug he was as a player. But he DOES continue to hate everything about the Pittsburgh Penguins.

And I hate the Boston Bruins, with every quivering atom of my body. Assholes. Let's do this! (Regular season stats, from ESPN)

Pens Goals per game: 3.38 (1st)
Boston Goals Against per game: 2.21 (3rd)

Boston GF/G: 2.65 (13th)
Pittsburgh GA/G 2.48 (12th)

Advantage: Pittsburgh, marginally. If Boston can force turnovers in the neutral zone, in the way the Islanders did and the Senators didn't, they can score on us. If the Pens passing remains as unearthly accurate as it was against Ottawa, Boston won't get scored on, they'll get absolutely shellacked.

Pens Power Play: 24.7% (2nd)
Boston Penalty Kill: 87.1% (4th)

Boston PP: 14.8% (26th)
Pens PK: 79.6% (25th)

Advantage: Pittsburgh, marginally. The Penguins power play can give even the best penalty killers in the League trouble, but Boston IS one of the best penalty killers in the League. Similarly, our weak penalty killing should be a match for their underachieving power play. Except...

the Pens power play shredded the regular season best penalty kill in the League when we beat Ottawa. I've mentioned before that I use regular season stats in preference to playoff stats until the Cup finals. But if the Pens power play keeps going the way it has been, Boston is in a lot of trouble. They really need to stay out of the Penalty Box, and that's a hard thing to do during the playoffs without getting pushed around.

Vokoun Save Percentage: 91.9% (15th)
Rask Save Percentage: 92.9% (3rd)

Advantage: Boston. Rask is perfectly capable of stealing games. He's phenomenal. Vokoun had had an excellent post-season, but he's objectively a back-up, not a starter. At some point, he will revert. It might be during this series. On the other hand, Rask was not as good as the Senator's Craig Anderson this season, and the Pens drove him from the net in 2 games.

Ultimately, the Pens can break any goaltender in the League if they can get enough shots on him. Preventing that is going to be difficult, particularly given that m Chara is a year older. His +/- fell from 33 the last 2 years to 14 this year. Forwards like Bergeron & Marchand & Seguin will help, but Andrew Ference is imminently beatable, and I expect Lucic will be a genuine problem for Boston as he accumulates penalty minutes.

Pens in 6.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Why would you build that? A cynical take on monuments.

Happy Memorial Day. 

Every human society that I know of builds monuments. It's one of the first signs that a society has made the big shift from chiefdom to the State. Monumental architecture precedes the city. The Sumerians built it, the Egyptians built it, the Chinese built it, and the Harappans built it.

Column from the Persian Royal palace at Persepolis
I find this troubling. We're not talking about casual decoration or utilitarian buildings here. Monumental architecture is BIG, it represents thousands of man hours of labor by societies whose food supply was a lot more precarious than ours. In modern terms, we're talking about projects that cost a considerable fraction of Gross Domestic Product.

There are better uses for the resources, conceivably. Instead of painstakingly quarrying enormous slabs of basalt, perhaps the gang could be draining a swamp, or making fish traps, or digging irrigation ditches.

Olmec stone head. I think this one is about 8 feet tall.
And after being quarried, all this stone has to be transported. In the New World, it had to be transported without useful freight animals. It had to be shaped, and if you screw it up, if you crack the monument or knock a piece off, you're back at the beginning of the project. The final monument has to be levered and winched and braced into place, onto a surface carefully prepared to bear the enormous weight. And for what?

Mohenjo Daro. In the foreground is a pool. The stones are so perfectly fitted that when filled with water, it doesn't leak a drop. There is no sealant.
A typical answer to this question is to say, "it's religious". This is a cop-out. To say that monumental architecture is built for religious reasons is to say, "it doesn't have to make sense to us." Of COURSE monumental architecture has religious significance; that doesn't tell us why it was built, with such massive effort and enormous expense, by people who had very real problems of food security.

Angkor Wat
Naturally, there's some ambiguity of purpose and intent in monumental architecture constructed by pre-literate societies. But the development of writing makes the motivation behind the construction of monumental architecture perfectly clear.

The Acropolis
Monumental Architecture is built at the bidding of elite members of the society doing the construction. They cause these projects to be built in order to legitimize their privileged position within the society. Stonehenge functions as a calendar. That's because being able to pronounce the exact date of each equinox and solstice gave the religious elites of the builders legitimacy. Stela C from Tres Zapotes depicts the priest/king in full regalia, and describes his triumphs and the legitimizing rituals he performed. The Forbidden City was laid out to demonstrate the divinity of the emperor.

Temple of Luxor
And, I remind you, these projects aren't cheap. They take decades to build, thousands of workers are needed, prestige goods like greenstone and limestone and marble and gold are consumed in huge quantities in order to fulfill the vision of the architects and prove the legitimacy of the society's rulers. It's insane. The Pharaoh, or the Emperor, or the High Priest of Baal harnesses the full productive potential of an entire society in order to cement their control. The monument may fulfill its function by providing a spot to host sporting events, or slaughter prodigious numbers of animals, or may proclaim the number of dead enemies defeated by the ruler. But the motivation is always the same: to demonstrate and memorialize the power of the elite who ordered the construction.

Taj Mahal
Of course, it's easy to mock the unenlightened primitives who get suckered into working like slaves for a project that provides evidence that their inferiority is good and just. But monumental architecture isn't unique to primitive societies.

Mt. Rushmore.
The Washington Monument was constructed not merely to memorialize George Washington, but to associate its builders with the beloved President. That's part of why it took so long. Lenin's Tomb was intended to illustrate the genius of his vision and by association, the eminence of the state he founded. and just recently....

The George W. Bush Presidential Center
the opening of the George W. Bush Presidential Library has provoked lots of accurate and entirely deserved snark about how it's not really a library, it's an attempt to justify his disastrous presidency. If this were ancient Egypt, some future president would remove Dubya's name from all public architecture and expunge him from history.

It's a little different now than in the past, of course. Modern technological societies are infinitely more wealthy than our agriculturally centered, muscle powered predecessors. Even the most elaborate elite vanity project costs only a tiny fraction of society's available resources. North Korea's acquiescence to the insanity of the Kim Dynasty may be an exception to this observation. And modern societies have a more diverse elite than ancient societies did, too.

The Chrysler Building
We would say today that Chrysler earned the money that built this building. But the artisans who carved the columns of the Temple of 1000 Warriors felt that their orders came from people who had "earned" the artisan's compliance. And the motivations behind the construction of Notre Dame Cathedral are identical to the motivations behind buying naming rights to the Console Energy Center.

Monumental architecture is self-promotion. There are people with the power and resources to have something gigantic built. They do so in order to enhance their prestige and dominance. And they do it with the labor of the very masses they're trying to impress.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

2013 Playoffs, Round 2 Pens v. Senators

The last series against the Islanders showed us; the NHL playoffs are about guts, and determination, and luck, and coaching. More than anything else, they're about clutch goaltending. You can pretty much throw the statistics away before each series. Nevertheless, I refuse to concede my inability to predict results.

This and unlabeled mages from Wikimedia Commons

You'll note that I continue to use regular season statistics rather than those from Round 1. That will be true until the Finals, when we've got enough games to constitute a reasonable sample.

Pens Goals per Game Average: 3.38 (1st in the League)
Sens Goals Against Average 2.08 (2nd best in League)

Sens GPG Average: 2.33 (27th)
Pens GA Average: 2.48 (12th)

Advantage: Pens

This is going to be an amazing series; the Penguins have the most offensively talented teams in League history right now. They're going up against the 2nd best defensive team in the League. It would be an interesting case of an irresistible force meeting an immovable object, except Ottawa is an extremely weak team, offensively. On paper. Statistically. During the regular season.

The truth is, any team with Daniel Alfredsson is going to score on you. We're just damned lucky Spezza isn't playing.

Pens Power Play Percentage: 24.7% (2nd)
Sens Penalty Kill Percentage: 88% (1st)

Sens Power Play: 15.9% (20th)
Pens Penalty Kill: 79.6% (25th)

Advantage: Sens 

As with the Pens offense v. the Senators defense 5 on 5, the Pens power play v. the Senators' penalty kill will match the best units in the league against each other. And while the Pens penalty killing against the Islanders was the highlight of an otherwise dismal performance, it's hardly characteristic. We're going to have a very tough time scoring on the power play. Ottawa will probably have an easier time. This means that they'll be more able to rough up our guys more than we can theirs.

It's a problem.

Vokoun's Save Percentage: 91.9% (15th)
Anderson's Save Percentage 94.1% (1st in the league)

Advantage: Sens

Anderson's save percentage is just sick. In fairness, that's only over 24 games played; he was only in for half the games this season. He severed a tendon while preparing dinner. I'd mock him, but I've done damned near the same thing. Slippery vegetables.  And of course, Vokoun, played fewer games than that. It was a short season. But "in 24 games" is the only explanation for a save percentage that high.

This is going to be an absolute dogfight, Ottawa advantages in goaltending and special teams are made up by the larger advantage the Pens have 5 on 5. You can expect prodigious hockey out of Alfredsson, but the same thing should be true of Crosby, Malkin and Iginla.

This is going to be a great series. Ottawa is a MUCH better team than their regular season record indicates. Pens in 7.

Monday, May 6, 2013

The Burned Hand Apparently doesn't Teach at All

If the United States were a puppy, it's sheer inability to learn from past experience might be cute. Adorable even.

But it's a nation-state with the most over-funded military in the world, and so the current impulse in our policy circles to "do something" about Syria is frustrating, and scary, and DANGEROUS, in a way a puppy's antics are not.

This and unlabeled images from Wikimedia Commons

The debate is not about the nature of the Syrian regime. Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian Baath Party are savage, murderous abusers of human rights. Syria is a clear case of a demographic minority tyrannizing a majority population Their role in the sufferings of their neighbor Lebanon  is unforgivable. Their alliance with Iran destabilizes the region and threatens Israeli national security. The current civil war raging in Syria is the inevitable result of the despotic and authoritarian nature of Syria's ruling elite.

Given the despicable nature of the Syrian government, it's not surprising to find wide-spread sympathy for "The Free Syrian Army". Humans don't deal that well with complexity, and confronted with a "bad guy", our cognitive limitations incline us to find a "good guy". The Free Syrian Army can legitimately be seen as an agent of majority Sunni Syrians seeking self-determination against minority Alawi Syrians. But to think of them as "the good guys" is to both ignore the wide diversity within the rebel coalition and some of the more spectacular actions they have taken against the regime.

Bashar al Assad

Syrian rebels have been responsible for attacks causing disproportionate numbers of civilian casualties. They have used children on the front lines of combat. And there's "strong evidence" that they may have been responsible for the use of nerve gas against their enemies.

American interests in this conflict are quite clear. We have a strategic interest in seeing the end of Syria's alliance with Iran. Through our alliance with Israel, we have an indirect interest in seeing the end of Syria's support of Hezbollah. We have a moral interest in seeing the end of the atrocities and human rights abuses perpetrated upon the Syrian people by Assad's government.

These guys make Xi look like a bunch of murderous thugs. Oh. Wait...

It is equally clear what American interests are NOT. We have no interest in adding to the stresses on already over-burdened military personnel. We have no interest in replacing a horrible but explicitly secular government with an Islamic theocracy.

Like we did when we helped drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan.

There is no shortage of parties whose interests in Syria are more urgent than our own. Turkey faces a severe refugee problem as people flee to it from Syria. Most of the policies being urged by advocates of American intervention are well within Turkish capabilities, particularly with NATO helping share the financial and material costs. The Turkish air force can establish a no-fly zone. The Turkish Army can establish safe havens within Syria's borders. And as John McCain knows perfectly well, the US and Turkey are ALREADY supplying aid to the Syrian revolutionaries.

The Arab League has suspended Syria's membership and turned its seat over to the rebels. The organization includes some of the wealthiest nations on Earth. They could end this in 6 months with 50 million dollars and some South African mercenaries. For the most part they have not chosen to act.

Member States of the Arab League

In his phenomenal work Politics Among Nations, Hans Morgenthau discussed the "strategy of prestige" where a great power felt obligated to demonstrate its continued importance within the International System. This explains the reflexive neoconservative need to intervene in every conflict, dispute and argument over a parking place. At the heart of their policy preferences is the unexamined postulate that since the United States is at the apex of the international hierarchy it must be a central participant in every interaction that takes place within that system.

It is precisely this conviction which got us involved in Vietnam, by the way.

If it were only the Neocons urging us to greater involvement in Syria it would be easy to ignore. Iraq has cost them their credibility for a generation. But much more sensible Neorealists are also urging similar policies.

I don't wish to be unfair, but James Rubin has been everywhere the last few weeks urging increased American intervention in Syria.

I don't want to get bogged down here in a bunch of technical International Relations theory, because it fascinates me. On that basis I conclude that it bores everyone else. So without employing the jargon...

Neorealists believe that norms and rules in the International System prevent nation states from doing truly crazy stuff. Like using WMDs, for example. But if a nation-state DOES break the "rule", other states become much more likely to break the "rule" as well.

In other words, if Syria gets away with using chemical weapons, every brutal authoritarian will start using them.

I am a Classical Realist, so I have a soft spot for Neorealists. But I'd think the Iraq debacle would have taught them some humility. 1) They need to be a lot more cautious and skeptical regarding "intelligence", especially about WMDs, and 2) any large scale intervention in the affairs of a sovereign state needs to be done as part of a multi-lateral effort. At the very least the Turks need to formally request the specific actions we will take under Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty.

National treasure and Classical Realist Hans Morgenthau

Remember? The way it worked in Libya

Ultimately, the United States need not and certainly should not intervene internationally except in those instances where our interests are unequivocally at stake and where our involvement is as part of a legitimate international coalition.

These conditions have not been met in Syria, and the prospect of more demands being made on our exhausted military and our threadbare international credibility as an honest broker unmistakably tells us something depressing.

A large segment of the foreign policy establishment of this country has learned nothing from the last 12 years.