April 2008


Mark, in addition to my earlier question about racist Europeans, let me ask you a question in bad taste:

Are our problems with rampant anti-Muslim hysteria due to the fact that Muslim girls are, uh, restrictedly available to non-Muslim men? I think most of racism comes from young men lacking access to vaginas, and consequently, if a certain immigrant group includes lots of eligible girls available to the native young men, shouldn’t it reduce racism and interracial tension? Does pussy cure racism?

—Panu

Wow, that certainly is a question.  I can think of one bit of evidence in its favor: East Asians, in this country, often marry whites, and are not subject to much racism.  I’d agree (from experience) that intermarriage is the best way to understand another culture.

On the other hand, I’m not sure that the correlation holds up.  Despite miscegenation laws, there’s been a lot of black-white mixing in the US (this becomes obvious comparing American blacks with Africans), but I don’t see that this mitigated racism much.  Hindu Americans work hard to marry only other Indians, but I’ve never heard that this causes any resentment or racism.

Personally, I think racism is just part of the general primate (not just human) dislike of outsiders.  In some ways the remarkable thing isn’t that racism still exists, but how far our boundaries have expanded.  In ancient times someone from the next settlement over was highly suspect; modern urban populations can be tolerant of almost anyone.  (Even a Muslim can theoretically marry any of half a billion people.)

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I just finished a PC game called Culpa Innata.  I liked it, but it’s rather bizarre, and it isn’t exactly the adventure game it’s billed as.  It’s a police procedural, and though the mystery gets solved it’s really an excuse to build up and then deconstruct a utopian society.

You play Phoenix Wallis, police officer and loyal citizen of the World Union, who has a murder to solve in the year 2047 and only your mouse to do it with.

Phoenix on yet another intervew

Essentially you have to talk to people, gradually uncovering clues that lead to new people or locations to visit; there’s also a fair number of (generally not very difficult) puzzles to solve.  Most of the game, in fact, consists of interviews.  This starts out slow as (e.g.) you ask sales clerks about what kind of boss Mr. Bogdanov was, but eventually it picks up, as you get some solid clues.  The characters are varied but few really stand out (one that does is Bogdanov’s stylist). 

Movement is rather clunky… it’s a 3-D environment, yet mostly presented from static camera angles that snap you from one scene to another.  Memo to designers: never do that again

An odd little recurring activity is near-daily gossip sessions with Phoenix’s best friend Sandra.  As these recap events you just went through, they don’t add much except insight into Phoenix’s somewhat prissy personality.  Sandra is more lively than most of the characters, however, and I ended up following all the conversational paths. 

I like the fact that the game seems to take a feminine approach… there’s no violence; it’s highly story-oriented; Phoenix is usually kind to the interviewees and always shares her emotional reactions to things.  She also has a makeup kit whose pieces are used to solve several puzzles. 

My main complaint is that the non-linear structure wears thin, especially towards the end, when one event after another simply forces Phoenix into particular encounters.  There are a few side activities (including a large side quest designed to show up the failures of the World Union) but the game could have used more diversions and dead ends.  Phoenix can watch holovision, for instance, but after the first night (when an important clue is presented), it’s always the same show.  You never get to ask Sandra about her life, or shoot down your obnoxious junior colleage Julio.  At one point you go clothes shopping (your dowdy duds won’t get you into a fancy nightclub); but you don’t get to choose your outfit (and the outfit you get is hideous).

For a long time I was puzzled at the game’s politics.  The World Union isn’t exactly an Orwellian nightmare; it’s capitalist, peaceful, and obviously comfortable, though stiff and self-righteous.  The underlying philosophy seems to be Rand-libertarian (greed, selfishness, and ambition are praised; Phoenix’s police organization is a private company; there’s no taxation); but children are raised by teachers, sex is highly liberated, and there’s a lot of talk of NGOs which are a parody of various leftist causes.

The clue lies in the credits– most of the names are Turkish, and the game is a loose adaptation of a novel by a Turkish writer, Alev Alatlı.  Now it makes sense: the World Union is an outsider’s parody of the entire West: general prosperity and a careless dismissal of the rest of the world, American individualism and laissez-faire economics, European hostility to religion and violence.  Right-wing economics and left-wing do-gooders are thrown together because both have disproportionate influence outside the West.  In the game there’s a glimpse of Alatlı’s preoccupation with quantum physics and chaos theory; apparently in the novel she links these with an eccentric form of Turkish nationalism. 

Alert reader Eric McGill has an interesting question:

I’ve been thinking about your blog entry on nationalism, and reading other people’s suggestions for the Middle East, all of which seem to want to give independent ethnic groups their own countries, and I’m left wondering how you would redraw the Middle East. Or, for that matter, Eastern Europe or the Balkans.

 It’s dangerous to ask someone like me to draw maps. 🙂 Drawing maps, especially interesting alternative maps, is all too addictive…

So I think I’ll rephrase your question in two ways.

1. How should the great powers have redrawn the map when they had the chance?

In much larger units.  Africa and the Middle East have suffered greatly because of arbitrary lines (which divide ethnic groups and thus cause endless trouble) and too-small nations (which have few resources and become geopolitical debits, unable either to form large internal markets or to adequately protect themselves).

There are a few exceptions, of course– mostly small East Asian nations that could easily function as nation-states.  Thailand is a natural nation; Iraq or the Sudan is not. 

Large nations can be problems too– Russia took a lot longer to recover from the fall of communism than smaller, nimbler states like Poland or the Czech Republic.  But the problem isn’t size per se.  Once India and China found ways of unleashing their entrepreneurial spirit, their size became an advantage.  

2. What should small independent states do now, if nationalism isn’t such a great idea?

Pension off their nationalist leaders, then form European-style unions.  The first step is likely to be the hard part.  Unions have been tried before, notably Egypt and Syria.  They don’t work because of the big-fish-in-a-small-pond phenomenon: two or more generalissimos would rather lord it over a small country than unite to form a richer, more powerful nation where at most one of them can be big kahuna. 

It’s hard to imagine even this working in the Middle East.  But hey, in 1946 it was hard to imagine it working in Europe.   

One of the best features of the New Yorker is James Surowiecki’s Financial Page.  This week he has a great article on the foolishness of our punitive bankruptcy law.  Go read it; it’s just a page long.

But in case you don’t: credit card companies a few years ago fantasized a “bankruptcy crisis”.  Bankruptcies, they pointed out, doubled between 1995 and 2004.  They didn’t emphasize that in the same period, their profits tripled.  Congresscreatures tut-tutted and passed a law making bankruptcy harder.  Bush promised that the law would make credit “more affordable”; naturally he was wrong– credit card rates and fees haven’t fallen.

 Now that the economy is tanking, the bankruptcy law is going to cause real harm.  Simply put, it’s lousy policy to drag out failure.  It will decrease entrepreneurship, since lenient bankruptcy laws make it easier to start over if a business fails, thus making it less risky to start one up.  It creates a disincentive to work, since a higher income just means more money going to creditors.  And by making credit card debt harder to avoid than mortgages, it’s added to the housing crisis.

The real puzzle here is how we get a law that’s bad for more people than it helps.  Do a majority of voters really favor laws that make their situation worse?

It’s not just lobbyists getting what they want from the Money Party.  The law fits a certain punitive, even self-punitive streak in conservativism.  Sometimes this is dignified as “moral hazard”.  The bankruptcy (sorry) of this line of thought is shown by the lack of concern for the moral hazard of executives.  The CEOs who brought on the mortgage meltdown will get multi-million-dollar rewards; firms like Bear Stearns that speculated irresponsibly get bailed out with taxpayer money. 

As this Time article by Charles Crain makes clear, the clear winner of the recent operation in Basra was Muqtada al-Sadr.  It was supposed to shore up Nouri al-Maliki; now he looks weak.  It was hoped to marginalize Sadr; now his street cred is only increased, without losing his influence over what there is of the central government.

 http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1726763,00.html

I have to ask again– after four years— why the US is at war with al-Sadr.   Sadr is obviously not a terrorist, and we can’t even label him an insurgent– his faction is a major force in the government.  We can’t even say we’re against warlords; we constantly tout our alliance of convenience with Sunni tribal leaders and seek to integrate their militias into the army. 

It’s pretty sad that my post of four years ago could be written today, except that all the names but Sadr’s have to be changed.  Even Bush will be gone soon.  Could a President McCain handle Sadr any better? McCain has opined that Sadr has to be “taken out” without apparently explaining how or why, and seems to think that Maliki’s operation worked.  Do we need four to eight more years of denial?

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