Friday, March 07, 2003


Telford's gone all Sekimori. I like the Dead Sea Scroll look...
Crack Iraq

Matthew Yglesias contemplates breaking Iraq in two. It's a tempting idea because the state is so jerry-rigged to begin with, but he points out a problem:
The main point is that the populations of multiethnic countries don't really come in neat geographical bits that you can just pull apart. Big cities, in particular, tend to generate multiethnic populations (see, e.g., Montreal in Canada). This means that your new states are going to need to deal with the problem of multinationality just as much as the big state was going to need to. But by making the size of the new minority groups smaller relative to the overall population than they were in the old state you make finding an equitable solution more difficult. You also can get problems where, say, the Kurdish state tries to interfere with the conduct of the Arab state vis-à-vis the Arab state's treatment of the Kurdish population.

This is true. Wherever there have been empires -- and Iraq is smack in the middle of many past empires -- you have all these layers of peoples who've moved in over the millennia. So Iraq doesn't just have Arabs and Kurds, and Shi'ites and Sunnis. It's got Assyrians, Turkmen, Persians, Armenians, and several other little groups. Any Mesopotamian state is going to have to deal with minorities.

Europe used to be more like this, back when Europe had empires. The Hungary part of Austria-Hungary, for instance, used to encompass Slovakia, Croatia, Transylvania (now part of Romania) and small parts of neighboring states. After WWI Hungary was pared back to the land where Hungarians were a majority -- its present boundaries. But fully a third of ethnic Hungarians were left outside Hungary. Ethnic Germans also used to be more scattered around, and there were Yiddish-speaking Jews all over the place. Successive wars and population shifts solidified states to their current tidiness, though you could say the violence in the Balkans is the last spasm of this kind of ethnic state-building.

The larger problem lurking behind Iraq, though, is that the Kurds got royally screwed at the end of WWI. The Kurds are not a small group like the Assyrians: there are about 11 million of them in all countries, and they occupy a fairly contiguous area. The victors considered carving Kurdistan out of what is now Iraq and Turkey. But they wanted to make Iraq majority Sunni, because they feared Iranian influence in a Shiite state. This meant not only Kurds in Iraq but Kurds in Turkey, and now that Turkey is no longer a defeated enemy but a valued ally, nobody wants to get the Turkish Kurds excited by making a truncated Kurdistan.

Our chance to solve the Kurd problem peacefully, alas, seems to have gone by 80 years ago. I fear this problem isn't going to go away until there's a full-blown Kurdistan, but I don't know how that will happen.

Wednesday, March 05, 2003

Shrinks and shirkers

The Chronicle Review has an interesting article about tensions between psychologists and psycotherapists. I sympathize with the author's complaints -- I've certainly met people who insist blithely that psychology isn't a science, based on the pop versions. A big problem, I have to say, is Freud. Actually Freudians don't seem to be that common among psychologists these days, but he's become so entrenched in the culture that there's no getting away from him. I remember at college I chatted with a student who remarked, "In my sociology class we're learning about Freud, in my women's studies class we're learning about Freud, in my philosophy class we're learning about Freud..."
Bias cut

Mindles Dreck has a good post about media bias, which about sums up my own view of it.

On the same blog, Jane Galt also writes a post about PETA that I can get behind. The few loyalists who were reading me back in November may recall that I vowed to eat only humanely treated animals, and I've stuck with it. I've discovered some interesting companies, such as Petaluma Poultry, with its disconcerting habit of naming its chickens. As Lewis Carroll wrote, never eat anything you haven't been introduced to!

Actually, if I'm at someone's house (or at Alpha) I eat what's served to me regardless of origin. But in my own purchases I try to stick to my conscience.

Sheesh, I'm gone for a couple days and my visit count drops through the floor! Sorry for the absence, folks. No real excuse, just wasn't in the mood.

Teresa Nielsen Hayden links to an interesting essay by Paul Graham theorizing about why smart kids tend to get picked on in school. He seems to be on the same wavelength as Glenn Reynolds and me about the unnatural hothouse atmosphere of today's high schools:
Where I grew up, it felt as if there was nowhere to go, and nothing to do. This was no accident. Suburbs are deliberately designed to exclude the outside world, because it contains things that could endanger children.

And as for the schools, they were just holding pens within this fake world. Officially the purpose of schools is to teach kids. In fact their primary purpose is to keep kids all locked up in one place for a big chunk of the day so adults can get things done. And I have no problem with this: in a specialized industrial society, it would be a disaster to have kids running around loose.

What bothers me is not that the kids are kept in prisons, but that (a) they aren't told about it, and (b) the prisons are run mostly by the inmates. Kids are sent off to spend six years memorizing meaningless facts in a world ruled by a caste of giants who run after an oblong brown ball, as if this were the most natural thing in the world. And if they balk at this surreal cocktail, they're called misfits...

Bullying was only part of the problem. Another problem, and possibly an even worse one, was that we never had anything real to work on. Humans like to work; in most of the world, your work is your identity. And all the work we did was pointless, or seemed so to us at the time.

At best it was practice for real work we might do far in the future, so far that we didn't even know at the time what we were practicing for. More often it was just an arbitrary series of hoops to jump through, words without content designed mainly for testability...

When groups of adults form in the real world, it's generally for some common purpose. The leaders end up being those who are best at it. The problem with most schools is, they have no purpose. Their ostensible purpose, scholarship, is a joke, not taken seriously even by those who are best at it. But hierarchy there must be. And so the kids make one out of nothing.

We have a phrase to describe what happens when rankings have to be created without any meaningful criteria. We say that the situation degenerates into a popularity contest. And that's exactly what happens in most American schools. Since the group has no real purpose, there is no natural measure of performance for status to depend on. Instead of depending on some real test, one's rank ends up depending mostly on one's ability to increase one's rank. It's like the court of Louis XIV. There is no external opponent, so the kids become one another's opponents in an inexorable zero-sum competition.

He also makes some good points about the psychology of bullying:

Like a politician who wants to distract voters from bad times at home, you can create an enemy if there isn't a real one. By singling out and persecuting a nerd, a group of kids from higher in the hierarchy create bonds between themselves: attacking an outsider makes them all insiders. This is why the worst cases of bullying happen with groups. Ask any nerd: you get much worse treatment from a group of kids than from any individual bully, however sadistic.

If it's any consolation to the nerds, it's nothing personal. The group of kids who band together to pick on you are doing the same thing, and for the same reason, as a bunch of guys who get together to go hunting. They don't actually hate you. They just need something to chase.

Because they're at the bottom of the scale, nerds are a safe target for the entire school. If I remember correctly, the most popular kids don't persecute nerds; they don't need to stoop to such things. Most of the persecution comes from kids lower down, the nervous middle classes.

That last point has, in fact, been borne out by social-psych research. Bullying isn't so much done by the strong to the weak as it is by the weak to the weaker. Bullies tend to lack social skills and don't figure out how to get what they want by peaceful means, so they resort to abuse. It gives them a short-term fix, but in the long run they fail. In Teresa's comments, Erik Olson explains this well:
There's always a few jocks who insist on ostracizing anyone else who isn't "cool", and typically manage to browbeat thier fellow jocks into going along. In football, they tend to be in the "small" positions -- QB, WR, FS and the like. Why? Because they know, deep down, the only thing they have going for them is that they're good at sport element X, and if it gets around that they can't read, they'll be ridiculed. So, the defense mechanism is to make intellegence uncool, and sports cool -- esp., of course, sport element X, which they just happen to "excel" at.

(Aside, in the real world, they find out throwing a football throw a 5' ring at 30 yards is pretty cool -- but the guys getting free rides to college are throwing them into 3' rings at 50 yards. Oops. This does *very* bad things to thier psyche. Remember this point, later.)

There are always a few jocks who don't play along with this -- but they can get away with it. They've got the atheltic ability to stay on the team (which means they can't be attacked, for fear of weakening the jock class-as-a-whole) and the brains to look others in the eye and say "Bull. You're just covering for your own weakness." They're not really common, but there's one or two on every team.

How do we fix this? How do we break this clique?

Simple. Get coaches out of school. What do washed up jocks with little other skill become? High school coaches. Not only do they tend to the petty tyrant, the setup means they're in close contact with the jocks for many hours a day -- during gym, after school, often, before school as well.

Go read it all.