It’s more a lift than a shove by mattsteinglass
July 31, 2008, 11:02 pm
Filed under: Drugs, United States, Vietnam

The US Embassy was gracious enough to invite me to check out the training program a

A Vietnamese counter-narcotics officer handcuffs an American playing the role of a drug offender during DEA training exercises. Hanoi, July 30, 2008.

A Vietnamese counter-narcotics officer handcuffs an American playing the role of a drug offender during DEA training exercises. Hanoi, July 30, 2008.

team of American Drug Enforcement Agency officers have been conducting for 80 Vietnamese counter-narcotics police, border guards and customs officers in Vietnam for the past week. Most of it seemed to be pretty physical: planning and executing raids, getting into and out of the building, arresting suspects. There were some entertaining sessions involving paint-pellet pistols. (US firearms and tactics instructor Joe Boix to the Vietnamese officers whose performance he was reviewing: “In the first incident, we had two misses at close proximity. We have got to be careful with our shooting and make every shot count, so we can all get home safely.”)

There were a couple of things I found interesting. The first was that the training seemed so far removed from the intricate questions of the drug trade; it didn’t seem much different from what an Israeli Army friend of mine once showed me about how he’d been trained to “take a room”. Well, no, that’s not true — his training involved spraying the room with automatic weapons fire, so I guess that’s different. But still, it was just surprisingly physical; one instructor was showing the police how to put a man on the ground, handcuff his hands behind his back, move him to a sitting position, and then hoist him to his feet. (“It’s more a lift than a shove.”) Almost like a very hostile yoga session or something.

The second point was how seamlessly, for a law enforcement officer, thinking about your own safety translates into thinking about effective use of force against the person you’re arresting. (See that above statement by Boix.) And that in turn just reinforced, for me, the reasons why the introduction of weapons into a situation always heightens everyone’s risk. One person’s safety is another person’s threat. I realize the gun-control issue is off the table in American politics for the foreseeable future, but I still can’t really understand how someone can think that a world where everyone is armed is a safe world.

A note to whoever is bugging my phone by mattsteinglass
July 31, 2008, 8:50 pm
Filed under: Vietnam | Tags: , ,

Dear sirs,

Please inform your superiors that the Soviet-era equipment you are using to bug both of my telephone lines is primitive and of unacceptable quality, and I demand that you replace it with something more sophisticated and up to date. Your bug produces a loud crackling noise on the line much of the time, preventing me from recording broadcast-quality telephone interviews with sources for radio reports. I am sure that quieter and less obtrusive bugs are widely available, if not in Vietnam, then at Pantip Plaza in Bangkok. I understand why you might be interested in monitoring potentially disruptive communications with sources outside of Vietnam, but I hardly think that my recent interview with an American poet who wishes to preserve ancient Vietnamese ideographic script falls into this category.


Matt Steinglass

The American firewall by mattsteinglass
July 30, 2008, 10:36 pm
Filed under: United States

Regarding Sam Brownback’s outrage (via Yglesias) at the idea that China would monitor internet usage at hotels, despite the fact that the US has been doing exactly the same thing (illegally) for 7 years, and Brownback just signed a law making it legal:

When I came to Vietnam in 2003, I was looking for leads for articles, and I talked with an Israeli businessman here who knew a bit about the companies, some of them supposedly Israeli, that were helping Vietnam’s Ministry of Public Security with its internet firewalling and surveillance activities. And the first thing he put on the table when we starting talking was that the surveillance and censorship Vietnam was doing, though it got a lot of press, was comparatively penny-ante stuff. “You know which countries do by far the most surveillance, monitoring and interception of internet and email traffic in the world, right?” I was silent. “The US and the UK,” he said. “There’s no comparison.”

I chalked that up to the kind of paranoia that often accompanies the ostentatiously disillusioned attitude which that ilk of business and security types like to affect, and went on with the conversation.

Silly me.

Let our neighborhoods be our gyms by mattsteinglass
July 30, 2008, 4:23 pm
Filed under: Health, Transportation

Recently, in a span of 3 weeks, I went from being somewhat out of shape to being reasonably in shape. I lost about 1.5 kilos, my posture improved, my skin got healthier. What exercise regime did I follow to accomplish this? I stayed in a rental house in the Netherlands for 3 weeks. In other words, I carried lots of stuff around and rode a bicycle about 10 km a day, just in the normal course of living.

Last summer, in a span of about 4 weeks, the same transformation occurred. What exercise regime did I follow to accomplish that? I stayed at my parents’ apartment in Manhattan. In other words, I carried lots of stuff around and walked about 6 km a day, just in the normal course of living.

All of this is by way of response to the new Johns Hopkins study suggesting 86 percent of Americans could be obese by 2030. As Ezra Klein says in response, “if we stopped subsidizing corn (and thus, high fructose corn syrup), sugar, meat, soybeans, and related foods, and put that money instead towards subsidizing fruits and vegetables, towards increasing the accessibility of healthful food, towards making cities more walkable, towards putting calorie information on menus, you could probably make a dent.” Making cities more walkable and bikeable (bikable?) is huge. When you live in places like that, you lose weight and become healthier without even trying. And as someone who’s basically lazy and lacking in willpower, let me tell you, I like things that make my life better without me even trying.

Add: here’s a link to my post explaining the utterly different and smart-planning-heavy way the Dutch lay out their streets and various other transit systems.

Dark Knight: more darkness please by mattsteinglass
July 30, 2008, 1:45 am
Filed under: Film

A.O. Scott’s excellent piece on the limitations of the superhero genre seems to have been cut off mid-thought at the end, but I’d just note that for me what’s still missing in every one of the big superhero flicks of the past 20 years is any really convincing or interesting representation of evil. In the real world, we have people like Radovan Karadzic walking around. Screenwriters will have to do a lot better if they want to top that; the closest I’ve seen is the X-Men’s conception of evil emanating out of racial/demographic conflict. Though I haven’t seen The Dark Knight and I understand Heath Ledger is pretty interesting, so I reserve judgment.

Vanishing ink: Vietnam’s Nom script by mattsteinglass
July 30, 2008, 1:06 am
Filed under: Literature, Vietnam

I’m gradually putting together a little feature on the Nom Preservation Foundation, a group set up by American poet John Balaban that supports the digital archiving and preservation of literacy in Vietnamese Nom script. (Nom is the Chinese-style script that was used to write Vietnamese from the 10th century until the French promoted the modern Romanized Vietnamese alphabet, which took over by the 1930s.) Anyway, Balaban sent me a recording of a poem by the great woman poet Ho Xuan Huong (1772-1822), and it reads like it was written yesterday:

Spring-Watching Pavilion

A gentle spring evening arrives
airily, unclouded by worldly dust.
Three times the bell tolls echoes like a wave.
We see heaven upside down in sad puddles.
Love’s vast sea cannot be emptied.
And springs of grace flow easily everywhere.
Where is nirvana?
Nirvana is here, nine times out of ten.

You know this is for real when you hit the heaven upside down in the puddles; that’s one of those lines that leaps across the centuries, for me. And partly the modernity of the poem is the effect of Balaban’s lovely translation, but that last line, “nine times out of ten”, is perfectly faithful to the Vietnamese: “chin ro muoi”. I can’t think of a Western poet who would have written such a slangy, demotic expression of probabilistic attitude in 1800. Anyone?

Afghanistan, Vietnam, Heroin by mattsteinglass
July 29, 2008, 3:25 pm
Filed under: Drugs

As anyone who’s seen American Gangster “knows”, US troops in Vietnam all started shooting heroin, thereby creating the Golden Triangle — then the world’s largest opium-poppy cultivation zone, in Laos, Thailand and Burma. After the war the Golden Triangle spread to include parts of Vietnam itself, which had about 18,000 hectares of opium poppies under cultivation in 1991, which would make it the third-largest cultivator in the world today. (There are no more opium poppies cultivated in Vietnam; an increasingly efficient government has stamped the practice out.) Today, as we all know from reading the NY Times Magazine, the world’s biggest opium poppy and heroin producer is Afghanistan, with Burma coming in a distant second. According to the UN Office of Drug Control’s 2007 report, Afghanistan produced 8200 metric tons of opium in 2007, Burma 460 tons. The summary of production increases in 2007 reads like some bizarre parody of a glowing World Bank development report:

Opium production reaches a new record high Global opium production reached record levels in 2007: led by production in Afghanistan, it increased for a second year in a row to 8,870 mt. This is by far the highest annual level of production recorded in the last two decades and roughly double the annual average for that period. This is related to the shift in cultivation from Myanmar to Afghanistan which has taken place over the same period. In the latter country, opium farmers achieve more than two and a half times the per hectare yield. In 2007, Afghanistan alone accounted for 92% of global production, producing 8,200 mt of opium at an average yield of 42.5 kg/ha. In Myanmar, opium production increased by 46% from 315 mt to 460 mt due to the combined effects of cultivation increases and higher yields. However, opium production in Myanmar represented only 5% of global production in 2007. The total farmgate value of opium production in Afghanistan rose 32% to US$1 billion dollars in 2007 on the strength of the enormous increase in production.

So, who’s buying all this heroin? The report says that in the US in 2007, heroin cost $87.70 a gram wholesale, $172 a gram retail. (That’s a huge drop in the wholesale/retail spread from 2006. What’s going on there? Just-in-time delivery practices by big-box heroin retailers?) In Europe, meanwhile, heroin was going for just $67.10 a gram retail or $30.70 a gram wholesale. Prices have been low and steady in Europe and the US for years after hitting highs in the early ’90s.

What does that price differential portend for drug user populations? In North America users are stable at 0.4% of the population. And…ah! In Europe, user are 0.7% of the population. And so we see that tolerant European drug policies allow low prices, which means more drug abuse…oh, no, wait. Actually, opiate use rates in Western Europe, which includes drug-tolerant Switzerland, the Netherlands, etc., are just 0.5%, not much different from the US, especially considering how much cheaper the drug is. So where are all those drug users?

In the (non-tolerant) East. Opiate users in Eastern Europe, including Russia, average 1% of the population. In Russia it’s about 1.4% of the population. So that’s who’s buying Afghanistan’s dope. Russia, of course, has a drug policy that’s based entirely on interdiction and on getting addicts to “kick”; little harm reduction (some clean needles), no methadone. Oh well. In a piquante fashion, of course, one could write a lyrical drug-trade movie (“Russian Gangster”, say) illustrating how Russia’s heroin injection problem got started when…it invaded Afghanistan, and its troops started shooting up. And so it all comes around in circles again.

Except that as Afghanistan’s drug production has shot up over the past few years, Russia’s drug use population has remained largely stable. So who’s buying all the extra heroin? According to UNODC, it’s new heroin users in Pakistan, India, Iran and the rest of South and Southwest Asia. It’s actually being consumed locally. The large country with the single biggest opiate abuse problem in the world? Iran, where 2.4% of the population uses opium in one form or another each year — six times the rate in the US.

Feminism vs. individualism? Or something? I don’t get it by mattsteinglass
July 29, 2008, 1:31 pm
Filed under: Gender

Megan McArdle has an interesting post referencing this interesting post by Ilyka at “Off Our Pedestals” about why it’s hard for some ambitious young women to embrace feminism.

I forgot that one of the losses I had to grieve when I threw my lot in with feminism was the idea that I was special and that, as someone special, I could beat the system all on my own. I was cute enough. I was funny enough. I was a “guy’s girl” enough. I was laid-back enough. I was smart enough. I liked fucking enough. I could totally do this, and just as soon as I did, oh, how I was going to have a good long laugh at all the pathetic loser women down there who couldn’t.

Megan responds that this is an instance of the own-bootstrap vs. social-influence mentalities:

It’s good to recognize how much of what we achieve is possible because we stand, so to speak, on the shoulders of giants. It’s very good for women who find the more radical, humorless brand of activist kind of annoying (and I am often among this group) to recognize that their willingness to be radical, humorless, and not very well liked was a necessary component of the massive advances we won a few short decades ago. But it’s not good to tell yourself that really, it wasn’t you, just your environment.

I felt on first read that I understood instinctively what these posts were saying, and then a few hours later I realized I didn’t actually understand them at all. Why should anyone’s ability to give thanks for the titanic struggles of their forebears, or their eagerness to consider themselves a member of the movements those forebears founded, diminish their own sense of accomplishment in (or responsibility for) their lives? I’ve spent my whole life being grateful to Louis Brandeis, my own grandparents, etc. for breaking down the barriers of quotas and prejudice that once kept Jews out of elite universities and so forth. But that didn’t make me feel any less proud of anything I’ve accomplished; if anything I felt more proud as part of a tradition of accomplishment by anyone I could call a forebear. I can’t imagine that blacks feel diminished by identifying themselves with the Civil Rights movement; I can’t imagine Dave Winfield thinking to himself I’m only here because of Jackie Robinson so it doesn’t really count or whatever a more appropriate analogy would be.

If it’s different for women, then why? Clearly gender is very different from race, ethnicity or religion. Its power of influence runs much deeper, and each gender’s identity is involved in a constant conversation with the other gender about what makes each side desirable in a way that isn’t true for ethnicity, race, or religion. But I still don’t really feel I understand this at all.

The Arab world is not ours to “reform” by mattsteinglass
July 29, 2008, 11:51 am
Filed under: Iraq, United States, War

I have a lot more respect for Lee Smith’s take on the problems with Kenneth Pollack’s “reform” agenda for the Middle East (in his new book A Path out of the Desert: A Grand Strategy for America in the Middle East) than Matthew Yglesias does. Here’s Smith’s gloss of Pollack’s argument:

He identifies America’s chief vital interest in the region without embarrassment: Persian Gulf energy resources. Until the United States develops an adequate substitute for oil, we are stuck in the Middle East protecting the free flow of affordable fossil fuel that not only fills American SUVs but also ensures the stability of global markets. Pollack makes a good case that were it not for our presence in the Gulf, we would not be such a valuable target on the jihadist hit list, and were we to leave tomorrow, the threat to the United States from Arab terror outfits would largely subside.

Since we are not leaving, we need to repair the region with a broad program of economic and political reform, different from the Bush administration’s quick-fix obsession with elections that merely lent democratic legitimacy to Islamist groups in the Palestinian Authority, Iraq, Lebanon, and Egypt. Pollack argues that a process of real liberal reform will take decades, if not longer.

Yglesias thinks the problem with this is that we can’t accomplish reform in the Arab world if people think we’re only doing it for easier access to their oil. “Reform is hard. Promoting reform is harder. Promoting reform in the name of cheap oil and military domination is almost certainly impossible.”

I think Yglesias gets this wrong: the problem is that we can’t accomplish reform in the Arab world. The United States cannot reform the governing institutions of Saudi Arabia, Egypt or Syria. The world is not put together that way. Only Saudis, Egyptians and Syrians can reform their governing institutions. The US can stand for a certain kind of governance, and aid and encourage forces within other societies that want to move towards that kind of governance. But it has no control over whether those forces succeed or not. And that’s why “reform in the Arab world” cannot form a plank of an American “grand strategy”. We can control whether or not we stand for democratic reform. We can’t control whether or not it happens. You don’t build a strategy that rests on the success of things you have no control over — see Iraq.

Lee Smith’s phrasing of this point verges on anti-Arab prejudice, but at its root it does something that Yglesias fails to: it takes Arab societies seriously. Smith thinks there are reasons why Arab states are almost universally dictatorships shot through with armed non-state actors, and that these have to do with the clan structure of Arab societies. The notion that the US can march into such societies and turn them into little Americas is absurd, and it doesn’t much matter whether America phrases its motives in terms of access to oil or in terms of spreading freedom. I agree. To me, it sounds like what’s wrong with Ken Pollack’s book isn’t that he hasn’t done a cost-benefit analysis of reforming the Middle East or that he thinks we can reform the Middle East in order to stabilize oil supplies. The problem is that he thinks we can reform the Middle East. Other countries are not ours to “reform”. We need to get through our heads the difference between standing for democracy and encouraging and defending democracy, and rolling into other countries trying to create democracy by fiat. We don’t get to treat the world as if it were clay in our hands, and I sometimes feel that Yglesias and some in the resurgent liberal-internationalist crowd still have a too-expansive base assumption of what “we can do,” if “we” means the US.

It doesn’t matter whether we “want” the Olympics to succeed by mattsteinglass
July 28, 2008, 6:00 pm
Filed under: China

James Fallows, one of the world’s great journalists, writes that we ought to be rooting for the Olympics to succeed, not fail, because failure will just lead to angry, xenophobic Chinese recriminations against foreigners who wish China ill. I don’t think this is quite the right way to phrase things. The thing is, it doesn’t matter whether we “want” the Olympics to succeed or not: pollution in Beijing will either clear up or it won’t, the internet will either run at an acceptable speed despite censorship firewalls or it won’t, etc. What we foreigners can control is our reaction to these events.

Of course it doesn’t make sense to hope that the Olympics go badly. Think about it: the Chinese are resentful of “foreigners who wish China ill.” Well, if you’re hoping the Olympics go badly, then you are quite literally a foreigner who wishes China ill, and in your case Chinese resentment isn’t xenophobic, it’s just accurate. But let’s assume that we hope in all honesty that China will handle the Games well. How then shall we react if it doesn’t? Let’s say the air quality index is consistently over 100, unacceptable. Should athletes muzzle their complaints? Should Western commentators keep it quiet? What if China pressures Western networks to shut up about the smog, lest they be summarily kicked out of the Games or suffer unnamed future retaliation in the Chinese market. Is this acceptable, in the name of preserving Chinese popular good will towards foreigners? What about internet firewall problems? If journalists cannot access the website of the BBC or other critical media while working, should they keep quiet about it? If foreigners find they are hassled by police for their papers and visas, should they suppress this news? In the name of international harmony?

I don’t think such self-censorship would be good, and I don’t think it’s possible. There will be 22,000 journalists in Beijing next week. There is no way to shut up a journalistic mob of that size, each clambering over the next to get the story. China decided to invite the world in, to host the Olympics, in the expectation that it would receive a big boost in global respect and affection. It is about to find out what happens when you invite the world in. If Chinese don’t want foreigners viewing their country with a critical eye, they should kick the foreigners out. But you can’t throw an event to win the world’s respect and affection, screw up the event, and then complain that the world is biased against you.

Except, of course, that reports of any problems with the Olympics in terms of air quality should also talk about the infrastructural wonders Beijing has wrought over the last 6 years in preparing for the games. It’s not fair to talk about the air pollution and ignore the two new subway lines, miles of parks, incredible sports architecture, etc.

Add: Since Andrew Sullivan linked to this and it’s getting a lot of views, I just wanted to re-emphasize that last point: China really has worked infrastructural wonders in preparation for the Games. If a bias develops in overall coverage towards emphasizing the air quality problems and ignoring the extraordinary preparations China’s made, that would be wrong. Athens didn’t build two new subway lines for the ’04 Games. What I’m saying is that it would also be wrong to suppress any complaints about the Beijing Games.


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