Monthly Archives: August 2007

Red Sox Nation: Arrogant?

Jim Caple whines:

They call themselves Red Sox Nation, the same arrogant way the Cowboys call themselves America’s Team. And the whole thing is getting a little old. Could I get a little help here from Miss Teen South Carolina? Where the hell is Red Sox Nation anyway? It seems to me Red Sox Nation only exists when the team is winning, like a country that only shows up on U.S. State Department radar when oil is discovered. Wherever Red Sox Nation is, I just wish Bush would invade it.

Someone failed logic. The comparison is not valid. The Dallas Cowboys calling themselves “America’s Team” was presumptous because the team was speaking for the entire country. “Red Sox Nation,” however, refers only to a single, collective group of fans that people can choose to join. The term never even comes close to forcing itself on the whole United States.

Someone also sounds bitter. I don’t read Caple that much, so I wonder what team the former Red Sox fan supports now.

Flying the Unfriendly Skies


BusinessWeek reports on something that, well, isn’t really news:

Long lines, late flights, near collisions — everyone is unhappy with the state of the U.S. air travel system. Unfortunately, no one, expecially not the FAA, seems able to do anything about it.

I had always been skeptical about complaints about air travel. Although I fly many times per year, I had never lost luggage or been significantly delayed. So I had presumed that this unhappiness stemmed from an innately human desire to complain about and exaggerate, well, everything.

My most recent trip to Israel, however, changed everything. I’ve already told the first part of the story, but I had never told the rest. So now seems as good a time as any. I’ll start from the beginning again.

I was supposed to fly from Boston to New York on American Airlines, and then switch to El Al for the remaining travel to Israel. Well, the flight to New York was two hours late because, for some reason, American Airlines was short one pilot. A co-pilot had to be flown in from New York in order to, well, fly back to New York. Go figure. I finally arrived in Terminal 4 just as El Al shut the aircraft door.

Of course, I had been smart enough to book the last flight of the evening (departure was at 11:50 p.m.), so I had to wait until the next morning. I had phoned El Al, and at least they had booked me on the next flight just in case I missed the evening flight. Still, I stayed at JFK airport — where cockroaches and other unwelcome visitors crawl on the floor in front of you — and occasionally slept from midnight until 7 a.m. I left for Israel at around 11 a.m. in the morning.

Fast forward three weeks. I had been packing to return to the United States the following morning. El Al called to say that my flight had been delayed until that evening because “there was a problem with the plane.” (Whatever that meant.) I was worried because I had a connecting flight on, yes, American Airlines from New York to St. Louis via Chicago. It was Thursday, and I was going to a friend’s wedding on Saturday before returning to Boston. I did not want to miss my friend’s special day.

El Al was unable to arrange a new connecting flight on American Airlines — or any other airline, for that matter — because I had booked the flight on two separate reservations. (Stupid me!) I called American Airlines to schedule a new connecting flight to St. Louis, and the only available one was for Friday afternoon. I had to take it — for a $150 change fee plus $165 in additional airfare, of course. By the time delayed El Al arrived in New York, it was one o’clock in the morning. I tried to stay in the airport, but I couldn’t do that again after my journey to Tel Aviv. So I paid $200 — plus a $14 buffet breakfast! — for one night in the Ramada Plaza hotel near JFK Airport.

It doesn’t end there. My American Airlines flight from New York was delayed, again, for an hour and a half. I arrived in St. Louis at 7 p.m. on Friday, more than nineteen hours after I was originally supposed to be there. Needless to say, I was not the most coherent groomsman at the wedding on Saturday afternoon. (I think I spoke some Hebrew deliriously while falling asleep at home the prior night.)

On Sunday afternoon, I was supposed to fly from St. Louis through Chicago to Boston. American Airlines, to their credit, told me that they were expecting severe weather in Chicago, and that many flights would most likely be delayed or canceled. They offered to put me on a direct flight from St. Louis to Boston for free, and I accepted. (Following my harrowing experience to get from Boston to Tel Aviv, and then Tel Aviv to St. Louis, I would have appreciated a first-class upgrade, but I guess beggers can’t be choosers.) However, the new flight would not leave for an additional three hours, so I spent this final delay commiserating with other travelers in an airport bar.

All in all, here is what I had to pay for airline incompetence in addition to the prior money I had spent on the vacation:

  • Money: $530 for an airline change fee, hotel room, and breakfast
  • Time: Roughly 25 hours
  • Physical stress and mental anguish: Priceless

Apparently I’m not the only one who is noticing that something is amiss. In addition to BusinessWeek, the Economist recently detailed the problems with the airline industry and the hell that is Heathrow Airport as well. (Why do passengers who are connecting through London need to go through security again? And why do we need to take our shoes off in American airports when it is not necessary at Ben-Gurion Airport, one of the most secure facilities in the world?)

The Economist’s solution is here, and it seems reasonable. I just hope El Al and American Airlines will reimburse me in the meantime.

Addendum: It may only get worse.

Modernity’s Search for Meaning


Saul Singer makes an interesting observation:

People in free, wealthy countries are much more pessimistic about their children’s future than in poor, often dictatorial, nations…

In the pre-modern era and in the developing world today, the struggle against poverty, disease, and tyranny provided a natural source of meaning. The challenge of modernity is what to do in places where the basic physical and even political goals of humanity throughout history have been fulfilled…

The ultimate crisis of modernity is not sustainability or sustenance, or even peace and freedom, but meaning and civility.

Psychologist Abraham Maslow theorized that a hierarchy of needs exists in human society: first, and most importantly, we need things like water, food and shelter merely to survive; lastly, we desire intellectual pursuits that, of course, are not necessary for survival. (And there are many other needs in the middle.)

Industrialization, public policy and invention has ensured that almost everyone’s basic needs in the Western world are met, and war and conflict barely touch our day-to-day lives. Unless one is homeless or completely destitute, everyone is going to have a roof over his head and eat a meal tomorrow. (No society, unfortunately, has solved poverty and homelessness entirely, and I’m not sure that it’s even possible. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t always try.)

As a result, modern Westerners have the luxury of being able to debate political, religious and philosophical issues in-depth and at length. A religious person in the Third World who spends eighty hours per week merely to find enough food for his family is not going to have time to ponder, say, the merits of free will versus predestination or globalization versus protectionism. But we do. And, as a cynical saying goes, those who think the most are those who are least happy. (Or something like that.)

Our basic needs have been met, and now, the modern world spends most of its time thinking about the political, theological, philosophical, moral, personal, social and ethical choices that are now before us. Unprecedented levels of wealth, information and freedom has given the Western world an infinite number of opportunities — and, most significantly, an infinite number of choices for each individual to make.

Do I support George Bush or John Kerry? To what extent should I keep kosher? Where should I go to college? Should I work abroad in Spain after college, stay in my city, or move back closer to my family out West? Where should I live my life? What career should I pursue? Should I go back to graduate school? How can I find a spouse, and what should I look for? Do I want to have kids? What is the meaning in all of this?

Most people in the world wish they had such choices. But that doesn’t mean it’s not stressful for the Western world. The reason that modern Westerners are anxious and pessimistic is because we are constantly faced with the Tyranny of Choice (see here, here and here). The availability of more choices creates more stress. (Perhaps Lynyrd Skynyrd was right.) There is a personal cost associated with the rational benefit.

When Singer states that humanity is searching for meaning more than ever, I think that is because it is that much harder to find meaning in an increasingly complex world. This explains why modern Westerners seem to be less happy than their poorer counterparts, and also why religious fundamentalism is increasing (although increasing globalization and decadence are also factors).

More and More Debt

Harvard Magazine looks at how the United States has become a debtor nation and what the consequences may be. It’s an important read.

Illegal U.S. Troops

In December, the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq may become illegal under the current U.N. mandate. Perhaps that will be the method through which the United States finally withdraws from a mistaken and tragic war.

Addendum: Besides, we’re almost out of troops, anyway.

Moses: American Icon?

How did Moses become so popular? It wasn’t just Charleton Heston.

Banning Muslims and the Koran


Daniel Pipes looks at efforts in various parts of the world to ban Islam, the Koran, and even Muslims themselves out of a fear of Islamic extremism:

I understand the security-based urge to exclude the Koran, Islam, and Muslims, but these efforts are too broad, sweeping up inspirational passages with objectionable ones, reformers with extremists, friends with foes. Also, they ignore the possibility of positive change.

More practical and focused would be to reduce the threats of jihad and Shari’a by banning Islamist interpretations of the Koran, as well as Islamism and Islamists. Precedents exist…

Islam is not the enemy, but Islamism is. Tolerate moderate Islam, but eradicate its radical variants.

Pipes is close, but not completely correct.

Every country determines its own sovereign legal system and the freedoms that citizens enjoy, so I hate to use the United States as the basis for comparison. But I do believe that the United States, out of all the countries in the world, is the most free on the planet (at least ideally). Freedom is central to American culture and historical memory, and this characteristic has motiviated the millions of immigrants who have aspired to come here. So, I apply the American model to most foreign matters involving freedom and civil liberties, and I believe other countries should be inspired by the American system.

In the United States, people are free to say whatever they think (except in specific contexts like shouting fire in a crowded theater and whenever a captive audience is present). Neo-Nazis, anarchists and even pedophiles are free to express their opinions as long as they do not put their thoughts into action. I can even say that I want to kill the president until I start to plan to do so. The difference arises when people move from speech to action. A person can say whatever he wants; he cannot do whatever he wants:

The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.                    — Oliver Wendell Holmes

So, where does this leave the discussion? Obviously, a ban on Islam, the Koran and Muslims is right out. (And so should it be.) Neither a religion nor a publication can be banned under the First Amendment, and a forced deportation of a specific segment of the population directly resembles Nazi Germany, the expulsions of Jews from many Western European countries (and, in Spain, of Muslims) during the Middle Ages, and the forced conversions by Muslims and Christians (depending on who was in power in a given place at a given time) of Christians, Muslims and Jews in southern Europe and the Middle East centuries ago. Do we really want to return to that mentality? (I already fear that an increasing nationalism in response to growing Islamism will set the stage for such a conflict.)

It would be legally and morally wrong (not to mention impossible) to ban Islam, the Koran and Muslims. Pipes is correct on this point. But he is wrong when he states that “Islamism” itself should be banned instead. A ban on an idea, of course, is already a violation of freedom of speech (not to mention unenforceable). However, it is also a slippery slope: Who determines what defines “Islamism” and which ideas are “dangerous”? One year, it is al-Qaeda; the next year, it is Islam as a whole; the following year, it is Judaism (after all, they’re loyal to Israel!); the next year, it is Roman Catholicism (after all, they’re loyal to the Pope!). Who knows where the legal precedent would lead. Besides, a ban on “Islamism” would only inspire extremists: it would “prove” that the West is, in fact, waging a war against Islam itself. Islamists have the right to say what they wish — no matter how horrible — but the moment that their words become actions, then they should be jailed and, if in a country illegally, deported.

So, Western countries cannot ban Islam, the Koran and Muslims. The West cannot expel all Muslims who already reside in Europe and the United States. Governments cannot ban Islamism. What, then, can Western countries do to combat homegrown Islamic extremism? The answer is fourfold:

  1. Enforce existing laws without taking religion into account. Muslims need to feel that they are free and respected, not only tolerated — this is one reason why extremism is less prevelant among American Muslims than those in Europe. It is illegal for a person to murder someone, rob a bank, or blow up a building — and his religion is a moot point. The law should be truly blind.
  2. Countries should restrict future immigration from countries that have large numbers of extremist Muslims, focus more on individual background checks, and reform their labor, economic and employment policies so large numbers of immigrants are no longer needed in the workforce. (It is one thing, as I mentioned earlier, to expel members of a population who are citizens. It is quite another to regulate and restrict future immigration. Each country has a sovereign right to determine who can and cannot enter — even if those determinations, unfortunately, are primarily motivated by race, religion or ethnicity. But such a law, of course, would be morally questionable. If a country wishes to restrict immigration, it should do so based on factors including country of origin and a personal background check on the person wishing to emigrate.)
  3. Fight Islamic extremism, along with other fundamentalists who are part of what I call the True Clash of Civilizations, in the marketplace of ideas. There are reasons — and religion is only one of many — that the standards of living, for example, in fundamentalist Muslim countries is much lower than those in the West.
  4. Moderate Muslims need to purge extremists from their midst or risk the wrath of the societies in which they live. This is obvious.

I have one other point: Pipes states that the West should “tolerate moderate Islam.” To tolerate something means that one puts up with it even though one thinks it is bad. I hope that was not Pipes’ intention. (The word “tolerance” is frequently misused today’s politically-correct climate.) The West should welcome moderate Muslims into an increasingly diverse, complex and globalized world. All people have something to contribute.

Elsewhere: Paul Sims, writing in The New Humanist, discusses this issue as well.