Intelligence & Iraq
To the Editor:
Norman Podhoretz writes as though the best argument advanced by critics of the Bush administration is that the President knowingly uttered false statements in making the case for war [“Who Is Lying About Iraq?,” December 2005]. That is not so. What critics have pointed out is that many of the public claims of administration officials in the run-up to the invasion were based on information that most U.S. intelligence experts believed to be unreliable. Mr. Podhoretz’s parade of pre-war quotes from Democrats unequivocally establishes that Saddam Hussein was widely believed to be a threat, but they shed no light on the charge that the administration mischaracterized that threat by the negligent or willful misconstruing of intelligence.
Critics maintain that the administration trumpeted fearsome-sounding allegations while systematically disregarding more prudent and accurate analyses; that officials broke with past procedures by analyzing intelligence directly, and were credulous of defectors and prisoners whom intelligence professionals viewed with skepticism; and that specific claims regarding Iraq’s nuclear program and the connection between Iraq and al Qaeda were based on intelligence known to be of dubious accuracy.
All of this goes unmentioned by Mr. Podhoretz. Instead, he breezily declares that “[t]o lie means to say something one knows to be false.” But my dictionary also defines a lie as “something meant to deceive or give a wrong impression.” In defining deceit down, Mr. Podhoretz is, at best, engaging in revisionist English.
He points out that the President never uttered the phrase “imminent threat.” This overlooks the fact that the President called Iraq a threat of “unique urgency.” Donald Rumsfeld (unmentioned in Mr. Podhoretz’s essay) said that he “would not be so sure” that the threat from Iraq was not imminent. He also claimed that “we know where [the WMD] are.” At any rate, the administration acted as though the threat were imminent, declining to allow weapons inspectors to complete their work.
Despite Mr. Podhoretz’s obsession with Joseph Wilson, the fact remains that the CIA was dubious of the claim that Saddam sought uranium from Niger even before Wilson made his trip there. Throughout 2002, Bush’s adviser Stephen Hadley ignored CIA warnings that the Niger yellowcake story was false. In the end, by sourcing the report to British intelligence, the administration managed to sneak a scary-sounding assertion into the State of the Union address without taking any responsibility for its accuracy.
Mr. Podhoretz makes much of the fact that special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald has said that his indictment of I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby for his role in the Joseph Wilson/Valerie Plame affair “is not about the war.” But the indictment does give some insight into the Bush administration’s treatment of inconvenient and stubborn facts. When confronted with the public discrediting of a claim it had made in the run-up to war, the administration knew not to insist on its accuracy. Instead, it sought to discredit Wilson, the messenger.
Mr. Podhoretz is capable of much better than “Who Is Lying About Iraq?” I hope he will soon cease laboring to paper over the mistakes the U.S. has made in the past, and work to convince Americans that a secure and democratic Iraq can be a model for the Middle East and a landmark for U.S. foreign policy.
To the Editor:
Norman Podhoretz’s article merely continues the deceit about Iraq. Contrary to what he suggests, the real question is not whether intelligence indicated the existence of WMD in Iraq but whether the WMD threat was so extreme that immediate war was the only realistic policy. The questions “Why war?” and “Why then?” have been ignored by Mr. Podhoretz and other apologists for the Bush administration.
No doubt war was needed to depose Saddam, but not to stop his WMD threat. It is true that (as Mr. Podhoretz notes) President Clinton and other Democrats believed that Saddam probably had WMD, and that in 1998, Democratic Senators urged Clinton to take “necessary actions”—including, “if appropriate, air and missile strikes on suspected Iraqi [WMD] sites”—but that is not the same as deploying a half-million ground troops.
Moreover, by March 2003, Saddam had been forced to readmit the UN weapons inspectors he had ejected in 1998, and the same Democrats were urging President Bush to delay the invasion so that the inspectors would have time to finish their work. To be sure, the inspectors were facing resistance and evasions from Saddam, but progress was being made, and they were beginning to cast doubt on the accuracy of the “estimates” and assertions on which the Bush policy was based.
But Bush could not wait to achieve his true objective of regime change by force of arms. So, to garner the support of the American people for his war of choice, he and his administration exaggerated the threat to U.S. security and offered straw-man arguments—and therein lay the lie.
Take the portions of the 2003 State of the Union address that Mr. Podhoretz himself quotes. Contrary to the President’s rhetoric, no one was suggesting that the U.S. trust “in the sanity and restraint of Saddam Hussein.” No one was insisting that we wait until “terrorists and tyrants”—note the subtle alliterative linking of al Qaeda and Saddam—“announced their intentions.” No one was suggesting that the U.S. allow Saddam’s WMD threat to “fully and suddenly emerge” before taking action. But actions short of a ground invasion were available, from expanding the no-fly zone to gradually more coercive inspections to air and missile strikes on suspected WMD sites or even on the al-Qaeda training camp that purportedly proved Saddam’s alliance with Osama bin Laden.
President Bush would have none of this. He wanted a ground invasion to depose Saddam. So he and his minions pumped up the evidence of WMD to suggest that an attack by the al Qaeda-Saddam alliance was so imminent that immediate invasion was necessary to protect America’s security. That was the deception, and that was how President Bush, in more ways than one, misled us into war.
New York City
To the Editor:
In building his case that the Bush administration was forthright in leading America into war in Iraq, Norman Podhoretz does what the Bush administration has been accused of doing, namely, obfuscating in order to push an agenda. I will cite but two examples.
Mr. Podhoretz states that even Hans Blix “lent further credibility to the case [that Saddam Hussein was harboring WMD] in a report he issued only a few months before the invasion.” A long quote from Blix about the “discovery of a number of chemical rocket warheads” that possibly represented “the tip of a submerged iceberg” is then offered, but Mr. Podhoretz, in an uncharacteristic effort to save words, shortens the quote with an ellipsis. See, though, how the missing text changes the meaning: “The investigation of these rockets is still proceeding. Iraq states that they were overlooked from 1991 from a batch of some 2,000 that were stored there during the Gulf war. This could be the case.”
To substantiate Bush’s argument for a connection between Saddam and al Qaeda, Mr. Podhoretz mentions the “independent British investigation conducted by Lord Butler, which pointed to ‘meetings . . . between senior Iraqi representatives and senior al-Qaeda operatives.’” Again, crucial phrases are left out. The immediately preceding sentence in the Butler Report is this: “Although Saddam’s attitude to al Qaeda has not always been consistent, he has generally rejected suggestions of cooperation.” Elsewhere, Butler stated: “We have no intelligence of current cooperation between Iraq and al Qaeda and do not believe that al Qaeda plans to conduct terrorist attacks under Iraqi direction.”
Paragraph after paragraph, Mr. Podhoretz shades meanings to suit his thesis. The fantasy is complete when he states with confidence that the war is “proving itself more and more every day to be a victory of American arms and a vindication of American ideals.” This ignores the increasing violence in Iraq, reports of prisoner abuses by the U.S. military, the negative view of too many Iraqis toward their American “liberators,” and other blights that have occurred or come to light since our President declared “victory.”
New Paltz, New York
To the Editor:
I daresay I have read almost everything Norman Podhoretz has written over the last 40 years, such is my respect for what he has to say—though I do not always agree with him—on a wide range of subjects. I applaud him for his summary account of why he believes it is a lie to say that President Bush told a series of lies to justify going to war in Iraq.
My difference here with Mr. Podhoretz is in my judgment that the real or most troubling issue is not whether the President lied. (I may be mistaken, but I know of no Democrat or Republican in Congress who has accused him of outright lying or of fabricating pre-war intelligence.) The serious question is whether George W. Bush shared with Congress all of the intelligence he was given prior to his decision to invade.
Is it true, for example, that (as Hendrik Hertzberg has claimed) such information as the administration did impart to Congress “had been scrubbed of the doubts and refutations of intelligence professionals”? It may well be that what the President chose not to tell Congress (and the American people) does not rise to the level of lying. But did he refrain from telling the full truth when to do so might have made a difference in the debate leading up to the vote on the war?
Perhaps if the President had been more straightforward about the pre-war intelligence, and about the failures in prosecuting the war since the fall of Saddam Hussein, he might not now be having to dissuade the majority of Americans of their belief (as indicated by polls) that he “deliberately misled people to make the case for war with Iraq.”
John H. Bunzel
To the Editor:
Norman Podhoretz marshals a powerful set of quotations to prove that “it is as close to certainty as we can get that Bush believed in the truth of what he was saying about WMD in Iraq.” But there is one big piece of evidence he does not address. For several months, almost up to the day of the invasion, a substantial group of UN weapons inspectors had found no evidence of WMD. According to Hans Blix:
While inspectors identified and supervised the destruction of missiles that somewhat exceeded the permitted range, they did not find any of the WMD which were unaccounted for, nor did they get credible explanations for their absence. The Iraqis grumbled but behaved tolerably well. They did not even make any serious resistance to inspections of two presidential sites—in their eyes probably the most sacrosanct spots in Iraq.
Donald Rumsfeld famously dismissed the failure to find WMD by declaring that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” But surely the absence of evidence would suggest to anyone at least the possibility and, after a time, maybe even the probability, that there was nothing to be found. Bush was undoubtedly well informed about the inspectors’ actions. He no doubt also knew that his own CIA had no useful leads to give to them.
Blix wanted more time to search further. A majority of the members of the UN Security Council wanted to give it to him. But we would not wait. This strongly suggests that Bush’s primary motivation was something other than the threat of WMD. That, together with evidence of the “stovepiping” of intelligence, makes one doubt that he and those around him were being entirely ingenuous with the public.
John M. Levy
To the Editor:
Norman Podhoretz points out many important facts and rationales in support of the invasion of Iraq, but he fails to point out the dissenting facts and opinions that were available to administration officials. They got Iraq wrong, and did so for the reason that has been repeatedly pointed out by a range of observers, from former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill to the victims of Hurricane Katrina: this administration does not do its homework, does not systematically analyze the available information, and consequently makes poorly informed decisions. In short, the Bush administration is incompetent.
To the Editor:
For Norman Podhoretz to criticize the Democrats who are trying to discredit the Bush team and to redefine their own pre-war positions is fair. My problem with his article lies in the disconnect between the due diligence he attributes to the Bush team’s gathering of pre-war intelligence and its actual execution of the war. Why was that due diligence not apparent in the deployment of larger numbers of American troops, in providing them with the right equipment, in postwar contingency plans, and so on?
If the Bush team had prepared adequately, there would be less reason to write articles defending its conduct of the war. Mr. Podhoretz’s consistent, uncritical support for an administration whose record begs for honest appraisal is disheartening.
Beston Jack Abrams
Trenton, New Jersey
To the Editor:
The basic theme of Norman Podhoretz’s article is that President Bush did not deliberately mislead the American people about Iraq. Mr. Podhoretz does not attempt to prove that Bush did not, in fact, mislead the American people, however innocently. One is left wondering if Bush would have gone ahead had he anticipated more than 2,000 soldiers killed and a protracted insurgency.
Mr. Podhoretz closes by assuring us that the war is being won. I pray that he is right.
Teaneck, New Jersey
To the Editor:
Norman Podhoretz makes a strong argument condemning Democrats who have flip-flopped on the war in Iraq, but he seems to have forgotten that the Bush administration was fixated on Iraq from the beginning of its first term. The President raised the issue of revenge in comments about Saddam’s attempt to assassinate his father after the first Gulf war. The administration also tried to persuade us that terrorists were operating inside Iraq prior to the war. There was even talk of an Iraq-9/11 connection. Bush himself may not have lied, but his administration should have been more cautious and in less of a hurry to send others into war.
To the Editor:
Thank you for the wonderful addition to Norman Podhoretz’s previous “World War IV” articles. I find that one of the common, unchallenged arguments from the Left is the accusation that Iraq was not an “imminent threat.” I like to remind war critics that the Department of Defense under President Clinton believed that Iraq’s WMD were a growing threat, so much so that in January 2001, outgoing Secretary of Defense William Cohen left a report for President Bush stating: “Iraq retains the expertise, once a decision is made, to resume chemical-agent production within a few weeks or months, depending on the type of agent.”
To the Editor:
Norman Podhoretz’s article might have included some salient remarks made by former President Bill Clinton in a 2003 interview with Larry King. They are particularly troublesome for Democrats seeking to accuse the Bush administration of lying about Iraq’s WMD. As Clinton said, “It is incontestable that on the day I left office, there were unaccounted-for stocks of biological and chemical weapons. We might have destroyed them in ’98. We tried to, but we sure as heck didn’t know it because we never got to go back in there.”
Los Angeles, California
To the Editor:
I do not have the words to say how cheered I was by Norman Podhoretz’s recent article, a fantastic summary of who said what about the Iraqi threat prior to the U.S. invasion. Not only does it debunk the allegations of lying by the Bush administration, it shows how biased and hypocritical the Bush critics really are.
Politics is one thing, national security another. I cannot for the life of me understand how a person holding national office or having a national voice in the media could distort the evidence on such an important issue. Thank God we have a few cool and thoughtful observers who can state things objectively.
The only thing I would have added to Mr. Podhoretz’s article was an explanation of the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998, signed into law by President Clinton. It clearly stated that Saddam was a threat to the United States. How anyone could have voted for that legislation and now backtrack on armed intervention is an enigma wrapped in a mystery.
To the Editor:
Let us assume for the sake of argument that Bush did lie; that he knew there were no WMD in Iraq. He would also have known that, sooner or later, this fact would be discovered. Can anyone suppose he would have thought that the media and the Democrats would give him a pass? To ask the question is to answer it.
Thomas Letchfield Palo Alto, California To the Editor: Several decades ago, Richard Rovere wrote a seminal book on the Army-McCarthy hearings in which he addressed the concept of the “Big Lie,” showing how a falsehood repeated again and again could by fatigue alone come to be accepted as the truth.
Norman Podhoretz has now exposed such lies, but in my opinion he might as well be Socrates trying to reason with the Athenian mob. Gone now is adherence to Senator Arthur Vandenberg’s admonition that politics should stop at the water’s edge. Today, everything is for the moment. Failed politicians make speeches overseas and in Iraq itself denouncing their own country. As Senator Joseph Lieberman recently warned, the war in Iraq may be won on the battlefield but, as with Vietnam, lost in Washington.
New York City
To the Editor:
The article by Norman Podhoretz is one of the most cogent I have read in a long time. What passes for the “loyal opposition” in the U.S. has long since dropped any pretense of reasoned political discourse. We now are treated to a diet of shrill, strident, and outrageous sound bites, predictably packaged by a press corps lacking even the façade of independence.
J. Paul Giuliani
To the Editor:
The extensive documentation Norman Podhoretz has assembled should put to rest forever any notion that the President deliberately lied about the state of Iraq’s WMD program in the run-up to the war. But of course it will not.
Bush’s opponents intend to de-legitimize the war—and his presidency—by any means necessary. In that ongoing campaign, mere facts do not matter. And so we have a relentless series of manufactured “scandals”—the Abu Ghraib orgy, the Cindy Sheehan carnival, the Joseph Wilson/ Valerie Plame charade, the Scooter Libby indictment—each exploited for weeks until it has run out of steam or collapses of its own accord and it is time for the next. But the hardy, indestructible perennial is the “Bush lied” refrain. It was there from the beginning, and returns, it seems, whenever there is a momentary pause in the media hype.
Robert L. Marshall
To the Editor:
Thank you for Norman Podhoretz’s refreshing article on the calculated amnesia among certain American politicians as to why the U.S. is in Iraq. Many of us outside the U.S. fully subscribe to his analysis. Prior to the invasion, no Western nation disputed the intelligence on which the war was based, which only shows how far a dictator can get before rightly getting trapped in his own cruel fantasies.
What I find worrisome is that freedom of the press in the U.S. has become a euphemism for a press acting like a political party, publishing only news that agrees with its agenda. It seems that balanced, carefully examined, independent news is nowhere to be found. Only the scoop matters, and only if it matches the prevailing sentiment. Lost in all this is the fact that America’s foreign policy, while hard-nosed and pragmatic, is essentially enlightened and noble.
To the Editor:
Thank you for Norman Podhoretz’s article. As a career military-intelligence officer with two deployments to Iraq, I can say that the most frustrating thing I have experienced in almost 20 years of service has been the cloud of lies surrounding the war, and the apparent willingness of so many people to believe them, despite all contrary evidence.
I do not mind deploying—leaving behind my wife and small children—or whatever small risks I incur, because, measured against the good we are accomplishing, my inconvenience is a small thing. But it is discouraging to come home and find so many people who are so passionately wrong about why we went to Iraq in the first place. Mr. Podhoretz’s article is a great source of encouragement and a ready supply of ammunition for debate.
Major Steven A. Givler
U.S. Air Force
Norman Podhoretz writes:
Matthew Foley accuses me of “defining deceit down.” But this, of course, is precisely what he himself, and most of my other critics—in a textbook example of projection—are trying to do. Thus, confronted with the overwhelming evidence that President Bush was convinced that Saddam Hussein possessed an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction and that he therefore did not lie in telling us so, they immediately seek refuge in softer but no less dishonest formulations of the same accusation. Mainly, the fallback formulations boil down to saying that while Bush and his people may not, in the strictest sense, have lied, they still created a false impression by deliberately misconstruing and/or misrepresenting the intelligence they received (and Lee Reich says much the same thing against my own reading of the evidence).
Now I must confess that I could hardly believe my eyes when I first read Mr. Foley’s statement that the information on which the Bush administration based its claims about WMD was judged by “most U.S. intelligence experts” to be “unreliable.” (I had a similar reaction upon learning that John H. Bunzel knows of “no Democrat . . . in Congress” who has accused Bush “of outright lying or of fabricating pre-war intelligence.”) Quoting Mr. Foley’s statement now, I again rub my eyes in disbelief. For, to repeat what I wrote in my article, the plain and incontrovertible fact is that all fifteen agencies involved in gathering intelligence for the United States, after considering the few reservations and qualifications expressed by this or that member, reached a consensus—and with “high confidence” no less—that Iraq was “continuing, and in some areas expanding its chemical, biological, nuclear, and missile programs contrary to UN resolutions.” Furthermore, the intelligence agencies of Britain, Germany, Russia, China, Israel, and France all concurred in this conclusion. Nor was it challenged by the equivocations of Hans Blix.
Pause, then, for a minute and think what the critics are proposing: that the President of the United States, instead of making a decision by going with the best information he had, should have paralyzed himself by giving greater weight to the doubts of a few dissenters than to the combined judgment of all the intelligence agencies for which these dissenters worked. This is so preposterous an idea that in a saner political climate no rational person would dream of advancing it.
In addition to defining deceit down, the critics resort to the tactic of changing the subject. Defeated on the question of “who is lying about Iraq?,” they immediately retreat to a host of different ones, like “why war?” and “why then?” Yes, some of them acknowledge, Bill Clinton and most other Democrats had warned in ominous terms of the threat posed by Saddam Hussein, and had contemplated military force against him, but (as the blogger James Lileks once mockingly paraphrased the kind of argument made here by Michael Starr) at least Clinton never did anything about it.
In line with this attitude, the critics also believe that toppling Saddam Hussein was not a good thing—though nary a one of them is either honest or courageous enough to put it so clearly. Nor do they believe that we are winning—or that we can win—the struggle to make Iraq (in Mr. Foley’s words) “secure and democratic, . . . a model for the Middle East, and a landmark for U.S. foreign policy.”
Yet thanks to the toppling of Saddam Hussein, Iraq is well on its way to becoming just that. Within an amazingly short time, three elections have been held, a constitution has been written, and a government has been formed; great strides have been made in rebuilding the economy and the infrastructure; giant steps have been taken in creating such institutional foundations of a democratic society as a free press; and with every passing day the Iraqis are becoming more and more capable of assuming responsibility for their own security.
Having extensively documented all this in a follow-up article entitled “The Panic Over Iraq” (January), I trust that I need not go over the same ground again here. And so I will conclude by expressing my gratitude for the thoughtful and generous comments of Heather Ruehl, Gary Hall, Richard James, Thomas Letchfield, Frederic Wile, J. Paul Giuliani, Robert L. Marshall, Anthony Steyning, and Steven A. Givler.
To the Editor:
I would like to respond to Emanuele Ottolenghi’s article, “Europe’s ‘Good Jews’” [December 2005]. Mr. Ottolenghi and I are colleagues at the Middle East Center at St. Antony’s College, Oxford University, an institution renowned for pluralism, diversity of views, and vigorous debate—just like the country of Israel. But while debate is always welcome, ad-hominem attacks are not. Sadly, Mr. Ottolenghi’s article is full of sweeping generalizations, distortions, and ad-hominem comments. As a result, it generates more heat than light.
Mr. Ottolenghi’s entire argument rests on a fallacy—the conflation of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism. To argue that the former necessarily involves the latter goes against the values that most academics in Europe and Israel hold dear: free thought, free speech, and a free society. It is a form of moral blackmail on the part of those who want to silence any criticism of Israel’s policies.
The very title of Mr. Ottolenghi’s article is offensive, as it is no doubt intended to be. But it is odd to label Jews as “good” or “bad” based on their views of the state of Israel. It also runs counter to an old Jewish tradition of political dissent, of which I am proud to be part. By arguing that to criticize Israel is to aid and abet anti-Semitism, Mr. Ottolenghi reveals his own totalitarian conception of what it means to be Jewish. The logic of his argument boils down to “my country, right or wrong.” This does not place him in a strong position to engage in rational discussion of Israel’s policies toward the Arabs.
Mr. Ottolenghi misrepresents my own position at every turn. He can include me in his preposterous category of Europe’s “good Jews” if it pleases him, but I am an Israeli who lives and teaches in England. My academic discipline is international relations, and my principal research interest is the Arab-Israeli conflict. Contrary to what he writes, I have not “responded to the latest assault on the Jewish people by excusing it, justifying it, and in effect joining it.” Nor do I regard it as my “specifically Jewish duty to denounce Israel”; I approach my work as a scholar, not as a member of a religion or tribe. Mr. Ottolenghi alleges that I have based my academic career on “implacable anti-Zionism.” I like to think that my academic career has been based on extensive archival research and on the careful use of primary sources in both Hebrew and Arabic.
It is not at all clear on what basis Mr. Ottolenghi would deny me the right to criticize Israel’s policies toward the Arabs apart from his dislike of my views and his implicit assumption that Israel is above criticism because it is a Jewish state. But the fact remains that I grew up in Israel, served in the Israel Defense Forces, played an active part in the debate about Israel’s past, and recently brought out a Hebrew edition of my book, The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World. My right to criticize Israel is no greater but no smaller than that of anyone else.
My views are really quite simple and nowhere near as sinister as Mr. Ottolenghi would have one believe. To use his own sophisticated categories, I regard Israel as good and the occupation as bad. I regard Israel within the pre-1967 borders to be completely legitimate; what I object to is the Zionist colonial project beyond the Green Line. I have been a consistent supporter of the Oslo Accords, and I remain a proponent of a two-state solution. I am critical of the policies of the present Israeli government precisely because they undermine the basis for a two-state solution. If these views make me anti-Semitic, then so be it.
St. Antony’s College
To the Editor:
Emanuele Ottolenghi writes that “a core component” of Jewish identity is Jews’ “sense of Jewish peoplehood as expressed through their attachment and commitment to the democratic state of Israel and to the Zionist enterprise.” Such a linking of the Jewish community to the realities and destinies of a particular country is problematic.
When the idea of Jewish peoplehood was first proposed in the American context, most notably by Mordecai M. Kaplan in the 1930’s, there was no state of Israel to prevent the realization of Jewish identity within the framework of American citizenship. American Jews wanted to be recognized by others as fellow Americans. Today, by contrast, the dual loyalty that Jews were once accused of is proudly proclaimed by Zionists as a virtue. The commitment of American Jews to Israel has evidently emerged as a sine qua non of Jewishness itself.
As an American Jew who has no problems with his Jewish identity but also no interest in the Zionist enterprise, I find this hijacking of the American Jewish cause both offensive and ominous. Jews who want to support Israel are free to do so and to identify themselves as Zionists; Jews who want simply to be Americans should also be free to express that identification without being dragooned into support for a foreign country. May one not feel solidarity with one’s fellow Jews in Israel without feeling loyalty to the Jewish state or the Zionist enterprise?
Ocean Ridge, Florida
To the Editor:
In criticizing British parliamentarian Oona King for speaking of her “personal ‘shame’ as a ‘Jewish person’” over Israel’s Nazi-like treatment of Palestinians, Emanuele Ottolenghi notes parenthetically that King’s father is Jewish. If he cannot even get right the much publicized fact that it is King’s mother who is Jewish (her father is an Af- rican-American civil-rights activist), his opinions do not inspire much confidence.
To the Editor:
The former British M.P. Oona King is right to call herself a “Jewish person”; her mother is Jewish. But her prostitution of her Jewish background to vilify Israel was widely seen as an act of political opportunism rather than as ideologically inspired. A member of parliament who represented the constituency with the largest proportion of Muslims in the United Kingdom, she was seeking to appease an electorate that was enraged over her support of the invasion of Iraq.
As a tactic, King’s slandering of Israel turned out to be in vain. At the general election last spring, she was ousted by the rabid anti-Zionist demagogue George Galloway.
To the Editor:
Emanuele Ottolenghi deserves high praise for his remarkably insightful essay on Jewish calumniators of the Jewish state. Alas, this disturbing phenomenon is by no means confined to Europe.
In North America, haters of Israel in search of “good Jews” to ratify their prejudices have no difficulty finding suitable candidates, as Edward Alexander and I document in a forthcoming book, The Jewish Divide Over Israel. They can invoke the authority of world-famous MIT linguist Noam Chomsky, who wrote that “Hitler’s conceptions have struck a responsive chord in current Zionist commentary.” They can turn to Norman G. Finkelstein of DePaul University, who proclaimed that Israeli Jews are a “parasitic class.” Or they can seek reassurance in the sentiments of Michael Neumann, a philosopher at Trent University in Ontario who admits not caring if an effective campaign against Zionism entails “encouraging vicious, racist anti-Semitism, or the destruction of the state of Israel.”
Aspiring bigots can also take up the slanders that go forth from Zion itself. From the late Israel Shahak, who taught at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, they can learn that “Israeli Jews, and with them most Jews throughout the world, are undergoing a process of Nazification” and that “Jewish terror is very kosher in the U.S.A.” From Tel Aviv University’s Ran HaCohen they can discover that Israeli military tactics reflect “Hitler’s concept of war for annihilation.”
With a little effort, they can trace this poisonous language back to Martin Buber, who in an essay, “Old Zionism and Modern Israel,” lamented that “the majority of the Jewish people preferred to learn from Hitler rather than from [the advocates of a binational Palestine]. Hitler showed them that history does not go the way of the spirit but the way of power, and if a people is powerful enough, it can kill with impunity as many millions of another people as it wants to kill.”
With “good Jews” like these, who needs anti-Semites?
To the Editor:
Thank you very much for Emanuele Ottolenghi’s informative if disturbing article. I have been struggling for decades to understand the reasons for the anti-Zionism of some of my fellow Jews, and have never quite gotten a handle on it. When I have asked some of these Israel-repudiating Jews why they disdain Israel so much, the answers have been evasive or illogical or conspicuously wrong on the facts.
Mr. Ottolenghi’s article offers a plausible explanation as far as European Jews are concerned, but societal pressure seems less of a force operating on Jews in the U.S. Here, Jews who are anti-Israel are not giving in to pressure to renounce Jewish peoplehood; rather, they are trying to create it.
James Michael Price
To the Editor:
Emanuele Ottolenghi’s article is a lucid analysis that shows us how we are, in a sense, re-living the 1930’s. In select archives, there are letters from German Jews of that time telling fellow Jews in America and elsewhere that Hitler was misunderstood, his policies were not “that bad,” and that coexistence was possible, if only the Jews (and others) lowered their rhetoric and “changed.” The fearful, self-doubting, and even self-hating Jew has never vanished, and is ready to reappear at any historical inflection point or period of crisis. One has only to review the current situation in Israel to see that accommodation—even elective “conversion” to “dhimmi” status—is not a phenomenon limited to Jews of Western Europe.
Harold Bernard Reisman
Emanuele Ottolenghi writes:
Avi Shlaim accuses me of “moral blackmail,” of trying to “silence” him and “deny” him his “right” to speak. This is risible. I am so far unaware that the Guardian, the Observer, and other distinguished publications have stopped hiring his pen on account of anything I wrote; nor is his tenure at Oxford endangered by my having dared to criticize his ideas. To the contrary, it is typical of Mr. Shlaim that, instead of addressing the substance of what I wrote, he responds by in effect accusing me of McCarthyism, of violating “the values . . . [of] free thought, free speech, and a free society.” Who, then, wishes to silence whom?
According to Mr. Shlaim, my “entire argument” rests on a fallacious “conflation of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism.” In fact, nowhere do I assert that criticism of Israeli policies is equivalent to anti-Semitism. Nevertheless, there is criticism and then there is criticism, and Mr. Shlaim, despite protesting here that he views “Israel as good and the occupation as bad,” has consistently shown himself incapable of stopping short of the most sweeping denunciations not only of Israel itself, occupation or no occupation, but of the entire Zionist project. Examples include his recent statements that “Zionism today is the real enemy of the Jews,” that “the essence of Zionism is territorial expansion,” and that Israel’s response to the second intifada was a “savage colonial war”; his support for a 2002 boycott of Israeli products; and his summary of his own professional task in these words: “the historian is a judge, and above all a hanging judge. And therefore I sit in judgment on Israeli leaders.”
Mr. Shlaim objects to my grouping him among those “good Jews” who regard it as their “specifically Jewish duty to denounce Israel.” He need not be so shy. Like many of his fellow travelers, Mr. Shlaim has been generous with the details of his own biography, flourishing his authority, as an Iraqi-born Jew, to speak on all matters having to do with Israel and Zionism. Thus, in an interview with the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, he stated that since childhood he viewed the founding of Israel as “an Ashkenazi trick,” one that forced Jews to leave the Arab countries where they had long felt perfectly at home: “There weren’t real problems between Jews and Arabs until the state of Israel was established.” His nostalgia for a mythical state of Arab-Jewish harmony preceding the rise of Zionism and Israel is enough in itself to call into question his claim as a scholar to follow an objective, nuanced, and document-based approach to history.
I am not sure what Mr. Shlaim has in mind in attributing to me a “totalitarian conception of what it means to be Jewish.” (He has similarly accused Efraim Karsh of promoting a “totalitarian conception of history.”) His conception of his own Jewish identity seems to involve waving his Israeli passport in public whenever that suits his polemical convenience while at the same time emphasizing other “identities,” including that of an “Arab Jew” (a made-up term never used by either Jews or Arabs and only recently surfacing in post-Zionist jargon). In January 2003, he proclaimed before a university audience that he was an “honorary Jordanian citizen” who was “very worried,” on behalf of his “adoptive country,” that Ariel Sharon might seize the occasion of America’s invasion of Iraq to “ethnically cleanse” the West Bank.
No doubt all of this is consistent with Mr. Shlaim’s notion of “an old Jewish tradition of political dissent, of which [he is] proud to be part.” This, one gathers, is the same “tradition” that has much to say about the mani- fold alleged crimes against justice and human rights perpetrated by the likes of the United States, Great Britain, and Israel but falls demurely silent in the face of Palestinian terrorism or Saddam Hussein. There is indeed such a Jewish tradition, and it formed the subject of my article. In confirming his “pride” at belonging to it, Mr. Shlaim helps make my point.
Howard Kaminsky finds “problematic” my assertion that “a core component” of Jewish identity is the “sense of Jewish peoplehood as expressed through [the Jews’] attachment and commitment to the democratic state of Israel and to the Zionist enterprise.” To say that Israel is today a core component of Jewish identity is a simple statement of fact; as surveys repeatedly show, most Jews in the U.S. (as throughout the Diaspora) support it politically and are concerned with its well-being. Moreover, they see no conflict between that support and their identity as Americans. This hardly means that every Jew is or must be a Zionist in the narrow political sense. (As for Zionism in the religious sense, namely, the attachment to and longing for a return to, precisely, “the realities and destinies of a particular society,” that is as old as Judaism itself.)
Ironically, the centrality of Israel to Jewish identity is nowhere more evident than among those Jews who choose to embrace an anti-Zionist worldview. These tend to define their Jewish identity almost entirely through their often compulsively stated dissociation from the Jewish state. In my article I cited former British M.P. Oona King as an example. I thank Owen Beith and Alexander Massey for correcting me about her parentage, but my error does not affect my main point—namely, that King exploited her Jewish origins in attacking Israel.
Paul Bogdanor’s forthcoming book with Edward Alexander is a welcome addition to a debate far too long defined by one side. In their self-righteousness as prophets of Jewish authenticity, detractors of Israel have turned discourse into a monologue of indictment, playing to the hilt the role of, in Avi Shlaim’s self-gratulatory words, “hanging judge.” It is time to reclaim the moral high ground.
My thanks to James Michael Price and Harold Bernard Reisman for their kind comments.
To the Editor:
Wilfred M. McClay is certainly right to urge the nation to embrace a “sober and disinterested realism” as it considers how best to rebuild the drowned city of New Orleans [“The Storm Over Katrina,” December 2005]. And we would agree that the “fractious atmosphere of contemporary American public discourse” has not always served that ideal.
But in his desire to dispel the “sensationalism” of post-storm criticism of the Bush administration, Mr. McClay omits several important aspects of the disaster that are essential for understanding what went wrong and how to improve on it.
First, Mr. McClay is far too quick to absolve the administration of significant blame for exacerbating the humanitarian crisis. Undoubtedly, much responsibility for the bungled initial evacuation and emergency response rests with beleaguered state and local officials. But it must be said that White House decisions greatly worsened—and made far more costly—the gargantuan housing crisis that ensued after the storm and that continues today.
Most notably, the administration’s refusal to issue emergency housing vouchers and its stubborn insistence on trying to house up to 125,000 evacuees in trailer homes was anything but realistic. That policy shunted aside a proven, flexible, and dignified way to respond quickly to need while respecting the choices of the displaced. It also ignored the fact that trailers are not only hard to requisition in a timely manner but also difficult to site and fantastically expensive. In fact, at a projected cost of $4.6 billion, the slow-moving trailer option has tied up more than half of the nation’s spending to date on longer-term housing for evacuated households. Moreover, no more than 60,000 households actually reside in trailers today, four months after the catastrophe. By contrast, more than 680,000 evacuated households are currently receiving rent subsidies and other forms of lower-cost housing assistance at a projected cost of just $3.6 billion.
A more important omission from Mr. McClay’s discussion is any account of the long-term complicity of the federal government (under both Republican and Democratic administrations) in creating the conditions in New Orleans that led to disaster. As we document in a recent report, “New Orleans After the Storm: Lessons from the Past, a Plan for the Future”:
• Federal policies placed massive public-housing blocks in some of the most flood-prone sections of the city, helping to concentrate blacks and poor people in harm’s way.
• Federal highway spending pushed suburban sprawl into flood-prone wetlands along lakefront Orleans and Jefferson Parishes.
• Federal flood-control spending on levees, storm walls, and insurance programs conveyed a message of safety that encouraged more people to settle in dangerous areas.
• Federal manipulation and development of the larger Mississippi Delta, along with Washington’s bias for structural solutions, almost certainly increased New Orleans’s vulnerability by degrading the natural buffering potential of the larger ecosystem.
In this connection, we would say that “realism” about Katrina requires realism about its deeper sources.
Wilfred McClay has rendered a service in reminding the nation of the need for honesty and self-criticism about its policy choices as reconstruction moves to the forefront. Let us hope that such honesty will extend to promoting more inclusive and sustainable redevelopment in the Crescent City.
To the Editor:
My friend and former New Orleans-area neighbor Wilfred M. McClay calls for “sober and disinterested realism” in discussions about the future of New Orleans—and for the most part he himself shows it, unpacking the post-hurricane hysteria in the press, the ill-informed racial accusations by politicians, and the city’s peculiar myths about itself. But when he turns to the future, he becomes speculative rather than realistic, using New Orleanians’ fate as grist for reflection but not addressing our needs.
New Orleans has been in decline for years, having witnessed stagnation in industry, the loss of business headquarters, little economic expansion except in tourism, and the consequent departure of many of its most talented young people, black and white, for opportunities elsewhere. Though some of the social pathologies that Mr. McClay describes have their roots in the distant past, others are to be expected in a no-growth environment. For all the evil wrought by Katrina and its aftermath, it is at least now recognized that continued drift is no longer an option. If New Orleans is to recover, it needs a plan to grow.
This is not far-fetched. Most of New Orleans’s industrial and commercial infrastructure came through the storm with little damage; the city retains its geographical advantage as the natural port near the mouth of the continent’s major river; and it retains the sort of distinctive cultural life that attracts bright young adults and makes for quick progress in the new economy of the information age.
What economic growth demands is state-of-the-art flood protection. (As I write, the state’s Governor, two U.S. Senators, and other leaders are in Holland to observe first-hand what this looks like.) Contrary to Mr. McClay’s concern, no one is talking about “a showcase of man’s triumphant and risk-free conquest of nature,” but rather about controlling the waters from Lakes Pontchartrain and Borgne and from the still-distant Gulf as seriously as the Mississippi River is now controlled—not by a patchwork of levees but by an integrated system. Cities can be sheltered from nature’s ravages without nature herself being suppressed; it is a matter of proportion and purpose, and a clear-sighted recognition of the value of human life.
Like other conservative journalists and commentators, Mr. McClay is elegiac in his appreciation of New Orleans’s distinctiveness in American history and culture, and I could not improve upon his lovely description of the lore and resonance of the place. What he leaves out is how all this is anchored in family and faith, heightened perhaps by New Orleanians’ frank appreciation of human desire, the intensity of their love, and the steadfastness of their traditions. Even in imposed exile, at least through the fall, the neighborhoods of New Orleans persisted as a sort of virtual community, longing for home. Talk of a reduced “footprint” for the city is no response to this, and even a federal buyout, however welcome, addresses only material loss.
James R. Stoner
Louisiana State University
Baton Rouge, Louisiana
Wilfred M. McClay writes:
Bruce Katz and Mark Muro will get no argument from me about the many serious errors in federal policy that helped fuel the reckless growth and development of New Orleans. (Indeed, I would only add to their list, beginning with misguided welfare policies.) But I wish they would speak out with equal vigor against the dangerous illusion, now being fostered by New Orleans’s influential former mayor Marc Morial among others, and unfortunately echoed here by James R. Stoner, that the city can be restored without a significant reduction in its “footprint.”
Although Messrs. Katz and Muro’s report is full of good ideas for the future of New Orleans, it is noticeably cavalier in addressing the inflamed politics of the city, which can paralyze the best plans for reconstruction. By merely expressing the fond hope that “visionary” leadership will materialize, they commit the cardinal error of so many planners who view their task chiefly as an engineering and administrative one, and leave the political heavy lifting as an afterthought for others to take care of.
I agree with their point about the housing-assistance crisis. The mobile homes provided by FEMA are expensive and cumbersome, and a more extensive use of vouchers would have been sounder policy. I would add, too, that FEMA’s public vacillations about when and whether it would cut off its housing subsidies have caused needless anxiety among the city’s poor and hard-pressed evacuees.
But even on the trailer issue, Messrs. Katz and Muro fail to provide the full picture. The White House reacted to the situation more rapidly than they are willing to credit. President Bush announced a shift toward a policy favoring vouchers and certificates in his September 15, 2005 address at Jackson Square, even if FEMA was too slow to implement it.
Moreover, it is not as if there has been a hyperabundance of unoccupied living space in the New Orleans area, or in all of southeastern Louisiana, in the aftermath of Katrina. Because of hurricane damage, suitable housing units have been few and far between, and completely insufficient for the enormous demand. Hence, the policies that Messrs. Katz and Muro advocate necessarily entail moving a significant proportion of the evacuees out of the area on a short-term and probably even a permanent basis. They ought to be more candid about this.
They have argued elsewhere that such relocation would be a very good thing: for the evacuees, because it would offer them a fresh start and new opportunities in more favorable circumstances; and for New Orleans, because it would break down areas of concentrated poverty and allow for the “reinvention” of the city. Making essentially the same argument, a distinguished group of liberal social scientists, including Christopher Jencks, Wil-liam Julius Wilson, and Gary Orfield, issued a statement calling upon President Bush to “seize this extraordinary opportunity to rebuild lives, not just the physical infrastructure” of New Orleans.
There is much to be said for this idea, and in a rational political climate it would get a fair hearing. But the larger point of my article, which Messrs. Katz and Muro pass over too lightly, is that in the poisoned environment of New Orleans politics, certain solutions cannot be discussed in public. Their proposal would immediately be taken as part of a sinister plot to “whiten” the city and depopulate southern Louisiana. Although such conspiracy-mindedness owes much to New Orleans’s history of racial antagonism and suspicion, it is even more the bitter fruit of the reckless ideological and partisan exploitation of Katrina that I describe in my article.
Messrs. Katz and Muro fail to mention that Governor Kathleen Blanco was a strong advocate of the extensive use of trailers—and precisely because she, too, is so fiercely and self-interestedly determined to keep Louisianians in Louisiana. She understands that giving people a voucher to live out of state, where they might taste a more opportunity-rich environment, makes it more likely that they will never return. A similar motivation was no doubt behind efforts by Louisiana Congressmen to restrict the vouchers to in-state use. And after Mayor Ray Nagin’s incendiary proclamation on Martin Luther King Day that God has determined that New Orleans is to remain a “chocolate city,” one does not have to guess at the kinds of political pressures he is responding to. None of this bodes well for the future of New Orleans, or for Messrs. Katz and Muro’s ideal of “inclusive and sustainable redevelopment.”
James R. Stoner is absolutely right that New Orleans’s future as a great American city ultimately depends on the securing of flood protection, and that such protection will not be possible without the construction of a massive integrated system of levees, pumps, seawalls, floodgates, canals, barriers, and the like. But I take exception to his description of my own proposals as “speculative rather than realistic”—especially since he is the one proposing that achieving fail-safe protection of New Orleans at gargantuan expense is merely “a matter of proportion and purpose.” Considering that the one engineering success he cites as a model—the taming of the Mississippi River’s flooding—has been a chief culprit in the present difficulties, I am little dissuaded from my counsel that we recognize inherent limits.
Nor, I think, is Mr. Stoner sufficiently attentive to the political obstacles that stand in the way of his ideas. I admire, and share, my friend’s love for the city of New Orleans and its people. But his position is not the only one based upon “a clear-sighted recognition of the value of human life.” The weighing of human benefits against material costs is the heart of public policy; it is part of the inherent pathos of politics. Not every “longing for home” can be addressed by the federal treasury.
Everyone living in New Orleans wants the city to have protections against a category-five hurricane. But even if we assume that this is technologically feasible, it is certainly not feasible any time soon. Reliable estimates that I have seen suggest that the job could take fifteen years or more, at a cost in the many billions. If, as Mr. Stoner asserts, New Orleans cannot flourish without such protections, how does he propose to keep the city going until they are in place? How is the delayed effect of such a massive project to be justified to the American people, over against thousands of other national needs on which the same money could be spent?
One way or another, New Orleans is going to have a “reduced footprint.” If the reconstruction is done intelligently by responsible leaders, the city could wind up as good as ever. If it is done haphazardly, the result could be a whole new generation of bitterness and grievance, and quite possibly the death of the city.
Sensible plans have been put forward by the Bureau of Governmental Research, the Urban Land Institute, and the mayor’s own redevelopment commission. But these are being ignored when it comes to the critical “footprint” issue, and a wholly different set of expectations is being fostered. Figures like Marc Morial are irresponsibly encouraging the double illusion that New Orleanians have a right to expect category-five protection to be erected overnight, and that everything else can be restored to what it was.
Neither is possible. Repeating the mistakes of the past, however, is always an option. And when all else fails, there will always be George W. Bush to blame.
To the Editor:
In his extended review of my book, The Singularity Is Near, Kevin Shapiro repeats objections to my thesis that I articulated and responded to in the book itself [“This Is Your Brain on Nanobots,” December 2005]. He also betrays a lack of knowledge about contemporary artificial intelligence (AI), genetics, and nanotechnology.
Mr. Shapiro writes that successful AI today consists of problem-solving through “trial and error.” This is simply mistaken. Most useful problems have such an enormous number of combinations of possible solutions that trial-and-error approaches are useless. Software programs that guide intelligent weapons, detect credit-card fraud, automatically place billions of dollars in investments, design jet-engine systems, or perform many other functions all work by emulating the key source of the human brain’s intelligence, namely, its ability to recognize patterns. In the same manner, a group at Google created automated English-to-Arabic and Arabic-to-English translators using self-organizing methods from extensive “Rosetta stone” texts. Their systems perform about as well as professional human translators. Interestingly, no one on the team spoke a word of Arabic.
Mr. Shapiro alludes to my discussion of acceleration in technological development, but he consistently displays linear thinking in his own prognostications. Citing a couple of my successful predictions, he says that “to be against Ray Kurzweil in 1990, one would have had to be an ostrich.” I can say that there were lots of ostriches back then, and that Mr. Shapiro is being one today. He writes that my “Law of Accelerating Returns,” by which information technology advances exponentially, “does not seem to apply to our basic understanding . . . of cognition” and that “advances in brain scanning have not yet translated into vastly increased knowledge about the human brain.” These statements are simply inconsistent with the doubling we now see each year in both the quantity and the precision of the information we are able to obtain about the brain’s structure and function at all levels (from cellular models to connection patterns). We also have seen steady, exponential gains in the resolution of brain scans.
Mr. Shapiro dismisses the successful computer simulation of brain regions as “little more than a theorist’s intuition of how the brain works, filtered through several layers of complicated programming.” But detailed psychoacoustic tests applied to the simulation of over a dozen regions of the auditory cortex obtained results very similar to those of the same tests applied to actual brain regions.
Mr. Shapiro frequently refers to things we do not yet understand (like the cause of Alzheimer’s) to make his case that the brain is so complex that we cannot hope to reverse-engineer it within the next several decades. To this objection I have two important responses that he fails to acknowledge. First, the brain, while certainly not a simple system, is not as complex as it appears. Take the cerebellum, where we do our skill formation. It comprises about half of the neurons in the brain, and appears to be vastly complex, with many billions of intricately wired networks. But the design of all this apparent complexity is relatively simple and controlled by only a few genes. We have a good understanding of the wiring pattern (although not yet of all the patterns of input and output), and researchers have created an effective simulation of the cerebellum.
Second, I describe the brain’s organization as a probabilistic fractal, meaning that its intricacies are expansions of simpler design rules contained in the genome. The genome contains only 30 to 100 million bytes of compressed information, yet the apparent complexity of the brain is a billion times greater. The genome design, while not simple, is at a level of complexity that we are capable of handling, especially when aided by increasingly powerful computers and sophisticated software models.
Mr. Shapiro derides computer scientists’ reliance on something as “intangible” as information, quoting H.L. Mencken to characterize this as dealing “with objects . . . far beyond the reach of the senses.” But that is exactly what the senses do: they turn the world into a flow of information. Our brains comprise information processes that recognize patterns and respond to them.
Fields of study like biology and brain science have pre-information and post-information eras. Mr. Shapiro cites Vioxx as a failure of biotechnology that (he believes) shows our imperfect understanding of biological processes, but Vioxx came from biology’s pre-information era, in which advances were hit-or-miss. Now that we are beginning to understand the information processes underlying biology, biotechnology is becoming subject to the Law of Accelerating Returns. To cite just one of many examples, it took us fifteen years to discover the genetic sequence of HIV, yet we sequenced SARS in only 31 days.
Brain science was also a hit-or-miss affair until recently. But now that we can actually view and model brain structures and interactions precisely, it is also becoming subject to the annual doubling of the power of information technologies. IBM is now building a detailed model and simulation of a substantial slice of the cerebral cortex, something that would have been unheard of only a few years ago. With high-resolution scanners only now emerging, the project to reverse-engineer the human brain is at an early point in what will be an exponential ascent. From this perspective, my expectation of gaining the principles of operation of human intelligence within a quarter-century is conservative.
To the Editor:
Kevin Shapiro’s “This Is Your Brain on Nanobots” is a valuable and important piece (one I intend to have my computer-science students read). I would like to add several comments.
Ray Kurzweil’s “Law of Accelerating Returns” is already running out of gas. The computer industry is moving to “clusters” (several processors in the same box) and other forms of “parallel computing” (many computers focused on the same problem, so they can solve it faster). This move is happening mainly because steady, year-by-year growth in the power of integrated circuits is already slowing, and no other technology is ready for action.
More important: Kurzweil’s idea that “we will soon have hardware that equals or exceeds that of the human brain” is naïve—for the reasons Shapiro gives, and for other reasons, too.
Kurzweil predicts that in 2020 you will be able to buy a brain’s-worth of computing for $1,000. But you cannot buy it today for any price, and no one has the vaguest idea how to build it.
Here is one of the central problems: without emotion, thought is impossible (as I argued in my 1994 book, The Muse in the Machine). Emotion becomes increasingly important as the mind moves down the “cognitive spectrum” from high alertness to the less alert state in which we are increasingly incapable of abstract thought—and finally to the least alert state of all, namely, sleep. Emotion is fundamental to “sleep thought,” otherwise known as dreaming. To put it another way: “analogy” is sometimes described as the main unsolved problem in cognitive science. But there is plenty of evidence to suggest that emotion is the main component of the mind’s mysterious capacity to invent new analogies. This capacity in turn underlies creativity; underlies “intuitive” versus “analytic” thought.
The all-important role of emotion means that Kurzweil’s thesis makes no sense. Emotions are not a matter of the brain only; they involve the body, too. You experience an emotion with your whole body. Because emotions require a body, human thought requires a body—or a reasonable facsimile.
It is possible to simulate certain brain functions on a computer. But no one claims that we know (or are likely to know anytime soon) how to build a fake human body in the laboratory—with skin that reacts to emotions the same way human skin does, and likewise internal organs, and so on. Computer hardware has become more and more sophisticated. But the “fake body” problem is not a computing problem. It cannot be solved with digital or any other kind of electronics. It is a hugely complex problem in materials engineering. It might be solved some day; but there is no reason a priori to believe that it will.
This brings up a related problem with Kurzweil’s thesis. He seems to take it for granted that if we simulate a whole brain in software, simulated thought and a simulated mind will emerge. It might or might not; we don’t know. We don’t know how the brain produces consciousness. Consciousness might result from the right sort of sophisticated information-processing, in which case we might one day use computers to produce simulated consciousness. But it might also require the exact materials (the exact molecular structures) we find in the brain. If you want an object with the exact properties of a brick, your only alternative is baked clay. You can simulate the structure of a brick on a computer, but you won’t be able to use the result to build a house. Consciousness might be like “brickness”; we don’t know.
For these and other reasons, I strongly agree with Mr. Shapiro. Kurzweil’s predictions might conceivably come true some day, but don’t hold your breath. If it ever happens, it won’t be soon.
New Haven, Connecticut
To the Editor:
Kevin Shapiro’s thinking on artificial intelligence (AI) is reinforced by Roger Penrose’s Shadows of the Mind, in which the author points out that AI is not just a long way off—it is impossible. He cites a dictum of Gödel’s to the effect that when mathematicians are doing original thinking they are using no known algorithms, only their intuitions—and one cannot teach intuition to a computer.
Harry E. Thayer
Kevin Shapiro writes:
In the marketplace of ideas, there are many ways to sell a theory. One is to present a few careful, meticulously reasoned arguments. Another is to present so many bad arguments that no one could possibly have the time or expertise to refute them all—creating the impression that the theory is logically irrefutable. I am afraid that Ray Kurzweil’s project is of the latter sort, and his letter here is representative. He claims that knowledge in brain science, life science, and information science is advancing rapidly enough that we will soon have the ability to replicate human intelligence in an artificial substrate. Unfortunately for him, the evidence he brings does not support this contention—not by a long shot.
To begin with, Mr. Kurzweil makes a fundamental error in assuming that the quantity and precision of information are directly related to its theoretical utility. Even if it is true that we have twice as much data about how the brain looks as we did last year, it is manifestly not the case that we have twice as good an understanding of how it works. The increasing “resolution of brain scans” to which Mr. Kurzweil refers is similarly meaningless—and not just because many of the higher-resolution modes cannot safely be used with humans. What matters is whether we can use available brain-scanning techniques to answer interesting questions about the nature of thought. At the moment, it seems that the questions currently receptive to brain imaging are quite limited.
Since my own research interests involve the neuroscience of higher mental functions, it would be rather masochistic of me to believe that the brain is so hopelessly complex that we can never understand it. Nor do I believe that artificial intelligence (AI) is impossible in principle; unlike Harry E. Thayer, I do not subscribe to Roger Penrose’s argument that consciousness cannot be understood within the framework of contemporary physics. As David Gelernter points out, the feasibility of AI is ultimately an empirical question, and it is not inconceivable that we will some day discover the basic elements of human thought.
On the other hand, I find little encouragement in the examples heralded by Mr. Kurzweil. He points us to the cerebellum, a structurally primitive part of the brain that is crucial for the maintenance of posture and the execution of fine movements. (Contrary to what he writes, it is not “where we do our skill formation,” though it probably plays some role in that process.) Compared to the cerebral cortex, generally thought to be the seat of cognition, the cerebellum is actually very simple. It comprises only a handful of neuronal cell types, all linked up rather neatly in a repeating pattern that was first described over 100 years ago. The most intriguing thing about the cerebellum is not the wiring pattern itself, but the patterns of input and output—in other words, its actual contribution to thought—and this, Mr. Kurzweil concedes, we largely do not know.
If computers are going to help us figure out the mysteries of the brain, we will have to know how to program them to do so. Mr. Gelernter notes correctly that this is a problem we barely know how to approach. So far, efforts at modeling different parts of the brain (like the cerebellum) have served only to confirm the plausibility of existing theories about their function, and have not revealed anything radically new. Likewise, research in AI has shown nothing more than that certain tasks performed by humans can also be performed by computers.
In conventional AI, the human programmer provides the computer with a set of inputs, a set of possible outputs, and a feedback mechanism that allows the computer to compare its mapping of inputs and outputs to some pre-defined target. The computer then runs through many cycles of input-output mappings, refining its procedure each time until a reasonable approximation of the target is achieved. This process has made possible an enormous number of practical applications, but whether one calls it “machine learning” or “trial and error,” it has not shed much light on the nature of human intelligence. Many of the abilities that define our species—like language—cannot be reduced to simple pattern recognition.
The Google machine-translation project is (perhaps ironically) an excellent illustration of this point. As Mr. Kurzweil indicates, Google’s program works by extracting statistical correlations between sets of texts that are fed to it: the more texts it analyzes, the bigger its effective vocabulary becomes. Yet even after having analyzed millions of texts, the system’s performance is mediocre at best: on a scale that rates machine translations from 0 to 1, where 1 is the statistical equivalent of a human translation, Google’s Arabic-English translator scores around .52. Moreover, the Google system has no capability to represent things like grammatical rules, so its translations bear no more than a superficial resemblance to human language. Compare this to the average five-year-old, who can acquire a perfect working knowledge of any number of languages after only a few months’ exposure to playground chatter.
Mr. Kurzweil’s comments about biotechnology are similarly misguided. He points to the quick sequencing of the SARS genome as evidence that biology is becoming subject to his “Law of Accelerating Returns,” but there was no exponential function at work there: the invention and automation of a process called the polymerase chain reaction in the late 1980’s and early 90’s made it cheap and easy to sequence nucleic acids. Even so, the knowledge gained from molecular genetics has not been easy to translate into treatments and therapies; sequencing the SARS genome has led to better tests to detect the virus, but not to any breakthroughs in treating or preventing it. So-called rational drug design has had only one notable success: Novartis’s Gleevec, which can arrest (but not cure) a specific form of leukemia. At the same time, “information era” pharmacology has produced its share of disasters, like Tysabri, a multiple-sclerosis drug that turned out to weaken immune defenses against a devastating brain infection.
Mr. Kurzweil’s argument is so riddled with factual and logical errors that it is difficult to take it seriously, and I thank David Gelernter for calling attention to several that I missed. The one great virtue of Mr. Kurzweil’s predictions is that they are time-specific: in 25 or so years, we will be able to judge whether he is right. For now, he has given us little reason to believe that he is.
To the Editor:
Let me make sure I understand Sam Schulman’s point in his review of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking [December 2005]. Mr. Schulman believes that Didion’s “authorial decision to remain . . . ignorant of her daughter’s death” for the duration of her memoir of the year following her husband’s death was “calculated”? Her failure to revise the book’s perspective upon her daughter’s death “after the book was completed but months before its publication” was a “cunning solicitation” for greater sympathy?
Didion finished writing The Year of Magical Thinking on December 31, 2004— one year and one day after her husband died. Her daughter died on August 26, 2005, after two and a half months in intensive care. The book was published in October 2005. When exactly should the rewrite have been done?
Sam Schulman writes:
D.L. Mowrey accuses me of having demanded that Joan Didion rewrite her book after the death of her daughter. I did not. I was thinking instead of what I expected to find in the book: a note in the front or back matter. Not encountering it there, I was sure as I read the book that a sentence or paragraph at the end would mention the sad fact of Quintana Dunne’s death, bringing to a close the terrible experience that Didion went through. Not to have encountered even a single sentence—or a set of dates—surprised me. Any publication schedule could easily have accommodated such a change. Not to make it was an authorial choice. The effect of Didion’s choice is to make the reader feel manhandled, manipulated—and puzzled. What effect she meant to have is an open question, but there is no doubt that one was intended.
D.L. Mowrey is also wrong to say that I called Didion’s decision to withhold such a note a piece of “cunning solicitation.” I applied these words to the book as a whole, which indeed is carefully crafted to solicit pity while being interspersed with passionate and utterly mystifying denunciations of self-pity. Her choice not to mention her daughter’s death strikes me as of a piece with this.