The Trump Narrative.

The standard liberal interpretation of supporters of Donald Trump is that they are angry, poorly-educated, older, working-class white men.[1]  How true is this stereotype?  A recent chart in the Wall Street Journal may offer some insight.[2]

So far in the primaries, Trump has won an average of 39.1 percent of the Republican vote.  If the various munchkins who were running for the Republican nomination had gotten out of the way early-on in favor of one candidate, then the “The Donald” might refer to a specialty deli sandwich[3] right now.

The demography of the Trump vote.

There is no polling data on “angry.”  Just channel Robin Williams.[4]


High school or less:     46.1 percent.

Some college:              42.5 percent.

BA                              34.6 percent.

Post-grad.                    27.0 percent.


<$50K                         44.0 percent.

$50K–$100K              36.6 percent.

>$100K                       35.4 percent.


65+                              39.8 percent.

45-64                           39.6 percent.

30-44                           35.1 percent.

17-29                           30.2 percent.


Male                            42.0 percent.

Female                         33.5 percent.


Rural.                                      40.9 percent.

Suburban.                    37.9 percent.

Urban.                         32.7 percent.

How Conservative?

Somewhat.                  40.0 percent.

Mod./Liberal.              37.3 percent.

Independent.               35.2 percent.

Very.                           35.1 percent.

In sum, Donald Trump does draw many votes from just the group described in liberal media.  However, he also draws a lot of support from the antithesis of the stereotype.  It would appear that Trump is also the candidate of a significant share of the well-educated, the well-off, the younger, and the female among Republicans.  Apparently, lots of them are angry too.[5]

[1] Or “rednecks” as my sister-in-law phrased it.

[2] Aaron Zimmer, “Inside the Trump Coalition,” WSJ, 25 March 2016.

[3] I’ll let you figure out the ingredients.  Probably a lot of ham on an onion loaf to begin with.

[4] See, for example,

[5] See

More Young People.

If we look at the history of the last quarter century, we see two dominant and inter-related trends.  Radical Islam isn’t one of them.  First, the collapse of Soviet Communism inspired other followers to abandon the controlled economy for participation in the world market.  Second, information technology destroyed many old barriers.  Upheaval and opportunity resulted.   Currently, about a quarter of all the people in the world are aged 10 to 24.[1]  That is, they were born between 1992 and 2006.  The world in which they have grown up is that same world that older people have often found so disorienting.   Now young people face their own problems.

Those billions of young people are not equally distributed around the world.  They account for only 17 percent of the population in economically developed countries; for 29 percent in less-developed countries, and 32 percent in the least developed countries.  In the United States, the median age is 37; in Russia, 39; in Germany, 46.  In Nigeria, the most populous nation in Africa, the median age is 18.  China offers a particularly interesting case of a transition.  Faced with a swiftly rising population, China declared a one-child policy for married couples.  It worked so well that the youth base of the population narrowed to a frightening degree.  A shortage of workers to replace those who are approaching retirement loomed.  At the same time, young couples found themselves providing care for up to four aging parents, while trying to work and raise their own child.  Recently, the government ended to one-child policy.

A disproportionate share of young people lives in the countries least well able to provide them with either an adequate education or a decent standard of living.  Take the example of India.  There are more than 420 million Indians between the ages of 15 and 34.  The median age is 27.  Desperate measures to expand primary education have had mixed results.  Although almost all Indian children now attend primary school, half of fifth graders can neither read at a second grade level nor do subtraction.[2]

Then, India needs to create 12-17 million new jobs every year to absorb the population growth.  In India and in other countries in similar dire straits, young people are forced into spotty, badly-paid just to get any jobs at all.  India’s reluctance to end the carbon-burning that drives economic growth in that country is easier to understand in light of that imperative.  The here and now weighs more heavily in the balance of decision-makers than does the future.[3]

Migration from “young” countries to “aging” countries might offer a solution.  However, there are several big barriers here.  First, even in the developed countries there is a problem of youth unemployment: in the United States, almost 17 percent of people between 16 and 29 are not in school and not working; in the European Union the youth unemployment rate averages 25 percent.[4]  It will be difficult to make the case for expanded immigration of young people when a country cannot even provide work for its own young people.  Second, the poor quality of education in many developing countries means that only some people will be viable migrants.

Even so, migration from the Lands of Inopportunity to the Lands of Opportunity may be inevitable.  There are 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States.  The current refugee crisis in Europe shows just how difficult it can be to keep out hordes of determined people.

[1] Somini Sengupta, “The World’s Big Problem: Young People,” NYT, 6 March 2016.

[2] The wretched state of education can be glimpsed in Aravind Adiga, The White Tiger (2008), and Mohsin Hamid, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (2013).

[3] A third problem is anti-female sex selection.  There are 17 million more Indian males than females aged 10 to 24.

[4] Sengupta argues that the high European rate results from a combination of a slow economy and the absence of economically valuable skills.  The same may be true in the United States, although some economists would argue that the skills-deficit argument is false.

Young People These Days.

Barack Obama cleaned up among voters aged 18 to 29.  In 2008, he won 66 percent of them; in 2012 he won 60 percent of them.[1]  Now, a series of polls suggest that many young people don’t like Donald Trump.[2]  In one poll, people under 35 preferred Hillary Clinton (52 percent) to Trump (19 percent).  Another poll reported that people under 40 preferred Clinton over Trump by two-to-one (roughly 60 percent to 30 percent).

However, the situation is more complicated than that.  A generational divide appears in the polls.  For one thing, the Democratic advantage among young people is dropping.  It has fallen from 66 percent in 2008 to 60 percent in 2012 to at best 52 percent in 2016.  Indeed, one poll reported that among people aged 19 to 26, while a mere 9 percent preferred Trump, only 11 percent preferred Clinton.[3]  Young people want “that hopey-changey thing.”   Either failing to deliver on it or looking like you don’t believe in it in the first place can hurt a candidate.

The same poll reported that 31 percent preferred Bernie Sanders.  Young people lean left.  Their big concerns appear to be related to the distribution of benefits from the economy: the cost of college; student debt that results from that cost, and the “economic inequality” that makes it difficult to pay off that debt.  The poll that reported Bernie Sanders drawing 31 percent of those aged 19 to 26 years, also reported that 58 percent saw socialism as a more humane system than capitalism, while 33 percent saw capitalism as a more humane system than socialism.  That’s bad for Republicans without being good for mainstream Democrats.  Yet another poll reported that Trump was favored over other Republican candidates by 26 percent of the 18 to 34.  (OK, the poll didn’t report how many Republicans are 18 to 34.)

This preference could have long term consequences when looking forward.  At least one study suggests that the most important period for setting political preferences comes between the ages of 14 and 24 years of age.  “Events”—impressions, really—that happen at age 18 are three times as influential as things that happen at age 40.  So, would a Donald Trump candidacy sink the Republican Party for a whole generation by alienating young people?

However, the same theory can be applied looking backward.  One poll showed that Clinton and Trump running a dead-heat among voters over 40 years of age.  If their formative political experiences came between ages 14 and 24, then, for those aged:

40-50: born 1965-1975; formative experiences from 1979-1999.

50-60: born 1955-1965; formative experiences from 1969-1989.

60-70: born 1945-1955; formative experiences from 1959-1979.

If any of this is true, then—at least in psychological terms–there is a good chance that the election of 2016 will be about our troubled past.  To seek the dark cloud around any silver lining, this might mean that the election will be about flunked wars; unsettling technological change  that never seems to work to the advantage of the country that creates so much of it; economic upheaval that profits the few; scandal-plagued presidencies; now-ancient grievances; and big talk from politicians that rarely turns into effective action

            Despite the rhetoric about a “great America,” it will not be about the possible futures of our children.  They will not thank us.  Nor should they.

[1] Why the drop in support of almost 10 percent among this age group?  Did a bunch of them age-out and become more conservative?

[2] Toni Monkovic, “Lasting Damage for G.O.P.?  The Young Reject Trump,” NYT, 24 March 2016.  Well, Trump’s got a thick hide.  He’ll survive.

[3] So, pretty much a dead heat.  Just in a race for the bottom.

The Marriage Encouragement Act of 2017.

Back in the 1960s, the rough-around-the-edges, but “Harvard-trained” Daniel Moynihan argued that single-parenthood condemned an increasingly large share of the African-American community to poverty.[1]  Subsequently, Moynihan was tarred with the brush of working for Richard Nixon.  Still, the Clinton, Bush II, and Obama administrations all encouraged marriage.

Decades of social science research has shown that Moynihan was right to have worried.  Single-parent households are worse for children than are two-parent households.  Children raised in single-parent households are poorer than children in two-parent households; they more likely to engage in “risky” behavior; they are more likely to have “contact” with the police and the criminal justice system; and they are more likely to drop out of school before getting even a worthless diploma.  That in itself is an employment  death sentence.

So, should the government encourage poor people to get married?  My God, NO!  You’ll just get lots of kids born into poverty!  Oh, wait, we already have lots of kids born into poverty by “unwed”[2] mothers.  Currently, about 40 percent of mothers are unmarried and 20 percent of white children, 25 percent of Hispanic children, and 50 percent of African-American children live in a household headed by a single woman.

Eduardo Porter argues that efforts to promote marriage are a “waste of resources and time.”  In comparison with married couples, parents who have children outside of “holy deadlock” tend to have less education, worse-paying jobs, and more mental health problems.  Very often they guys are losers by any standard.  So, says Porter, these people “would have a tough time raising children in a healthy environment even if they stayed together.”

Beyond this, Porter has two points to make.  First, women get pregnant because they don’t understand that sex leads to pregnancy,[3] and because they don’t have access to contraceptives.  Second, trying to turn back the clock to some golden age makes less sense than trying to off-set the ill-effects of single-parenthood as it exists.

In a refreshing confession of the failures of typical liberal reforms, Porter frankly admits that “government has no clue how to” encourage couples to get married.  Still, he doesn’t shrink social engineering.  If women had easy access to “long term” contraception[4]; if unmarried co-habitation was socially acceptable; if the State paid more generous benefits to mothers, then s ingle-parenthood would be less catastrophic for the kids.

Some of this is puzzling.  First, Porter argues that fathers are often losers, but then argues that globalization and technological change have wiped out many blue-collar jobs that enabled these men to support families.  So, once upon a time these same men or men like then were functional fathers?  Second, he implies that being an unwed mother carries a social stigma in America.  Really?  Then why has the rate risen?  Third, Porter argues that women may not marry the fathers of their children because the men cannot provide for their families.  Or do they not marry because the State can provide better than can the men?

[1] Eduardo Porter, “Push Marriage?  Not for the Sake Of the Children,” NYT, 23 March 2016.

[2] “Unwed” mothers and “undocumented” immigrants.  Soon we’ll be referring to Donald Trump as “untactful.”

[3] Implicit in this argument is that 20-25 percent of white and Hispanic women don’t understand that sex can lead to pregnancy and that 50 percent of black women don’t understand that sex can lead to pregnancy.  Normally, this would result in a charge of racism.  However, Porter writes for the NYT, so—by definition—he isn’t saying anything racist.

[4] The rate of unmarried mothers has been rising, so at some point in the past unmarried birth rates were much lower.  Does this mean that one generation of mothers and fathers forgot to tell their own children that sex can lead to pregnancy?  Or did condoms just fall out of fashion?  Probably should look at STD rates.

The Count 2.

Nowruz (aka Newroz, Nevroz) is the first day of Spring in the Iranian calendar.  Lots of other cultures in the region took up the celebration in the many days ago.  Among them were the Kurds, who see Nevroz as the most important holiday of the year.[1]  The holiday has assumed a nationalist form as cultural associations and veiled political parties sponsor events at which “young men wave flags of green, yellow and red, the colors of the Kurdish people.”

            Far away from Kurdistan, both in distance and in culture, is Istanbul’s Istiklal Avenue.  The street is in “Pera” or “Beyoğlu,” across the “Golden Horn” from the main part of the old city.  You pass the cheery chaos of the ferry dock; you walk across the Galata bridge; you wander through little streets that mount the hillside; and you arrive at the Galata tower.  It is the “European” part of the city with cafes, restaurants, art galleries, and many Westerners living in apartments with a bad plumbing and an excellent view of the Bosphorus.  Nearby is Taksim Square.

            Turkey might be described as having played a “bad boy” role in the recent migration crisis.  However, it has other pressing concerns as well.  On the one hand, the government is assaulting its restive Kurdish minority.  In July 2015 a truce broke down and the government turned loose its forces in southern Turkey.  On the other hand, it has belatedly engaged ISIS in neighboring Syria.  Under heavy pressure from the United States, Turkey has finally clamped down in the flow of foreign fighters through Turkey to Syria.  As a result, Turkey has been under attack by suicide bombers in recent months. ISIS has been blamed for bombings in Ankara (October 2015, 103 dead) and Istanbul (10 dead, January 2016).  For their part, Kurds have been blamed for a suicide bombing in Ankara (March 2015, 37 dead).

            On 19 March 2016, a suicide bomber blew himself up on Istiklal Avenue in Istanbul, killing three Israeli tourists[2] and an Iranian,[3] and wounding thirty-six.  Five of the wounded were Palestinians.  (There may have been an interesting conversation in whatever group they belonged to, or perhaps just a studied silence.)  The Israelis were, it seems, a bunch of “foodies” sampling the fare of Istanbul.[4]

This bombing, too, is attributed to ISIS.  The bomber has been identified as Mehmet Ozturk, but little about him has appeared in print.  He was born in 1992 in Gaziantep (which is both a city and a province).  Gaziantep, in turn, is a part of Turkey’s Southeastern Anatolian Region, which runs along much of the border with Syria.  Gaziantep is a very old city (by American standards anyway).  It has a thriving machine carpet-weaving industry and is surrounded by groves of olives, pistachios, and grapes.  It also is home to a number of high schools and universities.  However, it is also on the main route from Turkey to Syria for foreign fighters trying to join ISIS.  According to one report, his parents reported him as missing after he went to Istanbul in 2013.  Pretty quickly after the attack the Interior Ministry identified him as the bomber and confirmed it through DNA.  His father had provided the DNA for the comparison.

ISIS is now targeting tourists in Istanbul; and it has a bomb-maker there.  The hunt is on.

Turkish officials now have banned Nevroz celebrations this year.

[1] Apparently, Kurds don’t believe in Santa.  Them being Muslims and all.

[2] Two of whom held dual Israeli-American citizenship.

[3] Tim Arango and Ceylan Yeginsu, “Istanbul Suicide Bomber  Linked to Islamic State,” NYT, 21 March 2015.

[4] The NYT reports that one was from Dimona (the site of Israel’s “secret” nuclear weapons program); another was from Herzliya (a generally wealthy beach town near Tel Aviv, named for the Zionist leader Theodor Herzl).

American Opinion on Clinton versus Trump.

A recent poll reported that 66 percent of Americans think that Hillary Clinton has the right experience to be president, 58 percent think that she has the temperament to be president and 37 percent think that she is honest and trustworthy.  Thud.[1]  Even with the pervasive (63 percent) doubts about her honesty and trustworthiness, on this basis, Hillary Clinton would beat Donald Trump 50 percent to 41 percent.[2]

Another poll reported that 55 percent of Americans would never vote for Donald Trump, while 47 percent would never vote for Hillary Clinton.  That means that 45 percent of Americans might be willing to vote for Donald Trump, while 53 percent might be willing to vote for Hillary Clinton.[3]  Again, Clinton has the bulge on Trump, even if she is in moral Spanx.

Yet a third poll reports that almost half (48 percent) of Republicans who do not support Donald Trump say that they probably or definitely would not vote for him if he becomes the Republican nominee.[4]  What will these Republicans do?  Will they vote for Clinton to make sure something worse doesn’t happen?  This seems unlikely, given how deeply she and her husband are despised among Republican voters.  Will they just be won over by whatever charm offensive Trump launches between now and the election?  That might happen.  Trump already has begun to throttle back on his rhetoric and to reject further debates in which he might fly off the handle and say something true about Ted Cruz.  Will they turn out in the usual numbers to vote for everyone except the presidential candidate?  Although lots of Republicans are not enthusiastic about this year’s candidates,[5] this seems like the most reasonable conjecture.

What might these numbers mean?  In 2014, 43 percent of Americans self-identified as political Independents, 30 percent as Democrats, and 26 percent as Republicans.[6]  In 2015, 42 percent self-identified as Independents; 29 percent self-identified as Democrats; and 26 percent self-identified as Republicans.[7]  (Still, the Independents are going to have to vote for either the Republican or the Democrat candidate.)

If 29-30 percent of Americans self-identify as Democrats and if Clinton pulls 53 percent of the vote, then she would pick up an additional 23-24 percent of the vote beyond Democrats.  If 42-43 percent identify as Independents, then Clinton would pull well over half of them, while Trump would pull 18-20 percent of the total.  If 26 percent of voters self-identify as Republican and he also picks up the 18-19 percent of voters who are non-Clinton Independents, then he would have 44-45 percent of the vote.  That matches up with the number who say they might be willing to vote for Trump.  But he doesn’t, based on these polls.  He tops out at 41 percent in the most recent poll numbers.  These numbers (45 percent – 41 percent = 4 percent, but this 4 percent comes entirely from the 26 percent who are Republicans, so 4 x 4) suggest that about 16 percent of Republicans will sit out the presidential vote.  Not much, but maybe enough.

So, wake me when this nightmare is over.  “Which one?” you ask.

[1] How can they think this?  See: Kimberley Strassel, “Hillary’s real e-mail problem,” WSJ, excerpted in The Week, 25 March 2016, p. 14.  I’ve got a bridge that might interest you.

[2] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 25 March 2016, p.19.

[3] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 18 March 2016, p. 19.

[4] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 11 March 2016, p. 17.

[5] Only 39 percent of Republicans who are not Trump supporters claim to be “more enthusiastic” than in years gone by.  This offers a sense of the size of the Cruz-Rubio vote within the Republican Party.  See: “Poll Watch,” The Week, 11 March 2016, p. 17.

[6] “Noted,” The Week, 23 January 2015, p. 16.

[7] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 22 January 2016, p. 17.

On the Obama Doctrine.

The New York Times recently summarized some of President Obama’s thought as revealed in an important article in the Atlantic.[1]

President Obama believes that Asia and Latin America are far more important for America’s future than is the Middle East.  He believes that some of America’s allies try to draw the United States into Middle Eastern conflicts that have little relation to American national interests.  Then they don’t do anything to pull their share of the weight.  He believes that Saudi Arabia “need[s] to find an effective way share the neighborhood [its arch-enemy Iran] and institute some sort of cold peace.”  He sees parts of the Middle East as plagued by “the malicious, nihilistic, violent parts of humanity.”  He recognizes that Ukraine matters more to Russia than it does to the West, especially the United States.  The same will be true if it comes to a military confrontation.

It’s hard to quarrel with any of that as general principles.  The interest of the United States in the Middle East stems from Cold War efforts to keep the Soviet Union from expanding into a key area from which Europe drew its oil and which provided an important link in world communications and transportation.  An ill-considered, but still understandable American commitment to Israel got layered-on after the Six Days War of 1967.  Today, Middle Eastern oil is far less important; the Soviet Union is dead; and Israel does not face any formidable coalition of enemies.  ISIS poses no existential threat to the United States as did Nazi Germany or Communist Russia.  However, decades of engagement created of powerful traditions and institutions dedicated to dealing with the Middle East.  Inertia, rather than thought, carries on.

More troubling are some of the president’s specific reflections.

In the wake of the recent pair of articles in the New York Times on the overthrow of the Libyan government in 2011, President Obama acknowledged that the intervention had been a “mistake.”  However, that mistake had been motivated in part by his belief that Britain and France would shoulder much of the burden.  “Free riders aggravate me.”  Well, they should.  However, it is up to the President and his senior officials to define what each country will do beforehand.  The president is a lawyer.  This should be second-nature to him.

British Prime Minister David Cameron became “distracted by other issues,” in the words of the New York Times, during the Libyan operation.  What were those other issues?  In August 2011, race relations boiled over as massive rioting swept across several major British cities, including London.  In early 2012 the Scottish nationalists won approval for a referendum on independence from the United Kingdom.  These may have been distractions, but neither was a petty matter.

President Obama is “openly contemptuous of Washington’s foreign policy establishment,” which always ends up favoring “militarized responses.”  That may be true in some cases, but in the case of Libya, Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, and the leaders of the intelligence agencies all were—apparently—opposed to intervention.  In the case of Egypt, all these and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were cautious about tossing overboard the dictator Hosni Mubarak.  Those initiatives were on the president.  What of Syria?  Was it the “foreign policy establishment” that persuaded the president to insist that Bashar al-Assad had to go as the part of any solution?  Then, the Russian intervention has shown that there is a “military solution” to the civil war.  It just isn’t the one that President Obama wanted.  As has been so often the case for the president.

[1] Mark Landler, “Obama Criticizes the ‘Free Riders’ Among America’s Allies, NYT, 10 March 2016.

Edjumication 2.

The Wall Street Journal ran this interesting—and terrifying if you give a rip about our country—story.[1]  Back in 2012, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) ran a big survey of a lot of member states.  The International Assessment of Adult Competency tried to figure out how well different advanced counties do at “problem-solving in technology rich environments” (AKA “using digital technology to perform practical tasks”).  The U.S came last among 18 advanced countries.

Japan, Finland, Sweden, and Norway headed the list.[2]  Poland came 17th, just ahead of the U.S.  (On the other hand, Poles have a tremendous work ethic that has made them deeply unpopular in much of Western Europe.[3]  In contrast, car thieves in the U.S. will not steal American cars made in the 1970s and 1980s because the cars are garbage as the result of poor workmanship.  Foreign cars, like a Honda or a Mercedes?  That’s a different matter.[4])

Why is this?  A Harvard B-School professor opined that “when you look at this data it suggests the trends we’ve discerned over the last twenty years are continuing and if anything they are gaining momentum.”  What are those trends? American workers demonstrate “flagging literacy and numeracy skills, which are the fundamental skills needed to score well on the survey.”  Many Americans have a lot of trouble with any kind of math problem.

Why does this matter?  It matters because most middle-class jobs in the future will require numeracy and literacy skills.  What we think of as “manufacturing” jobs, for example, are simple, repetitive, boring jobs on an assembly-line.  The substitution of machines for manpower by management and investment allowed both high wages and high profits.  The rise of cheap labor in Asian economies entering the global market since the collapse of Communism has destroyed those jobs.  American manufacturers have adapted by introducing far more mechanization and computers.  Future manufacturing in the U.S. will involve far fewer workers with far greater skills.[5]

It isn’t just blue-collar workers who are “in a queer street.”[6]  For those aged 16 to 34, the study found that “even workers with college degrees and graduate or professional degrees don’t stack up favorably against their international peers.”  So, taking on a lot of debt to get a college degree in order to gain some safety isn’t necessarily a wise move.

What are the sources of our malaise?  Without any doubt, they are many.  However, perhaps one of them is “cultural,” rather than institutional.  “This is the only country in the world where it is acceptable to say ‘I’m not good at math’.” said one observer.   The same is probably true for reading.[7]  One measure: is there a “no shush” rule posted in your local library?

Perhaps there is something to be said for a reassertion of traditional values.

[1] Douglas Belkin, “U.S. Ranks Last in Tech Problem Solving,” WSJ, 10 March 2016.

[2] OK, but when is the last time you saw a Scandinavian block-buster movie about a crime-stopping hero in a spandex suit?  No, Scandinavian crime-stopper movies are full of aging, morose alcoholics and enraged victims of sexual abuse.  So there!

[3] See:  Or talk to people who prefer cheap, high-quality, readily-available Polish workers to the lay-abouts who make up much of the French and British labor force.

[4] See:

[5] See:

[6] It isn’t a sexual-orientation reference.  In Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, the protagonist’s father recalls—during a dinner-table conversation of the son’s poor job prospects—that his Uncle Malachi “got into “a queer street.”  As a result, “He had to go to Australia.  Before the mast.”

[7] It is difficult to nail down just how many books the average American reads in a year or owns.  However, some research backs up intuition.  See:

The Count 1.

As best I understand it, before ISIS launched its Summer 2014 attack into western Iraq, it engaged in a long campaign of bombings in the heartland of Iraq. These spread terror and distrust of the government. As best I understand it, the defeat of Boko Haram on the battlefield led to a campaign of bombings in Nigeria and Cameroon. These spurred mass flight and a economic paralysis. So, bombings can be harbingers of victory or of defeat. It’s too bad that they aren’t more clear in their meanings. Still, I thought that I would watch this “variable”—as social scientist call it. See if anything becomes clear to me.

Hilla, Iraq is about 60 miles south of Baghdad on the Tigris River. It’s near the site of ancient Babylon, a vital center of Mesopotamian civilization that is unfamiliar to generations of American college students. From about 1000 AD on it was a sleepy farm town and administrative center. In the early 20th Century, an interesting episode in environmental history led to the construction of a dam to insure the proper irrigation of local farmlands.[1]

Saddam Hussein was hard on both the ancient and modern faces of Hilla. He had workmen knock down a bunch of the Babylonian ruins in order to build one of his palaces. After the war in Kuwait in 1991, a rebellion broke out around Hilla. Government troops killed several thousand people and buried them in a mass grave.

On 1 April 2003, there was a good-sized fight at Hilla between American armored forces and an infantry battalion of the Republican Guard. Then the insurgency began. One feature of that insurgency appeared in the efforts by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi to foment a Sunni-Shi’ite civil war. Hilla is a predominantly Shi’ite city, so it came in for its share of trouble. In February 2005, a suicide bombing killed 125 people waiting for treatment outside a medical clinic; in May 2005, two suicide bombers killed 31 and wounded 108 Shia police; in September 2005, a car bomb killed 10 and wounded 30; in January 2007, suicide bombers killed 73 and wounded 160; in February 2007, a pair of suicide bombers killed 45 and wounded 150; in March 2007, two car bombs killed 114 and wounded 147; in May 2010, a multiple car bomb attacks killed 45 and wounded 145. Then things calmed down as the “Sunni Awakening” and the “Surge:” took hold.

At a security check-point near Hilla, on 6 March 2016, a gasoline tanker waited for approval to move ahead in the middle of a crowd of vehicles and pedestrians.[2] When guards waved at the driver to halt, the truck lurched ahead and then exploded. At least 33 people were killed outright and 115 were wounded. (Almost 30 of the wounded subsequently died.) A witness said that the explosion 350 feet away from the blast felt like “an earthquake.” The witness is 54 years old. That means that he was born in 1962. He has lived through the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988); the American air campaign associated with the 1991 war over Kuwait; the American invasion (2003) and all that followed from it (2003-2007).

The key point here is that there are a lot of people outside “the West” who have heard explosions before and know what to do. “I immediately lay on the ground and saw flames all over the checkpoint.” After a while he got up to go check on friends in shops closer to the check-point. “One of them was beheaded and others were killed.” A 32 year-old school teacher who had been waiting to pass the checkpoint to get to work described it as “a very hard scene.”

What is it like to know what a suicide bombing sounds like? What about knowing that the bombings come in pairs, usually the second happening after people rush from cover to help the victims of the first bombing?

[1] See:

[2] Omar al-Jawoshy, “Truck Bomb Kills at Least 33 At Checkpoint in Central Iraq,” NYT, 7 March 2016.

A Geographer Reads the Newspaper 4.

Africa was one of the battlefields in the Cold War. The United States supported—to a degree— the Congolese dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko (aka Joseph Mobutu) while the Cold War went on. It’s not like they had much choice, regardless of what spy novels tell us about the supposed powers of the CIA world-hydra. Once the Cold War ended, all bets were off. In the late 1990s, Mobutu was staggering after 30 years of tyranny and plunder. Rebels waged war against the government from remote sanctuaries in the vast country. All sorts of tribal quarrels were barely held in check. Then, in 1994, the Rwandan genocide on Congo’s eastern border killed 800,000 Tutsis and led to the flight of a million Hutu “genocidaires” and their kin to the Congo. While the Ugandan-backed Tutsis took power in Rwanda, the Hutus took effective control of the refugee camps that were supposedly run by international agencies. Not content to leave bad enough alone, the Hutus transformed these into bases for guerrilla raids into Rwanda. In 1996, the Rwandan Tutsis joined forces with some of the local Congolese rebels (some of them Congolese Tutsis) to wage their own war in Eastern Congo against the Hutus. Massacres of Hutus—not just of soldiers—attended every Tutsi incursion, then and later.

This triggered the final collapse of the Mobutu dictatorship. Supported at first by Rwanda, a former-rebel-turned-schemer-in-exile named Laurent Kabila took over as president. Rather than replacing one strong-man with another, this created a vacuum of power. Civil war broke out with multiple participants. Kabila disappointed the Rwandans just as much as he disappointed many others. In 1998, Rwanda again invaded the Congo. Kabila saved himself from overthrow by drawing in help from neighboring Angola and Zimbabwe. This stalled the Rwandans at the price of expanding the number of interested participants in an already gory war. Then Kabila was assassinated and replaced by his even more ineffectual son. Again civil war broke out. Again, Rwanda intervened.[1] Often these interventions seem to have been driven by the quest to control the mines of eastern Congo: gold, diamonds, uranium, nickel, copper. Over the years, huge amounts of precious minerals have been transferred to Rwanda.[2]

The war continues in fits and starts much as it has done for twenty years now. It has been a particularly brutal war. Small bands of armed men, rather than great armies, do battle far from Western eyes. Massacres of civilians abound, and millions haven driven into hiding in the bush. Starvation and disease are as much killers as are the gun men. By 2009, the best estimates held that 4-5 million people had died. Then things began to calm down. Uganda and Rwanda, long partners in crime, fell out with one another over the division of the spoils. Rwanda sought to patch-up relations with Congo. This brought a period of relative peace to eastern Congo.

You might think that this catastrophe would attract a lot of attention. It hasn’t. There are a couple of excellent histories.[3] There is one novel that focuses narrowly, but effectively, on the corrupt relationship between business and government in what amounts to a profit free-fire zone.[4] Told through the voice of an Anglo-Congolese translator, the story boils down to a plot by a well-connected American businessman to launch a fake coup in eastern Congo so that his mercenaries can scoop up a vast store of precious metals. “The horror. The horror.”

[1] Paul Kagame, the Rwandan “president,” is a much caressed pet of the United States.

[2] This may be one explanation for the apparent modernity of government offices in what is still a poor country.

[3] Gerard Prunier, Africa’s World War: Congo, the Rwanda Genocide, and the Making of a Continental Catastrophe (Oxford University Press, 2009); Jason K. Stearns, Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa (Public Affairs, 2011).

[4] John le Carre, The Mission Song (Little, Brown and Co., 2006).