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Close reading, Synoptic- and Sembl-style, for parallels, patterns

Monday, March 25th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — if we omit all mention of the Qur’an, will the jihad perhaps disappear, you think? ]
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On Friday, Oct. 29, 2004, just before the 2004 US Presidential Election, a videotaped speech by Osama bin Laden was released online and variously reported:
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Being a theologian at heart, I’ve formatted these versions in the style used in comparisons of the Synoptic Gospels, to give you an immediate sense of the differences I’ll be discussing…

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Just how important was this particular speech by bin Laden?

It was important to bin Laden himself, as it was his first statement after his invitation to the US to convert to Islam. As I have noted before — quoting Michael Scheuer‘s Al-Qaeda’s Completed Warning Cycle – Ready to attack? — bin Laden had been criticized for failing to issue such an invitation:

After 9/11, bin Laden received sharp criticisms from Islamist scholars that dealt with the al-Qaeda chief’s failure to satisfy several religious requirements pertinent to waging war. The critique focused on three items: (1) insufficient warning; (2) failure to offer Americans a chance to convert to Islam; and (3) inadequate religious authorization to kill so many people. Bin Laden accepted these criticisms and in mid-2002 began a series of speeches and actions to remedy the shortcomings and satisfy his Islamist critics before again attacking in the United States.

MEMRI picks up the story here:

The Islamist website Al-Islah explains: “Some people ask ‘what’s new in this tape?’ [The answer is that] this tape is the second of its kind, after the previous tape of the Sheikh [Osama bin Laden], in which he offered a truce to the Europeans a few months ago, and it is a completion of this move, and it brings together the complementary elements of politics and religion, political savvy and force, the sword and justice. The Sheikh reminds the West in this tape of the great Islamic civilization and pure Islamic religion, and of Islamic justice…”

This video is also a significant “first” for bin Laden. In Raymond Ibrahim‘s words in his The Al Qaeda Reader:

This message also marks the first time bin Laden publicly acknowledged his role in the 9/11 strikes; previously he had insisted that he was merely an “inciter” and that it was the Muslim umma in general who had retaliated in defense of their faith.

It was important to the US because of the election four days later. The following exchange occurred on NBCNews’ Meet the Press, Jan 30th, 2005:

MR. RUSSERT: At the Clinton Library dedication on November 18, a few weeks after the election, you were quoted as saying, “It was the Osama bin Laden tape. It scared the voters,” the tape that appeared just a day before the election here. Do you believe that tape is the reason you lost the race?

SEN. KERRY: I believe that 9/11 was the central deciding issue in this race. And the tape–we were rising in the polls up until the last day when the tape appeared. We flat-lined the day the tape appeared and went down on Monday. I think it had an impact

The speech was important, in sum, both to bin Laden himself and to the US electorate: it deserves a close reading.

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Sadly, however…

Posted, translated transcripts of Al Qaida and other jihadist materials often leave out the salutation and envoi (or other choice bits such as quotes from the Qur’an or Hadith) because they’re too religious or perhaps too Muslim — but when these same pieces of the puzzle are added back into the text, the whole document may cohere to a degree that is otherwise unapparent.

We tend not to “get” religious language. What do Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon tell us in their book The Age of Sacred Terror?

So much of what was heard from al-Qaeda after the attacks sounded to Americans like gibberish that many chords of the apocalypse were missed.

Our prejudice against alien religious sentiment, or the assumption that it is ritualistic and hence irrelevant, or even worse, “babble” — the term FBI agents used to describe David Koresh‘s religious interpretation of events during the Waco siege — can blindside us to its very real discursive and exegetical power.

That’s the reason I’m offering you this post — years later — as a counter-example of the power of “Sembl thinking” — essentially, the power of pattern recognition as a key to understanding.

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I read three versions of bin Laden’s videotaped speech of Oct. 29, 2004 at the time: those provided by CNN, MEMRI, and Al Jazeera — one “western secular” source, one with some degree of Israeli association, and one with roots in the Arabic cultures.

CNN cited al-Jazeera as having aired the video, and posted “a transcript of his remarks as translated by CNN senior editor for Arab affairs Octavia Nasr” which, as you can see above or at the link, began, “You, the American people, I talk to you today… “ MEMRI offered The Full Version of Osama bin Laden’s Speech followed by a transcript which began, “O American people, I address these words to you…” And Al Jazeera posted “the full English transcript of Usama bin Ladin’s speech in a videotape sent to Aljazeera” and noted, “In the interests of authenticity, the content of the transcript, which appeared as subtitles at the foot of the screen, has been left unedited” – above a transcript that began:

Praise be to Allah who created the creation for his worship and commanded them to be just and permitted the wronged one to retaliate against the oppressor in kind. To proceed: Peace be upon he who follows the guidance: People of America this talk of mine is for you…

That in itself is interesting — Al-Jazeera has two sentences with religious significance, one of them saying that God “permitted the wronged one to retaliate against the oppressor in kind” — with no mention of them in the MEMRI and CNN accounts.

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As I read the Al Jazeera version, which seemed to me to be the one most likely to be accurate to bin Laden’s meaning, I came across the phrase:

We want to restore freedom to our Nation and just as you lay waste to our Nation, so shall we lay waste to yours.

There were several other parts of the speech which seemed to make (rhetorical) use of symmetry. There were the comments about “punishing the oppressor in kind” by destroying towers in the US, since towers in the Lebanon had been destroyed (which seems a pretty literal-minded reading of “in like manner”):

And as I looked at those demolished towers in Lebanon, it entered my mind that we should punish the oppressor in kind and that we should destroy towers in America in order that they taste some of what we tasted and so that they be deterred from killing our women and children.

There was a passage pointing up analogies between the Bush dynastic presidencies and similar dynastic rulerships in “our countries”:

… we have found it difficult to deal with the Bush administration in light of the resemblance it bears to the regimes in our countries, half of which are ruled by the military and the other half which are ruled by the sons of kings and presidents. Our experience with them in lengthy and both types are replete with those who are characterized by pride, arrogance, greed and a misappropriation of wealth.

And there was the comment translated in the CNN version:

Your security is not in the hands of [Democratic presidential nominee John] Kerry or Bush or al Qaeda. Your security is in your own hands. Any nation that does not attack us will not be attacked.

Each of these excerpts is couched in an analogical, symmetrical format, but it was the first one that really rang a bell for me — that phrase “just as you lay waste to our Nation, so shall we lay waste to yours” reminded me very strongly of one verse from the Qur’an, which contains the phrase, “And one who attacketh you, attack him in like manner as he attacked you” — the whole verse, Qur’an 2.194, has also been translated thus:

For the prohibited month, and so for all things prohibited, there is the law of equality. If then any one transgresses the prohibition against you, transgress ye likewise against him. But fear Allah, and know that Allah is with those who restrain themselves.

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Okay, I’d read three versions of bin Laden’s text, and made a mental leap to a Quranic verse — and then I finally ran across ABC’s transcript, which opens with the very verse from the Quran my mind had leaped to.

Here’s where you can find the entire text, which ABC describes as “an unedited government translation of the Osama bin Laden videotape” – presumably from the Foreign Broadcast Information Service (then the FBIS, now the Open Source Center). It is certainly the most complete version I’ve seen:

Full Transcript of Bin Laden Video: ABC News Obtains Complete Text of Bin Laden’s Oct. 29 Video.

I don’t know for sure whether bin Laden used that verse himself (although I’d bet on it), or whether it was “framing matter” added by in the studio by Al-Jazeera (I very much doubt it) — either way, it confirmed my association, and reading the whole speech as a sermonette on that scriptural text gives it, in my view, notable added coherence.

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Here’s what I wrote after I read the ABC transcript:

I’m particularly interested to note that bin Laden “opens” with the Qur’anic verse which says “for the prohibited month, and so for all things prohibited, there is the law of equality. If then any one transgresses the prohibition against you, transgress ye likewise against him. But fear Allah, and know that Allah is with those who restrain themselves” [Baqara 194].

That’s the central statement of the Islamic view of symmetrical morality in warfare, and prior to reading your full text, I thought I’d detected echoes of it in the OBL text in question — my own analytic process leans heavily on analogy and symmetry — and specifically in the passages I’ve quoted above…

The analogical, symmetrical format is present in each of these excerpts, and indicates how deeply the Qur’anic process runs in bin Laden, even here in a speech which attempts to present that very Qur’anic insight in secular terms to a western audience — explaining the first of the four excerpts above, for instance, with these following words:

No one except a dumb thief plays with the security of others and then makes himself believe he will be secure whereas thinking people when disaster strikes make it their priority to look for its causes in order to prevent it happening again.

and saying again, towards the end of the speech:

you may recall that for every action, there is a reaction.

We do indeed recall that phrase: in its complete form, as given in Isaac Newton‘s memorable Third Law of Motion:

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

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For what it’s worth, the Qur’anic verse in question is not present in either Ibrahim’s Al Qaeda Reader, nor in Bruce Lawrence, Messages to the World: the Statements of Osama bin Laden. Ibrahim opens his version with the words, “Praise be to Allah, who created the worlds for his worship…” and Lawrence with, “Peace be upon those who are rightly guided. People of America…”

But no mention of Qur’an 2.194. It has just vanished. Gone. It has been ignored.

Isn’t that pretty much the definition of ignorance?

Words fail me.

The Oscars, the Conclave and the Chinese

Monday, February 25th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — more on the upcoming papal election from a “comparative” perspective ]
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As you know, I noodle around with parallelisms and oppositions quite a bit. Here are two recent pairings that caught my attenion — one of them just in time for the Oscars:

The other concerns political influence on spiritual appointments…

I had the good fortune to meet and befriend a “tulku” while I was at Oxford, so the whole business of the identification and recognition of reincarnated Tibetan lamas has long been an interest of mine.

US Foreign Policy, Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood

Wednesday, January 30th, 2013

The Obama administration, though they would not characterize it as such nor have much desire to acknowledge it at all, have attempted  a strategic detente with the “moderate” elements of political Islam.

This policy has not been entirely consistent; Syria, for example, is a quagmire the administration has wisely refrained from wading directly into despite the best efforts of R2P advocates to drag us there.  But more importantly, under President Obama the US supported the broad-based Arab Spring popular revolt against US ally, dictator Hosni Mubarak, and pushed the subsequent ascendancy of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Libyan revolution against the entirely mad Colonel Gaddafi. These appear to be geopolitical “moves” upon which the Obama administration hopes to build.

I would like to emphasize that there is one legitimate and valid strategic pro to this sub rosa policy; namely, if everything went well, it would provide the United States with powerful triangulation against revolutionary, apocalyptic, radical Islamism as expressed by al Qaida and various Salafi extremist movements. There are reasons, rooted in takfirism, strategy and the politics of lunacy that our terrorist enemies frequently hate and revile the Brotherhood as traitors, apostates or whatever. Isolating the most actively dangerous and violent revolutionary enemies from a large mass of potential allies is, at least, a good strategic goal.

It is also my view, that this “outreach” is as politically sensitive  to the Obama administration as was the China Opening was to Nixon and about which they have been equally opaque and misleading for fear of a domestic backlash. The weird, foot-dragging, dissembling, embittered, kabuki drama inside the Beltway about public statements and intelligence on whether Benghazi was caused by obscure crackpot Islamophobic film makers or a well-orchestrated terrorist attack  is in my view due to a major foreign policy strategy never having been framed in public for what it is. I’m sure people will differ strongly with me on this (which is fine), but I would characterize detente with Islamists as a strategic shift on par with the “Pivot to Asia”.

The downside here is that first, things are not likely to come out well at all, as unfinished revolutions tend to give birth to monsters; and secondly, any detente with “moderate” political Islam is an uncertain gamble based on certain exceptionally optimistic conceptions of not only what the Brotherhood might do, but about it’s very nature.

While the removal of Arab dictators resonated with American values , it was questionable realpolitik while the administration’s de facto support of  Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood faction over poorly organized secular liberal modernists was an act of realpolitik that required a compromise of the democratic values so recently invoked to justify abandoning Mubarak. This was cynical diplomatic flexibility worthy of Talleyrand.

Unfortunately, the most democratic thing – perhaps the only thing – about Mr. Morsi and his Brotherhood supporters was his election.

The Egyptian people who are subjected now to thuggery from both Morsi’s Islamist stormtroopers and from the security forces of the Egyptian military are less sanguine than are the Brotherhood’s cheerleaders inside the administration. The Egyptian people, in fact, seem to be in revolt against domination by the Muslim Brotherhood’s shadow government.

The first question to ask in assessing if the Obama administration policy here is wise would be “What is the nature of the Muslim Brotherhood?” Americans love to personalize foreign policy, but if  Morsi were to be toppled or die, the Brotherhood will remain what it currently is, the best organized political force in Egypt and one widely influential throughout the Arab world and the West itself.

I am not an expert on the Muslim Brotherhood, nor am I an Arabist by education. Most of us aren’t – a group that I fear includes most of the Obama administration officials involved in shaping this policy. Almost fifty years after King Faisal determined to export Wahhabism, more than thirty years since Khomeini’s Revolution and more than ten years since 9/11 the USG still has less in-house expertise related to Islam than it did about the Soviet Union and Communism a decade after the Berlin Blockade.

Perhaps we all should begin learning more?

Here is an analysis from FPRI; it is extremely critical but it touches on organizational aspects of the Muslim Brotherhood that I have not seen elsewhere (hat tip to David Ronfeldt). Feel free to suggest others, both for and against. The Brotherhood is a very large group with a long history that includes violence , terrorism and subversion on one hand and peacefully representing expressions of pious, middle-class, social conservatism in other places and times:

Lecture Transcript: What Every American Should Know about Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Delivered by Eric Trager 

….Two years ago when I was doing my dissertation fieldwork in Cairo, I sought out interviews with leaders from the Muslim Brotherhood, and I was referred to a man named Muhammad Morsi, now the President of Egypt. At the time, President Mubarak was ill and had gone off to Europe for operations amid a lot of mystery surrounding his health. I asked Muhammad Morsi whether the Muslim Brotherhood would run a presidential candidate if Mubarak died tomorrow. Here is what he said:

[From an audio file played by Trager]

Eric Trager: You don’t see the Muslim Brotherhood nominating a presidential candidate [if Mubarak dies tomorrow]?

Muhammad Morsi: No… because society is not ready… Our society is not ready yet to really defend its worth. We want a society to carry on its responsibilities, and we are part of this society. Another thing, if we are rushing things, then I don’t think that leads to a real stable position.

When he made that statement, I don’t think he was lying, and I don’t think he was being coy. I think that he didn’t expect that he would be faced with this reality in a mere six months. He did not expect that Mubarak would step down six months later and, to be completely honest with you, neither did I. My dissertation was entitled “Egypt: Durable Authoritarianism”—until the revolution.

What did Morsi mean when he said that the Brotherhood was trying to build a society? Let me give you some background on the Muslim Brotherhood. It was founded in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna, who was a schoolteacher in Ismailia. The Muslim Brotherhood’s goal was then—and remains now—to establish an Islamic state in Egypt. The way it pursues this goal is by trying to Islamize Egyptian society. Through social services, education, and the mosque, it sought to make Egyptians more religious and more Islamic as a grassroots strategy for building an Islamic state. That’s very, very different from a strategy that says, “We’re going to run for president, run for the Parliament, and use that power to transform society.” Rather, the Brotherhood says, in effect, “We’re going to Islamize society to build towards power.” It was a long-term strategy; it took them 84 years before they ran for and won the presidency. So Morsi told me in 2010 that the Muslim Brotherhood was not going to run for the presidency because it was not done Islamizing Egyptian society….

Read the rest here.

A Tale of Two Victories and Two Falls

Sunday, November 11th, 2012

My co-blogger Charles Cameron is fond of his “DoubleQuotes” postings that feature frequently uncomfortable juxtapositions designed to prod thinking. Here’s a wordier one from me:

….Planning for a second term has been under way for months, with Lew and Pete Rouse, the counselor to the president and Obama’s internal management guru, preparing lists of possible promotions and nominations. The staff process has been gossiped about by the staff, but details have been kept secret, even from insiders.

“They haven’t even made calls. People haven’t been asked,” said a Democrat familiar with the situation. “They’re more targets than they are potential nominees.”

Now, officials will start to cement their departure dates, and aides will sound out colleagues about possible new roles. Among the top current officials expected to go: Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Lisa Jackson, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Attorney General Eric Holder and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood might not be far behind — or may even beat them out the door.

There’s also a growing list of people the administration is looking to find spots for: Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick most of all, as well as former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm and outgoing North Dakota Sen. Kent Conrad.

Obama has overseen one of the most stable cabinets in history — the only departures have been Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and Gary Locke and John Bryson from Commerce. But what’s about to happen amounts to an almost full-scale second transition: 

 

….At eleven o’clock in the morning, Nixon met with his staff in the Roosevelt Room. To many in the room he seemed oddly cool and quietly angry as he thanked them all for their loyalty and said something few of them understood. He said that he had been reading Robert Blake’s Disraeli and was struck by his description a century ago of William Gladstone’s ministers as “exhausted volcanoes” – and then mumbled something about embers that once shot sparks into the sky.

“I believe men exhaust themselves in government without realizing it” the president said “You are my first team, but today we start fresh for the next four years. We need new blood, fresh ideas. Change is important…..Bob, you take over.”

Nixon left then, turning the meeting over to Haldeman. The men and women of the White House stood to applaud his exit, then sat down. The chief explained what Nixon’s words meant: a reorganization of the administration. He told them that they were expected to deliver letters of resignation before the end of the day, then passed out photocopied forms requiring them to list all official documents in their possession. “These must be in by November 10,” he said. “This should accompany your pro forma letter of resignation to be effective at the pleasure of the President”. They were stunned. Speechless. Were they being fired? Haldeman said they would know within a month whether or not they could remain. At noon, the same drama was played out with the entire Cabinet, with Haldeman again passing out the forms.

Ironically, one of the many Cabinet secretaries Nixon ignominiously fired in his bid to centralize power in his White House staff was his former 1968 primary rival, HUD Secretary George Romney, father of 2012 Republican nominee, Governor Mitt Romney.  A blow from which George Romney’s political career never recovered. Nixon’s relationship with Romney had been an acrimonious one, formally polite on the surface with public shows of confidence by Nixon and machiavellian intrigues behind the scenes to undermine Romney and reverse the policies he had been advancing in Nixon’s name.

This latest Cabinet reshuffle to build a “Team without Rivals”, comes in the context of an explosive story, the abrupt resignation Friday of CIA Director General David Petraeus, citing an extramarital affair and accepting responsibility for “extremely poor judgment” and “unacceptable conduct”. The affair, allegedly conducted with his official biographer, came to light during a still not fully explained FBI investigation into unauthorized accessing of Petraeus’ private email account. The resignation of the highly regarded General Petraeus comes just before he was expected to testify before Congress regarding discrepancies and questions in the administrations handling of the terrorist attack in Benghazi that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and other Americans. It also coincides with the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, declining to testify.

It is difficult to say if General Petraeus public career will survive this scandal that he has brought upon himself, an action which stands in jarring contrast to his sterling, some might say superhuman, record of service to America, or if he will, like George Romney, fade away. Certainly, the CIA badly needed to stop the revolving door on the Director’s office and have a strong, visionary, hands-on leader who could reform and invigorate the Agency not merely in terms of covert action but in terms of rebuilding of capacity in deep cover clandestinity and the acquisition of strategic intel. I do not often find myself in agreement with Senator Feinstein but she is correct, this resignation hurts because it is also a significant institutional opportunity cost for the IC. I too wish it had not been accepted  – at one time it wouldn’t have been – but that is the President’s prerogative.

What however are the real issues? What should we be looking for?

Two things: As with Richard Nixon’s second term machinations, with such sweeping changes personnel changes in the offing for the Obama administration, ask yourself as events unfold: “Where is power flowing? And Why?”

If you do you will be in a better position to game out the direction of the next four years, especially in foreign policy and national security.

The White House has attempted to sell a story that the FBI doing a low-level harassment investigation  stumbled upon a security breach and – on their own authority, mind you – tapped the email account of the Director of the CIA and kept him under surveillance and investigated his mistress and, oh, yeah, the President was only informed of this business after the election on Thursday. Wait! And the DNI ( a three star general whose career was primarily intel administration) on his own initiative called the CIA Director ( a four star general and former theater and combatant commander) in on the carpet and fired him told him to resign. Right.

No, what most likely happened was that the minute the special agents realized who was involved in their investigation and the magnitude of the implications, they stopped and informed their superiors and the matter went up the chain to the FBI Director’s desk. The FBI Director, a former prosecutor with a political antennae circumspect enough to be appointed by George W. Bush and have his term be extended by Barack Obama, would have duly informed the Attorney-General of the United States before proceeding further and – I expect – the National Security Adviser, White House Chief of Staff and the DNI. Worst case scenario thinking in terms of national security would have been one driver. Another would be the fear of an all too juicy story leaking and the media catching an unbriefed POTUS unaware on the campaign trail with a blockbuster scandal before the election. How would that have gone over?

I would further expect that we will in the next few days and weeks hear the most salacious contents of the emails between Petraeus and his biographer, leaked by anonymous officials, timed to coincide with difficult days of testimony regarding Benghazi or new appointments to the administration that could, on a slow media day, prove controversial.

Instead of being distracted by prurient nonsense unrelated to the stewardship of the Republic, time would be better spent scrutinizing the host of nominations to come, not as individuals but as “teams” for particular areas of national security and foreign affairs cutting across bureaucracies – ex. arms control, Russian relations, Mideast etc. What commonalities or congruencies emerge?

I suggest this because back when the Obama administration decided on their “pivot” to Asia, the people they selected for second to third tier workday management related to the Asia-Pacific region were all accomplished, decent, honorable public servants, but their greatest common characteristic was a lack of any professional expertise with China. We saw the same personnel gambit with the Bush administration in the run-up to the war with Iraq where the greatest disqualifier for a job with the CPA was familiarity with the Arab world, Islam or Iraq. When you want careful stratagems, you solicit the advice of experts; when you want grand and revolutionary gestures, the wheels of policy are better greased with bold ignorance. There’s a reason Nixon appointed William Rogers Secretary of State – he knew the State Department bureaucracy would largely oppose his foreign policy initiatives and he wanted someone ill-suited and uninformed in charge there who he could more easily manipulate and keep in the dark.

The sixties radicals used to assert “the personal is the political”; in the eighties, Ronald Reagan in staffing his first administration understood that “the personnel are the political” and picked people culled from Heritage and Cato. My intuition is that in the second decade of the 21st century, the inside circle of the Obama administration have discovered that ” the political are the patterns”.

The story unfolding is no longer the “smoking gun” or the compromising jigsaw piece but the entirety of the puzzle.

A Qualit’s tribute to Quants

Saturday, November 10th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — now the election dust has settled, let’s hear it for Nate Silver, Megyn Kelly, Zeynep Tufekci and xkcd ]
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I’m about as Qualit as you can get on the Qualit vs Quant side of things, and if I had a bête grise, it might well be statistics. Why? As Albert Einstein once said, or is said to have said:

Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts

Look, it’s even on his blackboard:

But look: votes can be counted, and what can be counted is Quant territory. So here’s a little hommage from a Qualit to a Quant — Nate Silver, in this case — with a bow to Megyn Kelly for calling out Karl Rove like that (upper panel, above), and a tip of the hat to xkcd (lower panel) for the usual spot-on commentary from his “webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language”.

Quality work, Quants!

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Ah — but then, what should we do with Colbert‘s comment?

Math has a liberal bias

Joking aside, one reading I’d add to Zen‘s post-election list would be Zeynep Tufekci‘s In Defense of Nate Silver, Election Pollsters, and Statistical Predictions.


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