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The Weekend Review
Futility in Iraq, Muslims in America, Teens' Biggest Predators:
Your Summaries to the Week's Vital Arguments

The weekend's line-up (Click on the article to go directly to that summary):


 

 

“Iraq: The Logic of Disingagement,” by Edward Luttwak, Foreign Affairs, January/February 2005.

The piece goes back almost a year, but since the world is once again agog over the recurring dramatic miniseries of Iraqi elections, it’s worth returning to the point Luttwak made back then: Elections won’t matter. Iraq is not Germany or Japan after World War II. Its religious groups are too fractured to accept pluralism and the American occupation too discredited, incompetent and naive to act as any kind of meaningful glue to keep Iraq from either spiraling into civil war or adopting a dictatorial system of one kind or another, where “whoever wins 50.1 percent of the vote should have all of the governing power,” as Luttwak wrote. “That much became clear when [Grand Ayatollah Al-]Sistani’s spokesmen vehemently rejected Kurdish demands for constitutional guarantees of minority rights. Shiite majority rule could thus end up being as undemocratic as the traditional Sunni-Arab ascendancy was.” He continues:

The plain fact is that there are not enough aspiring democrats in Iraq to sustain democratic institutions. The Shiite majority includes cosmopolitan figures, but by far its greater part has expressed in every possible way a strong preference for clerical leadership. The clerics, in turn, reject any elected assembly that would be free to legislate without their supervision--and could thus legalize, for example, the drinking of alcohol or the freedom to change one's religion. The Sunni-Arab minority, for its part, has dominated Iraq from the time it was formed into a state, and its leaders have consistently rejected democracy in principle because they refuse to accept a subordinate status. As for the Kurds, they have administered their separate de facto autonomies with considerable success, but it is significant that they have not even attempted to hold elections for themselves, preferring clan and tribal loyalties to the individualism of representative democracy. Accordingly, although elections of some kind can still be held on schedule, they are unlikely to be followed by the emergence of a functioning representative assembly, let alone an effective cohesive government of democratic temper. It follows that the United States has been depleting its military strength, diplomatic leverage, and treasure to pursue a worthy but unrealistic aim.

What was true in January is even more true today even as President Bush and many in the American press desperate for some sign of emergence from mayhem hail the recent parliamentary vote as a true turning point. It’s nothing of the sort because as Luttwak argues, it cannot be anything of the sort: the conditions are against any meaningful resolution precisely because of the way the occupation carries on, and the way the various factions in Iraq are presently (and seemingly fatally) aligned against each other. Not least of which, the Kurds, that falsely sainted group in the eyes of most Americans. [Back to top]


“Why American Muslims Haven’t Turned to Terrorism,” by Spencer Ackerman, The New Republic, December 12, 2005.

We had to get through the first rankling assumptions of this piece to get to its reasonably fair points: Muslims in America aren’t blowing things up because they’re better integrated in society, economically and socially, though recent trends point to worrisome re-segregation. The hump we had to get over was the blatant idiocy of the title. It’s an obvious point that obviously skims over too many people’s heads: There are more than 1 billion Muslims around the world, including hundreds of millions in Pakistan, India and Indonesia, all of whom, but for a few freaks not unlike our own Timothy McVeigh types, haven’t turned to terrorism. (And let’s not get mired in the definition of terrorism.) But so it goes in most reporting on the subject in the United States. Comparisons are essential, relativism is second nature, disproportionate assumptions are inevitable. In Ackerman’s case that’s a shame because the initial sensationalism of the title takes away from a basically sound and important point. The United States does have an advantage over other western democracies when it comes to the integration of its religious groups, Muslims among them. It’s not just an economic thing. It’s a matter of social norms in a society where religion is an essential component of American life, at least to a plurality of Americans. Here’s the most original part of Ackerman’s argument:

Most Americans would be horrified by the notion that they live in a country that abides by Islamic law. But some American Muslim leaders contend that U.S. society is harmonious with Koranic injunctions without even trying. " America is positively, unabashedly religious," enthuses Feisal Abdul Rauf, a New York-based imam. In his important 2004 book, titled What's Right With Islam, Abdul Rauf contends that space for religiosity is essentially inseparable from American liberalism, codified in both the U.S. political system and the broader U.S. social compact: "Fully in keeping with the principles of the Abrahamic ethic, American religious pluralism was not merely a historical or political fact; it became, in the mind of the American, the primordial condition of things, a self-evident and essential aspect of the American way of life and therefore in itself an aspect of the American creed." Drawing on hundreds of years of Islamic writings, Abdul Rauf makes the case that, by upholding the five conditions understood by Muslim legal scholars to constitute the good society--life, mental well-being, religion, property, and family--"the American political structure is Shariah compliant." 

But it’s just that sort of accommodating liberalism that’s fraying now, under pressure from neo-nativism (the domestic expression of neo-conservatism), a polite way of describing a sophisticated form of anti-Arab racism:

[Feisal Abdul Rauf, a New York-based imam], is …blunt. "If I read something like [Harvard Professor Samuel] Huntington, who posits a clash between the West and Islam, it's very easy for a certain number of individuals to start internalizing that identity." Indeed, at least some already are. Zogby found an astonishingly high proportion--a plurality of 38 percent--of American Muslims believe that Washington is waging a war on Islam, not terrorism. U.S. foreign policy can't be held hostage to threats of domestic terrorism, but policymakers ignore such dissatisfaction at their peril. Indeed, this resentment is especially dangerous given that Logan found that, despite current high levels of integration among American Muslims, segregationist trends are beginning to emerge. "[Muslim] groups are clustering more over time and becoming more separated from whites," he writes. Coupled with the marginal disillusionment observed by Skerry among second- and third-generation American Muslims, the current lack of sensitivity to Islamic concerns could prove disastrous for U.S. national security and American liberalism.

Naturally, the likes of Daniel Pipes, who are at the forefront of America ’s domestic crusade against Muslims, could not resist replying to the Ackerman article with the obligatory list of American Muslims Behaving Badly. We reproduce it here as one more example of L’infâme.

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“America’s Other Muslims: While Louis Farrakhan captures headline, the lesser-known Imam Warith Deen Mohammed has a large following among African-American Muslims--and a warmer view of the US. Peter Skerry discusses whether Imam Mohammed can make America's immigrant Muslims more at home in their adopted country." By Peter Skerry, The Wilson Quarterly, Autumn 2005. (Article not yet available online.)

At the risk of belaboring the points and counterpoints of Muslims in America, this piece, by a political science professor at Boston College and a resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, sheds a little belated light on the forgotten Muslims of America, its somewhat home-bred segment going back to the days of the strange weird and fabulist world of Elijah Muhammad and the vastly more interesting and aborted worlds of Malcolm X. Since Elijah’s death in 1975 Elijah’s son W.D. Mohammed has taken over the Nation of Islam (“a curious amalgam of freemasonry, Christianity, and Islam that religion scholar C. Eric Lincoln once dubbed a ‘proto-Islamic cult’”), mellowed it, called himself “a new Muslim” (though it isn’t clear what that means), and gone mainstream at the same time that he embraced Sunni Islam. “Even while embracing America and denouncing black racism and separatism,” Skerry writes, “W. D. Mohammed has always been attentive to group pride and race consciousness; at times he has even appeared to espouse black nationalism, though he has never actually done so. One of his first official acts upon succeeding his father was to rename the Nation of Islam’s former Harlem temple after Malcolm X.” Skerry puts Mohammed’s following at, “by the most generous estimates,” 50,000, then adds this odd observation: “But no other African-American Muslim leader has nearly that number.” Farrakhan? He may not draw the million marchers he calls for every other week, but he draws on a following—around the country, on the internet, through his publications—that certainly surpasses the 50,000 mark. By far. His speeches, archived on C-Span, are always among the most clicked on, for whatever reason. The two of them—Farrakhan and Mohammed—“reconciled,” according to Skerry, “after Farrakhan’s pledge to accept more orthodox Islamic practices.” But Mohammed has all the while distanced himself from Immigrant Muslims because, in the words of one of his imams, “For African-American Muslims, the priorities are economic justice, education, and service to humanity at the street level in our country. We don’t make decisions based on what is good for Pakistan, Afghanistan, or the Middle East.”

Skerry claims that “Of course, the principal challenge is to bring African-American Muslims generally together with immigrant Muslims.” What that “of course” is doing there is unclear: Why “of course”? And whose challenge is it? And why is it an assumed challenge to begin with? Skerry’s answer is that “Unity of that sort appeals to Muslims normatively as a step toward realizing the umma,” the worldwide community of Muslims. “But it is also obviously in the interest of immigrant Muslim leaders, who are struggling to protect themselves and forge alliances in the wake of 9/11.” The obviously rankles as much as the previous of course. The ummah is a utopian ideal, and like most utopias, it is more of a mine field than an Elysian meadow. The assumption that immigrant Muslims should forge alliances with black Muslims is also groundless: why forge an alliance with such a small group (according to Skerry’s numbers), when more natural alliances should be with the sort of liberal-minded, anti-segregationist political entities, be they Democrats or moderate Republican?

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“Soft Surveillance: Mandatory Voluntarism and the Collection of Personal Data,” by Gary T. Marx, Dissent, Fall 2005.

An excellent survey of the erosion of personal privacy and rights by way of data collection, policing assumptions, “security” conditions and marketing ploys, much of it by “disingenuous communication that seeks to create the impression that one is volunteering” compliance when that isn’t the case. Example: “In entering here you agree to be searched,” or “While it is voluntary for you to furnish this information, we may not be able to pay benefits to your spouse unless you give us the information.” Most people not only comply. They do so happily. “Consider a Justice Department ‘Watch Your Car’ program found in many states,” Marx writes. “Decals that car owners place on their vehicles serve as an invitation to police anywhere in the United States to stop the car if they see it being driven late at night.” Marx, an MIT Professor Emeritus who’s written plenty on the subject and apparently taught in most of the universities in the solar system (see his Web site at garymarx.net), outlines the many (and richly disturbing) ways government and private sector go about eavesdropping on what you say and do, and inevitably implicating others who have nothing to do with you. It may be well and good for you to “volunteer” a strand of DNA for a police investigation, but what gives you the right, when the strand also “offers information on family members who have not agreed to this”?

A sum-up of Marx’s argument: “To be meaningful, choice should imply genuine alternatives and refusal costs that are not widely exorbitant. Absent that, we have trickery, double-talk, and inequitable relationships. When we are told that for the good of the community we must voluntarily submit to searches or provide information, we run the danger of the tyranny of turning presumptions of innocence upside down. If only the guilty need worry, why bother with a Bill of Rights and other limits on authority?” But how have we come to this? It’s not all government- and corporate-induced, given our narcissistic love of the confessional, the transparent. For all this, “There is a chilling drift into a society where you have to provide ever-more personal information in order to prove that you are the kind of person who does not merit even more intensive scrutiny.” The solution? Marx falters a bit here, suggesting “dialogue and education” while immediately recognizing that those tools are “already disproportionately available to those supporting the current developments.” It’s true that “there is no fixed golden balance point,” but before even reaching for an approximation of that point, we should recognize that rights have been abridged, lines crossed and allowances made, for government and corporations over individuals, that should be scaled back outright: warrantless, sniffy searches of places and persons that—thanks to technology—don’t require physical undressing, door-opening or bag-unzipping, are an example. But the trend is going quickly and enthusiastically in the other direction. Americans cheer it on. “If our traditional notions of liberty disappear,” Marx concludes, “it will not be because of a sudden coup d’état. Nor will the iron technologies of industrialization be the central means. Rather, it will occur slowly, with an appeal to traditional American values in a Teflon- and sugar-coated technological context of low visibility, fear, and convenience.”

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“The MySpace Generation: They live online. They buy online. They play online. Their power is growing,” by Jessi Hempel, Business Week, December 12, 2005.

The disingeuousness of business magazines glitters in this report on the booming world of teen and college age internet networking. The article adds a little sidebar at the end about internet predators, the sexual kind, who use teen sites as scoping grounds, and what to do to keep safe from them. But the article celebrates the far more obvious predators: the advertisers and marketers who prey on millions of children, manipulating the sites and “embedding” themselves to outrageous degrees so that—in Business Week’s own giddy words—“the advertising can be so subtle that kids don’t distinguish it from content. ‘It’s what our users want,’” the magazine quotes one of its implants as saying. Really? Where’s the evidence that kids want deceptively stealthy advertising that preys on their $175 billion market? ($200 billion for college students, according to Alloy Media Marketing.) Where’s the evidence that kids want Procter & Gamble inventing characters and giving them their own profiles on MySpace.com so the company can talk up its latest body spray to tweeners (the 8-to-12 demographic age group)? And whether kids want it or not, where’s the ethic of letting giant marketing machines steamroll all overt kids, unsupervised, unregulated, unbound? Coke pays one Web site “less than $70,000 a year” for its products to be plastered all over the place, and the site’s administrator is all happy about how “They let us do our thing. They don’t censor what we do,” as if Coke would give a crap about content as long as it had a fresh cheap way to market? Censorship is a problem, according to the report: “Last year, for example, Buzz-Oven was nearly thrown off track when a band called Flickerstick wanted to post a song called Teenage Dope Fiend on the network. Holt told Buzzers: ‘Well, you can’t use that song. I’d be encouraging teenagers to try drugs.’ They saw his point, and several Buzzers persuaded the band to offer up a different song. But such potential conflicts are one way, Holt concedes, that Buzz-Oven’s corporate sponsorships could come to a halt.”

Barely in passing, the article mentions that epidemic of stupor reducing the nation’s teens to electronically addled zombies: “Fifteen- to eighteen-year-olds average nearly 6 1/2 hours a day watching TV, playing video games, and surfing the Net, according to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation survey. A quarter of that time, they're multitasking. The biggest increase: computer use for activities such as social networking, which has soared nearly threefold since 2000, to 1 hour and 22 minutes a day on average.” No mention of the social or psychological effects this may have on kids, no sidebar about how to mitigate what essentially has turned into a national addiction. Business before health. So the magazine focuses on companies’ tactics and strategies: Rupert Murdoch, the Predator in Chief, shelling out $580 million in July to buy MySpace’s parent company, Disney setting up blogs on Xanga.com for one of its movie’s main characters, to talk up the movie and generate buzz, Target creating similarly hybrid “characters” to sell its products, and on it goes. Where are the Dateline NBC reports on that sort of predators, who cast and mold young people’s buying habits for a lifetime? Among the nation’s 24 million teens, 87 percent use the internet, 65 percent instant-message, almost half go online every day, and most of those end up in worlds like MySpace.com (no need to hyperlink the obsessively hyperlinked) where they “need a friend to nurse you through a breakup, a mentor to tutor you on your calculus homework [you’ve got to be kidding us], an address for the party everyone is going to.”

And we wonder why we’re rearing a generation of programmed idiots who compulsively buy what they’re told and consume the syrupy bromides of a Coke as automatically as they would the canned goods of GOP ideologies. That’s America’s synergy. That’s what’s the matter with Kansas.

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“Staying in Vegas,” by Allison Hayward, The Weekly Standard, December 5, 2005.

Among the less tortuous pages of The Standard last week was this little sift of reminiscence by Allison Hayward, a Washington D.C. lawyer who writes The Skeptic’s Eye. (An aside: the Eye is a conservative blog that should make us skeptical of its quality given its blogroll inclusion of a few names from the more brown-shirted end of the spectrum. But Hayward redeems herself, despite using sentences like “it was not always thus,” by naming her children Anomie and Ennui: A humorous conservative is always more fun than an overly earnest liberal, and one of the big problems of Icarus-on-Crack-era America is that there are a hell of a lot more funny conservatives out there than their liberal counterparts, Al and Arianna notwithstanding. The conservatives are losing their edge, but still. Liberals aren’t exactly stepping in to fill the void, which is leaving us with a dour, sour America none of us would be too eager to kiss and make out with.) “Staying in Vegas,” Hayward’s piece, would have found itself perfectly at home if the WPA Guide to Nevada was planning a new edition, but it reads like sepia-colored prose in the pages of a magazine so enthralled by its newfound humorlessness (see previous parenthesis). Hayward even flirts with equal-minded dullness even as she writes about a town that defies those possibilities. She tells us that an aunt and a grandfather “were instrumental in the successful effort to legalize gambling” in 1931, that the first Freemont Street neon sign went up in 1945, that she was born in 1963, and that her late father served as the region’s Water District’s counsel “during the negotiation of the Southern Nevada Water Project in the 1960s,” which explains her blind spot for Vegas’s impending water crunch: It’s an article of faith among Las Vegans, as it is among their slightly more waterlogged Floridians, that water scarcity will never be an excuse for crimping development. So far, it hasn’t. But this is the land of happy deficits (until the bill hits). Hayward desn’t see it coming, because of reasoning like this: “[D]espite popular views to the contrary, Las Vegas is not the poster city for sprawl—it is more densely developed than Portland, Oregon, a town embraced by the smart growth set. And it is getting denser.” Well, yes. But that doesn’t mean that one of the fastest growing cities in the country can’t be both dense and a poster city for sprawl: Vegas’ urban-area traffic zone now by far exceeds Portland’s (which includes Vancouver), even though Portland-Vancouver is growing fast, too. A few paragraphs later Hayward doesn’t seem to recognize that sprawl is also a matter of landscape and architectural aesthetics. No one would begrudge I.M. Pei for building structure after structure even in the Nevadan desert; he’s one architect whose work can compete with nature’s. But when “designers aren’t more conscious of their surroundings,” as Hayward notes, and an architect she interviews tells us that “All of the suburban development, all of the new condos, all of the strip malls are copies of buildings originally designed for other locales, [leaving] little if anything that reflects the natural environment of the Mojave Desert,” there’s at least a little room left for sprawl-induced despair over the course the city has taken. Another misconception, deliciously put though it is: “One sign that Vegas will continue as the place to let your inner skank run free is the enormous investment at present in condominium towers—marketed as second homes for people who want to golf all day and play all night.” Hayward must not have had a look at every other state’s condo market in the last three years, or noticed the bubbly real estate market. She does recognize the supreme irony of Vegas, which she calls a “secret”: “that a den of libertine iniquity only works when subject to massive regulation,” that “Multinational corporate owners, with shareholders and regulatory overseers, have replaced the Last Vegas of Midwestern organized crime syndicates,” and that “gambling is a very seductive way to concentrate wealth.” Vegas, in other words, is the Republican town par excellence, profiting from government’s tax-funded and subsidized ways and means to doubly profit at people’s expense.

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“Squeezing Water from a Stone: Damned with a tiny share of the Colorado River, and running dry, Las Vegas sets its sights on the driest part of the driest state in the Union,” by Matt Jenkins, High Country News, September 19, 2005.

This fascinating, richly factual article explains why Edward Abbey thought so highly of High Country News, one of the best (and least known) magazines in the country. Jenkins details Las Vegas’ recent water history, especially the evolution of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, whose overriding purpose is to keep the water flowing and Las Vegas growing (in 2001 the city added more than 90,000 residents). What water Las Vegas’ 1.7 million people and $60 billion economy depend on now, from the Colorado River, won’t keep up with growth, unless Nevada’s share of that water is increased. It gets 4 percent out of a Compact worked out with six other states in 1922. The states aren’t about to change the compact. So Vegas is looking north and east to one of the country’s greatest aquifers, spreading across 100,000 square miles of eastern Nevada and Utah beneath the Great Basin desert: “ The project in the Basin and Range, as currently proposed, will use 115 to 195 pumps, spanning seven valleys in eastern Nevada, to fill a 235-mile-long, six-and-a-half-foot diameter pipeline that follows U.S. Highway 93 to Las Vegas. It won’t pump a single drop of water for at least a decade, but it has already kicked off what is sure to be an epic struggle between Las Vegas and rural Nevada .” The project is reminiscent of another relatively recent folly—the North American Water and Power Alliance, the 1950s scheme that would have tapped British Columbia’s gigantic water resources and channeled them down, through the Rocky Mountain Trench, to the American West. (The plan is still talked about, and in this age of consumptive follies, is bound to be revived.) Or the water raid on California ’s Owens Valley in the early 1900s.

In Nevada’s case, pumping down an aquifer that has been untouched for thousands of years also means that “in spite of the immense size of the aquifer, only a fraction of its water can be sustainably pumped without permanently depleting it,” Jenkins writes. “The Water Authority originally applied for more than 800,000 acre-feet of water per year. [one acre foot of water is 325,851 gallons, or enough to cover an acre—roughly a football field—under a foot of water] Now, it says it can sustainably pump 125,000 to 180,000 acre-feet, skimming off only the pulse of ‘recharge’ that the aquifer receives each spring and summer as snowmelt percolates down into the limestone.” But even doing that much would jar extremely fragile ecosystems that depend on hairline creeks and water sources in the desert for hundreds of miles around. The Water Authority thinks it can go ahead with the drawdown and stop if the ecological effects are too harmful. Really? And leave the 235-mile pipeline dry, after all the investment? Meanwhile Vegas keeps growing. Nevada is hoping to take the famous Colorado River Compact to the Supreme Court, which may result in smaller water shares for other states and a bigger one for Vegas, rendering the raid on the Great basin aquifer unnecessary. Failing that, and failing a workable Great Basin water raid, what then? “ Las Vegas … could be the first American city to stop growing because of a lack of water.” That’s why what happens to Vegas in these water works is not just a Nevada story.

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“Giving Away the Store to Get a Store,” by Daniel McGraw, Reason, January 2005.

Tax policy only seems boring. Especially when it influences more of what we do and what we are than most things known to man and ideology. In this piece McGraw focuses on tax increment financing districts, or TIF, where cities or counties freeze taxes on all properties within a given zones for 20 or 30 years. TIFs are designed to help depressed areas get out of their doldrums by encouraging development in exchange for lower taxes. It’s not working out that way. Companies that would normally open up businesses anyway are migrating to TIF districts and taking advantage of the subsidy, while cities and counties, to fight each other off and look like they have the best tax incentives around, create bogus TIF districts where the only sign of “blight” that needs fixing is a broken hinge on a house. Are cities making their money back? McGraw doubts it. He cites one example in Chicago where the city invested $1.6 billion in a TIF district only to get back $300 million. The businesses in the district made off with whatever rest may have accrued had there not been a TIF district. But in the nation at large “almost no one has examined how TIFs succeed or fail over the long term.” Cities and counties have just taken to the practice epidemically, creating the worst of all worlds: rich companies profit from the subsidies, struggling cities watch their tax incentives eaten up but their neighborhoods grow little or not at all. It’s one of those tax scams few people pay attention to, because it’s arcane, it has to do with the undergrounds of local politics and regulations, and it sounds intuitively good. But—the Earned Income Tax Credit aside—what tax policies in the last two decades have actually benefited the many before benefiting the few? McGraws’s piece shows how even inoffensive sounding TIF districts are robbing their communities blind while enriching developers.

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“My Favorite Wasteland,” by James Morris, Wilson Quarterly, Fall 2005.

“The world hates us,” Alessandra Stanley—chief television critic for the New York Times—wrote on Nov. 8, “and even Americans deplore the sorry state of political discourse in their country. But only the uninformed or disingenuous complain about the quality of American television. It has a variety and breadth that no other nation can match. For every offensive reality series or inane daytime talk show, there are comedies and dramas that reach far higher in a single episode than most movies or Broadway shows.” So it’s been for what seems like a few decades. Every so often someone writes the counterintuitive piece about how wonderful television can be. In the Aug. 1984 Atlantic Marc David wrote one lauding the tube as “[t]he most effective purveyor of language, image, and narrative in American culture,” and calling it “ America’s jester. It has assumed the guise of an idiot while actually accruing power and authority behind the smokescreen of its self-degradation.” Eleven years later in Time Bruce Hardy claimed that with shows like “Homicide,” “Larry Sanders,” “NYPD Blue” and “ER,” “the 1990s are television’s real Golden Age.” Besides Alessandra Stanley this fall, we have James Morris, a senior editor at the Wilson Quarterly, making the case that “on many evenings, an intelligent adult is better off spending an hour or two in front of a TV set than in a movie theater.” His crop of favorites: “The Sopranos,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “Deadwood,” “The Simpsons,” “King of the Hill,” even “Gilmore Girls,” about which he says, startlingly, that “there are no wittier scripts on TV.” The piece itself is witty and breezy enough as it makes a case worth making once in a while. But speaking of compelling writing about television, “Watching al-Jazeera,” the Wilson Quarterly’s previous issue’s piece by Mark Lynch, is still one to read if one is all you have time for before the next episode of “House.”

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