How Rational is Bull Running?

Among the most prominent theories in political science is rational choice theory. It stipulates that the actions of human beings are well thought-out measures to realize underlying interests.

To this you might respond with “Duh, of course people try to realize their interests – what else is new?” A legitimate reaction. But a rational choice theorist might then tell you that this framework is so appealing because of its predictive power: Once we know a person’s interest, we can tell the actions he or she is likely to take.

I have never been a fan of this theory whose proponents, I have heard, command some of the best salaries in political science. My belief is that knowing a person’s interest is pretty hard, unless you specifically ask the individual what he or she is striving for. And the absence of really good assumptions about interest makes predicting behavior difficult.

Rational choicers would probably reply that discerning an individual’s interest is not as difficult as I make it seem – everyone wants life, health, money, comfort, and perhaps a few other things. That we can be sure of. And people will do what it takes to have a good, healthy life.

As it turns out, even that assumption is presumptuous. I just watched the documentary “Running of the Bulls.” It’s about an annual ritual in Pamplona, Spain, where especially bred fighting bulls are released from their corral and run to the bullfighting ring, where they will subsequently be killed in a bloody spectacle.

I venture that the bulls have no interest in moving to the ring. What they’d do, if given a choice, is hang out on their pasture and chew grass. But because they are in a new environment they are hyped up; and then there are the people who force them into the narrow streets of the town. So the bulls charge.

What’s so curious about this event is how irrationally Pamplona men behave if we assume that their predominant interest is life and health. In the hundreds they run ahead of the bulls, energized, as some experienced runners explain, by the danger of being trampled to death or picked up by the animals’ horns.

The bulls would be far less dangerous if the crowds weren’t there. Surrounded by a mass of humans the Pampolonans push each other. Some stumble, others fall on top of them, and very quickly they form a human pyramid that blocks the road. That’s when the frantic bulls come and try to climb right through.

The course to the fighting ring is 800 meters long, which is about half a mile. It is at the end of the course that the bulls lash out, perhaps egged on by men who poke them. With lowered horns they target human runners who have made it this far, goring them if they can.

The documentary interviews one man in his fifties who remembers the experience. He was on the side of the narrow thoroughfare when the bull came at him. He fell to the ground, his face diverted. He could feel what was happening to him but not see it. Telling himself “someone will get that beast off me,” he lay still, as if dead. The bull charged him five times. Had the man moved or tried to defend himself, he says, the incident might have turned out fatal.

This particular runner ended up in a hospital bed. He tells us that he lay there telling himself, “As soon as I am healed, I will run again.” Then he reflects on that thought and concludes, “my head was okay.”

I’d say that his head was not okay then and still isn’t. Who in his right mind exposes himself voluntarily to an annual stampede that gives him a good chance of getting gored or trampled?

As far as I am concerned bull fighting is inhumane, and the notion of honoring an animal by slowly killing it for sports is, shall we say, foreign. But what really gets to me is the movie’s message that humans deliberately place themselves in a position of losing limbs or life. And they don’t do it to defend their land, or family, or wealth, or any of the other things we in the U.S. believe to be legitimate causes. They simply do it to prove their virility.

One of the interviewees lets us know that this is his underlying interest when he says, “We would not be running if it weren’t for the danger. Without the bulls this would be nothing more than an athletic exercise.”

While I am not a rational choice theorist, I believe that humans have an interest in protecting their life and health. But this documentary shows that even that may be assuming too much.

Which makes me grateful for the film and glad I never put my faith in rational choice theory to begin with.


What Limits to Impose on NSA Surveillance?

The seal of the U.S. National Security Agency....

Seal of the U.S. National Security Agency.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My friend Bob Hall, a very smart attorney who isn’t thrilled about the NSA surveillance to which Americans are subjected, addresses the question: How can we preserve our interest in being let alone while permitting our government to take sensible steps to protect us from harm? A great link to a surveillance overview by The Guardian is included. To read Bob’s piece, click here.

Using Social Media to Foster Tolerant Societies

Nivien at International IDEA October 29, 2013

Yours Truly at the International IDEA conference

The online edition of the Thunderbird Magazine just published an interview with me, entitled “Using Social Media to Foster Tolerant Societies.” You can find the article here. Below is a reprint, with a few added hyperlinks.

Thunderbird Professor Nivien Saleh, Ph.D., spoke in The Hague, Netherlands, at the Conference on Minorities and Marginalized Groups in Constitution Building Processes, organized by the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance on Oct. 29, 2013. The topic: New media’s ability to advance minority participation in politics and constitution building. Fellow panelists included Brendan Ballou of Stanford University and political consultant Walter Owuor of Kenya. Following is a recent interview with Saleh from the Netherlands:

Q. Why is it necessary to talk about minority participation in constitution building?
A. The drafting of a constitution represents an important step in any nation’s history. The constitution is society’s vision of its own future — the fundamental law from which all other law derives its legitimacy. It assigns rights and duties to citizens, determines who is recognized as an important member of society and who isn’t.

In recent decades the international community came to the recognition that societies should be inclusive — that they should favor not only the majority but also create space and acceptance for minority groups. And since a constitution is such an important document, any strategy aimed at the inclusion of minorities must have a constitutional component.

Q. Constitution building frequently happens in societies that were or are undemocratic. How does information and communication technology impact the relationship between the state and its citizens?
A. First, states have the ability to limit Internet access through firewalls.

Firewalls of the Mind

Firewalls of the Mind (Photo credit: beedieu)

Examples include Saudi Arabia, Iran and China. But in most cases censorship is an imperfect tool for control: As ever more nations use the Internet for commerce, systematically preventing Internet usage becomes a source of competitive disadvantage.

More importantly, technology enhances the surveillance capabilities of the state. As the nation’s primary regulator, the state can dictate how technology service providers should deal with personal information or how they should channel information flows. At the same time, the state has the financial resources to buy and deploy surveillance technologies. But for reasons of information overload, the state must focus its surveillance on specific persons of interest. It cannot monitor all citizens equally.

Let’s now turn to the way in which technology — especially social media — empowers citizens. First, technology increases the end user’s independence of centralized sources of information, such as state-sanctioned newspapers, TV stations, and the websites of these established media channels.

Second, these applications enable end users to find like-minded individuals, remote as they might be, and to forge communities with them, enhancing their capacity for political action. That aspect is especially important for geographically dispersed minorities such as the Roma community, which can be found in Romania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Hungary and Slovakia. Technology enables such communities to congregate virtually and raise their voice.

Debate on the US internet surveillance of EU c...

Debate on the US internet surveillance of EU citizens (Photo credit: European Parliament)

On balance (and with exceptions), technology enables the state to monitor its citizens without managing to control them. Technology also gives citizens access to new services and more ideas. As a result, citizens become more demanding, insisting to be heard. Does this mean they become democrats? Not necessarily, because democracy requires two things of citizens: Making their voices heard and listening to those who disagree with them. Technology fosters the former far more than the latter. To understand that this is so, recall the incidents of cyberbullying that have driven targeted teenagers into depression and sometimes suicide.

It would therefore be wrong to assume — as numerous observers have done — that technology automatically renders societies more open-minded and inclusive of minorities.

Q. To what extent can minority groups use technology to advance their political inclusion?
A. The answer depends on how economically marginalized the group in question is. Let’s compare the LGBT community in the United States and the community of “garbage people” in Egypt.

America’s LGBT community is moving from marginalization toward social acceptance. Importantly, a good number of its members are highly educated and enjoy a high socioeconomic status, which enables them to make demands on behalf of their group. They have won a high level of representation in Hollywood, where new comedies — for example Glee, Will and Grace or the Tyra Banks Show — have taken up the LGBT cause.

In Cairo there lives a minority of Zabbaleen, or “garbage people.” About 70,000 strong and overwhelmingly Christian, that community has for decades been manually collecting society’s refuse, then hauling it on donkey carts into their neighborhoods, where the recyclable trash is sorted and sold, and the organic waste is fed to pigs. Even though the Zabbaleen deliver an important social service, they are outcasts — partly because of the smell and dirt around which their lives revolve, and partly because they are poor. Unlike America’s LGBT community, most Zabbaleen are illiterate and cannot afford computers to access the Internet or smartphones necessary for leveraging microblogging sites such as Twitter.

Cover image of the "Garbage Dreams" DVD

To learn more about the Zabbaleen, watch the movie “Garbage Dreams.” For the film website, click on the image.

The example of the garbage people shows that economically marginalized groups face at least three challenges in the constitution-writing process:  1. Lack of education means they are less likely to understand the content of constitutions and the political stakes involved in writing a constitution that is inclusive; 2. Lack of finance means they cannot afford the hardware needed to leverage technology for collective action;  3. Lack of education means they cannot decipher much of the content generated by technology.

Q. How can new media best be used to advance the political inclusion of minority and marginalized groups?
A. Technology is just a tool. Its functionality is determined by the intentions and capacities of the actors who use them. This means that technology can foster a public sphere that disintegrates into various enclaves of like-minded citizens who congregate around opinion leaders that reinforce their stereotypes. Technology can also foster a me-me-me society of individuals who want to be heard but refuse to listen.

But if it is deliberately put in the service of inclusion, technology can bring citizens together in ways that transcend group boundaries. To maximize that potential, both activists and program officers at agencies promoting democracy must understand that any media content they create will compete for the attention of their target audience with many other sources of information. Their Web content must therefore be compelling and attractive. And to enhance the chance that their target audience keeps coming back for more, program officers and activists should integrate principles of social media marketing with the quality web content they have generated.

What are some of the most important social media strategies? First off, get to know your audience and the social media they use. Understand what makes them tick. Connect your message to their passion. Allow them to speak back and show that you listen.

Q. What are some of the key experiences that might point to best practices in using new media for increased minority inclusion?

English: Wael Ghonim personal photo العربية: ص...

Wael Ghonim personal photo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A. The Facebook page “We are all Khalid Said,” which was administered by Google executive Wael Ghonim and Abdelrahman Mansour and helped kick start the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 exemplifies best practice — at least before January 2011, the period with which I am familiar. That page exemplifies how social media marketing can be used to advance political strategies, especially those aimed at inclusion and solidarity.

While demanding justice for Khalid Said, a young Egyptian slain by police informants, the Facebook page spoke to its members in their language — colloquial Egyptian rather than standard Arabic. It asked members for their input into tactics through opinion polls, and the page administrators showed their willingness to listen by revising their strategy based on feedback they received from page members.  And in the process, Wael and Abdelrahman advanced the principles of democratic accountability, empowerment of the grassroots, and inclusion across genders, ages, and religious backgrounds.

Q. Looking forward, what projected future uses can we envisage for new media and information communication technologies in ensuring the participation of minorities and marginalized groups in constitution building?
A. What role minorities play in constitution building is more determined by the state’s willingness to include such groups and by the general social acceptance of the group than it is by technology. To the extent that technology is put in the service of inclusion and tolerance, it can help position minorities such that come constitution-writing time, the state and dominant groups will include the minority in the writing process. But this possibility will only materialize if media strategies aimed at inclusion penetrate society deeply, widely, and consistently.

Welcome to the Netherlands!

Nivien at ICJ 2013-10-27d

Today is my second day in The Hague, Netherlands.  The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) invited me to participate in a conference entitled “Including Minorities and Marginalized Groups in Constitution Building Processes: Experiences, Challenges and Lessons.” I’ll be addressing the role of new media in advancing the participation of ethnic, religious, and other minorities in the process of drafting a constitution. Last night I had dinner with Brendan Ballou, who coordinated the Constitute project on behalf of Google Ideas, and Zaid al-Ali, the author of The Struggle for Iraq’s FutureFun!

The building you see in the photo is a hallmark of Den Haag. It is the International Court of Justice, one of the principal five organs of the United Nations.  Even on a rainy day the building looks impressive!

The Mujahedin of Iran: Conversation with an MEK Insider (Mideast Connections 2)

At the Thunderbird School of Global Management early this spring, I attended a luncheon and met Amir Emadi. A clean-cut, well-spoken MBA student of Iranian descent, he handed me his card. On its back was a large and unfamiliar logo. Underneath big letters stated “Camp Ashraf.”

This startled me, and I looked quizzically at him. “Camp Ashraf?” I asked. The home of People’s Mujahedin of Iran, an organization that until recently was on the U.S. Government’s terrorism watch list? And silently I wondered, “Does Thunderbird have students with links to terrorist groups?”

Amir responded to my puzzlement with equanimity, which made me truly curious. Turns out, both of his birth parents have been members of the MEK, as well as numerous relatives. When Amir was born, his father and mother sent him abroad, to be adopted and raised by a family close to the organization.

What an interesting background, I thought and decided to ask him for an interview. This video is the result. Amir speaks about the organization’s history, gives his take on the question whether the MEK betrayed the Iranian people during the Iran-Iraq War that lasted from 1981 to 1988, describes Camp Ashraf and the deal that the MEK made with the U.S. after the Iraq invasion of 2003, and finds that when former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani advocated delisting the MEK, he did it not for money but out of conviction.

You may or may not agree with Amir’s worldview. What you will have to admit is that for a graduate student in his twenties he makes a remarkable case for the group on camera. Check out the website he designed at I’d say he’s got a future in public relations.

Feeddler Pro Users: If You Subscribed to The Old Reader, It’s Time to Move to BazQux

Yes, it’s sad but true: The search for an alternative to Google Reader continues.

Feeddler Pro logoOn July 1, 2013, Google Reader closed shop, forcing RSS enthusiasts to find a new home.  For those like Yours Truly, who enjoyed reading their RSS feeds in the mobile app Feeddler Pro, the search for an alternative was complicated by the fact that the Google Reader alternative needed to integrate with Feeddler Pro.

Initially The Old Reader offered a neat solution. But the onslaught of former Googlers rendered it unstable. Now the exhausted developers have announced that The Old Reader, too, is closing its doors – see for yourselves in this article on The Verge.

If you are a Feeddler Pro user, don’t despair, because there’s yet another good reader. It’s got a strange name:  BazQux.

Speaking from four-week experience, I can say that it is more stable than The Old Reader. No crashes, no freezes. You’ll get the first month for free, then you’ll have to pay. The default yearly subscription rate is $19.00, I believe. But they also offer a less costly rate of $9.00 for those who have to pinch their dimes.

Logging in:

To access your BazQux account, log in via Facebook, Google, Twitter, or OpenID.

 Adding subscriptions one by one:

Once you are logged in, you have the ability to add RSS subscriptions one by one, using the “Add a subscription” feature on the top left of the page.

Importing all your subscriptions at once:

If you still have a copy of the subscriptions.xml file from Google Reader (see my last post on the Google Reader saga) or if you have generated one from The Old Reader, you can quickly import all your subscriptions by going to “Add a subscription,” hitting the link “Upload OPML or,” and then browsing for subscriptions.xml on your computer.

Creating a mobile login:

Before you can access your BazQux account from Feeddler, you will need to create a mobile login inside BazQux.

  1. In BazQux, top right, click on settings (it’s a tiny wheel icon).
  2. From the drop-down menu select “mobile login.”
  3. Set up your mobile login information.
  4. In Feeddler Pro, when prompted for a BazQux user name and password, enter the mobile login information.

That’s it. I hope BazQux works for you!

Feeddler Pro Users: Migrate your RSS subscriptions from Google Reader to The Old Reader

Hello Feeddler Pro Users,

Feeddler Pro logoGoogle Reader expires tomorrow, which means that if you don’t transfer your subscriptions to another RSS aggregator pronto, you will lose them, and Feeddler Pro will become useless. If you have the latest version of Feeddler Pro installed (if not, update!), you can migrate your subscriptions to The Old Reader, a free alternative to Google Reader.

Here’s how:

Set up The Old Reader:

  1. Register a new account at

Fetch your subscriptions from Google Reader:

  1. In Google Reader go to Settings, then find Import/Export tab.
  2. Click on link “Download your data through Takeout.”
  3. In the Takeout window, once your data has fully loaded and the Reader pane indicates “100%”, click button “Create Archive”.
  4. A zip folder will be downloaded to your computer.
  5. Find the zip folder on your computer. Open it, open the “Reader” folder inside the zip folder, and find submissions.xml. That file contains the RSS subscriptions.

Import fetched subscriptions into The Old Reader:

  1. Log into The Old Reader.
  2. Find the “Import” link (should be on the top towards the right).
  3. Click the “Import” link.
  4. Click “Choose File” button, then browse for submissions.xml on your computer and select it.
  5. Click “Import.”

Set up Feeddler Pro (must be latest version!) to work with The Old Reader:

  1. In Feeddler Pro (IPad version – I assume IPhone works the same way), tap the “Account” button (it’s a button containing the outline of a person at the top left of the screen).
  2. Click “The Old Reader.”
  3. Enter your The Old Reader username and password.
  4. Click “Login” button.
  5. Go back to  basic account overview, and make sure that under “saved accounts” your “The Old Reader” account is checked.


The Revolution Continues: Egypt’s Activists and their Struggle for Bread, Freedom and Social Justice

Albuquerque largeLecture today by Nivien Saleh (9VJZC4AJSM9H), 3 pm to 5 pm, followed by reception.
Sponsors: Center for International Studies and Albuquerque International Association
Location: UNM Continuing Education Auditorium, 1634 University Blvd. NE, Albuquerque, NM

When Egypt’s population rose up in January 2011, pundits and some academics quickly determined that Twitter and Facebook had liberated the people from dictatorship. With two years hindsight, how good a prognosis was this? Dr. Nivien Saleh’s presentation will take a close look at Egypt’s activists and examine how they fared after President Mubarak’s ouster. Get to know Noha Atef, the young woman behind the human rights blogTortureinEgypt.Net, Ahmed Maher, the founder of the April 6 Youth Movement, which played a central role in kickstarting the revolution, and Ali Salah, a young man who had never cared much about politics but who became one of the first to join the demonstrations that ousted President Mubarak. What battles did these committed men and women fight, win, or lose? How successful has the revolution been? Has President Morsi betrayed their hopes for democracy?

Full flyer can be found here.


What The Guardian and BBC Say about David Petraeus, Donald Rumsfeld, and Torture in Iraqi Detention Centers

Perhaps you haven’t noticed, but this is the tenth anniversary of the U.S. war in Iraq. The invasion happened ten years ago, on March 20, 2003. Over the last few days British media have evaluated whether it was a just war, if it was fought the right way, how the civilian population fared, and much more.

U.S. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commande...

U.S. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commander of Multi-National Force – Iraq, briefs reporters at the Pentagon April 26, 2007, on his view of the current military situation in Iraq. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Two days ago I watched a 50-minute documentary by The Guardian, produced in cooperation with BBC Arabic. Title: James Steele: America’s Mystery Man in Iraq. It reveals that General David Petraeus and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld were involved in egregious human rights abuses in Iraq. And all through a mystery man by the name of James Steele.

The thesis about Steele is not entirely new, but the involvement of Petraeus is. So here’s my summary.

First introduced to counterinsurgency during the Vietnam War, where he served in the Blackhorse Regiment from 1968-9, James Steele in 1984 became the U.S. Military Group Commander in El Salvador, which advised the Salvadoran Army on counterinsurgency strategies. Among others it trained paramilitary forces linked to the Army that were essentially death squads.

When El Salvador’s guerilla insurgency was defeated, David Petraeus, 33 years of age and a major, paid a visit to the country because he wanted to study what Washington considered a successful counterinsurgency operation. It appears that Steele and Petraeus met at that time. The documentary notes, “The young Petraeus even reportedly stayed at Steele’s house while there.”

Then came the 2003 Iraq war, where Major General Petraeus served as a commanding military officer. When the United States launched the war, it expected that Iraqis would uniformly greet the Americans as liberators and then gratefully establish a Western-style democracy. The U.S. Government hired fewer than ten retired American police officers to train 30,000 Iraqis, in a matter of 18 months, to become law-abiding policemen.

But that project proved to be unrealistic, especially since a Sunni insurgency became increasingly assertive.

In comes James Steele. He had entered Iraq in 2003 as a civilian, claiming to be an energy consultant. Steele had a close eye on the police training and on the situation on the ground more generally. Despite the fact that he was not in the military chain of command, he enjoyed great authority, working closely with Special Forces Colonel James Coffman, who in turn reported to General Petraeus.

When Iraq proved to be more unmanageable than originally thought, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld decided to support the U.S. presence with a counterinsurgency strategy. The plan was to arm the enemies of the insurgents and turn them into Special Police Commandos (SPCs) that would eventually form an integral part of the new Iraqi security forces. Enemies of the insurgents were easy to find. Many were Shiite militiamen from the Badr Brigades, which had a history of fighting Saddam Hussein. These men had revenge on their minds, for all the years that the Sunni dictator had oppressed their ethnic group.

The Iraqi Chief of Police, who had stood for a civic police force, was sent out to pasture. Then Steele moved to organize and train the SPCs. Unlike a regular police force, which is acculturated to following the rule of law, these units were trained to abide by military rules of engagement. In the long run hardly a recipe for establishing democratic relations between a government and its people.

Steele, together with Coffman, was put in charge of creating the commando battalions, which had been created under directive from General Petraeus. The two men then trained them to chase Sunni insurgents and their sympathizers. Under their guidance, the SPCs grew into a 5,000 strong force with headquarters in Baghdad’s Nisur Square, “the nerve center of a national network of detention centers.”

Steele had the run of the land. He sat in on meetings among the Iraqi ministers of defense and interior, who took his input seriously.

He had access to over a dozen secret prisons run by the Interior Ministry, in which people were tortured and killed. On the ground he moved among SPC soldiers, for example in Samarra, a city seventy miles northwest of Baghdad and a center for the Iraqi insurgency.

Here, the SPC battalions swept the city, pulling hundreds of men from their homes and into the detention center, where they were interrogated with torture. Techniques included raping detainees, hanging them upside down for hours, beating them with cables, and dislocating their joints. Numerous were killed. All this violated the Geneva Conventions, according to which prisoners of war are to be treated with respect and dignity.

New York Times reporter Peter Maass, author of “The Salvadorization of Iraq?”, interviewed Steele during the U.S. occupation. Maass says, “It was very clear that [Petraeus and Steele] were close to each other in terms of their command relationship and also in terms of their ideas and ideology about what needed to be done.” By July 2005 at the latest, the U.S. Embassy in Iraq was aware of the human rights abuses that the Commandos committed and reported them to Washington.

It may have been about that time when the SPCs adopted a new strategy: Pretending to detainees that they would be released, then killing them and dumping the bodies. For a while, the streets of Baghdad’s were sprinkled with corpses. Jerry Burke, who from 2003 to 2004 served as the chief policy adviser to Iraq’s Ministry of Interior, comments, “It became very obvious that this was criminal activity by the Special Commandos. They were eliminating their own opposition and terrorizing citizens from the Sunni community. We lost the support of a lot of Iraqi citizens, who became very cynical and very anti-American. Even the ones who were friendly with us couldn’t understand why we were allowing this to happen.”

Asked about such killings of Iraqis at a press conference, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld claimed ignorance. That was a subterfuge. On September 15, 2005, Steele had sent him a memo informing him of the death squad activities of SPC units.

Also in September, Petraeus and Steele left Iraq. The SPCs would grow from 5,000 to 17,000, expanding their reign of terror.

The sobering documentary is worth watching. Among others it provides valuable background for understanding the Sunni mass demonstrations that rocked the Iraqi government in recent months.

As for the Iraq war, the film reveals from yet another angle that it was at best a giant mistake and at worst a crime.