June 10, 2006

How is Al Qaeda like Louis Vuitton?

I know, I haven't blogged in a while. I... I well, I just haven't been able to.

Anyway, I saw this thing on ARTE just now. Yeah, I know, it's a warm Saturday and I should be out somewhere. But, the wife is in the States, and Leuven is dead on the weekends, and besides, MCM runs four episodes of Berlin, Berlin on Saturday night. I've become an addict of Berlin, Berlin. I don't know if there's any explanation. It's never been broadcast in the English speaking world as far as I can tell and they've only just started running it in French on MCM. It's a German show. Normally, I hate Friends-style sitcoms, so this is odd behaviour for me. Or maybe it's just that Felicitas Woll is hottie. But I digress.

I didn't catch what this show on ARTE was called - I missed the beginning, and the end is after Berlin, Berlin starts, so I didn't see the end. It discussed at some length "Al Qaeda in Iraq" and the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. It said some things I'd never heard before, like that the terms of the agreement between Osama ben Laden and Zarqawi effectively made Zarqawi the boss of Al Qaeda.

It's not exactly a novel idea that Al Qaeda is pretty loosely tied together, and that there are no training camps or central management whatsoever. The whole thing seems to be organized by Internet for the television media. But the thought that occurred to me was this: What if Al Qaeda is nothing more than a brand name? Think about it for a moment. The Zarqawi/ben Laden connection makes more sense if you think of it as a reverse corporate takeover designed primarily to acquire control of a high-value global brand name. They talk about postmodern guerilla movements, but Al Qaeda seems to have gone one better than every other underground movement in the world and become pure brand, divorced from any precise party or any specific agenda beyond "kill the Jews and Crusaders and defend the umma".

How do you fight such a brand? How do you kill it? I get three English language news channels, BBC World, CNN International, and CNBC. BBC's people seem very doubtful that killing Zarqawi will have accomplished anything - maybe even make things worse since you can't kill a martyr. CNN International and CNBC seem to have a lot of commentors who think this might (maybe) be the turning of the corner in Iraq. But if you think of Al Qaeda as a brand rather than an organization, there is no leadership to kill. Anybody can take up the name and run with it.

I can't think of any successful anti-branding campaigns in the corporate world. Has an organized, targeted campaign - as opposed to some screw up on the part of the brand owner - ever succeeded in killing off a brand?

Looking at historical revolutionary movements, the only one I can think of that was at all comparable to Al Qaeda in resembling a brand name more than an organization was revolutionary Marxism. But this lends itself to a comparison: If Al Qaeda is the Louis Vuitton of global revolution, Marxism is Hello Kitty - nowadays only fashionable as kitsch. And that transformation took a century, and followed serious screw-ups by people who had taken control of the brand.

So, as I sit here and watch Felicitas Woll grimace at the state of her sex life, I keep thinking, how do you destroy a high-value, high-recognition global brand from the outside? Parody? Adbusters has been trying that for years without success. Offer an alternative product? Democracy and liberal, secular values as Pepsi to Al Qaeda's Coca-Cola? How well has that been working for Pepsi, since Coke is still the most valuable global brand according to most surveys?

Culture jammers and anti-corporate activists have been looking for an answer to this problem for years. Now, I wonder, is anti-branding the same problem as anti-terrorism?

Posted by Scott Martens at 10:27 PM | Comments (3)

June 11, 2006

Near mergers and the end of the minimal pair

I'm reading Labov's Principles of Language Change (Volume 1:Internal Factors and Volume 2:Social Factors) and I've come across something absolutely fascinating and totally contradictory to what they teach in Linguistics 101.

First, a little background for non-linguists. Linguistics started out in the reconstruction of language change - what's usually called historical linguistics today. One common phenomenon in language change is called the phonetic merger, where two sounds that used to be different become indistinguishable. Five hundred years ago, the words meet and meat were pronounced very differently, which is why they're still spelled differently. Then, the vowels in the middle merged in sound at some point. This can be tested with a minimal pair test: If you say "meat" or "meet" in isolation, or in a sentence where either word could be used, people can't tell the difference.

Now, when two sounds merge, they sound the same. The general understanding is that this is a one way process: two words that sound the same never, ever start to sound different. Or at least, that's what I was taught. Turns out this isn't exactly true.

Labov talks about something called the near-merger, where two sounds become so alike that listeners can't tell them apart, but using recordings and frequency measurements, a computer can still tell them apart. As an example, he shows that New Yorkers can't hear any difference between source from sauce in speech, but do clearly pronounce them differently. Labov implies that this might explain how line and loin, which sounded the same in the 18th century, have since become very different in most dialects of English - they never merged completely in the first place.

Now, I can think of a sociolinguistic explanation of how this kind of situation could exist and remain stable. Exposure to speakers of different dialects - one's that preserve larger distinctions - through media like TV could influence people's speech enough to retain a difference. But that difference might falls below the threshold of conscious comprehension. Furthermore, the inability of New Yorkers to consciously detect the difference between source and sauce doesn't mean that it doesn't contribute unconsciously to their ability to understand words in context.

However, I suspect that TV can't explain all cases of near-mergers.

The existence of near mergers undermines the idea that phonetic spelling systems can be easily constructed, as minimal pair tests may not reveal all real distinctions. Furthermore, it implicitly undermines the idea that language is a property of individuals, since this distinction relies on its social effect to persist. And, it really strikes hard at the notion that language can ever be modeled synchronically. Near-mergers only exist because of past distinctions, they can only be modeled in the light of the overt past distinction that they retain.

This is serious stuff.

I'm thinking, though, about whether the idea of a near-merger might apply to morphology and syntax. In morphology, I can think of one: gender in Dutch. Dutch no longer makes an overt distinction between masculine and feminine except in the choice of pronoun and the archaic ''te + dative'' construct. Yet, speakers are routinely capable of making masculine/feminine distinctions correctly. I thought the main reason was that so many people in Belgium speak dialects where the masculine/feminine distinction is still morphologically significant, but now I wonder. What if Dutch speakers who have never used anything other than the standard dialect were able to make those distinctions? Would this be the morphological analogy to a near-merger?

Labov has some other stuff that I think leads to interesting conclusions in creolistics, but that's a different post.

Posted by Scott Martens at 6:31 PM | Comments (4)

June 15, 2006

American Dreamz: When satire doesn’t go far enough

I'm not a big World Cup watcher, so I went to see a movie this afternoon. I reviewed it over on AFOE.

Posted by Scott Martens at 7:47 PM

June 19, 2006

Coulter with Carlin on Leno

I get Leno, usually five days or so behind the States, on CNBC Europe.

Good lord! What kind of scheduling had Ann Coulter and George Carlin on together, and with her talking about her book Godless. Leno softballs her, and Carlin must have been biting his lip. How on earth was it possible to have both of those people on together, and see nothing happen? Nothing!

Carlin must have been under some kind of curse, or blackmail. (I can't imagine what you could blackmail him with.)

Ye Gods, that was awful. I feel dirty just from watching that.

Posted by Scott Martens at 10:53 PM

June 21, 2006

Lipstick and the Euston Manifesto

I can't say that I think highly of the Euston Manifesto. When I first read it, the thing that came to mind was the infamous 1914 Reichstag vote on war credits. The tone of the Euston Manifesto suggests that its signers are the kind of people who would have issued a manifesto in 1914 condemning German leftists opposed to WWI. Real leftists should oppose French aggression and defend the fatherland despite its failure to meet leftist ideals.

The War Credits vote turned out badly for moderate leftists. By supporting the war, the German Socialists broke definitively with internationalism and discredited themselves enough that after the war, the disaffected (who were legion) had only hard line communism or fascism to turn to as viable alternatives.

This post is motivated by Daniel Davies' critique over on Crooked Timber. If I might be so bold as to offer a Shorter Daniel Davies: "It's dishonest to talk about the universal imposition of 'Enlightenment Values' and not point out that you mean 'shoot them until they see the error of their ways.'" The historical lack of success of beating on people until they acknowledge the error of their ways is certainly a strong argument against such an outlook.

Posted by Scott Martens at 4:08 PM

June 23, 2006

The Onion at its best

Report: U.S. May Have Been Abused During Formative Years

WASHINGTON, DC—A team of leading historians and psychiatrists issued a report Wednesday claiming that the United States was likely the victim of abuse by its founding fathers and motherland when it was a young colony.


According to Yale University psychology professor John Bauffman, while some rebellious behavior in a nation's adolescence is common, and sometimes healthy, America's historically stormy relationship with mother country Great Britain points to a deep need for acceptance.

"The U.S. is characteristic of an abused nation in that, even decades after noisily pushing away from Britain, it still maintained close contact with the motherland, took care of it, even giving it financial aid—all the while fearing disapproval even though the parent country is now old, decrepit, and powerless," said Bauffman, a prominent contributor to the fourth edition of the Democratic Symptoms Of Maltreatment handbook, or DSM-IV. "On the other hand, Canada, which was raised in the very same continent by the same mother country, only exercised small-scale resistance, remaining loyal well into its maturity. Though some see Canada as cold and remote, it has, unlike the U.S., managed to lead a peaceful, reasonably healthy existence."

Bauffman pointed to another telltale sign of abuse in the U.S.'s tendency to bully, torture, and persecute less powerful, vulnerable creatures, such as buffalo, passenger pigeons, forests, and Native Americans.


Drexel defended the study's findings amid claims that America's current condition can be attributed to a much wider variety of factors.

"Granted, part of America's problems may stem from the fact that it was burdened with a false sense of responsibility at a young age because of the unrealistic expectations of the country's forefathers, and there is certainly something to be said about America having been part of a broken homeland for a four-year period in the mid-19th century," Drexel said. "Even though the U.S. is over 200 years old, emotionally it's younger than Lithuania."

Added Drexel: "But we must remember that the country also idealized the forefathers in a classic victim–abuser relationship."

The report recommended that the United Nations Security Council once again renew its efforts to organize an international intervention to help the U.S. get the counseling it needs. Prior attempts have failed to move beyond the planning stage, however, with many countries saying they are afraid that the U.S. may lash out.

Posted by Scott Martens at 5:19 PM

June 27, 2006

US denies ever saying Tariq Ramadan supports terrorism

From today's US district court decision (PDF) regarding First Amendment issues in the denial of Tariq Ramadan's H1-B visa application:

The Government's position in this litigation directly contradicts DHS's August 2004 explanation for the revocation of Ramadan's H1-B visa, which was that "because of a section that applies to aliens who have used a 'position of prominence within any country to endorse or espouse terrorist activity.'" [...] Mr Knocke, the DHS spokesperson who made the August 2004 statement, is still an employee of DHS, and available to the Government, yet he has neither submitted an affidavit on the Government's behalf nor disavowed the statement attributed to him. Similarly, DHS has never renounced nor retracted it - except through this litigation.

Rather than explaining the DHS's statement or reconciling it with the Government's position in this litigation, the Government attempts to render this statement inoperative by explaining:

Plaintiffs allege that the July 2004 revocation was based on 8 USC 1182(a)(3)(b)(i)(VII) [the section of law restricting admission to the US for supporting terrorism] ... That allegation is incorrect. Mr Ramadan has never has never had a visa revoked, a visa application denied, or any other adverse action taken against him pursuant to that provision [...] Accordingly, any statement to the contrary that may have appeared in the media or may have been made by any Government spokesperson was erroneous.

That's in evidence given in court - where you get jail time for lying. So, the Department of Homeland Security officially denies ever saying anything negative about Ramadan.

[from Crooked Timber]

Posted by Scott Martens at 7:35 PM