May 5, 2012
Al Qaeda leaders often compare the outcome of their jihad to that of a harvest. One year after the death of Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda’s crop seems mixed. The organization’s central leadership, operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan, has nearly collapsed, but its offshoots are mounting full-blown insurgencies in Somalia and Yemen. The group’s operatives have failed to carry out major strikes on U.S. or European soil, but its online supporters still excite fear among Western governments and media. And al Qaeda’s argument against democracy has lost out in Arab nations where long-ruling autocrats have fallen, but its gospel of violence continues to resonate in those countries where dictators refuse to abdicate. Yet although some al Qaeda plots have continued to succeed, the organization has hardly experienced the bounty that it long expected.
Following the assassination of bin Laden and several of his most capable operatives in Afghanistan and Pakistan, al Qaeda has largely shifted its attention away from Central and South Asia to Somalia and Yemen. In Somalia, the militant group al Shabab, engaged in a long struggle to conquer the country, formally joined al Qaeda in February to staunch recent losses at the hands of intervening armies. Although it remains unclear whether the entire organization endorsed the merger, al Qaeda can now likely count large parts of Somalia as its own. Meanwhile, in Yemen, the front group of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Ansar al-Sharia, has exploited the country’s political turmoil to capture territory in the south. The organization quickly began providing basic services to the inhabitants of captured areas, documenting its efforts as part of a savvy public relations campaign.
With its attention focused on its insurgencies around the Gulf of Aden and its top commanders imprisoned or killed, al Qaeda has proven unable to replicate the large-scale operations that it once conducted in the United States and Europe. Weakened and disorganized, the group has turned to calling on supporters to commit lone-wolf attacks — calls that have largely gone unanswered. Those few attacks that have succeeded, such as the recent shooting spree in Toulouse, France, did kill innocent civilians, but caused nowhere near the same carnage as the Madrid train bombings or September 11th. Nevertheless, Western governments and media remain worried that the propaganda activity of al Qaeda supporters on the Internet, such as images portraying New York City as a terrorist target or the Twitter activity of al Shabab, will translate into attacks on the homeland.
Al Qaeda has also struggled to respond to the Arab Spring. In Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia, Islamists have rejected al Qaeda’s model of autocratic governance through sharia law in favor of parliamentary politics. Even many of al Qaeda’s theological fellow travelers, such as the ultraconservative Salafis in Egypt, have embraced the democratic process and formed political parties to compete in elections. Al Qaeda supporters in Egypt grapple over whether to remain loyal to the organization or embrace their local Salafi religious leaders, who have endorsed the party system. Some foreign Jihadi scholars popular on the Internet, to whom these al Qaeda adherents have turned, have conceded that although party politics is an unacceptable evil, it is at least better than dictatorship. But if al Qaeda has lost the ideological battle in countries that have overthrown their tyrants, its message remains potent in Syria, where Bashar al-Assad refuses to abdicate. Seizing the opening, a number of al Qaeda supporters have migrated to Syria to fight the regime and teach their trade to rebels willing to receive it.
Tallying its harvest, al Qaeda has victories to savor. It holds territory in two weak or collapsed states; it still provokes anxiety in the United States and Europe; and its message resonates in some Muslim-majority countries undergoing violent transition. But the people of the Arab Spring, when allowed to choose their own destiny, have voted against the despotic political vision of al Qaeda. For the organization’s leadership, which spent a generation sowing the seeds of its vision in the region, this is a bitter fruit to reap.
The Arab Spring and the death of Osama bin Laden represent a moment of both promise and peril for the global jihadist movement. On the one hand, the overthrow of secular rulers in the heartland of the Muslim world gives jihadists an unprecedented opportunity to establish the Islamic states that they have long sought. On the other hand, jihadists can no longer rally behind their most charismatic leader, bin Laden. And the jihadist flagship that he founded, al Qaeda, may lose its relevance in the Muslim world to rival Islamist groups that are prepared to run in elections and take power through politics.
The last time jihadists faced such a crossroads was at the end of the Cold War. The Soviet Union’s withdrawal from Afghanistan and subsequent collapse emboldened jihadist strategists. Convinced that they had defeated a global superpower, they plotted to overthrow secular Arab governments and replace them with Islamic states, with the goal of eventually uniting them under a single caliphate. At the same time, however, the Soviet Union’s demise opened up the Arab world to U.S. influence. Having been long constrained by the Soviet presence in the region, the United States quickly asserted itself by spearheading the coalition against the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, thus increasing its military presence in the Arab world. As a result, jihadists — and al Qaeda in particular — concluded that Washington now enjoyed virtually unchecked power in the Middle East and would use it to prevent the creation of the Islamic states they desired.
Several established Islamic organizations, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, shared this belief with al Qaeda. But al Qaeda rejected the Brotherhood and like-minded groups because of their willingness to work within existing systems by voting for and participating in legislative bodies. Such tactics would fail to establish Islamic states, bin Laden and his comrades asserted, because they involved pragmatic political tradeoffs that would violate the principles of such future states and leave them susceptible to U.S. pressure. Only attacks on the United States, al Qaeda argued, could reduce Washington’s regional power and inspire the masses to revolt.
Two decades later, bin Laden’s long-sought revolutions in the Arab world are finally happening, and the upheaval would seem to give al Qaeda a rare opportunity to start building Islamic states. But so far at least, the revolutions have defied bin Laden’s expectations by empowering not jihadists but Islamist parliamentarians — Islamists who refuse to violently oppose U.S. hegemony in the region and who are willing to engage in parliamentary politics. In Tunisia, the Islamist Renaissance Party leads in the polls ahead of legislative elections in October. In Egypt, the Freedom and Justice Party, the new faction created by the Muslim Brotherhood, is likely to gain a large number of seats in parliament in elections this fall. Should countries that have experienced more violent revolutions also hold elections, such as Libya, Syria, and Yemen, Islamist parliamentarians are well positioned to compete in those nations as well…
May 5, 2012
Forty-five minutes before midnight on a wintry Tuesday evening, Cathy Yoder and Monica Knight, a pair of 30-something Boise women who run a popular coupon blog called Fabulessly Frugal, strode with purpose through the parking lot of their local Albertsons supermarket. It was the third and final night of “doubles” at Albertsons. This biweekly happening, during which the store issues coupons that double the value of manufacturers’ coupons, is to dedicated coupon clippers what the full moon was to Druids. Yoder and Knight, who are Mormon and have nine children between them (Yoder: seven; Knight: two) had spent the day working on their blog and then taught a three-hour couponing class — all without a drop of forbidden caffeine. Yet with the supermarket in sight, they grew visibly jazzed, like Vegas high rollers entering a casino. “We’ll have it all to ourselves, and we’ll know all the cashiers,” Knight said.
Within minutes, Knight — a part-time dental hygienist with glossy, nearly waist-length blond hair and enviable white teeth — had discovered a sale on StarKist tuna fish. “Oh, Cathy, the tuna’s a dollar right now!” she said, as she stood before a shelf containing shiny blue plastic pouches of chunk-light tuna. A bulging nylon binder, which she had seated like a toddler in the front of her cart, held six StarKist coupons for 50 cents off; paired with Albertsons coupons, they were worth a dollar each, the same price as the tuna. “So it’s free right now,” she continued. “And we haven’t even blogged about it!”
For “couponers,” as they call themselves, free product is the holy grail. Freebies are obtained by combining various promotions in ways that can seem laborious and arcane to the civilian shopper: waiting for items to go on sale and then using coupons to buy them; “stacking” manufacturers’ coupons with store coupons; shopping during “double coupon” days; or receiving, post-purchase, a “catalina” — a coupon from a company called Catalina Marketing that can be redeemed on a future transaction. These little papers, which are spit out by a mini-printer that sits near the register and look like run-of-the-mill receipts, usually meet an unceremonious end in the graveyards of shoppers’ pockets and purses, but couponers regard them as cash.
Rather than thrilling to Knight’s news about the free tuna pouches, Yoder, who has reddish-brown layered hair and hazel eyes, went pale. “My coupons are at home,” she said. She is not a thundering person in general — her affect is as soft and subdued as Knight’s is right-angled and intense — but now, upset, her voice was so faint as to be almost inaudible.
“You left those at home!” Knight said, aghast.
“I forgot my new ones, yeah,” Yoder told her.
“Oh, that’s so sad,” Knight said, as she rooted around in her binder for recent coupon inserts from The Idaho Statesman. “I’m so bummed.” Using a pair of scissors with pink plastic handles, she began to clip tuna-fish coupons.
Yoder remained calm, but this was a mini-crisis. Tuna fish was an item to stock up on: it contained omega-3 fatty acids; it kept for three years; her family liked it. And this tuna fish was free. In 2009, when there was an “EPIC StarKist tuna deal,” as they’d deemed it on their blog (by combining an in-store sale, manufacturers’ coupons and a catalina, they got the tuna for five cents a pouch), she purchased 150 pouches that lasted her family a year and a half.
Both women tell stories of past bargains like football fans recalling game-winning plays. Knight remembers them down to the cent. “Did Cathy tell you about that cereal deal?” she asked me at one point, referring to a legendary Post cereal sale from 2010. “We were making money shopping,” she said. “By the time you used and doubled the coupons, you’d paid for your cereal: 6 boxes of cereal came out to $3.54, and you’d get a $4 catalina back, so you were making 46 cents every 6 boxes.” She bought 60. Yoder bought 162.
Cathy fished her cellphone out of her purse to call her husband, Roman, a part-time referee and full-time househusband. “I’m gonna see if he’s awake,” she said. “It’ll take some love, but he likes tuna, so. . . .” She dialed. “Hey, any chance you can bring me some coupons I forgot, so I can get free tuna fish?” Knight began to giggle. “I’m just at Albertsons down the road. . . . Yeah, yeah, the doubles are over tomorrow.” Roman apparently assented. “If you’re looking at the north wall,” she continued, guiding him around her office, “there’s inserts in that basket. It’s the one with chicken and asparagus on the front.”
“Is he coming?” Knight called over her shoulder, as she cruised along an empty aisle in search of reduced-price milk. Yoder nodded. “I’m psyched,” she said, joining Knight in the dairy section. Yoplait yogurt was on sale, 10 for $6. They both had $1-off coupons that Albertsons would double. For more than 20 minutes, they stood in the yogurt aisle cutting coupons, examining flavors (key lime pie? banana cream pie?) and loading up their carts. Roman texted from the parking lot. Cathy disappeared, returning with a stack of Sunday coupon inserts in hand. “He’s like, if it weren’t tuna, I wouldn’t have done it,” she said with a grin.
Cathy and Roman Yoder and their seven children live in a modest brown stucco split-level with five bedrooms and a generous backyard. One of the bedrooms has been given over to a storage room and office space: canned goods, oatmeal and boxes of cereal share shelf space with board games with collapsed tops, and two desks sit shoulder to shoulder. When Cathy, who has a wry sense of humor, noticed me looking at the crayon marks scrawled on one of the desks, she deadpanned, “We have artwork all over.”
The first morning I met her, Yoder was dressed in a shamrock green sweater, black yoga pants and cream-colored Ugg-like boots that were dingy with wear. She seemed harried: her 13-year-old daughter, Haley, was home with a stomach flu from which three of her other children had just recovered, and there was no hot water because her 2-year-old had turned down the thermostat. “These are the ones I need to take care of today,” she said, motioning to a pile of coupon inserts in a twiggy brown basket on her desk. I commented on the cuteness of a large black-and-white photo divided into seven segments, each one featuring a child. “I’ve been meaning to frame it,” she told me. “It’s on the to-do list that’s in my head.” A real to-do list from a few months earlier was still taped to her printer. It read: Budget. Auto loan. Meet credit counseling. File insurance papers. Finish bathroom. Carpets cleaned. Dentist.
Around noon, Knight arrived. Yoder didn’t look up. She was busy tweeting about a deal on the site (“$.11 toothbrushes? I say YES! Love these WinCo deals!”). Posts highlighting bargains go up every hour, starting at 7 a.m., for 12 hours. The women get anxious about letting the site, which gets roughly 900,000 page views per month, fall dormant. When she finished, Yoder prepared an automated e-mail for registrants of a Fabulessly Frugal class coming up in Bend, Ore., while Knight corrected a list of deals that coupon aficionados call “match-ups” — promotions that overlap to result in aggregate savings. The list included peaches at $2.99 a pound. “Oh, my!” Yoder gasped when she heard this. Knight edited the pricey peaches out. “Just because there’s a coupon for it doesn’t mean it’s a good deal,” she explained.
Yoder and Knight are part of a growing community of people for whom coupons are a significant part of making ends meet. After declining for nearly a decade, coupon use has increased almost 35 percent since 2008, according to Matthew Tilley, the director of marketing at Inmar, a coupon clearinghouse. Last year, more than 3.5 billion coupons for consumer packaged goods were redeemed, an increase of 6.1 percent over 2010. Coupon bloggers contributed to that increase, and though it’s hard to say how many of these blogs exist now, the numbers exploded during the recession. “When I started blogging in the summer of 2008,” says Jill Cataldo, a coupon-industry watchdog who writes a weekly syndicated column that runs in 154 newspapers, “there were not a lot of coupon blogs out there. In fact, I would be hard pressed to name more than a handful.” Fabulessly Frugal was also born in 2008. “I couldn’t even find anything local,” Yoder says. Now there are at least six other coupon blogs in the Boise area. A nasty review of a product or a complaint about a deal on one of these Web sites can have such a profound effect on customer perception — and thus on sales — that many companies have liaisons to correspond with them. Supervalu, whose major chain stores include Jewel-Osco, Cub Foods and numerous Albertsons, has created the position of “Social Media Coordinator” to communicate with bloggers and ply them with occasional giveaways…
Psychology and Its Discontents: We see an area in the brain ‘light up’ when we think about a topic, and assume we know something about thought. But what, exactly?
May 5, 2012
In his long and distinguished career, Jerome Kagan, now emeritus professor of psychology at Harvard, has written numerous books for general audiences on major discoveries and controversies in his field, particularly in his specialty of child development. In works such as “Three Seductive Ideas” (1998), he developed a style of discussing three or four different topics in a series of essays, interweaving each with data and observations across psychology, history and culture, and tying them together with an overarching theme. Or not.
Mr. Kagan’s latest effort, “Psychology’s Ghosts,” might be called “Four Seductive Ideas,” since it consists of his assessment of four problems in psychological theory and clinical practice. The first problem is laid out in the chapter “Missing Contexts”: the fact that many researchers fail to consider that their measurements of brains, behavior and self-reported experience are profoundly influenced by their subjects’ culture, class and experience, as well as by the situation in which the research is conducted. This is not a new concern, but it takes on a special urgency in this era of high-tech inspired biological reductionism.
If we can find which area of the brain lights up when we think about love or chocolate or politics, we assume we know something. But what, exactly, do we know? Sometimes less than we think. “An adolescent’s feeling of shame because a parent is uneducated, unemployed, and alcoholic,” Mr. Kagan writes, “cannot be translated into words or phrases that name only the properties of genes, proteins, neurons, neurotransmitters, hormones, receptors, and circuits without losing a substantial amount of meaning”—and meaning is as fundamental to psychology as genes are to biology. Many psychological concepts, he notes, including fear, self-regulation, well-being and agreeableness, are studied without regard to the context in which they occur—with the resulting implication that they mean the same thing across time, cultures and content. They do not.
In his second essay, “Happiness Ascendant,” Mr. Kagan virtually demolishes the popular academic effort to measure “subjective well-being,” let alone to measure and compare the level of happiness of entire nations. No psychologist, he observes, would accept as reliable your own answer to the question: “How good is your memory?” Whether your answer is “great” or “terrible,” you have no way of knowing whether your memory of your memories is accurate. But psychologists, Mr. Kagan argues, are willing to accept people’s answer to how happy they are as if it “is an accurate measure of a psychological state whose definition remains fuzzy.”
Many people will tell you that having many friends, a fortune or freedom is essential to happiness, but Mr. Kagan believes they are wrong. “A fundamental requirement for feelings of serenity and satisfaction,” Mr. Kagan says, is “commitment to a few unquestioned ethical beliefs” and the confidence that one lives in a community and country that promote justice and fair play. “Even four-year-olds have a tantrum,” he notes, “if a parent violates their sense of fairness.” His diagnosis of the “storm of hostility” felt by Americans on the right and left, and the depression and anomie among so many young people, is that this essential requirement has been frustrated by the bleak events of the past decades. War, corruption, the housing bubble and the financial crisis, not to mention the fact that so many of those responsible have not been held unaccountable, have eroded optimism, pride and the fundamental need to believe the world is fair…
May 5, 2012