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Columns > David Steinberg - Some Are Mathematicians

Published: 2003/03/25
by David Steinberg

Shock and Dismay

February tour was an amazing time. There were some amazing segues. I
got to return to Zzyzx Road. There were definitive versions of songs.
I learned why bluegrass is so popular in the Midwest. There was a
Weekapaug without a Mike’s. I had my biggest travel adventure since
my my
cross country drive. In any other time it would have been easy to
write about that this month. Of course, this is not an ordinary time.
As I’m writing this, bombs are exploding in downtown Baghdad.
While reading extensively over the last few months, I came to the
conclusion that there were only three viewpoints on the war that I
could respect: "Yes, but…," "No, but…," and "I just don’t know."
The "but" is the sign that people are actually listening to people who
oppose them. The "but" stands for, "but I’m still listening and am
willing to change my view if overwhelming evidence is presented."
I’m a "No, but" person, but someone who says, "Yes I support the
removal of Saddam Hussein because I think it will make Iraq safer,
but I really wish that Bush did a better job presenting his case to
the world and that I could feel that all peaceful solutions were
tried first," is a lot closer to my point of view than – for
two examples – Noam "The answer is that the United States is wrong;
what was the question?" Chomsky or the person at the 3/20 Seattle
march with the sign wishing that Iraq would win the war. I suspect
that the "Yes, but…" people have more in common with people who say,
"I don’t think this war is the right thing to do, but I sure hope it
ends quickly and Iraq ends up with a better government," than the
supporters who talk about protestors being guilty of treason.
Why am I opposed? For the longest time I was going back and forth.
Ultimately though, despite asking everyone I knew, I was unable to get
anyone to explain what Iraq has been doing recently to make them a
threat. People spun elaborate what if scenarios and asked me if I
would be happy if they came true. People tried to connect Hussein and
Bin Laden, despite the fact that they’ve been historic enemies.
People talked about UN Violations but those just showed that Hussein
wasn’t disarming quickly enough, not that he was accumulating arms.
Since the Gulf War, Iraq couldn’t even control its own airspace, let
alone try to expand its territory.

Even if this war isn’t fought to overcome a threat, there still is a
good pro-war argument. Saddam Hussein clearly is a horrible dictator.
Removing him from power – if he were replaced with a better
government- would clearly be a good thing. However, there’s a way to
go about it. One of my "Yes, but…" friends used the analogy of a
policeman stopping a mugger. Unfortunately, the analogy that comes
to mind here is of the Rodney King incident.
Removing Rodney King from the roads that night was a good thing. At
first he was being violent and a danger to other drivers. However
the use of excessive force and the obvious racial overtones to the
attack led to riots. If the goal was to liberate the people of Iraq
from a horrible government, there are better ways of doing it.
Diplomacy wasn’t even given any sort of chance to work. War was
presented as a first resort, not a last. That’s quite likely to
haunt us down the road.
As someone who is opposed to the war, I have spent some time at the
protests. Fortunately, so far, the Eugene tactics have stopped at
Portland. The Seattle march was about the war, not about the
conflicts with the police. While some people on
are encouraging the protest for the sake of protest attitudes1, so
far sanity and staying on target are winning. I’m hoping that continues,
but unfortunately it doesn’t take much to turn a protest into a mob.
There was a minor theme of my tour. In Baker, California, I got some
information about Dr. Curtis Howe Springer. He created a resort in
the Mojave Desert. People could go there and use the facilities for
free. If you were hungry, you could stop there for a meal and he’d
never charge you unless you could afford it. In order to be able to
get the last word, he called his resort "Zzyzx."

In Cincinnati, my friend Elizabeth talked me into going to a grocery
store called Jungle Jim’s.
The store had a movie explaining the history of how it came to be. At
the end of the film, he told us to follow our dreams. Maybe they
would come true like his did. Ok admittedly, his dream was to create
a grocery store that had animatronic cartoon characters from cereal
companies playing along to 1950s pop tunes, but it still was kind of
an inspiration in a weird way.

When people ask me what I want out of this war, that’s how I answer.
I want to be able to go on tour and obsess over whether there was an
After Midnight tease in the Nassau Tweezer. I want people in Iraq
and Israel and Palestine, and the United States to have the same
right. I want them to be able to pursue their interests and be safe
doing so. Instead of worrying where their next meal is coming from or
how to survive the attack, I want them to have the mental freedom to
think about more interesting matters.
Perhaps this war will accomplish this. Despite my worries, maybe
Saddam will have surrendered by the time that this issue gets printed and
reconstruction will be underway. Perhaps a nuclear weapons program
will be discovered and the world will belatedly come behind this
action. I would love to be proven wrong and would happily issue a
"You were right and I was wrong" statement. I just don’t see this
action as having a positive result in the long run. The result of
this war is most likely going to be future war. Despite my immense
distaste for Saddam Hussein and my hopes that he is removed from
power, voices in opposition to the means are needed.
Maybe the net result of the protests will be to change the war
strategy. If nothing else, constant protests help to remind the
government why minimizing civilian deaths and having an intelligent
follow up strategy are important. They know that the support is
somewhat limited and if they overplay their hand, their political
futures will be jeopardized. Maybe protesting the war will
actually prevent the problems that caused me to oppose it in the first
place. That’s an irony that I can live with.
[1] Let me remind any of the radical protestors reading this that the
point of protesting in a democratic society is to convert people to
your cause. Get 50-55% disapproval rates for the war and I can
promise you that there will be massive pressure to end it. However,
that’s hard work. It won’t happen overnight. I can understand how
breaking windows and getting into confrontations with police gives a
bigger rush than having a calm debate with someone. However, the
latter technique actually has a chance to succeed.
I’m just mad because a chance is being lost. You have thousands of
people in the streets. You have a media that feels like it has to be
there just in case. What do you want them to report? I personally
would rather protest coverage focused on the ideas of the people
protesting instead of the tactics they were using. I want call in
shows to argue the pros and cons of this conflict, not the pros and
cons of flag burning. You have the attention. Why don’t you actually
use it to advance the causes you puport to believe in?
David Steinberg got his Masters Degree in mathematics from New
Mexico State University in 1994. He first discovered the power of live
music at the Capitol Centre in 1988 and never has been the same. His
Phish stats website is at
He is the stats section editor for
The Phish Companion and is on the board of directors for the Netspace Foundation. You can read more of his thoughts at

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