Monday, January 31, 2005

Book Report

Nat Hentoff finds a library in South Dakota that is shipping books to an independent Cuban library, one of more than a dozens that Fidel Castro's thugs raided in 2003, confiscating all the books that the dictator didn't want people to read, and burning them.

Yes, burning them. The government still burns books in the Cuba Che Guevara made, while we make movies apotheosizing Che as a liberator. At least, in this one case, they didn't throw the librarian in jail for 20 years, too.

On Nov. 18, the Vermillion Public Library Board of Trustees voted to sponsor the Dulce Maria Loynaz Library in Havana, Cuba, which, like other imperiled independent libraries in that country, offers public access to books not obtainable in Cuba's censored "public" library system.

They sent down Spanish-language editions of Harry Potter and Mark Twain; not a bad place to start over. What's so remarkable, though is that Vermillion, S.D., is "the first, and only, American public library to stand up to Fidel Castro."

In January 2003, the governing council of the American Library Association, the largest such organization in the world, expressed rhetorical concern for the 75 imprisoned Cuban dissidents, but shamefully rejected a motion calling for the immediate release of the librarians who are among the 75, all of whom Amnesty International has rightly called "prisoners of conscience."

This decision by the American Library Association's governing council to not overly displease the Cuban dictator was due to Castro admirers on the council who laud him, for instance, for providing health care for his subjects, but who also ignore his contempt for Cubans who think for themselves.

And in Castro's prisons -- as U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights representative Christine Chanet has reported -- at least 20 of the prisoners of conscience have been suffering from hypertension, diabetes, heart disease and other ailments with little or no medical attentions (since 1989, Castro has barred the International Red Cross from his prisons).

I don't understand why not one other American library has joined Vermillion in sponsoring a sister independent library in Cuba. This country's librarians have been among the most publicized dissenters to the Patriot Act provision that allows the FBI -- on the authorization of the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, without probable cause -- to find out which library patrons are reading which books.

Yet, librarians here will be in no danger of being imprisoned by showing solidarity with beleaguered courageous Cuban librarians. And it's not as if the Vermillion library's action is little-known. Steve Marquardt, dean of libraries at South Dakota State University, has informed every U.S. state library association newsletter about it.

The librarians of America, of course, can be bothered to go to bat for the real victims of repression, such as Michael Moore:

BUZZFLASH: Now specifically, a little bit about your book [Stupid White Men]. You've written in your columns that after September 11th, your publisher was going to deep-six the book unless you took out critical comments on Bush. You held firm. Is it true that the librarians of America came to your defense and saved the day?

MICHAEL MOORE: That's what it looks like. I mean, I didn't know who any of these people were. They -- this one librarian found out about it, and she got in a, I don't know, library chat room. Or she sent a letter out to a list of librarians, and they sent it out to a bunch of people, and the thing kind of mushroomed from there. So, I'd say it's a combination of these librarians and the Internet, because they started sending letters to Harper-Collins, and Harper-Collins saw that it wasn't gonna be a good thing to ban the book. But I'm really happy about it. I really didn't realize the librarians were, you know, such a dangerous group.

Labels: , ,

Neo-Con(servative) vs. Neo-Con(federate)

A new book called "The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History" is selling well, but getting slammed right, left, and center.

I haven't read it; I probably won't because the Amazon reviews, both positive and negative, have me conviced that this book, like "The South Was Right!" is more heat than light and is going to be embarrassingly simplistic, even where I agree with it. Life's too short.

But I find the critiques of Southern secession, as embodied in the criticisms of this book, themselves overly simplistic. Here's Glenn Reynolds':

I have to say that while I understand, to a degree at least, people's fascination with the Civil War, I've never understood the romanticization of the Confederacy. It didn't last very long, it was horribly run and governed, it accomplished nothing but disaster and defeat, and it existed in the service of a horrible cause.

... One suspects that for a certain sort of infantile mind, pro-Confederacy statements provide the same sort of thrilling sense of nonconformity that Marxism has provided. This, I guess, explains the weird strain of pro-Confederate sympathy that one finds among a certain segment of libertarians. Or, of course, there's always racism as an explanation -- an explanation you'd rather believe didn't apply, but that clearly does sometimes.

... As a political force, neo-Confederate sentiment is pretty trivial at the moment, even compared to the decaying remnants of Marxism. But that's no reason not to smack it down when it appears.

The recipe here is a familiar one to people who have to deal with superficial studies of American Civil War issues. conflation of secession + CSA + slavery = racism, therefore we can write off the whole enterprise. It would be a great thing if people who can penetrate this sort of simplistic dismissal in current events (Bush is an oilman, Iraq has oil, therefore Blood For Oil) could apply that skill to the past.

Glenn usually is such a man. But he's bought into the world-view of a class of contemporary historians more concerned with modern civil rights than 19th century American realities, and little less biased than the editorial page of the "New York Times" (and with a certain degree of cross-over). While he does so more carefully and intelligently than usual, Glenn quickly default to "defender of CSA=racist" position as a convenient way to close the case before the inquiry. The alternative seems to be "defender of CSA=sophomoric troublemaker." You can almost hear the "Deliverance" banjos tinkling away in the distance.

This attitude conflates issues that a careful inquirer ought to keep separate. Secession was one matter. The American Civil War was another. The Deep South could have seceeded without a war resulting. The matter of slavery and abolition is yet a third thing. Lincoln didn't publicly go to war to free the slaves -- he took pains to deny that intention -- and the bulk of the North certainly did not do so. Many abolitionists also were secessionists; in fact, until about 1850, secession was a cause of the radicals in New England. It became an abolitionist war by default, two years into the war, a mutation of purpose brought on by exigencies of the battlefield.

The American Civil War was "about" slavery like the Boston Tea Party was "about" tea. Slavery became the symbol and character of all sectional differences. It was the emotional gasoline on the sectional fires. Its moral and social implications colored every issue in terms of right and rights. William Seward, the Republican leader whose party made so much of this, recognized the fact: "Every question, political, civil, or ecclesiastical, however foreign to the subject of slavery, brings up slavery as an incident, and the incident supplants the principal question."

I also find his hasty dismissal of the Southern bid for independence unfortunately unhistorical. The CSA was a bid to form an independent nation out of a region that had a common enemy and some collective regional identity. But the CSA comprised many sub-cultures (a few of them didn't want to be there), and it had a leadership that sometimes confused self-interest with public policy. It had its fair share of charlatans and profiteers and criminal opportunists. It had some brilliant generals and a great many men in uniform who would be the pride of any army in human history. It was committed to 18th century republican values that were incompatible with fighting a modern war, and it had internal social conflicts that the war aggravated.

In nearly all of this it was entirely like the American Revolutionaries. The colonists in 1776: one-third for independence, one-third against, one-third uncommitted. That must be the standard for legitimacy, or else our United States lacks it. The CSA fought a much larger enemy than George III, mostly on its own soil, without a Dutch loan or a French fleet to aid it, and the majority, in spite of internal divisions, put up a herculean effort, won spectacular victories, made shift with what little it had, and held out till the place was literally gutted and blood-drained by its foe.

The losses the South took would translate into, say, six million U.S. battle casualties in World War II (instead of 961,977, the actual figure); nearly a million in Vietnam, instead of 201,000. Yet they lost the war, and, to a lot of anti-Confederates, this fact alone makes the Confederacy a failed society. There's a danger of circular reasoning in this, and it sets the bar of "commitment to the cause" awfully high. Is total victory or total annihilation the only proof of "commitment"? Half of the Confederate soldiers were killed or wounded. How many more would have had to take a bullet to qualify as "commitment"? What if there had been a Confederate equivalent of Sherman's march? The response of my little corner of Pennsylvania to the rebel incursion of 1863 doesn't present much prospect of a glorious home front stand.


Secession as a legal option in 1860 is a historical footnote; no rational person argues that it would be right or proper now. It might not have been right or proper as pursued by South Carolina in 1860. But whether it was within the framework of the country and the Constitution as they then existed is a valid question that even a non-racist can ask today. Though having no Confederate blood in my veins, and no sympathy with paleo-racists, I have come to think that secession was legal. So do some other committed anti-Confederates I know and respect.

I got there not by reading neo-Confederate pamphlets, but by studying the generation that wrote the Constitution and commented on it. Consider the following as an insight into how the Founders would have regarded Lincoln's vision of a perpetual union of the American states, held together by the strong arm of the federal government.

The scene is the ratification debate in New York state in the summer of 1788. Alexander Hamilton is defending, against anti-federalist objections, the power granted to the federal government, under the proposed system, to levy taxes directly on the citizens rather than making requisitions from the states. This is one of the Constitution's specially enumerated powers. It is a defined path for the federal government to override state authority. Hamilton points out the obvious necessity for a government to be able to pay its bills: "if we have national objects to pursue, we must have national revenues."

Remember, this is the arch-Federalist speaking, the man whose name is associated more than any other in the Constitutional Convention with the authority of the federal government. He paints the picture of the country without this power, and of a state refusing a federal requisition:

"It has been observed, to coerce the states is one of the maddest projects that was ever devised. A failure of compliance will never be confined to a single state. This being the case, can we suppose it wise to hazard a civil war?

"Suppose Massachusetts, or any large state, should refuse, and Congress should attempt to compel them, would they not have influence to procure assistance, especially from those states which are in the same situation as themselves? What picture does this idea present to our view? A complying state at war with a non-complying state; Congress marching the troops of one state into the bosom of another; this state collecting auxiliaries, and forming, perhaps, a majority against the federal head.

"Here is a nation at war with itself. Can any reasonable man be well disposed towards a government which makes war and carnage the only means of supporting itself -- a government that can exist only by the sword? Every such war must involve the innocent with the guilty. This single consideration should be sufficient to dispose every peaceable citizen against such a government. But can we believe that one state will ever suffer itself to be used as an instrument of coercion? The thing is a dream; it is impossible."

The Constitution enumerated the powers of the federal government, not those of the states or the people. It gave the federal government just such powers as, the Founders understood, would prevent this kind of conflict. The power to tax citizens directly was among them. It did not give the federal government broad, unspecified powers of coercion to do the very thing Hamilton abhorred here.

Anyway, it's too big an argument to unfurl in a blog post, but I wrote more about that here.

Glenn and others are starting to mention something I noticed a couple of years ago, that the behavior of George W. Bush as a crisis/wartime president and that of Abraham Lincoln in the same role cover a lot of the same ground. Their careers have broad similarities, too: Both men had checkered pasts and won disputed elections without a majority; both were blamed for starting a war unjustly when negotiated settlement was possible and for exploiting a national crisis to advance their private agendas and attain partisan goals.

The enemies of these two activist presidents were shaped in part by the policies the presidents pursued. It should ultimately not be surprising that those who cling to a visceral hatred of Lincoln's legacy, and those with the same reaction to Bush's administration, will find themselves on common ground.

I don't claim any insight in noticing that in 2001; I just happened to be standing a little closer to the neo-Confederates at that point, having been debating in ACW circles, and I noticed the tack of their comments.

Labels: ,

Giving the Finger

[I re-worked my immediate post-election post into this form, for an editorial in tomorrow's paper. It's likely to get cut for space, however.]

Meet the real Iraqi "resistance."

"And then, hearing those explosions, it occurred to me – the insurgents are weak; they are afraid of democracy; they are losing. So I got my husband, and I got my parents and we all came out and voted together."

Not a coward with a masked face and a bared gun. A 22-year-old Baghdad woman holding up an ink-purpled finger, advertising her vote to the world – and to those who vowed to kill her for doing what that ink proves she did.

Hear their other voices, as recorded in the media and on the Web Sunday:

"We have freedom now, we have human rights, we have democracy. We will invite the insurgents to take part in our system. If they do, we will welcome them. If they don't, we will kill them."

To prevent fraud, voters dipped their forefingers in indelible purple ink; the ink-stained finger became the most powerful symbol of the day.

"I walked forward to my station, cast my vote and then headed to the box, where I wanted to stand as long as I could, then I moved to mark my finger with ink, I dipped it deep as if I was poking the eyes of all the world's tyrants."

Resistance to fascists, old-style and new-style; resistance to tyrants, religious and secular. Resistance to fear and to the dismissive attitude of so much of the Western world that should know better. Resistance to the people who look at a map of Iraq and only see the face of George W. Bush. See these faces instead:

"For the first time, we have an opportunity to give our opinion in all justice and equality and without pressures."

On Saturday, some administration critics in America ridiculed the ink-stained finger as a stupid invitation to retaliation that would discourage voting. On Sunday, millions of Iraqis turned a functional splash of ink into a proud new symbol of the love of democracy.

"The election was to say big NO to the terrorists and bigger YES for freedom and democracy but even bigger YES for peace and tolerance. We got bad electrical power, poor water supplies, deteriorating sewage system, and all other services are rotting but we never felt as powerful and strong as now with the democracy and freedom."

Today, remember the more than 1,300 U.S. soldiers and Marines who gave their lives to allow this day to happen, and the thousands more who have suffered grievous injury. Don't forget them. Many Iraqis haven't.

"Thanks again for your care and may God bless you all and give you a hundred times what you have gave Iraq. I know it seems impossible when it comes to those who lost their beloved ones but I hope they know that their sacrifices were not in vain and that they gave humanity the most precious thing a man has, his life."

Iraqi Election Coverage

This will stay at the top of the stack through the Iraq election cycle.

I'm telling you this as someone who gets his paycheck every other Thursday from the mainstream U.S. media. From someone who sits at a desk five days a week giving 100,000 readers their daily fix of Associated Press and New York Times:

Don't follow the Iraq election in the U.S. newspapers or on the network news.

I'm not saying close your eyes to them. But if that's all you're seeing, you're not going to know much. You might as well watch a fireworks show through a pinhole camera or see a sunrise in black and white.

Instead, supplement your watching/reading and get a priceless look at this historic, tumultuous event at the Friends of Democracy: Ground Level Election News From the People of Iraq Web site sponsored by Spirit of America.

Michael Totten, one of the best bloggers out there, is in the slot.

"I'm selecting, editing, and posting the reports and photos, but they are all written by Iraqis themselves. (You'll have to forgive their sometimes-poor English skills. I've been advised to leave their words exactly as they have written them.)"

He promises "a flurry of election reports" over the weekend.

By availing yourself of this invaluable service, you'll amaze your friends, baffle you enemies, and dodge the Damning But, which is a media-fied version of Pee Wee Herman's "Big But" theory -- you know, "into every life, a big 'but' must fall."

However the election goes will be one thing; how it’s reported is another. The thing to watch is the position of the Damning But, the old DB. The DB will probably bob up in the first or second paragraphs of most dispatches. “The election went as planned in 95 percent of the country, but violence marred polling in the disputed Sunny D Triangle, where insurgents opposed to Tropicana Juice fired automatic weapons into an juice concentrate factory.” [Lileks]

Iraq the Vote

This is the real Iraqi resistance

Not a coward with a masked face and a bared gun. An open face, and an ink-stained finger advertised to the world -- and to those who vowed to kill her for doing what that ink proves she did.

Resistance to fascists, old-style and new-style; resistance to tyrants, religious and secular. Resistance to fear and to the dismissive attitude of so much of the Western world that should know better. Resistance to the people who look at a map of Iraq and only see the face of Shrubbie McChimpler. See these faces instead:

For the first time, we have an opportunity to give our opinion in all justice and equality and without pressures. We all have the same desire to elect people who represent the real sovereignty and build a new Iraq, and Iraq of justice, stability, without oppression, away from confessionalism and nepotism where all the citizens will be equal. I hope all Iraqis hopes will be fulfilled through these elections.

From Friends of Democracy; I told you they'd have good stuff.

Instapundit runs some highlights of Steve Stirling's comment-Fiskings at Democratic Underground, on the day when Iraqis defied the sneerers and took a step toward reclaiming their country:

"I had to turn off CNN because they kept focusing on the so-called "voters" and barely mentioned the resistance movements at all."

--the one trying to kill the people who want to vote and chose their own government? The one that's declared "fierce war" on democracy, and said they want to kill anyone who votes?Fortunately, their threats turned out to be mostly empty.

"Where are the freedom fighters today? Are their voices silenced because some American puppets cast a few ballots?"

-- 8,000,000 ballots. Turns out most Iraqis are... "American puppets?"

"I can't believe the Iraqis are buying into this "democracy" bullshit."

-- sorry, fellah, down here on Planet Reality, most people want democracy. Including Arabs.

"Maybe they're afraid and felt they had to vote. That's the only way I can explain it to myself."

-- since they were threatened with death if they _did_ vote, there's a bit of a contradiction there.In fact, they put on their festive clothes and in many cases danced to the polls, elevating their fingers to defy the "insurgents" who'd threatened to kill anyone whose finger was marked with the ink showing they'd voted.

My Chomskyite co-worker was grinning last week over reports of a low turnout among expatriates. I'm sure he'll have a different line today about why the elections were a fraud and a failure. How any sane liberal soul, even the most ardent Bush-hater, could want this to fail is beyond me.

If the people who say such things wanted to understand what moved those millions of Iraqis into their streets yesterday, to walk defiantly or joyfully to their polling places, they should ask Vietpundit:

As a Vietnamese-American, I've always felt that voting is not only a right, but also a privilege and a duty. I've always voted in every election. I could save some time and avoid some inconvenience by voting by absentee ballot, but I refuse to do so, and have always voted in person. To me, the act of voting is almost a spiritual experience. I like the atmosphere of going to the polling place, the waiting in line (usually no more than 10 minutes) and talking with other voters, and the physical act of punching the ballot itself. It's probably one of the last communal civic activities left in America today.

Call me naive if you like. But if you've been through what I (and countless other Vietnamese-Americans) have been through to earn the right to vote, you'd understand. Just look at the Iraqis today.

He's right about all of it. It is one of our last communal activities. I always think of deTocqueville when I go down the steps into my polling place, into that little mix of different people who have this one common thread, but it's a thread of steel and gold.

Saturday, January 29, 2005

Chomsky Revisited

Oliver Kamm rejects the "self-loathing" tag that's often slapped on Chomsky and other anti-American Americans/anti-Israeli Jews. Kamm is a careful critic of Chomsky, and I agree with him that this label is a mere sneer.

To charge someone with holding a view out of self-hatred is a pernicious way of arguing, because - like the old antisemitic canard of "dual loyalty" - it is unfalsifiable.

When I did Jen Larson's interview, one of the questions dealt with Chomsky. I started to answer it in detail, but then realized I was taking much too much space, and I sort of left it hanging half-answered. My insight is not a great one. But I've noticed that Chomsky, in his purely adacemic work (without considering political writings) has an absolutist prejudice.

That is, he rules out a certain set of possible explanations for things, a priori, because the consequences of accepting any validity for those possible explanations seems to be intollerable to him. Goodness knows he's not the only person with that quality, or the only academic. But I question whether it's a good way to do science, or to think about international affairs.

In fact some of the people he smites down in academic wars were themselves absolutists of another strain -- the socio-biologists. Where he goes wrong, I think, is mistaking no attempt to distinguish any application of evolution to social situations, however innocent or logical, from the 666 Beast of Socio-biology. Hitler gave his speeches and wrote his orders in German; that's no reason to ban the German language.

Once again, it's not just Chomsky. You can find similar attitudes, for instance, among many creationists. Not that I consider them good scientists either, of course. But his form of it does seem to be peculiarly strong among academics with strong Old Left/social progressive political sensibilities. Stephen Jay Gould, who was a hero of mine for his rear-guard work in holding back creationism, suffered from it, too.

And of course, it's all over the academic discipline of history. Before you accuse me of unthinking right-wing stereotyping, read the autobiographical stories of a Eugene Genovese or an Eric Foner. Read their addresses to one another in the professional organizations. They write the past, but they live the present, and their academic work is done with a view to a future they would like to shape.

Listen to Genovese, answering the interviewer's question, "You grew up in a working-class family. Did this experience influence your scholarship? If so, how?"

"Undoubtedly it did in a big way. The specifics, however, are hard to come by. To take a direct example, my discussion of the driver in 'Roll, Jordan, Roll' drew upon the stories that my father, a wood caulker, told me of the contradictory roles of foremen on the docks in the port of New York. More broadly, growing up with workers and in a working-class neighborhood provided a strong antidote to the romanticism that characterizes a good deal of the 'new labor history.'

"I entered the communist movement in 1945 at age fifteen and spent summers working in shops as an organizer for Communist-led unions. It was a valuable experience, which reinforced my hard class attitudes but also my resistance to romanticism. ... In any case, I grew up in a class-conscious home -- class-conscious but by no means ideologically driven. I hated the bourgeoisie with the terrible passion that perhaps only a child can muster. When I came across some Communists at age fifteen and read the Communist Manifesto and some other pamphlets, I suddenly had a precise focus for my hatred. I would happily have sent the bastards to firing squads in large numbers, and their wives and children along with them.

"... My biggest problem as a historian has always been, I suppose, the conscious effort to rein in that hatred and not let it distort my reading of the historical record. I am sure that it has taken a toll, but I hope I have kept that toll to a minimum." ["Eugene D. Genovese and History: An Interview," in Slavery, Secession, and Southern History, ed. Robert Louis Paquette and Louis A Ferleger, University Press of Virginia, 2000, p.197]

Describing one written work of his, Genovese states his goal like this: "I was trying to help develop a left-wing orientation toward the re-emerging problem of black nationalism so that the white Left could prepare itself to contribute constructively to emerging struggles." And looking back on the entire body of work he and his contemporaries accomplished, he concludes, "Whatever our errors and inadequacies, I think we can claim to have accomplished what we set out to do: to reorient the study of southern slave society and to compel a confrontation with a new set of questions."

As he hints, his practical side later rebelled against doctrinaire Marxism (it ultimately led him to Catholicism), and cost him banishment from leftist academic historical circles. He emerged, recently, as one who has been able to write with some sympathy and understanding of the Southern "master class" and to separate slavery from racism and say the latter, not the former, is the real American tragedy.

Back to Kamm. He finds a drift in Chomsky's latest pronouncements that seems to tread thin ice over anti-Semitism.

But take a look at a more recent pronouncement by Chomsky. At the end of 2002, Chomsky spoke by video link to the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign and others on 'Antisemitism, Zionism and the Palestinians'. Chomsky is discussing the historical presence of antisemitism in US society, and concludes:

You find occasional instances of anti-Semitism but they are marginal. There’s plenty of racism, but it’s directed against Blacks, Latinos, Arabs are targets of enormous racism, and those problems are real. Anti-Semitism is no longer a problem, fortunately. It’s raised, but it’s raised because privileged people want to make sure they have total control, not just 98% control. That’s why anti-Semitism is becoming an issue. Not because of the threat of anti-Semitism; they want to make sure there’s no critical look at the policies the US (and they themselves) support in the Middle East.

What can one make of this? The best possible interpretation that could be spun is that Chomsky is talking about "privileged people" rather than Jews, and that just conceivably he did not mean to imply an identity between those groups. But it's a strained interpretation. The more direct interpretation is that the Jews control America, they want total domination, and they manufacture the chimera of antisemitism in order to divert attention from their nefarious foreign policy goals.

Because this is the first time I have seen this type of statement from Chomsky, and he was speaking rather than writing it, I would be inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt on the matter and resolve to watch him closely. I have not the slightest doubt that the antisemitic totalitarians of far-Right and far-Left, of secular ideologies and theocratic fundamentalisms, would be liable to understand Chomsky's demagoguery according to the more direct interpretation. As the phrase goes, go figure.


Thursday, January 27, 2005

Ego Boosters

In an e-mail exchange, the topic of Internet forums and discussion groups came up. It's part of the magic of the Net that it can bring together experts from the most diverse realms and put them, in effect, in the same room.

So why is the reality so often so bitter and personal? I've been involved over the years in a whole range of online discussions, from the free-for-all AOL Confederate battleflag messageboard to a very exclusive Listserv for people doing translations into Anglo-Saxon. The difference was that the AOL board was as noisy and dirty as a bus station, but you could still have a serious discussion there, and some of the most knowledgable people I've ever had the honor to communicate with were among the contributors.

The language Listserv, a classical history club, and a more exclusive Civil War e-mail forum I joined at various times, were quiet and studious. Yet they all dissolved sooner or later into bitter name-calling, tear-shedding personal feuds.

I don't think this is an Internet problem so much as a defect of people who have devoted themselves to being, in Raymond Chandler's phrease, "masters of arcane knowledge." We're used to being alone. We like that, in a way. We've purchased our learning at great cost -- sometimes in the investment in an education, but also in lives constrained by study, and the kind of insults that the world ties like tin cans to the tail of a bookworm.

We're not used to meeting others like us. At first, there's as rush of pleasure in it. Then there's the search for a hierarchy; and that's where it gets uncomfortable for some people. For them, the whole point of their devotion to learning was to be a hierarchy of one.

I'm trying to write this and avoid specific examples, because I don't take pleasure in poking sticks at sensitive people. But I wrote one book about a place that had its own self-appointed expert. Now dead, he was a single man in his 50s who lived in a small shed at the back of his mother's property, and he had filled it with books about his topic -- literally floor to ceiling. He had read them all, too, and he knew everything that was in them.

He didn't know anything that wasn't in them, however, or anything about people who don't want to live in a hive of books and not have children, so it might have been difficult for him to see his topic in a full-blooded way, despite all his learning. But that's a quibble. I aroused his ire by actually going into that topic on my own, without his guidance, and then writing a book about it that has become the standard work on it.

He could have written a book like that. He had 30 years or so to do it. But he didn't. And I can't help thinking that part of the reason he never did so was because the book would have replaced the man as "the source." He'd have been spending all his carefully accumulated ego-capital.

At any rate, he hated me from the point he discovered what I was doing, and never had anything good to say about my work (though he never found a serious flaw in it other than that he and I disagreed about how to spell something). And he's dead now and beyond libel or blame, so I intorduce him as an example.

There have been times, usually when researching a book, when I have immersed myself in study of something so intensely and for so long that I began to think of myself as the world's leading living expert on it. That sounds like braggadocio, but it never was anything but a trivial topic -- like I might say I'm the world's leading expert on left-handed slack-key guitar bluesmen in southwestern Ohio in the early 1950s. Or something.

But along the way I'd start to feel my ego investment in that knowledge, and the notion that my expertise was something that ought to be dispensed in a way that brings credit to me. That's the opposite of teaching. It treats knowledge, which is never the property of any one person, as a hoarde to be guarded. I peered over that abyss a time or two.

That's why I embrace the "sciolist" label. If you want to devote a large chunk of your libido to learning, and unless you're chasing a cure for cancer, much better to settle for knowing more than most about a lot of things. Don't put all your egos in one basket.

It can be more than just a "settling for." You'll have the delightful
experience of blundering into cross-references and mentally skipping stones across disciplines.

The Mustache is the Only Difference!

The Independent does its Auschwitz quote round-up and typically steers it toward an America-bash-fest.

Israeli writer Amos Oz says, "A language of hatred is a danger, not necessarily for Jews, but for whoever is targeted. Each time language is used like an axe we should act because soon killing will follow. There is a rise of fanaticism: Islamic, Jewish, European. It's American fundamentalism."

[emphasis added]

Iraqi author Fuad al-Takarli, clearly desperate to talk about anything else, checks in with an incomprehensible quote:

"The first thing is I think we should be talking about events in Iraq, the killing that is going on at the moment. For us as Arabs, the question is not about the legacy of the Holocaust. The UN divided Palestine in two, so now our primary care is that Palestinians should have their own state. Arab writers usually avoid the Holocaust because we feel we will be resented in the West. This is a very sensitive issue for us to talk about."


But some sort of prize has to go to former British Labour Party cabinet mnisiter Tony Benn, who draws a direct line between Auschwitz and ... you'll never guess ... George W. Bush!

"The most important lesson of the Holocaust is that fear provides a power structure for political leaders. Hitler portrayed the Jews as the enemy and used it to instil fear and gain power. George Bush evokes the fear of terrorism and becomes a more powerful leader. The important thing moving forward is to look at history and understand. Only by seeing how such things develop can we be sure such atrocities will not happen again."

So ... let's see: Hitler fires up Germany with fear of the Jews, and he tries to destroy the Jews. And Bush fires up Americans with fear of terrorism, and he tries to destroy terrorism. I'm waiting for the bad part of that second element to sink in. Or is he trying to say that terrorism is no more a threat to the U.S. than the Jews were to Germany? 9/11=Reichstag fire?

Anyone who cares is free to ring him up and ask him. I don't. He's gone into the "idiot" bin.

Meanwhile, let's compare Bush on Muslims and Islam to Hitler on Jews/Judaism:

“There are thousands of Muslims who proudly call themselves Americans, and they know what I know -- that the Muslim faith is based upon peace and love and compassion.” [Bush, Sept. 27, 2001]

"Once I really am in power, my first and foremost task will be the annihilation of the Jews. As soon as I have the power to do so, I will have gallows built in rows -- at the Marienplatz in Munich, for example -- as many as traffic allows." [Hitler, 1922]

“Because this great nation of many religions understands, our war is not against Islam, or against faith practiced by the Muslim people.” [Bush, Jan. 5, 2002]

"Once the hatred and the battle against the Jews have been really stirred up, their resistance will necessarily crumble in the shortest possible time. They are totally defenseless, and no one will stand up to protect them." [Hitler, "Mein Kampf"]

“The charity, discipline and sacrifice practiced during Ramadan in America makes America a better, more compassionate country .... And the heartfelt prayers offered at this time of year are a blessing in many lives and they're a blessing to our nation.” [Bush, Oct. 28, 2003]

"Nature is cruel; therefore we are also entitled to be cruel. When I send the flower of German youth into the steel hail of the next war without feeling the slightest regret over the precious German blood that is being spilled, should I not also have the right to eliminate millions of an inferior race that multiplies like vermin?" [Hitler, "Mein Kampf"]

"All Americans must recognize that the face of terror is not the true faith -- face of Islam. Islam is a faith that brings comfort to a billion people around the world. It's a faith that has made brothers and sisters of every race. It's a faith based upon love, not hate." [Bush, Sept. 10, 2002]

With satanic joy in his face, the black-haired Jewish youth lurks in wait for the unsuspecting girl whom he defiles with his blood, thus stealing her from her people. With every means he tries to destroy the racial foundations of the people he has set out to subjugate. Just as he himself systematically ruins women and girls, he does not shrink back from pulling down the blood barriers for others, even on a large scale. It was and it is Jews who bring the Negroes into the Rhineland, always with the same secret thought and clear aim of ruining the hated white race by the necessarily resulting bastardization, throwing it down from its cultural and political height, and himself rising to be its master. [Hitler, "Mein Kampf"]

Wow! See how much alike they are?

There's Johnny

Tim Whitaker in "Philadelphia Weekly" has got the key to Carson.

He didn't break stride. Try to compete. Or be what he wasn't.

And because he didn't try to be hip, he was the quintessential hipster.

Today everybody tries to be a hipster, which is why there aren't any. It's about clothes now, and hairstyle and the kind of music you listen to and what you read and where you hang and whether you can be melancholic on cue. It's become a designation without import. Trying to be a hipster today requires acts of exclusion, which may be why the line to get in is so short.

Carson didn't exclude -- not ever -- which is why millions watched, and why we liked him, literati and mill workers alike.


Like Praktike, I've never been to Auschwitz, but I did see Dachau. And in that still, flat place the evil seemed as deep as the soil.

One of the most unforgettable scenes I've ever seen on a television was in Jacob Bronowski's BBC series, "The Ascent of Man," filmed in 1972. Technically, it was a show about science. But at one point in the narrative, the elderly scientist and humanist stood behind the crematoria at Auschwitz, where the ashes from the ovens had been flushed. That soil held mortal remains of a million people, including many of Bronowski's family (and certainly some of mine), and the old man in the dark formal suit stooped and clutched a handful of the dark muck, and said, "When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave."

Als die Nazis die Kommunisten holten,
habe ich geschwiegen; ich war ja kein Kommunist.
Als sie die Sozialdemokraten einsperrten,
habe ich geschwiegen; ich war ja kein Sozialdemokrat.
Als sie die Gewerkschafter holten,
habe ich geschwiegen; ich war ja kein Gewerkschafter.
Als sie die Juden holten,
habe ich geschwiegen; ich war ja kein Jude.
Als sie mich holten, gab es keinen mehr,
der protestieren konnte.

[Martin Niemöller]

On the Other Hand

Courtesy of Blackfive, LCDR Jeff Vorce, USN, disputes the slam against international civilian relief agency representatives involved in the tsunami relief that I, and many others, cited. According to Vorce,

The Indonesian government (rightly so) is in charge of the overall relief effort underway on the western coast of Sumatra. Last time I checked, it is their country. Simply put, we are here to aid them with their recovery. We are merely one part of what could end up as the largest relief effort in history. The resources and personnel of the Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group are working in concert with the people of Indonesia, other nations, militaries, and a host of non-governmental relief agencies including US AID, Red Cross & Red Crescent Society, WHO, UNICEF, Doctors without Borders, and the WFP.

The civilians that have been transported by our helicopters and have been hosted aboard the carrier are not a "traveling circus" of aid workers or "trifling do-gooders." On the contrary, these are professionals who have years of experience in mitigating human suffering and tragedy. While there are many highly trained men and women deployed alongside me, there are few (if any) who have expertise in the prediction of malaria transmission vectors, the proper disposal of tens of thousands of human remains, creating a system to match orphaned children with distant relatives, reviving an entire economy, prioritizing bridges or roads to be re-built, or any of the other skills sets that are so critical to disaster relief.

Go and read the whole thing. Very worthy, and frankly I like the tone of it better than the original critical piece.

Life Savour

The excellent blogger Ann Althouse recently survived a terrible auto accident. People have been writing to her and sharing their stories, a lot of which have to do with the efficacy of seatbelts.

Sometimes, something is the right thing to do, even if the scolds think so, too. It used to be that when you crossed over the Delaware River bridges from Philadelphia, big signs said, "Welcome to New Jersey. Seat Belts Must be Worn."

Maybe it was an urban legend, but we used to tell the tale of some 8th grader who set up a stand on Black Horse Pike just past that big sign, advertising "Worn Seat Belts, $5."

My first job at a daily newspaper, I worked the police beat. My first week on the job, I was on the scene of an accident that killed two people. The car looked like you could drive it away, even with those two puncture holes in the windshield.

From that day, I never stopped to think about it. Every time I sit down, I buckle up. I don't like to ride with anyone who doesn't. Yeah, I saw some that nobody would have survived, seatbelt or not. Those are tragic, but not half as much as the ones that didn't have to end that way.

It's Simply Not True ...

... that Philadelphia Eagles fans once pelted "Santa Claus" with snowballs during halftime of a game at Veterans Stadium.

They were iceballs. I'm sure of that.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Movin' on Up

I've finally got a piece of the pie! I'm important. No, probably not, but my first official interview is now up and posted. Thanks, Jen, and thanks to all who submitted questions. No reason can explain why making an idiot of myself in print feels so fulfilling.

Also, here's an interview with the interview queen. And check out some of the other stories while you're rooting through her archives. Some of the people up after me in the batting order are quite good. Andrew Olmsted, for instance, could be ranked as "indispensible."


Here's an editorial I wrote last night for today's edition. It seems so tepid compared to what I can say here:

As usual in the Palestinian territories, peace does a shuffle dance: step forward, step back. Lately, forward steps have outnumbered backslidings.

*Tuesday, Islamic Hamas said it would suspend attacks against “the Zionist enemy” — that’s Israel — if Israel stopped assassinating Hamas leaders and agreed to release thousands of Palestinian prisoners. Israel refused, but it said it will respond to calm with calm.

*Palestinian Authority workers protected by police tore down illegal buildings in Gaza City to try to rein in the lawless enclave.

*Palestinian and Israeli generals met and talked about deploying Palestinian police in southern Gaza to stop militants from attacking Israelis.

*Some 3,000 Palestinian police deployed in northern Gaza to try to stop militants from launching rockets into Israeli communities.

*No rockets or mortars have hit Israeli communities since last week.

OK, it’s not exactly the Berlin Wall tumbling down. But in the Middle East you take what you can get. If nobody gets killed between the time we write this and the time you read it, chalk up another one for peace.

It’s likely that credit for the recent baby steps toward peace goes to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. He may well be able to walk the tightrope between opposing Israeli policies and slowly tightening the grip on his own militant thuggery.

Managing this will involve a lot of contradictory rhetoric, and it might be wise to pay more attention to what gets accomplished rather than hanging on Abbas’ every word.

The bid to stop rocket attacks is particularly encouraging. It’s the sort of thing Abbas’ predecessor, Yasir Arafat, wouldn’t have done.

The next big goal is a formal cease-fire between Israel and the Palestinian militant groups. That would pave the way for a new round of peace talks.

Every step is a potential failure. Palestinians, famously, never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

More hopeful than the words of Hamas are the voices of countless average Palestinians, among whom desire for peace seems to be surging. The latest opinion polls show that more Palestinians and Israelis than ever say they want the violence to end.

According to a joint Palestinian-Israeli poll, 54 percent of Palestinians and 64 percent of Israelis said they now support the package of compromises proposed in 2000 by President Clinton at Camp David. Arafat walked away from that deal, and the violence flared again.

It was the first poll to show majorities on both sides favoring major compromises and a permanent solution.

One recent news report quoted a Palestinian farmer whose land lies in the northern Gaza. “If there is a rocket, the Israelis respond. Maybe if there is no rocket they will not respond.” We hope Abbas is thinking that way, too.

Who even reads newspaper editorials anymore? I used to devour them, 20 years ago; I could tell who wrote them, even if they were unsigned. Nowadays?

Trivia Quiz Answer

Here's what this newspaper headline means to science fiction history:

In Philip K. Dick's classic alternate-history novel "The Man in the High Castle," this now-trivial event is the point at which the book's history diverges from actual history. In the book, Roosevelt is in fact assassinated, and the American presidents of the 1930s don't prepare for war or support the British and Soviets when World War II comes, with the result that the Axis wins.

And in an occupied and partitioned America in the early 1960s, a mysterious author named Abendsend writes a book everyone is whispering about, about an alternate history in which Roosevelt is not assassinated and as a result the Axis is defeated.

From chapter 5:

"That's his theory. If Joe Zangara had missed him, he would have pulled America out of the Depression and armed it so that --" She broke off. They had arrived at the elevator, and other people were waiting.

Later, as they drove through the nocturnal traffic in Wyndham-Matson' Mercedes-Benz, she resumed.

"Abendsen's theory is that Roosevelt would have been a terribly strong President. As strong as Lincoln. He showed it in the year he was President, all those measures he introduced. The book is fiction. I mean, it's in novel form. Roosevelt isn't assassinated in Miami; he goes on and is reelected in 1936, so he's President until 1940, until during the war. Don't you see? He's still President when Germany attacks England and France and Poland. And he sees all that. He makes America strong. ..."

And so forth. It was a neat little trick by Dick to have the departure point be an actual event. Though of course he does fudge one bit: the assassination attempt came before Roosevelt was sworn in to office.


Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Get Your Election News

The Iraqi NGO "Friends of Democracy" has launched a website that provides election news service. This is the English version (it's also in Arabic) and it looks like it will be a useful place to track the upcoming vote there.

UPDATE: And you'll want to keep Chrenkoff's handy-dandy program guide the the parties under your seat. Can't tell the players without a program.

What's Gotten India?

Collin May writes on The Asian Tsunami and the Winds of International Change. While respectful of the sheer human tragedy of the natural disaster, he sees signs of things to come in the response.

While American diplomats derided [U.N. official Jan] Egeland’s slip of the tongue [calling response to the tsunami "stingy"], the US engaged in an activity that said far more than any words could regarding the new international order. Without any concern for the UN, the US proceeded to set up a core group of nations to deal with the disaster. Partners in the group were Australia, Japan and India. It is this alliance that will matter most to the US in the future. The four big Pacific democracies, three with strong Anglo-Saxon histories, will most likely develop into the central alliance of the twenty-first century.

From this, he looks ahead and sees this as an early sign of an emerging power alignment in Asia.

For its part, the US isn’t simply waiting for China to dominate the Asian region either. In fact, the big four alliance of Japan, India, Australia and the US is precisely contrived to surround and hem in China, and here special light has to be thrown on the Indian case. During the Cold War, India was a key player in the non-aligned movement. Today, the world’s largest democracy is a key American ally, both politically and economically. Out-sourcing of American jobs to India is no mere financial operation, but part of a political move intended to secure Indian friendship. And from India’s perspective, facing the Chinese on their northern border, the sub-continent is more than happy to reciprocate. Supplemented by Japan (which after the US is the second largest individual donor to international humanitarian organizations) and Australia (a regional power that has long been a reliable American ally), the Indian-American alliance could well be the most significant international alliance to emerge in the twenty-first century.

My initial response to his article is that it is a good one, as predictions go. I definitely believe America's interest, and its natural evolution, require us to draw closer to India. But May omitted a small but key player in both the tsunami relief and the Asian power picture: Singapore. Its heritage is both Anglo and Chinese, and it strives to be a bridge between the cultures, balancing between both.

Another View

Kenan Malik asks, "Islamophobia? What Islamophobia?

According to Iqbal Sacranie, Muslims have never faced greater physical danger than they do now. The editor of the Muslim News, Ahmed Versi, similarly believes that, "After 11th September, we had the largest number of attacks ever on Muslims."

My personal experience and the statistics that do exist both challenge these claims. When I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, racism was vicious and often fatal. Stabbings and firebombings were routine in some parts of Britain. In May 1978, over 7,000 Bengalis marched from Whitechapel to Whitehall in protest at the murder of garment worker Altab Ali near Brick Lane—one of eight racist murders that year. In the decade that followed, there were at least another 49 such killings. For Muslims, the end of the 1980s—from the Rushdie affair to the first Gulf war—was particularly tough. I used to organise patrols on east London estates to protect Asian families from racist attacks.


End of Conversation

Hey, guess what? I'm "the right wing spin machine at it's finest." Well, that's going to be the end of that conversation. People who can't see the world except in the colors "right-wing" and "progressive" aren't going to see me at all.

And sure enough, my erstwhile adversary wants to talk past me and froth and spit at some billboard caricature of corporate Republicanism. Sorry, I'm wasting my time. But before I go, there's time for a hearty laugh.

"The UN was on the ground and delivering aid to tsunami victims immediately. And while they were doing that...Bush was on his umpteenth vacation in Crawford."

Even her sympathetic commentators are calling her on that one. As for what the U.N. so far has managed to do, you can get an idea here. I'm sure they mean well. I'm sure the captain of the "Exxon Valdez" meant well, too. Sometimes, that's not enough.

As for Bush's reaction, even the "New York Times" can figure that one out. It had a piece this weekend on Tsunami relief and "The Triumph of Gesture Politics":

In Europe, at least, the public has separated the heroes from the scoundrels with a simple yardstick -- lost vacation time. Chancellor Gerhard Schroder of Germany stands among the winners. He rushed back from a post-Christmas vacation in his native Lower Saxony to set up a crisis center in Berlin, and has since been a whirlwind of activity, pledging more than half a billion dollars in aid and devoting his New Year's address to the disaster.

Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, who chose not to cut short his own vacation in Egypt, finds himself cast as the arch-goat. Blair's government was quite active during the days that followed the tsunami. But even though Britain has offered substantial assistance to the wave-damaged region, that is somehow insufficient. For the past month, the British news media have savaged their prime minister for his "colossal act of disrespect." According to an editorial in The Independent, "Blair has failed to grasp the essence of leadership."

And, further along, this: "Accusations of 'gesture politicking' are often made following natural disasters. In 2000 the European Union was embarrassed by reports that of the $440 million it had pledged in aid to the Central American countries hit by Hurricane Mitch two years earlier, none had arrived."

Back to Carla (now writing sarcastically):

But how dare we criticize Bush when the UN is a much more tempting (if not factual) target?

We don't seem to know what we're talking about, do we? Neither the U.N. nor Bush is the topic of what I wrote. I introduced the U.N. for the purposes of comparison to the U.S. military, which is what Carla started talking about. The U.S. military is not "Bush." America is not "Bush." If we can't stay on one topic (U.S. military) for more than 15 seconds, there's not going to be a discussion.

[Meanwhile, there's an interesting line of argument, much contrary to Carla's thesis, is that it does best in modern Iraq- and Afghanistan-style situations when it has fewer, not more, troops on the ground. But I'll leave her to dismiss that as just more Bush lies.]

I brought up World War II. Evidently, she's an expert on it:

Let me help you wipe away the wonder. During World War II, the United States instituted a draft ...

Or not. The draft was in place before the war began.

The citizens of the US also sacrificed heavily, rationing fuel and various other resources.

Absolutely, and I wish we would be doing that again. Of course, seeing the snit fit some people pitched about $2-a-gallon gas last summer, I can imagine the rivers of tears that would flow. But I want to see more of a sense of common cause and national material sacrifice in this war.

But what does that have to do with the U.S. military's capabilities? Is the 82nd Airborne going to be defeated in Iran because we're not holding scrap drives at home?

The burden of resources was distributed throughout the Allies. What we're doing in Iraq right now is essentially the antithesis of that.

Except that the U.S. fought not only Germany -- with the burden of fighting borne by the Russians -- but also, simultaneously, Japan and Italy, the latter two involving the U.S. forces doing the vast bulk of the heavy lifting.

And while Bush vigorously defended the Niger/yellowcake incident, the documents they used to verify it were forgeries.

It's an interesting, but not very effective, tactic to pick out the most embarrassing, but most irrelevant, tid-bit about the Niger story and make it a summation of the whole case. As she's done. It takes more time and effort to lay it all out in context.


Without going into a lot of dreary detail (but I'll direct you to it if you want it), here's the facts, as so far discovered, on the Niger uranium claim.

Europeans, especially France, have much better intelligence-gathering in West Africa than the U.S. Almost every European intelligence service thought Saddam was trying to buy uranium in Africa. One European intelligence agency had been monitoring a uranium-smuggling operation involving Iraq for three years.

The CIA did a terrible job of checking on this; it sent one agent, who had a grudge, who only stayed a week, and who didn't even bother filing a written report. As a result, the only folks who didn't think Saddam was trying to buy African uranium were the CIA. In this case the British and Europeans were right, and the Americans were wrong.

Lord Frederick Butler's report, or, properly, "Review of Intelligence on Weapons of Mass Destruction," lays out the findings on Niger uranium:

45. From our examination of the intelligence and other material on Iraqi attempts to buy uranium from Africa, we have concluded that:

a. It is accepted by all parties that Iraqi officials visited Niger in 1999.

b. The British Government had intelligence from several different sources indicating that this visit was for the purpose of acquiring uranium. Since uranium constitutes almost three-quarters of Niger’s exports, the intelligence was credible.

c. The evidence was not conclusive that Iraq actually purchased, as opposed to having sought, uranium and the British Government did not claim this.

d. The forged documents were not available to the British Government at the time its assessment was made, and so the fact of the forgery does not undermine it. (Paragraph 503)

This addresses the claim Bush made in the '03 State of the Union address, which has been continually derided by the anti-war crowd. And now the basis of that derision has collapsed, along with the reputation of retired ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, who had investigated the Niger claims on behalf of the U.S. (shabbily, as it turns out) and all but said the State of the Union address claim was a lie.

"To say this," in the words of Christopher Hitchens, "is not to defend the Bush administration, which typically managed to flourish the only allegation made about Niger that had been faked, and which did not have the courage to confront Mr. and Mrs. Wilson in public with their covert political agenda."

But the fact that the document in question turned out to be a forgery no more discredits the yellowcake story than Dan Rather's forged documents mean that George W. Bush satisfied all his service requirements in the 1970s.


"We invaded because Bush and his people told us that Hussein was an imminent, immediate threat to the shores of the United States."

More dreary history here. Sorry, there's no way to cut through a fuzzball of feeling and fiction without applying some facts.

But first, what's often forgotten is that, before the Iraq War, even the people who opposed it thought Saddam had WMD. "Der Spiegel" wrote that he did. Joe Wilson wrote that he did. As Bill Clinton said last summer in London, "You can second-guess Blair if you like. But at the time, nearly everybody thought there was probably a stock of chemical and biological weapons there and that it was vulnerable to falling into the wrong hands."

So people who want to damn the entire war based on the failure to turn up WMD ought to be willing to explain why they were against a military action even when they, too, thought Saddam had WMD. That seems a reasonable request, if they wanted to be treated as adults. I'm not going to hold my breath waiting, though.

The WMD threat was the one that got the most play, the most press, and it can seem, in retrospect, like Bush and his friends said nothing else. But that's hindsight. Certainly the anti-war crowd makes it seem that way, because that threat turned out to not live up to the dramatic urgency that it was cloaked in before the war.


A key document in the march to war is the White House Background Paper on Iraq, "A Decade of Deception and Defiance", which served as a background paper for Bush's Sept. 12 speech to the United Nations General Assembly.

One-seventh of it is devoted to WMD. Other headline sections in the report are: Saddam Hussein's Repression of the Iraqi People, Refusal to Admit Human Rights Monitors, Violence Against Women, Torture, Saddam Hussein's Abuse of Children, Disappearances, Withholding of Food, and Crimes Against Muslims. Altogether almost twice as much space is given to human rights abuses as is given to WMD. Another section is titled "Saddam Hussein's Defiance of United Nations Resolutions," and more than twice as much space is devoted to this as to WMD.

Other topics in the report: Saddam Hussein's Support for International Terrorism, Saddam Hussein's Refusal to Account for Gulf War Prisoners, Saddam Hussein's Refusal to Return Stolen Property, Saddam Hussein's Efforts to Circumvent Economic Sanctions.

The WMD threat was played up by the U.S. and the British in the weeks before the war. In part, this was done because it was the one issue that the U.N. had taken a position on. The U.S. and its allies were seeking U.N. approval, and at the same time they sought to force the U.N. to stand up and be something.

The Iraq resolutions were the exact right place to do that. The U.N., after all, takes no positions on internal matters such as whether a tyrant can feed parents alive into a shredding machine in front of their children, or whether a dictator can kidnap young girls off the streets to serve as his "girlfriends."

Bush in essence rolled two questions into his efforts at the U.N. before the war: "Will you give us approval to overthrow Saddam," and, "Are you a real world governing body, with teeth, or just a paper mill that churns out threats that are never going to be enforced?"

Iraq wasn't the most serious problem in the world in March 2003? Looking back, probably not. But how could the U.N. bring any pressure to bear on North Korea, on Iran, if after 17 condemning resolutions against Iraq, each one of them torn up by the dictator, it did nothing but rally its members to protect Saddam from American pressure? The U.N. was adept at passing resolutions, but the body itself was far from resolute.

As Tony Blair put it:

The truth is, as was abundantly plain in the motion before the House of Commons on 18 March, we went to war to enforce compliance with UN Resolutions. Had we believed Iraq was an imminent direct threat to Britain, we would have taken action in September 2002; we would not have gone to the UN. Instead, we spent October and November in the UN negotiating UN Resolution 1441. We then spent almost 4 months trying to implement it.

So: 1. the WMD claim was not the only stated reason for the U.S. and its allies going to war against Saddam; 2. the other reasons given, such as the humanitarian crisis in the country, were amply documented and have proven to be, if anything, worse than feared; 3. the WMD part of the reason for war, though partially based on faulty intelligence, was also partly true, and key players (Kay, Duelfer, etc.) have agreed that Iraq was, in fact, in violation of resolution 1441.


Ironically, Callimachus agrees with me that our intelligence was bad and hopes Iran and North Korea are watching:

Don't you just love people who use "ironically" when they mean "surprisingly?" My goal is not to disagree with her, or anyone. I can think of many points where we agree, and I'll gladly acknowledge them. I only am interested in refuting her statement that I'm ignorant because I think the U.S. military is capable of preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear power and that the threat of U.S. military action is a useful deterent in that case.

"No doubt that many in Tehran wish for a more transparent and accountable government. But they won't be looking at ours as a model."

Oopsie ... From an Iranian source:

Reports from across Iran are stating about the massive welcoming of President George W. Bush's inaugural speech and his promise of helping to bring down the last outposts of tyranny.

Millions of Iranians have been reported as having stayed home, on Thursday night which is their usual W.end and outgoing night, in order to see or hear the Presidential speech and the comments made by the Los Angeles based Iranian satellite TV and radio networks, such as, NITV or KRSI.

The speech and its package of hope have been, since late yesterday night and this morning, the main topics of most Iranians' conversations during their familial and friendly gatherings, in the collective taxis and buses, as well as, among groups of young Iranians who gather outside the cities on the Fridays.

Many were seen showing the "V" sign or their raised fists. Talks were focused on steps that need to be taken in order to use the first time ever favorable International condition.

She does gaze down from her high tower long enough to actually answer my question of what ought we to do about Iran ... sort of.

I propose that we first determine carefully and thoughtfully if a problem truely does exist. Yes..I know that isn't as sexy and fun as the Dirty Harry metaphors so easily quipped off of the fingers. But it's the first and best beginning step.

And instead of bombing and invading, we let the IAEA actually do their job, like they were doing in Iraq.

Take out the snark, which she seems unable to let go, and guess who she sounds like?

We’ll continue to try to address those issues diplomatically, continue to work with the Europeans. At some point, if the Iranians don’t live up to their commitments, the next step will be to take it to the U.N. Security Council, and seek the imposition of international sanctions to force them to live up to the commitments and obligations they’ve signed up to under the non-proliferation treaty .... We don’t want a war in the Middle East, if we can avoid it. And certainly in the case of the Iranian situation, I think everybody would be best suited by or best treated and dealt with if we could deal with it diplomatically.

Why ... why ... it's that ol' debbil Dick Cheney!

But my point never was that we should or ought to use violence against Iran. Here's what I wrote: "Fear of violence can be an effective tool. Violence is a crappy choice you make when the alternatives all are worse." But it ought to remain on the table as a serious option. Somehow she wants me to have said something else, to make me a more convenient target for her spleen. Pulling out the straw she's stuffed into my shirt, I decline the offer.

Monday, January 24, 2005


An inquiry into the roots of any war will show that they all have much in common. For instance, a common criticism of the Iraq War is that the explanation for it started out being about one thing and ended up having goals we never signed on to.

In fact, browsing through history books convinces me that the Bush Administration's publicly stated goals at the beginning of the Iraq War remain much more consistent with the post-war reality than typically is the case.

A quibble with the Mother Country over a petty tax of three pence a pound on tea becomes the birth of a nation. A boundary dispute with Mexico over a few square miles of Texas scrub becomes a land-grab of a third of a continent and keeps the valuable port of San Francisco from defaulting to British hands. A dispute with Germany over unrestricted submarine warfare becomes "making the world safe for democracy."

The reverse also is true. What seems, after the fact, to be the great justification for a war turns out to be something that did not figure among the stated reasons for starting it. Study World War II today and you'll get a big unit on the Holocaust. How odd, then, to discover it played no part in the justification for the war at the time. Lincoln freed the slaves. But the American Civil War began as an constitutional chess match and an attempt to enforce U.S. authority in certain forts and arsenals, and to collect the tariff in Southern ports. Lincoln publicly disavowed any intention to free a single slave.

By comparison, this was one of our more "honest" wars.

Now of course, all these ultimate outcomes were in the minds of somebody somewhere in a place of power at the time the wars began. Certainly the more radical American revolutionaries were angling for independence from the first bullet. But to draw the bulk of the country they needed to hold John Dickinson and the other moderates on the platform by making a general appeal to the rights of British citizens (as most Americans still felt themselves to be). I have no doubt Lincoln desired to see slavery ended (and the free blacks shipped off to Santo Domingo), but he knew the average Northerner never would fight in that crusade, and in fact the Southern secession presented an immediate economic and political crisis that forced his hand in spite of his personal philosophy.

All wars are so much alike that to compare them in detail sheds but little light. Still, a little familiarity with history does disabuse one of the sort of sham shock some people seem to feel on entering a war down one hole and coming out another. What? You mean the causus belli wasn't ironclad?

One parallel that keeps coming back to me, though, in the run-up to the Iraqi election, is beteween the post-war situation in the U.S. South in the late 1860s and in Iraq today.

"Reconstruction" in the old Confederacy was not only America's first experiment in "nation-building," it produced by way of backlash the first modern paramilitary uprising.

There is a rough parallel in the combination, on the one side, of a self-interested "foreign" power and a long-repressed native ethnic group (a majority in much of the region). They find themselves opposed by die-hard elements of the old regime and the bitter among the dispossessed former dominant group. (A missing component in the 1860s version is the foreign interlopers.)

The "resistance" in the old South was diverse, and fought for diverse reasons. Many of the up-country farmers of Georgia and the Carolinas who had fought to stay out of the Confederacy and hid from its conscripton agents now joined the Ku Klux Klan and battled U.S. federal authorities.

The benevolent intentions of the occupiers were clouded by plausible allegations of greed and self-interest. The carpetbagger governments opened up hundreds of miles of railroads in the South. Yet the railroads, financed by state taxes, did little good to the average Southerner, white or black, and lined the pockets of the railway bond investors -- Northern capitalists -- and Northern iron-mongers, who were the big corporations of the day.

The insurgent reaction against this rarely confronted the occupying army. Instead, it practiced political intimidation aimed in part at the more vulnerable civilian aspect of the occupying forces, but also at locals who cooperated with them and at the newly liberated slaves. Its tactics were terror, kidnapping, murder, voter intimidation, and anything that would sow a climate of fear.

The Grant administration never really got a handle on them, despite some local successes. Even after the official disbanding of the Klan in 1869, resistance continued under other names.

If this is a parallel situation, the outcome in the 1870s doesn't offer a great deal of hope for modern proponents of a free and democratic Iraq. Northerners soon grew weary of the expense and frustration and embarrassment of their "bayonet rule" over the South. The political winds shifted, and economic woes distracted the people and made the crusade for black freedom seem a waste of resources.

By 1873, leading Republican newspapers in the North were ready to wash their hands of the whole deal: "People are becoming tired of ... abstract questions, in which the overwhelming majority of them have no direct interest. The negro question, with all its complications, and the Reconstruction of the Southern States, with all its interminable embroilments, have lost much of the power they once wielded."

The national government quietly turned its back on Reconstruction, then the Republicans all but repudiated it in the Compromise of 1877, a raw political deal that seceded a broken and impoverished South back to its old masters in exchange for Republican control of the White House.

"Four years of conventional warfare during the Civil War had lost white Southerners their political independence," historian Jeffrey Rogers Hummel wrote, "but an average of six years of low-level unconventional warfare during Reconstruction, off and on depending on the state, had regained them their political autonomy. Northern Republicans gave up any further effort to protect the freedmen."

Yet the parallel need not be pushed too far. The Kurds and Shiites in Iraq are not the helpless minority the freedmen were in much of the old South. They have a leadership that appears up to the challenge of politics, and a people willing and able to work the machinery of democracy.

And the price of failure in this case is not an uncomfortable political compromise. The Ku Klux Klan sought to subvert free elections. The Islamists who covet Iraq seek to blow them to smithereens.

Labels: , ,

By the Book

Before I bought the Monier Monier-Williams Sanskrit-English dictionary, I bought a small Sanskrit-English dictionary online from When I got it, I realized it was going to be useless to me, because all the Indic words are in the Devanagari script, which I do not read sufficiently to transliterate. It looks to be an older book, possibly 19th century, originally published in India and reprinted in the 1990s in England.

Still, I find myself sitting up at night, thumbing through it, scanning the columns of strange script and familiar definitions. A dictionary half in an unknown language is a fountain of inspiration. Delightful connections are expressed there, along with conceptions that convince me that, in ancient India, the world had a civilization that has hardly been matched in subtlety and sophistication.

  • A man who does not cook for himself; a bad cook [a term of abuse].

  • A mouse; a miser.

  • Licked; surrounded.

  • m. A bee; a scorpion. f. A woman's female friend.

  • A whirlpool, a crowded place.

  • Inaccessible; unfit for sexual intercourse; difficult to understand.

There are whole sermons and life lessons in a single word:

  • Repentance, intense enmity, close attachment.

  • Fire; appetite; gold.

  • A great danger; a desperate act.

  • Supported; haughty; near; obstructed.

  • Touched; violated; judged; endured.

  • Relaxation; independence.

There are mysteries fit to be taken whole as a poem by Wallace Stevens or William Carlos Williams, or to inspire a Borges ficcione:

  • A benediction; a serpent's fang.

  • Homeless, imperishable.

  • Ungovernable; necessary.

  • Painting figures on the body; feathering an arrow.

I meet words I wish I had; that is, words for which there is no single word in English that covers the same territory:

  • Pleasure arising from sympathy.

  • One who has suppressed his tears.

  • An illustration of a thing by its reverse.

  • A practice not usually proper to the caste but allowable in time of distress.

  • A figure of speech dependent on sense and not on sound.

Sunday, January 23, 2005


One of our copy editors speaks English as a second language, and she often has difficulty with idioms and nuances. Friday, she asked aloud whether "redneck" was an insult.

Several of us explained, by way of answer, that it depends on who's using it and how. I added that, however, rednecks were the one ethnic group that could safely be mocked in the U.S. in a mainstream newspaper without popular censure.

This was one too many for my Chomskyite colleague, who shot back that redneck was a "lifestyle choice," not an ethnicity. I thought of a reply to that, but I held my tongue, in part because I didn't feel like Getting Into It on a Friday night, and in part because I hesitated because perhaps he was right about it not being an ethnicity, at least in most modern people's minds.

I have a bad habit of thinking historically in matters like this. And historically, "redneck" hews pretty close to "Appalachian Scots-Irish," which is an ethnicity. Just like "cracker," which was invented to describe the same ethnic group (out of a word from their dialect), it was used the way we might use "Arab" or "Indian" today. Not always with precision, but with a definite set of people in mind, bound by lineage and heritage.

In fact the very first surviving use of "redneck" in print is from the delightful early 19th century travel-bug Ann Royall, who defines it quite precisely as refering to "Presbyterians in Fayetteville," meaning, I think, Arkansas.

The same sort of person, in another part of 1830s America, from another background, would have been known by a different word. "Swamp Yankee" in Connecticut, perhaps, or "Canuck" up in Maine, or "shanty Irish."

"Redneck" implied something of a class (e.g. "poor white trash") as well as an ethnicity. Class and ethnicity often covered the same territory in the old days. "Hunkies" were steel-workers, but they were "Hungarians," too. The word probably is the source of the '60s black English slang "honky," the derogatory term for "white person."

Rednecks had "red necks" most likely because they were mule farmers who worked outdoors in the sun wearing a shirt and straw hat with their necks exposed. It obviously wouldn't apply to, for instance, blacks, be they slave or free.

Nowadays, I suppose, there can be black rednecks, as ironic as that is. "Redneck" seems to have taken on, in popular discourse, some of the un-ethnic qualities of "NASCAR dad." It is now identified with a set of values and tastes.

But I wonder. There's a way to disguise an ethnic slur by pretending to unmoor it from its ethnicity. Does anyone pretend to believe that the verb "jew" is a purely commercial construction having nothing to do with an intended slur? Or that to "welsh" on a bet shouldn't be taken in the wrong spirit by the Cymry?

I could be blinded by the history, but it seems to me that "redneck" retains an identity deeper than "executive" or "skinhead." For many people who wear the label, it's a cultural heritage, closer to what is represented by a religious background. After all, faith is a choice, too. To hear my Catholic-born friends talk about it, Catholicism is something you never really escape (hence the jocular term "recovering Catholic," borrowed from the language of AA). It's a matrix of experiences and a pattern of learned behaviors that help shape who you are. You can maneuver around them, but you can't really get rid of them.

At any rate, whether it's a choice, the way religion is, or an ethnicity, it doesn't seem fair to me to mock people based on that. I don't think my Chomskyite co-worker would be pleased if someone forwarded him a "dumb Muslim" jokes e-mail. And I don't think a political view that is based on damning America as the abode of exclusive white racism is serving itself well by simply reversing the formula by embracing a diversity that includes everyone but excludes rednecks.


Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?*

Ah, come on. It's not that hard. Here's a big hint: Philip K. Dick. Answer printed Tuesday.

* [I introduced my son, 14, to "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" recently. And actually the terminally dull teacher played by Ben Stein never utters the iconic line: Of course not; during the entire day in which the action takes place, Ferris is cutting school, not in class. That's the point of the movie. But like "Play it again, Sam," the incorrect version that so many people remember sums up something more true than the facts.]

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Amy sends a big kiss

To everyone who said nice things about her belly-dancing.

And to think I found her in the basement of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

"Lincoln" Log

"Ed Stanton" is the pen name of a career U.S. Navy officer currently serving with the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group. Want to get close to the asymmetrical relief efforts mounted by the U.S. and the U.N. in the wake of the horrific South Asia tsunami? Here's one look at the crossing paths, when the muckety-mucks of the relief agencies ended up aboard the carrier doing the work:

As I went through the breakfast line, I overheard one of the U.N. strap-hangers, a longhaired guy with a beard, make a sarcastic comment to one of our food servers. He said something along the lines of “Nice china, really makes me feel special,” in reference to the fact that we were eating off of paper plates that day. It was all I could do to keep from jerking him off his feet and choking him, because I knew that the reason we were eating off paper plates was to save dishwashing water so that we would have more water to send ashore and save lives. That plus the fact that he had no business being there in the first place.

Read the whole thing. Professionally gruff, dignified but not prettified.

Friday, January 21, 2005

Rant Control

Carla, at Preemptive Karma doesn't like my musings on U.S. power and Iranian nuclear ambitions.

Her first words are, "Learn, dammit!" Lovely way to introduce yourself.

I'm probably even more ignorant than she thinks, though, because I've read her post several times and I can't for the life of me figure out what it is I'm supposed to learn from it. Unless by "learn" she means, "just start feeling the way I do," which is entirely possible.

She says it's so obvious that the U.S. military is overstretched. So obvious that even the Iranians and the Syrians know it. How she knows what they mutter over their dinner tables is a good mystery that goes unanswered.

"Wake up and smell the coffee, Callimachus. The US military is overstretched, overburdened and barely treading water when it comes to dealing with Afghanistan and Iraq."

I think we're doing far better than treading water in Iraq and Afghanistan, but that's another story. [I have to wonder if the left believes that, in fact, this is the absolute limit of what we are capable of doing, why it raises a constant kerfluffle about not having had more "boots on the ground" in Iraq last year?]

But I do have to wonder how this stretched-to-the-breaking-point U.S. military managed to be in Sumatra firstest with the mostest in a matter of days after the tsunami, on top of everything else, while the U.N. was still trying to find a pair of matching socks and the FAX number for a five-star hotel in Singapore.

And I wonder how a United States with a smaller base population than it has today could have fielded armed forces that conquered the fascist empires of the 1940s, or stared down the Soviet Union in the 1980s.

But how can I "learn" if she's too busy posturing to teach? Or is this just another Michael Moore experience?

It seems clear to me, in spite of what she feels, that the U.S. military can deflate any "Axis of Evil" or rogue nation government with one hand behind its back. Defeating Syria? As one general said, "It would take seven days. One day to defeat Syria and six to stop laughing."

Nation-building is another story. Sowing seeds of democracy among the Middle Eastern tares is another story. That takes numbers, long-term planning, diverse structures, and creative capabilities. That takes long-term commitment by a voting populace willing to make a sacrifice for the good of the world and the future. Clearly our leadership hasn't done that job in Iraq as well as I wish it had, and clearly about half of our people aren't up for the job. But that wasn't the subject of my post, was it?

"Callimachus refuses to learn from history"

What history would that be? She mentions none. History of Gertrude Bell in the Middle East? History of Napoleon in the Rhineland? History of the Nazis in Yugoslavia? History of the post-Civil War U.S. South? I'll be glad to talk history, but you've got to name some. Otherwise, she's just doing the end-zone victory dance without actually scoring a single point.

"Not to mention the fact that we can't trust our intelligence community and the Executive Branch braintrust to get it right and not be completely wreckless. Or did you miss the fact that pretty much all of Bush's entire premise for invading Iraq has fallen apart like a cheap house of cards?"

Ah, now I get it. It's the tutti-frutti ranting style, where the only scoring system is based on how many anti-Bush tropes you can cram into one sugar cone. Don't even try to follow along; you'll strip the gears of your mind changing topics so quickly.

She's confusing two different points there. "Intelligence" in the spying sense is never exact. Someone smarter than me once explained it like this: You're the president, it's July 2006: the director of the CIA tells you there's a 50-50 chance that North Korea is going to transfer nuclear missiles to al Qaida in the next two weeks. What do you do? That's the nature of what is mis-called "intelligence."

[I also didn't miss the fact that it's "reckless" she's after and there's no such word as "wreckless," but she's the teacher and I'm the ignoramus, and it's not good form for the guy who's been handed the dunce cap to correct teacher.]

Bush's premise for invading Iraq always was a matrix of objections and arguments, best-guesses, certanties, and policies. It involved U.N. resolutions as well as neocon ethics. It was humanitarian and self-interested. It pitched its appeals with different weights in different places -- there was the domestic mix and the U.N. dance remix.

But when you add it up, yes, in fact, Saddam was a genocidal tyrant. Yes, he did try to get yellowcake from Niger. Yes, he did covet a WMD arsenal. Yes, the sanctions and inspections were keeping him from it, but that system was well on the way to breaking down, largely because he had discovered a way to subvert it.

"If you don't think the guys in charge of Syria, Iran and North Korea aren't paying attention to that uncomfortable fact, let me disabuse you of your illusions right now."

But actually, that fact, in this context, doesn't make me uncomfortable at all. I hope they're paying attention to our public disclosures about our intelligence in response to the Iraq war.

For one, real democracies have transparent institutions, and while I'm sure the mullahs are giggling like schoolgirls over the Congressional hearings, they may notice that their restless population has upped its respect for America a notch and longs for such transparency in Teheran.

For another, the leaders of Iran also now know this U.S. administration is willing to act, rather than wait for the perfect intelligence that never comes, or comes too late to be any good.

No doubt also they're paying attention to the fact that a large part of the Western public is more focused on hating America than on paying attention to what Iran or Syria or North Korea is doing. And no matter how badly Iran's leaders choose to misbehave, they know they can count on a large chunk of the Western "street" irrationally blaming everything on the U.S.

And what am I supposed to learn from that? Learn that the strong and willing and hopeful should give up and lie down and die because some crickets are chirping?

"While it may be gratifying to some base need to be a tough guy ... more arrogant posturing and ass-kicking style tactics will get us nowhere."

She conflates a tough negotiating position, and a tough frame of mind, with being a thoughtless physical bully. As a parent, I have to be tough and firm in my positions. That doesn't ever require me to raise a hand and do the slightest physical violence. People who can't differentiate the two probably shouldn't be parents. They certainly shouldn't dabble in world affairs.

"Why? The notion that we're there to back up our words with tough action....Bush and what army?"

That's the "Dirty Harry" question, isn't it?

Clint squints at the mullahs: "I know what you're thinking, punk. You're thinking, 'Has he got five divisions in Iraq, or just four?' Well, to tell you the truth, I've forgotten myself in all this excitement. But being as this is the U.S. military, the most powerful ass-kicker in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you've got to ask yourself a question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya punk?"

Rather messy, but I'll still take that as a deterent. Better than rolling over and playing dead in the presence of the crickets.

And come to think of it, what exactly is Carla's proposal in this case? I guess that's another thing I'd like to "learn."

"And then there's the intelligence aspect. How can the American citizenry be sure that Bush, the CIA and other intelligence agencies haven't screwed up another country's information? We can't. The bottom line is ... we can't trust these guys to get it right. Until they can prove to us that they've managed to sort out their problems and reformed to the point where they are once again effective, there's no reason to believe they know what they're talking about."

And how exactly do they prove that to her? Perhaps by telling her Rogue Nation X intends to set off a nuclear bomb in her city on Date X, and then doing nothing, and then letting it happen. That way, you know, we can all be certain they got it right.

She seems to think America belongs in some global Time Out room because we made everyone else so upset, because so many people feel we misled them (people who generally didn't believe us in the first place anyhow, and never will). So what happens then? The world goes on while we're bound down Gulliver-style. When do we get out of time out? When there's a Democrat in the White House, maybe? And what state will the world be in then?

"The rest of the talk about Europe and Israel is useless and meaningless. This is about the US and what we can do and what we can't."

Since when did left-wing progressives become ideologues on behalf of U.S. unilateralism? One of my points was that the rest of the world does matter. She says it doesn't. Iran doesn't matter? Iran having nuclear weapons doesn't matter? Israel doesn't matter? All that matters is America? Hello, Pat Buchanan.

"And right now...we can't trust Bush and we can't trust the intelligence agencies to get it right."

I don't particularly trust all the cops in my town. They're few enough that I know many of them by name. I'm in a position to have to deal with them more than most people do. They're a mixed bag; some very good, some very bad. They've totally screwed up some cases. When a drunken idiot got into his pick-up and wiped out a family, they took pictures of the accident scene with a camera they forgot to load with film. Case thrown out. They come down especially hard on minorities. They seem to take a particular sadistic delight in doing what they do.

Do I want to abolish the police force? Take them off the street entirely? Do I blame the police for the drunk driver? When someone is trying to break into my house, am I going to call Kofi Annan? The local "Women in Black" chapter?

Learn, yourself. Learn to get real.