Thursday, March 31, 2005

The WMD Intelligence Report

is here, at least the declassified bulk of it, and the authors say they wrote the original so that all the essential material cound safely be declassified.

You can read the whole thing, or just the pages on Iraq. Either way, it will arm you to deal with the hard anti-Iraq war spins I'm seeing in a number of media articles on it.

Indeed, defenders of the Intelligence Community have asked whether it would be fair to expect the Community to get the Iraq WMD question absolutely right. How, they ask, could our intelligence agencies have concluded that Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction—given his history of using them, his previous deceptions, and his repeated efforts to obstruct United Nations inspectors? And after all, the United States was not alone in error; other major intelligence services also thought that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

We agree, but only in part. We do not fault the Intelligence Community for formulating the hypothesis, based on Saddam Hussein’s conduct, that Iraq had retained an unconventional weapons capability and was working to augment this capability. Nor do we fault the Intelligence Community for failing to uncover what few Iraqis knew; according to the Iraq Survey Group only a handful of Saddam Hussein’s closest advisors were aware of some of his decisions to halt work on his nuclear program and to destroy his stocks of chemical and biological weapons. Even if an extraordinary intelligence effort had gained access to one of these confidants, doubts would have lingered.

But with all that said, we conclude that the Intelligence Community could and should have come much closer to assessing the true state of Iraq’s weapons programs than it did. It should have been less wrong—and, more importantly, it should have been more candid about what it did not know. In particular, it should have recognized the serious—and knowable—weaknesses in the evidence it accepted as providing hard confirmation that Iraq had retained WMD capabilities and programs.

Overall, as I read this, the errors that were made -- and they were legion -- were done again and again at the level of the intelligence agencies, and the information that was passed up to the president and the Cabinet was poisoned by bad sources, inadequate vetting, and false assumptions.

These are errors — serious errors. But these errors stem from poor tradecraft and poor management. The Commission found no evidence of political pressure to influence the Intelligence Community’s pre-war assessments of Iraq’s weapons programs. As we discuss in detail in the body of our report, analysts universally asserted that in no instance did political pressure cause them to skew or alter any of their analytical judgments. We conclude that it was the paucity of intelligence and poor analytical tradecraft, rather than political pressure, that produced the inaccurate pre-war intelligence assessments.

Apparently, one of the reasons the intelligence agencies made such a liberal estimate of Saddam's interestin WMD, and his ability to craft them, was because the intelligence agencies had been astonished to learn, after the 1990-91 war, that he had progressed so much farther along that path than they had suspected. They didn't want to be fooled twice.

Carnival of Etymologies

[A regular Thursday feature of "Done With Mirrors"]

Today's list of words to be dissected was dragged, writhing and begging for mercy, from phrases that appeared in the Google "Zeitgeist" and the top 50 searches on Lycos for the week ending March 26.

* * *

Sin City, the new stylish violence flick starring Charles Bukowski, Frodo Baggins, and sumptuous eye-cicle Jessica Alba, got a ton of hits this week. But what is sin, anyhow?

Old English synn has relatives in most of the Germanic languages which are the basic words for "moral wrongdoing, transgression, offense against God, misdeed." Old Frisian sende, or Modern German Sünde, for instance. The proto-Germanic root of this group seems to have meant originally "to be true." That would relate sin to Gothic sonjis and Old Norse sannr, both of which mean "true." (Ultimately, this comes from the past participle of the ancient Indo-European base meaning "is," which also is preserved in is).

So what's the connection between "truth" and "sin?" The semantic development seems to be via the notion of "to be truly the one (who is guilty)." For instance, the Vikings had a phrase verð sannr at "be found guilty of," which might be translated as "to be true."

Similarly, the phrase "it is being" is used in Hittite confessional formulas. The same process probably yielded the Latin word sons (genetive sontis) "guilty, criminal" from the present participle of sum "to be, that which is." In fact, some etymologists believe the Germanic word was a direct early borrowing of Latin sontis rather than a native equivalent.

One waggish linguist has explained the connection of "to be truly the one" and "to be guilty of sin" by reference to the 1968 U.S. presidential campaign. Richard Nixon had a slogan, "Nixon's the one." Some of his opponents then printed up posters showing a pretty woman in an advanced state of pregnancy and the words "Nixon's the one."

* * *

Prom season approaches, and girls must have been online in droves last week shopping for prom dresses. Prom in the sense of "student formal dance in celebration of graduation" is an 1890s American shortening of promenade, which was being used in the sense of "school dance" by 1887.

Its original sense, when borrowed from French in the 16th century, was "leisurely walk," and it comes from the French phrase se promener, which meant "go for a walk." But the Late Latin source of the French word is promenare, which meant "to drive (animals) onward," from pro- "forth" and minare "to drive (animals) with shouts." The modern word seems to have drifted far from its roots, but faculty chaperones at high school proms might argue rather that the meaning has come a full circle.

* * *

March madness got a lot of hits last week, but now it's April

The word arrived in English in the late 13th century as aueril, from Old French avrill, which comes in turn from Latin (mensis) Aprilis, literally the "(month) of Venus." The second month of the ancient Roman calendar was dedicated to the goddess Venus, in this case perhaps from her name Apru, an Etruscan borrowing of Greek Aphrodite.

April Fool is attested from 1687; the customs of sending people on false errands on this day seem to have come to England from France in the late 17th century. In Cumberland, Westmorland, and northern parts of Lancashire and Yorkshire, however, May 1 was the day for hoaxing, and the fool was a May gosling.

* * *

As the name of the first full month of spring, April replaced Old English Eastermonað, but the two names both honor fertility goddesses.

Anglo-Saxon Eastre comes from proto-Germanic *Austron, the name of a goddess of fertility and sunrise whose feast was celebrated at the spring equinox. Her name is built from the ancient Indo-European root meaning "to shine," which was used especially in reference to the dawn and has yielded words for "dawn" and "east" in many languages.

Almost all English's neighboring languages in Europe use a variant of Latin pasche to name this holiday, but evidently the Anglo-Saxons were so fond of their fertility goddess and her day that the Church allowed them to keep the name. Bede himself says Anglo-Saxon Christians adopted her name and many of the celebratory practices into their Mass of Christ's resurrection.

Easter Island was so called because it was discovered by Europeans on Easter Sunday, 1722.

Latin pascha, by the way, comes, via Greek, directly from the Semitic word for "Passover," specifically from Aramaic pasha.

So what do you call this coming Sunday, the first Sunday after Easter? It's Quasimodo Sunday, in the old Church calendar, from Latin quasi modo, the first words of introit for the first Sunday after Easter: quasi modo geniti infantes "as newborn babes" (1 Pet. ii:2). The hunchback in Victor Hugo's novel was supposed to have been abandoned as an infant at Notre Dame on this day, hence his name.

* * *

Finally, the Internet search engines reported a spike in searches for spring break. Spring, by itself, meaning "season following winter" only dates from the 16th century. It's a shortened form of the Middle English terms such as springing time, spring-time, and spring of the year, which by the 14th century had replaced older Lent as the season name. The Old English term for "spring fever" was lenctenadle.

The notion, of course, is of the "spring of the year," when plants "spring up." From c.1300 the noun spring in English had a general sense of "action or time of rising or springing into existence," and it was used of sunrise, the waxing of the moon, and rising tides. But today, this sense only survives in the season name.

Other Germanic languages tend to take words for "fore" or "early" as their roots for the season name, such as Danish voraar, Dutch voorjaar, literally "fore-year;" and German Frühling, from Middle High German vrueje "early."

English almost got a Frenchified name for "spring," as in the 15th century the season commonly was called prime-temps, after Old French prin tans (modern French printemps, which in the 16th century replaced primevère as the common word for "spring"), from Latin tempus primum, literally "first time, first season."

The original Indo-European term for "spring of the year" is preserved in the second element of Italian primavera, which comes from Latin prima vera, the plural of primus ver, literally "first spring." Other relatives of Latin ver are Old Norse var, Greek ear, Sanskrit vasantah, Persian bahar, and Old Slavic vesna, all meaning "spring," and Lithuanian vasara, whose sense has shifted to "summer."

* * *

Springtime, proms, sins, and fertility goddesses; and even Easter fits the theme, if you crack the shell of its modern meaning and get to the yolk.


Dumbass + Typewriter = Letter to Editor

Guess who got to compile tomorrow's "letters" page? Yup. I wish I had saved the original version of this one, before I cleaned up the sentence structure and grammar. It's a doozie:

When are the American people going to see the Republican Party for what it has become? America’s new Mafia.

They just don’t feel they have to work with others; if they can’t win, they steal. If they can’t steal, they just make their own laws or change existing ones.
For more than 200 years, America’s leaders have had to deal with checks and balances. Because without them, one party can and will do whatever it darn well pleases. Our Mafia now wants to do away with theirs.

It’s a thing called a filibuster. Republicans hate the filibuster. Why? Because it means they don’t always get their way. And knowing that should put fear into all Americans.

I will remind you that before the Republicans gained a majority in the Senate, Democrats were the majority party for more than four decades. Did they ever try to silence the other party? No.

Guess how many times they had to deal with the Republicans calling filibusters? You know, I really have no idea, but you can bet the Republicans used the filibusters thousands of times over the last 200 years.

Why don’t the American people see just how very dangerous losing this right will be to each and every one of them?

Americans had better wake up and demand Republicans play fair. We need to fight for this very valuable right, before you wake up one morning and ask yourself what happened to our wonderful America, our rights, our freedoms.

When you give one party all the power, democracy goes out the window. When you let a political group get that powerful they don’t have any checks and balances, you lose. We all will lose.

Emphasis added. I love it!

Those Who Forget the Past

Ohio University history professor Kevin Mattson, writing in "The American Prospect," has some excellent advice for modern American liberals: Don't take the '60s as your model. Observe them with a cold eye, don't worship them as the Golden Age. Study the tactics and the evolution of attitudes, but do so to learn what worked than, or what might still work today, and ruthlessly reject the flops.

The trouble is, so much of what makes the '60s appealing to progressives, in a hazy, nostalgic way, were the flops.

This is the ugly legacy of 1968: the authenticity of conscience pitted against the requirements of a pluralistic and conflicted society, the ethic of expression winning out against all other aims, including practicality. “Direct nonviolent action” no longer means what King believed it meant; it now means remaining pure by turning “Your Back on Bush,” as recent protesters did at the inauguration, even if the result wasn’t anything more than making them feel better. Expressive anti-politics is the last refuge of the powerless. Impulsive, it bursts like a flame and then burns out, to be felt only in the heart of the participant while the ruling class, unperturbed, goes on its merry way.

Yep. I blame (though he doesn't) the tiresome hippie relics who still dominate the "progressive" factions in so many places. All their hope is of a return to the glory days of '68, and they vampirize the young blood in a bid to reclaim their failed idealism. I remember, when the U.S. attack on Saddam got underway in 2003, a couple of co-workers who fit that description, sitting at a party in my house, decrying the ineffectiveness of the few street protests that broke out in the U.S. They boasted about how much better their generation did it, and yearned to go into some big city and "shut it down." I couldn't help thinking, though I didn't say it, "what good would that do to anyone? Iraqi or American, soldier or civilian."

Like many another recent commentator on the left, Mattson notes that the conservatives spent their wilderness years of the 1960s building a real movement, developing and testing ideas and strategies, and tacking together a durable power base. When you went to a bookstore to find a book about "the Sixties" 20 years ago, you'd find only variations of Todd Gitlin's apotheosis of the Haight-Ashbury. But it's likely now that historians will remember the '60s not as the Age of Aquarius, but, as M. Stanton Evans wrote, “as the era in which conservatism, as a viable political force, finally came into its own.”

This is especially true for ideas. Who now reads left-wing books from 1968? Just try Hoffman’s Revolution for the Hell of It or Woodstock Nation. Or try Theodore Roszak’s The Making of a Counter Culture, a puff piece about the “non-intellective” exploration of “visionary splendor” and “human communion.” Or read the prognostication of “revolution” of “consciousness” in Charles Reich’s The Greening of America. Read even the otherwise smart Susan Sontag, who praises the worst elements of Third World revolutions in Styles of Radical Will (she later stood down from many of those positions). All of these books reflect a utopian hallucination not dissimilar from the style of protests on the streets of Chicago in 1968.

He sees an opportunity in the lead balloon of Bush's awkward bid to re-write Social Security. "We shouldn’t defend a program inherited from the New Deal in a rearguard fashion but should reiterate the idea of a shared national purpose based on collective sacrifice." But I'm not sure that the public's antipathy to Bush's plan was based on a sense of values as much as a suspicion about re-wiring something the average person didn't really understand, which seemed to be working pretty well so far. In other words, Bush's plan is faltering on the essential conservatism of the American voters (and the fact that we stink at math and economics).

Mattson does better in suggesting a liberal approach to foreign policy:

It’s not good enough to protest the Iraq War. ... Today, we need to articulate this liberal foreign policy more forcefully. Its central message should be that American responsibility abroad shouldn’t rely on guns alone or a sense of superior moral virtue. Liberals should argue for nurturing civil society and democratic institutions throughout the world, envisioning an equivalent of the Marshall Plan for the Middle East and elsewhere. Liberals need to emphasize that the war against terrorism is a war of ideas as much as a war of military power and intelligence. ... We need not allow Bush to expropriate the rhetoric of democracy and freedom; we need to reshape these ideas in a more responsible and meaningful manner.

Liberals must also talk about shared sacrifice during wartime. This shouldn’t be about getting the military vote, even if that wouldn’t hurt. The tradition of national greatness expects shared sacrifice from all members of our society. As JFK quipped, “Ask what you can do for your country.” Only liberals will make it clear that the wealthiest elements of society should provide for the common good, so that we have enough to pay veterans’ benefits and provide other services. None of this will come from protest marches against the war, which to date have accomplished little more -- as unfair as this might seem -- than to permit the partisans of the right to raise questions about the left’s patriotism.

That looks like a winning formula. At least, it appeals to me, and if I represent something like the center in modern America, that might count.


Terri Schiavo

I've stayed away from commenting on the Terri Schiavo tragedy, mostly because I loathe a media circus. I feel sufficiently guilty for contributing to this in my professional capacity (newspaper editor). Adding more commentary and rhetoric to a tragedy like this is like pouring more crap into a clogged toilet.

My sympathies are on the side of the parents. As a parent, I can empathize with their anguish. Yes, they opened the door to the media circus, but if you believe your child's life is threatened, what price is that to pay?

I can imagine, and it's painful just to imagine it, a situation where I would decide that my child's life should be ended, for his sake. But the condition in my imagined scene is not the one I saw on the video clips of Schiavo. Admittedly, we saw only the same few clips over and over. Who knows how representative they were.

But her eyes were open. She moved about. Something was going on in there. I have no experience in neurology. But do we know, and how certainly, that there was no consciousness below the surface incapacity that we saw? What if the woman was intact on the inside, aware of her surroundings, but her connection with the body she inhabited had been severed by her trauma? What if she was a living embodiment of Poe's nightmare of being buried alive?

And then what chance do you take that that might be true, even if you're pretty sure it's not? How sure? 90 percent? If it's your child?

I do believe people have a right to end their lives with dignity, and living wills ought to be honored. But this was not such a clear-cut case. Her family succeeded in creating in me a reasonable doubt about whether she would have wanted this end.

On the other hand, if the husband was able to get on with his life, and to live free after the loss of the woman he married (her self, if not her physical body), what motive would he have had to pursue this, through all the abuse heaped on him, except a sincere conviction that he was fulfilling her wishes?

Maybe I'm missing something. Like I said, I haven't paid full attention to this.

Finally, I'm perplexed by the role of the state in this. The order was to cease medical treatment, as I understand it. But that is, in effect, a death sentence. How does the state order the death of someone who has not been convicted of a crime? And if it is going to be in the business of killing such people, shouldn't it do so humanely? Two weeks of parching starvation doesn't strike me as a non-cruel death.

So, I'm making my living will right now. If I get in bad shape, please don't starve me to death. Kill me with an overdose of Ecstasy.

RIP, Terri Schaivo. You deserved better from all of us.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

The Endless Fascination

Two new books roiling the waters in Germany, about the topic that never ceases to roil the waters in Germany.

Hitler’s instructions to the butler were explicit: “Get hold of the petrol, pour it over our bodies and set them on fire. You must never allow my corpse to fall in the hands of the Russians. They would make a spectacle in Moscow out of my body and put it in a waxworks.”

From What the butler saw: Germans fall under the spell of Hitler book.

"About 95 percent of the German population benefited financially from the National Socialist system. The Nazis' unprecedented killing machine maintained its momentum by robbing from others. ... Millions of people were killed -- the Jews were gassed, 2 million Soviet war prisoners were starved to death ... so that the German people could maintain their good mood." By contrast, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill cajoled his people in 1940, just after France had fallen, to "brace ourselves to our duties" so that in a thousand years, "men will still say, this was their finest hour."

Aly's theory is not only fascinating for its brazenness, but also for the ruckus it is causing in Germany, where lately the trend has been to accept that Germans, too, suffered under Hitler and under the Allied bombing raids at the war's end. Aly is now negating much of that suffering, insisting that every single German benefited from Hitler's culture of killing. The Feuilleton, or cultural pages, of German newspapers -- which only recently exploded with coverage of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Aushwitz -- have teemed with articles about Aly since the book, "Hitler's People's State" came out on March 10. In the left-leaning newspaper Die Tageszeitung, he has even engaged in an open fight with Cambridge economics historian Adam Tooze who has criticized the mathematical methods he used to substantiate his theory. Sales, too, are much better than he or his publisher imagined. "I didn't write the book for the lay person," he says. "It's crammed full of facts and dry historical and economic data and has close to 1,000 footnotes." But if people want to read it, he says he won't complain. It will come out in French this autumn and in English in 2006.

From How Germans Fell for the 'Feel-Good' Fuehrer.

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Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Two Books

Two books recently have been waltzing one another around in my head. David Hackett Fischer's new one, "Liberty and Freedom," is a visual tour of those two words and of the national symbols that partake of "what H.G. Wells called an American attitude of optimistic fatalism."

Paul Johnson's "Modern times" is a history of the world from about 1919 to 1990. At 784 pages (with another 56 of footnotes), it's got a formidable bulk, but the prose goes down like good Scotch. It takes a position that will make a lot of people uncomfortable -- me included -- that the abandonment of traditional virtues and religions, and the belief that they could be replaced by pure reason, opened the door in the 20th century to all manner of horrors.

His target is the modern state, which in the 20th century replaced the church. It is an "agency of benevolence," "trying to do collectively what the sensible and morally educated person did individually." This reached its Götterdämmerung in the "totalitarian utopias" of Lenin and Hitler, but it also poisoned a host of failed "people's republics" in the Third World.

The state was, up to the 1980s, the great gainer of the twentieth century; and the central failure. Before 1914 it was rare for the public sector to embrace more than 10 per cent of the economy; by the end of the 1970s, and even beyond, the state took up 45 per cent or more of the GNP in liberal countries, let alone totalitarian ones. But whereas, at the time of the Versailles Treaty in 1919, most intelligent people believed that an enlarged state could increase the sum total of human happiness, by the 1990s this view was held by no one outside a small, diminishing and dispirited band of zealots, most of them academics. The experiment had been tried in innumerable ways, and it had failed in nearly all of them. The state had proved itself an insatiable spender, an unrivalled waster. It had also proved itself the greatest killer of all time. By the 1990s, state action had been responsible for the violent or unnatural deaths of some 125 million people during the century, more perhaps than it had succeeded in destroying during the whole of human history up to 1900. Its inhuman malevolence had more than kept pace with its growing size and expanding means.

The fall from grace of the state likewise, by the early 1990s, had begun to discredit its agents, the activist politicians, whose phenomenal rise in numbers and authority was one of the most important and baleful human developments of modern times. It was Jean-Jacques Rousseau who had first announced that human beings could be transformed for the better by the political process, and that the agency of change, the creator of what he termed the 'new man,' would be the state, and the self-appointed benefactors who controlled it for the good of all. In the twentieth century his theory was finally put to the test, on a colossal scale, and tested to destruction. As we have noted, by the year 1900 politics was already replacing religion as the chief form of zealotry. To archetypes of the new class, such as Lenin, Hitler and Mao Tse-Tung, politics -- by which they meant the engineering of society for lofty purposes -- was the one legitimate form of moral activity, the only sure means of improving humanity. This view, which would have struck an earlier age as fantastic, even insane, became to some extent the orthodoxy everywhere: diluted in the West, in virulent form in the Communist countries and much of the Third World. At the democratic end of the spectrum, the political zealots offered New Deals, Great Societies and welfare states; at the totalitarian end, cultural revolutions; always and everywhere, Plans. These zealots marched across the decades and hemispheres: mountebanks, charismatics,
exaltés, secular saints, mass murderers, all united by their belief that politics was the cure for human ills: Sun Yat-sen and Ataturk, Stalin and Mussolini, Khrushchev, Ho Chi Minh, Pol Pot, Castro, Nehru, U Nu and Sukharno, Perón and Allende, Nkrumah and Nyerere, Nasser, Shah Pahlevi, Gadafy and Saddam Hussein, Honecker and Ceausescu.

There are problems with this: The 19th century had its own nightmares, and the overall spread of wealth and health in the world in the 20th century, much of it as a result of state-sponsored activities, seems to argue that not everything now is worse than it was.

It's an axiom of history that no people who lived through a period or an experience are capable of understanding it in historical terms. But to those of us who lived through any part of the blood-boltered 20th century, Johnson throws down a challenge difficult to match: prove that the nation-state wasn't the star player of the century.

* * *

I have some quibbles with Fischer's book, too; in fact I have quibbles all throughout, starting on page 6 where he seems to present the Anglo-Saxon wappentake as an equivalent of the Norse version, when the word was never used in recorded English in the Norse sense. It's likely that the ultimate origin is, in fact, in the sense found in Norse, but that's not proven. Also, he lists a word as "Old Scots," when I'm pretty sure he means Old Saxon.

But these trifles do not detract from the joy of his exploration. On any page of it, you meet little lost gems from the history books, like this one:

"In 1784, a British ship on a passage from India stopped at the Comoro Islands in the Mozambique Channel, off the coast of southern Africa. It found that the African inhabitants had risen in revolution against their Arab rulers. Their rallying cry was 'America is free! Cannot we be?' "

He puts fresh shine on the old distinction of "freedom from" and "freedom to." Most modern writers on the topic recognize a distinction (Isaiah Berlin in "Two Concepts of Liberty," denied the distinction, but his use of "negative" and "positive" liberty amounts to essentially the same thing).

In an age when these two words form so important a part of the national discourse, every fresh reminder of their shape is timely: Liberty as independence; freedom as belonging. Liberty as classical, Roman; freedom as tribal, Germanic. Liberty as political, legal; freedom as social, psychological. Liberty's etymological family includes "libertine." Freedom's includes "friend."

I am especially interested in Fischer's section on the Revolutionary War. "The American Revolution was strong because it included so many ranks, regions, and religions, with visions of liberty and freedom," he writes. And he traces the disparate threads of them, from the strong-rooted liberty tree of New England, to the Philadelphia Quakers and their statehouse bell, to the "Don't Tread on Me" rattlesnake of the Carolina hill country.

And he notes that "all envisioned liberty and freedom as a union of ethical ideals and material interests." That still is true, of course. Any political faction is doomed to minority if it fails to take account of the essential fact that the bulk of Americans, rich and poor, thinks work toward purely material success is a laudable pursuit. This isn't some evil seed injected into the nation by Reagan and Bush. It's in the blood. The poor in America in 1776 didn't want to smash property; they wanted the right to work to get it.

The Declaration of Independence itself is America's first party platform, a cobbling together of regional interests little connected to one another (New England's obsession with Catholic Quebec, South Carolina's defensiveness about slavery). Jefferson made it so from its first draft. But it seems to me a key word in it is "pursuit." That is one verb that united all the regions, all the factions. If the Declaration had held forth an American right merely to "happiness," what a different prerogative it would have presented to the state the rebels created. It would have propelled us right into Paul Johnson's 20th century. Yet even the most radical Whigs (Paine, for instance) spoke of freedom as an absolute level for all men, but specifically rejected the notion of leveling of wealth.

A third book in this dance is Gertrude Himmelfarb's "The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments."

As this excellent review points out, the book is "more important than it looks." I read it months ago, but it keeps sinking deeper into my perception, and shifting and reordering other ideas. How could I have learned to connect the American Revolution with the Enlightenment, without noticing the very obvious disconnection between the ideas and ideals of the Founders and those of the philosophes?

The French philosophes thought the social classes were divided by the chasm of poverty and, more crucially, of superstition and ignorance. They despised the lower orders because they were in thrall to Christianity. The editor of the Encyclopédie, Denis Diderot, declared the common people had no role in the Age of Reason. “The general mass of men are not so made that they can either promote or understand this forward march of the human spirit.” Indeed, “the common people are incredibly stupid,” he said, and were little more than beasts: “too idiotic — bestial — too miserable, and too busy” to enlighten themselves. Voltaire agreed. The lower orders lacked the intellect required to reason and so must be left to wallow in superstition. They could be controlled and pacified only by the sanctions and strictures of religion which, Voltaire proclaimed, “must be destroyed among respectable people and left to the canaille large and small, for whom it was made.”

Johnson, who wrote a blurb on the dust jacket of Himmelfarb's book, rightly connects the modern totalitarian utopias to Rousseau. The U.S. Founders had not read Rousseau when they did their work, at least not his political writing.

The classical idea of "virtue" -- defined by Himmelfarb as "the will and capacity to put the public interest over the private" seems to be the counterbalance to Johnson's horror of the modern state and the church of politics. But even in the virtuous 18th century, there wasn't enough of it to go around.

John Adams wrote to his cousin, Sam, "I think with you, that knowledge and benevolence ought to be promoted as much as possible; but, despairing of ever seeing them sufficiently general for the security of society, I am for seeking institutions which may supply in some degree the defect."

Where public virtue is insufficient, politics steps in. The problem is not unique to the 20th century. And the American Founders -- whose common sense genius never fails to astonish me -- foresaw the perils of the modern state. They attempted to head it off by playing one human weakness against another.

Separation of powers, checks and balances, competition of opposite and rival interests (sects, classes, regions) were going to protect the young United States against corruption and despotism. The Framers saw the potential for politics to run amok; they did not believe men were gods and they did not confuse citizens with philosophers.

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The Old New Media

The American Revolution happened in an era of new media. In those days, "new media" was ink on rag paper. In Germany alone, according to one source, "410 new magazines and newspapers were founded in the 1760s, 718 in the 1770s, and 1,225 in the 1780s."

The Founders of America knew how to exploit this media, and to use it to steer public opinion at home and abroad. I credit their success, at least in part, to that. Whig leaders in Massachusetts sent news of the skirmish at Lexington scudding across the Atlantic on a fast schooner, and got their version of events into print in England weeks before General Gage's official report arrived.

Leading up to the war, and after it, they poured their rhetoric into the newspapers. A lasting monument to that is the work we call "The Federalist," 85 articles published over 10 months, none terribly long, including recycled letters and speeches and some direct rebuttals to anti-Federalist critics. They resemble nothing in a modern newspaper, but bear comparison to a series of brilliantly reasoned blog posts.

Monday, March 28, 2005

Road Trip 2

continued from below

On the edge of Eatonton in central Georgia stands the Uncle Remus Museum. It's a little collection of woodcarvings and 19th-century artifacts, hapazardly catalogued, housed in a log hovel built from material from two slave cabins.

A kindly matron from Atlanta, who moved to the countryside after retirement, explained the place to us from behind the glass counter which held books of "Uncle Remus" stories translated into dozens of languages. The tales from a plantation up the road belong to world folklore now.

Bre'er Rabbit is the Dogon trickster in backwoods Georgia garb. But I wonder how well the stories are received today among the descendants of those who created them. Joel Chandler Harris, it seems, never regarded the fables as his own literary productions. He was recounting what he was told in the quarters on the plantation, and he always said so. The "dese" and "dose" dialect in which they are written seems to me not to degrade the narrator, but to keep a respectful distance between the white author and the African creations he was passing from the slaves' firesides to the wide world.

Harris was a man painfully shy -- ashamed of his origins, perhaps (his mother was a grass widow and wealthy neighbors paid for his schooling) -- who worked as a teenaged printer at a Georgia country newspaper before the Civil War. As an outsider, he seemed to feel more comfortable in the company of the slaves than of the wealthy white planters around him.

The only other visitors we saw in the museum in Eatonton were a young white couple, storytellers.

Alice Walker also is from Eatonton. Different media, different ages, different goals, different voices, but the two writers are rooted in the same soil. It is an open question, to me, whether black folks, especially the men, come across in better light in the works of one or the other. Certainly Walker's creations are more complex, more human, just as Aeschylus' are moreso than Aesops'.

We spent the night in Milledgeville, then drove down into Florida. We stopped for lunch at an excellent Cuban place in Gainesville, where Amy lived for a while long ago, and watched a gator watching us in the pond beside the campus. Then we pushed on, to New Port Richey, on the west coast above Clearwater, where my parents had rented a place.

I hadn't been to the West Coast of Florida since 1969. Nothing's changed. It's still the Geriatric Riviera. Six-lane highways crawl with traffic, past mile after mile of chain drugstores and restaurants and billboards for funeral homes, cancer treatments, and botox. The weather was lousy, too; only in the 50s and rainy all the time. Above, Luke and my father sit on the dock behind the rented place, during the exact 20 seconds when the sun shone while we were there.

Sun, palm trees, ocean! We're in Florida at last. But why isn't it warm?

One result of the bad weather was that I had some time to read. I skimmed through The Right Nation, a book about the rise of conservative America in the last 20 years, written by a pair of British journalists. They aspire to be modern-day de Tocquevilles. Their analysis is unprejudiced and anthropological, and they have an obvious affection for their subject. Yet it's definitely an outsider's view, and a European one to be exact, and as such they clearly feel more at home in the blue parts of the U.S. map than the red ones.

That aside, I thought it a fair and penetrating look at the situation in both historical and current-events terms. Their conclusion won't sit well with the Bush-haters. The coalition that steers modern America along the conservative shoreline is uneasy and loose, but the left keeps it focused by being clueless. I also enjoyed their puncturing of the paranoid myth of neo-con wizards who, so we have been told, work Bush's strings from the White House rafters.

And major props to these two authors for doing what few foreign pundits do in the U.S.: They left the Beltway and actually went out to the Southern small towns and the Midwestern suburban communities where conservatives live. That gives their observations some spice. They're able to describe people and places, not just ideas. Odd, though, that after listing characteristics of Red Staters, emphasizing a fondness for big buffet restaurants and bulging waistlines, they segue into a dramatic contrast with the other side, starting with Michael Moore.

So after visiting with my parents and reading their books, we pushed on south.

Crossing the Tampa Bay bridge.

Now it started to feel like Florida at last. Passing Punta Gorda we still saw much evidence of last summer's hurricanes: pines all snapped in one direction, headless palms, lots of blue tarps on roofs, and neon signs blown out.

But southwest Florida is growing faster than any place I have ever seen. I thought Chester County in the '80s was bad. This is on a whole different scale. You drive for two miles past a single swath of torn-up swamp, where an entire community is under construction; hundreds of homes, shopping centers, entertainment multiplexes, hospitals -- all at once, all under one plan, rising up like a re-born lost continent.

We dropped in (invited) on Marc Schulman of American Future, and met his lovely wife and had a talky lunch at a nice Italian place. I've met online people IRL before, but this is the first time I shook hands with someone I know primarily as a blogger. Same for him, and it was an affirmation that people who are decent in writing are good company.

Then it was back on the road and across the Everglades. At last, at nightfall, we crossed into the Keys. Odd how you can drive down Florida for nine hours or so and see essentially the same thing, and then you cross that little drawbridge at the edge of Lake Surprise, and hit Mile Marker 110, and you're in a different country, a different world. This can't be America. Where's the Ruby Tuesdays? And the next one, five miles down the road?

We hit the hotel and then ducked across the street for a raucous late dinner at The Island, amid rich boat-owners, scruffy old hippies, Russian tourists, Spring Breakers who got detached from the mobs, and a general Whitman's Sampler of amiable hedonists. I love this place.

The next day, we drove over Seven Mile Bridge down to Bahia Honda (that's Luke there, above) and threw our road-weary selves down on the white sand and stared at the blue water and sky and pretended we'd never been, or done, anything else, ever. It's the best beach in the Keys, for my money. They are blessed with many things, but good wide sandy beaches aren't one of them.

Snorkeling didn't yield any spectacular shells that day, just a few crabs and dead sponges that looked like monstrous hands. But the thrill is in the search, and in finding yourself swimming in the company of sting rays and barracudas.

The next day we spent in Key West. Here's Amy and Luke shooting pool in the Green Parrot Cafe, one of the places that has more locals than tourists. Key West has the right idea: give the tourists a big blow-out on a couple of main drag streets, and then let the real people in the place live in relative peace off to the side. We did our obligatory shopping and dining (at the Iguana, across from Hemingway's bar) on Duval, then took strolls through the Bahamian-bohemian sidestreets and ended up here.

We noticed we're not very good trip documentarists with the camera. Especially on the days when Luke has it; then all we get are National Geographic-like pictures of bugs, lizards, moss, and plants. As well as embarrassing movies of dad. Whole days and places are missing from our photo file. We're out here living it, not documenting it.

And aren't travel pictures always inaccessible anyway, except to the people who were there? You look at this and see a blurry photo of a kid and a woman and some green felt. But I look at it and I can breathe again the salty, hot air even while I sit here in chilly, gray Pennsylvania. And I can taste the local brew Key West beer, and hear the conversation of the sailors at the next table and remember how they got into a game later with a couple of barefoot bearded hippies.

Drinkie-poos, of course, are as mandatory as the casual dress code. Amy is searching for the perfect Margarita. We never found it. Or maybe we did. I forget.

The sun gets all the credit for setting. But the Earth is the one that has to roll around all the time to keep it moving. The earth needs better PR.

Ah, paradise. I've got to start playing the lottery again, so I can look forward to living like this every day.

to be continued

There's more of our trip pictures, including Luke's artistic shots and bigger versions of some of these pics, in this album.

Road Trip

A Red Stripe sat open on the table and the sun was out. Amy checked e-mail from her laptop. She asked me if I wanted to go online. I actually did think about it, for as long as it took to realize I needed another beer. I said no thanks. Apologies to you all. I wasn't in Mordor, just Florida. There was Internet. I could have gone online and written a post. But that's not why the gods made vacations.

We set out late on a Friday. Since I'm accustomed to nightshift work, I drove all night, west into the mountains, then turned south. Snow squalls dusted at us across Virginia (above), which seems as big as a continent when you take it down the oblique, on I-81. A continent with the character and weather of Just North of Pittsburgh, on four lanes with three trucks to every car. Toward daybreak, near Roanoke, the snow turned serious and piled up a couple of inches. Luke and Amy awoke to a stark landscape of black trees on white hills. You might have thought we'd gone north, not south.

Then we crossed into Tennessee, and the snow vanished and we were a month ahead into spring. By the time we pulled over in Johnson City for breakfast, the daffodils were ready to pop and the waitresses all had Southern accents. The state line, some surveyor's stroke on a map in 17th century London, literally defined a new climate.

We took it. Spring in eastern Tennessee was a tonic. In fact, the whole trip down was like a fast-forward through spring, till southern Georgia, where everything was out and blooming. If you fly down, you get there right away. But you miss the foreplay.

We drove up into the Smokey Mountains, to see what we could see. The heights are mighty; I had no idea anything like that stood in the Eastern U.S. They punch up out of the earth like knuckles of some ancient prize-fighter. An element-god in the earth slugged up through the crust and crumpled it out from within. We hiked among the lichen rocks and pitch pines and lay on the grass high up in the sunshine and breathed it and reached for what they must have meant to the Cherokee.

But that was about all you could do, because if you looked down, or around, you'd see a tourist slough of waterparks, RV parks, outlet malls, hotels, pancake houses. The slop lapped right up to the knees of the range.

Having cast my lot with the Red States, I have to think before I execrate. And a lot of what we saw there in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, I can understand, even if I can't share in it. For instance, in the comedy clubs Amy and I go to, black and Jewish and gay comedians tell jokes about the stereotypes about blacks and Jews and gays. Down in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, the comedy clubs consist of country stereotype comedians telling country stereotype jokes. Very well; even if I don't automatically chuckle at the sight of a guy in bib overalls holding a pig, I recognize the process.

Just so, people in New York go to see, say, "Rent" to be confirmed in certain certainties that they hold about life and what is important. Well, down in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, they go to Louise Mandrell's theater for the same effect, with a different set of certainties.

But damn, does there have to be so much of it? And can't you keep it further away from the mountain paradise? At least in Lancaster County, we tend to keep the tourist hell along a few main drags, so the people who race in from Jersey can go home and think they've seen the Amish, while two or three miles off the main roads the real Amish get on with their spring plowing and manure spreading.

The next day, we drove further south. Around Chattanooga, someone named Ann Coulter is running for mayor. It made for startling campaign signs. We washed the grit and salt off the car, and then headed up Lookout Mountain. There, in obedience to a thousand roadside billboards and painted barnsides, we saw Rock City.

It's a spectacular mountaintop landscape of boulders the size of cargo ships, with just enough space for a person to squeeze between them. It really does look and feel like a fossil of a medieval city.

You can see a long way from up there. Five states, I believe, though the signs claim more.

And back in the 1930s, someone turned it all into a tacky tourist trap -- the Ur-Disneyland. They couldn't really spoil the rock-scape, but inside some tunnel-caves, the park creators installed fairy tale scenes with arrangements of garden gnomes painted radioactive green.

The underground part of it has rules, clearly posted. I wonder what's not allowed in Smokingland?

Tacky, but you can get some good lighting effects, in a David Lynch movie kind of way.

Next stop was Chickamauga Battlefield, just south of the mountain. My Civil War knowledge is so Bruce Catton-based that I am utterly ignorant of "the west," so I gave Luke a book and told him he was in charge of being our guide to the battlefield. This appealed to him and he gave us a great tour, culminating on the low hill where the Northern troops made their desperate stand and avoided a total rout. We hiked till we were tanned. Amy found a set of deer antlers in the woods. The woods and the round hills looked so much like the Gettysburg I know well -- just a random slice of Appalachian turf that happened to be where tens of thousands of men killed or maimed one another.

Then we drove out of the hill country, down into Marietta, we were "home" again, culturally. I don't know what exact clue triggered that. Actual coffee shops, maybe, with punked-out girls behind the counter, or the sloppy but sophisticated restaurant with the Jimmy Buffett-style singer, or the yuppie parents and baby stollers in the square. The culture shift was as sudden and sure as the weather jolt between Virginia and Tennessee.

In Atlanta, we spent the night high atop the city, on the 70th floor of the Westin Peachtree. Amy and I had drinks at the restaurant on the peak while Luke swam in the pool. The restaurant rotates, and we watched the planes come in to Hartsfield, one every 30 seconds at least. We ate a late dinner at the Hooters across the street. Written on a coaster: "The early bird gets the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese."

Georgia now has three flags. I wrote about this fiasco when it was underway. The new Georgia flag is an acceptable compromise, it seems to me. But many people still defiantly fly the old one, and many official sites that have printed (or engraved) versions of the ugly Barnes flag still haven't gotten rid of it yet. And the new one is in official use. To me, it looks more "Confederate" than the pre-2001 flag, but oh well. Atlanta still feels like the only truly racially integrated city I've ever been in.

We had breakfast the next morning at the Silver Skillet, up north of Midtown, a classic old-school diner with Sprite-colored formica everywhere and excellent biscuits and gravy. Some wag had defaced the "Best Breakfast in Atlanta" sign out front by removing the "a-k-f" letters.

Above, Luke and I wait for the fog to burn off from our hotel. We drove that day down into central Georgia, with its red clay, tall pines, and three churches to every two houses. It's not a place I would have gone on my own, but Amy has ancestral connections there, and she's never seen the place. So we went.

In the heart of every county (they come every 20 miles or so, Georgia counties are small by Pennsylvania standards) is a small town, with a faded department store and a brick courthouse from the Cleveland administration fronted by a few columns and surmounted by a cupola. These stand around a green square, which has a Confederate memorial planted somewhere in it.

Amazing little treats lurked in the region we explored, around Eatonton. Like Rock Eagle Mound. It's back in a big 4H reserve, and we had the place to ourselves. Looking down at this creation, at least 1,000 years old, older than any man-made construction I've ever seen in the United States, we wondered, what drove the tribe to gather all these stones and make this work? Or was it rather a life's work of one crazy Indian?

For dinner, we tracked down the Old Clinton Barbecue in Gray, Georgia. Vinegar-based, not tomato-based, the way I like it. Delicious, earthy, and highly recommended.

We went looking for a plantation museum that was on the map, but it was closed Tuesday, the day we were there. But nearby we found a disused 19th century graveyard, and in the pine-scent and sunshine Luke took some pictures.

To be continued

There's more of our trip pictures, including Luke's artistic shots and bigger versions of some of these pics, in this album.

Catching Up

I unplugged the media when I went on vacation, and now I'm catching up, so forgive me if I present some discovery here that's new to me, but which you've seen linked from a dozen blogs already.

This one, for instance: Karl Zinsmeister in "American Enterprise" notes the bandwagon is getting a bit crowded.

Those of us who spent much of 2003 and 2004 urging Americans not to give up on Iraq can attest that those two years were stained with many harsh attacks, much niggling criticism, and abundant disdain for America's aggressive efforts to reshape the dysfunctional governments of the Middle East into more humane and peaceful forms. From the very beginning, of course, the Bush administration's left-wing enemies in the U.S. and Europe were hysterically opposed to the push for Middle Eastern democracy. A significant number of right-wing pundits also proved themselves to be sunshine patriots of the worst sort--bailing out of the hard, dirty work of war and cultural transformation as soon as the predictable resistance arose.

But that's politics. In Washington, if you're looking for a brave and steadfast ally, you need to buy a dog. Fortunately our warriors battling away in Najaf and Samarra and Anbar province didn't surrender to the Beltway gloom that defeated most of our media and political elites.

Everyday Americans also proved sturdier than our chattering class. They stayed with the fight long enough for some hard facts to emerge. Now some very good news is obvious to all who have eyes: We are not facing a popular revolt in Iraq. Average Arabs are not on the side of terrorists and Islamic radicals. America's venture to defang the Middle East is neither the cynical and selfish oil grab that the lunatic Left have claimed, nor a dreamy and doomed Don Quixote crusade as some conservative grumps insisted.

So here, at last, come the soldiers of the "me too" brigade. Even the French have joined in. They're sending one man (yes, one) to help train Iraqi security forces. And he's welcome. Victory is magnanimous.

Also from this issue, Don't Fear the Shiites

I unplugged most of the media, I should have said. I read the delightful "Keynoter" newspaper, which mostly kept you updated on bar specials in Marathon or Key Largo, or the doings of the fishing fleets. It occasionally made a stab at localizing a national story. The national news mostly dealt with atrocious crimes, and the localizing article generally turned out something like this: "Experts say (Problem X) not a problem here." Which made you all the gladder to be there.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Back in Town

Vacation is over. I'm putting together a little travellogue, with photos. But meanwhile, here's an interesting article that no doubt will get a lot of comments. A North Carolina newspaper, rather than hiding its head from online journalism (=blogs) or trying tokeep its staff untainted by them, has embraced the new media. If the newspaper as we know it is to have any survival past about 2050, this is what it will look like. But, typically, the newspaper that had the good idea hasn't invested a single cent in more staff, more technology, or better design to go along with it.

Friday, March 11, 2005

On the Road

We're hitting the road for a couple of weeks; southbound to a couple of places I love, Georgia and the Florida Keys. I'm not sure when, or if, I'll be posting in that interval. But do check back; even if I'm not here there's always the chance you'll find a Chomskyite garden gnome to kick around in the comments section.

Mwanwhile, here's a few blogs and other sites I highly recommend:

And if not, I'll see you all after Easter!

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Pay No Attention

To this, I'm just going to stash these here in case I need to find them in a hurry in a fight. Some critical examinations of the claims of "100,000 civilian casualties in Iraq."

Carnival of the Etymologies

[A regular Thursday feature of "Done With Mirrors"]

Today's list of words to be dissected was dragged, writhing and begging for mercy, from phrases that appeared in the Google "Zeitgeist" and the top 50 searches on Lycos for the previous week.

* * *

The top search engine terms tend to be proper names. But this week it occurred to me how many of those surnames also are words: (Martha) Stewart, (Vin) Diesel, (Anna Nicole) Smith, (Tyra) Banks, (Howard) Stern, (Donald) Trump.

The names don't necessarily connect with the words. "Stern," for instance, is German for "star": for some reason German Jewish families often had beautiful, almost American Indian-type surnames. In my high school were Morgensterns ("Morning Star") and Rosenzweigs ("Rose Bough").

In most cases they are the same, however. The Diesel type of engine was named for Rudolf Diesel (1858-1913), a German mechanical engineer who designed it. Whether he is realted to the action movie hero, I do not know.

Nonetheless, it's an excuse to have some fun with words, so here goes:

* * *

Stern, the adjective not the surname of the radio host, is a good, solid Anglo-Saxon monosylable, virtually unchanged in sound and sense from Old English styrne. It's a common Germanic word (German has starr "stiff," störrig "obstinate"), and as its German cognates suggest, the root sense is "stiffness."

The original sense of the root is preserved in Lithuanian tirpstu "to become rigid." But in other Indo-European languages, it has branched off into senses that mean either "barren" (e.g. Sanskrit starih "a barren cow"), "strong, hard, solid," or even "dead."

In fact, among the word's relatives in English are stare "to gaze on fixedly," and sterile, from Latin sterilis "barren, unproductive." The notion there is of "stiff, rigid" = "barren, unproductive," obviously with the female, or perhaps agricultural, sense of reproduction in mind.

Another cousin, from a variant form of the root without the initial s-, is torpor, from Latin torpere "to be numb." Unless you're a military historian, you might not recognize another word in this group, torpedo. Before that word meant "self-propelled underwater missile" (1860s), it meant "floating mine" (1770s).

It was named, like many modern missile systems (e.g. sidewinder, viper) for a stingy thing, in this case a stingray. The Latin word for "stingray" is torpedo, which literally means "numbness." The ray was so called for the effect of being jolted by its sting.

The Greek family from this ancient Indo-European "stiffness" root is represented by stereos "solid, firm, stiff, hard." This came into English as the prefix stereo-, in such words as stereotype (originally a "solid plate of type"), and stereophonic, to describe sound systems with more than one point of projection, which create a "solid" (three-dimensional) effect.

People my age (44) still call an in-home sound system a stereo, even though that word only distinguishes it from a monophonic system, which nobody has anymore. Will that word continue to be used as music systems merge into computer systems?

For that matter, how much longer will we talk about an artist putting out an album, when in fact he or she has put out a CD in a little plastic box, nothing like the big production that used to accompany a vinyl record. You'd open it up for the first time and inhale that fresh scent of ink and plastic you'd know you were about to hear some great music. That or you were about to clean the seeds out of your stash. No subsequent packaging technology has ever been so useful.

Yet another relative of stern is starve, which now has the specialized sense of "to die of hunger," but which in Old English (steorfan) was one of the basic words for "to die." German sterben still is used in this general sense. And the connection between "dead" and "stiff" is an easy one to imagine. Slang still uses stiff as a noun for "a corpse." (The adjective stiff, however, is from a different root, one that means "packed close together").

The sense of starve in English narrowed to "to die of cold" (14th century), then later "to kill with hunger," or "to die of hunger" (16th century). In early Middle English, you had to say "starve of hunger" to be understood. The sense of the word has shifted so far that people now commonly say "starve to death," which, to our linguistic ancestors would seem as silly as saying "to die to death."

I used to love listening to Howard Stern when he first came on the radio in the Philly market in the late 1980s. I remember driving in to work laughing so hard I was afraid I'd have to pull over. I never had to do that, but sometimes if he was on a roll when I was pulling up to the office, I'd drive around the parking lot a few times rather than shut it off in the middle.

Since I switched to night shift, I don't get to hear him much anymore. But I think he's invaluable. If you listen to him long enough, eventually he will say something you consider over the line. Great! How else would you find out where your "line" is?

* * *

Stewart, the surname almost certainly is the same word as steward (Old English stigweard "house guardian"), which comes from stig "hall, pen" (which morphed into Modern English as sty) and weard "guard." So a "Stewart" is etymologically a "sty-guard."

The English word was used after the Norman Conquest as the equivalent of Old French seneschal, and it became a more elevated job title. By the 15th century it was the name for the officer on a ship in charge of provisions and meals, and later this was extended to trains and passenger aircraft. It also became the title of a class of high officers of the state in early England and Scotland, hence the meaning "one who manages affairs of an estate on behalf of his employer."

Stewart, is the Scottish form of the word, and in Scotland it became the name of the royal house, from Walter (the) Steward, who in 1315 married Marjorie de Bruce, daughter of King Robert. Stuart is a French spelling, adopted by Mary, Queen of Scots.

* * *

The whole trump group of words in English is of murky lineage. Some of the senses seem clearly derived from trumpet, or words related to it.

The verb meaning "fabricate, devise" goes back to Middle English, and may be another relative of trumpet. The noun meaning "playing card of a suit ranking above others" (1529), however, is an alteration of triumph, which was the name of an old card game.

But trumpet itself is a bit obscure. Its earliest ancestor seems to be the 12th century French trompe, but this may have been borrowed from a Germanic word, and some linguists think the word is imitative of the sound of a long, tube-like musical instrument.

* * *

The two banks in Modern English ultimately are the same word, from a Germanic root meaning "shelf." The word meaning "earthen incline, shelf of earth on the edge of a river" comes directly from this source.

The word meaning "financial institution," however, came to English with the rise of modern banking in the 15th century, via Italian or French. Those languages had borrowed the Germanic word in ancient times, but they began using it to mean "table" or "bench," and eventually narrowed the sense to "money-lender's table or bench," from whence it came to mean "financial institution." By the time it got back to English, dressed up in foreign finery and flush with cash, it was hard to recognize as the prodigial brother of the "dirt at the side of a river" word.

* * *

Bank also features in another word that's been in the news recently, bankrupt, as in the abominable bankruptcy bill now kicking around in Congress. It seems the fractious Internet voices of American politics can agree on nothing else, but they are merging on the notion that this is a bad bill for honest folks, and a boon only to those who neither need nor deserve it.

Bankrupt comes from Italian banca rotta, and literally means "broken bench," meaning, of course, the money-lender's bench. The rotta is not "rotten," but rather a descendant of Latin rumpere "to break," which is the source of rupture.


Wednesday, March 09, 2005


Don Herzog at Left2Right laments the passing of Washington's Birthday as a true holiday.

Holidays are public events, celebrated by the citizens together. Vacations are private, leaving individuals to go about their own business as they see fit. And Washington's birthday had started drifting from holiday to vacation before Congress acknowledged the change with the Monday Holiday Act of 1968.

Actually, being a professor, he avoids lamenting it; he "notes" it, but in language redolent of regret for things lost.

He points to a doomed legislative attempt to nudge the holiday back to its old form and purpose. His post focuses on the holiday-public/vacation-private aspect, and many of his commenters picked up that ball and ran with it.

He also prominently mentions Parson Weems, he of the cherry tree fable. But the commentators so far have just let that one lie there in the grass.

[If you're thinking this is just an extended comment on that post, it is; I still can't make the comments work on Left2Right.]

Parson Weems and his biography of George Washington loom large in the "Lies My Teacher Told Me" industry. Wretched literalists love to remind everyone that George Washington never chopped down a tree, never said "I cannot tell a lie," and never skipped a silver dollar across the Potomac. They claim these things are, or recently were, taught in schools as facts. They chew endlessly on the juiciness of a pious writer inventing a story -- a lie -- to illustrate the badness of lying.

Why did Parson Weems lie? I say he wasn't lying. I say he was inventing mythology.

We easily forget how new representative government was in Washington's day. What the United States became in 1787 was something that had not existed since before Christ, and the Founders harked back to ancient blueprints when they set up the American system.

They knew, for instance, that the ancient mixed government demi-democracies of Greece and Rome all had hero-founder stories to bind them together. Myth mattered; fact was irrelevant. Theseus's deeds in Athens were a pure fiction, and even an astute Athenian who had read Homer certainly knew this.

Centuries later, Plutarch (himself something of a "parson:" he served as one of the two priests at the temple of Apollo at Delphi) looked out on the Roman Empire wracked by the tyranny of Nero and the bloodbath of civil war, and he sat down and wrote the "Parallel Lives." He knew his biographical information was unreliable. He had no intention of deciding what was true or of telling histories: he was setting up characters as lessons (or anti-models), to teach his readers about being citizens, being virtuous -- being human. Emerson called the "Lives" "a bible for heroes."

Parson Weems knew this new country of America also needed myths and glorified founders to bind it together in its diversity. His biographies of the founders are the American equivalent of Shakespeare's English history plays. Like Athens, we were a nation born myth-less. We were absent from the catalogue of ships, so Weems gave us a Mount Vernon Theseus to fill the bill. Like Rome, the United States (which still took a plural pronoun in those days) could not survive without common civic virtues. He gave us Washington as their exemplar.

Washington, the walking collection of biographical details, hardly mattered to that purpose. And I believe Washington would have endorsed that view entirely. Which is why I agree with Don Herzog, if I read him right, that George Washington ought to be put back on his birthday pedestal.

To me, Washington is American history's grand exemplar of the virtue of civic duty. Say "actor-president" and people think Reagan, but Washington played a role so thoroughly, and so perfectly, that people still think he was that regal, noble Roman hero. When you read the accounts of him written by his intimate circle during the Revolution, you see the American man -- vain, hard-driving, hard-cussing, clever in a farmer's ways. And you appreciate what he did to get America launched on an even keel: passing up a life he could have spent happily among his horses, transforming himself into a living virtue as a gift to the new nation.

As the Revolution drew to a close, Washington deliberately reached back to yet another historical myth to ease the delicate transition from military revolution to civilian administration: Cincinnatus, the Roman hero who, during a crisis, reluctantly accepted the dictatorship for six months, defeated Rome's enemies in six weeks, then resigned and went back to his plow.

Now regarded as almost surely mythical, Cincinnatus was a real hero to the Founders. And when Washington resigned from public life in 1783 after the great victory and returned to Mount Vernon rather than mounting the throne of the new nation, he was the marvel of the world, and he was behaving quite deliberately on the classical model. His peers recognized it. Washington became head of an association of Revolutionary War veterans -- the equivalent of today's American Legion or VFW -- called the Society of the Cincinnati.

As America's first president, Washington literally had to invent the job of being an elected leader of a nation, because there was no model for it in modern times. He had to parse out decisions about what title people should use when addressing the president, how a president should interact with Congress, how he should receive dinner invitations.

In some small details of protocol, Washington erred on the side of royalty. No harm done; Adams and Jefferson tilted the balance carefully back. The danger of having no dignity at the top, no noblesse oblige, was the greater danger, and Washington made sure we had enough noblesse to realize the oblige.

Do modern Americans still need national myths like Washington's cherry tree? Well, I doubt the old myths are literally recoverable, but we continually spin new ones, so we must crave them yet. To insist we the people be content with the dry facts of our history is as impractical as it is for secular people to expect the rest of Americans to simply get over this religion thing.

Myths are made on all sides, in all quarters. Look at the hagiography of some of the Sept. 11 victims. Michael Moore's stock-in-trade is the manufactured myth, fed to a yearning-to-believe audience. For a while, supporters of president Bush had a habit of comparing him to Shakespeare's Prince Hal/Henry V.

Recently, in my town, a teacher at the exclusive private school reached back to another Shakespearean, and classical, image. She had her students stage "Julius Caesar." Our article reported that she "said it was appropriate to stage the Bard's politically charged drama during an election year. She had advised _____ _____, a Canadian student who portrayed conspirator Cassius, to channel President Bush."

Not all myths are productive. But myths like those woven in 1800 by Parson Weems tell us who we are and what we stand for, and that tempers a great power by giving it a virtuous purpose. "Morality" has become a dirty word to a lot of people, because they concede morals to the prudes. So I'll go back to the word the Founders used: virtues. When Europeans carp about our patriotic religion and fixation with morality, I say, "you really don't want to have to deal with what we'd be without it." A great power without virtues is more deadly to itself and its neighbors than a great power that believes it has to live up to some high standard ordained by God, the gods, human experience or history.

That's why we need to bring back George Washington.


Read All About It

Here's what you can read about the Iraq war tomorrow in the newspaper where I work. I've taken out the local names and I won't link to it, because my company's policy forbids me identifying myself as their employee or linking to their material.

This is the newspaper that just last week couldn't be bothered to waive the $75 fee for the father of a soldier killed in Iraq to run his son's obituary:

As you read this, a war rages.

It's easy to forget when it's so far away. But not everyone has forgotten.

"I think a lot of people don't like to talk about it," said Matthew ______ of the war in Iraq. "If you support the president, it's hard to talk about this war in terms of success. This war is a colossal failure. People don't like to talk about failure when it's something they believe in."

______ has been watching the casualties climb. Just weeks ago, when his organization, ______ Coalition for Peace & Justice, designed posters for upcoming peace events to mark March 19 as the second anniversary of the war, the American death toll was 1,450. Before the event even rolls around, it will be well over 1,500. For the Iraqis, the toll is much heavier, with more than 100,000 dead.

And for all of us, ______ says the financial toll is crippling.

"The budget cuts to finance this war are affecting everyone," he said. "It's not the stroll in the park it was made out to be. And for what? Why is this worth the lives lost in Iraq and the lives of our soldiers?"

Although ______ recognizes that some don't oppose the war, he holds fast to the belief that most do. And he says the distinction between another unpopular war in Vietnam and this war is a mounting number of soldiers and veterans who oppose the war in Iraq.

"Today veterans are at the forefront of the (anti-war) movements," ______ said. "People are learning that supporting our troops does not mean blindly supporting the government or your president. The biggest lie out there is that supporting the troops means supporting the war. In this case, I would say the opposite is true."

As ______'s observance of the anniversary takes place, Mike Hoffman will be holding another war protest in Fayetteville, N.C., just outside Fort Bragg, home of the 82nd Airborne. He expects people from all over the nation to join him to protest what he calls an unjust war.

Hoffman is an unlikely protester. Just a few years ago, he was fighting in the war he now protests.

"I joined the Marines thinking I would defend my country," Hoffman said. "But the war in Iraq has really nothing to do with our nation's defense. Weapons of mass destruction turned out to be a lie. And the idea that a country with a military that we completely demolished in less than 30 days was a threat to our country was not the truth."

Hoffman, 25, founder of Iraq Veterans Against the War, said he is one of many veterans and soldiers opposing this war. He said his experience in Iraq solidified a feeling he had when he left for duty in the Middle East.

Still, he's not anti-military. He's not anti-war. And he makes the distinction.

"I believe a nation needs a military for defense," he said. "The military involvement we've been in since World War II has not been about our defense. It's been about going after other nations' resources."

Hoffman admits his is a complex view. He's fighting for a peaceful exit strategy from Iraq. He's fighting to bring home friends still in Iraq. He's fighting to get back veterans' benefits that he says were cut to fund the ongoing war.

"A lot of people say you have to support the troops by supporting the war," he said. "What are they really saying? The people who sent us there are the same people taking away our veteran benefits and the same people who sent us to war for something that wasn't worth fighting for anyway. What they sent us to war for turned out to be outright lies."

Hoffman acknowledges some soldiers and veterans support the war. But he qualifies their views saying the war experience is different for each person.

"Not everyone is in the same place in Iraq," Hoffman said. "Some people never leave the secured areas in Baghdad. All they saw was what was going on in a secured area right around them. For other people, when you go to war, you lose a lot of yourself. You put in your own time, your own flesh, your own self. You have friends who lose their lives. Some people get by after seeing those things by telling themselves going to war was the right choice. I know a lot of Vietnam veterans and it's the same thing. That's why they're so divisively split."

Hoffman and ______ see the war in Iraq as lethal to national unity as Vietnam.

"It's already that bad," Hoffman said. "This war is already a divisive issue in our nation. The only thing that has kept it from really blowing up is that there hasn't been a really huge national push about this. None of the presidential candidates were really against the war. Bush said we were doing fine. Kerry kept saying we need to tweak a few things."

______ agrees our country is polarized, but it's not simply pacifists versus those for the war. And he says while it seems many support the war, it's because that's how the war is presented by the press.

"Our values of peace and justice are not being represented by the dominate sphere in the press," ______ said. "We've got to find and create forums to send that message because when the dominant voice is pro-war, it shows complicity. We're left to think that everyone is for this war. The majority of people are not for this war. This isn't just a movement of pacifists. Many are against this war because this war is wrong. There is a much broader movement that's emerging in this country."

Like Hoffman, ______ firmly believes protests like Saturday's can make a difference in finding a peaceful strategy to get out of Iraq.

"History is determined by historical actors," ______ added. "And we're all historical actors."

On Saturday, ______'s group will host a 1 p.m. silent process of mourning through the streets of ______ starting at ______ and proceeding to the Unitarian Universalist Church of ______ at ______ St. Participants are encouraged to wear black.

Once at the church, a 2:15 p.m. town hall meeting to discuss the war is scheduled, with several panel speakers, including ______ College economics professor Antonio ______ explaining the economic impact of the war in Iraq. The panel will be followed by respectful, open discussion among those for and against the war.

At 7:30 p.m. Saturday, a candlelight vigil is scheduled on the steps of the courthouse.

I love it when 33 inches of unanswered ranting by anti-war voices in the newspaper includes the obligatory assertions that anti-war voices are not represented in the newspaper. You'd think they'd dampen that part of the credo for at least one hour when they realize they're talking to a reporter. But "not looking like a horse's ass" never was a strong suit among that crew.

The highly speculative 100,000 civilian casualties figure is presented as straight fact, without question.

You could fisk this all day. As a copy editor part of my job is supposed to be to question balance and information in a story like this. But I don't dare say a word. Not doing my job? Yes, I suppose I'm not. But I've learned from experience that what's in my job title, and what they really want me to do here, are two different things.

[UPDATE: The story is in the news cue, but it's not on the posted budget, so I'm not sure if it's running tomorrow or holding for a day.]

[UPDATE: And of course, the assignment to copy-edit this story went to ... wait for it ... yes, the most active peace protester in the entire newsroom! The one who never misses a march or a vigil, and who certainly will be present at this one. Needless to say, he loved it. Needless to say, nothing in it will be challenged or balanced.]

New Silent Majority

Mary at Exit Zero has 16 questions to help you decide if you're part of what could be the new Silent Majority (also known as the liberal hawks who tilted the last election toward Bush and away from Michael Moore or whoever it was Bush was running against).

Here's a few of them:

  • You think firemen and soldiers are heroes, while terrorists and flag burners are not.

  • You voted for Bush and you still think Rick Santorum is an ass.

  • You wonder when a petulant hissy-fit became the same thing as social activism

  • You know that the idea that Arabs can’t handle Democracy is racist.

  • You realize that Jack Kennedy would be called a NeoCon if he were alive today.

  • The people who agree with you prefer freedom over stability, and the people who don’t favor the status quo. You wonder who the conservatives really are these days.

And so forth. Note: It's impossible to get a perfect 16 unless you managed to vote for both Bush and Kerry, but it doesn't take long to realize whether you're going to fit this profile or not.

[Hat tip, Judith]

Are we the new silent majority? I don't know about majority, but I do hope we have enough vote-weight to keep both parties from coccooning into caricatures of themselves.

One thing that defines us, I think, is an instinctive revulsion against hate-crusades. We distrust, and tend to align against, people whose primary political motives are white-hot, blind, relentless loathing of someone or something on the other side.

Obviously there are such in both parties, and how we see the balance of power in each party determines which we accept, with clothespins on our noses, as temporary allies. They tend to be most prominent in opposition.

We tolerated more than we should have from the Clinton Administration, because the people who simply hated him in a lying-awake-at-night-gnashing-their-teeth way seemed far more dangerous. We put up with some bad ideas, and much bad execution, from the Bush administration for the same reason. It's another reason both Hillary Clinton and Condi Rice make appealing presidential candidates to me.

Lucid Interval

Read, if you can, Lillian B. Rubin's Why Don't They Listen to Us? Speaking to the Working Class in "Dissent" magazine.

Yeah, I know, a lot of it is fuzzy rage against some sort of invisible neo-con Christian bogeyman, whose "conservative money" poured into "think tanks that support a group of right-wing writers whose job was to stir popular anger and fear into a stew that would boil over and scorch what they called the "liberal elite," and the music goes round and round and the result was Ann Coulter.

Well, what did you expect from someone whose tagline says she's "with the Institute for the Study of Social Change, University of California, Berkeley."

But read it, I say, because once it lays out (and repeats, and re-repeats) her contempt for everyone to the right of her, it's actually a decent critique of how the left has failed to connect with what used to be its voting base in the working class, by failing to really take those voters seriously.

Sure, people on the right have been saying this, but here you can read it from one with a tenured seat in the ivory tower. The good part starts about a third of the way down the page.

Move up a couple of decades to the 1980s when "crime in the streets" was the biggest issue in American politics. While the right argued for more police, for tougher sentences, for trying juveniles as adults, we insisted that racism and overheated media coverage were at the core of the furor, that the perception of crime didn't match the reality, and with as much fanfare as we could muster, presented statistics to prove the point. It struck me even then that we were mistaken to try to reorder perceptions with facts, partly because we failed to take account of the psychological reality that experience overwhelms statistics no matter how compelling the numbers may be, but also because the perception of crime wasn't totally illusory.

Not that there wasn't truth in our side of the argument; it just wasn't the whole truth. I believe unequivocally that racist assumptions are built into the American psyche but, in this case, they were fueled by the fact that a disproportionate number of street crimes were committed by young African Americans. The media were often irresponsible and always sensationalist in reporting crime, but they didn't make it up. Crime was on the rise; the streets in urban communities had become more dangerous; and, while most people were never themselves mugged, it was enough to know someone who had been-whether a personal acquaintance or a victim encountered on the eleven o'clock news-to create the kind of fear that was so prominent during those years.

Back then there was a saying that "A conservative is a liberal who got mugged on his way to the subway." When I first heard it, I was outraged by those flip words; now it seems to me that they weren't entirely wrong. So today I wonder if a conservative isn't a working-class guy who heard the "liberal elite" (as the right has effectively labeled us) tell him he had nothing to fear when experience told him otherwise-not just on crime but on a whole slew of issues that have turned the country into a cultural and political battlefield.

Rubin is angry as hell at "us" (neocons, whatever we are), and she doesn't want to talk to us, but at least she's interested in America. And she's got a lot of the same ideas we do.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

A Hole in the Dam

Jeff Jarvis, riffing on a David Brooks column, sounds the wake-up call to the liberals still on the left:

If we liberals were smart, we'd be co-opting the issue of freedom and human rights -- the way that conservatives coopted it from us ... and the way the Bill Clinton coopted fiscal responsibility from conservatives.

Agree or disagree about how we got here. Agree or disagree about what comes next (read Brooks' column: even Wolfowitz says that Iraq must be the military exception). I don't even care if you don't want to give credit to Wolfowitz and Bush; I just don't want to see the fruits of their strategy rejected just because it is their strategy.

There's a hole in the dam of tyranny in the Middle East and freedom is flowing. Damnit. We should be holding the United Nations accountable for spreading freedom and not standing in the way. We should be figuring out how we can support movements of freedom -- without invasion -- in Lebanon, Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain.....

My visits to East Berlin as a teen-ager taught me that "liberal" and "left" are hardly the same thing. When I went back to West Berlin after a two-year hiatus, a lot had changed. When I went back to East Berlin, nothing had changed.

Watching the convulsions in the Middle East reminds me that "right" and "conservative" aren't identical, either. If you're going to really stay committed to liberal values, you have to be willing to change sides politically.

"Unextinguishable Curiosity"

I became a devotee of Guy Davenport's writing -- fiction and non-fiction alike -- long before I knew much about the man himself. And when he died earlier this year, Davenport still was someone I knew mostly by the biographical details he revealed in his writings.

Now, an unsigned remembrance in the New Criterion tells me I liked him even better than I thought I did, without knowing it.

A less academic personality is difficult to imagine. Indeed, although Guy was a gentle, accommodating soul, someone whose unextinguishable curiosity generally left him amused rather than indignant at the spectacle of human foibles, he made an exception for the arid, the pedantic, the politically correct, in short, for the academic —- the one term, so far as we can recall, that was for him invariably a term of diminishment, a term of contempt.

And so forth. That's not the main point of the piece, which is a delightful romp through Davenport's greatest hits in writing essays and reviews.

The New Criterion also has reprinted one of Davenport's pieces, "The Hunter Gracchus."


Obstacle Course

Mickey Kaus has some harsh words for the effect of roadblock disasters on our mission in Iraq.

Surely our roadblock practices have done much more to alienate Iraqis than the Abu Ghraib abuses. Roadblocks wind up killing innocent families, not humiliating suspected insurgents.


A Catapult?

Oh, that Boromir

[updated link; now you can see the rest of it]

Monday, March 07, 2005

Even the TV Columnist Hates Bush

Our newspaper uses as its daily television column a round-up provided by United Features Syndicate. For the last few years, it has been written by Kevin McDonough. [The "latest" columns on this site are a few days out of date, of course.] He writes a witty style, but doing a daily TV column must grind you down after a year or more. In the last year, I've really noticed a more politically partisan tone in his writing -- yes, in the television column.

I wish I had saved some examples from before the election. His column then had a tendency to veer off into gratuitous critiques of the international political underpinnings of administration policy in Iraq, which had nothing to do, as far as I could tell, with what was on UPN that night.

I happened to proofread tomorrow's TV page. Here's a paragraph from the TV column:

Rolanda Watts hosts "Lie Detector" (9 p.m., Pax), a new reality show that puts long-forgotten and semi-notorious newsmakers to the test. Tonight's guests include Paula Jones, whose accusations against President Bill Clinton began a well-financed legal brushfire that eventually resulted in impeachment. Why settle for news from the mid-1990s? While we're on the subject of impeachable offenses, perhaps Ms. Watts should use her polygraph to get to the bottom of the Valerie Plame scandal. Paging Robert Novak.

The column for Wednesday, meanwhile, leads off with an extended praise-fest for the CBS documentary about the CBS anchor Dan Rather. Without pausing to wonder whether the man's own employers are best qualified to produce a documentary about him, McDonough seems to find it moving, and powerful, as no doubt it will be.

But he betrays a severe short-sightedness in taking a swipe at Rather's critics.

In this valedictory summary Rather also reflects when he may have gone over the line. And he apologizes for mistakes made last September when his "60 Minutes" team appeared to be hoodwinked by bogus documents about President Bush's reserve duty.

But Rather makes no apologies to critics who have tried to make him a poster boy for an elite, liberal media. The show's emphasis on Rather's service on dangerous assignments underscores his defiant attitude. Without saying a word, it reminds us that we have not seen Rather's critics in similar dangerous situations. Where, after all, is the footage of Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh in a flak jacket reporting in a combat zone under enemy fire?

Never mind that O'Reilly was a defender of Rather, not a critic. McDonough is still living in the world where the big media are the only. If Rather took a fall, it must have been his on-screen rivals who did it.

In fact, it was bloggers, not media rivals, who did the digging on the forged memos story, and who kept the heat on Rather. And some of them not only wore flak jackets while under fire in a combat zone, they shot back.

Does McDonough know about blogs? It seems he's heard the word. Earlier in the piece, he talks about the evolution of news coverage in the years since Rather took over from Walter Cronkite.

Cronkite was long considered the top anchor at a time when there were only three networks. Rather replaced him just as cable was beginning to erode the network's monopoly and legitimacy, and he would hold his position during an information revolution that would bring us hundreds of TV channels and a blizzard of Web sites and so-called blogs.

So-called TV reporters should check their bylines from time to time and remember what it is they are paid to do.