Saturday, April 30, 2005

A Small, Level Voice

Johann Hari:

There was a small, perfect moment a few months ago that symbolised this refusal to listen. Tony Blair was being interviewed by June Sarpong before a hostile studio audience, and the Prime Minister was talking flatly about Saddam Hussein's Weapons of Mass Destruction. The studio was filled - rightly - with jeering. They knew there were no WMD, and they demanded to know: wasn't this war about oil, or Israel, or a raw assertion of US power post-9/11?

The row continued for five fruitless minutes, with Blair begging the audience not to question his integrity, and the audience in turn begging to know the real reasons why he went to war.

And then a small, level voice came from the front row. "I am an Iraqi," a young woman said, "and I have just come back from my country. I know this war was not about Weapons of Mass Destruction, and I know the Americans did not do this because they care about us. But all of my family in Iraq supported this war, and so did I. We did it because we knew there was no other way to get rid of Saddam Hussein. Why can't you all understand that? Why can't you side with us?"

There was a long pause. The audience looked nonplussed. Nobody spoke. And then the row about WMD burst out again, furious and fiery. Everybody carried on as if the Iraqi had not spoken. Blair tried to gesture at one point towards the Iraqi woman when his WMD argument was manifestly flagging, but nobody wanted to hear.

Friday, April 29, 2005

Freedom Stays Vanished

When I saw the heading It's Over on the SoA Lebanon blog, my heart sank. I expected the worst. I admit that, as hard as I've been pulling for the pro-democracy forces, I secretly wondered if they would prevail. They're a gathering of young tribes, carrying so many flags, in a land where, as Michael J. Totten describes it, "different parts of the country feel like separate micro-civilizations."

As long as they kept eyes fixed on that one flag, the one with the cedar tree in the center, they'd be OK. They stood up for democracy, and as the overused line of the year goes, democracy is a process. They opposed Syrian-backed tyranny. Syrian-backed tyranny isn't a process. It's a mailed fist.

But then I read the post. I was wrong. They had won after all.

Chalk up another, final, victory for the Cedar Revolution.

The Lebanese government formally announced the election will be held on time - on May 29th 2005.

The million-person demonstration, the two-month sleep-in at the tent-city, the countdown campaign, the village campaign, the media pressure, the international pressure - it all came together. It's a new era in Lebanon now. The time of post-war occupation and oppression is over. The Cedar Revolution is now over, too.

Then I went in to work, to learn more about this. I should mention here (though there's some risk to my continued employment in mentioning this on a blog) that I'm a newspaper copy editor. I have access to the stream of information from the wire services. This is the material that all but the biggest media use to create the nightly newscast, or the morning paper, every day.

Today at about 4 p.m. I did a search of the AP news wire for "Lebanon." No story moved today. I did a search of the AP photo wire for "Lebanon." I got back 191 hits, of which 7 turned out to be of scenes in Lebanon Pa., Lebanon, Tenn., or Lebanon, Ore. That leaves 184 pictures of Lebanon, the Middle East.

And there was a picture of the tent village! 1 picture. It was a good picture.

Here's the caption:

A man ties a Lebanese flag at the tent camp at Beirut's Martyrs' square, Lebanon, Monday April 25, 2005. With the last Syrian soldier walking across the border into Syria Tuesday April 26, 2005 and a U.N. team investigating the Hariri killing on its way, camp residents say they are now ready to leave, having fulfilled all their demands. But the fight for independence has not ended yet, they point out, and the activists are ready to return any time there's a need.

There also was one pictures of Independence2005, but it was an old one; the same scared-kid picture that has been on there for weeks, getting pretty stale by now:

OK, so that's two pictures. Not bad, for good news from Lebanon, from the AP. But what about the other 184 pictures? Well, what did you expect?

Pictures of anti-U.S. demonstrations: 16.

Like this:

Or this:

Based on the selection of images available to newspaper editors in America, such scenes are 16 times more likely to be seen than scenes of pro-democracy protesters. Even if you didn't bring an inherent anti-anything-Bush-likes bias to this job, you'd have it after a few days of scrolling the wires.

Pictures of the Syrians withdrawing: 67. A remarkable number of them showed civilians waving or casting flowers at them. You had to read down into the captions, however, to learn that these were Syrian civilians on the other side of the border. I see, online, that AFP and Reuters took a lot of pictures of Lebanese in the border villages cheering the arrival of Lebnese troops into the positions the Syrians had vacated. AP, apparently, did not see fit to take such pictures.

By contrast, pictures of an April 20 vigil by relatives of Lebanese held by the Syrians: 2.

You'd think this would be somewhat newsworthy, but there were as many pictures of this as there were of Palestinians bewailing their losses in Lebanon's civil war -- 22 years ago. Like the one that carried this caption:

Amneh Bannat a Palestinian woman weeps as she holds photographs of her four sons who she says went missing after being taken away by pro-Israeli Lebanese militiamen in 1982 during Israel's invasion, in Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, April 13, 2005.

The rest was a mixed bag: Politicians of one stripe or another, 44. Bassel Fleihan's funeral (the former economics minister who died as a result of injuries in the Feb. 14 blast that killed Rafik Hariri): 14. Nothing else of significance.

Oh, well; at least I can keep reading SoA's excellent blog. Best of all, it doesn't cost me anything. The people who plunk down 50 cents for my newspaper, unfortunately, won't be seeing any of that.

Strange and Sad

From this LA Times story about the Child Exploitation Section of the Sex Crimes Unit in Toronto:

On one wall is a "Star Trek" poster with investigators' faces substituted for the Starship Enterprise crew. But even that alludes to a dark fact of their work: All but one of the offenders they have arrested in the last four years was a hard-core Trekkie.

Det. Constable Warren Bulmer slips on a Klingon sash and shield they confiscated in a recent raid. "It has something to do with a fantasy world where mutants and monsters have power and where the usual rules don't apply," Bulmer reflects. "But beyond that, I can't really explain it."

UPDATE: This fellow thought it was strange, too, but he went and did some inquiring about it. Turns out the thing either is a misquote or a joke.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Discovering Japan

Since my son is interested in Japanese pop culture -- and to be honest, because I like toys -- we like to shop at J-List, a small company that imports funky stuff from Japan.

Like "Knockman" (below, in the wrapper), a batty wind-up figure that, when you crank him up, bangs himself on the head while his heart spins around. We had four or so of this line at one time.

The owner of the company has his own blog, which tells fascinating tales of the life and adjustments of a gaijin in Japan. Here's a recent sample:

You've been in Japan too long when you pay over $70 for a Captain Santa T-shirt and realize a few days later how much you really spent. It's true: despite the "deflation" you might have heard about -- which was mainly companies increasing their efficiency during the recession years and passing the savings on to consumers -- Japan can be an expensive place. Virtually everything, from construction materials to gasoline (which is the equivalent of $4.50 a gallon now), is priceier here then in other parts of the world, and food costs consume a quarter of the average household budget.

One problem is that the ways goods are sold in Japan is still too structured, with products coming into the hands of consumers through established routes and multiple levels of distribution, which adds to the prices. But there's something about living in Japan that compels a person to want to own things he wouldn't otherwise bother with, like the above-mentioned T-shirt I bought in 1992 featuring Captain Santa, a line of high-end clothing with images of Santa at the beach. It was the best T-shirt I've ever owned in my life, but at $70, I probably should have had my head examined. From toilet seats that wash your butt to the 20+ varieties of massage chairs they sell here, there sure are a lot of ways to spend your money in Japan.

Part of raising kids in Japan means attending "sankanbi," or parent's day, a day when mothers and fathers can come see their kids in class. Today was the first parent's day at my son's new school, so I took half a day off to go see what his classes were like. The experimental school, which is taught 70% in English and 30% in Japanese, is a completely new concept in Japan, and there's been a lot of anxiety over whether the city could pull it off.

My biggest concern was, how can you make a roomful of Japanese kids learning from an American teacher who understands Japanese actually use English?

The answer was the "Japanese mat." If a child wants to say something in his native language, he has to ask "May I speak Japanese?" then after getting permission, go stand on the Japanese mat and say what they need to say. I was very impressed.

Like all such school events, most parents were armed with the latest video camera for recording their child for all eternity. Most Japanese parents really go overboard when it comes to their kids -- which is called oya-baka or "parent-fool" if you want to know -- but I am exactly the same way myself.

You also can discover on his blog how to learn Japanese by frequenting karaoke bars. And you can see how Japanese get their English the same way. Here's the lyrics cue screen for an old Earth Wind & Fire song, complete with the vocal riffs ("ba-de-ya") spelled out for you:

Scrolling incongruously over a scene of Paris in the spring ...

The Barbie Gene

The seventh and eighth words of this "Scientific American" article are "Lawrence Summers." Hardly surprising, since the topic is the biological difference between male and female brains.

To address this question, Melissa Hines of City University London and Gerianne M. Alexander of Texas A&M University turned to monkeys, one of our closest animal cousins. The researchers presented a group of vervet monkeys with a selection of toys, including rag dolls, trucks and some gender-neutral items such as picture books. They found that male monkeys spent more time playing with the "masculine" toys than their female counterparts did, and female monkeys spent more time interacting with the playthings typically preferred by girls. Both sexes spent equal time monkeying with the picture books and other gender-neutral toys.

Because vervet monkeys are unlikely to be swayed by the social pressures of human culture, the results imply that toy preferences in children result at least in part from innate biological differences. This divergence, and indeed all the anatomical sex differences in the brain, presumably arose as a result of selective pressures during evolution. In the case of the toy study, males--both human and primate--prefer toys that can be propelled through space and that promote rough-and-tumble play. These qualities, it seems reasonable to speculate, might relate to the behaviors useful for hunting and for securing a mate. Similarly, one might also hypothesize that females, on the other hand, select toys that allow them to hone the skills they will one day need to nurture their young.

Frankly, I'm surprised that anyone is still surprised by this, though it never should be used to justify prejudices against entire groups, or to imply that individuals cannot be exceptional.


It starts with an Andrew Sullivan essay in the "New Republic" explaining the staying power of modern American conservatism in its flexibility -- or "incoherence," as he calls it -- and its focus on success, not ideological purity. He divides the modern movement roughly into "the conservatism of faith" and "the conservatism of doubt."

Daniel Drezner responds,saying Sullivan errs in enlisting Hobbes on the "doubt" team. And he says, "The divide between those who put their faith first in their politics and those who prefer to keep it out of government is not responsible for all of the hypocrisies that Andrew listed in his first paragraph -- they're just responsible for many of the obvious ones."

Joseph Britt at Belgravia Dispatch says all this Hobbes talk is missing the point, and personalities and poses matter more to voters' decisions. Probably nine out of ten self-identified conservatives in the last election know "Hobbes" only as the stuffed tiger in the newspaper comic strip. (My line, not his.)

Along the way, Britt has this great line:

Ideological confusion in America is nothing new, and is one reason this country has been spared most of the horrors that ideological clarity and coherence have inflicted on Europe, Asia, and Africa over the years.

Bravo! He also introduces a montage of instances of supposedly "conservative" Americans pursuing goals that were decidedly un-conservative.

There's an obvious, but unstated, corollary to all these arguments. If it were better understood, and kept more in mind, a lot of political stupidity could be avoided:

Conservative is not the opposite of liberal. Liberal is not the opposite of conservative.

I'm taking these as words, not as political applications, whether in the mind of Hobbes the writer or Hobbes the stuffed tiger.

Conservatives prefer things that have endured the test of time. They are suspicious of change, not because it is always bad, but because it unleashes unforseen consequences, and because it often replaces what is known to work, however imperfectly, with what is untried and unsure. They choose change very carefully, keeping an eye on set standards of right and wrong and a belief in an objective universal moral order.

Liberals believe in human freedom -- in liberty, in the greatest possible scope for the human mind and spirit to realize its great potential. Experience is a great teacher, but not the autocrat of all time. What promises greater freedom -- freedom from (hunger, want, fear) as well as freedom to -- is worth striving for, even if old dogmas are overturned in the process. They choose what to preserve very carefully, keeping an eye on set standards of right and wrong and a belief in an objective universal moral order.

Honestly, when people talk about these words -- "conservative" and "liberal" -- in any terms but these, I think they are talking about something else, and dressing it in borrowed clothing.

They don't crash head-on into one another. You may believe that an orderly society is preferable to anarchy because the rule of law allows the greatest freedom for the greatest number of persons, even if a few of them would feel more free in a jungle. You may reject a religious intrusion into a secular government because that change threatens the stability that has allowed freedom, including religious freedom, to exist.

You may fight passionately against change because you are sure it threatens liberty. That is what the American Revolutionists in New England did when the Crown tightened the screws on them.

Or you may rewrite wholesale the laws and social relationships of a nation for the sake of conserving one essential principle that, you believe, all things depend upon: in the case of Abraham Lincoln, the union.

Perhaps that's part of the reason like Lincoln and Washington are regarded as national icons; they transcended the false dichotomy of liberal/conservative: they strode over it for the sake of a national good. They embodied, in a high degree, the pure qualities of both words.

The Revolution began with a bid to turn back the clock on the relationship of the colonies to the Mother Country, for the sake of preserving established freedoms. It ended up setting up an entirely new kind of nation to give those freedoms a firmer foundation.

The sectional crisis of 1860 began with Lincoln as the radical, and the Southern slaveholders preserving an old order. But as soon as the shooting started, the roles reversed and Lincoln fought a conservative war, politically, and kept as his one overarching goal the restoration of the union -- with slavery or with, as it turned out, a new birth of freedom.

Don't Know Much About

Many of my peers in the newsroom expressed indignation when they read the story of Robert Stout, a combat-wounded veteran of Iraq, and by all accounts a fine soldier, who said he likely will be drummed out of the military for going public with his sexuality: He's gay.

I think it's a shame, too. Many of the 10,000 or so people forced out of the services by the "don't ask, don't tell" policy since 1993 probably were a sad loss to our military.

But I also had some questions about Stout's story, and the issues surrounding the policy. And the indignant wire editor couldn't answer them. Nor did the AP story answer them. He accused me of being "disingenuous" in raising these questions, but I honestly didn't know. Perhaps I'm just ignorant, but the other editor couldn't answer the questions, either, so maybe a lot of people are ignorant. And the news wire services aren't giving us enough information.

The gist of my question is this: Stout is quoted in the news reports as saying he's already out to most of his 26-member platoon. He's "openly gay" to them, and they have no problem with that.

So what more is it that he wants to do?

What more than that, I mean? If he could stay below the radar of "don't ask, don't tell," why wasn't that enough? Did it have something to do with what he wanted to do off-base? I could understand that, but none of the stories I saw indicated there was a problem with that.

He's gay, and he's serving, and nobody hassled him. Apparently, though, he, or someone, took it to the next level and made him "publicly gay," as in media coverage. And that doomed his career. Which is a shame.

I'm no expert on any of this, obviously, but it seems the key to the military's policy is "conduct." That is, you can be gay, but you can't publicly live as a homosexual. But when you join the military, you give up a lot of freedom of conduct, including in sexual matters. You can't do a lot of things, sexually, when you're in the military.

I would hope they don't dismiss people simply because of their desires. Desires ought to mean nothing to the world; it's what you do with them that counts as character, and that ought to be the military's concern.

I imagine the military code would dismiss a man if he was caught in a polygamous marriage. But I don't think they'd boot a soldier for dreaming of a threesome. Is a gay soldier more dangerous to military discipline than a heterosexual, but masochistic, one?

I have another question about that. The groups actively trying to overthrow the current policy describe it as a "ban on lesbian, gay and bisexual service members." Except, in these circles, in other crusades, "trans-gendered" usually is part of the coalition.

Are trannies off the civil rights bandwagon for this one? Was that decision made at a collective level?

"The Defense Department insists the policy must stay or recruitment will suffer among those who wouldn't want to serve with gays," is one way the policy is justified.

Well, if we're taking the integration of blacks into the military as the model here, perhaps its time for the next step: separate all-gay units. I've read enough classical history to be familiar with the story of Epaminondas and the Sacred Band of Thebes, which was made up of 150 male homosexual couples.

This was a perfectly logical expression of the philosophy of the ancient world: no one would be more brave than a man in love, fighting under the eyes of his lover. The Thebans were not the first to make use of the Platonic connection on the battlefield. They simply did it most effectively. Xenophon tells of Spartan boys stationed beside their older lovers in battle. As Plato wrote,

“If there were only some way of contriving that a state or an army should be made up of lovers and their loves, they would be the very best governors of their own city, abstaining from all dishonor, and emulating one another in honor; and when fighting at each other's side, although a mere handful, they would overcome the world. For what lover would not choose rather to be seen by all mankind than by his beloved, either when abandoning his post or throwing away his arms? He would be ready to die a thousand deaths rather than endure this. Or who would desert his beloved or fail him in the hour of danger? The veriest coward would become an inspired hero, equal to the bravest, at such a time; Love would inspire him.” ["Symposium"]

Plutarch explained the thinking of the leader who established the Sacred Band, a Theban named Gorgidas:

“Since the lovers, ashamed to be base in sight of their beloved, and the beloved before their lovers, willingly rush into danger for the relief of one another.”

The Thebans initially dispersed the Sacred Band among their other units when they went into battle. The notion was that the example of the Sacred Band fighters would inspire the others, but it had the effect rather of dilluting their force, because, as Plutarch wrote, it “made their gallantry less conspicuous; not being united in one body, but mingled with many others of inferior resolution, they had no fair opportunity of showing what they could do.”

But when Pelopidas succeeded Gorgidas as military leader in Thebes, he united the elite unit under his friend and former lover, Epaminondas. The policy succeeded spectacularly. At Tegyra a mere 300 Thebans, including the Sacred Band, faced more than 1,000 Spartans -- the awesome Spartan infantry that had never been bested in equal combat, much less by an inferior force. But the Thebans, instead of waiting to be attacked, rushed out at the Peloponnesians, killed the Spartan captains, and routed their foes utterly.

All Greece was agog. The Sacred Band followed this with an even more spectacular victory at Leuctra in 371 B.C.E., "the most decisive battle ever fought by Greeks against Greeks," according to Pausanias.

Leuctra freed Thebes from Spartan overlordship. The twin defeats broke the back of a Spartan military dominance that had lasted for centuries. Epaminondas pushed on into the Peloponnesus, liberated Messenia and Arcadia, and pressed the war into Sparta itself, laying siege to the town itself for the first time in 600. Thebes ruled preeminentin Greece, until Philip II of Macedon, an admirer of Epaminondas, as well as a friend of Pelopidas, used the Thebans' own tactics to overthrow them.

Obviously, times have changed, but the core of Plato's observation seems intact. Men fight best alongside men to whom they feel a close bond. American Civil War regiments, each recruited in some town or neighborhood, contained men who knew each other well and shared ties of kinship and community. Historians who studied their cohesion under fire conclude this was a large part of what made them fight effectively. The term "Band of Brothers" comes from a Civil War song, and the words, translated into ancient Greek, with its overtones, would exactly have suited the Sacred Band.

It's not a serious proposal, just an observation of the lessons of history.

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Found in Translation

Every language has words that embody complex concepts that cannot be summed up by a single word in another language. One of my linguistics books lists some examples of this from the Sye language of Micronesia:

  • livinlivin - the top of something that is teetering over an edge and about to fall

  • orvalei - to complain, unjustly, that something is insufficient or not enough

There are great words and I wish we had them in English.

About to Fly

It's bad form to rag on a post of someone else's and then not link back to them, so they can at least discover that you've done it, if they want to know. I've caught people doing that to me, and I think it's cowardly.

On the other hand, I'm not going to beat up on this guy. And I actually think he's pretty cool, even if he's got a different take than I do on a lot of things. Let's just say he's young, Australian, gay, sexually out there, artistic, and thoughtful. I'm not trying to send bad vibes or bad traffic his way. I came across his blog while back-tracking some of the links to various bits of mine.

And reading down his prose, I came across this entry, which seems to me to pretty well capture the state of mind of someone honest and intelligent who is just beginning to slit out through the mental coccoon. So I "borrowed" it to show you:

So, tonight on the train i was talking to this young guy i know, who's now become a full-blown Nazi Skinhead. I found myself refusing to be drawn into discussing politics, and i realised it was because i couldn't think of anything useful to say to him. I mean, i can go on and on about hypocrisy in Christian fundamentalism or racism in Australian politics, but it occurred to me that i didn't have a clue how to *logically* answer a simple question of "but what's wrong with racism anyway?". It's like it's something that i've always seen as so fundamentally self-evident that i've never even thought about the reasons *why* i believe in it. And that being the case, how can you have a productive discussion on that sort of issue with someone who overtly rejects that as a given truth?

Of course arguing why the reasons for the other point of view make no sense is probably more to the point, but for something i feel this strongly about, i really should think through why i feel that way more carefully. For one thing, i've never been much of a fan of "because it just fucking is" as an argument.

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 April 27.

Earth Day came around again last week. Here in the east of the U.S., the lousy weather forced many observances indoors and unleashed a plague of The World's Worst Newspaper Article Lede, the one that begins, "Rain couldn't dampen the spirits of _____" or words to that effect.

The basic sense of Old English eorðe was "ground, soil, dry land." It also was used (along with middangeard) in the sense of "the material world," as opposed to the heavens or the underworld. It comes from a Germanic root that is recognizable in the languages most closely related to English, for example Old Norse jörð, Middle Dutch eerde, Old High German erda, and Gothic airþa.

Not until modern astronomy began to take hold in the popular mind did people begin to conceive of the planet we inhabit as the same essential thing as the planets that cross the night sky during the year. When this happened, people extended the old word for "the ground we walk on" to mean "the planet we inhabit."

This is logical, but using the same word in different senses like this can be confusing. One of the bitterest debates among copy editors in my newsroom is whether "Earth" should be capitalized when it is used in the sense of "the planet Earth." Obviously, I'm the one who thinks it should be. I lost that fight in the newsroom, as I usually do. But this is my site, so screw them.

The use of Earth in English in a planetary sense is found at a date that seems to me surprisingly early, a century before Copernicus published.

The dual sense of earth/Earth in English forces people to grope for new words to express the different senses, but there has been no general agreement on it yet. In King Alfred's day, earthling (Old English eyrþling) meant "plowman." But in Shakespeare's time it began to be used in the sense of "inhabitant of the earth." Earthman originally (1860) meant "a demon who lives underground;" the science fiction sense of "inhabitant of the planet Earth" is first attested 1949 in the writing of Robert Heinlein.

The Latin word terra meant "earth, land," originally "land as opposed to sea," since it comes from the ancient Indo-European root word for "dry" that also lies behind torrid and thirsty.

But this ancient "earth as dirt" word came to be used in an "Earth as a planet" sense by science fiction writers in the 1880s, who invented an adjective, terran, to mean "of or pertaining to the planet Earth." And of course its most obvious incarnation is extraterrestrial (1860s as an adjective; 1963 as a noun).

In the same family is terrier, which is literally an "earth dog" (medieval French chien terrier), so called because the dogs pursue their quarry (foxes, badgers, etc.) into their burrows or setts.

The French term for "potato" is pomme de terre, literally "earth-apple;" and a Swedish dialectal word for "potato" is jordpäron, literally "earth-pear." Another version of "earth-apple" is camomile, which ultimately derives from ancient Greek chamaimelon.

Words for "world" in some other Indo-European languages derive from the root for "bottom, foundation" (cf. Irish domun, Old Slavic duno, which are related to English deep). The Lithuanian word pasaulis is a compound of pa- "under" and saule "sun."

Many modern "Earth" terms have been coined from the Greek goddess name Gaia. Her name is a collateral form of ge (Dorian ga) meaning "earth." This word has no detectable connection to any other Indo-European word, and it may come from a long-lost language spoken in Hellas before the Greeks descended into the peninsula.

The Roman equivalent goddess of the earth was Tellus, which was sometimes used in English poetically or rhetorically for "Earth personified" or "the Earth as a planet." Another offshoot of it is the chemical name telluride.

Latin tellus "earth" is from a root meaning "ground" or "floor." In Old Irish, it also has a relative, talam, that means "earth," but its relatives in other languages mean things like "flat" (Lithuanian), "plain" (Sanskrit), "floor" (Old Slavic), "game board" (Greek), "plank" (Old Norse).

An even more confused word is world, which already by Anglo-Saxon times had a sense of "human existence, the affairs of life," as well as "the human race, mankind." By the early Middle Ages, it had been extended to "the physical world in the broadest sense, the universe." And subsequently it, too, came to be used of any planet.

World and its cousins (Dutch wereld, German Welt, etc.) are a group peculiar to the Germanic languages. They're actually a very ancient compound, meaning something like "the age of man." The first element in Proto-Germanic *wer "man" (also found in werewolf, and related to the Latin root of virile) and *ald "age," the root of old.

* * *

The U.S. Department of Agriculture released its revised food pyramid last week. Food is a good old Germanic word from a root that gave us, via Latin, pabulum, pastor ("shepherd," literally "feeder"), and pasture.

Pyramid, however, is an import. It comes from Latin pyramides, the plural of pyramis "one of the pyramids of Egypt," which is from Greek pyramis, apparently an alteration of Egyptian pimar "pyramid."


Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Who You Calling Conservative?

Bush has been slipping in the polls. And Glenn thinks he knows why:

The Democrats' weakness is that people worry that they're the party of Jane Fonda. They tried -- but failed miserably -- to convince people otherwise in the last election.

The Republicans' weakness is that people worry that they're the party of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. They tried, successfully, to convince people otherwise in the last election, but they're now acting in ways that are giving those fears new life. Add to this the fact that the war is going well, weakening the national security glue that holds Bush's coalition together, and a drop is natural: People who reluctantly backed Bush because Kerry was just unacceptable on national security are now seeing their worries about domestic issues as more credible.

Jeff Jarvis refined that thought:

I think it's more than that religion is a distraction from the nation's business. I think Americans get scared when they confront people who are too religious -- especially when they do that on the other side of the church/state wall. This doesn't mean the Democrats should be godless; they should just be religously moderate (read: sane). ... [I]n the general election, a religious mainstreamer can win over a fringer.

He advises Bush to "Concentrate on energy and health care." He advises Democrats to "Concentrate on energy and health care." And, I would add, Iraq, Afghanistan, and terror. Leave religion in the pulpits, and in the homes, where it belongs.

So I'm finding much of what comes from the GOP administration distasteful these days. Am I sorry I voted for it? Not a bit. I knew what it was; I waited for the other side to offer me a better choice; it never did.

Ever since I wrote my brief story about leaving the comfortable coccoon of "liberal" certainties, and put it online here, I've gotten occasional e-mail rants from present-day progressives demanding that I justify every "conservative" perfidy and hypocrisy that crosses their minds.

My favorites are the ones from old veterans of the '60s "movement" that castigate me for my relative youth. Like this one:

I'm 69. That you are young is merely an observation. Whether one lives through an era directly or knows it only by reputation makes a difference.

Many things might be observed. A writer choses to observe some and not others. Presumably, there is a method and a purpose to that. Perhaps, then, this writer remembered the reactions of the "elders" who were alive in 1967, and their constant reminders to the impetuous youth of that day about the wisdom and perspective that only a long experience in life can bring.

I tell them that being "no longer a liberal (as self-described liberals define it)" is not at all the same thing as "being a conservative (as self-described liberals define it)."

As I said right at the top of my piece, I don't know what sort of political animal I am, in the modern American zoo. But that book only has four pages: each side's view of itself and its caricature of the other. I think a lot of people don't connect with that.

I don't know what a real conservative is any more than I know what a real liberal is. I think I can cobble together a very good "conservative" argument for legal abortion and state permission of homosexual marriage. But those positions are ones no one seems to associate with "conservatism." At the same time I think I can make a real liberal argument for protection of the unborn and for the right to bear arms. But, ditto.

These labels lack meaning anymore, either historically or etymologically. Sans meaning, it's impossible to separate "real" anything from "fake" anything.

It's likely that someday soon I'll find myself voting for candidates touted by the "liberals" who snipe at me now. I'm not side-oriented. I'm voting for who convinces me. But you've got to convince me. And I'll tell you the things I care about. They're all over these pages. Then you try to win the vote. You don't get it just for "not being the other guy."

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I made my first Amish friend long before I bought a house in Lancaster. I still was in West Chester, Pennsylvania, researching local history, writing books, editing and freelancing. For reasons I can't recall now I needed to answer some questions about early German settlements in Berks County.

Overall, West Chester was a great place to do history; the historical society had tapped into some philanthropists in the horsey townships, and it had fantastic resources; the courthouse had never known a fire, so the records there ran intact back to Billy Penn; and the early settlers had belonged to congregations that were scrupulous about tracking births, marriages, and deaths.

The Amish, surprisingly to me, were an exception. They had had very little interest in genealogies. But that was where my research pointed me. The county historic preservation officer was a good friend and ally, and she had been raised in a Plain family and still had many contacts in that world. She was the one who put me in touch with Abner Beiler.

By "put me in touch" I mean she drove me out to his farm north of Intercourse and introduced me. Being Amish, he didn't have a phone. He was retired from active farming, but his house sat amid an acre of garden rows, and over his porch a thick grapevine twined itself. He also had a shop beside the house where he bound books. But his hobby was Amish genealogy.

I don't remember what path led him to research it, but the bishops must have approved, because Abner started taking the bus up to the Reading courthouse and combing through the records there. Back home, by the light of propane lamps, he pieced together the trees of the German families that had lived in the Tulpehocken Valley since they pioneered it in the 18th century.

At one point he got hold of a stack of microfilm records -- censuses, deeds, ships' passenger lists, that sort of thing. I thought he must be taking them to the local library to find a machine to read them, but he said, "I built an Amish one." And he showed me a contraption he had rigged up that, somehow, illuminated and magnified microfilm using a gas engine.

I visited him several times that summer, copying down information and chatting. We'd sit on his porch toward dusk, under the vine, and drink cold glasses of the best root beer I ever had, which he had bottled himself and stashed in his underground cellar. We'd watch the tourist buses -- "caterpillars," he called them -- out of Intercourse trying to navigate the hairpin turns on the country road. And we'd talk about the Amish and how they were seen in the wider world.

I thought of those days again this week when contemplating the "other" quality in terms of American Indians, or Vietnamese during the war. I don't have much direct experience with either of those groups, but I do know how it is with the Amish, who live in a parallel culture beside the one I inhabit here.

It's a common error to think they are deliberately anachronistic. They do many modern things; as I drive down the roads here I see them playing pick-up basketball or roller-blading, and their clothes are all polyester. But they choose to reject certain modern technologies, including the big ones like cars and household electricity and public schools and television.

Many people here dislike them intensely. The worst Amish-bashers seem to be the less-prosperous and less-educated denizens of the trailer parks and diners and mud bog race tracks. Their dislike is intense, and irrational. It often comes down to "they stink" (you would, too, if you worked a farm by hand every day), "they don't pay taxes" (a myth; they pay the bulk of school taxes for schools they never use), "their buggy wheels tear up the roads" (not more than tractor trailers do). That sort of thing.

After a while, I understood that the real objection is to "otherness." By choosing not to participate in our common, modern, American consumer culture, the Amish are seen as passing a judgment on it, whether they mean to or not. If they're saying these things are sinful or unhealthy to them, what does that say about those of us who do them?

I should hasten to add that most local folks get along with their Amish neighbors just fine, and the Amish and the English around here do business and socialize regularly, like Abner and I did.

But beyond this region, the Amish often are elevated to a cultish holiness. The movie "Witness" got that ball rolling. One day Abner showed me a letter that had found its way to him, from a devout California man seeking -- pleading -- to be admitted into the Amish church.

The Amish don't seek converts. They haven't had any for centuries, I imagine. But this fellow had read certain books -- I think I can even identify which ones they were -- and decided that the Amish faith was the antidote to everything wrong with modern culture. The deliberate slowness, the communality, the faith, the earthiness of it, all appealed directly to a mind chock full of New Age sensibilities.

Students of American Indian culture will recognize this, too. The intensity of America drives its disaffected members to find and embrace alternative cultures. But the clutching embrace warps the "others." Those who want to roll their bodies in the alternative culture and wrap themselves in it as an antidote to America are insulting the realities they claim to love.

I tried to explain the letter to Abner, as I saw it; who this deluded young fellow was and what he really saw when he looked at the pictures of Amish life. How it was something like the flip side of the bad caricatures that occasionally cropped up closer to home.

"Angels or monkeys," he sighed. "Anything but human beings."

Vietnam, Again

Still thinking about the American attitudes during the Vietnam war, after reading Vietpundit's offer to express about it, and seeing follow-ups and feedbacks from other Americans with Vietnamese roots, like Bleeding Ear.

And, maybe, still wishing I had a better answer to give them. America just performed poorly, on any number of levels, in that time and place. One modern history book I often refer to titles its chapter on the 1960s and '70s "America's Suicide Attempt." How about it? What should have been a time of proper balancing -- bringing long-due fairness and equality and equal opportunity to women, minorities, blighted cities, and the land and water itself -- became a perfect storm of loathing in the minds of many people, and instead of seeing what they were for, and working to create it, they fixated on what they were against, a set of effigies that merged into a leviathan image of The Man: militaryindustrialracistmalechauvinistpigwhiteAmeriKKKa.

Read it in Hunter S. Thompson's famous passage recalling the spirit of rebellion in the 1960s: "There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning. And that, I think, was the handle — that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil." Where was it going? What did it propose to do? What were the consequences? Everything is muddy except the image of Old and Evil.

When the '60s protest generation felt its wave crest and then recede, many took refuge in academe. From the universities they carried on their abrasive critique of everything conventional in America. The planners and soldiers in the Vietnam war were torn apart, in dissertation after disseration, for their reliance on delusional images.

They noticed something: America's military men in Vietnam confounded that war with the old 19th century Indian wars. This site is an academic paper that explores that language:

American soldiers in Vietnam routinely called enemy territory "Indian Country." In her study of the Vietnam War, Fire in the Lake, Frances Fitzgerald argues that the term "Indian Country" was more than just a joke or a figure of speech: "It put the Vietnam War into a definite mythological and historical perspective: the Americans were once again embarked upon a heroic ... conquest of an inferior race." General Maxwell Taylor, testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the mid-1960s, defended the policy of "pacification" in Vietnam by using the analogy of Indians and the frontier: "It is very hard to plant the corn outside the stockade when the Indians are still around. We have to get the Indians farther away in many provinces to make good progress."

It's foolish to fight one war under the delusion that you're fighting another. It's self-destructive -- as deadly, from a military standpoint, as using Napoleonic open-field formations against dug-in Confederates with rifles on Marye's Heights; as deadly as sending Polish horse-mounted lancers out to fight Panzer tanks. It denies the reality of the people you are fighting among -- your allies as well as your enemies. They are dehumanized, and they suffer.

But what I don't see so often studied is the way the antiwar movement took the Vietnamese-as-American Indians image into its own heart, reversing the virtues in it, and used it in its own struggle. The paper I cited above does address this:

By 1971, the Indian analogy began to be used against our Vietnam policies rather than in support of them. John Kerry, testifying before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1971, quotes a fellow Vietnam veteran, a Native American: An American Indian friend of mine who lives in the Indian Nation of Alcatraz put it to me very succinctly. He told me how as a boy on an Indian reservation he had watched television and he used to cheer the cowboys when they came in and shot the Indians. Then suddenly he stopped in Vietnam one day and said, 'My God, I am doing to these people the very same thing that was done to my people.' And that's what we are trying to say, that we think this thing has to end.

In the early 1960s, American popular culture was saturated with cowboys and Indians, Davey Crockett and Daniel Boone. During the Vietnam years this all fell into bad odor; simplistic, racist caricatures. Westerns of the later Vietnam period, like "Little Big Man" and TV's "F Troop," lampooned or exploded the mythology. The Vietnam connection was explicit in many cases. "Arthur Kopit claimed that his play Indians (1968), a meditation on Buffalo Bill and Indian-killing, was really about Vietnam."

Indians became the ultimate "other" in American history: they were seen as everything we were not. They loved their mother, the earth, while we raped it (never mind that they killed the buffalo as vigorously as the white man did, once they got their hands on the technology to do it). They were benevolent and communal (never mind their bloody tribal wars and enslavement of captives). They were deliberately non-technological while we were fools for it (as if they chose to see their children die of fevers modern medicine could cure).

To the disaffected mass in America, all that was loathsome about the United States could be separated from its opposite, and the opposite projected onto the Indians, most of whom were safely trapped in history.

The other "others" of the times included the Vietnamese. As Kerry's testimony points out, the connection quickly was made, and not just by Indian soldiers. Noam Chomsky and Ward Churchill, among others, made it part of their stock in trade.

One of the best books on the war, Michael Herr's Dispatches (1978), a non-fiction account of a journalist's tour of duty with the troops, places Vietnam at the end of a succession of American betrayals and victimizations of the American Indian, starting with the European settlers on the East Coast and President Andrew Jackson's forced removal of the Five Civilized Tribes from the southeast to Oklahoma. Where did our involvement in Vietnam begin?

... you couldn't use standard methods to date the doom; might as well say that Vietnam was where the Trail of Tears was headed all along.

This is interesting psychology, but it is historical nonsense. Making an iconic image of the heroic communist Vietnamese peasant fighting for freedom against the militaryindustrialracistmalechauvinistpigwhiteAmeriKKKa may validate someone's wrath and rage. But it disrespects the complexity of the case. And it does no honor whatsoever to the Vietnamese. They didn't ask to be anyone's images or icons.

Hard left intellectuals have had to jettison much of their own literary history because it embodies politically incorrect thoughts that horrify their modern minds. They cling to the few works that criticize the conventions of the day. One is Conrad's "Heart of Darkness," with its corrupt European colonialists and "pure" African souls.

Chinua Achebe, the father of modern African literature, wants none of it. "I am an African. What interests me is what I learn in Conrad about myself. To use me as a symbol may be bright or clever, but if it reduces my humanity by the smallest fraction I don't like it. ... [Y]ou cannot compromise my humanity in order that you explore your own ambiguity. I cannot accept that. My humanity is not to be debated, nor is it to be used simply to illustrate European problems."

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Belly-Dancing Amy

Another beautiful performance last weekend. While the black gauzy fabric and the chingling silver coins were out, we experimented with light and angles.


Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Bargain Hunting

Glittering Eye points out that, between capturing a terrorist and capturing a terrorist's computer, the hardware might be the better choice.

Securing Zarqawi's computer and the information in it may lead to identifying his sources of financing and his operatives as effectively as actually capturing him might. Possibly more so — I know that there's stuff in my computers that I don't have committed to memory. That stuff that Zarqawi has in his head might have a pretty short shelf life and be pretty tough to get out. Meanwhile, soon enough there'd be another Zarqawi running things and he might be somebody that we have far less information about than we do Zarqawi.

Crow Watch

Another report from the seekers of Iraqi WMD makes it more certain that the vast stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons, and the nukes, were not there in 2003. It also casts cold water on another theory.

The U.S.-led group that scoured Iraq for weapons of mass destruction has found no evidence Iraq hid such weapons in Syria before the U.S. invasion in March 2003, according to a final report on the investigation.

When I was shifting around from a reflexive left/antiwar position to support of the overthrow of Saddam, the concern that he had, or soon would acquire, WMD loomed large in my thinking. Should I be eating crow today, as many voices who remained in the left/antiwar camp demand?

Sure, I'll tuck in. If they'll join me. I don't remember anyone back in the winter of 2002-03 shouting that there were no WMD in Iraq. Instead, I remembered hearing two arguments from that side that involved such weapons. One was, why should the U.S. have such an arsenal and deny it to Islamic nations? Wasn't that a double-standard? And anyway, our enemies the Soviets had nukes for decades and we were fine with that. The other was that Saddam did have WMD, and that was a good reason not to send our troops into war against him.

To see if my memory was accurate, I went back through the archives of some of the best left/Democratic/antiwar sites. By "best" I mean the more sane and thoughtful ones, as well as the more prominent ones. I looked for what they had written on WMD, to see if any had been saying all along there was no such thing in Saddam's Iraq.

All of them were more or less skeptical about the specific evidence as presented by Bush, Cheney, and Powell. None of them came out right and said "no WDM in Iraq." Instead, all seemed to assume there was something dirty up Saddam's sleeve.

Here's Josh Marshall on March 26, 2003:

This war isn't really about Iraq or deposing Saddam or even eliminating his WMD, though each of those are important benefits along the way.

On March 18, 2003, he described the looming war in these terms:

At this point, obviously I hope this goes quickly and as cleanly as possible. Getting rid of Saddam will be a very good thing as will getting rid of his WMD and ambitions to get more. I was long for something like this. I changed my position because in the course of moving in this direction we incurred an even greater risk to our security than Saddam himself was.

Atrios, meanwhile, on March 27, 2003, quoted this Josh Marshall passage from Washington Monthly:

Imagine it's six months from now. The Iraq war is over. After an initial burst of joy and gratitude at being liberated from Saddam's rule, the people of Iraq are watching, and waiting, and beginning to chafe under American occupation. Across the border, in Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, our conquering presence has brought street protests and escalating violence. The United Nations and NATO are in disarray, so America is pretty much on its own. Hemmed in by budget deficits at home and limited financial assistance from allies, the Bush administration is talking again about tapping Iraq's oil reserves to offset some of the costs of the American presence--talk that is further inflaming the region. Meanwhile, U.S. intelligence has discovered fresh evidence that, prior to the war, Saddam moved quantities of biological and chemical weapons to Syria. When Syria denies having such weapons, the administration starts massing troops on the Syrian border. But as they begin to move, there is an explosion: Hezbollah terrorists from southern Lebanon blow themselves up in a Baghdad restaurant, killing dozens of Western aid workers and journalists. Knowing that Hezbollah has cells in America, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge puts the nation back on Orange Alert. FBI agents start sweeping through mosques, with a new round of arrests of Saudis, Pakistanis, Palestinians, and Yemenis.

Emphasis added. And his comment is, "You know Josh, that's why some of us have been against all of this..." Later (April 4, 2003) Atrios went on the record about Saddam's weaponry:

For the record, I've never doubted that Saddam probably has some sort of chemical weapons. Heck, I can brew up some nasty stuff with common household cleaning agents. The issue is whether or not he had "weapons of mass destruction" in the genuine sense - that is, weapons which could kill an immense number of people, quickly, from a distance. At this point, the US could find an ammonia bottle sitting next a bleach bottle and the media will praise Jeebus that Bush had the sense to protect us from that extraordinary danger. But, serious people (just kidding, Matthew) know that most chemical weapons aren't very good at killing a lot of people, quickly, from a distance. Our cruise missiles more fit the definition than do most of the nasty substances they might find (such as Ricin).

Same thing at Daily Kos. Skeptical of specific administration claims and evidences, but not of the existence of Iraqi WMD. And willing to invoke them, if they could be used to make the White House look bad.

"How does the US know that Iraq has biological weapons? Easy. Because we sent them the equipment and anthrax spores to build them." [Sept. 26, 2002] On Jan. 17, 2003, he quotes approvingly a "Christian Science Monitor" piece that claims "Iraqi forces defending the cities could try to halt invading troops by shelling them with chemical weapons," and predicts, "Americans will die -- lots of them."

On Feb. 12, 2003, Kos, who is a military man, laid out his own set of possible Iraq war scenarios. WMD figured in them: "And if Saddam is going to use chemical weapons, this would be a good time -- with US troop concentrations exposed in the open desert. ... There's no doubt that Kuwait is sufficient for staging purposes, but having a single supply line is problematic. Not only is it exposed to dehabilitating guerilla attacks, but Saddam could hamper the entire resupply operation by either detonating a nuke (if he has one) or contaminating wide swaths of the logistical lines with chemical and/or biological weapons."

I quote these things not in an attempt to embarrass these men, who I believe are honorable, even if I think they're also wrong. But I quote them to give perspective to the left's tendency to believe it never fell for that WMD talk. Just like it claims the war supporters never talked about democracy until the WMD claims fell apart. There are plenty of references to democratizing the Middle East -- generally dismissive -- on these sites, but that's a post for another day.

In the more strident sites, the skepticism about the Administration's WMD claims was stronger, but so was the need to use anything -- including fear of WMD -- to oppose the war. In a letter to Congressional Democratic leaders, published in the March 19, 2003, "Counterpunch," Ralph Nader listed as one of the core reasons to oppose the war:

The risk of serious casualties for our soldiers, including toxic illness as in the first Gulf War and, in Mr. Bush's view, possible exposure to chemical and biological weapons for which official U.S. army audits say they are inadequately trained and ill-equipped.

Which manages to suggest both that only Bush believes Iraqi WMD are real, and that Bush's false dream could make our troops genuinely sick. Truly the man lives in a Lewis Caroll world. But if it veers toward self-parody, it expresses well the irreconcilable views about Iraqi WMD that many in the anti-war camp in those weeks managed to hold, simultaneously.

At "Counterpunch" I also stumbled on this delightful prediction from late March 2003 from Chuck O'Connell, who teaches sociology at the University of California Irvine.

4. Democracy will NOT come to Iraq. What will happen is that some very rich exiled Iraqi who has made it clear in the past several months to the State Department and CIA that he is and will be forever and ever in complete agreement with what ever the Americans want in Iraq shall become the new ruler. He will be labeled by the U.S. press as a democratic wonder and indeed may have the trappings of "elections" (just as Hussein had "elections"). But the people of Iraq will be no more "free" than the people of Kuwait are today (even though we "liberated" them 12 years ago).

I'll pass my share of crow to Perfesser O'Connell.

High School Cinfidential

Meet Amy. She blogs on a lot of the current events that catch my eye and those of the friends on my blogroll. What sets her apart is that she's a high school student. We all have stories to tell, about trying to live with values that don't quite mesh with our peer groups (in my case, a generally liberal/progressive newsroom). In Amy's case, it's high school, which, if you cast your mind back to that era, you'll recall with a shudder.

Like this morning, I was in French 2 and we were playing a jeopardy style game. The boy in question had his vocabulary sheet out and was reading to two different teams the necessary answers. He is the popular jock in the class, if reduced to the typical stereotypes. He wants it that way.

The teacher asked if someone had been cheating, and I went up after class and told her quietly what I knew. Unfortunately for me, she immediately singled him out and told him not to do it again — a warning was all — and I was standing next to her.

"Did you tell?" He asked me incredulously.

I saw no sense in lying: "yes".

He got very mad, asked why. I replied: "it’s wrong and dishonorable, and you shouldn’t get away with it."

Him: It’s just a game!

His Friend: He was helping you guys [my team] out too!

Me: So? It’s still wrong!

Him: God, it’s just a frickin’ game! Supposed to be fun!

Me: It’s not fun when people cheat. And it’s not like you learn anything.

So, now I am the official rat of the class, condemned socially, and shunned. Well, just another day at school.

It’s hard, sometimes. To do stuff like that. I know it’s going to make things very difficult for me, considering his posse of jocks. But I’m not going to apologize for doing the right thing. He wasn’t punished. Hopefully he won’t do it again, at least in that class, because he knows I’m watching. Maybe he might learn something in French. But if none of that happens, it’s okay. Because I had enough respect for him to say: "that’s wrong, and it’s not okay." C’est la vie, as they say.

Spot the Idiot, Again

Doing editorial pages this week, while the regular ed guy is on vacation. The letters to the editor are the usual dreary pack:

In the next 10 days the Republicans will try to use the "nuclear option" to seize absolute power to appoint judges who will roll back decades of progress in protecting worker rights, the environment, and privacy.

The "nuclear option" is a parliamentary trick to eliminate the filibuster - the right to extend debate on controversial judicial nominations.

One of the first judges the "nuclear option" would force through is Janice Rodgers Brown of California, who is nominated for the Washington D.C. Court of Appeals, a common stepping stone to the Supreme Court.

Judge Brown follows an extremist judicial philosophy that calls for the courts to block Congress from guaranteeing such things as the 40 hour work week, the minimum wage, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act.

This purports to be from a local resident, and I'm sure it was sent in by the person who has the e-mail address attached to it. But this one caught my eye, because I read blogs and I know that there are organized campaigns by progressive activist groups to flood newspapers with what are essentially carbon copies of political action groups talking points.

It didn't take long to hook up this particular letter with its source:, which has this on its Web site:

In the next 10 days the Republicans will try to use the "nuclear option" to seize absolute power to appoint judges who will roll back decades of progress in protecting worker rights, the environment, and privacy.

The "nuclear option" is a parliamentary trick to eliminate the filibuster - the right to extend debate on controversial judicial nominations.

One of the first judges the "nuclear option" would force through is Janice Rodgers Brown of California, who is nominated for the Washington D.C. Court of Appeals, a common stepping stone to the Supreme Court.

Judge Brown follows an extremist judicial philosophy that calls for the courts to block Congress from guaranteeing such things as the 40 hour work week, the minimum wage, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act.

I've italicized the parts that are the same as the supposedly local letter to the editor. Identical, down to the misspelling of the judge's name (it's Rogers).

No Fry Zone

Zacarias Moussaoui pleaded guilty April 22 to six felonies, four of which carry the death penalty. Executing Moussaoui would be satisfying on a gut-level to a lot of people.

He's a classic al-Qaida thug who proudly pledges allegiance to Osama bin-Laden. The difference between him and the Sept. 11 killers, all now beyond the reach of earthly justice, is merely circumstantial. They completed their missions; he, through a mix of incompetence and luck, did not. But in his guilty plea to Judge Leonie Brinkema, Moussaoui acknowledged he lied to federal agents to cover up the Sept. 11 plot a month before it erupted.

He is utterly without remorse. In his motions, Moussaoui refers to himself as a "Natural Born Terrorist." After his guilty plea, he left the courtroom, shouting "Allah akhbar! God curse America!" Hey, Zac, same to you, buddy. But with all that in mind, we don't wish to see the U.S. government succeed in its bid to give Moussaoui a one-way ride on the lethal injection gurney.

Here's three reasons to make him wait a little longer for those 72 virgins.

1. Moussaoui, even if he was part of the conspiracy, didn't kill anyone. He never even got the chance to try. He did not smash planes into buildings, or direct those who did or slit throats with boxcutters. He insists he was not part of that plot but was going to participate in a later one. Ramzi Binalshibh, the alleged mastermind of the attacks, confirms this; he told American investigators he met Moussaoui but didn't choose him for the Sept. 11 team.

2. Moussaoui is a French citizen. The European Union condemns the death penalty for foreign nationals in the United States. France wants Moussaoui spared, and Germany says it will not release evidence against Moussaoui unless the U.S. promises not to seek the death penalty.

Carp at the unpleasant prospect of letting the European "soft power" appeasers dictate American judicial policy against terrorists. And then listen.

The intelligence-gathering in Europe is formidable, and in many cases more aggressive and less regulation-hampered than its equivalent in the U.S. The Sept. 11 plot was hatched there, in Hamburg, and future threats likely will be, too. We need Europe's quiet cooperation, in the long haul. Given that the death penalty isn't a clear call in Moussaoui's case anyhow, better to let it go now for the sake of later catching a bigger, and more fry-able, fish.

3. Moussaoui spouts typical Wahhabi world-view nonsense. He believes America is doomed, bin Laden will triumph and decent women should stay at home velied in black robes, at the mercy of men. He's only 36. What better punishment than to let him live out his days watching America work through its challenges, democracy advance in the Middle East and bin Ladin's medievalism tossed in history's dustbin? Add it to our list of incentives that Moussaoui's watching and rooting for our failure.

Best of all, he'd have to deal daily with the commands of female prison officials and the orders of women in black robes – like Leonie Brinkema.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Homeward Bound

Neurotic Iraqi Wife is preparing to make a trip back to the homeland. She knows the challenges will start even before she arrives.

One thing Im kinda not looking forward to in Egypt is the airport and the passport control. When I went there last year with my sister, they made us wait 2 whole hours until they gave us our passports back. Bear in mind I hold a British passport but because the words "Born in Baghdad" is written down, they gave me hell. I dunno what to make of it. During Saddam's time we used to get hassled and during this time we still get hassled, when will "Born in Baghdad" be something good for other countries???

Its not only Egypt, its everywhere in the Middle East. Ironic no??? I woulda thought people would sympathise with us and be of better assistance for all the tyrant years we had endured. Instead they treat us like S***. Why??? Cuz their hero is sitting in a cell all alone....Thats the mentality we have to deal with. Whenever Im asked where I come from and the words Iraq pop out proudly from my lips, I hear gasps..."OOOOOOOOOH nooooooo, Iraq???What a tragedy thats happening in Iraq right now. Look at what the Americans are doing, its all a conspiracy, Saddam was a good man" and on they go idolising that idiot.

Hmm, these words just tear my insides to shreds and I just wanna gag. Usually I answer back with anger and fury but after a million times of trying to explain to them what really Saddam was like, I realised that no matter how much I talk, their small minds arent capable of grasping the truth so I just sit down relax, smile and say "Oh well, Im glad he's gone to history's trash can."


Students at Middlebury College evidently can take "a class on climate change and activism." I wonder if that's considered a "gut" course? At Dickinson in the '80s we had Astronomy 101 ("Stars for Studs;" I was a T.A.) and Geology 101 ("Rocks for Jocks"). Is this the environmental equivalent? "Stumps for Chumps?"

Well, if it is, the students just got more education than they bargained for. As part of the class, they designed a "Flat Earth Award" for global-warming naysayers. Gee, somehow I didn't think it required a $160,000 liberal arts education to do something like that. The winner was Dr. Fred Singer.

Singer did not shrivel up in horror when righteous youth shone its searing light of truth on him. He leaped up to accept the award. He even wrote an acceptance speech.

It reads, in part:

As you undoubtedly realize, there is no consensus within the scientific community about global warming. And even if there were such a consensus, this is not how science progresses.

Remember: There was once a consensus that the sun revolves about the earth, that humans could not travel faster than 25 m.p.h., that manned flight was technically impossible, and that rockets could not operate in the vacuum of space.

What matters are facts based on actual observations. And as long as weather satellites show that the atmosphere is not warming, I cannot put much faith into theoretical computer models that claim to represent the atmosphere but contradict what the atmosphere tells us. A computer model is only as good as the assumptions fed into it.

I hope that this does not come as too much of a shock for you. As for the claimed consensus - as published by Naomi Oreskes in the Dec. 3, 2004, issue of Science: A colleague of mine completed an audit of the material used by Professor Oreskes but did not duplicate her result. I expect that her paper will be withdrawn. You may want to drop the link to her article on your website.

He also points out that, contra Middlebury, he continues to publish in peer-reviewed journals, his work is not industry-funded, and he does not deny the principle of global warming. He says the greenhouse effect is real; he just says its effects are not as great as some other scientists say. "There is a discrepancy between what we expect from theory and the facts, and we need to explain that. That's what we're all working on."

All of which, I'm sure, is more education than the Middleburyites bargained for, even at $40,000 a year. But attempts to apply ivory tower dogmas to real-world situations, or enforce campus speech codes off-campus, often turn into teachable moments. Just remember what happened to Greenpeace protesters last year when they decided to storm London's International Petroleum Exchange and close down trading for the day. The Greenpeace team ran onto the trading floor, according to the London Times, "blowing whistles and sounding fog horns, encountering little resistance from security guards. Rape alarms were tied to helium balloons to float to the ceiling and create noise out of reach."

But London traders seem to be young, tough, and have a soccer fan streak, and they don't suffer such foolishness lightly. They set upon the trespassers at once and "literally kicked them on to the pavement." One of the Greenpeacers complained, "I've never seen anyone less amenable to listening to our point of view."

One trader, as his mates tossed a protester bodily out of the building and onto the sidewalk, dismissed him with the immortal phrase, "Sod off, Swampy!"

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Hearts and Minds

I'm glad to see Vietpundit back and blogging again. One of the things that moved Vietpundit back to the keyboard was the extended observations by Neo-Neocon about the Vietnam War and the generations of Americans who were, in any sense, part of it.

Like a lot of us, N-NC is in the "Sept. 10 liberal who got mugged by reality" category. At least I think I read her correctly. And like me she's still a little woozy from falling off the juggernaut. One of the most difficult adjustments is that you have to haul up all the certainties of your past and re-examine them. Probably none is more challenging, to those who were aware of it, than the Vietnam War.

I barely qualify. My memories of the war time itself are scant; I was born in 1960. I remember heated dinner-table arguments. My mother saw Bobby Darin speak out against the war on Mike Douglas, or some other talk show, and get booed for it. She said she sat right down and wrote him a fan letter; the first fan letter she'd ever written in her life, so she claims, though I always suspect Don Ameche got a few from her childhood home.

But if my father had an articulate view in support of the war, I don't remember it. I mostly remember his anger from those years. In fact, if anyone had a coherent defense of the war, it never percolated down to me in the Philadelphia suburbs. Our teachers who spoke about the war obviously were against it. The music we heard on the radio, to the degree that it was political, was anti-war.

"The Ballad of the Green Berets," I read, was the number 21 most popular song in the U.S. for the entire decade of the 1960s. I am sure I never heard it. Nor did I ever see John Wayne's movie of the same name. But I heard plenty of "One Tin Soldier" and "Fortunate Son," and I saw "Hearts and Minds."

I don't think any cultural artifact summed up American opposition to the war more than that one movie documentary. Statistics show it was the shift of moderate liberal opinion, which had supported the war, that doomed Johnson in the 1968 primaries. The role of media images in that is undeniable, especially the Tet offensive. Though "Hearts and Minds" came well at the end of the Vietnam era, it encapsulates the set of images that the anti-war authorites managed to get across to the American people.


So, my understanding of how we got into Vietnam militarily and failed to win there is based on subsequent reading, not personal remembrance. In a very streamlined version, and purely from the American point of view, it would go like this:

Vietnam represented, to the U.S., a Cold War departure from the classical American attitude rooted in Washington's Farewell Address and summed up by John Quincy Adams in 1821: "Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will be America's heart, her benedictions and her prayers." But, he added, "she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own."

That was easy to say when America was a small power in a world dominated by Britain, and isolated, less by virtue of geography than by virtue of the techonlogy of the times, which could not project force easily across the seas. That picture changed wholesale with the rise of America to a superpower, and the development of missile systems and nuclear weapons. Among other things, this forced Truman and Eisenhower to stretch Adams' "her own" to include essential allies such as Europe.

The policy got a further, and dicier, extension with the end of the colonial era. In the early 1960s, new Third World nations presented an opportunity Khrushchev recognized and exploited, to leap over the West's "containment" of his communist empire behind a ring of allied states. He saw that the communists, with their natural affinity for revolutions, easily could seize the vanguard in the "national liberation wars" and "revolutionary struggles against imperialism" in Asia, Africa, and Latin America and turn the emerging states into Soviet satellites.

Kennedy took up the challenge, though typically with much enthusiasm and mixed results. The Peace Corps, the Green Berets (counter-insurgency specialists), the "Alliance for Progress," all were part of his response. Typically, too, the response embodied the American spirit of can-do-everything-at-once confidence and a tension between reckless idealism and selfish realism.

The British historian Paul Johnson outlines the problem with all this, from the "Realists" point of view:

But this was to ignore the central lesson of the British Empire, that the best any possessing power can hope to settle for is stability, however imperfect. To promote dynamism is to invite chaos. In the end, a possessing power always has to defend its system by force, or watch it disintegrate, as Britain had done. America had now created a new, post-colonial system, as Kennedy's Inaugural acknowledged. But it was still a possessing one, dependent on stability for its well-being. America's resources were far greater than Britain's had been. But they were still limited. The art, therefore, lay in selecting those positions which must be defended, and could only be defended by force, and devising workable alternatives for the others. Therein lay the weakness of Kennedy's universalism." [Modern Times, p.615]

For Johnson, Cuba was such a position. Vietnam was not. Whether or not that is so, the half-hearted American bid to overthrow Castro ended in a public relations fiasco. One result was that the U.S. Administration sought a balancing anti-communist victory and sensed it could get one in Vietnam. Kennedy said, "Now we have a problem in making our power credible and Vietnam looks like the place."

From the realists' view, the fundamental American mistake in Vietnam had been political, not military, and it had been made under Eisenhower, especially when the U.S. did not back free elections, as called for in the 1954 Geneva Accords, because they likely would have brought a communist government over the whole country. Important leaders in the administration like Acheson, Kennan, and even Eisenhower himself (sometimes) had acknowledged that the U.S. did not have much strategic interest in Vietnam and that a communist government there wouldn't be the end of the world.

I wonder if that would have been better, for the South Vietnamese, than the government they got after 1975. They would have been spared the destructive war. They also would have forfeited the U.S. medical and other aid that allowed the population to swell, infant mortality to drop, and the overall standard of living to advance. Perhaps the native communist leaders would have been more flexible before warfare toughened them; perhaps the Sino-Soviet split, when it came, would have left Vietnam more isolated from Moscow, and spared it from Stalinist social engineering.

And the idealist in me says America should have stayed true to its commitment to free and democratic elections, if they truly would have been free (unlike the ones that brought communist governments to power in Eastern Europe).

Instead the unitary elections never happened, and the country defaulted into civil war. Political mistakes piled up after that: the anti-Diem coup chief among them. Another was Lyndon Johnson's poor decision to try to win the war by heavy bombing, as though he were fighting Hitler's Germany, not a rural and un-industrial nation of hill farms and rice paddies.

The slow, restricted, half-hearted American military tactics doomed the war. Sparing use of power, bombing (with frequent "pauses") instead of invading, and other policies that were meant, at least in part, to save civilian lives in fact probably killed more Americans and Vietnamese than a straight-ahead and vigorous U.S. pursuit of victory would have cost. Instead, such tactics were interpreted, abroad, as signs of weakness, and, at home, as signs of guilt. And the Vietnam War almost broke the soul of the U.S. military (as Algeria did the French), asked to fight, but not win, but not lose, for no clear purpose.

The modern double-standard was in full effect: the Vietcong tactic of converting villages into fortified bases was a direct violation of the Geneva Convention. The U.S. policy of evacuating civilians from war zones to create "free fire" fields actually was required by the 1949 Geneva agreement. Guess which side got accused of "genocide?"


This site reprints an explanation and history, by Carol Wilder, of the film "Hearts and Minds." Wilder takes a generally glowing view of it. The piece often veers from analysis to throw cheap-shot elbows at Bush and Rumsfeld and wistfully imagine how bad they would be made to look if "Hearts and Minds II" were made today. If you can stomach that, the Web site is well worth a look.

Because it does note the criticism of the documentary as "manipulative," and in its analysis of the work it comes essentially to the conclusion that it was highly manipulative. "There were no 'bad' Vietnamese, no pro-war Americans who don’t sound like idiots or worse, and there was too much emotional pandering."

And it was utterly effective. It had a galvanizing power. It did double duty -- as propaganda for the anti-war movement, and in managing to make its critics look like spluttering buffoons.

It seems to me the power of "Hearts and Minds" was set up by what had been missing from too many Vietnam War debates. As loud and long as they were, Americans in them talked mostly about Americans. National interest, American atrocities, what was right and wrong for America to do. The nightly news showed our soliders in action, fighting against an enemy who never emerged from the treeline. In time it came to seem to some people that we were fighting the treeline. Meanwhile, our soldiers were protecting a people whose faces rarely appeared on screen.

What this documentary film did, in its highly partisan way, was put the Vietnamese people in the American eye. The effect was intense. When Michael Moore put images of kite-flying Iraqi families in "Fahrenheit 9/11" it wasn't considered among the film's most effective techniques. The point that innocents stand in the path of every battle was well-taken, but even Moore's peanut gallery knew (whether they said it or not) Saddam's Iraq was no picnic in the park for its inmates. But apparently that wasn't true of what we knew about North Vietnam in 1975, when "Hearts and Minds" showed us "the other" going about daily life.

They are human, they are real, they have feelings, they look small and vulnerable, not menacing. This other -- all but ignored by mainstream media -- is a sympathetic victim. The film reverses the figure/ground context of American popular culture by foregrounding the Other and bestowing it with value. Davis adopts the point of view of a knowing everyman, able to see the tragic story with a wide angle lens, where the “enemy” is as human as the viewer.

But of course, he was not a "knowing everyman." He was on fire with the zeal of a crusader. This was his armor. And his spear.

The Vietnamese Other is most powerfully rendered in a sequence of mourning and keening at the National Cemetery of South Vietnam. The funeral is for a South Vietnamese soldier, and is presented in all its dignity, ritual, and grief. It includes the unbearable suffering of a young boy who throws himself on the casket, leading the viewer to share a painful and intimate experience. While some evidence of cruelty by the South Vietnamese army is seen in shots of prisoners in “tiger cages,” images of cruelty by the “enemy” – the “other-other” NLF or North Vietnamese – are notably absent.

In nearly all cases Vietnamese are portrayed as sympathetic victims, even in a notorious and graphic brothel scene of prostitutes and American soldiers. The lone exception is a sequence of Saigon fat-cats, suggesting that South Vietnamese businessmen and government officials were complicit with the Americans in a war against the Vietnamese people.

"Americans in a war against the Vietnamese people." If one phrase can sum up the anti-war view in the U.S., perhaps that is it. The anti-war movement of the 1960s got tangled up in the civil rights movement. The moral indignation of the domestic struggle spilled over into the anti-war crusade. To an extent, it seems to me, the Vietnamese became confused in the popular mind with the righteous American blacks (the Southern ones, who weren't rioting). The victims of U.S. racist injustice merged into one. The same feeling of moral outrage flowed out for each.

Yet as Wilder points out, the Vietnamese presence in "Hearts and Minds" is highly selective. What about the goals and tactics of the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong leadership? The anti-war movement either embraced them ("Uncle Ho") or ignored them. The American anti-communists, who might have done a better job explaining things and warning us what would happen to the South Vietnamese people under communist rule, had by this time (early 1970s) acquired, or been tainted in the media with, bad names: They were rigid, reflexive anti-communist mental fossils of the McCarthy era; old-fashioned seeing-them-under-the-bed Red-baiters. They had short haircuts and square clothes, and they were inflexible bigots, with their stiff speech and tendency to associate with really unsavory characters like segregationists and John Birchers. Or so they were presented to us.


"If demonizing the enemy is a first principle of propaganda," Wilder writes, "humanizing the enemy may be a first principle of peace." But that, manifestly, is not what "Hearts and Minds" did. It showed us North Vietnam under communism as a land of noble innocents, like the American Indians in their day. This was as false to reality as was Gen. William Westmoreland's notorious quote in the movie, his singularly inept assertion that “the Oriental does not put the same high price on life as the Westerner."

The most common for-the-war argument I remember hearing was Eisenhower's domino theory twist on realism: If Vietnam falls, then Thailand and Malaysia fall, then Singapore falls. To which my friends would answer, "so what?" And I never knew the response to that. Yet this, too, put the war entirely in terms of American interest. If we were killing people in Vietnam purely out of national self-interest, that might satisfy hard-hearted realists, but it's hardly an appealing motive to the idealism of youth.

On the other side was passion. Was conviction. Was that most intoxicating substance, moral indignation. As Americans, we responded when we were told that the Viet Cong were "people fighting for their freedom."

But I'm ashamed to say the young people I knew at that time had very little inclination to know about the Vietnamese beyond what served our opposition to the U.S. government. We thought they simply wanted to be communist (in the north) or wanted to be left alone (in the south) and we were bombing and killing them without cause or justification. "Communist" to us then, as far as we could determine it in the cheerful suburbs, meant simply "aligned with the Russians in U.N. votes and Olympics scoring."

"Hearts and Minds" contains the iconic images: the naked teenage girl running in terror from the napalm attack, the bullet through the head on a Saigon street.

Each one of these images was widely distributed by mainstream media and each encapsulated the essential horror of the war. In Hearts and Minds, not only are these arresting pictures included, but the moving image unpacks the more familiar still image, playing out the action to greater effect in what seems like slow motion. The still image of the execution on the Saigon street during the Tet offensive shows the moment of the bullet’s impact, but the full shot shows the victim fall on his side, spewing a fountain of blood from his ear.

To base political decisions on one image, however horrifying, you also must do some coldly rational inquiry: "One picture. How representative is it?" A heart on fire with moral indignation does not make such calculations.

It's easy to forget, in the triumphalism of the anti-war movement, that the American decision to start looking for a peace solution in Vietnam came in early 1968, when most Americans, including the under-35 demographic, still supported an aggressive war. Nixon's strategy was to set up an independent South Vietnam. In his first four years in office, he reduced American forces in Vietnam from 550,000 to 24,000 and cut war spending from $25 billion a year to less than $3 billion.

The Paris peace agreement of 1973 reserved the U.S. right to maintain aircraft carriers in Indo-Chinese waters and to use bases in Taiwan and Thailand to oppose Hanoi if it broke the accord. But any remaining U.S. will to defend South Vietnam was dragged down by the rising malaise in America, the domestic political scandals, and the media war against all things Nixon. By the time the North had built up its capacity and launched the destruction of the South, Congress was unwilling to lift a finger in defense of an old ally, despite President Ford's pleading.

And so probably my most vivid personal memory of the war years was tracking the fall of South Vietnam in 1975. I was 14; the "Philadelphia Inquirer" ran a front page story almost every day, illustrated with a map of the country, and one by one as the provincial capitals fell, the blocks that shaped the long sickle of South Vietnam shifted from white to gray. I believe they ran, after the fall of Saigon, a map that showed that unfortunate country entirely gray from tip to tip.

We then saw what we had been fighting against all these years, and saw it without the propagandist's lens and cutting techniques. The communist government colonized Laos, invaded Cambodia, and itself engaged in Cambodia-style mass resettlements of North Vietnamese peasants in 1977-78, moved untold thousands of city-dwellers from the South into rural poverty, demanded entire "submission to the will of the advanced class representing society," held 200,000 political prisoners by January 1977, and executed thousands more.

I think history will view the Cold War as a true war, and call it World War III. And, like the Hundred Years' War or the Peloponnesian War, it will come to be seen as a series of campaigns, even though to those who lived through it it seemed a series of small wars, punctuated by peace. The U.S. war in Vietnam will come to be seen like the Athenian expedition to Sicily: a military expedition based on a political necessity; a battle failure begun in a spirit of high moral enthusiasm, but in ignorance of the destination and with vague and unrealistic goals. Unlike Athens, which risked everything in Sicily, America was able to recover from the defeat, over time, and to protect itself and its allies during the recovery.

But for the Vietnamese people, especially those who believed in us and believed with us in their freedom, I wish I had a better story to tell.

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Sunday, April 24, 2005

Error Message II

My current favorite is one currently on the Blogger dashboard; "A problem with the problem page is being fixed."

Friday, April 22, 2005


A handful of blue states from the last electoral map may lack the clout to change America all by themselves -- except in the world of economics.

According to the New York Times' Danny Hakim, "Washington and Oregon plan to become the ninth and 10th states to adopt California's tough car emissions rules, forming an increasingly potent market for more fuel-efficient vehicles on the West Coast and in the Northeast."

Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont also have signed on to the tough tai;pipe standards.

Detroit now has a problem. The buying clout of those states puts considerable pressure on automakers to develop more fuel-efficient vehicles. "Together, the 10 coastal states account for 29 percent of the nation's auto market, according to R.L. Polk, which tracks car registration data."

As an old-school states' rights fan (more as an emotional attachment than an actual policy guide), I'm pleased. As one who has been waiting since I was a teen-ager for America to launch a nationalistic crusade to cut gas consumption, curb pollution, and pioneer new technologies, I'm delighted.

The EU and the Arabs

Marc's latest installment of "The EU and the Arabs" is up, over at American Future. It's the most focused and detailed of the series, as it homes in on the events of the 1973 war. Go and read! It's good stuff, and even if you know this era well, I bet you'll learn some things. And stop back again and keep an eye on his comments section. If you're willing to swing the sword of rhetoric, and even swat a troll or two, you'll get your chance. There's bound to be heated discussion, since the post features quotes like this, from Kissinger:

France was in the forefront of those of our allies who were exploiting the embargo to line up bilateral deals with the producers – mostly arms for oil. And it was France that acted as the spearhead of the so-called European-Arab dialogue, the European alternative to our Middle East diplomacy, whose rationale – never made explicit – could only be dissociation from the United States.

Together with other leaders who favored the European-Arab dialogue, the French strenuously denied any political objective or exclusionary motives. But the secrecy with which the proposed initiative was prepared, the refusal to brief us about its contents, argued otherwise.