Thursday, June 30, 2005

Fragging the Founders

Brian Williams of NBC Nightly News is getting slammed for a comment on a Web site where he talks about stories in the news cycle. The topic is the suggestion that Iran's president-elect was one of the 1979 hostage-takers.

It is a story that will be at or near the top of our broadcast and certainly made for a robust debate in our afternoon editorial meeting, when several of us raised the point (I'll leave it to others to decide germaneness) that several U.S. presidents were at minimum revolutionaries, and probably were considered terrorists of their time by the Crown in England.

Now, as I read that, it doesn't say Williams said that about the founders. His "us" could be construed to mean "we who said the founders could be called terrorists," or to mean "we who were in the meeting." I'll leave it to him to try to step back out of that minefield.

There's so much wrong with the suggestion that the Founding Fathers were the moral equivalent of Islamic fundamentalist terrorists. It's an idea so mind-bogglingly stupid that, I venture to say, only a TV news executive could have thought of it. Or a documentary film producer. Williams' tossed-off quip recalls Michael Moore taunt that the Iraqi "insurgents" are not terrorists, but "minutemen."

The indigenous revolt against the superpower army from abroad faces the same range of challenges, the same tactical choices. The insurgents inevitably will make some of the same choices, in any generation. Every war has frayed edges, and individual units under pressure may degenerate into armed gangs. You can find them in the American Revolution. But in my study of it, they occur most often among the Loyalist regiments that rode with the Redcoats, such as the notorious troops of "Bloody Tarleton.

Williams isn't writing about irregular troops, however. He's talking about the American leadership. He (or whoever at NBC advocated this nauseous moral equivalency) should take some time while sitting under the hair dryer to read David Hackett Fischer's "Washington's Crossing," and learn what made the American Revolution so different -- so exceptional, to use the damned word.

Fischer's concluding chapter explains why:

In 1776, American leaders believed that it was not enough to win the war. They also had to win in a way that was consistent with the values of their society and the principles of their cause. One of their greatest achievements in the winter campaign of 1776-77 was to manage the war in a manner that was true to the expanding humanitarian ideals of the American Revolution. ... In Congress and the army, American leaders resolved that the War of Independence would be conducted with a respect for human rights, even of the enemy. This idea grew stronger during the campaign of 1776-77, not weaker as is commonly the case in war.

It had been a year of disasters. The British routed the Continental army from Long Island, then captured New York City along with many prisoners. The redcoats next pushed George Washington back through New Jersey, waging an increasingly savage campaign not just against the Continental army but against the whole "Levelling, underbred, Artfull, Race of people" they found in America.

Yet early in 1777, John Adams wrote to his wife, "I know of no policy, God is my witness, but this -- Piety, Humanity and Honesty are the best Policy. Blasphemy, Cruelty and Villainy have prevailed and may again. But they won't prevail against America, in this Contest, because I find the more of them are employed, the less they succeed."

What they fought for colored how they fought. And here, too, the comparison with modern Iraq is instructive. The American revolutionaries had woven into their flag not just stars and stripes, but ideals of liberty, whether it was the learned political theorizing of Madison, the commercial common sense of Franklin, the town meeting democracy of New England soldiers, or the stoic self-discipline of Washington. Educated or ignorant, they built their cause around this quality, learned from their experiences as British citizens, and it informed their decisions on the battlefield.

Not all American leaders agreed. Others in Adams's generation believed, as do many in our own time, that America should serve its own national self-interest, defined in terms of wealth and power, and seek it by any means. But most men of the American Enlightenment shared John Adams's way of thinking. In the critical period of 1776 and 1777, leaders of both the Continental army and the Congress adopted the policy of humanity. That choice was reinforced when they learned that some British leaders decided to act differently. Every report of wounded soldiers refused quarter, of starving captives mistreated in the prison hulks at New York, and of the plunder and rapine in New Jersey persuaded leaders in Congress and the army to go a different way, as an act of principle and enlightened self-interest.

There were no Geneva Conventions in the mid-18th century, but every soldier and officer understood the customs of war, which were binding on their sense of honor as warriors. A wounded or cornered enemy could ask "quarter" from the other side, and there were standards for accepting it, or rejecting it. Plundering was universal, but if a house was occupied, and the owners did not resist, the proper plunderer always left the family enough to live on, and he did not take personal items.

There was no international bureaucracy to threaten a violator with a lengthy trial in the Hague, of course, but his own officers could order him summarily shot, which does count as a sort of deterrent. Or the bad behavior could invite like reprisals from the other side. Officers of the two armies in the Revolution traded hot charges across the lines when the system broke down.

Americans, unlike the British, generally extended the right of quarter to their enemies, even as the Americans reacted with indignation as British slaughter of wounded and helpless Continental soldiers. After the Battle of Princeton, Washington put a trusted officer in charge of the 211 captured privates with these instructions: "Treat them with humanity, and Let them have no reason to Complain of our Copying the brutal example of the British army in their Treatment of our unfortunate brethren. ... Provide everything necessary for them on the road." Hessian prisoners were so well treated that, once they had got over the shock of it, they could be sent from one holding place to the next without an armed escort. After the war, almost a quarter of the Hessians remained in America. Their names still dot the phone book in Chester County, Pa., when I grew up there.

Any large army is going to have in its ranks men whose better natures will unhinge in the stress of war. Horror and brutality will happen every time an army marches to battle, as sure as innocent civilians will be killed. If you can't accept that, better to be a thoroughgoing pacifist. At least it's an honest position. Better than pretending you didn't know. The job of a nation and its leaders, military and civilian, is to ensure the horrors are as few as possible, and the war crimes are exceptions.

The fact that there were many exceptions to the American ideal of 1776 -- especially in the case of loyalist legions and runaway slaves -- does not change the essential fact that the American leaders attempted not just to win, but to fight a war they could look back on with pride, and that would be a fitting birth to the nation they sought to make. And they largely succeeded. "The moral choices in the War of Independence," Fischer writes, "enlarged the meaning of the American Revolution."

The Islamist terrorists, too, have their ideals: a terrorized and repressed people, rule by the gun and the knife, Ba'athist fascism and Islamist fanaticism. They, too, make their moral choices based on their ideals. Does anyone, even Michael Moore, imagine that their "victory," should that nightmare come, would be followed by a replay of Philadelphia, 1787?

As Fischer writes in his concluding paragraph:

[American soldiers and civilians in 1776] set a high example, and we have much to learn from them. Much recent historical writing has served us ill in that respect. In the late twentieth century, too many scholars tried to make the American past into a record of crime and folly. Too many writers have told us that we are captives of our darker selves and helpless victims of our history. It isn't so, and never was. The story of Washington's Crossing tells us that Americans in an earlier generation were capable of acting in a higher spirit -- and so are we.

[... continued here ...]

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Leave it to ...

"Ass cleavage is really in right now," said Antonio Jeffery, a national denim specialist at Diesel Jeans in Union Square. Ass cleavage, like regular cleavage, used to be strictly for women.

You know ...

I'm for freedom of dress; I'm against restrictive rules on clothing. I'm for liberating the body. I'm against other people telling me the gods' joy is an offense, a sin. I'm against drapery on the tits of classical images of justice. I'm for bare-breasted Lady Liberty leading the people.

And then I look around me. I'm already seeing way too much of my neighbors. The shapeless 40-something woman at the ice cream parlor last week with the obviously deliberate thong showing. The grossly obese man in tight sweat pants that leave nothing to the imagination. The surly thug with his denim shorts down around mid-thigh flaunting some boxers I really didn't need to know he was wearing.

And I say bring on the dress code. We're just not a nation of Chrissy Aguilera bodies, and we don't seem to have a clue how to put on pants properly. It's not about puritanism. It's about keeping my lunch.

UPDATE: With a grandfather clause exception, of course, for my lovely wife.

Of Mires and Men

Decision '08 calls attention to this piece by New York Times columnist Bob Herbert, calling the U.S. invasion of Iraq a ...

... you guessed it:

The Bush crowd bristles at the use of the "Q-word" - quagmire - to describe American involvement in Iraq. But with our soldiers fighting and dying with no end in sight, who can deny that Mr. Bush has gotten us into "a situation from which extrication is very difficult," which is a standard definition of quagmire?

It's easy to make a target of Bob Herbert. His tropes are as easy and satisfying to swat down as chloroformed toilet flies.

But I love the drama as Mr. Herbert unveils "the Q-word" in June 2005 like some shudder-making revelation. Does he read his own newspaper? The NTY has been mired in quagmires since ... well:

Like an unwelcome specter from an unhappy past, the ominous word "quagmire" has begun to haunt conversations among government officials and students of foreign policy, both here and abroad.

Iraq? Try Afghanistan. That's Johnny Apple on Halloween, 2001.

Norah Vincent wrote in Salon two weeks later that, "For a long, long time to come, the word 'quagmire' will be associated with the New York Times' coverage of our present war in Afghanistan. This sadly onomatopoeic term has appeared in the Old Gray Lady nearly 20 times in the last 30 days, and has spread to nearly as many newspapers and magazines across the country."

It's as though the NYT took on a new marketing strategy after Sept. 11: Tired of newspapers that don't tell you what you want to believe is true? Read the NEW 'New York Times': NOW WITH 30% MORE QUAGMIRE!!!

I wonder what people like Mr. Herbert mean when they call Iraq a quagmire? He offers a definition: "a situation from which extrication is very difficult." Well, yes, it certainly is that. But that doesn't automatically mean it's a situation that ought to be fled as fast as possible.

It also implies that the entire goal of the person or entity in the "situation" is getting out of it. And I don't think that's the American problem in Iraq. If you're driving alone through a bad part of town with a busted gas gauge, yes, you probably want to get out of there as fast as possible. But if you've gone into a bad part of town to clean it up, that's a different situation with a different goal.

Who can deny it indeed? Mr. Bush didn't get us into it. We got us into it -- deliberately. What was the metaphor? "Draining the marsh?" Wading into the cess pool of repressive Middle Eastern regimes and clearing out the futility and fascism and failure. It's dirty work. You can't do it if your only goal is to get out of the mud as fast as possible.

The figurative sense of quagmire, which is so dear to the hearts of NYT writers, has been around since at least 1775. The word itself is rarely used in a literal sense anymore. But it preserves an otherwise obsolete quag "bog, marsh." This goes back to an Old English verb that meant "shake, tremble (like something soft and flabby)." Which only confirms my belief that the real quagmire is in the brains at the New York Times.


Carnival of the Etymologies

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

This week's words were dragged, kicking and screaming, from the Google Zeitgeist for the week ending June 27.

Lohan upset is an odd sort of search term. I gather it has something to do with this story.

But then upset is an odd sort of word. How do up "from a lower to a higher place" and set "to place in a sitting position" come together to mean "have a hissy-fit?"

No surprise that when upset first appeared in English around 1440 it meant "to set up, fix," which would be what I'd expect it to mean. The German equivalent aufsetzen retains that sense. Then around 1803 the English verb began to take on the sense of "to overturn, to capsize," which formerly belonged to the now-obsolete verb overset.

The figurative meaning "to throw into mental discomposure" is attested from 1805, and it seems to be an outgrowth of the "capsize" sense upset acquired when it muscled in on the turf of overset.

The root of set is Old English settan (the causative of sittan "to sit"). It goes back to Proto-Indo-European *sed- "to sit," which has descendants all over the map. Among them are Sanskrit sidati "sits;" Old Persian hadis "abode;" Greek ezesthai "to sit" and hedra "seat, chair," also "face of a geometric solid;" Old Irish suide "seat, sitting;" Welsh sedd "seat," eistedd "sitting;" Old Church Slavonic sezda, sedeti "to sit;" and Lithuanian sedmi "to sit."

In some Balto-Slavic languages, this word has come to be associated with gardening, for instance Russian sad "garden," Lithuanian soditi "to plant." English bed shows a similar development from "place where one lies down" to "place where plants are set."

Folks were online this week looking for fireworks.

The noun fire is the English representative of one of the most enduring and stable root words in the whole Indo-European family. Not only is it the common Germanic word (Old Frisian fiur, Old Norse fürr, German Feuer), but it has recognizable cognates (allowing for the usual p- to f- shift in Germanic) in Armenian hur "fire, torch," Czech pyr "hot ashes," Greek pyr, Umbrian pir, Sanskrit pu, and Hittite pahhur "fire."

The reconstructed source of all this is Proto-Indo-European *perjos, from the root *paewr-. But our ancient ancestors apparently had two root words for fire: *paewr- and *egni- (the source of Latin ignis). Linguists speculate that the former root was "inanimate," referring to fire as a substance, while the latter was "animate," referring to fire as a living force.

I'm really out of it. Two of the most-searched terms this week ("Lohan upset" being the other) didn't register with me at all. Battlefield 2, I learn, seems to be a realistic video game.

Battle came to English before 1300, from Old French bataille, from Late Latin battualia, which meant "exercise of soldiers and gladiators in fighting and fencing."

This comes from Latin battuere "to beat," an old word in Latin but one almost certainly borrowed from Gaulish. Its Proto-Indo-European base is *bhau- "to strike," and among its relatives are Welsh bathu "beat;" Old English beadu "battle," beatan "to beat," and bytl "hammer, mallet."

Web surfers also wanted to know about shark attacks, which got back into the headlines this week. Wasn't that what we all talked about before we talked about 9/11 and what came after?

Shark is a word of uncertain origin. Apparently the word and the first specimen of the fish were brought to London in the same ship, by Capt. John Hawkins, returning from his second expedition in 1565. The composer of a 1569 handbill advertising an exhibition of the specimen wrote:

"There is no proper name for it that I knowe, but that sertayne men of Captayne Haukinses doth call it a 'sharke' "

The meaning "dishonest person who preys on others," though only attested from 1599 (sharker in this sense is known from 1594), may be the original sense of the word. It would be a natural stretch of meaning to apply the same word to a large, voracious marine fish.

That means shark may derive from German Schorck, a variant of Schurke "scoundrel, villain," literally an agent noun of Middle High German schürgen (German schüren) "to poke, to stir."

The NBA draft was held this week. Basketball as a word first appeared in 1892, a year after the game was invented by J.A. Naismith, a physical education instructor in Springfield, Massachusetts.

Basket is a word that was in use (as bascat) by the early 13th century among French-speakers in England, but its origin remains obscure, despite much speculation. It was said by the Roman poet Martial to be from Celtic British and perhaps cognate with Latin fascis "bundle, faggot," in which case it probably originally meant "wicker basket." But there is no evidence of such a word in Celtic. Still the possible connection of basketball with the root of fascism could be suggestive to some politicians who see everything that offends them as "worse than Hitler."

I had prided myself on maintaining a Tom Cruise-free zone until today. But Scientology made the list and I'm bound to etymologize it. The word is attested from 1951, and refers, of course, to the system of beliefs founded by L. Ron Hubbard. He created it (or perhaps borrowed it from German scientologie, which was used by Anastasius Nordenholz as early as 1934), from Latin scientia, the root of science, and a word that the Romans used to mean "knowledge."

The modern sense of "non-arts studies" is attested from 1678. The distinction is commonly understood as between theoretical truth (Greek episteme) and methods for effecting practical results (tekhne), but science sometimes is used for practical applications and art for applications of skill. The main modern (restricted) sense of science "body of regular or methodical observations or propositions ... concerning any subject or speculation" is attested from 1725; in the 17th and 18th centuries this concept commonly was called philosophy.

Latin sciens is the past participle of scire, which means "to know" but probably originally meant "to separate one thing from another, to distinguish," and is a relative of scindere "to cut, divide."

The Proto-Indo-European root of that is *skei-. Other relatives of this include Greek skhizein "to split, rend, cleave," German scheiden "to divide, separate," Latin scindere "to split," Old Irish scian "knife," and Old English scitan which means to, er, "defecate." Old English sc- becomes modern English sh-. The notion is of that which "separates" from the body.

I'll let the observation pass without comment that Scientology shares a root with schizophrenia and with an Anglo-Saxon scatological word.


Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Getting There from Here

William Kaminsky has a great post on the Iraq situation. Actually, it's a three-parter based on Anthony Cordesman's analysis of the Iraqi insurgency. Here, see if Kaminsky can sell you on it:

Gentle reader, have you been wondering what an assessment of Iraq would sound like if it were done by someone who combined the following oh-so-hard-to-find trio of traits:

a) Believes, on balance, the US must continue in Iraq for the indefinite future, and...

b) Believes in being blunt about the possibility of failure, and...

c) Is actually an experienced professional with field experience in the Middle East stretching back decades?

If so, then I doubt you can do better than check out the speech Dr. Anthony Cordesman---longtime scholar/analyst on Middle East military matters and sometime foreign policy adviser to Senator John McCain---gave on Thursday, June 24 at the Center for Strategic and International Studies based on his two-week tour of Iraq in early June at the behest of the Departments of State and of Defense.

If you're tempted, go check out part 1 -- The Stakes and the Odds, part 2 -- The Progress and the Problems to Date, and part 3 -- Where We Should Go From Here.

[Big hat tip to Liberals Against Terrorism]

It had to Happen

Out here in God's Country, Pennsylvania, along with Intercourse and Blue Ball and Virginville and Fertility and Funk Street and the other assorted Looney Toons names that the 18th century pioneers bestowed on their crossroads and milltowns, we have a Paradise. So today, buried in the local section, was this headline:


The supervisors say they're worried about the transportation system. The transportation system in Paradise includes the Strasburg Rail Road, a steam excursion train that goes about 12 miles per hour through the Amish farmland.

It's even funnier than it looks if you're from around here, because Paradise Township consists of about 1,000 people, about 999 of them Amish.

“Anyplace could be a target, and we need to do our part on the smallest level,” a township supervisor said. “Who knows? Something somebody sees in Paradise could stop a disaster from happening in Philadelphia.”

“Even the terrorists know we have these security systems in place, and it scares them.”

Breeding Terrorists

The opponents of the Iraq effort often contend that we've turned Iraq into a "breeding ground for terrorists."

That phrase often crops up nowadays, for instance in this Washington Post story. But I think it's used incorrectly there.

Iraq has replaced Afghanistan as the training ground for the next generation of "professionalized" terrorists, according to a report released yesterday by the National Intelligence Council, the CIA director's think tank.

The report says nothing about breeding terrorists; it talks about training them. If anything, it says Iraq is an incubation chamber.

[Footnote to the "Chimpler never talked about democracy" crew; the article also contains this paragraph: Bush described the war in Iraq as a means to promote democracy in the Middle East. "A free Iraq can be a source of hope for all the Middle East," he said one month before the invasion. "Instead of threatening its neighbors and harboring terrorists, Iraq can be an example of progress and prosperity in a region that needs both."]

Yet this connection of the current Iraq situation and fresh waves of furious Islamist terrorists targeting America has taken deep root. Anti-war blogs like this one, looking at the same CIA report in the WaPo article, claim, "an independent think tank reporting to the CIA concluded in a 119-page report that the Iraq war has created more terrorists."

But that's not the report's topic. The report is talking about Iraq as a training ground for terrorists, not as a rallying cry against the West.

The "connection" is as clear, and unproven, in the minds of the anti-war faction as the Saddam-al-Qaida connection seems to be in the mind of Dick Cheney. The Angry Democrat wrote, "Quite a few people had been saying that a war with Iraq would only pour fuel onto the fire that is Radical Islam. Many said that it would create more enemies than it eliminated."

Unproven because basically unprovable. Even if you round up a bunch of terrorists today and ask them what drove them to it, and they answer to a man, "Iraq," you can't rewind the tape of history and replay it with no U.S. attack on Saddam and discover whether those same men wouldn't have otherwise ended up in the same place.

In fact the same anti-war left that insists Iraq is breeding new terrorists not long ago was telling us that the sole reason for terrorists killing Americans was U.S. support of Israel, U.S. support of oppressive regimes in the Arab world, and U.S. troops stationed in the Middle East. (I agree that those are important reasons, but not the sole reasons).

And all those were pre-existing conditions before the first U.S. troop carriers rumbled across the border toward Baghdad. In fact, the 2003 invasion removed some of the supposed aggravations: one less oppressive Western-backed regime in the Middle East, and U.S. troops vacated Saudi Arabia, the holy land of Islam.

That doesn't seem to make a bit of difference, however, to either the terrorists or the anti-war left. Which doesn't surprise me, but it does seem to confound the "breeding ground for terrorists" argument. The experience of Kashmir and Afghanistan in the 1980s, Chechnya and Bosnia in the 1990s, shows that there is a pool of young, rootless men in the Muslim world whose greatest hope and adventure is to seek out war zones on the fringe of Muslim civilization and join the battle against the "infidels." Demographics and Samuel Huntington could explain that better than I can.

Now they are flocking to Iraq, it seems. But that doesn't mean they're enraged by the occupation in a degree they wouldn't otherwise be. It just means Iraq is the chosen field to confront the infidels. Hell, it's a jihadi's shooting gallery wonderland: Shi'ites, American soldiers, infidel contractors. In that sense, the "better to fight them there than here" argument is sound, logically, even if it is deplorable, morally.

Is there any way in which the Iraq occupation is directly contributing to the number of Islamist terrorists in the world? Almost certainly. Every time the coalition, in the course of its messy operations, kills a civilian, it potentially makes revenge-driven terrorists of that dead person's loved ones. That is the purpose of the "insurgents" and one reason they operate as they do, disguised among the civilian population. It's revolting, but it's a fact, and they do it because it works.

Yet I can't manage to blame us for that as much as I blame them. That the killers treat the innocents as expendable hostages is, to me, all the more reason to root them out.

It's no doubt true, too, that the media images of Al-Jazeera and other Arab media present the ugliest face of every American individual and policy. And this, too, is likely to push some people over the edge. But, again, I can't manage to place the primary blame for that on us. If my neighbor slanders me, I am not the one who ought to apologize.


Another Image

From "France in 1938":

The French delegation left for the Munich airport almost exactly twenty-four hours after arriving. Once again, a well-programmed crowd offered cheers, and Ribbentrop provided the escort. During the flight Daladier sat silent and morose, worried about the reception he would receive at Le Bourget, about how the French would react to his having betrayed Czechoslovakia and France's promises. As the plane circled for landing, he and others saw a massive crowd awaiting them. Expecting jeers, hisses, rotten fruit, and maybe worse, Daladier declared stolidly: "They are going to mob me, I suppose. ... I appreciate their feelings," and insisted on absorbing their wrath by being the first off the plane. But as he stood dumbfounded on the gangplank, thousands surged forward carrying flags and flowers, shouting "Hurrah for France! Hurrah for England! Hurrah for peace!" Daladier turned back to Léger and cursed, "The God-damned fools!"


Bush Speech

Marc responds to Bush's speech.

Like him, I'll say right off where I stand. I came around early to supporting this war, for no one simple reason but because it was a combination of rare opportunities to right old wrongs and least-crappy alternatives to existing messes. And, in part, in Hail Mary hope that it would turn out a smashing success.

It's been grim work, but I can't look back in history and think of a war that hasn't been. It has become the kind of fight I didn't want it to be. It has echoes of Algeria and even, yes, Vietnam. But the Western nation-state armies sooner or later are going to have to learn how to win this kind of anti-insurgent battle. The alternative is to concede that superior firepower is musclebound weakness and honorable fighting is a sure road to defeat. And this might as well be the time and place we learn how to win it.

My first reaction to Bush's speech was that it was an adequate rallying cry, and he ought to speak so more often. But then he didn't need to rally me, because I'm not wobbling. The fight we're in is the kind you cannot change your mind about in mid-combat. You can't quit after getting your hands on your enemy's throat and not expect your headchopping, Quran-waving enemy to then clobber you from behind as you walk away.

And when it comes to selling his case to the unconvinced, I think Bush could have done better. I want him to do better, I need him to do better, though I've long since given up really expecting it to happen. This is nothing like the risks a soldier takes, but I actually have risked my job and career to publicly support the U.S. overthrow of Saddam and the establishment of a free and democratic Iraq. I've been threatened in writing with being fired by people who have the authority to do it, while anti-war protesters in my workplace have been encouaged and praised for their outspoken positions. No extra credit points for guessing this is a mainstream media company. So I do have my small stake in seeing this case made convincingly.

The military backdrop of the speech ultimately does not work to Bush's advantage. Joe at The Moderate Voice has some thoughts about that. I don't think all of them are equally strong (how many people watching last night remember an LBJ speech?). But I agree Bush should have spoken from the White House, alone, from his position of executive authority and responsibility. To pose among the troops looks almost like going into the bunker.

A more serious problem I have is that the speech -- and a lot of the rhetoric from war supporters within and outside the administration these days -- is in danger of running at cross-purposes.

We can be building up a strong and stable Iraq. Or we can be setting up a permanent battlefield there to draw in jihadis (the "flypaper effect") and fight them there because it's better than fighting them there.

But not both. If we are deliberately attempting seriously to do both, we're making a mistake. If we're giving those as alternate answers in alternate network talk show interviews, we're shabby.

Not that there's anything inherently wrong with having multiple reasons for going to war, as we did here. If you think about any decisions you make that involve more than two options, you'll probably find they're a matrix point of different motivations and practicalities. But you can't have them treading on each other's toes.

A certain number of Americans will stand solidly behind American men and women as long as they are in harm's way. A certain percent will cheer a Republican/conservative/Christian president no matter what.

And a certain number will oppose both, no matter what. Fine. What we're talking about is in between. They're willing to support the troops, but according to the polls they're smelling a flim-flam. It seems to me the anti-war opposition's three year effort of flinging everything at the White House in a bid to puncture public support for this war has finally found a few points that stick. In addition to weariness with the lack of reported progress in Iraq, there's thickening suspicions about "fixed" pre-war intelligence. American people don't like to be played for suckers. Bush didn't really address that last night, and I think it's a root of his troubles.

The Iraq-9/11 connection is an example. Tigerhawk recently quoted this passage from Thomas Friedman:

U.S. officials believed at the time that al Qaeda was planning another strike, larger than the 9/11 strikes. The United States could not stop al Qaeda on the strength of its own intelligence; it needed the cooperation of intelligence services in the Muslim world. These services were reluctant to cooperate because their view of the United States -- after having watched 20 years of weak responses in warfare -- was that it was unable to absorb the risks and casualties of war. Leaders in crucial parts of the Muslim world feared al Qaeda more than the United States. Since a covert strike against al Qaeda was not possible, the United States had no good options. Bush chose the best of a bad lot. He hoped for a change in Arab perception of the United States, from hatred and contempt to hatred and fear. He also wanted to occupy the most strategic territory in the Middle East, bringing pressure to bear on the Saudis.

Most Americans, I think felt a great deal of that intuitively. Yet many in the administration sold "Saddam is connected to 9/11" as a literal statement. Dick Cheney is just an unfortunate choice for vice president at this time. I can't see what good he's doing this administration.

The petulant insistence, coming from the Democratic leaders today, that Bush never should mention "9/11" when he speaks about the War in Iraq can be scorned and exposed for the arrogance it is.

But at the same time, the president should give us some explanation of the connection that he sees, in Friedman's terms or some other, or at least an admission that this connection is a not-so-obvious one and that reasonable people can look at the headlines and miss it. It would do Bush immense good, I think, to let the American people know he thinks it's worth his trouble to explain it to them. As it is, as he spoke last night, he could be implying that anyone who questions whether Iraq was the right next move in 2003 is as good as appeasing the murderers of 9/11.

Bush also could have said something like the forceful statement Tigerhawk himself wrote earlier this month:

That there may have been no material connection between Saddam Hussein's government and September 11 hardly means that the war in Iraq has nothing to do with September 11. While there were definitely important reasons independent of September 11 to take Saddam down -- it was American policy to bring about the fall of his government even before George W. Bush came into office -- the invasion itself was directly related to our war on al Qaeda and its cognates.

First, we needed to re-establish out credibility in the Arab world, which credibility was squandered by virtually every president since Jimmy Carter. This could only happen by bringing the war into the heart of the Arab world and taking casualties killing jihadists. We are doing that every day.

Second, we needed to put ourselves in a position to coerce the regimes most important to the war on Islamist jihad, including particularly Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia joined the fight only when it realized that we did not need its bases or its geography once we occupied Iraq. Third, we simply could not run the risk that an undeterrable and power crazy tyrant like Saddam Hussein might make common cause with al Qaeda.

One might well argue that these purposes for the war are inadequate, but there are many people outside the administration who have no particular partisan ax to grind -- me, for example -- who think they carry the day. For the [New York] Times to declare as a fact that the Iraq war has "nothing to do with September 11" is transportingly dishonest.

Same with the "too few troops" argument. OK, I accept Bush's explanation for why no more troops now. But why no more at the beginning? Was that a mistake? Increasingly it seems to be so. Then why not say it might have been? It would convince a lot of people their president is being on the level with them. Sure Reid and Pelosi would howl about mistakes made, but that only would show they're locked in to March 2003 and have no idea where we should be in March 2006, or how to get there, and they don't want to talk about it.

Same with the WMD claims. The Bush-hating people I work with didn't watch his speech, of course. One of them said, "he never admits he was wrong," and implied that would be the only thing that would make it worth watching. It's a big deal with that faction. But they're out of his reach.

I don't want or expect to see a humble contrition and a plea for forgiveness. But I think Bush could help himself with an honest, "well, dang, Saddam sure had us fooled for a long time. And here's why. And here's what we did find," and just generally remind people Saddam was hell-bent on getting the big killer toys and the sanctions system that kept them out of his mitts was breaking down. It was a matter of time.

Again, the opposition would howl that mistakes were made. So what? How would that be different than now?


Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Ten Commandments

Of the two Supreme Court "Ten Commandments" rulings recently issued, Van Orden v. Perry is the one that most interests me.

The Texas case is about a big rock Ten Commandments plunked down on the state capitol grounds in 1961. The court's opinion, written by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, said governments "must not press religious observances upon their citizens" but allowed it is appropriate for public displays to acknowledge the role of religion in American life.

Justice Breyer, concurring, had a different explanation.

On the one hand, the Commandments’ text undeniably has a religious message, invoking, indeed emphasizing, the Diety [sic]. On the other hand, focusing on the text of the Commandments alone cannot conclusively resolve this case. Rather, to determine the message that the text here conveys, we must examine how the text is used. And that inquiry requires us to consider the context of the display.

And he basically says the monument is allowable because there are other, secular monuments on the courthouse grounds (he even includes a map); the monument is not in-your-face and is not inside a courtroom; it was there for 40 years before anyone objected; and it was donated by a private group (the Fraternal Order of Eagles), who "while interested in the religious aspect of the Ten Commandments, sought to highlight the Commandments’ role in shaping civic morality as part of that organization’s efforts to combat juvenile delinquency."

The setting does not readily lend itself to meditation or any other religious activity. But it does provide a context of history and moral ideals. It (together with the display’s inscription about its origin) communicates to visitors that the State sought to reflect moral principles, illustrating a relation between ethics and law that the State’s citizens, historically speaking, have endorsed. That is to say, the context suggests that the State intended the display’s moral message — an illustrative message reflecting the historical “ideals” of Texans — to predominate.

This seems similar to the 2003 ruling of a three-judge panel of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in a case in my hometown. In West Chester, Pennsylvania, a 50-by-29-inch bronze plaque of the Ten Commandments had been drilled into the exterior courthouse wall, beside the front door, in 1920. A local atheists' group challenged it, but the court ruled that the current county commissioners' decision to keep the plaque in the face of the objection was motivated by historic preservation, not a desire to proselytize.

But this appeal to "historic preservation" puzzles me. Because, having written a 400-page history of that town, I regard the plaque as rather an intrusion on its history than an expression of it.

The plaque is not original or even that old -- a courthouse stood there for 134 years without one. The courthouse in Chester County, moreso than in most places, has two historical identities. Like any court house, it was the home of the legal system, the seat of judges and the site of trials. But, almost more than that, it was the people's public parlor. It was where 19th century West Chester showed the world what it was, or thought it was.

Courts met there four times a year, for sessions lasting a few weeks. The rest of the time, the courthouse was everyone's property. West Chester was a town big enough to have a thriving social and political life, but too small to have a large meeting hall of its own. The courthouse served that purpose.

West Chester's main Baptist and Presbyterian churches both got their starts in preaching done in the courthouse in the 1820s. Chester County Horticultural Society showed off its prize vegetables in the grand jury room. Abolitionists met there, and mobs attacked them. Political parties nominated their candidates there. Private recruiters banged the drum there to rally men for the Civil War regiments.

The court house is the whole reason West Chester exists -- the town grew up around it. Landowners in that region lobbied the state government for years before the assembly, at the end of the Revolution, agreed to move the seat of Chester County. The old county seat was Chester; the new one after 1786 was a mud-splattered wide spot in the road beside a log tavern called The Turk's Head.

Over the years, as the village became a town, the citizens paid to beautify and improve the building -- or persuaded the commissioners to tax the rest of the county to do it. They rebuilt the courthouse in 1846, then expanded it, then expanded it again. They added a sundial and a clock; and in 1869 they erected a fountain in front with one spigot for people, one for horses, and a little trough at the bottom for dogs to drink from.

During the building, and rebuilding, and expanding of the courthouse, nobody proposed posting a Ten Commandments plaque. The plaque arrived in 1920. A committee of citizens, headed by a Bible class teacher, bought it. It was put up with the consent of the county commissioners, but the idea wasn't theirs.

It was erected at a time of great fear among the Protestant majority in middle America, which felt threatened by the tide of immigration from southern and Eastern Europe and the nebulous menace of atheistic Bolshevism. Darwin's teachings seemed to derail traditional Bible-based morality.

None of this was explicit in the erection of the plaque. But the Ku Klux Klan played on these fears and claimed hundreds of members in West Chester in those years. There were intense fundamentalist revivals in the borough churches, under huge banners printed with: "Christ For West Chester: West Chester for Christ."

Separation of church and state, like equal rights for all citizens, was a concept that lay dormant in America for many decades. These concerns were simply not part of the public discourse in West Chester in 1920. Nor was the idea that atheists (or Hindus, or Buddhists, or wiccans) could come to that building seeking justice, but meet effrontery at the door.

The plaque represents a particular moment in a long history. It is not the town's present. Nor is it the town's past. It is utterly unreflective of the West Chester of the 19th century: Quaker-secular, unpretentious, fond of making money, practical, moralistic but not too. Progressive academies for young ladies were welcomed, brimstone-breathing evangelists and proselytizing Sunday schools were discouraged. If the courthouse belonged and belongs to all the people, it ought to be acknowledged that those people were not typically obsessed with Old Testament moralistic religion, except for the one generation that tacked up its creed on the limestone.

Flag Quotes

Nat Hentoff (can't find this one online) writes a column about HJR 10, the Flag Desecration Amendment, that gathers three excellent quotes that express my view of the thing.

First, watching the House debates on C-SPAN, Hentoff hears Democrat Artur Davis of Alabama.

Opposing the amendment, he told of how his grandmother used to say to him that, even after the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional, she would see, "riding through rural Alabama, crosses burning." But, added Congressman Davis, "Those burning crosses did nothing to slow the progress of justice. So, too, the people who would burn flags, like those who burnt crosses, have lost. Our values have been deep enough to withstand the worst ideas."

More pithy is this quote by Bobby Scott (D-Va.), speaking of anyone foolish enough to burn the flag:

"How ridiculous it is to protest the very symbol of his right to protest! We don't need protection from anyone who does that."

Finally, he cites March 1994 comments by Congressional Medal of Honor recipient Sen. Bob Kerrey, who lost a leg in the Vietnam war, during an earlier bout with an anti-flag-burning amendment:

"Real patriotism cannot be coerced. It must be a voluntary unselfish brave act to sacrifice for others. And when Americans feel coercion, especially from the government, they tend to rebel. So none of us should be surprised ... that one unintended consequence of enacting this law will be an increased occurrence of flag desecration."

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Wait a Minute

What's wrong with this story? Oprah Winfrey is turned away from a boutique, even though there were shoppers inside and she thinks the staff knew who she was. She suspects there's an element of racism in it. Seems plausible. The article then goes on for another 800 words about "many American minorities who say they are routinely treated poorly — and sometimes with outright suspicion — by sales staffs in this country."

"The presumption in America is that if you have the wealth, you'll get equality — but where's Oprah's equality?" complains a sociologist at the University of California, Davis.

Damn that Amerikka! Except the article doesn't make it clear that this incident happened in ... Paris, France.

I have no doubt the problem described in the story is real. But the story carries no dateline. It mentions "Paris" in the text, but not "France." Hell, I first read it and I thought they meant Paris, Texas, or some such place.

The incident occurred when Winfrey stopped by Hermes on June 14 to buy a watch minutes after the boutique closed. Though she and three friends said they saw shoppers inside, neither a sales clerk nor manager would let them in.

Winfrey "believes the store's staff had identified her," according to her publicist, but wouldn't let her in in spite of, or perhaps because of, that.

So, isn't it just as possible that Oprah could have gotten the cold shoulder because she was an Américaine? Wouldn't it be possible to take this same news tidbit and use it as a peg to hang a story about European prejudice against Americans? Or about French prejudice against blacks?

Shelby Foote

RIP, Shelby Foote. Who never forgot that the root of history is "story." Who helped teach me that the past doesn't belong to angry academics, and that the genial South still has a voice in America.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Shocked, Shocked!

Jay Rosen thinks the "Downing Street Memo" "deserves sustained news attention, real Congressional hearings, questions and answers at White House briefings, continued blogging, serious examination by all Americans (including the President's supporters) and the interest of future historians."

Well, I say, if people are hot about it, let's play it out in the media and let people think it over. Better too much information than too little. But frankly I can't manage to be shocked by the idea that this war began the way it did, and that the political leaders had their own motives and intentions beyond those they talked about. I think many of those in the media who are ruffled by this revelation don't know much about history.

My opinion about that remains the same as it was in January:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Throe Up

Throes are a hot topic these days. It's a curious old word, seldom heard anymore except in last throes, which is what the vice president said. But many people seem to be curious as to just what exactly the vice president meant in using it in reference to the Iraq "insurgency."

In its earliest form in Middle English, it could mean either "agony of death" or "pang of childbirth." Here's hoping Cheney meant the former.

Trying to walk the vice president back into line with what the military authorites know about the Iraq situation, some people have pointed out that throes, like the days of Genesis, have no certain time definition. So if a day with the Lord is as a thousand years, might not a throe, even a final one, take a dozen years?

What a tangled web. Thank our stars the battlefields are in the hands of the soldiers and their officers, not the politicians and their mouths. Or the media who play these bitter games with them.

So what's a throe, anyhow? Etymologically, it's not clear, but there are two words in Old English that look like it, and either one could be its daddy.

One is þrea, genitive þrawe (that first character is a "thorn" and is pronounced -th-), which meant "affliction, pang, evil, threat." It was related to the common Old English verb þrowian "to suffer," from a common Proto-Germanic root that also appears in German drohen "to threaten."

The other Anglo-Saxon word that could be related to throe is þrawan, meaning "to twist, turn, writhe." If this may or may not be the root of throe, it's certainly the root of throw. This word comes from a different root than þrea, and its representative in modern German is drehen "to turn, twist."

Þrawan didn't get a sense of "to project, propel" until Middle English. The usual Anglo-Saxon word for "to throw" was weorpan, which is related to warp. The sense evolution of throw may be via the notion of whirling a missile before throwing it, like a softball pitcher's wind-up.

Foot Shooting

Here's the current current top on the Associated Press' main Iraq roundup story today (this may change as the AP does write-thrus on such stories).

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) — The U.S. military said Monday it plans to expand its prisons across Iraq to hold as many as 16,000 detainees, as the relentless insurgency shows no sign of letup one year after the transfer of sovereignty to Iraqi authorities.

The plans were announced on a day three U.S. Army soldiers were killed — two pilots whose helicopter crashed north of Baghdad and a soldier who was shot in the capital. At least four Iraqis died in a car bomb attack in the capital.

The AH-64 crashed in Mishahda, 20 miles north of the capital, and witness Mohammed Naji told Associated Press Television News he saw two helicopters flying toward Mishahda when "a rocket hit one of them and destroyed it completely in the air."

Even when a bit of good news has to slip in, it's assigned a big bully of a bad news claim to immediately take the wind out of it.

Dozens of foreign fighters have been reported killed in U.S.-led offensives in recent months, including Operation Spear at the porous Syrian border last week, but the deaths have had little effect on the resolve and ability of suicide bombers to strike at will.

Didn't the U.S. media used to criticize the U.S. military for an obsession with body counts during the Vietnam War? Figures which proved nothing and lacked context and only masked the true nature of the flow of the war? Well, you can never get through an AP Iraq story today without a visit from the Grim Reaper.

At least 1,740 members of the U.S. military have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count. At least 1,334 died as a result of hostile action. The figures include five military civilians.

You'd never guess it from the AP's coverage, but U.S. military men and women gave as well as got, and in much greater measure. As the indispensible Iraq the Model put it, "It's not only us who bleed, they're bleeding too end even more profusely ...." Mohammed of ITM surveys the Iraqi press -- hardly pro-American -- and culls these victories in just the last 48 hours.

  • 1st regiment/2nd commandoes brigade arrested 43 suspects in Al-Doura district while the 2nd regiment/1st brigade arrested 2 terrorists in Shu'la district.

  • The interior ministry announced the beginning of operation lightning-1 in Babil province which is going to be a joint effort between the Army and the local police forces. The 1st wave of raids resulted in arresting 43 suspects and confiscating 10 vehicles used in terror attacks against Iraqi civilians and security forces.

  • A force from the Iraqi army backed by Polish troops raided terrorists hides in the areas of Jibla and Rashad in the same province and arrested 8 terrorists and confiscated their Ak-47's.

  • Police forces in Kerbala arrested 20 terrorists and confiscated 6 suspicious vehicles and disarmed 2 vehicle-born bombs.

  • In Zangora area near Ramadi, Iraqi and American troops arrested a terror cell leader named 'Jbair Grayen Al-Jiblawi who's one of Zarqawi's aides in Anbar province.

  • In the north, 3 members of the Ansar Al-Sunna army were captured in Mosul; one of the 3 terrorists carried a Saudi ID.

  • In Tikrit, multinational forces arrested 3 roadside bombs-makers and in Kirkuk 10 suspects were arrested. The men are supposed to be responsible for some missile attacks in the city. Explosives' ingredients and blast capsules were found during the search of the arrest scene.

  • In Abu Ghraib, Al-Muthana brigade arrested 19 terrorists and found amounts of weapons and detonation devices as well as vehicles that were prepared for performing terror attacks.

  • In Al-Kasra neighborhood in Baghdad, IP men and American explosives experts failed an attack with a car bomb that was parked in the heavily crowded main commercial street in the district.


  • In Tal-afar near Mosul, Iraqi and American troops killed 15 terrorists in clashes that took place yesterday.

  • Police patrols in Dibis town arrested two terrorists while they were trying to plant a roadside bomb on the main street in the town.

  • One of the most important successes was arresting one of Izzat Al-Douri's relatives along with 3 of his bodyguards.

  • Iraqi TV announced Khalid Sulaiman Darwis (aka Abu Al-Ghadia Al-Soori) was killed during a raid as part of Operation Spear in Anbar province. The Syrian terrorist is one of the leaders of al-Qaeda in Iraq.

And so forth, not one of which made the AP round-up. Instead, that story builds up "relentlessly" to this grand finale:

There have been positive developments in the year since the June 28, 2004 handover, the most notable being the election of the 275-member National Assembly on Jan. 30, Iraq's first free vote in a half-century. The assembly appointed the rest of the government the following month.

Smaller gains have been made as well.

The number of telephone and Internet subscribers has increased nearly threefold, according to the Washington-based Brookings Institution, and the number of trained Iraqi judges has doubled.

However, the insurgency — estimated at about 16,000 Iraqi militants and foreign fighters — has drastically overshadowed the improvements and created havoc around the country. The situation has forced the implementation of a daily 11 p.m. curfew in Baghdad.

Car bombings have become one of the most devastating methods used by the insurgency. There have been more than 484 since the handover, killing at least 2,221 people and wounding more than 5,574, according to an AP count.

Unemployment remained high at 27-40 percent in May compared with 30-40 percent in June 2004. About $5 billion of U.S. money still remains from the $18.4 billion reconstruction package approved in 2003, according to the House Appropriations foreign operations subcommittee.

I can honestly say that, as someone who's been reading this coverage since 2002, the tone of this is as dire and hopeless as anything the AP yet has done.

I honestly don't know what justified the wire service suddenly loosing the dogs of defeat on the American people, unless it be the recent polls that show, finally, a tip of majority American popular opinion against the whole idea of the war. Never mind that the poll also shows only about 1 in 8 Americans is saying "bring them home now."

If I were a complete cynic about my profession, and I were writing a news story about this news story, it would begin like this:

Emboldened by new poll results that show public opinion in America turning against the Bush Administration's handling of the Iraq War, AP reporters and editors today renewed their assault on the American perception of its military effort, attacking on several fronts against known vulnerable spots in the public's mind.

Trouble is, there's more than one poll out there, and the media's victory in turning America against the war may be Pyrrhic.

The latest Pew numbers show just 42% of Americans say news organizations generally "stand up for America;" about as many (40%) believe that news organizations are "too critical of America." That represents a significant shift since July 2003, when a narrow majority (51%) said that news organizations stand up for America, while 33% said they were too critical. The percentage who say news organizations are too critical is only slightly below the level during Clinton's impeachment trial.

And there are specific bad numbers for the media in its military coverage.

Beyond the rising criticism of press performance and patriotism, there also has been significant erosion in support for the news media's watchdog role over the military. Nearly half (47%) say that by criticizing the military, news organizations are weakening the nation's defenses; 44% say such criticism keeps the nation militarily prepared. The percentage saying press criticism weakens American defenses has been increasing in recent years and now stands at its highest point in surveys dating to 1985.

As I read the graph accompanying the report, this is the first time more Americans are saying the media weakens the nation with its military coverage than are saying the media strengthens it with the way it writes about the military.

And the report itself makes it clear that this is not a public call for all good news all the time, or propaganda.

While the press is taking more heat for its patriotism and performance, the public continues to decisively reject a shift to 'pro-American' coverage of the war on terror. By nearly three-to-one (68%-24%), Americans believe it is better if coverage of the war on terror is neutral rather than pro-American.

The preference for neutral coverage of the war on terror is shared by majorities across the demographic and political spectrum. However, about four-in-ten conservative Republicans (39%) favor pro-American coverage, the largest percentage in any category.

America's military men and women can and, I believe, will prevail in Iraq. But America's journalistic men and women may already have lost their own battle.

Obama and Abraham

Barack Obama is actually getting a scolding for this thoughtful essay on Lincoln in Time magazine. The offending passage seems to be this one:

Still, as I look at his picture, it is the man and not the icon that speaks to me. I cannot swallow whole the view of Lincoln as the Great Emancipator. As a law professor and civil rights lawyer and as an African American, I am fully aware of his limited views on race. Anyone who actually reads the Emancipation Proclamation knows it was more a military document than a clarion call for justice.

Decision '08 does what Obama suggests, and cites the entire document, then wonders,

Sounds pretty unambigious to me; I'm not quite sure what Obama's beef with this is: the wording wasn't flowery enough? Beats me ... in any event, I think Lincoln's reputation will survive Obama's curiously tepid response. It seems to me, in a time of war, that a military document proclaiming freedom would be worth far more than a ringing speech calling for justice. Regardless of the motivation, this document quite literally freed the slaves, or most of them; that it took generations for the seed he planted to bear fruit can hardly be layed at the feet of Lincoln.

I think Obama made a mistake. Instead of inviting people to simply read the proclamation, he should have invited them to read it in context: The Northern government was freeing slaves only in those places in active rebellion against it. In other words, it only "freed" slaves in the places where the government had no authority to enforce the proclamation.

So far from "quite literally" freeing the slaves, it didn't free a single one of them. And it continued in bondage the slaves Lincoln did have the physical power (if not the legal authority) to set free, those of the northern border states. But that would have been a dangerous and unpopular policy. Lincoln was playing to win the war, with emancipation or without it.

As for the rest of it, I think Obama reads Lincoln's character aright. Lincoln was ahead of almost every other white American of his day in sympathy for blacks and dislike of slavery. Yet even at his best moments he was a racist -- by modern definitions -- and he was a politician who knew he couldn't get too far ahead of the voters on these touchy matters.

Personally, Abraham Lincoln was an avid colonizationist. Though neglected by historians, the American Colonization Society was vastly more popular with ante-bellum Northerners than abolition societies. Its leading men included clergy, college presidents, and politicians of all parties. The colonizationists thought the solution to slavery and race problems in America was to send the blacks away, either back to Africa or to some third place in the Caribbean or Latin America.

Lincoln touted colonization in his annual messages to Congress in 1861 and '62, in his appeal to border-state representatives for compensated emancipation (July 12, 1862), and in the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation (Sept. 22, 1862). In 1861, addressing Congress, he mentioned contraband slaves who had fallen into the hands of Northern troops, as well as the possibility of border states emancipating their slaves. He advocated that “steps be taken for colonizing both classes, (or the one first mentioned, if the other shall not be brought into existence), at some place, or places, in a climate congenial to them. It might be well to consider, too, -- whether the free colored people already in the United States could not, so far as individuals may desire, be included in such colonization.” A year later, he told Congress, “I cannot make it better known than it already is, that I strongly favor colonization.”

In his “Speech on the Dred Scott decision” (June 26, 1857), he had scolded both parties for not taking up the cause:

I have said that the separation of the races is the only perfect preventative of amalgamation. I have no right to say all the members of the Republican party are in favor of this, nor to say that as a party they are in favor of it. There is nothing in their platform directly on the subject. But I can say a very large proportion of its members are for it, and that the chief plank in their platform -- opposition to the spread of slavery -- is most favorable to that separation.

Such separation, if ever effected at all, must be effected by colonization; and no political party, as such, is now doing anything directly for colonization. Party operations at present only favor or retard colonization incidentally. The enterprise is a difficult one, but 'when there is a will there is a way;' and what colonization needs most is a hearty will. Will springs from the two elements of moral sense and self-interest. Let us be brought to believe it is morally right, and, at the same time, favorable to, or, at least, not against, our interest, to transfer the African to his native clime, and we shall find a way to do it, however great the task may be. The children of Israel, to such numbers as to include four hundred thousand fighting men, went out of Egyptian bondage in a body.

Perhaps his most extensive, and infamous, statement on the topic was the Aug. 14, 1862, lecture to a group of Northern black leaders in Washington.

I do not propose to discuss this, but to present it as a fact with which we have to deal. I cannot alter it if I would. It is a fact, about which we all think and feel alike, I and you. We look to our condition, owing to the existence of the two races on this continent. I need not recount to you the effects upon white men, growing out of the institution of Slavery. I believe in its general evil effects on the white race. See our present condition---the country engaged in war!---our white men cutting one another's throats, none knowing how far it will extend; and then consider what we know to be the truth. But for your race among us there could not be war, although many men engaged on either side do not care for you one way or the other. Nevertheless, I repeat, without the institution of Slavery and the colored race as a basis, the war could not have an existence.

It is better for us both, therefore, to be separated. I know that there are free men among you, who even if they could better their condition are not as much inclined to go out of the country as those, who being slaves could obtain their freedom on this condition. I suppose one of the principal difficulties in the way of colonization is that the free colored man cannot see that his comfort would be advanced by it. You may believe you can live in Washington or elsewhere in the United States the remainder of your life, perhaps more so than you can in any foreign country, and hence you may come to the conclusion that you have nothing to do with the idea of going to a foreign country. This is (I speak in no unkind sense) an extremely selfish view of the case. But you ought to do something to help those who are not so fortunate as yourselves.

There is an unwillingness on the part of our people, harsh as it may be, for you free colored people to remain with us. Now, if you could give a start to white people, you would open a wide door for many to be made free. If we deal with those who are not free at the beginning, and whose intellects are clouded by Slavery, we have very poor materials to start with. If intelligent colored men, such as are before me, would move in this matter, much might be accomplished. It is exceedingly important that we have men at the beginning capable of thinking as white men, and not those who have been systematically oppressed.

And so forth. Lincoln's Secretary of State, William Seward, had his eye on the Caribbean basin, which he, Lincoln, and other cabinet members thought was the ideal place to colonize emancipated slaves. Congress set aside $600,000 for this, and during the Civil War the U.S. also was exploring likely spots in Mexico, British Honduras, Guatemala, Honduras, and Costa Rica -- not always with the permission of the national governments. Yet the second colonization movement was as much a failure as the first had been. A projected African-American colony at Chiriqui on the Isthmus of Panama fell through. In 1863 some 450 American blacks were settled at Isle a Vache in Haiti, but it was a debacle and starvation and smallpox wiped them out.

Two Anecdotes and an Economist

Paul Krugman at the New York Times, writes a column in which he makes the bald statement that George W. Bush deliberately sought out war as a president, unlike any of his modern peers.

In November 2002, Helen Thomas, the veteran White House correspondent, told an audience, "I have never covered a president who actually wanted to go to war" - but she made it clear that Bush was the exception. And she was right.

And that's the extent of his evidence about it. This audacious assertion is true because -- Helen Thomas "made it clear" it was so. And that's good enough for old Paul Krugman.

There's an old anecdote about a university committee empaneled to choose the next chancellor of the school from among three candidates: a mathematician, an economist, and an attorney. The committee meets with each of them separately and asks one final question: "How much is two plus two?"

"Four," the mathematician says at once.

The economist pauses and then responds, "Four, plus or minus one."

The attorney answers with, "How much do you want it to be?"

In the story, the attorney, of course, gets the job. But historian Benjamin F. Martin (in whose "France in 1938" I met that chestnut), suspects a historian was the first to tell it. The lawyer is the butt of the joke, and all three professionals are better-paid than historians, but Martin thinks the real dig is at the economist, and I tend to agree.

The answers portray a continuum of knowledge, from mathematics and physics at the pole of certainty to hypothesis and argument at the pole of conjecture. Between lies the broad range of ambiguity where dwell forms of thought, among them history as well as economics, which combine ineluctable fact with varying degrees of surmise. Economists are always explaining why their forecasts go awry, shifting, as they do so, the balance from more surmise in the forecasting to more fact in the explicating. Historians generally avoid this embarrassing mea culpa by shunning predictions.

So, there's Krugman for you. Anyone who treats "Helen Thomas seemingly said so" as proof of fact, and then builds his argument on that foundation, can be swept aside. He's no historian. But neither is he a reporter. He's a columnist. His job is to sit there at his desk and wring the day's headlines into amusing shapes, like a clown making balloon hats at a birthday party. You can applaud him or you can walk away.

Helen Thomas is a different story. She's retired from active reporting now, but she was for many years a political journalist. And many still in the game think exactly like she do. I can tell you that from experience, because I've worked with them. But you don't have to take my word for it; there are plenty of online sites devoted to collecting the statements and opinions of such folks when they're off the job -- speaking at commencement exercises, for instance.

They're not peripheral voices; they are the media, our eyes and ears on the world. Yet like the economists in Benjamin Martin's paragraph, they've staked their reputations and their hopes on a certain outcome of the current U.S. effort in Iraq.

Which brings me to another anecdote from Martin's splendid little book. It's about Geo London, the French journalist of the 1930s who made a career covering spectacular trials in France -- discarded mistress dresses herself from head to toe in black and guns down her former lover in his office, that sort of thing the French do so well. The story is told by a fellow journalist, Marcel Montarron.

London was in western France covering the trial of a parricide that began in mid-afternoon. Because he had an early deadline, he telephoned a story that he was certain would take place: an angry crowd cursing the accused as he was marched to the courthouse from his holding cell at the police station. London then relaxed over lunch until he saw with dismay the guards and the prisoner coming but "not even the shadow of a gawker." His reputation at stake, he stalked to the door, cried out, "Kill him!" and returned to his table.

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The Media Game

The American media and U.S. politicians play a game among themselves. It's been going on almost since the start of professional journalism, since Civil War military correspondents for the New York and Philadelphia dailies puffed or broke generals and War Department officials in exchange for access to the D.C. telegraph wires to send dispatches from Virginia battlefields.

The media-vs.-government war has mostly been a cold war, but it's been hot since the Johnson (Lyndon) administration. By August, 1967, the Washington correspondent of the "St. Louis Post-Dispatch" reported, "the relationship between the President and the Washington press corps has settled into a pattern of chronic disbelief." It more or less stayed there through the six subsequent administrations, and now, with George W. Bush, the most effective anti-media president in modern times, ensconced in the White House, the battle is in full Götterdämmerung mode.

We who watch the wide world through this media have to squint to see what is really going on out there, because this game in which we have no stake kicks up so much dust and smoke, The two sides are so absorbed in winning that they forget why we're even here and paying attention.

The White House administration stiff-arms media it doesn't like, or brushes past them with dismissive nonsense quotes. It plants its own favorites among the press pools (which, as a tactic, is not unlike the media's old habit of cultivating leak sources in the bureaucracy). The media, for its part, will discard eight hours of crucial factual information about the Iraq War that emerges in a hearing, and only save the bit where the prominent general says something off the cuff about the insurgency that seems to contradict what the vice president said off the cuff about it a week before.

It's like watching football on TV, except the TV camera, instead of focusing on the game, is forever trying to catch a player scratching his butt or picking his teeth, and the players, while they play the game, are at the same time trying to make sure the ball never gets seen on camera. They tailor their plays to keep it out of lens-range.

You could watch a whole season of that and get pretty good at identifying players' gross habits and network camera-carriers' zoom lens skill, but I submit at the end of it you wouldn't know very much about football.


Sunday, June 26, 2005

'Tet' in Baghdad

The "insurgents" in Iraq are putting on a textbook media blitz. Look at what they accomplished with this attack and the Reuters reporting.

In the space of a few hours a suicide car bomber wrecked a police headquarters, an attack on an Iraqi army base killed at least 15 people and four police were killed when a bomber walked into Mosul's General Hospital and blew himself up.

The third attack, on a police post inside the hospital, damaged the emergency ward where casualties had been brought from the previous incidents. Six policemen and nine civilians were wounded, police told a Reuters reporter at the scene.

... The car bomber drove at a district police headquarters at Bab al-Toob in the city center, striking a rear wall to bring down a section of the old, two-storey building and devastate surrounding market stalls as people started the working day.

For the price of a handful of dead-end jihadi cannon fodder and some collateral damage that made fresh corpses of innocent women who had gone out looking for fresh vegetables, Zarqawi killed some Iraqi police. But that in itself means nothing; his real "victory" was this news story, which presents his organization to the world as defiant and capable of launching co-ordinated attacks that can't be stopped.

That's the "Tet Offensive" tactic, in which the underdog in the fight, whom everyone knows can't win it outright, claims success by merely continuing to exist, and getting its pictures into the media. This somehow makes its eventual victory seem inevitable, because the leadership and voters of the Western democracies sense they don't have the grim determination to drive the stake into the heart of rebels who are willing to take the heavy losses and wait for the Americans to get tired and go home.

The actual Tet offensive of 1968 was a massive defeat for the North Vietnamese; it failed to provoke the popular uprising they had expected, nor did it achieve any tactical success. It crippled their army and left them with heavy losses that took time to replace. But the effect on the American political leadership, based on how the battles were presented in the Western media, was instant and completely demoralizing. The Vietnamese communists discovered this tactic by accident. The Islamists have honed it deliberately.

Britain's leftist Guardian newspaper, rooting more openly for an Anglo-American debacle in Iraq than a U.S. newspaper ever would, understands this well. An "insurgent" attack on Baghdad's biggent police fortress is beaten off with heavy losses, well described in the Guardian's reportage, but the headline reads, "Iraq insurgents snatch victory from defeat."

The reporter quotes Lt. Col. David Funk, the U.S. infantry commander responsible for the area: "The enemy spent weeks, maybe months planning this. They failed spectacularly." And it cites him as giving credit to the "heroism of the beleaguered police officers." But, that out of the way, the article devotes far more time to building up the "Tet" story.

But in Baghdad, the fact the insurgents had launched the attack at all was more indicative.

The reporter, given a tour of the battlefield by U.S. and Iraqi authorities, writes of damage that "testified to a synchronised and audacious strike by up to 100 rebels in what is supposed to be a locked-down capital."

The combination of heavy shelling, diversionary feints, infantry thrusts and suicide vehicles - the "precision-guided" equivalent of tanks - left parts of the district of Hi al-Elam a smoking ruin. If the objective was to overrun the station and free its prisoners the offensive failed. The attackers retreated after two hours, leaving dozens dead and captured. But if the objective was to send a message of power and determination it succeeded.

Residents said their confidence in the government and security forces was severely dented. A rash of graffiti has spread across the area: "We will be back." One taxi driver, a Shia who loathes the mostly Sunni Arab resistance, shrugged. "Yes, they will."

... Last month the government said Operation Lightning, a sweep of the capital by 40,000 troops, would choke the violence. A spate of explosions in the past two days killed more than 40 people but it was the spectacular but less bloody attack at Baya'a that showed the resistance was still in business.

Videos of the assault will almost certainly surface on the internet, the dramatic images of resistance intended to inspire would-be recruits and demoralise opponents.

The article said Funk "worried about similarities to the Tet offensive, a 1968 push by North Vietnamese forces which failed militarily but whose scale and surprise gave the impression that the US and its allies were failing." One wonders if he "worried" about that until he was asked point-blank about it by the Guardian reporter, who at least had the dignity to print Funk's reply:

"The media got Tet wrong and they're getting Iraq wrong. We are winning but people won't know that if all they are hearing about is death and violence."

Yet if both the reporter and his source are talking about this tactic, in which the media coverage itself is turned into a weapon by one side in the war, how can the media ignore or deny its centrality in the equation? Look at the Guardian's descriptive clause: "whose scale and surprise gave the impression that the US and its allies were failing." What's missing? The who, as in who "gave the impression," etc.

Or, to phrase the question another way, how does a Western media that is overcome by vapors when it discovers a gay right-wing plant in the White House press corps, thus compromising its driven-snow purity, shrug off repeated manipulation by medieval religious thugs?

Sometimes the observer becomes part of the story. This is one of those times. Then the observer has to begin questioning himself like any other player. And he ought to do the honest thing and admit he is no longer a mere observer. If he fails that, he will find his audience turns away in disgust.

Omar at Iraq the Model, read this article, too, and was furious. He, being an Iraqi who has devoted his life, fortune, and sacred honor to building a free and democratic state in his homeland, lists all the obvious ways this should have been written as a straight: "insurgent attack fails" story:

  • The attack was successfully repelled. Now does that make it a victory for the aggressors? I guess not.

  • Reinforcements weren't available during the critical phase of the battle as they couldn't make their way to the battle scene but this didn't deter the IP men from fighting and defending their station independently and I guess everyone agrees that policemen are not supposed to fight against men armed with RPGs and mortars; at least that's true in the vast majority of countries but our IP men accepted the challenge and won.

  • It was mainly the bravery and good training of one Iraqi policeman that "turned the tide" according to the paper itself.

    Now, one gunner was able to turn the tide and this - in my opinion - is a big sign of skill and organized defense. Still, the Guardian wants us to believe it was a victory for the insurgents!

  • By the end of the battle, at least 10 terrorists were found killed and some 40 were arrested. What a victorious battle those terrorists planned for!

  • Finally and actually most important is that during the battle, people from the mixed Sunni and She'at neighborhood called 55 times and provided tips to the IP about the movements of the terrorists.

He's correct, of course, but he grew up without exposure to the "Tet" tactic, whereby a media that wishes, openly or secretly, to boost "the other side" in a military fight involving home troops, manages to form a silent alliance with the enemy and sap public and political commitment at home by presenting even catastrophic losses by the enemy as moral or symbolic victories. All under the guise of neutral fact-gathering.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

The Book Thing

Total Number Of Books Owned Ever: Gods, I'm going to guess 10,000. I never was much of a library-user. If I like it, I buy it. My contribution to libraries is leaving the books on their shelves for other people to find and enjoy. And then donating the books to them when I realize I haven't opened them again in two or three years. I've owned so many that at times I feared structural collapse in the houses I inhabited. I've used stacks of books as furniture.

Last Book Bought: Ordered from a club: Endkampf, about the death throes of Nazi Germany as experienced by the U.S. soldiers and the German civilians in one region of Franconia, and Crucible of American Democracy: The Struggle to Fuse Egalitarianism and Capitalism in Jeffersonian Pennsylvania. It's a new book on a topic I try to maintain my expertise on. Two of the books I wrote covered early 19th century Pennsylvania history, and I sometimes still get called by newspapers, magazines, and TV producers to comment about it.

Last Book I Read: France in 1938, a lively picture, artfully painted, of a country that confronted great challenges and walked away from them.

Thanks to this book, I finally understand the unspoken rules of the parliamentary game as the French play it; how and why coalition governments form and fall. I can't say I respect it very much more for knowing this, though. The writing is very tight and brisk for an historical work.

The problem with coming to power because the opposition has failed to solve major problems is then having to solve them.

More people would read history of more historians wrote such clarified prose.

Five Books That Mean A Lot To Me

1. "The Eighth Day," which really stands for "anything by Thornton Wilder." My reading friends mostly have been post-modernists and new historicists, lovers of hard bop and William Burroughs. When I'd mention a weakness for Wilder, they'd get this sad look on their faces and change the subject. I learned to not mention it. Like I learned not to mention that I was moved by "Appalachian Spring" and the "Adagio For Strings." These pieces were modern, but backward-looking, like Wilder's novels and plays. And they were "romantic." The whole 20th century has swerved determinedly away from romanticism, and especially from any whiff of sentimentality.

Wilder, like Wyeth and Copland and Barber -- and John Coltrane -- could distinguish sentiment from sentimentality, and they didn't have to flee from both for fear of not knowing the difference. Sentimentality is a shoddy imitation of a fine human feeling, but in the determined avoidance of mush, many writers have abandoned valid emotions and high human feelings. Wilder was one of the few authors in the last century who attempted that dangerous ground, who walked toward sentiment with open eyes. And he did so with a craft as solid as Ezra Pound or James Joyce, the great writers who led the swerve away from Victorian pap.

In 8th grade, I didn't know any of this. I was a sullen, obnoxious kid who tended to ignore reading assignments. My English teacher, Mrs. Siler, a loud, proud daughter of Dixie, assigned us to read a play, and if we couldn't find a suitable play, she'd pick one for us. If I had been my teacher then, I probably would have assigned myself something by O'Neill. But she told me to read Wilder's "The Skin of Our Teeth." I read it and was amazed. I date my adult interest in reading (and in writing) from that year, which was when I also read "Lord of the Rings." Over the years, I've enjoyed Wilder's novels more than his plays: "The Bridge of San Luis Rey," and then "The Ides of March," which fixed in my mind the persons of Caesar, Catullus and Cleopatra so well that, though I've encountered them in a dozen other fictions and films, if they don't match the Wilder version, I don't quite buy it.

"Heaven's My Destination" is a brilliant comedy centered on the kind of earnest, polite young Christian fundamentalist that grows so thick in this corner of the world you can't toss a Bible without hitting one on the head. But it's all done with genuine affection, and fictional George Brush [!] remains my favorite fundamentalist. But "The Eighth Day" is Wilder's masterpiece, weaving beautiful symphonic music out of the vaudeville of "Skin of Our Teeth." It's as hard-headed as Ayn Rand and as hopeful as a first love.

Wilder served in both World Wars; he suffered an ambivalent sexuality in an America that was intolerant of such things. And he wrote not with the grim "cold eye" of the mature Yeats (who never went to war), but with a warm, loving affirmation of the beauty in the big messy world. That's the concept Mrs. Siler, I suspect, was trying to whisper to the sullen big kid who sat in the back row of Ardmore Junior High School.

2. "Selected Poems," William Butler Yeats. My literary first love in my college years was Yeats. I found in him then a romantic intensity that matched my own, but he had wings to soar in words. I find in him now a matchless excellence as a writer. Anyone who wrote poetry in the 20th century, or who read modern poetry seriously, had to confront Yeats. Every serious writer was aware of him, either flowing through channels he cut or else trying to scramble out of them. Yeats was in many ways a bridge for the best of the 19th century to cross into the 20th, and that's a formidable legacy.

Kant knew that philosophy thrived when it was deemed trivial by priests and bankers and social reformers and prime ministers. If those people had thought philosophy important, they would have sought to control it or repress it or buy it or pervert it. The quest for truth can only occur in the autonomy known by the scorned and neglected. Yeats knew the same thing about poetry when he wrote "Adam's Curse." In a modern, commercial society, unless poets and philosophers are deemed dreamers and fools, no human thought will be free.

He is, I admit, a man's poet, with all the folly and foolish nobility that implies. Lately I've been reading the later Yeats: "The Winding Stair and Other Poems." I see these poems that I've known since I was 18 with fresh poignancy and power. I had read then, but never felt till now, his bitterness at leaving youth just when he'd finally mastered its arts. The powers I feel now: to please a young woman's heart, to lead her to the well of her sensual self and clear the rushes and clarify the water so that she may drink deeply and long -- all these attained powers arrive at the same time I begin to find gray hairs and my hip hurts.

3. "De l'Amour," Stendhal. Stendhal is the most amazing observer of human nature I've ever read. In his youth, Marie-Henri Beyle campaigned with Napoleon in Italy, Germany, Russia and Austria, and after the final defeat of the French he retired to Italy, took the name Stendhal, and began to write. He eventually returned to Paris and wrote novels -- first "Le Rouge et le Noir" and then "La Chartreuse de Parme," completed in an astonishing 52 days. For Stendhal, Napoleon and his career were a brilliant meteor that blazed, never forgotten, never fully understood. Balzac appreciated his work, and Byron enjoyed his company, but for the most part Stendhal was ignored by his contemporaries -- a sure mark of genius.

Anyone who has ever been in love should spend some time with "De l'Amour," Stendhal's attempts to sort out his own feelings in the midst of a hopeless passion as he offers "a detailed account of all the phases of that disease of the soul called love." In a tribute to the book, the critic Michael Wood wrote,

"De l'Amour is a notebook, a collection of thoughts, memories, anecdotes, epigrams, patches of analysis. It is almost always delicate, often brilliant, a book to keep quoting from. ... He knew that truth is often fragmentary, that De l'Amour ... may ultimately say more for being less composed, less like a well-rounded essay, for being drastically unfaithful to its stiff intentions."

Modern readers may be delighted by the frank feminism of many of Stendhal's digressions.

I also find Stendhal smiling from the shadows of some of my favorite modern fiction, such as W.G. Sebald's "The Emigrants," which blends fiction, memory, and history in just the way Stendhal does. Critics compared Sebald to Ingmar Bergman, Kafka and Proust. But "The Emigrants' " true antecedent is Stendhal's unfinished autobiographical "Life of Henri Brulard." The evocation of memory throughout the Sebald book recalls Stendhal's image, in trying to recall his own childhood, of ancient frescos in ruins. Here's an arm, precisely and vividly painted on plaster. And next to it is bare brick. Whatever it once attached to is gone beyond recall.

4. "Leaves of Grass," Walt Whitman. Anyone who's serious about American poetry, or about poetry, or about America, has to read "Leaves of Grass." But be careful what you get. The 1855 original version doesn't have some of the better-known pieces, which were added over a lifetime of revising and expanding, but it crackles with wild lightning as Whitman surveys a new reality like some Blake titan.

In each subsequent reprinting, he trimmed his vision to the unmoved world. In altering his poems to fit the (mostly negative) critical reception, Whitman marred their original angelic stride. He became a poet of causes, rather than a poet who contained causes. There's nothing necessarily wrong with that, but fortunately the 1855 original is still printed, and often sold more cheaply that the revised anthology of Whitman's work.

The more I think about it, the more impressed I am that I grew up beside a city that actually has a "Walt Whitman Bridge" as a major artery -- given that name only after an end-run around the blinder sort of Christians and patriots who despised his morals, but named that nonetheless. America surprises you in unexpected places.

5. "Selected Poems," Robinson Jeffers. I've long been a champion of Jeffers. Though he's not the most popular American poet, he seems to have gained ground in recent years. He is probably the best heir of Whitman's long-line style. He's also an embodiment of whatever California used to be in the '20s and '30s: the magical, wild place before half of America moved there and trampled it to fragments. California when California was a refuge from America's vulgarities rather than their factory. Trawlers coasting slowly through the fog, heron-cries, wild horses, hawks on the headland and cruel, cruel fires.

His father was a professor of Old Testament studies. He began learning Greek at age 5. Unlike many poets of his generation (Pound, Williams, Eliot), Jeffers turned his back on the cosmopolitan culture and sought the primeval, which he found on the (then) desolate California coast around Carmel. There, he felt, "for the first time in my life I could see people living -- amid magnificent unspoiled scenery -- essentially as they did in the Sagas or in Homer's Ithaca. ... Here was contemporary life that was also permanent life."

Five Books You've Given to Someone

1. "ABC of Reading" by Ezra Pound. I've written about Pound here. This book is his short, irrascible introduction to good poetry, and good criticism, and how to tell them apart from what is merely popular in any time and place. He uses the comparative method, and does the necessary weed-clearing that allows you to think about poetry fresh.

2. "Their Ancient Glittering Eyes," by Donald Hall. Hall, himself a poet of some repute (I confess, I never got into his work) is a wonderful interviewer. As a young man, he did "Paris Review" style interviews with the grand old men of American poetry: Frost, Eliot, and Pound, along with the melifluous train wreck that was Dylan Thomas. What's published here are more than just interviews, however. What makes the book resound are the anecdotes about what it took to get into the presence of these men and what it felt like to be there.

The book also includes Yvor Winters, Marianne Moore, and Archibald MacLeish, though they feel like something of an afterthought beside the big four. Hall writes eloquently of the down-home poet Robert Frost that the real Robert Frost wore for much of his career. Readers who only know the "Best-Loved Poems" Frost can read Hall's stories of him and better understand the nihilism of "Acquainted With the Night," the suicide musings of "Come In," or the sensuality of "Putting In the Seed."

He was vain, he could be cruel, he was rivalrous with all other men; but he could also be generous and warm -- when he could satisfy himself that his motives were dubious. He was a man possessed by guilt, by knowledge that he was bad, by the craving for love and the necessity to reject love offered.

Hall also writes of the anguish of the elder Pound, who saw his whole world go to hell, twice.

3.-4. "Da Vinci's Bicycle," and "Seven Greeks," both by Guy Davenport. I've written about Davenport here, and here, and here.

5. "Like Life," by Lorrie Moore. An astonishing short-story collection. She's word-smart, and her radar is so fine-tuned it can pick up the agony that echoes faintly in the emptiest of small-talk. She lays her wit and humor directly onto the most grisly cannibalisms of modern life. It's painful, and painfully good.

Here I am supposed to tap five successors to carry the book meme torch. But I fear I've come so late to this task that most of the people I would like to hear from already have written their answers and I'll look foolish for not realizing that. But I'll take a chance:

Amritas, Amy, TmjUtah, Marc Schulman, and I'd say Michael Yon, but what he is doing right now is just so damn good I wouldn't want to distract him from it for even as long as it takes to answer the questions.

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