Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Flood Relief

"The flood came in the night without warning, a fateful combination of freak high tides and gale-force winds that killed 1,835 people."

It was the great North Sea flood that devastated the Netherlands in 1953.

To aid the victims in the Netherlands, other countries in the region, including Denmark and Iceland, issues special "NL" overmarked postage stamps, sold at higher than the face value, with extra money going to relief.

Today, we have more sophisticated ways, but we still need the same willing spirit.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Trenchant (and Hilarious)

Eve-Tushnet chronicles her responses to the "Dove" ads. (See if you can calculate her socio-political-spiritual-sexual orientation based on this alone, then see how far you have to stretch your weltanschauung to fit her in):

1. (Hey, I'll be honest with you) Whoa baby!!! That's a spicy meat-a-ball! Can I get some fries with that--


6. What the heck is "firming cream" anyway? [Answer: snake oil.]

9. The Dove ads actually get away with more titillation than comparable "normal" ads--I can't remember other campaigns that covered the Metro in underwear-clad women. (...And I think I would remember.) That's a kind of advertising passive-aggression, and it's really gross. Women's bodies are educational! They're infotainment! That's... really, really creepy.

First there were no Terrorists

Actually, first there were no "rioters" in Los Angeles (post-Rodney King).

But now there are no "looters" in New Orleans. Some of the AP photos moving on the wire tonight do use the word. But as the night goes on there are fewer and fewer of that sort. And more and more like this:

"People remove items from a Winn-Dixie store in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2005."

"A man pulls two carts filled with various items in parking lot at a Super Wal-Mart in the Garden district in New Orleans on Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2005. Hurricane Katrina hit the city Monday causing massive flooding and power outages."

[Visible in the car are a whole lot of power tools, motor oil, and a big cooler]

"People remove items from a closed Foot Action store at the intersection of Bourbon and Canal streets after floodwaters rose in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Tuesday, Aug., 30, 2005, in New Orleans."

"Persons remove goods from a closed Super Wal-Mart in the Garden District of New Orleans, Tuesday, Aug. 30,2005."

[bicycles, clothing ....]

"People remove items from a Winn-Dixie store in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2005."

Among the odd coincidences, as of right now I'm not finding any of these online.

UPDATE: AP is definitely being real cagey with pictures and this word. A picture just moved, in which you can see four people, but in such a way that you can't see their faces. Here's the entire caption: "Authorities said looting was becoming a problem at a number of stores and casinos along the Mississippi Gulf Coast Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2005 in Biloxi, Miss. These individuals were photographed exiting a closed store along the beachfront carrying bags of merchandise."

AP is refering to "looting" in its stories, but the issue here seems to be that pictures contain images of identifiable people. And AP doesn't want to call them "looters," even though that's clearly what they're doing. I'm afraid the issue here, among the editors, may be one of sensitivity, since all the people in the "looting" pictures moved so far are non-caucasian.

UPDATE UPDATE: I got called a racist in a comment for saying this at Winds of Change. Look, I am commenting on the photographs moved by the Associated Press. Which means the things their cameras captured in the places their cameramen and -women went. Perhaps somewhere else in the blasted south coast of America there are hordes of fair-haired looters. Wouldn't be the first time, as Alfred the Great would know.

I am 2,000 miles from the scene. And I'm looking at these hundreds of pictures chosen by the greatest newsgathering organization in the country, and beamed to the world. And I'm speculating on what goes on in the heads of the faceless journalists behind this picture stream. And I'm wondering if racial sensitivity doesn't play a part in their choice of words. If that's "racism" on my part, so be it.

UPDATE UPDATE UPDATE: Welcome, Atrios readers, to whom I'm also offered as an instance, presumably, of racism. That in a thread that also includes this gem:

This is just what whites needed down there. A wake up call. No anti-white government forces in sight.

A break in all Zogian Formality.

No enforcable quota, no darkiesports on TV, no TV at all! Societies, after all this TV induced 'humanity' quickly wears off, will naturally and completely segregate.

Calls for revolution shall be heard in the airwaves. Bush currently cowers! His law is too busy in iraq. TVless non-christian non-obese white man, now is the oppertunity to carve your own path!

Opinion Journal, meanwhile, has been monitoring the kooks at DemocraticUnderground.

[T]hey're holding a debate over whether it is acceptable for a looter to shoot a policeman in the head. You'll be relieved to learn that even the DU denizens mostly think it isn't, but there are some notable exceptions.

"I think before we start judging the shooter, we need to consider that he/she could very well be in shock," writes "huskerlaw." "None of us know what the circumstances were." And "MrsGrumpy" doesn't believe looting is going on: "I just find it funny all of a sudden how we all believe the mainstream media and these 'looting' stories when people are missing or lost. And, I've been feeling. Go ahead and slam me. We are all in this together, with the exception of the ass in the oval office."

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Necessary War

Thomas DiLorenzo says the Civil War was unnecessary. Peter Rinaldo says just about every war America has ever fought in has been unnecessary.

Jimmy Carter long ago pronounced the war to overthrow Saddam unnecessary. Of course, he also thinks the American Revolution was unnecessary.

Carter doesn't go into detail about what he thinks makes for a "necessary" war. Neither do most other Iraq War critics I've seen who invoke the "unnecessary" cry. What would a "necessary" war look like, in their eyes?

I'll give you my version of a necessary war: The brief 1936 conflict between Germany, alone, and France, Britain, and Czechoslovakia.

It began when Hitler, the German dictator now little remembered in history, marched 20,000 troops into the Rhineland demilitarized zone, in violation of articles 42 and 43 of the Treaty of Versailles. France pulled itself out of a political crisis and united behind this threat from its old enemy. It used the treaty violation as a pretext to declare war. France's stauch allies in Czechoslovakia joined them, secure in the fastness of the Sudeten mountains, thus tying down Nazi troops in central Germany.

Britain, too, stood with its French ally, though not without some debate over France's unilateralism. The British in the end provided key air support and blockaded German North Sea ports, though relatively few British troops crossed the Channel until the fighting was almost over.

When war began, French divisions crossed into the Rhineland at several points, and the overwhelmed Germans, after brief resistance, retired across the bridges. They set up a defense on the east bank, but when the French penetrated this at several points, the German army rose up under von Blomberg and von Fristsch and overthrew Hitler and his gang. The top Nazis were executed after trial in German courts in which horrible crimes -- and even more horrible plans -- came to light, along with evidence of their vast corruption. The German military leaders negotiated a new settlement with the Allies, revising several provisions of Versailles that no longer reflected realities on the ground. Nazi functionaries were purged from local offices, extremist parties were banned from German politics, and, with the aid of the occupying powers, after much difficulty and insurgency, Germany gradually returned to a democratic system of self-government, more robust than the failed Weimar Republic.

Why is this war "necessary?" Because it prevents World War II in Europe, the Holocaust, and the deaths of tens of millions of people, from the North Sea to the Russian steepe.

But would it stand up to the modern anti-Iraq-War activists' definitions of justified? Put him in the Wayback Machine and set the dial to 1936. Remember, he doesn't know there's going to be a World War II in Europe. Like the pacifists Orwell scorned, he probably thinks Hitler is not such a bad guy as he's made out to be in the press, and anyway the leaders of Britain and America are far more dangerous to world peace.

What will he say, in protesting this "unjust and unnecessary" war?

  • Hitler was provoked. Just a month before the remilitarization of the Rhineland, France and Russia had signed a mutual assistance pact that was a direct threat against Germany. France had engaged in a massive build-up of fortifications right on the border of Germany, and it was denying Hitler's right to defend himself. It was the old hegemony double standard.

  • What Hitler did was merely an internal matter. The French violated German sovereignty without just cause. Why, Hitler had never attacked France. Hitler was just moving troops in his own backyard. As G.B. Shaw said, "It was as if the British had reoccupied Portsmouth."

  • Hiding behind the Versailles Treaty was a red herring. It had already been violated. Germany had effectively renounced it a year before by bringing back the draft, and France and Britain had done nothing but make diplomatic protests.

  • Even worse, Britain herself had signed the Anglo-German Naval Treaty with Hitler that allowed Germany to build a battle fleet that included submarines, something forbidden by Versailles. Britain itself already had participated in a violation of the treaty!

  • There was no public support for the war in France and Britain. The people were solidly against war. They remembered the betrayed ideals of 1914, and they had indicated again and again their revulsion with the very idea of warfare.

  • By contrast, the remilitarization was wildly popular with the German people. In the Rhineland, women tossed flowers and priests showered blessings on German troops marching under the Swastika flag.

  • The door was still open for negotiation. Hitler, in announcing the resumption of German authority in the Rhineland, had said unequivocally, before the whole world, "we pledge that now, more than ever, we shall strive for an understanding between European peoples, especially for one with our Western neighbor nations .... We have no territorial demands to make in Europe! ... Germany will never break the peace."

  • France did not go first to the League of Nations and attempt to use its authority to condemn the German action. Thus, its invasion lacked legitimacy. Instead of evicting the Nazis at once, France should have gone the Leage route and then put its military forces entirely under control of the League, to be bound by whatever the League decided to do.

  • False pretenses! A scare that never materialized. The British were told over and over that they would be at the mercy of German bombers. Churchill asserted that the first week of the war would kill up to 40,000 Londoners [Nov. 28, 1934]. Baldwin warned the "man in the street" that "Whatever people may tell him, the bomber will always get through." Yet in the lightning defeat of Germany's small military, the air force never got off the ground. The mighty swarm from the skies that struck fear in so many in Britain and France existed only on paper.

The excuse offered by the French leaders would be absurd:

Monsieur Flandin [French Foreign Minister] emphasized that the next challenge would not be an attack upon France or Belgium, but very likely an attack upon Czechoslovakia or Austria. If we failed to meet the present challenge, who could possibly say that Germany would be stopped in her next venture?

Necessary war? More like pre-emptive, illegal, immoral war. More like, "He was going to hit me first!"

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Little Miss Trouble

You get the feeling Parvin Darabi just was not cut out to be a good Muslim in Kohmeni's Iran.

I was six days old when my grandfather passed on his religion to me by reciting a series of Arabic words into my ear. I am quite positive that those were the only Arabic words my grandfather could recite and he perhaps did not know what he was reciting into my ear. We are Iranian and our language is Persian and a vast majority of the Iranians including my family do not speak Arabic, the language of God. Religion is like the color of our eyes. It is hereditary.

For kindergarten I was sent to this neighborhood school where an old lady named Kobra was its head mistress. I hated this school and the head mistress because she always looked so mean in those black shrouds she covered herself in. She wore black at all times. No laughter, no music, no play and just God and Islam. And the school was dirty and all she did was reading her Koran and prayer book. I knew she had no education and could not read, because when I would place her Koran upside down she would still read it just the same.

[Hat tip, Amritas]

Saturday, August 27, 2005

John Roberts and the War

No, not the Iraq war. Believe it or not, the American Civil War.

The Washington Post devotes an entire news story to the astonishing discovery that Supreme Court nominee John Roberts ghostwrote an article in the 1980s, and in it, once, he used the term "War Between the States" in place of "Civil War."

WaPo even went out and dug up an academic who was willing to twist this choice of words into a dark insinuation: "People opposed to the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s would undoubtedly be more comfortable with the words he chose."

This is diving far too deeply into shallow words.

As a writer, it's useful to have more than one term to refer to the same thing, especially when you have to refer to it often in one article or book. Civil War is short, punchy. Good for headlines. The War Between the States is sonorous, rhythmic.

But the terms have histories, and here is where the WaPo seems eager to trip up Roberts. Roberts, a Northern man (he's from Indiana, which was a strong copperhead state in the Civil War, but let it pass) once chose the "Southern" name of the war.

Perish the thought. Never mind that Upton Sinclair, no neo-Confederate, used "War Between the States" in a book title. Some noted Civil War historians -- Ella Lonn comes to mind -- have switched back and forth between the two terms in their texts. Never mind, too, that the article Roberts was working on was not about the civil rights movement. It was about presidential powers and made but a passing reference to the Civil War.

The fact is, both terms are post-war constructions. During the war itself, in the North it was "the Rebellion" to everyone from Lincoln and Emerson down to the small-town newspaper editor. Sometimes an adjective was thrown in -- "damned" or "wicked" being the most popular. In the South, it was simply "the war."

Only after it ended, it seems, did writers begin to feel the need to name it. Southern writers had become firmly attached to "War Between the States" by 1868 (Pollard, in 1866, had used the awkward "War of the Confederates;" Gildersleeve improved this somewhat to "The Confederate War," but still it wasn't quite right).

In the North it was still The War of the Rebellion in the official records which were published beginning in 1880. But clearly this name did not appeal to the Southerners, with its echoes of Satan's rebellion and because it had been the tar brush with which the victors had sullied their cause during the fight.

The Civil War came about in part as a compromise, a generic term, with an implication of a family quarrel and a "civil" misunderstanding of historical issues both sides shared and revered. This term rose to popularity in the era of reconciliation, which also happened to be the era in which the Northern whites abandoned Reconstruction and the cause of the freed slaves almost entirely, and both sides bought into the "Lost Cause" version of the Southern rebellion.

Modern historians of liberal leaning have criticized the term "Civil War" entirely as the language of segregationist culture, "its muted violence an extension of the plantation utopia's romanticization of slavery" [Grace Elizabeth Hale, "Making Whiteness," 1998]

So it's possible to read Roberts' choice of words as a deliberate avoidance of an old segregationist terminology. I doubt it, but it's no less absurd than hinting that he's hiding a Klan hood behind his back.

From the beginning, critics noted that "civil war" is a generic term; there were many civil wars in history: England had one, Russia (later) had one. To arrogate the term exclusively to an American experience is rather thoughtless.

As late as 1897, Basil L. Gildersleeve, a Virginia classics professor who had fought in the Confederate cavalry, found the issue still unsettled. In A Southerner in the Peloponnesian War [The Atlantic monthly September 1897], he wrote:

"The names of wars, like the names of diseases, are generally put off on the party of the other part. We say 'French and Indian war' without troubling ourselves to ask what the French and Indians called it, but 'Northern war' and 'Southern war' were never popular designations. 'The war between the states,' which a good many Southerners prefer, is both bookish and inexact. 'Civil war' is an utter misnomer. It was used and is still used by courteous people, the same people who are careful to say 'Federal' and 'Confederate.' 'War of the rebellion,' which begs the very question at issue, has become the official designation of the struggle, but has found no acceptance with the vanquished. To this day no Southerner uses it except by way of quotation, as in Rebellion Record, and even in the North it was only by degrees that 'reb' replaced 'secesh.' ... 'The war of secession' is still used a good deal in foreign books, but it has no popular hold. 'The war,' without any further qualification, served the turn of Thucydides and Aristophanes for the Peloponnesian war. It will serve ours, let it be hoped, for some time to come."

His hope was misplaced. America's next "the war" was less than a year off, and "Civil War" was already out in front of all the rivals, cemented by the use of the term in the immensely popular "Battles and Leaders of the Civil War" series published 1884-87 in Century Magazine. That series itself is cited by historians as a key document in the burying of partisan hatchets and the achievement of national reconciliation between the white populations of North and South.

But many Southerners, alert to rhetorical bids to undermine the fact of their four-year independence, have resisted "Civil War" on the grounds that it is, as Gildersleeve said, "an utter misnomer." The general dictionary sense of civil war, "battles among fellow citizens or within a community," does not suit the notion that the South attained true independence in 1861 and established itself as a nation. Paradoxically, in resisting the reconciliation implied in "Civil War," they avoid a historical error. Even so rabid a Northern partisan as Thaddeus Stevens asserted the South had been an independent political entity during the war:

It is idle to deny that we treated [the Confederate States] as a belligerent, entitled to all the rights, and subject to all the liabilities of an alien enemy. We blockaded their ports, which is an undoubted belligerent right; the extent of coast blockaded marked the acknowledged extent of their territory-- a territory criminally acquired but de facto theirs. We acknowledged their sea-rovers as privateers, and not as pirates, by ordering their captive crews to be treated as prisoners of war. We acknowledged that a commission from the Confederate Government was sufficient to screen Semmes and his associates from the fate of lawless buccaneers. Who but an acknowledged government de jure or de facto, could have power to issue such a commission? The invaders of the loyal States were not treated as outlaws, but as soldiers of war, because they were commanded by officers holding commissions from that government. The Confederate States were for four years what they claimed to be, an alien enemy, in all their rights and liabilities. To say that they were States under the protection of that constitution which they were rendering, and within the Union which they were assaulting with bloody defeats, simply because they became belligerents through crime, is making theory overrule fact to an absurd degree.

And elsewhere:

The theory that the rebel States, for four years a separate power and without misrepresentation in Congress, were all the time here in the Union, is a good deal less ingenious and respectable than the metaphysics of Berkeley, which proved that neither the world nor any human being was in existence.

Certain states left the Union -- as states -- and formed themselves into a new nation. The Union that remained, composed of certain other states, disputed their right to do this, and ultimately forced them back into the fold. Hence, War Between the States.

A Northern counter-objection would be that this name cedes the point that states were the essential building blocks of the federal union, which was what the war was fought to decide -- that, too, is pointed out by Gildersleeve. Neither term is quite right.

The range of attitudes toward the Civil War in the modern Dixie is as broad as a Southern drawl. If Roberts was really going to be a fanatical Southern partisan, he'd have called it "The War of Southern Independence," which is probably the most accurate name of all, or he might have called it "The War of Northern Aggression," which is accurate, too.

Or he could have referred to it in the terms the genteel tour-guide lady in Savannah still uses: "The Late Unpleasantness."

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Our Favorite Game

Mary Madigan has a who said it? post, and it's a doozy. Go play!

War and Dissent

Tigerhawk continues a must-read series on the topic, taking as a starting point the little-remembered Philippine insurgency of a century ago, which turns out to be highly relevant to the current situation.


Even invented war orphans are doing the "chicken hawk meme."

"I don’t know how I could have been such an idiot," said the editor who got snookered. I do. You wanted to believe it. You wanted it to be true so badly. So you flicked off the bullshit detector.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Gulag Memoirs

"American Gulag"? You might want to think a little harder about that. A visual reminder:

So let me suggest a way of dealing with the inevitable agonizing over Gitmo and Abu Ghraib. Get hold of a video of Marina Goldovskaya's film about the genuine article, The Solovky Power: Evidence and Documents, and sit your friends down for an in-depth look at the real, original, death-through-labor Soviet archetype, where something far worse than the occasional mistreatment of Korans occurred. This distinguished film will enable everyone to get their historical bearings; moreover, it is a standing rebuke to those who would recklessly trivialize a name, and a system, that may have cost 2.7 million lives.


With the anniversary approaching, it would be nice if the Associated Press could get its act together in time to decide what style it prefers for the numerical abbreviation of "September 11." The AP's own stylebook since 2004 has clearly required the form 9/11. But, as in the body of this story, the writers and editors continue to use 9-11. The online headline writer got it right. But in the wire version I have on my computer, it's "9-11" in the headline, too. Personally, I prefer 9-11. But what I really want the AP to do is pick a style and stick the fuck with it. It would make my job just that much easier.

Did Not Know That

Somehow, I knew both ends of this story but never put two and two together. That is, I knew the British had offered freedom to American slaves who deserted into their lines during the American Revolution. It was considered an effective way to undercut the economic base of the rebels. And I knew that they got tens of thousands of them, and took them away to Canada, along with the Loyalists, at the end of the war when they evacuated the new United States.

And I knew that Sierra Leone had been founded by the British as a colony for former slaves. But I thought they were British slaves from the island colonies.

Turns out, according to Simon Schama, the two sets of ex-slaves are one and the same.

At least, I think that's what this article says. It's hard to entirely credit an article with a line like "at the end of the American war of independence in 1776." But then that's almost as bad as the New York Times Sunday Magazine recently describing Liberia, Sierra Leone's equally violent next-door neighbor, as a nation "(f)ounded by freed American slaves," which makes it seem like they did it all on their own initiative.

News for the Oracle

No doubt you'll be seeing this news story in your local newspaper. ... or not.

People with friends or relatives serving in Iraq are more likely than others to have a positive view of a generally unpopular war, an AP-Ipsos poll found.

Some of those surveyed said their relationships with troops helped them learn more about what's going on in Iraq beyond the violence. Others said their opinions of the war were shaped by a sense of loyalty to those in harm's way.

Emphasis added. I love that little trick. The "bias by omission." The head-in-the-sand insistence that those who report the news do not figure into public perceptions of what is happening in the world.

Nowhere in this article does the AP address the matter of the AP's coverage of Iraq. But if you read between the lines, the gap between what the mil families say and what everyone else says is largely due to the fact that the mil families have access to a picture of Iraq, and the U.S. mission there, that the rest of us lack.

Because the rest of us have to rely on the AP and its big media sisters. And all they show us is overwhelmingly violent and negative.

A solid majority of those who did not know anyone in Iraq said they thought the war was a mistake, 61 percent, compared to 36 percent who thought it was the right decision. Those who had a relative or friend there were almost evenly split, 49 percent right decision, 47 percent mistake.

After Ted Chittum of Bourbon, Ind., had a chance to talk at length with his cousin who served in Iraq, he said he got a different picture of what was going on in the country.

"He talked about all the good things that are going on," said Chittum, a school superintendent and a political independent who supports the war effort. "Schools are opening up. The people are friendly, wanting our help. You get a whole different spin from what you get on television."

Uh-huh. Those of us who visit Milbloggers from time to time are quite familiar with that story.

"From most of the information I get, the people over there fighting basically are proud to be there and feel they're doing something good," said Sally Dowling, a bank employee from Mesa, Ariz., who said her boss's son is serving in Iraq. "That brings it home more than if I didn't know anybody."

Yup. Oh, and that cassandra shriek about Americans turning into a pack of little fascists who want to stifle all dissent?

An overwhelming number of people say critics of the Iraq war should be free to voice their objections. Nearly three weeks after a grieving California mother named Cindy Sheehan started her anti-war protest near Bush's Texas ranch, nine of 10 people surveyed in the AP-Ipsos poll say it's OK for war opponents to share publicly their concerns about the conflict.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Road Food

Recently, driving west on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, we got off at Carlisle. I used to drive that way regularly, 20 years ago, and I wanted to show my wife my favorite truck stop diner, Fleming's. But it was gone, absorbed into some huge generic chain of truck stops. The new place was big, shiny, clean, new. But it wasn't Fleming's. Not by a long shot. Disneyworld is fine, but not when you were in the mood for South of the Border.

The experience made me realize I collect and cherish such places when I travel. In Atlanta, I've eaten at some very fine restaurant. But what I most look forward to, food-wise, when I pass through there is a breakfast at the Silver Skillet. This site begins to do proper honors to the place, which could be converted into a 1954 movie set with less than 5 minutes' worth of alterations and serves a biscuits-and-gravy side dish I sometimes dream about at night.

It has some essential qualities in common with the first such place I got to know and love, near where I grew up, the Llanerch Diner.

Road travel in America can be depressing. At every exit, the same Ruby Tuesday's, Denny's, and TGIFridays greet you. It's reassuring, in one sense, to know you can get the exact same meal, prepared the same way, at any of them. And at 2 a.m. when you just want coffee, that will do.

But sometimes you want to be somewhere real. The waitresses call you "hon." There's probably not a no-smoking section. There are at least three grievous misspellings on the menu, which also includes at least one artery-busting cholesterol bomb regional delicacy. Somewhere in the joint most of one wall or window is covered with sassy bumper stickers and rude cartoons. Real people eat there -- locals, truckers. There's not another one exactly like it at the next exit of the highway, or anywhere else on earth.

They don't live forever. I've lost a few over the years: Jamison's in West Chester, Dean's Diner in Ardmore, the Birmingham Grill.

Here's two more survivors from my short list.

Hungry Tarpon

The Hungry Tarpon, since 1947, just south of Islamorada at mile marker 77.5 in the Florida Keys, tucked under the bridge at the north end of Lower Matecumbe Key. (That's my son outside, when he was 11.) This is some of the finest eating that I've ever experienced and the price is terrific. Out back is Robbie's Marina, where you can stroll out on the dock and feed the real hungry tarpons in the Florida Bay. I recommend the classic Keys breakfast — grits and grunts. Fish for breakfast? You bet.


Richman's Ice Cream, Sharptown, N.J. On the back way down the Shore, between the rodeo (New Jersey rodeo? You bet) and the cranberry bogs. The art deco façade dates from 1947; the ice cream isn't made there any more, but the old ice cream shop is intact and whatever it is they serve is damned good.

What are yours?

30 Rules

30 Rules for Being a Lesbian is much more than that, of course. It's also partly social history...

12. In the olden days, it was believed there were only seven lesbians in the whole world, and the rest was done with mirrors. We know now there are MILLIONS of lesbians but only seven lesbian HAIRCUTS.

25. You will never spell women/wimmin/wymin in a manner that will be acceptable to ALL of them.

28. It can't be a sin. We are not even IN the Bible.

... and part advice column ...

Parents should be reminded, gently and often, that "I love you ANYWAY" is not a compliment.

... partly for anybody in any sort of a relationship ...

22. Serial monogamy is swell until you get tired of the same old serial every morning.

... and partly for anybody in the human race:

20. Being politically active and being politically correct are not the same thing.

26. Don't act normal, act normally.

Which is what makes it deserving of a wider audience.

Your New Potions Instructor

First-year econ is one of the most-taught undergraduate courses in the country. The current most-favored textbook for it was published in 1997 and, according to this article, it is due to be replaced. Whichever book claims that job will make tens of millions of dollars. Two prominent economists have written books that aspire to the mantle.

One of them is Paul Krugman. Yes, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman. That Paul Krugman. This Paul Krugman:

But the vitriol also reflects the fact that many of the people at the Republican National Convention, for all their flag-waving, hate America. They want a controlled, monolithic society; they fear and loathe our nation's freedom, diversity and complexity.


Can we break the machine that is imposing right-wing radicalism on the United States? The scariest part is that the media is part of that machine.


The fundamental fact of American politics - and I've sharpened my view on this since last year and the hardcover edition of the book - is that we've got an alliance between the religious right and the accumulators of great wealth. Those are the people who are running things.

The other author is Glenn Hubbard, dean of Columbia University's business school, a key architect of the controversial Bush administration tax cuts.

I told Hubbard that Krugman's publisher has shot promotional videos of a kinder, gentler Krugman discussing elementary economics with a civility far removed from his fire-breathing op-ed persona. Again, Hubbard chuckled: "Well, I only have one personality to offer the public."

Krugman's editor insists, "There is no political agenda in Paul's book. He uses his column for influence, but his textbook for education." He says its main purpose is to "reach a whole generation of students."

Ah, but think of the clout, the dark power, that would adhere to the political Krugman if he gets this jewel in his crown.

Reality Checks Don't Bounce

I looked back at the two soldiers who were with me outside, and screamed what amounted to "Attack Attack Attack!" I stood up and was yelling at them. Actually, what I shouted was an unprintable string of curses, while Kurilla was also yelling at them to get in there, his M4 trained on the entrance. But the guys were not attacking.

I saw Prosser's M4 on the ground, Where did that come from?

I picked up Prosser's M4. It was empty. I saw only Prosser's bloody leg lying still, just inside the darkened doorway, because most of his body was hidden behind a stack of sheet metal.

"Give me some ammo! Give me a magazine!" I yelled, and the young 2nd lieutenant handed over a full 30-round magazine. I jacked it in, released the bolt and hit the forward assist. I had only one magazine, so checked that the selector was on semi-automatic.

I ran back to the corner of the shop and looked at LTC Kurilla who was bleeding, and saw CSM Prosser's extremely bloody leg inside the shop, the rest of him was still obscured from view. I was going to run into the shop and shoot every man with a gun. And I was scared to death.

Two words: Michael. Yon.

Three bits of advice: Go, read, and for gods' sake, hit his tip jar.

As Ernie Pyle would have said, "This is your war."

Nut Graphs

Last night, while copy-editing our wire news pages before they were sent to press, I came across the Associated Press' latest nut graph on Cindy Sheehan.

[N.B.: Nut graph has nothing to do with sanity. It's the few sentences that sum up the background of an ongoing story, and which are printed somewhere down in the text of each new article in an evolving coverage. Sometimes a reporter just keeps it as a "save" file and pastes it into every story he or she writes on that topic.]

I know it's a nut graph, because it turns up again today:

Sheehan and other grieving families met with Bush about two months after her son died last year, before reports of faulty prewar intelligence surfaced and caused her to become a vocal opponent of the war.

It actually surprised me that AP would make the point that the woman whose news value is based on her demand to be talked to by the president has already been talked to by the president. It's true, of course, but it's an inconvenient fact, and I'm surprised AP didn't take the opportunity to overlook it. That's how sad it's gotten.

But the whole context of that graph looked wrong. I didn't have the facts at my fingertips, however, and we were on deadline, so I let it go. I meant to look it up further today. But I didn't have to look far. The right-wing site Powerline had got there first. The AP's graph is wrong on exactly the two points I suspected it was:

As anyone who has followed this story knows, this claim is utterly false. Sheehan has always been a "vocal opponent of the war;" her opposition had nothing to do with "reports of faulty prewar intelligence." By her own account, as we noted here, Sheehan was bitterly opposed to the war before her son Casey re-enlisted in August 2003:

I begged Casey not to go. I told him I would take him to Canada. I told him I would run over him with a car, anything to get him not to go to that immoral war. *** The U.N. weapon inspectors were saying there were no weapons of mass destruction. So I believed all along that this invasion was unnecessary and that there was some other agenda behind it besides keeping America safe.

So, far from having been turned into a "vocal opponent" some time after her son's death, Ms. Sheehan already considered the war "immoral" before he re-enlisted in 2003, and she never did believe the intelligence about WMDs.

Moreover, Brown's chronology makes little sense. The fact that substantial stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction had not been found in Iraq was well known long before Casey Sheehan's death in April 2004. The Senate Intelligence Committee's investigation into prewar intelligence on Iraq was commissioned in June 2003, which was not only before Casey's death, it preceded his re-enlistment. On October 3, 2003, David Kay's Iraq Survey Group released its initial report, which said that no WMDs had been found. So Angela Brown's assertion that Sheehan became a "vocal opponent" of the war only after her son died, as a result of revelations about "faulty prewar intelligence," seems intended to mislead readers by whitewashing the history of Sheehan's virulent anti-administration past.

Liberals and even centrists tend to jump all over Powerline when it reaches too far, or slips into some rhetorical excess. But this is why we need such sites. Someone has to watch the watchdogs. And so far, that's broken down into a partisan job. There are left-side media watchdogs and right-side ones. To do this on a day-to-day basis, you have to have some sort of pit bull mentality to grab onto the media's calf and not let go of it. But that sort of motivation doesn't well up from a moderate, truth-for-its-own-sake mentality.

So we'll see what happens if I'm given the page with the Sheehan story to read tonight. Do I speak up? Do I point out that the AP is wrong? Do I draw the surly stares of fellow copy editors and risk being smacked down as a right wing nutjob chickenhawk? Do I betray the fact that I am familiar with online sites that question Cindy Sheehan's motives and, worse, question the media's?

This is not an idle question. The matter of my continued employment here is not many steps removed from the matter of making sure the Associated Press story we run is accurate. The strange part is, that I have to worry about my job only if I do my job.

Carnival of the Etymologies

A regular Thursday feature of "Done With Mirrors."

Israel accomplished its self-inflicted ethnic cleansing with lightning speed and without loss of life. What was supposed to take six weeks in the end took less than three days.

Little blood spilled, but many tears. In an article originally published in French, Elie Wiesel counts the images of Israel's internal agony over the Gaza withdrawal. "Angry men, crying women. Children, led away on foot or in the arms of soldiers who are sobbing themselves."

The sense of betrayal was palpable. The same government that encouraged the settlers to pitch their homes there two generations ago turned around and evicted them. The images of Jewish families shuffling down the road, away from burning homes, with pitiful bundles in their hands, inevitably evoked other images, bearing dates like 1938, 1942.

The news reports described the few holdouts in Gaza rallying in synagogues, which got me thinking about this curious word -- in America so associated with Judaism, but not a Hebrew word at all.

Synagogue was in early Middle English, arriving via Church Latin synagoga from Greek synagoge. This was the word Greek translators of the Old Testament took as a loan-translation of late Hebrew keneseth "assembly."

[Greek words for "Christian house of assembly" were kyriake (oikia) "Lord's (house)," which passed into Germanic and became English church, and the more common ekklesia, from ekklesiastes "speaker in an assembly or church, preacher," source of the common Romance word; and basilike, from (stoa) basilike "royal (portal)," a pagan hold over in reference to the portico of the archon basileus, the official who dispensed justice in Athens.]

The Greek synagoge, too, literally meant "meeting, assembly." It's a compound from syn- "together" and agein "to bring, to lead."

Agein is the Greek form of the very productive Indo-European base *ag- "to drive, to draw, to move." The Greek word has cognates in Latin actus "a doing" (source of act) and agere "to do, to set in motion, to drive, to urge" (source of agile, exact, litigation and many other words). Outside Greek and Latin, relatives include Sanskrit ajati "drives," ajirah "moving, active;" Old Norse aka "to drive;" and Middle Irish ag "battle."

Among the Greek relatives of agein are the nouns agon "assembly, contest in the games," and agogos "leader." From the second comes demagogue, which as ancient Greek demagogos meant merely "leader of the people" but was a term of disparagement ever since it was first used in Athens in the 5th century B.C.E.

From the first comes agony "mental suffering" (which originally referred especially to that of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane), from Greek agonia "a (mental) struggle for victory," originally "a struggle for victory in the games," from agon "assembly for a contest." Agony's sense of "extreme bodily suffering" is not in the root sense of the word, and first emerged in English in Shakespeare's time.

Also from the Greek agein are strategy and pedagogue, the latter from Greek paidagogos "slave who escorted children to school and generally supervised them," later "a teacher." The hostile implications in the English word are at least from the time of Pepys.

Gas prices were among the most-searched terms in the Google "Zeitgeist" last week. Gas as short for gasoline is an American English peculiarity, first recorded 1905. British petrol in the same sense is older, recorded from 1895, but borrowed from French pétrol.

Gasoline itself is no older than 1865, coined as gasolene from the chemical suffix -ine/-ene and the old word gas.

Gas in the sense of "vapor, substance that is neither solid nor liquid" came to English in the 1650s from Dutch. The word was first used by the Flemmish chemist J.B. van Helmont (1577-1644), and what he was really writing was the Greek word khaos "empty space, gaping void, abyss" (the same word that became English chaos), but the sound of Dutch -g- is roughly equivalent to that of Greek -kh-.

Van Helmont probably was influenced in this by Paracelsus, who used khaos in an occult sense of "proper elements of spirits" or "ultra-rarified water," which was van Helmont's definition of gas. The modern scientific sense of the word began 1779, focused on "combustible mix of vapors" (1794, originally coal gas); "anesthetic" (1894, originally nitrous oxide); and "poison gas" (1900). The meaning "intestinal vapors" is attested from 1882.

Greek khaos gets closest to its original meaning in its sense of "abyss, that which is vast and empty." Writers commonly refer to a "gaping" or a "yawning" abyss, and that's the image at the root of the Greek word. Khaos is literally "that which gapes wide open." It's related to Greek khaino "I yawn," and to Old English ginian, the direct ancestor of modern yawn.

The main modern meaning "utter confusion" in English chaos is a 17th century extension of the theological use of Latin chaos for "the void at the beginning of creation" in the Vulgate version of Genesis. The Greek for "disorder" was tarakhe, however the use of chaos here was rooted in Hesiod ("Theogony"), who describes khaos as the primeval emptiness of the Universe, begetter of Erebus and Nyx ("Night"), and in Ovid ("Metamorphoses"), who opposes Khaos to Kosmos "the ordered Universe."

Dove ads was a dominant search engine term this past week, presumably in reference to the "Campaign for Real Beauty," which offers up images of attractive women who don't fit the physical profile of women who typically appear in beauty ads.

I'm writing this with particular care, because without seeking them out, I've been romantically involved with two, and I'm married to one, woman who is built like the typical woman in a beauty ad, and I think she's beautiful, and yes, in fact, that's how she looks.

Not everyone, of course, is happy with the ads.

Interesting, though that the English word dove originally was applied to all birds of the pigeon type, and only latterly has been restricted to the turtle dove. The word is Old English dufe- (found only in compounds), and is perhaps related to the words for "dive," in reference to the bird's flight.

It has been a symbol of gentleness (which probably is why the soap manufacturer chose it) since early Christian times; though the modern the political meaning "person who advocates peace" is first attested 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The unkillable Rolling Stones were back at the top of the search engines, too, no doubt because of the impending release of their new album, "A Bigger Bang," Sept. 5 and the Aug. 21 start of their concert latest tour, their 37,000th. The buzz about it no doubt picked up intensity when it transpired that they've written a new song which either is or is not political and either does or does not criticize President Bush, or America, or maybe Condi Rice. Or maybe not.

At any rate, the proverb "The rollyng stone neuer gatherth mosse" was one of the many collected by John Heywood and published in 1546 in "A dialogue conteinying the nomber in effect of all the proverbes in the Englishe tongue." It's presumably older than that, but how much older no one now can say.

But probably not older than c.1300, which is when roll first began to be used in English as a verb. Its original use was as a noun, meaning "rolled-up piece of parchment or paper," in which sense it comes to England from Old French rolle, which is from Medieval Latin rotulus "a roll of paper," from Latin rotula "small wheel," a diminutive formation from rota "wheel."

The noun stone, meanwhile, is as steady as a rock, right back through Old English stan, a word the Anglo-Saxons used in reference to common rocks, precious gems, concretions in the body, and memorial stones. The word is recognizable across most of the Germanic languages (cf. Old Norse steinn, Danish steen, Old High German and Modern German stein, Gothic stains).

The Proto-Indo-European root here is *stai- "stone," also "to thicken, stiffen," which yielded, among other words, Sanskrit styayate "curdles, becomes hard;" Avestan stay- "heap;" Greek stear "fat, tallow" and stia, stion "pebble;" and Old Church Slavonic stena "wall."

"A Bigger Bang" and the song "Sweet Neo-Con" were co-produced by Don Was and recorded in sessions in Paris and mixed in Los Angeles. No doubt the studio catering was posh.

By sheer coincidence, the same day the Stones were soaking in the Paris bling, Luke Stricklin sat down on a five-gallon water cooler in a bombed-out concrete building at a U.S. National Guard outpost in Baghdad. He, too, sang his song.

His buddies had set up the laptop with the recording software and hooked it up to a cheap microphone. One of them, J.R. Shultz, had helped Stricklin work out the chords to go with his words. As he sang, Stricklin strummed a beat-up guitar an Iraqi boy had found it for him at a Baghdad bazaar. Stricklin paid $25 for the thing, and gave the kid a $25 tip.

The lyrics had come to Strickin over weeks, during his tour of duty. He'd jot down a line or two in a green waterproof Army-issue notebook he was required to carry while on patrols.

When they finished recording, the guardsmen packed up and went back to work. Stricklin saved the computer file and e-mailed it home, with a note, "Mom, listen to this."

Bottom of my boots sure are gettin' worn
There's a lot of holes in this faded uniform
My hands are black with dirt and so is my face
I ain't never been to hell
But it couldn't be any worse than this place.

Mom listened, and broke down in tears. Her son, an Arkansas soldier, just 23, worked in an electric motor shop before he went to war. She had asked him again and again to tell her what it was really like over there. The song was his answer.

He sings about Baghdad. "The neighborhood smells like sewage and the streets are lined with trash." It's deadly dangerous, but Stricklin's thoughts are firmly on two things. The first is how good he and all of us have it in the United States, no matter what we think we have to complain about.

The other is the Iraqi people around him, who can't look forward to getting away from that hell after 12 months are up. One wonders if the boy who fetched the guitar for him isn't in there, too:

It breaks my heart to see these kids out on the streets
Walking barefoot through the trash, diggin' for something to eat.
I give them what I got, just to let them know I care
And I thank God it's not my son that's standing there.

The song needed a name. They called it "American by God's Amazing Grace." Stricklin's mother, Sheila Harrington, forwarded a copy to the Fort Smith radio station. They aired it once. Requests poured in for more. By the time Stricklin came home from Iraq in March, "American by God's Amazing Grace" was on country radio stations across the heartland.

Look at headlines now, and you'll see Bush and Sheehan. The president who doesn't plan ahead and won't look back, and the anti-war mother groomed by Michael Moore's slick handlers and apotheosized in the media's eye to "absolute moral authority."

Really don't care why Bush went in to Iraq
I know what I done there and I'm damn sure proud of that.

Luke Stricklin casts a cold eye on the war. And he knows what he's there to do. He's going to make life a little better for those folks, and then go home with head held up, but with lots to think about. He makes no claim to "moral authority." Which is part of the reason he genuinely has some of it.

There's a professional version of Stricklin's song now, recorded in a fancy studio. Good for him; the young man needs a career and Nashville sure beats the electric motor shop.

But it will be that raw Baghdad version that history will remember, long after "Sweet Neo-Con" is forgotten, and rank among the straightforward, but far from simple, songs found by men at war far from home. Along with "Lili Marlene" and "Mademoiselle from Armentiers," "Tenting Tonight" and "Shenandoah."


Tuesday, August 23, 2005

A Dose of Humor

There's been a few no-post days at the "Huffington's Post" parody "Huffington's Toast," and their Cindy Sheehan work was arguably not funny enough to justify the meanness. But when I read the account of Hunter S. Thompson's "funeral," Johnny Depp Fisted My Ash, I almost blurted Aquafina out both nostrils.

Here the ghost of Hunter encounters the shade of Nixon in a bar after the big event.

"What brings you to this freak show, anyway?” “I wouldn’t have missed it for the world,” he said, “I just wish I could have been there to gloat when you decorated the ceiling with your tonsils.” “You always were a vengeful bastard,” I noted. “Believe it, bunkie,” he sneered, “by the way, I emptied your cat’s litterbox into the third load of ashes.” “Well,” I said, “the insult is well understood, but it’s worth it if it gives Wenner hookworms.”


“Think of what that money could have been used for,” said Nixon, “Cancer research. Tsunami relief. Golf course architecture.” “A hefty donation to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws,” I added, helpfully, “Although they’d probably just misplace the check or spend it on Oreos.”

Just then we were interrupted by George McGovern, who was an honored guest at the event. “Dick! Hunter!”, he exclaimed, “It’s great to see both of you! Oh, dear. Does this mean I’m dead?” After the way the man let me down in ’72, I was hoping to see a replay of the boxing glove, but Nixon must have sensed it and not wanted to give me the satisfaction, because all he did was shake McGovern’s hand and ask whatever happened to Eagleton. “Died in the nuthouse, I assume,” said Nixon. “No,” said McGovern, “I believe he’s an academic.” Nixon snorted. “Same difference.”

* * *

Meanwhile, The Religious Policeman writes up an imaginary press conference announcing the (true) effort by Saudi Arabia to lure more tourists:

RP: So anyone can fly into Riyadh or Jeddah and just pick up a visa at the airport?

M: Men can, certainly, and married couples, as long as they can prove they're married, so they'll need to bring a Marriage Certificate, four copies translated into Arabic and certified by a lawyer. Not a Jewish lawyer, naturally. Women, on the other hand, will need to be sponsored by someone inside Saudi Arabia.

RP: But suppose they don't know anyone in the country?

M: Well, we can't help them there, can we? We're not a Dating Agency.

RP: And what about couples who aren't married, or gay couples?

M: Well as you know, we behead homosexuals, and stone adulterous or loose women to death, so it's probably best if we don't let them in in the first place, otherwise there'll be no end of paperwork.

He's also got a link to what you ladies will need to wear to those Red Sea beach resorts.

Worth a Read

Brendan O'Leary has an excellent, unhysterical analysis of the proposed Iraqi constitution.

Please Pray

To whatever gods acknowledge you, for this man.

The Commander of Deuce Four, LTC Erik Kurilla, was shot three times in combat yesterday in front of my eyes. Despite being seriously wounded, LTC Kurilla immediately rejoined the intense and close-quarter fight that ended in hand-to-hand combat. LTC Kurilla continued to direct his men until a medic gave him morphine and the men took him away.

If you've been following the war through Michael Yon's dispatches, you'll know what a great soldier-leader Erik Kurilla has been. If you're not following the war through Michael Yon's dispatches, you're not following the war at all.

Islam and Law

Both the Islamic world and the secular West live by the rule of law, but in the one case the law is evolved primarily from secular, rational traditions and in the other it is laid down by the hand of God and is one with the worship of God. [Samuel Huntington, surveying the world, finds that only the West and Hindu civilization separate religion and politics. "In Islam, God is Caesar; in China and Japan, Caesar is God; in Orthodoxy, God is Caesar's junior partner."]

Islam is a path through a defined space, with firm walls and open courses. In Islam, every act of life, from dressing to wife-beating, is an act of worship (or, if done wrongly, a fault in worship).

Some people instantly feel stifled there. Not all traditions fit all people. Huston Smith, the great religious scholar, writes a telling anecdote in an introduction to a book on Islam. Smith writes that he felt an instant affinity for the supple music of the Upanishads, but was repelled by the legalistic rigidity of Islam. Then he met another Western religious scholar who confessed he had no idea what the Hindu texts were talking about, "but when I read the Koran, I'm home."

" 'Umdat al-Salik wa 'Uddat al-Nasik" ("Reliance of the Traveller and Tools of the Worshipper"), is a classic manual of fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) based on the Shafi'i school of thought. As the English translator of my edition of "Reliance of the Traveller" writes:

"I had been a commercial fisherman in the North Pacific for seven seasons, and I remembered a book the captain used to keep in the wheelhouse near the charts, a book of bearings, with the precise compass directions between one point of land and another in Alaskan waters. This was the sort of work I hoped to produce in shari'a, a book that I could open up and find accurate, substantive ethical knowledge to apply in my life."

Muslim jurists count 500 Qu'ranic verses with legal content. Their proportion in the Qu'ran is even greater than that appears, because the rest of the Qu'ran often repeates itself, both thematically and verbatim, but the legal subject matter in it almost never does. And the average length of the legal verses is two or three times that of the average non-legal verses. Some have argued, and it would be difficult to refute them, that the Qu'ran contains "no less legal material than does the Torah."

Even in Mecca, Muhammad was organizing his followers into a community, a political and social unit. In Medina, he not only set up a "constitution" for governing the city, he served as an arbitration judge. "Law can never be deemed Islamic without being somehow anchored in these two sources (Qu'ran and Sunna)" [Wael B. Hallaq, A History of Islamic Legal Theories]. But taken altogether, the legalistic aspects of Islamic tradition fall short of a full code of laws. And they fail to take into account, obviously, anything that has gone on in the world since about 800 C.E.

In propounding his message, the Prophet plainly wished to break away from pre-Islamic values and institutions, but only insofar as he needed to establish once and for all the fundaments of the new religion. Having been pragmatic, he could not have done away with all the social practices and institutions that prevailed in his time. [Hallaq]

That leaves Islam in the worst possible situation, commitment to religious law, but with an incomplete and badly dated system of law. A tendency toward legal structure without a finished form. That leaves it vulnerable, eternally, to determined minds that would install their own dark, bloody, reactionary, anti-humanist desires into the word of God.

Sometimes it takes an outsider to see things plain. Like Robert G. Ingersoll, the great 19th century agnostic. What he said of Protestant Christianity might as well apply to Islam:

The Catholics have a Pope. Protestants laugh at them, and yet the Pope is capable of intellectual advancement. In addition to this, the Pope is mortal, and the church cannot be afflicted with the same idiot forever. The Protestants have a book for their Pope. The book cannot advance. Year after year, and century after century, the book remains as ignorant as ever.

There are other ways to interpret Islam. Brilliant minds and brave hearts in the Islamic world have advanced them from time to time. But they never seem to make much headway. Even in the modern-day "crisis" of Islamic thought, the bid to give reason a place alongside revelation must be rooted in God, not man. When humanistic and positivist tendencies collide with the imperatives of revelation, in the Muslim world, revelation wins. Even among those who reject the medievalism of the old ways as irrelevant to the modern age. "Except for a minority of secularists, the great majority of modern Muslim thinkers and intellectuals insist upon the need to maintain the connection between law and the divine command." [Hallaq]

This gives Islamic reformers a long, steep path to climb. For instance, Ali Abd al-Raziq (1925) argued that there was no Islamic authority for the caliphate and that Islam has no political component. It was a radical argument yet forcefully made and in the finest Islamic scholarly style. It had some influence among secularizing Muslims in the middle of the last century, before the Islamist Revival swept it off the board.

Yet even if al-Raziq is accepted, the societal rules of the Qu'ran and Sunna -- with regard to women, say, or to religious minorities -- remain binding on individual Muslims.

In Iran a generation later, Mohammed Mosaddeq seems to have held the view (per Roy Mottahedeh) that Shi'a jurisprudence allowed a central role for common sense and for parliaments to pick and choose from Islamic law such dogmas as were appropriate to the modern situation at hand. With that approach, if the CIA and the British oil interests and the shah had not got to him first, he undoubtedly would have faced a challenge sooner or later from the ayatollahs.

The daunting difficulty of breaking through that impasse, I think, is why many Muslims reject rationalism and modernity as Western corruptions, and seek a "puritan" Islam. And since Islam was born in a time of war to the death against unbelievers, only a few small steps stand between fundamentalist Islam to jetliners plowed into skyscrapers.

Thoughtful Muslim reformers in the past century have tried to navigate a path between secularism and Shari'a. If the choice offered to the Islamic people must be between Shari'a and Western secularism, however, Shari'a always will win, as it is the Islamic alternative, bound up in that people's sense of religious duty and resentment of the West. And the Islamists know this, and in their Anti-Western and anti-modern extremism, they prevent a third way. By keeping the Shari'a immutable, by making it heresy to attempt to alter a word of it, the fundamentalists keep control of the political flow.

Their goal is not merely to hold political power. That is their means to the end they seek. It is not to make laws. It is to enforce laws laid down in the mid-Seventh Century C.E., by the word of God.

This, too, is why I think it matters less to the Shi'ites than the Sunnis whether Iraq is officially denominated an "Islamic republic." The Sunnis may have their eyes on the caliphate. But whatever the laws of the nation, the Shi'ites will be bound to the set of rules and behaviors laid down by the various ayatollahs. Every one who is a shi'ite must look to one or the other of these sources of inspiration as his religious guide. And each of the ayatollahs spends a great deal of time and effort teaching his followers how to live, what to do, what to avoid.

Al Sistani, for instance, even has an English language Web site listing his prescriptions.

Islam divides things into pak (pure) and najis (unclean). Al Sistani lists "ten things are essentially najis." They include blood, shit, piss, dead bodies, pigs, dogs -- and infidels (kafir). Even the tears of an infidel, if he eats pork, are unclean.

Islamic theologians debate who exactly is a kafir, and especially whether the term applies to Christians and Jews. Sistani has a fairly humane interpretation of Islam. He believes Christians and Jews may be pak, not najis. Then again, they may not be. Because of the uncertainty, he advises, "it is better to avoid them." According to

An infidel i.e. a person who does not believe in Allah and His Oneness, is najis. ... As regards the people of the Book (i.e. the Jews and the Christians) who do not accept the Prophethood of Prophet Muhammad bin Abdullah (Peace be upon him and his progeny), they are commonly considered najis, but it is not improbable that they are Pak. However, it is better to avoid them.

The entire body of a Kafir, including his hair and nails, and all liquid substances of his body, are najis.

If the parents, paternal grandmother and paternal grandfather of a minor child are all kafir, that child is najis, except when he is intelligent enough, and professes Islam. When, even one person from his parents or grandparents is a Muslim, the child is Pak.

If a Pak thing touches a najis thing and if either or both of them are so wet that the wetness of one reaches the other, the Pak thing will become najis.

As a polytheist, I'm clearly najis. Could I be treated in a hospital if I fell sick in a land where this division of pure and impure was believed? Could I be permitted to use a public toilet? As I read Sistani's interpretation, if I shake hands with a Muslim, who is sweating, he becomes najis by his contact with me. And if he dries his hand on a towel, that towel, too, becomes najis. But if another Muslim with wet hands uses the towel, the najis is not communicated to him.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Finnish Line

Robert G. Kaiser gets thinky in Helsinki and finds much to admire in Finland.

Finland looks even more like the successful alternative-America than does Canada. Canada has been unfairly dragooned into that job by people too uncreative to study any nation they can't get to by car, or people in such haste to beat up on the U.S. that they grabbed the first country that wandered in off the street.

Finns have one of the world's most generous systems of state-funded educational, medical and welfare services, from pregnancy to the end of life. They pay nothing for education at any level, including medical school or law school. Their medical care, which contributes to an infant mortality rate that is half of ours and a life expectancy greater than ours, costs relatively little. (Finns devote 7 percent of gross domestic product to health care; we spend 15 percent.) Finnish senior citizens are well cared for. Unemployment benefits are good and last, in one form or another, indefinitely.

Nice! As it turns out, though, such systems tend to evolve, and work best, in a certain kind of country. That country tends to look like Finland: populated by people who are very much the same, with similar cultures, backgrounds, and assumptions about things.

But the United States could not simply turn itself into another Finland. Too much of Finnish reality depends on uniquely Finnish circumstances. Finland is as big as two Missouris, but with just 5.2 million residents -- fewer than metropolitan Washington. It is ethnically and religiously homogeneous. A strong Lutheran work ethic, combined with a powerful sense of probity, dominates the society. Homogeneity has led to consensus: Every significant Finnish political party supports the welfare state and, broadly speaking, the high taxation that makes it possible. And Finns have extraordinary confidence in their political class and public officials. Corruption is extremely rare.

... I found Finnish society beguiling on many levels, but in the end concluded that it could not serve as a blueprint for the United States. National differences matter. The Finns are special and so are we. Ours is a society driven by money, blessed by huge private philanthropy, cursed by endemic corruption and saddled with deep mistrust of government and other public institutions. Finns have none of those attributes.

Nor do they tune in to American individualism. Groupthink seems to be fine with most Finns; conformity is the norm, risk-taking is avoided -- a problem now, when entrepreneurs are so needed. I was bothered by a sense of entitlement among many Finns, especially younger people.

Diversity is good. We might as well keep saying that, because as Americans we are and always have been stuck with diversity, whether we wanted it or not. At the most basic level, we all are here because we or our ancestors chose to get away from someplace else. But beyond that, you can't find much else that unites us. And even that's not true with regard to many African-Americans.

How curious, though, if the one modern liberal shibboleth of "diversity" was the snare that tripped up the other one, the benevolent welfare state. And what does the loss of homogeneity bode for nations like Sweden and the Netherlands, where the welfare system seems like a vulnerable organ where the cancers of aggressive and unassimilated minority ideologues fester?

My questions, not Kaiser's. He does think we could learn certain things from the Finns. Among them, chief among them, is formulas for fixing the American school system. Any help there would be greatly appreciated. Another is the confidence that we can tackle big social problems and change the course of national drift. I thought that used to be part of what Americans thought about themselves.


If you want to use Fred "God Hates Fags" Phelps as an example of Christian extremism, the natural and logical evolution of Dobson and his sort, you might want to re-think that. This blogger did some research and discovered Phelps may have a few roots still in the old faith, but he's really working on something entirely different.

I had always just assumed that Phelps represented the furthest outreach of extremism on the subject of homosexuality and its relation to traditional Christianity. But today, doing some reading, I discovered that there's nothing remotely "traditional" about Westboro Baptist.

In fact, it appears that Westboro has created not just an incredibly vulgar and non-Christlike approach to homosexuality, but that it's working on a new religion altogether, complete with new scriptures.

Members of WBC generally avoid the name "Christian" when referring to themselves, preferring the mysterious term "Tachmonite." This apparently refers to a servant of King David's, but I'm not sure of the derivation or the intention.

I'm sure there's not a decent Christian out there, liberal or conservative, who's not relieved to know this. As for the rest of us, rant against fundamentalism if you like, but for accuracy's sake, better to leave Phelps out of it.

[Hat tip, Eve-Tushnet]

Friday, August 19, 2005

Watch What You Say

On these campuses, as reported by Foundation for Individual Rights in Education:

  • Brown University restricted "verbal behavior" that creates "feelings of impotence, anger, or disenfranchisement," whether "intentional or unintentional."
  • Colby College banned speech that causes "a vague sense of danger" or a loss of "self-esteem."
  • The University of Connecticut barred "inconsiderate jokes," "stereotyping" and "inappropriately directed laughter."
  • The University of Buffalo Law School told students their right to free speech is limited by "the responsibility to promote equality and justice."
  • Syracuse University forbid "offensive remarks ... sexually suggestive staring ... (and) sexual, sexist, or heterosexist remarks or jokes."
  • West Virginia University advised students and faculty to "use language that is not gender specific" and that "instead of referring to anyone's romantic partner as 'girlfriend' or 'boyfriend,' use positive generic terms such as 'friend,' 'lover,' or 'partner.'"
  • The University of North Dakota broadly defined as harassment anything that intentionally produces "psychological discomfort, embarrassment, or ridicule."

Another One

I wasn't even looking for this one. But it's difficult to read very much anti-war rhetoric from before the Iraq invasion without discovering how many people who opposed the war did so assuming that Saddam had WMD. The level of belief in that seems to have been as widespread among the anti-war crowd as among the pro-invasion voices. I can't blame them for believing it; I did, too. But I note the number of such folk who now insist only a neo-con or a Republican myrmidion could have fallen for the "lies" about WMD. And also to note that if you thought the other side had such destructive power, and still opposed eliminating him, that position ought to be better explained than it has been.

Here's one. A mostly honest and reasonable opposition to going to war. Down in the text is this:

Does Saddam still possess chemical or biological weapons? Weapons inspections to date have been inconclusive. Since Saddam possessed them in the past, in the absence of evidence that he has destroyed them, I would assume that he still has them. Saddam also denied he had chemical and biological weapons in the early 1990s, after the Gulf War, until U.N. inspectors turned up conclusive evidence refuting those claims. His willingness to endure a decade of sanctions suggests there is something there worth hiding. Does that make the case for the U.S. starting a war? Not necessarily. Chemical and biological weapons are nasty things, but so are Napalm, cluster bombs and all other weapons. War is Hell. In war really horrible things happen to combatants and non-combatants alike, using all manner of weapons. Which is why the real crime is starting a war, not possessing a particular kind of weapon.

Absolute Moral Authority

Well, since she's been annointed with Absolute Moral Authority®, let's see exactly what that entails.

MATTHEWS: Can I ask you a tough question? A very tough question.


MATTHEWS: All right. If your son had been killed in Afghanistan, would you have a different feeling?

SHEEHAN: I don’t think so, Chris, because I believe that Afghanistan is almost the same thing. We’re fighting terrorism. Or terrorists, we’re saying. But they’re not contained in a country. This is an ideology and not an enemy. And we know that Iraq, Iraq had no terrorism. They were no threat to the United States of America.

MATTHEWS: But Afghanistan was harboring, the Taliban was harboring al-Qaida which is the group that attacked us on 9/11.

SHEEHAN: Well then we should have gone after al-Qaida and maybe not after the country of Afghanistan.

MATTHEWS: But that’s where they were being harbored. That’s where they were headquartered. Shouldn’t we go after their headquarters? Doesn’t that make sense?

SHEEHAN: Well, but there were a lot of innocent people killed in that invasion, too. … But I’m seeing that we’re sending our ground troops in to invade countries where the entire country wasn’t the problem. Especially Iraq. Iraq was no problem. And why do we send in invading armies to march into Afghanistan when we’re looking for a select group of people in that country?

So I believe that our troops should be brought home out of both places where we’re obviously not having any success in Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden is still on the loose and that’s who they told us was responsible for 9/11.

OK. But I thought most American liberal/progressives did not oppose the Afghanistan invasion. I was told it was broadly supported on the moderate left. So will they only follow Absolute Moral Authority® halfway up the mountain?

According to Absolute Moral Authority®, you fight your specific, exact, enumerated, identified enemies, as individuals. You do not bother about the people whose countries those enemies already have taken into possession.

Apply that one back into history. France, under German occupation, was still our friend France, the nation of Lafayette and de Tocqueville, the land that gave us the Statue of Liberty. Germany was our enemy -- or, specifically, the Nazis, "a select group of people in that country." France "wasn’t the problem."

How did we handle that in the Good War? We bombed them, then we invaded them. Sometimes it's easy to forget how much the French suffered through the air raids of the Allies -- their allies. Almost from the moment the British evacuated Dunkirk they began attacking French infrastructure and factories to cripple the German war effort. As the D-Day invasion approached, the British and Americans concentrated their air raids on transportation lines. All through it, stray bombs killed French families and even ones that hit their targets killed French workers.

Consider the air raids in just one region of the country, the lower Loire basin. The port city of Saint-Nazaire, with its Kriegsmarine sub base, was an obvious target. Saint-Nazaire also was home to the Penhoët and Loire shipyards, a foundry, and the Donges oil refinery. The civilian populace was virtually unprotected, and there were no real air raid shelters.

In February 1942 British planes bombed the port, killing 18, injuring 42. The city was attacked repeatedly in November 1942 and February 1943. A raid on November 9 killed 186 people; that of November 16-17 killed another 78. Raids on February 16 and 28 killed 27 and 17 respectively. The attack of February 28 is said to have left 12,000 homeless.

By 1943 the Allied air forces had started in on the industrial suburbs of Nantes, up the river from Saint-Nazaire. A raid on March 23 damaged the Batignolles locomotive works, killing workers, and on July 4 the SNCASO and Heinkel airplane works at Château Bougon were hit with heavy casualties.

The worst Nantes raids came on September 16 and 23, 1943. The September 16 raid passed over at 4 p.m. Some 160 aircraft dropped 1,000 bombs on the city and its suburbs, about three-fourths of which missed their dock targets. The earlier raids on the city not only had been smaller, they had been more accurate, so the citizens had gotten accustomed to them. Further, there had been many false alarms in the preceding weeks, so on September 16 few people took shelter till it was too late.

As a result, the raid left 812 civilians dead and 1,785 injured. Among other buildings it destroyed the city Maison du Prisonnier, headquarters of an organization to support wives and families of French POWs, killing 15 staff and visitors. Sgt. Louis Nouais, priest-prisoner at a POW camp in Germany, wrote "I had to inform several comrades of the deaths of a wife or child, sometimes several loved ones. Mass was celebrated on 30 October for the victims of the disaster."

The first September 23 raid struck at 9 a.m., when 60 British planes dropped 500 bombs. The casualties included 45 civilians dead and 110 hurt. At 7 p.m. the bombers returned. This time 150 American planes unloaded 650 bombs from high altitude. Many hit shopping and residential areas, and another 150 French were killed and 200 more injured. The Église de la Sainte-Croix burned. Clergy and nuns who sheltered from the destruction in a cellar emerged to "a scene from the Apocalypse."

All in all, the two raids on Nantes a week apart left 1,300 dead, 20,000 homeless, and sent 100,000 people fleeing into the countryside. The Nazi war machine suffered, but German casualties amounted to only 40 soldiers and railwaymen. Raids on Nantes continued after D-Day. A June 15, 1944, air attack seriously damaged the cathedral and killed an archpriest.

On February 14, 15, and 18, 1944, the raids moved further inland, and the railway station of Tours and Saint-Pierre-des-Corps and the CIMT railway workshop were bombed. Regular raids on Tours airfield and a local aircraft motor factory continued through 1944. One killed 18 civilians and a "delayed action" bomb added 11 more to the mortality list a few days later. A May 20 raid to destroy a railway bridge killed 143 citizens and damaged the cathedral. The French civilians began to suspect the British were bombing every place Joan of Arc was known to have stayed.

Angers suffered its first attacks May 28-29, 1944. Bombs aimed at the railway station hit the church of St. Laud nearby and killed many who had taken refuge there. Bombs also destroyed the bishop's palace. In all, the raid killed 230 Angevins.

And at the end of it all, France was liberated -- sorry, "liberated." What would Absolute Moral Authority® say to that? "There were a lot of innocent people killed. France wasn't the problem. I believe that our troops should be brought home out of places where we’re obviously not having any success, like France. Hitler is still on the loose and that’s who they told us was responsible for World War II."


Thursday, August 18, 2005

Promoting Democracy

You probably missed this news story. It flew pretty low below the radar in this season of crashingly important events like a grieving mother and a pack of activists camped outside the president's ranch.

And on the surface of it, there's not much but curiosity value in a tale of POWs released decades after the end of a forgotten war in a dusty corner of Africa.

More than 400 Moroccan prisoners-of-war released by the Polisario rebels of Western Sahara arrived home, some of them stepping foot on their native soil for the first time in more than 20 years.

Who keeps prisoners so long? What's the point? What's the prison cook going to do for a living now?

And why now? That's the question that makes this interesting.

They were freed as a result of an international effort spearheaded by U.S. Senator Richard Lugar, who accompanied the men to Morocco and said in a written statement that Washington "has long viewed the release of these prisoners as an important humanitarian goal and a constructive step for peace and stability in North Africa."

Speaking later in Agadir, Lugar urged Morocco and Algeria to "seize on the opportunity presented by the release of all the remaining prisoners to create regional climate conducive to a settlement of the Western Sahara issue.

"I would also hope that the successful resolution of this humanitarian issue would inspire renewed efforts by the parties to work for a political solution, within the framework of the United Nations," he said.

Ah, well. Typical hegemonistic boilerplate, you say.

The Polisario fought a war with Morocco in the 1970s and '80s over a strip of desert, a former Spanish colony. The rebels declared a Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic and fought as guerrillas. At the start, this was a Cold War affair, with Morocco one of America's chief allies in the region and the Polisario backed by Soviet-aligned Algeria.

So why is America so interested in pushing for peace there now? Well, if you've read your Zinn and Chomsky, you know to look for the natural resources. Sure enough, the Western Sahara, which can boast of little else, is rich in phosphates. And there may be oil off the coast. Hear that sound? The wind in the sand dunes seem to be whispering "Halliburton."

But wait. Morocco still is one of our chief and most reliable allies in the region. And Morocco right now is firmly in charge of Western Sahara, de facto. So why don't we just do the usual imperialist thing and stick with the strong horse, in defiance of international legitimacy, and get what we want out of it?

What's more, why is my own U.S. Representative, Joe Pitts, a rock-ribbed Vietnam vet conservative Christian Republican, involved in this? And why is he taking a Clintonesque line?

“By releasing these prisoners, the Sahrawis have taken away one more excuse Morocco has used to block a free, fair and transparent referendum on the future of Western Sahara. ... Morocco is a strong ally, but they are illegally occupying this land, a nation that belongs to a peaceful democratic people.”

It seems the Sahrawis have established, in exile, a democratic system. And it seems the United States, the Bush Admimistration, and a Republican Congressman with whom I frequently and vehemently disagree, are promoting the democratic, moderate, but disempowered Arab-Muslim people's movement against our own best friend in the district. Tactfully, but firmly. Working within the United Nations. Working with countries like Algeria.

Good heavens, could it be the Americans really mean all this jaw-jaw about promoting democract in the world?

Oh, it's still possible to find a thread of self-interest in it. You can do that in any decision a world power makes. Pitts told us he believes the U.S. response to the Sahrawis’ struggle will be seen across the region as a measure of America's commitment to defending the hopes and aspirations of moderate Muslim-Arab cultures. I hope he's right. Because as far as I can judge there's no other way to explain it.


On Both Sides

Odd sort of sign carried by Cindy Sheehan supporters and addressed to "Mrs. Bush." It reads, in part, "We cannot abide the continued loss of precious lives on both sides in Iraq."

On both sides?

"Today there were two car bombs explosions in one bus station. I mean who could be there except poor people who can’t afford to travel by taxis, buses drivers, or tea sellers."

Stop the war, Mr. Bush. Preserve the precious lives of Islamist jihadi suicide bombers and Ba'athist torture prison guards.


How to Write

The established poet and writer Kay Ryan goes to a writers conference for the first time and leaves a beautiful little account of the dizziness of all these creative types talking in lit-crit slang about the business of being creative.

The deep pleasure of the piece is Ryan's prose. I'd forgotten what reading good poets' prose could be like. After months of plowing through politics and polemics and history, it's like icewater in the desert.

Because this is only Wednesday, registration day, most of the tables in the big hall are still empty, but there are signs announcing the names of the presses and journals that will be occupying them. There are venerable names and new ones. Some of these journals I’ve had dealings with for decades. Slow dealings, sending off poems in the mail, waiting for a reply. By the time I’d get my poems back (usually all of them) they would look new to me. I could see them in a new way, maybe like children getting off the bus from their first day of school. They’d been somewhere where they had to fend for themselves. You could get a new respect for them, and also you could think to yourself, How could I have sent them off looking like that?

She signs up for a string of seminars. Some of the presenters mumble and drone, and the whole thing makes her think of Monty Python. One of them is titled "Transgressive and Post-Confessional Narrative in Contemporary American Poetry."

The word transgressive is thick upon the ground here at AWP. I could also have attended panels titled, “Transgression and Convention: Writing the Erotic Poem” and “Impure Poetry: The Poetics of the Transgressive, Taboo, and Impolite.” It’s funny how writers will all want to jump on the same bed till the springs pop out. Then they go jump on another one. Transgressive apparently now means sex. Didn’t there used to be other transgressions? Will there be others again? How about, transgression against obsessive self-regard? That would be a good one: “Hello. I’m Jen and I keep having impersonal thoughts.”

Then post-confessional. What could this mean? Is post confession what comes after confession? Perhaps contrition? Or Hail Marys? Or dedication to good works? Or does post-confessional mean Confessional like Sexton or Lowell, but ironic and self-conscious now—saying, I am confessing, I see myself confessing, but I know no one can really confess?

In the event, transgressive and post-confessional narrative turned out to mean loosely-plotted tales of sex and attitude, read really fast and/or at high volume, which left me feeling amused and pleasantly avuncular, grateful to not be listening to a mumble panel.

At the end, like a fireworks finale, two "famous" poets read. But the fireworks fizzle.

W.S. Merwin reads second. Not a fortunate match. We are assured that he has won every prize winnable, but here today it is hard to see why. The poems drift across the acres of convention space as vague and shapeless as clouds; I keep feeling like maybe I’m taking mini-naps and missing the pieces that connect things up.

Yup. I've seen Merwin recommended so often I tried to discover him, on more than one occasion. It read like dull prose with line breaks.

And on the way home she encouters a fellow conference-goer who recognizes her and calls her an inspiration. Ryan is mortified.

What in the world was this lovely, unfledged creature doing teaching a creative writing course? And what in the world was my essay doing encouraging these ever expanding fuzzy rings of literary mediocrity, deepening the dismal soup of helpful, supportive writing environments? Shouldn’t I have been up on my back legs at least as much as Simone Weil would have been? Simone Weil, you will recall, abominated all mediocrity and would have recommended vaporizing all of its creators but for the fact that the mediocre grows in the same soil as the great and therefore kill one, kill the other. Simone Weil would have starved herself to death before she would have gone to AWP.


To a lot of anti-war foolishness found here.

The pith of the Cindy Sheehan story is the mother-and-son moment that occurred when this anti-war mom saw her son join the military. That kind of decision is never comprehensible to some people. When some of my co-workers think of red states or military families, they start talking about "Deliverance."

My background is closer to that of my co-workers than it is to military families. Since World War II, we haven't been a military family. My father's stint in the army in the '50s was the last of it. But 20 years studying and writing about the American Civil War on a very intimate local level forced me to patiently open my mind to a way of life I never experienced.

If some of my co-workers really want to start to get a clue, this post about Luke Strickin's plaintive song is an open-door invitation:

After recovering from my initial shock, I began to wonder if Karl Rove had written that song. (You can listen to some of it here.) How could an actual Guardsman from Arksanas, just 23 years old, who suffered through twelve months in Iraq, feel that way about the war? Of course, I feel that way about the war. But it isn't my life on the line. I haven't had to test my ideology against the actual experience of democracy promotion.

I seriously did wonder if the song was some sort of hoax. But for what it's worth, the Associated Press did a story on Luke Stricklin, so I'm going to assume that he really is the real thing. It turns out that Stricklin first recorded the song in Iraq using a $25 guitar that an Iraqi boy found for him at a street market. With the help of laptop and microphone, he went to work. Once again, it's a story almost impossible to believe.

This is the definition of a noble cause. This is the answer to Cindy Sheehan's question. Luke Stricklin doesn't have a team of speechwriters or a degree in international relations. Nor does he describe America as threatened, like Trace Adkins does. He is simply proud of what he and his country have been able to do on behalf of others.

In contrast to Bush, Stricklin openly acknowledges that there are serious questions to be asked about why the United States invaded Iraq. But now our mission is clear. (See boldface above. Emphasis added.) Surely it is noble to defend one's homeland from foreign attack. But how much more noble is it to risk one's life in order to protect a nation of strangers from deprivation and terrorism?