Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Iraq: Sorting It Out

Neo-Neocon ponders the prospects for civil war in Iraq. Meanwhile, Gateway Pundit points to Iraqi unity protests, but some of these are taking place outside the country, among expatriates, and the biggest ones in Iraq are deep in the Shi'ite heartland.

As I do on many occasions, Neo turns to Iraq the Model for insights. ITM is a site that believes in a free and democratic Iraq. It thus is not inclined to wallow in bad news, but it will tell you when things get really bad. Along with some other English-language Iraqi bloggers, it was alarmed after the mosque attack, then its writing indicated the situation had calmed down again.

But today was another bad day in the country, and some of the other bloggers I read regularly, such as Zeyad, who had been seeing a return to normal earlier this week, are writing again of violence and chaos and sectarian tensions on the boil.

One of the most dismal assessments comes from "Hammorabi." The situation he describes matches what I think I have been reading in the more detailed news accounts: The Shi'ite religious leadership has been hte principal calming force in the nation during this crisis, and outside (non-Iraqi) Wahhabist fundamentalist terrorists have been the chief de-stabilizing force:

In 2003 and after the regime fall we thought that the country is going to be a model for democracy and freedom for the Middle East however after more than 3 years Iraq is now burning and heading for a sectarian war.

We know that the Wahabi group of Al-Zarqawi threatened to create a civil war but not enough have been made to prevent and stop these groups which are funded and supported by the Arab Gulf states.

For the last few days hundred of Shiite families were expelled from their homes by Sunni pro-wahabi militia in Tarmyiah and Aboghareb which is extended into many areas today. Some of these families have been located in schools or with relatives in very in-humane situations and cold weather.

By the minutes we are writing this, tens of Shiite families in Al-nahrawan area calling the government to rescue them as they are surrounded by Sunni Wahabi terrorists and threatned to kill them. This is going on now until this moment.

Attacks against Shiite mosques continued including rocket attacks against the shrine of Imam Kadhem in Baghdad few hours ago. Earlier today a car bomb exploded near Shiite mosque and open market killed 30 and wounded 45.

Hundred of people were killed and wounded today in many car bombs in Baghdad. Many of them were children burned to death after the car bombs.

The security border forces arrested one Saudi terrorist near Mothana province after crossing the border from Saudi Arabia to support the Wahabi terrorist in Iraq.

Al-Arabiyah TV 3 days ago showed an interview with Kuwaiti wahabist long beard and Saudi red headed uniform who stated that his group alone recruited and sent [nine] thousand from Arab states for Iraq and he will send more as well as financing them. The broadcaster asked him if he is afraid from his declaration and he said not! He was speaking from Kuwait!!

Without the positive interference of Ali Sistani to call for restrain it would have been a civil war long time ago.

Now, at this point it would be possible to digress into the question of what exactly constitutes a civil war. And that would absorb a lot of energy among people who really can't think of anything better to do at this point. No doubt such a fight will happen online. I'm more interested in what's happening in Iraq, whatever name you give the situation.

Ali has some remarkable observations:

What I find most insulting in this attitude from religious and political leaders is that after provoking violence and increasing fear and distrust among their own communities towards the others, they suddenly, and when it's in their interest, start to ask people to calm down! But the people were calm in the 1st place until they told them to rise to defend the sect. Moreover when the people rose they didn't carry RPGs and machineguns and started shooting at each other. It was the militias and gangs on both sides that did that while the people merely went in angry demonstrations upon calls from their leaderships.

Yesterday two districts in Baghdad were subject to random mortar attacks, one mostly Sunni (Al Doura) and one mostly She'at (Sadr city). I'm not aware of any Iraqi outside those gangs and militias who keep mortars in their homes. This happened while clowns from both the Sadr trend and the Association of Sunni Scholars were signing an honor agreement that prohibits Iraqis from fighting each other. But why am I surprised! They are actually prohibiting Iraqis, average people, from killing each other but they are not prohibiting their own militias from killing Iraqis!

Why are they faking this and what do they want from it? I'm not sure, but one thought is that this behavior is typical of all ME dictators. They start the killing and the chaos and then they blame it on the people. They show themselves in public as the peacemakers and then continue to pursue their crimes in the dark. These are not ideological fighters. They're opportunists and hypocrites who seek the help of criminals and thugs and still present themselves as religious and patriotic people, mimicking dictators to a great extent. Religious fanatics are no better than them but at least they are honest about who they are and they remain most of the time faithful to their sick beliefs. This is not a theory or a guess, as I know many Sadirists and many Sunnis who sympathize with the Sunni Scholars, and Sadirists are mostly thugs and looters while Sunni 'fanatics' are just ex-Ba'athists and mercenaries.

So I don't expect peace to take place anytime soon and I still think it's even better this way, as I would never want the peace of the Sadirists and their like just like I never wanted the peace of Saddam. We wanted the war at Saddam's times knowing fully what it means because it was the only way, and I want war now.

Wide scale civil war is still unlikely but the wider and more destructive the sectarian violence becomes the faster, as I think, Iraq will find her way. Those militias are now stronger than ever. They're seen as protectors of the sect. if you're a Sunni in a mixed area, who would you support, She'at militia that want to kill you or terrorists and ex-Ba'thists who want to kill those militias? Same thing apply for the She'at even if they dislike the Sadirists and the Badr Brigade. It's no longer about what's wrong or right. It's about trying to stay alive.

So civil war would certainly strengthen those militias, but all civil wars sooner or later come to end, and it's usually when the majority of people decide they can't take the violence anymore and when they can't see victory as possible. Then militias would lose their strength, as why would a Sunni need the terrorists and why would a She'at need the Sadirists! Any force willing and capable of disarming those militias will not find any opposition among the majority of people and its effort may very well be welcomed. Militias can survive only if they find an enemy and when a civil war ends they have to find an enemy outside the borders. The only possible enemy then would be the US but the difference is that they will have to fight it alone without any significant support from the population which was the case when Sadr revolted the 1st time but sadly the Americans didn't see that or were convinced by the formal She'at leadership that Sadr had a huge support which wasn't true at all.

"Team of Rivals"

I'm working on a review of "Team of Rivals." This is the rough draft. It's way too long to run, so I'll probably have to cut it in half.

Salmon Chase knew he had a silly name, and he was embarrassed by it, because he thought himself destined to be president of the United States.

He considered changing his name and came up with "Spencer de Chaucey," which, if possible, was worse than Salmon Chase. That says a good deal about why Chase never got to be president, despite his tremendous intellectual gifts, self-discipline and high moral sensibility. He had a tone-deaf awkwardness around his fellow men.

That's one of the tidbits I learned in "Team of Rivals," Doris Kearns Goodwin's latest book, a narrative about Abraham Lincoln and four key members of his presidential cabinet he assembled in 1861, three of whom had been his rivals in seeking the Republican nomination just a few months before.

Most of the book's first third consists of the entwined parallel political biographies of Lincoln, Chase and William Seward. Edwin Stanton enters the book later, and by a different route. Edward Bates' appearance is patchy, since he spent most of the crucial pre-war years in cheerful domestic retirement with his wife and 17 children until the crisis of 1860 lured him back into politics.

Their stories are the stories of the times; political men of the North and border states who gravitate from the center into the radical Republican party under the pressure of a fracturing national political system.

The most memorable of them, after Lincoln, is Seward, the consumate, charming New York politician, with his own Karl Rove-like figure in Thurlow Weed to do the dirty work while Seward kept his hands, mostly, clean.

The 1860 Republican nomination was supposed to be his coronation. But he had made too many enemies on his ascent to the throne. Chase, too, expected the nomination as a just reward for a lifetime of devotion to the causes that formed the Republican platform. In this clash of titans, Lincoln played the game of being the modest candidate who would be every delegate's second choice. Then he waited for the plot to spin out.

It was a masterful bit of politics, relying on a little luck, a little chicanery, and the sort of back-room deal-making that drained out of American life in the late 20th century. It is sobering to realize that under the current primary system, a Lincoln never would stand a chance of being nominated, much less elected.

Chase and Seward had burning ambitions to be president, while Lincoln had an ambition to be great among his fellow men.

The best quality of this book is the wealth of material Goodwin gathers on the lives of the four cabinet members, most of which will be new even to readers roughly familiar with 19th century American history. This richness renders the long blanks in Lincoln's history all the more stark. There's little new here on Lincoln himself, because the thin file that exists on his background has been hashed and re-hashed for decades.

After the imbroglio of the wild 1860 election, however, the book settles down into a conventional history of the Northern government during the Civil War. The "rivals" become less important, except as mirrors to reflect Lincoln as he grapples with the war.

Still, it's like seeing a familiar scene from a different perspective. There is a well-known daguerreotype of Lincoln's inaugural, taken from out in the crowd, looking up the Capitol steps. This book feels like seeing the same scene from the seats behind the new president, looking out past his shoulders.

Goodwin's starry-eyed Lincoln biography grows whiggish. If some crisis erupts and Lincoln does nothing, then his masterly inactivity proves his genius. If some crisis erupts and he makes a sudden change, then the bold stroke proves his genius.

Goodwin swallows whole Lincoln's assertion that he read instinctively the temper of the Northern people, and took no step, however necessary, before he felt the public was mentally prepared for it. This, too, of course, she considers evidence of his genius.

But as it is impossible to rewind the tape of history and do it another way, no one, including Goodwin, knows if Lincoln was right or not. Certainly the violent explosion of resistance to the military draft suggests Lincoln sometimes read the people poorly. But that whole affair is passed over in a few paragraphs in Goodwin's book, even though conscription was as contentious in 1862 as emancipation, to which Goodwin devotes many pages.

Very well; republics need secular saints, and long ago we decided Lincoln was to be one of ours. Centuries before that, the historians of Athens and Rome larded their chronicles with palpable fables to give the people objects of national veneration. At least with a purely fictional Numa or Theseus, you don't have the embarrassment of explaining the awkward things he really did.

Such as Lincoln's appalling transgressions of basic American rights and separations, in the name of presidential war powers. There come points where even a staunch apologist like Goodwin can't justify what was done in the North. Then she turns to the shabby lawyer's trick of abusing the plaintiffs. Everyone opposed to the administration is a traitor, or a drunk, or both.

Southerners, needless, to say, come off uniformly evil in this book, a grossly deformed race of "slaveocrats." All Constitutional scruples by Southern men are swept aside, and all their words and deeds written off as the product of a love of slavery. Calhoun and Taney are mere cardboard characters; Confederate vice president Alexander Stephens, Lincoln's one-time friend, barely raises his head. The murderous John Brown here is a mere "abolitionist," more muddled in his tactics than wrong in his aims, while it's the Southern reaction to him that is "zealous."

Still, there are revelations. I have spent much of the past five years researching and writing on the woefully understudied topic of slavery in the Northern states, but not until I read this book did I realize that Seward himself was raised in a New York slaveowning family.

Goodwin also is excellent in writing on the role of wives (and in some cases daughters or others who stood in as surrogates) in political life.

She deals ably with the topic of the warmth of male friendships in "an era when close male friendships, accompanied by open expressions of affection and passion, were familiar and socially acceptable."

How amusing that the Victorians can shock us prudish modern folk with the image of American men sharing beds, walking arm-in-arm, and writing frankly to one another of love and jealousy. Overheated modern imaginations conjure up rumors of homosexuality out of this material (Lancaster's James Buchanan is a frequent target), and if Goodwin had been so inclined she could have called her book "Team of Lovers" and probably convinced a great many gullible readers.

Instead, she dismisses all this nonsense and sanely quotes a modern historian of the period, to the effect that this "preoccupation with elemental sex" reveals more about us and our times than about them and theirs.

Goodwin is a competent prose stylist. If she never writes a line that sticks in the memory, she never writes the sort of grammatical train wreck sentences historians seem prone to producing.

Yet through all her black-and-white vision of the Civil War, Goodwin's Lincoln emerges from this book with his famous mercy for Southerners intact. And it is Chase, the least attractive figure in the book, who is the most strident abolitionist. Had she thought more about that, Goodwin might even have made a better book than this one, though this one is good enough.

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Cold War Lessons

This Carlin Romano article takes as one of its texts the book that's probably up next on my reading list, John Lewis Gaddis's new history of the Cold War.

But what's interesting here is his account of two books dealing with a Cold War organization that, perhaps, we could use again: the Congress for Cultural Freedom. One is Peter Coleman's "The Liberal Conspiracy: The Congress for Cultural Freedom and the Struggle for the Mind of Postwar Europe" and the other is Frances Stonor Saunders's "The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters." "Both authors," Romano writes, "depict a political world frighteningly similar to ours but a vastly different cultural one. For intellectuals, they suggest not what must be done today, but what might be done."

The idea of the congress, however, grew out of a feeling among independent intellectuals on the non-Communist left, as well as American officials, that the West after World War II faced a huge Soviet commitment to propagandizing and imposing Communism, and might lose the battle for European minds to Stalinism.

So the congress — established at a 1950 Berlin meeting at which the writer Arthur Koestler declared to a crowd of 15,000, "Friends, freedom has seized the offensive!" — launched magazines, held conferences, mounted exhibitions, and generally sought to expose Stalinist falsehoods from its liberal position. At its height, according to Coleman, the CCF "had offices or representatives in 35 countries, employing a total of 280 staff members."

He notes that "almost all the participants were liberals or social democrats, critical of capitalism and opposed to colonialism, imperialism, nationalism, racism, and dictatorship." Coleman thinks the CCF played a great historical role, winning over many members of the European intelligentsia to freedom and democracy. While he concedes that the CCF self-destructed because it hid the CIA pipeline for so long, he rejects the idea that CIA money invalidated the congress's achievements. Idealistic thinkers like Sidney Hook, Arthur Koestler, Edward Shils, André Malraux, Isaiah Berlin, Mary McCarthy, and others didn't hold their views because of CIA backing, he argues. They were enabled by it, some knowingly, some not.

Coleman thus writes glowingly of an era in which world-class personalities like Koestler and Italian novelist Ignazio Silone crossed swords and temperaments, in which powerful media such as The New York Times inveighed against "America's foolish disregard of the importance of the cultural offensive" against Stalinism. (The Times reported that the Soviet Union's annual financing for cultural propaganda in France surpassed the U.S. allotment for the whole world.)

Saunders, by contrast, savages the congress as a "front" organization "positioning" intellectuals "like chess pieces." Not for her the notion of the CIA as a "back" organization. Her story is one of "infiltration," in which compliant congress intellectuals and artists channeled U.S. government wishes. To Saunders, the same CIA that turned de-Nazification into a jobs program for Reich alumni cynically lined up irresolute leftists to carry anti-communist water.

Regardless of which way you tilt before these rival visions, today's world intellectual scene looks pallid, atomized, by comparison. The pictures both authors present of one "La Pasionaria" or another storming stages to grab microphones, or renting hotel rooms at hostile conferences to subvert enemies, seem remote. While occasional causes, such as standing up for Salman Rushdie during the fatwa against him, have forged concerted global solidarity among engaged writers and thinkers, they've led to few ongoing institutions that promote liberal values.


New Light

Here's where the pro-choice movement starts to lose me.

Most of their arguments work with me, as far as they go: appealing to a woman's right to control her body, to the sanctity of the doctor-patient relationship, to the need to prevent narrow and sectarian moral strictures from driving national laws. If we disagree, it is over the matters like notification, waiting periods, trimesters.

But every now and then, amid the repetition of these points, something slips in that makes me catch my breath.

Our staff columnist, a man of sound, staunch, and unthinking Democratic progressive beliefs, wrote a column recently outlining the usual arguments for legal abortion. But about two thirds of the way through he described, as one case among many, a woman who sought an abortion after learning she had contracted a disease that could result in "babies being born with such defects as mental retardation, blindness and deafness."

Some of you know, if you've been reading here for a while, that for years I had a girlfriend who was profoundly deaf-mute, by birth defect. She was and is a powerful and unforgettable influence on the world and many people in it. To suddenly encounter her -- in the cattle-car collection of that category -- listed as, not only a candidate for abortion, but a positive argument for it, suddenly casts the whole argument, and the person making it, in a new and intensely unflattering light.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Council Winners

Once again, I'm late with this, but another round of Watchers Council winners has been chosen.

I'm pleased to see the winner within the council was The "Happy Warrior" Is Weeping In His Grave by Right Wing Nut House. It might surprise you to see the title of the blog and learn that the post is a heartfelt paean to the hero of his youth, Hubert Horatio Humphrey Jr. But then, left-to-right migrations were underway in America long before 9/11 created a big class of "Left Behinds."

And Humphrey was one of the good guys that a politician of any party could appreciate, an essentially decent and basically honest man who was screwed out of the presidency twice by his own people -- first by the Kennedys' money and dirty tricks, then by Johnson's abandonment of his veep. He was the Henry Clay of his generation, and as RWNH points out, he deserves his place in the national pantheon for his bravery in leading the Democratic Party's break with segregation:

"To those who say that this civil rights program is an infringement on states’ rights, I say this, that the time has arrived in America for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadows of states’ rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.”

Second prize went to Yours truly.

Outside ther council, the prize went to How Does the Modern World Look When You Have Done Nothing To Help Create It, and Innovation Is a Threat To Cherished Beliefs?, by Dinocrat.

I voted for this one. The topic is something Thomas Friedman also has been harping on recently: The utter intellectual paralysis of the modern Islamic world. Dinocrat collects a few bland phrases, easily available on the Web, that are astonishing in their impact:

The Saudi Patent Regulations of 1989 established a patent registration system, covering any new article, methods of manufacture (including improvements in either of them) and product patents. In 1996, the Saudi Patent Office granted its first patents since its establishment in 1990.

[Emphasis added]

As many commentators have pointed out, reactions like burning embassies because of Danish cartoons are signs of a culture with a severe inferiority complex.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Anti-War Triumphalism

Here's the sort of triumphalism I'm seeing from the anti-war left these days:

I want to comment on this huge blunder of a war that the little emperor has gotten us into. The situation we face in Iraq was entirely predictable. Everyone that really looked at the situation without rose colored neocon naive glasses on saw what was going to happen.

It's no wonder some of us accuse some of them of gloating over Iraqi tragedies. I have seen the faces, lit by ghoulish smiles, as they relisah every detail of mayhem and sectarian slaughter in Baghdad these days. I have heard their dripping sarcasm as they recount the hopeful statements of the administration. I cannot help but feel there's schadenfreude, if not genuine pleasure, in their minds when they see the images on the TV.

It disgusts me, but I'm used to it. Twenty-four million Iraqis, and the future of the Middle East, don't mean a thing to them measured against the embarrassment of a U.S. administration they despise.

But who really gets to be triumphalist if the Iraq project goes into a downward spiral? Many are already lining up to claim they saw the whole thing coming. But it is sensible, in observing this, to sort out who among them really perceived this outcome, and to sift those savants from those who simply sold their souls to the insistence than George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq was going to be a colossal failure, and who were picking the moment of failure at every step in the last three years.

Anyone can spray birdshot and nail a quail and a lawyer alike. We're looking for the real marksmen here.

  • Did you predict Saddam using chemical or biological weapons against coalition troops in the invasion?

  • Did you predict hundreds of thousands of refugees from the war?

  • Did you predict Saddam attacking Israel?

  • Did you call quagmire when the first advance paused to catch its breath at Nasiriyah?

  • Did you predict bloody house-by-house fighting to take Baghdad?

  • Did you predict the Iraqi national elections never would take place?

If you answer yes to any of those six questions (and there are more), take yourself off the anti-war triumphalist list. Don't feel too badly; you're in the good company of almost the entire anti-war left.

If you answer no, but said all along there was going to be a civil war in Iraq several years after the invasion, then go ahead and gloat. If that's the best you can do. If that's all you've got. But don't expect me to vote for you on that basis.

You can be the party that says, as your primary message, "We wouldn't be in this mess if I had been in charge in 2003." That's nice for you. But what you're saying to me is Saddam still would be in power, and Iraq still would be in chains, and we'd have another, and possibly worse, mess on our hands.*

*Please don't try to say "the sanctions were working, they should have been given more time." Especially if you've read the official reports on oil-for-food. And especially if you were among those, back before 2001, who called them a cruel collective punishment on the Iraqi people that was ineffective against the regime. If you did, though, you can be triumphalist about that; turns out you were right.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Hybrid Fever

As a Prius owner and fiercely competitive gas-mileage miser (600 miles at 57.1 mpg -- beat that, biotches!) I yet can sympathize with the correspondent who wrote recently to Glenn Reynolds with a note to hybrid drivers:

It is NOT OK, in a 55 MPH no-passing zone on a rural highway, with cars behind you, to drive at a slow enough speed to avoid engaging the gasoline engine.

Ah, I've known the temptation. I've heard the little cartoon devil whisper in my ear. But I've resisted, and with tears in my eyes, pressed down on the gas.

Having a hybrid changes the way you drive. I used to be your average competitive driver: I was going to get there as fast as I could and if you put yourself in front of me, you better drive faster than I did.

When we got the hybrid, the game changed. Now the other drivers weren't my competitors. It was that little set of green bars on the dashboard gauge that shows me how good I'm doing on mileage. It's between me and my old record.

Nowadays, you wanna pass me? Go right ahead, pal. I'll catch up to you at the next light anyhow. And while I'm sitting there next to you with my engine silent, waiting for green, I'll be listening to your pickup's rumbling idle, and I'll be chuckling and thinking how you're burning more gas sitting at this traffic light than I'm going to use in this entire trip. Served.

I'm not saying I drive safer. Just different. I start braking well before the lights and accelerate more slowly after them. I tend to drive so as to avoid having to either hit the break or the gas pedals. But on Saturday mornings, when I get on the down-slope of Nickle Mine Ridge on May Post Office Road, and I know I can coast for about three miles, I'll let it go, even when inertia winds me up to 65 or so on a road that was meant for 40. Gangway, you Amish!

But I've seen the projections: Within a decade, it's estimated, a high percentage of the cars on the U.S. roads will be hybrids. There will come a point when the hybrid driver is not an occasional nuisance for people like Glenn's correspondent, but 20 percent of what he shares the asphalt with. We'll be a divided nation; two style of driving. The highways will be bilingual. One wonders what sort of social tensions will erupt. Will there be a demand for "gas-engine-only" lanes or roads? Will there be "no hybrids need apply" signs on the merge ramps?

Ken Livingstone

Ken Livingstone is an arse of the first water, and it makes me grimace to have to stand in solidarity with him, but I have no choice. He's right; the British "code" is wrong.

And the fact that our Muslim friends won't distinguish Britain from America from Denmark (we don't extend the same courtesies to them, either), but will lump all this under the "hypocrisy of the West," means that somewhere, somehow, George W. Bush is going to be burned in effigy for this.

Here's the transcript of Livingstone's offense, courtesy of the AP:

Partial transcript of encounter between London Mayor Ken Livingstone and newspaper reporter Oliver Finegold after city hall reception, as taped by the journalist:
Finegold: "Mr. Livingstone, Evening Standard. How did it ..."
Livingstone: "Oh, how awful for you."
Finegold: "How did tonight go?"
Livingstone: "Have you thought of having treatment?"
Finegold: "How did tonight go?"
Livingstone: "Have you thought of having treatment?"
Finegold: "Was it a good party? What does it mean for you?"
Livingstone: "What did you do before? Were you a German war criminal?"
Finegold: "No, I'm Jewish. I wasn't a German war criminal."
Livingstone: "Ah, right."
Finegold: "I'm actually quite offended by that. So, how did tonight go?"
Livingstone: "Well you might be, but actually you are just like a concentration camp guard. You're just doing it 'cause you're paid to, aren't you?"
Finegold: "Great. I've got you on record for that. So how did tonight go?"
Livingstone: "It's nothing to do with you because your paper is a load of scumbags."
Finegold: "How did tonight go?"
Livingstone: "It's reactionary bigots ..."
Finegold: "I'm a journalist. I'm doing my job."
Livingstone: "... and who supported fascism."
Finegold: "I'm only asking for a simple comment. I'm only asking for a comment."
Livingstone: "Well, work for a paper that isn't ..."
Finegold: "I'm only asking for a comment."
Livingstone: "... that had a record of supporting fascism."

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Nothing New

Sunni fundamentalists demolishing a Shi'ite holy site? It's nothing new. The Wahhabi-Saudi state, as one of its first acts, marched up to Shi'i territory in what is now Iraq and sacked the city of Karbala and massacred its population.

Wahhabis had the tendency to refer only to themselves as "Muslims." That put all other Muslims outside the protective circle of dar-al-islam and made them legitimate targets for jihad, robbery, and enslavement. Shi'ites were special targets of the Wahhabist purification; their veneration of holy sites like the tomb of Husayn in Karbala earned them a virulent attack, unprovoked.

The raid on Karbala came in 1802 (year 1217 of the Islamic calendar), even before the Wahhabi-Saudis had conquered Mecca and Medina. This account is from the Saudi chronicler 'Uthman bin 'Abdullah bin Bishr:

In the year 1216, Sa'ud [son of Saudi ruler 'Abd al-'Aziz] set out with his divinely supported army and cavalry that he had recruited from both the citydwellers and nomads of Najd, from the south, from the Hijaz, Tihama and elsewhere. He made for Karbala and began hostilities against the people of the city of al-Husayn. This was in the month of Dhu'l-Qa'da. The Muslims [i.e., the Wahhabis] scaled the walls, entered the city by force, and killed the majority of its people in the markets and in their homes. Then they destroyed the dome placed over the grave of al-Husayn by those who believe in such things. They took whatever they found inside the dome and its surroundings. They took the grille surrounding the tomb which was encrusted with emeralds, rubies, and other jewels. They took everything they found in the town: different types of property, weapons, clothing, carpets, gold, silver, precious copies of the Qu'ran, as well as much else -- more than can be enumerated. They stayed in Karbala for no more than a morning, leaving around midday with all the property they had gathered and having killed about two thousand people. Then Sa'ud departed by way of al-Ma' al-Abyad. He had the booty assembled in front of him. He deducted one fifth for himself and then distributed the rest among the Muslims [i.e., the Wahhabis], giving a single share to each footsoldier and a double share to each horseman. Then he returned home." ['Unwad al-Majd," pp. 121-122, quoted in "Wahhabism," by Hamid Algar, Islamic Publications International, 2002]


The storm over the Danish cartoons has been mistakenly described as a debate over the limits of free speech. One of the milder posters carried during a Londonistan anti-cartoon protest read "FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION IS WESTERN TERRORISM." The coverage in the mainstream American press has ranged from the banal to the bizarre, depicting broad-minded Danes and Dutchmen as raving xenophobes for refusing to tolerate Muslim intolerance.

But the controversy is actually about a struggle for power involving Muslim intimidation and the mandatory multiculturalism of the European political class. Flemming Rose, the Jyllands-Posten editor who published the cartoons in response to ongoing self-censorship by a cowed European press, has explained that what the rioters and their politically correct apologists are demanding is not "respect" but "my submission."

Judging by the craven response of the British government and most of the European political class, they are succeeding. The Islamist leadership across Europe seems now to have largely achieved veto power over the press - except in Denmark - while in the name of multiculturalism, Muslims are subject to no such restraints.

"They think they have won the debate," a British researcher and a convert to Christianity who attended a madrassa as a child in his native Guyana, Patrick Sookhdeo, said. "They believe that the British Government has capitulated to them, because it feared the consequences if it did not." The lesson for Europe's Muslims, he said, is that violence and the threat of violence work.What will follow, according to ICM Research, well-respected pollsters of British Muslims, is a demand in England (and elsewhere) for Islamic extraterritoriality, granting official government recognition to Shariah law in predominantly Muslim areas.

This is not from an essay; it is from a book review. But one of the two books under review is by Bruce Bawer, an American who lives in Scandinavia, speaks the local languages, and keenly watches the local scene. Unlike too many voices of Americans who have chosen to live in Europe, he is not a strident Bushitler conspiracy nut. The Philadelphia Inquirer describes him as "a gay, neoconservative American literary critic from New York who has lived in Amsterdam (now more than half non-Dutch) and, since 1997, in Oslo," though "neoconservative" is a rather loose insult these days, and what sexuality has to do with it is beyond my ability to comprehend. Except maybe to explain why an American not utterly contemptuous of America would voluntarily prefer to live in Europe.

They both make it clear that part of the problem of the European welfare states is not so much that Muslim integration has failed but that it has never really been tried. Immigrants to Britain, notes Ms. Berlinski, don't need to learn English. Social-service pamphlets are translated into their languages by an already large and growing social-service bureaucracy that lives well off the failure to incorporate the newcomers. For his part, Mr.Bawer describes the numerous methods by which Muslims have actively resisted integration. There is the practice known as "dumping," in which Muslim parents send their children back to the home country to be "educated" at schools where the Koran is virtually the only text. Similarly, women accused of leading a "European life" are sent back by their families or clans to their native lands for re-education. In their place, brides steeped in Islamic tradition are imported from the old country. The effect is that growing populations are in Europe but not of it. To make matters worse, the rigid structures of the European economies make it difficult to get work while an easy access to welfare makes it unnecessary, so that the newcomers aren't even integrated into the workplace.

Still, despite Europe's slow growth and generous benefits for not working, many thousands of dark-skinned Hindus in England, Armenians in France, and Poles in Germany are climbing the European ladder. But Muslims are different, notes Mr. Bawer: They see themselves as having a God-given authority that has "made them superior to infidels."

If the review is this clear-headed, I can't wait to read the book.

Behind the self-loathing is the sense that after World War I, totalitarianism, and World War II, there is only a botched civilization that can provide the security of the welfare state but not much more than a bureaucratic identity.

Consciously or not -- I suspect consciously -- it evokes Ezra Pound's grim post-WWI vision:

There died a myriad,
And of the best, among them,
For an old bitch gone in the teeth,
For a botched civilization.
Charm, smiling at the good mouth,
Quick eyes gone under earth's lid,
For two gross of broken statues,
For a few thousand battered books.

Which segues, at least in my mind, with this explanation of the much-maligned Leo Strauss. He grappled, in his own way, with the same dark world that so beclouded Ezra Pound. Pound fell, at last, into the trap of fascist utopianism. Strauss has been accused of crypto-fascism. This article separates his reality from that charge, but outlines the reason so many people think that of him:

But what about the ancient concern with excellence? How does that fare in the modern liberal state? Strauss's answer is gloomy. Liberalism shifts the accent from the question "is it good?" to the question "is it within my right?" This latter question tends over time to occlude or absorb the former, so that in the end all moral problems are reduced to problems of law. Liberal theory is concerned not with virtue, but with the construction of institutions that will secure citizens their rights even in the absence of virtue. Nor is it concerned with truth. In its eyes, all opinions are of equal value, provided they do not disturb the peace. Ultimately, liberalism degenerates into relativism, a standpoint from which different moral and religious convictions appear as mere items on a menu. There is an inevitable if ironic progression from the original meaning of liberalism to the derogatory sense it has acquired in America today.

Liberalism expresses the mundanity of the modern age, its mistrust of heroes and ideals. In Strauss's words, it deliberately "lowers the goal" of political life to increase the chances of its attainment. But liberalism's neglect of excellence is in the long run self-destructive. No regime, not even a liberal one, is mechanically self-perpetuating. Each rests ultimately upon the wisdom and courage of its leaders. In neglecting this, liberalism jeopardises its own survival. Liberalism suffers a further, specific disadvantage in comparison with its totalitarian rivals: it extends to them a tolerance which they do not reciprocate. The collapse of the Weimar republic was confirmation for Strauss of this shortcoming. Churchill demonstrated that only the residually heroic element in liberal democracy could save it from destruction.

How can the levelling tendency of the modern age be counteracted? How can greatness be restored? Unlike many European conservatives, Strauss did not look to the hereditary nobility, a class non-existent in America. His was an aristocracy of spirit, not of rank. Hence the vital importance he attached to education. "Liberal education," he wrote, "is the counterpoison to mass culture, to the corroding effects of mass culture, to its inherent tendency to produce nothing but 'specialists without spirit or vision and voluptuaries without heart.'… Liberal education is the necessary endeavour to found an aristocracy within democratic mass society. Liberal education reminds those members of a mass democracy who have ears to hear, of human greatness."

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An American Original

Theodore Draper, Freelance Historian, Is Dead at 93

He didn't have the academic papers. All he had was an obsessive but logical mind, a sharp pen, and a need to get to the bottom of things.

Mr. Draper went from Communist Party fellow traveler in the 1930's to liberal anticommunist in the 1950's and 60's before breaking with the Cold War hawks and attacking the United States' role in Vietnam. For a time he was also the leading historian of American Communism, writing two authoritative books about it.

Mr. Draper was dogged in pursuit of whatever issue caught his attention, whether it was France's collapse on the eve of World War II, Fidel Castro's Cuban revolution, the American war in Vietnam, Henry Kissinger's conduct of Middle East policy or the Reagan administration's Iran-contra affair. On each of these subjects he made himself a respected expert and wrote a book exhaustive in its research. His prose was blunt and factual, its logic severe and pitiless. His pithy judgment of the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 as "a perfect failure" became the earmark of that misadventure. As he said in his preface to "A Present of Things Past," a collection of his essays published in 1990: "I have rarely stayed with a single subject for more than five years. I get interested in a subject; I devote myself to it; I do what I can with it; I know — or think I know — as much as I want to know; I turn to something else."

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Carnival of the Etymologies

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

Ports, and who ought and ought not to own them in America, sailed into the headlines this week.

Port meaning "harbor" was one of the earliest words (and one of the few non-ecclesiastical words) to make its way from Latin into English, having arived in the Anglo-Saxon period.

The source is Latin portus "port, harbor," but originally "entrance, passage." The reconstructed Proto-Indo-European root of this is *prtu- "a going, a passage," from the base *per- "to lead, to pass over." Among its relatives are Sanskrit parayati "carries over;" Greek poros "journey, passage" (preserved in English in emporium and the noun pore ); Avestan peretush "passage, ford, bridge;" Armenian hordan "go forward;" Welsh rhyd "ford;" and Old Church Slavonic pariti "fly."

In Germanic, by a regular phonetic evolution known as Grimm's Law, the initial "p" sound became an "f," so the word group is represented by the likes of Old Norse fjörðr "inlet, estuary" (source of fjord), and English ford. It forms the common word for "to travel" in many Germanic languages (Gothic faran, German fahren), and it did so in English, too, in the Anglo-Saxon period.

Old English faran meant "to go, to journey, to make one's way," but for some reason it was replaced in the 14th century by the French word that has come down as travel (from the same root as travail). The old verb survives in the verb and noun fare and their compounds.

All the other ports in English ultimately are from the same stock of words. The most obvious is the one that means "left side of a ship" (attested from 1543), which is from the notion of "the side facing the harbor" (when a ship is docked). It replaced larboard in common usage to avoid confusion with starboard when shouting commands in the wind at sea; the change was made official by an Admiralty order of 1844 in Britain and by a U.S. Navy Department notice of 1846.

Port meaning "gateway" also was an Old English word borrowed from Latin portus, in this case retaining the Latin word's older sense of "gate, door." It now mainly has the specific meaning "porthole, opening in the side of a ship."

Port as the name of a kind of sweet dark-red wine is a shortening of Oporto, the name of a city in northwest Portugal from which the wine was originally shipped to England. The city's name, however, in Latin-derived Portuguese, is from O Porto, "the port." Portugal itself is named for this city, from Medieval Latin Portus Cale (the Roman name of modern Oporto). Alfonso, Count of Portucale, became the first king of Portugal.

Finally, the port that means "bearing, mien" is a 14th century use of a French word, from the Latin verb portare "to carry." It literally means "how one carries oneself." It is not much used today in English, but we still have its derived adjective portly which in the early 16th century meant "stately, dignified" before it came to mean "stout."

Other English words in this family come from one or the other of the Latin senses of portus/portare. Portico and portal both come from the "gate" sense, as does porter "doorkeeper, janitor."

From the "carrying" sense come portage, portable, and portfolio (originally "a case for carrying loose papers"). Also finding its roots here is the other porter, the one that means "person who carries." Since porters and other laborers in old England prefered cheap, strong, dark beer, the type of ale brewed for them came to be called porter. Restaurants where porter ws a house specialty were called porterhouses, and a particular one in New York City in the 1830s gave its name to a type of steak that also was a specialty there.

* * *

For the rest of this week's list, I've collected some of the odder words from the Winter Olympics.

Slalom is from Norwegian slalam "skiing race," literally "sloping track," from sla "slope" and lam "track" (related to laan "a row of houses," which is itself related to English lane).

Luge is a French word meaning "small coasting sled," originally from the Savoy dialect of the French Alps, which has been traced to a 9th century sludia "sled," which is perhaps from a Gaulish word from the same root as English sled and slide.

Ski is relatively recent in English, the word not appearing before 1885 (except for an isolated instance from 1755). The source is Norwegian ski, which is related to Old Norse skið "snowshoe," literally "stick of wood." The ancient root is Proto-Germanic *skid- "to divide, split," from the Proto-Indo-European base *skei- "to cut, split."

Skate is attested in English from 1662. The custom was brought to England after the Restoration by exiled followers of Charles II who had taken refuge in Holland. The source of the word is Dutch schaats (singular, mistaken in English as a plural), which linguists think came up through Flanders from Old French eschace "stilt" (modern French échasse), from a Germanic source that perhaps literally meant "thing that shakes or moves fast." But another theory is that the Dutch word is connected to Middle Low German schenke and Old English scanca "leg" (source of shank). In either case, the sense evolution presents problems.

The type of fish called a skate is not connected. It is 1 4th century borrowing from Old Norse skata, a word of unknown origin.

Mogul "elevation on a ski slope," probably is from a Scandinavian (cf. dialectal Norwegian mugje "a heap, a mound"), or from southern German dialect mugel in the same sense. It is not related to the mogul that means "powerful person." That word was taken from the title of the Great Mogul, the Mongol emperor of India after the conquest of 1526, which is from Persian and Arabic mughal, mughul, an alteration of Mongol, the name of the Asiatic people.


Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Woot, There It Is

"Geography Genius: You scored 100% knowledge, and 0% confusion"

That's on The World Geography Knowledge Test. Go check it out. It's pretty tough. I confess to one or two half-educated guesses, but not more.

What Oft was Thought

But ne'er so well express'd.

A recent address in New Zealand by Keith Windschuttle. Key graph:

The moral rationale of cultural relativism is a plea for tolerance and respect of other cultures, no matter how uncomfortable we might be with their beliefs and practices. However, there is one culture conspicuous by its absence from all this. The plea for acceptance and open-mindedness does not extend to Western culture itself, whose history is regarded as little more than a crime against the rest of humanity. The West cannot judge other cultures but must condemn its own.

Nothing truly new, but it's breathtaking to see it all brought together in one place. Truly a keeper.

[A]lthough Western feminists once found the overt misogyny of many tribal cultures distasteful, in recent years they have come to respect practices they once condemned. Feminist academics now deny that suttee, the incineration of widows, is barbaric. The Indian-American cultural studies theorist, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak gives suttee an honourable place in Indian culture by comparing it to the Christian tradition of martyrdom. Feminists once denounced the surgical removal of the clitoris of Muslim women as female genital mutilation. Lately, the procedure has been redefined as genital “cutting”, which the literary and art critic Germaine Greer now argues should be recognized as an authentic manifestation of the culture of the Muslim women concerned.

Similarly, the Parisian literary theorist, Tzvetan Todorov, in "The Conquest of America" (1985), compares Mexican cannibalism to the Christian Eucharist, and the Australian postmodern historian, Greg Dening, in "Mr Bligh's Bad Language" (1992), declares Polynesian human sacrifice to be the ritual equivalent of British capital punishment.

Something is obviously going terribly wrong here.

Double Standard

An interesting letter to the editor:

Sir, I applaud the BBC’s news treatment of the Danish cartoons (report, Feb 4). On its website, however, the cultural cringe is evident and double standards obtain. In its history of Islam we read: “One night in 610 he (Muhammad) was meditating in a cave on the mountain when he was visited by the angel Jibreel who ordered him to “recite” . . . words which he came to understand were the words of God.” This is written as fact, no “it is said” or “Muhammad reported”. Whenever Muhammad’s name is mentioned the BBC adds “Peace be upon him”, as if the corporation itself were Muslim.

How different, and how much more accurate, when we turn to Christianity. Here, Jesus’ birth “is believed by Christians to be the fulfilment of prophesies in the Jewish Old Testament”; Jesus “claimed that he spoke with the authority of God”; accounts of his resurrection appearances were “put about by his believers”.

Chief Executive, BBC
Broadcast, 1996-99
Middle Barton, Oxon

Courtesy of Andrew Sullivan, who adds:

Christianity has been reshaped and challenged by scholarly revisionism with respect to the books that became the Bible. We know far more now than we used to about how the Gospels were written, what influenced them, their cultural context, their political objectives, and so on. There is much less scholarship, especially in Islamic countries, about the origins of the Koran. We need more scholarship. And for that, we need less fear, and ... freedom.

So far are we from that state of things that not only is there no equivalent in the Islamic world to the textual criticism that has opened up new understanding of the Bible, but "Western scholars discussing Islam and the Koran have to publish under pseudonyms to ensure their physical safety."

The books that are banned speak volumes. Do cartoon depictions of the Prophet embarrass Islam more than this?:

Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses received a fatwa because it appeared to mock Muhammad. The Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz was stabbed because one of his books was thought to be irreligious. And when the Arab scholar Suliman Bashear argued that Islam developed as a religion gradually rather than emerging fully formed from the mouth of the Prophet, he was injured after being thrown from a second-story window by his students at the University of Nablus in the West Bank. Even many broad-minded liberal Muslims become upset when the historical veracity and authenticity of the Koran is questioned.

[Clicking the stopwatch stem to time how long it takes for someone to comment, "But Chimpie's conservative Christian base is just as bad"]

Our George

It is substantially true that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government. The rule, indeed, extends with more or less force to every species of free government. Who that is a sincere friend to it can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric?

Promote then, as an object of primary importance, institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge. In proportion as the structure of a government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened.

From Washington's Farewell Address. Go and read the whole thing on the man's birthday.

And remember, when the Founders start to talk about "virtue" and "morality," don't turn away with visions of James Dobson in your head. They meant something closer to self-sacrifice, compassion, public service, and high-minded patriotism -- good, sound human virtues that ought to resonate with any gender, sexuality, party, class, race, or creed. Gertrude Himmelfarb has ably defined the classical idea of "virtue" as "the will and capacity to put the public interest over the private."

Washington is beginning to recover his reputation; he deserves it. He was the steady hand on the tiller when we set sail as a nation. Steadiness, not reckless innovation, was the thing America needed at the time. It's to his credit that we forget the serpents of tyranny and mob rule that slithered about the American cradle. To remember, read the history of the French Revolution.

The painter Benjamin West wrote that when he talked to King George III during the Revolutionary War, the monarch asked him what he thought George Washington would do if he prevailed.

Return to his farm, West predicted -- accurately, as it turned out.

"If he does that," King George remarked, "he will be the greatest man in the world."

I've said this before. George Washington's birthday should recover its original place in our national calendar. In the early 19th century, it was one of the two great national holidays -- along with the 4th of July. Memorial Day began with the Civil War, Veteran's Day and Labor Day are 20th century creations. Thanksgiving was a local New England custom and the German immigrants brought us Christmas. No right-thinking Enlightenment republican would have made a national holiday of Easter.

But Washington's day was a great feast in the civic calendar.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some further ruminations on our George here.

And finally, though I would separate Washington's Birthday from Lincoln's, here's one of the many stories Lincoln famously told to entertain his fellow lawyers on the long nights riding the circuit on the Illinois frontier:

One of the leaders of the American Revolution -- I forget now who it was, Ethan Allen, perhaps -- visited England after the war. His host entertained him comfortably, but was the sort of fellow who constantly disparaged America and Americans generally (no, it didn't start with Bush), and never could get over the fact we had beaten them in the war. To amuse himself and to twit his American guest, the host hung a print of George Washington on the wall of his outhouse. It had been there for a few days, and the host knew the American must have seen it, but he had said nothing. Finally overcome by curiosity, the host asked his guest what he thought of the picture of Washington.

"It is most appropriately hung," the American replied. "Nothing ever made the British shit like the sight of George Washington."


Tuesday, February 21, 2006

100 Best First Lines

In novels, that is, not in pick-up bars.

"Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting."


"The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel."


"There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it."

Did you know, o brethren and ... sistren in the Coterie of Serious Readers, that there is a new list out to hash and trash and bicker about?

What am I missing? The opening of "Losing Battles" comes to mind.

"When the rooster crowed, the moon had still not left the world but was going down on flushed cheek, one day short of the full. A long thin cloud crossed it slowly, drawing itself out like a name being called."

OK, so that's two lines.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Worst President

A group of historians voted on the 10 worst presidential blunders of all time. I generally agree with numbers 2 through 10.

So who had the worst blunder? President James Buchanan, for failing to avert the Civil War, said a survey of presidential historians organized by the University of Louisville's McConnell Center. ... Scholars who participated said Buchanan did not do enough to oppose efforts by Southern states to secede from the Union before the Civil War.


When South Carolina seceded in 1860, James Buchanan asked his attorney general, Jeremiah Black (an honest Pennsylvanian who later served Lincoln, too), to outline the constitutional position on the matter. Black concluded that, in effect, the secession was illegal, but the executive branch had been given no power to do anything about it.

Buchanan acted accordingly, scrupulously constitutional to the end. Lincoln followed him and in essence ignored the Constitution, forced the union to hold together, and let Congress write the necessary changes after the fact. No bonus points for guessing which leader is revered in history and which routinely makes "worst presidents" lists, including this one.

It was Lincoln's election victory, not Buchanan, that brought on the crisis of 1860. Buchanan was a lame-duck president from a broken political party, without a smidgen of popular backing, North or South. In the months between Lincoln's election and his inauguration, Buchanan lived amid swirling talk of coup. A GOP senator prayed that "some Brutus ... would arise and remove him from the scene of his earthly labors." A Chicago editor wrote that if Buchanan showed his face there, "he would be hung so quick that Satan would not know where to look for his tratorious soul."

So far from supporting the South, Buchanan denied its right to secede, especially if the pretext was nothing more than the election of a president who was likely to violate Southern rights. Yet Buchanan, and many other capable observers, did not find in the Constitution as it was then written the power of the federal government to attack a state. And Congress, not the president, had the authority to levy troops, alter the Constitution, and revamp the relationship between the federal government and the states.

As it was, Buchanan defended the federal government's property where he was able to do so, principally at Fort Sumter. He made clear that he considered it his duty to collect revenues in Southern ports. He stared down the South Carolinans time after time when they demanded its surrender. At one point, Buchanan wrote to Gov. Francis W. Pickens of South Carolina, "If South Carolina should attack any of these forts, she will then become the assailant in a war against the United States. It will not then be a question of coercing a State to remain in the Union, to which I am utterly opposed, ... but it will be a question of voluntarily precipitating a conflict of arms on her part ...."

He hardly had the resources to do more than hold the line: The entire U.S. Army numbered barely 16,000 men, mired in red tape, scattered across the Indian frontier and led by aged and infirm Lt. Gen. Winfield Scott, who even before the election had published his opinion that the country ought to be divided into four separate confederacies.

The Constitution did not allow the president to call out a huge American army and impose his will on any place that displeased him. That is a modern view. It was invented, in part, by Lincoln.

To dismiss Buchanan's adherence to the Constitution as a cover to allow treason, as some historians do, is to write off the foundation of the American republic and the genius of the Founders. It overlooks the seriousness with which Americans once regarded their balanced government and its institutions.

During the crisis, Lincoln sat in Springfield and said nothing, baffling even his friends. The other Republican leaders, behind Seward, pursued a policy of "masterly inactivity," in a misplaced belief that Southern unionist could reign in the secessionists. The session of the 36th Congress that met in December merely made long speeches that nobody read. It voted no emergency measures, it raised no new troops. In short, nobody with the opportunity did differently than Buchanan was doing.

Any active step Buchanan might have taken would involve the incoming administration in inextricable complexities. Declare war on the Confederate States of America? Then that would acknowledge them as a sovereign power, and invoke international laws. Declare martial law? And throw Maryland and Virginia into turmoil, which would have made Lincoln's inauguration difficult, if not impossible? He had to sneak through Maryland after dark, as it was.

When Buchanan turned the government over to Lincoln, on March 4, 1861, only seven states had seceded. Virginia and Tennessee had confronted secession and rejected it at that time. Buchanan's policies let that happen. Together, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas represented half the future CSA's population and resources and held key military installations and armories. Thanks to Buchanan's touch, Lincoln still had a chance to hold them.

Even more important, Maryland, without which the North would have had to abandon Washington, D.C., remained in the Union. Secession sentiment ran strong there. Lincoln in his turn only managed to hold the state's loyalty by martial law.

To blame Buchanan because he "did not do enough to oppose efforts by Southern states to secede" is to blame Buchanan for not being Lincoln. Yes, let's face the unpleasant facts. Buchanan was not Lincoln. If he had been Lincoln, he would have provoked the South, bypassed the Constitution, suspended civil liberties, jailed thousands without charges, thrown an untried army into meat-grinder battles under incompetent generals, offered to guarantee slavery if the South returned, then turned around and abolished it -- but only in the places where he had no power over it.

Buchanan, arguably, could have done this, but I doubt it would have improved his historical reputation.

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The Kurdish Card

Michael J. Totten, fresh from his excursion into Kurdish Iraq, reports that, while the Kurds there may be paying lip service to Iraq, their hearts are for independence. One of the reasons they don't claim it outright, Michael writes, is they want to achieve it fairly and honestly -- and with a legitimate claim to their entire turf. But make no mistake, he warns; they do not think of themselves as part of the historical accident we call Iraq:

If Middle Easterners had drawn the borders themselves, Iraq wouldn’t even exist. Blame the British for shackling Kurds and Arabs together when they created the new post-imperial and post-Ottoman map. The Kurds do. They call the W.C. (the “water closet,” i.e. the toilet) “Winston Churchill.” Several times when my translator needed a bathroom break he said “I need to use the Winston Churchill.”

Ouch. Joe Katzman of Winds of Change comments and notes the two big challenges -- or obstacles -- the Kurds face:

[1] Turkey. I suspect Talabani believes as he does because he knows that Turkey will happily mess with "Kurdistan," but will not mess with "Iraq." Until and unless the Kurds can either handle the Turks themselves or the Turks change so much that this would not be a problem, independence is a bad idea.

[2] Exporting. When they're done, they'll have to find some way to get their goods out if they want to trade with the world. This includes oil, also their famous apricots, etc.

When I read all this, it reminds me why I remain committed to the Wilsonian idealism of the neo-conservatives, despite the manifest bungling in practical execution, and opposed to the chilly realpolitik that so many on the left and right (and some in the Bush Administration) want America to employ as its international diplomacy.

Realpolitik was what the Soviets did better than us during the 1960s and '70s. But it wasn't what won the Cold War. If you want to see a working American foreign policy driven by realpolitik, it never was done better than under Nixon and Kissinger. Do the right and the left really want to go back to the days of CIA coups and abandoned allies? Is our Kurdish policy now not more in line with America's virtues than it was 25 years ago?

In 1972, Nixon, Kissinger, and the Shah of Iran devised a plan to weaken Soviet-backed Iraq by supporting a Kurdish insurgency in the country's north. Kurds knew that with American help they could care out an autonomous region and control the oilfields. Backed by money and arms from the CIA and the Shah, the peshmerga took to the field, but we never gave them enough to win outright. U.S. allies Turkey and Iran, fearful of their own Kurdish minorities, never would have accepted a genuine autonomous Kurdistan in Iraq. We used them, cynically.

It was realpolitik at its most adept. The U.S. played the Kurdish card effectively to sap the strength of a Soviet ally in the Cold War. After the Algiers Agreement of March 1975 gave Iran what it wanted in a border dispute with Iraq, the Shah and the U.S. cut off aid to the Kurds. Iraq promptly launched a devastating attack which overpowered the peshmerga, exterminated the Kurds by whole towns, inaugurated the period of Baathish ethnic cleansing, and drove tens of thousands of Kurds into refugee camps.

The U.S. refused to accept them as assylum-seekers. This is where I met them first, in Nuremberg in 1978 and '79, where the former peshmerga were trying to get black market U.S. passports in nearby Fürth, which, for some reason, was a center of such activity then. They were still enthusiastic about America, in spite of the betrayal. They were warm and generous. It was back then in the bars of Nuremberg in the Ford era, not as a reaction to 9/11, that I formed an affinity for the Kurdish cause and a disgust of how we betrayed them. Back then, it seemed a position consistent with liberal ideology and Democratic Party politics. I haven't changed my loyalty since then, but it seems the ideology and the party have.

New York Congressman Otis Pike led a Congressional investigation of CIA activities that uncovered the perfidy of the Americans to the Kurds. Kissinger dismissed it with the ultimate realpolitik quip: "Covert action should not be confused with missionary work."

The betrayal forms a chapter in Christopher Hitchens' furious indictment of Henry Kissinger, but only a brief one, because, as Hitchens writes, though they show "a callous indifference to human life and human rights, ... they fall into the category of depraved realpolitik and do not seem to have violated any known law."

Now, I understand the uses and importance of realpolitik. It can be done effectively, as it has been occasionally, by Teddy Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower. And liberal idealism can be a dreadful lodestar in international relations, as it was for Franklin Roosevelt. Yet on the whole, I confess, I prefer my country when it holds its ideals and its virtues slightly higher than its naked self-interest.

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Sunday, February 19, 2006

Arabs in the Ports

When bloggers at the extremes, such as Atrios, Captain Ed, Michelle Malkin, Daily Kos, and Little Green Footballs, all agree on something, it means, either:

1. The Harmonic Convergence is back

2. There's a knee-jerking epidemic.

This is a bit of both. The issue is the "Bush administration's approval of a recent sale that would give a Dubai company control over shipping facilities at six leading American ports."

Arabs running the ports. After 9/11 and all. It doesn't help that homeland security secretary Michael Chertoff, last seen in the headlines saying things like, "It is correct to say that our logistics capability in Katrina was woefully inadequate," thinks this is a great idea.

I'm glad to see that someone (not tied to the Administration and often critical of it) is able to step back and avoid the blog-lemming stampede. That someone is Dennis the Peasant:

Lost in all of this is the fact that the government of the United Arab Emirates is exactly the sort of Arab/Muslim government we should be rewarding for their loyalty to us in the War on Terror. The U.A.E. has, in fact, been the very model of the ‘moderate’ Arab/Muslim state we loudly proclaim must take a firm and unbending stand against al-Qaeda and the Middle Eastern Fascists we are fighting.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Council Winners

This week's Watchers' Council winners are up. Not surprisingly, the blasphemous toons were the topic of choice.

Within the council, first place went to A Dialogue, at Gates of Vienna, which builds around a comments thread from a post that printed the odious Hitler-in-bed-with-Anne-Frank cartoon that a European Arab group published in an attempt to strike back after the Danish Muhammad cartoons became an issue. The post not only enlightens the issue, it restores my faith in comments threads and shows what they can be if the hijackers can be kept from boarding them.

Second place went to Shame, Guilt, the Muslim Psyche, and the Danish Cartoons, in which Dr. Sanity applies her psychiatry background to the reactions to the Danish cartoons.

When experiencing healthy shame an individual may not be very happy to have embarrassing weaknesses and defects made obvious, but this awareness is insightful and humbling. As long as an individual is capable of self-doubt and self-reflection about his behavior; he is able to remain open-minded and willing to search for a better understanding of himself and others.

... In contrast, guilt is an emotion that rises after a transgression of one's own or cultural values. Guilt is about actions or behavior; while shame is about the self. There is an important psychological difference in saying to someone that their behavior is bad; as contrasted with saying that they are bad. The former leads to guilt; the latter to shame.

Outside the Council, first place went to everyone's favorite Egyptian blogger, Big Pharaoh, as he imagines Allah giving him a 10 commandments for modern Muslims, including this one:

Your leaders should know that what was OK in the year 706 might not be OK in the year 2006. I won’t get upset if you changed a few things in the laws and regulations as long as you continue to profess faith in me, pray to me, fast during Ramadan, give alms, and perform Hajj if you’re capable of doing so.

Second place in this category went to All Things Beautiful's Alexandra for having a go at trying to figure out, as well as refute, some of the recent ruminations from a blogger named Glenn Grenwald, who writes like an intelligent man and is said to have been a high-powered First Amendment lawyer once, but sure says some godawful stupid stuff. She writes:

Glenn seems to have a business plan, perhaps he has aspirations to enter politics and pitch for the Senate. His posts have become a barrage of personal attacks on conservative bloggers which were not present pre-love affair with Daily Kos, Atrios, Digby and Crooks and Liars where he plays to the audience beautifully. Like a masterful marketer he adjusts the marketing message according to the most prevalent demand of his consumers and tailors it to suit the latest liberal sound bites.

Me, I think he's just a masochist. Hang a "dog-pile on me" sign around your neck and poke sticks at just the sort of people who will do it to you.

Personally I cast one of my out-of-council votes for a different All Things Beautiful post, Alexandra's meditation on her late father, the Yugoslav literary figure Borislav Pekic. The accompanying illustration, though not done with the computer screen in mind, makes wonderful use of the "scroll" as an tool in story-telling.

My father was betrayed many times by close friends, in a totalitarian regime, but he always forgave them. He said that they had considerations of their livelihood, which he did not have to worry about. They had considerations for their very lives, which my father had given to the cause of freedom long ago. They had considerations for their families' wellbeing, which my father did not have (when he married my mother he made his position clear, and she understood that, when I came along I simply was not asked. Heh.)

He forgave them, not because they know not what they do, but because he understood the human weaknesses and survival instincts which my father gave up for the cause of freedom.

And again, he always said to me "Look to yourself, not to others. Don't ever rely on others to fight for YOUR freedom. They never will. They will always fight for their own version of it, which is relevant to their own little world. Very few people in history have truly fought for the good of mankind."

Friday, February 17, 2006


A Bit o' B.S.

A lot of silly things get said by the dedicated Bush-haters I work with. Too many to recall them all, but this one stuck in my craw, because I used to live in West Berlin and I have seen East Germany firsthand. The communist government of the DDR, I was told by one who had never been there, was "legitimate" because its rulers had consistently battled against the Nazis.

Bullshit. The communist rulers of the DDR were hand-picked by Stalin for their loyalty to him and to Moscow. Those old enough to have been in the party before 1933 brawled with the Nazis in the streets but politically they had the same enemies -- moderate socialists in the SPD -- and worked arm-in-arm with the fascists to undermine the Weimar Republic.

After the Nazis came to power in 1933, some German communists went underground and resisted Hitler. Those who survived the war never got to rule in Germany: Stalin swiftly shipped them off to the gulags as unreliable -- those who weren't shot on the spot. Instead, rule of the Soviet Zone of Germany was handed over to men like Walther Ulbricht, who had left Germany in 1933 and spent the entire war in the Soviet Union, willingly submitting to NKVD supervision, interrogating and brainwashing captured German officers.

Like anyone who lived in Russia and survived the 1930s, they had applauded when Stalin and Hitler signed their pact carving up Poland.


The Big Picture

I'm puzzled by news coverage of the cartoon row, which continues to feature explanatory nut graphs like this one from Reuters:

Weeks of sometimes violent protests by Muslims across the world against the cartoons have triggered fears of a clash of civilizations between the West and Islam. Muslims believe images of the Prophet are forbidden.

Now, I'm no expert on Sharia or the hadiths, but I have read a bit about them and from what I understand, depictions of the prophet are forbidden to Muslims. The books I have on Islamic rules, written before this event, make no mention of this being a problem for non-Muslims that requires riots and death contracts.

Having pictures of real people in your house is a sin, according to fundamentalist Muslim schools of law. Fine, I even understand that, in an 8th century kind of way. The early Muslim spiritual fathers were trying to enforce strict monotheism on people raised in polytheism and idolatry. Like the early Christians, they had to work tirelessly to keep the people from simply turning the new religion into a fresh form of the old one.

So Muslims sin if they depict the prophet. And Allah will punish them for it. But what do they care if we do it? We kufr already are bound for an eternity of burning in gehenna, and our every action is an offense to Allah. Why would they care so much about us committing a sin that only is forbidden to them? Why, suddenly, this explosion of rage against us over "forbidden" images of the Prophet.

I have my own theories, and I bet you do, too. But for news media outlets to keep talking of "images of the Prophet are forbidden" as the only explanation is transparently stupid.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Goodman Gone Bad

Ugh. It fell to my unfortunate self to have to proofread tomorrow's editorial page. 100 solid inches of "progressive" posturing, highlighted by Ellen Goodman's latest. Why is she such an icon over there? Not only can't she write; she can't even think straight anymore. But I did enjoy this snippet:

There is nothing (alas) that infuriates White House reporters more than getting stiffed on a big story for 20 hours, unless of course it’s getting beaten by the Corpus Christi Caller-Times.

But only because her column was laid out, with apparent unconsciousness of irony, right under an E.J. Dionne column in which he excoriates Dick Cheney for "phony populism" because Cheney said, "I had a bit of the feeling that the press corps was upset because, to some extent, it was about them -- they didn't like the idea that we called the Corpus Christi Caller-Times instead of The New York Times." Something Dionne claims none of Cheney's critics ever would suggest. E.J., meet Ellen.

"I confess to some guilty pleasure in finding Cheney the target of this journalistic buckshot," Ellen writes. "What opponent couldn’t chortle at" the “Daily Show” jokes about him, she writes.

But this giggly giddiness comes to a crashing halt when Ellen turns her sights on the Danish cartoon depictions of Muhammad. There, she sees nothing to smile at. The cartoons are simply "sophomoric" to her. They are offensive to her -- and apparently not just on behalf of Muslims, but to her personally: "The Danish cartoons weren’t funny enough to get over my taste threshold."

Now, I have seen these drawings many times, and while I can understand how a Western person with a deep sympathy for and understanding of Islamic sensibilities might feel a vicarious offendedness at them, it utterly escapes me how you could simply see them for what they are, as a modern, secular Western journalist, and feel disgust.

Yet Ellen does. Or else it's pleasure. Huh? Her segue from the Cheney story to the cartoon story is this:

But a more acceptable reason for my guilty pleasure is the timing.

This shooting story comes right in the middle of the cartoon crisis that has ignited outrage across much of the Muslim world.

So not only is she in high glee over Cheney and mortified by Muhammad, but the fact that they are going on at the same time is the "reason" for her "pleasure."

I completely fail to understand how this woman's mind -- or heart -- works.

Or maybe I do. She's a journalist, with the ichor of the legacy media in her veins. Like my liberal newsroom co-workers, who greeted the cartoon row with a profound silence despite its obvious overlap with our beloved freedom of the press. It was an uncomfortable moment, I imagine, to minds that stoutly refuse to criticize a non-Western culture -- and mouths that never cease to trash-talk their own.

For Ellen, apparently, the rioting, burning, and killing troubled her some, but only because they briefly made the Sharia fanatics in the East seem as bad as free-speech fanatics in the West. I kid you not; here's her sentence on that:

This has not only triggered riots but an international shouting match between those crying “free speech” and those crying “hate speech.”

Why of course! It's total, complete moral equivalence. They burn embassies and restaurants, we burn embassies and restaurants. They turn out by the tens of thousands in the streets to burn flags and shout "Death to Denmark," we do the same. Why, here in Shrubbie McChimplerburton's fascist Amerikka we even stone female reporters who don't wear veils.

You'd think Ellen's feminist credentials would at least move her to condemn that one.

But since Cheney shot his friend, the clouds have lifted here in the newsroom! Leno's monologues are turned up loud every night on the newsroom TV and the crowd gathers around and hangs on every word and cheers every punchline. All's right with the world again. The old order is restored. Once again, nothing and no one is worse than Bush and his cronies.

In case you're not getting the point by now, you evil Danes with your miniature Legolands, Ellen lays down the law:

[T]he peppering of Dick Cheney is an international reminder to both sides that the real reason to protect free speech is to criticize the people who govern you. The real reason for satire is to make fun, with impunity, of your leaders.

Got that? Don't criticize Muhammad. Don't criticize Islam. Don't criticize anyone except the President of the United States. Only Bushco is a fair target. Otherwise, it's not "free speech," it's "hate speech."

When the Iranians wanted to hit back at us for the insult they felt from the Muhammad cartoons, they chose a telling way to do it: sponsor a series of Holocaust-denial cartoons. Even Ellen can see how weird that is. Like the things that come out of your mouth when you're arguing and too angry to think first, it's a revelation. It's a look into the black bile that flows so deep in some cultures that it bubbles up whenever the stress cracks the facades.

In her column, Ellen does us the favor of showing us the newsroom version. She admits that sometimes her editorial cartoonist friends have gotten carried away and drawn offensive pictures that their newspapers decided not to run. But it's not Muhammad they insult. The typical example, which in her story gives the name to this entire class of cartoons, is "what we privately called a 'Pope with a Swastika' cartoon."

John Quincy Adams

Dave points out that an old John Quincy Adams disparagement of Islam has been making the rounds recently. He's right; I've seen it in at least half a dozen places this month.

The accuracy of the description aside, one should note, as Dave does, that Adams was a curmudgeon of the first water. He hated everything except Harvard-educated New England culture, and the further it was from Harvard the more he hated it. It was hard to get much further from Harvard than Islam. He was a good president and he did good service to his countrymen -- without really liking any of them.

When 'Nazi' is Legit

John Cole's right about this.

Godwin’s Law doesn't actually say that the first person in an argument to compare his opponent to the Nazis automatically loses. It simply says that the longer an Internet debate continues, the more likely that is to happen. But traditionally the "law" is evoked to bring the hammer down on partisan hyperbole. And thus being the first person to type the word "Nazi" has become, to some people, a fault resulting in an automatic forfeit.

Which is a mistake, because at times Hitler and his political career are important points of reference. Recently, the issue of murderous totalitarians coming to power through free elections has dominated the headlines. Hitler offers an instructive example of that. It's worth exploring that in some detail, and hashing out where it fits, and doesn't fit, in parallel to contemporary situations.

As, for instance, Christopher Hitchens does in his review of Robert Conquest's "The Dragons of Expectation":

Cautioning the reader against any naive enthusiasm for pure “democracy”, for example, he writes that “We will presumably not forget that Hitler came to power in 1933 by election, with mass and militant support”. The last clause there is beyond dispute, but we should certainly not forget that the Nazi vote had peaked by then, that Hitler was outpolled in 1933 by the combined Socialist and Communist vote, and that he was handed victory in the Reichstag by Hindenberg’s reactionary camarilla, legitimized for the occasion by the capitulation of those sensible “centrist” and Christian parties whose shame and disgrace is less well-remembered.

Conservatives or Cultists?

James Taranto answers that Glenn Greenwald blog post that's been getting so much attention. Greenwald writes a post almost as long as one of mine, but though his target is the supposed lack of coherent ideology among Bush-backers, his thrust is this:

Now, in order to be considered a "liberal," only one thing is required--a failure to pledge blind loyalty to George W. Bush.

Taranto takes a patient approach to this, and points out that Greenwald offers scant evidence to back up his perception. So Taranto goes out and tests it:

We e-mailed Bruce Bartlett, a friendly acquaintance, frequent correspondent and author of a forthcoming book called "Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy," which drew favorable notice in the New York Times earlier this week. We asked him if anyone on the right has called him a "liberal" owing to his criticisms of Bush. "Not really," he said. "The worst that people have said is that I am an opportunist seeking to curry favor with liberals by bashing Bush or something like that."

Greenwald cites several conservative pundits and bloggers who he claims are "authoritarian cultists"--i.e., blind followers of Bush. In at least two of these cases, Ann Coulter and Michelle Malkin, we can rebut his assertion off the top of our head: Coulter opposed--harshly--the nomination not only of Harriet Miers but also of John Roberts. As for Malkin, Google "immigration" and "Bush" on her site and you'll see she's anything but an uncritical follower of the president. (Greenwald also calls them extremists, and we won't argue--but that's a different criticism.)

And yet he notes there's probably an inevitable tendency in a two-party system to force people into uncomfortable ideological positions for the sake of a -- perceived -- greater good.

To some extent, too, the pro-Bush sentiment on the right that so upsets Greenwald is a product of the anti-Bush fanaticism of the left. There is a sort of Newton's Third Law of politics, which was at work during the previous administration as well. People on the left who reviled Bill Clinton's policies in such areas as trade, welfare and capital punishment nonetheless backed him, and supported him fervently when Congress impeached him.

And, he might have added, the number of committed feminists who bit their tongues and stood by Bill Clinton, as the president most likely to advance their agenda, even while he revealed himself as a serial cad and masher of the type they despise. Taranto's quote, with a couple of noun changes, would apply as well to them:

For most conservatives, Bush is not perfect but he is far better than the alternatives that were on offer in 2000 and 2004.