Thursday, August 31, 2006

An Iran Perspective

I asked a friend to write this. I've mentioned her before. She's been living in Iraq, Turkey, Europe, and Thailand the last three years, and she grew up with direct connections in Iran. She's also got a good grounding in history and economics. We tend to agree on most things political, but she usually has angles and perspectives I don't. So here's what she sent, raw copy, in an e-mail during a brief stop home in Alabama.

For the moment, Iran seems to be the most serious problem child of the civilized world. Other places might be worse, Somalia for instance, but there and other places lack the "N" word in their current problems, with the exception of N. Korea. North Korea of course, is presumed to be nuclear now. But in a way the world is used to their antics and it is presumed that its mighty neighbor China has come too far in the eyes of the world to let its little upstart brother blacken its rising reputation by starting a nuclear war.

Venezuela could be a problem, of course, especially when paling around with the likes of Cuba and Iran, as could Syria or Taliban hiding in Pakistan. Ethnic troubles exist in India and in parts of southeast Asia that few westerners can really get a handle on, though in truth, few even care unless they're told that they're supposed to.

For the media, all of these sources of news have managed to bundle themselves together into some sort of huge anti-American tidal wave that is supposed to sweep all of us off of our feet. Toss in a fair chunk of Europe's natural distaste for the US in general, and we've supposedly got a full blown rejection of everything about America and those who live here, from our heads to our feet.

To US apologists, this is all we need to know in order to complete our understanding of the world and our position in it. But to those of us who have spent years in locations where the hatred of the US seems to be the worst, it's not the whole story at all.

Part of the problem is a simple matter of the true size and reach of American power and influence. We're not just nation-wide, we're world-wide, and at high volume. American businesses, investments, trade products, and media reach every part of the world imaginable, and influence similar foreign businesses and the social structures they subsequently create.

Foreign women who catch glimpses of American women in pictures or articles or on TV stop and actually think about the kind of freedoms required to emulate the women they see. Men who see or read of the trappings of power and luxury that are so deeply celebrated in our media gain desires for similar things and wonder how they might gain those things for themselves. There is an obvious lust we create on other parts of the planets, but the urges created aren't so easily satisfied.

Gaining the liberties, powers, and fantastic wealth is a far more frustrating task than simply dreaming about it. It is difficult even for Americans to define exactly why our nation has prospered to the extent it has while others have failed. We like to say the cause lies within our system of government and the freedom it allows individuals to achieve all they can be. But truly, this alone is not America.

America's government allows for the spirit of the people themselves to steer their country towards a multitud of simultaneous results, all of which can combine at any one moment to present itself to us and the rest of the world in the form of "America" as if it were a finished a finished product. Most of the time even we aren't sure of what we are unless the media tells us and we happen to believe it. SO how can the rest of the world ever hope to emulate us in the same way? Where's the path? What's the pattern to follow? How in the hell did you get to be like you are, and how can we be like you?

And if the people of those nations truly could find a path, would they really want to? Yes, and no. In today's world there is one benchmark, the USA. It is only normal for Thailand, or Spain or Brazil or even Iran to want to reach the point where they could truly claim to be similar to, if not the same as, the US.

Ask any worldwide investor and they will tell you that there is no country in the world with an advancing economy that has not allowed itself to at least partially privatise its economic infrastructure in order to allow individual initiative to flower and grow. This is true of every hot investment zone on the planet, and it is what has allowed a host of different countries to either inch or leap foward in their attempts to catch up with the economy and standard of living they can so easily observe in the US. All are based upon American and western style economic freedoms. Nothing else even comes close in terms of returns and sustainability.

Iran is no exception. That nation's history may as well be a black hole to most Americans, who assume that it was little more than a military dictatorship that fell into the hands of a religious dictatorship. In some respect they are right. But this assumption alone completely strips the Persians of a impressive heritage and of their present day accomplishments.

Ancient Iran was the source of a religion older than Buddhism, Islam, Christianity or even Judaism. That religion was quite probably the source of many of the social laws that we in the west typically credit to the ten commandments. When Islam burned and hacked its way through that religous society, death was the norm, but conversion was also part of the package. And because of this, traces of the older religion managed to influence the new society that remained, and they still do.

Within Iran, there is a sense of "fairness" for lack of a better term, that underlies the thick blanket of Islam. Though most western scholars ignore it and western media is completely unaware of it, the instinctive understanding of the rights of others and the appreciation of the value of other people is fully alive within the souls of most Iranians. And slowly, decade by decade through centuries, they have been hacking their way out of the bonds that hold them even while respecting the values of Islam they have come to love. That process hasn't been easy.

Iran has been a "one step forward- two steps back" region for centuries. Rights under Islam have been fought for and lost on several occasions, particularly for women. Few in the west would ever believe that at one point before the 1979 revolution the wearing of the veil was literally outlawed, and condemned as demeaning towards women. Even fewer would believe that women were a driving force behind the revolution, believing that it would bring greater freedoms, less segregation, and more political expression. Instead of achieving those gains, the revolution brought in progressive waves of suppression, and even resulted in the murderous execution of the first elected female political minister in the history of Iran.

Iran is not a society of bigoted religious pinheads, though they are certainly governed by them. The average Iranian is far more worried about greater political freedom, better social services, increasing economic and educational opportunities, and increasing social freedoms than they are about funding some religous war a thousand miles away. The average Iranian could care less about the Jews in Israel, or what fight the Arabs have gotten themselves into today. And though most Iranian Muslims certainly wish the best for their Muslim Arab brothers, they are not appreciative of their government's staged attempts to show war-like unity with Hezbollah on TV sets across the globe.

At the same time, the hard-line Islamic government has been forced to look at US models of economic development and slowly adopt them. Government businesses are being privatised via direct sales or through the more recently established stock market. Government funds are being channeled into targeted markets to encourage a more diverse economic base not directly associated with oil production.

Nuclear power is a part of this stratagy. When the foolish remarks pouring from the Iranian president are pushed aside and the economic development of Iran is examined instead, nuclear power suddenly becomes not only practical, but actually vital to the future development of Iran. Under the economic microscope, Iran is indeed the second largest oil producer in the world behind Saudia Arabia. But it rests on only ten percent of the world's oil reserves. Simply stated, they are depleteing their reserve and their largest source of national revenues at a rate exceeding any other nation in the world, including the US.

Considering the poor quality and quantities of obtainable coal available, and that at present, Iran's electrical power sources are all oil fired, Iran's future options to obtain the power required for long term development are extremely limited. Iran, even more than the US or many other nations that presently operate nuclear power plants, actually needs to develop nuclear power if they are to survive as a developed nation. But that brings us back to their present leadership, the USA, and what the nasty cultural and potentially miltary stand-off really means.

How can we trust a nation with a government led by apparent religious idiots? In fact, why would they ever believe we would? How could a nation such as the US with such a thorough understanding of the power and dangers of nuclear power ever be expected to accept a nation led by religious zealots gaining nuclear power? And why would the leadership of Iran ever expect us to?

You said it best. "Crazy like a fox." [This was from a private chat - ed.] If there were ever a time to stand up, play the smoke and mirrors game, and screw with the biggest kid on the block, it would be now. For the moment, the whole world is absolutely sure that every drop of oil in the world is about to be sucked out of the earth and burned in a big old US-made SUV. The argument over the ratio of US to worldwide oil consumption has been in every magazine, newspaper and TV news show repeatedly, all without balancing it against US productivity, research or even trade geography.

It's been a great angle for Bush-haters to use when claiming the war in Iraq, and even Afghanistan, was really just about oil. Convenient as that argument has been for them politically, it has been even more convenient for oil producing nations and oil companies themselves. Both now find themselves with the world at their feet, and the smart ones are taking advantage of it while they can. And Iran, as you mention, just might be one of the smart ones.

Iran can threaten with its oil because, well, it can. In true economic terms as well as our media-induced public mindset, Iran has us in its oily grip. And because part of our public and media have focused so heavily on defeat and gloom in our military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, US and world perception of our capabilities is at an all-time low. N. Korea has stumbled us through yet another useless display of military nothingness. Our allies have been either crumbling or capitulating altogether. And even Israel, after wiping half of Lebanon off the map, has been portrayed as a bumbling failure, while Syria and Iran have been elevated to the rank of mini-superpowers headed by infallible geniuses.

What better time to spite the US? What better time to declare yourself to be the next rising star? What better time to throw yourself into the spotlight and proclaim yourself to be a respectable and influential player in the worldwide arena? Looks like the right time to me, and in the media it looks like a winner.

But the truth on paper is a little different. Iran's government is a pathetically wobbly thing. It's not particularly popular despite its claims, and only through extensive concessions to a public that shares few of its views has it been able to manipulate Iran's "democratic" system sufficiently enough to remain in power without suffering a nasty coup.

1979 might have been a bad year for the Shah and the USA, but even as it thrust Islamic fundamentalism into a position to take absolute power, it also demonstrated the extent Iranians can be willing to take when they are fed up with their government. 1979 rings just as powerfully in the ears of Iran's Islamic clerics as it does to Americans old enough to remember, but for entirely different reasons.

Economically, while Iran has begun the process of transforming its economic system to one similar in structure to the west, oil still represents a staggering 96.2% of it's total export product. Few other developing nations could ever survive with such lack of diversity. Take away the oil, and you take Iran down into the depths of total economic, governmental, and social disaster.

Iran treads a fine line now. Its people want more freedom, more power in their political system, more opportunties and protections. Hard-line Islam is at odds with that, but the very future of Iran depends on it, and they know it. Not unlike the communist heads of state in China, Iran's religious leaders are struggling with gut-wrenching difficulties while attempting to preserve their power in a nation that really doesn't need or even want them.

The US treads a similar line. At present several growing nations are jockying for positions in a changing economic global climate. As threatening as Islam is to the western world, western style economics and the social changes they tend to bring are just as threatening to old school Islamics.

There is a commercial where I live in Thailand that provides a fair, if not perfect example. In the commercial an old woman, a young lady, and a young man are all at prayer in typical Thai fashion, feet bare and placed below themselves or to the side, facing away from the Buddha. Each hold incense in their pressed-together palms, and all are naturally devout, eyes closed in their prayers. That is, except one. From his vantage point somewhat to the rear of the younger girl, the boy peeks his eyes. She's got on some Levi's brand low rise jeans, and a bare strip of skin, minor by US standards, presents itself. His heart wants to concentrate on prayers to the Buddha, but his eyes want to stare at that tiny bit of flesh that piety would forbid.

This is what the religious leadership of Iran and so many other Islamic states fear. Tiny encroachments of western society on the theologic monopoly states they have created. As surely as they fight with the only real weapon they have, mortal terror, the west nips and bites away at them in fractional portions almost impossible to grasp or control. Indeed, when they do recognize it and attempt to control it, the effect on their societies is nothing short of seeing modern western man hurled back to the stone age. And the effect on the societies is every bit as economically damaging as it is socially.

We are not battling Islam itself within Iran. No matter how broken or socially destructive the religion can be in its manifestations, the vast majority of Muslims can practice their religion without the slightest urge to destroy their fellow man unless they are compelled to do so by their leadership. And the people who hold that leadership are the only ones who stand to gain by doing so.

It is because of these facts that the US must tread a very treacherous path with Iran, and a far stronger reason why the present administration has taken a softer approach than some in the US would prefer, or the media could ever hope to understand.

The US could take Iran out of the game very simply, should it choose to do so. Even with so much of our military involved in the religious wars of Iraq and Afghanistan, we still retain the ability to destroy the majority of Iran's military capability without ever putting a single boot on the ground, and the economic force that drives it. Again, to emphasize, take away Iran's ability to export oil, and you take away Iran's ability to fund any sort of war-making machine.

Could the US survive the loss of oil? Of course. The immediate effect would be a huge upheaval in gasoline prices and a host of threats and condemnations from the world community at large. But in due course, other oil producing nations would suddenly realize additional wealth and opportunites for economic expansion. These would include the Arab states of course, but also others such as Venezuela, Russia, those in the southeastern Asian group, and even the USA. In the long run, the balance of the economy would simply adapt and even progress in certain areas, as the lower supply of oil would increase the world's push towards cleaner technologies.

So who's actually in the weakest position? Is it the nation whose leadership is desperately trying to drum up support for its repressive brand of faith? Or is it the nation whose brand of success and accomplishment continues to be the model by which every successful economy on the planet eventually becomes patterned after?

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Oh, Joy

And what do you bet it gets rave reviews?

British television channel More4 plans to broadcast a dramatic film, documentary-style, about a fictional assassination of U.S. President George W. Bush, the network's head said Thursday.

The program uses actors and digital manipulation of real footage to show a fictional account of Bush being gunned down after delivering a speech in Chicago, Peter Dale, the head of More4, told a news conference.

"Death of a President," also scheduled to be shown at the Toronto Film Festival in September, focuses on all those linked to the pretend crime — including nearby anti-war protesters, suspects, Secret Service guards and investigators, Dale said.

... "It's a pointed political examination of what the war on terror did to the American body politic," [Dale] said.

Dale said he expected the film would upset some, but defended it as a sophisticated piece of work.

"It's not sensationalist, or simplistic but a very thought-provoking, powerful drama," he said. "I hope people will see that the intention behind it is good."

I am sure they will. Never would it be seen as, say, some sort of vicarious flailing wish-fulfillment of impotent rage and political ignorance disguised as "art." And I'm sure the current state of America is a topic Peter Dale knows intimately and understands well, sitting in his London office and watching the BBC and reading the Guardian.

UPDATE: Newsroom reaction to this story: Reporter 1: Enthusiastic reading of story. Editor 2: "No comment; I'm trying to stay out of Guantanamo."

Crying Foul

My, my. Seems there's more to the secret-hold flap relating to government contracting than one pork-loving, transparency-hating Republican senator from Alaska.

Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd says he put a secret hold on the measure, too.
Byrd merely wanted more time to evaluate the legislation that would create a new database of some $2.5 trillion in federal spending on contracts, loans, financial assistance and insurance.

“Senator Byrd wanted time to read the legislation, understand its implications, and see whether the proposal could be improved,” Gavin said.

Gee. That sounds familiar. I could swear that I recall, and quite recently, someone else saying something similar.

It seems that some things really do transcend mere party-line politics.


Added: Seems to me that this quote works when applied to Byrd as well:
"We had the perfect irony of a senator's putting a secret hold on legislation designed to guarantee public transparency about pork," said Paul Kiel, a blogger-reporter for the website

But Is It Art?

I've never read a "Left Behind" novel. But this site makes the argument that the books based on "Revelations" are not novels at all.

In this agreement, LaHaye can be seen as the puppet master over writer Jenkins. Below that, Jenkins himself is the puppet master of the characters in the books. This shows greatly in the novels, where characters are subservient to both the prophetic outline LaHaye has provided, as well as how Jenkins has to fit characters into that story in order to have them move around the plot like human characters do. Under this heavy-handed authority, both by LaHaye at the top, and Jenkins at the second layer, characters are created that do not have individual souls or free wills of their own, characters that are not allowed to explore freely what makes their individual characters unique. Overall, there is little difference between characters other than that they are on the side of Good or on the side of Evil. Their actions, thoughts and motivations are one-dimensional.

Are they novels, then? Oh, probably not. The characters exist only to represent pieces on an ideological chess board. But in that sense, G.B. Shaw's plays are no different just more artfully written. And I expect Shaw was raunchy enough to have got right away the raunchy double-entendre in "Left Behind."

Self-Defense is Naughty

So says the U.N.

Self-defence is a widely recognized, yet legally proscribed, exception to the universal duty to respect the right to life of others. Self-defence is a basis for exemption from criminal responsibility that can be raised by any State agent or non-State actor. Self-defence is sometimes designated as a "right." There is inadequate legal support for such an interpretation. Self-defence is more properly characterized as a means of protecting the right to life and, as such, a basis for avoiding responsibility for violating the rights of another.

Probably if you wanted to pick a topic that highlighted the difference between America and Israel and The Rest of the World, this would be it.


You knew it was only a matter of time before the concept of mass eRiffing would gain a toehold, didn't you? RadioShack uses e-mail to lay off 400 employees.
Tuesday morning about 400 workers at RadioShack Corp.'s headquarters received one of those mass e-mail notifications that companies use to let workers know about everything from picnics to promotions.

But this e-mail was Radio-Shack's way of cutting jobs: "The work force reduction notification is currently in progress. Unfortunately your position is one that has been eliminated."

Company spokeswoman Kay Jackson defended the electronic pink slips by noting that Radio-Shack had told employees in a series of meetings that layoff notices would be delivered by e-mail. She said employees were invited to ask questions before Tuesday's notification -- provided they did so electronically.

Derrick D'Souza, a management professor at the University of North Texas, said he had never heard of such a large number of terminated employees being notified electronically.

"If I put myself in their shoes, I'd say, 'Didn't they have a few minutes to tell me?' " Mr. D'Souza said.

Too inefficient, buddy. No need to get personal about this sort of thing.

Ain't modern eTiquette grand? High tech, low touch.

More Dam Boring Postcards

The Panama Canal under construction. Possibly the most boring postcard of all time. The little blurb on the back says, "The progress of the Panama Canal has been so rapid that it is almost ready for the ships of commerce that will use this gigantic sluiceway that has made two hemispheres out of one." Trying to compensate with breathless prose for what is essentially a colorized black-and-white photograph of standing water.

Of course, if the modern Western media were a postcard company from the turn of the last century, it would be a picture of dead coolies and a headline about Roosevelt lied and an editorial asserting that this whole pointless adventure was a waste of life and international goodwill.

Visitors in one of the galleries of the Hoover Dam. The blurb on the back calls this "one of America's great visitors' attractions," and with a boost from this psychedelic watercoloring job it's almost convincing. What a disappointment, though, when little Johnny gets there and discovers, "Aw, gee, mom, it's really just all a lot of gray concrete."

The postcard says more than 2.5 million people have been through here. This lucky group just happened to be passing through when the cameraman set up his tripod, and thus have been apotheosized into scrapbooks all over the land. Too bad for us it was a tour group from some pre-Civil War sect that refused, on theological grounds, to smile for cameras.


Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Back to School

It's the end of August. The Amish are bringing in the corn, the succulent local peaches are disappearing from Market, and the ice cream truck no longer wakes me up every afternoon. Schools are back, which means my newspaper is doing its back-to-school story. This year we chose to hang it on a new teacher who was supposed to start last year, but got called up and deployed to Iraq instead.

Of course, one of our most fervent anti-war reporters was sent out to interview him (the one who asserts Iraqis were better off under Saddam). I was delighted to see he steered away from her leading question.

"I saw a lot of good things over there," he said. "There is obviously bad stuff going on, but there is a lot of good. I wish (the media) would show some of the building projects."

My contractor friend will be pleased. I wonder if the parenthetical "the media" replaced a "they" or a "you." And I wonder if all the people calling out to "bring the troops home now" understand how many of them will come home and ask that same question. I wonder if those beating the retreat will have an answer ready for them.

What's a Fascist?

The media has discovered that Republicans, too, use the word "fascism."

Fascism, in fact, seems to be the new buzz word for Republicans in an election season dominated by an unpopular war in Iraq.

Yes, that's how the AP reports the news these days.

This discovery has led to predictable debates over whether "fascism" is the right word here or not. And of course there's no answer, since it's a word invented by humans for a human political condition. Not like "oak tree" or something where you can define it by genetics or taxonomy.

To some people, fascism can only be right-wing, and thus oriented in politics. It certainly is a conservative quality, but I think that limitation is too severe. To be very strict, it would have to be limited to the movement started by Benito Mussolini in 1919 and only could be Italian. The best definition I've found is in Robert O. Paxton's book "The Anatomy of Fascism" [published in 2004]:

"A form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion."

That all seems to fit the Islamist program, so far as I can understand it, to a "T." The only missing element, perhaps, is the part about "abandons democratic liberties," because in the culture in which this movement flourishes there are few if any such to be abandoned.

The word fascist first appeared in English in 1921, in reference to the Italian partito nazionale fascista, the anti-communist political movement organized under Mussolini. The word thus comes from Italian fascio "group, association," literally "bundle." Fasci "groups of men organized for political purposes" had been a feature of Sicily since c.1895; the 20th century sense probably was influenced by the Roman fasces which became the party symbol of Mussolini's group.

Latin fasces "bundle of rods containing an axe with the blade projecting" was the object carried before a lictor, a superior Roman magistrate, as a symbol of power over life and limb: the sticks symbolized punishment by whipping, the axe head execution by beheading.

The word has few relatives outside Latin (and Italian); among them seem to be Middle Irish basc "neckband," Welsh baich "load, burden," and Old English bæst "inner bark of the linden tree," which is connected to Modern English bast. Perhaps the oddest relation is faggot "bundle of twigs bound up," which contributed to the slang faggot "male homosexual," though not via the "burned at the stake" Internet urban legend.

A Problem Like Iran

As a recent article in The Economist points out, Iran is in the catbird seat.

Ahmadinejad can showboat now, like he did in May with his taunting letter to Bush describing a world filled with "ever-increasing global hatred of the American government." Ahmadinejad called that letter "words and opinions of the Iranian nation" aimed at finding a "way out of problems" facing humanity.

And his challenge Tuesday for Bush to debate him live on "world issues and the ways of solving the problems of the international community."

"We announce our views. They can say theirs provided that there will be no censorship, especially for the American people."

Ahmadinejad said the debate would show the world "how this (U.S.) method is oppressive and compare it with the proposals of the Iranian nation on how to run the world better, different from the U.S. method of use of force and special advantage." His recent Mike Wallace interview brought up many of the same themes.

What hubris! It's hard not to see a paranoid style at work in modern Iranian politics. The nation seems to be obsessed with being the focus of attention of world powers that are insidiously working to overthrow it, undermine it, rob it of its rightful role and keep it from its true status in the world.

In a recent New York Times interview, Ali Muhammad Besharati, Iran's former interior minister and deputy foreign minister and one of the men who helped Ahmadinejad rise to power, insisted the American objection to Iran's nascent nuclear weapons program is just a front for our supposed ongoing obsession with Iran.

"I would like you to write this down," he said, speaking through an interpreter. "If we backed down on the nuclear issue, the U.S. would have found fault with our medical doctors researching stem cells."

"In the imprecise language of Iran's political divisions," the NYT notes, "Besharati would be considered a moderate-conservative."

In some ways modern Iran reminds me of Japan in the 1920s: Wanting to be a big-time power, working scrupulously to duplicate the forms and trappings of a major power. As in Japan's case, it is nominally a democracy, but with important and powerful forces (in Japan, the military, in Iran the military and the clerics) outside civilian control and exercising an effective veto power over the elected government.

And as a rising power, but an outsider in the Western/Christian dominated power scheme of its day, it is highly sensitive to insult, quick to perceive slights as plots, obsessed with rejection. And like Japan, it is likely to have an aggressive reaction when it feels itself excluded from a rightful place at the international table.

But that was a world order wherein 9 or 11 nations had a claim to authority and parity. In this world, there's only one United States. And the only proof of world power status is an ability to stand up to America, reject it, taunt it, piss it off, thumb your nose at it, mock it, humiliate it. Needless to say, this fits nicely into Middle Eastern notions of pride and respect and authority.

As such, then, it reminds me of the old Soviet Union. It has to aspire to be not just America's equal, but its chief rival in the world. The rhetoric flowing out of Tehran is almost identical to the old Soviet propaganda, emphasizing the sham equality and false virtues of the West, while touting itself as the true exemplar of all things good. With just enough kernel of truth at the core of the critique to be annoying, and counting on a blind world, bigoted against America and Israel, to not look too closely at the claims.

Whole passages of the NYT article cited above could have been lifted from a 45-year-old interview with a Soviet official:

In many ways Besharati is the model of an Iranian official, both in his bearing and in his stated positions, blaming the White House for U.S.-Iranian problems while insisting Tehran wants nothing more than to live in peaceful harmony with the world. He does not answer when asked why for nearly two decades Iran kept its nuclear program a secret, in violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Iran is obsessed with the idea that America is obsessed with Iran. And of course the refusal to believe anything else and behaving as though it's true makes it self-fulfilling. The White House now is obsessed with Iran. The joke is that North Korea's Kim does something whenever he wants attention. It's likely more than a joke. It's also likely true of Iran.

Like I've written before, I'm a big believer in Donald Kagan's thesis that pride and honor have a lot more to do with modern wars than modern historians generally realize.

If we take honor to mean fame, glory, renown, or splendor, it may appear applicable only to an earlier time. If, however, we understand its significance as deference, esteem, just due, regard, respect, or prestige we will find it an important motive of nations in the modern world as well. Honor, in these senses, is desirable in itself, but it also has practical importance in the competition for power. When it is on the wane, so, too, is the power of the state losing it, and the reverse is also true. Power and honor have a reciprocal relationship. It is obvious that when a state's power grows, the deference and respect in which it is held are likely to grow as well. But the opposite is also true: even when its material power appears to remain the same, it really declines if in some manner these attitudes toward it change. This happens most frequently when a state is seen to lack the will to use its material power.

What ought we to do? Luckily for us, Iran is not al-Qaida; it has a national government, a fixed identity on the map, rivals and enemies, and nation-state problems of self-governance. The same old rules ought to apply.

Containment worked against the Soviet Union. Certainly there are enough disgruntled minorities, assertive and progressive people, and popular discontent in Iran to bring it down on its own, given enough time. The leaders will whip the population into line with a fear of Evil America, but that can only last so long, especially if we make real efforts to reach the Iranian people, as we did the Eastern Europeans in the Cold War.

But Iran already is decontained. Occupying Afghanistan and Iraq, as we do, ought to be a good start toward containment. But the rough ride we're having in both places undercuts that proposition. Frankly, the old realpolitik approach would have been to contain Iran on the cheap by exploiting the inflammable Sunni-Shi'ite hatred from a distance. That likely would involve the destruction of Iraq. To our credit, we're trying to hold Iraq together and steer it toward prosperity, when the true course of pure national interest right now would be to split it up and send it to hell.

Iran also has lept over us and established connections in Syria and Lebanon, and perhaps also the Shi'ite coast of Saudi Arabia.

It would be nice if the U.S. was in a stronger and more authoritative position in the Middle East today, and was better supported in the world. It would be nice if the American people were more focused and united on the serious threats brewing in the wider world. It would be nice if the Western media was more alert to Iran than it is to JonBenet stories and hurricane anniversaries. Desiderata.

There's a good discussion (as usual) at The Glittering Eye both in the post and the coments. I agree with Dave that, whatever else is true, this ought to be firm:

It’s beginning to sound as though any sanctions imposed will be so minor in extent and so late in the game that the likelihood of their having any effect is minor. And, despite the saber-rattling from some of the usual suspects (I won’t bother to link—they’re easy enough to find), I don’t believe that either the United States or Israel or the United States and Israel will attack Iran to prevent its acquisition of nuclear weapons.

So, we’ll need to accustom ourselves to a nuclear-armed Iran.

... I’ve written about deterring the Iranians before. I don’t think “won’t tolerate” is sufficiently strong. For a credible deterrent the Iranians (and I mean all the Iranians) must realize that if Iran pursues nuclear weapons and if the U. S. or U. S. interests are attacked using such a weapon Tehran will cease to exist regardless of whether we’re certain of where the weapon originated or not. We won’t be in a mood to take any chances.

P.S.: Here's another Khrushchev wanna-be:

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez pledged solidarity on Wednesday with Syria in its struggle against Israel and the United States and predicted the demise of U.S. "imperialism."

Chavez, a harsh critic of U.S. foreign policy, also said he would seek a front-row seat if President George W. Bush accepted an invitation from Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to a televised debate, adding he would be cheering on the Iranian president.

"Syria and Venezuela share the same firm positions and a resistance to imperialism and imperialist aggression," Chavez told a news conference after talks with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, speaking in Spanish through an Arab interpreter.

"This age will witness the end of American imperialism," he said, pointing a laser pen at a map of the world showing countries where Washington has intervened militarily or whose governments it has helped to topple over the last 50 years.

Chavez denounced what he called Israel's "Nazi crimes" in Lebanon during the recent war and said the Jewish state should pull its remaining troops out of that country and also out of the Golan Heights, which it captured from Syria in 1967.

"Nothing equals the Nazi crimes Israel has committed in Lebanon and against the Palestinians," said Chavez, who arrived in Syria on Tuesday evening from Malaysia.

No, that's not fair to Khrushchev. I like him, overall. His rhetoric was mostly bluster. I think these fools really mean it. If only so many around the world didn't agree.


Boring Postcards

Why? Because of the unpopularity!

Downtown Reno, Nevada, and another scenic view of a courthouse. It makes more sense here than in Milwaukee, though. That is, a vacation in Reno is more likely to involve a courthouse angle.

I like how the bored artist at the postcard factory amused himself by painting highly improbable yellow, red, and blue hubcaps on the parked cars.

See Mormons. See Mormons swim. Swim, Mormons, swim! Actually, floating seems to be the order of the day. You may think you saw this in a Monty Python animation, but you probably didn't.

This is a prize. It really does say "Shepard of the Hills," right? I'm not misspelling that? Then again, the owner really does seem proud of that "hot baked ham." And the "real coffee" As opposed to? "Free dancing." As opposed to? Perhaps this also was the first campsite owner to conceive the brilliant plan to whitewash the tree trunks to keep his predictably drunk patrons from ramming into them.

I've lived in Pennsylvania most of my life, and I never heard of a "Van" except the one in Turkey. The "Lakes to Sea Highway" is a reminder of the pre-Eisenhower interstate system, when the government took a lot of random state roads between one place and another and connected them with lines on a map and gave it some grandiose name.


Tuesday, August 29, 2006


Joe Pitts, who represents me in the House, is a Republican and so am I. But that's about as much as we have in common, politically. He's in the family values wing, and he spends far more time than I like obsessing about stem-cell research and flag-burning. He's like Santorum's Dutch uncle.

But when he's right he's right, and he's right about his proposal to amend U.S. immigration policy. Pitts recently introduced legislation to clarify the Patriot Act and the Real ID Act so they will admit honest and worthy asylum-seekers while denying citizenship to terrorists.

Language in the Patriot Act and related bills defines terrorism as “any activity which is unlawful under the laws of the place it was committed.” Current law also bars admission to the U.S. for anyone who ever provided “material support” to any armed group.

The terrorism definition is too broad. The Warsaw ghetto uprising of World War II doesn't belong in the same file as al-Qaida.

The laws also make no account of whether the opposition group is friend or foe to us.

Finally, the law takes no account of whether the support given was voluntary or coerced. A recent Kansas City Star article geve some examples of the kind of people this language bars from admission to America:

  • A Liberian woman who was kidnapped by rebels, raped repeatedly, and forced to cook and do laundry for them was considered by the Department of Homeland Security to have provided “material support.” The case was placed on hold.

  • The resettlement of a Sierra Leone mother and daughter who were raped and held captive in their home by marauding rebels also was placed on hold on the grounds the family had provided housing to the rebels.

  • A Colombian woman was barred from admission to the U.S. because she gave farm animals to rebels. The guerrillas demanded money, which the family did not have. After making countless threats, they took livestock instead. Later, they shot the woman’s husband and raped her.

Opponents of the military dictatorship in Burma might be denied entry. There already are people languishing in refugee camps who fled Uzbekistan after the repressive government there gunned down unarmed protesters in the capital, who can't get into America because that government has put their names on a "terrorist" list.

Pitts' proposed changes would limit the exclusion to members of groups known to be a threat to national security or U.S. citizens. They also would allow exceptions for services rendered at gunpoint.

This is not a case of one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter or any such loathsome moral equivalence. The U.S. has an amendable list of organizations it has deemed terroristic. Such laws as these ought to be bound by that list.

As things stand, we've barred our gates to thousands of the kind of people who made America. These also are the kind of people America was made for. Liberty's torch shines so they can find us out of the fog of the world.

It would be instructive to flip through an American history book and tally the number of important figures who would have been excluded from our nation by the law as it now stands. Revolutionary War hero Casimir Pulaski is one who comes to mind. Another is the great 19th century German-American patriot and political figure Carl Schurz.

Schurz once gave a toast that rings true for this situation: "Our country right or wrong. When right, to be kept right; when wrong, to be put right."

Reichstag Fire

I was surprised to encounter this while proofreading a letter to the editor recently:

Germany’s descent into totalitarianism during the 1930s began when agents of the government torched the parliament building then blamed it on the communists. The media went along with the ruse. Is this an appropriate historical analogy to 9/11?

The letter was from one of those one-third of Americans who suspect or believe our government had some complicity in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. And he takes it as unqualified truth that the Nazis burned the Reichstag. But the weight of historical opinion is that they didn't. They certainly exploited it for all it was worth to them, and exaggerated the communist terrorism angle.

But I guess if you fall for one conspiracy theory, you might as well buy the whole lot.

The Tables Are Turning

So says this Boston Globe thumbsucker by anti-militarist professor Andrew J. Bacevich.

Despite a massive American and Israeli technological edge, including nuclear arsenals, mounting evidence suggests that the age of Western military ascendancy is coming to an end. Muslim radicals have evolved an Islamist way of war that is as complex as it is cunning. As a consequence, in and around the Persian Gulf the military balance is shifting. The failures suffered by the United States in Iraq and by Israel in southern Lebanon may well signify a turning point in modern military history, comparable in significance to the development of blitzkrieg in the 1930s or of the atomic bomb a decade later.

I'm treating him seriously because he actually offers an alternative. But his five-point plan for an alternative to the "War on Terror" is oddly contradictory and incomplete.

First, terminate actions that are self-evidently counterproductive, above all by extricating ourselves in an orderly way from Iraq.

Ignores the enormous psychological boost that would give to the jihadis. Ignores the oil wealth and power they would derive from taking control of most of Iraq. Ignores the many friends and allies we still have there; people who have staked their lives and families on us meaning what we said and intending to deliver on our promises. Who ever would trust us again? The only thing worse for us than being stuck in Iraq now is getting out now.

Second, revive in modified form the Cold War principles of containment and deterrence, incorporating explicit security guarantees for Israel, much as the United States has long guaranteed the security of Europe, Japan, and South Korea.

Security guarantees against what? Containment of what? The Soviet Union was a geographically defined nation state, with a conservative leadership and a population that could be held hostage by nuclear terror. I've been to West Berlin. The Eastern Block had a "there" to it. On this side of the street, you're in it; on that side, you're not. Where's the "there" to Islamist jihad? It's in an apartment in Madrid or Paterson. It's not in the apartment next door. How do you "contain" something as fluid as air?

Bacevich seems to be guilty of the same offense he accuses the U.S. administration of committing: Failing to adjust its thinking to account for a new kind of enemy.

Third, initiate a new Manhattan Project to develop alternative sources of energy, thereby increasing US freedom of action and reducing the flow of wealth to the Persian Gulf, wealth that ends up subsidizing the Islamist cause.

How I wish. But we're not at the point where that would do any good. Science just doesn't work like that. Manhattan Project came along when the new energy source had been discovered and described and defined, and all that left was a massive motivation of money and manpower to bring it to fruition. That's the point at which a government push can be helpful. That's not where we stand with alternative energies.

Fourth, through police action, in collaboration with our allies, redouble efforts to dismantle the organizations comprising the radical Islamist network.

Hard to know what he means here. Does he mean international military "police actions," a la Afghanistan? Or Interpol type work? Either way, there are formidable unaddressed problems. Taking him to mean the second, there are vastly different rules of evidence and procedure between, say, Britain and America. And the inevitable entanglement of terror-prevention police work and civil liberties already is an open can of worms.

Fifth, patiently nurture liberalizing tendencies within the Islamic world, not by preaching or threats of regime change, but by demonstrating at home and inviting Muslims abroad to witness, the manifest advantages of freedom and democracy.

Ah, idealism! But the most bitter and committed Islamists, from Qutb to Atta, have been exactly those who lived and studied in the West and observed its triumphs and temptations up close.

Bacevich dodges the difficult problem of the role of mass-media in the terrorists' strategies. He gets as close to it as he dares when he writes, "But resistance also includes ... propaganda designed for internal consumption and propaganda intended for foreign audiences." And then at once veers away from this central component of the Islamist war against the West.

I agree with Bacevich that the water we're all in probably is a lot hotter than we realize. We've got what the Japanese of the 1940s later ruefully termed "Victory Disease." We might lose. And the consequences of that would be terrible. Anti-war people seem to think this push-back against Islamism all could be done better and smarter with less work, less sacrifice, less difficulty, fewer ugly pictures in the nightly news. Unfortunately, the opposite likely is more true.


Boring Postcards

This, on the other hand, decidedly was not the kind of hotel where my grandparents would have stayed. Just look at that typeface, and the woman is scandalously dressed. No doubt a haunt of rich bootleggers. And the dropped apostrophe of "nations capitol" is not to be lightly forgiven.

Sure enough, the inscription on the back reveals it was sent from one of the neighborhood girls to my two great-aunts back home.

"250 rooms," 200 of them with bath! Modern! Fireproof! Which just reminds you that fire safety used to be one of the chief concerns of people booking hotels.

Another one. Nothing written on the back, and I don't really know what one would write on the back of a postcard of the Milwaukee court house. "Wish you were here"? No, probably not. "Food is great. Having a wonderful time. Promised a police escort to state line"?


Monday, August 28, 2006

Lying In Wait For Another Chance

On Hardball, Norah O'Donnell just got Brownie to say that the White House told him to "lie" about the aftermath of Katrina, and to admit that he himself, Michael D. Brown, "lied." Not that things were a mess, and no one quite knew what was going on, having been taking aback as was everyone, everywhere, about Katrinia's wrath. Not that people, he himself included, might initially have been horribly mistaken and out of touch.

And not even that he was advised to put a positive spin on things--though he briefly mentioned "talking points," that time-honored technique of ALL administrations. (Please, don't bother to argue with me about that. Sometimes, rain really is just wet, that quality being the nature of rain.) No, what O'Donnell got him to say was that the White House told him to lie. And that he, Brown, lied. Allowing not for mistakes or anything else, but something far more malign. Which I can entertain further down the line, but not in the immediate time and aftermath of Katrina. And which malignancy, even then, I can assign to almost everywhere.

Brown's hitting hot-buttons, politically, quite deliberately, and in the most opportunistic and convenient way. Not for one minute do I believe that it has to do with actual chagrin and humility on his part. Or any desire to really help real people, either to understand what went wrong back then or to move things forward right now.

It seems to me important to note that apart from Michael Brown's legitimate frustrations and beefs preceding Katrina and his issues with Michael Chertoff (legitimate, personal, or--as is most likely--a mix), he started, nine months ago, a disaster-preparedness firm. I have no idea how it's doing right now, though it's something I surely will try to google in more detail, later. But Michael Brown is very, very invested indeed, it is clear, with off-loading the flood of blame and recrimination in any way that it touches upon him. And--perhaps, just perhaps--in getting back at those who left him feeling "abandoned" (see below).

I've gone through various...phases...with regard to Mr. Brown. (And I'm definitely of the school that there is More Than Plenty of blame to go around with regard to Katrina's pre-math, during-math, and aftermath, most particularly as pertains to the situation as it played out in Louisiana.) I've blogged skeptically, in ways both sympathetic and not, about Mr. Brown back on my old blog. See I'd Love to See That Marketing Plan, A Disaster In The Making From Day One and "I certainly feel somewhat abandoned".

I think it's worthwhile remembering that when Brown got dumped--rightly or wrongly, fairly or not--last fall, a rather lot was made, appropriately enough, in the media about his background and qualifications, and whether or not they ever fitted him to the position he held. I wonder how often this issue will be raised as his remarks about "lying" are circulated round and about. Or, for that matter, the fact that he acknowledged himself a liar, this night.

Boring Postcards

I've probably played in a dozen bands in my life. By bands I mean groups of people who agreed on a name for themselves and played music live in front of other people who listened for reasons other than 1. they had nowhere else to wait for the subway 2. they had no ride home other than with a band member.

But I always quit when it got serious. Technically, there's no difference between getting together in some guy's basement every day after work and jamming, and committing in advance to get together in that guy's basement one day after work and "practice." But that's work. When it's work, it's not fun. That's when I quit (after finishing whatever gigs we already had arranged).

Same thing with collecting. I've collected stuff over the course of my life: Coins, stamps, sports cards, old maps, you name it. But always at some point I start to sniff the obsession, and then I go out and sell it all off.

What I've got right now is a stack of old postcards. It started when I was the first of my family in my generation to buy a house. That, and my known interest in historical stuff, prompted my parents to dump all the family white elephants on me. Stuff not worth anything or useful to anyone, but too much a part of the family to simply pitch in a Dumster or sell at a yard sale.

Among it were several albums full of old postcards. Some of them were fascinating. In the "why on earth would anyone make a postcard of this?" way. Not only did someone make it, my family bought it, or got it in the mail, and then hung on to it for 80 years. Like this one:

It seems it's still there, converted to luxury apartments. But that's the kind of thing I almost don't want to know. I want to hold on to this picture, this day in 1929 or whenever, and wonder why my grandmother and her new husband ever moved, briefly, to Cleveland. Why they bought this but never sent it to anyone. Why they kept it.

My favorites were representations of the kind of places I imagine most people want to forget when they travel. Train stations, municipal buildings, grim and spiritless hotels. Like this one:

Later, I dated a girl who collected antique jewelry. She'd haunt the antique malls and flea markets, looking for the perfect find. Rather than follow her like Mary's little lamb from stall to stall, I started flipping through the postcard bins. I decided if I never spent more than 10 cents on any one postcard, and avoided knowing anything about them, it wasn't really collecting.

I've kept that. I still don't know any more about these cards than what they show and tell. I don't specialize in anything except the blandly bizarre. I tend to like the old Atlantic City hotels, but it's not enough of a concentration to amount to a specialty. I couldn't tell you the history of the various printers, or the hallmarks of collectibility. And I love it like that. What they mean to me is between me and them, not some Harry Rinker Guide to Collectible Postcards.

I've been meaning to scan some in and upload them and share them with you, and I finally got around to it this week while I was waiting for the guy to come and put in the new water heater.

Here's the old Hotel Chalfonte in Atlantic City. I'm pretty sure this is where my grandparents stayed when they took summer trips down the Shore in the teens: It had Philadelphia Quaker owners dating back to 1868 and must have been a predictable and placid hotel by the time they established a base there. I've got an old book of matches from the place that I found in my grandfather's cigarette box decades after he died of heart disease.

When gambling came in, the new money tore down the Chalfonte to make a parking lot for the Resorts casino it opened inside the shell of the bigger hotel next door, the former Haddon Hall. Here you can see what the scene looked like when the behemoth and glamorous Haddon replaced the older wooden version (which you can see a bit of in my postcard) in 1929.


There Is A Time And Season For Everything

Which is why (really) I'm not watching, much less blogging, the Emmys, which do not belong (truly) in August, damn it.

Not everyone agrees.

A good thing, and more in tune with the realities, for sure.

The Sound You Hear Is Heads Exploding

Al Gore praises the environmental stance of Wal-Mart, the handling of which Entity And Major Social And Political Problem is, of course, among the two or three most important issues facing the country, according to Ezra Klein.
Former Vice President Al Gore on Wednesday praised Wal-Mart for a newfound focus on environmental sustainability, saying the retailer showed there is no conflict between the environment and the economy.

“I believe that this kind of commitment is so important that the rest of the world is likely to be listening and learning,” Gore told an auditorium of more than 800 Wal-Mart employees, suppliers and outside experts who are advising the company.
Gore said some people questioned whether Wal-Mart was serious about the environment, then added: “Have you ever know Wal-Mart not to follow through on a big commitment of this kind? I have not.”

Gore said [Wal-Mart Chief Executive Lee] Scott had recognized not just the danger of global warming and a moral obligation to act, but also a business opportunity in innovation.

“The message from Wal-Mart today to the rest of the business community is, there need not be any conflict between the environment and the economy. We will find the way not only to reconcile (those), but to find new profits and new opportunities as we do the right thing,” Gore said.

Ahhhhhh. Sometimes surfing all the ebbs, flows, waves and tides of the Web is just so, well, bracing and refreshing.

I'm just gonna grab a beach drink and build me a sandcastle. Summer's not over yet! Jump right in ... the water is fine.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Bad News from Iraq

Seriously. Donny George is himself a national treasure and a fierce and wise guardian of Iraq's antiquities. He protected them from Saddam's sons, who saw them as tchotchkes for their crass palaces, and he protected them from the looters in 2003. If he's leaving now, something is seriously wrong, and he describes it in this article.

I knew of his work through reading about history. But after the invasion, when the wild stories about the looting of the museum began, I started attending briefings at University of Pennsylvania, which has a long history in Iraq digs, and there I got to hear about Donny George firsthand from top people in the field who had an almost reverential respect for him -- not a typical situation for American academics discussing the head of a national museum in the Middle East.

Terrifying Stupidity

The philosophically deep Russell Shaw has now treated us to his new and expansive redefinition of terrorism, as that term has been generally understood.

Or maybe I'm the one with the fundamental misunderstanding. It's true that I've only been familiar with the term for 35-odd years, and particularly had it brought home to me as a permanent, deadly reality starting in 1972, when I watched with my parents the unfolding horror of "Black September's" capturing and murdering of Israeli Olympic athletes. But, what the hell: I've could have been deeply mistaken as to terrorism's definition all of these years.

Not to mention narrow-minded, to which quality you can chalk up the following assessment of Shaw based on his loony, disingenuous redefinition of a perfectly good, rather needed and currently relevant term:

What a freakin' idiot.

Self-defeating, too. Because why the hell should I, or anyone else, ever pay attention to him with regard to some of the very legitimate issues and problems he raises after he's demonstrated so deftly how much of an incredible and silly a thinker he is?

Memos to Demos

Do better than this.

Sen. Joseph Biden says he can hold his own in a 2008 presidential primary against Democratic contenders from the South, noting that his home state of Delaware was a "slave state."

Biden dismissed the notion that he was a "Northeastern liberal" who would have a poor showing in the South against other likely contenders such as Virginia Gov. Mark Warner and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, the 2004 Democratic vice presidential nominee.

... "You don't know my state," he said. "My state was a slave state. My state is a border state. My state has the eighth-largest black population in the country. My state is anything from a Northeast liberal state."

The sad thing is, Biden is the kind of Democrat who, theoretically, ought to appeal to me. He has education, aspirations of statesmanship, historical sensibilities, big-picture visionary capabilities, and theoretically he is possessed of a natural intelligence.

Then something like this. Oh well; the same laundry list could be applied to Newt Gingrich.

Some about slavery in Delaware here. It is an interesting historical sidelight, but not terribly relevant to a national election in 2006.

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Saturday, August 26, 2006

Ooze Is Non-Partisan

It just is what it is, this time from the Conservative side of the aisle:

Tammy Bruce's words: It's about time, in a link quote comprising her post titled "ISRAEL STRIKES THE ENEMY WITHIN."

Yeah, I get her point. As did the Reuters personnel and bystanders who also got "a point."

I enjoy Tammy Bruce, much of the time, in whatever medium. She's not my natural enemy, nor I hers, in many ways (quite the contrary, on a number of fronts). But this?

It was a cheap shot, delivered cheaply. And I scathingly assign it the worth it deserves, accordingly.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Alabama Politics Bleg

I'll cop to it: I don't have any familiarity with current Alabama politics, and I have too many irons in the fire right now to go start researching a whole new area.

Can anyone out there, better informed than I, explain this story to me--that is, provide some background and context? It sure seems to me there's something--a bunch?--missing from this piece. (Of course, I get the obvious.)
MONTGOMERY, Ala. - A Democratic Party committee Thursday night disqualified an openly gay candidate for the Alabama Legislature and the woman she defeated in the primary runoff because both women violated a party rule that party officials said no other candidate has obeyed since 1988.

The committee voted 5-0 to disqualify Patricia Todd, who was attempting to become the state's first openly gay legislator, and Gaynell Hendricks.
Attorney Bobby Segall told the committee earlier Thursday that if the party disqualified Todd for not filing a financial disclosure form with the party chairman it would also have to disqualify the party's nominee for governor, Lt. Gov. Lucy Baxley, and for lieutenant governor, former Gov. Jim Folsom Jr.

"Lucy Baxley is out of here. Just let the Republicans take over the state Senate and the House. Jim Folsom is out of here," Segall said in an emotional presentation to the committee. Committee members announced their decision about two hours after the hearing ended.

Committee members and party officials said the committee's decision would not affect any other Democratic Party nominees — like Baxley — because the results of other races have already been certified.

So, is the biggest issue here race? Sexual orientation? (It seems pretty clear it's not really the financial disclosure issue.) Deep in the story, it appears that it is race, but you'd never get that from the headline of this article or the contents of its first page.

What are we dancing around here? And, as a side issue, am I alone in thinking that the writing and editing of this story is, well, odd?

"Hi, Non-moslem"

Due to the 15 active e-mail addresses I maintain for various purposes, I get a lot of spam, most of which, thankfully, gets caught by the junk filters. Still, because of the volume of mail (once you're listed in connection with a small business, all bets are off), a certain percentage of junk gets through, and so every day I get treated to all kinds of salutations in connection with solicitations.

This one was a first. What next: "Hey there, infidel!"?


A Better America Through Terrorism

Yes, he's surrounded it with apologies and couched it as a mere excercise in moral imagination. But he really is saying this:

What if another terror attack just before this fall's elections could save many thousand-times the lives lost?

... If an attack occurred just before the elections, I have to think that at least a few of the voters who persist in this "Bush has kept us safe" thinking would realize the fallacy they have been under.

If 5% of the "he's kept us safe" revise their thinking enough to vote Democrat, well, then, the Dems could recapture the House and the Senate and be in a position to:

Block the next Supreme Court appointment, one which would surely result in the overturning of Roe and the death of hundreds if not thousands of women from abortion-prohibiting states at the hands of back-alley abortionists;

Be in a position to elevate the party's chances for a regime change in 2008. A regime change that would:

Save hundreds of thousands of American lives by enacting universal health care;

Save untold numbers of lives by pushing for cleaner air standards that would greatly reduce heart and lung diseases;

More enthusiastically address the need for mass transit, the greater availability of which would surely cut highway deaths;

Enact meaningful gun control legislation that would reduce crime and cut fatalities by thousands a year;

Fund stem cell research that could result in cures saving millions of lives;

Boost the minimum wage, helping to cut down on poverty which helps spawn violent crime and the deaths that spring from those acts;

Be less inclined to launch foolish wars, absence of which would save thousands of soldiers' lives- and quite likely moderate the likelihood of further terror acts.

Thank you, Russell Shaw, whom I never heard of till today. Thank you for having the courage to say in print in public what so many "progressives" only mutter among themselves or lie awake at night and frame as a fantasy. Thank you for getting it out there in the daylight where we can see and recognize it, and link to it forever when people say, "no one on the left really ever thinks that way."

State of the Arts

The "New York Times" (can't find this online yet) reports on the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, a massive and wildly uneven three-week festival of performance held each year in Scotland. The scary anti-Semitic component of many performances already has been remarked upon by people not usually scared by such things.

Less surprisingly, the "righteous anger" that NYT's reviewer finds to be the mood and tone of the festival, has Americans and American culture and American religion and American policies as its targets.

But humor aside, the vein that runs through the festival this year is anger: anger at the state of the world in general, and anger at America in particular. Comedians need only display a picture of President Bush to provoke hollow laughter or indignant booing, depending on the context.

One play that has been much admired by audiences is Simon Levy's "What I Heard About Iraq," a stark recitation of actual quotations — some fatuous, some incomprehensible, some terribly sad — from the instigators of and participants in the Iraq war. The play is less a drama than an indictment, an exercise in controlled outrage, and the performers are preaching to the converted. The audiences' anger flashes back through its applause at the end.

Religion and its excesses are another obsession. In one show, the Wisconsin comedian Ryan Paulson describes his strange childhood as a born-again Pentecostal, his religion's emphasis on speaking in tongues forever colliding with his town's keep-to-yourself Scandinavian reticence.

Another show uses man-on-the-street interviews and audience participation to plumb the West's ignorance of Islam. In "According to Jesus," the dark-skinned British comic Jason Kavan, in the guise of Jesus, turns water into wine and then says, "The real miracle was getting hold of these chemicals, looking like this."

And in "Jesus: The Guantanamo Years," another popular attack on the American administration, the comedian Abie Bowman imagines Jesus as a comedian, sent back to earth by "my dad" to try to sort out the world's chaos. But when he arrives at U.S. immigration and describes himself as an unmarried Palestinian fundamentalist with no fixed address who came from a cave in Lebanon, he is sent to Guantanamo Bay and issued an orange jumpsuit, Bowman's costume for the show (along with a modest crown of thorns).

"Welcome to the land of the free," Bowman says. "Conditions apply."

It gets worse. You'll just have to find a print copy.

No mention of any plays or comedy skits about terrorists, Islamic fundamentalists, Iran's freakish megalomaniac president, Saddam's prisons, or mocking Muhammad. I guess the reviewer just didn't get to those venues.

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This Is How We Roll

The Watcher's Council top post this week was Right Wing Nuthouse's expression of frustration about the course of the U.S. effort in Iraq, his rebuke of the administration, and his reaffirmation of his support for the war and its goals.

I'll get to the full list of council winners soon, but this post was so striking and strong I wanted to give it special treatment. This has been a hot topic in these parts lately. And, to my mind, he hits this just about pitch-perfect. This is how you dissent from your own side without repudiating the values that made it your side in the first place. This is how you use the stinging power of rebuke in a bid to make your friends stronger, not your enemies. This is how you critique your allies without falling into the bilious language and the falacies of those who merely hate them.

The evidence that has been piling up the last three years against this Administration’s management of the war can no longer be dismissed as the rantings of dissatisfied bureaucrats or the partisan attacks of critics. Fiasco by Thomas Ricks, a respected military correspondent for the Washington Post, is an absolutely devastating account of the war and how the civilians (and some Generals) in the Pentagon not only made massive and continued mistakes in Iraq but also when confronted with the facts on the ground that refuted their rosy forecasts of progress, refused to change direction. This not only cost American lives but also helped the insurgency grow.

But perhaps the most damning record of stupidity and spin comes via the book
Cobra II by Michael R. Gordon and General (Ret.) Bernard E. Trainor. Much of the book is a heartbreaking recitation of erroneous assumptions, overly optimistic assessments, and finally, a risible refusal to admit mistakes and change course.

Lest one think that these books are the products of left wing loons or authors suffering from Bush Derangement Syndrome, the one common thread running through both volumes is the massive amount of research and unprecedented access to documents that went into writing them. To deny the reality of all that these authors have uncovered is too much of a stretch, even for a Bush partisan like myself. Facts are facts and if the Administration had confronted many of the problems –- insurgency, militias, disenchanted populace, the extent of foreign assistance to the insurgents, and sectarian factionalism to name a few –- it may be that a different outcome to the war could have been salvaged.

Here is another blogger with whom I agree (as far as I can tell) on the essential diagnosis of the problem America woke up to on 9/11, which of course had been there all along, a plague bred in the corpse of the Cold War.

We also agree largely on the vision of what ought to be done about it. Not just to make it go away ("kill all the Muslims" would make it go away), not just what would be the quickest and easiest fix, but what solution would work and at the same time be most humane and most in keeping with our national virtues and ideals. What we could be most proud of afterward. A solution that would show the world how different we are from our enemies.

The most recent statement of that I've read is in a Newsweek piece by Michael Gerson, their token pro-administration voice in the "Is America safer?" issue. Gerson claims this is genuinely George W. Bush's outlook:

[A]s long as the Middle East remains a bitter and backward mess, America will not be secure. Dictators in that region survive by finding scapegoats for their failures—feeding conspiracy theories about Americans and Jews—and use religious groups to destroy reformers and democrats. Oil money strengthens elites, buys rockets, funds research into weapons of mass destruction, builds radical schools across Africa and Asia and finds its way to terrorist organizations. Terrorist organizers exploit the humiliated and hopeless—channeling their search for meaning into acts of murder—and plot, as London 2006 proves, to surpass the mad ambitions of 9/11.

In the traditional diplomatic view, this chaos can be contained through the skillful management of "favorable" dictators. But what if the status quo in the Middle East that produced Muhammad Atta and his friends and successors cannot be contained, or boxed up, or bought off? What if the false and shallow stability of tyranny is actually producing people and movements that make the whole world less stable? And what if the problem is getting dramatically worse as the technology of weapons of mass destruction becomes more democratically distributed?

On this theory, President Bush set out a series of policy changes from the weeks after 9/11 to his second Inaugural in 2005. Threats would be confronted before they arrive, the sponsors of terror would be held equally accountable for terrorist murders and America would promote democracy as an alternative to Islamic fascism, the exploitation of religion to impose a violent political utopia. Every element of the Bush doctrine was directed toward a vision: a reformed Middle East that joins the world instead of resenting and assaulting it.

Whether it's Bush's or not, that was essentially my outlook on it at the start of the war. Not to turn Iraq into Indiana. But maybe into something closer to Turkey. A lot of Muslim people there still hate America and Jews. But generally they're too busy succeeding in their own lives and running their own destinies to really reach the boiling point with that hatred.

Yes, democracy doesn't always guarantee peace; the example of 1930s Germany was no secret. But I was willing to ride on the hope and give it a chance here. It seemed the best alternative, by which I mean the most likely to succeed WITHOUT involving us in something purely destructive and merciless. That wasn't "doing it on the cheap;" that was meant to be "doing it consistent with our civilized and humane values."

RWNH is not merely venting. I urge you to read the whole piece. He gets specific about what he thinks is wrong -- I have pretty much the same list, though I've not expressed it as succinctly as he does. But he never forgets he wants this to work, however long the odds now look. And he offers specific perscriptions for it.

For if there is a victory to be had in Iraq – and one can just barely make one out in the distance amidst the blood and ruin – it will take courage on the part of the President to confront these problems and do what is necessary in order to reverse course. And this will entail both risks and probably a larger casualty count among Americans fighting there.

Yes we need more troops –- a lot more at least temporarily. Order must be brought to Baghdad and its environs and to do that we would need, according to General Trainor, is perhaps as many as 50,000 more Americans to both police the area and ferret out insurgents and the death squads.

For that to happen, the President would have to admit he and Donald Rumsfeld have been wrong all along and that in order to achieve stability, the additional troops must be sent. It is of the utmost distress to me that this President has failed to take responsibility for past mistakes and admitted to error in prosecuting the war. The grudging admissions of mistakes just isn’t getting it done. If he is serious about winning in Iraq (and he has called Iraq the “frontline” in the war on terror”) then he is going to have to go before the American people and explain why additional troops are necessary.

I'm not one given to "dittos." But I'll give one here.

Read It and Weep

Read through the heavy-handed media framing of this story and tell me what you think.

Republican Sen. John McCain said Friday he supports the U.S. mission in Iraq days after faulting the Bush administration for misleading Americans into believing it would be "some kind of day at the beach."

The potential 2008 presidential candidate and staunch war supporter issued a statement explaining his position after his headline-grabbing comments criticizing the Bush administration.

"I have never intended my concern that the American people be fully informed about the conduct and consequences of the war to indicate any lessening of my support for our mission there," McCain said in the statement.

One thing to note is the adverbial phrase "headline-grabbing." It's an admission that editorial weighting determines realities in the minds of the nation. Yet we in the media have a tendency to insist we merely observe and report. Ideally, we do, but since Heisenberg it's become hard to deny the essential truth of the notion that observation changes reality.

In physics, that's a random act, but with human minds at the helm, as in the media, it rarely is. Notice, for instance, how in reporting the new thing McCain is saying, which is in support of the war, the report manages to give more prominence, and priority in quoting, to the old thing he said which was pounced on as a prize by war opponents.

He complained in an appearance Tuesday about major mistakes by the administration, such as underestimating the size of the task and the sacrifices necessary. The comment prompted criticism from the right and left that McCain was flip-flopping, contradicting his backing for Bush's policy.

Haven't seen those "criticisms from the right," and none is offered as an example. I guess I'm supposed to take their word for it. In the past, I would have. Now I'm not so inclined to.

But such criticism would be nonsense. I can support the war and the goals of the war while deploring the errors we made along the way. I can support the men and women fighting to achieve these goals, while lamenting the tergic things that happen to them, or the bad deeds some few of them commit.

The whole middle half of the article, the meat of it, somewhat surprisingly, is a long recitation, with relish, of Bush's faux pas. Rather than allowing McCain to explain how it's perfectly logical and patriotic to hold both views, the article devotes itself to re-framing the "Bush is an incompetent liar" story.

When it gets back to McCain, it's to make him look like one, too:

In a March 2003 interview on MSNBC's "Hardball With Chris Matthews," McCain was asked whether he believed the people of Iraq would treat U.S. forces as liberators.

"Absolutely. Absolutely," the senator replied.

No further elaboration. I guess we're supposed to all know by now (thanks to media framework and editorial weighting) that that never happened. But in fact, it did. It just didn't last very long. That doesn't mean it didn't happen.

Democrats criticized McCain on Friday, calling him a "Monday-morning quarterback" and arguing that he should try to change Iraq policy if he disagreed with Bush's handling of the war.

"McCain's latest criticism is simply more talk without action from a presidential wannabe," said Christy Setzer, spokeswoman for the Democratic group, Senate Majority Project.

Once again, McCain still hasn't had a chance to explain how he can loyally criticize the administration's handling of the war without backing off one step from his commitment to the goals we set out with.

The Democratic criticism is nonsense. Senators from Arizona don't run America's military. The president does. So in order to change our Iraq policy, which Setzer demands he do, McCain would have to get himself elected president -- which is exactly what Setzer accuses him of trying to do. The expression "Duh" comes to mind here.

Finally, after all that, after the story has jumped to the inside pages of the few newspapers who will bother to pick it up, and after 3/4 of the readers of those papers will have moved on to the sports section, someone explains McCain. Sort of.

Republican consultant Rich Galen, who worked in Iraq for the Defense Department, defended McCain, saying he was giving an "accurate description of where Americans are on this war" while also making the case it is necessary in the fight against terrorism.

And that's it. Then we're back to "it's all about the politics."

All the potential 2008 presidential candidates are trying to make strategic decisions about how close they need to be to Bush, said Stephen Hess, a politics expert at the Brookings Institution think tank. McCain needs Bush's support to appear presidential, but he also needs to maintain his maverick image.

"He's making adjustments," Hess said. "He's trying to adjust his position to be the most advantageous."

Then finally -- finally! -- as the very last words of the piece (in inverted pyramid style, the part deemed least significant and most cuttable), the AP gets around to admitting this was all just a media-generated flap. McCain's been saying this sort of thing all along.

Prior to this week, McCain has criticized Bush's public assessments of the war.

In a November speech at the American Enterprise Institute, he cautioned that the administration must accurately portray even negative events on the ground and tell the country that it will take a long time to win.

"If we can't retain the support of the American people, we will have lost this war as soundly as if our forces were defeated on the battlefield," he said in November.

But, you know, August is a slow month and for some reason violent death rates have been trending downward in Iraq, so we've had to shelve the "deteriorate" and "spiral out of control" and "collapse" headlines, at least for a few weeks.

But that makes us anxious: What if the people lose all the anger we've managed to whip up in them, and right before the election cycle? What if they forget? Well, we can always gin up an Remember,-people,-Iraq-is-a-failure story on our own, eve if our enemy-of-my-enemy allies in the Sunni and Shi'ite death squads are slacking off on the job.

Most amazingly of all, what the story never does tell you is what McCain actually said today, which, at least in theory, was the whole point of writing it. Here's what he said. It's not long.

“I agreed with the President’s difficult decision to go to war in Iraq. I remain fully supportive of his determination not to leave Iraq until the freely elected government of that country and its armed forces are able to defend their country from foreign and domestic enemies intent on thwarting the will of the Iraqi people to create a civil society in which the rights and security of all Iraqis are protected.

“I have often emphasized the importance of leveling with the American people about the high costs and many difficulties of the mission, the potentially calamitous consequences of failure and the many benefits of success, as the President has also frequently stressed. But I have never intended my concern that the American public be fully informed about the conduct and consequences of the war to indicate any lessening of my support for our mission there.

"On the contrary, I view a candid, informed public discussion of the war as critical to sustaining popular support for the war and, thus, indispensable to ensuring the ultimate success of our mission. And I commend the President for his public statements offering Americans an honest assessment of the progress we have made in Iraq and the challenges that still confront us there, and, of course, for his determination to defend American security and international peace and stability by succeeding in this arduous and costly enterprise.”

Now, you can like that or reject that. Or find two-thirds of it honest statement and the final sentence as a political sop to Bush and his die-hards. But unless you read it, you'll never know what you think about it, never change your mind, never have a debate. And AP never told you what he said.

In A Mist

I don't mind confessing that I actually misted up a bit this morning when I discovered that the erudite and talented writer behind The Beiderbecke Affair is shutting down his always interesting, lovely, actually original and therefore not-just-another-of-the-pack blog.

Bix to you, Brendan. I'm starting out with "Davenport Blues," which is playing as I keystroke, and then I'm just going to move on through the whole playlist--not so extensive as yours, I'll bet, but nothing to sniff at either. Thanks for the good reads, and for all the things I didn't know until I learned about them on your blog.

Cal and Annie and--well, I'll stop there for risk of offending by omission (everyone already knows I'm huge fans of theirs), don't you go getting any ideas, OK?

Yeah, I know bloggers come and go. Hell, I spend most of my time being 3/4 and more of the way out the door myself (and I'm not even the kind of blogger I'm talking about, anyway). But some blogquits constitute more of a loss--because the blogs themselves are so much less like flotsam and jetsam--than others. Ya know?

Aw shit.

Blogpost Lede Of The Day

Well, OK, it's from yesterday, but I didn't stumble across it until just a few minutes ago:

I'm of the opinion that how to handle Wal-Mart is among the two or three most important issues facing the country.

Well, how about that. I can't tell you what to do, but I'm wiping my schedule clean so as to fully focus on re-ordering my priorities. Catch you later, when I've readjusted my worldview.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Astronomers Lied

Pluto died. There never were nine planets. We were sold a phony solar system based on false readings of the available information. We paid for it with thousands of wasted hours memorizing nine planets when there are only eight. I believed it. I was wrong.

Hey, teachers. Just in time for the start of school, here's a new chore: Climb up on a chair and snip a string off that solar system mobile. And we all now carry one more bit of outdated and useless trivia in our skulls, lodged there since elementary school.

It's hard not to detect size-bias in this decision. Pluto's big and round and it goes around the sun, but it doesn't get to be a planet? If inhabitants of Jupiter, the solar system's big dog, were deciding the cut-off point for planets, little poodle Earth likely wouldn't make the cut.

Here's the quandry: People use words and categories that are ill-defined but convenient for a shorthand understanding of the world around us. We divide food into groups, paintings into art or illustration, people into races that have no genetic reality. We invent political labels like "liberal" and "conservative."

Scientists need to make empirical and precise statements about the world. But they're stuck with the same squishy words we all use. It never quite works. Biologists continue to talk about "species" without being able to agree on what one is, or whether dogs and wolves are one or two.

For the solar system, they're stuck with "planet," originally an ancient Greek word for any kind of heavenly body that wasn't in the same relative place in the sky all the time, including the sun and the moon.

Along came Copernicus at the end of the Middle Ages, and the whole universe changed. But the word stayed. Then telescopes came along and we realized there were a gazillion things strewn through our space, from dust motes to gas giants. Then we found Pluto. Then we realized there were a lot of them.

And here we are. Pluto woke up Thursday morning as a "dwarf planet," a category that seems to please no one. Planetariums had to cancel their shows. NASA was despondent. Just this year it launched a $700 million mission to what turns out to be a non-planet.

"Dwarf planet" as a subcategory is temporary, the astronomers assure us. They narrowly rejected calling them "plutonian objects" and also nixed "plutons." The scientists say they will solicit the public for a permanent name.

Here's a suggestion: Potters. For Potter Stewart, the Supreme Court justice who, groping for a definition of pornography, decided he couldn't say exactly what it was or wasn't, but he knew it when he saw it.


Holy Smokes

I've been idly and intermittently watching a rerun tonight, on cable, of a Law & Order: Criminal Intent episode. Goren, while questioning someone at that person's workplace, asks if he can bum a cigarette. Then he says something like, "You can smoke here, right?" (Something like that.) He lights the other guy's cigarette and then his own, and then: They smoke. No problem. Just like that.

I thought you couldn't get away with depicting that sort of scene, anymore, on TV. (Granted, I don't watch much network TV--on which, of course, this episode would first have appeared--or series TV, network or otherwise. I do follow the L&W's on cable, however, though not CI so much.) So this was actually startling to me.

Besides which: This is a series--part of a franchise--which prides itself on generally trying to be "real." Is there any workplace in the U.S. (apart from bars and restaurants, though not in, for example, NYC) where people can just casually light up these days? Or, heck, even casually leave a pack of cigarettes on their desks? I thought those days, you'll pardon the pun, went up in smoke at least a decade ago.

Surely lighting up isn't going to be the new edgy. Is it?

Secular Gratitude And Modern Meaning

My guess is that there are a few readers here who might find this article, Thank Who Very Much?, from TPM Online, of some interest. I'm genuinely interested in reactions.

Update: For whatever reason, my musings about the article I initially linked in this post keep crossing over, unbidden, into those about this article, Age of the Empirical, a more abstruse read, comparatively speaking, from Policy Review--not to mention, at first glance, unrelated. But is it?

Something about hope. Or faith. Or desire. Or some mix. Or. Or? Or ... .

Since this unasked-for crossover has persisted, I'm throwing it out here.