Thursday, November 30, 2006

Boise, Boy Do

[posted by Callimachus]

Eugene Volokh tracks a drearily familiar story: The campus conservative gadfly (named Sawmiller in this case) and the "progressive" student majority herd's attempt to gag and hog-tie him.

But something odd jumped out at me from near the bottom of the text of the "Boise Weekly" article on it:

Later in the same week, a new unauthorized poster--this time, from an anonymous source--was posted around campus. On this poster, under the title "Abuse of Power," were two pictures. One showed Adolf Hitler, with the quotes "dirty Jews" and "His ideology cost 6 million lives." The other showed Sawmiller in his military fatigues, with the quotes, "Dirty illegal alien," and, "What will his ideology cost our students at Boise State?"

(Sawmiller had been quoted as using the term "dirty illegal aliens" in his April Arbiter editorial, although the opinion editor admitted in a correction that a staff member had added the term "dirty" independent of the author.) ...

Emphasis added. What? Who edits like that? And moreover, why? And did the "Boise Weekly" even think to ask whether this was a case of sabotage?

Volokh, naturally, focuses on the part of the article that is relevant to his post. But the opening anecdote of the "Boise Weekly" piece also is a bit of a jaw-dropper, in terms of "questions a real journalist might ask, but you don't."

When a Boise State student reported on November 9 that he had been assaulted on campus by a group of men shouting anti-gay epithets, the campus responded in short order. Within five days, student groups and administrators assembled a well-attended rally titled "No Oppression Tolerated--N.O.T. on our campus," with speakers from both the student body and the administration condemning the attack.

When police announced two weeks later that the same student had confessed to fabricating the attack, students campus-wide might have been relieved that such an event had, well, not happened on their campus.

But at the end of what has been a turbulent month for the Boise State community, some students say their concerns over campus safety haven't decreased at all. The Boise Police Department is still investigating the matter.

But in the meantime, students say such a thing could definitely happen at Idaho's largest university.

"I wasn't surprised to hear that an attack occurred, even if it didn't actually occur," said Woody Howard, chairman of Boise State's Bisexuals, Gays, Lesbians and Allies for Diversity (BGLAD) club. "This situation has gotten out of hand, and there is a hostile environment being created for everybody."

Emphasis added. Yep. There's trouble in Boise.


[posted by Callimachus]

In junior high school I flunked more classes than I passed and was thought to be learning-disabled as well as having juvenile delinquent tendencies. My parents seriously considered putting me in a military academy. A few passionate and faithful teachers helped get me through that period, and they have my undying respect and gratitude for it.

But I have an ambivalent relationship to the education business overall, perhaps sharpened by the bad taste in my mouth from personal experience. One incident I remember sums up a lot of what I think is wrong with institutional education.

In 9th grade, I was in an advanced biology class. I no longer remember what I was doing there or how I got there. Perhaps it was a situation like that of Barton, who sat next to my best friend in college-prep chemistry class in high school. Barton never did a lick of work and was clearly flunking out and happy about it. My friend asked him why he bothered to enroll in a college prep class if he didn't intend to pass it. Barton replied it looked better on your transcript if you flunked a hard course than an easy one.

Whatever; there I was trying to muddle through biology class taught by one of those relics who had entirely burned out on the profession 10 years before his pension kicked in, and was just treading water till the big day arrived.

I had missed a day of school, and the next day was the weekly lab. I got there and unpacked a microscope like everyone else, and started examining the slides, in which microbe critters did their things. I watched one thing that looked like a transparent hairy tulip. It seemed to be rippling its hair, and as it did, other smaller critters were drawn into it.

I thought this was fascinating, and being the naive and perhaps learning-disabled 14-year-old I was, I went up to the biology teacher and told him what I thought I was seeing and asked whether that might be how the animal fed.

He exploded and said, basically, "Weren't you paying attention yesterday when I explained all this?"

Of course he couldn't be expected to remember I hadn't, in fact, been there. But as I went back to the lab table I think I sensed that too much of what passed for education consisted in being rewarded for seeing what they told you you would see.

You're of a Certain Age

[posted by Callimachus]

... if you remember when this guy

was funny on TV.

Aspects of Suez

[posted by Callimachus]

I'm not going to give a detailed account of the whole Suez crisis of 1956. Probably Wikipedia can give you a decent summation. Most of the key participants told different versions of the events till the day they died, so any attempt at straight-up narrative explanation is bound to bog down in buttresses and dossiers.

But the background, and the consequences, are what matters most now, in terms of understanding how these things happen.

BRITAIN: Sir Anthony Eden could see the shapes of things straight enough but had a problem with scale. He was a politician trying to escape Churchill's bulky shadow, leading a nation in serious economic trouble and in need of a morale injection and proof that it still could be a world player independent of the U.S. Yet Eden was too honorable to be a Machiavelli, too conscientious to be an aggressor, too pro-Arab to stick with the Jews for long, and none of those things in sufficient measure to avoid trying all three.

[Paul Johnson -- Reader_i_am is a fan as well -- has an assesment of Eden's rivals that may amuse our British friends: Eden was "sandwiched between two would-be successors: the old Appeaser, R.A. Butler, who wished to pull the party in the direction of the Left, and Harold Macmillan, who wished to pull it in the direction of himself. Both behaved in character."]

Eden's wiser course would have been to use diplomacy to pressure Nasser, wait till after the American election, then get together with Eisenhower and hammer out a plan (remembering the American had graciously solved a British problem in Iran by toppling Mossadeq). But if Eden had thought of changing his mind, his old boss Churchill was still in the next room -- the lion may have been toothless by now, but he still had claws -- roaring about "appeasement."

FRANCE: The Fourth Republic was on its last legs. Tunisia was lost and Algeria was crumbling -- abetted by Nasser. Even more than Britain, the French needed a big, public showdown and they needed to win it.

ISRAEL: It was not entirely clear Nasser had done anything illegal with regard to the Suez Canal. However, his effective blockade of Israel's southern port and his refusal to allow its ships through the canal was illegal and a casus belli between two nations technically still at war. Egypt was sponsoring Fedayeen and commando raids from Gaza, and Nasser's October pact unifying the military command of Syria, Egypt, and Jordan was a prelude to an attempted war of extermination. Israel, typically for the times, didn't wait to be hit.

AMERICA: Washington was bidding for influence in Egypt, the pivotal state in the Arab world in those days. So were the Soviets. Nasser and his generals were not particularly ideological, but they were strong nationalists. By the time of Suez, the Americans largely had given up on wooing Nasser, who was playing the game perfectly.

But Dulles still felt the U.S. had a chance to assert its influence in the wider Arab world and thwart Nasser's pan-Arabist dreams. When the attack against Egypt came, Eisenhower fumed, "How could we possibly support Britain and France if in doing so we lose the whole Arab world?" [John Lewis Gaddis, "The Cold War," p.127]

Eisenhower also seems to have understood something his allies chose to overlook. In a warning letter to Eden on the eve of the crisis, he wrote, "Nasser thrives on drama." The French and the British may have looked on this escapade as a temporary expedient to pull them out of their global slides. For Nasser, it was his element.

Eden hatched a scheme that, combined with his nature, guaranteed the worst possible outcome. Derek Leebaert writes, "Britain and France caused the maximum grief for themselves and everyone else, especially America, by mounting a great reassertion of empire, then losing their nerve as they faced threats from both the United States and the Soviet Union." ["The Fifty-Year Wound," p.203]

U.S.S.R. Moscow, wringing its hands over Hungary (and Yugoslavia, and China) was in no position to help its new client in Cairo, except by nuclear sabre-rattling, which is what it did. The menacing letter to London arrived after the British and French already had realized they must cave in to the Americans, but the Soviets always believed it was their threat that had turned the Suez situation around.

"Father was extraordinarily proud of his victory," Sergei Khrushchev recalled. The lesson he learned and applied in later crises was both that nuclear weapons were all-powerful and that he didn't need many of them. [William Taubman, "Khrushchev," p.359]

The crisis confirmed the Soviets in another belief as well. Those "with the strongest nerves will be the winner. That is the most important consideration in the power struggle of our time. The people with the weak nerves will go to the wall."

Khrushchev (through Bulganin) also proposed joint U.S.-Soviet action to end the fighting. The Americans rejected this, as the Soviets anticipated they would when the proposal was made. The Soviets then gloated over the revelation that Americans weren't truly interested in peace and justice after all. "We had unmasked them!" Khrushchev exulted.

In the American leadership's minds, the relatively minor real role of the Soviets in this imbroglio seemed magnified. It further confused the already muddy conflation in Washington of "anti-colonialism" and "communist conspiracy" which would be a haunting and deadly error in the Cold War.

CONSEQUENCES: The big victors were Nasser, and Arab nationalism generally. Nasser emerged as the Third World's anti-imperialist champion. None of his worshippers seems to have noticed that his shiny new Soviet-supplied military had been pounded to scrap iron by the Israelis in less than a week. The Arab world, and the U.N. leadership, also felt themselves confirmed in the prejudice that Israel was nothing but an outpost of the old imperial power.

However, Nasser, and the movement he embodied, did not survive the debacle of 1967, and the Arab world's subsequent turn away from a quest for secular, nationalist solutions, and toward jihad.

Gaddis, in keeping with his theme that "Cold War superpower" is a misnomer because, while capable of destroying the world, the U.S. and the USSR were hamstrung in diplomacy and practical action, focuses on Nasser's triumph:

[B]eing a Cold War superpower did not always ensure that one got one's way. There were limits to how much either Moscow or Washington could order smaller powers around, because they could always defect to the other side, or at least threaten to do so. The very compulsiveness with which the Soviet Union and the United States sought to bring these states within their orbits wound up giving those states the means of escape. Autonomy, in what might have seemed to be inhospitable circumstances, was becoming attainable. Tails were beginning to wag dogs. [p.128]

Paul Johnson writes in "Modern Times": "The real loser in the long term was the United States. Eisenhower appeared to act decisively, and he got his way fast enough. Britain came to heel. He preserved his reputation as a man of peace. But in the process he helped to prepare a mighty scourge for America's own back, in the shape of the tendentious concept of 'world opinion' ..."

Especially in the form of the United Nations, into whose lap the whole Suez problem fell. The U.N. ignored its own earlier resolutions seeking fair access to the seaways for Israel, ignored the ongoing Soviet invasion of Hungary, and harshly rebuked the British, French, and Israelis. [Eden had expected the Americans to run interference for them in the U.N., as the British had for the Americans two years earlier over Guatemala.]

NATO ties frayed. A few years later the Kennedy administration, obsessed with Fidel Castro and perhaps having read too many James Bond novels, asked MI5 to get involved in assassinating him. "We're not in it anymore," was the blunt British reply. "We got out a couple of years ago, after Suez."

In France, the fiasco helped bring the national crisis to a head. And the unwritten last testament of the Fourth Republic willed Vietnam to America. As soon as 1967, when the next general Arab-Israeli war broke out much as the 1956 attack did, France, which in 1956 had been Israel's principal military supplier, denounced the Jewish state's "aggression" and, incredibly, blamed the U.S., because its presence in Vietnam supposedly set the example that instigated Israel's air strike against Nasser.

Whether the Suez Crisis tied America's hands in dealing with the simultaneous rebellion in Hungary is a doubtful matter. Even before Suez, Eisenhower and Dulles never considered lifting a finger to help the Hungarians. It can be said Eisenhower and Dulles showed consistency in their handling of the simultaneous crises: In each case the goal was to keep a regional flare-up from turning into a global war.

But at what a cost. The juxtaposition showed something ugly and conflicted in U.S. policy: America left the Soviets a free hand to crush the uprising it had helped inspire in Hungary, while it blustered mightily about the "imperialism" of its own allies. As Khrushchev said after the crisis, the Americans help their allies "the way the rope helps the man who is being hanged."

But the immediate, and most tragic, consequence of Suez was the chaos that resulted from the overnight deflation of the two empires that had been, when Eisenhower was a boy, the world's true superpowers.

Paul Johnson calls Suez "one of those serio-comic international events, like Abyssinia in 1935, which illustrate historical trends rather than determine them." That's essentially true, but once trends get highlighted so emphatically, and a broad swath of the world suddenly becomes aware of them, the trends become stampedes. And the change can have consequences.

Suez definitively uncovered how much the postwar greatness of Britain and France had been resting on habit and bluff. ... Suez was the deathwatch of Britain's sense of itself as the third of the Big Three. Within a matter of weeks, observed political commentator Alan Watkins, bright young people were no longer dressing for dinner. [Leebaert, p.204]

The catastrophic sudden imperial withdrawal from India in 1947 was repeated on a global scale. Forty new nations tumbled out of the old empires in rapid succession -- 19 in 1960 alone -- most of them doomed to fall into the hands of what Ghana's George Ayittey coldly summed up as "crocodile liberators, Swiss bank socialists, quack revolutionaries and grasping kleptocrats."

It was idle to believe that imperial power, established by shattering what indigenous legitimacy had existed, could, just by the fact of European departure, be transformed into deeply rooted constitutional authority. The sudden abandonments propelled by the Cold War ensured a freezing of colonial boundaries, which were often inauthentic ethnically or economically but were nervously consecrated thereafter because of the trouble that would be let loose if any border came under challenge.

The Cold War did not so much accellerate change in the not-particularly-developing world as create it a generation ahead of schedule, short-circuiting what might have been a more considered process. [Leebaert, p.204]

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12 Years of Christmas

[posted by Callimachus]

Third photo: Dec. 25, 1962.

The wrapping paper and the neat stacks of boxes are vanishing. Christmas becomes more chaotic, bigger, brighter.

I don't remember most of these toys. Probably because I was 2, which means I quickly broke them or lost them. The tool bench was a big deal -- I so wanted to "help" my dad putter around the house. And the metal fire truck (visible behind the tricycle) could really pump water. I still have that, battered and rusted and with most of its detachable parts long gone, up on a closet shelf somewhere. I don't know why; it just doesn't seem to be "disposable" the way plastic toys are.

Puzzling over Labels

[posted by Callimachus]

I would love to live in a land where nobody inherited so much money from anyone than he or she never had to work.

This is both a conservative and a liberal belief -- really, a great many things are. It's a statement of what kind of people I wish we were. America would be better if everyone had to work for his own wealth, where the power of money, like knowledge or physical fitness, could not be passed on but had to be attained in each generation. It's a capitalist idea, a socialist idea, a virtuous idea, an individualist stance.

But I would not strong-arm us into being such a people by using the coercive power of the government to limit personal inheritance to, say $100,000. Never. Not even if it would work to change people -- and it wouldn't.

I wish instead we were the kind of people where that outcome would seem so naturally right that it was written into the constitution, with little debate, from the start and never questioned. With any excess money going to boost the pensions and medical payments of old soldiers, or something.

But we're not. So we live without it and do the best we can. And I choose not to run around saying, "This country sucks" because it's not as perfect as I wish it was. Is that what makes me "right-wing?" Which is how I'm often identified on other blogs.

Moderate Muslims

[posted by Callimachus]

Courtesy of Ali Eteraz, I learn of this fascinating survey of Muslims.

They sorted them out into "moderates" and "radicals" using a crude, but probably effective, fork:

Respondents who said 9/11 was unjustified (1 or 2 on a 5-point scale, where 1 is totally unjustified and 5 is completely justified) are classified as moderates. Respondents who said 9/11 was justified (4 or 5 on the same scale) are classified as radicals. The data for this poll were obtained during 2005-06 from Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. Approximately 1,000 in-home interviews were conducted in each country. The sampling mix of urban and rural areas is the statistical equivalent of surveying each nation’s adult population, with a statistical sampling error rate of +/- 3 percent.

The survey also asked whether "Religion [is] an important part of your daily life" and whether you "Attended religious service in last 7 days."

To both questions, slightly more moderates than radicals answered "yes." Surprised? I was.

Radicals had better education (44% secondary school-through-university, opposed to 38% for moderates). They reported more likely to have "above average or very high" incomes. And they were more optimistic: 53% thought they would be "better off" in 5 years, as opposed to 44% of moderates.

But it's also possible to look at the survey's margin of error and see that most of the differences of opinion and behavior between radicals and non-radicals fall within it. Moderates and radicals seem to view the West about the same, both in what they find to admire (technology, followed by democracy) and what they think it needs to do better ("respect Islam," "refrain from imposing beliefs").

What does it mean? The difference between Islamic radicals and moderates -- except that the radicals are richer and better-educated -- seems to lie outside the scope of the questions asked, which were the ones I generally assumed separated one class from the other.

Or else there's really not important distinction between them except how they choose, or are compelled by quirks of personality, to act on their faith.


Wednesday, November 29, 2006

On My Oath, This Is Nonsense [Update 12/3]

[Posted by reader_iam]

How is it that anyone can think that insisting, much less forcing, someone to swear on a book, the Bible or otherwise, which he or she explicitly does not hold sacred can do anything but undercut, trivialize and degrade the value of the oath--not to mention the book--itself?

I have to tell you, it has been a long time since I have read a supposedly serious column as full of nonsense or as wrongheaded almost from start to finish as this Dennis Prager piece. In it, he (with an oddly personal hostility, it seems to me) takes to task Keith Ellison, congressman-elect from Minnesota and a Muslim, for declaring his intention to swear his oath of office on the Koran.
In stentorian tones, Prager writes:
He should not be allowed to do so -- not because of any American hostility to the Koran, but because the act undermines American civilization.

I could go into a riff on how over-the-top and reactionary that statement is, or give examples of far worse events, acts and situations that the U.S. has managed to survive, but instead, I'm going with the shorter version: Baloney.
First, it is an act of hubris that perfectly exemplifies multiculturalist activism -- my culture trumps America's culture.

An act of hubris to a) not want to swear on the Holy Book of a religion you don't profess, b) want to swear on the Holy Book of the religion you do profess, or c) both? Maybe--just maybe--there might be a point with regard to the multicultural activism issue if, say, Ellison weren't actually Muslim but wanted to break with tradition only and merely to make a mean-spirited, anti-American statement. But that's not the case here. Even if it were (which manifestly it is not, since Ellison is Muslim), then the appropriate response would be to question how he could demonstrate his disrespect for the American ideal of religious tolerance and pluralism in using the Koran in that disgusting way. The appropriate demand would be that Ellison go with the option of affirmation, rather than oath--as allowed by another arguably sacred document to Americans. You know the one: the constitution. (Oh, yeah. That.)
What Ellison and his Muslim and leftist supporters are saying is that it is of no consequence what America holds as its holiest book; all that matters is what any individual holds to be his holiest book.

Yes, and they're precisely right to say that, in the context of how an individual should or should not take oath or make affirmation, with regard to public office in the U.S. I say the same exact thing, and I'm of the Christian faith, a regular church-goer, and someone who does church-related work (volunteer and for pay) on almost a daily basis. While I'm not fundamentalist and couldn't be classified by any stretch as part of what's known as the Religious Right, I also cannot be classified any more plausibly as part of the Progressive Left. Not in terms of religion, and not in terms of politics. (Nor am I one of those "who believe[s] that one of the greatest goals of America is to be loved by the world." Not even close.)

Yet I find Prager's stance to be almost an affront, and I say that both as a (very proud and grateful, yet independent-minded) American and an (unapologetic, yet humility-valuing) Christian believer. Let me see if I've got this right: In order to force Ellison to make a symbolic (large "s") gesture to demonstrate his "loyalty" to "American tradition," Prager--ostensibly speaking from the Christian side of things--would cynically insist that the Bible be reduced to a mere symbol (small "s"), a mere tool, a mere expression of religious-right political correctness, to advance his politically partisan position? Or even his religious beliefs?

Pray tell: How dare he?

It doesn't matter to me how many before Ellison--Christian, Deist, Jew, Atheist, Whatever--have taken their oath of office, hand on Bible. (By the way, not "everyone" did, anymore than "everyone" swears on a Bible in court. Sigh.) Nor do I condemn those who did so without believing, in whole or in part, in its contents, but rather did so out of a sense of respect for the tradition to which Prager refers, or at least felt no conflict in conscience, for whatever reason. (I do condemn the climate that might have--surely must have?--forced people to do so on occasion, fingers crossed behind their backs, against their own consciences, when they might have preferred to have simply affirmed, and even should have. Certainly, they should have been able to feel free to choose that route.)

But I have mighty, mighty problems indeed with the attitude that Prager adopts, the insulting arguments he makes, the ignorance of our constitution he displays, and ultimately--whether he realizes it or not--the fundamental disrespect he shows for our constitution, its guarantees, AND the Bible itself, which deserves to be treated with more respect than a pH strip dipped into a beaker of piss. There should be shame in that--not in an individual refusing to, explicitly or by implication, profess that in which he does not believe. (You think there's a possibility that our founders considered this, in including the affirmation possibility and explicitly disavowing a religious test? Maybe, just maybe?)

You'll note that I haven't addressed the utterly absurd and disingenuous "Mein Kampf" reference; Prager surely knows full well that however ardently Nazis and Hitler supporters may feel about that book, the analogy is bogus--if only (but not only) because of the differences--historically! in terms of tradition!--between the Bible [edited later for clarity of reference], or others similarly associated in unique ways with major religions going back into the mists of time, and socio-political philosophical screeds [such as "Mein Kampf"] of more recent vintage and, in notable ways, more limited scope. If he doesn't, then I'd have to question why he's holding out the Bible as something special at all, for taking oaths upon, or otherwise.

If someone's worried about slippery slopes and future exceptions, why not simply advocate for simple affirmation? After all, if it's the intent of someone to be truly dishonest and subversive, no oath on this earth, on the Bible or otherwise, will in and of itself make a difference. By definition, under those circumstances, the oath itself will be in bad faith. To argue otherwise is... well...likewise.
If Keith Ellison is allowed to change that, he will be doing more damage to the unity of America and to the value system that has formed this country than the terrorists of 9-11.

For the love of God, man, get a hold of yourself.

Update, 11/30: For those who view Prager's apparent larger attitude, as he presented it in his column, as emblematic of "all" Christians, even of conservative bent, may I suggest you visit Mark Daniels.

I'd also like to draw attention to the reactions, in the comments section attached to my post here, from Ruth Anne of Maternal Optimist and Pastor Jeff of Conblogeration, neither of whom could exactly be described in the dismissive terms that Prager employs in his assumptions of who might disagree with him on the issue at hand.

Update, 12/1 (just barely, central): Apparently, I need to clarify: Of course, Dennis Prager is Jewish. I've read his columns and been familiar with his background for years.

This changes the reading of his column "how," exactly? (Much less what he said on cable news tonight.)

Be specific--and don't ignore what he actually wrote and most important with reference to WHAT.

Update, 12/3 Oh, please. Now here's some hysterical nonsense from the other side.
Fox News and its billionaire media tycoon owner hates America and is spending billions to try to overthrow the rule of law and replace it with mob rule and Fundamentalist Theocracy.

For the love of a sense of proportion and logic, get a grip, dude.

(Hat tip, Memeorandum.


[posted by Callimachus]

I'm depressed by people who used to be engaged in the process of making things work, who now content themselves with finding a new and more elaborate way of saying every day, "Bush is a dope; Rummy is a criminal."

I used to go to Belgravia Dispatch to learn something; to learn context to the news, to see analysis. Now I'm more likely to see something like this:

Is that right? Pray tell more on this point Michael, with special attention paid to events ongoing these past few months in ye olde Baghdad town, OK? Not a "true grassroots figure" eh? Well, in a faith-based alternate universe, perhaps. But for those of us who dwell in reality things look, well, different.

So I don't go there. Nothing to learn in a pool of bile. If I want Bush-bashing, I'll go to the experts who have been doing it longer, and better.

But just as converts make the worst zealots in any faith, so the born-again war opponent strives to outdo those who were there all along in the hyperbole of his rhetoric and the clash of his sword of righteousness against his newfound "reality-based" armor. If stridency were all he had going for him in the first place, it wouldn't be so bad. But when you know it's someone who can really think and understand, the descent into the impotence of rage is painful to watch.

Even if he's seeing some things clearly now, judgment is warped by the sense of betrayal involved in feeling you've been forced into a humiliating public reversal. You know you never get a straight view of a man from his ex-wife, however intelligent she is, however well she may know him. It's like that.

It's so bad that Belgravia Dispatch sums up two of his own posts within a couple of days with the same quote from Glenn Greenwald, of all people, to which he can add only wide-eyed "Indeed" and "What he said." Very much in the Instapundit style he ridicules.

And if you can forgive the hypocrisy of fighting snark with snark, Jeff Goldstein got Greenwald pegged nicely recently:

Greenwald is one of those bloggers who appeals to those who without cause believe themselves wordly and educated—you know, the kind of people who like to pretend they know things, and who hide their core ignorance behind rote recitation of talking points prepared for them by an insider’s list of political operatives—but who in actuality are a collection of the easily led and intellectually superficial, prone to willful blindness and in a constant state of rhetorical gamesmanship.

That this sockpuppeting cutout has garnered so many supporters, despite the transparency of his maneuvers (which, let’s face it, they’ve been pointed out so many times that its become rather tedious) is a sign that his readers are either completly dull, rabidly fanatical, or else are so enthralled by the emperor’s bare ass that they refuse to tell him to go put some pants on.

From some people I don't expect any more. From other, I do, and Belgravia used to be such a place. As Greg himself writes, "What a shame keener minds aren't focused on the challenges we face at the present hour ...." What a shame indeed.

At one point Belgravia quotes George Kennan from 2002: "Today, if we went into Iraq, like the president would like us to do, you know where you begin. You never know where you are going to end."

Which is the most plainly obvious platitude ever uttered, if you've studied more than a semester's worth of history.

At the beginning, you never know where it's going to end. It was true of Iraq in 2003. It's still true. In the middle, you never know where it's going to end, either [The outcome of 1918 was as unpredictable in 1916 as it was in 1914].

I don't care how stupid you think Bush is. Worst president ever? Please. Can anything be worse than Nixon, what he actually did to American democracy and American attitudes toward government, and with American global power? Compared with what some memo from some Bush flunky talks about as desiderata?

I don't have time for personal psychodramas and hurt feelings. Talk to me about what we ought to do. Where we ought to go and how we ought to get there; what the consequences will be and how we should meet them.

12 Years of Christmas

[posted by Callimachus]

Second photo: Dec. 25, 1961.

Man, did I love that riding horse. Which looks like a product liability lawyer's wet dream, now that I think about it: all tight steel springs and jutting edges anchored to a hard-as-granite body on an easily tippable frame.

Most presents still wrapped; a lot of "building blocks," probably from the influence of my grandfather, the tool engineer, and an unaccountable, and unremembered, toy on the floor that looks like giant blue testicles.

The Moving Finger, Having Wit

[posted by Callimachus]

Christopher Hitchens reviews Clive James' memoirs, so you know it's going to be a star-turn of pith and wit. Wits are in that class of performers who can shamelessly show off and you feel that's what you came for.

Hitchens pulls out a few delightful surprises from his bottomless sack of literary anecdotes for this one:

The great Peter De Vries, when asked about the nature of his ambition, replied that he yearned for a mass audience that would be large enough for his elite audience to despise.


One of the “stars” of that snack, Martin Amis, once rebuked someone for being in want of a sense of humour, and added that by saying this he meant very deliberately to impugn the man’s seriousness.


Thus it’s brave of him to stand by the original version of his much-misquoted image of Arnold Schwarzenegger (it was “a brown condom stuffed with walnuts”) against subsequent plagiarism and dilution.

The Third Way

[Posted by reader_iam]

Speaker -of-the-House-in-waiting Nancy Pelosi is wising up and withdrawing her support of Alcee Hastings as Intel chairman, for which we should all be devoutly grateful. Regardless of the reason (lessons learned from the predictable Murtha debacle, perhaps?), it is at least a bit encouraging to see Pelosi take a step back and think about what the average person would expect from someone who promised “the most honest, the most open and the most ethical Congress in history."

The fact remains that she was foolish--at least politically, but that's the least of it--to push for Murtha, and clumsy in how she did it, given the practical and historical realities that even an unpowerful nonentity was able to predict. And it's a bit of a wonder that it took so long for her to realize that--gee!--if she really couldn't stomach Jane Harman, that didn't mean she should be pushing for Hastings. That she had the option--and did, from the beginning--to choose a third way.

I remember pointing out that bit of obviousness earlier this month, as part of one of several comments on this topic in a comments section here:
You know, Pelosi could go with a third option. She could dump Harman if Pelosi doesn't like her take on things AND skip Hastings because of his--ahem, how did you put that again?--character flaw, and fight for someone else.

I guess that Pelosi finally figured out that "business as usual" wasn't going to be anymore acceptable coming from her side of the aisle than it was from the other, that she'd be held responsible if she continued to act as if she thought otherwise, and that it was time to acknowledge the obvious.

I commend her. Onward and upward, I say.

But--sheesh!--wouldn't you think that someone with her experience and her background could have been a little quicker on the uptake?

Real Life

[Posted by reader_iam]

I am moved by this Amba post, to which I respond in thinking of her:
Life is a game of whist. From unseen sources
The cards are shuffled, and the hands are dealt.
Blind are the efforts to control the forces
That, though unseen, are no less strongly felt.
I do not like the way the cards are shuffled,
But still I like the game and want to play;
And through the long, long night, will I, unruffled,
Play what I get, until the break of day.

--Eugene Fitch Ware

And to Jacques' position:
Lo! on a narrow neck of land,
'Twixt two unbounded seas, I stand.
Secure, insensible.

--Charles Wesley

And to Ambivablog:
Life is an unanswered question, but let's still believe in the dignity and importance of the question.
--Tennessee Williams

Dignity, humor and principled uncertainty are rare qualities (I'd like more of 'em myself). Attention should be paid to wherever they are found, in whatever circumstances.

Well, that's what I think, anyway.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The Rest of the Story

[posted by Callimachus]

Michael Fumento tells the tale of "a video I got off a laptop in Ramadi showing the 2005 suicide vehicle attack on OP Hotel in the city's Industrial Area," which killed no one but the jihadi, but was nonetheless apparently considered a great victory in his circle.

He always wondered what the exact story behind the video was. Now he knows:

Then I heard from a Capt. Chas Cannon. "I noticed you have the OP Hotel car bomb attack on your site. That attack was against our Able Company, 2-69 Armor. The initial explosion knocked the entire platoon out cold." He went on: "It was interesting the way we received the video, however. An informant of ours, whom we knew to be playing both sides, was given a copy as part of a recruiting drive by the insurgents. One night on our regularly scheduled meetings, he passed it on over to us. I don't think the insurgents knew that it failed....they just knew it was one helluva explosion." That it was!

Waiting Into Wonder

Posted by reader_iam

Because, as Robert Browning wrote, "Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp -- or what's a heaven for?"
...This power would seem to argue that Reason should be trusted in all things, that the intelligence that runs up and down the synapses of our brains in an endless flickering web of electo-chemical space-time events is the ultimate arbiter, the final judge, the self-obsessed lodestone of our lives. And yet....

And yet we sense there is something more going on here, unfolding all about us, no matter how sternly Reason rules. We sense, no matter how many times we are told the opposite, that myth, legend, soul, magic, miracle and mystery still hold us, and that

The palm at the end of the mind,
Beyond the last thought, rises
In the bronze decor,*

And that,

The palm stands on the edge of space.
The wind moves slowly in the branches.
The bird's fire-fangled feathers dangle down.*

And that, as we now move more deeply into Advent, we move -- in our long sweeping orbit about our home star -- closer to the moments when that which is most deeply our gift and our curse is made manifest in the music of our being in a manner beyond all reason. And no matter what our faith -- even if that faith is that there is no faith to be had -- this turn of the year, this Advent, will inexorably bring us once again to the memory of the miracle.

The excerpt doesn't do the essay justice, and I hesitated including it for that reason. The linked post is beautiful, and full of wonder, and tolerant, and accommodating of a breadth of POV starting points--at least if read by those who tend to read with a generosity of spirit.

And it brought to my mind the wonderfully quotable Albert Einstein, no stranger to either science or mystery, much less to humility:
"The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious - the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science.

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.

Scientists were rated as great heretics by the church, but they were truly religious men because of their faith in the orderliness of the universe.

How on earth are you ever going to explain in terms of chemistry and physics so important a biological phenomenon as first love?

Wondrous, indeed.

Is This Supposed To Be A Novel Idea?

[Posted by reader_iam]
When a good idea emanates out of a centrist, or even conservative, source, that's a good idea.

I'd have added: "Or a liberal idea. Or a progressive idea. Or a libertarian idea. Or--gasp!--an idea from someone who is Christian [Jewish; Muslim; Buddhist; Atheist etc.]. Or... ." Need I go on?

Damn, some of us have had that as not just an attitude, but a guiding principle for, quite literally, decades. It's called independent thinking, and could almost be considered a deeply--dare I say it?--centrist** mindset (depending, of course, how you want to define--or don't want to define--"centrist"). It certainly explains those of "no party," such as I.

From Ezra Klein in response to Kevin Drum via Memeorandum, where you can find other reax, which, frankly, I haven't had time to read yet (but will).

By the way, I agree with Drum's statement regarding kneejerk genuflection (from any place on the political spectrum, but especially centrists) toward bipartisanship. His comments on the heartburn that can result from overindulging in gut instincts are worth thinking about, too.

[Added:] For the record, left to my own devices, I actually wouldn't use the word "centrist" or "moderate" to describe myself, on the grounds that they lack both sufficient specificity and sufficient breadth. But you have to work with the language you have and what the common diction of the times calls for. Coining new words can cause a whole heap o' trouble, and people flat out won't sit still long enough for you to explain yourself in more nuance and depth in one fell swoop.

So it goes.

Council Winners Catch-Up

[posted by Callimachus]

Catching up on Watchers Council winners for the week of Nov. 17.

It was the week after the mid-term election, as you can tell by the titles of the winning posts.

First place within the council went to The March of Folly by Joshuapundit.

Also getting votes were The Politics of Iraq by American Future; You’ve Caught the Firetruck. Now What? by The Glittering Eye (certainly the best post-title on this topic); The Slaughter of the Moderates by Right Wing Nut House; and Don't Cry For Me Bangalore by AbbaGav.

Outside the council, the winner was Why Intellectuals Love Defeat by Josh Manchester at TCS Daily. He builds his post around the work of Wolfgang Schivelbusch; I have my gripes with Schivelbusch, but this is a good post.

Votes also went to Have You a Daughter? by Reconquista, an interesting experiment in statistics; Zenpundit's pause to remember the otherwise-largely-overlooked anniversary of Kristallnacht; Canker for Picking on Islam?; Michael J. Totten for A Perfect Storm? and It's Jerusalem They Want (Chicago edition) by Boker tov, Boulder!

Iraqi Civil War

[posted by Callimachus]

I am heartily sick of this debate-about-nothing. There never was a precise definition of "civil war" in history circles. I find J. David Singer's "Journal of Peace Research" definition (the one most often kicked around nowadays be journalists) inadequate. By its measure the American Civil War didn't end until 1877 and it differentiates "insurgent forces" from "government forces" into opposing entities, whereas in Iraq they seem inextricably intertwined.

But the whole thing is just another amusement for a bored media who seem to think their principal job is taunting presidents.

FWIW, my past takes on it are here and here.

Aren't there things going on in Thailand and Russia and Washington that are going to be extremely important to us in a few months that you should be reporting and broadcasting about instead of this?

TV Trivia

[posted by Callimachus]

Here you go, kiddos: Have fun with it: TV Land has compiled a list of the 100 greatest catchphrases in television. I typically don't recognize anything on it from after 1994, but a few of the older ones I admit have slipped into my repertoire -- no doubt to the utter bewilderment of everyone under 30. I list them here unsourced, so you can see how many you know on sight, too:

  • "Book 'em, Danno" [Which I seem to think should be "Book [h]im, Danno"]
  • "Elizabeth, I'm coming!" [My version is more like, "This is the big one ... I'm coming, Elizabeth!"]
  • "I know nothing!"
  • "I love it when a plan comes together" [best show in the history of television]
  • "I'm not a doctor, but I play one on TV"
  • "If it weren't for you meddling kids!" [my version is a simple, enraged "You meddling kids!"]
  • "Jane, you ignorant slut"
  • "Oh, my nose!" [My memory has it "Ow! ..."]
  • "The thrill of victory, the agony of defeat"
  • "We've got a really big show!"
  • "What you see is what you get!"
  • "Would you believe?" [Technically, it ends in an elipsis]
  • "You eeeediot!"
  • "You rang?" [Less this line than the pregnant and long-suffering moan when he discovered what was asked of him.]

12 Years of Christmas

[posted by Callimachus]

Like a lot of families before the age when a cheap digital camera was a standard feature on everything from telephones to nail clippers, mine only took photos on special occasions. Which means the family photo album is a cross-section of recurring holidays, notably Christmas. If we took 48 photos in calendar year 1966, probably 24 of them were of Christmas and the rest of summer vacation.

Which means I now have a set of prints that could be a cultural archivist's trove of middle class Mid-Atlantic American non-sectarian Christmas tree present displays of the 1960s.

Which means I'm going to inflict them on you.

Here's the first, from 1960. Pay no attention to that infant humpty-dumpty character. Do note that the presents mostly are neatly boxed, and that the loose ones include a large coffee pot, obviously a timely gift for the parents of a six-month-old.

Today's Bible Lesson

[Posted by reader_iam]

From John 21:
15When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?"
"Yes, Lord," he said, "you know that I love you."
Jesus said, "Feed my lambs."

16Again Jesus said, "Simon son of John, do you truly love me?"
He answered, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love you."
Jesus said, "Take care of my sheep."

The president-elect of the Christian Coaltion steps down due to disagreement over the central mission.
The president-elect of the Christian Coalition of America, which has long served as a model for activism for the religious right, has stepped down, saying the group resisted his efforts to broaden its agenda to include reducing poverty and fighting global warming.

The Rev. Joel C. Hunter, pastor of a Florida megachurch, was named the group’s president-elect in July. He was to have taken over the presidency in January from Roberta Combs, who is also the chairwoman of the Christian Coalition’s board. Mrs. Combs will continue in both positions now.

Over the last few years, Dr. Hunter, senior pastor of Northland Church in Longwood, Fla., has gained a reputation as an evangelical leader seeking to expand the agenda of conservative Christian activists from issues like abortion and same-sex marriage.

In a telephone interview, Dr. Hunter said that although Mrs. Combs had indicated that the organization also wanted to expand its priorities to include the issues that concerned him, the board backed away from such a commitment during a conference call last Tuesday. By the end of the call, Dr. Hunter and the coalition had decided to part amicably, according to both sides.

Dr. Hunter said, “When we really got down to it, they said: ‘This just isn’t for us. It won’t speak to our base, so we just can’t go there.’ ”

"We just can't go there."

Dear Lord.

Gee, Mr. Wilson

[posted by Callimachus]

Another reminder of what now seems doomed to be forgotten, at least until the real history books get written: The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq to overthrow Saddam in 2003 was a convergence of American idealism and tempered realism:

It was not naive idealism, it should be recalled, that gave birth to Bush's diplomacy of freedom. That diplomacy issued out of a reading of the Arab-Muslim political condition and of America's vulnerability to the disorder of Arab politics. The ruling regimes in the region had displaced their troubles onto America; their stability had come at America's expense, as the scapegoating and the anti-Americanism had poisoned Arab political life. Iraq and the struggle for a decent polity in it had been America's way of trying to extirpate these Arab troubles. The American project in Iraq has been unimaginably difficult, its heartbreak a grim daily affair. But the impulse that gave rise to the war was shrewd and justified.

The administration's calculated gamble, of course, was to guess that the American people were too stupid or selfish to support such an effort either in geopolitical realistic or idealistic terms, and to sell it to them instead as a matter of imminent danger from WMD.

And that seemed like a good guess in 2003: The concensus of intelligence from at home and abroad was that surely something dirty would turn up after you chased Saddam out of his squalid palaces and threw open the blinds and took a look around.

[Those who profess indignation at the fact our intelligence was so wrong are either disingenuous or have been entombed in a clamshell for the past 65 years; no nation in history has sacrificed more of its capital and its principles to espionage and covert action and gotten less in return for it. But in this case it wasn't just us. Even the most vocal European opponents of the war in 2003 accepted Saddam probably had something up his sleeve.]

And even if by some surprise nothing fresh and nasty did turn up, that surprise would be a non-issue for most folks if the emergent Iraqi nation was felt to be steering toward a thriving and peaceful destiny.

To crib a phrase: There are lazy presidencies and there are lucky presidencies, but there are no lazy, lucky presidencies.

Labels: ,

"Now We Start Our Days Of Peril"

[Posted by reader_iam]

While walking to our vehicle a bit ago, my son spontaneously burst into an enthusiastic, top-of-the-lungs rendition of "Deck The Halls," provoking open laughter from a number of shoppers stowing away their groceries in their trunks. (We were there at prime "after school-pickup" time.)

"Ain't THAT the truth," one woman called out, to general agreement and my son's mystification.

An Art Linkletter moment, for sure.

It's the Enlightenment, Stupid

[posted by Callimachus]

In resisting the colonists [100 years ago], the Arabs were broadly divided into two camps: the rejectionists and the integrationists.

The rejectionists were predominately Islamists and Salafis: the group that saw the Arab world's humiliation and defeat as a consequence of its abandonment of the righteous path prescribed in the Qu'ran and the Prophet Mohammed's sunna.

The integrationists, on the other side of the intellectual spectrum, saw the Arabs' defeat as a consequence of their lagging behind in all aspects of modern thinking; they saw a dire need for the integration of western modernity into the traditional Arabic/Islamic culture. As one notable integrationist - Taha Hussein, the legendary Egyptian education minister in the early 20th century - put it: "it's the enlightenment".

And somehow he was polite enough not to add, "..., stupid" at the end of it.

Well, no prize if you can guess which side is winning now. But for a while, in the early Cold War era, the opposite outcome looked more likely. Two dates figure in that development: 1956 -- there's that year again -- and 1967.

The whole experiment came to an end when Nasserism fell in June 1967 - the Arabs' worst defeat against Israel. The subsequent decade was one of complete reversal. The secular momentum of the Nasserite era was reversed. Anwar Sadat, Nasser's successor, put his political bet on the Islamic - rejectionist - movement.

It's reflexive on my part to reject simplistic explanations of Arab/Muslim rage that root it all in "the existence of Israel," or to allow that, even if that turns out to be true, it legitimizes the least action done in the name of that rage. But it's also pertinent to ask, in a calm and reasoned way, what shape would the Middle East be in today if the 1967 war never had happened?

Perhaps not much different. The Middle East still would have been what it was anyhow, in addition to the schism outlined in the article: A battlefield in the Cold War. In the early years, people often forget, Israel was on the socialist side and the Americans were friendly to the indigenous Arab powers and diplomatically hostile to the fading European imperial nations.

But that quickly changed, and the Middle East provided classic examples of the bad bargains the Americans made for the sake of anti-communism, both in terms of aligning ourselves against legitimate popular aspirations and suffering all manner of abuse and fecklessness and blood-bespattering from nominal allies.

Spy vs. Why

[posted by Callimachus]

AJStrata is keeping on top of the "poisoned spy" story as it unfolds in London. It looks murkier up close than it does from a distance, as most news stories do.

From My Little Pony To Tramp?

[Posted by reader_iam]

So Quoted calls them "stripper ponies." [T]2scoops asks, "Why does this stable playset come with a pole and a line of blow?"

When he was around 3, my son, upon first encountering one of the My Little Ponies, asked doubtfully: "Who would ever want to ride one of these things?"

In retrospect, my answer should have been: "You will, my son, you will, someday. It's the nature of the beast."

Ignoring the Joneses [Updated With Latest]

[Posted by reader_iam]

This poor woman has really silly neighbors:
A homeowners association in southwestern Colorado has threatened to fine a resident $25 a day until she removes a Christmas wreath with a peace sign that some say is an anti-
Iraq war protest or a symbol of Satan.

Some residents who have complained have children serving in Iraq, said Bob Kearns, president of the Loma Linda Homeowners Association in Pagosa Springs. He said some residents have also believed it was a symbol of Satan. Three or four residents complained, he said.

Peace on Earth, Goodwill to Men, anyone? Would a Christmas banner sporting those words be offensive, too? And even if Lisa Jensen was thinking of the Iraq War when she put this, which she said she wasn't, so what? These people don't have bigger things to worry about?
The association in this 200-home subdivision 270 miles southwest of Denver has sent a letter to her saying that residents were offended by the sign and the board "will not allow signs, flags etc. that can be considered divisive."

The subdivision's rules say no signs, billboards or advertising are permitted without the consent of the architectural control committee.

Since when is a wreath or other holiday decoration considered a "sign, billboard or advertising"?

On the other hand, Jensen did choose to live in community that has an architectural control committee, which ought to have been a warning to her that all sorts of pettiness and silliness would be entertained and even encouraged. In the hierarchy of Dark Things, I'd put such committees way, way higher up the list than yard signs, much less the wreath shown in the picture above.

Though not as high up as twit neighbors with overly developed offense meters and too much time on their hands.

I stand (partially) corrected: This woman has some clueful neighbors, too. [Via Memeorandum.]
And she won, with the help of their disapproval:
Two board members have disconnected their telephones, apparently to escape the waves of callers asking what the board could have been thinking, residents said. The third board member, with a working phone, did not return a call for comment.
In any case, there are now more peace symbols in Pagosa Springs, a town of 1,700 people 200 miles southwest of Denver, than probably ever in its history.

On Tuesday morning, 20 people marched through the center carrying peace signs and then stomped a giant peace sign in the snow perhaps 300 feet across on a soccer field, where it could be easily seen.
A former president of the Loma Linda community, where Mr. Trimarco lives, said Tuesday that he had stepped in to help form an interim homeowners’ association.

The former president, Farrell C. Trask, described himself in a telephone interview as a military veteran who would fight for anyone’s right to free speech, peace symbols included.

Wow. Sometimes the people can work it for themselves, just fine.

And don't you just love, in the end, how **more** speech won out?

Monday, November 27, 2006

Who Among You Ponders These Things?

[Posted by reader_iam]
“Ordinary people think that talent must be always on its own level and that it arises every morning like the sun, rested and refreshed, ready to draw from the same storehouse / always open, always full, always abundant / new treasures that it will heap up on those of the day before; such people are unaware that, as in the case of all mortal things, talent has its increase and decrease, and that independently of the career it takes, like everything that breathes... it undergoes all the accidents of health, of sickness, and of the dispositions of the soul / its gaiety or its sadness. As with our perishable flesh. Talent is obliged constantly to keep guard over itself, to combat, and to keep perpetually on the alert amid the obstacles that witness the exercise of its singular power.”

And in the spirit of this:
What moves those of genius, what inspires their work is not new ideas, but their obsession with the idea that what has already been said is still not enough.”

Or, you know--whatever.

(Yeah, I know that I didn't source these quotes. Not standard procedure, for me. Why could that be?)

Shine On, Moo-oon Unit

[Posted by reader_iam]

21 Anagrams

[posted by Callimachus]

A friend from work directed me to this site which will attempt to make an anagram out of any phrase you type in.

I tested it, with the blog name "The Moderate Voice," the un-moderate turn of which Reader-i-am and I were talking about this evening. It gave me back Overhead to emetic.

And this blog's name? I should let someone else have the fun, but screw that: Now horrid merits.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

A Specter is Haunting Hard-Line Islam

[posted by Callimachus]

The specter of a velvet revolution

Meanwhile, the reaction of Tehran’s clerical regime to this Iranian dissident was as if taken out of the (secular) Soviet cook book. The state-run press, Kayhan and Resalat, and the student agency, Isna, proclaimed the good news of Ramin’s video “confession” in which he uttered mea culpa for his sins: he was to be used by foreign agents (the CIA and Mossad) in order to act against the regime which was once called by the head of the Assembly of Experts, Ayatollah Ali Meshkini, “the most divine and heavenly” in the world. ... Just as during the Soviet-era witch hunts on domestic spies and Zionists, or during the Joseph McCarthy-era witch hunts of Communists in every closet, so also in Iran today, Ramin Jahanbegloo is far from alone in being compelled to “confess” to appease the regime. Such confessions have been prepared for a televised public propaganda. Just as in the Soviet bloc, so also in Iran assassinations and torture are gradually being replaced by “softer” methods of psychological and economic repression. The Iranian regime uses now more varied threats to keep would-be dissidents in line: threats of financial reprisals, loss of home or medical care, forced exile, or repeated arrest. When Jahanbegloo was released on August 30 of this year, he was given a valid passport, but he had to place as bail both his house and the house of his mother as a guarantee that he would not speak about the tortured origin of his confession or otherwise against the regime.

Good observations throughout and I'll even overlook the absurd and insulting -- though all too common -- moral equation of Stalin and McCarthy.

Council Winners

[posted by Callimachus]

Watchers Council winners from Nov. 24 have been posted.

First place within the council went to Our Rules of Engagement in Iraq by American Future. I love Marc's site because while 10,000 bloggers a day are posing and bloviating about something they've heard or seen, he's usually in there trying to answer the unasked, but essential, questions.

And here he's got a whopper:

In the recent avalanche of editorials, op-eds, commentaries, articles, and books on Iraq, there's surprisingly little attention paid to our rules of engagement (ROE), much less to the impact of those rules on the effectiveness of our military actions.

He serves up a detailed presentation of the U.S. rules of engagement in Iraq, and concludes:

Without maintaining that our forces have never deviated from these rules of engagement, it's clear that our intent has been to fight a "civilized" war. From a humanitarian standpoint, this objective is commendable. However, fighting with one hand tied behind our back (to borrow a phrase from the Vietnam era) has undoubtedly resulted in greater American casualties and made it more difficult to prevail against an enemy that obeys no rules. The limitations, by enhancing the ability of the insurgents and terrorists to carry on the fight, have probably resulted in more, not fewer, civilian casualties. If our rules of engagement were formulated, in part, to present a better face to the "international community," they have failed. Nobody has commended us for our good behavior.

Second place went to Media Icons from right here.

Votes also went to Is This How EduCorruption Smells? by The Education Wonks, which examines a news story that starts like this:

To get proper schooling for their severely autistic son, an Irvine couple say they were forced to shower employees at his elementary school with diamond jewelry, Coach bags, Chanel perfume and other lavish gifts worth a total of $100,000, according to a legal claim filed this month.

Votes also went to A Dirty Little Secret by ShrinkWrapped, which is pegged to Pat Conroy's An Honest Confession by an American Coward. Conroy's piece is one I'd like to leave on the pillow of every Old Hippie I share breathing space with. ShrinkWrapped's take on it gets to the gist here:

A generation that was successfully able to avoid conflict is necessarily left wondering how they would have responded to danger. Were we motivated by cowardice in our opposition to the Vietnam War? It is inarguable that fear played a role in the anti-war movement. The proof was that once Congress did away with the draft, the opposition to the war dissipated with alarming speed. Without the threat of being drafted, few were motivated to battle to oppose a war that, until the moment the draft was repealed, was widely characterized as immoral, illegal, and based on lies.

Another vote went to All Your Smoking Are Belong To Us, by Right Wing Nut House, which doesn't quite come out and say, "when they came for the smokers, I said nothing," but you get to the same place:

It is not about health. It is about control. And if you don’t recognize this, if you don’t stand with smokers in opposition to these kinds of draconian, un-American. illiberal, liberty busting laws, then there is little hope for you when they want to take away something that either you like to eat or drink.

Outside the Council, winners concentrated on the new Democratic congressional leaders. First place went to Congressman Conyers and Islam by Daled Amos, which summarizes some of the Michigan Democrat's curious and fuzzy pronouncements.

Votes also went to Democrats' Bait and Switch Election Strategy by The American Thinker, who claims that "Democrats of 2006 were faster in retracting their campaign promises than [Bill] Clinton."

Other votes went to Lost In Translation (Weekend Thread) by All Things Beautiful, in which a site that typical spares no quarter in its rhetorical war against jihadism takes the time to differentiate that from disrespect for Muslims personally. Something that ought to be done more often.

Another vote (I believe one of mine) went to A Countdown to War P2: The Caucasian Tinderbox by Tao of Defiance. This is the kind of thing blogs can do well: Explaining tangled political messes in parts of the world overlooked by the media (because nothing's happening there ... yet) and identifying how they are likely to turn into hot spots; in this case the "overcrowded chessboard" of ex-Soviet republics north of Iran and Turkey. If you've ever played an overcrowded chessboard, you know what tends to happen.

Votes also went to Yes, They Exist. No, They Aren’t the Solution by Our Children Are the Guarantors (the "they" being "moderate Muslims"), and to Indian Muslims Also Pay for Their Jihadist Leadership by Judith Apter Klinghoffer on a History News Network site.

After the Next Attack

[posted by Callimachus]

Here's one set of ideas. I never would have thought like this in 2001, but times, as they say, have changed:

  • Don't invade anything. Don't fire a missile. Don't promise to rebuild anyone's infrastructure or offer anyone the gift of freedom and democracy. Don't nation-build.

  • With the reborn anger and commitment at home, bend every fiber of our national will to GETTING OFF THE OIL ADDICTION. Throw government money at any fool with a bright idea for alternative energy. Bitch-slap Detroit and Houston into thinking in terms of "transportation" not "big cars" and "energy" not "oil."

    Push the people in their homes to conserve, to ration. That alone will do nothing, but once you let people become accustomed to a thing it will become second-nature. Look at what has happened since 1970 with recycling. Besides, it never hurts to do anything that makes everyone feel involved in the cause.

  • Accept the terms of the war as declared by the jihadis. They define "their" turf. Accept that -- to a point. We in the West are one "house." They are our "house of war." The Muslim nations are de-facto in the House of War, to us.

    The president should go on TV and draw a green line around it on the map. There will be exceptions, enclaves, beachheads. Treat Israel as a beachhead. Extend our protection to a de-Hezbollized Lebanon. Declare Iraqi Kurdistan an American protectorate.

    There will be gray areas. Thailand and Philippines and India and Kenya are front-line allies. Write off Pakistan and Jordan and Egypt; you can't save them. Morocco and Indonesia? I'm not sure. Turkey? Tough call. But no more footsie. Within that green line, in fact you're either going to be with us or against us.

  • Welcome refugees. People from within the House of Islam who want to live Western lives in the West; welcome them. Secular people, tolerant people, intellectuals, students, people who have helped us there in the past. Give every single one of them a new home here. Welcome refugees -- but vet them carefully.

  • In effect, this is a return to the Cold War policy of containment. And we should treat it as exactly that: A new Cold War. We still remember how to fight a cold war. All our lessons, all our models and anti-models, still trace from that time.

    And let the House of Islam melt itself down as it inevitably will. The phony post-imperial nation-states will collapse. The worst theocrats will rise to the top. Old tribal and ethnic feuds will explode. It will be ugly, ugly, ugly. Don't pretend we can save it or stop it. Suck the oil money out of them, let them work out their anger on their own, then see where they stand.



[posted by Callimachus]

When I'm restless or bored and want to get lost in a book, nothing works better than Pausanias.

He was a citizen of the Roman Empire (apparently he wrote in the 140s to 160s of our era) who travelled all around Greece, visiting the shrines and temples and cities, and wrote what is arguably the first tourist guide in history ["Periegesis Hellados"]. It didn't make him rich. But nowadays it is regarded by scholars as a priceless sourcebook for archaeologists and historians trying to make sense of ancient ruins and records.

Pausanias begins his description of each city with a synopsis of its history followed by an account of the monuments in topographical order. He also discusses local daily life, ceremonial rituals, legend and folklore. His main concentration is on artistic works from the glories of classical Greece, especially religious art and architecture. That he can be relied on for building and works which have since disappeared is shown by the accuracy of his descriptions of buildings which do survive.

As another puts it:

A careful, pedestrian writer, he is interested not only in the grandiose or the exquisite but in unusual sights and obscure ritual. He is occasionally careless, or makes unwarranted inferences, and his guides or even his own notes sometimes mislead him; yet his honesty is unquestionable, and his value without par.

Pausanias' descriptions are so reliable that, when he writes of some gigantic bones offered up as the remains of Ajax, his measurements are good enough that modern paleontologists can guess which gigantic Ice Age mammal they really came from.

But it isn't his accuracy that makes me lose myself in his prose. What I find delightful in Pausanias is that it's history preserved in history.

On several levels. The man himself, conventional and a touch pedantic, is a figure from history. In reading him, I get to know him, I feel like I travel with him. It's like making a friend in ancient Rome.

He was the first of us, the historial tourist, and he gazed as we gaze, noticing what we would notice. Not just monuments and heroes, but the details: dark spires of pines that rose from the seacoast of Elis, the deer, the wild boar, the crows. Giant oaks and wild strawberries. Tortoises. Read enough of it and you will be there.

But more. His text is a telescope to look deeper into history than we ever could unaided. Scattered throughout it are names of cults, local deities, whole towns, small rivers -- now all lost save in his text. No one now knows where the towns are, under what hill's thistle-grass and pine, or beneath what silted-up rivermouth. No one would have remembered these cult goddesses -- two in one paragraph from Sparta, for instance, "Mouse Artemis" and "Athene of the Cheeks" -- but for his casual mention of them in his text.

Mouse Artemis. Delightful! Was this for the little girls? The Brownie troops, the Mousketeers? Whatever, it had its rituals and its followers and its annual devotions and processions. All lost now. All lost but the name. It is like a complex and colorful feather somehow preserved in Jurassic amber, startling in its glimpse of a past we had hitherto constructed out of thick gray fossil bones. No matter how carefully we rebuild ancient Greece from archaeology, we will never do more than accomplish a blocky and simplified rendition of the real life there.

History caught in history. Pausanias was describing the temples of the ancient Greeks in their state of decay as of Roman times -- sun-bleached and moss-stained stones, cracked and spalled, stacked up around wooden goddesses black with age. Now, when we look for those places, we only find a few unmovable slabs of marble scattered across a sheep meadow. It's a difference of 500 years instead of 2,500.

He toured Greek pagan culture in its decline -- one gets a strong sense of superstition, but no sense of a vibrant relationship of the people with their gods, and Pausanias himself, a scrupulous and superstitious man of conventional religion, seems more devout than many of those he encounters. The priests, so far from being guides to the community, often are ignorant old yokels who can't even tell an ungarbled version of their own temple's myth.

It was doomed, this pagan Greece: If there had been no Christianity, which swept over this region like wildfire, some other robust faith would have done the same.

Greek pagan culture was in effect as much a relic to Pausanias as it is to us; it had reached that extreme of decadence where the culture is as good as dead but doesn't realize it yet. With one signal difference: He could visit standing temples and speak with living priests; in Thebes he saw not only the temple stones but the honored shields of those who died at Leuctra. He could visit the Greek world on its sickbed. We only can gaze at its mute tomb.

There is a trick those of us who love history forever attempt. To peer as far back into the past as our sight will carry our imaginations, seeking some glimpse of a beginning, the origin. We forget how really far off we are from our object and how limited are our powers of sight. As though we stood on Plymouth Rock and, staring hard to the east out over the ocean, believed we could somehow glimpse Europe.


[Posted by reader_iam]

For those of you who are returning from your holiday weekends--or even week off--I hope you had a wonderful time. We've been busy around here; I was surprised in scrolling around looking for something to see that there's been something like 30 posts put up just between Wednesday and yesterday, including some vintage Cal pieces you really shouldn't miss. (I've been more playing than not, I guess--Ms. Dewey, anyone?)

Anyway, scroll away!

And welcome back.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Ever have one of those days...

[Posted by reader_iam]

... where you unexpectedly end up feeling way more bruised and battered than when it started?

And just sit wondering: for what?

I need a long, hot bath.

Santa Kicked To The Curb As An Old Cliche

[Posted by reader_iam]

By a designer for the Target chain store who says:
"If I can do things that are really mass-produced and affordable for a very large audience, that's really the heart of good design."

In a television commercial for Target, Tord Boontje describes the driving force behind his philosophy with this original turn of phrase:
"I have created a magical world for you."

Yeah, I suppose "surreal" is one way to describe it.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Nothing New

[posted by Callimachus]

Another case of "nothing new" is the (alleged) assassination of a former Russian spy in Britain, supposedly by the Russians.

Some people will see this as a throwback to Soviet days. It's much older. The Russian government has had a particularly wicked secret police network spread throughout Europe, assassinating obstreperous exiles, since at least 1825.

The Third Department (the Department) was known for its extensive spy network, especially during infamous Minister of Police, P. A. Suvalov's time as director. The Department's greatest strength was its established network of agents and informers, who not only held Russia under strict observation, but who worked abroad as well. The organization's main duty was to obtain information about any activity that criticized the government in any way. The police then did the work of disrupting such activity and apprehending its participants.

Another site notes, "The use of agents provocateurs by the czarist police led to such extremes that secret police, posing as revolutionists, actually helped to assassinate government officials."

Higher Law and the Left

[posted by Callimachus]

Just in case you think the "Higher Law" argument is the exclusive provenance of conservative Christian groups, here are the ageing hippies of the Piecemakers to remind you it has been, more often, historically, the argument of choice for radical social reformers.

The group, led by a feisty, 85-year-old, camouflage-clad grandmother, has battled the county for years over a laundry list of code violations, claiming the law of God is greater than the law of man.

"God's laws help the people, they comfort the people. These laws bind you so that you can't breathe. They have sucked the substance right out of our country," said Marie Kolasinski, the Piecemakers matriarch.

The counter-charge, hypocrisy, is typically in the mouth of the authorities. As here:

Deputy District Attorney Scott Steiner, who prosecuted the case, doesn't believe the Piecemakers were resisting because of their religious beliefs.

"I think the primary reason for their recalcitrance is due to the almighty dollar, much more than the Almighty," Steiner said.

"They put one face to the public as being this innocent, gentle group and then they have a truly ugly side ... that is contemptuous of law, is disrespectful and has absolutely no regard for the preservation of public health," he said.

I believe it was Seward himself who coined the term, in the context of abolitionism. Seward himself was a trimmer, a compromiser, who right until the end was ready to deal with the South and save slavery. But he also was a brilliant speech-writer who so loved his own ability to turn a phrase that he couldn't see when it was the wrong one. "Higher law" was such a case. Seward's use of it branded him a dangerous radical in so many men's eyes that it kept him out of the White House he felt was rightfully his in 1860.


[posted by Callimachus]

My experience of myself is dominated by memories of looking down at my hands doing something: Writing, typing, holding a book, playing guitar, working at something on the tool bench, driving a car. When I think of "me" that is what floats into the mind: my forearms and hands, doing something. When I look in the mirror I'm startled; is that, in fact, what other people see?

No Paradise Lost

[posted by Callimachus]

I am surprised that so many of my anti-administration friends, who for as long as I have known them have spoken eloquently and often about America's hypocrisy and guilt, profess at the same time to believe they are thwarting Bush in some fiendish plot to subvert America's hitherto-flourishing freedoms and virtues.

The White House's policies on interrogation and wiretapping may well be antithetical to American virtues and poisonous to democracy. But they also have been standard practice for most of the administrations that led America since the middle of the last century -- and quite a few before. Lincoln was the first who showed how it could be done. In Bush's shoes, Kennedy (and Bobby, too) certainly would have done the same.

If we are to refuse the federal government the power to eavesdrop on us without some prior legal approval, or the CIA the ability to detain and torture suspects in secret, let us at least acknowledge these things for what they are: A new course for our government, not any sort of return to normal.

"The Rise of American Democracy" by Sean Wilentz

[posted by Callimachus]

Wilentz's book covers the evolution between the revolutions. The War of Independence and the Civil War stand as bookends to his text. His narrative spikes in three political revolutions, so-called: those that put Jefferson, Jackson, and Lincoln in the White House.

The book opens as the leaders of the young nation test their new American system. Their different notions of how it should work jostle for authority. Wilentz does a good job of pointing out how distant some of those assumptions were -- especially regarding the role of parties and the press -- from where we've ended up.

The Founders as a group never intended us to be a pure democracy in 1787, though a few of them would have supported the idea if the rest did, and a few of them later helped the process along when it became expedient to their political causes.

A key principle of the early republic was that the people should rule, but that the power to vote ought to be the privilege of free men only. One who was bound by debt or loyalty to other men was not free to give himself, or his vote, totally to the good of the public. That accounts for the Founders' general horror of debts, banks, lenders, and mortgages.

It also accounts for why many states required voters or office-holders to be men of a certain income or property. This was at heart a republican, not an aristocratic, principle. The ownership of property, unencumbered by debt, was the rock foundation of republican independence, virtue, and liberty.

And that's my reading of it. But it's not Wilentz's. In his mind, property restrictions on voting seem to have been a rank relic of aristocracy and proof of capitalist mistrust of the lowly orders of society.

Wilentz tells how the new republic quickly came to a crisis with Jefferson's election in 1800. Afterward Americans, including the political leaders, overcame the Founders' scruples and arrived at a general consensus that elections ought to be open to as many white males as possible.

Andrew Jackson's victory in 1828 was both a result of expanded suffrage and a rout of the last conservative defense against it. For the first time in America, popular causes begin to really drive national policy.

In the book's final third, the struggle over slavery distorts the march to democracy by forking it into two ideals: a Northern one and a largely anti-democratic Southern one.

But "The Rise of American Democracy" fails to rise above the mundane school of academic history-writing. It sees the past too much through the filter of current events. (Historians even have coined a word for this, "presentist.") Wilentz even lapses into modern catch phrases like "support the troops" that have dubious utility when applied to the War of 1812. Consequently, a great deal gets left out of his narrative.

Wilentz gets right to work in his introduction, asserting his right to define "democracy" in terms that would make it unrecognizable to the Founders, readers of ancient Greek, and many modern Americans.

Madison, for instance, might have defined "democracy" as a form of government vesting sovereignty in the majority, and in which the rulers serve the ruled.

Poppycock, Wilentz writes. "I think we go astray in discussing democracy simply as a form of government or society, or as a set of social norms ... a thing with particular structures that can be codified and measured." No? If democracy is not a form of government or society, what is it?

Democracy appears when some large number of previously excluded, ordinary persons -- what the eighteenth century called "the many" -- secure the power not simply to select their governors but to oversee the institutions of government, as officeholders and as citizens free to assemble and criticize those in office. [p.xix]

Ah, so. Democracy is a permanent state of "power to the people" revolution against the would-be ruling class gnawing at the roots of the tree of liberty. But instead of defining what democracy is, he's only described one way it happens.

I might call that a sometimes-feature of democracies, but to Wilentz it is the whole elephant. In so doing, Wilentz sweeps aside the notion that democracy ever can be a "gift bestowed by benevolent, farseeing rulers." Which puts the Founders in their place. Instead, "it must always be fought for."

And well you might assert that if you were publishing in 2006 and you had just announced your opinion that "George W. Bush's presidency appears headed for colossal historical disgrace." In Wilentz's world, it seems the only assurance of a nation's freedom is a continuous state of anti-administration truculence by the working people, and carping at leaders is the highest form of patiotism.

Contra Wilentz, however, American democracy was more than just a tug-of-war between rich aristocrats and noble working people. New England had a "classical/puritan" model of republicanism, the South embraced a "modern/agrarian" model, and different strains of republicanism flourished in between -- in Dutch New York and Quaker Jersey and Pennsylvania. Democracy had roots in cultural and religious traditions Wilentz ignores.

You can find that in the works of historians like David Hackett Fischer, but none of this really gets any treatment in Wilentz's book, which presents America's political evolution as the work largely of organized lower-class outsiders and a few insider allies in Washington.

Wilentz, whose specialty is American working class leaders and movements (his c.v. is here) naturally wants to make radical labor leaders and anti-capitalist agitators the heroes of the story. Certainly they played a role in the evolution of the United States from the mixed-government republic of the Constitution toward the horizontal democracy it was becoming by the time Wilentz winds up his book circa 1861.

But his attempt to pump up the importance of the radicalized working class often oversells the product. The result can remind the reader how classless American politics, as opposed to European, tend to be. Marx's old perplexity remains, and that probably wasn't what Wilentz wanted you to notice.

For instance, in the chapter on the Van Buren administration he touts "polemics" by Fanny Wright and other radicals against paper money. As though Van Buren sat up at night in bed reading radical pamphleteers and shaping his policy accordingly.

The more likely results of the radical agitation turn up a few pages later when Wilentz mentions the administration's opponents made hay by tarring its fiscal policy as "the 'Fanny Wright' campaign to destroy all banks." Then as now, in America, shrill voices tend to taint the causes they preach, however valid those causes may be in the minds of most Americans. Only devotees of Ann Coulter and Cindy Sheehan need be surprised by that.

In chapter after chapter, Wilentz breathlessly builds up the momentum of a working-class or radical movement on some issue. Mass meetings gather and brave men make bold speeches. Then the elections come and the radical parties get a "respectable" 10 percent or so, and in a month it's all forgotten. But you can be sure Wilentz will remind you the winners were "forced to take notice" of the distant third-place finishers.


"The Rise of American Democracy" actually is a turn back to an older style of history writing, one focused on the leading men of the age. Wilentz seeks to merge this with the modern academic historian's fixation with race, class, and gender abstractions and economic explanations.

And though throughout Wilentz shows his propensity for retroactively empowering "ordinary Americans, including some beyond the outermost reaches of the country's formal political life," he also believes this progress toward democracy was accomplished by the combined efforts of the people and certain egalitarian political leaders.

As such, the book actually is a corrective to much of what has been written in the past 20 years or so. Those works can make it seem American history only ever happened from the bottom up.

Wilentz stays true to his purpose to write a history of the politics of the times. "The Rise of American Democracy" is blissfully free of statistics. Science and literature are invisible. "Moby Dick" appears only as an allegory of the national struggle over slavery; Walt Whitman strolls across the stage only as a political journalist.

Unfortunately, Wilentz seem to have fallen into his topic, like Alice through the looking glass, and has written a history book in political prose.

All historians do this to some extent, but the scent of it is particularly strong here. Wilentz uses campaign-trail rhetoric: good fanatics are "passionate" "reformers" who "rail against" their enemies; bad ones are "hot-headed" "extremists" who "sneer at" them. A writer he approves is an "author;" one he disapproves is a "scribbler."

If a class of men you approve engages in politics you don't, blame it on exploitation by party bosses and propaganda. If a class of men you despise engages in politics you approve, dismiss it as the cold calculation of self-interest and temporary expedience.

Men of Party-I-Like have "moral seriousness" and take care to be "estranged" from the extremists on their side. Men of Party-I-Don't-Like, on the other hand, believe in their hearts the most extreme versions of their dogmas; it's only the "more candid" ones who say "frankly what others try to cloak."

The most complex situations resolve into simple good guy-bad guy plotlines more worthy of a professional wrestling show. Working-class Irish-American racism against blacks, deftly analyzed in Noel Ignatiev's "How the Irish Became White," tends to crop up in Wilentz's book as a case of innocent immigrants exploited by political schemers. The Irish immigrants, you see, are "offended by the Republicans' nativist tinge and empathy for black slaves" (never mind that the racism was in place a generation before the birth of either Know-Nothing nativism or Republicans).

Wherever Wilentz mentions Irish antipathy to blacks, he couples it with the political press and Democratic candidates who benefited from Irish votes. It all begins to read like an apology, as though the press was the source of the racism, not the fan to the flames. As though the basic arithmetic of wages and available labor were something only a politician, not an Irish workman, could calculate. It is odd that Wilentz's class-consciousness would overlook this, but he has bigger fish to fry. If working people are heroes and working people are racists, it must be someone else's fault.

It's only in a footnote on Irish-black relations that Wilentz admits his version is outside "The conventional and by no means wholly discredited view on Irish-black relations ...."

In such a milieu, it's no surprise political men, who ought to burst to life on these pages, simply fall out of them like cardboard bookmarks.

The great chamaeleon Van Buren goes from a cynical but brilliant coalition-builder for Jackson, playing footsie with the slave-masters for the sake of a majority, to the "courageous" and principled candidate of the Free-Soilers in their anti-slavery crusade. He then reverts to party hack when he refuses to join a later abolitionist movement.

John C. Calhoun is the great cartoon villain of the work, of course. And of course every breath Calhoun takes is explained as being grounded either in his pathological desire to make himself president or his twisted racist defense of slavery. Which would be absurd to anyone who could step outside Wilentz's world long enough to glance at Calhoun's career of deliberate steps that sabotaged his hope to lead the nation, or the future of slavery, for the sake of being consistent to his principles.

Wilentz is content to mouth the old Van Burenite slanders against Calhoun, because doing so suits his ideological need for a slaveocrat arch-satan. The caricature is downright scurilous, as when cartoon Calhoun's opposition to the huge annexations that followed the Mexican War, on anti-imperialist grounds, is dismissed as merely a racist desire to keep swarthy Mexicans out of the union.

Calhoun's constitutional position, the key to everything he did, finally gets a word in edgewise on page 729 of Wilentz's book, more than 600 pages after Calhoun first pops up in the text. He's already a decade dead and buried by that time, and Wilentz only deigns to give his doctrine a reasonably fair one-sentence summation for the sake of then pointing out how extreme, by contrast, were some of the Southern leaders who followed him.

(Along the way he also manages to misidentify Calhoun's "Disquisition on Government" as "unpublished" -- probably to diminish its importance. It was the summation of thought that Calhoun worked on until his death, and it was published three years later in a treatise of 107 pages.)

Nothing shows how completely Wilentz fails to consider Calhoun more than his description of Calhoun's "attacks on democracy -- or what ... he carefully called 'absolute democracy' ..." blithely eliding over the chasm of distinction at the core of Calhoun's entire career as though it was a rhetorical trick any clever modern-day Princeton historian can see through.

Even Lincoln, who in this book can do no wrong, is a cypher as he rides the political rapids from one political alignment to another. Other men seem to be simply inexplicable in Wilentz's world, such as Mayor Fernando Wood: champion of New York City's working-class poor AND pro-Southern conservative.

As a result, some of the juiciest perplexities of the times go unexplored in "The Rise of American Democracy." The evolution of radical anti-constitutional and disunionist sentiments by the Northern abolitionists happened at the same time there was, for the first time, a mainstream abolitionist political party. Why is that?

Wilentz rightly notes something historians often overlook: It wouldn't have mattered if the Democratic Party had maintained unity in 1860; Lincoln would have won anyhow. But this comes after a lurid account of how the evil Southern fire-eaters gleefully split the Democratic Party in hopes it would spur secession.

That, he sees, is a threat to democracy. The fact that a regional candidate like Lincoln could win the national election with only 39 percent of the popular vote doesn't seem to cross his transom for trouble. Eighteen-sixty was the most anti-democratic election (defining "democracy" in the usual way) in American history, yet because it brought to power an outsider minority that ultimately set another outsider minority free, it was for Wilentz the supreme democratic event. You'd think he'd at least acknowledge the contradiction in that.

The modern Middle East is sobering some Americans to the ugliness that can rise up to power in a popular election. A look at our past might teach the same lesson.

In the 1850s, the extreme men of the South made slow inroads among the leadership class in Dixie -- the aristocrats of slavery that Wilentz scorns. Instead, the underminers of the union had much more rapid success among the enfranchised masses in popular elections. Wilentz even notes this paradox -- "The upholders of Southern aristocracy were gaining power through the Southern democratic ballot box" [p.755] -- and there it starts and ends, as far as this book is concerned.

The Southern Confederacy and its rhetoric offer a broad-side barn target for a modern enlightened American. Wilentz's abhorrence of racism and African slavery make him the kind of fellow you'd invite to a dinner party. But they alone hardly qualify him to write this sort of drive-by history book.

The national deterioration in the 1850s was a radical table tennis match played across the Mason Dixon Line: Christiana riots, Nebraska, Dred Scott, John Brown. But in Wilentz's chicken-or-egg story of the conflict between North and South, the Southern fried chicken always comes first. To see the thing in purely political terms requires the historian to put aside his revulsion at slavery, his utter sympathy for the abolitionists, and consider the process.

Wilentz simply drags out the dusty old dossier of quotes mined from Southern political speeches and declarations of 1860 to prove defense of slavery as the central motive for secession. Then he angrily dismisses the reflective views of the chief men of both sides, years after the bid for Southern independence had failed, as a pack of lies. Because the later writings put the slavery debate in the context of the spark that lit the fire, the perceived proof of the need to separate, not the purpose of the new nation.

And so we have here the spectacle of the historian of politics dismissing the calmer reflections of historical writing as wicked lies and insisting the political boilerplate speeches and heat-of-the-moment rallying cries are the only true statements. Oh, he's not alone. It's prevailing wisdom these days, however absurd it will look to a future generation.

Still, Wilentz passes up a chance to explore the really interesting political mentality of men like Alexander Stephens, a Henry Clay-style Southern Whig by nature who felt the need to reconcile his later embrace of slavery with his essential Whig ideology based on order and philanthropy.

The slavery passage in the speech Stephens made in Savannah in 1861, which Wilentz cherry-picks to prove that the Southern rebellion had no purpose but to protect slavery, is a reflection of Stephens' internal struggle to maintain consistency of thought.

Here was a man who had publicly reversed most of his earlier political positions. As late as the 1860 election, Stephens had backed the moderate Douglas, not the South's hard-line choice, Breckenridge. He considered secessionists "demagogues," and he defended Lincoln, with whom he had served in the House. Lincoln, he wrote, "is not a bad man. He will make as good a president as Fillmore did and better too in my opinion." Lincoln, for his part, actually considered inviting Stephens to join his cabinet.

But Stephens cast his loyalty with his section, not his principles. If he could not correct the South, he would try to guide it and, by compromising some, attempt to save the rest. He failed, and the South failed.

The Savannah speech is a sad affair, not just because of the blunt racism of that one passage -- the racism itself, it ought to be noted, would hardly have offended any white audience in 1861 America, North, South, or West, outside a few abolitionist circles. But sad because it shows a politician who has so twisted himself to try to hold the reins of a revolution that he has got tangled in them and they now rule him. He embraces what he once scorned, and he mocks positions he once held. He has thrown away his ideals, and the "cornerstone" passage, to me, reads so much more accurately as an odd eruption of a warped and very personal ideological struggle.


It's not surprising that a Princeton historian would tack well to the left of the typical American (in his article on Bush, Wilentz writes, "Historians do tend, as a group, to be far more liberal than the citizenry as a whole"). But Wilentz actually has to shield himself from the extreme left side of his profession when it comes to his hero Andrew Jackson. Which may be why I found the Jackson section of the book the most appealing.

Jackson's Indian removal policy, he writes, has become "the great moral stain on the Jacksonian legacy." Wilentz bristles that "Jackson's democracy, for these historians -- indeed, liberal society -- was founded on degradation, dishonor, and death." Jackson, Wilentz insists, "truly believed" his policy was relatively just and humane. He was "a benevolent, if realistic paternalist." Why, he went so far as to adopt an orphaned Indian boy. What's more, his policy was constrained by his commitment to follow the Constitution.

Thing is, I agree with Wilentz about all that. And that the Indian removal, however well intentioned, was the least-terrible from a short list of terrible options, a tragedy, and a misguided benevolence whose good intentions were undercut by the administration itself.

But still it's amusing to watch Wilentz completely flip-flop on a paternalistic master-race leader and rally to his defense because, after all, the man advanced democracy, the one value that matters. He scolds the version of the story given by Jackson's detractors in the history-writing profession:

Like all historical caricatures, this one turns tragedy into melodrama, exaggerates parts at the expense of the whole, and sacrifices nuance for sharpness.

Which is a better summation than I could write of my opinion about "The Rise of American Democracy."

There are better studies than this one available for every issue and administration covered here, and they make the same points with more vigor and evidence. I suppose it's some use to have all this between two covers. But so much ground gets covered that, even for a book this size, and even if you agree with Wilentz about everything, the treatment is superficial.

The Jackson section is best, but we already have Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s "Age of Jackson" for that. Wilentz adds only a few dabs of color to that masterpiece. Compare any passage of Wilentz and Schlesinger on the same topic: Calhoun in the Senate grimly casting the tie-breaking vote that he thinks will end Van Buren's career; Van Buren remaining in "careful ignorance" of the unfolding scandal as the rest of Jackson's cabinet self-destructs in the Peggy Eaton affair.

Feel the vitality of the writing, the subtlety of the political comprehension. Nuance can share a page with sharpness.

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