Friday, November 30, 2007

Earth Art

Teddy Boys

Pierre Tristam has some necessary background on the Sudan, which was "fanatic before fanaticism was, in the Islamic world, cool."

What's embarrassing, what's reviling, is that one of the most violent and murderous nations on the planet, the only genocidal one at the moment, can still manage not only to deflect attention on a manufactured scandal of cartoonish proportions, but to do so in the Prophet Muhammad's name, whose message and spirit Khartoum has been smearing to the sound of endless bloodletting for decades. There would be redress, not insult, if every Muslim (if not every human being) were to brandish a teddy bear tomorrow and call it Muhammad, not only to protest the imbecility of genocidal zealotry, but, more poignantly, to speak for the innocence of millions of Sudan's children lost to genocide, lost to fanaticism, lost to the very opposite of the meaning and purpose of Islam as Muhammad taught it.

In case you're unfamiliar with his site, he is a dedicated and honorable anti-militarist, born in Lebanon, whom I read with respect, even in strenuous disagreement. No disagreement here, however. Say it, brother.

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Friday Cat Blogging


Thursday, November 29, 2007

Greatest Generation

It's long been my belief that America was supremely gifted in the generation of administrators and bureaucrats -- the middle men of the federal government -- it had from roughly 1940 to 1960. We haven't been so lucky since the Founders in any one generation having just the right skills the times demanded.

No disrespect to the fighting men and the hardworking homefront women (which I suppose is what is usually meant by "Greatest Generation"). My close family was among them. They deserve the epithet. But so do other wartime generations.

Nor do I mean to disrespect the presidents -- Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower, whom I rank among the most effective we've had. But an executive is only as good as his staff.

I'm thinking of the well-known names: George C. Marshall, Douglas MacArthur in Japan, Eisenhower as general -- but also lesser-know essential men like Lucius D. Clay who helped bring up a democratic Germany from the ruins of the Third Reich.

And when you walk back through their autobiographies, you find the threads tend to converge in one place: The Philippines. Nearly all of them had a common experience in the Philippines, in the one great colonial experiment of American history. [Short version: The counter-insurrection brought out the brutality in us, but after the fighting stopped, the Americans proved themselves fairly enlightened and benevolent masters whose subjects fared better, overall, and became independent sooner, that those of most European colonizers; but what business had the people of the Declaration of Independence flirting with empire in the first place?]

Americans remain deeply ambivalent about that episode, and it is often spoken of as a national embarrassment. And often it is compared to what is happening now in Iraq.

In a sense, the course of those men's careers is unrepeatable, since they were born and grew up in an America not yet a world power, much less the world power. The painful surrender of isolationist comfort happened in their youth.

But the military services where they cut their teeth were in many ways like today's: Relatively small in relation to the size of the nation, mostly volunteer, and painfully evolving into new global situations.

Not that great men are good men, or that their greatness isn't dependent a great deal on luck. MacArthur arguably was the most dangerous American ever, a superb political general absolutely convinced -- and capable at convincing others -- that what was good for MacArthur was good for America. And for a remarkable string of months during World War II, it seemingly was so. When he won the debate over whether to strike at the Philippines or Formosa in the Pacific campaign, pure vanity drove him. Yet by the time the act was in motion, the changing situation in China made his choice the best one. His handling of Japan was a blindfolded tightrope walk, and an example of a man of utter self-confidence merging with the spirit of a culture without having the slightest real understanding of it. His luck ran out at the Yalu River, and then the hollowness of it all became apparent. But in the meantime he had done remarkable good for his country.

An American version of Plutarch's "Lives," which I wish someone worthwhile would write, would pair Washington and Burr, Lincoln and Lee, Teddy Roosevelt and my blood relation, the eccentric anti-war Marine Smedley Butler.

And Marshall and MacArthur. Not for nothing is MacArthur's biography titled "American Caesar." And when Churchill called Marshall "the noblest Roman of them all," he perhaps said more than he knew. That was Shakespeare's line for Brutus.

Marshall arrived in the Philippines in 1902 as a second lieutenant in an army of occupation when the active stage of the insurgency there was essentially over and the colonial "nation-building" was getting underway, but a little of both were underway simultaneously. Marshall grappled with insufficiencies of military supply, absence of civilian authority, and he found himself on a number of occasions effectively governing wide swaths of Mindoro, as well as leading his own army command, isolated in a harsh climate with responsibilities far beyond his rank. It all sounds remarkably like what many of our junior officers have undergone the last few years in Iraq.

"Marshall quickly established friendships with key local civilians and exerted his authority over the company by a combination of qualities that would mark his later military career. He relied heavily on subordinates, in this case two experienced sergeants, maintained discipline, and exhibited a rare resourcefulness for a person of his age and experience," writes Marshall's biographer, Mark A. Stoler.

Stoler tells a story of the second lieutenant, then all of 21 years old, leading his troops on patrol in the tropical jungle. While they were crossing a muddy, crocodile-infested stream, a few of his men panicked in fear. They broke and ran for the other bank, knocking Marshall down and all but trampling him in the process. When he got up out of the mud, he didn't cut much of a commanding military figure. But he didn't rage and he didn't just take it. He ordered the company to fall in, then marched them back across the stream, where he immediately about-faced them and had them cross it properly. "Then he calmly inspected and dismissed them. Nothing was ever said again about the episode; there was no need to do so."

If that doesn't build character, it certainly strips away all the dross from inherent character and allows it to shine.

Marshall's conception of the citizen-soldier made him so scrupulously and firmly apolitical that he refused to even vote. Dean Acheson, who served under him in the State Department, tells this anecdote:

During the war, when a news magazine of national circulation had made a bitter attack upon President Roosevelt, a White House aide came to the Chief of Staff of the Army reporting a presidential wish that the pocket edition printed for distribution to the troops be withheld. General Marshall replied that immediately upon his receipt of such an order in writing, it would be obeyed and his own resignation as Chief of Staff would go to the White House. The matter was never mentioned again.

In fact, it would be amusing to count the number of Marshall anecdotes which end on the phrase "it never was mentioned again," or some variant of it.

It's my suspicion that Marshall was the greatest president America never had, and he seems to me proof of the argument that the only people who really ought to be president are ones who do not seek it, however ambitious they may be. That was George Washington's trait, and it was one of our original virtues. But the early 19th century showed what a charade could be made of that by performing demagogues and their partisan friends, so the country gave it up.

So when I read about the everyday stuff underway in Iraq and Afghanistan today, at places like this or this, or this, read the articulate captains describing the incredibly difficult thing they're trying to do, and actually doing, I wonder if there's another potential generation of leaders being born out there. Some will shed the uniform, some will keep it, but many of them will know a good deal more than their peers do about themselves, about power and its possibilities and about getting jobs done. Perhaps one of them quoted in those pieces is a future chief of staff, or a future president. A future Marshall or a future MacArthur.

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Murtha: Surge is Working

Well, it's just one quote, or a fragment of one; I'd like to see it in context. But for now I'll take the view that he remains fair-minded enough to read the evidence of his eyes even when it contradicts partisan needs.

"I think the 'surge' is working," the Democrat said in a videoconference from his Johnstown office, describing the president's decision to commit more than 20,000 additional combat troops this year. But the Iraqis "have got to take care of themselves."

Violence has dropped significantly in recent months, but Mr. Murtha said he was most encouraged by changes in the once-volatile Anbar province, where locals have started working closely with U.S. forces to isolate insurgents linked to Al Qaeda.

He's right, and the surge is only part of the reason for the turn-around in Anbar. It was a secondary, but important reason: It allowed the good guys to hold what they had cleared.

And for a picture of how that is working I particularly recommend Michael J. Totten's latest reporting from Fallujah:

“The biggest thing we've got going for us is the surge,” said Lieutenant Edwards. “You've probably read about it or heard about it on television.”

“Yeah,” I said and laughed. I witnessed and covered the surge myself in July and August.

“Has it helped us?” he said. “Extremely. What we can do is we can go in, knock out the enemy forces, and still leave forces there to remain and hold security down. We can then take our own forces, develop the Iraqi forces so that they can hold their own spot, then we can move to another one.”

The Marines have an extra 1,000 troops in the Fallujah area this year, but they aren't in the city. There are far fewer Marines here now than there were.

“We went from having 3,000 Marines in the city last year to down around 300 now,” the lieutenant said. “Maybe 250.”

“So you didn't surge Marines into the city,” I said.

“No,” he said. “We surged Marines around Fallujah. We either capture and kill AQI [Al Qaeda in Iraq], or they move out. If we don't kill or capture them, they move somewhere else. They avoid Fallujah now like it's the plague.”

“Even though there are only a tenth as many Marines?” I said. “Are they afraid of the Iraqis?”

“They're afraid of the Iraqis,” he said. “That's what's holding this place down. It's the citizens and the Iraqi forces. We're here as an overwatch in case something happens, but they're holding their own. They're holding their own security in the sense that if you fail, you fail your family and you fail your tribe. That's humiliating for them, and it is not going to happen.”

Which ought to give some heart to Murtha, if he wants it. The Iraqis are taking care of it themselves, though the central government seems to be the biggest stumbling block, and that will take some time to sort out. But, as another friend who has been in and out of Iraq over the past five years reported privately to me recently, the Iraqi army finally is coming along. From a reasonable distance, my friend assured me, you now no longer can instantly tell they're not the U.S. Army.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

So I Snatched It All Away from Him

When I walked in to my favorite downtown shop this afternoon, the owner was listening to an earnest young man with a clipboard petition.

The young man was talking about the plans to build a new mall on the outskirts of town. He was canvassing downtown business owners to get them to sign the petition decrying the proposal on the grounds that it would be destructive to downtown business. He was alarmed that this issue hadn't been broached at the various zoning board and planning commission hearings on the mall plans.

He wanted downtown business people to not only sign the petition, but to show up at these meetings and "be heard."

I wanted to tell the young man with the clipboard what came into my head then, which was something like this:

If you're going to fight something big the first thing you need to do isn't rally your personal sense of indignation and act it out. The first thing you need to do is learn the nature of the thing you're fighting, and the rules of the fight.

Like you, probably, I prefer downtowns to malls and I would like to think one big mall, which we already have here, is enough for us. But I also spent a decade covering "development" issues in the county next to this one, when tens of thousands of acres of farmland a year were going under for townhouses and shopping centers. There were as many as five mall proposals floating around at a time, each one bigger than this.

I sat through hundreds of meetings on this sort of thing, and I can tell you your approach is going nowhere.

It doesn't matter if you show up at that hearing. Because you don't live in the township where the mall will be built. Pennsylvania is divided into a patchwork of little six-miles-across municipalities, a relic of William Penn's social experiment, when the notion was that these would be village-based communities where people could walk to Quaker meeting or to a town meeting.

That never happened, and the townships slumbered through history until the idea of "zoning" came along in the 1950s and suddenly these township were the basic units of land-use planning and became enormously important. And they are answerable only to their residents unless, for some important and legally defensible reason, they vote to allow outsiders to be party to a hearing. Usually, unless the proposed mall is right on the township line and your out-of-township property literally backs up to it, they won't. Sometimes not even then.

The least-likely reason they'd hear you is because the proposal would damage a competitor's business. The role of local government is not to regulate economic competition. If you allow even a hint of that in your deliberations on the proposed mall, you instantly give the developer all the grounds he needs to make a legal challenge to anything you deny him.

By approaching the hearings without understanding this, you play right into the hands of exactly the thing you want to halt.

Maybe it would be better if local governments regulated economic competition. I doubt it. But it certainly would be better if zoning in this state were accomplished on a county level, instead of among this crazy patchwork of townships. But that's not the way it is. And if you want to win, not just complain, you have to fight it the way it is.

So you go find someone in the township who agrees with you to be the point man and be heard. And you look at the land plan and hammer it from the angle of the things the zoning boards and planning commissions are allowed to cite in rejecting the plan, if they choose to -- things like "health, safety and welfare of the community."

Chances are some of the people on those boards are hoping someone will do just that. They might be on your side. But if you just blunder in there complaining about the effect on other businesses, you'll make yourself poison to them.

All it takes is a will to win, not bitch, and a little homework. When did we forget that?

But I didn't say anything. I just paid for my purchase and left.

Words and Meaning

One of my correspondents in the language world wrote about a shift underway in the meaning of "Holocaust," in reference to a specific historical event, and to the resistance against that.

The gist of the change is in this short definition:

Today, the term refers to the systematic planned extermination of about six million European Jews and millions of others by the Nazis between 1933-1945.

The longer version is in this "teachers guide" produced by University of South Florida:

Approximately 11 million people were killed because of Nazi genocidal policy. It was the explicit aim of Hitler's regime to create a European world both dominated and populated by the "Aryan" race. The Nazi machinery was dedicated to eradicating millions of people it deemed undesirable. Some people were undesirable by Nazi standards because of who they were,their genetic or cultural origins, or health conditions. These included Jews, Gypsies, Poles and other Slavs, and people with physical or mental disabilities. Others were Nazi victims because of what they did. These victims of the Nazi regime included Jehovah's Witnesses, homosexuals, the dissenting clergy, Communists, Socialists, asocials, and other political enemies.

There's some virtue in inclusiveness. I never knew, until I read that site, about this:

When the Nazis came to power there were hundreds of African-German children living in the Rhineland. They were the offspring of German mothers and African soldiers brought in during the French occupation. In Mein Kampf,Hitler claimed these children were part of a Jewish plot to begin "bastardizing the European continent at its core." Under the Nazi regime, African-German children were labeled "Rhineland Bastards" and forcibly sterilized.

But it seems to me the specific campaign against the Jews by the Nazis deserves some special designation, and had elements that set it apart from the general racial purity policies of the Third Reich. And, as with any debate involving the Holocaust, there is an agenda, or a suspicious smell of one, all around. See here for some of the pushback.

The word is fragmenting, and if this keeps up "Holocaust" in a few years will end up meaning something slightly different to different interested parties and groups, and something vaguely undefined to everyone else (sort of like "torture"), which would be unfortunate but not uncommon. At that point we might have to go back to the original Hebrew Shoah or the German Endlösung to describe the specific campaign to exterminate the Jews.

One of the places you can see this played out is the Wikipedia talk forums, where the editors of that work debate the information to be included in it. I think ultimately these debate archives will be as valuable to historians as the encyclopedia itself, as priceless windows into the certainties and uncertainties of our times. Here's a sample from the debate thread on the definition of the Holocaust:

I'm not getting what is going on here. The lead of the article clearly states, The Holocaust is the term generally used to describe the killing of approximately six million European Jews during World War II. Yet the article, with what appears to be some POV-warrioring from editors, has just become a huge recounting of Nazi atrocities, with some added crap about what the Soviets have done. There are lots of things I'm beginning to hate about Wikipedia. But this article is disgusting. The Holocaust is simply the murdering of 6 million Jews. As horrible as what the Nazis did to numerous other racial and ethnic groups, they belong in very specific articles about those specific atrocities. What this article has become is just a discussion about what Nazis did to everyone, which is not the Holocaust. That does not follow the academic definition of the Holocaust, and, in fact, I contend can be used by Holocaust Deniers in a whole-hot of unethical ways.

I generally agree with this post. But with the caveat that I don't think decisions of this sort ought to be made with any reference to how someone vile might use the word.


Beyond Indignant

I was going to save this for a year and run it after the next presidential election, when, as I expect, there likely will be a change of party in the White House and a lot of screeching and ranting. Maybe I'll do that anyhow, since no one will remember it that long. But this week, as I poked my head into the wider blogosphere, I thought, "Let people find it now."

Maybe just a few will read it and think a bit differently before they speak or post. Maybe there will be one less post than otherwise had been, saying:

"You were so indignant about THAT; why aren't you also indignant about THIS? That proves you're a hypocrite!"

"THIS thing is happening somewhere in the world, and my foolish domestic opponents have responded to it indignantly, without realizing THEIR FAVORED IDEOLOGIES ARE EXACTLY THE SAME THING!"

We're a country with plenty of problems. But too many Americans with voices can't talk about the problems because they're too busy talking about the politics. They can't even see the problems, though they can name them. All they can see is the politics. And each other. Indignantly.

This was said on Nov. 4, 1952, when the country also faced a lot of problems, such as a shaky economy and unpopular wars that it couldn't afford to lose. The sides shook out differently then -- the Democrats were under attack for pushing the unpopular war and for spending too much on the military. But it was the same America; those kinds of differences are trivial and temporary.

Watching election returns that night at home were the then-Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, and some friends, including Acheson's mentor, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter. Most of the people there, however, were young: junior staffers and children of the elder officials.

As the Republican victory became clear, the younger listeners felt despair, almost panic, "as though they were suddenly learning of a stunning natural disaster, which they could not believe or bear." They were bitter about the "stolen" election and the rise of "demagogues."

Now you get that kind of panic after every election. It is somewhat comforting to know Americans felt like this in the past, even about the amiable Eisenhower, but this was an exceptional election, because the Democrats had been in the White House for 20 years, which probably exceeded the functional memory of most people in the room. And the GOP of 1952 also was the party of Joe McCarthy and many others of that kidney.

Acheson talked to the young people to give them some guidance, and Justice Frankfurter thought what he said sufficiently wise that he urged those who heard it to write it down as they recalled it. Or perhaps that was his contribution to calming the waters. At any rate, the impromptu performance of the great diplomat has been preserved.

He told them the change of administration, which shocked them, was normal, natural, and bound to happen. And he told them how to handle themselves.

From this moment you should not go on fighting battles that have been lost. ... Do what nature requires, that is to have a fallow period. Just let the field of your emotions stay barren, let new seeds germinate, until May, or next year, or until 1954; that is what happens in nature. Have different activities, think of something else. Don't read The New York Times from cover to cover every day.

Then when you come back to the scene, you will come back fresh. And you should think of the problems that exist then, and not of the problems that existed a year before. Say, "These are new problems. I am going to attack the new problems in a creative way."

This gets us to the point of how you should act now. The people who come in will have a responsibility which they haven't had for twenty years. Actually the problems will remain the same. They are very difficult problems, in some cases just about insoluble. The new people will find this out, and the chances are that they are not going to be able to find miraculous solutions any more than we have done. But now they will have the responsibility. They will have fresh minds and a fresh approach, and it is possible that they will be able to think of some things that we haven't thought of and to do some things that we haven't done. If so, that is all to the good. And we should give them a chance to do their best.

One thing that we shouldn't do is reduce their chances of getting somewhere. We probably could if we tried. Because the new people won't understand the great complexities and the ramifications of the things they have to deal with. But that's all right, because they will soon, and we should try to help them as much as we can. Whatever we may have thought of some of the men who will come into the new administration when they have been so critical of us, there's no sense in continuing to voice these past opinions of the new men. We must give them a chance. Their purposes are the best interests of this country, just as ours are.

So that's the second thing to keep in mind: Don't undermine the whole foundation by hammering at mistakes the Administration will make from the beginning and by discrediting the new Administration as rapidly as its problems arise. This is not only tempting, but extremely easy. Quite a few of us know enough to make life intolerable for the new Administration. We should not by our actions make it impossible or more difficult for them to accomplish what all of us have been trying to accomplish over the last seven years.

Above all, we shouldn't organize ourselves into factions that are anti-this or anti-that. We shouldn't form anti-Dulles clubs, if he is the next Secretary of State, or anti-anybody clubs. That doesn't get you anywhere.

After things have settled down a bit and the new people have taken over and are doing what they can, we will have ideas about how to solve some of the difficult questions that will come up. We will have a chance to be constructive by throwing out those ideas. If they are wise ideas, they will be picked up and will be helpful. We probably won't be able ever to put our ideas into operation ourselves. But if we can think of them, and advocate them, the new people in the Democratic Party, people whom we don't even know yet because they haven't appeared, will have something to go on. There is no sense in having our ideas simply ideas of how badly the Republicans are doing things. What we need to have and what the country will need to have are ideas that are constructive and helpful in solving new problems that it will face.

Nowhere does he say anything about "patriotic," or "American" values. He doesn't have to. It's all over the speech.

Annapolis Shuffle

Why exactly, Mr. President, is "the time right" now for a Middle East peace breakthrough? Other than in terms of your time in office?

"First, the time is right because Palestinians and Israelis have leaders who are determined to achieve peace." But Abbas has been there for years. And Olmert is far weaker at home than he was at the beginning of his tenure, and probably less capable now of accomplishing dramatic moves.

"Second, the time is right because the battle is under way for the future of the Middle East, and we must not cede victory to the extremists." And exactly how is this different than 2005, or 2003, or -- Sept. 12, 2001?

"Third, the time is right because the world understands the urgency of supporting these negotiations. We appreciate that representatives from so many governments and international institutions have come to join us here in Annapolis, especially the Arab world."

Turn around. You can see the looks on their faces. Like too-cool 8th graders on an educational field trip. What sort of trade-offs did you give them in terms of turning a blind eye to repressions at home to get them all into the room for that photo op?

What single shred of evidence do you offer that these men want to now give up the one thing that most powerfully props up their rotten regimes: However furious their subjects may be at them, they always can be made more furious at Israel?

Tuesday, November 27, 2007


Your Score: the Provacateur

(52% dark, 30% spontaneous, 52% vulgar)

your humor style:

You'll crack on anything, and you're often witty, even caustic, about it.

Therefore, your sense of humor is polarizing. You're transgressive, and you've got a seriously sharp 'edge'--maybe too much for some folks. If they get you, people think you're one of the funniest (and smartest) people in the world. If they don't, they think you're an ass. Whatever, right? While some might question your judgement, your comic intellect is unquestionably respected.

PEOPLE LIKE YOU: Chris Rock - Lenny Bruce - George Carlin

Link: The 3 Variable Funny Test

[Hat tip]

Monday, November 26, 2007

Earth Art

Totalitarian Head Games

It's a bit depressing to realize a lot of modern Americans can't really distinguish a shopping mall experience from liberty.

Even some Westerners are impressed by the new China. American swimming superstar Michael Phelps said on a visit to Beijing, the host city of the Olympic Games next August, “Going to the hotel, we see Subway, 7-Eleven, Starbucks, Sizzler, McDonald’s. It’s like a big American city. They have everything we have in the States.” In fact, they don’t. They lack basic freedoms.

Those little things, like being able to gather together in a group and discuss politics, don't seem like they mean a lot when you're so busy shopping. The authorities seem to know this. They seem to bank on it.

But Chinese citizens can’t form a political party, or any other organized group, without official permission. They can’t choose their leaders. Even the ordinary CPC members have no say in their hierarchy. Sisci, Beijing correspondent of the Italian newspaper La Stampa, writes in the China Economic Quarterly that “there is something like a 75 percent avoidance rate on personal income tax” because few people anywhere choose to concede taxation without any representation. “There is a political pact,” he writes. “The government allows tax evasion in return for political obedience. So far, the middle class has acquiesced: it prefers to pay less taxes and not vote, rather than buy its right to elect the government by paying more taxes.”

[ed.: There's something amusing about an Italian horrified by a nation that avoids income taxes, but there you go.]

Phone calls, text messages, and emails are likely to be screened, and many Internet sites—such as Wikipedia and BBC News—are blocked or filtered by the 30,000 “net police.” Bloggers must give their real names and identity card numbers to their Internet service providers, which must in turn make them available to the authorities when asked. Tim Hancock, Amnesty International’s campaign director in the UK, says, “The Chinese model of an Internet that allows economic growth but not free speech or privacy is growing in popularity, from a handful of countries five years ago to dozens of governments today who block sites and arrest bloggers.”

In some ways it is ham-fisted and bureaucratically muscle-bound. But in others it operates with supple skill. Perhaps the most wicked trick is to let artists and writers understand some things are off-limits, which will incur penalties -- but not tell them what those topics and images are.

All films must be vetted by the State Administration for Radio, Film, and Television. All print media are government- or party-owned. The party’s propaganda department has recently introduced a penalty scheme for media outlets that deducts points for defying government guidance. Twelve points means closure. Every inch of public territory remains tightly defended, although warnings are usually not explicit, leaving maximum space for artists to choose to censor themselves. Leading new-wave filmmaker Jia Zhangke, winner of the top award, the Golden Lion, at last year’s Venice Film Festival, says, “If we don’t touch the taboo areas, we will have a lot of freedom. But then those areas grow larger. If your tactic is to guess what the censors are thinking, and try to avoid their concerns, you are ruined as an artist.”

And here the masters of moral equivalence will demand to know, "how is that different from the effective censorship of the lumpen consumer public in a ruthless free-market system?" Yeah. People stopped buying Dixie Chicks album because their politics pissed off their former fan base. That's just like what happened to Akhmatova, isn't it. A whole century just passed was a blood-sodden lesson in The Difference, and some people still don't get it.


The Little Ingenue Could

We Americans can be so narcissistic that we expect leaders from other parts of the world to be actually talking to us when they're talking to us. We interpret their words and styles in terms of what those things would mean if we did them. This is a dangerous habit. Because those leaders often know that "addressing the Americans" gives them a forum in front of the rest of the world that they'd otherwise never have. Bin Laden seems to know this. And because "addressing the Americans" is itself more than a forum, it is an act of political expression in the eyes of the rest of the world. How you carry yourself and what you say to our faces or in our houses resonates everywhere else, even if we hardly notice you or don't get it.

This tour through modern Iranian politics makes a case that Ahmadinejad is a far more successful figure than we give him credit for. He is not complex -- rather the opposite. But he's found a good game and he sticks with it. And it's one that we're challenged to beat him at. Until we recognize it for what it is, we don't have a chance. He knows that, and no doubt it pleases him.

Ahmadinejad has turned many things to his advantage, but neither Israel, nor the Holocaust, nor Iran’s nuclear program figured in his presidential campaign. Ahmadinejad was brought to power by his ability to understand and connect with the poor. He had mastered—in his words and deeds, his gestures and dress—a kind of populism that plays on fears and anxieties, especially among Iran’s poor. Not only did he do well in the poorer sections of the cities, he also easily carried the countryside. Even some from the middle class, unwilling to vote for Rafsanjani, voted for Ahmadinejad. To appeal to their technocratic impulses he uses the title of doctor, received when he finished his graduate studies in traffic engineering. Moreover, after Khamenei’s “suggestion,” the Revolutionary Guards and the Basij, along with their families, voted in the millions for him.

In interviews and speeches in Iran, he uses vernacular expressions and street idioms. He nearly always wears his uniform—an oversize jacket (or tunic), baggy pants, and a baggy shirt (Islam forbids any clothing, on men or women, that might betray bodily curves), all invariably light in color. He never wears a tie—the unmistakable sign of modernity. And since Islam forbids the frivolous sensation of a razor blade on a man’s face, Ahmadinejad’s beard is also part of his persona. All aspects of his appearance are intended to signal the sharp tension between moderns and traditionalists.

He heads a nation where provoking the U.S. and Israel is almost a prerequisite of political seriousness. Like Antaeus, every time we think we've thrown him down, he seems to be strengthened. In cases like his, the most successful countermeasure is likely to be counter-intuitive. And what seems to us to be the treatment that satisfies us most may be what strengthens him where it matters most to him.

P.S.: I titled it that because I couldn't think of anything else.


Bear Arms

Time for a rhetorical gunfight over the Second Amendment, which will be amusing because we get to watch the wanna-be punditry shoot itself in the foot over original intent and the Founders and the language whereby such intent might be discovered.

The dispute arises from the first four words of the Second Amendment, the full text of which reads: "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." If the first two clauses were omitted, there would be no room for ambiguity. But part of the legal controversy has centered around what a "well regulated militia" means.

Judge Silberman's opinion argued, with convincing historical evidence, that the "militia" the Framers had in mind was not the National Guard of the present, but referred to all able-bodied male citizens who might be called upon to defend their country. The notion that the average American urbanite might today go to his gun locker, grab his rifle and sidearm and rush, Minuteman-like, to his nation's defense might seem quaint. But at stake is whether the "militia" of the Second Amendment is some small, discreet group of people acting under government control, or all of us.

The phrase "the right of the people" or some variation of it appears repeatedly in the Bill of Rights, and nowhere does it actually mean "the right of the government." When the Bill of Rights was written and adopted, the rights that mattered politically were of one sort--an individual's, or a minority's, right to be free from interference from the state. Today, rights are most often thought of as an entitlement to receive something from the state, as opposed to a freedom from interference by the state. The Second Amendment is, in our view, clearly a right of the latter sort.

What's missing in all that? In all the modern writing, the word "state" is used only in the sense of "the nation-state," meaning, essentially, "the federal government." Yet it is impossible to talk about the old militias without reference to the states, which authorized them and set such rules for them as were deemed necessary (and which varied widely from state to state), and offered them to federal service, fully formed, only in temporary emergencies.

The old middle, or buffer, of the federal system that we were bequeathed in 1787 has so far fallen out of memory that we write as if there never were such things as "states," or that "the United States," to the Founders, was a plural noun. The Bill of Rights was a set of chains that bound the federal government. Only.

The very idea that the federal government would claim such a right as deciding who in one state or another could and couldn't own a firearm would be a nightmare to the Founders. The argument made by Madison and others against a Bill of Rights was not that it put too much restriction on the federal authorities, but that it was dangerous to list powers the federal government did not have over citizens, because doing so could allow an interpretation of the Constitution that meant anything not on the list was allowed. The anti-Bill men preferred to leave the document such that any and every federal power not spelled out in the text was presumed forbidden. (The current 10th Amendment was meant to allay this fear.)

When Madison first began to compile a bill of rights, unwillingly, from the proposals that had been put forth, he included some provisions that also limited the powers of states. But these were dropped in the Senate. The federal government could do none of the things proscribed in the Bill of Rights. But the states could, and did. New England governments, for instance, continued to tax all their eligible citizens to pay for official state churches well into the 1800s. Many state constitutions therefore had their own version of a bill of rights, sometimes with a clause that mirrored the Second Amendment (a useful list of them is here).

Only after the Civil War destroyed the power of the states, and the courts began opening the Pandora's boxes of the Reconstruction amendments, did the ideas emerge that now govern total federal control over what states can and cannot allow their citizens to do.

Another good walk around the topic, from the same source as the above link, is here.

* * *

The debate also is likely to turn on questions of wording of the amendment, and even punctuation. In which case, it would be pertinent to follow the trail of the wording as the bill made its way through Congress, and to compare it to other contemporary legislation on the topic. Which probably a lot of people won't do before they start writing.

The Founders, with so many lawyers among them, tended to be very careful in their grammar and punctuation. After the Constitution was put together in Philadelphia, but before it was signed, the Founders handed it to a Committee of Style to go over it with a fine comb and put all the grammatical fine points in order in the final document to be voted on. It was a serious matter, and the names on the committee included top dogs such as Gouverneur Morris, Hamilton, Madison, and Rufus King.

Morris, who did the writing for the committee, tried to pull a fast one and give the federal government the power to finance internal improvements, such as canals. Some delegates cherished this vision, but they knew the majority was against it. Morris attempted his trick in copying out Article 1, Section 8, delineating the powers of Congress. They were itemized in clauses, each clause set off by a semicolon.

Morris slipped a semicolon between "To lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises" and "to pay the debts and provide for the common defense and general welfare." That turned the second phrase, meant as a delimiting clause to the first, into a power unto itself. It thus removed the limitation on the taxing power.

The impact of that doesn't seem so enormous today because we've essentially given federal government all the power Morris could have dreamed for it, and more. But then, it was a radical and horrifying notion. When the committee returned the document to the delegates, Roger Sherman of Connecticut spotted the trick and called the attention of the other delegates to the world-changing semicolon. A comma was restored in its place.

[The incident is described in Forrest McDonald, "Novus Ordo Seclorum," 1985, p. 264-5]


Terror Poet Girl

Lost in the Flood

This will shred you on shards of broken hearts. It might make you feel you, too, are drowning in the stream of the last century's nameless dead. Like the long, silent spiral of bodies and china table settings and novels that trailed up from gashed "Titanic" in the icewater. Multiplied by millions; who knew in 1912 this was to be the image of the dawning century? You may finish this story gasping and gulping breath. Or vertiginous. The ground beneath you suddenly turned transparent, you see you stand at the apex of a pile of corpses, as high as the sea is deep. And demoralized by the realization of how feeble is any attempt to redeem any of it now.

Sometimes I doubt whether I've spent the last 20 years researching the 19th century or escaping into it. Oh I can think of a hundred reasons I'd rather live now than then -- smallpox vaccines, air conditioning, bikinis -- but a decided advantage of being a human being in the 19th century was that you didn't have to somehow explain the 20th.

So You Don't Have To

A glance at the search engine hits on this site shows some trends. For instance, around the weeks that correspond to the end of the semesters at state universities, a lot of hits flow in on search terms that seem to be exact transcriptions of professors' essay questions. Such as: "Name three reasons why the South seceded from the Union."

This isn't an education site, but I often write about historical topics or quote from others who do that. So I understand how such queries come here. And I also understand the desperation of the student who finds himself up against a deadline for which he is unprepared, and a challenge to which he is unwilling to rise.

The Internet is an open toll booth to the easy road.

After all, you, student, have spent the bulk of the semester doing more important things than all that dreary reading. Like running around World of Warcraft battlegrounds with your nimble fingers beating up on my poor slow characters. Or crowding into the one taproom in this town that can serve a Guinness right, with the perfect aeration, and monopolizing the barstools while ordering nothing but Coors Light and Captain 'n' Coke all night.

Yes, my sympathies are all on your side. To make your path easier, here are some answers to commonly assigned undergraduate essay assignments.

Three reasons the Civil War began:

Abraham Lincoln, who was elected president of the North in 1837 and again in 1854. He supposedly stole this election by stuffing the ballot boxes in Hawaii after the polls had closed. He also signed the Lend Lease Agreement in 1870, whereby Texas, a Southern state, would be lent to Mexico in exchange for a 99-year lease on California.

Lincoln's close friend and secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, John Wilkes Booth, wrote the Gettysburg Address while traveling from Washington to Pennsylvania on the back of an envelope. The address was an attempt to revive the Tariff of Abominations, also known as the Hawley-Smoot Tariff, which the South was convinced would lead to a resumption of the War of 1812.

Slavery. The North wanted it. That's why the North kept luring slaves to run away from their masters, with all-night magic lantern showings of "Song of the South" in special theaters set up in boxcars buried in the vacant lots of Northern cities (i.e. "the Underground Railroad").

Next: "Beowulf Made Accessible."

Whitman Online

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself.
Bite me.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Earth Art

Council Winners

Watchers Council winners have been posted for the week of November 23.

First place in the council went to Charting a New Course In Iraq Messaging at Cheat Seeking Missiles.

Votes also went to Prophets in a Freudian Age by Bookworm Room; Who Won't Be the Next President by The Colossus of Rhodey; The Infantilization of American Politics by Right Wing Nut House; and Desertion in Perspective from right here.

Outside the council, the winner was The Irrationality of Europe at The Van Der Galiën Gazette.

Votes also went to The Ultimate War Simulation Game at; Al Dura Affair: France 2 Cooks the Raw Footage at Pajamas Media; and Dissecting Media "Bias": The Case of Eric Alterman by Oliver Kamm.


Chuck Adkins is right on the mark here:

We’re just in too big of damned hurry for this war to be over. It takes time, a long time for something like this to be finished. The insurgents were not defeated, just set back a little. This shows that very clearly.

How can anyone read the ghastly details of today's cowardly attack on a pet market and not want to wring the necks of the thugs who planned and executed it?

The blast sent dogs scattering in the streets and neglected chicks chirping near pools of blood as vendors rushed to help the wounded.

The victims behave like heroes. Even the animals continue to suffer in dumb nobility. The attackers are so far below both as to hardly constitute the same life form.

Too much of the current American news media coverage of Iraq is about Americans. That's inevitable, given the market-driven media. But it's not the pulse of the story now. There is no steady percentage of news coverage that ought to be devoted to any one topic. And in the past I've complained that the media was paying too little attention to the average American troops and what they did day in and day out in Iraq.

That's still true. But since the "surge" is a topic of controversy, and a topic with domestic political consequences, it absorbs the attention of the media. Everything that happens in Iraq tends to be seen in terms of the "surge."

But as wiser observers, with longer-range vision know, Iraq is going to be saved by Iraqis, or not at all. And what their army is doing in these weeks and months of relative stability is as important as what ours is doing. There are signs that this is happening as we should hope it will:

[T]he real surge in Iraq is happening behind the scenes. The rapidly expanding Iraqi Army is where the real surge in forces is occurring.

As our friend Kat, who has been there and seen the evolution of the place, pointed out in a comment recently, for the average Iraqi with a family, it comes down to a question of survival. Even if they want to stand up for their country, there's no point in doing that if a gang of thugs is waiting to gun you down and nothing will stop them. But if there's an army and a police force armed and capable of keeping the thugs at bay, then you've got a chance. Then your country has a chance.

It can be the American military in the short term. But not forever.

So, see if the newfound cooperation between the occupiers and many of their former enemies in Iraq can pay off. See if the murderers in the pet market -- who, by one account, hid their bomb in a "box of small birds" -- doves, perhaps? -- can walk the streets and smirk at the mourners of their victims. Or if they pay for their crimes as, in any just reality, they should.


Friday Cat Blogging

"Henna," a Hawaiian-born-and-raised dancer who took up belly-dance and has been performing in Tokyo, where the scene is quite flourishing.


Down the River with Huck

This is why I keep going back to Huckabee for second-looks. I know I disagree with him on things like how the universe likely was created. But that's not in the job description of "chief executive." On the other hand, setting a tone for national policies often is part of what a president does. And Huckabee, among the gaggle of schemers seeking the job, often has just the right tone -- for me. Here, for instance, on immigration:

We penalize law-breakers. We don't penalize their children for something they can't help.

If a child is gasping for air, asthmatic, and he's on the hospital steps, what do the other candidates suggest we do, let him sit there and gasp until he doesn't have any air left and he dies? If a child comes to our school -- and our law, by the way, in most of our states, mine certainly says you've got to educate a child if he's of child age -- what do you, break your own law and say, `No, you can't come in the schoolhouse door'?

No, you don't do that. What you do is you elect a president who will fix the problem where it needs to be fixed: At the border. But if your government at the federal government is so incompetent that it fails to secure the border, you don't then grind your heel into the face of a 6-year-old child over it. That's not what this country does. We're a better country than that.

It's not a policy. But it's a vision of what the country -- the people collectively -- is and ought to be. And that's a place to begin. Sort of like his accidental namesake in the Twain book, even if his head isn't clear of some of the artificial prejudices of his time and place, his heart often seems to know what the right thing is.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

To All of You, from What's Left of Me

After being re-introduced to the show via an infant daughter, I appreciate the sentiment here far more than I did when I first saw it.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Your Media at Work, part 377

Running down the list of available stories and photos to fill inside news pages tomorrow:

WIRE EDITOR: ... and here's a picture of U.S. soldiers at a re-enlistment ceremony in Baghdad ...

[stunned silence]

COPY EDITOR: Does someone have a gun to their head?

If you ever wonder why certain stories, certain types of stories, never seem to appear in your media, remember they not only have to survive one assignment editor/reporter/copy editor/wire editor/page editor's narrative-driven axe. It has to survive all of them.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Earth Art

That Stupid

The thing that irritates me about the blogger who goes by the name Jon Swift is not so much that I don't think his shtick is very good. I don't, but that just might be me being humor-challenged. His site is set up as a neo-prog's parody of a conservative. That could be a rich field for a clever thinker, but despite the smoothness of the prose and the lack of gratuitous cussing, Jon Swift's blog is as shallow as a carnival game. It's just Kos in a better suit. He's not mocking anything real, only the progressive straw man version of an unthinking conservative, which already is a mock-up. You get no medals for shooting up cardboard targets. You don't get to do an end-zone dance after scoring against tackle dummies.

His "satire" lacks what Calvino identified as the redeeming quality in satire -- ambivalence, "which is the mixture of attraction and repulsion that animates the feelings of every true satirist toward the object of his satire."

No, it's not any of that that irritates me. It's that so many "progressive" bloggers have urged me to bookmark this guy's site as a true fellow conservative. Yes, they think I'm that stupid.

UPDATE: Racking my brains to remember who it was that was urging Jon Swift on me as a "reasonable conservative blogger," I recalled that one of the people who goes around blogland playing that juvenile prank is ... Jon Swift.

However, in writing this post I sinned against the blog Commandments by linking to the subject of it indirectly, via the post elsewhere that sparked my reflection, rather than directly. And since he is the stern guardian of blogging propriety, as well as one of those privileged to punk it, he called me on it. I hereby atone for my grievous transgression by linking directly to Jon Swift, and enlarging the link with a couple of quotations from the blogger's namesake, brought to mind after examining the blogger's efforts:

But when a creature pretending to reason could be capable of such enormities, he dreaded lest the corruption of that faculty might be worse than brutality itself. He seemed therefore confident, that instead of reason, we were only possessed of some quality fitted to increase our natural vices; as the reflection from a troubled stream returns the image of an ill-shapen body, not only larger, but more distorted.


In pleading, they studiously avoid entering into the merits of the cause; but are loud, violent and tedious in dwelling upon all circumstances which are not to the purpose. For instance, in the case already mentioned; they never desire to know what claim or title my adversary hath to my cow, but whether the said cow were red or black, her horns long or short; whether the field I graze her in be round or square, whether she were milked at home or abroad, what diseases she is subject to, and the like ....

I bet that's the longest single link he ever had.

Movin' On Up

Our blogfriend Mark Daniels has been invited to join the krew over at The Moderate Voice, which for the past few months has been in danger of being more voice than moderate. Mark is an excellent pick to rebalance that keel. See his work here and here. We can say we knew him when.

True Believers

An Al Gore True Believer said this to me yesterday: "I'm not the problem. Society is the problem." This person sells real estate and drives a big Mercedes all day long in his job in our Connecticut exurbia.

A lovely anecdote, courtesy of Maggie's Farm, which also lists things you will do if you sincerely "believe in a man-made global warming crisis:"

Will not fly on airplanes
Will live close enough to work to walk or bike
Will turn off your electric power - and no oil lamps. No computers - they are energy sponges.
Will cease to mow your lawn
Will heat your home with solar power, or, better yet, not at all. It takes a lot of energy to create those solar panels
Will give up eating beef
Will junk your cars, tractors, lawn-mowers, boats, chain saws, etc.
Will wear no synthetics, or clothing requiring electric power to produce
Will grow all of your own food so it doesn't have to be trucked to your supermarket

Which is probably meant to be provocative, but it also happens to be a serious list. Like any good egoist, I checked myself against it and came out pretty far on the "green" side, but not necessarily for green reasons (I don't fly more than once every 4 or 5 years because I can't stand being sardined into coach class and I can't afford business class).

Really, a lot of these can be accomplished by the simple tactic of living in a small, older city without an extensive suburb. I work six blocks from my home (#2), mow my tiny lawn with an old-fashioned push-mower (#4), can keep the heat down because the buildings are close to each other and tree-shaded, which moderates the weather (#5, partially), and buy most of our groceries at a local farmer's market from the people who grow them, or are one step removed from the local producers.

And all that greenliness from a fascist centerpiece of the right-wing warmonger America-destroying wingnutosphere.

Back to Maggie's:

If you do not do those things, then I won't believe that you are genuinely concerned, and will not take you seriously. Show me what to do - don't tell me what to do. Government and the UN first, please. Greenies second.

Just don't tell me that you are going to continue to enjoy these luxuries until the government forces you not to. Show leadership and individual responsibility. No pseudo-virtuous tokenism, please.

There are two things to be kept separate here: One is the reality of the condition of the climate, so far as we can determine it, and the role of human activity in whatever ways it is trending (and that itself is three different things).

The other is the political and psychological quirks that surge to the surface of some people as they react to that situation. And those are potentially as dangerous to the balancing Earth as capitalism or whatever the bogey man du jour is.

A psychological need to punish Western and American prosperity in the name of saving the planet will drive you to downplay the effect of pollution and resource extraction from emerging economies in the non-Western world. Which figure to be serious contributors to the problem in the short-term, and in some cases already are.

Do you love the Earth more than you resent Bu$hco? Do you want to give your grandchildren a cleaner world more than you need to validate your own anger by protesting and picketing?

To be serious about it, you have to confront the climatological models, and you have to cut through the psychological fallacies as rationally and calmly as possible. Probably not one in 100 of the people most loudly participating in this debate is doing that.

Labels: ,

Monday, November 19, 2007

Why You Should Not Get News from a TV Set

They Think This is Us

In a way, many of the problems outlined here are endemic to journalism. Most reporters think most readers don't give a damn about what happens in East Jesus Township, Kentucky, on a typical day. But if there's, say, a school shooting there, the world will know about it. And as a result, chances are that's all they'll know about the place afterward.

Just so, American foreign correspondents in Europe tend to only report on the quirky, outrageous, and scary aspects of daily life there. And Europeans tend to resent this:

"America's leading newspaper seems unaware there are serious issues of economics, politics, state policy, and all its Paris correspondent thinks about is making cliched comparisons between France and the United States about women, divorce, affairs by politicians. Does she know anything else? New York liberals think we are Disneyland. At least American conservatives want to talk about real things."

Which is amusing when they don't realize how much their views of the U.S. are informed by the same sort of reporting, if possible, more malicious because so relentlessly negative. At least over here, we get the "there'll always be an England" sort of coverage that makes Europeans seem different from us in a charming, often admirable, way (phony though that coverage may be).

Over there, well, here's a (translated) sample of the opening graph of a story from one of the major German news mags:

In Europe one usually receives a cookie with their coffee. In the USA it is an assault rifle: In the Texan solitude, waitresses with highly teased hair offer the things for sale in weapon shops camouflaged as cafes. Normal daily life in Bush-Country.

Normal daily life, you see.


Council Winners

Watchers Council winners for the week of Nov. 16 have been posted.

First place in the council went to 'Land For Peace', American Style by Joshuapundit.

Votes also went to School District & Cops Agree -- Ignore The Law by Rhymes With Right; Racist Talk About Education by Bookworm Room; Behind the Anger from right here; Hollywood's KoolAid Fest Continues: Wimps for Lambs by Cheat Seeking Missiles; and Poverty and Terror, Again by Soccer Dad.

Outside the council, the winner was A Conversation in Bagram, Afghanistan at Austin Bay Blog. I knew as soon as I read this one that looking at the rest of the list would be a mere formality. It's a calmly passionate rallying cry and a reminder that, however messy and ugly the work being done in our names in Afghanistan and Iraq is, it's got to be finished, and no one has really articulated a better alternative to the answer we've chosen to give.

The carping and bickering about it at home -- and the general ignorance about it on all sides -- have taken their toll on those doing the heavy lifting. That is more or less true in all wars; it is perhaps true to an unnecessary degree in this one.

There are those bearing the burden — for example, him — and those who don’t. Unfortunately, with a few stellar, brave exceptions, only the US military has shown up for this war, and you’re one of those who’ve shown up and shown up again. But show me the alternative? You show me the alternative, given our circumstances, and we will do it. But consider our circumstances, our planetary circumstances. Afghanistan is a desperate, dusty hellhole with altitude, poverty, and little else. An Afghani expatriate — an LA millionaire in the engineering business who went back as a translator in 2005– told me that his “old country had been poor but beautiful until 1973. '73– that’s when the civil war started. Thirty years of war — the worst courtesy of the Russians and the Taliban — had savaged the place. You know, ash and dust.

Now, once upon a time we could ignore those suffering in the planet’s hard corners. Oh, we could send them a few bucks and the Lefties could bitch about colonialism and capitalism but the hard corners were isolated. A threat to security? Only nuns and missionaries and you are your brothers keeper types thought so. Well guess what — the nuns were right. 9/11 changed that deceptive calculus. Distance? Colonel, there isn’t any distance. We learned that the destruction of New York and Washington started in the backwaters, of Afghanistan, of Somalia. Technology has done it. We can’t escape one another, for good and for bad. Jet transports, like the ones out on the runway at Bagram, put you on the other side of the globe in 14 hours. The internet doesn’t require description. East Asia shares diseases with Africa within days, if not hours. And special weapons? Nukes and nerve gas make every tribal war an international crisis. Goodbye Tokyo, Moscow, or Miami— because a sophisticated tribesman at war with his eternally despised neighbor decides that demolishing the global economy would make everyone pay attention to his neglected, forgotten grievance. Tyrannies keep breeding this insanity.

The only solution is consensus, wealth-producing societies, where everyone gets a say and everyone has a buy-in. If it sounds like democracy then call it that. It’s sustainable stability, ever evolving sustainable stability when people police terrorists and don’t promote them. That’s a long struggle, and struggle may be a more apt word than war. But achieving it is so difficult. It takes more than military power, we know that. he politics and economics will be decisive, but as long as the thugs are willing to kill we must fight. Is there a substitute for courage? If there is, show it to me.

Votes also went to November 1947 and Annapolis Déjà Vu by The Elder of Ziyon; and Stereotyping 101 by American Thinker.

Where's Grayson Kirk When You Need Him?

This is kind of amusing, if, like me, you're not a great believer in the efficacy of student campus activism at making the world a better place (and here I'm not considering stoking the egos and salving the guilt of the young and privileged as "better place" effects overall).

It's hard to really raise serious activist hell on campus when the professors and administrators not only have co-opted all the radical positions, and bleat about how much more uber student activism was in their day, but they're your biggest fans and enablers and you really don't want to do anything that pisses them off.

That's not quite what this article says, of course. The writer seems to really long for the resurrection of petulant '60s zombies and psychopaths like those in SDS and the Weathermen. Which is spooky. I suppose it's natural for such a writer to think student shenanigans turned middle America against the Vietnam War rather than repulsing the middle-class taxpayers who funded the state universities and making it that much harder for such folks to advance to any position that involved standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the Yippies.

Naturally, such a writer also can't recognize that "98 percent of students" at a meeting of a campus activities organization "saw the war in Iraq as one of the issues most important to them" doesn't mean that 98 percent of them oppose the war and would occupy the president's office to demand an immediate U.S. withdrawal.

But read it anyhow; the neo-progressive cri de coeur and the depiction of the current demoralized reality will cheer your heart on a cold night:

As great as it might seem that colleges and universities are supporting student causes, I actually believe that it has tamed the critical energy necessary to be young, outraged, and active. When you're being funded by a team of white-haired academics in suits, taking real risks -- acts of civil disobedience like sit-ins, hunger strikes, boycotts -- don't seem like such a smart idea. Students rightly wonder whether they will "ruin it" for the next class if they cross the line and lose the school leadership's support. Plus, it's so much easier to just eat the free pizza and cut the three-inch ribbons than to mastermind a rebellious and potentially dangerous student uprising.

The academy, in general, encourages specialization, intellectualization, civility -- not exactly the key ingredients for effective social action. Students are surrounded by professors reminiscing about the glory days of youth activism, when groups like Students for a Democratic Society, the Weather Underground, and the Black Panther Party really ignited social change. But the professors don't seem to make the connection that none of these were school-sanctioned organizations.

If you think your higher education ought to anneal your skin with the heat and sting of dissent, you might be a campus activist for intelligent but sincere patriotism, limits to ethical relativism and moral equivalency, and raising money to help foster democracy and liberty in Iraq and Afghanistan.


Craft Your Own Conspiracy

Amaze your friends! Why be the last kid on your block to have one?

My George Bush Conspiracy Theory

George W. Bush made Rosie leave The View so that big corporations, Rush Limbaugh, and gun owners could upset Iraqis.

Create your own at

Perhaps the best part of the site is this disclaimer:

This tool may not be used to create Democratic presidential candidate speeches or generate content for without the express permission of

[hat tip]

Friday, November 16, 2007

Desertion in Perspective

No doubt you're going to see a lot of anti-war triumphalism over this AP story.

After six years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, American soldiers are deserting their posts at the highest rate since 1980. The number of US Army deserters this year shows an 80 percent increase since the United States invaded Iraq in 2003.

Desertions are up for the year, no doubt. But an 80 percent increase in a very small number is still a very small number.

Still, the cheerleaders of the "this war is a failure that is destroying America and freedom" faction, by which I mean many of my friends in the media, are rolling out the headlines.

"Huge rise" (The Scotsman), "soaring" (CBS News), "skyrocket" (USA Today).

Here's a few things to keep in mind when reading or discussing this one:

  • The story makes remarkable statements about the motivation of deserters -- without interviewing a single deserter or anyone who claims to speak for them or have studied them. It admits, in fact, it can get no statistical profile of deserters (except that -- shocka! -- most of the people who go AWOL from the Army are male).

    Yet we're treated to all sorts of presumptions about motivation:

    The weight of the war has proven to be too heavy for a growing number of soldiers.

    Faced with difficult and repeated tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, deployments that stretch for 15 months, and signs of lingering stress disorders, more soldiers are finding a way out: desertion.

  • The article focuses on the Army, where the rate has gone up. You have to read way, way down into the story to learn that among the Marines, who also have borne the brunt of heavy duty in Iraq, the number of deserters has been stable for three years, after falling at the start of the war.

    And the Air Force had its lowest number of deserters in the last five years -- a mere 15. And in the Navy, the number of desertions declined, too, continuing a steady trend since 2001.

  • Nor would you know, until you read way down to the bottom of the story, that desertions go up and down as armies get into wars or not. They went up in the early 1990s when the U.S. got actively involved in the Balkans.

    Which is a historical trend of long standing.

    In the case of Iraq, however, the number of deserters decreased across the board in 2003 and 2004. In fact, the desertion rate in the total U.S. military halved between 2001 and 2005. This remarkable, history-making development passed all but unnoticed in the press. It barely raises its head even here.

  • Desertion is a complex topic (I've written some about it and researched it extensively), and wars and armies differ. A volunteer army such as ours can be expected to have a fairly low desertion rate compared to a drafted army.

    Nonetheless, the lack of historical perspective in the AP story is remarkable. It notes the current rate, even for the Army, is far below the Vietnam War rate of 3.4 percent (in 1971). Which itself is well below the rate from World War II, which peaked at 6.3 percent in 1944. In the American Civil War, the overall rate was 14 percent from the Union Army and 11 percent from the Confederate army.

    The AP story never gives the actual numerical rate of desertion, which would be a useful comparison here. But it gives enough statistics to calculate it. The "huge," "soaring," "skyrocketing" increase in desertion brings the Army's rate to a whopping .9 percent. [corrected]

    This book tends to be sympathetic to deserters, as most such studies I have read tend to be. Nonetheless, it lists, in order, the usual reasons given for leaving one's post of duty, and I find they agree with the results of my research on the subject:

    • Inability to adjust to military life,

    • disagreement with or apathy toward the reasons given for going to war,

    • incompetent leaders,

    • horror of war,

    • family considerations.

    The order of the thing may vary somewhat -- Confederate desertion in the Civil War was hugely impacted by #5 on that list, and you can peg the spike in desertions among the state regiments to the exact week their home district got overrun by the Yankees.

    Just some perspective. Which AP did not care to offer you.

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Friday Cat Blogging

OK, not really pure bellydance per se, but this is what your pop music videos can look like when your singers come from a place like Egypt. "Eba'Abelny," by Ruby.


Of All the Charlie Browns in the World

Our current Democratic Congress leaders are the Charlie Browniest.

Nearly a year after anti-war voters put them in power, congressional Democrats remain unable to pass legislation ordering troops home from Iraq. Frustrated by Republican roadblocks, Democrats now plan to sit on President Bush's $196 billion request for war spending until next year — pushing the Pentagon toward an accounting nightmare and deepening their conflict with the White House on the war.

No word on whether they're going to literally pump their fingers in their earholes and close their eyes and scream, "Not listening! Not listening!" Whenever someone mentions the war.

Now, if there's one thing the GOP leadership still can do right (which would be exactly one more than the Dems have got), its to demagogue the opposition to death as weak on terror, unsupportive of the troops.

It's like they literally handed Dick Cheney an axe and then laid down neck-first on the chopping block.

They can't even get the spin right, as pathetic as that effort would be in the best of cases:

"We're going to continue to do the right thing for the American people by having limited accountability for the president and not a blank check," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

That "having limited accountability for the president" seems to reveal more of the truth than Reid perhaps intended.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Gut Reactions

My initial reaction to this was immediate, intense, and visceral. If you've been reading here before, I don't have to describe it to you. But I have been unable to convert it into an overarching and reasoned statement about this sort of situation or to frame a rational argument in support of my emotional response. Gut goes one way. Head can't seem to follow.

So I have nothing to say about it. And if you see other items in the headlines, or below them, and see nothing here, that might be why.


The The Beiderbecke Affair, the inspiration for my list of favorite out-of-place music, have remedied my deficiency by finding and posting links to the songs in it, and in the same post riffs on that list and enriches it.

The Next Surge

This seems about right to me, based on what I've been reading from and about the present situation in Iraq:

CAMP LIBERTY, Iraq -- Senior military commanders here now portray the intransigence of Iraq's Shiite-dominated government as the key threat facing the U.S. effort in Iraq, rather than al-Qaeda terrorists, Sunni insurgents or Iranian-backed militias.

In more than a dozen interviews, U.S. military officials expressed growing concern over the Iraqi government's failure to capitalize on sharp declines in attacks against U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians. A window of opportunity has opened for the government to reach out to its former foes, said Army Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the commander of day-to-day U.S. military operations in Iraq, but "it's unclear how long that window is going to be open."

It's curious how the media props up the military commanders who are actually working on the ground in Iraq as authorities on the place when their words happen to merge into the media-approved narrative of that story, and ignores or pooh-poohs them otherwise.

That narrative arrives in the next graph:

The lack of political progress calls into question the core rationale behind the troop buildup President Bush announced in January, which was premised on the notion that improved security would create space for Iraqis to arrive at new power-sharing arrangements. And what if there is no such breakthrough by next summer? "If that doesn't happen," Odierno said, "we're going to have to review our strategy."

How does it "call it into question?" It seems to me rather to confirm it: The surge (along with other, tangentially related developments) is giving the Iraqi government the breathing space it would need to do what it needs to do. It is doing exactly what the WaPo itself says (in the rest of that sentence) it was meant to do: "create space."

Whether the Iraqi government chooses to do that, or can do that without losing its factional support, is a matter of Iraqi society and politics, not U.S. military strategy.

And how is that graph not "editorializing" instead of "reporting?"

Somehow, the U.S. -- by which I mean the fraction of us that still are somehow invested in this war, either by participation or responsibility or a will to see it through to a good outcome -- and the Iraqis who want progress for themselves will have to work around the government for now, and pull it along in their wake. This could be done. It would be a surge of a different order.

Crime and Punishment

Here's another story that may make you sorry to be a human being. May make you wish you were a giraffe or a possum or some other thing.

A court in the ultra-conservative kingdom of Saudi Arabia is punishing a female victim of gang rape with 200 lashes and six months in jail, a newspaper reported on Thursday.

The 19-year-old woman -- whose six armed attackers have been sentenced to jail terms -- was initially ordered to undergo 90 lashes for "being in the car of an unrelated male at the time of the rape," the Arab News reported.

But in a new verdict issued after Saudi Arabia's Higher Judicial Council ordered a retrial, the court in the eastern town of Al-Qatif more than doubled the number of lashes to 200.

A court source told the English-language Arab News that the judges had decided to punish the woman further for "her attempt to aggravate and influence the judiciary through the media."

Straightforward brutality masquerading as justice. One could argue that "ultra-conservative" is an odd adjective to pick for the lede. Certainly it is an ultra-conservative kingdom, but that doesn't tell you much, because conservatism, unlike liberalism, is entirely a different thing in different places. A conservative in, say, the Vatican is different than a conservative in Japan, because the things being "conserved" are different.

In this case, the kingdom is conservative about a particular perceived religious tradition, which the journalists perhaps felt uncomfortable naming prominently in the story. Notice we've gone four graphs without the word "Islam" (it turns up in the fifth graph).

But this is AFP, so you can't expect much more or other than this.

What caught my eye here was that when this story was listed on Memeorandum, it had been linked to by the usual suspects: right-wing U.S. bloggers who are particularly fanatic in opposition to Islamic fanaticism. But among them was one of the feminist bloggers John Edwards wanted on his campaign. Good for her, I thought. This is an issue and a problem that transcends the politics of this week.

Or not. Her post was almost equal parts decrying this judicial crime and bashing Bush for somehow not preventing it.

But don't expect President George "W stands for Women" Bush to give a flying shit about this brand of terrorism in Saudi Arabia when he doesn't even care about misogynist terrorism in America.

Oy. This is the faction in American public debate that blasts Bush every day for injecting his perceived values into the Middle East and rearranging the government of a sovereign nation that had done us no immediate harm.

Having slammed those doors on us, what exactly do they want him to do here? This kind of writing just lends credence to the view that America is blamed whatever it does, and never more than when it does nothing.

UPDATE: No mention of Wahhabism or Shari'a at all in the BBC version.

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Karl Rove Crosses Over

Earth Art

Lamplighter Music

The Beiderbecke Affair celebrates "music that is dated or otherwise out of place," music, it suggests, that is beautiful and therefore truly useful, and, perhaps the author means, datedness or out-of-placeness is exactly what lets us see how beautiful it is.

It's a sweet list, and it links you to MP3s of the songs chosen. I lack that skill. You'll have to do your own digging. The breadth and depth of his musical explorations will give you vertigo. If you fancy yourself a musical cosmopolitan, this might leave you a tad envious. Tammy Wynette is on it. So is Leonard Cohen. So are the Mills Brothers and Kay Kyser and Palestinian rappers and Björk and Little Feat.

Envious. But I've got to try. Beat it? Never, but maybe I can expand it just a little out of my own head. Some of this I've written before.

John Coltrane & Johnny Hartman: "Lush Life" A little about the song itself here, but this performance is transcendental. Coltrane and his quartet already had taken their tools to tonal music and drilled through it, sawed it open. But here they went back to the studio, with a very conventional crooner, to draw a map for listeners to follow them. A way to move, song by song, in subtle, slow movements, from what was known to what was new. To show how un-strange it really was after all, once you got over it. If you wanted to. If not, you could just love the little album for what it was. A familiar musical landscape littered with signs: "Dig here."

Louis Armstrong had done this sort of thing. Ezra Pound did it in his criticism and prose. Joyce did it in his short stories. He knew where he was going, with other writers who had broken the scales and chords of the art. But he came back or paused long enough to point the way and leave a note.

Sigur Ros: "Flugufrelsarinn" I remember there is a land I always forget. If someone asks me to list the 46, or however many, nations that comprise Europe, I can struggle my way to 45, then I pause forever. Which is odd because I've lived there, in that other one. I worked there a year, when I was young and my career at home stalled and there was an opportunity, or what seemed one.

Now the place returns all in a rush: the smell of the airport; the way the heat hissed in that drab apartment on the hillside in the new quarter of the capital; how to work the clunky phone system. Independence day in September, with fireworks over the crown prince's palace, and then the leaden sky of long, dark winter reflected in pools on a road that never dried.

The language. I understood the shape of it -- I had a job there, after all -- but I never felt the webs and shadows in the words, only felt how thickly they energized that light tongue. Other voices talked. I communicated, like a machine.

And the girl. She was older. Like the job, convenient and temporary, and she seemed to know that, too. Her lace tangling my ankle as I slept. But when I left she took it so hard. Her mouth open in a horrible shape as she sobbed.

It disturbed me deeply to have forgotten something entire. Welcome to middle age. You open the book of your life one day and find a chapter in it you swear you've never read, but it's there. Nothing seemed certain anymore. My God! Who was I?

And when the music ends, I realize that this was after all a dream. I'd awakened from it that morning, then gone back to sleep and forgotten it.

I went to the atlas to be sure. None of it is there. The fat blue republic runs out to the gulf, and nothing wedges between them, not even a river island. The city, the girl, the fireworks, none of it. Anguish that never was, formed in a language no one ever spoke or heard.

Azam Ali: "Aj Ondas" haunting medieval northern Spanish song performed by an Iranian singer raised in India. Europe, Asia, Africa all in one time and place, and again, after six centuries, in one time and place.

In "The Dove's Neck Ring," written early in the 11th century by our reckoning, the great Spanish-Arabic philosopher-poet Ibn Hazm tells of many kinds of love in thirty chapters. In one of them, he writes of the poet Al-Ramadi, who was passing by the Gate of the Perfumers in Cordova one day when he saw a young slave girl and she took possession of his heart. He followed her across a bridge and into a cemetery called Al-Rabad. Then she noticed him, who had left the crowd, and she turned and asked him, "Why are you walking behind me?"

He told her of his great sudden passion. She told him forget it, cast it away, there is no use in hoping for fulfillment. But he asked her name, and she told him: Halwa, that is, "Solitude." And when he asked where he would see her again, she said she would return to the Gate of the Perfumers, which was a gathering-place for women, at the same hour on Friday. Then they parted.

"By God," Al-Ramadi wrote, "I went assiduously to the Perfumers' Gate and Al-Rabad from that time on, but never heard another thing about her. And I do not know whether the heavens consumed her or the earth swallowed her up, but truly there is in my heart, because of her, a burning fiercer than a glowing ember." And she was the Halwa to whom he addressed his love poems.

And those poems crossed the Pyrenees into Aquitaine and there taught the troubadours to sing of amor de lonh -- "love in separation, far-away love, love-longing." Before that, all in northern Europe had been warrior-verse, the dear love of comrades in arms. Now we have what we call "Western literature," via Yeats and Eliot and Billie Holliday, via Dante, via Bernart de Ventadorn, via Al-Ramadi, from Arab slave girl Halwa by the Perfumers' Gate. Otherwise, we'd all still sing "Beowulf."

Hum: Ms Lazarus You play it loud. Hendrix-loud. Feedback is beautiful, feedback is the buzz in the brain you get from a lover's melt, it's the whisper-breath of the old gods our ancestor's stood and listened for in the Ice Age. Remembered passion.

Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown: "Okie Dokie Stomp" The original recording. This is a barn-burner. It rocks, it blisters, and it was made in the 1940s. Frank Zappa called Brown his all-time favorite guitarist. I won't argue.

Aubrey Ghent: "Amazing Grace" Back-country Florida preacher plays no-frills pedal steel and makes it sing like a lonesome angel.

Cassandra Wilson: "Last Train to Clarksville" Smouldering jazz discovered beneath chirpy pop; like scraping away a clumsy yard-sale still-life and finding Rembrandt's furious murk. And off to the side, laughing, is a pre-med who got to NYU on a fencing scholarship then dropped out to make music and didn't even have to change his name to become Neil Diamond.

Wilson Pickett: "Hey Jude" Has anyone else ever pwned a Beatles song? Like this? Horns! That wail that kicks in the chorus is all of soul and rock rolled up into one orgasmic moment.

There's a klezmer song I have in mind, but I can never find it online or the proper name of it. Pining for Romania. How ironic and how human to be making it in America and nostalgic for the land of the pogroms. Lost in the hurly-burly of the 20the century, then recovered and reconstructed out of the old bones.

Beiderbecke Affair did steal one of my picks -- Lowell George's "Willin’." That leaves plenty of Feat to choose from, though, like "East to Slip," which could be a bonehead stoner's lament or a Lakotah prayer, and it has one of my favorite guitar chords, G7sus4. Play it and you'll go "ah-ha!" It's the spice in everything from Dylan's "Just Like a Woman" to the "H.R. Pufnstuf" theme song.

He's also got a fado, one of which certainly would make my list, but I can't top his pick for ecclecticism. I'd probably pick something more conventional, like Fado Do Ciume by Amalia.

UPDATE: Songs are here.