Monday, December 31, 2007

Can't Go Home Again

The Philly Inquirer runs an interesting piece on Cambodian kids whose families fled to the U.S. after the communist takeover, grew up and took to a life of crime and thuggery, then got deported back to one of the poorest places on earth because they never bothered to get citizenships.

The writer, I think, works the sympathy angle pretty hard. We're told that the destabilization of Cambodia was because of the U.S. war in Vietnam (as though, had we just let the communists take over Vietnam, they would never have noticed Cambodia), or that the thugs are helpless products of the mean streets of Philadelphia (where the vast majority of Hmong and Cambodian kids nonetheless grow up to be decent enough citizens).

Compared to this, the thugs themselves are refreshingly straightforward about their lives and their situations. Even though the reporter condescendingly dismisses a lot of it as bravado. I think the Cambodians -- the ones who always have been there -- got it right when they sized up the returnees and their attitudes: "They say, 'These guys went to heaven, but they didn't know how to act in heaven, so they got sent back to hell.' "

These Are People Who Died

in 2007.

In the news business, I know I saw many of these obituaries as they ran. And had that reaction: "He was still alive?" Now I see them again at the end of the year, and I've forgotten reading the obituary in the first place. I forgot they were alive, now I forgot they were dead: Frankie Laine, Charles Nelson Reilly.

Perhaps it's my age: In the middle years of life I'm distant from both the old ones flickering out or the young ones flaring out early. The latter I don't recognize. The former seem to belong to another time: Yvonne De Carlo, Joey Bishop, Kitty Carlisle -- Maurice Papon was still alive?

I never met most of them. Calvert DeForest -- you know him as Larry "Bud" Mellman from the Letterman show. When he first started his schtick there, he came down to Philly to do a comedy club gig. People still weren't sure whether he was authentically befuddled or just a very skilled act. I got a press pass and went down with a girlfriend and sat in the club before opening and chatted with him -- he was as authentic as they come. A cheerful and utterly guile-less man who was a perfect foil for Letterman and his writers.

The one I'll miss most, though, might be Robert Goulet. I never met him, either, though I had seen him do "Camelot" about a jillion years ago, in tow with my parents, at, I think, the old Valley Forge Music Fair.

But at the newspaper where I work, some entertainment reporter had interviewed him years ago (when he rolled through in yet another "Camelot" revival). Goulet was an amiable, self-effacing actor with a great sense of humor about his career. Then, at the end of the year, when the "Christmas cards" piled in to the newsroom from PR flacks and local funeral directors, there was one from Bob & Vera Goulet -- customized, posed, dressed to the nines.

And they kept coming, every year. It got so it wasn't really Christmas until we got the Bob Goulet card. One year, days and weeks passed and we watched, but it didn't come. The staff went home on Dec. 23, dejected. Then the skeleton crew came in the next day to put out the Christmas Day edition, and though there was no official mail pick-up, somehow the card was there. It was a Dickens-worthy moment.

So, Merry Christmas, Bob, wherever you are.

Meanwhile, Bryan Appleyard has the highbrow version:

It was a year in which a certain type of person died — Michelangelo Antonioni, Ingmar Bergman, Norman Mailer, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Jean Baudrillard. These were intellectually pungent, culturally potent individuals, angrily dismissed as often as they were called “great”, “seminal” or “genius”. And with Luciano Pavarotti dead, another type of greatness vanished from the planet.

What? No Larry "Bud" Mellman?

Friday, December 28, 2007

Friday Cat Blogging

Turkish Belly Dance-ELCIN - Watch more amazing videos here

From Turkish television, apparently.


Council Winners

Watchers Council winners for the week of December 28 have been posted.

First place in the council went to Judeo-Christian Doctrine and Moral Freedom by Bookworm Room, which makes broad statements about and finds essential identities between secular left-wing politics in the West and Islamic radicalism.

As you can see, the part that really intrigued me was the bit in the second half about rape, since it seemed to highlight the way in which both Islamists and the Left view people, and may go a long way to explaining why people professing these radically different ideologies (Leftism and Islamism) can work so well together. The fact is that, although they devise different (or no punishments) for whatever crime is before them, neither believes in free will or in man’s ability to make moral decisions independent of his immediate circumstances.

The trouble I have with all such writing is that it tends to confuse scriptures with faiths (Judaism, for instance, is much more interesting and diverse than you might gather if all you knew of it was the Old Testament) and that it trades in broad and ill-defined categories and treats them as monolithic entities.

Also getting votes were Ron Paul from right here, First Let the Lawyers Kill Us All by Soccer Dad; Lame Duck Crushes Christmas Turkeys by Big Lizards; and A Holiday Primer for Ron Paul Supporters by Rhymes With Right. The last is a reminder that the main obstacle faced by Ron Paul is not the radicalism of his proposals, but the hectoring tendencies of his backers.

Outside the council, the winner was my nominee, Fear by Ron Silver.

Votes also went to Laughter and Tears at Eternity Road, which, if you like his style, you'll love this.

Americans probably thought the Left had been so defeated by the Reagan Revolution. It's a great part of why we loved Reagan so; he was our champion, and he prevailed on our behalf against his time's greatest threats to freedom and prosperity. But the Left and its topical allies don't accept any defeat as final; they merely fall back to Hell, regroup, and sally forth again. We barely held them off during the Clinton years -- it helped that our memories of the Reagan years were still fresh -- but we've lost ground since. The elections of 2008 are unclear at the moment, but if they should break badly, we'll lose more, and faster, in the years ahead.

And to Must Police Be Representative? Whom Do They Represent? at Discriminations, which asks legitimate tough questions that turn an ill-conceived policy on its head.


"Democracy needs support, and the best support for democracy comes from other democracies." -- Benazir Bhutto, 1989

She was a complex leader, and it is difficult for me from this distance to disentangle her socialist personality cult side from her sense of herself as part of a dynasty, or her commitment to her vision of her nation and to a strong, democratic, secular Pakistan. Some people say the democracy movement in Pakistan may stand a better chance now that the glare of her charisma cast shadows over everyone else.

I don't know what will happen in Pakistan. If you're looking for that answer, go read the other ten thousands bloggers who will tell you that, even though they don't know either. But her death, and the dramatic weeks that preceded it, remind me of what I admire about the Bush Administration. [I don't think the American domestic political angle is the most important part of the Bhutto tragedy. It just happens to be the one I'm fit to speak about.]

Through most of my youth, no American administration would have sent a Bhutto back to Pakistan when a Musharraf was in control. Some might have fantasized such a world, where American governments once again favored the troublemaking champions of democracy against cozy military dictators.

But after 1950 or so, none would have seriously suggested it as policy. We had a dangerous enemy, and the end of the world, through all of my youth, was never more than 20 minutes away. From what we've learned since the fall of the Soviet Union, our situation was as perilous as the most frightened among us believed it was. The military leadership of the USSR was convinced a nuclear exchange with the West, in which cities would blaze into pyres and hundreds of millions would die, would end in the victory of the Soviets. That their nation would still have enough left to function, and ours would not. Given their preparations for that and our lack of them, probably the marshals in Moscow were right about that.

That world lacked a place for niceties like a Mrs. Bhutto. Many ugly and necessary foreign policies prevailed in America. Many more prevailed that were ugly and ultimately unnecessary, but no one could know at the time which were which.

No president who was alive in my lifetime, from Truman through Reagan, would have sent a Mrs. Bhutto into a nuclear-armed and fundamentally unstable Pakistan to topple a Musharraf in the name of popular sovereignty.

I protested and wrote against many aspects of American policy during the Cold War. I was one who thought much of what we were doing was unnecessarily ugly. I may have been wrong about some of that; but I based my protest not on dislike of America but on reverence for what she ought to be.

Even before the Soviet Union fell apart, the Cold War pressure relaxed. And to his credit, President Reagan, who committed many excesses, began the process of backing away from the necessary evil of dictator-allies. He let Marcos fall when another president, in another time, might have dispatched the CIA to save him.

With Bush, this has become policy, with breathtaking idealism and absolute assurance, after 9/11 pointed out the awful consequences of letting old Cold War battlefields fester and ooze.

Another president in another time would have kept up Saddam's game of footsie. Or would have replaced him with a more predictable generalissimo.

He wouldn't have made trouble for Mubarak over elections and political prisoners.

He wouldn't have withdrawn U.S. troops from a crucial air base during wartime over a massacre of civilians, as the U.S. did in Uzbekistan.

After so many years of enduring detestable compromises during the Cold War, I finally got to see the country I love behave according to what ought to be its principles. And the administration that charged into that policy did it fecklessly, without any sense of the urgency or difficulty of the task, with the wrong people in charge, and with no broad and consistent attempt to rally the nation or its allies for a job more difficult than the Cold War.

What's wrong with Bush is not what's being done in our name. It's that it's being done so poorly that it will make the old short-sighted and cold-blooded cynicism that drove the coups in Guatemala and Iran look like the best foreign policy. It vindicates every Kissingerite shrug at the anonymous torture of some noble soul in a prison of one of our bad bargain anti-communist allies. Old enemies of the American experiment, from right-wing dictators to left-wing academics, are delighted at all the new "proofs" of the limitations of Western-style liberal democracy that tumble out of each new day's newspaper headlines.

The fact that the rest of the world professes to fear us more now, when we back popular democracy in Pakistan, and to urge us to return to ways that will revive the high esteem they had for us then, when we quietly paid to silence democracy activists in Latin America, shows me how much people choose to misunderstand, or forget.

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Pompous Ass Alert

Oliver Stone, of course, while propping up Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.


Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Is It Live, Or Is It

A sack of shit?

The researchers then offered a $1,000 reward — posted in three languages on more than 30 Internet websites and discussion groups — to the first person to identify a case of dissociative amnesia in any work of fiction or nonfiction prior to 1800. They received more than 100 responses, but none met the “repressed memory” criteria. Although many early texts describe ordinary forgetfulness caused by natural biological processes, as well as instances of individuals forgetting happy memories and even their own identities, there were no accounts of an inability to recall a traumatic experience at one point and the subsequent recovery of that memory.

In a report of their findings published in Psychological Medicine, Pope and his colleagues concluded that the absence of dissociative amnesia in works prior to 1800 indicates that the phenomenon is not a natural neurological function, but rather a “culture-bound” syndrome rooted in the nineteenth century. They argued that dissociative amnesia falls into the diagnostic category “pseudo-neurological symptom” (or “conversion disorder”) — a condition that “lacks a recognizable medical or neurological basis.”

Sense of Accomplishment

My holiday seasonal accomplishment was assembling a toy four-wheeled metal scooter (four different tools required and no written instructions) with no breaches of the Third Commandment. It's not much, but in the face of everything else I got wrong, I'll take it. Yours?

Liberal Arts

Elizabeth D. Samet has published her account of teaching literature at West Point, titled "Soldier's Heart." Her Ivy League background equipped her with a knowledge of her topic, but ill-prepared her for the type of students she would meet there. It's likely many of her peers -- in academe, not the Academy -- still labor under the delusion of "Rambo" stereotypes. Here's hoping they read her book.

She cites British general William Francis Butler on the education of soldiers:

The nation that will insist upon drawing a broad line of demarcation between the fighting man and the thinking man is liable to find its fighting done by fools and its thinking by cowards.

Her sympathetic reviewer (Mark Bauerlein, one of my favorite academics) adds:

This explains why the West Point years have affected Samet so deeply. She pledges to cross that line of demarcation, and while her colleagues at Ivies and state universities ponder at length their role as teachers in a post-9/11 world (always an adversarial role), Samet and West Point have had to act on that question daily from September 12 onward, and they've produced an ironic outcome. Literature, history, and philosophy matter, and they do so less to students and teachers in the cozy quads of the college campus, ensconced in libraries and symposia, than they do to bedraggled, bored, and anxious officers sweating it out in the desert.

I think it was more than the coincidence of having read them on the same day that connected that thought to this experience.

I have said goodbye to a mortally wounded soldier in the hospital, spoken to grieving family members of our casualties, and tried to comfort soldiers who just lost their best friend in a single violent moment. I have been under fire, looked insurgents in the eye, and seen corruption up close. I have also seen people emerge from oppression and live with hope for the first time in years. I have seen children reach up and grasp the hands of American soldiers just because they trust them. I have felt the desire to help and then been given the resources to do it. Finally, I have felt the close knit camaraderie that develops when you serve with a group of people fighting for a cause larger than self. Yes, this experience has changed me. I am stronger, more driven, and humbled all at the same time.

What did I do the last year? I wrote some, raised a child, paid some bills, argued a lot. I don't envy that soldier his life -- but you can't deny he's living it. And he's written that to thank us for allowing him to do so. The topics worth studying are those that fit a person to live, to grapple with angels and survive demons and understand what happens in that man-made exalted hell called war. The most fertile artistic and philosophical community in the history of the West was Athens in a generation when it was perpetually at war. A city where every citizen was a soldier. Aeschylus made no mention of his dramas in the inscription he wrote for his tomb, but he wanted it remembered that he had fought at Marathon.

"Macbeth" isn't just a slow day's entertainment. Not to some people.


"Good:" Will Hunting

I understand popular celebrities have an obligation to not talk like knuckleheads, and to realize that whatever they say is going to be parsed. But does anybody really object to what Will Smith said here?

The Anti-Defamation League said Wednesday that it accepts Will Smith 's explanation that he never praised Adolf Hitler in remarks the star says were misinterpreted. A Scottish newspaper recently quoted Mr. Smith as saying: "Even Hitler didn't wake up going, 'let me do the most evil thing I can do today.' I think he woke up in the morning and using a twisted, backwards logic, he set out to do what he thought was 'good.' "

The quote was preceded by the writer's observation: "Remarkably, Will believes everyone is basically good."

After Web sites posted articles alleging that Mr. Smith believed Hitler was a good person, the actor issued a statement Monday saying that was an "awful and disgusting lie" and calling Hitler "a vile, heinous vicious killer."

Emphasis added. Does anybody care to argue Hitler was deliberately doing "evil?" Or that saying someone thinks he is doing good is the same as saying he is good? At any rate, I'm glad the ADL left it at that, but I have to wonder about people who objected in the first place.

The reporter's paraphrase seems to be the problem.


Ugly. From a site titled "my left wing."

And the consequence is this: I now find myself, for the first time in my life, hating Jews. I find myself hating the Jews on this site, both the Jews who have conducted their malicious campaign against me for so long and the Jews who have stood by in silent solidarity with them, never saying a word against their vile attacks, their cruelty and ugliness.

I find myself thinking that Proximity perhaps has the right idea, that Jews regard other human beings as objects, to be sacrificed to the interests of Jews. That Jews will always stand with other Jews no matter their guilt, and against non-Jews, no matter their innocence. The face of Jews has become unspeakably ugly in my sight, because of the ugliness of the Jewish haters here.

She said she began writing there intending to "rage at" the right wing, not to hate anyone. Is anyone but the writer surprised it ended in hatred?

You cannot go to the Internet to wage battle, because there's no matrix for winning. When you defeat an opponent in chess, he gets up and leaves the table, and your ranking goes up and his goes down. When you defeat an opponent in wrestling, he is counted out by the referee in front of the judges.

On the Internet, there is no referee. No end of the game. You can defeat the same opponent every day of your life and he takes no consequences. He will be back the next day, as fresh and active as ever. On the same thread or another. Doing what he has to do. It's like a chess player who keeps piling the pieces back onto the board after you've captured them. Which means you will be at war forever.

So instead of fighting, for an objective, people simply "rage." Like the elephant George Orwell didn't want to shoot.

When you speak only in rage and defiance and rejection, in contempt and mockery, you draw that back on you. When you bathe in what you spew, you find you can't get up and walk away from the smell. When you inhabit a crucible of hatred, don't expect to walk out with anything but the hatred left in you. And everything you once were turned to that hatred.

Back in Bill Clinton's day, there were those on the right who insisted it was not enough to be merely concerned or alarmed or opposed. You had to hate, to be willing to entertain any malicious wish or dark conspiracy. We watched them shrivel before our eyes into Gollums. "He hated it and loved it, as he hated and loved himself. He could not get rid of it. He had no will left in the matter."

Today, on the left, there is a mantra, "If you're not angry, you're not paying attention." Which means things are so dire in our world that the only appropriate response is a frothing rage. How that makes anything better I've yet to learn. But it is taken to heart. And it has the effect of making one's anger the measure of one's awareness. And it has the effect of making one's anger the proof of one's beliefs.

Which is what, I think, lends the comments threads on progressive blogs that peculiar taint that distinguishes them from the otherwise equally vicious threads on right-wing sites.

UPDATE: Edited a bit since Joe G. kindly quoted from it. When I first wrote it I was shocked and trying to comprehend this sort of evolution. I wrote it in a sort of shorthand to myself. I've since filled in the connectors.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Christmas in the '60s

I ran these a few years ago as individual posts, with commentary. Here they are as stand-alones. Feel free to wax nostalgic, but try not to get any on the carpet, will you?












An Anti-Iraq War Essay

And it's excellent. Sane and sober. Reasoned and reasonable. Persuasive and coherent. So how come it's only available at Michael J. Totten's site? He didn't write it. But he published it.

Musical Interlude

Courtesy of The Biederbecke Affair, that sentimental modern Christmas classic, Fairytale of New York. Only Tom Waits could hold a candle (burning at both ends) to Shane's artistic weave of schmaltz and dissipation.

I wonder if he can be persuaded to upload the worst Christmas song ever?

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Candidates' Money

Some interesting numbers in here.

Council Winners

Council winners for the week of Dec. 21 have been posted.

The winner in the council was "The Courage to Do Nothing" at Big Lizards. The topic is the recent climate change conference and the whole issue of whether it's time to panic or not.

We're told this is based on science, but the conference itself, at least based on the reporting, seemed to be driven by boos and tears more than science. You have to be suspicious of something that partakes of alarmist rhetoric based only on guesses, that insists dissent is treason, and that offers as solutions the exact things the interested parties have wanted to do all along.

Or not.

Also getting votes were Separation of Church and State, Secularist Style by Cheat Seeking Missiles, and More on the Teacher Accused of Insulting Religion in His Class at Bookworm Room, both writing about a California public school teacher who seems to have turned his lectern into a pulpit for his evangelical secularism, among other things.

Votes also went to Whatever Happened To Separation of Mosque and State? at Rhymes With Right, about events at a local community college that could serve as a parable for a global problem.

And to The Very Deep Thoughts of Mike Huckabee at Right Wing Nut House, which looked at the latest GOP front runner's attempt at a serious foreign policy statement. Rick did such a good job of dismantling it that I didn't have to pile on. As someone who had been trying hard to like Huckabee, I was put off from the very first sentence:

The United States, as the world's only superpower, is less vulnerable to military defeat. But it is more vulnerable to the animosity of other countries. Much like a top high school student, if it is modest about its abilities and achievements, if it is generous in helping others, it is loved. But if it attempts to dominate others, it is despised.

"Less vulnerable ... more vulnerable ..." Than what? Or when? It's the kind of sentence a smart but bored 11th grader writes on an essay test that he never studied for.

The article is all vision, no substance, in a world where only substance can save you. It contains many lines like this one: "As president, my goal in the Arab and Muslim worlds will be to calibrate a course between maintaining stability and promoting democracy." To which I'd say, nice work if you can get it.

Outside the council, the winner was A Stand-up President by Orson Scott Card, which was a vigorous defense of George W. Bush from his detractors left and right, comparing him favorably to even Ronald Reagan. It was refreshing to watch someone actually take up that cause, and I enjoyed it thoroughly even if I didn't entirely agree.

Also getting votes were A Muslim American, a fascinating interview in National Review Online; Mearsheimer, Walt, and "Cold Feet" at Sandbox; Only a Few Months and Hours Together But Memories for a Lifetime at Wizbang; and The Pulpit and the Potemkin Village by Peggy Noonan.

The Former Fire

May the American gods bless Ron Silver. Still writing with the fire of 2002.

Now it is not our parents but certain politicians and media pundits who are trying to convince us that fighting (yes, I do mean fighting, not cajoling, negotiating, persuading or understanding) the folks who are pointing that gun at our heads telling us that they are going to kill us, then behead us and mutilate and drag our bodies through the streets and blow up our cities, would be futile and counter-productive. If I misunderstand their position and misrepresent their way forward I would very much like to hear how they might confront the “problem.” A clearer definition of the “problem” might be useful as well. Who exactly wishes us and our civilization harm? I’d appreciate a bit more specifics other than through “diplomacy” and the “international community.” Personally, I think it’s prudent to take the enemy at their word. Particularly when they have a mountain of evidence backing up their threat. Then do something about it.

What I would not do is to minimize the threat and construct an alternate universe that lives by the rules we value. In Lee Harris’ book Civilization and Its Enemies: The Next Stage of History (Free Press, 2004) Mr Harris makes the point that we live “In a civilization with an intellectual culture that is reluctant to take the idea of an external enemy seriously; its enemies, though have no such qualms… we are caught in the midst of a conflict between those for whom the category of the enemy is essential to their ways of organizing all human experience and those who have banished even the idea of the enemy from both public discourse and even their most innermost thoughts.”

I agree with all that. But I've given up on saying it. Most people never really wanted to hear it. The political leadership mostly never wanted to say it. So better to play it as it lies and try to edge the game toward a good outcome, right? I don't know. Silver's piece is really a thorough one, and he hits on some points particularly well. The necessary role of propaganda, for instance. Which makes me remember we've had none of it. No posters that say, "What have you done for Iraq?" Or 9/11 pictures and the slogan "Another failure is not an option." A more honest slogan for the times would be "The Marines are at war; America is at the mall."

This bit, too, I suppose needs to be repeated:

In [Paul] Krugman’s reading of history, our president has damaged our democracy more than the Alien and Sedition Acts during John Adams’ tenure; more than the suspension of habeas corpus during Lincoln’s, more than Eugene Debs (a leader of the labor movement who opposed Woodrow Wilson as the Socialist Party candidate in the 1912 presidential election) going to jail, under the Espionage Act, to serve a 10-year sentence for making an anti-war speech during the Woodrow Wilson years. The Espionage Act was passed at the urging of President Woodrow Wilson, who feared any widespread dissent in time of war, thinking that it constituted a real threat to an American victory.

And more than Roosevelt trying to pack the Supreme Court during peacetime and the subsequent internment of Japanese-American citizens, as well as Nixon’s use of the government to punish his personal enemies. The genius of our governance is that we have self-correctional ways of coming to terms with government excesses and have an electorate that is vigilant in making sure rights are not abrogated. This has always been and will remain a tension in our polity, along with liberty and equality and pre-Civil War amendments and post-Civil War amendments. Most First Amendment “rights” were developed during the last century, not at our founding. So-called “privacy” rights are the battleground now.

I used to write that way. But those who know it need no reminding, and those who need to hear it never do. Doesn't matter how well you speak if your audience has its fingers in its ears.

The piece overall left me with a sinking feeling, that so much clarity has run out like spilled milk since our era began. Those truths are all in eclipse now.

Still, I got a grin out of one line: "Parents-the root of all fear mongering. Philip Larkin lives." The best part is, he didn't even elaborate on it. Just that wink to the poetry-lovers. Here, I'll let you in on the secret.


Christmas Meme

Yay, a meme tag. I haven't had one in ages. It's Christmas themed, though. I'm pretty boring when it comes to Christmas.

1. Wrapping or gift bags?

Wrapped in last week's Sunday funnies.

2. Real or artificial tree?

Artificial. I like a real tree but only if it's live. And I have no yard space to plant it afterward. The notion of celebrating the solstice holiday around a mutilated and dying thing is appalling to me.

3. When do you put up the tree?

My son's birthday is Dec. 12 and my daughter's is Dec. 13. So we try to keep a clear board for birthdays before turning the house over to holidays.

4. When do you take the tree down?

When we need to plug something else in.

5. Do you like egg nog?

Blech. Actually, there's probably a more expressive term than "blech" but I'd have to dig through old Mad magazines to find it. Hyper-sweetened camel mucus.

6. Favorite gift received as a child?

Hot Wheels! Second favorite: More Hot Wheels.

7. Do you have a nativity scene?

No, actually, now that you mention it. I've had them in the past but I no longer remember where they are. My favorite one was tiny and plastic and fitted in a little box that a chic club-goer could carry in her purse.

8. Worst Christmas gift you ever received?

After seeing what some of my wife's family give each other, I don't think anything I could recall would even count.

9. Mail or email Christmas cards?

My great guilt. It's been years since I got it together in time to get cards out.

10. Favorite Christmas Movie?

Probably the Muppets' version of "A Christmas Carol." Somehow, Dickens works better when half the characters are puppets. And Michael Caine makes a wonderfully muscular Scrooge.

11. When do you start shopping for Christmas?

I've done the Christmas Eve at Wal-Mart thing often enough that I don't need to prove to anyone anymore that I qualify for the "What Would Homer Simpson Do" type of man.

12. Favorite thing to eat at Christmas?


13. Clear lights or colored on the tree?


14. Travel at Christmas or stay home?

I'd flatten my own tires first.

15. Open the presents Christmas Eve or Christmas Morning?


16. Most annoying thing about this time of year?

By the time I start to remember how it's supposed to feel, it's gone.

It's probably too late for tags on this theme, but I'll do a "joy to the world" tag and tag everyone who's yearning to do a meme today.

Ron Paul

I haven't paid much attention to Ron Paul, being extremely put off by the kind of people I know who suddenly have taken him up as a religion. But I read this transcript of an interview, and it's enlightening.

I enjoy his spiel. I like his alertness to American history and his respect for the original structure of our government. I figured out what he and I have in common: A fondness for the early 19th century. But it seems to me he has a blind spot for something the Founders were keenly concerned about: The role of the irrational in public affairs, especially among a free people.

In a nation of philosophers, this consideration ought to be disregarded. A reverence for the laws, would be sufficiently inculcated by the voice of an enlightened reason. But a nation of philosophers is as little to be expected as the philosophical race of kings wished for by Plato.

So wrote Madison. But Ron Paul seems unwilling to see us as anything but purely rational beings. When he tells Tim Russert that the Civil War was a mistake, that Lincoln was wrong to lead the nation to war, he's right, of course. The war made no sense. It destroyed the union to save it, and if your goal was to end slavery, it was the most destructive and illogical way to go about it.

But the nation at that time, North and South, was in the grip of irrational forces, of political positions so twisted as to be insane and which people clung to with manic intensity. And the popular views were as bad as those of the worst men in the leadership in both regions. The whole country was as nutty as a Paul Krugman column by the time Lincoln came along. Sanity, much less libertarian rationalism, was off the menu. Paul's idea of compensated emancipation, despite being in the interest of everyone, would not have worked. If you can't imagine emotionally aroused people vigorously advocating policies that directly conflict with their logical self-interest, none of American history makes much sense.

Paul also seems not to understand that to uncouple America from the world, and to restore it to the relative isolation of the past, would have terrible consequences for both the U.S. and the world. Again, the 19th century is over. His idea of getting rid of the income tax is intriguing. But when he gets around to how else the government should pay for itself, the first word out of his mouth is "tariff." Which is, of course, the correct constitutional answer.

But any acquaintance with 19th century U.S. economic history (and too few people have one) will tell you the tariff was a fertile field for political chicanery. All the deplorable effort that goes into pork and earmarks today was channeled into tariff debates then. Leaving aside the fact that the tariff had the tendency to make the rich richer and the poor poorer, and that it involved the federal government directly and intimately in the affairs and interests of corporations, the tariff was as furiously resented in its day as the income tax is today. It is an arguable (if not currently popular) case to say the tariff was a root cause of the Civil War.

There's some breathtaking far-sightedness in some of what Paul says. He can be almost Zen-like in his notion that doing nothing can be more productive of good outcomes than striving against the world. He compares Korea and Vietnam:

South Korea, they're begging and pleading to unify their country, and we get in their way. They want to build bridges and go back and forth. Vietnam, we left under the worst of circumstances. The country is unified. They have become Westernized. We trade with them. Their president comes here. And Korea, we stayed there and look at the mess. I mean, the problem still exists, and it's drained trillion dollars over these last, you know, 50 years.

Look at Vietnam today: Is it not rather close to what we wanted Vietnam to be when we first turned our attention to it in 1954? If we had just let Ho have his way then, wouldn't the country be likely to have reached the same outcome, by evolution, and spared tens of thousands of American lives? (I assume about the same number of Vietnamese who were liquidated by the communists would have been so in the alternate version of the story, but probably fewer would have died in U.S. bombings.)

It's possible he's right about that. But as it involves alternate histories, who can say? The thing it ignores is whether the overall U.S. policy of containment of communism, of which Vietnam was one ultimately failed aspect, did succeed and prevent the complete collapse of the West after World War II. Perhaps it is the reason Vietnam is our trading partner now, in a global capitalist economy, and why Vietnamese and Americans alike aren't languishing on miserable subsistence-level state-controlled collective farms.

And Paul also, again, overlooks the role of the irrational. Some things a philosopher or a Buddhist monk can leave alone. But a free people is unlikely to bear certain things without being roused to activity. The same arguments Paul makes could as well apply to 9/11. If we had done nothing afterward, it's very possible that infighting in the jihadist and Islamic world would have killed as many of our enemies -- or more -- than we've killed by our efforts.

But what U.S. leader could have done nothing and survived? Any more than Lincoln could have done nothing after Fort Sumter. And America's doing nothing would not have been seen as an act of forbearance or self-control anywhere else in the world. The retreat of America after the Beirut barracks bombing and the Mogadishu battle loomed as points of proof in the logic of Islamists that led to 9/11.

Ron Paul does have a program. The trouble is, you couldn't enact his program piecemeal. Every bit of it depends on every other bit. Paul seems to acknowledge this in some places, as when he talks about immigration and how his approach will only work if he also can dismantle the welfare state. Even a president as dominant as Lincoln or Reagan or FDR couldn't get a whole program into place in this government. It's highly unlikely a Ron Paul would do better.


Christmas Shopping

Scariest item seen: "Tinkerbell" sweatshirts in XXL.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Nature of the Beast

I suppose it's inevitable that when you're a notorious anti-war, anti-administration American provocateur group like, and you do a one-time good deed on behalf of U.S. troops, in cooperation with groups closely allied to the U.S. military, you get news stories written about you and published all over the place, in which you get to further tout your agendas as well as draw in sympathies.

And because you're another group that does multiple good deeds every month in direct cooperation with U.S. troops, full time, all the time, without further agenda, like Spirit of America, you rarely see the light of day in newsprint except in the occasional Wall Street Journal op-ed.

Murdered Cities

At least in Britain, you can blame it on the Luftwaffe, in part. In Germany, you can blame the American and British air forces. The French can blame everyone. But Americans have no one but themselves, and the need to make everything new, to blame for the destruction of old, solid city cores.

Not everything old is worth preserving. But the convergence of wealth, architecture, craftsmanship, and civic pride in the period 1870-1914 made Western cities into coherent works of art. Sometimes it seems we've been doing our best ever since to erase them.

A new book in Britain chronicles the losses.

I lost count of the number of pictures of smart, historic, charming streets captioned: “Every building in this photograph has since disappeared.”

In Bradford, it is often hard to find a reference point for many of the pictures. Step out of the Interchange station (“tawdry” in Stamp's opinion) and you are overwhelmed by an urban motorway, sending pedestrians trudging over bridges or through underpasses smelling of urine.

A city centre once packed with handsomely heavyweight buildings has had its Victorian integrity gradually picked apart, as though in a death wish or out of the “self-hatred for their industrial past” shared by many Northern cities.

The frontispiece of Stamp's book shows Darley Street, Bradford, where the Kirkgate Market, with its welcoming human scale, was demolished in 1973, despite protests by Priestley and his fellow-Bradfordian David Hockney. Its replacement is a shopping mall of awesome brutalism.

The city where I now live, Lancaster, Pa., is wonderfully preserved on the whole. That, in part, is an accidental result of orneriness. "Conservative" around here is not an ideology or a philosophy. It's an ingrained, literal behavior. People like things the way they've always been. So things tend to stay.

They're also cheap, the people around here. They are serious about not taking government money, because they understand it's the flip side of being taxed, which they hate. There's a lot to not like about folks here; they tend to mistake regular attendance at the approved churches for genuine, hard-earned morality, for instance. But there's a lot to admire, too.

They also don't like federal money because it comes with strings attached and rules on how it can be spent. Inevitably, talk about such things includes the word "boondoggle."

So in the 1960s and '70s, when the federal government was actively promoting "urban renewal," Lancaster stayed away from it, except for some really wretched slums, which were torn down and replaced with really wretched public housing blocks.

And except for this block:

Which it bought up, tore down, and replaced with the biggest, ugliest, most useless concrete white elephant this side of Atlantic City. It's a Dead Zone in the middle of a thriving district. It reminds me of the no-man's land that used to stand on either side of the Berlin Wall.

The story of the loss of this block is well documented here. The unofficial version of why the people around here broke with their wise tradition and admitted urban renewal is that the block was full of classic old movie houses that were falling on hard times, and the good city fathers feared they'd turn to showing porn.

Friday Cat Blogging


I 'Saw' Romney Kissing Santa Claus

This is brilliant. Make a simple declarative statement. Subject-verb-direct object. Then when someone discovers it is not true, say, "It was a figure of speech."

Romney said his father had told him he had marched with King and that he had been using the word "saw" in a "figurative sense."

"If you look at the literature, if you look at the dictionary, the term 'saw' includes being aware of in the sense I've described," Romney told reporters in Iowa. "It's a figure of speech and very familiar, and it's very common. And I saw my dad march with Martin Luther King. I did not see it with my own eyes, but I saw him in the sense of being aware of his participation in that great effort."

In other words, "saw" means "never saw."


I'm going to start doing me some figuring of speech. Like, "When I said, 'I'll pay you back Tuesday,' that was just a figure of speech."

Thursday, December 20, 2007

If It Was Fiction,

It would be dismissed as unbelievable. According to AP, the guy who knocked up Britney Spears' little sister "works for a pipe-laying company."

Reading Class

As a parent, I despair.

There’s no reason to think that reading and writing are about to become extinct, but some sociologists speculate that reading books for pleasure will one day be the province of a special “reading class,” much as it was before the arrival of mass literacy, in the second half of the nineteenth century. They warn that it probably won’t regain the prestige of exclusivity; it may just become “an increasingly arcane hobby.” Such a shift would change the texture of society. If one person decides to watch “The Sopranos” rather than to read Leonardo Sciascia’s novella “To Each His Own,” the culture goes on largely as before — both viewer and reader are entertaining themselves while learning something about the Mafia in the bargain. But if, over time, many people choose television over books, then a nation’s conversation with itself is likely to change. A reader learns about the world and imagines it differently from the way a viewer does; according to some experimental psychologists, a reader and a viewer even think differently. If the eclipse of reading continues, the alteration is likely to matter in ways that aren’t foreseeable.

Schools, I suspect, have given up. A friend has a bright daughter, 13, in what is considered the best public school system in the county. They are required to read a certain number of books on their own. But the teacher accepts as "books" manga illustrated novels. These are comics with hard spines.

My teenage son reads the occasional book on his own. He finds eclectic stuff -- travel narratives by the doctor who treated the Elephant Man, for instance. Recently he read "Seven Gables" for school and he's reading "Portrait of the Artist" on his own now. He's enthusiastic about what he reads. He gets into it. He finds things under the story, he appreciates the style of the prose. He reads for pleasure.

But he does so little of it. There's so much else to do with his time rather than pick up a book.

Dave Schuler has been writing about one consequence of this, under the heading visualcy.

Self Sharpening Knives

As the experiment was designed, the groups consisted of "liberal" and "conservative" enclaves — the former from Boulder, the latter from Colorado Springs. It is widely known that Boulder tends to be liberal, and Colorado Springs tends to be conservative. Participants were screened to ensure that they generally conformed to those stereotypes. People were asked to state their opinions anonymously both before and after 15 minutes of group discussion. What was the effect of that discussion?

In almost every case, people held more-extreme positions after they spoke with like-minded others.

So go ahead and read only what agrees with you. It will make you more yourself. Or will it?

No Evita

Go ahead and cry.

The Venezuelan businessman caught with a cash-stuffed suitcase was reportedly seen two days later inside Argentina's presidential palace, a prosecutor said Thursday, eroding the administration's efforts to distance itself from the case.

The reaction of the Argentine and Venezuelan administrations? Turn up the anti-American rhetoric, bash the U.S., claim to be victims of one sort of CIA conspiracy or another.

Why doesn't Bush try that once in a while? It's a charm for every other leader.

No Fly Zone

This is why I don't want to be a big-time blogger who gets paid to do this. Seriously. Both Andrew Sullivan and Matt Yglesias link to the story of an Icelandic woman who came to America to go shopping. At the airport in New York, however, security discovered she had overstayed a visa a decade ago, and refused to let her enter. What followed for her was a nightmare of deprivation and humiliation that would seem cruel and unusual even for a death-row inmate.

Here, in English on an Icelandic blog, is her story. It's been out there for a while, and U.S. diplomats have gotten involved, and apologies have been issued. The story isn't bogus.

However, neither Matt nor Andrew linked to that site. They linked to a word-for-word lift of the original on this site, which uses it as the liner for a litter box full of vile 9/11-truther and Israel-conspiracy nonsense. Thousands of readers following their links went there, instead of the original site.

How'd that happen? I imagine someone sent in a link, they read the story, found it link-worthy, and did so. If you're trying to crank this stuff out on deadline, that's going to happen. You don't have time to poke around. You don't have a staff of fact-checkers and copy editors to back you up. No, thanks. Not for me.

As for the story itself, it makes you want to smack somebody, but there doesn't seem to be any one culprit and you can't smack a bureaucracy. The commenters -- on both sites -- stupidly see it as evidence of America's fascism. An awful lot of Canadians, especially, seem to be convinced of this.

It's not. But it's why Americans hate to turn anything over to federal government control that is going to touch them more than once in a lifetime. This article will remind you they don't just treat "young Icelandic blondes" that way. They treat U.S. citizens that way, too.

The last person in my family to fly was my (then)-16-year-old son, who went to Japan on an exchange program this summer. My ex-wife, who hasn't been overseas since the Reagan Administration, packed his bags and unwisely put a plastic bottle of barbecue sauce -- a gift for his host family -- in the carry-on bag. It wasn't just that it was confiscated at the gates. It's the way the employees handed it around, commenting on how they looked forward to using it themselves, that made it grating. As for ethnicity and terrorism, my kid looks like any fair-skinned American boy and the security employees who dealt with him were south Asians in turbans. So much for surrealism.

That's the difference between fascism and stupid, mindless bureaucracy. In fascism, the higher up the chain you go, the meaner it gets. In this case, the apologies came from high up. In fascism, you're persecuted because of who you are and who your parents were. In an American airport, you're persecuted because you're there.

For some reason, people who get their paychecks from "public" entities just seem to have a different experience of employment than the rest of us. Their idea of what they're paid to do, and how they're supposed to do it, and what they deserve in return, doesn't seem at all like mine.

Privatize it? The trouble is, some jobs are just so big that the only private entities that can do them are no better than governments. Worse, in some cases. Actively malignant instead of sluggishly thuggish.

UPDATE: Oh, snap!


Some Truths

Should not be committed to print even in your diary. Much less in daily newspapers of national circulation.

I am a massive fan of British women. UK girls, in my opinion, are the greatest natural beauties in the world ... when they’re 17 or 18 years old. The girls I was surrounded by when I was a teenager were sublime roses with lustrous hair, flawless skin, bright eyes and lithe, athletic bodies. They dressed as if there would be a prize at the end of the night for the girl wearing the least. I then went away to Philadelphia for university. Four years later, I came back and wondered: “What the hell happened to all the beautiful girls I knew?” My first assumption was that one half of them had eaten the other half and washed them down with a crate of lager. These girls looked phenomenal when looking good took no effort. But when British women get to the age where they have to make an effort, they appear unable, or uninterested, in rising to the challenge.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

From One Who Knows

Look, I'm telling you. I'm a copy editor. It was going to be Gore. But they picked Putin after they thought of this headline.

The Power Elate

Many people who rail against Bushitler over his expanded presidential powers and privileges would find themselves comfortably on the other side of that debate if they were old enough to remember when Eisenhower claimed executive privilege to rebuff Congressional inquiries and demands for evidence. In that case, McCarthy was on the prowl, and the New York Times and the Washington Post applauded, editorially. In structurally identical cases today, they scold the Bush Administration.

They see this as the death of democracy. Where were they then? The form of a government is not an arbitrary thing, to be dispensed with when you can see a short-cut to a desired end. Whether the Constitution is the law of the land is not a question dependent on the purity of motives of those who want to break it or the righteousness of their goals.

Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson all used executive power to bypass other branches and advance the cause of minority civil rights in America. The media establishment applauded. So do I. But unless you are willing to at least consider these constitutionally shaky actions in the light of a long-run threat to democracy and freedom, you're not serious about a balanced government.

Unless you can suspect that most of us have it all wrong in our rankings of Lincoln and Buchanan among "best and worst presidents," you're not really thinking about the Constitution. When South Carolina seceded in 1860, James Buchanan asked his attorney general, Jeremiah Black (an honest Pennsylvanian who later served Lincoln), to outline the constitutional position on the matter. Black concluded that, in effect, the secession was illegal, but the executive branch had been given no power to do anything about it.

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

Lincoln in essence ignored the Constitution, forced the union to hold together, defied the Supreme Court, kept Congress out of session, then let his allies write the necessary legal approvals after the fact. He suspended civil liberties, jailed thousands without charges, threw an untried army into meat-grinder battles under incompetent generals, offered to guarantee slavery if the South returned, then turned around and abolished it -- but only in the places where he had no power over it.

We may applaud the way it all turned out for America (the 600,000 dead and their wives and mothers and orphans aren't usually consulted when "greatest presidents" lists are compiled), but the damage to constitutional government was deep and lasting.

Imagine it's 18 or 20 years from now. The climate change debate continues. The level of alarm remains high around the world, and alarming data continues to be published. But many people in the U.S. remain skeptical and powerful industries lobby against sudden and radical policies.

A president in the Al Gore mold sits in the White House. But the Congress is dominated by Republicans and timid Democrats whose seats depend on lobbyists. A global treaty on climate change has been put into effect in most industrialized nations. But the Congress refuses to ratify it for the U.S.

Should the president use every creative trick in the book to work around the obtuse Congress and make the terms of the treaty binding on the U.S. by a piecemeal approach?

I suspect I already know the general drift of the answer I'd get from a great many people who nowadays damn the Bush White House as "fascist." Executive power in our times is what states' rights were 150 years ago -- a political weapon available to either faction, eagerly wielded when convenient, execrated as a threat to freedom and democracy when in the hands of the other side.

The few who still take it seriously in an absolute sense will never want for allies, but like the Florida Marlins it will be a entirely new team every few years.


Secular Saddam

Is it too much to ask some people to drop their enthusiasm for Saddam's "secular" Iraq? Probably not, since it's useful in bashing the U.S. war to oust him, which has resulted in a resurgence of religion in Iraq, including a great many very ugly scenes.

Saddam ruled for the sake of Saddam. His party had policies; their principal goal was to keep power in the hands of the party. Like the Nazis and the communists, from whom the Ba'athists learned a great deal, they understood that religious authorities threatened their aggrandizement of national control. So they banned and banished them when they couldn't kill them outright. They worked to break the bond between the people and the faith.

Saddam enforced a secular culture on Iraq. Until he began to writhe for survival under U.S. pressure. Then he wrote "“Allahu Akbar” right in the middle of the national flag, built mosques, and celebrated his devotion to Islam. Because it would help him keep power. Iraqis were slaves. They were whatever Saddam said they were. That is not an enlightened secularism. Anyone alert to the horrors and perversions of religious authoritarianism ought to be able to see that.

Monday, December 17, 2007


Atrios has a good one titled Shorter Candidates.

Obama: The system sucks, but I'm so awesome that it'll melt away before me.

Edwards: The system sucks, and we're gonna have to fight like hell to destroy it.

Clinton: The system sucks, and I know how to work within it more than anyone.

I especially like how the timestamp under the post -- Atrios 18:58 -- makes it look like something from "Proverbs."

Angles in America

The deity who walks among us with the name and form of one Glenn Greenwald has deigned to notice our friend Michael J. Totten in reference to Michael's recent reporting from Fallujah, and Michael's criticism of another reporter's relentlessly negative work from there.

There's some degree of murk in the disagreement between the reporters. But the way Greenwald treats them is clear, and illuminating. He casts doubt on Michael's credibility in every case where Michael's reporting disagrees with his own narrative of Iraq (all failure all the time). Then he turns around and quotes him approvingly when Michael reports on the myriad problems and resentments still percolating in Fallujah.

Yes, of course, with him it's a case of implying, "if even a wingnut says it's this bad, you know it is worse," after having tarred you with that brush. [The same thing the extreme right does with regard to the NYT and WaPo.]

But it would be equally justifiable, even from Greenwald's position, to read Michael as an honest reporter without an agenda other than to tell what he sees. He could quote him more honestly in support of his arguments that way, without the gratuitous rubbishing. But gratuitous rubbishing is what GG was put on this earth to perform.

Along the way, Greenwald also applies standards of criticism to Michaels' reporting that he never mentions with regard to the other Fallujah reporter, whom he quotes with entire credulity.

He damns Michael because he "asserts with no evidence of any kind that [Ali] al-Fadhily's report of citizens being arrested for speaking with reporters is false,"but he fails to point out that al-Fadhily's report -- "Many residents told IPS that US-backed Iraqi police and army personnel have detained people who have spoken to the media" -- is 1. hearsay at best, 2. printed without supporting evidence.

Did al-Fadhily speak to anyone who was so detained, or only to people who told him other people have been detained, which is how I read that sentence. That kind of reporting wouldn't pass muster with a local news editor, but it's gospel to Greenwald.

That this scribbling weasel is held up as a modern day Daniel Webster is a sign that the right wingers may have a point after all about the intellectual anorexia of the anti left.

Here's Michael on the Marines in Fallujah. This is just good war reporting. The ghosts of Walt Whitman and Xenophon nod in agreement, from the shadows, reading this stuff. It serves nobody's side, nor is meant to:

“Was there one fight in particular that was intense or memorable?” I said. “The kind of story you would tell your kids or your friends back home?”

“I don't talk to my friends back home about it,” he said. “We pretty much only talk amongst ourselves.”

“Is it because they don't want to hear about it,” I said, “or you don't want to talk about it?”

“It's because everybody glorifies it so much, I think,” he said softly and a little bit sadly. “Everybody thinks it's cool. You know?”

“You mean American civilians glorify it?”

“Yeah,” he said. “Guys our age. You go home and you always get those stupid questions. Did you shoot anybody? Did you kill anybody? How many people? I just don't personally deal with that. I had a great uncle who was in the Korean War. I talk to people like him about it. As far as regular people, I don't. If they ask I just tell them it was nothing. That's what I hear from everybody else, too. They feel the same way.”

“How do you feel about what happened here?” I said.

“I definitely think it was necessary,” he said. “I don't have any regrets. I'm glad I did it, and I would do it again. It's good to see the city the way it is and to go to the same neighborhoods. They're so much cleaner now. These people are doing things on their own, they're taking care of their own stuff. When I was here three years ago, I never would have imagined this place would ever be like it is now. It reminded me of Tijuana. When we got here it just seemed like everything you could think of that was bad, this city had it going on. Now they have regular families thriving in the city. There are people working neighborhood watch, working together. It has turned around a lot. I didn't even want to come on this deployment, but now seeing the city the way it is, I'm glad I did. It's like a closure on everything.”

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More Lamberth, Please

AP reports:

White House visitor logs are public documents, a federal judge ruled Monday, rejecting a legal strategy that the Bush administration had hoped would get around public records laws and let them keep their guests a secret.

The ruling is a blow to the Bush administration, which has fought the release of records showing visits by prominent religious conservatives.

Visitor records are created by the Secret Service, which is subject to the Freedom of Information Act. But the Bush administration has ordered the data turned over to the White House, where they are treated as presidential records outside the scope of the public records law.

But U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth ruled logs from the White House and Vice President Dick Cheney's residence remain Secret Service documents and are subject to public records requests.

Cernig notes: "The AP says that Lamberth, a Reagan appointee, has long been a thorn in the sides of both Democratic and Republican administrations who try to keep too much secret. Can we have more thorns like him, please? Maybe in Congress?"

Amen to that.

Hate Non-Crimes

This time, a conservative student in an Ivy school says he was attacked, then admits he wasn't.

When I was much younger, and doing my first stint as a newspaper editorial writer, nasty, racist notes started appearing in the lockers of the handful of black students at a rural high school. Since the topic of this post already makes it clear where this is going, I'll cut to the chase: After a long investigation and a lot of denunciation of passive community racism, the notes turned out to have been written by one of the black students.

I never expected it. I already had written that the perpetrator of the act, if identified, ought to be dealt the full measure of punishment allowed. After the revelation, I remember thinking, "Great, what do I say about that now?" And I frankly don't remember what answer I ever got, if any.

But I've thought about that kid every time a story like this comes around.

Rick's explanation , in the post, I linked to, is this:

I suppose this is what happens when you criminalize thought. That is, hate crimes receive an inordinate amount of attention compared to a run of the mill assault. We have already seen numerous “victims” of hate crimes – most recently a fireman from Baltimore who faked a threatening note that was accompanied by a hangman’s noose – who filed false police reports because of the national attention drawn to racially motivated or religious bias attacks.

Most of the perps are young like Nava although a few teachers have also been caught faking on campus hate crimes. It raises an interesting question about the efficacy of criminalizing incorrect thinking.

That may be part of it. In some cases more than others. But I think there's some deeper psychology at work, too. A clue might lie in recent science news stories like this one:

The research, conducted by a team of scientists at the University of California in Los Angeles, claimed to prove that the two neural zones which respond to physical pain also react to social exclusion.

In your mind, you feel a social suffering as a physical pain. But you can't get the same level of validation for it from society. Say, "my tooth hurts," and you can get medical care. Say, "People are mean to me," and you're likely to hear, "Welcome to the club; get over it."

I don't think an infant knows the difference between physical and emotional pain. I think that has to be learned. In some people, perhaps, it's learned imperfectly. And any way there's an inner infant lurking in most of us. And different people have different sensitivities to that sort of pain.

I think that's why in some cases adults "recover" vivid memories of early childhood abuse at the hands of teachers or parents. It is the emotional suffering they genuinely felt, but can never force other people to see, translated into the kind of pain people will recognize, and sympathize with, and validate.

I don't think this happens in the level of consciousness. Irrationally, the lie tends to make whatever genuine suffering is felt seem the less valid once the lie is uncovered.

In some cases, the falsifiers claim to have been physically attacked or abused. In others, they claim to have been victims of "hate speech." I think that's where Rick's point comes in: By elevating some speech to the level of a physical assault -- abhorred and punished in the same terms -- we've closed the gap between the inner, felt reality of some people and the scale by which society at large judges such traumas.

[Poets, typically, have been alert to this for a long time. Gray's "Elegy" has a discourse on it. How the range of passions and pains in one breast is not limited by the scale of the circumstances, but by the individual's scope. The illiterate farmhand who stands up to the bully boss in the field does so with the same thrill and fear he'd feel if he was the nation's hero standing up to the king.]

Bad Old Days

Someday, in the future, people will look back on us and marvel:

In the past, as recently as the 21st century, millions of human beings in the most technologically advanced civilizations got up every day with what were called "colds." They went about their business as though nothing was wrong, though they sneezed profusely, infecting everyone in the room with each blast, and couldn't breathe through their noses. Their throats rasped, their eyes watered, and they gushed mucus like a cheap chocolate fountain at a trailer park Sweet Sixteen party. Their fellow students or workers pretended not to notice. They endured this with remarkable stoicism for a week or more, as though no other way of living was possible. Let us thank the gods we live in our times, not theirs.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Council Winners

Watchers Council winners for the week of Dec. 14 have been posted.

First place in the council went to Pearl Harbor... And 9/11 by Joshuapundit, which compares the U.S. response to those two events on the occasion of the anniversary of the former. They couldn't be more different.

Most of the rest of the votes went to posts relating to the NIE report on the likelihood that Iran has an active nuclear weapons program. Those posts were: A Deeply Flawed NIE Changes Nothing & Everything by Wolf Howling; What the NIE on Iran's Nuclear Weapons Development Doesn't Say by The Glittering Eye; Release of Iran NIE a Remarkable Testament to American Exceptionalism by Right Wing Nut House; and Hoodwinkers and Their Codependents: In Search of Intelligent Intelligence on Iran by Big Lizards. There's a good range of points of view in those four posts.

Another vote went to Explaining American Jews' Love for Israel and America by Bookworm Room. This interesting post centers on the writer's attendance at "a moderated talk concerning Israel. The speakers were Dennis Prager, John Podhoretz and Mona Charen, with Michael Medved moderating."

When she got a chance to ask a question, she asked, “For those people who claim that America’s and Israel’s interests are antithetical to each other, how do we justify or explain our loyalty to both?”

Podhoretz answered by "pointing to the common values shared by both nations" which have resulted in societies that have much in common.

Although I don’t think he quite said it outright, I gather that Mr. Podhoretz believes that American Jews are not disloyal to America when they support Israel because it is the morally correct thing to do: one beacon of light supporting another. I think he’s right.

Charen pointed out that "the most fervent support for Israel comes, not from American Jews, but from Evangelical Christians. In other words, support of Israel is not some shady Jewish conspiracy, but is part of the value system religious conservatives of all stripes, both Christian and Jewish."

Finally, Michael Medved closed with the flip side to these preceding answers. That is, after Mr. Podhoretz and Ms. Charen pointed out that it is not unpatriotic to support Israel, he explained why Jews are — or should be — patriotic. His take, and one with which I strongly agree, is that America is one of the great blessings bestowed on the Jews.

Since she seeks more feedback in her post, I'll offer some. One can basically agree with all those answers, and I do, and still be left with a nagging doubt. I might rephrase the question and eliminate the class of people who "claim that America’s and Israel’s interests are antithetical to each other," which is, I suppose, not a large or important segment of the population.

Instead, I might phrase it with reference to the fact that many of us seem intent on maintaining an appearance of complete identification of Israeli and American interests, while necessarily those will not always be the same. The range of involvement of America in the world is necessarily wider than that of Israel. The sources of domestic challenges, and their expression in foreign relations, are likewise different.

So is there a sufficient capability in modern America to have a diplomatic discussion about that, without igniting uncontrollable passions and devastating accusations?

As for the answers given, they feel incomplete. Certainly we share historical and cultural values with Israel. We do with Britain and France as well. And we've been able to disagree with them -- even to countenance a degree of active hostility toward them in our national discourse -- without forgetting the common heritage.

Charen's point that this is not only about Jewish-Americans is helpful and necessary to bear in mind. But evangelical Christians have had to justify themselves through the generations -- from abolitionists to anti-abortionists -- to other Americans who suspected their politics were answering to a "higher law" than the U.S. Constitution. And to explain how that works in terms of loyalty and legality.

It can be done. It is not necessarily a conflict. But it is not a question that ought to automatically be off the table as too insensitive to be asked.

Medved's point also is well taken. But it hardly distinguishes the Israelis from the Hmong or a great many other peoples who have found America a rock and refuge in their times of persecution. This is a rough place sometimes, and Jews have not always had a happy time of it here, but it's been a lifesaver, literally, for millions.

Armenians, too, found refuge from persecution in America and later established their independence at home. And we recently debated whether American positions on Armenian matters -- terribly important emotionally to Armenians and Armenian-Americans -- could conflict with purely American foreign policy interests. The same debate has been had in the past with regard to Greece and its hostility to our NATO ally, Turkey. Is there a context for having a freewheeling but respectful debate on such things when Israel and America are involved?

I would bring up -- and hesitantly -- the "Liberty" incident as one that is difficult for many people to discuss dispassionately, with an eye simply to establishing the facts of the case, and allowing for all possibilities. Or Israeli espionage in the U.S. government. Espionage weakens national security, it opens cracks and saps foundations; in that sense it doesn't matter if it comes from your allies or your enemies.

A question of divided loyalty, if you care to ask it, can't be answered with a dodge that insists there never is or can be a true conflict that would test loyalty. America is one nation; Israel is another. Of course their pure self-interests will clash from time to time.

Outside the council, the winner was Men of Valor: Part IV by Michael Yon. His stuff here is a gripping read, as always, but I had trouble telling how much of it he was reporting firsthand and how much of it was recounting stories he'd been told by the British soldiers he was writing about.

Votes also went to What Happens After the Surge by Omar Fadhil of Iraq the Model (writing here in Pajamas Media), which I nominated; and to In Politics Values Matter, Not Theology by Dennis Prager at Other than those three, the votes went to NIE-inspired posts: What Iran's "Victory" Means at ShrinkWrapped; Iran NIE and a Prediction at Middle East Strategy at Harvard; and William Katz: New National Intelligence Estimate at Power Line.


Friday, December 14, 2007

Friday Cat Blogging

I Bet Not

A computer glitch in the Norwegian city of Trondheim catastrophically overcharged people who pre-paid for municipal parking spots. In some cases, it attempted to drain their bank accounts of up to $148,000, which of course they didn't have. They discovered the overdraft when they went to buy food or Christmas presents and found their accounts frozen.

City parking official Steinar Myhr said, "I'm sure some saw the humor in it."

Oh, Well; We Can Wish

Bad to Verse

Dennis the Peasant is trying to write bad poetry. He's not doing a great job of it, but it's hardly an insult to him to think so. Writing truly bad poetry is one of the most difficult attainments of a writer. You could spend years honing the craft, and it's possible no one can succeed at it without some natural talent along that line.

You have to start with idiotic ideas. Dennis has got that down -- after all, he's been reading political blogs for years. But when he sits down to write it, his skill gets in the way. His verse -- as verse -- is passable. What's required is a complete lack of humor, a complete lack of grammatical consistency, tone-deafness, the rhythmic sense of Donald Rumsfeld, and an artless innocence about all of it.

This may be unattainable without the proper genes. I have worked with a man who was a tuneless hummer. When he wasn't around, co-workers would try to imitate him. Try it; it's really impossible. Avoiding a tune is infinitely more difficult than carrying one.

Dennis already has dug up a blood ruby of a bad poem, on the Daily Kos site. It starts like this:

Trapped in a machine that only nourishes the rich
Like a glitch in the system that hard to catch
And bombs that drop on kids with legs detached
Women, Children, and Men for Oil!
Is this the "Freedom" you bring to the New World?
Amerikkka Now Hides Behind A New Freedom
The one that gives you death instead of Life
Why Don't you just get up and fight?
Stop Wasting your time in Protest and Strikes
The plight of the poor is at an increasing rate
Why don't you allow yourself to be suicidal and late our economy crash?

By the gods, I'm jealous of the talent that wrote that. If I could write anything half as good as that is bad, I could retire on the royalties.

However, Dennis is well on the way to self-education in this art, because he's been reading Pandagon dutifully. Just throw random line breaks at Amanda's prose, and you've got yourself some bad poeting.

But what I really recommend is a crash course in the all-time champion of bad poetry, the Chaucer of cheese, the Shakespeare of shabby, the Elizabeth Barrett Browning of godfuckingawful, Julia Moore, the "Sweet Singer of Michigan." Here is the opening of her 1876 tribute to a Civil War casualty:

Come all good people, far and near,
Oh, come and see what you can hear,
It's of a young man, true and brave,
Who is now sleeping in his grave.

Now, William Upson was his name --
If it's not that it's all the same --
He did enlist in the cruel strife,
And it caused him to lose his life.

If you can get through the first two lines without blurting out a laugh -- well, Mark Twain couldn't. He counted her as his favorite poet. [It's a tribute to the savvy of the 19th century that this woman published her verse thinking it was good, and that a great many reviewers managed to write about it so artfully that they seemed to be praising it until you saw the alternate meanings in their sentences. The gag was kept up -- almost -- long enough for a national reading tour.]

I'll close as the Sweet Singer closed her ballad of her youth (which describes all manner of hardships and suffering while insisting how happy it all was):

My childhood days have passed and gone,
And it fills my heart with pain
To think that youth will nevermore
Return to me again.
And now kind friends, what I have wrote,
I hope you will pass o'er,
And not criticise as some have done,
Hitherto herebefore


To the Moon

NASA has given a name to the vehicle it plans to shoot into the sky for America's proud return to the moon. The name is -- gasp -- Arabic.

Altair means, "the flying one" in Arabic.

Well, sort of. But you can bet someone somewhere is ginning up a blog post tonight titled "NASA's dhimmitude."

Fact is, most of the stars you can see in the sky at night in the city or suburbs have names. And most of them are mangled out of Arabic into some generic European form. Altair, for instance, is what's left of Al Nasr al Tair, the full Arabic name, which means "the Flying Eagle." The tair is the participle of the verb tara "it flew."

[The constellation it's in is one of the few where the star pattern actually looks like the thing it purports to be -- an eagle with wings spread. But you have to be able to see the fourth magnitude starts to hold it together, and they usually get washed out unless you're in a dark place.]

The star names got so deformed on the way from one language to another, I doubt most Arabic speakers would recognize them. Arabic Ibt al Jauzah, the name of the star that forms the right shoulder of Orion, means "the Armpit of the Central One." By the time the word got to English, it had become "Betelgeuse."

But the names aren't even originally Arabic. They're translations of the ancient Greek names in Claudius Ptolemy's catalogue. The path from Greek through Arabic to English is yet another reflection of the way ancient scientific culture was preserved and transmitted by Islamic scholars when it was lost in Europe in the Dark Ages.

When the Europeans began to recover the star lore from the Arabs, they had to struggle with the language. Greek was still obscure, so there was no possibility of re-translating them out of Arabic. It would have to be done directly, from one language to the other, in spite of the lack of proper corresponding letters and sounds.

Perhaps a monk and an Arab scholar sat down together and the Arabic-speaker read down the list while the European, quill in hand, did his best to render the sounds he heard in the language he knew. Perhaps a single speaker of both Latin and Arabic (perhaps a Jew of Andalusia) undertook the thing on his own, as a lark. Their names and faces are lost to us, but they must have been there.

By the same method of whisper-down-the-lane, the Arabic mathematical book titled Kitab al-Jabr w'al-Muqabala, "Rules of Reintegration and Reduction," ended up as "algebra."


Caring and Repairing

Peggy Noonan's latest column is widely noted elsewhere for its rhetorical question about how religion-obsessed the GOP has become:

I wonder if our old friend Ronald Reagan could rise in this party, this environment. Not a regular churchgoer, said he experienced God riding his horse at the ranch, divorced, relaxed about the faiths of his friends and aides, or about its absence. He was a believing Christian, but he spent his adulthood in relativist Hollywood, and had a father who belonged to what some saw, and even see, as the Catholic cult. I'm just not sure he'd be pure enough to make it in this party. I'm not sure he'd be considered good enough.

I suspect she and I agree on the answer to that. But then, it was the Reagan campaigns and administrations that helped set this juggernaut in motion. Reagan's rhetoric wooed the evangelical vote, but his administrations generally kept the "Christian nation" types at arm's length from any real policy-making. You even could argue that Noonan, as one of his speechwriters, played a part in that.

Well, they may be creationists, but they're not fools. Eventually they learned how to work the party ropes and Washington wires and now it seems the Bush Administration has yielded -- willingly or not -- important chunks of executive turf to this core group. It's probably been most visible in the Justice Department, where the sharp rise in the number of employees from Regent University has been noted and debated.

Future Republican presidents -- should there be any -- probably will have to grapple with the same power-sharing arrangement. Unless the whole GOP base comes unglued over the attempt to marginalize the evangelicals. And there's a simmering resentment out there already.

Noonan's column also looks at Hillary's campaign. But I thought she made her best observation toward the end, noting how the comments of nearly all the candidates with regard to immigration have been both heated and insincere. It's not a paradox. It reflects the gap between the political elite and the average American:

Because politicians see immigration as just another issue in "the game," they feel compelled to speak of it not with honest indifference but with hot words and images. With a lack of sympathy. This is in contrast to normal Americans, who do not use hot words, and just want the problem handled and the rule of law returned to the borders.

Politicians, that is, distort the debate, not because they care so much but because they care so little.

Hillary Clinton is not up at night worrying about the national-security implications of open borders in the age of terror. She's up at night worrying about whether to use Mr. Obama's position on driver's licenses for illegals against him in ads or push polls.

A real and felt concern among the candidates about immigration is a rare thing. And people can tell. They can tell with both parties. This is the real source of bitterness in this debate. It's not regnant racism. It's knowing the political class is incapable of caring, and so repairing.

Sporting Chances

So Marion Jones has to surrender all her Olympics medals after she admitted cheating, and the athletes she beat will get them instead. That seems fair (provided they, too, didn't use steroids or other banned substances).

Now some people want to strip the Olympic gold medals from eight other American sprinters who won them on 4X400 relay teams on which Jones ran. Even though no one has accused any of them of violating any substance policies.

That seems hard, even though I can understand the frustration of the runners on the teams that came in second, third, and fourth.

But I wonder when anyone will get around to awarding gold medals to Shirley Babashoff and other U.S. women swimmers (and other women swimmers) who lost to the muscular, mustachioed, baritone-voiced East German women's swimming teams of the 1970s. Their doping then was an open secret, and since the fall of communism it hasn't even got the veil of secrecy any more. But no one seems to be talking about that.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Found Art


Nice poem, eh? I found it reading this. It's Merriam-Webster’s words of the year from 2003 to 2007, in order. Certainly has as much claim to poetry as this. All you need are enthusiastic readers to squint at it and see a meaning.

[n.b., Blogger's spillchucker recognizes "w00t," but not "truthiness."]