Monday, March 31, 2008

Department of Bad Ideas

Interviewing female conservative bloggers about their dating habits.

"Have you dated liberals before? If so, any difference you can tell between liberal and conservative guys?"

Being a Hampshire University student and ... oh, hell, just being a Hampshire student:

Students at Hampshire College, in Amherst, Mass., walked out of class this morning to protest what they saw as administrators’ insufficient commitment to fighting racism, the Associated Press reported.

... Among other things, the students were calling for additional faculty and staff positions in multicultural affairs, mandatory “anti-oppression training” for all employees, and residence halls exclusively for students of color and for “queer-identified” students. A few hundred students staged the walkout, an organizer told the AP, when the college’s president did not immediately agree to their demands.

And this:

"Child Stabs President Bush to Death and Turns the White House into a Mosque in a Hamas TV Puppet Show"

What's the point of making peace with one generation of a people who are busily indoctrinating their children to live to kill you?

Media Fish in a Barrel

OK, so it's British media writing about wicked America, so the fish are particularly fat and slow, but still ...

The Independent informs us we're flushed down the great toilet. The article is titled "USA 2008: The Great Depression"

It is illustrated with this photo:

Which bears the caption "Disadvantaged Americans queue for aid in New York".

A little poking around on the Getty archive Web site, and I found an identical photo here.

It has this caption:

New York Mayor Hands Out Coats To The Poor

NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 30: People wait on line to receive donated coats at the kickoff of the 17th annual New York Cares Coat Drive a the Bowery Mission November 30, 2005 in New York City. Bloomberg helped give out coats to residents of the Mission and the coat drive hopes to collect and distribute 80,000 coats to needy New Yorkers by New Years. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Emphasis added by me. Inability to tell "5" from "8" added by the Independent.

UPDATE: And here's a site that claims to be "drilling beneath the headlines" and misses this error entirely in its approving link to the Independent -- while illustrating its own story with a famous photograph from the 1930s -- not noting it as such.

The Banality of Poignancy

This ought not to work. On the old principle that "comparisons from nature ennoble art; comparisons from art degrade nature." An educated man who grows up ignorant of the story of his father's death at sea, when the facts of it are readily available. Then, when the story finds him, he tries to fit it into reality, and ends up in ... a David Lynch movie. It ought not to work. But, somehow, it does. The limitation is the poignancy.

So now I know these facts, or I have heard, second or third hand, these stories. I have a story I can tell. If it had been told to me when I was a child, I might have, in a deep and true sense, remembered it as if I had been there when it happened, with at least the same instantly recallable immediacy with which I can summon up the exploits of Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth, who of course I never saw. But these facts, severed from the family history that might have given them flesh, are, really, no more mine than the images that open Blue Velvet.

I can make sense of them, or hold them in my mind, only as scenes from movies — the likes of The Cruel Sea, Victory at Sea, the documentaries The World at War or Why We Fight — or from the movie that, someday, someone might make (since the facts appeared my wife and I and our daughters and our friends have been casting it). But if any such movie were ever made, the story that I have, as a personal story, would be even less mine than it is now — and the truth is that, now, it isn't mine at all. It is a contrivance—it is a story that I might now remember, but don't. What might have been a personal story dissolves into the public domain of a much greater story, of the War, of heroism and stupidity, arrogance and decency, and hundreds of thousands of the dead — and in that sense, whatever personal memory might be found here, the common memory rightly takes away.

Race Race Race

That Obama speech tickets line was longer than I thought. Some people who saw the end of it said it was more than a quarter mile from end to end. Even some people who got tickets didn't get in to hear the speech, I'm told.

The mayor offered him a change of venue to the municipal minor league baseball stadium, but the campaign refused it. Better to have a guaranteed overflowing tech school gym than risk a half-empty stadium, I suppose. You'll piss off 100 people locally but impress 10,000 nationally.

I think he also coveted the tech school for its name: Thaddeus Stevens, the great abolitionist, who founded it in his will. Never mind that, for all his commitment to anti-slavery, Stevens was a mean-as-dirt hardball politician, who occasionally represented slaveowners against their runaways early in his legal career, bitterly persecuted Masons, and who derailed Winfield Scott at the 1840 Whig convention by -- literally -- dropping a note to the Virginia delegates that suggested Scott just might have abolitionist tendencies.

The stadium is named for the local shopper publication. I think "Obama speaks at Thaddeus Stevens School" probably has more political cachet than "Obama speaks at Clipper Magazine Stadium."

The school is mostly minority students, but apparently no tickets were set aside for them. In exchange for the headache of having to spend the morning trapped in a media event, they didn't even get to see the speech.

This has been a painful election season for my newsroom co-workers, who of course are all Democrats or left-of-Democrat Independents. The two most vocal and persistent anti-Bush, Chomsky-quoting, Michael Moore-worshipping employees split when the campaign began: One went for Kucinich, the other for Ron Paul. For a blessed interval, they weren't speaking to each other. Recently, alas, they've patched it up. Every time some good news seeps into the paper about Iraq, one will drift over to the other's desk, and they'll rehearse the talking points about war crimes, etc., etc., until both feel comforted again, then they'll drift apart.

But for the more mainstream Demos, the frustration over the ongoing Hillary-Obama fight is palpable. For me, as a non-Democrat, it's like watching professional wrestling: "Wow, that looked like it hurt. I wonder if it's real?" I can enjoy the spectacle from a safe distance, popcorn in hand.

Ever since 1840, American presidential elections have doubled as national discussions of issues. Some more than others. This one has that quality, and among the topics necessarily up for discussion is race. Obama has -- sometimes, fitfully (Icepick is right) -- offered a fresh start to that discussion, with a post-Civil Rights perspective and a broad embrace of Americans, including alienated whites.

That, to me, is a wonderful new beginning. The old discussion of race in America devolved into minutia, after its breathtaking charge. In 1940, more than two-thirds of whites believed blacks were less intelligent. Today, less than 6 percent think so. Before World War II, in the North as well as the South, fewer than 40 percent supported any kind of desegregation. Today, between 95 and 100 percent of Americans support the idea of integration. That percentage among whites is actually higher than among blacks.

Then we hit the wall. I'd describe the wall in terms used by Tamar Jacoby in her insightful book "Someone Else's House": "...integration will not work without acculturation." This is the kind of suggestion that makes a lot of people squirm. Many blacks don't like the idea of adopting a set of values from outside. A lot of whites can empathize with that. But, as Jacoby writes:

"That's part of why we couldn't win the War on Poverty: when it turned out that it required extensive acculturation -- programs to change people's habits, their attitudes toward school, work and the law -- many otherwise well-meaning whites lost the will to fight the battle. For more than thirty years, we tried to ignore the development gap, and those who dared to mention it were written off as bigots. But the difficult truth remains that people who cannot speak standard English or have never seen anyone hold down a regular job have little hope of fitting into the system or sharing its fruits. If anything, the past few decades have taught us that the preparation gap is wider than we thought, and more needs to be done than we ever imagined: everything from getting poor mothers into prenatal care to teaching job applicants about deferring to a boss's authority. What makes this hard is that acculturation is along, slow process -- one that will require a kind of patience till now largely lacking on race matters."

As a result, the discussion on race has largely devolved into the kind of things you bicker about when you've given up on real progress: Scrubbing little totems of Confederate imagery off Southern state flags; should "Huck Finn" be banned in schools? Why can't white people use the N-word when rappers use it all the time?

Obama, at times, starts to frame a new discussion that just might break through the deadlock. I was born in the middle of the Cold War and the Civil Rights movement. I've lived to see one through to a conclusion. I'd like to at least see the other get on track for one.

There will be no pure hero class and no pure victim class in it. We'll have to give that up. That view has been part of the simplified picture sold to us by civil rights hagiography. Reality is more complex. Everyone comes to this discussion with baggage of one sort or another. Everyone with the capacity to be selfless for the sake of patriotism, or to behave otherwise.

So, in the part of this election that is about choosing a president, I am probably not on Senator Obama's side. But in the part that is a national discussion, insofar as it touches on race, I'm on his side, as I see it, all things in the balance, the ugly but unavoidable rhetoric of Rev. Wright included.

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Saturday, March 29, 2008

Sign O the Times

I mentioned in a comment below that Obama will speak Monday two blocks from my house. I want to see this guy speak as much as anyone else who enjoys witnessing history. It has nothing to do with voting; I like to see comets, too, but I don't want to live on one.

That there was going to be some sort of local appearance had been rumored for a few days. But the confirmation, the time and location, and the directions for getting tickets only became public late Friday. Tickets were to be distributed starting this morning at 9 a.m. I went down to see if I could snag one and got to campaign headquarters about 9:40. The line was out the door and around the ample parking lot. I haven't seen such a line since Disneyworld opened. What I saw was at least a football field long, if you had stretched it out, and I didn't even find the end of it.

Now, this is a red county. Though it's shifted a little to the blue lately, it's still more than 2-to-1 GOP by registration. What I saw out there this morning probably equaled the whole number of registered Democrats within five square miles of the building. I don't believe all the people in the line were Democrats, but it was an astonishing sight nonetheless.

The line was moving, too. About every 30 seconds someone would come out the other door with tickets in hand. But I didn't have time to wait in that line. But after I finished my chores around noon, I went back to see if any tickets were left. The line was just as long as it had been three hours before.


Friday, March 28, 2008

Color Words

I was surprised that Obama's race speech garnered such an intense negative reaction among so many educated Republicans who are well left of Pat Buchanan. A lot of that concentrated on the appearance of weaseling out of his church connection, or obscuring the depth of his debt to Rev. Wright, I suppose. And many who slammed those qualities took a line or to to praise the general tenor of his rhetoric when it was purely about race in America. And partly, too, they may fear him as a candidate.

But a lot of my peers also went after his word-painting as enshrining victimhood, or worse things.

So I wonder how they will take to this?

"Black Americans were a founding population. Africans and Europeans came here and founded this country together — Europeans by choice and Africans in chains. That's not a very pretty reality of our founding." As a result, "descendants of slaves did not get much of a head start, and I think you continue to see some of the effects of that."

That's Condi Rice talking, in an interview with the Washington Times.

It seems to me utterly unobjectionable as history, consistent with modern American patriotism (and even with current Republican party membership), and a view any compassionate thinking person could have. It doesn't tell you what to do about it. But it obviously opens that discussion along some familiar lines.

Good enough for you?

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Them Again

Why does this not surprise me?

Former "Nightline" reporter Dave Marash has quit Al-Jazeera English, saying Thursday his exit was due in part to an anti-American bias at a network that is little seen in this country.

Marash said he felt that attitude more from British administrators than Arabs at the Qatar-based network.

Marash was the highest-profile American TV personality hired when the English language affiliate to Al-Jazeera was started two years ago in an attempt to compete with CNN and the BBC. He said there was a "reflexive adversarial editorial stance" against Americans at Al-Jazeera English.

Emphasis added.

Because like the big brother who never stopped picking on you, it's always the British.* We have this conflicted relationship with France. But I think it comes from a mutual awareness of our common quirks -- we're both trying to be the dominant moral force for Enlightenment virtues in the world, so there's natural rivalry.

The French gave us the Statue of Liberty. They also gave themselves one, staring east toward its bigger sister. And they scattered other replicas across the country, including this one:

A third replica is the Bordeaux Statue of Liberty. This 2.5 m (8 ft) statue is in the city of Bordeaux in Southwest France. The first Bordeaux statue was seized and melted down by the Nazis in World War II. The statue was replaced in 2000 and a plaque was added to commemorate the victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks. On the night of March 25, 2003, unknown vandals poured red paint and gasoline on the replica and set it on fire. The vandals also cracked the pedestal of the plaque. The mayor of Bordeaux, former prime minister Alain Juppé, condemned the attack.

Which, the Wikipedia artfully manages to not mention, was three days into the Iraq War.

Can you imagine the British giving America a Statue of Liberty? French visitors to early 19th century America, such as de Tocqueville and Michel Chevalier, were careful observers and able to see the flow of democratic forces in U.S. society. The British writers who visited practiced a rhetorical scorched earth policy to feed the hunger of the home audience for horror stories about stupid, violent, arrogant, boorish America. The few exceptions were ones who never saw the place but used it as an imaginary ideal to criticize what they disliked in English culture and British governance.

*As always, our friend Canker is a noble exception to that generalization.

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Friday Cat Blogging

Haven't done one of these in a while, but here's one I couldn't resist: Paris Hilton, judging the Miss Turkey competition, gets pulled up and tries her best. Compare and contrast:

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Thursday, March 27, 2008

America's Second-Longest War

What is it? I bet you didn't guess. I had forgotten it, too, till I came upon the chapter about it in Daniel Walker Howe's excellent new period history, "What Hath God Wrought." The Wikipedia article, on a quick read-through, looks fair, substantial, and rooted in good sources. It's not pretty. As nothing is from the U.S. Indian relations in the Jacksonian era.

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Or Not

Every war always is two wars: The chaotic fight that's happening, and the story of what is happening as it frames in minds at home (even when "home" is only a few miles from the front lines), where people desperately impose some template of order and narrative on the garble and thunder that drifts back from the battlefields.

Weeks after Lee surrendered at Appomattox, the few newspapers still publishing in the unoccupied Deep South were describing how the Confederacy was going to win this thing.

The longer a war goes on, the more warped and twisted become the home versions of the game. Especially in an open and politicized society, where every public person's previous conclusion must be retained through all the jarring tumult, lest the narrator lose credibility.

Eventually, the home-built meta-narratives implode under the mass of the duct tape holding them together. I'm not sure when the home front in the current Gulf War hit that black hole moment, but watching pundits plunge their hands into the smoke of Basra and pull rhetorical rabbits out of the hat is sure proof that we're there now.

Last year the British military pulled back out of Basra. And chaos didn't immediately break out. It was proof that Iraq was capable of functioning on its own, which either proved the invasion was a success or the occupation was not needed, depending on your point of view.

Or not. Some said Basra was simply being turned over to hoodlums and militias, and it was proof that all the supposed nation-building the coalition (remember that word?) had been doing was futility. Or that there was no real violence problem in Iraq that wasn't caused entirely by the fact of the occupation and the presence of foreign soldiers. Or that the British light-touch approach to occupation, which frequently was held up as a better example to the supposedly thuggish Americans, really was all wrong-headed from the start. Depending on your point of view.

Meanwhile the "Surge" was in effect and the overall level of violence in Iraq was either dropping dramatically -- or not. Depending on your point of view. And that either mattered a lot, or it didn't. And it was either yielding long-term reconciliation, strengthening Iraqi forces, and nurturing indigenous political structures that would allow Iraq to function on its own again. Or not. Or it was all due to the Shi'ite militia cease fire. Or else to the controlling influence of Iran. Or else due to the marginalization of Shi'ite radicals by the U.S. policies.

Or not.

So now that Shi'ite-on-Shi'ite, government-vs.-militia street battles are battering Basra, the persistent punditry has to add another chapter to its ironclad assertions about What Is Really Happening in Iraq. They have to barrel-roll through yet another corkscrew and come out flying and smiling.

Why is anyone even paying attention to these people and their eternal assurance of their own all-along rightness?

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Wednesday, March 26, 2008


O generation of the thoroughly smug
and thoroughly uncomfortable,
I have seen fishermen picnicking in the sun,
I have seen them with untidy families,
I have seen their smiles full of teeth
and heard ungainly laughter.
And I am happier than you are,
And they were happier than I am;
And the fish swim in the lake
and do not even own clothing.

-- Ezra Pound

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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Listen to the Marines

They know things about Iraq now that most of the rest of us only dimly realize.

A lieutenant:

“The culture here – they lie, they deceive, they steal, they don't trust each other. In order to survive. That's what Saddam Hussein's era bred in them. If they wanted to survive and do well, they had to go behind everyone's back. After 20 or 30 years of Saddam, they can't break away over night.”

A sergeant:

“We have to convince them that we're here to protect them and their family. But we also have to convince them that we're not just blowing smoke. They need to know we aren't here to take anything, steal anything. We're here to find out who the bad guys are so it's safe here for us and their families.”

The unspoken conclusion in both cases: This will take more time. The relevant question on the campaign trail isn't whether this is "victory" or "defeat;" it's "how patient are we willing to be?"

Too bad for us these fellows hadn't even seen a journalist, much less spoken to one, till Michael J. Totten turned up in their gritty little corner of the war. He has to ask you to help him keep it going, because no one else will.

Hooray for Jersey

Save the crabs.

Gov. Jon S. Corzine on March 25 signed legislation imposing a moratorium on harvesting horseshoe crabs in New Jersey. Fines for the continued harvesting of horseshoe crabs will be $10,000 for the first offense and $25,000 for each subsequent offense.

Horseshoe crab eggs are a significant source of food for shore birds known as red knots. Over-harvesting of horseshoe crabs has led to a diminished supply of food for the red knots and has brought the species to the brink of extinction.

But I long have thought they deserve some respect beyond the utility of their eggs as bird food (and the utility of their odd blood in medical research).

I met them first in solid stone
when I trawled the quarry for smooth plates of Connecticut shale
instead of the sea for a living. There we hauled
the grandfathers of these
from rock two hundred million years deep.
We claw love and God, but they know
the better trick: be ugly and inedible.
The simple things
have watched the whole parade
of dinosaurs, heard the last beast’s dumb cry,
and seen stars burn out and die
from beaches that have turned to stone.


Congratulations to Ruth Anne Adams who had a truly meaningful Easter.

My concession to the day was to force myself to eat ham -- not my favorite meat, but my wife can make anything delicious. The wife and baby went to Easter Service at the corner megachurch on the invitation of a friend. It was Lily's first appearance in a place of worship, and the little one got bounced! She got rammy, and an usher came along and escorted them to the "comfort room" in front of thousands of people. This in a noisy service that featured dramatic performances, a rock band, and big-screen broadcasts.

The apple didn't fall far from the tree. I couldn't be more proud.


Two Thoughts on Obama

1. What a great day for white Americans! The man who is about to break a historic barrier, and could become the first black president, is half white. So much for us to be proud of. Another first for the white community!

Which is tongue in cheek (I'm talking to you, Greenwald) but does reflect my notion of the artificiality of race in America, however authentic the consequences of people's belief in its reality.

Now the serious thought. I've been wondering why l'Affair Wright doesn't make me go ballistic, the way it does some people who generally are in my camp.

For years I lived and worked in a region just north of the Mason Dixon Line, with two historically black colleges and an established black community with powerful churches. The colleges were rapidly degenerating, but they had been, in living memory, in the black Ivy League -- Thurgood Marshall was a graduate of one of them -- and the older professors were worthy of that tradition.

Obama is roughly my age. When he talks about the gap between the old and the young among politically active blacks, I know what he means. I got to cross paths many times with that older generation, while living with the younger in a mostly deracinated social life. One man in particular stands out: A gray-haired chemistry professor whose name I suspect "Reader" remembers (though she may not share my judgment of him). He headed up a community race-based organization and fought his battles there, in the university where he worked, and anywhere he found them. I covered several long lawsuits he brought, some of them hopeless case, some of them necessary ones, but all firmly and equally rooted in his sense of justice. He led, for instance, the fight that overthrew a ward system that deliberately diluted the black vote in the county seat.

I thought he was wrong in many cases and quixotic in others. In retrospect, he was more right than I realized, but I was young. He was firm in his convictions. He did not suffer fools patiently, black or white. But he was patient in explaining himself to those, black or white, who were listening. He used the right word, always. He never gave up. His mere presence commanded enormous respect. I doubt he ever knew my name, but I consider him a personal hero.

The men such as him were occasionally intemperate in the language they used in their crusades. They often seemed obsessed with the last fight, not the next one. Yet I would not have wanted that community without them. They were a necessary irritant.

Others among them I found more congenial. Generally they were not community leaders. In researching the history of that community (including the black history) I got to know the janitor at the historical society. He would take me into his "office" (a glorified and windowless closet) and tell stories and show me his own collection of clippings and artifacts. He was as proud as the professor, but he had a deep human kindness that the activists often lacked. I realized his perception of the community's past was richer and more nuanced than that of the librarians -- or the board of directors. He should have been running that place. Instead, he was sweeping up the plastic cups after the corporate fundraisers in the galleries. I dedicated my first book to him.

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Monday, March 24, 2008

Council Winners

Watchers Council winners have been posted for the week of March 21.

It was dogpile on Obama week this week, but only two of the more temperate criticisms got into the winners' circle. First place in the council went to Fisking the Obama Speech by Rhymes With Right. Also getting votes was Should We Ignore Reverend Wright? at Right Wing Nut House.

Also getting votes was Judge Not Lest You Be Judged by Bookworm Room; The Problem Is... from right here, and Talking With Terrorists by Soccer Dad.

Outside the council, the winner was David Mamet: Why I Am No Longer a 'Brain-Dead Liberal' in The Village Voice, which I feel safe in assuming is the first time anything from the Village Voice ever won here, unless it was a Nat Hentoff column.

Also getting votes was Doron: Story of a True Tzaddik by Lazer Beams. I grew up on the Main Line and my high school was about 40 percent Jewish, as were many of my friends. I thought I knew from Jewish. But this story was almost a foreign language to me. I guess Reformed really isn't the whole megillah.

Votes also went to Trendy, a timely analysis of media coverage of Iraq at The Mudville Gazette; The AP Style Guide on Defending Barack Obama at NewsBusters, which, with all the nouns turned upside down, could have been written by Chomsky; and The Suicide Vest and the Suicide Mind, a typically thought-provoking post at The Belmont Club. I find he frames the right questions, even if I don't always agree his answers are complete. The post dovetails with the equally thought-provoking Wolf Howling nominee from last week.

A vote also went to The Hate Crime You Didn't Hear About at TFS Magnum, which deserves a wider read than the one vote probably will earn it.

Creationist Field Trip

Film here.

In 1790 or 1830, just about every thinking American was, effectively, a creationist. Including most of the scientific men and women in the land. Including Tom Paine and Thomas Jefferson. What a sad remnant has been left behind.

Chain-Smoking Cassandra

Hitchens has no patience for either Obama's church or the cult of Obama:

To have accepted Obama's smooth apologetics is to have lowered one's own pre-existing standards for what might constitute a post-racial or a post-racist future. It is to have put that quite sober and realistic hope, meanwhile, into untrustworthy and unscrupulous hands. And it is to have done this, furthermore, in the service of blind faith. Mark my words: This disappointment is only the first of many that are still to come.

It occurs to me this post title might draw hits from smoking fetish pervs. My apologies to them in advance. Reality is weird; the Internet is distilled reality.

Why Didn't I Think of This Before?


Let's see how this plays out. Thus far, the story is of everything gone wrong in government bureaucracy. If the right people can make the right noise, however, that can easily be fixed:

During his nearly four years as a translator for U.S. forces in Iraq, Saman Kareem Ahmad was known for his bravery and hard work. "Sam put his life on the line with, and for, Coalition Forces on a daily basis," wrote Marine Capt. Trent A. Gibson.

Gibson's letter was part of a thick file of support -- including commendations from the secretary of the Navy and from then-Maj. Gen. David H. Petraeus -- that helped Ahmad migrate to the United States in 2006, among an initial group of 50 Iraqi and Afghan translators admitted under a special visa program.

Last month, however, the U.S. government turned down Ahmad's application for permanent residence, known as a green card. His offense: Ahmad had once been part of the Kurdish Democratic Party, which U.S. immigration officials deemed an "undesignated terrorist organization" for having sought to overthrow former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

Read on, and feel your blood reach the boiling point. I don't have to tell you what sort of guy Ahmad is. You meet his sort among the Iraqis Michael Yon and Michael J. Totten encounter in their travels with the U.S. troops on the ground.

In an interview Friday at Quantico Marine Corps Base, where he teaches Arabic language and culture to Marines deploying to Iraq, Ahmad's voice quavered, and his usually precise English failed him. "I am shamed," he said. He has put off his plans to marry a seamstress who tailors Marine uniforms. "I don't want my family live in America; they feel ashamed I'm with a terrorist group. I want them to be proud for what I did for the United States Marine Corps," said Ahmad, 38.

... Ahmad left the country after he was branded a "collaborator" from mosque pulpits in Anbar province and posters calling for his death began appearing there.

Seems he may be caught in the ... what's the opposite of a loophole? A stranglehole? ... described here.

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

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

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

If so, all the more reason to fix it. Fast.

Depressingly, as far as I can tell, so far this story has gotten attention mostly from two sets of bloggers, both generallly unfriendly to the American effort in Iraq. One is the set whose real fixation is opening the national borders to immigrants. The other is people who despise everything the U.S. is trying to do in Iraq as a sham, and among them are writers who in other settings (i.e., when not temporarily useful to bash the Bush Administration) are likely to characterise such men as Ahmad as Quislings who deserve what they get.

[Hat tip, Reader, for the article; the opinions about it are mine].

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If you want to see some grim milestones from Iraq that your nightly newscast overlooked, or has quickly forgotten, try this.

Get Your Grim Milestone Today?

If not, then you probably didn't pick up a newspaper or read a news Web site. Evidently, headline writers are deaf to the cliches they invent. They have nothing new to say, so need have nothing new to say about it. Here's what I said last month. IF only everything were so easy to predict:

If you want to see how much -- if at all -- the media narrative on Iraq has changed since the remarkable events of the past year, watch the headlines as the U.S. death toll there turns its next round number. It's at 3,960 today. At the current rate, the 4,000 bar will be crossed in about a month. Which will be roughly equivalent to The Wilderness spread out over five years instead of two days. [Or less than one-third what the U.S. Army lost in World War II in traffic accidents alone.]

Will it be another tsunami of grim milestone headlines? I expect so. Anybody want to bet money against that?

Though there's a surface acknowledgement of relative calm in Iraq and opportunities for real progress there, the deep narrative has not changed in America's newsrooms.

Last month, a bomb attack on a U.S. convoy near Mosul, Iraq, killed five soldiers. It had been a long time since that many Americans died in one day in Iraq, and the deaths made front pages in many newspapers. Even the hometown paper in Colorado, where the soldiers lived, wrote of their deaths with scant reference to context, as though the men had been standing around doing nothing and got hit by lightning or an avalanche.

First came the bare recitation of the facts of the incident. Then a lot of statistics about the numbers of soldiers killed in this way or that way, from this place or that place. Then IDs of the dead men. Then more and increasingly arcane statistics about deaths, such as, “the post has lost four soldiers in single attacks three times since the war began.” Finally, deep into the story, came the description of what the dead men had been doing: backing up a major offensive against al Qaida thugs -- the kind who a few days later strapped bombs to mentally retarded women and turned a pet market into a scene from Hell.

Iraq is the new face of war. A hyperpower armed with billion-dollar satellite systems has its hands full with scruffy killers who use recycled washing machine timers to set off homemade bombs. This kind of war challenges the media, too. World War II could be covered by describing the front lines as they tightened around Hitler and Tojo. But in news articles from Iraq, soldiers and marines too often die without a cause or a context. War reporting consists of a mere list of names of fallen men and women, punctuated by “grim milestones” when a round number turns up.

Many in the media, as in the general population, do see the war this way, as a waste of life and a futile exercise in hubris. That this is not necessarily the view of others, especially those who have loved ones doing the heavy work in Iraq, causes the anger many Americans feel when they read such accounts in the news.

It would be a mere failure of the business model if the media wasn't a front in the new way of war. It is, and our enemies know this better than we do.

* * *

The "grim milestone" story requires no thought or reflection. It treats round numbers as the definition of reality, and an excuse to stoke pessimism -- this is not merely a headline for the present state of things in Iraq, remember; this has been a media trope since the first shots were fired ("After days of intense searching by ground and air, U.S. forces on Saturday found the bodies of two soldiers missing north of Baghdad, as the toll of American dead since the start of war topped the grim milestone of 200 ..." -- Associated Press, June 29, 2003; emphasis added).

Some will see this as simply calling a thing what it is. I see it as perilous group-think and an obsession with words and clichés over realities. I doubt anyone who wrote any of these headlines could explain to you why death number 3,000 was enormously more significant than death number 2,997. If it's true the American people can discern realities by simply reading facts, certainly we are capable of determining on our own what is a grim milestone without being led by the nose to it.

Does it help you to know these numbers divorced from context? Are there not many Americans who would consider, say, every 1,000 abortions nationwide a "grim milestone?" Even if you set 1,000 battle deaths (not the AP's preferred 200) as the benchmark for "grim milestones," you had a grim milestone every five days during America's involvement in World War II with nary a "grim milestone" headline to show for it.

More on the grim milestone trope.

Friday, March 21, 2008


Because, we are told, America has lost the respect of the world, lost its moral authority in the world, is considered a rapidly fading power with not ability to project its wishes into the world arena, all thanks to that evil Bush, why, I wonder, in all the pictures from all the Tibet protests around the world, whether in Nepal, Warsaw, Seoul, Vienna, Tel Aviv, Taipei, or Paris, are the signs and banners written in English?

Canada. Yeah, that must be it. They want the Canadians to up and do something.

Unintentional Humor du Jour

1. France launches a new nuclear submarine, but Look what they named it:

2. Condi Rice on passportgate:

"I will stay on top of it and get to the bottom of it."

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Hilton Head

I never wrote much about our recent vacation, because it didn't turn out to be much. We had planned to stay with my parents, who were spending the month in Hilton Head, but spend most of the time exploring and rambling in Savannah, a city we both love.

What my parents are doing in Hilton Head is anyone's guess. They don't golf. They don't play tennis or sail. They don't even go to the beach. All they do at home is sit inside and bicker or watch TV. My father goes out occasionally to let the dogs poop or to ride a bike.

They do the exact same thing on vacation. They just do it somewhere else. I can't imagine why Hilton Head, unless it's in hopes alligators will eat the dogs, but then I remember that's my hope, not theirs.

But a stomach bug tore through us on this vacation, so we only got to Savannah one day and spent the rest of it on Hilton Head. I had never been there before, and it was an eerie experience.

People who lament the American landscape for its crass commercialism, garish signs, and haphazard architecture ought to spend some time here. The entire island, home to tens of thousands of people, was built up in the past 35 years or so, and seemingly entirely in one design scheme.

The surface material of every building, sign, and fence in the place is a faux driftwood, painted beige. It is so oppressively monochrome in my mind I renamed it "Beiging." Even the stop signs are made of this material, though they're painted red (which makes them eye-popping in this environment), and if you look closely, the font of "STOP" is smaller than usual and lightly serifed. Like a Thomas Kinkade stop sign.

The pressed resin trim and roofing material is all either dull green or Rustoleum red, with a very occasional dull blue thrown in.

People who love suburban tract housing must think they're in Heaven here. Everything is built under the same law. It's a marvel: I spent a decade covering local townships in a rapidly developing corner of Pennsylvania, watching developers march in and order the yokel zoning boards around, making them break all their own rules to accommodate the standard sizes and signages of the chain stores and restaurants, on the assurance that these places can't be built any other way.

That turns out to be bullshit. If there's a high-income market like Hilton Head at stake, and the price of doing business is to knuckle under to the codes, McDonald's, Target, Publix -- you name it, we saw it (except Wal-Mart, but Hilton Head isn't a Wal-Mart town) obeyed. They muted it all to beige and green.

We learned there is a power in the land mighty enough to tame corporate America: Golf.

We learned it was impossible to find anything in a place where from the road the Exxon is indistinguishable from the Episcopal Church. By the end of the week, I had begun to notice it was not all monochrome beige. There were at least four very slightly different shades of medium beige in play, and I began to be able to navigate by remembering which was where. That, or I was losing my mind.

The one day we escaped into Savannah, we could have cried for the sight of the garish adult clubs on the road out of town or the classic old neon of the sign on the Thunderbird Inn:

Hilton Head has lovely beaches. And the place was most interesting in the very early morning, before most people were up. Then the cormorants and spoonbills owned the links. The alligators were out in the sun, the Carolina pines perfumed the air, and the condos and shops stood silent in the dew like a Fisher-Price playset left outdoors overnight.


Since the relative drop in violence in Iraq, the yammering among my newsroom peers has turned to other issues on the anti-war talking points sheet, such as the cost of the war, and the refugee problem. Well, just because blind, bitter people complain about things, that doesn't mean they're not problems. I, too, have written a lot about the refugees from Iraq.

As I always try to get things some context, I looked up some refugee numbers from other wars. I know not everyone will agree with this, but I think the ongoing Iraq war bears some structural resemblance to the American Revolution, which was both a civil war and an invasion/occupation, and a foreign-aided national liberation. I wouldn't push that identification much farther, but I think it makes the Revolution a more suitable comparison to Iraq than some other wars people have tried to compare it to, such as World War II.

So according to UNHCR some 2 million Iraqis have fled the country since the war began. If you take the 2003 Iraq population estimate of 25 million as a base, that puts the refugees at about 8 percent of the Iraqi population.

Historical data on the American Loyalists is extremely vague, but the round number usually bandied about as representing the refugee population is 100,000. That would mean about 5 percent of the American population fled the country as a result of the war's outcome.

So, higher number for Iraq, but given the vagueness of the colonial data, perhaps not beyond comparison.

Along the way, however, I visited the Wikipedia entry on the American Loyalists and came across one of the reasons I still dislike it.

The British had been forced out of New York in March 1776 but they returned later that year in August to convincingly defeat the rebel army at Long Island and in doing so, captured New York City and its vicinity, where they remained until 1783. From time to time they also liberated other cities such as Philadelphia (1777), Savannah (1778–83) and Charleston (1780–82), together with various slices of countryside.

Emphasis added. It is not the outright spoofing, or the factual boners that make Wikipedia a problem. It's the spin and tint of too many of the people who put the entries together. The article itself makes it clear that the Loyalists were a minority among the colonials. While plenty of Philadelphians (to use the case I know best) welcomed the British occupation of the city in 1777, many opposed it, many fled or were driven out as a result.

Some historians describe the city as "split down the middle" between rebels and loyalists, but this is a false dichotomy, especially in a conservative Quaker city in a land that had been at war for some time already and felt its consequences. The majority in the Delaware Valley, if I had to give my guess, neither cheered nor fought the British occupation, but fervently wished it would go away.

Howe drove out the city's civilian authorities and put it under military rule. He never restored or attempted to restore crown authority, or turn the city over to its loyal element (which included many prominent families who had helped run it before). It was the rebel capital, and he captured and occupied it, plain and simple, in a bid to crush the rebellion.

Liberated is not just the wrong word there. It opens that otherwise innocent text and emits a foul smell.

Candidates and Faith

All these people who want to be president have to know their opponents are going to dig into everything from their favorite underwear brand to the ethnicity of their 7th grade crush. Yet they keep doing stupid things like going to churches where people wave the firebrand.

Why don't they all be Quakers? It's a cinch. You sit there on Sunday morning, listening to the birds, staring at other people and wondering what they're thinking about, and trying hard not to break wind in any audible fashion. Every now and then someone stands up and says something wacky. But they have no authority and it doesn't taint you to hear it any more than it does to read a letter to the editor. After three of these little speeches and 47 minutes of bird noises, you all get up, smile, and go home.

Sometimes there's coffee.

Seems like a no-brainer to me.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Thoroughly Modern Margaret

The Eaton Affair in Andrew Jackson's first term wasn't the original bombshell American political sex scandal. That honor would have to go to the Hamilton-Reynolds fiasco.

But the Eaton Affair might be the most consequential, and most revealing. Every one that comes down the pike, even today (I'm thinking of New York) reminds me of this in crucial ways.

Margaret Eaton

They called her "Peggy," but she preferred the more formal "Margaret." She's a type most people today would recognize, however rare she was in 1830 America. She was voluptuous -- traffic-stopping beautiful -- and she knew it, and she enjoyed the attentions men paid to her. Her work tending bar in her father's inn in Washington, D.C., gave her ample opportunities. She was a brash woman with tremendous social ambition.

She married at age 16 to a minor navy official. It could have been a lonely life, with a husband so often away at sea, but Margaret never seems to have wanted for company. She made a good friend -- a very good friend -- in a middle-aged widower senator from Tennessee named John Eaton, and she was widely known to be his mistress. The paternity of her children was a matter of open speculation. Eaton seems to have loved her, and he helped out her family -- as well as using his clout to make sure her husband was at sea oftener than he would have been otherwise.

Margaret's husband died suddenly in 1828 during one of his voyages, apparently by suicide. How much he knew of his wife's infidelities, and how much it contributed to his despair, is an open question. What is clear is that eight months later, on New Year's Day 1829, Margaret, 29, married John Eaton. Remarriage within a year of the death of one's spouse was considered scandalous. The real scandal, however, was that Eaton, a longtime protege of Andrew Jackson and the campaign manager of Old Hickory's recent presidential victory, was about to become the U.S. Secretary of War.

As one D.C. insider wrote to another, "Eaton has just married his mistress, and the mistress of eleven doz. others!"

Understanding many things from those days requires a modern person to use creative imagination. Washington, D.C., wasn't even a city then. It was a cluster of mean villages around indifferently built government offices in the middle of an unhealthy swamp, with mud in the roads and crops planted over the right-of-way of some of them. Its permanent residents were too few to sustain much of a social life.

The people who flocked there for part of each year to run the government left for home as soon as they could. Many brought their wives and families with them, and the women, especially the wives of Southern politicians, built and carefully cultivated a social order and a social life for a capital that badly needed both. Government then, of course, was entirely the work of men. Men also were the patronage-seekers and hangers-on who clouded about the government like flies. Washington must have been one of the most disproportionately "male" towns in America then, and the men, even the Southern aristocrats, were a coarse, sexual, spitting, catting, cursing set whose bad qualities concentrated as their numbers swelled.

The hostess wives had their work cut out for them.

Cabinet wives customarily headed this embattled minority party, and in Jackson's first administration, the chief among them was Floride Calhoun, wife of the veteran vice president. They did their best to cut Peggy Eaton cold. No other wives spoke to her at the inaugural. Floride would receive her visits, but not return them. Most of the other cabinet wives followed suit. [Foreign diplomats, accustomed to behaviors at the courts at home, didn't understand any of this.]

Floride Calhoun

The dissonance in the cabinet families soon began to intrude on official business (which always is wrapped up in social affairs) and it caught the attention of Jackson. His own wife had a certain scandalous past, and it had been brought out against her, and him, in the nasty campaign of 1828, and when she died shortly before he was sworn in, the bitter, vindictive Jackson blamed her death entirely on the stories told about her.

That may be one reason he instinctively took Margaret Eaton's side, despite what everyone was telling him. He called an emergency session of the cabinet and others concerned in the case (but not the wives) and insisted Margaret was an innocent victim of slander.

As others tried to disabuse him of that notion, he insisted, "She is as chaste as a virgin!" The phrase became a general joke in the capital, though none dared tell the irascible president so. He also explicitly compared her case to his dead wife's, which put the cabinet men in an embarrassing position. Really, for Jackson, this was about his authority. Were his political servants to obey him or not? If he said she was a virgin, that ought to have been good enough for them. She was a virgin. Modern party politics, with their insistence on loyalty over everything, were being born.

The denouement of the scandal is told in the link above. Margaret and John Eaton left town after the Cabinet purge, prompting Henry Clay to quip, echoing Shakespeare, "Age cannot wither nor time stale her infinite virginity." It broke up Jackson's cabinet and cemented his enmity of John C. Calhoun.

The only winner was Secretary of State Martin Van Buren, the wiliest American alive and the first modern politician -- and I don't mean that as a compliment. As a widower, he could freely socialize with the Eatons, and by doing so he proved himself a loyal follower worthy of Jackson's trust. He went out of his way to pay calls on Margaret Eaton. The Jackson-Van Buren alliance created the Democratic Party. If Jackson had been able to work with Calhoun, or even J.Q. Adams (though that chance had passed by 1828), the evolution of American politics would have been strikingly different.

A historian, writing on the eve of the Civil War, could write accurately that "the political history of the United States, for the last thirty years, dates from moment when the soft hand of Mr. Van Buren touched Mrs. Eaton's knocker." Proving, incidentally, that "knocker" did not have one of its modern slang meanings then.

There's something appealingly modern about Margaret Eaton, and her defiance of prudish social conventions. But if you think about it, she is not the feminist pioneer in the story. To find that person, you have to look where you don't expect to find her.

Recent historians, often women, working from a feminist perspective, have seen the Eaton Affair in another light. Here is a summation of their view (though written in this case, by a male historian):

The women who ostracized Margaret Eaton did not act out of mere snobbish rejection of a tavern-keeper's daughter; social mobility was not despised in the Jackson administration. The women saw themselves defending the interests and honor of the female half of humanity. They believed that no responsible woman should accord a man sexual favors without the assurance of support that went with marriage. A woman who broke ranks on this issue they considered a threat to all women. She encouraged men to make unwelcome advances. Therefore she must be condemned severely even if it meant applying a double standard of morality, stricter for women than for men. This conviction was widespread among women, not only in the middle class and regardless of political party. The women who had the courage to act upon it, standing up to Andrew Jackson and risking their husbands' careers, insisted that expedient politics must not control moral principle. They believed that women acting collectively could advance the moral state of society. Theirs was the attitude that justified women's role in contemporary moral reform causes like temperance and antislavery. And although most or all of them would have been shocked if it had been pointed out, theirs was the attitude that would lead in a few more years to an organized movement on behalf of women's rights. [Daniel Walker Howe, "What Hath God Wrought," 2007, p.338]

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Hints Obama is Conceding Pa.

Speaking as one in the Pennsylvania media, we're seeing signs that Obama's campaign here is either late and severely disorganized, or else he's not seriously contesting Hillary's lead in Pennsylvania and devoting resources elsewhere. Which means it looks like April 22 won't be the knockout and he's looking to North Carolina and Indiana.

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Council Winners, Double Shot

Here are the Watchers Council winners for the week of March 7.

First place in the council went to Chicago Rules by Big Lizards, about the political roots of Barack Obama.

Votes also went to The Rape of Rape On American Campuses by Cheat Seeking Missiles; The Dershowitz Questions by Wolf Howling; and Exchange Student Woes at The Colossus of Rhodey.

Outside the council, the winner was Dissecting the 60 Minutes Scandal by Power Line.

Votes also went to Why Don't Jews Like the Christians Who Like Them? by James Q. Wilson in City Journal; Defending Against Terror Impossible In International Law by Elder of Ziyon; Inside Iraqi politics -- Part 5. A Look At Legislative Progress: Sunnis’ and States’ Rights by Bill Ardolino in The Long War Journal; Think Happy Thoughts About People Who Want to Kill You! by Breath of the Beast; and Maybe in the Future Things Will Be Different? by Dr. Sanity.

* * *

I was on vacation and did not vote, and thus can't be credited for the choices of winners for the week of March 14.

First place in the council went to Change & The Cessation of British History by Wolf Howling. Congratulations!

Today marks a major landmark along the road to Britain's internal dissolution. In December, socialist Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown signed the Lisbon Treaty - the EU's new Constitution - transferring the majority of Britain's sovereign powers to the EU, subject to domestic ratification.

Votes also went to Californichusetts at Big Lizards.

Outside the council, the winner was Guitar Heroes by Michael Yon.

Votes also went to my nominee, An Empty Revolution, about the failure of Chavez in Venezuela, published in Foreign Affairs; The Tragedy of the Democratic Party by Thomas Lifson and Richard Baehr in American Thinker; The High School Massacre by Jonathan Medved; and Attorney Jon Schoenhorn's Arguments in the Doninger Case at the Second Circuit by Orient Lodge.


A Line that Says It All

"But in Obama’s faith in the average American voter lies one of the greatest weaknesses of his campaign."

Says all you need to know ... about the person who wrote it: Glenn Greenwald. Some people could live anywhere on the globe -- or on Venus -- and still have the unmeltable mentality of an inside-the-Beltway kommissar, an authoritarian enforcer, an ideological bouncer at the door of democracy. You meet them left and right. Both give you bad chills.

Blaming it on the manipulative media and the political strategies of the other side is a cheap mask, as well as a tactic. Such people don't want big media to go away; they want it at their beck for a change.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Domrémy Candidate

Obama's speech. I think it's a good one -- breathtaking, in fact. I've only read it, not seen it, mind you. But if you skim the campaign boilerplate, the rest of it says things I don't think I've ever seen come out of the same mouth in the same breath. Truths about black people, white people, Americans all.

I paused for a long time when I came to this bit:

As William Faulkner once wrote, “The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past.” We do not need to recite here the history of racial injustice in this country. But we do need to remind ourselves that so many of the disparities that exist in the African-American community today can be directly traced to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.

Somebody's going to jump on him for bungling the quote ("The past is never dead. It’s not even past.") and for not knowing what Faulkner meant by it. Fact is, ever since Faulkner put it on paper in a not-very-successful book, the quote has jumped out of his text and become national property. We all understand it, in a general way. The more so in the South, but all of us understand it.

And it is, after all, appropriate. It is said, in the play, to a woman named Temple with a violent, dark past, who has just said she is dead. She is seeking to save the life of a black nurse sentenced to death for killing Temple's child. The plot is pure Faulkner, and regardless of the quote, he belongs in this speech. It is a knot of tortured personal histories, bound tight in race and region.

The people tend to enter his speech in pairs, contrasting pairs. He is the son of "a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas" the grandson of "a white grandfather who survived a Depression to serve in Patton’s Army during World War II and a white grandmother who worked on a bomber assembly line at Fort Leavenworth while he was overseas." Obama himself, with his atypical family tree, is paired with his wife, "a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slaveowners – an inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters." He closes with a story of his white campaign worker Ashley Baia and the (oddly nameless) black man.

But the main figure in the speech is the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Who can be paired with him? Well, Martin Luther King Jr. makes a cameo, but it's not him. I say, Faulkner is Wright's double. They are mirror images of the same thing, in Obama's perception; human and humanist geniuses, intemperate voices trapped by the circumstances of the crippled world that they cannot stop living in. It's a shame Obama didn't say more about Faulkner.

Obama -- with his writers -- seems to have climbed some high mountain and looked out on the land and seen the broiling angers not as immediate heat, but as irrational expressions in real thwarted lives. Even in people who would hate him for who he is. The ability to see that is rare enough in a politician. I understand why hearing some politician actually up and say it is an experience to some people like finding a fountain in the desert.

It solidifies my belief this election is only partly about choosing the next president. It also is a national revival. These happen maybe once in a generation. In the 19th century, when so many were excluded from direct participation in politics, they were religious revivals or outpourings for social improvement. Now, they are political campaigns.

Obama's case is most obvious, but people also are plunging into the fray for Hillary who never did anything like this before. Yet this year will be remembered as 08ama. Amba had a great post before I left (can't find it now) pointing out the substantial similarities of Obama's political style and career to Jack Kennedy's. He brings the rhetoric, the life story, and the charisma. Yet it's only partly about personality. Which is where Geraldine Ferraro was wrong, though in a different year she'd have been right. It's the people who are ready to catch fire.

Many have years of disillusionment with the government. Their habit of slacker aloofness is a pose, and it is dry tinder before a rhetorical lightning strike that goes to the heart. They will wade through their own tears of ecstasy to answer the altar call. Their sudden sense of collective power in democratic participation will stay with them for a long time.

For the rest of my life and probably yours, this country will have leaders and servants who, when asked what got them started, will point to these weeks.

Kennedy was a terrible president. The clan's attitudes and actions in the Oval Office were almost antithetical to the idealism he inspired. The practical effect of his foreign policies wasted lives and almost destroyed the world. Yet those people stayed inspired, stayed in the process and became the next generation of political movers in America.

I still don't think I'm going to vote for him. I don't think I want another Jack Kennedy experience. But I'd be wary of working too hard against him. Not because of the backlash. Because, right or wrong for the job, this candidacy refreshes the tree of liberty.


Conservative Exceptionalism

Bruce J. Schulman and Julian E. Zelizer, a couple of history professors, are about to publish a book they edited titled "Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the Seventies." Here they give the gist of how they see it.

Without agreeing to everything, I find certain trends here exciting. One is the emergence of the 1970s from the enormous, bloated shadow of the 1960s:

A quarter-century after the fact, historians are starting to recognize the centrality of the 70s. New scholarship suggests that the 70s transformed American economic and cultural life as much as, if not more than, the revolutions in manners and morals of the 1920s and 1960s. The 70s reshaped the political landscape as much as did the 1930s. In race relations, religion, family life, politics, and popular culture, the 1970s were a watershed in modern U.S. history.

That was bound to happen over time, of course; history (the academic discipline, not the thing itself) is constantly reinventing itself as fresh generations of graduate students investigate what was overlooked by their elders. But, as a survivor of the Class of '78, I'm glad I lived to see it.

Here's another long-overdue development in revising the received wisdom about the 1960s in America:

Joseph H. Crespino, an assistant professor of history at Emory University, recently published In Search of Another Country: Mississippi and the Conservative Counterrevolution (Princeton University Press, 2007), an investigation of segregationist politics in Mississippi that undercuts the conventional 60s-focused portrait of white resistance to civil rights. Instead of seeing white Mississippians as "pariahs within a larger liberal nation, one that finally made good on its centuries-old commitment to equality for all its citizens," Crespino sees them as crucial actors in a broader reshaping of American politics in the closing decades of the 20th century.

If that vague statement means what I think it does (I don't have Crespino's book), it may be that something I've been preaching in the wilderness for a few years now might finally get heard. If it gets some academic legitimacy, perhaps I won't be so readily dismissed as a racist for pointing out the complexities of rural Southern white America.

Then there's conservatism itself:

The reality of "conservative" America is that the federal government remains a large presence in American life. When disasters strike, we turn to government. When we retire, we turn to government. When we face external threats, we turn to government. Republicans failed to curb the growth of federal spending between 2001 and 2007, when they controlled the White House and both houses of Congress. In fact the Republican leadership developed new forms of government, ranging from the No Child Left Behind Act in education to a sweeping domestic-surveillance program.

The professors have their own explanation for why this happens, and it's rooted in the 1970s.

But what strikes me as exceptional about American conservatism is what it isn't -- and hasn't been for a long, long time. There is no American version of the statist conservatism that has characterized right-wing politics in Europe for the past two centuries, sometimes with chilling and horrific results.

That is the unresolved tension that tore apart the GOP under Bush: The trend of events and the impulse of the leaders under Bush has been toward statist conservatism. But that is anathema to the conservative movement in America. If something like the 9/11 attacks had happened in France in 1880 or Britain in 1930, how different the result would have been! People who make their bucks writing about fascist America overlook this: This was a period when many a nation would have drifted into right-wing statism. It's not happening here, and not because of the brave resistance of or the steely spines of Reid, Pelosi, et al.

What happened to statist conservatism in the U.S.? I still don't know. It was the most powerful force in the government in the decade after the Constitution. Alexander Hamilton embodied it down to his toenails. It was dynamic, hopeful, confident, and in charge. It died with the Federalist Party, but the question is why it never revived in another guise.

The answer to that is a book or 20. But I like to remember what killed it. Jefferson's victory over Adams in the 1800 election. Which was one of two presidential elections in U.S. history (1828 was the other, coincidentally deposing Adams' son) decided by the notorious "three-fifths" clause in the Constitution.

That boost to the political power of the slave states has attracted far more obloquy than it deserves, especially based on its practical impact. It gave the South more representatives in the U.S. House, but the political clout of the South lay in the Senate (the advantage there, I think, was based on the nature of the planter aristocrats who could devote themselves entirely to politics, while their Yankee counterparts had to keep going home to make money).

Yet thanks to the slave-inflated vote in 1800, America swerved away from a dangerous authoritarian statism. And 28 years later, the three-fifths clause beat down the gatekeepers and threw open America to "pure democracy" that we claim to revere today, forgetting how much the Founders loathed it.


Monday, March 17, 2008

The Problem Is ...

No one who knows about World War II will take "Human Smoke" at all seriously. The problem is that people who don't know enough, and who enjoy the spectacle of a writer of apparent authority turning the myth of "the good war" upside down, will think "Human Smoke" is a brave book. Already a reviewer in the Los Angeles Times has praised it for "demonstrating that World War II was one of the biggest, most carefully plotted lies in modern history." That people who think this way about the past will apply the same self-righteous ignorance to the politics of the present and future makes "Human Smoke" not just a stupid book, but a scary one.

Adam Kirsch, putting his finger on it. There are no "good wars," but there are necessary ones.

But ignorance is the mother of monsters, including wars. The lifelong intellectual free-fall of one who has never learned how to grip the walls of life and climb them is a tragedy for that person. He is blown and buffeted by every foul wind from the mouth of every demagogue or lunatic or liar he meets.

A whole people, a whole nation in such a condition -- including its supposed intelligentsia, is a threat to itself and the world.

Another 'Left Behind'

This one is kind of a surprise to me: David Mamet. Though the rest of the left's drift away from Israel, and towards its would-be killers, seems to loom large, logically.

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Saturday, March 15, 2008

Why Do You People Watch TV?

What is the word for someone who doesn't watch any TV regularly, doesn't have cable or access to TV stations at home, and doesn't want any of it? TV-abstainer? Teeveetotaller? Showhibitionist?

Whatever it is, that's me. There never was one moment when I got on the wagon, but gradually in the early '90s I gave it up.

I still know a bit about what's on, because I often edit the "Tune in Tonight" TV column and listings in the local newspaper. Which consists mostly of a string of show names and one-sentence descriptions about the episodes airing: You know, like, "On 'Happy Knuckleheads,' Lance and Lugo argue about Sadie's car. On 'Help, My Pants!' Fran dances the macarena. Billy is sad on 'Billy McTootle.' " Doing this job reinforces my decision.

So do some other realizations. Such as that you people now actually pay to watch this stuff. And pay a lot. Even for what you call "basic." Sure, I hate the '80s, but I have to admit, unless you were getting Skinamax on cable, you could rot your brain for free. In what other case can you imagine a freeborn people getting something gratis for decades, then being told without reason they have to pay for it, and submitting without a peep? Sheeple! Sheeple with remotes!

Maybe that last part accounts for something that's been happening lately. People have been calling the newspaper -- lots and lots of people -- to complain about their service with Comcast cable. Sometimes, gods help them, they get to talk to me.

Now I don't know jack about the cable business, but even I can tell you what the people in this community probably want from their TV sets. It doesn't take an abacus to figure out these folks will like 1. Phillies games; 2. weather; 3. old, safe black-and-white movies; 4. Disney for the kids.

And sure enough, the solons of Comcast, with billions of dollars and the latest technology on their side, manage not to give it to them. They manage to always take away one or the other of those things with every revamped price plan (always higher). And they boast that they are replacing it with another 40 versions of HBO, broadcasts of minor league preseason dog sled racing from Flin Flon, and access to The Lithuanian Naked Clog-Dancing Network.

And they make you get a new cable box. And pay for it. There are two kinds of people around here: old people and just plain folks, and among both types new cable boxes are less popular than colonoscopies. Especially when you have to disconnect and turn in the old one yourself, wait in a long line, pay a deposit, and then go home and figure out how to hook up the new one on your own.

It's kind of charming that they call the newspaper office to complain about this. It's all I can do sometimes to keep from suggesting, "Why don't you throw away the furshlugginer TV and go read a book for a change?" Usually I just listen to them rant, make sympathetic noises like you do when the baby is throwing up, then suggest they write to their state representatives.

Which I understand some of them do, and I understand there is a movement to have cable TV placed under the aegis of the state utilities commission, so that services and rates would be regulated as are those for water or power. Is TV really as important to people as water? I suppose it is.

Sometimes they ask me what I do about the cable company. I tell them I don't watch TV. Typically there's a pause, then they ask if there's someone else they can speak to. They ask to speak to someone, and though they don't say "... from this planet," I can sort of hear it in their tone.

When I'm on vacation, usually there's TVs wherever we stay. I ignore TV, but I'm not allergic to it. I like to turn on a TV when I'm on vacation to see what it is. The result always disappoints me.

On this vacation, for example, Amy and I came back after a long, trying day with the poor little one, who was very sick when the trip began and took a few days to adjust to the new routine and surroundings. She had been uncharacteristically clingy, whining, and crying all that day. And Amy turns on the TV in the room, and some show comes on called "Supernanny" or something, which seems to consist of half an hour of listening to other people's clingy, whining, crying children.

For this you pay $50 a month?

We saw another show; some sort of hard-hitting political show about what voters need to know. It was about governors who screw putas, and then it was about what somebody's preacher said in church. That can't be right, but it was what I thought I saw. This was while sitting in a brewpub, so all I could do was watch it, not listen.

It was one of those wall-filling "high-definition" TV screens. And it was annoying the hell out of me because the picture was jerky and jumpy. But then I realized it was that way on purpose. The producers had lowered the frame rate so it looked like a Youtube video. This was a television show aiming for political junkies who are accustomed to being online and seeing things that way. This restaurant had a TV screen that looked like a slab of the International Space Station and probably cost half that much, yet it was being used to show programs deliberately made to look like an 11-year-old's Webcam.

We do have a DVD player at home, and we've got a few disks of old "classic" "Sesame Street" episodes strewn over the top of it. I confess, we pop one in every other day or so to give the baby something to occupy her attention when she's too tired to play and there's work we have to do. They're sweet old things from the first four years or so of the program, slow-paced, with fun songs and good jokes and subtle sophistications and wacky snippets of late-'60s pop art.

Down here, we clicked on a "Sesame Street" program one morning. A current one. And IT WAS IN-YOUR-FACE SUGAR-BOMB SCREAMING JUMPING OUT THE SCREEN AT YOU ABRASIVE NONSTOP LIKE STEVE IRWIN IN A BARNEY SUIT. I was hyperventilating after two minutes of it. J.F.C., who decided all kids' shows had to be that way? Even "Street?"

I clicked the TV on again later when everyone else was in bed. I had to watch it with the sound down, but it wasn't hard to figure out what I was seeing: Infomercials. I remember those from the '80s. These were mostly about shiny things that look like human-scaled versions of the kind of toys you put in gerbil cages to give the hopeless rodents a way to burn off their existential rage at being trapped in a steel prison all the time. These are said to help people lose a lot of weight in time for their high school reunions.

And the people who have been assimilated into the cult of these machines come on the air, one by one, and praise them. Always the same pattern: Reasonably trim person beams and talks about the machine; footage of reasonably trim person using machine, then folding it up and sliding it under the bed ("So easy!"); cut-away to "before" photo, when reasonably trim person was reasonably plump (and also slouching; badly dressed in tight, brief spandex; unkempt; pimpled; and mopey).

Then the next person comes on. Who is not quite so trim, but then you see the "before" picture of that person, and they were in really bad shape then. Proportionately much worse than the previous one. The next person is a little worse still.

Next they bring on someone who is morbidly obese, mulletted, and even in a stylish and flattering outfit looks like she ate the cast of "High School Musical" for lunch. And then this person is smiling and putting the machine under the bed. At which point I realize this is an "after," and if I don't pound that remote right now I am going to see a "before" picture that will haunt me into the afterlife.

Oh, and I saw a Night Ranger video on VH-1. The one where they get run over by stock footage of an old train. Funniest thing I have seen EVAH! But still not worth $50 a month and a headache. So that's enough TV for this year, I think. Tune in next year!

Monday, March 10, 2008


Off to Savannah for a week, to try to shake off the winter salt. Y'all behave till I get back.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Stop Helping, Please

Venezuela's poor during a prolonged oil boom and under Chavez's rule: Doing fairly well.

Venezuela's poor during a prolonged oil boom without Chavez: Could have been a lot better.

The question will remain, in some minds, how much Chavez drew strength from the failed coup attempt and the crisis of 2002-03 to set himself down the path to personality-cult socialist totalitarianism. And whether that was another example of how it might be better if world-power America leaves the little irritants alone to fall over their own untied shoes rather than using our clumsy diplomatic toolbox to try to remove them.

Who Said It?

Why do we think we are helping adult consumers by taking away their options? We don't take away cars because we don't like some people speeding. We allow state lotteries despite knowing some people are betting their grocery money. Everyone is exposed to economic risks of some kind. But we don't operate mindlessly in trying to smooth out every theoretical wrinkle in life.

The nature of freedom of choice is that some people will misuse their responsibility and hurt themselves in the process. We should do our best to educate them, but without diminishing choice for everyone else.

No, not William F. Buckley. Guess again.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

French Spin

In some quarters, criticizing French actresses for spouting idiotic and mean-hearted anti-American conspiracy theories is considered out-of-bounds on grounds of banality: Like criticizing bunnies for eating grass.

So I won't do it. But do pay attention to the attempt at damage control by the publicist for Marion Cotillard. Clip it and file it away in case you ever get called on to teach a seminar in how to not pour gasoline on a burning building:

Marion's reaction is that this video was filmed in special circumstances after a broadcast on Coluche (popular comedian killed in 86 motorcycle accident) and she was being asked to react to this broadcast. Marion then simply expressed the view that she wanted to form her own opinion (on 911) from watching various reports, but she never wished to call into question the events of 11 September.

This reportage has been taken out of context and one can only condemn such practises. Marion deplores that. She is currently filming in Chicago and has a lot of work. She is in an ocean of happiness and voila, this row blows up. It's rather strange. It's an old report, not at all current. Why bring it out now?

I talked three times to Marion overnight. This is worrying her. She is still in shock and does not really know how to react. She doesn't have to apologise for a badly presented and badly interpreted reportage.... She hopes that the Americans will have enough distance to understand, but her career is not just American. She can make films everywhere.

Say the offending quotes were made at a point in time, in reaction to a specific situation. But then never deny you meant what you said, or that you've come to have different views since then. Pass up the chance to say what you do think now.

Say you "never wished to call into question the events," but that you wanted to form your own erratic opinion about what those events were, based, I suppose, on an actress' knowledge of real estate financing and structural engineering. Perhaps this all sounds better in French.

Blame the people who noticed what you said. Condemn them. Deplore them. Because they made you unhappy by noticing what you said. Say you're too busy making more money from those killer Americans to answer their concerns about you.

Refuse to apologize for anything. Hope the people you offended have enough "distance" -- from what, exactly, I'd like to know -- to "understand" -- understand what, exactly, I'd like to know. Understand that she thinks we're callous killers who slaughtered our own by the thousands and blamed it on innocent foreigners, but she still wants to come and work here? Or distance from the deaths of our fellow citizens not to care if they become part of the cavalier fantasy world of some famous airhead.

Then hint you can just take your movie career and go elsewhere with it if people don't stop talking about what you said.

Of course you can. Bollywood is that-a-way, Marion. Mind the door.



Funny, this afternoon I was having the same impression that hit Dan at Protein Wisdom:

... couldn’t we just elect Michelle Obama and get all this crap out of the way?

She's as smart as Obama and as ruthless as Hillary. Gods protect the nation that crossed us when she was in charge. And, with the two-fer empowerment, we could retire whole library wings of anti-American academic propaganda. Obama would make a great Husband in Chief -- host and inspirer and shepherd of good causes. And taxpayers wouldn't have to foot the invoice for Hillary changing the White House locks on Bill after every other weekend.

Downside: We'd have to listen over and over to the worst popular Beatles song ever recorded.


Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Good Morning, America

Meet Pennsylvania, the new Florida. Also known as "Pennsyl-tucky," "Philadelphia at one end, Pittsburgh at the other, and Alabama in between." Sometimes along around next month, our Eagles fans and Amish will choose your next president.


AP Does It Again

The headline reads: Five-year-old Iraq war expected to affect Ohio, Texas votes and general election. Over here, it's "Iraq, politics and primaries: Ohio, Texas combine for an eighth of U.S. troop deaths."

By LIZ SIDOTI , Associated Press

McCONNELSVILLE, Ohio - Two big states holding presidential primaries Tuesday have something more tragic in common — high numbers of military casualties in Iraq.

Combined, Ohio and Texas have sustained roughly one-eighth of all U.S. troop deaths in a war that's certain to shape the general election as candidates with two vastly different approaches — stay or go — compete for votes in communities that have been personally touched by the conflict that began with a U.S.-led invasion five years ago this month.

One-eighth of the total casualties in the war, from the two states voting today! Therefore those states have a particular "personal" connection to the war.

Except AP never bothered to check the population statistics [PDF alert]. Ohio has 3.9 percent of the total U.S. population. Texas has 7.7 percent. Combined total = 11.6 percent; "roughly one-eighth" of the whole.

This version of the story goes even further -- showing how waves of copy editors make bad journalism worse as it whispers down the lane. The headline here reads, "Ohio and Texas Share Highest War Casualties;" not only wrong, but unsupported by the text.

This is Why We Have Analysis

Headline on the AP's primary election analysis that is currently on the wire:


And they wonder why newspapers are dying.

Today's Andy Rooney Moment

Not that there's anything wrong with this. But I wonder why no one ever does a post that might also be titled "In Depth and Substantive Conversation About Politics and Blogging With 5 Female Conservative Bloggers Who are Not Necessarily Convinced They're All That Hot."

Book this Steal

Fascinating piece about shoplifting, for anyone who's ever worked in, or haunted, independent bookstores:

In my eight years working at an independent bookstore, I lost count of how many shoplifters I chased through the streets of Seattle while shouting "Drop the book!" I chased them down crowded pedestrian plazas in the afternoon, I chased them through alleys at night, I even chased one into a train tunnel. I chased a book thief to the waterfront, where he shouted, "Here are your fucking books!" and threw a half-dozen paperbacks, including Bomb the Suburbs and A People's History of the United States, into Puget Sound, preferring to watch them slowly sink into the muck rather than hand them back to the bookseller they were stolen from. He had that ferocious, orgasmic gleam in his eye of somebody who was living in the climax of his own movie: I suppose he felt like he was liberating them somehow.

The author (Paul Constant -- or is that a nom de plume? It sounds suspiciously Bunyan-esque) writes that there is a remarkably consistent list of preferred steals from indy bookstores. "The coin of the realm is now, and has always been, the fiction that young white men read, and self-satisfied young white men, the kind who love to stick it to the man, are the majority of book shoplifters."

I wonder if the list is consistent nationwide -- Constant is in Seattle -- or in the big chains. I used to know a woman who had worked in the local Borders over the holiday rushes and she told me the most stolen book there was the Bible. There's also a radical strain in some evangelical coteries that could believe nobody has the power to make you pay for the Word of God.