Wednesday, April 30, 2008

He's Back

Thomas Friedman, that is. And with a real barnburner of a column that makes me want to take to the barricades. This is the stuff of which the future is made, for good or ill, and it matters a great deal more than lapel pins and sermons and "Mission Accomplished" banners.

It is great to see that we finally have some national unity on energy policy. Unfortunately, the unifying idea is so ridiculous, so unworthy of the people aspiring to lead our nation, it takes your breath away. Hillary Clinton has decided to line up with John McCain in pushing to suspend the federal excise tax on gasoline, 18.4 cents a gallon, for this summer’s travel season. This is not an energy policy. This is money laundering: we borrow money from China and ship it to Saudi Arabia and take a little cut for ourselves as it goes through our gas tanks. What a way to build our country.



What the Obama-Hillary fight has done to the left half of the political blog world is like a geology class filmstrip on continental drift: You know, the 50-million-year breakup and dispersal of Gondwanaland animated and shown in 15 seconds.

For watching it from a safe distance (and for other reasons), I recommend Talk Left, which generally is pro-Hillary but without throwing decency and objectivity onto the altar pyre.

Here, for instance. But in these cases, you have to read the comments, too. Often (not on DWM, of course) blog comments are irrelevant hijacks. On TL they tend to come across as frank and personal, and I almost feel guilty for eavesdropping.

You'll read a lot of comments like this:

When it started at my favorite blog, I was furious. I wondered what had happened to the people whose intelligence and opinions I had long respected.

And it's fascinating to someone (like me) who stands well outside the Democratic Party streams to watch people within it suddenly discover the warts and rotten teeth of their one-time idols (and describe them more sharply and succinctly than many critics from the right have managed in years of trying). But at the same time they seem to long for the day when this internecine war is over and they can go back to respecting said intelligence and opinions. Why I don't know.


Arts and Letters

I'm going to give away a secret. When I hit a wall and don't know what to write about here, I turn to Arts and Letters Daily, a daily selection of some of the best or most interesting Web writing. It helps that the selectors, in this case, seem to have the same definition of "best" and "interesting" that I have. So, that's the well I go to. Some of the regulars here already read it (I've seen it linked from your home blogs). For those of you who don't, it's the secret to at least half of whatever savvy this site seems to show.

From the top of the stack today, I find this good read twist on the timeless topic of Vive la différence.

Women might be the fairer sex, but men are the frailer. Most premature babies are boys, fewer survive and those who do are more likely than girls to have disabilities. Men are more prone to chronic diseases, more likely to contract post-surgical infections and, as we know, they don't live as long.

Tests also show many more men than women grouped at one extreme or another of human intelligence. There are more male geniuses (as any man will tell you) and more male fools - a fact not lost on women.

Only a man who hasn't been around women very often would think men are naturally more durable, or more impervious to pain. No man who has been with a woman during childbirth ever can complain about pain again without at least a twinge of shame.

Which is not the point of the article, just something that I remembered while reading the first few graphs. Which is how reading inspires writing. One of the hooks that drew me into it was the name of the subject of the interview, Susan Pinker. That's not a name I see often. In fact, I only know one other carrier of that name, the evolutionary psychologist (though I always think of him as a linguist) Steven Pinker.

Steven Pinker is a charismatic and good-looking guy, that rare combination of professorial authority and common touch, and I was curious to see what sort of woman he'd marry. Because I assumed this would be his wife, an established expert in a related field. To my mortification, I read, "Pinker, sister of the acclaimed evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker ...." Which I guess means my false expectation might prove one of Susan Pinker's points about men and women.

* * *

I haven't said anything about the recent brouhaha over Aliza Shvarts, the Yale art student who either did or didn't (depending on whether you read her account before, or after she became notorious) get herself pregnant repeatedly and then induced miscarriages as her senior art project.

The act itself, if done in the way and for the purpose described, would be a sort of horror for which I can find no good words. The way I felt after reading this.

I might be able to address it as an insult to the ideas of art and education, and a tragic statement of how far both have fallen -- a pure message that the artist I suspect did not intend to present. If I did, I hope it would look like this piece by Michael J. Lewis:

It is often said that great achievement requires in one's formative years two teachers: a stern taskmaster who teaches the rules and an inspirational guru who teaches one to break the rules. But they must come in that order. Childhood training in Bach can prepare one to play free jazz and ballet instruction can prepare one to be a modern dancer, but it does not work the other way around. One cannot be liberated from fetters one has never worn; all one can do is to make pastiches of the liberations of others. And such seems to be the case with Ms. Shvarts.

He points out -- rightly, I think -- that much of what enthusiastic students produce as art in 2008 has not got beyond Marcel Duchamp's 1917 idea to put up a urinal and call it "Fountain." (I have seen it, or one of them, in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, along with a lovely and technically exacting bit of pornography he created.) I think it was genius the first time. Every other time, it's dull recycling.

Like Lewis (himself an art professor), I blame the schools more than the students.

Immaturity, self-importance and a certain confused earnestness will always loom large in student art work. But they will usually grow out of it. What of the schools that teach them? Undergraduate programs in art aspire to the status of professional programs that award MFA degrees, and there is often a sense that they too should encourage the making of sophisticated and challenging art, and as soon as possible. Yale, like most good programs, requires its students to achieve a certain facility in drawing, although nowhere near what it demanded in the 1930s, when aspiring artists spent roughly six hours a day in the studio painting and life drawing, and an additional three on Saturday.

Given the choice of this arduous training or the chance to proceed immediately to the making of art free of all traditional constraints, one can understand why all but a few students would take the latter. But it is not a choice that an undergraduate should be given. In this respect -- and perhaps only in this respect -- Ms. Shvarts is the victim in this story.

It seems to me you have to master the rules and forms to earn the right to break them. Dali was a clown and an artistic grifter in many ways, but he never let you forget that he knew his techniques, and honored, even in destruction, what artists before him had done. Velasquez, Goya, Millet shoot through his work, almost to the point of it being derivative. He was a radical conservative, but mon dieu, he could paint! So I respect that.

The same ought to be true of poetry. Prove to me you can write a perfect sonnet (perfect sonnets are difficult, but not impossible). Then I'll see what you're capable of in free verse.

Then, speaking of writing, there's this odd profile of an odd man, oddly composed. At the end I still don't know whether this is a profile of a fraud or a fraud of a profile, or simply something that is true without being quite real.

Today, Burroughs is the last of the big-game memoirists, targeted but still on his feet, still profitably working the cud of his dysfunctional youth, still memoiring, against all odds, under the vengeful glare of Oprah and her increasingly skeptical public. As the culture of memoir has imploded over the last few years—as JT LeRoy dissolved into some kind of conceptual-art project about Truth in Media, as James Frey suffered the most visible public flogging in the long history of global torture, as Margaret “Gangland” Seltzer was outed by her own sister as a pampered suburbanite, as Misha Defonseca admitted that she was neither a Holocaust survivor nor raised by wolves—Burroughs sat at his laptop, undeterred, furiously masticating his chemical gum, and claimed, with a perfectly straight face, to be faithfully transcribing the honest-to-God events of his past.

When Burroughs writes, he tells me, he drifts into a kind of shamanistic memory trance that allows him to travel freely through time. He never stops to look at what he’s typing, which he says would only distract him. Instead, his eyes glaze over, and he stares absently at the small aluminum strip between his laptop’s keyboard and screen. “When I am writing,” he says, “I am there. I’m there. I never, ever, in any of my books, ever, have thought, ‘Now, how would I have talked?’ That is not how I write. It feels like I just go back and I’m there. It’s like a movie. It’s extremely vivid. I’m a monkey at a typewriter, writing about the time it got M&Ms, and the time a blue M&M came out instead of a red one.” Like Proust, he works in bed, propped up on some pillows. He feels terror, excitement, and sadness; he cries. It’s more like a séance than a job.

Or whether "memoiring" is, or ought to be allowed to be, a word.

Post Office Jobs

There's much one could argue with in this analysis of the achievement gap between black and white Americans. But, as has been suggested in the comments elsewhere, it seems to be a problem with more than one source, and more than one answer. It seems to me part of the truth is in here.

This part, the federal jobs that provide good incomes and benefits for a great many black families who otherwise would not find them, is especially interesting to me. I began to notice this informally some time ago, without studying it. Here there seem to be numbers to back it up:

Public employment, more than blue-collar factory jobs, played a key role in lifting African Americans out of poverty. High black poverty rates, that is, did not result from deindustrialization. Aside from Detroit and Chicago, African Americans did not find extensive work in major cities in manufacturing and were denied the best industrial jobs. Even where black industrial work was common, service jobs remained the core of black urban employment. Black industrial workers, moreover, did not earn higher wages or work more steadily than African Americans employed in other sorts of work. ... Overall, the correlation between African Americans’ poverty rate and employment in government was a striking -0.7.

So does that render calls for smaller government and trimmed federal bureaucracy, de facto, racist? Anti-civil rights?

Labels: ,

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Wright Again

While sitting in a surgery clinic's office for a routing and time-consuming procedure (which is by way of suggesting why I haven't posted much), I read a Time magazibe. In it was this defense of Rev. Wright.

It was one of the better efforts I'd seen. It picked up on an Obama quote on patriotism that I also liked. And put it in a historical context:

It is easy to see why the words of black critics and leaders, taken out of context, can be read as cynical renunciations of country. Abolitionist and runaway slave Frederick Douglass gave a famous oration on the meaning of Independence Day, asking "What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July? I answer, a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim." But instead of joining the chorus of black voices swelling with nostalgia to return to their African roots, Douglass stayed put. Poet Langston Hughes grieved in verse that "(America never was America to me) ... (There's never been equality for me,/ Nor freedom in this 'homeland of the free')." But his lament is couched in a poem whose title, like its author, yearns for acceptance: Let America Be America Again.

And it correctly distinguishes nationalism from patriotism, which is something that ought to be done more. [It's one of history's odder threads, how Americans, always so famously patriotic and nationalistic themselves, tend to overlook those qualities in other people. We always thought Canada would welcome being part of our empire. And we are as surprised by China's fierce popular nationalism today as we are by China's leaders art in manipulating and cultivating it.]

But overall it left me flat. Not just because the sneers at "the 'My country, right or wrong' credo, which confuses blind boosterism with a more authentic, if sometimes questioning, loyalty" seemed to veer into -- there's that word again -- elitism. It chronicled Rev. Wright's military history, and that does matter in the equation. But then it devoted far too much space to an unstated version of the old chickenhawk argument, comparing Wright to Dick Cheney on that score.

If it comes down to Obama vs. McCain in the fall, I wonder if that chickenhawk will come home to roost?

By the way, when you go for surgery, they make you strip down to a garment they give you that's about the size of a pillowcase and doesn't even have snaps, much less pockets. Then they let you put your street clothes and valuables in a locker. With a key. Where are you supposed to ....


Sunday, April 27, 2008


A new collection of writings by al-Qaida's leading lights (reviewed here) offers a little more evidence for something I've long thought was true:

[Abdallah Azzam] also used fantasy to intensify his own aura and make the jihadist movement attractive. On his worldwide money-raising tours, he would often thrill young would-be jihadists with miracle tales of angels seen riding into battle on horseback, bombs intercepted by birds that formed canopies to protect Muslim warriors and individual soldiers who with divine assistance defeated entire Soviet battalions.

Azzam promised that jihadists would eventually defeat Islam's enemies around the world -- the former Soviet Union, Bosnia, Somalia, Eritrea, Spain, etc. Before that, however, they would liberate Palestine. His emphasis annoyed the faction led by [Ayman al-]Zawahiri, who wanted to go home to Egypt and fight the secular government that had tortured him into betraying a friend and mentor who was later killed.

Azzam and his two sons died in November, 1989, when someone detonated 20 kg of TNT beneath the car taking them to services at a mosque in Peshawar. The suspects included Pakistani police, the CIA and Mossad. But Azzam's son-in-law accused Zawahiri's people.

Historically, the most effective tactic for fighting organized enemies in the Arab Islamic world has been not to attack them, but to let them cut each other's throats in fits of jealousy or vengeance, which are emotions easily stoked from a safe distance.

A wise American dictator could have accomplished this policy after 9/11. It would have been a fascinating alternate future to visit. As it was, however, an aroused and enraged people over here (I certainly include myself in that description) would not have settled for what would look on the surface like submission to the insult of the attacks.

This would hardly have been a pacifist's policy, however. It would have been far more ruthless than the current samblind bid to foist freedom on Afghanistan and Iraq. It simply would have required a different America than the one that exists. Since the start of the Cold War we usually have had to tolerate a feckless CIA, which has been a great threat to the republic. It would have taken an efficient CIA, which would have been a mortal threat to the republic.

Another thing that seems to emerge from the review is the degree to which al Qaida and its followers already do live in an alternate reality, in which the Angel of Mons is not a miracle but part of the everyday fabric. The Internet represents the potential de-professionalization of everything, and those who live exclusively and thoughtlessly in it wander among the ruins of a carefully evolved, centuries-old Western epistemic.

Those who believe descriptions of reality should serve ideologies will have no problem in using forgeries to undercut their enemies. Paul warned against spurious apostolic letters. Evidently the Islamist Internet has the same challenge.

Al Qaeda in Its Own Words has a fascinating subtext: the struggle of scholars to identify accurate documents. Like academics studying the writings of antiquity, analysts of al-Qaeda material must bring a severe critical intelligence to silted-up errors, lies and editorial interpolations.

Keppel says that scholars who venture into the jungle of online Islamist propaganda (there are now thousands of al-Qaeda sites) can never be absolutely certain that a text should be attributed to a given author. Nor can they say for sure that the text, even if originally authentic, hasn't been polluted with unauthorized insertions. Jihadists are not above distributing bogus letters to embarrass rivals.



"Somewhere here lurks an unexamined confusion between the unavoidable disappointments that real life deals and the idealistic and imagined betrayals."

Could be said of the writings of many modern Western intellectuals of liberal or leftist inclination. It happens to be said here of Tony Judt.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Friday Cat Blogging

Kaya and Sadie


Watchers Council Woes

The Watcher is mired in computer woes, apparently, so some of the more energetic members of the council have stepped in to compile a list of worthwhile blog posts. They can be found at Wolf Howling or Joshuapundit.

Byron Wasn't the Only One

This is hardly news. But I do like the possible Brontë connection. Though I think Emily was strange enough to have got here on her own.

"When I read Dorothy’s accounts of her love for William in the Grasmere Journals I am moved in the same way as I am by Catherine Earnshaw’s description of her love for Heathcliff ... and it is through Wuthering Heights that the peculiarity of [their] relationship can best be understood. Powerful in both cases is the elusive, visionary nature of what each woman is straining to define, her hunger for twinship with the one she loves ... her confusion about where she ends and he begins. "

This comparison makes sense, and it connects with the idea of incest which F. W. Bateson so memorably introduced in 1954 when he suggested that William and Dorothy fell in love in the intimacy of their cold winter in Germany. Bateson, according to Wilson, only pointed out “what was obvious to all”, which is that something odd went on in Goslar. (Wordsworth’s comment that he wrote in Goslar “in self-defence” is intriguing.) The Heathcliff–Catherine relationship has an incestuous element, as they were brought up together as children, and their sexuality is obviously abnormal (though not very unusual in the context of Gothic fiction and Byronic poetry). Emily Brontë could not have read Dorothy’s journals but, Wilson argues, she is more than likely to have read De Quincey’s portraits of the Wordsworths in Tait’s in 1839, which describe her “gipsy tan”, outdoor spirit and impulsive nature. It is intriguing to think that descriptions of the high-minded homely life of Dove Cottage could have prompted the melodramatic tragedy of Wuthering Heights – a shadow story spun from what lay concealed and repressed.


Thursday, April 24, 2008

Wright and Wrong

The Rev. Wright says (with obvious irony):

“It’s to paint me as something — ‘Something’s wrong with me. There’s nothing wrong with this country … for its policies. We’re perfect. Our hands are free. Our hands have no blood on them,’” he said.

Creating a false dichotomy that elevates him to the pinnacle of truth by reducing to a simple evil a complicated land full of people well aware of the conflict and contradictions in its past and present. I had this nagging sense I had heard his sort before, though in radically different garb. Now I remember where.

Labels: ,


Judge throws the book at Wesley Snipes. He fell for the old "federal income tax is illegal and you don't have top pay it" cult. Funny thing is, the way the income tax was created probably is unconstitutional, but, like the Air Force (likewise not created in conformance with the Constitution) there's not much you can do about it now.

I feel sorry to see Snipes go down like that. I don't know much about him, but maybe you remember the hilarious "Stuttering John" segments on the Howard Stern show in its heyday in the '90s. It was the ultimate celebrity ambush and it tended to show these people at their most unguarded (one of the virtues of Stern's show). Snipes, as I recall, handled it really well.

Worse News

Mexico's existing oil fields are running low, and the state-run company that drills it is in no condition to go and get more, even though it's down there.

Mexico's Cantarell oil field — discovered in 1976 and one of the world's largest — is drying up. Pemex reported a 2007 net loss of US$1.48 billion (euro98 billion) this week, as its revenues are drained to fund schools, hospitals and public works. Meanwhile, every other major oil company is reinvesting unprecedented profits in oil exploration.

Mexico could lose its standing as a major oil exporter in five years if it does not find more oil, experts say.

The logical move -- a partnership with an American or European oil company, is political poison. It seems there's an issue of national pride involved in anything that looks like cooperating with the Americans:

But while Mexicans may shop at Walmart and eat at McDonald's, oil is a birthright. The sentiment dates back to March 18, 1938, when President Lazaro Cardenas kicked out the American and European oil companies that refused to pay union wage demands while reaping Mexico's oil profits.

Every year on that day, school children learn about the bold eviction of foreign companies, especially those from the United States, whose annexation of half of Mexico's territory after the 1846 Mexican-American War still hurts.

This story is less disturbing to me from an energy standpoint (someone will get the oil up somehow, have no fear) than from my interest as an American in having an economically healthy, politically stable Mexico. Both those qualities in relative terms, of course.

The article, by the way, also features the expression "el fast-track."

Labels: ,

Bat News

This isn't good. First honeybees, now bats. Two creatures some consider pests, which I do not want to live without.

Squirrels, on the other hand ...

And classic rock radio stations ... ....


Getting Hitched

"With Hitchens's work, one gets the… sense of how much it matters to prove that one is and always has been right: right about which side to be on, right that there are sides and one has to be on one of them; right about which way the world… is going… and right when so many others, especially well-regarded or well-placed others, are demonstrably wrong."

A long profile, for those who consider him one of the fascinating characters of our time. For those who consider him a prickly bore, just skip it.


Charlie Don't Surf

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

"To that I tell them ..."

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

What's All This

About Caly Fornia for vice president? Isn't that blatant pandering to the most populous state by giving it a place on the ticket?


Hillary Wins Pa.

It's been a circus around here all day. Fascinating. If you want my utterly amateur take on why Obama couldn't hope to win Pennsylvania, I figured it out weeks ago. Only today did I look up the numbers to see if my suspicion was right:

Pennsylvania's female population has a median age of 40.1, and a mean age 40.4. The U.S. female population has a median age of 36.0, and a mean age of 36.7.

Older women I know have powerful memories of how it used to be in the days before there was some sort of sea change in attitudes -- and statutes and case law -- regarding gender equality in this country. You can argue that it wasn't as bad as the feminist scare screeds of the 1960s. You can argue that we've gone too far in some regards to enforce unnatural numerical parities in, say, college sports.

But you can't tell them it didn't used to be bad. And they remember. And they feel certain words and attitudes more powerfully than some of the rest of us do.

Including younger women, who might be more inclined to choose between Obama and Hillary without a strong reference to that past. It had occurred to me that roughly 35 to 40 was the watershed age for this.

Labels: ,

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Past is Never Past

Blogism is rooted in journalism, and, for all that it touts itself as something exceptional and scorns its source, blogism is prone to the same blind spots as journalism.

Including a "New Yorker"-cover perspective on history, where the last 20 or 40 years (depending on the age of the blogger/journalist) make up the bulk of history and the definition of "normal."

Here's a quote in a recent New York Times story on the economy:

“The most important model that rolled off the Detroit assembly lines in the 20th century,” said Harley Shaiken, a labor economist at the University of California at Berkeley, “was the middle class for blue-collar workers.”

Right. The notion that a working man could have company-subsidized health care, unemployment benefits, a retirement savings plan, and a wage that would buy him a modest house, a new car every few years, a vacation once in a while, and a college education for his kids -- that is a comparatively recent thing in American history.

It was not always so. It was not considered essential to the health of the republic by Madison, Jefferson, Hamilton, or Lincoln.

It happened for many reasons: capitalism's rising tide; capitalism's fear of communism; Roosevelt's big government; Roosevelt's big war; the closing of the frontier; the restrictions on immigration. You can't claim only one source, unless you're a polemicist, not a person with a sense of history.

Knowing these sorts of things doesn't buttress anyone's present position. It only makes the picture more complicated.

And what's the use of that, eh?

* * *

Good line:

The landmark political fact of our time is the replacement of our middle-class republic by a plutocracy. If some candidate has a scheme to reverse this trend, they've got my vote, whether they prefer Courvoisier or beer bongs spiked with cough syrup. I don't care whether they enjoy my books, or would rather have every scrap of paper bearing my writing loaded into a C-47 and dumped into Lake Michigan. If it will help restore the land of relative equality I was born in, I'll fly the plane myself.

Too bad it's Thomas Frank, the "What's the Matter with Kansas?," "One Market Under God," "Commodify Your Dissent" guy.

Just because it wasn't true in Lincoln's day doesn't mean a relative equality, a populous and middle class enjoying a healthy life that everyone has equal opportunity to achieve, aren't the pulse of modern America. The right does itself and its country no good when it dismisses the left's concerns about that.

* * *

Which leads to this:

Hough notes the unravelling of the New Deal and the rightward movement of both parties in economic policy, but leaves out the social, economic and ideological transformations of which these are symptoms, and the dramatic alteration in the balance of forces in favour of capital that has accompanied them. Against this backdrop, Hough’s hope that the parties will henceforth ‘represent the economic interests’ of the median mass of voters seems like whistling in the wind. Certainly, neither of the Democratic contenders in 2008 has plans to do so.

From "New Left Review." I didn't even realize they were still in business. The review is a short history of American national political parties and presidential elections from a leftist perspective. It is not a complete picture or a balanced one, but it is one worth bearing in mind when building your own complete picture:

Hough’s account draws on intensive archival work to detail the processes by which the two parties contrived to limit electoral participation, gerrymander constituencies and divide up the electoral spoils within the ferociously competitive landscape of modern industrial America — greatly aided, although he does not spell this out, by the first-past-the-post system. At stake, for both parties, has been the problem of mobilizing maximum electoral support for policies that are not primarily conceived in the interests of the median voter.

Of course, the grass-roots from-the-bottom-up alternative for political action in a democracy is unlikely to yield results congenial to the New Left's hopes and dreams. As the article itself indicates, without seeming to be aware of it:

When the Whigs, magnates and manufacturers failed to offer a refuge to Protestant workers alienated by the Irish-run lower ranks of the Democratic machine in the 1850s, they were swept away by the anti-Papist, anti-immigrant Know-Nothing Party in a revolt from below.

One of the nastier episodes in American history, and a faction of extremists that make Michelle Malkin look like Dorothy Day.

The author of the book being reviewed has made his specialty in studying the political structure of the Soviet Union, and both he and the reviewer seem content to find it essentially similar to the modern American political landscape. Which shows how a layperson with a dollop of common sense can be confident of his own conclusions even if all the historians and commentators and pundits in the world treat him with contempt.

It seems the situation Robert Conquest described from 40 years ago has left its mental dust bunnies in some unswept corners of the Left's house:

In the late Sixties when my book The Great Terror came out, it was still true that, as the great historian François Furet noted, after the war and the demise of fascism, “all the major debates on postwar ideas revolved round a single question: the nature of the Soviet regime.” He adds the paradox that communism had two main embodiments — as a backward despotism and as a constituency in the West that had to be kept unaware of the other’s reality. And, up to the last, this was often accompanied by a view of the Cold War as an even exchange — with the imputation that any denigration of the Soviet regime was due to peace-hating prejudice.

Labels: , ,

In Most Cases

I'd be inclined to dismiss someone's efforts to apply 19th century identifications and planks to 21st century U.S. political parties that happen to carry the same name. But in this case I'm inclined to approve. Just because, as Quixotic as it might be, the effort deserves every encouragement: Talking to "Republican organizations around the country, showing office-holders, candidates and activists how they would benefit tremendously from appreciating our Party's heritage of civil rights achievement."

Labels: ,

Friday, April 18, 2008

The Occasional Copy Editor

I cringe when I read things like this:

That Hamas is belligerent and refuses to acknowledge the right of Israel to exist is a major hurtle in advancing peace.

Not because of the understatement of the obvious. But because a "hurdle" is the thing you jump over. A "hurtle" is hardly even usable as a noun. It means "to collide, impact, crash (together) with great force."

Which, excusing the wrong use of a verb as a noun, might actually be a more accurate statement than the one the writer intended to make. Hamas is like a car bomb against peace. Something that could be said to "hurtle." How would it be a "hurdle?" To whom? To the Israelis? To "peace?" When you jump over something, you don't remove it; it remains in place. How is there to be peace if Hamas' essential nature and stated goals remain unchanged?

The words are not related, by the way. Hurdle is Old English hyrdel "frame of intertwined twigs used as a temporary barrier," a diminutive of hyrd, a long-forgotten word for "door," which comes from a Proto-Germanic root that also produced German Hürde "hurdle, fold, pen;" Old Norse hurð and Gothic haurds, both meaning "door." Beyond Germanic, it has relatives in Latin cratis "hurdle, wickerwork," and Greek kartalos "a kind of basket" and kyrtos "fishing creel." The Proto-Indo-European base is *qrt- "to weave, twist together" (cf. Sanskrit krt "to spin"). The usual modern sense of "barrier to jump in a race" is first recorded in 1833; the figurative sense of "obstacle" dates from 1924.

Hurtle, on the other hand, is an early Middle English word, probably a frequentive form of hurt, in its original sense of "to ram, strike, collide." Hurt came into English with the French invasion, and its source is Old French hurter "to ram, strike, collide," but the word probably ultimately comes from the Germanic (Frankish) minority of words in French, and seems to be related to Middle High German hurten "run at, collide" and Old Norse hrutr "ram." The sense of "injury" in hurt is a purely English development; its original sense of "knock" died out in the 1600s, but it is preserved in hurtle.



One of the sleaziest documentaries to arrive in a very long time, “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed” is a conspiracy-theory rant masquerading as investigative inquiry.

Thus begins the New York Times review (by Jeannette Catsoulis) published today.

Needless to say, in this fight I'm firmly on the side of Darwin's modern heirs. Prevailing science ought to be questioned, and probed for flaws and contradictions. But some people seem to hope that, if they just attack science in subtle enough terms, it will all just fall down and then we'll all go back to using the Bible for a science textbook. Which seems to me in some cases a tactic toward using the Bible as a literal guide to everything in life. In which case we might as well be Islamists with a different book.

My interest in anything Ben Stein does shrinks to zero with his involvement in this movie. I understand the point is not directly to argue for creationism, but to draw a sympathetic portrait of creationists in the education and scientific field who have been roughed up by their peers. But in that case I'm inclined to sympathize with the peers. Just like I'd be on the side of the humanities academics who expelled agenda-driven Ward Churchill from their profession. Honest, hard questioning of prevailing orthodoxies is one thing. Intellectual vandalism in the name of revolution is another.

The new film has been criticized in a number of extensive pieces for its twisty propagandism and loose play with facts, quotes, and interviews. That doesn't surprise me. There's already a fair degree of straw man in the usual creationist argument. For instance, nobody reputable in the world of biology thinks complex systems in living things "just happened by accident." And the creationists know well that the simplistic argument has an advantage in a public forum. Flat-earthers used to be judged winners in public debates in the 19th century, even by people who knew better. All they have to do is say, "look around you; you can see it's flat." An appeal to common sense that can be refuted, but only by a long explanation involving mathematics.

When I see atheist and agnostic and Shinto scientists embrace creationism or Intelligent Design, in any sort of numbers, and defend it as passionately and persistently as born-agains do, then I'll begin to take it seriously. When some biologist or paleontologist who has never even heard of the Bible reads an Intelligent Design text and says, "That fits the facts better than evolution by natural selection, and it explains them more coherently," then I'll pay attention.

[See more here and here and here and also this by quondam co-blogger reader_iam, to which I wholeheartedly consent. I should add that I also lament the excesses of some prominent voices for scientific rationalism when they step outside their turf and go after faith with a fundamentalist fervor.]

So the "New York Times" is unsparing in its evisceration of "Expelled," and I ought to approve that.

I don't.

Because I also remember this review.

Mixing sober outrage with mischievous humor and blithely trampling the boundary between documentary and demagoguery, Michael Moore takes wholesale aim at the Bush administration, whose tenure has been distinguished, in his view, by unparalleled and unmitigated arrogance, mendacity and incompetence. Of course, your estimation of the movie will largely depend on whether you share this view, but this unabashedly partisan collage of interviews, archival video clips and Mr. Moore's trademark agitprop stunts is nonetheless his most disciplined and powerful film to date.

I have not seen either film. But I see the two films -- as described by both their makers and their critics -- as essentially the same shabby thing in purpose, method, and ethos.

Yet the "New York Times" (two different reviewers, same newspaper) is scathing about the one:

This is not argument, it’s circus, a distraction from the film’s contempt for precision and intellectual rigor. This goes further than a willful misunderstanding of the scientific method. The film suggests, for example, that Dr. Sternberg lost his job at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History because of intellectual discrimination but neglects to inform us that he was actually not an employee but rather an unpaid research associate who had completed his three-year term.

Mixing physical apples and metaphysical oranges at every turn “Expelled” is an unprincipled propaganda piece that insults believers and nonbelievers alike. In its fudging, eliding and refusal to define terms, the movie proves that the only expulsion here is of reason itself.

And finds the other the work of a jolly good fellow who occasionally goes too far but his big heart is in the right place:

The movie's cheap shots and inconsistencies may frustrate its admirers, but by now we should have learned to appreciate Mr. Moore for what he is. He is rarely subtle, often impolite, frequently tendentious and sometimes self-contradictory. He is also a credit to the Republic.

A credit to the Republic! What contemptible bilge. There's not an ounce of intellectual consistency or probity in the art of criticism in the media, of course. That's not new. But the proof, to me, was rarely so baldly stated. You could reverse those two movie descriptions, and with a few noun changes, print them under each other's headline. So what makes for the difference?

If it's wrong in case A, it's wrong in case B. Perhaps, you will say, my accidental convergence of opposition to both Moore's self-serving America-skeptic pseudo-pacifist showmanship and "Expelled's" shabby special pleading for anti-scientific Trojan horses allows me to appear to take a higher ground than the "Times." I have spent the day trying to think of a single cause I advocate, however earnestly, that I would wish to see promoted by such tactics as these filmmakers use. One undeniable good that I think would be advanced by propaganda and deception and lies.

I cannot think of one. If I were framed for murder and on death row, I would not want Michael Moore to try to win sympathy for me.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Council Winners

Council winners for the week of April 11 have been posted.

The winner was "If You Give A Mouse A Cookie" ... Accommodating Islam by Joshuapundit. I suppose he could have written it as well around the Arab parable about letting the camel get his nose in your tent.

Votes also went to The Wizard of Ooze, a catalogue of anti-Obama points at Bookworm Room; Assumptions & Conclusions About Sadr, Maliki and the Basra Offensive at Wolf Howling; and The Judgment Thing at The Glittering Eye, which looks at some of the back-spin by some people who seem to forget they ever made bad decisions -- and not the usual people who get blamed for that.

Outside the council, the winner was Creating a European Indigenous People's Movement by The Brussels Journal. A fascinating and subversive idea, but I think it overlooks the fact that language in cases like these has been severely distorted in the interest of social policy and multiculturalism. Just as "minorities" in the U.S. often is used in some circles in a way that includes some ethnic minorities, but excludes, say, Jews. And it probably still will be used in that sense when, at some point in the future, Americans of Caucasian ancestry become a statistical minority.

Votes also went to Your federal Government At Work ... For Palestinians by Boker tov, Boulder!; and Put On Your Helmets, We're Talking About Abortion by Rachel Lucas.

In addition, votes went to Is Wright Wrong? Part 2 by Better Living: Thoughts from Mark Daniels, one of the most thoughtful and heartfelt musings I've seen on the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and the America he lives in, and the nature of patriotism and faith in our time.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008


Two meditations at The Beiderbecke Affair that reinforce my conviction that mythology is ultimately more lasting, and more important, than history -- either objective or relativist. And that historians ought to to be wary, like Hippolytus was not, of serving exclusively one rational goddess and scorning the other, emotional, one.

My opinion, not necessarily his. But his words re-sparked that.


"Just One More Thing ..."

It's hardly a surprise that "A new U.N. Human Rights Council official assigned to monitor Israel is calling for an official commission to study the role neoconservatives may have played in the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks." It's possible that this is one of those cases where "neoconservatives" is code for "Certain shadowy American Jews seeking to influence foreign policy." But it need not be. The two things -- Israel-bashing and trutherism -- can converge on their own.

Richard Falk, Milbank professor of international law emeritus at Princeton University, said in an interview with truther radio host Kevin Barrett: “It is possibly true that especially the neoconservatives thought there was a situation in the country and in the world where something had to happen to wake up the American people. Whether they are innocent about the contention that they made that something happen or not, I don’t think we can answer definitively at this point. All we can say is there is a lot of grounds for suspicion, there should be an official investigation of the sort the 9/11 commission did not engage in and that the failure to do these things is cheating the American people and in some sense the people of the world of a greater confidence in what really happened than they presently possess.”

Mr. Barrett, who is the co-founder of the Muslim-Jewish-Christian Alliance for 9/11 Truth, said in an interview yesterday of Mr. Falk, “I would put him on a list of scholars who are sympathetic to the 9/11 truth movement.”

He added, “Unlike most public intellectuals today, he is both honest and very, very knowledgeable in that he understands the probable reality of 9/11. He understands that the evidence that it was a false flag operation is very strong.”

And so forth.

Two points, however. One is that Falk is not calling for a U.N. or Human Rights Council investigation of 9/11. The other is that he is not "new" to the HRC. He's been popular with the council well before that. In March 2001 it appointed him to a three-member "human rights inquiry commission established pursuant to Commission resolution S-5/1 of 19 October 2000."

S-5/1 was "to establish a human rights inquiry commission to gather and compile information on violations of human rights and acts which constituted grave breaches of international humanitarian law by the Israeli occupying power in the occupied Palestinian territories. It also requested the High Commissioner for Human Rights to undertake an urgent visit to the occupied Palestinian territories to take stock of the violations of the human rights of the Palestinian people by the Israeli occupying power."

The other two on the commission were John Dugard (South Africa), Kamal Hossain (Bangladesh). It gave a report here, dated March 29, 2001, in which Falk called for vigorous U.N. action against Israel, whose actions and policies he blamed entirely for the lack of "peace." He sought an international occupation of the West Bank.

Earlier in the English translation of the report, Richard Falk is refered to as Peter Falk.

At the end of the discussion, Peter Falk [sic!] a member of the commission of inquiry into the situation in the occupied territories, said that there was no doubt that Israeli forces had resorted to excessive force in responding to the second intifada.

Here is his conclusion, this time under his correct name.

RICHARD FALK, member of the commission of inquiry, said the commission was encouraged by the strong support for the main conclusions which were contained in its report, and its general recommendations. The commission of inquiry had faced a challenge in conducting an inquiry without the help of the Government of Israel. Nevertheless, it did its best to understand the Israeli arguments. The commission had made an effort to lean over backwards to take into account Israel's position. There was no doubt about the conclusions that had been reached. Israel had resorted to excessive force in responding to the second intifada. The Israeli policy and response had produced an intolerable situation for the entire Palestinian population. The way in which the occupation was continued produced a daily ordeal for each Palestinian person, even those who were not involved in the intifada.

Both Israelis and Palestinians sought peace and security, they yearned for it. But peace, security and justice could not be achieved without respect for human rights and international law. The notion that was prevalent during the Oslo process, that human rights and international law could be put aside for the negotiating process, was a dangerous deception. It was necessary at every point to affirm that human rights and international law were as important as the peace that was being sought.

Mr. Falk said that the time for talk was over, and the time for action was now. Repeatedly, the commission of inquiry had heard expressions of disillusionment about the impact of resolutions passed by international bodies. The credibility of the United Nations was challenged by its inability to implement the resolutions which it passed. There was no reasonable excuse to defer any longer in dealing with these issues. The main direction of the conclusions were supported by the non-governmental organizations, the senior civil society personnel dealing with the Palestinian people, and other representatives. On all fronts, there was a consensus as to what was responsible for this violence. And there was a sense as to what was necessary to reverse this process.

The most useful step that could be taken by the international community at this time was to provide an international presence of a monitoring character in the West Bank and Palestine that would provide these beleaguered people with some kind of transparency. It was hoped that those who had abstained from a resolution calling for such a presence, and the United States, which had vetoed it, would reconsider. Israel had had ample opportunity to take steps to uphold international law, but had been unable and unwilling to do so. If the elementary provisions of the Geneva Conventions were to be upheld, almost all of the violence would cease overnight. Steps should be taken to examine the vulnerability of the Palestinian refugees. There needed to be new initiatives taken in that direction. It was the responsibility of this Commission to show that the international community was able to act.

And he is a member of the editorial board of "The Nation." Shocka! All in all, he seems to be a familiar type.

In a June 2007 article called "Slouching toward a Palestinian Holocaust," Falk compared some Israeli policies with regard to the Palestinians to the Nazi-Germany record of collective punishment. Identifying himself as an American Jew, Falk stated that his use of the term "holocaust" "represents a rather desperate appeal to the governments of the world and to international public opinion to act urgently to prevent these current [Israeli] genocidal tendencies from culminating in a collective tragedy [for the Palestinians]." Falk also stated that "the comparison should not be viewed as literal, but ... that a pattern of criminality associated with Israeli policies in Gaza has actually been supported by the leading democracies of the 21st century."

Falk's predecessor on United Nations Human Rights Council, John Dugard, had made controversial statements comparing Israeli actions in the Occupied Palestinian Territories with apartheid and colonialism. In response to Falk's past comments, Yitzhak Levanon, the Israeli ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, criticised Falk's appointment by the United Nations Human Rights Council in an address to the council, stating: "He has taken part in a UN fact-finding mission which determined that suicide bombings were a valid method of 'struggle'. He has disturbingly charged Israel with 'genocidal tendencies', and accused it of trying to achieve security through 'state terrorism'. Someone who has publicly and repeatedly stated such views cannot possibly be considered independent, impartial or objective." The Israeli government announced that it will deny Falk a visa to Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, at least until the September meeting of the Human Rights Council.

Falk responded to the criticism by saying, "If this kind of situation had existed for instance in the manner in which China was dealing with Tibet or the Sudanese government was dealing with Darfur, I think there would be no reluctance to make that comparison." He attributed the reluctance to criticise Israel's policies on the sensitive history of the Jewish people, as well as the state's ability to "avoid having (its) policies held up to international law and morality."


Creature Discomfort

Animals or People

In the spring of 2003 about 8,000 tribal people and low-caste farmers living in the Kuno area of Madhya Pradesh, India, were summarily uprooted from the rich farmlands they had cultivated for generations and moved to 24 villages on scrub land outside the borders of a sanctuary created for a pride of six imported Asiatic lions. “I’ll never forget when we left,” recalled village headman Babulal Gaur. “Even the men cried that day. Is it fair to do this to 1,600 families for a few lions?” By then almost 500 villages occupied by a total of 300,000 families around India had experienced similar forced relocation to protect the habitat of tigers, rhinos and Asiatic lions residing in the 580 national parks and sanctuaries that have been created in India since the colonial period.

It makes me realize how lucky we are in the U.S. that the American Indians wiped out most of the megafauna here before we arrived. Could you evict half of upstate Maine to set up a preserve for the woolly mammoth?

Just Under the Radar

Nick Lowe never got to big to play a club or a riverfront stage, which is the only place I like to see live music. Thank the radio gods for that, because he's always been one of my favorites. Here he tells the story of how to age gracefully in rock while avoiding success:

Q: You were an influential figure in punk and new wave, and there was a time when what you were doing was right in step with popular music. Then on your later albums it seemed that your styles starting going backward in time toward pre-rock sounds. Did you make a conscious choice to not absorb current musical fashion?

A: I've always liked being an outsider, ever since I had an early brush with stardom at a very early age, and it was awful. I made up my mind then that if I saw myself ever getting really huge - which was very unlikely [because] I'm much too lazy a person - but if I ever saw myself getting that way, I would take steps to make sure it didn't happen because it's always much more fun to just be on the brink of making it. It's just about the most exciting place you can be. It's no fun being unknown and working away, and it's awful being really famous.

Q: Many of your fans feel you haven't been given what you are due.

A: I rest very easy at night with the way things are. Believe me, I've seen [fame] at close range. It's absolutely vile. When my career as a pop star finished, which was about 1981, I saw it coming because I'd been a record producer as well, so I had my feet in both camps. When it did come, I totaled it up: I had a couple of hits, I produced some good records, written some songs for other people.

Which, in some other people, might sound like a post-lack-of-success rationalization. But having followed the man's career and met him in person a few times, I'm inclined to say he means it.


Executive Power, Again

I'm going to single out Hillary on this, but as I recall, Obama has said similar things:

She accused Bush of having expanded executive power to the detriment of the Constitution, while often operating in secrecy.

"I'll end the use of signing statements to rewrite the laws Congress has passed. I'll shut down Guantanamo, disavow torture, and restore the right of habeas corpus," she said.

"And I'll end the practice of using executive privilege as a shield against the public's right to know and Congress's duty to oversee the president."

There's a method, suggested in the Constitution and clearly evolved in the early 19th century, to resolve power struggles in the U.S. federal government. That method is not for a president, with the stroke of a pen, to undo previous policies that involved executive overreach. What Hillary is proposing is to end the problem of bloated executive power by an act of bloated executive power.

This is a crisis that a president cannot solve on her own. The office of the president is the defendant in this case, whether its incumbent is cooperating or not. The president is not his own judge.

Disavow torture and proclaim strict adherence to habeas corpus? Nothing would prevent her from undoing that decision later, or prevent the next president from picking up where Bush left off. Her proposal ignores the role of Congress in making laws, the role of the Supreme Court in interpreting how the laws apply to what the president is doing. It is dangerous in that it would create the appearance of a correction without the fact of one.

If there's one thing left and right agree in being concerned about, it's that the Bush Administration has pushed executive power into uncharted waters. Some might claim it is justified, but I don't think many are entirely happy with it: From domestic surveillance to war-making to economy-shepherding, his reach is unrivaled since Lincoln's.

The general agreement on that, I think, is easy to overlook. Bush's friends are disturbed, but they tend to discuss it privately, not blare it out. Bush's more numerous enemies tend to talk about specific cases, where there is room for vigorous disagreement over details. And they tend to force meta-narratives into the debate that can't be accepted by many who otherwise might agree with them.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Tight Genes

You've got them.

Scientists compared the genetic sequences of ethnically and geographically diverse people from around the world and found that the genes which code for the nervous systems, had some sequence differences (known as polymorphisms) among individuals. By analyzing human and chimpanzee polymorphism patterns, genetic probabilities and various other genetic tools, and geographical distributions, they found evidence that some of these genes are experiencing ongoing positive selection in humans. They calculated that one genetic variant of microcephalin arose approximately 37,000 years ago, which coincides with the emergence of culturally modern humans, and it increased in frequency too rapidly to be compatible with random genetic drift or population migration. This suggests that it underwent positive selection. An ASPM variant arose about 5800 years ago, coincident with the spread of agriculture, cities and the first record of written language. It too is found in such high frequencies in the population, that it indicates strong positive selection.


Today's Question

Who was tops of the pops when you dropped?

Me: "I'm Sorry" by Brenda Lee. Perhaps that's one reason one of my favorite pop songs is I'm Sorry (And So is Brenda Lee) by the cynical genius Ben Vaughn.

Hill 4 Pres

The local office of her campaign I pass most nights just as the lights come on. "Hillary for President" is painted on one window in red, white, and blue, but they didn't block it out beforehand and the word "president" shrinks and drops dramatically between the "P" and the "T."

The rest of the windows are lined with taped-up campaign rally signs. At least three-fourths of them are union signs, with logos and acronyms as prominent as the candidate's name. AFSCME, pipefitters, electrical workers. Inside, bending over the phones, are a few lean and scrannel fellows, pale as library lights. They look like they never laid pipe in their lives.


Dime from 1966

Rim-worn, dull, its fret-work beat down. What were pictures now are just shapes, soon to lose all edge. Like a find from a Saxon ship-barrow.


The Angels Wanna Wear My ...

And By the Way

What is it with the Mormon women and the hairstyles?

Here's an slightly snarky answer:

When the elders of YFZ Ranch in Texas tried to quash a 16-year-old bride's rebellion, they warned that the outside world would force her to have sex with "lots of men." Apparently equally important, she would have to cut her hair and wear makeup.

As threats go for a young woman in polygamy, a bob or a bit of blush seems minor. But the girl's terror about changing her appearance is heartbreakingly naive and very real.

The compound fence isn't the only cage for the women of polygamy. There is also a prison uniform - yards of pink and blue fabric, inches and inches of hair and ugly orthopedic shoes.

Utah and Arizona television stations and newspapers have been photographing the polygamy costume worn by Warren Jeffs' followers for years. But for the rest of the country, the billowing dresses and poofy French braids must look like a cotton-candy variation on 19th-century fashion or the voluminous folds of a burka.

Clothing and hairstyle distinctions between individual polygamous families and sects could fill an anthropology notebook.

"You can modify people's behavior just by putting them in a certain kind of dress," says Carolyn Jessop, a former spiritual wife of Merrill Jessop, the bishop of the Texas FLDS enclave. "It is a uniform. You have nothing about you that's individual. You're just a part of a whole."

The homespun prairie styles - most can be traced to modest Mormon pioneer fashions - are intended to make polygamists stick out from the rest of us and band together.

... Clothing styles for the Apostolic United Brethren of Bluffdale run the gamut. Tom Green's wives wore a knee-length version of Jessica McClintock's Gunny Sack dress from the 1980s and their hair in curling waves down their backs. And the Kingston women are allowed to dress how they choose - including showing cleavage and wearing tight clothing.

"They're more overtly sexual than other women in polygamist groups," says Rowenna Erickson, a former wife in the Kingston clan. "For other groups, the clothing is all about control and power."

Women in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints - in British Columbia, at the Utah-Arizona border and on the Texas ranch - cloister themselves through clothing.

After the Short Creek raid in 1953, polygamists who had dressed, for the most part, like the rest of America launched a retrenchment campaign that included new rules for dress - long sleeves, no hanging hair, no bangs.

"For them, the motivation is isolation," says Paul Reeve, a Utah history professor at the University of Utah.

Dress codes in the resulting polygamous communities have evolved differently. Centennial Park split from Hildale and Colorado City in the 1980s in part because of a disagreement over dress. Centennial Park elders allow women to show their ankles, wear pants (without a dress on top) and buy makeup and jewelry.

When Jeffs took over the other two border towns, along with banning television, fishing and basketball, he made the dress code even more restrictive: Everyone in the communities wears long white underwear year-round (including toddlers) modeled after Joseph Smith's original temple garments.

Clothing is supposed to cover the neck-to-ankle undergarments. Women yank on three layers of nylons in 100-degree heat to disguise the underwear. Color choices are limited to pastels (the spirit of God cannot reside in anything colorful). No black, no prints and no red (that hue is reserved for Christ). No sandals or pumps.

"You don't want to stand out. You don't want to be beautiful," says Pam Black, whose polygamous family moved to southern Utah in 1963, when she was 11. "You want to be invisible and do what your husband wants."

In the resulting time warp, hairstyles develop and stick for generations. Jeffs' female followers only let their hair down for their husbands in the bedroom. Older women still wear the textured "wave" or "sausage curl" that sits high on the forehead - the higher the wave, the more righteous the woman. The younger women of YFZ have developed a "poof," a pompadour reminiscent of the Gibson Girl.

In terms of group identification and differentiation from "the world," then, not unlike the Amish or old time Quaker garb. In terms of sexual proscription, not unlike the burqa or its relatives throughout the Middle East. And as any student of these things can tell you, the Quakers managed to express a lot of worldliness within the constrainst of their black and gray garb. And there's a way of walking in full Saudi dress that tells the world volumes about the woman buried beneath the volumes of cloth.

The irony is that the Gibson girl, in her day, was a dangerous free vixen, and the height of sexual allure.

[hat tip]

More on Mormons

The historical relationship between Mormons and the rest of America has been one of periodic violence, almost entirely of the latter against the former. The pattern goes back to the birth of the religion, in the early 1800s. First a general community resentment of and revulsion against the Mormons among them. Then rumors -- founded or otherwise -- of bad behavior in the Mormon community. Then an intervention supposedly on behalf of the rule of law and the trampled rights of the Mormon minority. Which quickly becomes a general assault on the whole religious institution, if not a near-pogrom.

Followed by remorse and reflection, when it's too late to do any good.

Wait 20 years, repeat.

Which is why, perhaps, it's good that the mothers tell their stories now so the reflection can begin before the cycle runs through.

Even a journalist is twinged by trouble. In part, perhaps because his trade got used in the process:

For nearly two weeks, journalists covering the removal of children from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints compound, known as the YFZ Ranch, have had access to just one side of the story.

During the initial raid, the men who live on the ranch weren’t allowed to leave, and the women who had been removed with their children were sequestered away in shelters.

That gave state officials the advantage of presenting their allegations of physical and sexual abuse of children on the ranch to the public with little chance for rebuttal except through church lawyers.

Well, the situation changed dramatically last night, when Texas Child Protective Services and police officers separated dozens of mothers from their children, keeping custody of the children and sending the women back to the ranch. (Some may have chosen to go to a battered women’s shelter, according to a CPS official.)

Of course, you don't need a journalist to tell you how to feel about a scene like that:

How does it feel if your seven year old child is in a shelter with the chicken pox and you can't be there to hold their hand. To whisper a sweet good night, to arrange the blanket just so?

All you have to be is a human with a heart.

Who Said It?

“We are not a pitiful race of people. We are a bright race, who can move with the best. But we are in a new time, where people are behaving in abnormal ways and calling it normal … When they used to come into our neighborhoods, we put the kids in the basement, grabbed a rifle, and said, ‘By any means necessary.’

“I don’t want to talk about hatred of these people. I’m talking about a time when we protected our women and protected our children. Now I got people in wheelchairs, paralyzed. A little girl in Camden, jumping rope, shot through the mouth. Grandmother saw it out the window. And people are waiting around for Jesus to come, when Jesus is already within you.”

... “My problem is I’m tired of losing to white people. When I say I don’t care about white people, I mean let them say what they want to say. What can they say to me that’s worse than what their grandfather said?”

Who said it?

For the Few Fools Who Still Care

... about poetry. I had the good fortune to once hear Meyer Abrams analyze a short poem by Wordsworth. The fluid assurance of his thought was as marvelous as the poetry itself. So I am pleased to read this tribute to his work and influence on the shrinking concern called "literature."

Why is it a sinking island? There's a clue in the difference between college now and this:

When he returned to Harvard for graduate school in 1935, Abrams notes, it was "in the days when, to get a Ph.D., you had to study Anglo-Saxon, Old Norse, Old French, and linguistics, on the notion that they served as a kind of hard-core scientific basis for literary study."

I was reading the Romantics before I got to college and had to buy the Norton "Anthologies," which they anchor. But even for my early exposure to Keats, Wordsworth and Byron, I may have to thank Abrams.

Foregrounding that era, from the late-18th to the mid-19th centuries, was part of a shift in literary study. When Abrams started out, the basis of literary studies was in earlier periods and major figures like Spenser and Milton, and T.S. Eliot had dismissed the Romantic poets as inferior. Abrams helped turn the field toward the more modern sensibility of poets like Wordsworth and Shelley, who were more secular and concerned with problems of language and epistemology.

I would almost say I could live without Shelley, except for Julian and Maddalo, which is beyond brilliant and far ahead of its time.

But if you want to raise a glass to Abrams, do it for this:

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Abrams's career is that he has kept up for more than 60 years. Through the 1970s and 80s, he sorted through and questioned new schools of literary theory like deconstruction and theorists like Stanley Fish and Jacques Derrida, whom he found compelling but disagreed with. He adds, "I've been skeptical from the beginning of attempts to show that for hundreds of years people have missed the real point," his chief quarrel with contemporary theory.


Nazis and Islamists

I am grateful to John Rosenthal for clearing out much of the ideological fog and academic ego-thumping that smother the important question of the relationship between the Third Reich and the Islamists.

Once the fog machine is turned off and the egos are sent to time out, the picture becomes more clear, if more complex, than any of the invested sides have allowed.

On the one hand, you have the somewhat counterintuitive assertion in some quarters that Hitler was a "Zionist." And thus had no truck with the Islamists except for an exchange of common rhetoric. The element of truth in that is tiny, but not hard to reconcile with Hitler's plans and visions, especially in the early stages of his rule:

Moreover, for at least part of the Nazi leadership ... the immigration of German Jews to Palestine represented a tolerable solution to Germany’s supposed “Jewish problem.” This attitude was obviously inimical to the plans of the mufti, who pleaded with German authorities to restrict Jewish immigration. Starting in August 1933, however, they did the opposite: in effect, facilitating Jewish immigration under the complex terms of the so-called Haavara or “Transfer” Agreement. The Haavara Agreement simultaneously permitted German Jews to transfer part of their wealth to Palestine and favored German exports to the region — the latter aspect earning it the support also of the Economics Ministry. “It cannot be denied that the Haavara Transfer made a considerable contribution to the development of Jewish settlement in Palestine,” Gensicke writes.

As with all things Hitler, the gloves came off when the war began.

A special ss commando unit was formed in 1942 and attached to Rommel’s African Panzer Army. Its writ was in large part identical to that of the infamous Einsatzgruppen that accompanied the Wehrmacht during the invasion of the Soviet Union and that were responsible for the murder of upwards of one million Soviet Jews. On Mallmann and Cüppers’s account, only the defeat of Rommel at the second Battle of El Alamein prevented German forces from entering Palestine and carrying out similar operations against the Jewish population there.

Rosenthal's conclusion seems right to me. He notes that in "the undisputed bible of the National Socialist movement, Hitler’s Mein Kampf," Islam and the Arabs hardly even appear in print.

In the nearly 800 pages of the two volumes of his would-be magnum opus, Arabs are not mentioned a single time as such and Islam is mentioned just once, in a neutral remark on the relative appeal of Islam and Christianity in Africa. The fevered mental universe of the discharged corporal and aspiring “race theorist” was amply populated by different varieties of Slavs, the occasional “Negro” [Neger], and, of course, always and everywhere the conniving and threatening Jew: the racial antipode of the honest “Aryan.” But Arabs and the “Muslim world” seem barely to have crossed his radar. Only once does Hitler implicitly offer his “racial” assessment of the latter: this in considering the prospect of German National Socialists forming an alliance with Egyptian insurgents fighting against British colonial rule. Hitler even alludes tantalizingly to the insurgents’ “Holy War” — in scare quotes, suggesting his clear disdain for the idea. “As [someone] who assesses the value of humanity according to racial criteria,” Hitler writes, “the knowledge of the racial inferiority of these so-called ‘oppressed nations’ forbids me from linking the fate of my own people with theirs.”

It was only during the war that Hitler would, in effect, be confronted in a far more practical and urgent form by the very same question of “linking” the Nazi cause to religiously-tinged Arab nationalism. And when he was, as Gensicke’s volume shows, he would find not only a willing ally, but also a kindred spirit, in Haj Amin Al-Husseini [mufti of Jerusalem].

Naturally, when that happened, Palestine loomed large in the conversation. Here is Hitler, writing to Al-Husseini in November 1941:

"Germany stands for an uncompromising struggle against the Jews. It is self-evident that the struggle against the Jewish national homeland in Palestine forms part of this struggle, since such a national homeland would be nothing other than a political base for the destructive influence of Jewish interests. Germany also knows that the claim that Jewry plays the role of an economic pioneer in Palestine is a lie. Only the Arabs work there, not the Jews. Germany is determined to call on the European nations one by one to solve the Jewish problem and, at the proper moment, to address the same appeal to non-European peoples."

But what is also surprising -- or not -- is that the other focus of the vague Nazi dreaming of a Middle Eastern policy was Iraq. The inescapable place:

After guiding the Arab Revolt from exile in Beirut, the mufti had in the meanwhile taken refuge in Iraq. There he allied himself with the pro-Axis circle around new Prime Minister Rashid Ali al-Gailani, who had recently replaced the pro-British Nuri as-Said. On August 26, an emissary of the mufti by the name of Osman Kemal Haddad met with Fritz Grobba of the German Foreign Office in Berlin. According to Grobba’s notes, Haddad asked for a declaration from Germany and Italy recognizing the right of the Arab countries to independence and “self-determination” and that they might resolve the “question of the Jewish element” just as Germany and Italy had done. In return, Haddad promised that Iraq would accord Germany and Italy “a privileged place” in its foreign relations: notably as concerns the “exploitation of Iraq’s mineral resources and in particular its oil reserves.”

That I did not know.


What do people think about the ongoing crisis involving the polygamist sect in Texas?

It's an honest question, since I've committed myself to write about it. My impulse is to be extremely wary of U.S. governments -- state, local, or federal -- pushing this kind of power into families or churches. However troubling the accusations about the sect may be.


I think I understand what Obama was doing.

Obama has come under fire by opponents after he told an audience in San Francisco last week that economic problems led voters in some small towns to become "bitter" and "cling to guns or religion" as an outlet for their frustrations.

He wasn't telling things as he sees them. He was trying to explain central Pennsylvania to San Francisco. To do that, he had to put it in language they understand, and leave out anything that is not allowed by their worldview.

Which is most of the things that are regarded as virtues or truths in Pennsyltucky.

It was a noble attempt at building national unity and transcending our differences by making the cast of "The Deer Hunter" comprehensible to the moonbats of Haight-Ashbury.

It wasn't Lincolnian, however. It was all very ... dare I say it ... Clintonian. In the Bill Clinton sense. Obama in '08 actually reminds me a lot of Bill Clinton in 1992.

Now what I'd like to see Obama do is sit down in some roadhouse in Perry County, order a Yuengling (all you do is say "lager," and they pour you one), and explain San Franciscans in the terms the locals can understand.

That would be a marvel.

Labels: ,

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Talking Behind Your Back

Via RSS:

As a blogger, I am a content creator. I don't want my content stolen, or reposted without attribution or under somebody else's name. But I am also a huge advocate of RSS and continuing to adapt where the conversation is being held. Just as my blog's RSS views have undoubtedly eclipsed my blog page views, I would not be surprised to see that more comments on my posts might eventually live outside of my blog. It would behoove me and other bloggers to be aware of the other places the conversation will be taking place, and to engage there, in my opinion, rather than railing against the continued evolution of how we're consuming content and engaging online.

On the one hand, I don't have time to go hunt down every discussion of my words (and defend them if they need it) on every RSS site. In the other hand, I'm too trivial to be noticed or commented-upon.

P.S.: What is an RSS? I'd be bluffing if I kept acting like I knew what the hell these people are talking about.

Wait, How About ...

Of course there's also "You've Got a Bitter Friend in Pennsylvania," but I'm too bitter to make it now.


The Future that Never Was

If Charles Babbage* had succeeded, Jules Verne might have used one of these.


* Babbage essentially invented the computer while Queen Victoria was still a young woman. Lord Byron's daughter, by Byron's detested mathematical wife, helped him do it in one degree or another that can not now be determined. That is, Babbage would have invented the modern computer had the technology been available. He hit upon the exact idea that makes a modern computer work, but the technology available to him was brass and wood. He did the best he could, but his machine never came close to being finished. The discovering had to be done all over again in the 1930s.

I'm a ...

Friday, April 11, 2008

ZOMG-bie Time

Usually Zombie Time is worth a visit if you want to see San Francisco -- the California of California -- at its moonbat best in protesting -- something or other the U.S. and its Jewish masters is said to be doing to itself or the rest of the world.

Well, here (in a Pajamas Media appearance), the mystery photographer covers the Olympic torch chaos that hit the city this week. Like me, he had a strange reaction to all this:

In an odd way this was the most disturbing protest I’d ever been to — because it thoroughly reconfigured the traditional political landscape. I’m no fan of the Chinese government, and for the most part sympathized with the causes of the protesters. Because of this I ended up on the same side as people whom I normally loathe — such as this guy, who I’ve seen many times at anti-Israel protest and who has more than once revealed himself to be an anti-Semite. And here I am, agreeing with him on Tibet. Very unnerving.

[The paragraph does not reference the guy in the above picture, by the way.]

Disturbing, but almost ... refreshing. We are not ever so far apart that we can't agree on something. To one group of people, that might make the rest of us potential monsters like the anti-Semites. To another set, it might mark them as redeemable by appeals to the same sense of justice or common sense that brings them out against China.

Or maybe it's just coincidental overlap of sanity and insanity, but I tend to think it leans toward validating Terence: Homo sum: humani nil a me alienum puto.

Looking at this set of photos, and not simply laughing at or recoiling from the people in them, also makes me recognize for the first time clearly what a good photographer this person is.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Iraq Roundup

A good roundup of recent Iraq evolutions, domestic and real, by Jules Crittenden

The mandate holders now fear the next president will face a quagmire in Iraq. They should. No cruel Capitol Hill quagmire jokes, please. Until they face the reality that war must be fought to win, and we have the strategy in place to do that, the kind of pandering half measures Clinton or Obama are likely to take are guaranteed to produce quagmire in Iraq. Unless they go ahead with utter abandonment, in which case quagmire rapidly becomes debacle.


Easy to Forget

It’s easy to forget, given the sensitivities that have been awakened in this country since 9/11, thrusting lifelong citizens under suspicion for having foreign-sounding names and subjecting visitors to the indignity of being fingerprinted, that America was conceived in a spirit of openness, as a land where people could build new identities, grounded in the present and the future, not the past.

Easy to forget if you work for The New York Times (book review section), of course. Easy to forget that you're mistaking your tunnel-vision of the most negative moments in the present years for the entire experience of America today, or that such suspicions and indignities are as old as Ellis Island or North Garrison or the Know-Nothing Party.


Is my knee-jerk reaction to this:

In Arabic, Muslims, Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians all pray to Allah. In English, however, Christians and Jews pray to God, and Allah is the Muslim deity. No one would think of using the word "Allah" to talk about any other religion. The two words, "God" and "Allah," do not mean the same thing in English. They should.

I'll admit "god" is a word spread too thin. And there ought to be a separate word for the God worshipped by the monotheistic religions, on the one hand, and a generic word used to designate the denizens of the Greek pantheon, say, or the Hindu temples, or even great figures in sports.

But to choose that particular word, untranslated, at this moment in history ...


The beauty of language is that it is always ultimately democratic; it is built up from the very roots of a people's existence. Attempts to impose it, "1984"-style, always are as short-lived as the regimes that impose them.

Polite people may choose to use "God" to describe the object of worship and submission in the Islamic religion -- and the author of the above piece allows this as one possible solution. But those who read the scriptures of both faiths and do not find a continuity or identity between the voices speaking in them should not be dragooned into linguistic lock-step for the sake of global political correctness.

Rushdie's People

Maybe that's who we are, as people of essentially liberal inclination but continuously steered away from that herd by awareness of its blind spots and reality's stones and thorns. Most jarringly by 9/11 but not in any sense exclusively on that day.

Having graduated from Cambridge in 1968, his politics were not untypical of his generation and class. There was an implied, and often explicit, criticism of western hegemony in his work. In The Satanic Verses, he writes of 'the Coca-Colonization of the planet' and refers to New York as the 'transatlantic New Rome with its Nazified architectural gigantism, which employed the oppressions of size to make its human occupants feel like worms'.

Rushdie still has his criticisms of America, where he lives for much of the time in the architectural gigantism of New York, but they are now moderated by a keener appreciation of the freedoms and advantages of western democracy. He remains a committed multiculturalist. 'I couldn't exist were it not for that transcultural movement. So obviously I'm biased. I do think, still think, there's a lot to celebrate about this mixture. If you live in a city like this or New York it's not possible to imagine it as monocultural. So in a sense it's clearly an enriching aspect of our daily lives.'

But he now has reservations about the direction that cultural diversity has taken. 'What I worry about and don't like,' he says, 'is the way in which the ideology of multiculturalism has declined into cultural relativism. I think that's very dangerous. When the Archbishop of Canterbury, for God's sake, says that you can't have one law for everybody ... that's stupid.'

Rushdie would argue, with some justification, that he was never a proponent of cultural relativism. Nevertheless the event that made him an outspoken opponent was the fatwa on his life issued by the Ayatollah Khomeini on Valentine's Day in 1989. It was a defining moment in the cultural wars that have grown dramatically more political in recent years. Two hundred years after the Enlightenment, an author was under sentence of death for writing fiction. Suddenly all those beliefs, such as freedom of expression, that seemed so basic to literary and liberal life that no one bothered mentioning them were put to the ultimate life-and-death test.

And a number of writers, among them Germaine Greer, John Berger and John Le Carré, came down on the cultural relativist side of the argument. Their feeling was that, in not showing sufficient cultural sensitivity, Rushdie was the author of his troubles. Meanwhile Rushdie found himself in the strange position of having to rely on the support of the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, and agencies of the establishment - Special Branch and the intelligence services - of which he had been stern critic. Did this affect his feelings towards the establishment?

'Yes,' he says, 'sort of. I only met Margaret Thatcher twice. The thing that I thought about meeting her was how extraordinarily intelligent she was. You really had to be on your game otherwise she'd make mincemeat of you.'

He developed not just an admiration, but a fondness for many people he came to know within the security and intelligence services. 'I've met a lot of Special Branch officers both at the everyday and higher levels and, with one or two exceptions, I liked all of them. I still have, improbably, quite a lot of friends in the British Special Branch.'

The only unkind words he has are reserved for the Foreign Office, which he found untrustworthy. 'I've always been able to handle anything as long as people are straight with you,' he says. 'Deviousness I can't deal with. That's not to my taste.'


There was a brief reprise last year when Rushdie was awarded a knighthood. A few opportunists in Pakistan, and clowns like Lord Ahmed over here, tried to generate a firestorm of protest, but it came to nothing.

Though it did produce one golden vignette on Question Time, when Shirley Williams argued that the knighthood was 'not very clever' because Rushdie had 'deeply offended Muslims in a very powerful way', and he had 'been protected by the British police for many years at great expense to the taxpayer'. The Liberal Democrat Baroness was then taken apart by Rushdie's friend, Christopher Hitchens.


Since 2001, he's been joined in the political arena by a number of fellow authors, some of whom have taken up a more prominent, and sometimes more controversial, position than Rushdie.

'I think, fair enough,' says Rushdie. 'It's a big subject that everybody's thinking about. I don't agree with all Christopher Hitchens's views but that doesn't stop him being my friend. And I don't agree with everything Martin [Amis] said, but he's entirely entitled to say it without being abused in the way that he was.'


The point for Rushdie, however, is that he and his friends remain on the progressive side of the argument. 'My instincts are completely liberal, but I do think we live in a very weird world and we do need to realise that the world has changed. And when Martin, Ian [McEwan] and I say that we get called conservative. But,' he emphatically adds, 'we're not conservative.'

Labels: ,

Wednesday, April 09, 2008


I've been slowly weeding out the blogroll. It's a sad process, because many of the logs that have gone dark were so well written or so sane. Only the shrill survive, it seems sometimes. I had known for a long time that many of them were inactive, but I gave them time to come back to life.

Generally I axed ones that haven't posted since February and didn't indicate a move to a new venue. If I dropped you and you have a new home, please let me know. Also, if any of the readers have a site in mind they think I ought to link to, please post a comment about it. Thanks!


Some Day My Prints Will Come

This seems likely to be overturned:

Elaine Huguenin co-owns Elane Photography with her husband. The bulk of Elane's work is done by Elaine, though she subcontracts some of the work some of the time. Elane refused to photograph Vanessa Willock's same-sex commitment ceremonies, and just today the New Mexico Human Rights Commission held that this violated state antidiscrimination law. Elane has been ordered to pay over $6600 in attorney's fees and costs.

After all, this is America, not, uuh ... Canada.