Thursday, July 31, 2008

History Matters

Herodotus, goddamn it.

This New Yorker piece eventually gets it right for a long stretch. But it opens with the highbrow journalist's (or is it the New Yorker's?) condescension to "this ostensibly archaic epic" and closes with a barf-making moral equivalence passage -- America is the Persian Empire, see! Bush I is Darius! Bush II is Xerxes! Iraq is Greece! The mighty, evil empire loses and fails! Which I guess means bin Laden, al-Sadr, and the grubby beheaders of Baqouba are Leonidas and Callimachus, eh, smart guy? Didn't go there, did you? But you edged around it so tightly you can't prevent the thought from finishing in your reader's mind, if not on your page. And it's repulsive.

Time always tells, as he himself knew so well. However silly he may once have looked, Herodotus, it seems, has had the last laugh.

I don't think he's laughing, and I don't think he ever looked as silly, even to you and your friends, as you do now.

The discovery that great works of the past are not dusty and dull, but share stylistic qualities with the radically modern, is nothing new. It could only surprise a journalist. Someone who never had heard how Tolkien rescued "Beowulf" from the philologists. "Cinematic" is the praise-word the surprised discoverers usually bestow, as though people of the past never made big pictures in their heads before Hollywood put them into dark rooms to watch movies. Sure enough, it turns up here.

Here is where the reviewer (Daniel Mendelsohn) get it wrong while getting it right:

But the persistent appeal of such scenes, in which the outnumbered Greeks unexpectedly triumph over the masses of Persian invaders, is ultimately less a matter of storytelling than of politics. Although Herodotus is unwilling to be anything but neutral on the relative merits of monarchy, oligarchy, and democracy (in a passage known as the “Debate on Government,” he has critical things to say about all three), he ultimately structures his presentation of the war as a kind of parable about the conflict between free Western societies and Eastern despotism. (The Persians are associated with motifs of lashing, binding, and punishment.) While he isn’t shy about portraying the shortcomings of the fractious Greek city-states and their leaders, all of them, from the luxury-loving Ionians to the dour Spartans, clearly share a desire not to answer to anyone but their own leaders.

Anyone, at any rate, was preferable to the Persian overlord Xerxes, who in Herodotus’ narrative is the subject of a magisterial portrait of corrupted power. No one who has read the Histories is likely to forget the passage describing the impotent rage of Xerxes when his engineers’ first attempt to create a bridge from Asia to Europe across the Hellespont was washed away by a storm: after commanding that the body of water be lashed three hundred times and symbolically fettered (a pair of shackles was tossed in), he chastised the “bitter water” for wronging him, and denounced it as “a turbid and briny river.” More practically, he went on to have the project supervisors beheaded.

Herodotus’ Xerxes is, however, a character of persuasive complexity, the swaggering cruelty alternating with childish petulance and sudden, sentimental paroxysms of tears: it’s a personality likely to remind contemporary audiences of a whole panoply of dangerous dictators, from Nero to Hitler. One of the great, unexpected moments in the Histories, evoking the emotional finesse of the best fiction, comes when Xerxes, reviewing the ocean of forces he has assembled for the invasion, suddenly breaks down, “overcome,” as he puts it to his uncle Artabanus (who has warned against the enterprise), “by pity as I considered the brevity of human life.” Such feeling for human life, in a dictator whose casual indifference to it is made clear throughout the narrative, is a convincing psychological touch. The unstable leader of a ruthlessly centralized authoritarian state is a nightmare vision that has plagued the sleep of liberal democracies ever since Herodotus created it.

It's the stories in the histories that matter most. As in poetry and fiction. They teach us to be fully human. Not political. Not creatures of faction, class, race, or gender. But human. The great stories are stories of people, and ultimately there is no difference between the heroes whose names stand in memory after 2,500 years and those you never heard of, still living,

Some village-Hampden, that with dauntless breast
The little tyrant of his fields withstood,

or the slingers and foot-soldiers in the Anabasis, which is why we tell the stories over and over to ourselves and teach them to our children. This is what people can do! Even when all around them looks bleak!

It wasn't Xerxes' rage at the waves that I most remembered from that part of the story. It was what came just after in Herodotus' account:

As he marched out the army, Pythias the Lydian, dreading the heavenly omen and encouraged by the gifts given to him by Xerxes, came up to Xerxes and said, "Master, I wish to ask a favor of you, which would be a small favor for you to render, but would be a great favor for me to receive." Xerxes, thinking that he knew everything Pythias could ask for, answered that he would grant the favor and asked him to proclaim what it was he wished. "Master, it happens that I have five sons, and they are all bound to soldier for you against the Greeks. I pray you, king, that you have pity on one who has reached my age and that you set free one of my sons, even the oldest, from your army, so that he may provide for me and my possessions. Take the other four with you, and may you return having accomplished all you intended."

Xerxes flew into a horrible rage and replied, "You villainous man, you have the effrontery, seeing me marching with my army against the Greeks, with my sons and brothers and relatives and friends, to remind me of your son, you, my slave, who should rather come with me with your entire household, including your wife! You may now be certain of this, that since the spirit lives in a man's ears, hearing good words it fills the body with delight, when it hears the opposite it swells up. When you at one time performed well and promised more, you had no reason to boast that you outperformed your king in benefits; and now that you have turned most shameless, you shall receive less than what you deserve. You and four of your sons are saved because of your hospitality; but one of your sons, the one you most desire to hold your arms around, will lose his life!" Having answered thus, he commanded those charged to accomplish this to find the eldest of Pythias's sons and cut him in half, and having cut him in two to set one half of his corpse on the right side of the road and the other on the left side, and between these the army moved forth.

Which sounds rather unlike George W. Bush and a great deal like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. West is still West, East East, despite progressive polemics and the false weathercock of journalism.


Tuesday, July 29, 2008


In researching the history of the federal highway system, I came across this account of its birth, full of fascinating anecdote and prominently featuring one of the favorite figures of this blog, Gen. Lucius D. Clay.

When Sherman Adams, the President's Chief Assistant, asked who should serve on the committee, the President said, "Call General Clay."

In a biography of Clay, Jean Edward Smith quoted an oral history interview in which General Clay recalled how he became involved in the President's Advisory Committee:

Sherman Adams called me down. This was in August 1954. We had lunch with the President, and they were concerned about the economy. We were facing a possible recession, and he wanted to have something on the books that would enable us to move quickly if we had to go into public works. He felt that a highway program was very important.

It's interesting to me that the national highway system often is presented, even by historians, as a Cold War solution to the problem of mobilizing a huge military or evacuating cities in the case of nuclear war. Those were part of the rationale that the government used to sell the plan. But the reasons discussed at the time of birth, apparently, focused on other fears from the early Cold War era: that with World War II over, the Great Depression would return.

In selecting members of the committee, General Clay's idea was that, "If we were going to build highways, I wanted people who knew something about it." He chose Steve Bechtel of Bechtel Corporation, Sloan Colt of Bankers' Trust Company, Bill Roberts of Allis-Chalmers Manufacturing Company, and Dave Beck of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. He chose them because, he said, "They knew what the highway system was all about" He added:

Steve Bechtel had more experience in the construction field than anyone in America. He wasn't involved in road building, but had a comprehensive knowledge of the construction industry. Bill Roberts built construction equipment; he knew what the problems were there. Mr. Colt was experienced in finance. We had to determine how we wanted to finance this, and so his experience was invaluable. And Dave Beck of the Teamsters certainly had an interest in highways, and he gave us labor representation.

... Although these men "knew what highways were about and how important they were," as Clay put it, none of them had been involved in the business of road building. Clay had rejected the suggestions he received from colleagues that he select such individuals as Robert Moses, the New York road builder, or a representative of the American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHO). He thought they represented "special interests" with preconceived ideas.

Which is typical Clay. People with the deepest knowledge of the sort of problems to be tackled. But not one of them an insider.

Where, today, would you find the equivalent of "Dave Beck of the Teamsters" to serve on such a board? Beck, ultimately convicted of corruption, may not have been a sterling choice even then. But does anyone think we're better off for not having "labor representation" in such a situation? With the direct challenge of communism -- not the wretched Soviet Union but the ideal of a worker-run economy -- a mere historical memory, do hardhats no longer count when important decisions are made?


The Post-Cold War Candidacy

Gregory Scoblete (generally anti-Iraq War) asks, Will Obama Really Withdraw from Iraq? Which also might be titled, "Why Can't Barack be More Like Chomsky?"

The only way for Obama to truly deliver on his pledge to "end the war" in Iraq is to sketch out a new American compact with the Middle East - one that breaks fairly radically with the conventions of the past. This is not the same as promising bargaining instead of bombs and bluster, or arguing, as Obama has frequently done, that our resources are more urgently needed elsewhere. Rather, it is about recasting the debate over Iraq and the Middle East from what is the "responsible" thing to do to a debate about what we are responsible for.

He nonetheless asks a lot of good questions, which many Obama-skeptics on the right have not quite framed as well as he does.

To believe that Obama is serious about ending America's commitment to Iraq is to assume either that the progress Iraq has made to date is irreversible (which almost no one believes) or that he has placed the removal of U.S. troops from Iraq ahead of other regional interests. After all, it is impossible to maintain America's traditional sense of responsibility over events in the Middle East and simultaneously remove large numbers of troops from Iraq, come what may.

And this, which certainly is on target:

For many, Obama's reluctance to challenge the current principles of America's involvement in the Middle East is a reassuring "move to the center." To others, it is a reminder of how narrow the debate on foreign policy really is. Rather than debate the ends of American policy, we debate the means.

Followed by this provocative idea:

Such a narrow debate is one of the unintended consequences of America's Cold War victory. A broad, bi-partisan agreement on the nature of U.S. interests and the threat posed to them by the Soviet Union was vital - it allowed the United States to consistently contain communism even as presidential administrations (and thus tactics) changed.

Much like this consensus, our interests in the Middle East are largely derived from the Cold War era, when American power-balancing was necessary to reduce Soviet influence. Rather than adjust those interests when the threat from global communism disappeared, Washington remained content with the status quo. Today, our presidential candidates debate the utility of their policies in advancing agreed upon interests. They debate within the status quo.

I'll have to mull that over some more, since I recognize that I have a reflexive tendency to cast contemporary problems in terms of the Cold War, therefore I don't trust my snap judgments. It is undeniable that the Cold War severely warped America, and that our minds have not yet stopped flowing through the channels it carved in them. It's also true that U.S. journalism's fixation with the present tense overlooks even recent historical influences. That "journalism" includes blogs. So the Cold War is often the obvious thing left out in discussions of modern America and its policies.

Scoblete thus suggests Obama "fashion himself as a 'post Cold War' candidate, willing to realign America's foreign policy in response to the world as we find it today." One problem with that is that the Cold War warped the rest of the world, too. The modern geopolitical landscape is a post-Cold War battlefield, littered with rusting artillery and unexploded mines. Saddam was a bit of both.

His sunny expectation that Middle Eastern governments, left to themselves, would act in rational economic self-interest, that (he is quoting other writers here) "Middle-Eastern governments have even more incentive than do consuming states to worry about the security of oil production facilities, ports, and shipping lanes," seems overly hopeful. Didn't Iraq and Iran in the 1980s give the lie to that?

Scoblete attempts to sketch how Obama could take that path and dovetail it not with the anti-war movement, but with mainstream American politics, including conservative pathways. Good reading for those who like to be challenged.

[Hat tip, The Glittering Eye]

Somewhat along the same lines, the indispensable Brit David Aaronovitch reminds his fellow Brits, Eventually, we will all hate Obama too.

George W. Bush, of course, represents a particular kind of offence to European sensibilities. He blew out Kyoto, instead of pretending to care about it and then not implementing it, which is what our hypocrisies require. He took no exquisite pains to make us feel consulted. He invaded Iraq in the name of freedom and then somehow allowed torturers to photograph each other in the fallen dictator's house of tortures. He is not going to run Franklin Roosevelt a close race for nomination as the second greatest president of the US.

But even if he had been a half-Chinese ballet-loving Francophone, he would have been hated by some who should have loved him, for there isn't an American president since Eisenhower who hasn't ended up, at some point or other, being depicted by the world's cartoonists as a cowboy astride a phallic missile. It happened to Bill Clinton when he bombed Iraq; it will happen to Mr Obama when his reinforced forces in Afghanistan or Pakistan mistake a meeting of tribal elders for an unwise gathering of Taleban and al-Qaeda. Then the new president (or, if McCain, the old president) will be the target of that mandarin Anglo-French conceit that our superior colonialism somehow gives us the standing to critique the Yank's naive and inferior imperialism.

Often those who express their tiresome anti-Americanism will suggest, as do some of the more disingenuous anti-Zionists with regard to anti-Semitism - that they, of course, are not anti-American, and that no one really is. But, coming as I do from an Anti-American tradition that wasn't afraid to proclaim itself, I think I know where the corpses are interred. For example, the current production of Bernstein's Candide at the English National Opera is a classic of elite anti-Americanism, in which we are invited to laugh at the philistine invocation of “Democracy, the American Way and McDonald's”. The laughter that accompanied this feeble satire showed our proper understanding that we, the audience, had a proper concept of democracy, and would never soil ourselves with an Egg McMuffin.

At which point it might be pertinent to note that Egg McMuffins are selling like hotcakes in Europe right now.

Europe is now McDonald's largest region by revenues, despite having roughly one-quarter the number of outlets as the US. Last year, revenues from company stores and royalties from franchisees topped $8.9 billion in Europe, compared with $7.9 billion in the US. It's a trend that analysts expect to continue when the world's biggest restaurant group reports second-quarter results on July 23. West expects US sales to rise by 3.4 percent, vs. 9 percent for Europe (19 percent if you include the foreign currency impact). This year, he reckons, McDonald's, the most American of brands, will generate 55 percent of its earnings outside the US.

McDonalds now serves more than 10 million customers a day in Europe. But there's a secret: They do it by being just a little less like McDonalds, and a little more like Europe:

McDonald's kept its trademark golden arches logo in Europe but got rid of the red accompanying it. Instead, restaurants feature a warm burgundy color. The pointy roofs are being phased out and replaced by simple olive green facades, and the bright neon lights in the restaurants were dimmed.

"French fries and cheeseburgers remain the best-selling items," the article notes, but even that might change:

"A huge chunk of the company's success comes from giving locals the kind of foods they like, instead of force-feeding American menu items to them," said Ron Paul, president of Technomic Inc., a Chicago-based restaurant research firm.

There's porridge in Britain and pasta freshly cooked to order in Italy. In France, there's a smaller-sized burger on a ciabatta roll slathered with a sophisticated mustard sauce — and served with a glass of wine.

The goal, you see, is not to bulldoze the world's cultures into one generic, bland mash. It's not even to force Romanian peasants to love McNuggets. It's to separate people from their money in a way that makes them feel like they're getting a good deal. And for all we know, measured in their terms, they are.

That's a hard game to beat us at. European philosophical approaches have attempted it for decades, generally with miserable results:

A group of young communist militants had proudly gone from France to Moscow in 1930. They enrolled at the Lenin School for foreign Communists and dutifully imbibed the texts of Marx, Engels, and Lenin; they also undertook training in handling guns and conducting clandestine correspondence. The idea was that the French Communist Party should acquire a cadre of able potential leaders for the political struggles ahead. The curriculum also involved some weeks of work in a Russian factory. The French delegation had come to the USSR with an assumption about the effortless superiority of Russia’s workers as a revolutionary vanguard, so the sloppiness of the Soviet labor force came as a shock. Russian workers, unlike the French workers they knew intimately, lacked conscientiousness: They turned up late and did as little work as they could get away with, and they were uninterested in outsiders suggesting ways to improve efficiency. Waldeck Rochet, a young Frenchman, said to his friend Henri Barbé: “Were we to tell the French workers what we’re seeing here, they’d throw cooked apples at us. But we’re caught in a trap and compelled to stay.”


Monday, July 28, 2008

On Account of You I Nearly Heard

The Opry.


Friday, July 25, 2008

Question for You

Do you think race relations in the U.S. will be better or worse after an Obama presidency? And why?

Whose Camel, Whose Tent

This is what happens when you decide to get involved in the Middle East.

We, the mighty superpower, think we're helping a weak and downtrodden country choose its leaders. Too late we learn they're helping us choose ours. Clever, clever people. Terrible at winning wars, but never lost an intrigue if a Western power was on the other side of it.

Nader is Right

About this.

Independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader came to Harrisburg Thursday with unfinished business on his mind.

Nader wants relief from an $81,102 penalty for legal costs following court battles over his presidential nomination petition in 2004. He said he will file a challenge with the state Supreme Court.

Nader said those damages should be dropped in light of criminal charges brought this month by Attorney General Tom Corbett against 12 people with ties to the state House Democratic caucus. Among allegations of illegal activities, Corbett said House Democratic staffers were deployed on state time in a successful effort to get Nader knocked off the ballot four years ago.

One hundred percent right. The fines at least should be suspended pending the outcome of the investigation.

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Council Winners

This week's Council Winners have been posted. Soccer Dad is the host; the longtime admiral has sadly left the helm of the ship, but it sails on.

First place in the council went to Who knew? from right here. My thanks for the votes.

Second place was a tie between
Deconstructing the Socialists War On Law & Order In Britain
at Wolf Howling and The moral of the story at Bookworm Room, which I recommend to fellow lovers of literature.

Votes also went to Horribly Wrong Part II by Soccer Dad, and Speak truth to power - just not to educators at The Razor.

Outside the council, the winner was Soldiers Recount Deadly Attack On Afghan Outpost at Stars and Stripes, a solid piece of writing, but I didn't vote for it because it wasn't a blog post.

Votes also went to When it’s Obama’s War by council alumnus Right Wing Nuthouse; “Obama Overflies Iraqi Mass Graves”, a take-off on alternate history by Confederate Yankee; Spot the Smiley Fascism by Colonel Robert Neville; The War is Over. We Won by the unstoppable Michael Yon; and Are We There Yet? Victory in Iraq and the 2008 Election by Baseball Crank. Interesting piece, but I'm surprised a sports fan would risk incurring the jinx by using "victory" in reference to a game still in progress.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Liberal Conservatives

The way we talk about "conservative" and "liberal" (or "progressive") as eternal enemies masks something: There is, for instance, liberal conservatism.

Self-identifying conservatives, when they meet it, hardly know what to make of it and stare at it like a farmer with a two-headed calf.

Like this:

Alice Waters might not seem like a conservative. A veteran of Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement, who once cooked a $25,000-a-seat fundraising dinner for Bill Clinton, she eagerly compares her campaign for “edible schoolyards” — where children work with instructors to grow, prepare, and eat fresh produce — to John F. Kennedy’s attempt to improve physical fitness through mandatory exercise. Her dream of organic, locally and sustainably produced food in every school cafeteria, class credit for lunch hour, and required gardening time and cooking classes is as utopian as they come. The name she has given her gastronomic movement, the “Delicious Revolution,” strikes the ear as one part fuzzy-headed Marxism, the other Brooksian bobo-speak. This woman is not, as they say, one of us.

But by the end of this cover story in the "American Conservative," the crusade has been recast in terms of values, republican virtue, and libertarian action:

Renewing the culinary culture, and restoring the kinds of values that are necessary for the proper functioning of a healthy republic, is not the sort of thing that can be left to activists, environmentalists, and government bureaucrats. This is a conservative cause if ever there was one, and it is going to have to begin at home. The revolution is coming. And it’s sure to be delicious.

The writer can only come around to this notion by the roadways of his own ideological landscape -- by explaining that the prevailing mass-market and junk food culture is an outcome of central planning and excess government interference in the market. I'm not qualified to judge that, but my guess is it's more complicated than that (or that the same argument could be applied in other areas -- suburban tract housing, for example -- where the writer might not like it as much). Yet having cleansed the hippie Garden of Eatin' with a wave of his ideological fetishes, he may now safely enter therein.

Intellectual conservatism -- left or right -- is not historical re-enactment. It doesn't merely strive to save the past or seek to revive it in its full odor. It fights to preserve virtues and folkways that have been known to work, over time. And confronting new realities, it prefers the known devil to the new one.

Historians can tell you the past in our heads always is better than the reality was. We wish to conserve a better past, a carefully chosen past. This continual process of preserving-while-cleansing is a slow but sure way to make people better. By this method, as James Bowman might tell you, vicious, selfish honor codes like those that we abhor in modern Middle Eastern societies, which once prevailed among the peoples of Europe, morphed into medieval chivalry and eventually into the world of the Victorian Christian gentlemen.

Historical liberals -- not the minds our debased political language confines to that label -- would be doing this deliberately: They would understand people's reflexive reverence for their national and cultural heritage and use the best qualities in that heritage, stripped of the ugliness of the past, to herd the present toward the future. And they would have been unafraid of words like "virtue," "honor," and "morality." They would not have used them as James Dobson does. But they would have used them without shame.

In a 1995 Bradley Lecture at the American Enterprise Institute on the virtues of Victorian morality, Gertrude Himmelfarb, the conservative social historian, said:

It is this reluctance to speak the language of morality, and to apply moral ideas to social policies, that separates us from the Victorians. In Victorian England, moral principles were as much a part of public discourse as of private discourse, and as much a part of social policy as of personal life. Every measure of poor relief, for example, had to justify itself by showing that it would promote the moral as well as the material well-being of the poor -- and not only of the pauper receiving relief but of the independent laboring poor as well. In recent times we have so completely rejected any kind of moral principle that we have deliberately, systematically divorced poor relief from moral sanctions and incentives. We are now confronting the consequences of this policy. Having made the most valiant attempt to see the problem of poverty as the product of impersonal economic and social forces, we are now discovering that the economic and social aspects are inseparable from the moral and personal ones. And having made the most determined effort to devise policies that are ‘value free,’ that do not stigmatize the recipients of relief or the ‘style of life,’ we find that these policies imperil both the moral and the material well-being of their intended beneficiaries.

What happened between then and now is a great knot waiting to be cut, a knot with 100 threads called the 20th Century.

Us and Them

For some reason the TypeKey comment registration program never works for me, even though I have an account there and log into it. Michael J. Totten uses it at his site, and thus I am unable to comment there. He has a recent post up about the sad state of affairs in Lebanon. One weakness of blogs is that the first comment on a thread often can be a hijacker, and that was the case (deliberately or not) with this one. Someone going by the handle Good Democrat posted this:

All those who resort to the constant use of violence are doomed in the long run. One of the things that fell the massive Roman Empire is its constant warmongering. Americans should take note. Hezbollah should take note. Hamas should take note. Al-Qaeda should take note.

It's off and running from there, with other commenters trying to knock this down and often not quite hitting the mark. Here's what I would have added:

America is not averse to using violence to confront violent movements and governments -- those that only understand carnage and resort to compromise or diplomacy only when all bloody avenues seem temporarily blocked. That sets us apart from much of the rest of the modern West and irritates a great many Americans, such as, probably, Good Democrat. It does not, however, make us the moral equivalent of Hamas or Islamic Jihad or al Qaida.

It seems prudent, to me, to reserve the right and preserve the ability to tangle with vicious, fanatical, honor-obsessed organizations in a way they will fear and respect.

Having thews of honor culture and a respect for the prudent use of force also makes us -- or, typically, our military professional class -- more suited to understanding such qualities and working with them when that need arises, as it has in many places in Iraq.

In other cases, America is capable of diplomacy and occasionally even good at it. Even when dealing with the Soviet Union in its worst nightmares, we were able to maintain a mostly diplomatic relationship that kept the violence (there was plenty of it) on the sidelines and under the rugs. I doubt Hezbollah could have gone 15 minutes without chunking a missile at someone under similar circumstances.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Rock the Nanny State

Poking around on the Happy Flu chart I landed on this clever site and found this story, which, maybe everybody blogged the living hell out of it when it was published but I was on vacation that week so I never noticed. Anyway, I'm grinning at it tonight. Straight out of Manchester, England:

Unable to afford a proper camera crew and equipment, The Get Out Clause, an unsigned band from the city, decided to make use of the cameras seen all over British streets.

With an estimated 13 million CCTV cameras in Britain, suitable locations were not hard to come by.

They set up their equipment, drum kit and all, in eighty locations around Manchester – including on a bus – and proceeded to play to the cameras.

Afterwards they wrote to the companies or organisations involved and asked for the footage under the Freedom of Information Act.

"We wanted to produce something that looked good and that wasn't too expensive to do," guitarist Tony Churnside told Sky News.

Little Engines

The place where I now live is a deeply conservative place. It is powerfully Republican, but that's not what makes it conservative. It's conservative because people here keep doing things the same way long after everyone else has given it up.

There was a bank here that had been around since the National Bank Act of 1863. It was one of the original U.S.-backed banks, and it was where local people had stashed their pennies since Lincoln was president. But it grew too fast and got out of its depth after deregulation, and last year it collapsed when regulators looked at the books and discovered a huge amount of fraudulent loans to companies far out of state. It got bought up by a big commercial bank from the other end of the state.

The new owners formally took charge this summer. When the future writes the history of America, it may pick up on little things as signs of our impending decline; the rattle of loose lugs in the hub that, in retrospect, signals the wheels are starting to come off.

They may pick the moment, sometime in the 1980s as far as I can tell, when a passbook savings account became a waste of time and money for Americans. Banks basically began to make sure anything you made in interest on a savings account would be eaten up in fees.

Around here, typically, it took a little longer. My son, now 17, got a savings account when he started earning a little money. We wanted him to see how money put away now, rather than taken at a run to the comic book store, can be there when you need it. Also to see how money can grow. This last was dubious, though. When I was a kid you could make 4 percent a year in a savings account or better. My son got a measly 1 percent. But at least he was saving.

More than money grows. Turning to see if anyone is behind you before you let a door swing shut. Holding on to the candy wrapper till you reach the trash can at the end of the block rather than letting it fly from your hand onto the sidewalk the minute you pop the treat into your mouth. Turning off the lights when you leave the room. Little things learned young grow into habits of mind that become behaviors. They are the scaffolds of character. You do it through your life because it feels right, even if most likely the trash can already is overflowing because people have stuffed their household garbage into it. The world, or at least the neighborhood or nation where you live, is just a little brighter than it might have been without you. Which is, in the end, what makes a life worth it.

The new bank sent out notices to savings account holders this month. To keep an active savings account, you had to keep a minimum of $400 in it. And if you made more than three withdrawals a year from it, the minimum rose to some exorbitant figure, $1,500, I think. Translation: We are a big bank that deals with big, important customers. You are not one. We don't want your pennies.

A few years ago I read an article in the Kansas City Star, now unfortunately no longer at the Web address where I then found it. It was datelined Waukegan, Ill., and it told the story of a group of children singled out by comedian Jack Benny for a comical gift of trust funds "in the whopping amount of $39."

Benny's whole schtick -- vain and stingy, among other things -- is ancient history now, so the savings account story takes some explaining. "The story started on Oct. 5, 1961, the day a junior high school was named in Benny's honor in Waukegan, which he often mentioned on his popular radio and TV programs.

Benny announced that he would show his gratitude for the honor by starting $39 trust funds for every baby born in the city on that day.

He hoped that money would grow with interest over the years and become a nice bonus when they turned 39, Benny's mythic age.

But the joke flopped. By the time the Waukegan kids hit 39, the accounts were dead.

[Doug] Jondal remembers his Benny Baby bank statements being the first mail he ever received. Because the account wasn't active and below $100, the bank began charging fees, he said.

"Whenever they added a nickel interest, it was offset by a charge that kept it from ever going over $100," he said.

Jondal thinks he finally got a $98 check from the bank when he was in his late teens and probably spent it on a motorcycle tire or motocross gear. Though Benny Baby status wasn't a defining moment in his life, Jondal said he's glad it happened.

It's history now. Those kids, like many of the rest of us who were little kids in the 1960s, had an experience our children never will now. Whether it tutored us in the habits of thrift or not is an open question. What's not open to question is that our children won't have the chance. The neighborhood, and the nation, won't either.

Of Course They're Revolting

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Happy Flu

See if this works ....

As Sinatra Would Say

"That's life".

Noooooooooooooooo, I screamed at him. He jumped. “Whats wrong? What happened?”

You just drowned my ants!

A Southern Story

The Civil War in black and white.

He asked [Newspaper publisher W.T.] Anderson to help start a Christmas fund for the old soldiers. Anderson, said Pittman, "jumped all over it" and had an article written about Yopp's life and what he was trying to do for the soldiers' home.

They hoped to raise $100, Pittman said.

"The readers of The Telegraph just loved it. Schoolchildren were raising money, and churches, and before they knew it, they had $200."

The fund drive became an annual event, with the money presented to the veterans during a holiday program at the home. The Dec. 23, 1918, edition of The Telegraph ran a photo of Bill Yopp "playing Santa" and presenting a cake and other "goodies" to Thomas Yopp - and $175 to the home.

Gov. Hugh Dorsey attended at least one of the programs and "took Bill under his wing," Pittman said.

The governor arranged for him to speak at the state Capitol to a group of influential politicians. Yopp convinced them to reinstate the pension in 1920.

Bill Yopp, the dynamic philanthropist on the newspaper staff, and Thomas Yopp, the impoverished veteran languishing in the institution, weren't brothers. They weren't even related. Bill was a former slave. Thomas, a Confederate captain, was his former owner and master.

Nice to see a modern newspaper tell the story.

57 States

This happened a few weeks ago, when Dick Cheney said the Chinese were drilling for oil a few dozen miles off the U.S. coast and then backtracked and said he had been misinformed about that.

The newspaper where I work ran a story about that. Of course, Cheney looked foolish; he should have known better.

The next day, I was on the wire desk and a call came in from a surly reader. He demanded that we also print, and play prominently, a story about Obama having made some reference to "57 states" in the U.S.

I told him, no, we weren't going to do that. For one, Obama's gaffe had happened a couple of weeks ago and wasn't news. I might also have added that a verbal flub by a candidate was one thing, and a key misconception by a high-ranking administration member was another.

The caller hung up utterly disgusted with me and confirmed in his notion that his media was biased. Well, he had a point, but it wasn't the one he was making. It was closer to the one this site made about the same time.

After the conversation ended, some of the other editors, including the editorial writer, came over and asked me what it was about (the tone of the exchange obviously had been hostile). I explained what the man had said. And I discovered that not one of the other journalists I worked with had heard anything about the "57 states" gaffe.

Now, this is a crew that can go on for hours and hours reciting Bush II garbles, from his candidacy as well as his presidency. They still can do Bush I mockery like 1990 was just yesterday. They even have on the tip of their tongues slips and boners from the Reagan administration. Any mention of "ketchup" sure to be followed by, "and that's a vegetable, you know. Reagan said so."

They were so surprised by Obama having said something even Dan Quayle didn't manage that they had to look it up online before they believed it. It has never been mentioned in the office again.

Hee. Haw.

The syndicated newspaper TV columnist our paper publishes every day has a fairly conventional journalistic progressive/left worldview, which I know because, being a columnist, he has no need to muzzle himself. You might not think writing about TV shows would offer much opportunity to preach political and social agendas, but there's always a PBS documentary or a CNN special report to hang it on.

Or even typical prime time sitcom fare. Here he is writing (for tomorrow) about some new show that tries to make hay out of the usual joke-butts: redneck rural Southern Americans.

"The stereotypes of trailer-park denizens, Texas bars, church ladies gone astray and Valium-guzzling women with big hair may be off-putting to some, but I can’t imagine they are the target audience for 'Sordid Lives' anyway."

OK, now do the usual substitutions -- stereotypes of any ethnic/social/sexual/religious subgroup for the one described above -- and see if you still think "but it's OK, because they're not the ones who are supposed to be watching it." One wonders if the columnist (one Kevin McDonough) feels that way, too. Or if, deciding his first justification doesn't quite work, he's got another one beside "but it's OK because I think the world is better when one subgroup is mocked and belittled in front of the nation for our entertainment."

Monday, July 21, 2008

Who's sayin' "Hussein?"

QC Examiner picks out the nut from a recent poll:

[A] recent Pew Research Center Report says that the belief that Obama is a Muslim is bipartisan — 12% of both Republicans and Democats believe this.

Further, the poll found that questions about Obama’s faith appear to have a strong influence on candidate preference among the Democrats who either believe Obama is a Muslim or who didn’t know his religious beliefs. Republicans — not so much.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Who Knew

We live in a time when the gap between what people think has happened and what has happened is enormous. The Iraqi antiquities museums and ancient archaeological sites were carefully preserved for decades, then damaged by the wanton American attack on Saddam in 2003 and viciously looted of everything after the invasion because the U.S. did not protect them. Except they weren't, apparently. But it will take a generation at least for reality to catch up to a politically convenient topos.

Here's another one that keeps coming up in discussions around me. I don't know how it is for you, but many of my peers in journalism take it as self-evident that certain Democratic politicians who opposed the Iraq War from the beginning did so because they were "right" about the reality of Iraq and the consequences of an invasion, and they were "not fooled" by the Bush Administration sales pitch for regime change then and there.

It looks like this:

In the end, 156 members of Congress from 36 states had enough information and personal insight and wisdom to make the correct decision for our national and the world community.

These discerning, courageous leaders are exactly what our country needs to lead us out of the present abyss in Iraq under the Bush Administration. We can trust their judgment!

Most often, this year, this has been brought up to scold Hillary Clinton, who voted in favor of the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution of 2002, which opened the door for the overthrow of Saddam.

The resolution passed the Senate Oct. 11, 2002, by a vote of 77-23. The 23 who voted against it -- and who now have taken on an aura of "discerning" "courageous" "rightness" to my anti-war friends -- were:

Daniel Akaka (D-HI)
Jeff Bingaman (D-NM)
Barbara Boxer (D-CA)
Robert Byrd (D-WV)
Kent Conrad (D-ND)
Jon Corzine (D-NJ)
Mark Dayton (D-MN)
Richard Durbin (D-IL)
Russ Feingold (D-WI)
Bob Graham (D-FL)
Daniel Inouye (D-HI)
Ted Kennedy (D-MA)
Patrick Leahy (D-VT)
Carl Levin (D-MI)
Barbara Mikulski (D-MD)
Patty Murray (D-WA)
Jack Reed (D-RI)
Paul Sarbanes (D-MD)
Debbie Stabenow (D-MI)
Paul Wellstone (D-MN)
Ron Wyden (D-OR)
Lincoln Chafee (R-RI)
Jim Jeffords (I-VT)

So I went looking to see if they truly were among that perhaps mythical sect of American leaders who were not fooled by Shrubbie McChimplerburton's propaganda on Saddam's non-existent WMD. Of course anyone can claim that -- now. The trick is to prove you really knew it back then. With senators, their stated opinions are on the record.

Here's what I can find on the Senate's anti-war immortals and their opinion on Saddam and WMD as of October 2002. Most are from floor speeches or debates during the discussion of the resolution. In all cases, emphasis is added by me:

  • Akaka: "Saddam Hussein is not the only dictator who oppresses his people, attacks his neighbors, and is developing weapons of mass destruction (WMD)."

    Now, you can parse that and reply, "he does not say Saddam HAS the weapons; only that he is developing them." (Even that turns out to have been an exaggeration of Saddam's capabilities in 2002.) But I submit that is not a legalistic cleverness on Mr. Akaka's part, simply a casualness of rhetoric. As you will see, his fellow die-hard opponents of the 2002 Iraq measure had no qualms about making positive assertions at this point about Saddam's WMD. And Akaka continued to vote alongside them for resolutions that made positive assertions about them.

    And if Senator Akaka or any of them had had an inkling that no WMD at all would be found, rather than hinting at it in Akaka's soft phrase they would have brayed it from the rafters, since they had already emptied every possible point of argument in the bin, including but not limited to Bob Byrd's Loeb Classics library, Herman Goering, and the D.C. Beltway sniper.

    Later (Oct. 10), Akaka said:

    Congressional testimony, reports by the intelligence community and outside analysts, state that Iraq’s WMD capability is much less now than it was before the Gulf War. A recent CIA public report states that Iraq’s chemical weapons capability "is probably more limited now than it was at the time of the Gulf war ..." Although it is probable that Iraq’s biological weapons program is more advanced than it was before the war, its delivery capability, according to the respected Londonbased International Institute for Strategic Studies, "appears limited." I agree that we must neutralize Iraq’s WMD threat. The question is how to do that most effectively while minimizing the loss in American lives.

    The argument that an inspection system cannot guarantee the elimination of Iraq’s WMD program is certainly true but misses the point. There are few absolutes in this world. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld insists that we need American troops on the ground, rummaging through every Iraqi nook and cranny for evidence of WMD. Even with our troops doing so, there would be no guarantee that every item would be uncovered or how long it would take. ....

    But what aggressive inspections can do is destabilize the Iraqi WMD program, keep it bottled up, frustrate efforts at gaining new technologies and additional supplies, and force Iraqi technicians to hide and keep moving constantly. It will not be disarmament, but, if implemented effectively, it will be dismemberment of the Iraqi WMD program, splitting it in parts and preventing it from becoming whole.

    The argument has its merits. But for my inquiry here, it hardly sounds like the words of someone skeptical over the prevailing intelligence about Saddam's WMDs. Rather than being right about them, Akaka was wrong like everyone else in the Senate and the Administration. Unlike the supporters of the resolution, who embarrassed themselves with absolutist "slam-dunk" rhetoric, his statements were more tempered. But they were aligned to the prevailing wisdom, and thus as wrong as it turned out to be.

    Akaka also ponders what sort of Iraqi government might follow Saddam and asks some questions about it, such as: "Can we be assured that the new regime will be committed to getting rid of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, especially as Iraq’s traditional adversary, Iran, has an even more advanced program of weapons of mass destruction?"

    The positions of the other nay-saying senators turn out to be essentially the same.

  • Boxer: said in a Senate floor speech Oct. 3, 2002: "I do not doubt that Iraq is up to no good. I know they are. That is why I voted for the Iraq Liberation Act. We know that Iraq has biological and chemical weapons and that they used them against Iran and against its own Kurdish minority. We know that following the Persian Gulf war, Iraq promised to abide by the demands of the U.N. but failed to live up to its commitment. They have not allowed unfettered inspections. They have lied about chemical and biological weapons programs. And they continue to seek the capability to produce nuclear weapons."

  • Byrd: said in a Senate floor speech on Oct. 3, 2002: "The last U.N. weapons inspectors left Iraq in October of 1998. We are confident that Saddam Hussein retains some stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons and that he has since embarked on a crash course to build up his chemical and biological warfare capability. Intelligence reports also indicate that he is seeking nuclear weapons but has not yet achieved nuclear capability."

    And also, later in the same speech: "Iraq may be a weaker nation militarily than it was during the Persian Gulf war, but its leader is no less determined and its weapons are no less lethal. During the Persian Gulf war, the United States was able to convince Saddam Hussein that the use of weapons of mass destruction would result in his being toppled from power. This time around, the object of an invasion of Iraq is to topple Saddam Hussein, so he has no reason to exercise restraint."

    He seems to have forgotten his own words by the time of this interview:

    But shouldn't they have questioned more vigorously the administration's rationale for the war?

    Well, I have no reason to doubt that they did question it. In our conferences, I don't remember any senator who did not question to some degree -- but [it was] not enough. As far as I was concerned, I didn't believe it, and said so at the time. But this administration misled senators and House members. I think the stories this administration told -- I remember the vice president, I believe it was on Aug. 26, 2002, when he spoke before the VFW national convention, said something like, "Simply stated there is no doubt that Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction." That's the vice president of the United States, and he's saying, "There is no doubt that Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction." And Rumsfeld said, "We know where they are. They're outside Baghdad, in the north, in the east, in the west." Now, that's what I'm sure John Kerry and all the other senators who voted that way [based] their decisions on.

    And so did the senators who voted against giving the president the authorization to use the U.S. armed forces to deprive Saddam of such weapons. They had their reasons, some of them good, patriotic, Constitutional, American, Christian reasons. But I think they should not pretend a knack for seeing through Bush & Co. lies, or a godly judgment about what is hidden in foreign lands, is among them.]

  • Conrad: "Saddam Hussein is a menace to the whole region of the Middle East, and a vicious tyrant who harms and oppresses his own people. He has waged war against neighboring nations, and he has attacked the people of his own country.

    He has acquired chemical and biological weapons. He is attempting to acquire nuclear weapons, and the means to deliver those weapons using ballistic missiles."

    Again, it is possible to raise the Akaka objection, that he is not saying anything about Saddam in the present tense. But Conrad, too, never even hints toward a positive assertion that Saddam may now have no WMD, and that that assertion was a propaganda fiction published by the White House.

  • Dayton: Submitted an amendment (SA 4870) to the joint resolution S.J. Res. 45, to authorize the use of force against Iraq, reading in part: "Since Iraq both poses a continuing threat to the national security of the United States and international peace and security in the Persian Gulf region and remains in material and unacceptable breach of its international obligations by, among other things, continuing to possess and develop a significant chemical and biological weapons capability, actively seeking a nuclear weapons capability, and supporting and harboring terrorist organizations." The amendment never came up for a vote.

  • Durbin: "There is no one in this Senate Chamber making apologies for Saddam Hussein or his weapons of mass destruction."

  • Feingold: "And with regard to Iraq, I agree that Iraq presents a genuine threat, especially in the form of weapons of mass destruction: chemical, biological and potentially nuclear weapons. I agree that Saddam Hussein is exceptionally dangerous and brutal, if not uniquely so, as the President argues. And I agree, I support the concept of regime change."

    Feingold also said, in a floor speech Oct. 9, 2002:

    "Before we vote on this resolution, we need a credible plan for securing WMD sites and not allowing materials of concern to slip away during some chaotic course of action. I know that is a tall order, but it is a necessary demand."

    An appeal to the danger posed by Saddam's WMD as a reason to proceed cautiously before going to war against him: An argument used almost universally by the opponents of the Bush-approved authorization resolution.

  • Graham: "Saddam Hussein’s regime has chemical and biological weapons and is trying to get nuclear capacity. But the briefings I have received suggest our efforts, for instance, to block him from obtaining necessary nuclear materials have been largely successful, as evidenced by the recent intercept of centrifuge tubes, and that he is years away from having nuclear capability."

  • Kennedy: "The question is not whether we will disarm Saddam Hussein of his weapons of mass destruction but how. And it is wrong for Congress to declare war against Iraq now before we have exhausted the alternatives."

    And in a Senate floor speech on Oct. 4, 2002, he said: "We have known for many years that Saddam Hussein is seeking and developing weapons of mass destruction."

  • Leahy: "The question we face is not whether Saddam Hussein is a menace to his people, to his neighbors and to our national security interests. The Iraqi regime has already invaded Iran and Kuwait, gassed members of its own population, and repeatedly flouted international conventions against armed aggression. It is clear that Iraq has tried to develop a range of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, with which Iraq might threaten the entire Gulf region."

  • Levin said in a Senate floor speech Oct. 4, 2002: "At the outset, it must be noted that, whatever differences there may be among us, the one thing on which we can all agree upon is that Saddam Hussein is a tyrant and a threat to the peace and stability of the Middle East. He has used weapons of mass destruction against his own people and against Iran; he has launched invasions of Iran and Kuwait; and for the last eleven years he has defied the will of the entire world as expressed in United Nations Security Council resolutions by refusing to destroy his weapons of mass destruction and prohibited ballistic missiles."

  • Mikulski, in a Senate floor speech Oct. 8, 2002, in support of the Levin amendment, said:

    But make no mistake, I firmly believe that Saddam Hussein is duplicitous, deceptive, and dangerous. I despise him. Saddam is a brutal, totalitarian dictator and history shows us how dangerous Iraq is under his rule. He invaded Kuwait and used chemical weapons against his own people. I do believe he has developed chemical and biological weapons, and I also believe he is pursuing nuclear weapons, defying the will of the international community and also denying the agreement that he made at the end of the gulf war.

    In voting against the authorization, she said:

    "Iraq has grim and ghoulish weapons to carry out his evil plans. As part of the Gulf War cease-fire agreement, Saddam Hussein committed to destroying its chemical and biological and nuclear weapons programs and longerrange missiles. Instead, Saddam Hussein is trying to add nuclear weapons to an arsenal that already includes chemical and biological weapons and ballistic missiles."

  • Stabenow said in a Senate floor speech Oct. 4, 2002: "The issue before the Senate is not whether the regime of Saddam Hussein is good or evil. We know, in fact, that he is a despicable dictator. He has gassed and poisoned thousands of his own people. He rules not by choice but by decree, backed by brutal force, and he blatantly defies United Nations resolutions by his continual development of weapons of mass destruction. I strongly oppose his regime. He is a growing threat to the United States and our allies, and his policies have devastated the lives of his own Iraqi people."

    And later in her speech she asked: "Given the widely supported belief that Saddam Hussein has biological and chemical weapons, how do we assure he will not use them against us when we attack him first?"

  • Wellstone: "I support ridding Iraq of weapons of mass destruction through unfettered U.N. inspections, which should begin as soon as possible. Only a broad coalition of nations, united to disarm Saddam, while preserving our war on terror, is likely to succeed. Our primary focus now must be on Iraq's verifiable disarmament of weapons of mass destruction. This will help maintain international support, and could even eventually result in Saddam's loss of power."

  • Jeffords: "Once again, we need a strong United Nations to step up to Saddam Hussein. The United Nations must take the lead in enforcing its demands that Iraq give up its biological and chemical weapons stockpiles and production capabilities. The United Nations also demanded that Iraq dismantle its nuclear weapons program."

They voted "no" in spite of believing that. In fact, their language regarding Saddam's WMD is not all that different from that used by Democrats who voted for the authorization. Hillary Clinton's vote on that measure haunted her through the campaign of 2008. But her language was not much different than those who were held up as wiser heads on the issue:

In the four years since the inspectors left, intelligence reports show that Saddam Hussein has worked to rebuild his chemical and biological weapons stock, his missile delivery capability, and his nuclear program. ... It is clear, however, that if left unchecked, Saddam Hussein will continue to increase his capacity to wage biological and chemical warfare, and will keep trying to develop nuclear weapons.

Or, for that matter, the position taken (and later repudiated) by John Edwards: "Saddam Hussein’s regime represents a grave threat to America and our allies, including our vital ally, Israel. For more than two decades, Saddam Hussein has sought weapons of mass destruction through every available means. We know that he has chemical and biological weapons. He has already used them against his neighbors and his own people, and is trying to build more. We know that he is doing everything he can to build nuclear weapons, and we know that each day he gets closer to achieving that goal.

Iraq has continued to seek nuclear weapons and develop its arsenal in defiance of the collective will of the international community, as expressed through the United Nations Security Council."

Here's Joe Biden on the WMD question:

For two decades, Saddam Hussein has relentlessly pursued weapons of mass destruction. There is a broad agreement that he retains chemical and biological weapons, the means to manufacture those weapons and modified Scud missiles, and that he is actively seeking a nuclear capability. It remains less clear how effective his delivery vehicles are, whether they be the al-Hussein missiles, with a 650 kilometer range, short-range missiles, or untested and unmanned aerial vehicles for the dispersion of chemical and biological weapons.

Shifting weather conditions, the likely incineration of much of the chemical or biological agent in a warhead explosion, and the potential blowback on Iraqi forces, all complicate the Iraqi use of these weapons. But we are right to be concerned that, given time and a free hand, Saddam would improve this technology.

In fact, the belief in Saddam's WMD was a key part of the argument for voting against the war:

"This appears to suggest that an attack on Iraq could trigger the very thing that our president has said he is trying to prevent, the use of chemical or biological weapons by Saddam. In view of this report, the policy of a pre-emptive strike is troublesome. Haste in attacking Iraq would place untold numbers of people in harm's way."

So said Rep. Donald M. Payne, D-N.J., "a leader of the effort to defeat the war resolution."

Boxer, in her Senate floor speech cited above, included among the reasons to be cautious about authorizing war:

Will Iraq use chemical or biological weapons against our troops?

Will Iraq launch chemical or biological weapons against Israel? How will Israel respond? What impact will that have?

How will we secure Iraqi chemical and biological weapons once the fighting starts? How do we make sure such weapons do not get into the hands of terrorists or terrorist nations? How do we make sure that Iraqi weapons experts, from Iraq, do not migrate to terrorist organizations or terrorist states?

And a week later:

"Will weapons of mass destruction be launched against our troops? Against Israel? If you read the CIA declassified report—declassified report—they are telling us that the chance that he will use them is greater if he feels his back is up against the wall. Everybody knows the underlying resolution implies regime change. It implies regime change. What I think is important about the Levin resolution is that it goes to the heart, the core of the matter, which is dismantlement of the weapons of mass destruction. If Saddam knows his back is against the wall, he will use these."

All of which were good, legitimate questions at that time.

Kennedy, too, raised this specter in his floor speech: "Such a war would also pose great risks to our armed forces. Some who advocate military action against Iraq assert that air strikes will do the job quickly and decisively, and that the operation will be complete in 72 hours. But there is no persuasive evidence that air strikes alone over the course of several days will incapacitate Saddam and destroy his weapons of mass destruction. Experts have informed us that we do not have sufficient intelligence about military targets in Iraq. Saddam may well hide his most lethal weapons in mosques, schools and hospitals. If our forces attempt to strike such targets, untold number of Iraqi civilians could be killed."

And later: "We cannot go it alone in attacking Iraq and expect Saddam to keep his weapons of mass destruction at bay against us or our ally Israel."

Others among the opponents of the authorization spoke in similar terms:

Wellstone: "Unlike the gulf war, many experts believe Saddam would resort to chemical and biological weapons against our troops in a desperate attempt to save his regime if he believes he and his regime are ultimately threatened."

Durbin: "As we know—it has been declassified this week—our intelligence community tells us the most likely scenario of weapons of mass destruction to be used against Americans is if we launch an invasion of Iraq. Saddam Hussein knows today if those weapons move or are used in any way against us and our allies, he will pay a terrible price."

Then there is the Levin amendment (SA 4862), a Democratic alternative to the joint resolution authorizing use of military force to disarm Saddam, requiring that first all diplomatic means be exhausted. It would have required President Bush to get approval from the U.N. Security Council or Congress before launching an attack.

Its language on WMD was unequivocal: Congress supports: "the President's call for the United Nations to address the threat to international peace and security posed by Saddam Hussein's continued refusal to meet Iraq's obligations under resolutions of the United Nations Security Council to accept the destruction, removal, or rendering harmless of its weapons of mass destruction, nuclear weapons-usable material, ballistic missiles with a range in excess of 150 kilometers, and related facilities, and to cease the development, production, or acquisition of such weapons, materials, and missiles;"

The text was “To authorize the use of the United States Armed Forces, pursuant to a new resolution of the United Nations Security Council, to destroy, remove, or render harmless Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, nuclear weapons-usable material, long-range ballistic missiles, and related facilities, and for other purposes.”

The language here is blunt:

Iraq continues to develop weapons of mass destruction, in violation of its commitments under United Nations Security Council Resolution 687 (1991) and subsequent resolutions, and the regime of Saddam Hussein has used weapons of mass destruction against its own people and other nations.

The co-sponsors were: Reed, Bingaman, Boxer, Mikulski, Stabenow, Akaka, Jeffords, and Corzine. The amendment was postponed indefinitely, but voting "yea" on it were the sponsors, as well as the rest of the 23 naysayers to the authorization (along with Feinstein, Harkin, Kohl, and Rockefeller).

I have not found significant speeches from Bingaman, Chafee, Corzine, Inouye, Murray, Reed, Sarbanes, or Wyden in the period leading up to the vote. If they thought differently from their peers quoted above, apparently they did not say so in public. They voted for the same measures as the others.

The researching of this was enlightening. I don't suppose writing about it will make a damn bit of difference.

This is about the Movies

This also is true about many other things in the late 20th century.

[Pauline] Kael assumed she was safe to defend the choices of mass audiences because the old standards of taste would always be there. They were, after all, built into the culture. But those standards were swiftly eroding. [Screenwriter Paul] Schrader argued that she and her admirers won the battle but lost the war. Acceptable taste became mass-audience taste, box-office receipts the ultimate measure of a film's worth, sometimes the only measure. Traditional, well-written movies without violence or special effects were pushed to the margins. "It was fun watching the applecart being upset," Schrader said, "but now where do we go for apples?"


Council Winners

OK, vacation is over. Time to return to my various responsibilities.

Including catching up on Watchers Council winners.

The winners from July 17 in the council was Critiquing The Obama Manifesto On Iraq by Wolf Howling.

Votes also went to It's official: Obama doesn't flip-flop, he just does nuanced "rephrases" by Bookworm Room, and Will Israel Attack Iran? by JoshuaPundit.

Outside the council, the winner was Sleepwalking Into Islamization by Melanie Phillips. Votes also went to Let Me Put It In Pictures For Our Progressive Friends by Doug Ross & Journal; and A Good Man by Harris County Criminal Justice System.

The winner in the council for the week of July 11 was American Whining and the Culture of Dependency by The Razor.

Votes also went to Identifying Obama's Real Position on the Second Amendment by Wolf Howling; You May Now Assume the Risk by Soccer Dad; and Narcissism In Another Color by Joshuapundit.

Outside the council, the winner was Is Gun Control Behind Our Loss of Civil Liberties? by Bishop Hill. Votes also went to Former CIA Agent in Iran Comes In from the Heat at Pajamas Media; and There Oughta Have Been a Law! by Classical Values.

The winners from the week of July 4 were:

In the council, Patriotism by Hillbilly White Trash. Votes also went to The Supreme Court: Originalism, Activism, and America's Future by Wolf Howling; and Obama's 8 Years As State Legislator Makes Him Better Qualified by The Colossus of Rhodey.

The non-council winner was Sacramento Host Breakfast by 365 and a Wakeup. Votes also went to Honestly, Is John Aravosis a Piece of Excrement Or What? by Right Wing Nut House; Reverberations of Al-Dura by ShrinkWrapped; and "THE TALK" -- On Patriotism by Thought You'd Never Ask.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Che Away

Oh, how I hope this gets around.

The T-shirts with images of Ernesto "Che" Guevara convinced Ingrid Betancourt. She assumed the men with the iconic revolutionary on their chests were ushering her into the helicopter for transfer to yet another rebel camp.

Instead, Betancourt, along with 14 other hostages, was taking her first steps toward freedom after six years of captivity at the hands of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. Less than 24 hours later, she would be reunited with the two children she hadn't seen since her capture.

The white helicopter Betancourt climbed into was piloted by Colombian troops, and the six men wearing Che shirts were soldiers who tricked the rebels into following "orders'' to move the prisoners.

... "The helicopters arrived, and these absolutely surreal characters came out," said Betancourt, gripping rosary beads after she landed at Bogota's military airport. "They were wearing Che Guevara shirts and I thought, it's the FARC."

... After the unmarked helicopter flew over the jungle and out of range of the FARC camp, the hostages saw the men in Che T- shirts spring on their captor. Gerardo Antonio Aguilar Ramirez, known by his alias as Cesar, was tied up, stripped and blindfolded. Then the Colombian troops revealed their identity.

To think that those contemptible T-shirts celebrating that heartless murderer and fool will cease to be the height of celebrity counterculture chic. To think that the image of Che now will arouse suspicion of duplicity and mole-paranoia in leftist authoritarian "freedom fighters." It ranks up there with Betancourt's freedom, Chavez' chagrin, and the Colombian military's competence as good outcomes of this good news.


Hey, Baby


OK, come November, will it be possible for me to vote for the Obama of the first news conference cited here, to the exclusion of the Obama from the second news conference?

Dying on the Floor

When I see stories like "Video shows woman dying on Brooklyn hospital floor" I don't even have to turn on the computer to know that someone is spinning this fast as the final word in the argument on whether America needs guaranteed, government-directed health care. And someone else spinning it to say, no, in fact government-run health care only will mean more of this sort of scene.

And maybe somewhere, someone writing about how all that misses the point and no system will work well in a place -- a nation -- where people watch that and allow it to happen, in a hospital. And how that might be the problem, even though it's pricklier.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Now It Can Be Told

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Manhattan Projects

How we do love them.

John McCain's offer of a $300 million prize to the inventor of the next generation of electric car batteries may be a political gambit, but it's still an idea worth pursuing. It also shows more leadership on the nation's energy needs than the current occupant of the Oval Office has shown in two terms.

... In an editorial this week on the need to increase the domestic oil supply, something else McCain has called for, we urged the creation of a Manhattan Project-like effort to wean the nation off its reliance on fossil fuels and toward cleaner, affordable and reliable sources.

I wish it could be that simple. But ordering up a new technology, even if price is no object, is unlikely to succeed.

There must be a foundation of knowledge before a new technology can be erected. And this work of foundation-building often is done by men or women working on the fringes of science, untangling mental knots out of sheer intellectual curiosity with no practical aim in sight. They are hardly the kind of people who would be appointed to high-profile government-sponsored committees, or who would go gunning for a $300 million prize. They usually don't work well on committees at all and don't think much about cash. And their work is the kind that's a sitting duck for Congressional yowls about "waste of taxpayers' money."

For instance, the original Manhattan Project grew out of the theories of Albert Einstein. When he did this work, he was a young Swiss citizen with an undistinguished academic record, who had failed to find a teaching job and instead accepted a position as technical assistant in the Patent Office in Bern. How likely would Congress, in 1905 or today, be to grant money to an uninspiring Swiss Jew who wants to use it to support himself while he imagines what the world would look like if he rode on a beam of light?

The Manhattan Project came about because scientific developments had reached a point where a concentrated effort to produce a fission "atomic" bomb was likely to yield a practical result. That's when Einstein, Teller, and Szilard gathered in July 1939 on Long Island and wrote to Roosevelt. But ultimately, it was nothing more than a practical application of what began with the work of the obscure patent clerk in Bern.

Carl Sagan, as part of "The Demon-Haunted World," wrote a digression into imaginary history. He wonders what would have happened if Queen Victoria in 1860 had sought some medium to communicate words, sounds, and pictures throughout her far-flung empire. She would have called together the most prominent men of science in the land, and they probably would have tried to develop something based on the telegraph, which was then the height of technology.

Then he describes J. Clerk "Dafty" Maxwell, the socially inept man who would in fact develop the equations that lead to radio and television. He makes it all too clear that Maxwell never would have come to the attention of Victoria's committee-choosers of 1860, much less been offered a seat at the table. And if he had been, it likely would have deflected his research and rumination down an unproductive path.

Maxwell wasn't thinking of radio, radar, and television when he first scratched out the fundamental equations of electromagnetism; Newton wasn't dreaming of space flight or communications satellites when he first understood the motion of the Moon. Roentgen wasn't contemplating medical diagnosis when he investigated a penetrating radiation so mysterious he called it 'X-rays'; Curie wasn't thinking of cancer therapy when she painstakingly extracted minute amounts of radium from tons of pitchblende; Fleming wasn't planning on saving the lives of millions with antibiotics when he noticed a circle free of bacteria around a growth of mold; Watson and Crick weren't imagining the cure of genetic diseases when they puzzled over the X-ray diffractometry of DNA ....

If the next energy breakthrough happens in our lifetimes, don't look for it from a New Manhattan Project. Such an effort would be useful for turning a breakthrough discovery to practical use. But getting there will require a first step of imaginative genius, probably from a mind you wouldn't suspect. For the U.S. to support that, it would have to be willing to pitch money into open-ended research by intellectually curious Poindexters who can offer no practical justification for their staring at the stars.


The History of Feminism

Camille Paglia version. Her views tend to be ones I agree with on this topic, but then I'm not a feminist, a woman, or a student of the movement. Reading this, I suspect she might find something to agree with in my notion of Floride Calhoun and her sorority as one strand of what made up American feminism.

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Poetry Matters

Jay Parini touches all the bases in this argument for why poetry matters. It doesn't matter that he does, though. Poetry still doesn't matter. Like much else, it was killed by the 20th century.

In the 20th century, something went amiss. Poetry became "difficult." That is, poets began to reflect the complexities of modern culture, its fierce disjunctions. The poems of Ezra Pound, Hilda Doolittle, T.S. Eliot, Marianne Moore, and Wallace Stevens asked a lot of the reader, including a range of cultural references to topics that even in the early 1900s had become little known. To read Pound and Eliot with ease, for instance, one needed some knowledge of Greek and Latin poetry. That kind of learning had been fairly common among educated readers in the past, when the classics were the bedrock of any upper-middle-class education. The same could not be said for most readers in the 20th century — or today, when education has become more democratized and the study of the classics has been relegated to a small number of enthusiasts. The poems of the canonical poets of high modernism require heavy footnotes.

I'm inclined to take Hugh Kenner's observation that Pound and Eliot (the rest were following or reacting), after World War I, wrote poetry for an age in which poetry already was dead. Living in Europe, to them, Western civilization lay crushed (and how much of it did we ever get back?), the ancient libraries shelled and gutted, a generation of readers, critics, and writers gassed and rotting in the trenches. They wrote for the past, or directly for the anthologies, complete with numbered lines and footnotes, in hopes a future generation would arise and find the poems like time capsules.

Poets since have never gone back to that point and tried to recover the trail.

Meanwhile, for the few for whom it still matters, here Adam Kirsch reviews Stanley Plumly's new “Posthumous Keats”:

Yet the consolations of poetry, as “Posthumous Keats” reminds us, last only as long as the poem lasts. The sublimity of the odes did not stop Keats from suffering in body and mind, or from cursing the fate that allowed him to taste the pleasures of life and art so intensely, only to snatch them away. “Keats, of all poets, cannot be divided between the artist and the man,” Plumly writes. But in a sense it is precisely the violent sundering of the artist and the man that is Keats’s tragedy. The poet saw autumn as fulfillment, the season that “set budding more, / And still more, later flowers for the bees, / Until they think warm days will never cease.” The man died in winter, in a foreign country, certain that his work had not kept the promises his imagination made. “Is there another Life? Shall I awake and find all this a dream?” he asked in one of his last letters home. “There must be,” he decided. “We cannot be created for this sort of suffering.”