Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Response to Austin Bay: on courage, the military, and liberals

In our continuing dialogue and speculation about attitudes of liberals towards the military, Austin Bay asks me to comment on the following story (scroll down to the bottom of his post to find it):

[Neo-neocon's] comments about courage remind me of a conversation I had in 1996 at the Texas Book Festival. Actually, it was a conversation I overheard. A man who had just been on a Texas history panel was fuming in a hallway and complaining to a couple of friends standing with him. From what I gathered, a woman (either on the panel or in the audience) had started calling the Alamo’s defenders racists and sexists, etc., and made a comment about the “sexist focus” of history. (And when I say I gathered that, I’m paraphrasing what the man said.)

I do not know why I asked him this, I guess it was because he was suddenly looking at me. I asked him “Why do you think she said that?"

He replied: “Because what those men did took courage, physical courage. And she doesn’t have it, she’s petty and afraid. So she has to diminish them so she doesn’t have to confront her own cowardice."

Then he asked me: “Do you know what kind of courage it takes to face bullets?”

I was taken aback a bit, but I replied: “I know soldiers have to do what they have to do.”

He gave me a curt nod, turned back to his friends, and continued to fume.

Austin later writes:

I think the angry man in the hallway hit on a fundamental factor in a lot of the elitist Left’s condescending treatment of soldiers and disdain for the military. I’d be interested in neo-neocon’s assessment.

So, is this indeed the motivation behind the liberal/leftist attitude towards those who serve in the military (discussed earlier in this post of mine)? Obviously, I can't read the minds of liberals or leftists--so what follows is merely my speculation and personal observation, based on a rather small sample. It is also, by necessity, full of generalizations, so I'll add the caveat that I certainly do not think this represents the view of all liberals, or even all leftists.

However, I disagree. Unlike the angry man at the Texas Book Festival, I do not think that a major factor in the attitude of most liberals/leftists' towards the military is a consciousness of the military's bravery in contrast to their own cowardice. It's not my impression that liberals/leftists necessarily even focus on the courage of the military. It's my impression, from talking to liberals/leftists and reading what they write, that many primarily see the military (as I wrote previously) as either bloodthirsty--or, much more commonly and condescendingly, as unintelligent lower- or working-class pawns of a cowardly and exploitative ruling class (thus, the "chickenhawk" accusation against that ruling class, especially towards those who didn't serve, or whose service is deemed inadequate--see this for a rather lengthy example of the genre).

In my experience, liberals don't necessarily even think very often in terms of concepts such as physical courage--it's an old-fashioned word for an old-fashioned value. They think in terms of the values of kindness and/or tolerance and/or intelligence, which they feel that they themselves demonstrate. Or, if they do think of courage and admire it, it is more often the courage to speak out, or to stand up for a cause (to "speak truth to power," for example).

Remember the old slogan, "Better Red than dead?" The people who said it meant it. And they weren't all Communists, not by any means. They were people who believed that almost nothing--no abstraction, anyway, including freedom--was worth fighting for in the physical sense, and especially not worth dying for. Therefore anyone who does believe in fighting for something so abstract must be deluded in some way, or oppressed in some way, or both.

Don't forget, also, that these concerns about one's own physical courage and how it might measure up to that of others are somewhat of a masculine obsession. Not that women don't think in these terms sometimes--especially in recent years--but the trajectories of the lives of most women tend to lack those moments of truth--the fistfights, the interpersonal physical challenges--that constitute the tests of physical courage against another human being that are more commonplace in the lives of men. Of course, there are many exceptions to that rule--but I think the rule still generally holds. Women's physical courage, which does exist, is more often of the intra-personal rather than the inter-personal variety--such as enduring the pain of childbirth, for example.

And of course, many liberals are women. For them, I just don't think the whole question of their own personal courage in the physical sense of being ready to die for a cause is one they have had to contemplate very much. I say this, of course, as a woman. I have no idea whether I would have had the courage to serve in that way, if called upon--and, personally, I was very happy to have never been forced to face that question, since the Vietnam era draft did not apply to women. If that makes me a chickenhawk--well then, I guess that's what I am (although I'm not so sure women can be chickenhawks, can they?)

I also think that the template for the liberal/leftist view of the military was set during Vietnam, when the draft was one of the main ways to enter the service. To the best of my knowledge and recollection, many (if not most) of those who served in the Army then were reluctant draftees--and some who enlisted in the other branches were somewhat reluctant also, having joined up only to escape the draft and thus gain a bit more autonomy. People whose attitudes towards military service were based on that era are sometimes unable to understand the changes that have been wrought by the all-volunteer military. They continue to see those in the service as victims, although now they are not seen as victims of the draft, but as victims of coercion and class via economic incentives for joining the military, and/or as victims of the self-serving lies of politicians. It stands to reason that the class interpretation would be especially common on the left, since it fits in quite nicely with a socialist or Marxist viewpoint. And, if the enlistee is viewed as a pawn of economic circumstances, and his/her motivation is seen as economic, then it's easier to circumvent the whole topic of personal courage.

This idea of the dead soldier as victim, rather than courageous hero, is often cited by the left for propaganda purposes against the administration and those "ruling classes." Here's a recent and very typical example of this type of thinking (found here in comment #80--supposedly it's taken from Michael Moore's website, but I looked and couldn't find it there, so I can't swear it's a proper attribution):

Bush and the Crime Cabal in power sent 26 more soldiers to their graves this week and 26 more families to lives of living hell. 26 more lives and families devastated and destroyed for absolutely nothing. We will see the hypocritical mobsters of the state at their events today and tomorrow spewing filth from their mouths, such as: "Freedom isn't Free," and "We must stay the course in Iraq to honor the sacrifices of the fallen...Then the morons who killed our children will happily go back to their homes and have a nice Memorial Day dinner secure in the fact that their children will never die in a war and their children will have nice, wealthy, long lives because of the incredible riches this misadventure in Iraq has brought their fathers and mothers.

Then there is the idea of those who serve in the military as the "other." Here's an interesting article from the LA Times that discusses the change of heart a father experienced when his son, a Marine, went to Iraq. The father had never served in the military himself, and seemed to have never even considered what might motivate someone to serve. He writes:

Before my son unexpectedly volunteered for the Marines, I was busy writing my novels and raising my family, and giving little thought to the men and women who guard us...

But later, when his son returns from combat, the father writes:

I found myself praying and crying for all the fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, husbands and wives of those who were not coming home. For the first time in my life, I was weeping for strangers.... Before my son went to war I never would have shed tears for them. My son humbled me. My son connected me to my country. He taught me that our men and women in uniform are not the "other."

Prior to his son going to war, this man was almost dissociative in his ability to tune out the military. They simply did not exist for him as people--or, if they did, they were the "other." What he means by that I'm not sure--were they the "other" in his eyes because of perceived class differences, personality differences, or merely a failure of imagination on his part? One might say he seems to lack the ability to put himself in someone else's shoes--and yet it turns out he is an author, and a novelist! Very perplexing indeed.

I can only conclude that people like the author, Frank Schaeffer, are operating with blinders on. The motivations of people in the military are not understood by them, and they are not curious about those motivations. Schaeffer's change of heart occurred for one simple reason: a military man finally became "real" to him, because that man was his son. He could no longer regard this particular Marine as the "other," because he knew him and loved him, and that ended up humanizing all military personnel in his eyes.

Anonymous sources revisited: progress on several fronts

I'm not surprised that USA Today seems to be leading the pack in curbing its use of anonymous sources (see this earlier post of mine for a discussion of the history of the anonymous source). After all, its founder, Allen H. Neuharth, was the guy who called the anonymous source "evil." USA Today has even created a new position, that of standards editor, for the sole purpose of tracking the use of anonymous sources in the paper, and has reduced the practice by 75% in the year since they tightened their rules.

Even Newsweek is starting to reign in its out-of-control use of the anonymous source--at least a tad.

And then there's this revelation. If it's true (large "if"), then what a coincidence of timing! The greatest anonymous source of them all--the source of the anonymous source, you might say--Deep Throat, now coming forward with this:

Felt was initially adamant about remaining silent on the subject, thinking disclosures about his past somehow dishonorable. "I don't think (being Deep Throat) was anything to be proud of," Felt indicated to his son, Mark Jr., at one point, according to the article. "You (should) not leak information to anyone."

Could it be that someone's been reading neo-neocon :-)?

Monday, May 30, 2005

For Memorial Day: freedom isn't free

Austin Bay delivered this Memorial Day speech in Texas a few days ago, at the request of a group called "Tejanos in Action." Reading the speech, and speculating on what many of my liberal or leftist friends would think of it (and, knowing it's always dangerous to speak for others, I'm writing this with the caveat that I could be wrong about their reactions), I came to the conclusion that I don't think they would understand his speech in the way it was meant. To them, it would sound like mere platitudes and cliches.

I am virtually certain that all of my friends feel sorrow at the death of young men and women in the military--they are not cold-hearted, far from it. But I think they see them as victims, not as people who freely chose to do this, knowing that the possible cost might be their very lives. And yes, I know that not all in the military, especially those in the Guard, thought all of this through when they signed up. But I believe that the majority of those in the military were well aware of the risks when they enlisted.

I don't think most of my friends can conceive of a person making such a choice of his/her own free will. And of course it is difficult to comprehend; that kind of courage is not ordinary, and will never be ordinary. I think my friends look on military volunteers of today as being either bloodthirsty warmongers (the minority), or poverty-stricken and brainwashed cannon fodder who have no idea what they're getting into (the majority). Someone such as Lance Corporal Perez, of whom Austin Bay speaks, a young man who served in the Marines and was killed in Iraq, would probably be seen as the quintessential victim of Bush, Rumsfeld, et. al., because of his Hispanic heritage.

I think my friends would certainly understand this part of Bay's speech:

Military service is hard service. Everyone who’s ever worn the uniform knows that. It is a special burden, particularly in a free society.

The idea of hardship is one with which they would agree, and the idea of burden. But not the sad necessity of it, expressed in this part of the speech:

In some ways it is the hardest job as well as the most necessary job. It is the job of the soldier that makes our liberty possible, and it is our liberty that makes everything else possible.

Many, if not most, of my friends live in a dreamworld where such things can be avoided, if only we listened to and revered the UN, Europe, and Jimmy Carter. There is no problem that can't be solved with love, understanding, and talk. Perhaps I'm exaggerating, but not by a whole lot, I'm afraid. Would that they were correct, and that human nature worked this way!

I was watching the news the other day--I think it was MSNBC, but I'm not certain. They had a feature on a young Hispanic man who had been killed in Iraq. I don't think he was the same young man of whom Bay spoke, Lance Corporal Perez, but it's possible that he might have been, because this man had also been nineteen years old when he died, as I recall. The news showed wonderful photos of a handsome and smiling young man who looked nearly like a kid (well, he wasn't so far away from having been one, was he?), and an interview with his father.

The father's courage and dignity were almost unbearably moving. It seems the young man was not a citizen, but he'd signed up anyway. The father showed some sort of memorial statuette of the twin towers that he owned, and he pointed to it and said that the son had been greatly affected by 9/11, and determined to join and serve. The father said he'd asked his son, if he had to join up, why couldn't he be something like a cook? But the son had said no; he felt he needed to do more than that. Then the father went over to an American flag he had on his wall, and put his finger on one of the red stripes, and said something like this (only far more eloquently), "When I see this red stripe, it symbolizes the blood of my son and all the others who died so that we could be free--because freedom isn't free."

Heartbreaking and well said, on this Memorial Day.

For Memorial Day: on patriotism and nationalism

I was driving down the highway yesterday, and I noticed that the car ahead of me had a small American flag decal on its trunk. It got me to thinking about how I've never displayed a flag on my car or my home, except for a small one on my porch on the very first Fourth of July after 9/11. I've never been one to wear T-shirts with slogans, or campaign buttons, or any of those sorts of public declarations of self and/or belief. I'm just a very private person (the apple in front of the face, for example).

But I clearly remember that huge proliferation of flags post 9/11. Flags on cars, on homes, pinned to lapels--everywhere one looked, so many more than ever before. There were, of course, those who carped about it (see this for a typical example). Too nationalistic. Too jingoistic. But I rather liked it--even though at the time I was still an unreconstructed liberal. It gave me a feeling of comfort and continuity. We might be down, but we weren't out yet.

For many days after 9/11 I found myself going to the ocean and sitting on the rocks, watching the ubiquitous commercial fishing boats and ferries go by. Everyone remembers that blue blue sky of 9/11, but I don't know how many recall that it stayed that way for some time afterwards. The weather was spectacular, almost eerie in its beauty, and very serene, although I felt anything but. At the ocean, I would ordinarily see airplanes on a regular basis--but those days, the almost supernaturally blue skies were very, very quiet.

I thought about many things as I sat there. I believed another large attack was imminent, maybe many attacks. I had no idea what could ever prevent this from happening. I thought about George Bush being President, and at the time the thought did not fill me with confidence, but rather with dread. Snatches of poems and songs would wander in and out of my head, in that repetitive way they often do. One was the "Star-Spangled Banner"--all those flags brought it to mind, I suppose.

I'd known the words to that song for close to fifty years, and even had to learn about Francis Scott Key and the circumstances under which he wrote them. But I never really thought much about those words. It was just a song that was difficult to sing, and not as pretty as America the Beautiful or God Bless America (the latter, in those very un-PC days of my youth, we used to sing as we marched out of assembly).

The whole first stanza of the national anthem is a protracted version of a question: does the American flag still wave over the fort? Has the US been successful in the battle? As a child, the answer seemed to me to have been a foregone conclusion--of course it waved, of course the US prevailed in the battle; how could it be otherwise? America rah-rah. America always was the winner. Even our withdrawal from Vietnam, so many years later, seemed to me to be an act of choice. Our very existence as a nation had never for a moment felt threatened.

The only threat I'd ever faced to this country was the nightmarish threat of nuclear war. But that seemed more a threat to the entire planet, to humankind itself, rather than to this country specifically. And so I never really heard or felt the vulnerability and fear expressed in Key's question, which he asked during the War of 1812, so shortly after the birth of the country itself: does that star-spangled banner yet wave, o'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

But now I heard his doubt, and I felt it, too. I saw quite suddenly that there was no "given" in the existence of this country--its continuance, and its preciousness, began to seem to me to be as important and as precarious as they must have seemed to Key during that night in 1814.

And then other memorized writings came to me as well--the Gettysburg Address, whose words those crabby old teachers of mine had made us memorize in their entirety: and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth. Here it was again, the sense of the nation as an experiment in democracy and freedom, and inherently special but vulnerable to destruction, an idea I had never until that moment grasped. But now I did, on a visceral level.

Another school memory of long ago was the story "The Man Without a Country." It used to be standard reading matter for seventh graders. In fact, it was the first "real" book--as opposed to those tedious Dick and Jane readers--that I ever was assigned to read in school. As such it was exciting, since it dealt with an actual story with some actual drama to it. It struck me as terribly sad--and unfair, too--that Philip Nolan was forced to wander the world, exiled, for one moment of cursing the United States. "The Man Without a Country" was the sort of paean to patriotism that probably would never be assigned nowadays to students.

Patriotism has gotten a very bad name during the last few decades. I think part of this feeling began (at least in this country), like so many things, with the Vietnam era. But patriotism and nationalism seem to have been rejected by a large segment of Europeans even earlier, as a result of the devastation both sentiments were seen to have wrought during WWI and WWII. Of course, WWII in Europe was a result mainly of German nationalism run amok, but it seemed to have given nationalism as a whole a very bad name.

Here's author Thomas Mann on the subject, writing in 1947 in the introduction to the American edition of Herman Hesse's Demian:

If today, when national individualism lies dying, when no single problem can any longer be solved from a purely national point of view, when everything connected with the "fatherland" has become stifling provincialism and no spirit that does not represent the European tradition as a whole any longer merits consideration..."

A strong statement of the post-WWII idea of nationalism as a dangerous force, mercifully dead or dying, to be replaced (hopefully) by a pan-national (or, rather, anational) Europeanism. Mann was a German exile from his own country, who had learned to his bitter regret the excesses to which unbridled and amoral nationalism can lead. His was an understandable and common response, one that helped lead to the formation of the EU. The nationalism of the US is seen by those who agree with him as a relic of those dangerous days of nationalism gone mad without any curb of morality or consideration for others.

But the pendulum is swinging back. The US is not Nazi Germany, however much the far left may try to make that analogy. And, in fact, that is one of the reasons they try so hard to make that particular analogy--because Nazi Germany is one of the very best examples of the dangers of unbridled and amoral nationalism.

But, on this Memorial Day, I want to say there's a place for nationalism, and for love of country. Not a nationalism that ignores morality, but one that embraces it and strives for it, keeping in mind that--human nature being what it is--no nation on earth can be perfect or anywhere near perfect. The US is far from perfect, but it is a good country nevertheless, striving to be better.

So, I'll echo the verse that figured so prominently in "The Man Without a Country," and say (corny, but true): this is my own, my native land. And I'll also echo Francis Scott Key and add: the star-spangled banner, O long may it wave, O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Normblog poll: movie stars

Norm Geras loves those polls! This one's a request from Norm to list your ten favorite movie stars.

It's a bit embarrassing to admit that I'm not much of a moviegoer. Over the years I've gone to the movies less and less, and liked far fewer of them than I used to. That's not to say I don't have favorites. And the movies I do like, I tend to love inordinately.

Same for whatever passes for movie stars these days. To me, there aren't any current ones, although there are certainly excellent actors and actresses (or, in the interests of gender equality, aren't they all called "actors" these days? So hard to keep up with these trends). But to me, the real movie stars are all in the past.

So, this will be my very idiosyncratic, and exceedingly retro, list. What do these stars have in common? Well, as with movies--the ones I like, I tend to love. And so I have some feelings of love--not just admiration, or interest--for each of the following movie stars. Listed in no particular order:

1. Cary Grant

The most charming guy in the world, who always seemed to be mocking himself ever-so-slightly, and letting the audience in on the delightful joke.

2. Audrey Hepburn

If Cary Grant (see above) was the most charming guy in the world, she was definitely the most charming lady. Nobody ever looked remotely like her, and nobody ever will.

3. Gary Cooper

My idea of a hero--complex and somewhat tormented. Watch the amazing play of emotions on his deceptively immobile face in "High Noon."

4. Henry Fonda

I fell in love with the achingly young Fonda ("Drums Along the Mohawk;" "Young Mr. Lincoln") when I was about seven years old. The movies were in black and white, on our tiny TV, but it didn't much matter. Fonda as Abe Lincoln? Forget about historical accuracy--just watch the movie.

5. Jack Lemmon

He could do pathos ("Days of Wine and Roses"). But no one has ever been funnier than he was in "Some Like it Hot."

6. Sophia Loren

See her in anything she made with the wonderful Marcello Mastroianni. Then watch her as an Italian Mother Courage in "Two Women."

7. Steve McQueen

I told you this was about love, not acting. My favorite bad boy. Brando didn't hold any interest for me; McQueen did. Go figure. Especially in that exciting hymn to male pulchritude (not a woman in the entire cast) and courage, "The Great Escape."

8. Natalie Wood

If you haven't seen "Splendor in the Grass," you may wonder why she's in here. If you have seen it, then I bet you don't wonder.

9. Liv Ullman

Transcendent and luminescent in "The Emigrants" and "The New Land," two of the greatest movies of all time.

10. Paul Newman

Another childhood crush, in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," and "The Hustler." He had an edge. And boy, has he aged well!

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Fair and balanced

The following is a portion of a comment I wrote during this discussion over at Roger Simon's. Roger had posed the question "what is 'fair and balanced'?" The context of the query was that he and others are engaged in setting up a new blogger consortium called Pajamas Media, and are signing up hundreds of blogs as part of it, and are making decisions about whether it's possible to achieve "fair and balanced" representation there.

The phrase "fair and balanced" (at least, as I interpret it) is something of an oxymoron.

Why? Because "fair" means, to me, logical, well-reasoned, factual. And "balanced" means "giving equal play to advocates of all sides of an issue" (a sort of "one from column A, one from column B, one from column C approach). Unless you subscribe to the morally relativistic position that all truths are equal, then striving for "balance" will probably dictate that some "unfair" views will, of necessity, be given a platform.

So, I think "fair and balanced" isn't really the goal--not in that way, at least. If you take all comers, you'll certainly have some blogs that aren't "fair." And, if you don't accept all comers, then you won't have good "balance" (or, at least, it would surprise me mightily if you did, since I'm not a moral relativist).

All you can do is to strive for blogs that use reason, logic, and facts, rather than sophistry, as their main tools. And if this means that you end up with a somewhat skewed distribution in terms of political orientation (and I won't say to what side I think that might be--let that remain my secret :-))--well then, so be it!

Whether or not you agree with me on which side could be the one that is overrepresented in the "fair" column (and reasonable people may differ on that) it's still an interesting question: how to choose? Should you give a forum to anyone and everyone who wants in? Does a sort of "pure capitalism" approach work best--let the market (i.e. the reader) sort it out? Or, if you want to have standards, how to apply them? Do you try to accept only those blogs you think are well-written and/or well-reasoned? How do you avoid letting your own political leanings color your decisions about this? Or, should you even try?

As I believe I've said before, all journalists--and certainly all bloggers--have a political point of view, and it's best to be up-front about it. Here's a section of another comment of mine on the subject (from this fascinating discussion at Jay Rosen's blog about the politics of the press):

Yes, the press is a political animal--or rather, animals. Each newspaper and periodical, and each journalist, has a political point of view which informs what it publishes, and what he/she writes. To pretend otherwise is to deny the obvious. The public can best be served by knowing the politics up front, and having the press drop the fiction of objectivity. So, to answer your question about what politics the press "should" have: transparent ones.

(How lazy can I get, eh? Reduced to cannibalizing my own comments on other blogs! Go easy on me--it's a holiday weekend, and the first day of sun we've had in about two centuries.)

Friday, May 27, 2005

Aging boomers (and I guess I'm one of them)

I've gotten to the point that going to the doctor, any doctor, is something I hate to do. I never liked it, but now I simply detest it. After all, the best that can happen is that things have stayed the same. But the reality is that, as time goes by, it becomes more and more likely that the news will be bad.

Those of you who are of a certain age know what I'm talking about. Slowly, more and more of your friends are taking pills--high blood pressure, cholesterol. A hearing aid blooms here and there, blushing pale pink in a (usually masculine) ear.

You want to postpone the test, the check-up, the mammogram, the prostate exam, the colonoscopy, and sometimes you do. But sooner or later the postponement goes on too long, and fear takes over, and so you go.

All this is a lead-in to say that yesterday I had an eye exam. I don't even wear glasses, except for night driving and the theater, or reading glasses for those intimate low-light restaurants. Oh, yes, and computer glasses for blogging. But in normal life I don't need them, and I can even read books without them.

So yesterday it was a surprise to me when the technician looked into my eyes, prior to the opthamologist's grand entrance, and said, "I'm going to have the doctor come in now to take a look before we dilate you." And then he went into some arcane discussion of the angle of my iris and the fluid and the shape of my eye and something something something. When I asked whatever was he talking about, he tried to find a diagram of the eye to show me. I didn't want to see a diagram of the eye, I said, I wanted to know what it all meant--did I have some eye disease? Oh no, no, he said, just something that might make it dangerous to dilate my pupils. And then he left me alone to ponder that thought.

Next there was quite a bit more fussing with my eyes by several people, including the doctor. Measuring, putting numbing drops in, measuring again, being told to stare at little targets. Their conclusion was that yes, indeed, I have some relatively rare malformation of the eye that is congenital but gets worse with age (doesn't everything?).

What does it all mean? Well, although it's highly unlikely to happen soon, as the thing progresses, I would be at risk for sudden blindness if my eyes dilate quickly or forcefully, blocking off some sort of fluid canals and causing a clogged-drain effect in which the eye fluid pressure builds up alarmingly and speedily.

Huh? Not exactly what I expected to hear. That's what he meant by "dangerous;" the eyedrops used to dilate eyes for the eye examination can cause an attack, requiring immediate emergency surgery to preserve the eyesight. Modern medicine being the relatively wonderful thing it is, however, there is a simple (they say; I hope!) laser surgery that puts a little hole in the iris and prevents any possible buildup.

The doctor then said he thought it would be okay now to dilate my eyes to examine them.

Now, one word I really don't like to hear a doctor say is "I think" (actually, that's two). So I inquired about this "think" thing, and he said if I was apprehensive (if?), I could just have the laser surgery soon, and postpone the drops for afterwards.

I made an appointment for laser surgery in three weeks. And then decided to write this little post to tell all of you that it's not a bad idea to keep up with your regular eye exams. A cautionary tale.

Quantifying the quake

Remember that earthquake and tsunami back in December of 2004 (or have you already forgotten)?

Willisms presents some utterly astounding facts about the uniqueness of the quake that spawned the tsunami.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Religious intolerance

In the May 30th issue of the New Yorker, Hendrik Hertzberg's "Comment" piece on the Newsweek incident contains the following phrase that caught my eye: We have to be respectful of Muslim sensibilities and Muslim beliefs...

Which brings me to a single, simple question: why? Is it because Islam is a religion? Are all religious beliefs worthy of respect, no matter what they are?

I seem to recall that the Aztecs had a religion that required them to rip the living hearts out of human sacrifices. The Aztecs would undoubtedly have called the belief system that required them to do this a religion, and they would have been correct. The ancient Greeks murdered little girls for similar reasons, as I recall (Iphegenia comes to mind). The Hindus had the quaint custom of requiring widows to be burned alive on their husbands' funeral pyres. Which brings us to my next point.

Here's a favorite story of mine (I hope it's not apocryphal, but it doesn't really matter if it is):

When General George Napier was governor of Sind province in India in the 1840s, he vigorously enforced the ban on suttee, the practice of throwing a Hindu widow on to the funeral pyre of her husband. A delegation of Brahmins came to him to explain that he must not prohibit the practice at the funeral of a particular maharaja, as it was an important cultural custom.

“If it is your custom to burn a widow alive, please go on,” Napier responded.

“We have a custom in our country that whoever burns a person alive shall be hanged. While you prepare the funeral pyre, my carpenters will be making the gallows to hang all of you. Let us all act according to our customs” The Brahmins thought better of it, and the widow lived.

I actually have nothing against a custom that says that a Koran, or any holy book, shouldn't be desecrated (leaving aside the question of whether this actually happened at Guantanamo). But I have no problem whatsoever with saying not all customs of a religion, or a culture, need be respected just because they are under the protective penumbra of the words "religion" or "culture."

I'll respect those aspects of any religion or culture that are worthy of respect. Those that are not, I do not. How do I make those decisions? I use my sense of what is admirable in human beings--based on, of course, my own culture and my own beliefs, but taking into account certain universal principles of morality: respect for human life, for example, and the right to basic autonomy (both of these principles rule out suttee). One could restate these two principles as the right to "life and liberty." Sound familiar?

I also have a simple rule about tolerance: it's fine, but it does not extend to tolerating intolerance. On that score, Islam almost constantly falls short, so Islam's intolerance is not to be tolerated.

It must be true--after all, it's in the FBI report

One story, four headlines.

The story: in 2002-2003 some Guantanamo detainees told FBI investigators that guards had flushed a Koran down the toilet, and desecrated the Koran in other ways.

Now, the headlines:

Yahoo news: FBI memo reports Guantanamo guards flushing Koran

The Boston Globe: FBI records cite Quran abuse allegations

The LA Times: Guantanamo Detainees Had Alleged Koran Desecration--Government documents reveal perceived abuses

The New York Times: Documents Say Detainees Cited Abuse of Koran by Guards

So, we have one story and four headlines. We all know how important headlines can be, since a certain percentage of readers hardly read beyond them. There is a difference in the impact of the headlines: the first two headlines could easily lead a reader to conclude that the allegations may have had some substance or independent corroboration, while the latter two make it clear that the allegations were made only by the detainees themselves.

But then we have the overarching question: why report this particular story at all, and why now? After all, what does it tell us? It is virtually a non-story; the equivalent of "Osama Bin Laden alleges the US is out to destroy the Moslem world," or even "11th century Christians allege Jews stick pins in host." Each of these statements might end up being quoted in an FBI report (well, maybe not the second), but that doesn't mean the claimants are speaking the truth. And it isn't as though detainees at Guantanamo are unbiased sources without an ax to grind.

So, why bother to report this story at all? My guess is that it's an attempt to say "where there's smoke, there's fire. Here's the smoke." A subtle--or perhaps not so subtle?--way to circle the wagons and support Newsweek, and to drive home the point that, as Amnesty says, the US is running the Gitmo Gulag.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Tracing the use of the anonymous source

Well, it turns out you can blame it on Watergate.

The recent prominence of anonymous sources in the Newsweek Koran-flushing story tweaked my curiosity about the history of the practice.

To the best of my recollection, the newspapers of my youth attributed every quote to an actual named person--not that I was paying a whole lot of attention at the time to subtleties like that. Now, however, it seems as though articles are often merely glorified gossip columns full of anonymous commentary--a sort of "he said, he said" kind of journalism--especially any article written by Seymour Hersch, which usually consists of nothing but a long string of such tidbits.

The only thing we know for sure is the identity of the article's author. We are asked to take the facts on trust, without a chance to evaluate the source of the remarks. This over-reliance on the anonymous source gives both the journalist and his/her informant an overwhelming power, and takes away our ability to judge the veracity of what we are being told. I believe it's one of the most pernicious trends in journalism.

This practice seems to be the logical development of a phenomenon that started with Vietnam and became stronger with Watergate. As I've written earlier, during that era many people's attitudes towards the government and the military became more negative, while their attitudes towards the press became correspondingly more positive, in a sort of reciprocal seesawing movement. As trust in the press grew, it seems that the time-honored journalistic methods of sourcing, previously acting as a system of checks and balances against the power of the press, were now considered unnecessary.

The most famous anonymous source of them all, of course, was Deep Throat of Watergate fame. He was not only a seminal (pardon the pun) figure in Nixon's denouement (and thus a hero to liberals everywhere), but he was so renowned that he had his own nickname, taken from a popular porn flick. It turns out that Deep Throat had another claim to fame: he was the trailblazer in the practice of relying on anonymous sources, now so commonplace in today's journalism.

I had suspected all along that Watergate might be at the heart of it, but it was difficult to document when I first tried to do some online research on the subject. I finally struck pay dirt with this article from American Journalism Review. It's hardly up-to-date (it was written way back in 1994), but it was the only discussion of the history of anonymous sources that I could find. It turns out Watergate was indeed a watershed in the use of this practice:

Although confidential sources predate Watergate, they were infrequently used before that celebrated story, which produced the most famous unnamed source of all time. Deep Throat, whose identity remains a mystery, helped Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein bring down Richard Nixon in 1974. After that, the use of anonymous sources flourished, with many reporters considering it sexier to have an unnamed source than a named one.

Unfortunately, it's only gotten worse since then. See this, if you want to remember the good old days:

"Of course, you talk to everybody when you begin a story," says Philip Scheffler, a senior producer for CBS' "60 Minutes." "Off the record. On the record. In the record. For background. Not for attribution no matter what. But it's not the raw notes we are talking about. We are talking about what goes on the air." And "60 Minutes" does not use anonymous sources on the air.

Would that that last sentence were still true!

And how about this guy:

There's not a place for anonymous sources," says Allen H. Neuharth, founder of USA Today and chairman of the Freedom Forum. "I think there are a few major historical developments that happened in journalism – the Pentagon Papers, maybe Watergate – where anonymous sources had a more positive influence than a negative impact. But on balance, the negative impact is so great that we can't overcome the lack of trust until or unless we ban them.

Where is Mr. Neuharth now? Retired to Florida and eighty-one years old--which makes him something of a dinosaur, I guess. As recently as 1998, though, he was still speaking out against the use of the anonymous source, which he calls evil. Here's an excerpt from a 1998 interview with Neuharth:

Traditionally journalists were taught to believe in accuracy above all else. And that changed. I think it changed with Watergate, and I think the anonymous source is the most evil thing that newspapers and the media have adopted or adapted in the last 25 years. It started with Watergate, (when) journalists coming off college campuses (were) determined to be (Bob) Woodward or (Carl) Bernstein. They believed that because of Watergate’s successes there was dirt under every mat in front of every office. They came out as young cynics. The journalists of my generation were taught to be skeptics. And there’s a hell of a difference between a skeptic and a cynic. All you need to do is be accurate and fair.

Sounds about right to me.

Back when that 1994 American Journalism Review article was written, there was apparently a great deal of variation in the rules for using anonymous sources--some papers used them liberally at the time, and some vary sparingly or not at all. I wonder whether some papers have kept their integrity in this regard, and resisted taking the low but easy road.

Reading the article, I waxed nostalgiac for those pre-9/11 concerns that we all knew and loved. It's all about things like the OJ trial, and Janet Cooke's bogus Washington Post story about the imaginary 8-year-old heroin addict. No international repercussions are even dreamt about, no terrorists or Islamofascists waiting in the wings to pounce on any story (although, of course, they were there all the time).

My impression is that the use of anonymous sources seems to be something like alcohol--seductive and habit-forming. In that 1994 article, everyone keeps talking about going on the wagon and curbing the practice, but very few have actually done so. Apparently it's too enticing to give up, for so many reasons--getting a sensational story, beating the competition, laziness, habit.

Is there any hope, short of Mr. Neuharth coming out of retirement? Well, in 2003 a group of eighteen well-known journalists were brought together by Poynter to make recommendations about improving journalism. They came up with this set of extremely sensible-seeming rules for the use of anonymous sources. If followed, they would eliminate a lot of trouble:

• Anonymous sources should be encouraged to go on the record.

• We should weigh the source’s reliability and disclose to readers the source’s potential biases.

• The more specific we can be in describing the source in the story, the better.

• Anonymous sources should not be used for personal attacks, accusations of illegal activity, or merely to add color.

• The source must have first-hand knowledge.

• Journalists should not lie in a story to protect a source.

I don't know why these guidelines haven't been widely adopted. I guess the bottom line is that journalists have become far too addicted to the easy fix that anonymous sources provide them.

Like all addictions, this calls for a 12-step program, right? I even have a name for it: ASA, Anonymous Sourcers Anonymous.

I guess they like the kimchee (Part II)

The pachyderm visitation turned out to be good for business, after all.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Journalists: experts in what?

I fear I'm getting boring here, carping on the MSM again ( getting boring? ask my critics. You've been boring for a long time now.)

But here it is again. Via Michael Totten, I read this recent fisking of a story that appeared in last Sunday's Washington Post and was itself a critique of Lebanon's upcoming elections.

The fisker is described by Michael Totten as "my friend in Beirut at the Lebanese Political Journal." So I guess he knows a thing or two about Lebanese history and political life. And he says that Annia Ciezadlo, who wrote the Post story, has gotten a great number of her facts wrong. Maybe the fisking isn't quite up there with Mary McCarthy's famous description of Lillian Hellman, "Everything she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the'"--but it's close.

When one reads this fisking and its point by point rebuttal of most of Ms. Ciezadlo's claims, it is truly astounding to see how wrong she gets it, even for one such as myself who has lost faith in the MSM in recent years.

So I'm wondering, what gives here? Ms. Ciezadlo is probably intelligent. She also appears (from a brief Google search I did that turned up a paucity of information on her) to be an American who reports quite a bit from Beirut. So it's not a case of her doing the equivalent of a quick term paper from afar, and coming up with this article. She ought to know better; she's had the time to study the situation and do the proper research. Is it bias? Blinders? Sloppiness? Bad sources?

I don't know. But I think it matters, very much. Newspapers are the way the vast majority of people get their information, and how their viewpoints are shaped. If the papers are getting it wrong, the consequences are vast. And this isn't about opinion; these are simple facts that Ms. Ciezadlo has misstated here.

It reminds me of something I read somewhere once about journalism (I Googled this every which way to find the actual source, but I came up empty). It went like this: The more expert you are on a subject, the more clear it is when you read a newspaper article about it that everything in that article is incorrect."

Although that's of course hyperbole, I've noticed the phenomenon myself. The people I've known personally who've been quoted in an article--misquoted, as often as not. If the article is about something I know a bit about--therapy, dance, social science research--I find glaring errors as a rule. What is this about? Is it willful? Is it stupidity? Is it speed? Sloppiness?

My answer at the moment is that sometimes it's any of those things, all of those things, or some combination of those things. But I have a theory that sometimes the following factor is also operating, either in concert with these things, or alone: I get the impression that many journalists nowadays (as opposed to in the past) are first and foremost writers (I don't know about Ms. Ciezadlo, since, as I said, I was unable to get much biographical information on her). As such, they may not really be experts in anything, except writing and journalism itself. Perhaps they were English or literature majors who may have then gotten a graduate degree in journalism school. Writing, writing, writing.

Now, I'm not down on writers--some of my best friends are writers! I'm a writer, even! But I think that writers who come to writing with a solid grounding as experts in something--history or economics or the military or law--or who have training in the discipline known as "critical thinking," might be less likely to make so many errors (especially when writing on a subject within their field of expertise).

Journalists sometimes remind me of the line from the "My Fair Lady" song "Why Can't the English": "The French don't care what they do, actually, as long as they pronounce it properly." Perhaps some journalists don't care what they say, actually, as long as it's well-written. Bias is always a possiblity (and, in some cases a probability), also. But again, I'm not talking about opinions here, I'm talking about simple and verifiable facts. Why can't the journalists get them right?

Time to complain about the weather

It is cold, dark, dank, and rainy. Much of this spring has been like that, and now they say it will continue for the rest of the week for northern coastal New England, with temperatures in the balmy ("balmy" as in "crazy," not as in "mild and pleasant") 40s and 50s.

It reminds me a bit of two summers ago, when there was a three-week period of rain, heavy humidity, and fog in August. The foghorns made a continual moan, which was pleasantly atmospheric for the first day or two, and then began to grind on the nerves most gratingly. One morning I noticed that the muted gold-colored fabric on my dining room chairs had taken on a moss-green sheen. How odd! When I went to inspect, I saw that the moss-green sheen was moss-green because--well, because it actually was some sort of green moss/mildew/mold. And then I noticed that, virtually overnight, various and sundry organic relatives of that green stuff had sprouted over many of the surfaces of the lower floor of my house--on walls, cabinets, wood, and fabric.

I'll spare you the details of what was necessary to remove the visitation, but suffice to say it involved a lot of bleach and a lot of work, and was the stuff of early Twilight Zone episodes, including nightmares featuring the return of the dread and humongous fungus.

As for the present rain, which has not yet reached those proportions--well, the flowers probably like it. But right now they all are bowed down by the heavy barrage, the tall tulip heads bent so low that they arc to nearly touch the grass.

And we people most assuredly do not like it. We didn't bargain for Seattle. Spring is usually a very nice season in New England--although a rather short one.

There's an old saying here, though: there are two seasons in New England--winter, and the Fourth of July. I guess we're in the winter part.

Monday, May 23, 2005

See the AP headline; read the AP story

Our old friend Jennifer Loven reports on what was essentially a cooperative meeting between ally Karzai and President Bush, and tries her best to spin it into a quarrel.

I know that reporters generally don't write their own headlines, so I probably can't blame her for that, but I can blame someone at the AP. Take a look: the headline reads "Bush rebuffs Karzai's request on troops." Then read the story, and decide whether you think the headline accurately portrays the gist of the situation, and the tenor and spirit of the meeting and the press conference.

Ms. Loven also writes:

Karzai thanked Bush for helping to put his country on the path to democracy. But he also came to their meeting with a long list of grievances.

I always imagine that journalists know the meaning of the words they use, and choose them quite carefully. I would suggest to Ms. Loven that the proper word would be "requests," not "grievances."

A couple of days ago, the headlines about Karzai all read something like this (I can't find the links, but this is what I recall), "Karzai blasts US for Afghan prison abuse." But, if you look at the transcript of today's press conference, you read something quite different from Karzai:

On the question of the prisoner abuse, we are, of course, sad about that. But let me make sure that you all know that that does not reflect on the American people.

Right now in Afghanistan there is an Italian lady that has been kidnapped by an Afghan man, while there are hundreds of Afghan women demonstrating outside in the streets of Kabul demanding the release of that woman, the Italian lady.

So the prisoner abuse thing is not at all a thing that we attribute to anybody else but those individuals. The Afghan people are grateful very, very much to the American people, and recognize that individual acts do not reflect either on governments or on societies. These things happen everywhere.

Karzai--a devout Moslem--shows the same sort of common sense on the subject of Newsweek and the Koran-flushing story:

[The riots] were more against the elections in Afghanistan. They were more against the progress in Afghanistan. They were more against the strategic partnership with the United States.

We know who did it. We know the guys. We know the people behind those demonstrations. And unfortunately you don't, here, follow the Afghan press. But if you listen to the Voice of America, the Radio Liberty and the BBC, the Afghan population condemned those acts of arson in Afghanistan.

Of course, we are, as Muslims, very much unhappy with Newsweek bringing a matter so serious in the gossip column. It's really something that one shouldn't do, that responsible journalism shouldn't do at all.

But Newsweek story is not America's story. That's what we understand in Afghanistan.

So, Newsweek is losing credibility all over the world. I can't say that makes me weep. Sometimes I think that, if the MSM can't be objective, and can't put things in the proper context, they should just publish the transcripts and call it a day. Let us be the judges of what people are actually saying and meaning, and be done with the middlemen/women oh-so-helpfully "interpreting" it all for us.

And yes, the usual suspects will probably call Karzai an American puppet and Bush's willing tool. I find it hard to understand how anyone can look at the man and listen to him, and still doubt his deep integrity and sincerity, not to mention his sheer courage.

Breaking with the "soft bigotry of low expectations"

This is beautiful music to my neocon ears--one of the central reasons I am proud to say I voted for President Bush.

Read the whole thing.

It's a moderate start

Good news--I think.

Apparently, according to the Boston Globe, there is a middle-of-the-road coalition being formed in the Senate, and it has some chance of tempering the polarization there. Could this be the start of something big?

An excerpt from the article:

The group of about 15 senators has been quietly forging a compromise even as their more partisan colleagues bludgeon each other daily on the Senate floor. They comprise at least six members of each party, the current margin of power in the Senate, and thus could decide any vote that falls along party lines.

Close Senate observers say the coalition's work could shift power from the majority and minority leaders and revitalize the political middle, with moderates who have found themselves out of the mainstream of their own parties enjoying heightened influence on major legislation.

If they are able to work productively together on other issues, their influence could expand, with the docket including such contentious issues as Social Security, stem cell research, reauthorization of the Patriot Act, and John Bolton's nomination to be ambassador to the United Nations.

Here are the names of some of the Senators involved:

The Democrats include the longest-serving senator, Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, and one of the newest, freshman Ken Salazar of Colorado. They are joined by Democratic centrists, such as Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, Kent Conrad of North Dakota, Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana, and Mark Pryor of Arkansas.

Those on the Republican side include such moderates as Lincoln D. Chafee of Rhode Island and Susan M. Collins and Olympia J. Snowe of Maine, as well as independent-minded conservatives, such as John W. Warner of Virginia, John McCain of Arizona, and Lindsey O. Graham of South Carolina.

I don't know about you, but I like the sound of this development.

German election results: Schroder on the ropes

As I said, it couldn't happen to a nicer guy.

Via Instapundit, I havelearned that the results of the election in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia have come in, and they look very bad for our friend Herr Schroder.

Despite Schroder's recent anti-American and anti-capitalist efforts, his SPD party came in approximately eight points below the CDU in the most populous area of Germany, an SPD stronghold for the past four decades. Although national elections had not been scheduled until 2006, Schroder is now calling for the elections to be held within the next four months.

However, there's possible trouble ahead. I don't pretend to understand German politics, but this sounds rather ominous to me:

With the bitter election result for my party in North Rhine-Westphalia the political support for our reforms to continue has been called into question," Mr Schröder said. Pursuing these policies required "clear support from a majority of Germans".

However, with many in the SPD demanding a shift to the left in a bid to win back core voters, Mr Schröder could face a bruising battle with his grassroots as he draws up the party's election platform. In recent weeks senior party members have vilified short-term investors as "swarms of locusts" descending on German companies and many party members credit that aggressive rhetoric with its success in closing the gap with the opposition in the run-up to yesterday's vote.

So, the left wing of Schroder's party thinks the problem is that he wasn't tough enough in his rhetoric. Maybe within the next four months he'll manage to close the gap by getting even clearer about just who those "locusts" might be.

Fasten your seat belts, Germany. I think you may be in for a bumpy ride.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

The insurgents strike back

The insurgents' secret weapon: but will the Sun dare publish it? Posted by Hello

Radical Son: on "progressives" and conservatives

Many people have suggested I really need to read David Horowitz's book Radical Son, so many that I decided to take them up on it. I just got the book out of the library and have only read a bit so far--and done this in my usual fashion, which involves skipping around rather wildly, reading the parts that interest me most first.

It is a long book, and a rambling one. But some of his words really leapt out at me with great power. My impression, based on just the little bit I've read so far, is that Horowitz's story is a sad one. Disillusionment with beliefs, and the resultant ostracism by one's former "comrades," is always sad. My story differs a great deal from Horowitz's, especially in two particular points: Horowitz was a well-known public figure and activist both before and after his "conversion," and he began from a far more radical position than I--hence the title.

But the book is still of great interest to me; those who suggested it were right. I only hope I can find the time to read the whole thing. One of the points that Horowitz drives home is how unforgivable his apostasy was to people who had formerly been his friends, many of whom ruthlessly cut him out of their lives with great bitterness solely because of his new political opinions.

The following struck me as so on-target that I wanted to quote it here. It explains the power of the Communist leftist dream to generations of poor immigrants during the early decades of the twentieth century. Horowitz is describing his own father, who was a committed Marxist--and I believe he is also describing an immigrant grandfather of mine whom I never knew, since he died in the 1920s:

Political utopians like my father had a master plan. They were going to transform the world from the chaos we knew into a comfortable and friendly place. In the happy future they dreamed about, there would be an end to grief from life out of control, life grinding you down and smashing your gut when you expected it least. Human cruelty would go out of style and become a memory in the museum of historical antiquities. In my father's paradise there would be no strangers. No one would feel like an outsider, alienated from others and at odds with themselves.

For thirty-five years I followed my father's footsteps and believed in his earthly redemption, until a day came when I realized that there are tragedies from which one cannot recover, and alienation that no revolution can cure. That we are the mystery, and this is the only truth that matters.

This is a fine description of the tragedy of the Utopian, who believes in the perfectibility of human nature and thus often commits (or at least condones) great evil in the name of an only-imagined good. To these people, faith in Communism replaced faith in religion, and was going to make up for all the disappointments of their lives. Some of them managed to abandon the dream when the excesses of Stalin were finally revealed in mid-century; others could not give it up, but instead gave up their hold on reality. I knew some of these people.

Horowitz also has a fine passage on the difference between those who like to call themselves "progressives" (read: leftists) and conservatives:

In December 1992, I was invited to give a lecture at the Heritage Foundation, the right's most important policy think tank. The subject was, "Are We Conservatives?" The very posing of the question was interesting. It was difficult to imagine, for example, a parallel forum asking, "Are We Progressives?" I explained this anomaly to my audience by pointing out that conservatism was an attitude about lessons from an actual past. By contrast, the attention of progressives was directed towards an imagined future. Conservatism was an attitude of caution based on a sense of human limits and what politics could accomplish. To ask whether conservatives were conservative was to ask a practical question about whether particular institutions were worth conserving...

The reason why progressives were unable to ask a similar question went to the root of their intolerant attitudes. Because the outlook of progressives was based on the idea of a liberated future, there was no way to disagree with them without appearing to oppose what was decent and humane. To criticize the radical project places one in opposition to a world in which social justice and harmony would prevail.

No wonder "progressives" ended up hating this guy. In this particular passage, Horowitz gets to the heart of a matter I've often thought about, and he explains it with a fine economy of expression. In summary, he is saying: how can you argue with a dream? Although dreams ordinarily don't hurt people, this one has caused profound harm to untold millions of people during the course of the twentieth century, and is still causing misery in certain places.

"Progressives"--boy, do I hate that word, although now I finally understand it better, because it expresses very well their focus on a dream of the future in which things, including nasty old human nature, will have progressed and been perfected. "Progressives" feel that conservatives, and even moderates and neocons, are the ones Frank Sinatra was talking about in the song "That's Life" when he sang: some people get their kicks from stomping on a dream.

No, we "non-progressives" [sic] don't get our kicks that way. But we, like Hobbes (as opposed to your Rousseau), see human nature as an imperfect given, something that needs to be taken into account when advocating a plan for society, or attempting a remedy for social ills.

Friday, May 20, 2005

David Brooks: in defense of Newsweek

Yesterday, NY Times columnist David Brooks wrote a column defending Newsweek against the bloggers. Brooks writes that, instead of criticizing the media, we need to focus on "the extremists, the real enemy," the ones who bear the true responsibility for the deaths.

As I wrote previously, however, there are two separate issues raised by the Newsweek/Koran story, issues that have been lumped together by many commentators. And Brooks, unfortunately, is ignoring them both, as well as setting up a false "either/or" dichotomy of responsibility.

The first issue has to do with practicality--what was written and what were the consequences of publishing it. Questions about the information's truth or falsehood don't enter into this first consideration. Even if it had been true, an argument could be mounted against the need to print it. In the last analysis, that's a judgment call, as I wrote in my previous post on the subject.

The second issue has to do with what's called "process": how was the information authenticated, and was this in agreement with commonplace journalistic standards that are (or used to be) in place to make certain that anything printed in an article is likely to be correct? The answer in this case is "no." But this is a separate issue, and has nothing to do with either truth or consequences--although, of course, we are only talking about the issue because of the dire consequences of publishing this particular poorly-researched article.

When you put the two issues together, and look at what Newsweek has done here, you have an affront to both common sense judgments and time-honored journalist practices. Brooks' analysis in his column ignores all of this. I am, quite frankly, really surprised at his lack of intellectual rigor. I think it only shows that, in this case, he is letting his identity as a journalist trump his ability to think straight. And it's not just his identity as journalist--it's his identity as a former writer for Newsweek, and a colleague of Isikoff and the rest. My guess is that he has an emotional allegiance to them, and doesn't like seeing them bashed by those mean old bloggers, and this is clouding his judgment.

The liberal media doesn't have to be way out there with Chomsky to be negligent nevertheless. I wonder whether Brooks ever heard of the old concept of "contributory negligence"--meaning one can still be responsible for something without being 100% responsible. There is a partial responsibility. In this case, of course the fundamentalist Moslems who were all riled up about this and went on a rampage bear the greatest responsibility. That goes without saying, and that's why no one felt the need to say it.

But the fact that others--the ones who committed the acts--bear the greater responsibility does not in any way absolve Newsweek of its partial responsibility in the matter. We expect more from Newsweek--we expect them to use good judgment, and to follow proper journalistic safeguards before they publish a story--and yes, to think about the possible consequences of that story vs. the public's need to know. Is that too much to ask?

Crisco through the ages

I was suprised at the depth of feeling evidenced in the recent Crisco cookie wars (if you are unaware of what I'm referring to, see here). I hope we have reached the point where we can now call a truce by stating that the real difference between the two sides appears to be one of dunkers vs. non-dunkers. Simply put, those who dunk cookies prefer them to be made with Crisco; those who don't, don't.

But the whole cookie discussion started me thinking about Crisco itself. This is unusual; Crisco, like Spam, is something I don't ordinarily think about. We didn't use either one all that much in our house when I was growing up, even though it was the Fifties--except, of course, for the obligatory piecrust (made with Crisco, that is, not Spam). And meditating on Crisco made me think of a very odd but strangely fascinating book I once read.

The book is called Perfection Salad. Written by Laura Shapiro, it's a history of the "Scientific Cooking" movement, in which a group of women of the late 1800's and early 1900's tried to revolutionize American cooking, introducing the idea of order and form as paramount considerations. Sounds rather dull, but I found the book surprisingly riveting.

It turns out that these ladies were trying to tame food and civilize it. The goal was to make it an esthetic and refined experience, as far from its "animal" roots as possible, and devoid of any "low" and ethnic influences--such as, for example, that tiny detail known to us as taste (if you are of a certain age, like me, and you wonder why the food of your youth was so uniformly bland, these ladies share some of the blame). Color was elevated to a matter of extreme importance, and white was the very best color of all.

It's hard to imagine exactly what this entailed in practice, so to get an idea to what lengths the advocates were willing to go, here's an excerpt from the book:

Color-coordinated meals enjoyed a surge of popularity...Mrs. Lincoln once shared with her readers the description of a green-and-white luncheon created by a subscriber. Grapefruit, lightly covered with white frosting and pistachio nuts, opened the meal; cream of pea soup with whipped cream followed; and the main course was boiled chicken with banana sauce, accompanied by macaroni, creamed spinach, potato balls, and parsley. Green-and-white ices and cakes completed the picture...Mrs. Rorer had a special fondness for the all-white meal, which she didn't mind going to some lengths to achieve. Cream soups, cream sauces, boiled poultry, and white fish dominated her dinners, with vanilla ice cream, whipped cream, and angel cake for dessert.

I don't know about you, but this is my idea of revolting. And where does Crisco come in? In 1911, to be exact--as the makers of Crisco inform us, having thoughtfully provided us with a timeline on the Crisco website. Crisco was the quintessential white, pure food, the dream come true of the scientific cooking movement. Leached of taste, smell, and the ability to spoil, it was lauded and embraced by these women.

Here is Perfection Salad on the subject of the introduction of Crisco:

Crisco had been tested extensively in the laboratory ever since its discovery...Now it was ready for the public: "Dip out a spoonful and look at it. You will like its very appearance, for it is a pure cream white, with a fresh, pleasant aroma....Crisco never varies...[it] is put up in immaculate packages, perfectly protected from dust and store odors. No hands ever touch it..."

Some early Crisco recipes:

Caramel Sweet Potatoes could be glazed with brown sugar and Crisco; stuffed onions could be filled with bread crumbs and Crisco; sandwiches could be spread with Crisco mixed with an egg yolk and seasoned rather highly with Worcestershire sauce, lemon juice, and vinegar; and finally, a pure and tasteless white sauce could be prepared by melting two tablespoons of Crisco, adding two tablespoons of flour, and stirring in a cup of milk.

I do believe I have finally found the source for the recipes used by the chefs (I use the word advisedly) in the dining hall at my college dorm.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Let freedom ring--Carnival of the Revolutions

Calling all bloggers who might be interested in sending posts to the recently reinaugurated Carnival of the Revolutions. Hosted by a consortium of bloggers, the idea is to give a home to stories about the growth of freedom worldwide. What more could a neo-neocon (or a neocon, or even just a freedom-lover) want? Please take a look--and send a post, if you're so inclined.

It couldn't happen to a nicer guy: Schroder

Quite a few bills seem to be coming due lately: first, Australia's Howard; then, America's Bush; next, Britain's Blair; and now our dear friend and ally, Germany's Schroder, who is about to be presented with a small but pressing little bill of his own.

The pending German election is not a national one--that won't happen till 2006--so it hasn't gotten much media coverage here. I didn't even know about it until I caught this in the New Republic. As it turns out, according to TNR assistant editor Clay Risen, even though the election is only local to the state of North Rhein-Westphalia, there are national repercussions. The indication is that Gerhard may be in more than a little bit of trouble. And, like so many politicians, he is doing and saying whatever he can to stay in power.

Here's an excerpt:

Largely ignored on this side of the Atlantic, German state elections this weekend in North Rhein-Westphalia could be the beginning of the end for Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. Germany's most populous state and home to Düsseldorf, Cologne, and Bonn, NRW, as it is known locally, has been governed by the Social Democrats (SPD) for 39 years. Polls, however, show the party headed for an embarrassing defeat by the right-of-center Christian Democrats (CDU). A loss in NRW could render Schröder a lame duck between now and the 2006 federal election--not only because of the region's symbolic value as a longtime SPD stronghold, but also because a win there would give the CDU enough of a parliamentary majority to veto the chancellor's agenda.

Both friends and enemies regard Schröder as an enormously skillful and ruthless politician, so it's been no surprise to see his party's leadership take a sharp populist turn over the last few weeks, lashing out at "international capital" and the "Anglo-Saxon" business model as a threat to the German social system. In some ways it's a repeat performance of his 2002 federal election strategy, in which to save his post he demonized Bush on Iraq and all but tanked U.S.-German relations. Fortunately, Schröder has been able to repair some of the damage done by that first attack, sending soldiers to Afghanistan and training Iraqi troops. This time around, though, the debate engendered by his party's rhetoric is both more virulent and more likely to spread uncontrollably, influencing not just bilateral government relations but business relations as well. And that's bad news for both sides of the Atlantic.

Although I have my usual difficulty evaluating the actual economic arguments on the merits, it does seem pretty clear that Schroder's stance is a strategic one, designed to cover his political hindquarters, but shortsighted and potentially damaging to Germany's already at-risk economy. And furthermore, it doesn't seem to be working; the polls show his party likely to lose the upcoming North Rhein/Westphalian election.

It couldn't happen to a nicer guy.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Blogger Problem

I'm trying to fix a problem with Blogger. The blog is coming up on the screen as a blank white page. I've been told that, when that happens, if you manage to post something, the blog content usually shows up again. So, this is a test to see whether that works.

Caught that baton

Norm Geras tossed me the "10 things I've never done before" baton, and so I'll catch. Norm has sometimes told me I should break down and write shorter posts (he knows I do have a very slight tendency to go on and on), so maybe this was his effort to help me out. Before Nov. 2004, the first entry in the following list probably would have been "voted for a Republican." But no more.

10 Things I've Never Done

--bought a new car
--painted my toenails
--been fired, or fired anyone
--had my horoscope done
--eaten anything bigger than my head
--lied about my age
--worn a T-shirt that said anything
--kissed a man with a beard
--seen any of the "Godfather" movies
--owned a cat, or wanted to

And now it's my turn to pass it on. So here goes--and you'd better make it funnier than I did. That shouldn't be too hard!: TmjUtah, Dennis the Peasant, and Dr. Sanity.

Taking the cake

While we're on a Van Der Leun roll, see this (otherwise, the following may not make a whole lot of sense).

Gerard, I envy you. Not only did my mother not bake the Holy Cookies, she didn't even bake. But I can still identify with the Quest. My brother and I easily found my mother's hiding places for sweets--in her case, candy. She was nowhere near as creative as your mother at stowing the stuff away.

But in our house the real prize was cake. My parents entertained a lot, and they liked to have impromptu gatherings--a few good friends coming over for the four c's of cards, cake, coffee, and conversation--lively talk and laughter that made it hard for me to do my homework as the sounds drifted up the stairs and straight into my room. I was usually allowed to come down and join them for at least little while (and a little cake).

The cake came in a variety of classic flavors--chocolate, lemon, coconut--always with thick frosting. It was purchased by my mother in quantity at a special bakery in Brooklyn and brought home in stacks of boxes, each box tied with string and then several tied together in a great pyramid-like structure. There were typically three stacks, for a total of fifteen cakes at a time, enough for a couple of months of guests, and stored in a large freezer that sat in our basement next to the washing machine (the dryer didn't come till many years later).

There they sat, frozen but nevertheless burning large holes of desire in our brains. Until one evening when our parents were out and, maddened by greed, we decided we just had to eat one of the cakes. Like most thieves, we knew we needed to be quick about our work (who could predict the hour of their return?), and so we couldn't take the time to defrost it. But we found, much to our astonishment, that frozen cake is really good. Really, really, really good.

After that, we had our m.o. down. Over the course of a couple of weeks, we would eat just a few of each batch, disposing of the boxy evidence by ripping it up and taking it to the outside garbage cans. My mother, I'm sad (or happy) to report, was none the wiser. She didn't seem to keep count. When she noticed the stack in the freezer had dwindled, she just figured it was time to go back to the bakery to replenish it.

As for cooking, I ended up teaching myself, since my mother--although she had many other wonderful qualities--was not going to be any sort of guide in the kitchen, except for what not to do. And, having gone the Tollhouse chocolate chip cookie route (and sorry, Gerard, but Crisco is heresy in my book), I am here to report that the right way, the only way, to eat them is warm from the oven, with the chips still slightly soft and oozy, and the cookies retaining a slight give, crunchy on the outside but tender on the inside.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Psychological history of WWII

I recently came across this essay by Lee Sandlin, entitled "Losing the War." It was recommended to me by the inimitable Gerard Van Der Leun, who is certainly no slouch in the essay department himself.

Sandlin's article is well-written and insightful, and is somewhat of a psychological history of WWII, describing the reactions of those on the home front and those at the actual front. It is very lengthy--War and Peace without the "peace"--but well worth the read.

Sandlin does a phenomenal job of writing about a war we tend to think of as familiar, describing it in ways that are quite new. He shows us the war as experienced by those alive at the time, rather than the version that's been wrapped up into neat history for those of us who came later.

For those who live it, war usually is utter chaos, and WWII was certainly no exception, as Sandlin makes clear. Ever since I first heard about that war when I was a young child, I've had one overriding personal thought about it, which is that I am extremely happy I was not alive during it. I simply don't think I could have endured the fear and the uncertainty, not to mention hearing about the scale of the carnage in real time. I have often marveled at the courage of those who lived through it without knowing the outcome in advance; it was awful enough to learn about it ex post facto.

Sandlin's article is nothing if not a demonstration of Churchill's warning:

Never, never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy, or that anyone who embarks on the strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter. The statesman who yields to war fever must realize that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events.

The only point of contention I can find with the article is that Sandlin calls the idea that Japan was unlikely to have surrendered prior to the dropping of the atomic bombs "preposterous"--and then he proceeds to give a fairly good argument as to why Japan was probably nowhere near surrendering at that point. His description of Midway will make your hair stand on end, and he adds new points of extreme creepiness to the familiar portrait we have of Hitler.

Illuminating and highly recommended.

Monday, May 16, 2005

The power (and the staying power) of the myth of desecration

Ever since I heard about the violent reaction to the Newsweek Koran story, a little bell has been going off in the back of my head. One of those things that says, "This is familiar. This reminds me of something. What could it be?" You know how it is; you think and you think, but nothing specific comes up, just this general feeling.

This morning, though, it finally came to me, in that state of half-consciousness between sleep and wakening. The blood libel. The host desecration. Of course.

For those of you unfamiliar with the myth of the blood libel and the host desecration, please go here. These are two ancient and false accusations that seem utterly preposterous today, but were believed at the time by many Christians, and have caused widespread violence against Jews--for centuries, and in many parts of the world.

Please read the entire link to learn about it. But here's a short summary:

In 1144 CE, an unfounded rumor began in eastern England, that Jews had kidnapped a Christian child, tied him to a cross, stabbed his head to simulate Jesus' crown of thorns, killed him, drained his body completely of blood, and mixed the blood into matzos (unleavened bread) at time of Passover. The rumor arose from a former Jew, Theobald, who had become a Christian monk...
The host is a wafer used during the Roman Catholic mass...the church teaches that it is converted into the actual body of Jesus Christ, just as the wine becomes Jesus' actual blood. These elements of the mass are then eaten by the believers....A variation of the blood libel myth developed in Europe early in the 11th century. Instead of accusing the Jews of killing an innocent child, they were accused of desecrating the host. Sometimes they were accused stabbing pins into the host, or of stepping on it. Other times, they were accused of stabbing the host with a knife until Jesus' blood leaked out. Sometimes, they were accused of nailing the host, in a symbolic replay of the crucifixion.

The elements are very similar, particularly in the host desecration myth. In each case, we have believers in the sanctity of the object itself (for medieval Catholics, the host; for present day Moslem fundamentalists, the Koran), and a belief that another group showed lack of respect for the sanctity of said object and violated it in a terrible way. In the case of the blood libel, we also have allegations of an actual murder of an innocent for purposes of ritual desecration.

As in the present situation, we have a fundamentalist group deeply enraged that another group is said to have desecrated its most holy object. Just as many medieval Christians believed the blood libel and the host desecration to be just cause for killing Jews, so some Moslems of today think the penalty for the current charges should be death. In the case of the former, the Church tried to do damage control and say the rumor was a lie, just as Newsweek is attempting to do today. (Unlike Newsweek, though, the Church was not itself responsible for originally spreading the libel). And, as is true today, it is very difficult to clear the record once these things are in the public domain. In fact, it is amazing that, in an age of fairly primitive communications in terms of technology, these myths still had the power to get so far, to have such staying power, and to cause so much damage.

Of course, Christianity has changed a lot since those days. The blood libel and host desecration myths no longer have any traction for Christians, and haven't for a long while. But the world of Moslem fundamentalism is still very susceptible to this type of thinking.

One very big difference, though--at least so far--is that the scope of the damage in the present case has been relatively small compared to its historical precedent. I sincerely hope it stays that way.

ADDENDUM: I wanted to add once again that I do not think this rumor was promulgated by Newsweek with any appreciation of its meaning in the Moslem world, or the severity of the possible consequences. Whether Newsweek ought to have foreseen these things is a question discussed here, including the comments section.

The lethal narcissism of the press

I found the following comment by blogging psychoanalyst Shrinkwrapped on this post by Roger Simon about the Newsweek Koran-flushing fiasco. I was so taken with what Shrinkwrapped wrote that I reproduce it here in full:

I have written before about the special narcissism of the MSM (and the academic elites). They write as if their words are the most important products in the universe, but they also write as if their words have no impact. We are supposed to look with awe and adulation at the brilliance and facility of their manipulation of words; the meaning of their words is actually secondary to the use of the words as a vehicle to evoke our admiration.

In the case of Newsweek, they pass off an explosive story, based on anonymous sourcing, as if it is no big deal, just a small note, not worth much investigation; they have handed the enemy another bullet to use against us in a war that is as much about information as it is about guns. The MSM, with its "sophisticated" relationship to information, has no real clue what they are doing.

I am in agreement with Shrinkwrapped; I do not think Newsweek did this with full awareness of the consequences. With malice towards Bush, his policies, and the military, yes; and probably with an awareness that it would impact negatively on them. But with a greater understanding of the larger and more widespread consequences of their acts? At this point there is, unfortunately, not much evidence for that sort of depth of thinking or breadth of vision among the powers that be at Newsweek.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

The press plays Truth or Consequences--or neither

Austin Bay has some excellent commentary on the story of the Newsweek article alleging that a Koran was flushed down a Guantanamo toilet. The report has sparked outrage and deaths in Afghanistan, and may cause more before this is through.

The questions raised by this story are deep ones. What is the responsibility of the media for the unforeseen consequences of their reporting? And what duty do they have to try to foresee the possible consequences of publicaton? If foreseen, what duty do they have to suppress a story to avoid such consequences? And how certain do they have to be of the story's veracity to publish these--or any--allegations?

In a sense, this Koran-flushing story is of the easiest type to judge, because it turns out that the allegations contained therein were almost certainly untrue, the story itself was relatively trivial and unimportant (there was no overriding "need to know"), and it was based on sketchy and anonymous sources. But what if the story had been true, or important, or well-sourced, or some combination of all three? The task of deciding how to factor in the question of consequences then becomes more difficult.

If we go back in time, we find that, during FDR's Presidency, reporters didn't even publish their own certain knowledge of how physically limited he was. They were so wary of the consequences of the story, so protective of both the President and the public, that they voluntarily censored themselves. The same is true for the early rumors concerning JFK's kinky extra-curricular sex life. Reporters of the time apparently suppressed the story for protective purposes--and also, perhaps, because JFK was well-liked by the press corps. Of course, in those pre-Sullivan vs. NY Times days, the penalties for getting it wrong were a good deal greater.

Now things are quite different, to say the least. They have been for some time. And, as Austin Bay rightly points out, the consequences in this age of cybercommunication are no longer local, they are worldwide and nearly instantaneous. The world has become like a room filled with propane or pure oxygen--a small spark is all that's needed for ignition.

Back in my liberal days, when Republicans were busy trying to impeach and remove Clinton from office (for crimes I thought were both stupid and wrong, but which didn't seem to me to rise to the level of impeachable offenses) I was very upset by the release of the Starr report. I had what seemed at the time (even to me) to be a very strange worry about it. I was concerned about its effect on the fundamentalist Moslem world. It occurred to me that such a puritanical group might experience a sort of wild rage on reading it, a feeling that America and the West were hopelessly corrupt and sexualized--that only a Sodom and Gomorrah-esque country would be publishing this sort of material about its own President--and you know what happened to Sodom and Gomorrah.

I have no idea whether the Starr report factored into the 9/11 attacks in any way. I am not familiar with any references to it; it's certainly possible (perhaps even likely) that it did not. But, whether or not it had such an effect, the idea was already implanted in my mind that the media needs to at least consider the effects of the stories they publish.

Every journalist and every editor has a myriad of small decisions to make for each event: whether this is a story that needs to be covered, and, if so, in what detail; which sources are reliable and which not; which pieces of information should be included and which excluded. Long ago, the press used to factor into their decision-making process assumptions about the effect of such stories--on the war effort and on the American public, for example (the effect on the world wasn't such a big deal at the time, because of the immense gulf involved). But since the late 60s, when the press rose to its present position as government and military antagonist, the idea of the press as exalted mouthpiece of truth became reified. Now the position of the press seems to be Consequences? Who cares? Our only fidelity is to truth. And this "truth" has, unfortunately, come to be defined more and more as whatever any Deep (or Shallow) Throat might happen to say it is, as long as the story is scandalous enough to draw readers.

The result? Coverage of stories with no thought for consequences--and, increasingly, with a callous and reckless disregard for truth, also. A winning combination, is it not?

If any good comes out of this Newsweek fiasco and tragedy, perhaps it will be a re-evaluation of the duty of the press to be conscientious and cautious regarding both truth and consequences

On the cuteness of ladybugs

Ladybugs? Yes, ladybugs.

I found one yesterday on my bathroom floor and immediately thought, "Oh, how cute!" But that thought was immediately followed by a second one: what's so cute about a ladybug? Is there any other insect we generally think of as cute, and would tolerate in our homes?

It's commonly known that ladybugs are helpful to have in the garden, eating all sorts of tiny pests. I know, of course, that earthworms are some kind of wonderful, too. But they are far from cute, and if I found one on my bathroom floor I would, quite simply, freak.

No, ladybugs really are cute. Rounded, red, and spotted, they look like toys (and have been the inspiration for some). They radiate that sense of puppyhood or youngness that humans seem to respond to with a smile.

It's mostly the shape and the color. Here's a nice potpourri of ladybug images to peruse. I think only a heart of stone would fail to agree: cute, cute, and more cute (with the sole exception of the very first image on the page, which in close-up appears to be some sort of fanciful artist's rendering).

There's a limit, of course, to even my ladybug tolerance. Every now and then a whole bunch of them enter the house. I would certainly be willing, at the very least, to escort them out--if it weren't for the fact that by the time I ordinarily see them they are already deceased, so my task is limited to clearing out the bodies. But they are cute bodies.

It's not about beauty, either. In fact, one of the peskier pests, the Japanese beetle, is a rather lovely creature, looked at somewhat objectively. The jewel-like iridescence of its wings, shining in the sun, is something I often admire--right before I plunk the owner of said wings into a jar of alcohol.

So, I am not an insect lover, I must confess. My guess is that most people would agree that insects are not particularly appealing. But some insects are, and it turns out the ladybug is not the only one.

According to this chart, all but eight states have adopted state insects. Who knew? I always thought that, in Maine and New Hampshire, if there were a designated state insect it would be a close tie between the mosquito and the black fly (sometimes also known as the state birds). But no. Maine prefers the honeybee (not one of my personal favorites, but an extremely popular state insect, with eighteen states choosing it) and New Hampshire--well, New Hampshire is one of six states proudly and sensibly backing Ms. Cuteness herself, the ladybug. Many states (twenty-four in all) cop out by choosing a butterfly, which I know is actually an insect but hardly seems like one to me.

It seems as though, to achieve most-favored-insect status, there needs to be a combination of beneficial (or at least benign) activity and either cuteness or beauty. Butterflies may be free, but they are certainly not cute; they are beautiful. Japanese beetles may be beautiful, but they are harmful to the garden. Earthworms may be beneficial, but to my way of thinking are just not cute (though the Lowly Worm might be considered an exception).

And then there's my current nemesis, the truly vile lily beetle. It came north in droves last year, forcing gardeners in the area to destroy their beautiful lilies, or watch them be destroyed almost overnight by this voracious plague. But here the lily beetles are (that is, pictures of them). No, they're not fat and round like the ladybug, and they lack the dalmatian-like spots, but they are somewhat cute and somewhat ladybuggish, if esthetics were the only criterion.

But it most decidedly is not. I have declared war against them, although, so far, I lack weapons in the fight, unless I want to poison myself and possibly everything around me (it's a relic of my liberalness; I'm reluctant to use pesticides for mere ornamentals). This guy's advice, which is to go out two or three times a day and pick them off your lilies, is simply not going to happen (blogging is labor-intensive enough!)

But there is a ray of hope. In the same article, the author writes that there are plans to introduce the French parasite of the Lily Beetle sometime next year. So, help is on the way, and from France, of all places! The only problem is that, as it tuns out, this article was written in 1998. Ah well, c'est la vie, c'est la guerre.

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