Thursday, June 30, 2005

A mind is a difficult thing to change: Part 5 (The quiet years: tanks vs. pears)

[For links to earlier posts in this series, please see the right sidebar under the heading, "A mind is a difficult thing to change."]


I thought this post would be relatively easy to write. After all, the years between 1975 and September 10, 2001 were fairly quiet for me, at least politically speaking, especially compared to the bitter and personal struggles of the Vietnam era. But strangely, it's that very quietness that has made this post harder to write than I ever thought it would be--in fact, far harder than the previous ones--because of the absence of such drama.

I don't want to bore you all to tears. I could summarize the whole era by saying I was otherwise engaged. But, in the end, that would be too simplistic. After all, I'm writing this to try to understand and explain what was going on for me, and for others, in the psychological/political sense: what led to change, or failed to lead to change.

So, exactly what was I thinking about, politically, during those years? Was I even thinking at all, or was I more or less on automatic? And was my experience idiosyncratic, or was it typical, representing a general trend of the times?

In other words: was I like Karel's mother? (And who, you might ask, is Karel's mother?)

I confess that I have been an inveterate New Yorker reader for the last thirty-five years or so. I've even kept my subscription in the face of my neocon conversion and the resultant fact that I can no longer stomach their political articles. I recall that the New Yorker published excerpts from expatriate Czech author Milan Kundera's novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting shortly before the book came out in 1978. All I had to do was read the very first paragraph of the work and I knew I was in the presence of something extraordinary. I read with mounting excitement and total concentration, and when the book was available I immediately bought it and read it from cover to cover. It merged the political with the personal in a free-form style like no other--gripping, entertaining, profound, and totally idiosyncratic.

Certain images in that book made a deep impression on me. I've already discussed one of them here, in my post "Dancing in a ring." The image of the circle dance was memorable, although it was only many years later that I even began to understand what Kundera was saying.

But the story of Karel's elderly mother and the pears--that, I understood from the start. Here it is:

One night, for example, the tanks of a huge neighboring country came and occupied their country [a reference to the 1968 Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia]. The shock was so great, so terrible, that for a long time no one could think about anything else. It was August, and the pears in their garden were nearly ripe. The week before, Mother had invited the local pharmacist to come and pick them. He never came, never even apologized. The fact that Mother refused to forgive him drove Karel and Marketa crazy. Everybody's thinking about tanks, and all you can think about is pears, they yelled. And when shortly afterwards they moved away, they took the memory of her pettiness with them.

But are tanks really more important than pears? As time passed, Karel realized that the answer was not so obvious as he had once thought, and he began sympathizing secretly with Mother's perspective--a big pear in the foreground and somewhere off in the distance a tank, tiny as a ladybug, ready at any moment to take wing and disappear from sight. So Mother was right after all: tanks are mortal, pears eternal.

That's an exaggerated version of what seemed to happen to me (and others) during those years: the tanks didn't disappear, but they receded into the distant background; and the pears loomed, large and ripe, in the foreground. And who wouldn't want that to happen? Who would choose to focus on tanks when they could think about pears instead? Most people seemed only too happy to throw themselves into life itself, and to leave the interminable political discussions to the politicians and the policy wonks.


The military draft had ended in 1973, and Saigon had fallen in 1975. The men of my generation no longer had to face the possibility of putting their lives on the line in that difficult and ultimately tragic cause. The news from that part of the world no longer screamed in blaring headlines, but drifted in on the tide, like the boat people fleeing the Communist regime that had taken over South Vietnam. The news was not at all good. But it no longer had the personal immediacy it had had during the late 60s and early 70s, when the draft had forced us to confront it up close and very very personal. Terrible, wasn't it, what was happening in Cambodia; and awful about the poor boat people, but what could you do at this point? The tragedies in Southeast Asia began to recede into the generalized din of human suffering all over the globe. It seemed it could not be helped; it was the human condition.

There was a general retreat from political activism. Of course, this was not true of everyone, but it certainly was true of a sizeable portion of the generation that had been so activist just a few short years before. Remember the catch-phrase "the 'Me' decade," to refer to the 70s? There seems to have been a certain truth to it. With a sigh of relief, people concentrated on good times and on the self, not unlike the Roaring Twenties which had followed the horrors of World War I and the influenza pandemic that took so many lives at that war's end.

I was only too happy to pull back from thinking about politics. I got married in the mid-1970s, and my husband and I were concerned with starting out in jobs and finding a place to live, making new friends and adjusting to life beyond college and graduate school. I remember the oil crisis mostly because it happened around the time of a trip I had planned, making it hard for me to travel by car. It was both a nuisance and a warning bell, but I was driving a small foreign car anyway, and the financial pinch wasn't too hard, and then it was over almost as soon as it had begun. I remember the sickening feeling of watching the 444-day Iran hostage crisis, but my perception was filtered through the fact that I was very late in my first pregnancy when it began, and the mother of a barely-walking one-year old when it ended.

Starting a marriage and a family is an all-consuming period of life for most people, and it certainly was so for me, along with many of my friends. I was a stay-at-home mother for many years, devoted to the care of my child, and exhausted much of the time. I still managed to read the Boston Globe most days, and the New Yorker most weeks, and watched some TV news (I recall that Nightline got its start covering the hostage crisis). I had a vague sense that events in Iran boded no good, and watching the Iranian women don their chadors I wondered why they would be so eager to go back to what seemed to be medievalism. But what did it matter to me if they wanted to wear black robes and have a cleric for their leader? It seemed to be their choice; was it any of my business?

I could go into detail writing about this or that event, and my reaction or non-reaction (or mild reaction) to it. But more important than all of that was the fact that I had come to accept a certain level of turmoil in the world. I felt bad about it, but I no longer thought there was much I could do about it, except give money to a cause such as Save the Children or Amnesty International (which I joined over twenty years ago, back when it actually did appear to be devoted to the cause of helping political prisoners around the world). It seemed as though human misery was in a sort of steady-state mode: about the same level existed from year to year, with a dramatic surge here and there in one third-world place or another, but the overall amount seemed stable.

Part of this attitude of mine (and so many others) was the phenomenon of growing older and seeing that problems were not going to be solved overnight, if at all. Part of it was the aforementioned attention deficit: for many years, the pressing demands of family left me little time for the leisurely study of world events, and when I did have a spare moment, I wanted to relax and enjoy myself. In this I think I was probably quite typical of everyone except political junkies.

This situation fostered maintaining the status quo. If I (and others) had little time to study events in any depth or detail, there was no way my political opinions and/or my interpretation of those events were likely to undergo any changes. How could they? As I moved through my thirties and forties, I considered my political opinions to be fully formed, anyway. It never occurred to me that they might change or might need to change, any more than the color of my eyes might change at that point. They were part of who I was. I was no child or teenager in a state of searching, no young adult solidifying my sense of self; I was middle-aged, and although I didn't think I was stagnant, I was certainly set.

What's more, I don't think I had ever personally known anyone whose political opinions had changed after the age of thirty or so. My parents, and the parents of most of those around me, had reached adulthood during the Depression and the Presidency of FDR. They were liberal Democrats and proud of it, and nothing in the intervening years had caused even a glimmer of a change in their points of view. Nor did I see changes in my friends--not that we ever talked about politics much, because we did not.


Nevertheless, in retrospect, I felt certain stirrings. Maybe "stirrings" isn't the right word, since it indicates too much motion and awareness. They were more like glimmerings, moments of slight dislocation and questioning so mild that they only disrupted the smooth surface of my thoughts for a short while. But they did occur every now and then when an event made a deep emotional impression on me, and especially when there was some sort of cognitive difficulty on my part in understanding the meaning and/or the cause of that event.

The greatest of these dislocations occurred with the fall of the Soviet Union. The USSR had been a constant for my entire life, and had loomed particularly large in my childhood. When I was born, the Soviet Union had already been in existence for over forty years, making it seem to me at the time as though it were as ancient and enduring as Greece or Egypt. Since WWII, it had been the principle threat to the US around the world.

When the Soviet system collapsed, it seemed to me that the end came very suddenly. Oh, there were rumbles during Gorbachev's tenure-- something was indeed happening--but in 1989 it seemed as though the entire Iron Curtain came down so precipitously you could almost say it evaporated.

My question was: how can an Iron Curtain evaporate? And, even more to the point, why didn't any of the 'experts" see it coming?

The latter question plagued me at the time. Perhaps I was able to give it more attention because the events were so very dramatic, and involved an issue that had been a constant for all of my life. Perhaps the fact that my child was older now and his needs not so labor- intensive gave me enough energy to actually do some thinking about it. I knew that I hadn't paid proper attention to the news in recent years, so for a while I wondered whether I had missed something. But when I tried to read more about it, I couldn't find anything that made sense to me; when I tried to ask other people whether anyone had seen this coming, I was met with resounding silence, indifference, shrugs.

Perhaps somewhere there had been some excellent analyses of the situation, even some that had predicted the events with some accuracy. Perhaps these brilliant and prescient articles had been published in a journal such as Foreign Affairs, or something of the sort. But I wasn't reading journals then, nor were most of the electorate. The mainstream media (I didn't know that term at the time) hadn't demonstrated any foresight about these developments, nor even much of a grasp of why they might be occurring at this point. All they seemed to be able to do was to describe the events of the moment.

Surely, I asked friends and family, the Soviet experts at the NY Times or even in the State Department or at Harvard, surely they had seen this coming, right? If not, then why not?

It would be an overstatement to say I became obsessed with this question. But it certainly was the world event that engaged my interest more than anything since Vietnam, and my puzzlement about it was profound. If the experts--academic, governmental, and media--had been unable to foresee this, then how could I trust them to guide me in the future? In retrospect, it was probably the first time I began to distrust my usual sources of information, although I certainly didn't see them as lying--I saw them as incompetent, really no better than bad fortunetellers.

What they seemed to lack was an overview, a sense of history and pattern. Newspapers could report on events, but those events seemed disconnected from each other: first this happened, then that happened, then the other thing happened, and then the next, and so on and so forth. In the titanic decades-long battle between the US and the USSR, there had been a certain underlying narrative (yes, sometimes that word is appropriate) that involved the threat of Armageddon, and the necessity to avoid it at almost all costs, while stopping the spread of Communism. Although T.S. Eliot had said the world would end "not with a bang but a whimper," who ever thought the Soviet Union would end in such a whimpery way, and especially without much forewarning? It seemed preposterous, something like that moment in the Wizard of Oz when Dorothy throws the bucket of water on the Wicked Witch, who dissolves into a steaming heap of clothing, crying "I'm melting, melting."

But if the Soviet Union was the Wicked Witch, who was Dorothy? Reagan? The media acted as though he'd been as clueless as Dorothy had been when she threw that bucket, and at the time I knew of no reason to think otherwise.

At any rate, I was happy about the fall of the Soviet empire, very happy. I watched the joyous scenes of Eastern Europeans celebrating, and even bought a (supposedly authentic) chunk of the Berlin Wall. Was this indeed the end of history? In a way, yes; it felt as though the big questions had been settled; all that was left was ironing out the details. Some of the darkest forces of the 20th century seemed to have run their course, and what was left to think about, politically, were humanitarian concerns around the world, possible future energy and fuel shortages, the environment, and domestic policies such as health care, welfare, and taxes.


The Gulf War of early 1991 seemed to mark some sort of return to 'history," although I thought (and hoped) that perhaps it was an anomaly. But by that time certain other events had taken over in my life (as they so often do in people's lives), that once again made it very difficult for me to pay much attention to anything except the general outline of events.

In December of 1990 I had sustained a series of nerve injuries that caused severe and unremitting pain. (For anyone who might still be concerned about me now, I'm tremendously better.) Neuropathic pain is of a type that is difficult to describe. Suffice to say that, for quite a long while, I could barely concentrate on anything--not my beloved books, not even television; each minute was very difficult to get through, and I was severely sleep-deprived. It was at this point that the Gulf War began.

I watched the bombing on TV, pacing and fretting, unable to get comfortable for a moment. The thought of the suffering I knew must be occurring as a result of those bombs seemed to intensify my own suffering. I could hardly look. I understood the rationale for the war, and the necessity of it, but watching it and thinking about it seemed more than I could bear.

Although the details of my situation were particular to me, I think the general principle is a universal one. Many people move from crisis to crisis in their lives--survival, whether it be financial, emotional, of physical, then takes the lead and shuts out other considerations to a great degree.

The next year, I was improved enough to begin part-time study for my Master's Degree in Marriage and Family Therapy. With my family obligations and the substantial demands of coursework and seeing clients, my attention was well occupied, and politics took a small role--although as a Democrat, I was happy that finally, for the first time in sixteen years, "my guy" had been elected (although, interestingly enough, I was never a Clinton fan--I voted for Paul Tsongas in the 1992 New Hampshire primaries).

But there were other distant warning bells sounding. Some were not so distant at all. The first World Trade Center bombing certainly grabbed my attention in 1993. It "only" killed six people, but it was different from previous Islamic terrorist attacks in two ways. The first was that it occurred on American soil and targeted civilians; the second was the scope of its ambition. I read about the attack in some depth, perhaps because it moved me as a native New Yorker who remembered the building of the Towers. I was stunned to discover that the intent of the bombers had been to topple the building and kill many thousands, and that it was only through chance and incompetence that they had failed to achieved their goals.

This sobered and frightened me--as did another article (again, I no longer recollect the periodical in which I read it, or the exact time of its publication), about a bunch of Middle Eastern terrorists (Osama?) whose stated aims were to launch a series of devastating attacks against the United States.

And these were not the only disturbing rumblings from the Middle East. I remember reading about changes in the Palestinian educational system after the implementation of the Oslo Accords (again, I recall that this article appeared in the New Yorker, of all places, although I've had some difficulty tracing it). I had originally thought that the Oslo Accords, of which I had only a glancing knowledge, were a hopeful sign. It seemed that now even the Palestinians and Israelis were starting down a path that would end up with, if not reconciliation, then a certain tolerance, a relatively benign and peaceful coexistence.

But this article chilled my blood when I read it. It detailed, for the first time as far as I knew, the intense and vicious hatred that was being inculcated in young Palestinians towards Israelis and even towards Jews in general. I did the calculations--the generation being carefully nurtured in this destructive propaganda were in the early primary grades now. They were due to come to maturity around the time of the millenium, and I felt a tremendous sense of foreboding. But what could be done about it? I couldn't think of a thing, and the article had no suggestions, either.

What did I do with these fearful thoughts? I put them away, as I had so many years earlier tried to put away the fear of an impeding nuclear holocaust from my childhood mind. I had learned that most of the things I worried about never happened, and that much of what I read in the paper seemed exaggerated and calculated to alarm.


And so time passed. When the millenium came, people seemed much more worried about the threat of the millenium bug than the millenium bomber who was caught before he could carry out his plans to blow up LAX.

A big pear in the foreground and somewhere off in the distance a tank, tiny as a ladybug, ready at any moment to take wing and disappear from sight.

Except in this case, instead of taking wing, the tank crept towards us silently and stealthily, getting closer and closer, until its guns were pointed at our backs.

And then it fired.

[ADDENDUM: For the next post in the series, Part 6A, go here.]

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Taking the perspective of history on this war

Austin Bay is back home, and he's rallying the troops--and us. Excellent perspective on the whole bloody thing, in a concise nutshell that includes an analogy to our own Civil War and its aftermath.

Beat the heat (a politics-free zone)

It's summer. I would bet that, right now, the vast majority of you are living in places that are quite warm, not to say hot.

I don't know about you, but although I love summer--glorious flowers, lazy hazy crazy days (my goodness, those lyrics are abominable!), daylight until 8:30 PM, and outdoor ice cream stands finally open--I hate the heat. Absolutely hate it, and it only gets worse as I get older. And, although New England is probably considerably cooler than the rest of the country, it still often gets really, really hot here.

So I thought it would be a good time for this. Click on some of the links, too. Enjoy.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Prediction on next "change" post

Update: I am currently at work on my next "change" post, and hope to finish it in the next day or two.

But I've been wrong in those predictions before. The best-laid-schemes and all that, as the poet says:

But Mousie, thou are no thy-lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o' Mice an' Men,
Gang aft agley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promis'd joy!

Still, thou art blest, compar'd wi' me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But Och! I backward cast my e'e,
On prospects drear!
An' forward, tho' I canna see,
I guess an' fear!

Language Arts 101, by Mr. Jaspan

We bloggers do love to pick on journalists. But can you blame us? They so often serve up such tempting food for the picking.

Michael Totten has a post about one Andrew Jaspan, who is quoted as saying something so mind-bogglingly absurdly stupendously gobsmackingly stupid that at first I had trouble accepting that I wasn't reading the Onion. Here's an excerpt:

Jaspan is the editor-in-chief at Melbourne’s The Age. Seems he was a bit offended when his fellow Australian Douglas Wood said the guys who kidnapped him in Iraq are “assholes.”

[Jaspan quote:] "I was, I have to say, shocked by Douglas Wood's use of the a---hole word, if I can put it like that, which I just thought was coarse and very ill-thought through and I think demeans the man and is one of the reasons why people are slightly sceptical of his motives and everything else. The issue really is largely, speaking as I understand it, he was treated well there. He says he was fed every day, and as such to turn around and use that kind of language I think is just insensitive."

I became interested in learning more about Mr. Jaspan. Let me just say that Google is a glorious thing, and a very quick perusal revealed a few interesting facts.

First of all, I had found it difficult, if not impossible, to believe that an Australian could be so--well, so prissy about language. Well, my notion of Australians can remain intact, because I was relieved to discover that Jaspan is no Australian. He seems to be English (or perhaps Scottish; it's a bit unclear, and I got tired of trying to find out). See this article, written a year ago when Jaspan worked for the Sunday Herald in Scotland and was being considered for the post at The Age--apparently, Jaspan gets around:

Surely you can’t be serious that Fairfax management is looking to hire Andrew Jaspan? The editor of five papers in 10 years before being fired from The Observer and landing at The Sunday Herald in Scotland. When his name was first mentioned serious observers of British newspapers such as myself, and those of us with high hopes for a revival at The Age, thought it was a quaint way of showing that the search for a new editor would be global. Has Fairfax done its homework or has it been swayed by Jaspan's well-known ability to talk the talk?

The article goes on to describe certain eccentricities of Jaspan's, including his editorial policy of "design-over-content," which certainly seems consistent with Jaspan's remarks about Wood and his captors. However, also in light of those comments, I found the following to be most interesting indeed (quoted from a Scottish columnist named Terry Murden):

I recall one meeting with Jaspan when he described a critical profile of him in The Sunday Times Scotland as a ''shitty piece of journalism.''

Oh dear oh dear, Mr. Jaspan--such language! But of course I would imagine those profiling him in The Sunday Times Scotland were a lot crueler than Douglas Wood's kidnappers.

Monday, June 27, 2005

The Left's plan for Iraq: Vietnam is the template

Why is Jane Fonda still hated? And why am I bringing this old subject up now?

Well, it's connected with the process of thinking about my "A mind is a difficult thing..." series once again. It's also connected to a passage I read in David Horowitz's Radical Son, a book which has to go back to the library soon if I don't want my library fines to reach epic proportions. And it's related to this column by Quang X. Pham that appeared in today's Boston Globe.

Fonda's offenses were not limited to her Hanoi trip, although that's the focus of most of the more recent publicity about her. But it's her (and ex-husband Tom Hayden's) other activities against the Vietnam war that interest me now, in light of what's happening politically in this country concerning reports of dwindling support for our efforts in Iraq.

Our pullout from South Vietnam, and then our withdrawal of financial support to the struggling ARVN (arguably, a far greater betrayal), and that country's subsequent Communist fall thirty years ago as well as subsequent bloody events in Cambodia, still rankle and fester, providing food for countless arguments. Who was at fault, and why did it happen?

One cannot underestimate the power of public opinion in this country, and it is an indisputable fact that those on the left were instrumental in shaping that opinion. In this post, I discussed how and why it was that so many on the anti-Vietnam War left still refuse to acknowledge the effect their activities had, post-Vietnam War, on the people of Vietnam and Cambodia. What I didn't describe in that post was how far some of them--such as, for example, the prominent pair Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden--actually went in their antiwar activities. They were not simply protestors; they were (there's no other way to put this) active lobbyists for the enemy cause, and polished and successful ones at that.

Fonda's recent apology (or re-apology) doesn't even begin to address the subject. And in fact, most of the critiques of her activities focus on her over-the-top behavior during her 1972 Hanoi trip. In my opinion, terrible though her actions there may have been, they didn't really matter as much to American policy as her subsequent domestic lobbying activities, as detailed by Horowitz in Radical Son:

Hayden and Fonda organized an "Indo-China Peace Campaign" to cut off remaining American support for the regimes in Cambodia and South Vietnam. For the next few years [the early 70s], the Campaign worked tirelessly to ensure the victory of the North Vietnamese Communists and the Khmer Rouge. Accompanied by a camera team, Hayden and Fonda traveled first to Hanoi and then to the "liberated" zones in South Vietnam, to make a propaganda film. Called "Introduction to the Enemy," it attempted to persuade viewers that the Communists were going to create a new society in the south. Equality and justice awaited its inhabitants if only American would cut off support for the Saigon regime.

Assisted by radical legislators like Ron Dellums and Bella Abzug, Hayden set up a caucus in the Capitol, where he lectured congressional staffers on the need to end American aid. He directed his attention to Cambodia as well, lobbying for an accommodation with the Khmer Rouge guerillas. Nixon's resignation over Watergate provided all the leverage Hayden and his activists needed. The Democrats won the midterm elections, bringing to Washington a new group of legislators determined to undermine the settlement that Nixon and Kissinger had achieved. The aid was cut, the Saigon regime fell, and the Khmer rouge marched into the Cambodian capital. In the two years that followed, more Indochinese were killed by the victorious Communists than had been killed on both sides in all thirteen years of the anti-Communist war.

It was the bloodbath that [the Left's] opponents had predicted. But for the Left there would be no contrition and no look back.

Quang X. Pham's Globe column is about the American betrayal of people such as his own father, a South Vietnamese officer and pilot trained in the late 50s in the US, who ended up imprisoned for a decade after the North Vietnamese takeover. He ends his article with the following poignant question: Now talk of exiting the war in Iraq has increased. What will happen to the Iraqis who believed in us? Will we let them down too?

Iraq is not Vietnam. But it appears more and more that the left is trying to make it into Vietnam. Jane Fonda is no longer especially active, although every now and then she makes some general statement against the war in Iraq. Hayden, likewise, is no longer the mover and shaker he once was. (Some of the more powerful antiwar cast of characters, however, are identical then and now--but that's another story for another post).

But when I read the following words about the Iraq war by Tom Hayden, I got the proverbial chill down my spine. If he's not as powerful as he used to me, it's not for lack of desire or lack of ideas. The man has a plan, and his plan--strangely enough--is to repeat what worked for him back in the early 70's:

...the [Leftist anti-Iraq war] movement needs to force our government to exit. The strategy must be to deny the U.S. occupation funding, political standing, sufficient troops, and alliances necessary to their strategy for dominance.

The first step is to build pressure at congressional district levels to oppose any further funding or additional troops for war. If members of Congress balk at cutting off all assistance and want to propose "conditions" for further aid, it is a small step toward threatening funding. If only 75 members of Congress go on record against any further funding, that's a step in the right direction – towards the exit.

The important thing is for anti-war activists to become more grounded in the everyday political life of their districts, organizing anti-war coalitions including clergy, labor and inner city representatives to knock loudly on congressional doors and demand that the $200 billion squandered on Iraq go to infrastructure and schools at home. When trapped between imperial elites and their own insistent constituents, members of Congress will tend to side with their voters. That is how the wars in Vietnam and Cambodia were ended in 1975.

So there it is, in black and white--the plan is to repeat the glory days that led to the boat people and the killing fields of Cambodia. Pressure Congress to stop the funding, just as in 1975.

It is really, really recommended that you read Hayden's entire document, in order to get a flavor of the unrepentant and unchanged quality of his thought processes and strategies. Just as in the 70s the Left undermined the idea of Vietnamization, Hayden is determined to undermine plans for Iraqization:

...we need to defeat the U.S. strategy of "Iraqization." "Clearly, it's better for us if they're in the front-line," Paul Wolfowitz explained last February. This cynical strategy is based on putting an Iraqi "face" on the U.S. occupation in order to reduce the number of American casualties, neutralize opposition in other Arab countries, and slowly legitimize the puppet regime. In truth, it means changing the color of the body count.

Note that one of the rationales for opposing Iraqization is the idea that it's based on a sinister and cynical racist exploitation of the Iraqis, rather than their empowerment and the need for the US to ultimately bow out when no longer needed.

There is no sign, aside from Pentagon spin, that an Iraqi force can replace the American occupation in the foreseeable future. Pressure for funding cuts and for an early American troop withdrawal will expose the emptiness of the promise of "Iraqization." In Vietnam, the end quickly came when South Vietnamese troops were expected to defend their country. The same is likely to occur in Iraq ...

Not if we have anything to say about it, Tom.

(Linked to Mudville Gazette's "Open Post.")

New neuro-con on the block

With a name like "Neuro-con," how could I not pay attention? He or she (I don't really know which at this point) is a new blogger who has chosen to remain anonymous for this reason.

Neuro-con is a conservative with a PhD. in psychology, working in the field of neuroscience research. I don't know whether Neuro-con is also a neocon--much less a neo-neocon--but I welcome Neuro's expertise in the field of research, as well as his/her stylish writing. (Neuro, please, are you a man or are you a woman, so I can quit this tedious he/she business already?)

See Neuro's take on that NY Times article about politics being at least partly genetic. I wrote about the topic briefly here, but Neuro has read both the Times article and the original research on which it was based, and therefore has some very interesting observations to add. Neuro also seems to be starting up what looks to be a series of posts on the topic of the politics of genetics.

Welcome, Neuro, to that small but stalwart group: the psycho-bloggers.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Neo-neocon's handy guide to northern New Englanders (Part II: signage)

I thought of an additional New England phenomenon, one I neglected to mention in my recent post on the subject.

Call it Fact F. It can be summarized as, "if you need to ask, you shouldn't be here."

It's roughly connected to Fact C, "If you weren't born here, forget about it," but it has a somewhat different flavor. I'll give you some examples of the way it operates.

Recently I was driving on a turnpike in New Hampshire (yes, there are a couple) when I came to a tollbooth with three "exact change only" booths, and only one booth with a toll collector of whom one might ask a question. And yet nowhere, absolutely nowhere, was there a sign informing the driver of the amount of the toll to be collected here. Not on the approach, not above the booths, not on the basket into which you dropped the money, nowhere.

In Maine, the is another toll road. It's called, logically enough, the Maine Turnpike. They are better there at posting the tolls; the turnpike even has EZ passes now (a system for which New Hampshire is still gearing up). But the Maine Turnpike has its own problems. It has signs, yes, but some exhibit what I call passive-aggressive signage--that is, they tell the unsuspecting tourist (on whom Maine's economy more or less depends) to go the wrong way--the longer way, or the way with the higher toll.

Then there is the northern New England minimalism about the street sign in general. Boston is typical in this regard. Although it's a great city to visit (just don't take your car), it's renowned for convoluted roads and terrible traffic. There are signs on almost all the side streets, even the little bitty inconsequential ones, but many main streets lack them. It is assumed that everyone knows the main streets and only needs help with the more obscure ones. So the non-resident has the strange experience of being able to drive and drive and drive for many miles along huge thoroughfares, looking vainly at every street corner for a clue as to what street he/she might be on. I believe that, were a study to be done, about 25% of Boston traffic at any one time would consist of just such people (in the fall, when college begins, it would probably be closer to 75%).

The situation would be bad enough if the Boston streets ran parallel to each other. But they most decidedly do not; they crisscross constantly in alarming fashion. This makes it difficult, even if one is on a main street like Beacon or Commonwealth, to actually stay on that street, or to follow directions, if one should be lucky enough to have some (or wimpy enought to ask--it does no good, believe me). There is that moment of truth when the traffic all comes together in one big unregulated mishmash (typically, there are no traffic lights at these free-for-alls), and you have to make your choice minus any guidance at all--and then drive on, vainly looking for proof that this still is Beacon Street, mile after signless mile.

But we love it.

More Bush mansions

Dean Esmay has kindly linked to my post about Bush "mansions," privilege, (extreme or otherwise), and family political dynasties. In his link, he also kindly offered to post the photo of the other Bush "mansion" if I send it to him, since he is aware of my posto-photo-phobia.

Thanks, Dean! But I figure it's time for me to try to end this damsel in distress thing, bite the bullet, and tackle the task.

So here, for your viewing pleasure, is the home (actually, it's a townhouse with minimal yard area) in which GW and Laura lived when they began married life in Midland. My informant, once again, is Pancho of Midland, Texas.

Posted by Hello

Well, that wasn't so very hard. Maybe I'll try it more often.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

The failed suicide bomber and the "kitchen accident"

This is my question: was her "kitchen accident" an accident?

Suicide bombers are a bizarre and deeply upsetting phenomenon, even in their "ordinary" manifestations (although there is absolutely nothing ordinary about the suicide bombings).

But this latest suicide bomber--or attempted suicide bomber, because fortunately this woman succeeded in neither blowing herself up nor in destroying anyone else in the process--is in the realm of the exceptionally strange. She is in line with the latest trend in suicide bombing, which seems to run in the direction of commandeering the halt and the lame, the damaged and/or the mentally ill, to be pawns (willing? unwilling?) in the terrorists' schemes.

It is hard to know the truth about this woman. This is the story as it has emerged so far: she had been engaged to be married, was burned in a kitchen accident, and treated in an Israeli hospital. Her fiance then rejected her, and she was caught in the act of returning to try to blow up those who had saved her, along with whatever other innocents might happen to be around at the time. There is dramatic video of the actual moments of her failure-to-detonate, and the reports are that she told contradictory accounts during her interrogation.

Perhaps with time this story will be sorted out; perhaps not. Perhaps it even will be forgotten rather quickly, as so many are--after all, no one was killed, or even hurt. I don't know whether we'll ever find out the truth. But I am especially suspicious of some of the details of this story.

The following is just a theory, and may be very farfetched. It's based on nothing but a hunch, and a tentative one at that. But the thought that occurred to me when I first read that the would-be suicide bomber, Wafa al-Biss, had suffered severe burns in a kitchen accident five months ago was whether this had indeed been an accident at all.

The "kitchen accident" is a commonplace occurrence, and no accident, among women in the third world, particularly in Afghanistan and in India. Sometimes it represents a suicide attempt (more likely in Afghanistan), while sometimes it is homicide with a financial motive involving dowries (the situation in India). Here's an article to read on the Afghan situation, and here's another on what tends to happen in India.

I don't think it's a common phenomenon among the Palestinians, however, or in the Arab world in general (although, apparently, as you will find if you Google "dowries Arab," the dowry does seem to exist in Arab countries). But it's the so-called "honor killing" that is prevalent in the Arab world, although I'm not sure whether "cooking accident" is ever the method of choice.

Something about this particular case makes me wonder. Is someone trying to murder this woman--first directly, in the "accident," and later indirectly, by forcing her to become a suicide bomber? Or was her "kitchen accident" really a botched suicide, and this checkpoint event a ghastly attempt of hers to finish the job and become a martyr to boot?

In the photos, this woman seems hysterical. In the interrogation, likewise. Is this a case of the sickness of Palestinian society, with its glorification of the grisly suicide bomber, giving an already-suicidal woman an opportunity to make her death "mean something" by murdering others? Or is it something even more macabre, if such a thing be possible, a double attempt to murder her, and get a "twofer" by making her a suicide bomber?

Or perhaps she's just the "ordinary" suicide bomber, after all.

Next "change" post due date

My projection for when the next post in my "A mind is a difficult thing to change" series will be up: some time during this coming week.

We'll see whether I make it.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Testing 1, 2, 3....

garden pride Posted by Hello

Just testing my ability to post photos. This is my garden (last year), by the way.

Karl Rove: all he needs is an editor and some qualifiers

It's simple--Karl Rove just needs an editor.

Democrats and liberals are in an uproar about some statements Rove made Wednesday at a Manhattan fund-raiser. In case you were on planet Xenon and missed them, here they are:

Conservatives saw the savagery of 9/11 and the attacks and prepared for war; liberals saw the savagery of the 9/11 attacks and wanted to prepare indictments and offer therapy and understanding for our attackers. Conservatives saw what happened to us on 9/11 and said, "We will defeat our enemies." Liberals saw what happened to us and said, "We must understand our enemies."

Well, it's not quite up there with comparing the US military guards at Guantanamo to Nazis. But I may finally be able to prove my former-liberal bona fides (and to anger some on the right) by saying that I can understand at least some of the Democrats' upset.

First let me say that a great deal of this Democratic outrage, particularly among politicians, was no doubt self-serving strategic, histrionic tit-for-tat for the flak Rebublicans made over Durbin's recent remarks. Even the NY Times article indicates as much:

On Thursday, Democrats seized on Mr. Rove's comments, clearly hoping to put Republicans on the defensive by issuing harsh criticisms throughout the day in press releases, at a hastily arranged news conferences in the Capitol and in remarks delivered on the Senate floor.

But some of the Democrat anger at Rove's remarks was probably genuine, especially among rank and file. What was the problem? The statement was a sweeping generalization that offended many liberals who had in fact been angered by 9/11 when it happened, were harmed and scarred by it (think of all those liberals in New York, for example), and who disagree with Bush because they don't think his approach is the best way to fight terrorism, and not because they are interested in "understanding" the attackers. Such liberals do indeed exist, although how numerous they are I have no way of knowing.

So I hereby humbly offer myself as Rove's new speechwriter, or at least his editor. Here is my revision of his words, complete with qualifiers that make it a simple truth, albeit a somewhat less hard-hitting statement:

Conservatives saw the savagery of 9/11and the attacks and prepared for war; some liberals saw the savagery of the 9/11 attacks and wanted to prepare indictments and offer therapy and understanding for our attackers. Conservatives saw what happened to us on 9/11 and said, "We will defeat our enemies." Some liberals saw what happened to us and said, "We must understand our enemies."

The word "some" can work wonders. Even the word "many" would have helped.

Or, substitute the word "leftists" for "liberals," and make the qualifier "most." Then it would all be fine. Or somewhat fine. Perhaps.

Non-news of the day

Non-news of the day: the majority of Americans oppose reinstating the draft, by a margin of about 2.5 to 1. Surprise, surprise!

The AP article also reports that "over half" of Americans would discourage a son from joining the military right now, and two-thirds would discourage a daughter. The poll results are tied in to evidence that the war in Iraq is losing support in this country, and the failure to meet military recruiting goals.

That is certainly no surprise, either. As the war wears on, particularly as it is portrayed in the press with the emphasis on the negative, how could it be otherwise? Even if the media were more positive about the Iraq war, I would imagine that most parents wouldn't be eager to have their children race over there. The most important data, though, is missing from the article, and that is: how does this compare to previous years? How many people ordinarily say they would encourage sons/daughters to enlist?

I haven't a clue, and we're not given one from the AP article, despite the spin that ties these results into dissatisfaction with the war. I would love to actually have a sentence or two comparing results of this poll to previous ones, which wouldn't seem to be too much to ask, and would give the reader the chance to judge for him/herself.

Also, it would be nice to have the actual figure as to how many would discourage a son from joining up, rather than the general "over half." That covers a pretty wide range: from 51% all the way to 100%. Somehow, methinks it's closer to the former than the latter. But again, it would be helpful to know.

ADDENDUM: Finally found a story that answers the latter question, in Newsday. The answer: 55% would discourage a son from enlisting now. Not so very high, considering. The more surprising figure is that 32% would encourage a son to enlist at the present time.

But now I'd like some more information: what percentage of each category actually have sons of about the right age to enlist? That would be an interesting statistic; perhaps there would be differences, perhaps not. And perhaps some of us could do a better job at designing these poll questions.

By the way, I'm not being critical of anyone here--except, of course, the pollsters and the AP. One can indeed support a war without being eager to have one's child fight it, just as one can support a police and fire department, or search and rescue team, without wanting to encourage one's child to join up. I wouldn't expect most parents to be active in pushing a child into the line of fire, like those Spartan mothers who told their sons to come back with their shields or on them. What's far more important is whether a person supports a child who does decide to join up.

(Link to Mudville Gazette open post.)

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Political genetics? Zell has the final word

On June 21, the NY Times published this article headlined, "Some politics may be etched in the genes."

Wow, I thought. What are neocons, genetic mosaics?

However, it turns out the research was more about concepts that influence politics than about political affiliation itself. Here's an excerpt:

...on the basis of a new study, a team of political scientists is arguing that people's gut-level reaction to issues like the death penalty, taxes and abortion is strongly influenced by genetic inheritance...

From an extensive battery of surveys on personality traits, religious beliefs and other psychological factors, the researchers selected 28 questions most relevant to political behavior. The questions asked people "to please indicate whether or not you agree with each topic," or are uncertain on issues like property taxes, capitalism, unions and X-rated movies...

The researchers then compared dizygotic or fraternal twins, who, like any biological siblings, share 50 percent of their genes, with monozygotic, or identical, twins, who share 100 percent of their genes.

Calculating how often identical twins agree on an issue and subtracting the rate at which fraternal twins agree on the same item provides a rough measure of genes' influence on that attitude. A shared family environment for twins reared together is assumed...

On school prayer, for example, the identical twins' opinions correlated at a rate of 0.66, a measure of how often they agreed. The correlation rate for fraternal twins was 0.46. This translated into a 41 percent contribution from inheritance...

But after correcting for the tendency of politically like-minded men and women to marry each other, the researchers also found that the twins' self-identification as Republican or Democrat was far more dependent on environmental factors like upbringing and life experience than was their social orientation, which the researchers call ideology. Inheritance accounted for 14 percent of the difference in party, the researchers found.

Here's the part that starts being relevant to what's going on with neocons (perhaps):

A mismatch between an inherited social orientation and a given party may also explain why some people defect from a party. Many people who are genetically conservative may be brought up as Democrats, and some who are genetically more progressive may be raised as Republicans, the researchers say.

In tracking attitudes over the years, geneticists have found that social attitudes tend to stabilize in the late teens and early 20's, when young people begin to fend for themselves.

Some "mismatched" people remain loyal to their family's political party. But circumstances can override inherited bent. The draft may look like a good idea until your number is up. The death penalty may seem barbaric until a loved one is murdered.

That's quite simplistic, but it's a version of the old "mugged by reality" line about neocons (one I've been guilty of using, although in retrospect I think it's glibly misleading, as further segments of my "change" series should wind up demonstrating. The true situation is far more complex.)

But here's my very favorite part. I'm with Zell Miller on this one, although I wish I could say it as well as he does:

Other people whose social orientations are out of line with their given parties may feel a discomfort that can turn them into opponents of their former party, Dr. Alford said.

"Zell Miller would be a good example of this," Dr. Alford said, referring to the former Democratic governor and senator from Georgia who gave an impassioned speech at the Republican National Convention last year against the Democrats' nominee, John Kerry.

Support for Democrats among white men has been eroding for years in the South, Dr. Alford said, and Mr. Miller is remarkable for remaining nominally a Democrat despite his divergence from the party line on many issues.

Reached by telephone, Mr. Miller said he did not see it quite that way. He said that his views had not changed much since his days as a marine, but that the Democratic Party had moved.

"And I'm not talking about inch by inch, like a glacier," said Mr. Miller, who makes the case in a new book, "A Deficit of Decency." "I'm saying the thing got up and flew away."

My sentiments exactly. The blasted thing just got up and flew away.

Marriage, Rhode Island style

Never wish for the impossible, and you, too, might make it to anniversary number #82.

Other tips? Marry young. And don't forget the legs.

Cold feet about the eyes

For those of you who read this post a while back, you might be wondering how my laser eye surgery went.

Well, I postponed it. I got a second opinion, and was advised there is no rush at all with this. The actual words were, "If you were my wife, I'd tell you to wait." So I decided to take my time.

Of course, I didn't think to ask him what kind of relationship he has with his wife.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

A Bush's home is his castle: political family dynasties and dynamics

Hold the presses, I got a scoop from Pancho, who happens to hail from Midland, Texas, the home town of one George W. Bush. (Okay, maybe it's not exactly a scoop, since all this information is in the public domain--but it was news to me.)

After reading the recent discussion here of GW's life of "most extreme privilege," Pancho kindly e-mailed me a couple of photos, along with an explanation of what they represent.

Take a look:

Bush Mansion Posted by Hello

According to my expert informant:

This is the Bush home on Ohio St in Midland that George "Dubya" grew up in. Actually it was the second home that the Bush family lived in, here in Midland. The first being even smaller and less palatial than this. This one, I suppose is at best 1200 s.f.

In another letter, Pancho mentions that, when George first returned to Midland after going East to school, he lived for a while in a garage studio apartment (which I assume is a garage converted to a one-room apartment). When he and Laura were first married they lived in a small townhouse. Pancho kindly sent me that photo, also, and it isn't much, believe me (townhouse, not photo). I could use a tutorial on posting photos to my blog, however. Posting that first one took so much out of me, and was so headache-provoking, that I'm swearing off picture-posting for a while. So you'll just have to imagine the fairly modest establishment in which the newlyweds resided.

Now I don't for a moment think that this means George W. Bush hasn't had a life of privilege. His grandfather was a wealthy banker and Senator, his father was in the oil business and then rose in the Republican Party to finally become President. If you Google words like "Bush family wealth privilege," you will be led to a plethora of websites that describe the Bush family as its own little (or big) evil empire, a secret world power broker right up there with the Elders of the Protocols.

But even those writers who demonize the entire family tend to agree that, although wealthy and influential, the Bushes never possessed great and towering wealth like the Kennedys or Rockefellers. And certainly these photographs bear that out.

Clearly, the Bushes never had to worry about starving; there was definitely a family safety net of major proportions. But, as this article, written as part of the introduction to an admittedly sympathetic Bush family portrait, points out:

Prescott Bush [W's Senator grandfather] was also proud of the fact that the Bush boys, unlike the Kennedys, were expected to go out and earn a living in the marketplace. Work was the great democratizer, an experience unfamiliar to the Kennedys.

Yes indeed, it is easier to earn your way when you know you'll be bailed out if you fail. Not to mention how the fact of having deep and broad family connections among the powerful, and having the old-boy Yale/Harvard Business School network on which to draw, can help smooth the way.

But I don't quite see this process as the essence of evil. I do believe it is one of the things that those who hate Bush are angry at him about (although I wonder how many of them would have failed to use such connections if they'd had access to them--or even how many of them do use such means to further their own careers).

Here's a relevant quote from the same article (well worth reading in its entirety, by the way, particularly for some interesting family dynamics, although I'm sure many will see the article as a Bush puff piece):

The Bush hostility to the very notion of dynasty runs deep because it runs contrary to the myth that they are self-made. Although they are certainly more self-made than the Kennedys and have a strong drive to prove their worth, family members don’t think twice about going to family and friends in their climb to the top.

And the following seems to me to be a particularly telling passage. The contrast to the Kennedy clan is marked; although both families are wealthy political dynasties, the similarity stops there. The following depiction of the Bush family rings true with the photos of their Midland home and the descriptions of the other Bush residences there:

The young charges in the Bush clan are never told or pushed to run for office. George W. Bush is fundamentally, at his core, a rebel. His life before politics was guided in part by a deep vein of rebellion against his father and the expectations that he believed were weighing on him. Even during his rise to power, he often made decisions that his parents disagreed with. It is not too much to say that had George W. Bush followed the guidance of his parents, he might never have appeared on the national political stage. Once in the White House, he has continued in a manner to buck the family tradition. In a top-down dynasty, this political success would have been doubtful.

The Bushes are also unique in that, for this family, success needs to happen far from home in order to be seen as success. Fiercely and loudly competitive in sports, the family is also quietly competitive in the realm of business and career. Striking out on your own in a new land garners greater respect than staying close to home and inheriting the old man’s business. It is this impulse to establish themselves as self-made men that has led the last four generations of Bushes to stay clear of their father’s home and actively seek out opportunities elsewhere. Pres Bush left Ohio for Connecticut; George H. W. Bush left Connecticut for Texas; George W. and Jeb Bush stayed clear of Washington, D.C., where their father effectively lived from 1970 on.

This sense of individual accomplishments is motivated in part by the simple fact that the Bushes lack the fabulous wealth of dynasties such as the Du Ponts and Kennedys. Were future generations of Bushes to stay at home and try to live off the family wealth, it would dissipate rather quickly. While the Bushes have over the course of the past century run in the social circles of the super-rich, their own wealth has been comparatively limited. Criticism that they are “out of touch” and living in an insular world simply does not ring true; their level of wealth doesn’t make such insulation possible.

It also should be noted that GW's father's personal political power and influence (as opposed to family power and influence) did not begin until GW was grown. If you do the math, Bush the elder's first term in Congress began in 1966, when Dubya was twenty years old. Until then, GHW Bush had been a businessman, primarily in oil, as far as I can determine. His two terms in the House began in 1966, and were followed by an unsuccessful Senate run, and then a series of political appointments from Republican presidents: UN ambassador, head of Republican National Committee, head of CIA, and finally Vice President (and then, on his own, election as President). But all of this was not part of GW's growing up years, although the family influence, money, and ethos were.

So it seems that these rather modest homes were part of a family tradition of going it on one's own for a while, knowing that the connections and the back-up system were always available. Sounds fairly reasonable to me for a successful family, and not all that terribly unusual or extreme for the upper echelon of movers and shakers in this country. GW's early history of business failures and bailouts from his family are very much in this tradition, but so are his rather modest early homes.

Whether this constitutes "extreme privilege" is in the eye of the beholder. I'd eliminate the "extreme" part myself; others will differ on that. But I have very little doubt that at least some of the hatred of Bush comes from simple raw envy.

ADDENDUM: I finally managed to post the other photo here.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Terra infirma in California

I lived in Los Angeles for a year in the 70s, and I still have a bunch of friends and relatives there that I visit there periodically. So when I read in the NY Times about the recent spate of small quakes there, I feel a bit of reminiscent fear and trembling myself.

There's quite a lot of that going around in California. Can you blame them? If you've ever been in an earthquake (and I've been in several, fortunately relatively minor, although a couple of them didn't feel that way at the time), you may understand the feeling. People are jittery and want to know what's going to happen next.

Scientists don't lack for opinions about what's going on, but it's hard (actually, impossible) to know who's right:

Like those who visit the doctor when a familiar ailment acts up, Californians pained by earthquakes turned to seismologists on Friday for answers and a little comfort...But just as medicine can produce differing opinions, seismology is not always as precise as some might hope...Steve Walter, a seismologist, and Rufus Catchings, a research geophysicist, looked at data on one of this week's earthquakes, a 4.9-magnitude temblor on Thursday in Yucaipa, and reached opposite conclusions about what it might mean for the San Andreas fault, the most notorious and dreaded in the state.

Mr. Walter said it was a good sign that the Yucaipa quake appeared to have struck closer to another fault, the Banning, because it indicated that the San Andreas, which has been more or less locked in place since the middle of the 19th century, remained inactive. "That's good," Mr. Walter said. "It's not going to unlock gently."

But Dr. Catchings shook his head with concern as he examined a map of fault lines, suggesting that it would have been better if the Yucaipa quake had struck closer to the San Andreas and allowed it to release some stress.

"That means stress is still building, building, building and building," Dr. Catchings said. "And it's overdue for a really big one."....

Well, that's what happens when you get a second opinion; it doesn't always agree with the first. But there is agreement on one point:

The four quakes since Sunday, two off the northern coast and two in the southern desert, caused minor damage and no deaths. Scientists generally concurred that there was no relationship between those in the north and those in the south, which was one of the biggest worries.

As with so many things, people's reactions depend partly on what they're used to. Some seem blase:

Having lived in Los Angeles for more than four decades, Joe Malkin said he considered earthquakes as much a part of life as breathing. He felt the Yucaipa temblor on Thursday afternoon, but only for a couple of seconds.

"I couldn't understand what all the hullabaloo was about," said Mr. Malkin, 83, a retired computer programmer.

But those for whom a shaking earth is very much a novelty have a very different attitude:

Steve and Laura Dayan were visiting Santa Barbara this week from Chappaqua, N.Y., with their sons, Ari, 7, and Ian, 4. The family was watching a baseball game on television in a waterfront hotel when the tsunami warning flashed on the screen Tuesday night. "My mom was going berserk," Ari said. "She kept saying, 'We've got to get out of here!' "

Nothing like a berserk mom. I went through a period when my son was very small when, several years in a row, we experienced a noticeable earthquake within twelve hours of our arrival in LA. The first time it happened, he was sleeping on a pullout couch in his grandparents' house. There were shelves all around the room above the bed, laden with heavy books and even a life-sized plaster head of some sort, as well as a very large wall clock. When the quake began, at least half of these items tumbled down onto the bed, very fortunately missing my son's tiny two-year old frame. Carefully hiding my considerable berserkness, I took every one of the remaining objects off those shelves, immediately.

The next year, we had arrived late the night before and he was in a small bed in the same room in which I was sleeping. The temblor hit at about 5 AM. I sprang out of bed and a sharp jolt threw me off balance, almost to the floor, so that I couldn't seem to cross the room to get to my son. I still remember seeing his startled face, so near and yet so impossibly far, and the wordless, animal fear I felt as the quake went on and on, seeming to stop and then start again, even more violently, about twenty seconds of motion before it stopped for good.

Twenty seconds doesn't sound like much, but it can be an exceptionally long time when you are across the room from your three-year-old son in an earthquake. It's an overwhelming feeling of shock (they don't call them "aftershocks" for nothing) and powerlessness. And, even though I knew that my visits had nothing to do with the forces by which eathquakes come to happen, the timing of it all very much spooked me.

(ADDENDUM: By the way, the ever-helpful Spellcheck wanted desperately for me to replace the word "Yucaipa" with the word "yeshiva.")

Monday, June 20, 2005

On Bush-hatred and its causes

I recently received an e-mail expressing some thoughts about Bush that seem fairly representative of those who detest the man, and offering up a theory as to why:

Isn't his shallow narcissism obvious every time he opens his mouth? After all, this is a guy who has always lived in a bubble of the most extreme privilege...I don't think he's ever doubted his right to privileged status, and I think there's something pathological in that. I think this is why so many people hate him so.

Here is an edited and shortened version of my reply:

I'd rather have a President with what you describe as Bush's "shallow narcissism" than Kerry's extraordinarily deep narcissism any day. Just about all politicians are narcissists, as far as I can see--doesn't it take narcissism to do what they do? Bush is a narcissist on that typical level, in my opinion--he just conceals it less well than most.

I think that many people hate Bush for stylistic reasons. The way he talks, the way he smirks, the frat-boy persona--he represents the kind of person they simply detested in high school and college (particularly if they were the intellectual or literary sort). They distrust and dislike him in a very visceral way.

I am old enough to remember the reaction among Democrats to Lyndon Johnson after Kennedy's assassination. They detested him--his good ol' boy accent, his picking up his dog by the ears, his showing off his surgical scars--man, they just hated him; he had no class. Kennedy was the absolute personification of smoothness and class, so witty and bright and charming, and that New England accent!

But, in the end, that's all surface stuff. Was Kennedy's actual record as President much better--or really all that much different--than Johnson's? Of course, we can't know whether Kennedy would have done any better with the Vietnam war than Johnson did, but from books such as The Best and the Brightest, I think the answer is at least "probably not." Perhaps, though, he may have ultimately done better because he would have had a more friendly press.

FDR and Kennedy were also children of great privilege--as great, or greater, than Bush. But they had that Eastern style, and great personal magnetism, that he lacks. And, of course, many people hated them--but not the press, and not academics.

But at this point, I couldn't care less what sort of style a President has. What I care about are his policies. It's easy to find fault with Bush's policies--and yes, the war is far from perfect; it's all far from perfect. But I'm not interested in holding anyone up to some unrealistic ideal. Most of the arguments I've read on the left about what should have been done range from the pipedream (the UN, internationalism) to the extreme pipedream (the Iraqis should have risen up against Saddam themselves) to the ridiculous pipedream (everything should have been planned perfectly, as no doubt it would have been had they been in charge).

It's easy to say, ex post facto, that it would have been better to have done...(fill in the blank). But that can be said of any enterprise. The hard part is to have the courage to do it in the first place, to make the inevitable mistakes, and to try to correct them as the events unfold in real time. I actually think the Bush administration has done that rather well, and I see no evidence that the opposition could have done anywhere near as well. Au contraire.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Reading about reading

OK, it's book meme time. I figured it would get around to me sooner or later, like the flu--and, sure enough, it has.

The gracious and sagacious Dymphna of Gates of Vienna has passed me the baton, and who am I to say no? In writing of her own book-reading habits, she has managed to describe my relationship to books with an exactness and wit that leaves me wondering what more I could ever add. But add I must.

My own book habit has been a lifelong one. In childhood, my happiest day was library day--I'd always get the limit of six, and finish them within a day or two, and then read them all over again, savoring the great pleasure. My mother considered this a trial and a shame, although she was the one who took me to the library, and she spent many hours forcing me to go outside and "get some fresh air." In adulthood, I'd often stay up all night to finish a book, a guilty pleasure that left me puffy-eyed and groggy the next day. And I have spent so much money in bookstores that I have finally had to limit myself to libraries and used books online, with only the occasional bookstore splurge. Cookbooks used to be my weakness, especially ones with pictures, especially of Mediterranean food on sunny Mediterranean isles.

The Questions:

Total Number Of Books Owned Ever: This is an absurdity. Do you ask someone how many cookies she's eaten in her lifetime? It's like guessing how many M&Ms are in the enormous jar, or how many pounds the prize squash at the fair weighs. The real answer is: I haven't a clue. My pretend answer is: 10,000.

Last Book Bought: The Last Lion by William Manchester (Churchill biography, two volumes, hardcover, used)

Last Book I Read: Radical Son by David Horowitz (library, presently overdue--I rack up quite a few library fines, too).

Five Books That Mean A Lot To Me Oh, this is the hard, hard part.

1. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

I read it in childhood in a somewhat abridged version. I read it in my teens in the real version. I read it in adulthood. It burned its way into my brain. I loved Jane: loved her voice, her courage, her fears, her hopes, the intimacy she achieved with the reader. She was real to me. I read up on the Brontes and their amazingly creative and sad lives. I even forgave the movie (Orson Welles, John Fontaine) the liberties it took with the text, usually an unpardonable crime for me. This book still resonates in mysterious ways in my life.

2. The Last Lion by William Manchester.

The aforementioned two-volume Churchill biography, all 1729 pages of it. Churchill was one of the giants of our--or any--age, a figure not only of historical importance but also of protean talents, and an absolutely fascinating human being as well. As if that weren't enough, these books are written in such a lively style that the reader feels the author's zest for his subject fairly bursting off the pages. When I learned that Manchester was too ill to write the long-awaited third volume, and that it would never appear, I experienced a profound sense of loss.

3. Eleni by Nicholas Gage

A true story that will rip your heart out. A step-by-step depiction of the process by which movements beginning in idealistic fanaticism can end up destroying themselves and nearly everything in their paths, and an emotionally shattering but unforgettable story of the power of maternal love. After I read it, I was disoriented and upset for days. One suggestion: if you read it, do what I wish I'd done and write down a family tree of all the characters, so you can keep them straight.

4. Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi

Levi is simply astounding. This book reads as though a Holocaust victim in the throes of the most horrific experiences possible on this earth were at the same time a dispassionate scientist cooly analyzing the situation, and later writing about it in remarkably lucid and insightful prose. It is in my opinon the finest work ever written on the subject.

5. Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter

I cannot understand why this novella (or long short story, as Porter preferred to call it) is not on everyone's list. The overused word "masterpiece" is appropriate. I have read this story time and again and each time it strikes me differently, but always with great depth and power. The setting is World War I and the great influenza epidemic, but that doesn't even begin to describe it. I suspected from the start that, although this is fiction, it is based on Porter's own experience, and it turned out this is so. Just read it; every word is poetry.

Now that I have listed five books, I realize that all but one of them, Jane Eyre, are about war. Strange.

Five Books You've Given to Someone

1. Crossword puzzle books

2. April 1865: the Month that Saved America by Jay Winik

3. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

4. Andy Goldsworthy: A Collaboration with Nature by Andy Goldsworthy

5. Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges

Well, now comes the time to tap five successors to carry the book meme torch. I have no idea who likes to do this sort of thing, nor do I have a clue who has already done this particular one (except, of course, for Dymphna). So if it amuses any of the following bloggers to carry it on, and you haven't already done so, please feel free: Pancho, Clive, Mary, Callimachus, and ShrinkWrapped.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Reuters says "Yes, but..."

I know it's tiresome to keep pointing this stuff out, but this was what met my eyes when I looked at my computer today, "US launches 2nd Iraq operation; 50 rebels dead." Oh, that Reuters; oh, those "rebels"!

Despite the "rebel" tag, the first half of the article is a fairly straightforward description of the operation, including this telling detail: troops had also seized a school where lessons on one chalkboard taught insurgents how to make car bombs. But Reuters displays the parsimony that seems to be official press policy these days--that is, don't ever, ever allow an article to be written about Iraq that limits itself to describing a US offensive, and especially a successful one. Always be sure to put all that other stuff in there about the bad things that are happening--balance, you know. Don't bother to write a separate story about those things, because doing so would allow the more positive article to stand alone, and we can't have that, can we?

So, which photo did Reuters choose to go with this article today? It's captioned, "Iraqi children stand around a crater left by a roadside bomb that targeted a U.S. patrol in Baghdad 18 June 2005. There was no immediate information on casualties from the blast. (Ali Jasim/Reuters)."

Very appropriate photo for this particular article, no? Actually, yes--because the article goes on to mention a few of the latest attacks on US troops and Iraqi civilians, and ends with this highly relevant and on-topic item:

The rising toll of U.S. troops, now at least 1,718 since the start of the war, may be one of the reasons behind increasing concern in the United States over the war and the role President Bush has played. A New York Times/CBS News poll showed 42 percent of respondents approved of the way Bush was handling his job, down from 51 percent support after the November election.

By the way, this was my take back in February on the MSM's use of expressions such "rising toll" and "escalating violence." It includes a link to an excellent article by Belmont Club on the subject.

PC medicine?

It's a well-documented fact that Afro-Americans in this country suffer disproportionately from cardiovascular illness, and that when they do they are often less responsive to medication and other standard treatments. There have been many studies that attempt to determine why this is, and the majority of them indicate it's the usual combination of heredity and environment, including health care delivery concerns and behavioral factors such as the prevalence of obesity, as well as a relative dearth of treatment outcome studies that focus on Afro-Americans. In addition, there seems to be something physiologically different in the way these illnesses operate in many blacks, at least on average. It's been difficult (and controversial) to try to tease out which factors have been the most influential.

So when I saw the NY Times headline, "F.D.A. panel approves heart medication for blacks" I thought, "Great!"

A Food and Drug Administration advisory panel recommended the approval of a heart-failure drug specifically for African-Americans yesterday, after a discussion about race, genetics and medicine....In a study of the drug last year sponsored by the manufacturer, 1,050 African-American heart-failure patients showed a 43 percent reduction in mortality.

So it appears that this study was specifically geared to the Afro-American population, and this medication seems to hold promise for that especially difficult-to-treat group. But see this:

The panel's unanimous decision to recommend the drug came despite reservations from two members who said they were worried about moving toward racially specific medications without a sound scientific basis. Dr. Vivian Ota Wang, a geneticist at the National Institutes of Health who served on the panel, called race a "social and political construct" that should not be used as a substitute for genomic medicine. "What I'm hearing is that we're using race as a surrogate for a biological process," Dr. Wang said, adding: "I think that inconsistency gives us a false notion that race has a biological basis, when that isn't supported." In her vote to approve the drug, Dr. Wang said she thought it should be available to patients of all races...

Fortunately, Dr. Wang didn't go so far as to vote against the drug on the basis that it wasn't PC to approve it just for Afro-Americans. She just wanted inclusion for everyone, even though there is no evidence as yet that the drug is effective on any group other than Afro-Americans, since the study was limited to them.

Strange, isn't it? Here's something that I would think the PC crowd could get behind--a treatment targetted at a group that's often gotten short shrift both in medical research and in medical treatment. But no, theory seems to trump practicality for some people. No racial profiling in medicine!

Actually, in this case, I am in complete agreement with Dr. Wang that race is a social and political construct. But race is not just a social construct; it is also based on the statistical frequencies by which a series of physical traits occur in any given population--for example, skin color, hair type, and blood type. It might be more accurate to say that race is a construct based on a host of factors, including personal history and self-identification, as well as groupings of physical traits that occur more frequently in members of that race than in other groups. There are no hard biological boundaries between the races; what biological diffferences that exist are prevalences only. But there is no reason to doubt that certain medications might, statistically speaking, be more effective in certain races (the same is true for the sexes--certain pain drugs work differently in men and women, for example).

It would be tragic if PC considerations ever ended up hindering the sort of research that led to the development of this drug, although I can see that happening some day.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Where have all the flowers gone?

One of my readers, and Michael Totten, have called my attention to this interesting interview with the always witty, sometimes spot on, sometimes infuriating Christopher Hitchens (well, at least I can be thankful I'm not his brother).

Hitchens was asked about the resentment of the Iraqi people towards the Americans. In his answer, he refers to seeing with his own eyes the famous "sweets and flowers" (either actual or metaphorical) with which the troops were welcomed, and which others contend were nonexistent and an example of the Bush administration's stupidity (although for some reason, in the transcript as given, "sweets" is spelled "suites"--hmmm, I bet there were some of those, too!):

Peter Robinson: Explain to me the psychological state on the ground which Americans--which I--find so difficult to understand. The population did indeed hate Saddam Hussein. Nobody doubts that. Correct? And the population at the very minimum is intensely resentful of Americans. True? True? Explain that conundrum.

Christopher Hitchens: The welcome that I've seen American and British forces get in parts of Iraq is something I want to start--I want to mention first because there are people who say that that never happened. It is commonly said by political philosophers like Maureen Dowd say that the--where were the suites
[sic] and where were the flowers. Well I saw it happen with my own eyes and no one's going to tell me that I didn't. I saw it with--months after the invasion, people still lining the roads, especially in the south.

Peter Robinson: In the south?

Christopher Hitchens: Especially in the south--still lining the roads and waving and the children waving which is always the sign because if the parents don't want them to, they don't. For miles, it was like going--it was like this is the nearest I'll get to taking part in the liberation of the country, to ride in with the liberating army. I'll never forget, you know, I will not allow it not to be said that that did not happen. And in the marshes too--the marsh area of the country which was drained and burned out by poison by Saddam Hussein. Again, almost hysterical welcome and in Kurdistan in the north. So extraordinary. But remember when you said the population hating Saddam Hussein, that's true, really true. But more than anything, they feared him. They were terrified of him. These are people who not just forced to obey under terrible and believable threat but made to applaud, made to participate, made to come out and vote, made to come out and demonstrate that they loved him, made to applaud when their relatives were executed...

It's hard to argue with someone who was there--although I have very little doubt that many will do just that.

The funny thing is, I've never understood the "so, where have all the flowers (and sweets) gone?" people. Unless my memory is deceiving me, I remember seeing a fair amount of waving and cheering myself, on TV (if not flowers, exactly)--and marveling that there was anyone at all in Iraq who would be brave enough to venture out and risk doing so at the time.

But then I started to wonder about the origin of the "flowers" quote, or sometimes it was the "flowers and sweets" quote. If you Google it, you'll find countless references to it, but many of them simply assert that it was predicted by the Bush administration, without giving an attribution or link. I started to think that perhaps it was one of those urban (or media) myths that never really had happened, but that had become legendary nevertheless.

However, for what its worth, I think I've tracked down its origin. It seems to rest on a combination of two interrelated statements. One was by Dick Cheney on March 16, 2003, on "Meet the Press," and involves his prediction that US forces will be greeted as "liberators." He never mentions sweets (or even suites) or flowers. But he does mention one Kanan Makiya, a Brandeis professor who is an Iraqi ex-pat:

NARRATOR: Another assumption was that Iraqis would greet the Americans as liberators, an assurance they got from the INC.

Vice Pres. DICK CHENEY: ["Meet the Press," March 16, 2003] I really do believe that we will be greeted as liberators. I've talked with a lot of Iraqis in the last several months myself, had them to the White House. The president and I have met with various groups and individuals, people who've devoted their lives from the outside to trying to change things inside Iraq, men like Kanan Makiya, who's a professor at Brandeis, but an Iraqi. He's written great books about the subject, knows the country intimately, is a part of the democratic opposition and resistance. The read we get on the people of Iraq is there's no question but what they want to get rid of Saddam Hussein, and they will welcome as liberators the United States when we come to do that...

The very next day, there was a seminar on Iraq that featured Richard Perle and said Kanan Makiya, held at the National Press Club in Washington. Here's part of the transcript:

(QUESTIONER): Vice President Cheney yesterday said that he expects that American forces will be greeted as liberators and I wonder if you could tell us if you agree with that and how you think they'll be greeted and also what you meant you said before that some Iraqi opposition groups might be in Baghdad even before American forces?

KANAN MAKIYA: I most certainly do agree with that. As I told the President on January 10th, I think they will be greeted with sweets and flowers in the first months and simply have very, very little doubts that that is the case.

So, there you have it. It seems it was Makiya who told it to the administration, back in January. It doesn't appear that anyone in the administration actually used those words, although Cheney definitely made the more general prediction about being greeted as liberators.

And indeed, as Hitchens makes clear, some did greet the Americans as liberators, although fear was rampant--fear of retaliation if, as in the first Gulf War, the Americans left prematurely, and fear of the occupation itself. Both were valid and understandable fears, I might add.

How naive was the Bush administration, and how unprepared? I don't think there's any doubt there were many miscalculations and errors. No war plan--and probably no peace plan, either--survives the first battle, right? Only with hindsight are we able to figure things out (and even then, not everything), and only the opposition is absolutely certain it could have done so very very much better.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Neo-neocon's handy guide to northern New Englanders

Here are some lesser-known facts about folks who live in New England. And by "New England," I mean the part I know best, northern New England--that is, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine.

Actually, I'm not so sure about Vermont any more. Vermont seems to be populated these days mostly by outsiders such as myself (I've only lived in New England since 1969, after all). Connecticut? It ain't New England. Any state that is composed half of Yankee rather than Red Sox fans is not New England. Sorry. Massachusetts? Borderline. Rhode Island? What's that? (Just a joke, folks, please don't send me angry e-mails--but you have to admit it is rather small).

Fact A: New Englanders don't use umbrellas.

These last few days it's been back to the cold-and-rainy-Seattle-in-winter scenario, weatherwise. Yesterday at the supermarket I reluctantly got out of my car, pushed the button on my umbrella that automatically opens it (love that thing!) and huddled under it as I raced in to do my shopping, when I noticed that I was the only person around using an umbrella.

It's not the first time I've noticed this. New Englanders are hardy; they laugh at the weather. They scorn people "from away" who feel they will melt if a little rain falls on them, even if it's 48 degrees and windy and the rain chills them to the bone.

Fact B: New Englanders don't use garages.

Actually, I want to amend that--they use them, just not for cars. When I first lived here, people would often say something like this to me, "We went by your house the other day and were going to stop by, but we figured you weren't home because your car wasn't in the driveway." I found this puzzling--my car was usually in the garage, I'd say--and they looked back at me equally puzzled. Car? In a garage?

No, garages in New England are for storage. Even during the five or so months a year that we get a great deal of snow, and leaving a car in a garage would just seem to make sense, people here prefer to leave them out and dig around them. And it's not that the homes lack storage, either--most have large attics and deep basements and a storage shed or two on the property. So the garage thing remains a mystery, but I think it must be connected to the umbrella thing.

Fact C: If you weren't born here, forget about it.

It's not that people won't be cordial. But you'll always be somewhat of a stranger.

Fact D: Women mow the lawns.

It's not an absolute rule, but it's pretty much the case. Years ago a relative was visiting from California and pointed this out to me (I'd never noticed it before, but after that I noticed it often). Actually, what he said one day when we were driving around sightseeing, was this, "I'm going to move here. The men don't have to mow the lawns."

Fact E: New Englanders love ice cream.

So what, you say. Doesn't everybody? Well, New Englanders love it more, and they have less reason to, because we have more cold weather (see this by authorities Ben and Jerry on the subject, as well as this: New England is known for its high ice cream consumption, no matter what the season...).

I try to be part of this important New England tradition, especially if the ice cream is ginger (I know, I know--I'll probably take a lot of flak for admitting that. But, have you ever tried it?) Ice cream stands dot the land, and although they close for the winter, they define "winter" somewhat narrowly. They tend to reopen when the weather is still very cold, and you can see stalwart souls standing out there in near-blizzard conditions, indulging in the long-awaited pleasures of their favorite cones. Very hardy folk indeed.

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