Wednesday, November 30, 2005

The approach of winter

It's coming; I can feel it. A week or two ago it suddenly turned quite cold, and the grass, so recently green, is starting to show brown in patches. The autumn colors have become even more autumnal and muted.

But in its winter-is-fast-approaching slumber, the garden retains a certain spare and faded beauty. One has to get into a certain frame of mind to appreciate it--it's not immediately accessible as in spring and summer, or early fall.

Here, take a look:

For me, the worst thing about this time of year is the early sunset. Now if I want to take my three-mile walk outside, I have to start by 3:15 PM--any later and I end up stumbling home in darkness. There aren't as many other walkers as there used to be; just a few intrepid dog owners and the grimacing grim-faced runners who never quit, come ice or snow or sleet or wind.

Yesterday on my walk I heard a strange cacophonous cry that sounded like a bunch of small atonally yipping dogs. It took me a moment of looking around and seeing nothing to realize I had to look up, and when I did, there was a flock of Canadian geese in ragged V-formation. They sounded different from any other geese I've ever heard, and when I got home and did some research, I discovered that different-sized varieties of geese have different calls. These must have been the smaller ones, described as having "high-pitched cackling voices."

The day had started out cloudy to begin with, but now that it was getting to be twilight it was even darker. Since Thanksgiving is over, people have begun to put up their Christmas lights, and there was a family--father, mother, and two-year old boy--stringing their bushes and trees with glowing colors, looking for all the world like some sappy holiday greeting card, only real.

I searched for a poem appropriate to the season, and came up with this one, Robert Frost's "Reluctance:"

Out through the fields and the woods
And over the walls I have wended;
I have climbed the hills of view
And looked at the world, and descended;
I have come by the highway home,
And lo, it is ended.

The leaves are all dead on the ground,
Save those that the oak is keeping
To ravel them one by one
And let them go scraping and creeping
Out over the crusted snow,
When others are sleeping.

And the dead leaves lie huddled and still,
No longer blown hither and thither;
The last lone aster is gone;
The flowers of the witch-hazel wither;
The heart is still aching to seek,
But the feet question ‘Whither?’

Ah, when to the heart of man
Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things,
To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
Of a love or a season?

Yes, we're reluctant to embrace the end of fall and the beginning of the long cold winter. But it's always good to remember that in the coldest darkest time, when there are so many more months of winter ahead, the days start lengthening and the sun begins its slow but inevitable return.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Site timer on the blink--scroll down for new post

Ah Blogger! Although I shouldn't complain; perhaps it's something about my computer, known for its many glitches.

But my site timer is on the fritz, and I can neither see it nor set it properly, because it's not displaying.

I just posted a fairly lengthy article that is somehow appearing below the "Literary leftists" one of yesterday, with the wrong time on it. So just scroll down a bit to find the latest: "Ramsey Clark rides again."

I hope this problem corrects itself shortly.

[ADDENDUM: Well, it's not exactly fixed; it's still not displaying automatically. But I figured out a way to get it to display temporarily and to set the times correctly, so I guess all is well. Thanks for the suggestions--they gave me an idea for the solution.]

Monday, November 28, 2005

Literary leftists (Part II): Hemingway, Dos Passos, and the Spanish Civil War

[The first part of this series on literary leftists can be found here.]

The Spanish Civil War was famous for many things, including attracting the participation of some of the most well-known literary lights of the day. The October 31 New Yorker features George Packer's review of a new book by Stephen Koch about two of those lights, one greater and one lesser (although, as you will see, the review may change your mind about which is which): The Breaking Point: Hemingway, Dos Passos, and the Murder of Jose Robles.

Hemingway's involvement in the war is extremely well-known; he mined the experience to create the novel For Whom the Bell Tolls. But does anyone recall Dos Passos? Most of us have only vaguely heard of him; few read his books any more.

In his day, however, Dos Passos was no unknown. Quite the contrary, as Packer writes:

It’s hard now to remember that, several generations ago, the trio of great novelists born around the turn of the century—Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner—was a quartet, with the fourth chair occupied by Dos Passos...Dos Passos was, to the core, a political writer, whose radical vision was crystallized the night of Sacco and Vanzetti’s electrocution, in 1927...Though Dos Passos’s characters had some resemblance to the downtrodden figures of the proletarian novel of the thirties, his technical brio belonged to the defiant, avant-garde twenties, when radicalism had more to do with art than with politics.

Prior to the Spanish Civil War, Hemingway was not known for being an especially political man, but Dos Passos's works always had a political agenda, a leftist one. Both were drawn to the Republican cause in Spain, although for somewhat different reasons.

The Spanish Civil War itself is a topic far beyond the purview of this short essay, and I'm certainly no expert. But if you're interested in a comprehensive look (and in making your head spin with confusion), see this. Suffice to say that the war was a violent mess, with each side a loose coalition in which the moderates were dominated by power-hungry extremists eager to take control and force Spain into totalitarianism of the left or the right, respectively.

Here's Packer's summary of the war's beginning:

In February of 1936, Spanish voters elected by a narrow plurality a center-left coalition government of Anarchists, Socialists, Communists, and Republicans. It was the third democratic election in five years in a country that had not yet shed its feudal and clerical past. Some factions in the elected government had revolutionary goals, with those on the far left calling for “democracy of a new type,” meaning a prelude to the dictatorship of the proletariat; after five months of chaos, two of the Spanish institutions that had long exercised repressive power under the old monarchy—the military and the Church—were ready to overthrow the Republic. The civil war began on July 17th, when General Francisco Franco launched a rebellion from Spanish Morocco that quickly cut Spain in half. The Western democracies imposed an arms embargo on both sides, but Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy began giving troops and matériel to Franco’s rebels almost immediately, even as the Soviet Union advised and armed the Republic.

Because it attracted so many writers, the war was extensively written about almost from the start. Packer again:

Spain became the cause celebre for the left-leaning intelligentsia across the Western world, and many prominent artists and writers entered the Republic's service (as well a larger number of foreign left-wing working class men, for whom the war offered not only idealistic adventure but an escape from post-Depression unemployment). Among the more famous foreigners participating on the Republic's side were Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell, who went on to write about his experiences in Homage to Catalonia. Orwell's novel Animal Farm was loosely inspired by his experiences, and those of other Trotskyists, at the hands of Stalinists when the Popular Front began to fight within itself, as were the torture scenes in 1984.

Orwell found his metier and Hemingway found his novel in Spain; what did Dos Passos find? Like Orwell (and unlike Hemingway, who was relatively apolitical and already cynical when he got there), Dos Passos encountered profound political disillusionment. The details are too lengthy to go into here, but I encourage you to read Packer's entire review, which is extraordinary.

Koch's book is somewhat fictionalized, in more ways than one--he fills in some of the blanks with incidents from the fiction writings of the men involved. So not every scene can be taken as strictly true (for example, there are some scenes which reflect poorly on Martha Gellhorn, Hemingway's wife at the time, in which Koch seems to have taken particular artistic liberties).

But, at least according to Packer, the basics seem to not be in dispute, partly because the men involved wrote some nonfiction about them, as well. And the huge role that Moscow played in the Spanish Civil War comes straight from the horse's (that is, bear's) mouth, since it's based on information acquired since the opening of Soviet archives after the fall of the USSR.

In turns out that Dos Passos was, without realizing it, a pawn of those Soviets. He had actually been wooed by the Communists to come to Spain in order to convince his friend Hemingway to lend his name and his fame to make a propaganda film in favor of the Republican cause. Dos Passos's main contact in Spain was to have been a good friend of his named Robles, a left-wing intellectual who seems to have angered Moscow at some point and who was "disappeared," apparently shot by the Communists after being accused of being a Fascist spy.

Dos Passos tried to discover what had actually happened to his pal Robles:

Dos Passos...made the rounds of Spanish officials, only to encounter an unctuous series of bureaucratic lies and brushoffs—now that they had Hemingway, they didn’t even need to be polite to Dos Passos. Still, Dos Passos’s response to his friend’s disappearance reflected his sense that progressive politics without human decency is a sham. Hemingway, in a thinly disguised magazine article about the episode published in a short-lived Esquire spinoff called Ken, described these scruples as “the good hearted naiveté of a typical American liberal attitude."

Suddenly these characters seem familiar: Dos Passos is what Norm Geras has called a "principled leftist," concerned about preserving democratic values and basic human rights. Dos Passos worries about too many eggs being broken when those proletariat omelets are being made. Hemingway, on the other hand, is the literary type who uses politics to tell us something about himself. Much less politically aware or astute, he is mainly interested in pose and style, his politics a tool to show how hard-boiled he is (there are those egg metaphors again!), and to solidify his rep as one tough dude. To him, Dos Passos's principles make him a hopeless softie, and Hemingway is having none of it.

In his detestation of Hemingway, Packer writes lines more critical of the literary wartime dilettante than any I've ever seen appear before in the New Yorker. Unless there's something I've missed, Packer (and/or the New Yorker editors) seems unaware of the irony of the publication therein of passages such as the following:

Koch's story illustrates, among other things, the danger of writers plunging into politics and war, and it offers an unlovely portrait of the engage artist as useful idiot...The reasons for Hemingway’s partisanship were entirely personal and literary. The imperative to hold the purity of his line through the maximum of exposure, which in 1931 made him an aficionado of bullfighting and in 1934 a crack shot in Kenya, in 1937 turned Hemingway into a willing tool of Stalin’s secret police. It was a rough brand of radical chic that also created a new type: the war correspondent as habitué of a particularly exclusive night club, who knows how and how not to act under shelling, where to get the best whiskey, what tone to use when drinking with killers. He’s drawn to violence and power for their own sake; war and the politics of war simply provide the stage for his own display of sang-froid. The influence of this type helped to mar the work of successive generations of war writers up to our own.

Hemingway set the new template for war correspondence, but Dos Passos was unable to respond adequately, because he was so undone by what happened in Spain that he appears to have lost the ability to write effectively about it (he did try his hand at a failed novel, as opposed to Hemingway's successful one):

As for Dos Passos, Spain seems to have killed something in him. He had gone there to see what he had given up on seeing in America—workers and peasants struggling to create a more just society—not to drink anis with Russian commissars in range of enemy artillery. The betrayals he experienced in Spain, personal and political, were so devastating that he could not bring himself to write an account of what happened to his murdered friend José Robles and his former friend Ernest Hemingway. (Hemingway, meanwhile, was spreading the news back home, in person and in print, that Dos Passos was a coward and a traitor to la causa.)

I can't help but quote extensively from the Packer article, so astoundingly important some of it seems to be, so relevant to what is happening today. Here is Packer again on the subject of novelists and other artist types, and what seduced--and seduces--so many of them into becoming "useful idiots":

Spain was where the twentieth century’s great lie, the totalitarian lie, flowered. And yet for decades the Popular Front line that the war was a simple black-and-white struggle between democracy and fascism remained one of the century’s most stubborn myths. In 1984, when I was in my early twenties, I saw a documentary, narrated by Studs Terkel, called “The Good Fight,” a direct descendant of “The Spanish Earth”; and the heroic testimony of those aging survivors of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, sitting on neatly made cots in narrow furnished rooms, overwhelmed me. I knew that most of them were Communists, under Party discipline, and I knew (having read “Homage to Catalonia” earlier that year) that Moscow-backed agents had engineered the violent betrayal of the independent worker movement in Barcelona in May of 1937, just after Dos Passos left the country. Somehow none of this mattered in the face of a struggle in which neutrality seemed impossible. The whole point of Spain to several generations of left-wing intellectuals was the need for people ordinarily disposed toward equivocation to take sides. Auden, who contributed a statement to a pamphlet on Spain called “Authors Take Sides,” expressed the reluctant longing in “Spain,” the poem that he wrote just before the street fighting broke out in Barcelona, and later repudiated: “What’s your proposal? To build the Just City? I will, / I agree. Or is it the suicide pact, the romantic / Death? Very well, I accept, for / I am your choice, your decision: yes, I am Spain.”

Hemingway fully accepted that suicide pact. Dos Passos rejected it and never was the same again. Orwell somehow found a way to reject it and yet use it artistically to write his classic works, although he remained an economic socialist to the end of his days.

Packer offers the following caution:

Intellectuals can hardly keep away from politics any more than other citizens, and probably less, especially in decades like the nineteen-thirties (or this one, for that matter). But, because they typically bring to it an unstable mix of abstraction and narcissism, their judgments tend to be absolute, when nothing in politics ever is. This is why a writer as devoted to the visible, concrete world as Hemingway could nonetheless stumble so badly during his time in Spain: he lacked a sense of politics. The writer forever in search of one true sentence ended up accepting a whole raft of lies.

Ramsey Clark rides again

It isn't often that a dream comes true, especially at the ripe old age of 77. But that's what's happening right now for Ramsey Clark: he's going to be on Saddam's defense team.

Here's Clark himself, stating why he wants to defend Saddam. And it's no surprise, given Clark's history, delineated quite nicely here by Varifrank, who has saved me the trouble of going into all the "interesting" things Clark has done in recent years.

One can argue that even dictators need defense attorneys, and that is most certainly true. It's a nasty job, but somebody has to do it. And yet someone is already doing it; Clark's lamentably eager services are hardly needed.

Yes, Clark never met a dictator he didn't like, and this has been the case for decades. And yes, Clark is probably the most extreme leftist alive today who actually held a position of power in a Presidency--in his case, that of Lyndon Johnson, under whom he served as Attorney General.

Why am I interested in all this? It's what so often grabs me, intrapersonal political change. So my question about Clark is: how did what originally seems to have been a relatively mainstream guy end up esposing views that put him in the running with Noam Chomsky? Did something happen to change him? Or was he always like that, despite having served in the Johnson administration?

After doing a bit of research, I've got some ideas about it, and my answer is "yes" and "yes." Yes, he was always more or less like that; and yes, he became even more so as a result of his experiences during the Vietnam era.

Clark was born and raised in Texas. He enlisted in the Marines shortly after the close of WWII, at the age of seventeen. It seems to have been an extremely formative experience, in which the very young Clark felt overwhelmed by viewing the suffering the war had wreaked.

This Spectator article from March of 2005 quotes Clark on the subject:

In China in 1948, I saw people dying where they could not bury their own. They had to drag bodies out to the edge of the road where carts would come and pick them up. In Western Europe in 1949, people were still emerging from the destruction. All this informed me in a way I could never escape: the enormity of human misery on the planet; the enormity of poverty and suffering; the contrast between raw power and the vaster poverty of the impotent.

His course was set--to alleviate that suffering. Afterwards, Clark attended the University of Chicago and its law school, and found his real calling as a champion of civil rights, describing himself as "extremely aggressive...intensely involved and focused" in that cause.

Lyndon Johnson's great dream as President was also civil rights. As it turned out, the appointment of Ramsey Clark as his Attorney General promised to kill (or rather, feed) two civil rights birds with one stone.

Clark's father, Supreme Court Justice Tom Clark, was a Truman appointee who had written the unanimous opinion upholding the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But his son was appointed Attorney General as part of a scheme by Johnson to nominate the first black Supreme Court Justice:

[Tom] Clark's retirement from the Court was engineered by President Lyndon B. Johnson, a fellow Texan. Johnson was determined to appoint the first black person to the Court, but he needed to create an opening on the Court. Johnson appointed Attorney General Nicholas deB. Katzenbach undersecretary of state, which made Tom Clark's son Ramsey the acting Attorney General. He then nominated Ramsey Clark to be Attorney General, assuming correctly that Tom Clark would retire from the Court to avoid any conflict of interest. Clark did so on June 12, 1967, and Johnson nominated Thurgood Marshall to the Court.

So Ramsey Clark's appointment paved the way for Marshall's elevation, as planned, and gave Johnson an Attorney General deeply committed to the civil rights agenda. Ramsey Clark was a prime mover of that cause during the 60s, and it was undoubtedly his finest hour.

Clark turned against the Vietnam War--if in fact he'd ever supported it, and the evidence of his statements about his Marine service indicates a strong possibility that he had not--towards the end of his term, which lasted as long as Johnson was President. In fact, according to the Spectator piece, Johnson had earlier removed him from the national security council because of his opposition to the war. When Johnson's administration was over, Clark immediately became a prominant peace activist, even traveling to Hanoi in 1970. Since then he's never wavered from the most extreme leftist positions.

So it seems that Clark was always pretty far to the left, and just went further in that direction after finding success and a home in the antiwar movement of the Vietnam era. It's probable that this tendency was compounded by feelings of guilt over his participation in the administration that escalated the war, and the need to expiate that guilt in his own mind (according to the Spectator, Clark "is clearly pained by the fact that he was in the government during the Vietnam war").

A curious incident in Clark's life was his prosecution of the so-called "Boston Five," despite his antiwar sympathies. Here's a possible explanation of what was going on with Clark when he prosecuted the Five:

...for “conspiracy to aid and abet draft resistance.” Four of the five were convicted, including fellow winner of the Gandhi Peace Award pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Spock and Yale chaplain William Sloane Coffin Jr. (who would later officiate at the wedding of Clark's son). Clark believed since Coffin and Dr. Spock were respected, if controversial, public figures who could afford legal counsel to fight back for them, their cases would take a long time and would “focus attention on the problems of the draft.” Clark says that he hoped to show Johnson that opposition to the war wasn’t limited to "draft-dodging longhairs" but included the most admired pediatrician in America, a prominent and revered patrician minister, and a respected former Kennedy Administration official (Marcus Raskin, who had been a special staff member on the National Security Council).

Unfortunately, the Wikipedia article in which this astounding information appeared fails to give any source for this story, and I couldn't find any independent information confirming it. If true, however, his own role in their conviction might be the source of even more guilt for Ramsey to try to undo--although how defending Saddam would atone for that guilt I can't quite wrap my mind around.

Clark seems to have sympathy for any suffering he personally witnesses. He didn't see Saddam's victims, so perhaps they are not real to him. But he sees poor old Saddam now, and it just about breaks his heart:

The United States, and the Bush administration in particular, engineered the demonization of Hussein...Hussein has been held illegally for more than a year without once meeting a family member, friend or lawyer of his choice. Though the world has seen him time and again on television — disheveled, apparently disoriented with someone prying deep into his mouth and later alone before some unseen judge — he has been cut off from all communications with the outside world and surrounded by the same U.S. military that mistreated prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo...The United States has already destroyed any hope of legitimacy, fairness or even decency by its treatment and isolation of the former president and its creation of the Iraqi Special Tribunal to try him.

Clark's sympathies are activated by the suffering of old Nazis, as well, according to the Spectator interview:

He has defended Lithuanian and Ukrainian exiles accused of Nazi war crimes, and he felt strongly for them. "It is terrible to see the fear which such indictments strike into men’s hearts, and the shame they feel before their families," he tells me. "I have seen defendants being spat at in the face during trials." Perhaps he just believed that his own clients were innocent, but his pity extends even to the Nazi leaders themselves: he thinks it ‘terrible’ that eight of them were executed at Nuremberg, and that Rudolf Hess was sentenced to solitary life imprisonment in Spandau.

This goes far beyond the amount of sympathy one would need to have in order to do a decent job defending someone. In some strange and dreadful alchemy, it seems that those suffering peasants of postwar China, those blacks who were disenfranchised (and worse) in the American South, and those who died in Vietnam, have morphed over the years in Clark's mind into the dictators and war criminals who arouse his sympathies now. It's quite a journey.

[NOTE: There's something wrong with my site timer, and I can't seem to change it at the moment. This is actually being published at 1:30 PM on November 29).

Sunday, November 27, 2005

For shame: murderers and terrorists

I've come to believe that the feeling of shame underlies much of the anger and violence in the world.

But why, you may ask, would shame, "a painful emotion caused by a strong sense of guilt, embarrassment, unworthiness, or disgrace," be a source of anger? Wouldn't it be more likely to be a source of contrition, remorse, and the desire to make reparation and amends?

Yes, sometimes it is, in a person with a strong sense of self, who hasn't been sensitized to find shame intolerable. But all too commonly, that is not the case.

The key is the word "painful" in the above definition. For vast numbers of people, shame is experienced as a narcissistic wound that is unacceptable and almost literally unbearable. In such cases, a person cannot stand feeling shame and is driven to great anger at the source of the shame and must remove it: either in actuality, by doing away with the person or a substitute; or by an intense explosion of rage expressed verbally.

I'm not ordinarily a reductionist, but this explanation (not excuse) for angry behavior keeps cropping up and seems remarkably applicable to a wide variety of differing circumstances.

The need to flee from shame lies at the root of much criminal behavior, as noted psychiatrist/criminologist James Gilligan indicates:

In the course of my psychotherapeutic work with violent criminals, I was surprised to discover that I kept getting the same answer when I asked one man after another why he had assaulted or even killed someone: "Because he disrespected me." In fact, they used that phrase so often that they abbreviated it to, "He dis'ed me." Whenever people use a word so often that they abbreviate it, you know how central it is in their moral and emotional vocabulary.

Gilligan has spent his life studying violent criminal behavior, and he believes the need to avoid the intolerable feeling of shame is at the heart of it.

...the basic psychological motive, or cause, of violent behavior is the wish to ward off or eliminate the feeling of shame and humiliation—a feeling that is painful, and can even be intolerable and overwhelming—and replace it with its opposite, the feeling of pride. I will use these two terms—shame and pride—as generic terms to refer to two whole families of feelings. Synonyms for pride include self-esteem, self-love, self-respect, feelings of self-worth, dignity, and the sense of having maintained one's honor intact. But pride must be in much shorter supply than shame, because there are literally dozens of synonyms for shame, including feelings of being slighted, insulted, disrespected, dishonored, disgraced, disdained, slandered, treated with contempt, ridiculed, teased, taunted, mocked, rejected, defeated, subjected to indignity or ignominy; feelings of inferiority, inadequacy, incompetency; feelings of being weak, ugly, a failure, "losing face," being treated as if you were insignificant, unimportant or worthless, or any of the numerous other forms of what psychoanalysts call "narcissistic injuries." As Franz Alexander wrote in "Some Comments," (1938), the psychology of narcissism is the psychology of shame and its equivalent, feelings of inferiority. Envy and jealousy are members of this same family of feelings: people feel inferior to those whom they envy, or of whom they are jealous. People become indignant (and may become violent) when they suffer an indignity; language itself reveals the link between shame and rage...

The consensus that has emerged from this work is that the most potent stimulus of aggression and violence, and the one that is most reliable in eliciting this response, is not frustration per se (as the "frustration-aggression" hypothesis had claimed), but rather, insult and humiliation. In other words, the most effective way, and often the only way, to provoke someone to become violent is to insult him. Feshbach, in "The Dynamics and Morality of Violence and Aggression" (1971), for example, after reviewing the literature on this subject, concluded that "violations to self-esteem through insult, humiliation or coercion are probably the most important source of anger and aggressive drive in humans."

Not all anger is alike, of course. Any offense or injustice can (and will) provoke anger, and some of that anger is justified. But the anger of those who are driven by their need to obliterate their own feelings of shame will have a special quality of being disproportionate and out-of-synch with the seriousness of any offense or insult that may have sparked the feelings of shame. They also often seek a scapegoat to blame. This is the hallmark of the shame-avoidant response; its irrational, over-the-top quality, and/or its need to find substitute targets.

But this does not happen only on an individual level. When whole countries, cultures, and/or groups of people feel the need to run from feelings of shame--beware, beware! Then you are going to have trouble on a truly vast scale. A perception of having been shamed seems to have been a major motivation for German anger at the conclusion of WWI, a rage that found its perfect expression in the person of one Adolf Hitler. And from the recent riots in France to terrorist attacks around the world, redressing and undoing the feelings of shame resulting from the steady loss of Moslem power after the height of the Islamic empire seems to be a very large part of what Islamicist terrorist violence is about, as well as personal feelings of shame experienced in host countries.

For me, the shame explanation finally illuminated a mystery I'd always felt about the killings described in Truman Capote's masterpiece In Cold Blood.

I read the book straight through many times over when I was seventeen, despite the nightmares--and the wide-awake anxieties--it gave me. I'd always been interested in human behavior, and the book's detailed depiction of the minds of the two murderers (as seen, of course, through Capote's eyes) brought me the closest I'd ever come up till that point (or since, if the truth be known) to understanding a single horrific act of irrational violence.

And yet there was something I didn't understand in the least, an instant that came towards the end of the book, in what was the key scene: Perry Smith's description of the moment in which he snapped and committed the first murder, that of Herb Clutter. Revisting Perry's confession with the knowledge of the centrality of the need to obliterate shame, it's possible for me to imagine that I understand much more of what drove the crime to its hideous conclusion.

I doubt whether author Capote himself was completely aware of the significance of shame in Smith's narrative account of the actual moment of the first murder. Were the murders "a psychological accident, virtually an impersonal act," as Capote quotes police chief Dewey in the book? In a sense, yes, since the Clutters had done nothing to harm or to shame either Perry or Smith, and the crime was minor enough up to that point that the killers-to-be could have easily bailed. But psychologically, there was no turning back for Smith; the entire situation activated his intense and lifelong feelings of shame and resultant rage (some of it at his partner, Dick).

To set the scene: Perry and his accomplice Dick had gone to the Clutter household intending to execute a long-planned robbery/murder, having been told by a prison acquaintance who'd once worked on the Clutter farm that Mr. Clutter kept an enormous and enticing amount of cash on the premises, in a safe. But in fact, after entering the home through an unlocked door and tying up the family, they discovered there was almost no money there at all.

After living on grandiose dreams of making a big score at the Clutter farm, Perry instead found himself crawling on painful arthritic knees after a mere pittance:

Dick stood guard outside the bathroom door while I reconnoitered. I frisked the girl's room, and I found a little purse--like a doll's purse. Inside it was a silver dollar. I dropped it somehow, and it rolled across the floor. Rolled under a chair. I had to get down on my knees. And just then it was like I was outside myself. Watching myself in some nutty movie. It made me sick. I was just disgusted. Dick, with all his talk about a rich man's safe, and here I am crawling on my belly to steal a child's silver dollar. One dollar. And I'm crawling on my belly to get it...

After, see, after we'd taped them, Dick and I went off in a corner. To talk it over...I said, 'Well, Dick, any qualms?' He didn't answer me. I said, 'Leave them alive, and this won't be any small rap. Ten years the very least.' He still didn't say anything. He was holding the knife. I asked him for it, and he gave it to me, and I said, 'All right, Dick. Here goes.' But I didn't mean it. I meant to call his bluff, make him argue me out of it, make him admit he was a phony and a coward. See, it was something between me and Dick. I knelt down beside Mr. Clutter, and the pain of kneeling--I thought of that goddam dollar. Silver dollar. The shame. Disgust. And they'd told me never to come back to Kansas. But I didn't realize what I'd done [cut Herb Clutter's throat] till I heard the sound. Like someone drowning.

It's almost a textbook demonstration, isn't it? The shame.

[ADDENDUM: I wanted to add a clarification in response to the following observation by greg g that appeared here in the comments section:

I'm having trouble adding this concept of shame leading to an extreme reaction against the cause of shame to my own model for viewing others' actions. In the examples listed...I don't see the various people as "shamed". Instead, I see them as feeling superior (arrogant) and insulted in the given situation. I think their feeling of superiority gives them the right to seek revenge and/or punish anyone who dares question their superiority and/or prove their superiority (or so they think).

My answer:

Shame and a sense of superiority seem like opposites, I know. Sometimes they are. But far more often they are linked, although that seems counterintuitive and paradoxical.

I thought to explain that concept in the post, but I jettisoned the idea since it was growing long enough already. Maybe some day I'll write some more on it; in the meantime Dr. Sanity has some posts about narcissism, which is connected to this idea.

A very simple way to put it is that what appears to be a sense of superiority is in fact a false front, put on by an individual who actually feels very shaky about his/her true self-worth. For that reason, all threats to self-worth (experiences that induce a feeling of shame) must be fought against with extreme rigidity and bravado because of an inner sense of actually being inferior.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Modern life holds modern terrors--such as, for example, modern weapons in the hands of modern terrorists.

But one ancient problem that was thought to have been more-or-less eradicated in this country is making a comeback, to wit: bedbugs.

Yes, yes; my mother's old going-to-bed rhyme "Good night, sleep tight, don't let the bedbugs bite" has become the trendy thing to say, at least in New York City which, according today's New York Times, is experiencing something of a bedbug renaissance.

This article is available only with registration. It's rather long and I can't quite do it justice with only a short excerpt, but here's a summary anyway:

"It's becoming an epidemic," said Jeffrey Eisenberg, the owner of Pest Away Exterminating, an Upper West Side business that receives about 125 bedbug calls a week, compared with just a handful five years ago. "People are being tortured, and so am I. I spend half my day talking to hysterical people about bedbugs...

Unlike mice and roaches, which are abetted by filthy surroundings, bedbugs do just fine in a well-scrubbed home, although bedroom clutter gives them more places to hide and breed. When engorged with blood, they grow slightly plumper than the O on this page, although the nymphs, which appear almost translucent before their first meal, are not much bigger than the period at the end of this sentence.

And contrary to popular perceptions, they don't dwell just in mattresses and box springs: any wall or floor crack the thickness of a playing card can accommodate a bedbug. Although some people try to treat the problem themselves, most people hire exterminators, at a cost of $300 per room.

The modern bedbug is immune to hardware store-variety insecticides, and setting off a cockroach bomb in the bedroom will only scatter them farther afield. And because they are active only at night, many people don't discover them until their population has grown into the hundreds, or even thousands.

Lurking in this article is a hint as to some of the reasons for the upsurge:

In the bedbug resurgence, entomologists and exterminators blame increased immigration from the developing world, the advent of cheap international travel and the recent banning of powerful pesticides. Other culprits include the recycled mattress industry and those thrifty New Yorkers who revel in the discovery of a free sofa on the sidewalk.

That banned pesticide is primarily DDT. And therein lies a very serious subject--the myriad ways in which the banning of DDT has caused problems throughout the world, problems far greater than New York City's bedbug colonization.

If you're not familiar with the subject and are interested in learning more, please ponder this and this, for starters.

I certainly hope that DDT is not as dangerous as we've been led to believe, not only because I'd like to see it used successfully to stem the tide of the scourge of malaria, but because I remember following in the wake of large trucks spraying it every summer when I was a child. My strong suspicion is that I received quite a hefty dose myself.

Well, at least I can comfort myself with the fact that when I would stick my little feet into those X-ray machines all shoe stores used to sport when I was a child (those of a certain age will remember what I'm talking about; those of you who are younger will no doubt be very puzzled--but here's an explanation), they were always malfunctioning (the X-ray machines, that is, not my feet). So I may have been spared a fairly nasty overdose of X-rays to go along with that DDT.

Maybe we should test the Globe on the meaning of the word "alleged"

Vermont English teacher Bret Chenkin has a way with words.

This Boston Globe article, headlined "Teacher under investigation for alleged liberalism," brought back unhappy memories of spending stessed-out high school days preparing for the SAT tests. But they also made me look back on that time with a surprisingly fond glow. The test questions my teachers made up may have been boring, but at least they weren't politically partisan.

Bret Chenkin, on the other hand, is a great deal better than my teachers were at coming up with creative and innovative questions for his students' English quizzes. He's certainly not reluctant, however, to let them know exactly where he stands on the political spectrum.

Here's one question he dreamed up for them; the point of which is to demonstrate the students' knowledge of vocabulary words "coherent" and "eschewed":

I wish Bush would be (coherent, eschewed) for once during a speech, but there are theories that his everyday diction charms the below-average mind, hence insuring him Republican votes.

And extra credit if you get this one right (that is: left):

It is frightening the way the extreme right has (balled, arrogated) aspects of the Constitution and warped them for their own agenda.

Chenkin thinks he's being fair:

"The kids know it's hyperbolic, so-to-speak," he said. "They know it's tongue in cheek. They know where I stand."

He said he isn't shy about sharing his liberal views with students, but invites vigorous debate in the classroom.

I don't know about you; but I, for one, wish Chenkin would have eschewed political statements altogether in his classroom.

One wonders about Chenkin's judgment. One also wonders about the vocabulary of the Globe editors who come up with that headline. For surely we can safely conclude that this man's liberalism has passed considerably beyond the "alleged" stage. For that matter, is "liberalism," alleged or otherwise, actually the offense for which he's under investigation? Isn't it rather the act of injecting partisan political views into a venue where they don't belong, not the particular form those views happen to take?

At least the school superintendent quoted in the article seems to understand the meaning of the words he uses. He calls Chenkin's test questions "inappropriate" and "irresponsible." No argument there; they are that indeed, as well as "indoctrinating" and "indefensible."

Come to think of it, though, perhaps I shouldn't be so hard on the Globe for that headline. My guess is that Mr. Chenkin is certainly no classical liberal. So perhaps the Globe's "alleged" means they're thinking of how the word "liberal" has become perverted from its original classical meaning.


Sam and friend: separated at birth?

Here's that rare thing, a case that lives up to its hype. Sam, billed "the world's ugliest dog," has died at nearly fifteen years of age.

You be the judge. Here's Sam in his prime:

And here, I believe, is Sam in happier days:

Friday, November 25, 2005

The day after

I'm taking the day off from posting today, except for this note.

Black Friday's shopping malls aren't for me. This is the day of turkey soup and turkey sandwiches, cold pie for breakfast, and lingering guests lingering over turkey soup and turkey sandwiches and cold pie. It was cold and brisk and clear, unlike the wretched dreary snow/rain of yesterday, and so we went out for a walk, which probably worked off at least one ounce of the weight gained during the Thanksgiving feast.

Hope that today you did whatever it was you wanted to do. See you tomorrow!

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Thankful for Thanksgiving

I happen to like Thanksgiving. Always have. It's a holiday for anyone and everyone in this country--except, of course, those who hate turkey. There's quite a few of these curmudgeonly folks, but I'm happy to report I'm not one of them. Even if the turkey ends up dry and overcooked, it's nothing a little gravy and cranberry sauce can't fix. And although the turkey is the centerpiece, it's the accompaniments that make the meal.

Speaking of making the meal: my turkey is happily roasting in the oven as we speak. Stuffed, despite subtle discouragement from the USDA ("for more even cooking, it is recommended you cook your stuffing outside the bird in a casserole"--yeah, right, that's for the overflow stuffing, fraidy-cat bureaucrats). The USDA fact sheet on roasting turkeys makes the endeavor sound like the preparations for a space launch, so fraught with technical pitfalls it appear to be.

My theory on turkeys is that they're like children: you coax them along and just do the best you can, but as long as you don't utterly ruin or abuse them, they have their own innate characteristics that will manifest in the end. A dry and tough bird will be a dry and tough bird despite all that draping in fat-soaked cheesecloth, a tender and tasty one will withstand a certain amount of overdoing.

One year my brother and I were cooking at my parents house and somehow we set the oven on "broil," an error that was only discovered about an hour before the turkey was due to be done. It was one of the best turkeys ever. Another time the turkey had turned deep bluish purple on defrosting and was so hideous and dangerous-looking it had to be abandoned. Another terrible time, that has lived in infamy ever since, my mother decided turkey was passe and that we'd have steak on Thanksgiving.

Since I like to eat, I am drawn to the fact that Thanksgiving is a food-oriented holiday with a basic obligatory theme (turkey plus seasonal autumnal food) and almost infinite variations on that theme. Sweet potatoes? Absolutely--but oh, the myriad ways to make them, some revolting, some sublime. Pie? Of course, but what kind? And what to put on it, ice cream, whipped cream, or both?

For me, there are three traditional requirements--besides the turkey, of course. There has to be at least one pecan pie, although eating it in all its sickening sweetness can put an already-sated person right over the top. The cranberry sauce has to be made from fresh cranberries (it's easy: cranberries, water, and sugar to taste, simmered on top of the stove till mushy and a bright deep red), and lots of it (it's good on turkey sandwiches the next day, too).

The traditional stuffing in my family is non-traditional: a large quantity of cut-up Granny Smith apples cooked in fair amount of sherry as well as a ton of butter till a bit soft; and then mixed with prunes, almonds, and one Sara Lee poundcake reduced to crumbs by crushing with the hands.

Thanksgiving is one of the few holidays that has a theme that is vaguely religious--giving thanks--but has no direct and specific religious affiliation. So it's a holiday that unites. It's one of the least commercial holidays as well, because it involves no presents. It's a home-based holiday, which is good, too, except for those who don't have relatives or friends to be with. One drawback is the terribly compressed travel time; I solve that by not usually traveling very far if I can possibly help it.

The main advantage to hosting the day is having the leftovers left over. The main disadvantage to hosting the day is having the leftovers left over.

I wish you all a wonderful Thanksgiving Day, filled with friends and/or family of your choice, and just the right amount of leftovers!

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Talking to conservatives

This comment on a previous thread intrigued me (the first question, that is--although the second was a bit intriguing, also).

The query posed: back when I was a liberal Democrat, if I'd met a group composed mostly of conservatives, and had talked politics with them (or anything else, for that matter), what would my reaction have been?

Interesting question, impossible to answer with total knowledge, of course, since one can't take a trip back in time. I've been critical here of liberals who are intolerant of conservatives or centrists (I consider myself one of the latter). So, did I used to be equally intolerant? How would I react were my previous self to meet my present self--would I slap my own face and walk off in a huff?

Like Pauline Kael, I've indeed traveled in a bit of a liberal bubble. But you may recall that during Vietnam I had a boyfriend serving there. He wasn't a conservative, as far as I know--in fact, we hardly ever discussed politics, although we did discuss the war itself. I attended a hugely liberal school and yet, despite the fact that my friends knew I had someone serving in combat in Vietnam, I never heard a word directed against me--or him, for that matter--from anyone I knew.

Yes, I suppose that although I traveled in liberal circles, they weren't especially radical ones. But I think it's noteworthy that even back in that time of such discord, somehow the discourse around me seemed civil enough.

Later, I always had a few centrist or even conservative friends. A few. We just didn't discuss politics, or if we did, we did it in a very amicable way. Was this because the issues of the 80s and 90s seemed more removed and tangential, as compared to the intensity of the post-9/11 era in which we now live? I think so.

Therefore I'll have to say that I believe, had I been transported to some sort of "conservative" get-together back then, I wouldn't have disliked the people or been tremendously uncomfortable there--not that anything they said to change my opinion would have worked at the time (speaking of which, I guess it's time to start working on that next "change" post...)

Maybe I'm fooling myself, but I have no recollection of demonizing the right back when I was a liberal. I didn't see any person as a bigot or a Scrooge--unless that individual actually said something bigoted or Scrooge-like, that is. My training as a therapist was part of it, I suppose--although that came later, in the 90s. A therapist, in order to be effective, must actually listen, and listen hard and without preconceived notions, to the person sitting in the chair opposite. Therapists need to come at that process of listening with the attitude of trying to get into the head of the client and be respectful of him/her. It requires a sort of doubling; an imaginative leap into the world of the other while still retaining one's own self, perspective, and judgment. A therapist needs to hold both things in the mind at once, and use all these sensibilities together to help the client.

Of course, some of the most rabidly politically intolerant people I know are therapists, as I've learned to my sorrow since I left the liberal circle, so that argument falls down somewhat (I can't imagine that such people could be very good therapists, but that's another story for another time).

I think there's still another source of my attitude towards talking politics; and surprise, surprise! it comes from my childhood. I grew up in a family where there was an ongoing political war between my father and his brother, my uncle. Ours was a small family, and this was our closest relative, who lived nearby and whom we saw very often.

From earliest childhood (cue violins here) I can remember the bitter arguing that went on at every social gathering, small or large, when they were together. Especially bad were dinners at our house, when it was just us, and they could give full vent to their frustration with each other. My uncle was not only a pro-Soviet pro-Communist, he was a politically involved fanatical pro-Soviet pro-Communist--although not, as far as I know, a member of the Party. It was clear to me even as a tiny child that nothing was ever going to come from these "discussions" but more of the same; no mind was ever going to be changed by them. And I hated it.

Somewhere quite early in the game I must have taken a vow, without realizing it, to try not to be like my uncle. To try to listen respectfully and not dismiss the arguments of the opposition out of hand, to try to evaluate the assertions of opponents with an open mind and the use of reason rather than emotion, and to change the subject if it's clear the discussion is going nowhere and never will go anywhere.

I'm sure I've violated these rules at times--but I've tried very hard not to. The echoes of those terrible and utterly fruitless fights of my youth still ring too loudly in my ears to ever want to emulate them.

My uncle was a world traveler, and he often met people in his journeys who later came to New York and visited as they passed through. I remember being home from college in 1968 and having dinner with my family at my uncle's house. He was hosting a gentleman he'd met in Czechoslovakia. It was right after the Soviet crackdown on the "Prague spring," and it turns out my uncle had been visiting Czechoslovakia at the time of the arrival of the tanks, or shortly thereafter.

I was sitting opposite the Czech gentleman, and I watched him as my uncle discoursed on how the Czech people had welcomed the Soviets with open arms, and other assorted pro-Soviet tales. I watched the man's eyes; he was a guest in my uncle's house, practically a stranger, and he tried mightily to control himself, confining himself to the clenched-tooth utterance, "That's not true; that's not the way it was."

My uncle was neither listening nor watching; he continued to wax rhapsodic on the joys of Soviet life. I looked at the man, trying somehow to convey with my eyes my youthful sympathy and empathy. I will never ever forget the look of bitter sorrow in his as he looked back at me.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

A big sigh of relief on getting back into something more comfortable

This is good. This is very good: the name OSM (Open Source Media) turns out to have had a brief but unhappy life, and is being tossed into the dustbin of history, exactly where it belongs, IMHO. Welcome back old friend, Pajamas Media!

I wish I could say "I told you so." (Actually, I could say "I told you so"--along with most other bloggers--but my earlier criticism of the name change was never expressed in print.)

Pajamas Media was a great name, and it's still a great name. Whether the entire concept is equally great, and will ultimately fly, remains to be seen. But I'm certainly willing to wait and see.

I've seen the flak from others within the blogosphere and without: criticisms of the name (agreed on that score), the business model (don't know enough about it), the writing on the site (I'm giving that one time).

Call me shallow, call me social, call me a touch-feely-therapist type, but my main motivation so far in joining PJ Media has been to meet other bloggers, and that's been realized, in spades. How else and where else would there ever have been the opportunity to get so many bloggers in one room together?--after, all, herding cats is a notoriously difficult enterprise.

As far as the money goes, I'm more than satisfied. I could have started some blogads here, but really hadn't done the research yet to do so. So I'm more than happy to let PJ do it for me and pay me a tiny bit of money in the bargain. I have the right of refusal; I can quit at any point I wish and be right back where I started, having lost nothing, including my autonomy.

As far as all the anger towards OSM/Pajamas from Ann Althouse and Dennis the Peasant and others goes, they have their own concerns. Included in the mix are their own stories of having been dissed by the powers that be at PJ. Who's right and who's wrong is one of those things I won't comment on unless I've heard the full tale from both sides--and I wish I had, actually, because my therapist self somehow thinks maybe I could have mediated, at least at the beginning.

That's probably the height of hubris on my part; perhaps the differences and anger were just too great even from the start (and if anyone hasn't a clue what I'm talking about and is interested, just go to each person's blog--listed on my blogroll--and start scrolling down. You'll find a bunch of posts on the subject soon enough).

It's sad when people who were formerly friends (or at least, formerly civil!) end up dishing out so much vitriol at each other. I know, or at some previous point have had correspondence with, everyone involved (some very slightly and tangentially, and some rather better), so I'll draw the veil of silence now on the subject, put my apple over my face, and go slinking off.

I hope I don't sound cold or disinterested when I say this, but I don't think my blog --or the blogs of any of us, including its founders--will live or die by the success of PJ Media. We all define success differently; right now, I consider this blog to have been successful, if not beyond my wildest dreams, then certainly beyond what I considered any realistic expectations. Great readers, and plenty of them--what more could a person want?

I certainly didn't go into blogging for the money--that would have been like going into poetry for the money. I may be economically illiterate, but I'm not financially balmy. I can only speak for myself, but I know why I blog, and I don't think that reason will ever change. I knew from the start what my niche would be--what the story was that I felt internally driven to tell.

What is it I needed to say, and why am I so compelled to tell my tale? Well, it just so happens that I once wrote a post on that very topic. So if you want the best answer I can give, see here for more.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Follow the leader

A while back I received an e-mail from a reader who made the following request:

I am writing to ask if you could use your insight to explore a subject that fascinates me, and that is leadership, and why, I feel, it is a subject that liberals are loathe to examine.They will sniff about intellect and articulation, but never approach the core component called leadership, and without that, what is there in a politician?

I read the daily moanings about Bush from all parts of the Right, and it alienates me, and I'm confused why so many lack my patience or perspective on what is and isn't important about politics during this WoT. I'm puzzled by the lack of faith in his leadership, or the doubts about its usefulness.

My first reaction was: nah, doesn't interest me enough to write about it. Besides, it wasn't something I'd thought very much about before.

But I found the question stayed in my mind. Then I read this post at Sigmund Carl & Alfred, which got me to thinking more about this curious lack--not just the lack of leaders, but the lack of talk about leadership, and the lack of desire for leaders.

I'm interested in why we (and I include myself here) are somewhat averse to the very word "leader." One of the commenters on SC&A touched on what I consider the heart of the answer, and that is that leaders require followers. Or at least we think they do, in the common understanding of the word "leader."

Now, who in American wants to be a follower? Practically no one. Individualism was built into this country from the start, and the distaste for a leader in that sense is not limited to the left--it's very strong on the right, too. The idea of "leader" is too close to royalty on the one hand and to dictatorship on the other.

What comes to mind when you hear the word "leader"--in the political sense, that is? One image it conjures up for me is that of a vast Nazi arena, row upon rigid row, standing as one and giving a rousing "Sieg Heil" and that straight-armed Nazi salute. Another image I have is of the defendants in the Nuremberg dock saying to a man that they were just good Germans, following orders. Leadership took a big hit post-WWII, when it became horrifyingly clear where the extremities of leadership could take human beings. For what, after all, does the word "Fuhrer" mean in German, but "Leader?"

And then there is Big Brother, another iconic image--fictional, this time, but very powerful nonetheless. Anyone who has ever read Orwell's 1984 is probably chilled by the memory of the leader whipping the workers up into a frenzy in the Two Minutes Hate.

Then there is the Soviet example of near-deification of Stalin and Lenin, which rushed in to fill the gap when religion was discouraged by the Soviets, as evidenced by the preservation of their corpses as a sort of secular/political equivalent of holy relics.

So we must be careful. And indeed, we have been. Since Vietnam and Watergate, the press has made it its business to tear down every possible idol, to expose our leaders' feet of clay at every step. This has the benefit that we are not likely to follow blindly or to idealize our leaders. It has the drawback that, blinded by cynicism, we often don't see their positive traits or credit them with any good intentions.

This tendency is particularly pronounced in that notorious cohort to which I must confess I belong, the Baby Boomers. Raised by parents who had renounced some of the authority of their own parents; encouraged by our numbers, prosperity, and the press to take our adolescent rebellion to extremes; many of us have taken the charge "Question Authority" to heart. Some never stop questioning it and rebelling against it, often just for the sake of rebelling.

This may indeed also be part of those leftist attitudes towards the military, a mixture of condemnation ("baby-killers!"), victimization ("poverty-stricken tools of the ruling class") and patronization ("robots").

It's the latter trait ("robots") that I believe ties into what I've been saying here: because the military must follow orders (except illegal ones) and is overtly and explicitly hierarchical, with clear leaders and followers, many boomers on the left who like to continue to think of themselves as free spirits have a special contempt for those who volunteer for it.
But in fact a military would be impossible without such a structure--and I assume that those who volunteer for it are well aware of why they have assumed the burden of needing, at times, to follow, as well as needing to act on their own initiative at other times.

I agree with SC&A that the ability to be inspirational is a big part of political leadership in general. But that inspiration can't just be emotional; it should be hard-headed, based on a calculation of the decisions that leader has made, and always reserving a portion of skepticism. If one has a real reason to admire what a person in a position of leadership has done, it isn't as hard to be a follower when necessary, or to trust that things are in generally capable hands. Nowadays, however, the deck is stacked against this sort of attitude towards a leader from either party, in part because the press (and the opposition) is determined to cut all potential leaders down to size.

That refusal to put a leader on too high a pedestal is a good thing, and it has a long and illustrious history in this country--starting with Washington's refusal to go for a third term. But, as with so many things, balance is important. I believe the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction, and makes it hard to see whatever good really does exist in our political leaders.

How can a politician convince that he/she can lead? Churchill was an acknowledged wartime leader whose power to do so came at least partly through his stunning oratory. But we have seen that oratory is a double-edged sword--after all, Hitler is said (at least by Germans) to have been one of the greatest orators of all times, and to have exerted a strange and hypnotic spell on his listeners. I'm not a German speaker, but I find it hard to believe that Hitler's rhetorical power had anything in common with Churchill's except its power.

Of course, one of the criticisms of Bush, right from the start, has been his lack of verbal communicative skills. He's given some good speeches, but there's something in his delivery that is profoundly lacking, and it's especially lacking when he's speaking extemporaneously. Can a person exert leadership in the absence of such rhetorical abilities? I don't know, but it certainly makes the battle far more uphill.

A leader has to give off an aura of trustworthiness and strength, and I don't know exactly how that's done. Eloquence can certainly be part of it, although it can also deceive. And of course, words have to reflect more than the aura of strength and trustworthiness, it has to be the real deal. When you listen to a recording of Roosevelt actually speaking those famous words "The only thing we have to fear is, fear itself!" you can hear his own buoyant optimism come through loud and clear in his voice, and it lifts you up. Like a good parent (or leader), he comforts and reassures when it's needed the most.

Churchill was of a different sort: he spoke the worst and asked for sacrifice. Somehow, he got away with it. His personal courage was legendary, his voice an extraordinary and complex instrument that conveyed the deepest sorrow and yet the strongest determination possible. He fit the mood of his country and let them know they could endure anything, which was exactly what was needed at the moment.

When Lincoln was assassinated, the grieving poet Walt Whitman wrote the famous poem "O Captain! My Captain!" It's a lament for a leader fallen when the prize is so close at hand, a crie de cour on behalf of a nation bereft.

I'm not sure it would be possible anymore for this sort of metaphor and emotion about a leader to be expressed--or perhaps even felt--about a President. The feeling is composed of many things, but one of them is love.

O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up; for you the flag is flung; for you the bugle trills;
For you bouquets and ribbon'd wreaths; for you the shores a-crowding;
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
Here Captain! dear father!
This arm beneath your head;
It is some dream that on the deck,
You've fallen cold and dead.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Criticizing the war critics

Cathy Young responded to yesterday's post of mine about Iraq with a post of her own, from which I've excerpted the following:

Now, there is another argument being made: that critics of the war, should they succeed, will be responsible for the death and misery and will befall the Iraqi people...I myself strongly oppose a pullout before the Iraqis can defend themselves, but I think that the "their blood will be on your heads" argument is a below-the-belt tactic that should be off-limits in civil discourse. True, the Anchoress's ire is ostensibly directed at those who talk about a quick pullout, but how many war critics are really in that category?...

What's more, the "blood on your heads" argument is too easily turned around. There is little doubt that at present, the war in Iraq has resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqis who would have been alive had the war not taken place. Yes, of course other Iraqi lives were saved from the killing machine that was the Hussein regime...

Cathy devotes most of her post to the Anchoress's comments rather than mine, so I'll leave it to the Anchoress to respond if she cares to.

But I wanted to clarify something for Cathy (and others) about my own post: I am not talking about war critics in general. I was speaking of one thing only: those critics who want to leave Iraq before it is ready to defend itself. Those critics who want to set a timetable for that pullout. Those critics who, like Tom Hayden, truly do consider the Vietnam abandonment by the US as something of which they are very proud, and who've been planning almost from the start to attempt a repeat in Iraq.

In my post I offered some links: to two previous posts of my own as well as an article about the end of the Vietnam War and a piece by Tom Hayden. I can't speak to whether Cathy Young has read them or not. But in case she hasn't, I suggest it. They're long, I know. But I don't think yesterday's post of mine can be understood without reading them.

My main point is quite a simple one: advocating a pullout--or even a timetable for a pullout--without understanding or recognizing the probable consequences of such action is utterly irresponsible. And it is an irresponsibility that ought to be familiar to those who remember what happened at the end of the Vietnam War. I can't really understand what would be "below the belt" and uncivil about saying so.

When I wrote yesterday's post, I fully expected that my argument--which was actually more about "blood on your hands" than "on your heads"--would be turned around and directed at war supporters. My answer? Yes, indeed, there's enough blood to go around. There always is in war; wars involve blood on everyone's hands, including pacifists, who are responsible for some of the blood involved in feeding the crocodile.

The important question is: how much blood is on whose hands, and to what end? To me, it seems clear that a pullout would be the greater of two evils, as I have come to believe it was in Vietnam. If eggs have already been broken, you better try to stick around till those omelets have been made.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Those who cannot learn from history are condemned...

The Anchoress has written this wonderful post, so I don't have to.

Read the whole thing, please, but most particularly this:

Right now, the insurgents are being vastly encouraged by what they read coming out of the mouths of Democrats and reporters, and even, sadly the Republicans. The message they are being given is: Just be patient. Just hold out a little while, and America will be gone, and you will re-gain control.

You who want to play politics with this war, wishing to abandon the people of Iraq merely to shame a president you hate and do a bit of crowing, just be ready to take responsibility for what comes after. Understand that when the inevitable deaths occur in Iraq, and elsewhere, at the hands of these insurgents, and at the hands of a rejuvenated Al Qaeda, that the blood of every victim thereafter will then be on your heads, as will the blood of all 2065 of our service people whose sacrifice will be rendered meaningless by your action.

If America pulls out without victory - without the Iraqis being capable of defending themselves - then every death from insurgents or terrorists - all over the world - will have to be a death counted upon the heads of those who would not allow a serious War on Terror to continue and succeed, simply because to do so would reflect too well on a man they hate.

The blood of innocents is a heavy, heavy stain - it will not easily be washed away.

I wish I could agree with the Anchoress, however, about that last sentence. The left and liberals, in particular, are no Lady Macbeths. In fact, as far as the results of our pullout from Vietnam goes, they don't need all the perfumes of Arabia to wash their hands clean:

Doct. What is it she does now? Look, how she rubs her hands.
Gent. It is an accustom'd action with her, to seem thus washing her hands. I have known her continue in this a quarter of an hour.
Lady M. Yet here's a spot.
Doct. Hark! she speaks. I will set down what comes from her, to satisfy my remembrance the more strongly.
Lady M. Out, damned spot! out, I say! One: two: why, then 'tis time to do 't. Hell is murky! Fie, my lord, fie! a soldier, and afeard? What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our power to account? Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?
Doct. Do you mark that?
Lady M. The thane of Fife had a wife; where is she now? What, will these hands ne'er be clean?...Here's the smell of the blood still; all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. Oh, oh, oh!
Doct. What a sigh is there! The heart is sorely charg'd.

It is not my impression that the left--or even most liberals--have been walking in their sleep over the Vietnam pullout, much less considering the stain unremovable. In fact, one of the reasons an Iraqi pullout is being pushed so hard now is that many in the left consider the Vietnam pullout to have been their finest hour.

I spent quite a few words and a great deal of thought on the issue a while back, here, when I attempted to answer the following, based on some musings of Dean Esmay:

Where were you in the mid- to late-70s, oh bleeding-heart Vietnam War protesters? Didn't the terrible aftermath of the Vietnam War convince you that you had been wrong to work so hard for US withdrawal? And, if so, why not?

In my attempted answer, I linked to this article about the fall of Vietnam. I'm highlighting it again, and putting it in bold, because I can't recommend it highly enough; please, please read it.

If the history of the Vietnam exit has been supressed, unknown, or denied, how can we ever learn from it? But please be assured that those on the left have learned that history very very well--the history of their success in getting the US to pull out of that war, that is.

If you don't believe me, please read still another post of mine, here (I'm starting to feel as though I'm repeating myself, but I think these things bear repeating right now--unfortunately), based on an article written by Tom Hayden (does the name sound familiar?) one year ago, detailing the left's plans to recapitulate the Vietnam pullout and providing a blueprint for doing just that. You will see that Mr. Hayden finds no blood on his hands, no blood whatsoever.

As David Horowitz has written in his book Radical Son:

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.

Radical Son was published in 1998, so we can forgive Horowitz for not seeing the future with total exactitude. He is right about the "no contrition" part. But the left is looking back, to the days of its greatest triumph. They have learned the lessons of history, and are proud to repeat them. But if the rest of us fail to learn those lessons, we--and the people of Iraq--will be condemned to repeat them.

And then I'm afraid there'll be an awful lot of sleepwalking and handwashing to be done.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Breaking the contract: New York Review of Books

I'm visiting relatives who subscribe to the New York Review of Books, a publication that isn't ordinarily my favorite reading matter. But whenever I'm here I can't resist the temptation to pick it up, despite the fact that I know if I read anything about politics there I'm probably going to end up frustrated and angry.

This time I consciously (and conscientiously) tried to read it without any preconceived notions of what I'd find, and without any sort of chip on my shoulder. I chose Pankaj Mishra's book review of two books: No God but God: the origins, evolution, and future of Islam by Reza Aslan, and Foucault and the Iranian Revolution: gender and the seductions of Islamism, by Janet Afary and Kevin B. Anderson.

One of the questions Mishra's book review tackles is of obvious interest to all neocons: are the tenets of the religion of Islam compatible with democracy? According to Mishra, Azlan finds nothing in the Koran incompatible with democracy; the Koran says nothing very specific about what sort of government Moslems ought to have. It is not the Koran itself, but fundamentalist, traditionalist Islam, according to Azlan, that cannot be reconciled with "modern conceptions of democracy and human rights."

So far, so good. Agreed; there seems to be nothing fundamentally incompatible between Islam and basic human rights--except for Islamicist fundamentalism itself.

But then Mishra writes:

Certainly, events in the Muslim world continue to surprise--especially those who believe that most Muslims, when given the choice, would opt for Western ways. Despite its growing economy, Iran elected a hard-liner as its president in June.

At that point I put the paper down and paced around the room, wondering how a person could be considered qualified to write this book review and yet be so abysmally ignorant as to believe that the recent elections in Iran represented the will of its people, any sort of "choice" they have made. Then I picked up the paper and finished the article, looking for more, but that's the sum total of what Mishra wrote about the Iranian elections.

Mishra doesn't seem to feel the need to explain what he means by these extraordinary statements; apparently, it's self-evident to him that "an election is an election is an election." The elimination of the slate of reform candidates in Iran, the organized boycotts of the election by many people because it was a sham--Mishra says nothing at all about these factors. Either he doesn't know about them (shocking) or thinks he can get away with not addressing them because his audience doesn't know about them (shocking), or he thinks somehow an election can be valid despite them (shocking).

When reading an article or book review such as Mishra's, the reader relies on some sort of implicit contract between him/herself and the writer. The writer is presumed to be both expert and truthful. If one or the other assumption breaks down, that's the end of the story, because it's the end of the writer's reliability and trustworthiness. And this is exactly what happened with me and Mishra when I read these two sentences--he became an untrustworthy source of information/opinion.

But if I hadn't followed the Iranian elections in my new role as political junkie and blogger, I would have read the sentences and not even blinked. I would not have realized that Mishra had just broken our contract. I would have gone on to finish the article, nodded, and the information imparted therein ("Iranian democratic elections indicate the will of the people is for a hard-line theocracy") would have become part of my knowledge base and my belief system. And if I never read other articles that convincingly contradicted that idea, it would continue to be part of my belief system. That's the way political positions are built, one brick at a time, until there's a strong structure that's often quite resistant to change.

So, just who is Pankaj Mishra, anyway? He's an Indian writer sometimes living in London, the author of a novel set in India entitled The Romantics, as well as a nonfiction work about his own search for Buddha, and a book of travels through India. Mishra seems, in fact, to be the New York Times Book Review's resident expert on India, since he's written a great many of their reviews of books on that country, as well as a few about Afghanistan.

That's it. He doesn't seem to have any special experience or knowledge of Iran, politics, or history; he's a novelist, reviewer, and writing of philosophical/travel books about India. In other words, another predominantly literary guy, at least as far as I can tell. And here, once again, one finds that strange naivete of the literary in the face of totalitarian and authoritarian states.

Don't sit on a hot stove until you see a correction in the New York Review of Books.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

The well-rounded blogosphere of OSM

Well, I don't think you'll get the definitive report on the OSM (I still think of it as Pajamas Media) get-together here.

But I have no guilt about that--there are plenty of other bloggers who can easily fill you in. I haven't had a chance yet to check out what others have written, but I've no doubt the event was well-documented, since I could see close to a hundred laptops blooming around the room. Not me, though--I've never developed the art of writing about something as I'm experiencing it; not good at walking and chewing gum at the same time.

So this will be my quick impressionistic take on what it was that I really came for, if the truth be known--the chance to meet a whole crowd of bloggers. And what a crowd it was! The following pre-conference theories of mine seemed generally to be borne out:

1) bloggers can talk; in fact, most bloggers would rather talk than eat

2) bloggers tend to be intense

3) bloggers include a high proportion of night people and/or people who don't sleep all that much

4) most bloggers look like their photos--except me. I actually don't have an apple in from of my face.

5) Roger Simon wears a fedora

Things that were surprises:

1) a higher-than-expected proportion of bloggers are smokers

2) you can't tell who's short and who's tall from a photo

3) Roger Simon wears a fedora

(Actually, I already knew that you can't tell who's short and who's tall from a photo. But it was still a surprise.)

Further observations:

1) When I say bloggers can talk, I mean talk. We're talking serious talk here. Stamina, breadth, depth, decibel level. Get a group together, and it's not for the faint of heart--if you don't jump in quickly and vigorously, you may never get the floor, because the competition is hot and the topics change at the speed of light as one thought follows another, like group chain-smoking. Those with natural projective qualities of voice have an advantage here; those of us with naturally quieter voices stand in danger of getting hoarse.

2) New York restaurants have gotten ever more expensive as the portions have gotten smaller.

3) There are no elevator operators in Saks anymore. I stopped in there today to get out of the cold for a few minutes, and discovered the lack of elevator operators as well as the fact that there is not an item in the store that I could possibly afford. Which is fine since there's not an item in the store that I'd care to buy, so there.)

I could not possibly mention all the bloggers I met, although they all deserve mention. So the following is an almost random snapshot of people I'd never met before but felt I already knew:

Glenn Reynolds is measured, articulate, unaffected, incisive, and possessed of a dry wit--as well as the patience to put up with being buttonholed by every blogger who wanted to meet him, which was all of us.

Charles Johnson is still very much the charming and laid-back musician I imagine he was before 9/11 and its aftermath set him down such an unexpected path.

Richard Fernandez, heretofore the mysterious Wretchard, is a man who projects utter calm and a powerful quality of being deeply-centered, and whose words are unusually reflective and thoughtful.

Austin Bay was our fearless and intrepid leader, charging into a drenching downpour with the rest of us following behind (rain? what's a little rain?), his Renaissance mind discoursing at dinner with great animation on such widely-ranging subjects as politics, war, literature, history, writing, and more.

Vodkapundit is as elegant and intelligent as one might imagine, even on the brink of impending fatherhood (best of luck, Steve, to both you and your wife).

Clive Davis not only has a charming British accent (there's that "charming" word again), but the wit and kindness to go with it (although, unfortunately, Clive actually had to work at his day job during his visit, and therefore missed a few of the festivities).

I could natter on--and on and on and on--because there are, quite literally, a hundred other people I could (and should) write about. But I won't--too tired. Suffice to say it was a great deal of fun.

I find it an extraordinary experience to meet people backwards: that is, to meet their minds first and their bodies second. You get to know people in a totally different way as, day after day, you read what they are thinking without ever having met them in the flesh.

You don't even realize how many preconceptions (and perhaps misconceptions) you are building up until you meet the person him/herself. Sometimes the meeting shatters those preconceptions utterly. Far more often, however, the person you meet is both similar and somewhat different from the one you had expected: younger, older; livelier, shyer; more fidgety, calmer; funnier, more solemn. Then you superimpose the new template on the old and merge the two, and now you know the person in a fuller, rounder sense.

And so it is that I am very happy to have met these and so many other old friends (and new), and to have made the pictures of them in my mind's eye more complete.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Pajamas Party

Hi everyone. I'm spending the day at the Open Source Media (née Pajamas Media) opening gala in New York City. I thought I'd have time to post but I've just been too busy having fun and talking to people. See you all tomorrow.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

About that word "Islamofascism"

Don Surber has pointed out that recently--first on October 6, and then again yesterday--Bush has begun to use the word "Islamofascism" in his speeches to name the enemy.

I have a bit of history with that word myself, and so I have some advice for him.

I was reminded of this by accident the other day when I was looking in my old e-mail files and came across something I'd sent to a friend way back in the spring of '04. It was written during a time when I'd just "outed" myself at a party where a group had been speaking in glowing terms of none other than Michael Moore and "Fahrenheit 9/11."

After I had piped up and let them know I didn't consider MM and his movie to be the repository of truth, a stunned and shocked silence ensued, and then a variety of reactions followed. Some people were angry and argumentative, some quiet. But one or two of my friends came up to me afterwards and said they wouldn't mind if I e-mailed them some more information, and maybe some links.

In the end, though, it didn't work out too well--both of them asked me to cease and desist after a month or two. One of them took great umbrage in particular at my use of the term "Islamofascism" in one of my e-mails. She wrote to me asking whether I would ever use the terms "Christianofascism" or "Judeofascism," and why I didn't condemn skinheads as well as Islamofascists.

So, if Bush runs into the same sort of trouble with the word that I did, perhaps he'd like to take a look at my answer to my friend:

The word doesn't mean "Islam" and it doesn't mean "Moslems." It's simply a shorthand expression to signify "the current crop of people who quote the Moslem religion to justify terrorism and other types of violence and who purposely target innocents such as women, children, and other bystanders with the goal of being a minority who rule over the vast majority of peace-loving people (including the vast majority of Moslems) who would prefer nothing better than to be left alone to live their own lives in peace; and who have a declared agenda to take over the rule of all Moslem countries and the rest of the world, imposing a very strict, repressive, intolerant, illiberal, anti-woman regime on all of mankind." Think Taliban, ruling the world--that's the goal.

That's quite a mouthful, I know, so I use the term "Islamofascist" to cover it. Why "fascist?" Well, the connection to "fascist" is that it is a totalitarian and tyrannical group seeking power over a wide area of the globe, and these people don't care what they do to get it--it's no-holds-barred. The particular group I'm speaking about does this in the name of Islam, but if in fact there were some Buddhists, Christians, Jews, or any other sect with such an agenda in the name of their religion, I would call them "whatever-fascists," also (as I call Nazis fascists; but they were secular fascists). White supremacist fascists (I assume that's what you mean by "skinheads?") are to be condemned also, of course, and in no uncertain terms--but right now they don't seem to have purposely and premeditatedly blown 3,000 people to kingdom come and are not threatening to do it again and again, so my primary concern is with the people who have done just that.

By the way, another reason I use the term "fascist" to refer to the current crop of terrorists and their followers and sympathizers is that, historically speaking, they are actually the direct heirs of the Nazis. I don't mean that in the metaphorical sense--although I do mean that, as well--I mean it in an actual sense. The Arab countries in general were allies of the Nazis in WWII and were, unfortunately, fed vast reams of Nazi propaganda, which, just as unfortunately, took root. Skinheads or neo-Nazis are unusual in the US, although of course they exist---but admiration of Nazis and their agenda became almost mainstream in the 30s in the Arab world as a direct result of Nazi influence, propaganda, and involvement there, and it has not gone away.

Reasonable minds may differ on what is to be done. I'm only writing about what my own study has led me to believe, and of course it's possible I'm wrong. Perhaps we don't disagree as much as you might think, because I, too, would love for the young men of that area, as you write, "to change their minds before they are poisoned." That is actually what the whole idea of liberating Iraq was about--and you may laugh, or think I'm wildly naive to still use the word "liberated"--but I mean what I say. The Iraqi bloggers whom I've been reading are trying to do just that: change minds before they are irrevocably poisoned. They are the ones who have given me hope that a liberation is slowly but surely happening there, in a way that they say was utterly impossible before the war, and in a way that our media has hardly ever written about (and in a way that won't be possible if we don't stay the course until things are more stable there).

Well, now that I look at it, it may be a tad long and convoluted to put in a speech. But I did get a good response from my friend, who seemed to understand when I put it that way. And we're still friends, although I stopped sending her anything political.

My heart is not broken; no, not at all

It's official; neo-neocon will not become a playing card in aaron's Deck O'Bloggers. However, thanks to your valiant efforts I made a respectable showing despite my eleventh hour entry into the game.

But, no excuses (although come to think of it, didn't I just make one?), no regrets. Upward and onward, excelsior, keep on keeping on, look for the silver lining, my HEART will go on...

Congratulations to the top winners, and Dr. Sanity and I will just go and lick our wounds in private.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Bush-hatred revisited

Dr. Sanity tackles that old bugaboo, Bush-Derangement-Syndrome (BDS), and tries to drive a stake into its vigorously beating heart. Her post is a good description of how the psychological mechanism of displacement functions in deflecting the hatred and fear of terrorism onto Bush.

Dr. Sanity doesn't pretend to explain the whole phenomenon of Bush-hatred, however, nor do I. I've felt for quite some time that there's something quite mysterious and "extra" about it, something very difficult to explain.

Perhaps it's merely that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. In addition to the process Dr. Sanity describes (which I think is key), there are other intangibles that feed the beast of BDS.

I'm not talking about mere disagreement with Bush. I'm referring to the sort of visceral demonization of the man that clearly seems out of touch with any reality, and which has gripped so many people I personally know and turned them into something unrecognizable and ferocious when they even mention his name--which they do with some regularity.

A while back I wrote a bit on the subject, which I'd like to repeat now as an addition to Dr. Sanity's thoughts. Although I'm talking about something relatively superficial here, I believe that for some who hate Bush it is at least a part of what drives them:

...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.

Personal style is part of this. We relate to people in many ways, some of them quite subtle and even outside of our awareness: body language and facial expressions and clothing, as well as accents and speech patterns. The utter revulsion some feel towards Bush, both here and abroad, is partly a reaction to such signals that he gives off. In the end, these feelings are neither political, rational, nor amenable to argument--they simply are.

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