Monday, January 31, 2005

Running out of suicide bombers? Let's hope

Is is possible that the world of extremist Islamic/Baathist terrorism could have gone any lower? Apparently, yes, if the news in this article is true, and they are now drafting handicapped children for the privilege of becoming suicide bombers in Iraq.

Traditionally, when wars are going on, the side that is losing starts running out of able-bodied young men, and conscripts younger and younger and less and less fit men/boys to be cannon fodder. So, this is as good a sign as any that the terrorists might be running out of eager volunteers to blow themselves up and attain the "height of bliss" in the act of murdering others.

Why might this be happening? I can think of two reasons. Firstly, it must hard enough, even among fanatics, to recruit people for the task of exploding themselves--but still, somewhat easier when the cause seems to be going well. And I would imagine that recent events in Iraq are not going as well as that combination of nefarious factions (foreign and domestic Al Qaeda members, and out-of-work Baathists) that our MSM insists on calling the "insurgency" and Michael Moore considers the "Minutemen"--had hoped. The Iraqis seem to be going about their business in defiance of the fact that they could be blown up at any moment by these murderers.

Secondly, it is likely that there is actually a finite number of people fanatic enough to be recruited in this endeavor. Even in a culture that glorifies death, the human drive towards life is difficult to override in most people, and it takes a special sort to be willing to strap on a flotilla of bombs and detonate it. One of the good things about suicide bombing (perhaps the only good thing?) is that, by the very nature of the thing, each volunteer only gets one chance. So unless there is something to strongly motivate new recruits, the pool of potential volunteers for such an activity is going to shrink.

I just thought of one more good thing about suicide bombers. Their acts are so egregiously repulsive to all right-thinking people that they tarnish any cause with which they are involved.

Saturday, January 29, 2005

What's up with this "escalating violence" meme?

On CNN, NPR, and in the MSM in general, you hear it nearly every time there is violence in Iraq--in other words, every day--"the death toll increases as..."; "in escalating violence,..."; and so forth.

So I have a simple, modest question--how could a death toll ever decrease? Short of discovering that they'd previously counted wrong, that is?

Note to the MSM: death tolls can't decrease. They will always increase. And the word "escalating" ought to be reserved for a change in the rate of the killings. I've never seen this sort of analysis done by the MSM, although Belmont Club did something similar a while back for American forces and discovered that, at the time, the unrest wasn't "spreading" (which was the meme of the day).

Now, it's possible the death rate has gone up recently in terms of attacks on Iraqi civilians prior to elections--after all, that's been a stated goal of the terrorists (I refuse to call them "insurgents") who are out to terrorize Iraqis into staying away from the polls. The MSM, as usual, are playing right along by this "escalating" business, but why should I expect anything different, at this point?

And yes, of course, I deplore and detest the violence that is going on there, and one death at the hands of these murderers is far too many. But I'd like the media to put it in the proper perspective, historical and otherwise (well, I can dream, can't I?)

Monday, January 24, 2005

The fine art of insulting half your audience

It happens nearly every time. I'll be reading a short story, let's say, enjoying myself, lost in the experience--when suddenly, there it is: the gratuitous and mean-spirited and out-of-context slap at Bush, or at those who support him. It's not as though the story is even tangentially about politics, either; it can be about anything at all, it doesn't really matter.

The Bush-dissing will be thrown in when you least expect it, just to let the reader know--well, to let the reader know what, exactly? To let the reader know that the author is hip, kindly, intelligent, moral--oh, just about everything a person ought to be. And that the reader must of course be a member of the club, too--not one of those Others, the warmongers, the selfish and stupid and demonized people who happen to have voted for Bush.

Back when I was one of the gang, too, back when I was in with the in crowd ("it it's square, we ain't there"), did I notice when authors dragged in their political credentials from left field? Or perhaps it wasn't quite as commonplace back then for them to do so?

At any rate, now it seems positively obligatory. I'm reading along, sunk deep within the story, bonding with the characters--and then, suddenly, it's as though the author has reached a hand out of the pages of the magazine (OK, I'll confess, sometimes it's even the New Yorker--yes, I still read it for the fiction, just as some people claim they read Playboy for the interviews) and slapped me across the face.

Authors, do you really want to do this? Because, with a single sentence, you've managed to alienate and offend (not to mention insult) up to half your audience.

I don't think this even occurs to you. I think you just assume that anyone perceptive and intelligent and downright nuanced enough to be reading your fabulous work couldn't possibly--no, say it isn't so, Joe!!--support that disgusting, repulsive, lying POS Bush. Or maybe you just don't care. Maybe you don't want people like that for your audience.

It's not just authors. It's plays, concerts, performances of all kinds, even those given by friends of mine, people I know and otherwise respect, people with good hearts. It's poetry readings most particularly. It's gotten so bad that I go to all cultural events girding my loins and waiting for the blow to fall, waiting for my intelligence and judgment and ethics to be insulted. And this from people who consider themselves culturally and morally superior, although this sense of superiority doesn't seem to reside in their needing to prove themselves to be well-informed or logical or knowledgeable about the issues--just in letting the world know that they're on the right side of them (which would be the left side, naturalment).

Friday, January 21, 2005

The tsunami and the forgetting

We hardly hear about the tsunami anymore, although for a while it dominated the news. The tsunami was videotaped in a staggering variety of manifestations: from the tall towering waves of Japanese art, to rolling swells that almost resembled a normal tide coming in--except for the fact that this particular tide just kept coming and coming and coming. We viewed forlorn beaches where villages had once stood, and saw keening mourners whose anguish was almost unbearable to watch even on the small screen.

Over and over, newspeople, relief workers, politicians, and officials declared this to be an unprecedented catastrophe. But in the annals of history there have been far greater catastrophes (at least in terms of number of deaths), and many of them have been almost utterly forgotten--although some of these have actually occurred relatively recently.

Why did this particular tragedy grip us so--at least, for a while--and why have so many of the others been forgotten, or nearly forgotten?

Only those of a certain age might remember the massive 1970 floods in Bangladesh which killed 300,000 people (see here). An earthquake in the city of Tianjin in China in 1976, in the bad old days when almost no news emerged from that country, was reported to have killed at least 255,000, and more likely 655,000. How many of us have even heard of the city, much less the earthquake? Those with longer memories than I might even recall the flooding of the Yangtze in 1931 that caused at least three million deaths--and this was in a time when the world's population was far smaller than it is today.

Stranger still is the lack of common knowledge about the 1918-9 influenza epidemic that disrupted most of the world (with the exception of Africa and South America) at the same time WWI was ravaging Western Europe. It was an event medieval or even Biblical in its apocalyptic scope. How many people died worldwide? Estimates vary, but the most conservative state that the death toll was 25 million. Oher estimates go much higher, up to 70 million or even 100 million. And, as this transcript from a fascinating PBS documentary on the pandemic relates, "As soon as the dying stopped, the forgetting began."

"The forgetting;" yes. Virtually forgotten by all but scholars or epidemiologists, although it happened within the lifetime of many people still living today: more US soldiers dead from flu than were killed in WWI, many US cities running out of coffins and burying the dead in mass graves, homeless orphans wandering through the streets, schools and factories closed, wild rumors ("the Germans started it") and familiar theologic explanations ("it's a punishment for sin"). Read the links to get an idea of the all-encompassing horror of the thing and then tell me, if you can, why my history courses (and perhaps yours?) failed to even mention it.

Although the tsunami caused far fewer deaths than these other natural disasters, it represented a rare concurrence of factors that have caused it to be perceived--at least for now--as more dramatic:

1) It was widely recorded in riveting images, and those images were played almost endlessly on the 24-hour news cycle.

2) It affected an enormous swath of the world over vast distances, but happened very suddenly. This makes it different from an earthquake (sudden but relatively localized) or a pandemic (widespread but occurring more gradually).

3) Most of the places it affected were described as having been like "paradise"--picturesque fishing villages, or lush tropical resorts. The medium was the ocean, a force of nature that the villagers traditionally connected with sustenance, and the rest of us connected with beauty and relaxation. Thus, the tsunami involved a nightmarish reversal of perception: from food-giving life force to death-dealing enemy; from scenic wonder to horror.

4) There were so many children who died, and so many people who lost vast numbers of relatives, as well as whole towns in which the majority of inhabitants perished. The tragedy of the survivors seemed even more intense for that reason--so many of them had lost so much.

5) A tsunami is inherently dramatic, like a tornado. Tsunamis also have the horrific elements of action at a distance; how could one imagine that an earthquake off the shore of Indonesia could wreak such havoc in Thailand, Sri Lanka, India, and even Somalia only a few hours and so many miles away, its ferocity nearly undiminished? It seems magical and demonic, even when the science is explained.

6) Events of recent years, especially 9/11 for us Americans, have made people think more apocalyptically.

So, will this disaster follow the course of so many others, in which "as soon as the dying stopped, the forgetting began"? And why, in fact, does that sort forgetting happen?

The transcript of the aforementioned PBS program on the influenza epidemic offers the following explanation:

CROSBY: It is in the individual memory of a great many of us, but it's not in our collective memory. That, for me, is the, is the greatest mystery: how we could have forgotten anything so horrendous, so massively horrendous, as this, this epidemic which killed so many of us, killed us so fast and our reaction was to forget it.

FANNIN: Why? Why wasn't that part of our memory? Or of our history. I think it's probably because it was so awful while it was happening, so frightening, that people just got rid of the memory. But it always lingers there. As a kind of an uneasiness. If it happens once before, what's to say it's not going to happen again.

What they are saying is that we don't like to remember how vulnerable we are, and that perhaps that is the most significant reason for this "great forgetting" of seemingly unforgettable catastrophes. There is also the fact that large numbers of deaths are simply too overwhelming for the human mind to encompass. As none other than Joseph Stalin--one of the greatest experts on (and instigators of) such carnage--once remarked: "A single death is a tragedy; a million is a statistic." What makes the tsunami deaths a tragedy to us right now is that videotape allowed us to see so many of the sufferers as individuals, and thus as tragedies. But years from now, when that memory is blurred, the deaths will probably come to seem more like statistics. That process appears to be well underway.

But, even if barely remembered or totally forgotten, truly cataclysmic events can cause changes that still ripple and reverberate down the ages. Our stongest memory of the European Black Death of the Fourteenth Century may now be the children's rhyme it bequeathed us ("ring around the rosie"). But the Black Death, causing the death of between one-third and one-half of Europe's population, sparked major and lasting changes and realignments in European society, including the decline of feudalism. How many remember anything about the great Lisbon Earthquake, fire, and tsunami of 1755, which struck at 9 AM on All Saints' Day and virtually destroyed a city that was one of the major capitals of the world at the time, collapsing churches filled with worshippers, and filling Europe with horror? The earthquake struck not only at the city and its inhabitants, but at the attitude of optimism that had characterized the first half of that century, and caused many to question their previously unshakeable faith in divine providence, advancing the Enlightenment and the science of seismology.

Will the recent tsunami have similar far-reaching effects, even if "the great forgetting" reduces this enormous event to a tiny and nearly-forgotten footnote, as has happened so many times before? All we can safely say is that the 2004 tsunami will have devastating--and, it is hoped, short-lived--local effects on the countries that have been particularly hard-hit, and will no doubt result in the installation of some sort of tsunami warning system (long overdue) in the Indian Ocean. For the rest, we will have to await the judgment of history, and of time.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

The health care is always greener on the other side

This review of the book Miracle Cure, appearing in Commentary, reminded me of something I've long thought: that the Canadian health care system isn't all it's cracked up to be. I used to be active on a forum that dealt with health issues, and over and over again I heard the same complaint from Canadians--unconscionably long waits for testing and treatment, and often-inadequate treatment even when it finally arrived. This was especially true of chronic pain patients, who usually waited through months or even years of intense suffering for a precious MRI, diagnosis, and treatment. When I would hear Americans touting the wonderful Canadian health care system, I would wonder where they were getting their information.

But, as the Commentary article states, I think it's a classic case of "the grass is always greener on the other side of the border." It's nice to think that top-level health care could be had by all. But it just doesn't appear to be realistic. It's easy to see the flaws of one's own system, and to ignore the flaws of the system across the border, especially when one doesn't have personal and bitter experience of those flaws.

Socializing anything, including health care, tends to lead inexorably to wider availability of a more mediocre service. I am reminded of the drab high-rises of eastern Europe under the Soviets, the norm of tiny apartments shared by multiple families, the hackneyed art, the lack of variety in the stores, the dullness of reduced expectations for everyone. Everyone, that is, except the elites.

For, as even a casual observer of human nature is forced to admit, ye shall always have the elites with you. The Soviet elites got whatever they wanted, Communism or no Communism--spacious apartments, fancy clothes, plentiful food, dachas on the Don (or wherever dachas are). In the US, the rich certainly get better health care, which is one of the many reasons people want to get rich--to have access to better food, clothing, shelter, vacations, and health care. And in Canada, the rich also get better health care--the only difference is that they have to travel to do it, mostly to the US. And travel they do. As Miracle Cure points out, the Canadian health care system might not be able to function even at its current level if not for the safety valve afforded by the exodus of the rich to the US for their health care.

In the US, we don't lack for proposals to solve our health care system's problems, but my guess is that all of them are flawed because they all involve difficult choices about allocating resources. I think most people would agree (although not the most extreme Social Darwinists) that we need to have some sort of bottom line health care for everyone, although we don't agree on how to provide it, how much is enough, or at what point it would kick in (at death's door, or preventatively, or somewhere in between?). The answers to these questions depend on the answers to the larger questions: how far are we willing to go towards health care equality, and how low will our standards of general health care have to dive in order to attain it (and isn't it the case that the rich will always find a way to get better care under any such system--and, might that not even be a good thing in some ways, since it provides motivation and energy for work and achievement )?

Sunday, January 09, 2005



Well, maybe not so "frequently." And maybe not "asked," exactly. But they are questions.

1) Why do you call yourself "neo-neocon?"

See here.

2) Why are you anonymous?

See here.

3) What's up with that green Granny Smith apple you're holding in front of your face in your photo?

The apple is meant to be a reference to this painting by Rene Magritte. According to UCSF, the painting was "the closest he was willing to come to answer a request for a self portrait. That tells us how little this marvelous artist cared for self-promotion and publicity, even though he was delighted to sell his work widely." Well, I may not be a "marvelous artist," but I share the desire to maintain my privacy while simultaneously wishing to have my work read. I also happen to like the color of the apple, although I couldn't find one with a similar stem and leaves, and I couldn't get it to float in front of my face the way his does. Bummer. I also decided to dispense with the bowler hat and the overcoat.

4) Are you a practicing therapist?

As I wrote in my profile, I have a background as a therapist. In the interests of clarity, I want to add that I am not at present practicing as a therapist. I have a Master's degree in marriage and family therapy and have seen clients in the past. I am eligible for a license which would allow me to see clients in the state in which I presently reside. I have tentative plans to open a private practice, but recently I've been concentrating on my writing and free-lance editing instead.

5) What is your e-mail address?

It's also in my blogger profile:

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