Thursday, March 31, 2005

In praise of memorizing poetry

I think it may be a lost pedagogical device, but when I was in grade school, we were forced by our teachers (mostly elderly women, as it happens) to memorize poetry. Lots of poetry. Most of it doggeral, but not all of it, not by any means.

There was an old-fashioned quality to their choices: patriotic and seasonal verse, concerning Presidents and holidays ("If Nancy Hanks came back as a ghost, seeking news of what she loved most"; "There is something in the autumn that is native to my blood").

I was a good poetry memorizer. I'm not trying to brag here, since I don't think this ability implies any particular merit on my part. But no sooner had I written the thing down, copied from the blackboard on which the teacher had slowly and laboriously written it in her beautiful handwriting, then it was firmly ensconced in my head.

And there much of it stays. To this day, actually. Fortunately, along with the Edgar Guest and the others ("It takes a heap o' livin', in a house t' make it home") we were assigned some very fine poetry, mostly in junior high. Shakespearean sonnets and Wordsworth and Milton, some Robert Frost and Shakespeare, the Gettysburg Address (not poetry, but it might as well have been).

Much of this I simply memorized by rote. I understood the basic meaning, but it had no real significance to me, no depth. I had no context for it.

But since it had been filed away, somewhere, I experienced a curious phenomenon later on. I found that in crises or emotional times, a line of poetry would suddenly come to me--a phrase I'd never paid much attention to before--and I'd have one of those "aha!" moments.

At one point I sustained a serious and chronic injury. My physical limitations were such that I could not work, nor even read or write, for long periods of time. I took to visiting a park near where I lived and slowly walking around a track there. Nearby was a small wooded area, and it was wintertime and snow was on the ground. Looking at the trees, the following line suddenly came to my mind, unbidden, ("Whose woods these are I think I know...") memorized so long ago, and hardly thought of since.

But the words were all there, waiting for me, and when I came to the lines, "The woods are lovely, dark, and deep" they hit me with the force of near-revelation. Frost seemed to be talking about wanting to give up, to surrender to something dark and restful (what? death?) in a time of great weariness such as I was experiencing. And then the next line came, too, offering hope and resolution, "But I have promises to keep..."

This sort of thing kept happening to me. Keeps happening to me, actually. In situation after situation, a line or passage of poetry will announce itself--something that I'd apparently held in my mind, in suspended animation as it were, without any true reflection or understanding--and suddenly, it would be freighted with deep and poignant meaning.

So I'm hereby declaring myself in favor of the practice of poetry memorization in schools. I know there are many many children--adults, too--who hate poetry. I don't think that will change; I'm not imagining that poetry will gain a lot of converts from the mere act of children being required to memorize it. But for the rest, I think there's great value to be had in carrying around a small library of poetry in one's head, to draw upon in the hard times--or even the joyful times.

Right after 9/11, Yeats' "The Second Coming" was the poem that kept swirling around in my brain. It doesn't really offer any comfort; it's a very bleak vision, after all. But for me, even the act of recalling the lines, somber and frightening as they are, had its own sort of solace, saying to me, "Others have had this fear, others have passed through terrible times of chaos," and, paradoxically, lending words of great beauty to the description of that terrifying state:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world...

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

A mind is a difficult thing to change: interlude

Part 4 is percolating. But this isn't it; not yet. I'm finding it slow going, perhaps because it deals with the Vietnam War. Astounding how that event casts such a long shadow even now--or perhaps especially now.

I think Part 4 will be out soon, soon. But, in the meantime...

I was thinking about whether there were any formative defining political events that occurred in the years between the 50s and the commitment of regular US troops (as opposed to Green Beret advisors) to Vietnam. Naturally, the first thing that came to mind was Kennedy's assassination. But I'm not going to deal with it in any depth because, although it was certainly a dramatic and heart-wrenching event, I don't think it was an event that caused any sort of political change. The ramifications of Kennedy's assassination had nothing to do with policy or changing parties or political beliefs. Most of us reacted on an intensely personal emotional level.

I think it must be difficult for anyone born afterwards to understand the profound shock inherent in Kennedy's assassination. Those of us who'd grown up in the 50s were well aware--perhaps hyper-aware--of the threat of atomic war (as I've discussed in Part 3), but I think I can speak for most of us when I say that something on the order of Kennedy's death was almost literally unthinkable, right up till the day it happened.

I was fifteen years old at the time, and, like most others, I can vividly remember the exact moment I heard the news. The details are not interesting--I was a sophomore in high school, in school when I heard he was shot, then sent home early to have my mother tell me the news that he was dead--but the sense of fear and unreality and downright sorrow were profound. In fact, I cried almost unceasingly for four days, right up to and through the funeral, and I was hardly alone.

What was I weeping for? Many things, including Kennedy's wife and children. But I think it was really lost innocence--my own--that I was weeping for. Despite the atomic fears of the 50s, and then the Cuban missile crisis, our sense was that all threats would come from outside. We had a sense of security within this country, a sense of internal personal safety from our own countrymen, that was as powerful as it turned out to be false. Kennedy's death tore the veil away and exposed the ugly reality--violent death, hideous and bloody, could come unawares, even on a sunny untroubled day, even to the great, powerful, young, and beautiful, even without a missile to be seen in the sky.

Life magazine published stills of the Zapruder photos, but in those far more protective days they left out the most horrific ones, the frames in which Kennedy's head seemed to explode. But we had seen Oswald murdered, live, on TV, and that was a further assault on our sense of security. It seemed that the world had opened itself up to chaos.

We had heard of assassinations before; after all, there was Lincoln. But that was fusty old history, not reality. But now the two intersected, and now--even though we would never have described it that way--now we, too, had entered history.

Where we remain, today.

[ADDENDUM: For Part IVA, go here.]

Kofi Annan: is his "press pass" getting a bit frayed?

The Oil-for-Food UN scandal has been one of those long slow excruciatingly drawn-out stories that, somehow, hasn't gotten anywhere near the coverage it should have. Over the last year, Claudia Rossett of the WSJ and Roger Simon in the blogosphere have been instrumental in not allowing the story to die.

But recently it's been showing more signs of life, sort of like those little green shoots poking out of the snow in my garden. Now Roger writes that the NY Times' response to the interim Volker report on Kofi Annan's involvement is to claim that the report largely exonerated Mr. Annan of personal corruption in the awarding of a contract to a company that employed his son. But, as Roger points out, the report merely stated that no evidence has yet been found of such involvement. The report is by no means either definitive or final.

So, what about Kofi's "press pass"? (see definition of the term here). It's a bit frayed, but still intact, apparently. The mere fact that the Times has been forced to write about the scandal is a good sign, but the way it is writing about it still leaves a lot to be desired. The word "exonerated" is certainly not appropriate at this time; the Times is extremely premature in using it. But the Times knows exactly what it's doing. Words are its business, after all, and it chooses them very very carefully.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Women and the tsunami

The chilling news of another large earthquake in Indonesia, and more deaths there, has reawakened memories of the cataclysmic tsunami of late 2004. Fortunately, there was no tsunami this time, although I'm sure the people of Indonesia were terrified of a repeat.

Norm Geras recently linked to a BBC report discussing the fact that women were disproportionately represented among the victims of the December tsunami, in a ratio as high as 4 to 1 in some areas. Reading the report, I expected to see a reference to something I'd read about before (unfortunately, I have no recollection of where I read it): that women in third-world countries are less likely than men to know how to swim.

In addition, if one thinks about it, women--even strong women used to physical labor--tend on the average to have less upper body strength than men (please, folks, don't Larry Summersize me here). Since many of the survivors used their arm strength to hold onto something stable to resist the incredibly powerful force of the water, this could also have been part of the reason so many women died as compared to men.

I did a search on all of this and haven't come across much information specifically about the swimming issue, but I did find this extremely PC report with some other speculations as to why women died disproportionately. It makes quite sad and disturbing reading.

The idea is that women's social conditioning may have been a good part of the reason. Here's just one example:

As the first wave raged through the women’s’ huts, the force of the wave ripped off their clothes- disrobed them. It is culturally against the social mores for a woman to be allowed in public without clothes, so the women never ran! The women never left their huts, and in the next waves, they chose (?) or were conditioned to die in their houses paralyzed by fear and custom rather than be seen in their nakedness and live. Apparently, nakedness wasn’t an issue for the male population.

The entire thing bears reading. I haven't a clue as to how reliable this information might be--but hey, it's the Sisters of Mercy talking, so I'll give them the benefit of the doubt.

Don't cry for Mikalah, Argentina (or America)

I know I'm a little slow on the uptake here, since she was voted off last week. But those troubled by the elimination of Mikalah from the American Idol lineup can be comforted by the fact that the perfect position for her has just opened up. She can play Fran Drescher's long-lost love child--the role for which she was born, IMHO--on Ms. Drescher's new series, conveniently beginning on April 8.

When one door closes, another opens.

Monday, March 28, 2005

Condescension and leaving the political fold

In my "about me" description (see upper right), I mentioned that I've faced some ostracism within my circle of friends and colleagues for my political views. This was especially dramatic beginning with the buildup to the Iraqi war and ending with the 2004 Presidential election.

It hasn't been pretty, and I've lost some of them, perhaps forever--sometimes merely by dint of saying something as mild as, "I disagree." It's not as though I insulted them--at least not knowingly or intentionally--but many have nevertheless acted as though they'd been insulted.

The situation would usually arise in the context of a party or a dinner or some other get-together among friends. I'd be at the table, chatting, joking, having a good time, and someone would bring up politics, the war, Bush--something. Then the vitriol would start, with the assumption that of course all of us agreed on these things: Bush was an asshole and a liar, the war a disaster and a crime, and so on and so on and so forth.

I'd be faced with the choice of speaking up or keeping silent. Sometimes I chose the latter, depending on the company, how long the conversation went on (passing remark vs. lengthy gabfest), and how strong I might be feeling that day.

Whenever I did decide to speak up, I tried to be quiet and respectful, and above all simple. I'd start by saying that I'd been a liberal Democrat my whole life (I'm one of you, not one of them, so don't hate me, please!). I'd say I'd never voted for a Republican in my life (true). Then I'd say, in the mildest of voices, that nevertheless I happened to have come to agree with George Bush on quite a few aspects of his foreign policy.

First there was usually a stunned silence. At one party the person I was addressing asked me, "What did you say?" three times before she actually could process my answer and even understand the words I had said, much less react to them. Yes, every now and then people would be curious to hear what I had to say, and we would have a decent discussion. But far more often the anger would erupt, often instantaneously--and I mean rage, the like of which I had never before encountered with friends or acquaintances. A closed-mindedness, and a refusal to even listen to me. Most of these people had always seemed to respect my intelligence before, but now I was considered to be very very stupid--or evil. Gone over to the Dark Side.

Attacks. Name-calling: "imperialist," "colonialist"--and, in one rather memorable case, "Dan Quayle lover," although I certainly hadn't breathed a word about any passion for him. Many of my friends were noticeably cooler to me after these exchanges, and a couple of old friends actually severed our relationship (permanently, so far).

There are a host of reasons this happened, I suppose. But at the time I didn't see it coming, and it was extremely shocking and disturbing to me. But now that I've had some time to think about it, I think that I actually would have gotten a better response from them if I'd skipped the "I've always been a liberal Democrat" intro. Because there are few things more hated than an apostate, a turncoat, a traitor.

Someone who leaves the fold is much worse than someone who was never in it. There's a special rage reserved for those who have rejected the ideas that others hold dear. I don't think I ever said anything condescending to any of these people, but time and again I they told me I was being condescending.

But when I thought about it, I realized that this perception of condescension was inevitable and unavoidable. After all, I was saying "I used to believe 'A,' but now I believe 'B,'" and I was addressing people who continued to believe "A." Under the circumstances, how could they fail to see me as condescending, whether I was really conveying that attitude or not?

Inherent in the idea of anyone changing his/her mind from one position to another is that the person must think the second position is superior to the first--else why the change? So, whether or not the changer intends to be condescending, the reader/listener hears condescension because in fact it is implicit in the situation. No way out of it, I'm afraid.

One more thought about the Schiavo case

I've pretty much said all I want or need to say here, which is that the case is essentially a family dispute gone very, very bad.

But today I read a piece posted on the blog Horsefeathers that articulated a couple of points that seem not to have been said as yet by anyone (although that's hard to believe, I guess, with all that's been written on this one case).

The docs at Horsefeathers are atheists, so they're not coming at this from a religious point of view. But they still come down on the side of preserving Terri's life. Here is the quote I find particularly interesting:

We come down on the side of Mrs. Schiavo's parents. They have, it seems to us, earned the right to assume the burdens of caring for their daughter. They can't move on to find another daughter, as Mr. Schiavo can move on to find another wife.

I think this is one of the many reasons people find this case so troubling. The idea that a husband--especially one who, as in this case, has "moved on" and begun a new life quite a while ago--can take a child away from parents who cannot "move on" quite so easily, if at all, is, quite simply, heartbreaking.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

The invasion of the body mikes

Ann Althouse's speculates here about the influence of the show "American Idol" on the current style of singing in Broadway musicals. I agree with Ann that "American Idol" really isn't the culprit, but I have a different one in mind: the invasion of the body mike.

If I do say so myself, I'm somewhat of a minor expert on Broadway musicals of the 50s and 60s. My parents were big fans, and as a young child I was taken to every single one that was suitable for children--which turns out to have been just about all of them. We also went to all the City Center revivals of the classic musicals from the 40s. I loved the theater, and these shows were absolutely magical for me.

Later on, I stopped enjoying Broadway musicals so much, and for me there's one glaring reason (a reason not mentioned in any of the articles Ms. Althouse cites): the aggressive amplification that's been standard in all musicals on Broadway for decades.

I don't know whether I have especially sensitive ears, or what it is, but I noticed the difference immediately, and I didn't like it. One of the greatest things--if not the greatest thing--about the Broadway musical was the sense of being in the flesh-and-blood presence of real people singing to you, the audience, and that is shattered (for me, at least) by hearing amplified voices. They might as well phone it in, or CD it in.

Yes, the old-style performances included belters like Ethel Merman, who could be counted on to be heard, unamplified, in the furthest reaches of the balcony, and wasn't exactly subtle. But she was the exception. The rest of them--and their names are not necessarily famous, except for Julie Andrews and a few others--were both subtle and refreshingly human. There was a person-to-person immediacy, a communicative intimacy, that simply doesn't exist today.

And if this propels me into curmudgeon status, so be it. These present-day performers from something called Broadway Unplugged seem to agree with me, anyway. Here's a representative quote, from singer Mark Kudisch, about the benefits of singing off-mike:

This evening's going to be so fantastic because people will actually get to hear people's voices, their real energy, their color without it being messed with by someone else's technology. There's nothing more frustrating than when you sing quiet, they turn you up; when you open up, they turn you down. It all sounds the same out there...I'm not barred down by a mike, and what hand the mike is in. We just do what we do. There's a freedom involved. It's you, it's your energy, it's your actual resonance that gets to the back of the house. And for an audience, it requires them to actually sit up and partake, to listen, to actively be a part of what's going on. It allows every individual audience member to personally become a part of the evening.

Saturday, March 26, 2005

In Lebanon, every day is Flag Day

Amidst the exhilaration of the Lebanese demonstrations and the blogospheric hooha about the liberty babes, there has been one burning unanswered question that has tormented me: where did the protesters get all those flags, and how was it done so quickly?

The Lebanese flag has to be one of the most beautiful flags ever, with its red stripes and the green cedar in the center. It was hardly ever seen before the Hariri assassination--and then, afterwards, it suddenly seemed to be everywhere, a veritable cedar forest.

Had everyone been hiding one under the mattress, waiting for the signal to come? Was there a special mobile flag factory, seeding them around the country? Or were they imported for the occasion (although most assuredly not from Syria)?

Did anyone else wonder about this, or was I all alone in my obsession? I googled it, I asked my friends; no one seemed to know or care. So I resigned myself to the mystery.

But help came from an unexpected source, the NY Times. Imagine my delight when I came across this 3/22 article (unfortunately, according to NY Times policy you have to register to see it, and then after a week it gets archived and you have to pay to get it) entitled "Banner Days for the Lebanese (Ask the Flag Makers)."

It turns out that the entreprenurial spirit is alive and well and positively thriving in Beirut. Like Santa's elves in the weeks before Christmas, like accountants leading up to April 15, there has been no rest for the weary flag makers of Beirut:

In a cramped two-room apartment here, a group of men and women toil day and night to produce a most improbable symbol to emerge from the country's popular demonstrations: the Lebanese flag. Seven days a week, 22 hours a day, employees of the Bourj Hammoud flag factory cut and sew, working feverishly to meet the nearly insatiable demand for flags since the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri on Feb. 14. The workers sleep in shifts, a few hours at a time. On a good day, the factory's seven employees turn out 5,000 Lebanese flags, but it is not enough....The Bourj Hammoud factory, which had been making Valentine's Day T-shirts, switched to flags on the 15th and has not stopped since.

And yet, questions remain. We may never know the identity of the mysterious caller who phoned Mr. Gassan, a flag distributor, the day before the demonstration and ordered 40,000 of them. That's a lot of flags, but Gassan estimates that three-quarters of a million have been sold since Hariri's assassination. That's an awful lot of flags. Even at the rate of 5,000 a day, it doesn't add up, but who's counting? They're beautiful, they're everywhere, and the flagmakers are very, very happy.

Long may they wave.

The Althouse challenge: explain inconsistent compassion

Okay, I'll bite.

Ann Althouse challenges the blogosphere to answer the question Ralph Nader posed on "Crossfire" the other day: why aren't Republicans and Democrats consistently compassionate?

Three reasons:

(1) Because they are human beings, and human beings are not consistently anything--except, perhaps, inconsistent.

(2) Because they are politicians, and many of their decisions are strategic rather than moral, designed to get themselves elected and then re-elected.

(3) Because (when they're not following rule #2 above) they believe that adherence to certain overarching principles will lead to a greater good for all, and therefore they are ready to sacrifice compassion towards certain individual cases at the altar of this common greater good.

Friday, March 25, 2005

Normblog profile

I'm pleased to say that I was profiled today on Norman Geras's blog. For those of you who have come here through that link, welcome! For other readers who may not be familiar with Norm's blog, consider a visit. It's a fascinating place.

Dancing in a ring (a response to a query posed by Norm Geras)

In a recent post, Norman Geras wrote:

And yet it is almost de rigeur amongst people of liberal and left outlook, today, to use as representative of what we should fear in the way of a possible return of the horrors of Nazism, not the many actual ruthless and life-devouring regimes we have known in recent decades, but... George Bush, or America, or some other Western instance or combination. Why? One answer I would give to this is that I don't know. I've been trying to understand it since September 11 2001 and on some level failing. Yes, you can say knee-jerk this, that and the other, and in its own way it is right to say so. But, more deeply, the failure involved in these de rigeur responses, the failure to give due weight and proportion to moral and political realities which matter more than just about anything else matters, is hard to comprehend.

In that one-word sentence, "Why?" and its answer, "I don't know," lie an enormity of wonder, a perplexity many of us share.

Why do so many "of liberal and left outlook" focus on Bush's supposed crimes, making the Nazi comparison at the drop of a metaphor, and ignoring the far more terrible tyrants around the world for whom the Hitlerian analogy would be more apt? Why indeed have many on the left functioned as apologists for Saddam Hussein, a man whose downfall they should be applauding? When they said they were against tyranny, didn't they mean what they said?

I don't pretend to have a definitive answer. But I do have a response.

First, I offer this quote from Milan Kundera's Book of Laughter and Forgetting:

Circle dancing is magic. It speaks to us through the millennia from the depths of human memory. Madame Raphael had cut the picture out of the magazine and would stare at it and dream. She too longed to dance in a ring. All her life she had looked for a group of people she could hold hands with and dance with in a ring. First she looked for them in the Methodist Church (her father was a religious fanatic), then in the Communist Party, then among the Trotskyites, then in the anti-abortion movement (A child has a right to life!), then in the pro-abortion movement (A woman has a right to her body!); she looked for them among the Marxists, the psychoanalysts, and the structuralists; she looked for them in Lenin, Zen Buddhism, Mao Tse-tung, yogis, the nouveau roman, Brechtian theater, the theater of panic; and finally she hoped she could at least become one with her students, which meant she always forced them to think and say exactly what she thought and said, and together they formed a single body and a single soul, a single ring and a single dance.

We all want to dance in a ring, to a certain extent. It's wonderful to be part of a coherent movement, a whole that makes sense, joined with others working for the same goal and sharing the same beliefs. But there's a price to pay when something challenges the tenets of that movement. When that happens, there are two kinds of people: those who change their ideas to fit the new facts, even if it means leaving the fold, and those who distort and twist the facts and logic to maintain the circle dance.

Now, you might say that leftists didn't have to compromise their beliefs to have applauded the downfall of Saddam Hussein and to have realized that he and his regime were worse (and far more Nazi-like) than George Bush. Indeed, there are many leftists who have consistently said these very things. But there are others---and their numbers are not small--who have not, or who have done it with so much "throat-clearing," as Chris Hitchens calls it, that their statements become virtually meaningless.

What is the difference between these two types of people? I think it has to do with the extent of their devotion to the circle dance, and the hierarchy of their belief system. The former group--what Norm Geras calls "principled leftists"--truly do believe what they say about hating tyrants and tyranny, and this is one of their highest values. They apply it irrespective of where the tyranny originates. But the second group, the terrorist and Saddam apologists, the relentless Bush=Hitler accusers, are quite different. It seems that they feel that their membership in the circle of the left requires them to elevate one particular guiding principle above all else, and that is this: in any power struggle between members of a third-world country and a developed Western country (especially the most powerful of all, the United States), the third-world country is always right.

Once learned, this very simple and reductionist principle makes the world easy to understand, and dictates all further responses. If one believes this principle, then oppression and tyranny can go in one direction only, and all evidence to the contrary must be ignored, suppressed, or twisted by sophistry into something almost unrecognizable. But once that price is paid, one can go on dancing in the old circle.

In the quote with which I began this essay, Norm Geras refers to "the failure to give due weight and proportion to moral and political realities which matter more than just about anything else matters." I think the key phrase is "which matter more than just about anything else matters." To those intent on dancing the circle dance above all else, the priorities are different. Apparently, other things matter more.

I don't think this phenomenon is limited to the left. I've watched some on the right do the same sort of thing (although the details and issues are quite different): ignore evidence or twist logic to make sure they come to a preordained conclusion that fits into previous theories. And on the right there are also those brave ones who leave the circle and dance outside the ring.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Now, here's a guy who's changed

Speaking of changing political opinions, I just found out that one of Charles Krauthammer's earliest political gigs was as a speechwriter for Walter Mondale (see bio on left sidebar in the link).

A mind is a difficult thing to change: Part 3--Beginnings

(Part I)
(Part II)

How does a political identity begin?

Political identities, like religious identities, start when we're very young, and they start with the family. Later on, in our teens and early twenties, we may rebel, or we may continue along the path laid down in childhood. But as little children we can't possibly understand politics rationally. For children, politics is mostly a matter of affilliation, plus some vague information swirling around in the public domain and filtering down to the child in childish terms: What does my family think and believe? Who are the good guys and who are the bad guys?

My first political memory is of the Korean War, which began when I was almost an infant (please do me a favor and don't do the math). I must have been only two or three years old when I told my mother, after careful and solemn consideration of the pros and cons, that red was no longer my favorite color. When she asked me why, I answered that it was because it was the Communist color (or perhaps "Commie color"?).

Thus is a political consciousness born. I didn't--and couldn't, being so young--have any understanding of the conflict itself, nor of the issues involved. But I'd overheard things, enough to conclude that there was an enemy, and that since the enemy liked the color red (heretofore my favorite color), now I needed to hate red.

On my first day of kindergarten I was issued a set of metal dog tags with my name and address and instructed to wear them around my neck at all times. I don't know whether this was a national policy, or one limited to New York, but everyone in our school was given them, although few of us ended up wearing them (we were also supposed to bring a handkerchief to school every day, and I forgot that too, and regularly got marked down for it). I knew exactly what the dog tags were for, though, thanks to my best friend. If we were bombed and blown to bits, she explained, and there were no bodies left, the dog tags would help them identify the pieces (ah, those innocent pre-DNA days!).

So I grew up with the idea of war and danger hovering very near, although the danger never did materialize on our shores. Later there were the famous "duck-and-cover" drills, which seemed useless even then, in a war that was likely to be catastrophically nuclear. There was once an even more elaborate citywide drill in which all the schools and businesses closed prematurely at a certain pre-planned time in the early afternoon, and we were all supposed to get home immediately, or to go to another pre-arranged place where a trusted adult would be waiting. We had about 15-minutes' time to get there.

This latter drill was supposed to mimic the way it would be if we actually got a warning that a fleet of ICBMs had been launched and was zinging our way from Russia. I viewed my lonely walk home that day as an exercise in going there to die, not to be safe--for how could home ever protect me from that? The eerie, silent, nearly car-free streets I walked along half convinced me, a child with an overactive imagination, that this was the real thing. As I looked up at the sky I could almost see the warheads coming, so real did it all seem.

I saw the movie "On the Beach" when it first came out in 1959, and read the book, too, for extra measure. Afterwards, I became so fearful that the world would end in 1964, the year in which the book was set, that for self-protection I started to avoid reading things that seemed likely to upset me so much, although my avoidance was far from complete (I did a project for the Science Fair on fallout shelters, for example).

During these early years I was quite aware that everyone in my family was a Democrat. So, I was a Democrat too, whatever that meant. It meant I was for Adlai Stevenson and that I didn't like Eisenhower, although since Eisenhower was the President I had to root for him, too, which was a bit complicated. But I was a mini Pauline Kael in the making, unaware of knowing any Republicans at all, and I had been suitably shocked when Eisenhower was re-elected (as Kael had been about Nixon's re-election). I hadn't the foggiest notion what Democrats actually did, just that they were supposed to be kinder and nicer, especially to poor people, and that Stevenson was smarter, too.

But there was another strain in my family that was impossible to ignore. I had one relative who was relentlessly pro-Soviet. At all family gatherings, he would hold forth on why the USSR was better than the US in every way--why, in fact, the Soviet Union was the greatest and most progressive nation on earth. And this wasn't in the early days of Communism, before the awful picture had become crystal-clear; this was after Stalin, after the purges and famines, after the point of no return for most who had previously supported that regime.

This relative, whom I'll call Joe, was my first introduction to fanaticism, although I didn't know the word. There was no argument that could possibly dissuade him, even when presented by my father, who was awfully good at debate. Joe could rationalize anything, and never ever ever admitted that he'd been wrong. He seemed to touch a particular nerve in my grandmother, a stalwart and patriotic sort. At each family gathering she'd listen for a while to the mounting argument and the raised voices, and then she would finally raise her own in exasperation and say: "America has been very good to you, Joe. If you like Russia so much, why don't you just move there?"

Not a bad question, actually; right on the money. But Joe never missed a beat, in the same way that he never had trouble weasling out of any other question he didn't like. "Oh, I could move there," he'd answer. "I'd like to. But it's more important for me to stay and work for change here."

I would observe from the sidelines. There was no point in entering this repetitive exchange, which always seemed to proceed in choreographed fashion to its inevitable denouement. I had no idea why the adults persisted in an argument that never changed, and clearly never was going to.

So, what did I learn in my childhood about politics? I learned to affiliate with my family's beliefs on an emotional level, but I learned very little except generalities about the reasoning and factual basis behind those positions. I learned that politics could be a very contentious subject, but that people still liked to discuss it. I learned that some people were fanatics and didn't listen to reason or argument, and I knew I never wanted to be like them. And I knew the world was a dangerous place, and that (at least in my mind) there was an excellent chance I wouldn't live to grow up, because a nuclear conflagration would stop me. There was fear involved in politics, but it seemed important--perhaps a matter of life or death. I learned to protect myself from the intensity of this fear by tuning out information about certain subjects, by not reading about them in depth.

How much of this is universal? I imagine this sense of danger is typical for a child growing up in times in which there is a threat of war, which (unfortunately) includes most times. I think the sense of right/wrong and us/them (polarization and identification with a particular group) would also be quite strong for virtually all children growing up with family and friends who are more or less on a single political page. I also think it likely that even children in more politically heterogeneous families form some sort of political identification based on the politics of one parent or another, and that, although this identification is probably more tentative, sometimes it can be quite strong. I think that most, if not all, children lack the cognitive powers to understand the deeper issues behind political affiliation, and so the decisions children make aren't really cognitive decisions at all, but simply emotional reactions.

Extrapolating from my own situation and the situation of my friends who grew up as liberal Democrats, I think the sensitivity that caused me to turn away from seeking out deeper knowledge of upsetting or frightening topics of the day may have been somewhat typical. Paradoxically, though, my interest came in through a sort of back door--I would read about other wars and other times. In this, perhaps, I was not typical; I really don't know. The Holocaust, WWI, the Trojan War, the Civil War--I could (and did) read about these events, but not about threats that were too close to home, too up-close and personal.

I think that there were special circumstances in my own family--Joe, to be exact--that sensitized me to be extremely wary of fanatics. As a result, I dedicated myself on some very deep level to the idea of being openminded, and to seriously considering arguments that ran counter to my habitual opinions. I think it was this deeply-rooted antagonism to fanaticism that set the stage for the possibility (not the actuality, and certainly not the inevitability, but just the possibility) that I might change my political position much later in life.

(To be Part 4)

[ADDENDUM: For next part, "Interlude," go here.]

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

The Shiavo case--a family affair

I haven't weighed in on the Shiavo case yet, and I haven't followed it in anything approaching exhaustive detail. But I have my take on it, which I think is a bit different from most of what I've been reading.

I look at it as an excellent example of a case that is primarily and essentially a family dispute. I don't know whether these parties have ever tried mediation or family therapy--not that either would have led to a resolution, of course, but I wish they'd been tried.

If Terri herself had left written instructions in a living will, we wouldn't be having this discussion at all; her wishes would have been carried out. In the absence of such written instructions, if both parties (the parents, the husband) had been on the same page about what Terri wanted, we also wouldn't be having this discussion. Even without that agreement between the parties on what her wishes might have been, if both parties themselves agreed on what they wanted, we wouldn't be having this discussion. The only reason we are having this discussion is that Terri's husband and parents disagree, and disagree strongly enough to have a court battle.

To me, it would have been best if her husband and family could have reached some agreement out of court. Since that didn't happen, and has no chance of happening any more, it becomes a court case. As far as I can see (and, once again, I have to say I have not read a vast amount of documentation about this case), the issue becomes twofold: is Terri's husband correct in his statement of what her wishes were; and, if we can't know for sure, whose wishes should be paramount, the husbands's (to "let her die") or the parents' (to "protect her right to life")?

In human terms, this case is nothing but a tragedy, from start to finish. A beautiful young woman in the prime of life reduced to this sort of twilight lingering dependency. Heartbroken parents, a husband who was probably heartbroken too, albeit in a different way (I will assume here that Michael Shiavo's motives are good; I know others would disagree). All possible outcomes are almost unutterably sad. To look at photos of Terri's grieving parents is to see a pain that is nearly unbearable.

But in legal terms, here is my suggestion: I think that Florida law, which to my understanding favors the rights of a spouse over the rights of parents, should be amended to read that the paramount right to decide (in the absence of written expressed wishes of the ill person) should rest in the spouse unless another first degree relative has been the primary caretaker for a certain time, in which case that caretaker/relative would have rights equal to or greater than the spouse. I'm not sure what the details of such a law would be in terms of what that length of time should be, or how to define "primary caretaker," but I'm sure the legislature could duke it out on that and come up with something more fair than the present law.

I would also suggest that it be mandatory that the parties to such a dispute be required to try a course of mediation, and/or of consultation with a family therapist specializing in medical family therapy, as a prelude to any court hearing. This sort of thing is done in some states for child custody battles, for example, and I see no reason why it couldn't be tried in cases like this. Of course, such an amended law won't help us in the Shiavo case, but it might help for future cases.

If Terri dies soon (and it is looking more and more as though she will), her parents are going to have to go through a terrible time of pain and anger. I can only hope, if she is to die shortly, that it happens as painlessly and easily as possible, and that her parents get a lot of help, support, and love--whether through therapy or their church or friends or family or all of the above. They will need it.

ADDENDUM: I just came across this Charles Krauthammer piece in which he says essentially the same thing I've said here. I find this interesting because Krauthammer is a psychiatrist as well as a very fine writer. He approaches questions with that perspective, and it gives him a different take on many subjects. Not only that, but he has a special sensitivity, I think, as a person with a disability himself--he is a quadriplegic from an accident he sustained as a young man.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

The language of public life

I was reading Dr. Sanity's recent post, in which she quotes Fred Siegel from the NY Observer. He describes an encounter with some undergraduate Dean supporters prior to the 2004 primaries thusly:

I was taken aback by my conversation with the Deaniacs; their sheer coarseness stunned me. Even at the height of the "Ronald Reagan is going to blow up the world" mania of the 1980’s, I had never seen a "Fuck Reagan" button. But the coarseness was consistent with the dominant mood in academia outside of the sciences.

Well, I hate to break it to you, Fred, but it ain't just academia. At the risk of sliding even further into old-fuddydud-ism (and perhaps even my use of the word "fuddydud" is emblematic of the fact that I'm already hopelessly mired there), I have to say that I myself have noticed recently a remarkable rise of what Siegel delicately refers to as "coarseness" in public life, not just academia.

Clinton donned shades and played the sax on TV. That wasn't any problem; it was fun. But now we have candidates using the F-word in interviews with the media. Kerry in Rolling Stone, describing Bush's Iraq policy--well, at least that was Rolling Stone, which appeals to a certain demography, so there was a bit of logic behind it, although I think it did absolutely nothing to enhance his candidacy or his person. And, just to show that I'm a nonpartisan equal-opportunity critic, there was Dick Cheney dissing Patrick Leahy on the floor of the Senate--although that was a personal spat, apparently, rather than a public interview.

What's up? We're all baby boomers here, and we tiresome boomers used to crow about how we liberated the language (and a lot else) from the confines of earlier ideas of propriety, etiquette, and politeness. Some of this liberation was good, no doubt.

But there's something to be said for propriety, especially in public life. Now Joe Biden, in an article in the 3/21/05 New Yorker by Jeffrey Goldberg entitled "The Unbranding," is quoted as saying, "What is so transformational in the last four years is that these assholes who wouldn't give President Clinton the authority to use force" have now become, he said, moral interventionists. "Give me a fucking break."

Does this make you want to vote for the man in 2008? Does it make him seem more "muscular?" Does it make him seem young and hip, or merely juvenile? To me, it's the latter.

I'm a child of the 60s myself, and not averse to an F-word here and there in my private life. But I can't imagine Roosevelt or Truman giving an interview and purposely using language that they no doubt were familiar with, but thought should be confined to private life, if uttered at all. They were aware that there's public and then there's private words, and as leaders of the Western world they had some funny notion of retaining a little dignity in public discourse.

ADDENDUM: By the way, spellcheck agrees. It wanted me to replace "assholes" with "assails," and "fucking" with "bucking."

Monday, March 21, 2005

Kerry to sign a Form 180?

Rumor is swirling around that Kerry is finally, really and truly about to sign a Form 180 and release his military records: The word in Washington is that Kerry will sign the form soon.

Promises, promises.

I go on record here: if Kerry actually does a 180 and signs a Form 180, I'll eat my apple.

How about those anti-Clinton bumper stickers?

A commenter named Nick writes, in response to this post of mine:

I remember seeing a lot of anti-Clinton bumper stickers when he was elected. These two come to mind immediately...

"Inhale to the Chief"
"Don't Blame Me. I Voted for Bush"

I'm not sure whether the Clinton ones ever became quite as popular... or whether they were as ferocious as some of the current Bush ones, but lets not forget about them. Both sides have played this game.

So, have both sides played this game? To a certain extent.

But as Nick himself suggests, the enmity towards Bush seems both more widespread and more vicious than that towards Clinton. For this reason I think there is a qualitative difference; I don't think that Bush-hatred is merely a mirror image of Clinton-hatred, although Clinton-hatred certainly existed.

Look at the two bumper stickers Nick mentions. They are critical of Clinton, it's true, and the first one is hostile (the second one reminds me of the "Don't Blame Me, I'm from Massachusetts" post-Watergate sticker that I mentioned in my earlier bumper-sticker post, and was no doubt modeled after it).

But neither of these stickers even begins to approach the depth and scope of the hostility displayed (and even gloried in) by the Bush ones: calling Bush an idiot, calling his Presidency a "regime," comparing him to Hitler. What's more--and I don't believe it's just because I live in a blue state now--the number of cars sporting these extremely negative anti-Bush stickers was far greater than the number displaying the anti-Clinton ones, which as I recall were few and far between (and I lived in a purple state back then, so I would have expected to have seen a fair number of them, if so many had actually existed).

There is no doubt that there was a fringe element almost psychotic in its hatred of Clinton, accusing him, for example, of murdering Vincent Foster. These people I condemn in the harshest of terms. But, at least to my knowledge, this element represented a far smaller percentage of the Republican party compared to those who suffer from intense hatred of Bush, which is practically a mainstream position among liberal Democrats.

During the 2004 election, the ratio of Bush-hating to Kerry-loving bumper stickers seemed to be about 3 to 1. I believe that the degree of negativity in that 2004 campaign was an unprecedented event in modern politics. Let's hope it's not a trend.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Welcome: first day of spring (hope springs eternal)

We here at neo-neocon (that's me!) wish to officially welcome the first day of spring. It's today, in case you didn't know--I didn't, myself, till I heard it on the radio this morning.

I've lived in New England for over thirty years, doing some time in Massachusetts, Maine, and New Hampshire, and I have to say that here, the first day of spring is usually met with a derisive snort: you call this spring? Today is actually rather nice and sunny, but there's still quite a bit of snow on the ground, and I would wager there's more to come. But we know that the snows to come will melt far more quickly than before, and that gives us hope. A corner has been turned (I didn't want to make this post at all political, but it occurs to me that maybe this is a good metaphor for what's been happening lately in the Arab world).

At any rate, I plan to start thinking about gardening. That's what people do in New England on the first day of spring--think of the next task (is that a metaphor, too?)

And here's an excerpt from a Robert Frost poem describing the time of year that's about to come any moment now, known as "mud time" in New England, for obvious reasons (the poem takes place in April rather than March, but I hope you'll grant me some poetic license):

The sun was warm but the wind was chill.
You know how it is with an April day
When the sun is out and the wind is still,
You´re one month on in the middle of May.
But if you so much as dare to speak,
A cloud comes over the sunlit arch,
A wind comes off a frozen peak,
And you´re two months back in the middle of March.

So, go out and enjoy that sun, and enjoy the hope that goes with it!

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Fun with sitemeters

According to my trusty sitemeter, already today I've gotten three--count em, three!--people coming to my blog as a result of Google searches for "Lebanese women cleavage flag."

Welcome! Isn't the blogosphere wonderful?

(For those who don't know what I'm talking about, see here.)

How much credit? The AP gets into the business of editorial writing and answers, "not much"

Ah, the AP. Read how they report Bush's radio speech today, in which he claims that the war in Iraq has inspired democratic reformers from Beirut to Tehran.

Yesterday I asked the question: how much credit does Bush get for the anti-Syria protests in Lebanon? Today, the AP answers: "not much."

To begin their article, the AP quotes a few lines from Bush's speech. Then, without further ado, the writer of the piece, Jennifer Loven, skips to this:

With his primary rationale for the war — Saddam's alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction — discredited, Bush has turned to the argument that the war in Iraq was justified because it freed the Iraqi people from a brutal dictator and now gives the Middle East a model for democracy.

Those who read blogs know that freeing the Iraqi people was always a rationale for the war, not one "turned to" because the "real" rationale was discredited. I would have hoped that newspaper readers--not to mention AP writers--would know that, too.

The article goes on with another quote from Bush about recent progress in Iraq. Then we hear some more from Ms. Loven about how bad it all is nevertheless:

Against that progress, insurgents have carried on a relentless campaign of suicide bombings, kidnappings and beheadings while rampant crime, power outages, unemployment over 50 percent and a fuel crisis in one of the world's prime oil-exporting countries continues. Even as the Iraqi legislators convened, they did not set a new date to meet reconvene, elect a speaker or nominate a president and vice president. Some have questioned Bush's repeated claims that recent democratic developments in several global hotspots are due to both the Iraq war and his second-term drive to push for reforms in friend and foe.

Hmmm, "some have questioned." Is it possible that Jennifer reads Benjamin in Michael Totten's comments section? Will wonders never cease?

She goes on:

Still, the President has pointed to democratic gains...

So still, still, in the face of all of this, Bush has the gall and the stupidity to point to those gains. Would that, instead, he had Jennifer's ability to see the true picture.

EVENING UPDATE: Hindrocket at Powerline concurs. It seems that Ms. Loven wrote some AP articles in the lead-up to last fall's Presidential election that were more or less indistinguishable from DNC press releases. I guess she's nothing if not consistent.

Friday, March 18, 2005

How much credit does Bush get for the anti-Syria protests in Lebanon?

No surprise that we've seen the usual disagreements about how much credit Bush gets for the recent dramatic "Cedar Revolution" in Lebanon. For example, in the comments section of this post of Michael Totten's, someone named Benjamin objects to Totten's calling it a "revolution," or tying it directly to Bush's actions:

Although you [Totten] are anxious in your article to trumpet the apparent success of US foreign policy as regards Lebanon, you don't acknowledge the internal dynamic of Lebanon's politics which has been building since way before Dubya was President, and which is influenced by many other factors... Indeed, you are anxious to 'claim' the Arab street, just as the other lot did earlier. I am not sure how useful that is, or indeed accurate."

Well, Benjamin, I hereby submit that it's both useful and accurate. "Useful," because it's good to relate causes to effects, even if the causes might only be partial or contributing causes. "Accurate," because simple logic indicates that there is some sort of causal relationship. True, we don't have a classic experiment here in which we have an alternate universe as a control, a world in which the US never liberated (and yes, we can now say "liberated") Iraq and Bush never criticized dictatorships in the Arab world, so we'll never know for sure. But how useful or accurate is it to fail to connect some fairly obvious and close-together dots?

My take on it? Whatever gradual, step-by-step approaches Lebanon has taken since 1991 towards a more representative government free of the Syrian occupation, Bush's contribution can't be denied, unless one is desperately looking to deny it. It as though goods were being laboriously transported by mule pack through some steep canyon pass, and then suddenly a helicopter swoops down and hoists the mule, pack and all, aboard. The goods are going to get to their destination a lot sooner, and it doesn't make sense to say, "Oh, well, the mule was carrying those packs there anyway, so what help was the helicopter?"

Just ask yourself: if not for Bush and the war in Iraq and most particularly the Iraqi elections of 1/30, do you think these anti-Syrian demonstrations would ever have happened? And, if so, how many people do you think they would they have drawn? The Iraqi war has energized and emboldened this new Arab Street, which may in fact represent a heretofore "silent majority" in the Arab world.

Comments are now more user-friendly--I hope

I've had a couple of complaints about the fact that this blog requires people to register fully with blogger before commenting. In the interests of becoming more comment-friendly (and because I finally figured out how to fix it), I've changed the settings and have now made it easier to comment here. Power to the people!

UPDATE: It's come to my attention that, even though this represents improvement, there are still some folks who are having trouble posting. So, I offer this comments tutorial for those who are even more computer-challenged than I.

The following sounds complex, but it's really very very easy. Trust me. Take a few deep slow breaths and I'll walk you through it.

1) Click on "0 comments" (or whatever the number of comments happens to be) beneath the post, on the right. On the left of your screen, you will then be able to view whatever comments have already been made.

2) Click on "post a comment" on the lower left.

3) Write your comment in the blank box on the right of your screen under "leave your comment."

4) Under that box, you are given three choices for signing in under "choose an identity." You need to choose one of the three by clicking in the circle before your choice: "blogger," "other," or "anonymous."
--If you choose "blogger": this means you have to create an account with blogger. Those who already have an account, no problem. Otherwise click on "sign up here" and follow the instructions.
--If you choose "other": this means you just sign in with a name of your choice. There is also a space to fill in your web page URL, if you want, but you don't have to do this.
--If you choose "anonymous," you're all set to post a comment.

5) After typing your comment in the box and choosing your identity, you now can post your comment, or you might want to preview it first. If posting, just click "login and publish" (if you've chosen "blogger" as your identity), or click "publish your comment" (if you've chosen "other" or "anonymous" as your identity). That's all you need to do.

If you prefer to preview your comment before posting it, click "preview" intead. Afterwards, if you look on the lower left, you will see your comment in a yellow box. Look it over, and if satisfied, click on "publish this comment." Otherwise, click on "edit comment," and then fix the comment. Then click on "publish your comment" (or "login and publish," if you've chosen blogger), and you're all set.

Simplicity itself, isn't it?

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Anti-Bush bumper stickers: changing with the times?

I live in a liberal Democrat "blue" town in a "blue" state. Back when I was blue myself, I wasn't even aware of this; it was like background music. But this fact of blueness, or the characteristics that went with it, must somehow have been part of its attraction: good theater, open-minded people, great food, funky little clothing shops, tolerance, all that jazz.

In the build-up to the 2004 election, anti-Bush bumper stickers proliferated on cars like mushrooms on the lawns after a week of rain. My neighbors' car sported, not just a Kerry bumper sticker, but a "Regime Change Begins at Home" bumper sticker. Almost overnight, before I even knew what it signified, the cars around me sprouted different versions of that "W" sticker with the black slash across it (for the first few days, I actually thought it was some sort of new municipal parking sticker). A good friend of mine, a lovely and ordinarily gentle woman, had one that read "Somewhere in Texas, a village is missing its idiot." The only anti-Bush bumper sticker I saw that seemed to display any sort of wit was the one that read "Fermez la Bush."

Pro-Bush stickers were few and far between, although sometimes I wondered whether those yellow-ribbon "Support the Troops" stickers were a coded way of supporting Bush, like a secret handshake. But I always imagined, without even thinking much about it, that after the election the stickers and signs would come down pretty quickly, no matter who had won.

Months later and I still couldn't go for a drive without seeing them everywhere: a few bumper stickers for Kerry; but, far far more commonly, bumper stickers ridiculing and demonizing Bush. I couldn't remember anything even remotely like this after previous elections. The closest I could recall were the bumper stickers I used to see when I lived in Boston right after Watergate: "Don't blame me, I'm from Massachusetts." But that was after the fall of a president, not the election of one.

It couldn't be that these people thought Bush would magically go away and that Kerry would somehow still become president. No, something else must have been going on. It occurred to me that these stickers must be acting as a signaling device, sort of like the displays of birds in mating season, or the sonorous cries of humpback whales calling out to others of their ilk . The stickers said something about the driver, not about the election. They said, "I am good, I am wise, I am smart, I am sophisticated." In particular, they said, "I am not fooled by the simpleminded simplicity of the simpleton Bush." But, most of all, they said, "I am like you; I am not like them. Are you like me, too?"

They were a form of both communication and of fashion, like having a trendy haircut or cutting-edge clothes (or, for that matter, long hair, no makeup, and Birkenstocks). As such they worked very well, helping people to recognize each other from afar, and to feel comforted that, even though Bush had become President, they themselves had managed to live in a community of like-minded individuals who saw right through him.

But a couple of days ago I was parking at the local health food supermarket, usually a treasure-trove of cars sporting Bush-hating stickers, and I noticed something odd. The cars were bare, stripped of their messages.

What had happened? Had there been a recent special on sticker-scrapers? Or was it something else? Did everyone get the signal all at once--like when the leaves turn colors and drop from the trees because the days are getting shorter and the nights colder--that the time had come? Did it have something to do with the wave of demonstrations for democracy hitting the Arab world? Is there some sort of realization dawning, slowly but surely, that perhaps, perhaps, Bush isn't so very awful after all?

UPDATE: Welcome, Ann Althouse readers!

Why I love the internet

Because we can do these instead of these.

Remember whiteout, typewriters, erasable bond? And even further back into antiquity, remember carbons? (I have to say even I don't remember carbons too well, but I distinctly recall watching my mother type with them. She was a pro.)

Typing was hard, kids. And when you made a mistake, you swore and tore your hair out, cause it meant typing the whole page over. If you were anything like me, you'd come into your dorm at curfew (yeah, curfew--eleven PM on weekdays, twelve-thirty AM on weekends) sit down in that hard little wooden chair in front of your hard little wooden desk, pack of cigarettes by your side, favorite form of caffeine at the ready, and start typing.

Ten page assignment? Okay. Back to the wall, time running out, no outline and no plan, I'd sit down and type page after page, and when I'd reach that magic number ten, I'd simply stop. Finito.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Those Lebanese protestors have got nothing on this liberty babe

By now you've undoubtedly seen the photos of those attractive Lebanese girls in the anti-Syria demonstrations. That male-dominated institution, the blogosphere, has done quite a bit to guarantee their--errr--exposure. The blogosphere seems to approve of the liberty babes of Lebanon, not to mention their pulchritude.

But plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose. Impressed by the cleavage of the flag-waving pro-liberty women of Lebanon? Well, they've got nothing on this babe in that department (even if she is an older woman):

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

The buzz about women bloggers

It seems to be a hot topic today: Jeff Jarvis and Roger Simon are both writing about Steven Levy's charge that the blogosphere is a white male bastion of power.

As that rara avis, a female blogger (although, in the interests of full disclosure I also hereby state that yes, I am white--mea maxima culpa!), I thought I'd weigh in on the subject. Levy's article seems to suggest it's an old-boy-network sort of thing. And it's true that, in the blogosphere, there is a bit of the "I'll scratch your back you scratch mine" arrangement going, at least in terms of blogrolls.

But it's really not much of a factor. Most bloggers (even lowly ones such as myself) only link to people they genuinely like and admire. The blogosphere is indeed a meritocracy. The writing is pretty much everything.

On the other hand, as in anything else, there are certain elements influencing which writing is likely to attact the greatest readership. I hereby submit (at the risk of being Larry Summersed for being un-PC) that there is something about the meritocracy of the political blogosphere that appears to favor male writers, but that it's not any sort of discrimination, nor is it something to be condemned.

Here's my disclaimer: I've done no research on this, it's just my personal observation, yada-yada. If fewer women write political blogs it's because fewer women want to, for whatever reason. Maybe they have better things to do with their time; I don't know. Maybe more women tend to favor the more comtemplative medium of the blog devoted to personal observations. At any rate, the fact that fewer females decide to enter the particular arena of political blogging is no one's fault, and so what if they don't?

But "arena" it is. There are so many political bloggers (and I assume this is the area Levy is really speaking about) that to emerge from the pack one needs to have something really distinctive. Sometimes it's a specialized audience, sometimes it's just really fine writing, sometimes it's the quality of the thinking. But I've noticed a tendency that favors the quick sharp jab, the brief but pungent remark; and perhaps (note the qualification, folks; I really don't know) this comes more naturally to men than to women. There's also a number of angry in-your-face blogs that seem to fit a need and attract a lot of readers, and perhaps (there's that "perhaps" again--I'm just speculating here, so be kind!) that's a more natural mode for men, too, although it certainly doesn't rule out women.

If in fact this is true, it's no one's fault, nor does it need remedying--it's simply the nature of the medium. People have only a certain amount of time to read blogs, and they select them on the basis of what appeals to them. If the work of men appeals to more people, so be it.

The volume gets turned up in Lebanon

Today's demonstrations in Lebanon by anti-Syria forces dwarfed last week's pro-Syria rally, which in turn had trumped the anti-Syria one preceeding it.

This crowd was estimated as having been close to a million. This is a big crowd by anyone's standards. But by the standards of Lebanon, population 3.5 million, this isn't a crowd, this is practically a census.

As I wrote earlier,

I believe that one of the reasons this "purple finger revolution" has been able to move with such rapidity is that the worldwide media are able to spread those images quickly and effectively to people who in years past would never have had access to them. These people see those images, do the same sort of processing, and come to their own changed conclusions: it's possible; we can do this, too.

Well, that was just speculation on my part. But in the AP article about today's rally, here is evidence of the seminal role of modern communications, particularly the Internet and cellphone messaging:

In recent days, opposition ads for Monday's rally have been running on television, and activists in towns and villages arranged buses to the capital. E-mails and telephone text messages referred to Prime Minister Omar Karami's claim that the Hezbollah demonstration showed the government had the support of the majority.
"Prove him wrong," the messages flashed across cellphones and computers

And they did. Now, we await Syria's next move in this game of chess writ large. I don't think that this is checkmate. Not yet.

Monday, March 14, 2005

The extraordinary clothed in the ordinary: Ashley Smith

Watching yesterday's interview (I can't locate the video at the moment, but here's a report ) with Brian Nichols' ex-hostage Ashley Smith, I was struck by the reaction of the newspeople to her story. Not only was she allowed to talk for twenty uninterrupted minutes, but the anchors and reporters that I saw (Fox, CNN) seemed spellbound, riveted, mesmerized, and all but speechless. It takes a great deal to jar them (and many of us, as well) out of either cynicism or stock and facile responses to heroism, and into something approaching awe. Ashley Smith seems to have done it; we know we are watching the real thing.

The power of her story was in her sincerity, her courage, and her own belief in redemption. Whether or not you yourself are religious, there is no escaping the power of her belief, and its effect on what appears to have been the already-weary Nichols. This story could have gone differently--we all expected it to go differently--and the fact that it didn't is owed in large part to Ashley Smith, an extraordinary woman who looks like any young mother you probably pass every day in the supermarket.

And what of Nichols? He remains a mystery. But one of the things I heard Ms. Smith say about Nichols caught my attention, so much so that I wrote it down verbatim: "He said, 'Look at me, look at my eyes, I am already dead.'"

If you've read my piece on Mohammed Atta's Eyes, you'll recognize this is the same phenomenon criminologist James Gilligan reports most murderers exhibiting and feeling, the same deadness in the eyes and in the heart. But Ms. Smith's "amazing grace" under pressure was to have somehow convinced this man (who in some sense did seem already dead) that he is still alive, and that his life retains some purpose. No small feat.

Of course, he will have to pay the price, as Ms. Smith told him. His crimes were heinous. But to me, this extraordinary story indicates that there was still some part of him that remained reachable, and this woman managed to reach it, at least for a moment, at least long enough to save her own life and the lives of others.

UPDATE: Michelle Malkin has kindly linked to the video of Ashley Smith's interview.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

And we were all at Woodstock, too

I'm getting very tired of the Ward Churchill story, but it retains a certain mesmerizing slow-motion train wreck fascination as his modus operendi becomes more clear. This isn't about academic freedom anymore; it's about an academic con artist, as I wrote earlier.

But this latest twist in the tale (via Little Green Footballs, from Pirate Ballerina, who seems positively Javert-like in his/her monomaniacal pursuit of Mr. Churchill) involves an allegation that Churchill appropriated another man's Vietnam combat story. That's what caught my interest.

I've noticed that inflating one's service in Vietnam, or even making it up entirely, has been something of a cottage industry for quite a while. The Vietnam War, dreadful though it was for many soldiers who actually were there, seems to have attracted a host of tall tale tellers. Sometimes their motivation is to get sympathy, or they act out of an overwhelming sense of guilt, or both. There is evidence that a number of the Winter Soldier testimonials of the early 70s may have been of this type, involving confessions of terrible wrongdoing, some of them given by men who may have never served there--or (like Churchill) who served there, but were apparently never in combat.

John Kerry, on the other hand, may or may not be (depending, of course, on what you think of the Swift Vets) an excellent example of a different type of tall tale teller, one motivated by narcissism. Roger Simon mentioned a while back that this self-aggrandizing type is a stock figure in commedia dell'arte, called "the braggart soldier." Baron von Munshausen made his name by telling these sorts of tales. Ward Churchill would most likely fall into this category of the braggart soldier.

When dramatic events happen, whether wonderful or terrible ones, there is a tendency for people to claim they were part of them (we were all at Woodstock, right? Sure we were!). Shakespeare mentions this desire in his famous St. Crispin's Day speech from Henry V (I suggest you read the whole thing if you're not already familiar with it; it's awfully fine):

And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's Day.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

Ward Churchill, con artist

Ward Churchill started out merely as an offensive windbag. Then, revelation by revelation, it became clear that he was a liar; and then a habitual liar. He appears to have lied about nearly everything: his ancestry, his job offers, his artwork, and now his writing, plagarizing the work of a Professor Cohen at Dalhousie.

As far as I'm concerned, it's official; he's a con artist (definition: a person who deceives other people by making them believe something false or making them give money away). Not to mention a bully, threatening the professor whose work he had appropriated.

Is there anything about Mr. Churchill that's true? Until his whole house of cards came tumbling down, he must have been pretty convincing, like most con artists. Now his con could pay off even more handsomely, because there's a chance he might end up not only getting his payoff and his golden parachute, but becoming even richer as a hero on the campus lecture circuit. Unless Professor Cohen decides to sue the pants off him for plagarism. Or unless the University of Colorado decides to stop feeding this particular alligator.

Question for soxblog and other Red Sox fans: Does the tale of Churchill's hiring--that he was given the position without the proper vetting because he had received a competing offer from another college, and Colorado was loathe to lose him--remind you of the story the Sox told when they hired Butch Hobson as manager in 1992? I distinctly remember they said they were hiring the relatively young, unknown, and untested Hobson (he was pretty cute, though) because he was such a hot commodity that other teams were about to steal him away. Wonder if that tale was any truer than Ward Churchill's?

UPDATE: Looks like Ward may be having a bit of trouble opening that golden parachute. See here. The article contains allegations (unproven as yet) that Churchill may also have a longstanding habit of threatening those he feels are about to blow the whistle on his con. Curiouser and curiouser.

The alleged accused suspected suspect is in custody

I'm very glad he's in custody. But I'm not commenting on the case itself, I'm commenting on the news coverage.

Yesterday on the radio I heard the newsman refer to Brian Nichols, the guy who murdered three people at an Atlanta courthouse in front of a bunch of horrified witnesses, as the "alleged" killer. Today, watching both CNN and Fox News announce the good news that he's been captured, there it was again, "alleged" and "suspect."

If this particular set of circumstances isn't enough to allow us to refer to him as a killer and not a suspect, I don't know what would be. But language has become so neutered, and journalists so hesitant, that this sort of careful weasel language has become commonplace.

Commonplace? Yes. I checked. You can check, too, if you're interested--I won't bore you by going through the all details, but they're there. Typical was yesterday's Boston Globe article: "A huge manhunt swung into motion across the Southeast yesterday as officers searched for a rape suspect accused of overpowering a sheriff's deputy in an Atlanta courthouse and then using her gun to kill a judge, a court stenographer, and a second sheriff's deputy who had chased the alleged assailant into the street." It's true that Nichols is a rape suspect (although, somehow, I'm starting to believe the guy just might be a tad guilty of that crime, too). But he's certainly not just accused of overpowering a sheriff's deputy, nor did the second sheriff's deputy chase the alleged assailant. By that time the guy was very much an actual assailant.

The New York Times and LA Times exhibited similar back-and-forth confusion. But this is most definitely not just about the liberal press; not at all. The wording is pervasive. The NY Post's lead article today is headlined "Police capture Atlanta slayings suspect," and its first line begins, "A man accused of killing three people at a courthouse..."

Why do these writers bend over backwards to avoid stating that Nichols murdered these people, when the fact is not in dispute? Is it simply habit? Is it fear of legal proceedings against the journalist for false accusations, as I suspect? What gives?

I did some research into the subject, but all I could find online was this eminently sensible set of guidelines for radio reporters, which discourages the overuse of hedgey words such as "alleged" and suggests the use of phrases such as "witnesses say" or "police say." Sounds simple, doesn't it? This is a solution to the problem that makes sense to me, protecting both the "suspects" and protecting the journalists. These phrases are in fact used intermittently in these articles, but they don't seem to be used anywhere near as consistently as common sense and the guidelines would suggest they should be.

Another thing. All of us probably wondered, when we heard the news of the murders, why Nichols wasn't handcuffed as a security measure as he was going into the courtroom. Turns out that he was not allowed to be handcuffed in order to protect him from looking bad in front of the jurors and thus prejudicing them against him. It would appear to me that a defendant who had already been caught going into court with hidden knives, as was true of Nichols, should be considered to have waived that right. But maybe that's just me.

Well, as I said, I'm very glad he's in custody. It must have been frightening to have been anywhere near the Atlanta area yesterday.

Friday, March 11, 2005

If you're having trouble posting comments--

For the moment, blogger, the host for this blog and so many others, is having technical difficulties. All around the blogosphere, the blogger "posting comments" function seems to be messed up. Blogger provides a great service and it's free, so it's hard to complain--but I can try. So, if you're having trouble posting comments, never fear; they say they're working on fixing it.

Presidential longevity

Former President Bill Clinton is now recovering from surgery to remove some nasty scar tissue left by his previous open-heart surgery.

I was stunned a while back at the announcement that he needed open heart surgery in the first place. He always seemed so young and healthy, positively boyish (not to mention immature). In fact, he is pretty young, at least for heart disease.

Then I started thinking, and I realized there was another reason the news had shocked me so much. I'd gotten used to Presidents living to a ripe old age. And I mean old age--really, really old age. When I look at all of the Presidents who were alive at some point during my lifetime, the extent of their longevity seems pretty astounding.

Here's a list of those Presidents, including each one's age at death (or present age, if still alive):

Hoover (90)
Truman (88)
Eisenhower (79)
Kennedy (doesn't count, for obvious reasons)
Johnson (64--the sole exception to the longevity rule)
Nixon (81)
Ford (91 and going strong--have you seen the man?)
Carter (still fighting off attack rabbits at 80)
Reagan (93)
GHW Bush (at 80, he appears healthier than traveling companion Clinton)
Clinton ('nuff said)

It's hard to get a good comparison to the general population, or especially to the population of rich white men (the population from which most of these people--Harry Truman excepted, since although he was white he wasn't rich--seem to have come). But if you take a look at average life expectancy tables for comparison, the life expectancy of a white male child born in 1930 was 59.7, and that of one born in 2001 is 75. So, something definitely seems to be going on here with all these mega-elderly ex-Presidents.

So, what gives? Presidents are certainly under far more stress than the average person, and stress is supposed to undermine health, so why all this longevity?

I've got two theories. Neither of them is all that great, but here they are:

a) There's something about the arduous process of campaigning for and then being President that winnows out the weak. Not only do only the strong survive, but only the strong can get elected President in the first place. A person has to have the constitution of an ox. Johnson, one of the longevity exceptions, was an exception in this regard, too, since he was known to have had heart disease way before he ever became President, having had his first heart attack--a serious one--in his forties. But remember, Johnson was picked by Kennedy as a running mate and was catapulted into the Presidency by Kennedy's assassination. Perhaps he wasn't subject to the usual winnowing process, and perhaps the circumstances under which he became President made for unusual stress.

b) There's some research indicating that stress-related illnesses are more common in people with high-stress/low-control jobs rather than high-stress/high-control jobs, although it's a complex issue and the jury is still out on that. But if it is true that being in control helps to reduce stress, then the Presidency would certainly seem to be a job that qualifies.

Get well, President Clinton, and keep these longevity stats going strong!

Thursday, March 10, 2005

George Soros has obviously had a lot of therapy, too

Professor Bainbridge links to this Drudge report about George Soros, worldwide financier of the shadowy dealings.

According to Drudge, Soros said that Spain had "a very different response to terrorism - a healthier response" than the US. In response to this, Prof Bainbridge rightly asks, "Appeasement is healthy?"

My answer? No. But to some people yes, it is. The spread of a dumbed-down version of the ideas of some schools of therapy about what may be mentally healthy for the individual, and the unthinking and inappropriate application of these ideas to the political sphere, is at least partly responsible for these sorts of la-la-land statements. Plenty of people, all around the globe, believe just that--that appeasement is not only healthy, but that it works--although I'm not at all sure whether Soros is one of those believers.

But he sure talks the talk. Here are more Soros quotes: "Producing innocent victims creates anger and resentment. And this anger and resentment feeds terrorism...The attitude of creating innocent victims creates terrorists. It's as simple as that." No, Mr. Soros, it's not as simple as that. Would that it were. But, as I've written before, the left wishes very badly to believe the terrorists to be both rational actors and innocent victims. They consistently use the language of victimization--for which, once again, the spread of popular notions of therapy must take some blame.

Of course, Mr. Soros is not above creating a bit of anger and resentment himself, not to mention a few assaults. Somehow, though, his victims have managed not to turn themselves into terrorists.

Lebanese newspaper calls for family therapist

So, a Lebanese newspaper calls for a family counselor to settle the current crisis. I hereby offer my services free of charge.

In all seriousness, though, it's an interesting point the newspaper is making--but perhaps not the one it's intending to make. Family counseling and mediation are all very well and good, but they don't work miracles, and, especially in cases of violence and power disparities between the parties, therapy and mediation can be downright dangerous. The idea--very deeply-held among many liberals of good will--that mediation can solve anything and that the old "can't we just work it out?" routine is relevant in all circumstances is responsible for a lot of harm in this world, well-intentioned though it may be.

I lay a good part of the responsibility for the belief in the universal applicability of these methods at the feet (or the mouths?) of therapists. I'm a believer in therapy. But it is not a panacea, and is most definitely not applicable to all situations--not by a long shot. The recent over-therapization (is that a word?) of our society is responsible for a good deal of harm. Once of these days I'll write a longer piece on that subject.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

The MSM and the pro-Syria rallies in Lebanon: just the facts, ma'am, just the facts

Yes, there was a big pro-Syria rally in Lebanon yesterday. Very big. That's one thing that is certain.

If, like me, you've been upset at the editorializing and spinning the MSM seems to give to its articles lately, and would like to see a return to straight "just the facts, ma'am" writing on the news pages, leaving the editorializing for the opinion page--well, you should be heartened by the MSM coverage of this rally. Because nary a word, hardly a whisper, of editorializing or even of speculation occurred in the reportage by the NY Times, the Boston Globe, the Washington Post, the LA Times, or Newsday (those were the only ones I checked; I stopped at that point, too weary and disheartened to go on).

I was alerted to the Newsday article , (which might just as well have been written by the Hezbollah press agent, so closely does it tow the party line) by a Little Green Footballs post. But, well, that was Newsday. Surely the NY Times and the others, with their vaunted insight and keen analysis, would at least include a few questions as to whether this crowd was really Lebanese, whether it might have been a wee bit coerced or threatened--you know, that sort of thing.

But no, not even a whisper of doubt was heard in the land of the MSM. It reminds me of the MSM's poker-faced reportage of those 99% votes showing how deep Saddam's support was. What a time for the MSM to take their news straight!

If you can bear to read the articles, you'll find nary a word to question the fact that everyone in the crowd was a full-throated and stout-hearted supporter of Syria and Hezbollah, and of course a Lebanese national. No mention of the fact that Syrians in Lebanon number perhaps a million, perhaps more, and could be mobilized for such a rally. No mention of the little fact of possible threats or coercion, despite lines like this from the NY Times article, "Officially, the demonstration was sponsored by several political parties. But the rally was all Hezbollah, complete with well-designed banners, anthems, crowd control and a secret police infrastructure to ensure that things stayed peaceful." To insure that things stayed peaceful--right!

The Globe article is basically the same. Its opening assertion that the demonstrators were Lebanese, "hundreds of thousands of Lebanese celebrated Syria's long military presence here yesterday and cheered ..." is never questioned. But it's odd. In the Washington Post article, despite the fact that the author and subject matter are the same as in the Globe (the Post's Scott Wilson), the articles are slightly different. The Post's opening sentence reads, "Hundreds of thousands of people..."

Hmmm. Not "Lebanese;" "people." Pretty subtle, though, if it's an attempt by the Post to indicate that those "people" demonstrating might not all have been Lebanese. And the Globe article also omits any mention of the following hint, which appears in the Post article, "Scores of men dressed in black, Hezbollah's grim-faced security detail, monitored intersections and took up positions on the tops of buildings overlooking the teeming plaza and narrow side streets."

I don't claim to know who these demonstrators really were and what exactly they represent, and I'm certainly not an expert in the region. But I know enough, after all this time, to be skeptical about such demonstrations, and not to swallow the Hezbollah party line whole without even questioning it.

But then, I'm not a credentialed reporter.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

More throat-clearing, this time from the Independent

Well, now it's the Independent's turn to engage in speculation that Bush may, just may, have been right about something. In this, the Independent is following in the footsteps of the NY Times. Try to form, though, the Independent just can't resist the usual hedgy "throat-clearing." Eating crow is just too hard; it sticks in the craw and must be coughed up every now and then.

Here is a good discussion of the fact that the Independent article gives only partial and reluctant credit to Bush. But I want to give special mention to a sentence from the Independent that particularly bothered me; the author just could not resist reiterating the same tired old inaccurate accusation, to wit, "The 2003 invasion of Iraq may have been justified by a giant fraud..."

"Fraud." "Lie." With no evidence whatsoever that the WMD claims were anything other than an honest mistake. These people are really, really starting (no, not just starting, but continuing) to bug me with their sophistry. They just cannot resist the dig, even (or perhaps especially) when throwing the much-maligned neocons a bone.

And anyway, what's so "difficult" about admitting Bush may have been right, especially when the news about which he may have been right is so wonderful? Maybe even harder than admitting Bush may have been right is to admit that they may have been wrong, and that's the reason for all this "throat-clearing." It's a way to say, "Well, I may have been wrong about one thing--but still, I sure wasn't wrong about everything." And that need--the need to not be wrong--may be one of the most universal human traits, as has been so amply demonstrated lately.

UPDATE: And now Le Monde climbs aboard the democracy train, despite a slight cough, not wanting to be left behind or to leave all the good seats to those cowboy Americans (courtesy Belgravia Dispatch). Since I don't speak French, I read the Le Monde article in the always-amusing babelfish translation, and it appears to me that these Le Monde throat-clearings (what Belgravia Dispatch refers to as a "grudging nod") are relatively mild compared to similar sounds recently made by the Times and the Independent. My guess is that the relative mildness of Le Monde might be due to the fact that this latest democracy eruption has occurred in Lebanon, a country in which France has a special interest and historical ties.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Suicide bombers: explanations vs. excuses

In an article entitled "How not to explain suicide bombing," and posted here at Normblog, Eve Garrard examines the reasons put forth by apologists on the left to explain--and sometimes, by extension, to excuse--suicide bombers. She tackles three particularly commonplace explanations/excuses, and finds all three wanting: poverty, despair, and lack of alternative tactics.

When I read Ms. Garrard's article it reminded me of something I've thought about many times before: the fact that, although there is a world of difference between an explanation and an excuse, in practice and argument the two are often blurred. For example, in sociological reseach, an area in which I have some experience, demographic characteristics such as poverty, race, or history of abuse in childhood might be studied to see whether they are more frequent in criminals than in the general population. Then the results are reported and discussed, and then interpreted and used in different ways (explanation? excuse?) by different interest groups.

When sociological studies are done and data is collected and analyzed in this manner, are the results meant to be mere descriptive correlations, or are they offered as explanations for a behavior--or even as excuses? And, if so, does the data actually support those conclusions? As with so many things, the answer is "it depends." It depends on the way the data has been gathered, crunched, and then discussed by the author, who may or may not have an agenda (if the author is a scientist, he/she is not supposed to have an agenda, but scientists are also human). The reader may certainly have an agenda, and this often affects the way he/she interprets and understands the data. And the political and special interest groups discussing the data most definitely have an agenda.

But, logically speaking, correlation does not imply causation--that is, explanation--and neither a description nor an explanation implies an excuse. Of course, politics and journalism don't always take this logic into account, to say the least. But I'll try my best to do so here, and to differentiate between explanations and excuses.

An explanation is a factor contributing to a behavior, and it exists in the empirical sphere: "X is one of the reasons Y happens." There are different types of explanations. A necessary explanation would go like this: "Y cannot happen without X having happened." A sufficient explanation is as follows: "For Y to happen, only X needs to have happened."

An excuse, on the other hand, exists on the moral sphere, and goes this way: "X is one of the reasons we should forgive the person who does Y and not hold him responsible." Excuses have to involve some sort of reason to let the perpetrator off the moral hook.

In her article, Ms. Garrard has rather amply demonstrated that poverty, desperation, or lack of alternative tactics are neither necessary nor sufficient explanations for suicide bombings. In fact, it seems that in many cases they are not even characteristics of suicide bombers at all. But that doesn't mean that, in certain individual cases, these factors couldn't be considered to be contributing or partial explanations. The left has traditionally been interested in these kinds of "rational" and/or socioeconomic factors (poverty, desperation, and need) as explanations for immoral behavior on the part of a group the left sees as underdogs or powerless. The left's perception of suicide bombers certainly seems to fit this mold rather well.

To be considered excuses, however, these possible contributing explanations would have to be both necessary and sufficient--which they are not, as Ms. Garrard demonstrates. In addition, because of the terrible nature of the acts of suicide bombers who deliberately target innocents, the perpetrators' cause would have to rest on a nearly unchallengable plane of high moral rectitude in order to be considered to be any sort of possible excuse--and, even then, they would be subject to "do the ends justify the means?" arguments. Another possible excuse would be if the perpetrators were found to utterly lack the moral capacity (in the legal sense) for making judgments. The latter condition is also not met in the case of suicide bombers, except perhaps for those very few who seem to actually have been developmentally disabled (the apparent use of a Down's syndrome youth in Iraq, for example).

But what about other possible explanations/excuses? What accounts for the seeming reluctance on the part of the left to offer religious belief as either an explanation or an excuse for suicide bombers, a reluctance Ms. Garrard mentions in her article but declines to explain? After all, the bombers are clearly under the sway of ideologies that promise them eternal rewards in heaven for their behavior. The bombers' belief that they will receive rewards in the afterlife for their acts is not sufficient to explain their behavior (after all, not everyone who believes in such a philosophy becomes a suicide bomber, not by a long shot), but there is little doubt that it is necessary. Try as one might, it's hard to find a person--however desperate, impoverished, or lacking other resources--willing to blow him or herself up in the act of murdering innocent civilians for political ends, who does not believe that he/she will receive some sort of spiritual reward beyond this life in return for that act. (The kamikaze pilots of WWII are sometimes compared to the terrorists and might be considered exceptions to this rule, since it is unclear to what extent afterlife beliefs motivated them. But kamikazes differed from modern-day terrorists in many important ways, particularly in the fact that the kamikaze targets were all military and were never innocent civilians. And, although there is some uncertainty as to how much a belief in afterlife rewards such as enshrinement may have motivated the kamikazes, it seems to have at least been somewhat of a factor in their motivation.)

Another characteristic that seems necessary, although not sufficient, to create a suicide bomber is an ethos that glorifies death in some way. Certain segments of Palestinian and other Arab/Islamicist culture do just that, as witness statements such as the famous "you love life and we love death." In the case of the kamikazes, the culture didn't seem to have glorified death in the same sense. But an acceptance and even glorification of suicide in romantic/heroic terms appears to have been present in traditional Japanese society, which may have helped pave the way for the kamikaze pilots' acceptance of tactical suicide in service of country.

Why, then, do most on the left tend to ignore these strongest possible explanations (afterlife rewards, glorification of death) for the behavior of modern-day terrorist suicide bombers? Is it because these explanations fail to fit the left's preferred socioeconomic framework of behavioral causation? Is it because religion is generally of such slight importance to many on the left in their own lives that it's hard for them to credit its importance in the motivations of others? Or is it because such explanations are harder to offer as excuses for the behavior, and it is really excuses that many on the left are seeking?

Powered by Blogger