Saturday, April 30, 2005

New media and old

Dr. Sanity has some interesting commentary on a post by Wretchard about the influence of the new media--blogs and other alternative news sources--on our perceptions of truth.

I recommend both articles, but I wanted to add a few comments of my own on a related subject. This mulitiplication of sources of information, without the old authority bestowed by the credentials and reputation that used to be vested (rightly or wrongly) in the MSM, is often viewed by its critics as leading to more confusion and more disinformation. How, it is asked, is a person to know what truth is, when there are so many competing and unsubstantiated sources?

It's not a bad point to make. But my answer is that we can only gain by the fact that the new media tends to be upfront about its biases. That means a person can now read from many sources on different sides of the issue, and then weigh the accounts accordingly, taking into consideration the point of view of the person writing. This is far better than pretending to have no bias when in fact there is one, a flaw of much old media, in my opinion.

Still another advantage of the proliferation of new media is the increased ease the reader has in referring back to original sources. If, for example, one reads in a particular newspaper a report of a speech or news conference given by a politician or other public figure, in the olden days it was much harder to check the original (unless the newspaper happened to publish the full text, which was rare) to see if the report was accurate. All of us were far more dependent on the press as a filter of information, and far less aware of how that filter often actually worked to distort such information, sometimes profoundly.

Now, all that stands in our way is time. It takes time and effort to be a newschecker, much more time and effort than most people have or are willing to give. There is always more to read, more to know.

So, understanding that our information is always incomplete, and that total truth can never be known, I salute the new media's ability to let us get closer and closer to the best possible approximation of the truth. It's a big improvement over what we had before.

Life imitates art ("The Runaway Bride")

The disappearance of Jennifer Wilbanks, originally feared to be a kidnapping-murder or spousal-murder case, has been revealed to be something altogether different. Less frightening, no doubt--it's neither a case of random nor spousal violence--but profoundly disturbing nevertheless. It seems that the lady ran away because she got cold feet before an elaborate and expensive wedding.

So, is she a Julia Roberts fan, and did she watch "The Runaway Bride" too many times? Is it a case of life imitating art, by a woman whose sense of responsibility and awareness of the consequences of her own behavior is sorely lacking?

Behavior like Jennifer's tends to be a mystery to psychology. Prior to this event, it seems no one knew a thing was amiss. I could throw around words like "character disorder," "stress-induced dissociative disorder, " "narcissistic personality"--but they aren't necessarily relevant. The truth lies hidden, and may always remain hidden. My guess is that what happened is a mystery even--or perhaps especially--to Jennifer Wilbanks herself.

I have to admit feeling a sense of outraged anger on behalf of her suffering family and fiance, and all the law enforcement people and others who searched for her. Bad enough that her family and friends probably thought her dead, and that the images swirling through their minds for the last few days were the stuff of nightmares and horror movies. But now they must wrestle with something far more complex: the fact that their beloved daughter, relative, friend, put them through this experience either knowingly--realizing the horror she must be inflicting--or unknowingly, proving she lacks even the most rudimentary elements of empathy. How does a family recover from that?

Friday, April 29, 2005

Garden's up, surf's up (yes, there is surfing in New England)

Recently most of us here have been feeling as though it's been raining for weeks, even though it actually has only been two days. But it was one of those relentless, driving, icy rains (is that an oxymoron?) that penetrates deep inside and chills to the bone in a way that snow doesn't seem to do. This one was a particular affront, too, seeing that it's almost May. For a while there, my burner was cranking it out almost as powerfully (and expensively!) as in the dead of winter.

And yet--yesterday, late in the afternoon, the sun came out and so did we. I went outside to see what's going on in the garden. This is the wonderful time of garden hope, everything coming up in neat little packets, hardly any bugs or weeds to speak of (except for a clump of dandelions that emerged and bloomed virtually overnight, and which I subjected to vicious treatment). Everything is green and lush and promising. I sprayed the still-tightly-closed tulip buds with Deer Off (hot chili peppers and other sundry caustic items), hoping to save them from being eaten as soon as they bloom, as in certain other years. I noticed that all the little violet clumps seem to be sprouting white violets this year--some sort of throwback or mutation?

Only the broom (of the delicate lilac/rasberry-colored flowers) seems to have failed to survive the winter, in contrast to the terrible previous year, when we had no snow cover at all and a full third of my garden bit the dust. This year, lack of snow cover was most definitely not an issue; we had continual deep snow from weeks before Christmas until early April.

All the neighbors came out, too, people I've barely seen since last fall. Now the children are playing ball, the dogs racing around in delighted circles, and my new next-door-neighbors have finally emerged from their winter hiding to prove to me that they actually live here (I was beginning to have my doubts). Kids who were mere infants in the fall are now toddling around on fat little legs, getting in the way of the ballgame.

It's time for a dump run, time to take my raked leaves and twigs and debris and put them in the large pile at the dump, to be made into compost that is then sold to make revenue (I live in a very environmentally correct town). On the way to the dump, I drive along a road which parallels the ocean. This is one of the perks of living here; the ocean is never very far away. There's a point I always pass that features a rocky cove. Usually it's fairly calm, but today it's stirred up as much as I've ever seen it. Apprarently the storm that has finally passed through is still having its way with the ocean.

There are huge crashing waves near the rocks; that's to be expected when the sea is churning like this. Way out, near a distant lighthouse and some islands, is a long white line that I can't recall having seen before. It's a huge area of breaking wave, most likely indicating where the ocean is more shallow, near some small islands. Then I see another line, and another.

I notice some small dark forms among the closer waves. They look like dolphins or sea lions. Harbor seals actually do live near here, and I've sighted them, but never in this area. But then I notice the surfboards; harbor seals do not carry surfboards, to the best of my knowledge. So these are surfers, about twenty-five of them, clad in wet suits and waiting for the next big one to ride in. It's so cold out that I'm wearing my winter jacket; it can't be above fifty, maybe even in the forties. I cannot even imagine how cold it feels out there, even with the wet suits.

I wouldn't have thought there were that many surfers living within a hundred miles of me. And yet here they are; the call went out, and they answered it. How do they find out that the surf's up?

Well, when in doubt, go online, I always say. When I got home, I had no sooner typed "new england surfers" into Google than I discovered this site, called "New England surfer," and guaranteed to meet all the needs of said rara avis. Although, as it turns out, not so rara an avis, after all. Here is where they go for the forecasts that tell them when the surfing will be good. It also contains a surprisingly active discussion board, lists of best surfing areas, and all sorts of technical discussion of the finer points of surfboards and other equipment.

So, there are indeed New England surfers. Quite a few of them, it seems--a hardy and unique crowd. This spring surfing in weather that's above freezing is apparently a rare treat, because most of these guys (and they are mostly men, by the way) find that the best New England surfing comes--you guessed it--in winter! That's when the noreasters that tend to bring the big waves to these parts hit. This spring storm is unusual and wonderful, and that's why the unaccustomed (and, to me, unprecedented) crowd.

For anyone who cares to explore this world, I offer the following: an article entitled "Crazy New England Surfers," another one called "The Endless Winter" (the title a nice little riff on the popular surfing documentary "The Endless Summer"), and this, the piece de resistance, a video of a New Englander surfing in a snowstorm.

I'll take gardening, myself.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

A mind is a difficult thing to change: Vietnam interlude--after the fall

(For earlier pieces in the series, see the right sidebar under "A mind is a difficult thing to change.")


No, this isn't the long-promised Part 4C, the post in the "A mind is a difficult thing to change" series in which I plan to discuss general changes in political/psychological beliefs wrought by the Vietnam War era, changes in the ways many people viewed our government, military, and the press. That post is still on the way, but it turns out that I need to break it down into parts. So this is the first part, which deals with a narrow and more focused question.

Once again, I don't have statistics or research to back me up. I'm simply using my own remembered experiences, and the experiences of those around me, as a springboard for ideas about what might have been going on in people's minds and hearts, particularly liberals growing up in those tumultuous times (and, since those days were the heyday of liberalism, a large percentage of those growing up in those times were liberals). I'm trying to be as honest as I can, and some of what I have to say isn't pretty or noble. The following is not offered as an excuse; rather, it is an attempt at explanation.

The question

This particular post was sparked by a comment by Dean Esmay, found on this thread. His comment is as follows:

What continues to confound me is how many people who were staunchly against the Vietnam War still have not confronted the brutal reality of what our leaving that conflict wrought. The death camps, the millions of refugees who barely made it out alive, the horrors perpetrated on the people by Ho Chi Minh once he was victorious...

I'd like to try to tackle the difficult question implicit in Dean Esmay's comment, which, as I see it, is, "Where were you in the mid- to late-70s, oh bleeding-heart Vietnam War protesters? Didn't the terrible aftermath of the Vietnam War convince you that you had been wrong to work so hard for US withdrawal? And, if so, why not?"

I think this is an excellent, although difficult, question (perhaps all excellent questions are difficult?) I don't pretend to have a definitive answer--the situation is extremely complex--but this post is my attempt at a response.

Difficulty of facing unintended consequences

The first reason many who were antiwar during the Vietnam era have not really faced up to the negative consequences of their actions for the people of South Vietnam is that it is ordinarily incredibly difficult--for human beings of any stripe, whether liberal or conservative--to admit to an error of that magnitude. It is human nature that most people will do almost anything to avoid doing so. How many people can tolerate the terrible irony of having (in most cases, with the best of intentions) inadvertently, and with great naivete, caused the very thing they were desperately trying to prevent--the further suffering of the Vietnamese people? To acknowledge the situation of the South Vietnamese people who were left behind to the tender mercies of the North Vietnamese Communists would be to acknowledge an almost unbearable situation--one in which, like Romeo, whose best friend Mercutio was killed as a result of Romeo's efforts to stop the fighting (Mercutio: I was hurt under your arm. Romeo: I thought all for the best.), the very thing they had tried to prevent would have occurred as a result of their activism.

Of course, the suffering of the Vietnamese people was not the only concern of those of us who had turned against the war. There was self-interest involved, also. In part 4B I described the weariness and cynicism people had come to feel, over time, about the conduct of what seemed to be an endless war. One of the main goals of the movement against the war was to ensure that no more Americans would have to fight and die in what was perceived (again, rightly or wrongly, but honestly) as a hopeless cause. Who, in the famous words of John Kerry, would want to be the last man to die for a mistake? The answer is: no one, if he indeed was convinced it was a mistake. The protesters were also successful in a related goal, that of ending the draft, which was repealed in 1973, the same year as the US withdrawal from Vietnam.

"It was inevitable"

As I said, it is astoundingly difficult to face up to the unintended negative consequences of actions that were thought to be "for the best." Fortunately for those who supported the pullout, they didn't have to face those consequences. There were many ways out of that dilemma. The best way out (and this was one that I took, and that I honestly believed at the time to be true) was that, if someone was firmly convinced (as I was at the time) that South Vietnam would have fallen to the Communists no matter what we had done, then all consequences-- however horrific--are seen as inevitable, and therefore unavoidable. They are not seen as a result of the American abandonment of the South Vietnamese, they are seen as a consequence of the failed war itself, and then there is no need to take responsibility for them or feel guilty about them. Rather, one can comfort him/herself with the small solace that, as bad as the results were, things would have been even worse had we continued in a misguided and doomed effort. Even more people would have died, only to reach the same endpoint.

Notice I am not saying the antiwar advocates were correct in their assessment of the inevitability of a Communist takeover of the South. I am merely saying that, at the time, most of us sincerely believed it; and the press, as well as the majority of public figures, were overwhelmingly projecting this opinion in their analyses of the situation. So, given this set of facts, it is understandable that, although most antiwar activists regretted the horrors that followed the American withdrawal, they didn't see any reason to relate them to their own antiwar efforts.

So, were we correct in thinking the outcome to have been inevitable? I certainly thought so then; I no longer think so today. My change of opinion is based on reading I've done on the subject in recent years, post-9/11, and especially around the time of the buildup to the Iraq war. We can argue over this issue ad infinitum (and ad nauseum), but the truth is that no one knows the answer for sure. The important point is that, for those who do still believe it today, it removes a burden of remorse that they would otherwise carry, the burden they would be taking on if they were to accept that they had been mistaken.

Other approaches

There were other approaches to dealing with the problem. One was to simply ignore it. That wasn't as hard as one might think. After the American involvement was over, my recollection is that the news of Vietnam started to drop off the front pages and the evening news. Now that our own lives and the lives of our loved ones weren't on the line via the draft, the whole story of the suffering Vietnam people could be allowed to recede into the background and join all the other sad tales of suffering around the globe, becoming part of that vast wail of humanity that we must somehow block out in order to have some joy in our own lives. The effort that a person would have had to have made at the time to learn more about what was happening in Vietnam after the withdrawal, once it no longer was front page in-your-face news, was one that not many people were likely to make. Remember, again, how long the war had been, and how much news we had assimilated over the years; how many hopes dashed, how many fears felt and horrors viewed. People were only too happy to have Vietnam recede into the background after all those terrible years of concern.

Is this callous? Yes. Is it admirable? No. But it's also a normal and self-preservative fact of human nature. And, because of the concomitant "it was inevitable" idea, it's easy to see why there seemed to be no point in dwelling any longer on what could not be helped.

Another way some people (a much smaller number) dealt with it all was to see the stories of what was going on in Vietnam after we withdrew as an exaggeration or a lie. These people felt that the situation wasn't really all that bad; that the Vietnamese people, as John Kerry had famously stated, didn't even know the difference between communism and democracy. They only wanted to work in rice paddies without helicopters strafing them and bombs with napalm burning their villages and tearing their country apart. To those who believed this, they felt it was just a tiny proportion of the South Vietnamese people who were suffering; and that most people didn't care what form of government they had, they were just happy to see peace at least.

Then there was that minority on the very far left who believed Ho and the Communists to be heroes. Sure, they said, there was a little suffering going on in South Vietnam when the Communists took over, but it was just on the part of the people who had been our capitalist imperialist lackeys. And it was all OK, anyway, because, in the end, the society that was being built would be a better one. After all, when making an omelet, you have to break some eggs, right? The numbers who felt this way were small--but they existed, and they still exist. To them, there was, and is, nothing to rationalize or explain. To them, the fall of Saigon was not a fall at all; it was an ascension.

So, we have a wide variety of reactions, explanations, and rationalizations, some more acceptable than others. As I said previously, I personally have come to believe that there was at least a fair chance that Vietnamization might have worked, had we not pulled the financial rug out from under the ARVN. I also believe that, by the time the decision to cut funding was made, most of us were so demoralized, so weary of a lengthy process of killing that seemed interminable and endless, so confused about what the Vietnamese people themselves wanted, and so uncertain of what the outcome would be, that we simply were tired. We wanted out, and we were going to get out, and so we did. I personally feel a deep and terrible sense of regret about what happened, and about my own inability to see what was happening more clearly.

Here is an article I came across the other day, on the fall of South Vietnam. Please read the whole thing, although it's long. I'm not a historian, and I'm sure there are people who will question the story detailed in this article. But, if it is true (and I have found as yet no reason to doubt it), it is beyond chilling. I want to draw your attention in particular to the phrase "little-known battle;" by the time the events described here were occurring (1975), few in the US were paying much attention, because we no longer had much of a military presence in Vietnam. The events described were a violation of the Paris Peace Accords by the North Vietnamese, who were emboldened by the fact that they knew the US had lost the will to do fight, or to assist the South Vietnamese in fighting.

The little-known battle for Phuoc Long was one of the most decisive battles of the war, for it marked the U.S. abandonment of its erstwhile ally to its fate. Le Duan's "resolution" had been all too correct. In the face of this flagrant violation of the Paris Accords--and it was deliberately designed to be flagrant so as to clearly test U.S. resolve--President Gerald Ford pusillanimously limited his response to diplomatic notes. North Vietnam had received the green light for the conquest of South Vietnam.

From the same article, here is an exchange between the author, whose task it was to negotiate the terms of the American withdrawal with the North Vietnamese, and a North Vietnamese colonel. Read it and weep.

"You know you never beat us on the battlefield," I said to Colonel Tu, my NVA counterpart.
"That may be so," he said, "but it is also irrelevant."

Lessons learned from Vietnam: all that is necessary to win a war against the US is to turn domestic public opinion against it, even if you are militarily outclassed, even if you are defeated in every battle. It's a lesson that was not lost on our current opponents. In a sense, our recent task in Iraq has been to reverse that perception, to finally learn the lesson of what happened so long ago and far away.

Vietnam and Iraq are very different countries, and these are very different wars, but there is one thing that is a constant--the paramount importance of the battle for public opinion in the United States. Oddly enough, even some of the players have been the same: John Kerry, for instance.

So, in closing, here is John Kerry, speaking on the topic of what will happen in South Vietnam after we withdraw. It is taken from the transcript of his debate with the very young and skinny John O'Neill, which took place on the June 30, 1971 Dick Cavett show. I offer it as a good example of the mindset that lulled some of us into believing all would be well.

MR. CAVETT: No one has said that there'll be a bloodbath if we pull out, which is a cliche we used to hear a lot. Does either of you still think there would be a –

MR. O'NEILL: I think if we pull out prematurely before a viable South Vietnamese government is established, that the record of the North Vietnamese in the past and the record of the Viet Cong in the area I served in at Operation [unintelligible] clearly indicates that's precisely what would happen in that country.

MR. CAVETT: That's a guess, of course.


MR. O'NEILL: I'd say that their record at Thua, at Daq Son [phonetic spelling], at a lot of other places, pretty clearly indicate that's precisely what would happen. Obviously, in Thua, we've discovered, how many, 5,700 graves so far, at Daq Son four or five hundred.

MR. KERRY: The true fact of the matter is, Dick, that there's absolutely no guarantee that there would be a bloodbath. There's no guarantee that there wouldn't. One has to, obviously, conjecture on this. However, I think the arguments clearly indicate that there probably wouldn't be. First of all, if you read back historically, in 1950 the French made statements – there was a speech made by, I think it was General LeClerc, that if they pulled out, France pulled out, then there would be a bloodbath. That wasn't a bloodbath. The same for Algeria. There hasn't been. I think that it's really kind of a baiting argument. There is no interest on the part of the North Vietnamese to try to massacre the people once people have agreed to withdraw.

Many people listened to this debate and heard what they wanted to hear, which is that it would be better if we pulled out, better for everyone. To the best of my recollection, I was one of those people. I didn't like Kerry, even then--something about his air of slightly bored, unctuous superiority rubbed me the wrong way--but O'Neill seemed foolishly and naively optimistic. At the time, it seemed that the world-weary, war-weary Kerry was the winner of the debate. Now it's he (and, by implication,we) who sounds like the naive fool.

[ADDENDUM: For the next post in the series, Part 4C, go here.]

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Oh give me a tennis court, where the buffalo roam

One's an anomaly, two may be a trend. First there were those elephants in the Seoul restaurant, now we have a herd of buffalo on a suburban Baltimore tennis court.

Apparently, like girls (and the rest of us), large mammals just want to have fun. Take in a restaurant every now and then, play a friendly game of tennis--it seems a small thing to ask. Note, too, that the tennis court is in an "upscale" neighborhood--these guys know the good life when they see it.

Winston Churchill speaks (and cries)

Some wonderful quotes, this time from Winston Churchill:

A fanatic is one who can't change his mind and won't change the subject.

It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.

Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing ever happened

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

Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.

And from this site:

"The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings. The inherent virtue of socialism is the equal sharing of miseries."

"Some regard private enterprise as if it were a predatory tiger to be shot. Others look upon it as a cow that they can milk. Only a handful can see it for what it really is - a strong horse that pulls the whole cart."

"Writing is an adventure. To begin with, it is a toy and an amusement. Then it becomes a mistress, then it becomes a master, then it becomes a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster and fling him to the public."

We contend that for a nation to try to tax itself into prosperity is like a man standing in a bucket and trying to lift himself by the handle."

"My education was interrupted only by my schooling."

"I utterly decline to be impartial as between the fire brigade and the fire."

"Still, if you will not fight for the right when you can easily win without bloodshed, and still yet if you will not fight when your victory will be sure and not so costly, you may come to the moment when you will have to fight with all the odds against you, and only a precarious chance for survival. - There may be a worse case. You may have to fight when there is no chance of victory, because it is better to perish than to live as slaves."

And here's a website devoted to debunking Churchill myths, including quotations falsely attributed to him--among them, regrettably, the following favorite:

If you're not a liberal when you're 25, you have no heart. If you're not a conservative by the time you're 35, you have no brain." There is no record of anyone hearing Churchill say this. Paul Addison of Edinburgh University makes this comment: "Surely Churchill can't have used the words attributed to him. He'd been a Conservative at 15 and a Liberal at 35! and would he have talked so disrespectfully of Clemmie, who is generally thought to have been a lifelong Liberal.

And yes, yes, I know that Churchill was not perfect. He had flaws. But I don't demand that people be perfect. I happen to admire him greatly for his unflagging courage, his leadership during WWII (despite his understanding, shown in the fourth quote, that war is a difficult and unpredictable undertaking), his moral clarity about Nazism and Communism, his astounding ability to express himself in simple declarative English sentences that sound like the most powerful poetry, and even for the fact that he was well-rounded enough to have been a rather decent painter.

I also thank Churchill for having given William Manchester the inspiration for what may well be the best biography ever written, the two-volume The Last Lion. Certainly it's the best incomplete one; it is a deep regret to me that Manchester died before writing the final volume of this work--which, even minus the last installment, constitutes 1729 hardcover (or 1792 paperback) highly readable and vastly entertaining pages.

There's one other thing that has always struck me about Churchill. Unlike many great men, he was a loving husband and father--even though, like many of the children of fame, some of his kids ended up having problematic lives. Here's an excerpt from an interview with one of his daughters:

Q: Did your father have time to show you affection when you were young?
LADY SOAMES: Both my parents were enormously affectionate, visibly so, and he was a great hugger, my father, and loved having us around. The stiff upper lip of the British upper class had really no part in our family life; it was something I read about in books. I may have been deeply shocked the first time I saw my mother cry, because that was as a result of a great drama in the family, but I often saw my father weep and it never struck me as odd that a man should express emotion.

Q: What kind of thing made your father cry?
LADY SOAMES: He was moved by events and tragedies, by people behaving nobly, by poetry ... I've seen him recite Shakespeare and his eyes brimming with tears. He wept easily. He wasn't ashamed of it.

An extremely unusual combination of characteristics were united in Churchill, a man for whom the word "heroic" can be applied without hyperbole.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Ho ho ho Chi Minh City

Since we've been talking so much recently about Vietnam, this article, entitled "Why Go Now," in the travel section of Sunday's NY Times, caught my eye.

(By the way, the title of my piece, for those of you too young to remember, comes from the old lefty taunt/chant/hope of Vietnam War days: "Ho ho ho Chi Minh, NLF is gonna win"--a chant that I, as a liberal rather than a leftist, neither sympathized with nor recited.)

Here's an excerpt from the Times article:

Why Go Now?--Because 30 years after the end of the Vietnam War, Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) is finally growing up. With a prettified, gentrifying downtown, an array of international hotels and now direct flights from the United States via United, it has never been easier to visit. What's more - and this may shock anyone who was mobbed by postcard vendors or stalked by optimistic cyclo drivers back in the mid-90's - there has been an overall relaxing of the city's aggressively capitalist nature.

Which is not to say that Saigon - as everyone from your maître d'hôtel to your moto driver calls it - has slowed down. Compared with the stately elegance of Hanoi's French colonial streets and cafes, this city of six million remains brasher, more outgoing, more energetic - a New York City to Hanoi's Washington. Eating, drinking and shopping are not just primary pastimes but full-time pursuits, and the streets are packed with 100 cc Hondas ferrying housewives and hip teens alike from cafe to market to nightclub. The constant noise and activity, plus frothy, hard-to-identify smells (grilled pork chops? diesel exhaust? durian?), can overwhelm even the residents, but just think to yourself: It's like Manhattan with mopeds. And like New York, the city offers the chance to get lost in the bustle, and to emerge from it with your own personal map of the best back-alley banh mi sandwiches, the most secluded rooftop swimming pools and the perfect glass of iced coffee.

Now I know that it's just an article in the travel section, and as such is not meant to be a comprehensive treatment of current-day Vietnam, but it certainly seems to make the picture seem a lot rosier than it is. Disclaimer: I'm not a Vietnam expert, by any means--but it is fairly clear that Vietnam's capitalism is only skin deep, covering an economy that is mostly state-controlled (oops, I hope I haven't violated my own rule about not writing about economics), and a typically suppressive and repressive Communist police-state government. Hardly "New York with mopeds," especially in the political sense.

For those interested in modern-day Vietnam, I recommend this article. Written in 2000, it's probably somewhat outdated, but it seems to me to offer a fair picture of the country--although those among my readers who are Vietnam experts might be able to say whether that is correct or not.

Here's an excerpt that expands upon the travelogue picture presented by the Times article:

Change is inevitable. The real question is, Will the change be evolutionary or revolutionary? Casual observers of Vietnam, impressed by the size and vitality of the "Honda at the cybercafe" crowd, speak of a coming generational change that will sweep aside today's geriatric leadership. But this optimism is far too simplistic. True, the French-speaking veterans of the "senior" generation, esteemed for having fought the wars and unified the nation, are rapidly passing from the scene. But the next generation, 40 to 60 years of age, has begun to run the country and will not readily give up power and privilege. This "middle" generation, trained in Moscow and the capitals of the Soviet bloc, is committed to the VCP. The "junior" generation that grew up in the more open environment of the past decade will have to wait. Moreover, within this younger generation there will be competition, as the sons and daughters of current party members vie to inherit jobs and privileges.

And this, in particular, riveted me:

Another contradiction is that although the North won the battle, the South may yet win the war...Today a gradual "Southernization" of the North is becoming visible. The industrial parks on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City and the rice paddies of the Mekong delta now drive the national economy, producing two-thirds of the nation's wealth and accounting for 80 percent of its tax revenue. Southern constituents urging privatization, entrepreneurial initiatives, and capitalist ideas are pressuring party politicians and the rigid ministerial bureaucracies of the North to change. The more robust economy of Ho Chi Minh City rewards its inhabitants with considerably higher wages than those earned in the nation's capital. Thus in the struggle for the "hearts and minds" of the people, the former Saigon could win over Hanoi after all.

So, we may be able to replace that old chant with a new one: "Ho, ho ho Chi Minh City is gonna win." Although it lacks the sparkling rhythm of the original, it makes up for it in ironic and tentative hopefulness. Will demographics, capitalism, and time allow the Vietnamese people to finally achieve a free and democratic society? I sincerely hope so. How many of the aging leftists who recited that long-ago chant would agree?

Monday, April 25, 2005

Sandals: on the cutting edge of fashion

Sandals. Summer. Freedom. Foot-binding.

Foot-binding? you ask. What does that have to do with sandals, summer, freedom?

Well, I would have thought the answer to be: nothing. Nada. Zip. Zero. Or, perhaps: opposite. But apparently, I would be wrong.

I am flabbergasted by this article in today's NY Times about the lengths to which women apparently still go for fashion. Having been raised in the era of the obligatory girdle, for example, I know that fashion has always involved elements of pain, and probably always will. But--the sandal? To me, the sandal has always represented the opportunity to liberate the foot from winter restrictions, from chafing and binding and tightness.

But something has happened to the sandal. They've buried Birkenstocks, trumped Tevas, nixed Naots. They have found a way to make sandals remarkably painful, and at a remarkable price, too. Ah, progress!

Eva Gajzer, who sells shoes and clothing at Kirna Zabête, a SoHo boutique, has witnessed the casualties. "Band-Aids, I see them all the time," Ms. Gajzer said.

Suddenly women are pulling out shoes with straps "like little knives," she said. "They walk into the store with their feet completely covered in blood."

Ms. Gajzer faults the shoemaker, not the wearer. "When you're paying between $300 and $600 for a pair of sandals, you expect them to be remotely comfortable," she said. "Otherwise the designer should be smacked."

I'm not so sure the designer of $600 sandals shouldn't be smacked--just a teeny bit, anyway--even if the sandals are "remotely comfortable," but that's not the point. Straps, like little knives? That's taking "cutting edge of fashion" to a whole other dimension.

Home again

Amtrak report:

Well, by the end of the trip, 80% of the toilets were dysfunctional. And the train was virtually full (methinks there is some sort of correlation between the two).

On the other hand, the seats were comfortable, my seatmate was silently plugged in the entire time (laptop, headset), the train was exactly and precisely on time (4 hours NY-Boston)--and we are alive, unlike at least 50 people in today's horrific and tragic train wreck in Japan.

In light of my discussion yesterday of European safety standards vs. US ones, I wonder how Japan safety regulations factor in. Excessive speed seems to be the leading theory for the cause of today's crash. A terrible, terrible thing.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Part 4C: work in progress

An update for those awaiting Part 4C of the "A mind is a difficult thing to change" series: it's in the process of being written.

But I always seem to underestimate the amount of work these things take (hmmm, I wonder what that's all about). Previously, I said that it should be coming out early this week. That still might happen. But it's more likely to be out mid-week, or even towards the end of the week. I will update further if that changes.

Traveling again

I'm going home today.

According to the Amtrak website, my train is sold out. That should be...interesting.

And, as luck would have it, this appears in today's NY Times, entitled "Acela, built to be rail's savior, bedevils Amtrak at every turn."

Excerpts from the article:

Before the first train was built, the Federal Railroad Administration required it to meet crash safety standards that senior Amtrak officials considered too strict. That forced the manufacturers, Bombardier Inc. of Canada and GEC Alstom of France, to make the trains twice as heavy as European models. Workers dubbed the trains "le cochon" - the pig.

Some experts have speculated that the added weight contributed to a series of problems, including the latest one, with Acela's wheels, brakes and shock-absorbing assemblies. Federal regulators are still investigating the cause of those problems....

The railroad agency has long required that passenger trains be heavier than European ones to withstand crashes.

Bombardier knew its new train would have to meet those requirements, a spokeswoman said. But Mr. Downs said he asked the rail agency to ease that standard for the new high-speed trains, to no avail.

"They decided they wanted to make this the safest train in the world," he said. "All my engineers thought the rules were nuts."

It's interesting that some of the problems with the Acela seem to have come from the relative strictness of safety standards here in the US vis a vis Europe. I've noticed this trend before in other areas, such as the pharmaceutical industry. For example, those who recall the thalidomide babies may remember that there were relatively few born in this country as compared to Europe, because our regulations on the medication's use in pregnancy were stricter.

I have no way of knowing who is right in the case of train safety--the US or Europe--and whether the regulations are too strict here, or are too lenient there. If I lack expertise in economics, I am a wizard in that field compared to my knowledge of train design. But I suspect that the sentence "All my engineers thought the rules were nuts" may be telling. Then again, maybe not.

In any case, it's just another topic on which the US and Europe don't see eye-to-eye.

Economic illiteracy

Even though I was a good student, economics was my nemesis. I passed it, but it was a slow slogging grind, and it didn't quite stick. And, although I've made an effort to learn more about economics since then, every time I try, my eyes seem to glaze over and I find myself nodding off over the book.

It's not something I'm especially proud of, but at least it keeps me from writing a whole lot of claptrap on the topic.

However, lack of economic acumen doesn't seem to stop many (probably many on both sides, to be fair) from spouting off on economic subjects. Blogger Dennis the Peasant isn't too keen on these folks. He is a bona fide tax expert and CPA, as well as being a very funny guy--that's funny ha-ha, not funny strange. (Oh, well, maybe just a little funny-strange, if you look at his photo--although, come to think of it, who am I to talk on that score?) Dennis takes to task those who write about economic matters while being economically uninformed.

I have a strong feeling that I have a great deal of company in my relative economic illiteracy. I've been struck by how many people know enough to get by--keep their bank accounts in order, do a little investing, pay their taxes--but don't really understand the ramifications of specific proposals designed to affect the ecomony. And yet we need good information in order to make decisions on issues that matter: what to do about the deficit? What about tax cuts vs. tax hikes? Who--if anyone--is right in the battle of the dueling experts? Do they even know? After all, economics is not exactly a science on the order of chemistry or physics. How can the vast majority of us who aren't tax attorneys or CPAs wade through the vast quantity of information-- and misinformation, deliberate or otherwise--out there?

To a certain extent, of course, that's true of any topic that has technical aspects--which is most topics. But I have a hunch that the subject of economics is a particular sticking point for many, whether they'll admit it or not.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

The view from Brooklyn Heights

I've been visiting New York City, the place where I grew up. I decide to take a walk to the Promenade in Brooklyn Heights, never having been there before.

When you approach the promenade you can't really see what's in store. You walk down a normal-looking street, spot a bit of blue at the end of the block, make a right turn--and, then, suddenly, there is New York.

And so it is for me. I take a turn, and catch my breath: downtown Manhattan rises to my left, seemingly close enough to touch, across the narrow East River. I see skyscrapers, piers, the orange-gold Staten Island ferry. In front of me, there are the graceful gothic arches of the Brooklyn Bridge. To my right, the back of some brownstones, and a well-tended and charming garden that goes on for a third of a mile.

I walk down the promenade looking first left and then right, not knowing which vista I prefer, but liking them both, especially in combination, because they complement each other so well.

All around me are people, relaxing. Lovers walking hand in hand, mothers pushing babies in strollers, fathers pushing babies in strollers, nannies pushing babies in strollers. People walking their dogs (a prepoderance of pugs, for some reason), pigeons strutting and courting, tourists taking photos of themselves with the skyline as background, every other person speaking a foreign language.

The garden is more advanced from what it must be at my house, reminding me that New York is really a southern city compared to New England. Daffodils, the startling blue of grape hyachinths, tulips in a rainbow of soft colors, those light-purple azaleas that are always the first of their kind, flowering pink magnolia and airy white dogwood and other blooming trees I don't know the names of.

In the view to my left, of course, there's something missing. Something very large. Two things, actually: the World Trade Center towers. Just the day before, we had driven past that sprawling wound, with its mostly-unfilled acreage where the WTC had once stood, now surrounded by fencing. Driving by it is like passing a war memorial and graveyard combined; the urge is to bow one's head.

As I look at the skyline from the Promenade, I know that those towers are missing, but I don't really register the loss visually. I left New York in 1965, never to live there again, returning thereafter only as occasional visitor. The World Trade Center was built in the early seventies, so I never managed to incorporate it into that personal New York skyline of memory that I hold in my mind's eye, even though I saw the towers on every visit. So, what I now see resembles nothing more than the skyline of my youth, restored, a fact which seems paradoxical to me. But I feel the loss, even though I don't see it. Viewing the skyline always has a tinge of sadness now, which it never had before 9/11.

I come to the end of the walkway and turn myself around to set off on the return trip. And, suddenly, the view changes. Now, of course, the garden is to my left and the city to my right; and the Brooklyn Bridge, which was ahead of me, is now behind me and out of sight. But now I can see for the first time, ahead of me and to the right, something that was behind me before. In the middle of the harbor, the pale-green Statue of Liberty stands firmly on its concrete foundation, arm raised high, torch in hand.

The sight is intensely familiar to me--I used to see it almost every day when I was growing up. But I've never seen it from this angle before. She seems both small and gigantic at the same time: dwarfed by the skyscrapers near me that threaten to overwhelm her, but towering over the water that surrounds her on all sides. The eye is drawn to her distant, heroic figure. She's been holding that torch up for so long, she must be tired. But still she stands, resolute, her arm extended.

Friday, April 22, 2005

A mind is a difficult thing to change: Part 4B (Vietnam--photographic interlude)

Previous posts in the series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Interlude, Part 4A

There were two widely-circulated and iconographic photographs taken during the Vietnam War. If you were around then, I can almost guarantee that you saw them, and that you remember them. They are so famous that you may have seen them and remember them even if you weren't around at the time.

The first photo shows the February 1968 field execution of a Vietcong. Amazingly, the picture appears to have been taken at very the split-second the bullet is exiting his head. The prisoner is young-looking and slight, even boyish, dressed in a checked shirt. He is facing the viewer and we see his face clearly and frontally, wincing, although the shooter is seen only in profile. The Vietcong's hands are tied behind his back, and he seems terribly vulnerable. The entire photo conveys the idea of an innocent victim put to death by a ruthless and almost faceless executioner, as well as the brutality of war in general. There is no question that this photo, presented without much context, shocked people and engendered the belief that the South Vietnamese we were defending and dying for were no better than the Vietcong in their brutality.

The other photo came a few years later, towards the end of the war, in June of 1972. It is the photo of the little girl running down the road, shrieking, her clothes blown off with the force of the blast (or burned off? torn off? who knew?) her burns visible on her naked flesh. She is surrounded by other children, some of whom are shrieking, mouths open as in the Munch painting , conveying wordless horror. The children are without their parents; the only adults in the photo are four blurry and helmeted soldiers in the background. The sky is dark with smoke. It's a terrible evocation of the anguish that war inflicts on its most innocent of victims, children. A photo you couldn't help looking at, and then you couldn't help looking away from, and then you couldn't help but remember it. By the time the photo was published, it was near the end of a war which had lost most of its support, but support eroded even further as a result of its wide dissemination.

The photos tugged at people at a deep emotional level, screaming, "War is bad. Stop it. Stop the madness." Furthermore, they induced a deep feeling of guilt, making the onlooker somehow conspiratorial with the executioner and with those who had dropped the bombs--doubly conspiratorial, both as voyeur to unspeakable violence, and as a citizen of the country, the US, seemingly responsible for both acts.

It never occurred to me at the time that there might be more to learn about these photos than what I already knew. That there might be a whole other "story behind the story," one the media wasn't telling. After all, one picture is worth a thousand words--right? Pictures don't lie--right? What more could there be to tell? What more could there be to know, and what difference could it ever make?

And yet, it turns out that there was more. Lots more. That "more," when I finally learned it, didn't change the fact that bad things happen in war--lots of them. But that "more" made a difference in the way that some viewers (including myelf) saw those photos, the South Vietnamese military, the US, and the press.

But I didn't discover what that "more" was until about two years ago, around the time of the Iraq war. So I'm going to need to wait until I get to that point in my tale to tell the story behind the photos, and how learning the truth about them, after so many years, was one of many steps I took that swept me along the path of change, post-9/11.

[ADDENDUM: For the next post in the series, "Vietnam Interlude," go here.]

Thursday, April 21, 2005

A mind is a difficult thing to change: Part 4A (Vietnam--the home front)

(Part 1)
(Part 2)
(Part 3)


Part 4 has been a long time coming. The article itself is long, too--so long that I finally decided it would be best to divide it into segments, so readers might have a chance of swallowing it without getting a massive case of indigestion.

I'll tell you what this post isn't--it's not a history of the war itself. It isn't about those who fought in it, or the Vietnamese people who suffered through it. It's a political psychological history, an attempt to describe how perceptions were formed in those who remained in this country, particularly those who were young liberals, or who became liberals as a result. So, please don't castigate me for ignoring this or that aspect of the war; this is not meant to be comprehensive or definitive.

This first segment, Part 4A, deals with my own personal history during the Vietnam era. I start with it to set the scene, and because I think in many ways it is typical of liberals of the time, and can serve as a springboard for later, more general, discussion. Part 4B, which will probably come out tomorrow, is relatively short, and deals with some Vietnam-era photographs. If you think Part 4A is self-indulgent, or rambling, or pointless--after all, who cares about my history?--please bear with me; there's method to my madness. The payoff (I hope!) will occur in Part 4C.

Part 4C, the third and final segment of Part 4, will probably be posted at the beginning of next week. It's the part in which I attempt to bring it all together in terms of intrapersonal political change, the theme of this entire "Mind is a difficult thing to change" series. In Part 4C, I will be coming to some more general observations about how the Vietnam War formed (and, in some cases, transformed) political perceptions for many people of my generation, particularly liberals. In later posts (as yet to be written, but definitely on my mind), I will attempt to connect all of this to post-9/11 political change.

So, that's my blueprint and my plan.


For those of you accustomed to the almost lightening-quick "major operations" phase of the Gulf, Afghan, and Iraq wars, it's hard to get a sense of how agonizingly interminable the Vietnam war seemed to those of us who grew up during it. And the Vietnam war was long, even by WWI and WWII standards, although smaller in scope.

The first Green Beret advisors arrived in Vietnam in 1961, when I was still in junior high. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution occurred in the summer of 1964, right before my senior year of high school, and the first US combat troops entered Vietnam shortly thereafter. In this manner, the war went from a distant background noise throughout my junior high and early high school years to a much more audible presence by my senior year of high school, and continued as a loud and discordant cacophony the entire time I was in college and for four years thereafter, with peace talks occurring in 1972, and the catastrophic US leavetaking in 1973. Saigon finally fell to the Communists in 1975. The toll in human life was high: the total number of US deaths there was over 58,000, with Vietnamese deaths in the war variously estimated as having been between one and two million.

The most serious escalation of the war coincided exactly with my college years, 1965-1969. I was younger than most of the other students; I had entered college shortly after my seventeenth birthday. We were all Cold War babies, having grown up with the constant threat of nuclear war but without the US actually having been involved in a major "hot" shooting war (except for the Korean conflict, which we were too young to really remember). So this was new to us.

I was very uneasy about the Vietnam war right from the start of the first troop commitments. At the beginning, the war upset me simply by the distressing fact that people were being killed; later on, I hated the war because it seemed unwinnable and thus an utter waste of human life.

Like most young people of the time, I took the war very personally. It's probably hard to convey to later generations the powerful and all-pervasive nature of the draft, a sword of Damocles that hung over the heads of everyone. Even though I was a woman, and therefore couldn't be drafted myself, every young man I knew was facing it, and so it affected me indirectly.

My boyfriend had flunked out of college (almost deliberately) in 1967, was drafted early in 1968, and six months later was sent to Vietnam and into heavy combat. Looking back, it seems to me that we were both painfully young. I was eighteen when we had begun to date, nineteen when he was drafted, twenty when he went to Vietnam, and barely twenty-one on his return. He was only one year older than I. I made sure I wrote to him every day while he was there. He was wounded and spent several weeks recuperating, but was sent back into the thick of the fighting. I was frantic with fear and pretty much alone with it; I didn't personally know anyone else in college who had a loved one in a similar situation.

During the time he was there, and afterwards, I continued to hate the war (as did my boyfriend, by the way, although he felt it was his duty to serve). I hated the killing, was stricken by the nightly TV news featuring what seemed to be the same harrowing scenes played over and over: wailing Asian women clutching children, wounded soldiers on stretchers (I strained and squinted to see whether any of them looked like my boyfriend, because one of them might actually be my boyfriend), thick vegetation, burning huts. Over and over and over, to no seeming purpose, and with no end in sight. I could barely stand to watch, and sometimes I turned away, overwhelmed.

Throughout this time, both during the war and after, I was getting my news from several sources: network TV, Newsweek, Time, the Boston Globe, and the NY Times. I was under the impression that this represented a broad spectrum of news. These sources displayed a unanimity of opinion that I never questioned--after all, if so many highly respected media agreed, it must be because they were written by intelligent people who were seeking the truth, and telling it to us as best they could.

I remember Tet, Hue, Khe Sanh, all bunched together within a few short months in 1968, around the time my boyfriend was drafted. I remember those battles being portrayed as pointless scenes of carnage, signifying nothing. I remember the My Lai massacre, which also had occurred during the same time period, although we didn't find out about it until a year later. It was deeply shocking to most of us; we had previously believed American soldiers incapable of such atrocities. We had been raised in the 50s on heroic WWII movies from the 40s, and had grown up with a press that had generally considered soldiers heroes, so this was a profoundly troubling revelation.

My attitude towards the war seemed to be quite typical, according to what I remember of my friends in college. We weren't political junkies, for the most part, and hadn't learned about the war in exhaustive detail. We read and/or watched the basic news and discussed the war, but in general terms--we felt we had the big picture correct, which was the most important thing, and we all agreed with each other, anyway. A few of my leftist friends (SDS was very active on my campus), spouted a more extreme version of events, in which they demonized the US--for example, I got into an argument with one friend who insisted that the goal of the US was to commit genocide in Vietnam--but the leftists seemed to me to be more interested in sloganeering and grandstanding than in actual facts or rational debate.

Of course, there were people who had different ideas about the war. But I personally knew none of these people, nor did I see their ideas being advocated in the media, for the most part. But there was the idea that the war originally had been both a good cause and a winnable one, although for political reasons the war had been mismanaged and fought in a half-hearted fashion. There was the idea that a liberal press had misrepresented the battles of 1968, including Tet, as defeats, when in fact they had been victories. There was the idea that, if we were to put more effort and money into it, the later policy of Vietnamization had a real chance of working and giving us the "peace with honor" we all desired, but the public had so turned against the war by that time that such money and effort would not be forthcoming.

But these voices seemed barely audible at the time. The only airing of some of these thoughts that I can recall was by John O'Neil during his June 1971 Dick Cavett show debate with John Kerry. O'Neill seemed sincere but naive and idealistic; Kerry had a world-weary air of having seen it all and known it all. But at least the debate provided food for thought and an airing of alternate views in a substantive manner, in a popular and readily-available forum. As such, it seemed unusual to me.

As time and the war had gone on, the tale told to us by the media wasn't just about the war itself: it was about how the government had lied to the American people and deceived us, how it couldn't be trusted. That message grew more focused during the early 70s, during the spring 1971 Congressional hearings on the war (the ones that featured John Kerry), and with the publication of the Pentagon Papers, which came out two months later. It was particularly convincing to hear disillusioned veterans such as Kerry speak out and demonstrate against the war--after all, they were the ones who been there and seen it firsthand. The Pentagon Papers revealed that the government had been deceptive about the war and the planning behind it. Then there was the invasion of Cambodia, perceived as an escalation of the war after Nixon had promised a reduction; and the killing of student protesters at Kent State by the National Guard, which made us feel as though war had been declared on us, too--on young people, on students. The message that the government could not be trusted was further reinforced by the Watergate scandal, commencing with the break-in in 1972 and ending later, after we had left Vietnam, in the ignominious 1974 resignation of Nixon.

If we couldn't trust the government--well, then, who could we trust? Many decided to trust the whistleblowers: the press, our new heroes. After all, they had published the Pentagon Papers. They had showed us photos of what had happened at Kent State. They had brought the horror of My Lai to our attention. They had been instrumental in the exposure of the Watergate scandal, which had disgraced (and later was to bring down) a President most of us already disliked anyway.


By the early 70s, virtually everyone I knew had become convinced that the war had been a tragedy and that the lies were so endemic we had no way of learning the truth from the government. I attended the 1969 march on Washington and a few smaller rallies. I believed that what the US had tried to do--prevent the Communists from taking over the whole country--had been a worthwhile goal, but an impossible one.

It seemed that, in our efforts to prevent that takeover, we had caused great damage. I wasn't even sure that the Vietnamese people had ever wanted us there in the first place, or that they supported the South Vietnamese government; there seemed to be so many Vietcong, and they just would not give up. What about that domino theory, anyway, the original justification for the war? It was just a theory, after all--was it even true, did it actually apply here? If the war kept going on this way, indefinitely, Vietnam itself would be destroyed (if it hadn't already been), and more and more Americans would die, too, all in a losing cause.

Therefore I rejoiced as we pulled troops out, and was happy about the peace talks. I watched some of the footage of the fall of Saigon, and was heartsick, but I believed nothing could have prevented this--it had been inevitable, and better sooner than later, after more death and destruction. Finally, I turned away from those pictures, just as I'd turned away, at times, from footage of the war itself--too painful, too hopeless, too sad, too powerless to help.

These Vietnam memories and judgments remained encapsulated within me for the next thirty or so years, untouched and unexamined, a painful and unhealed wound. I saw no reason to re-examine them, and nothing to make me doubt them. They lay dormant but retained their potency, needing only the right conditions to germinate in surprising ways much later, post-9/11.

UPDATE: Part 4B has been posted.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

I guess they like the kimchee ("Escapee elephants visit Seoul restaurant")

The MSN headline did what it's supposed to do--it certainly caught my eye: "Escapee elephants visit Seoul restaurant." The article has a few wonderful details. There were six elephants in all; one elephant bolted during their daily parade outside a children's park, and the others followed because, "they have a tendency to do that," according to an official.

I had no idea elephants were such sheep.

One elephant "was briefly detained at a police station." I hope they read him (her?) his (her?) Miranda rights.

I know elephants can be very dangerous, so it's no joke when they escape, but all's well that ends well, and this escapade did--although I'm not sure the elephants would agree. They are now back in captivity.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Pope Benedict XVI

Just in--a new pope has been elected. He's Benedict XVI (formerly Cardinal Ratzinger from Germany), considered a hard-line conservative.

I think it's interesting, in light of my previous post about cardinals over 80 not being allowed to vote for pope, that the new pope is 78 years old. So we came very close to that speculative scenario in which the new pope would be considered too old be part of the selection process, but not too old to serve as pope.

Other biographical facts about this pope that caught my eye, from the Wikipedia article I linked to: he deserted from the German army during WWII (a move punishable by death), and was briefly held by the Americans as a prisoner of war. Also, he was a university professor for a while, but "was confirmed in his traditionalist views by the liberal atmosphere of Tübingen and the Marxist leanings of the student movement of the 1960s." Hmmm.

It seems that the cardinals aren't interested in any change right now from the conservative doctrines of John Paul II (although I'm not a Catholic, I'd hoped for someone less conservative). But, by choosing an older man, they also don't seem to want to lock this up for a long time.

I wish him well in dealing with the problems within the church and the world, and in following in the large footsteps of the charismatic John Paul II.

Bloggers in person

I'm here in New York, with the unbelievably lovely weather and the daffodils all in bloom. It feels like the tropics to me. Big celebration tonight for a major birthday of my brother--which one? I'll never tell.

But last night I managed to meet up with a bunch of bloggers for a drink, dinner, and conversation. Present were the illustrious Cara and Jeremy from Who Knew, Norm Geras of Normblog (visiting from England and doing the tourist thing in NY), Mary of exit zero (and presently guesting, with Jeremy, at Michael Totten's), and Judith of Kesher Talk.

See, you have dinner with me, you get a link--just like that!

One of the many beauties of the event is that I don't have to write about it much, because I imagine the others will. But I did want to say a couple of things. The first one is that, as you might imagine to be the case, bloggers can talk. Even bereft of our computers, no problem at all.

Secondly, I think there might be a future in some sort of twelve-step program for bloggers. It does have a fairly addictive quality. Those bloggers among you, you probably know what I mean.

Thirdly (although I know it's hard to believe), we are all even more fascinating and charming in person than in print.

Timeless Orwell

George Orwell was certainly one for the pithy saying with a lot of punch, short and to the point. I came across a web page specializing in Orwelliana, and was struck by the number of comments that seemed to be remarkable encapsulations of powerful truths, as topical today (if not more so) as the day he wrote them.

Some of my favorites:

The high sentiments always win in the end, the leaders who offer blood, toil, tears, and sweat always get more out of their followers than those who offer safety and a good time. When it comes to the pinch, human beings are heroic.

To see what is in front of one's nose requires a constant struggle.

No advance in wealth, no softening of manners, no reform or revolution has ever brought human equality a millimeter nearer.

Whoever is winning at the moment will always seem to be invincible.

There is hardly such a thing as a war in which it makes no difference who wins. Nearly always one side stands more or less for progress, the other side more or less for reaction.

Early in life I had noticed that no event is ever correctly reported in a newspaper.

So much of left-wing thought is a kind of playing with fire by people who don't even know that fire is hot.

And this, from another website

War is evil, but it is often the lesser evil.

Going out in style

Viewed at Roger Simon's--the following headstone seems to have inspired me to poetry. Please forgive me; I must obey my muse.

Technology gallops apace,
Computers, hybrids, men in space.
So, now there's a headstone
That's shaped like a cellphone
To "phone home" from the other place.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Anti-Japan protests in China: what's wrong with this picture?

What's wrong with this picture (anti-Japan protests in China, via the NY Times)?

It still seems strange to see mass protests in China at all, post-Tiananmen--even ones such as this, apparently organized by the government for its own murky purposes.

What's stranger still is that these protests are ostensibly over the interpretation of history--although of course that's not what they are really about.

But strangest of all is that here we have massive demonstrations by people in one nation protesting the acts of another nation--and the target of the protests is neither the US nor Israel. Now, that's surpassingly strange.

Lost and found--the Oxyrhynchus Papyri

There are few things more satisfying than finding something thought to be irretrievably lost. In my own life, this usually ends up being something as mundane as an earring or a glove. I seem to specialize in losing a singleton of things that come in pairs.

As long as the missing one remains on the lam, there's always something there to remind me--the lonely survivor, staring up at me in mute reminder of my carelessness. But when the lost object surfaces--as they sometimes do, in some closet or pocket, or under my bed or dresser--there's a joyous leap of the heart that parodies "Amazing Grace": it was lost, but now it's found.

To go from the loss of the trivial (glove, earring) to the sublime: I have always grieved the burning of the library of Alexandria--that is, ever since I first heard about it in a history class. Now, I know it happened a long time ago, but I'm a bookish sort, and the notion of all those works of antiquity lost forever, and by a human agency at that, fills me with regret and even a bit of anger. After all, this wasn't just carelessness or the passage of time, it was wanton destruction.

I've loved the plays of Sophocles ever since I studied them in high school. They had initially sounded so dry and boring, and I was dreading reading them, so their poetry and emotion were a real revelation. I later heard that there is evidence that Sophocles wrote one hundred and twenty plays, the bulk of which are lost, since only seven complete texts survive. I wished there were a magic wand to rediscover those lost texts, that time could be turned back and they could be retrieved and saved. But of course a thing is impossible, except in science fiction.

Or, is it? I just learned, in this article by Dr. Sanity, that modern science may have come to the rescue--literally.

Here's the gist of it:
The original papyrus documents, discovered in an ancient rubbish dump in central Egypt, are often meaningless to the naked eye - decayed, worm-eaten and blackened by the passage of time. But scientists using the new photographic technique, developed from satellite imaging, are bringing the original writing back into view. Academics have hailed it as a development which could lead to a 20 per cent increase in the number of great Greek and Roman works in existence.

I had always consoled myself with the idea that the works that have survived are probably the best, the creme of the crop. Perhaps that's true; but, wonderfully, we may now be able to find out, by comparing them to others. Apparently, there's something for everyone:

Their operation is likely to increase the number of great literary works fully or partially surviving from the ancient Greek world by up to a fifth. It could easily double the surviving body of lesser work - the pulp fiction and sitcoms of the day.

And Sophocles? He's in there, too; a portion of one of his tragedies is part of the find and is being deciphered.

It's only a fraction of the lost works, but perhaps further finds, and further advances in technology, will help us to recover even more. Modern science is a double-edged sword, giving us dilemmas and problems along with its advances, but this particular application of modern science to ancient literature can only be considered wonderful, stupendous, glorious. It touches the heart and spirit as well as the mind--a graphic demonstration that even that which had once seemed lost forever can sometimes be found.

Amtrak came through

Well, I'm here in NY, at my brother's. And I'm happy to report that Amtrak is much improved, despite the lack of fancy high-speed Acelas. The milk train doesn't stop anywhere anymore; even the slower train wasn't so very slow, and the seats were actually rather comfortable. The air-conditioning worked, which was extremely important, since summer decided to arrive rather precipitously (as it often does in this part of the country), bypassing spring almost entirely. My only complaint was the cafe car (the less said the better), and the fact that I was on the sunny side of the train and there are no window shades.

Oh, and the train was ten minutes early (that's not a complaint, by the way).

Sunday, April 17, 2005

I'm not taking it personally,but...

...why, oh why, did this have to happen on the weekend I was planning to take the Acela to NY for the very first time?

Amtrak, oh Amtrak. I keep hoping it will be improved from the last time I tried it, before the Acela was even a gleam in some Amtrak executive's eye. But I figure it's got to be better than when I took the Boston to NY train over Thanksgiving vacation during the Carter-era oil crisis, when there were twice as many people on the train as there were seats. It can't be that bad, right? Right?

So, today is a travel day. Please wish me luck (the good kind)!

He's back!

I've been checking every now and then, hoping to see a new post--and, sure enough, Vietpundit's back! None the worse for wear, I trust. One of my first blogger friends/helpers, Vietpundit has an unusual and interesting history and perspective. You might want to take a look.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Experts for life

A reader, as well as Roger Simon, alerted me to this article by Victor Davis Hanson. It makes some excellent points, as usual, and is well-written, as usual. If you're not familiar with his work, you might want to put him on your reading list. The article is about the failure of many "experts"--on both sides--to predict recent events.

One thing I don't understand: is being an expert like being "President for life?" That is, once you are anointed, appointed, elected, whatever, to "expert" status, is there nothing that can impeach you? Like, maybe, being wrong; like maybe, over and over and over again?

I have noticed that a bad track record on analyzing or predicting events is brushed over and ignored, and that experts keep on prognosticating and experticizing (yes, I know it's not a word, but I think it should be). They are rarely, if ever, called on it--that would probably make the experts angry, and would reduce the field from which the cable news stations can draw. And then what would they do?

It reminds me of a related question I've often wondered about: does anyone check up on psychics? How many of their yearly predictions actually come true--the ones that aren't totally vague, that is? Perhaps people just don't want to know--it's a lot more fun to believe. And a lot more lucrative for the psychics.

Saddam gets interviewed, but Dan Rather doesn't get the scoop this time

One of the wonderful things about blogs is that they make it possible to read news that would otherwise be missed. The Iraqi bloggers continue to offer their unique perspective, and Big Pharaoh in Egypt manages to bring still another slant to things. Without him, who outside of the Middle East would know about this, a purported interview with Saddam Hussein in his prison cell?

It's a radio interview, so I suppose it's possible it's not authentic. But it sure sounds like him--arrogant (although Big Pharaoh, oddly enough, says Saddam was "humble" while answering the questions--perhaps it was just the fact that he was answering questions at all, or that the interviewer was allowed to address him using the familiar form of "you"?)

Turns out the guy was framed. Naturally; aren't they always? And turns out he thinks it's Bush who should actually go on trial (no doubt some here would agree with him). Here's part of the interview:

Al Fayhaa: We are not talking about occupation here but about the crimes that were committed by you against the Iraqi people. The mass graves, the killings.

Saddam: These are all fabrications. There isn't a single evidence to prove that I killed anyone or pulled the trigger on anyone. These are all lies.

Al Fayhaa: There are tons of papers with your signature on them. They all prove that arrests and murders were committed after your command.

Saddam: Anyone can forge signatures. I never touched an Iraqi citizen with harm.

The interview made me think of Arendt's controversial phrase "the banality of evil." Ever since she wrote it, people have been arguing about just what she meant, and I have no doubt I won't be settling that question here. But one of the things I think she may have meant is "the seeming banality of evildoers when they are finally captured and under the control of others."

Saddam the dictator, able to control the lives of so many, with the ability to torture and murder at will (or to order others to do it for him)--encountering that man in the full flush and exercise of his power was to encounter a person who emanated evil. I saw a TV biography of Saddam once, and it included one of the most memorable sequences I've ever seen, perhaps the most chilling demonstration of pure evil ever captured on documentary film. If you've seen it, I doubt you could ever forget it.

Not long after obtaining power, Saddam had called a large assembly of his underlings together, men who were officials of various types in the government. In front of the assembled crowd, he called out the names of those he felt had betrayed him in one way or other, and his goons took them out to be summarily executed. He had the entire thing filmed, much as Hitler had filmed the slow executions of those who had tried to assassinate him.

The look on each man's face as he heard his name called and realized what was going on, the nervous and frantic applause others in the audience started in hopes of placating Saddam and avoiding being chosen (like dogs going belly-up at the approach of an aggressive top dog), the gleam of pleasure in his eye as he relished the spectacle--no, nothing banal there. Totally horrifying; something out of the Roman Coliseum, something epic and truly barbaric.

But Saddam in power was one thing; Saddam in jail, quite another. The latter seems banal, but that's because his power has been taken away, and he is made to move to the rhythms and desires of others. Those with power over him now tell him when to eat, when to bathe, when to talk, when to be silent. Now, he has to listen to a radio interviewer address him by the familiar "inta," now, listeners call in to the talk show and give opinions on what should be done with him.

And still he gives off that air of unbridled arrogance, along with claims that should be familiar to anyone who has read transcripts from Nuremberg or other war crimes trials. He never killed anyone himself, he says. He should be allowed to go into exile (well, after all, didn't Idi Amin? In Saudi Arabia, by the way.)

I think it's not merely face-saving bravado; I think his ego is such that he believes it actually will happen. He spent most of his life giving orders to others, and getting away (literally) with murder. Why shouldn't he think he can somehow continue to do so? Paradoxically, his arrogance is the best evidence of all that he's been treated awfully well while in captivity.

UPDATE: Reader Steve S. (see comments) informs me that Big Pharaoh has just updated his post to say that the interview was a simulation, not Saddam himself.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Deterrence: thinking about the unthinkable

Nuclear deterrence appears to have "worked" during the Cold War to prevent the conflagration most of us who grew up in those times feared and half-expected might happen. If deterrence did work, it was because both the US and the USSR were interested in the survival of their respective countries and people.

Deterrence is an ugly way to go about it--after all, its efficacy rests on the supposition that we be willing to launch a large-scale fleet of nuclear weapons to retaliate against an attack. But somehow, paradoxically, having been on record as being committed to such a course of action seems to have worked to prevent it from actually ever taking place. One can surmise this, although there is no way to know for certain how heavily deterrence weighed into the calculations of the nations involved.

One of the many frightening things about the current crop of Islamicist terrorists is that they are seemingly unconcerned about the survival of any particular country or its people, and they are more than willing to sacrifice populations in order to get what they want. Their focus is less on this world and more on their vision of the world to come, with the consequence that they appear to lack compunctions about blowing us all to kingdom come.

Here's an interesting attempt by Michael Levi, entitled "Old Guard" (in the subscription-only New Republic), to update the notion of deterrence and make it relevant to the world of modern-day terrorism.

Levi makes two main points. The first is the idea of retaliation even for failed attacks:

A new approach would start by rethinking the terrorist calculus. Observers are right to assume that groups like Al Qaeda would be willing to endure severe retribution following a successful nuclear attack, undermining a basic tenet of deterrence. But such groups may not be willing to endure severe retribution following a failed nuclear plot--for them, that would be the worst of all worlds. As a result, promising retribution for even failed nuclear plots may deter terrorists from taking risks in the first place, and hence from initiating attacks. A strategy like this would work best if combined with homeland security measures designed to make terrorist failure more likely.

The second idea is to make it easier to trace nuclear weaponry to its source throught the use of nuclear "fingerprints," enhancing the capacity to retaliate against states (who are theoretically, at least, more deterrable) who might try to give nuclear arms to terrorists.

The whole notion of deterrence seems morally abhorrent. It's both difficult and horrifying to realize what we are actually talking about here, which is threatening the large-scale killing of mostly civilian populations in return for the large-scale killing of our mostly civilian population. And, in order to work, it must not be perceived as a bluff; it must be clear to the terrorists and the countries with the potential to supply them that we mean what we say, and are prepared to carry it out.

Here's Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara speaking in 1967 on the concept of deterrence, as it worked back then:

The point is that a potential aggressor must believe that our assured-destruction capability is in fact actual, and that our will to use it in retaliation to an attack is in fact unwavering. The conclusion, then, is clear: if the United States is to deter a nuclear attack in itself or its allies, it must possess an actual and a credible assured-destruction capability

It seems particularly apt that the acronym at the time for the policy of deterrence vis a vis the Soviets was MAD (mutually assured destruction). The whole scenario seemed mad indeed, something out of science fiction. Did it work? I certainly have no particular expertise in the matter, although it seems logical to suppose that deterrence was indeed a factor.

But one thing seems clear: as abhorrent as thinking this way is (most especially, the idea of retaliating for a failed attack, an attack in which no one has even been killed!), we need to conceive of the horrible possibilities in order to combat them, although sometimes the possible solutions seem almost as horrible. What is the best solution? I certainly do not know. But the idea is that, if we send out the message of readiness to retaliate, we will avoid having to actually do so.

As Levi himself says, we are by no means assured that this approach will be effective. Towards the conclusion of his article, he writes:

None of these elements of a new deterrence strategy is as rock-solid as cold war deterrence once was, and nothing will change that.

I'm not sure I would ever have characterized Cold War deterrence as "rock-solid" (perhaps it was, but, if so, only in retrospect). But it would be a major mistake not to consider these terrible scenarios and try to plan for them as best we can. In fact, if we fail to do so, it would also be "mad."

So, we face a terrible dilemma: which way lies madness? Perhaps both ways. But the way of preparedness and deterrence seems to be the necessary way to go, as it seems to have been back in those Cold War days. I never thought we'd be feeling so much as a hint of nostalgia for the relative "rock-solidness" of their deterrence--but, regretfully, here we are.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

The fox and the hedgehog: Kerry and Bush revisited

Here's a guy I'd love to have known. Everything I've ever read about Isaiah Berlin indicates that he was one of the most fascinating people ever; a giant mind, a great heart, and a tremendous sense of joy. One of these days (yeah, right!) I'm going to actually read some of his works, instead of just excerpts and tantalizing quotes.

Berlin is famous for his distinction between the fox (who knows many things) and the hedgehog (who knows one great thing). Here's Berlin explaining the idea:

For there exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel-a single, universal, organizing principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance-and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way, for some psychological or physiological cause, related by no moral or aesthetic principle.

During the 2004 campaign, many people pointed out that Bush was the quintessential hedgehog, and Kerry the classic fox. I agree. So why, so long after the election, am I bringing this up again?

Well, one reason is that I really, really, like the fox/hedgehog distinction, so I thought it bears repeating. But the other reason is something that just occurred to me, and that is that perhaps some of the enmity towards Bush comes from lack of understanding of the value of hedgehogginess. Perhaps even some of the anger at Kerry stems from a contempt for foxiness, for all I know (I'm somewhat of a fox myself, so I don't think that's what I dislike about Kerry--it is his shiftiness and narcissism, and his inability to take any stand.)

It's a yin/yang thing, I guess; the world seems to need both types. Each is best at certain tasks. For dealing with the war against Islamicist fundamentalist terrorism, I think it's clear we need a hedgehog. Others, of course, think a fox is the way to go.

My guess is that the Democratic party right now has a much higher percentage of foxes than the Republicans do, and that hedgehogs are far more numerous among Republicans than Democrats. Perhaps the short version of what happened to people like me, post-9/11 (the very short, hedgehoggy version), is that we changed from fox to hedgehog.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

It's getting better all the time: Iraqization

The articles don't acknowledge it explicitly. But it appears that "Iraqization," derided by so many, is beginning to succeed. We have quietly, and with great determination, continued to train troops. Now, despite all the criticism, that effort is clearly bearing fruit.

Here's the NY Times of April 12th, an article entitled "Military Raid in Baghdad Captures 65, Officials Say":

Hundreds of Iraqi troops and commandos backed by American soldiers swept through central and southern Baghdad early Monday morning, capturing at least 65 suspected insurgents in one of the largest raids in the capital since the fall of Saddam Hussein, military officials said.

Next paragraph contains what I call "the obligatory corrective"--that is, the bad news that must follow all good news, even if the bad news has nothing to do with the headline of the story. In this case, it's news of the kidnapping of an American contractor.

But after that, the article returns to the successful raid. Of course, it describes it without context or commentary (something it wouldn't be doing had the raid been unsuccessful, you can bet your bottom dollar). But still, we have the following important and extremely encouraging information:

In the raid, more than 500 Iraqi soldiers and police officers cordoned off areas in some of Baghdad's most dangerous and crime-ridden areas, searching from house to house in more than 90 locations with American troops playing a supporting role, United States military officials said...The raid was the latest of several large-scale operations led by Iraqi forces in recent weeks.

There's not much else in the article describing the raid; the rest is basically a discussion of Iraqi politics. But, reading between the lines, the story seems to be that the Iraqi forces performed credibly and effectively, and that this is happening more and more. Notice, also, that the US played backup here. Lately, that seems to be the situation, and my guess is that it accounts for the effectiveness of recent operations, and the large numbers of "insurgents" (i.e. murderers, terrorists, Saddamites, and foreign agitators) captured and/or killed. Logic dictates that the fact that Iraqi intelligence and Iraqi forces are leading the way makes this sort of large-scale operation much easier to carry off.

Months ago, who would have predicted it? Certainly and most assuredly not the NY Times. I wish they would publish something that acknowledges what a major breakthrough this is, what astounding progress has been made, and how another Vietnam analogy has bitten the dust.

Oh, well--never mind, as Emily Litella would say.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Ho Jo's No Go

I heard it on my car radio this evening while I was driving. I don't even know what they were saying about it--I just caught some fleeting mention of the name, and something about it being the last one in Maine. The last what in Maine? The last Howard Johnson's restaurant.

How the mighty have fallen. One with Nineveh and Tyre, and all that. My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings: look on my Works ye Mighty, and despair. Those orange roofs that had dotted the highways of my youth, gone? There were so many once, like the passenger pigeons that had blackened the nineteenth-century skies; how could they be no more?

Well, it turns out they're not all gone. In this internet age, there is a website devoted to Ho Jo, where one can learn (as I did) that nine Howard Johnson's still remain, the last leaves on the spindly Ho Jo tree; soon to be eight, with the sole Vermont one closing next month.

One can also learn of the great and illustrious history of HoJo's, named after its founder, one Howard Johnson. The man was a marketing genius who almost-singlehandedly invented the fast food business. He started the first HoJo in Quincy, Massachusetts, in the 1920s; by the midst of the Depression he had 25 of them going in the state, having also invented the concept of the restaurant francise. He correctly foresaw the changes the automobile would bring, and located his restaurants accordingly. He started the practice of doing most of the cooking in a centralized location and then shipping the product to the local restaurants for the finishing touches. He came up with the idea of standardizing the architecture (and everything else), using signature orange roofs, highly visible and instantly recognizable
(Golden Arches, anyone?). He thought America needed more ice cream flavors than vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry--twenty-five more, in fact--and America agreed.

I didn't know until I was twenty-one years old and had moved to New England for the first time (Boston) that a clam had a body part called a belly, and that this part could be eaten. Before that, I had only known Howard Johnson's clams, and Howard Johnson's clams were expurgated, bowlderized, sanitized. America wasn't ready for the clam belly (or perhaps they didn't freeze, store, and ship well?), so HoJo's selected only the bland and rubbery feet, and fried those in quantity, ignoring the way New Englanders eat clams--whole, with the soft belly tasting strongly of the ocean.

But the piece de resistance (although no one tried to resist it), the creme de la creme, was Howard Johnson's ice cream. I was especially partial to the flavor peppermint stick, which sounds awful but was fabulous. I do believe that HoJo's ice cream would stand up well even now, in this era of premium and gelati and $3.50 cones.

Why did Howard Johnson's die out? Poor management, lack of interest, cost-cutting, competition, changing tastes--whatever. It's time had come and gone.

The last time I was at a Howard Johnson's was in New Hampshire in 1986, at four-thirty AM in the dead of winter. We had gotten up in the middle of the night, dragged our 6-year-old out of bed, and gone with friends to see Halley's Comet. The only way to view it, the newspaper had said, was to wait for the wee hours of the morning, and go out into the country where there were no lights to interfere.

But the night was bitter cold--way below zero--and, even though it was clear out, Halley's Comet looked no more visible than any ordinary star, perhaps even less so. Afterwards, we passed the HoJo's, saw that it was open, and stopped there for pancakes. We were punchy from lack of sleep, but I remember it as one of the most enjoyable meals ever, a sort of clandestine conspiratorial party, all of us up and dressed and exhausted, out at a time when the rest of the world slept on.

I knew it was virtually impossible that I'd ever see Halley's Comet again (next time it comes, it will be the year 2062). What I didn't know was that I'd never eat at another Howard Johnson's.

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