Saturday, July 30, 2005

Playing the racist card

In this post of mine about Peretz's article on the attitude of the Presbyterian and Episcopalian church leaderships towards Israel and the Palestinians, I found this interesting comment from one of my many anonymous readers:

"nihilistic darlings"
"murderous ideologies"
"the most murderous people on the planet"

Just a few gems of some of the most over the top anti-Arab propaganda I've seen lately! I find it ironic that, in your attempt to point out Anti-Semitism, you let loose with anti-Arab vitriol.

The first two phrases are quotes from me, the second is from another commenter. In fact, I find it ironic that my post was most decidedly not an attempt to point out anti-Semitism, which makes me question whether "anonymous" even read the post itself with any care. But that's a side issue.

I call the comment "interesting" because it demonstrates a trend I've noticed over and over again among the left and others who disagree with those criticizing Islamofascists: the playing of, not the race card, but the racist card. When in doubt, when all argument and all logic fails, when it's not possible or when it's merely difficult to attack an argument on the merits, the preferred approach is to call the writer a racist.

Is it racism to speak truth about a general trend among a group? If someone were to say, for example, that Ethiopians and Kenyans are overrespresented among distance runners--in fact, are probably the best runners, as a group, in the world--is that racist? It's just a fact. Does it mean that all Ethiopians and Kenyans are good runners? No. Does it mean that the running propensities of Ethiopians and Kenyans are innate and hardwired? Not necessarily. It's simply an observation borne out by facts--these groups are overrepresented among distance runners.

So it is for the Palestinians. There is a nihilistic strain among Palestinians, and in many other Arab cultures, that is quite powerful. Are nihilists overrepresented in Arab culture? Yes. Are all Arabs nihilists? Of course not. Are all nihilists Arabs? Absolutely not. But to call the Palestinians the "nihilistic darlings" of the Episcopal and Presbyterian churches is simply a statement of fact, and one that, in the original context in which I wrote it, was directed towards critiquing the leadership of those churches (not towards rank and file Episcopalians and Presbyterians, by the way--and would it be racist if it had been? Are all groups races? For that matter, are the Palestinians even a race? Of course not).

In addition, note that commenter "anonymous" is not particularly careful with his/her quotes and their interpretation. Yes indeed, I did write "nihilistic darlings" about the Palestinians whom the Church leadership favors--meaning, of course, the widespread support of Palestinians in general for the numerous nihilists among them. But here is the context for the quote "murderous ideologies":

Although some in these particular churches have a history of fellow-traveling with other murderous ideologies such as Communism, Peretz rightly points out that...

To call such a comment "over the top anti-Arab propoganda" and "vitriol" is, quite simply, an absurdity. By "murderous ideologies" I think it's quite clear that I am referring to terrorism and Islamofascism, not to Arabs or to Islam as a whole, and in this quote I'm especially applying the phrase to Communism. Hardly a race, and certainly not Arabs.

As for the final quote, "the most murderous people on the planet," the actual quote is from this comment, and it goes like this:

Hoping to be spared the hatred of the most murderous peoples on the planet, they are ready to feed the Jews to the crocodile in the hopes they will be eaten last.

I'm not sure whether it's important that the word is actually "peoples" and not "people." But, once again, it's simply a fact. As Samuel Huntington put it "Islam has bloody borders."

Why deny it? Is it racist to say anything critical about a group, however true, however obvious, however important it is to know? If the "anonymouses" of the world had their way back in WWII, would we have had to have kept mum about the murderous ideology of Nazism, and its support among the German people?

How do I truly feel about Islam? Well, along with Dr. Sanity, I don't much care one way or the other about it. I never really noticed it until recently. I only care about it when it's used by murderers as an excuse to kill me and other innocent people, and to glory in such murders. And Arabs? They're fine, never had a moment's problem with them, until I realized that so many of them were celebrating and advocating the death of Americans, Israelis, Jews, and other westerners, and that there is something about the culture that seems to foster and support this sort of thing. It is simply an empirical fact, and if we ignore it or cover it up, we do so, quite literally, at our own peril.

Friday, July 29, 2005

Peretz's "J'accuse"

Via Dean Esmay, here's a thought-provoking Martin Peretz article from last week's issue of The New Republic (no subscription necessary in this case).

Peretz's "J'accuse" is directed towards the support by the hierarchy of the Presbyterian and Episcopalian churches of their nihilistic darlings, the Palestinians. Although some in these particular churches have a history of fellow-traveling with other murderous ideologies such as Communism, Peretz rightly points out that, at least at the beginning, it was possible to be a well-meaning useful idiot and believe the ideals of Communism without seeing where it would lead. But he also rightly points out that it's hard to see how one can ignore the fact that the Palestinians currently demonstrate:

a stagnant class structure, unproductive economic habits, an uncurious and increasingly reactionary culture, deeply cruel relationships between the sexes and toward gays, no notion of an independent judiciary, and a primitive religious mentality that gains prestige in society even as it emphasizes the promise of sexual rewards in paradise for martyrs — a crude myth that has served successfully as an incentive for suicide bombings not only in Israel but also in Iraq and throughout the Arab world. And no real challenge to any of these backward actualities has arisen in all of the turmoil the movement has sown.

Hardly the stuff to which the "progressive" UN-loving pacifists in the Presbyterian and Episcopalian churches ought to be drawn. So, why are they? Peretz's conclusion is that they are reacting against something rather than towards something, and the "something" they are reacting against is Israel, through the time-honored tradition of anti-Semitism--not overt this time, but covert.

I agree that anti-Semitism is probably part of what drives them (whether they know it or not) to focus rather obsessively on the Palestinian cause, while many other far more worthwhile causes are ignored.

But I also disagree with Peretz; I don't think anti-Semitism is their main motivation at all. I think that Peretz's background on the left may be blinding him to the fact that becoming a Palestinian booster is voguish on the left as a whole. I don't think it's possible to ignore the effects of trendiness, propaganda, and above all the idea of Palestinians as impoverished third-world victims vs. the imperialist and Western Jews of Israel. Forgot the reality--for example, the number of impoverished Jewish emigrants in Israel from Arab countries themselves--the triumph of what in my previous post was referred to as "imagology" is a huge part of this belief system.

Years ago, Yeats famously wrote in "Among School Children": Both nuns and mothers worship images. I think the Presbyterian and Episcopalian leaders are hardly immune to another sort of image-worship, that of the political, and I think that's what is operating here far more powerfully than the latent anti-Semitism that is probably part of the mix.

Imagology vs. reality

There are certain authors I keep coming back to. One of them is Milan Kundera, whom I first read and loved about twenty-five years ago, but whose works, on rereading, seem even more loaded with political and philosophical insight than I realized at the time. One can open them randomly and start reading, and find something pertinent on nearly every page.

Here's a quote from Kundera's 1990 work Immortality that I think bears another look. He is talking about the ascendance of imagery (which he refers to as "imagology," meaning suggestive images and slogans) over ideology, or even over reality:

For example, communists used to believe that in the course of capitalist development the proletariat would gradually grow poorer and poorer, but when it finally became clear that all over Europe workers were driving to work in their own cars, [the communists] felt like shouting that reality was deceiving them. Reality was stronger than ideology. And it is in this sense that imagology surpassed it: imagology is stranger than reality, which has anyway long ceased to be what it was for my grandmother, who lived in a Moravian village and still knew everything through her own experience: how bread is baked, how a house is built, how a pig is slaughtered and the meat smoked, what quilts are made of, what the priest and the schoolteacher think about the world; she met the whole village every day and knew how many murders were committed in the country over the last ten years; she had, so to speak, personal control over reality, and nobody could fool her by maintaining that Moravian agriculture was thriving when people at home had nothing to eat. My Paris neighbor spends his time an an office, where he sits for eight hours facing an office colleague, then he sits in his car and drives home, turns on the TV, and when the announcer informs him that in the latest public opinion poll the majority of Frenchmen voted their country the safest in Europe (I recently read such a report), he is overjoyed and opens a bottle of champagne without ever learning that three thefts and two murders were committed on his street that very day.

Public opinion polls are the critical instrument of imagology's power, because they enable imagology to live in absolute harmony with the people. The imagologue bombards people with questions: how is the French economy prospering? is there racism in France? is racism good or bad? who is the greatest writer of all time? is Hungary in Europe or in Polynesia? which world politician is the sexiest? And since for contemporary man reality is a continent visited less and less often and, besides, justifiably disliked, the findings of polls have become a kind of higher reality, or to put it differently: they have become the truth. Public opinion polls are a parliament in permanent session, whose function it is to create truth, the most democratic truth that has ever existed. Because it will never be at variance with the parliament of truth, the power of imagologues will always live in truth, and although I know that everything human is mortal, I cannot imagine anything that would break its power.

Kundera has described a great deal of what drives public opinion today, and how public opinion in turn shapes the perception of reality in a circular feedback loop facilitated by polling. He doesn't mention the MSM directly here (he does get to it later), but of course it's a big part of this loop.

I found his analysis of why it is possible for the process to work this way particularly compelling; the scale of modern life makes it impossible to know about things in the way people in a village used to know what was going on in that small arena. And so we are dependent on image shapers and the media to construct a reality for us, and we are often none the wiser that it is a distorted reality.

Kundera follows this passage with another one that discusses the ascendance of imagology over ideology. Even Kundera didn't quite foresee the way in which sophisticated imagology (the Al Jazeera network, for example) would feed into an ancient ideology (Islamicist supremecy and supercesssionism) along with advanced techniques of terrorism, and create the mess we encounter today.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Avoiding racial profiling at all costs?

This editorial is from Tuesday's New York Times, but the attitude it expresses could have been found in almost any liberal newspaper.

Subsequent to the London subway bombings, New York has had to decide how to increase security on public transit, and so there have been random searches of backpacks and the like. The Times editorial explains:

The police officers must be careful not to give the impression that every rider who looks Arab or South Asian is automatically a subject of suspicion. They will naturally choose to search the bags of those people who appear suspicious, like those wearing bulky clothes in warm weather. But those who are selected simply because they are carrying packages should be chosen in a way that does not raise fears of racial profiling - by, for example, searching every 5th or 12th person, with the exact sequence chosen at random.

This need to avoid racial profiling at all costs, or even the appearance of racial profiling or fears of racial profiling, is puzzling. Yes, of course, it's true that not all terrorists and suicide bombers fit the profile of a young adult Arab Moslem male--there's Richard Reid, and the recent Somalian of the second group of London subway bombings. But there is no doubt that most do indeed fit that profile.

And of course no one is suggesting that all who do fit that profile are bombers; the vast majority are not. And yet it is folly, if not insanity, to deny that young adult Arab Moslem males are far more likely than anyone else to be suicide bombers, and that, in a more logical world, they should be subject to greater scrutiny.

In regular police work, usually a crime has already been committed when the police are doing a search. If there is also a witness who has given a description of the subject--let's say, for example, a young white male of medium height wearing a black hooded sweatshirt and having a huge scar on his forehead--the police are not going to search every fifth person driving through a roadblock. No, they are going to look for young white males fitting the description, or else we would consider our tax money poorly spent and our police hopelessly incompetent. But such a search is not considered racial profiling, because it is based on an actual description of an actual suspect by an actual witness to an actual crime.

Racial profiling is usually done in the context of stopping cars based on the race of the driver and searching them for drugs. Even if members of certain races are statistically somewhat more likely to be dealing drugs than others, it's not as though drug dealing and race are inextricably linked. There are no races or subsets of races, for example, that have as part of their ideology that members must deal drugs; the racial factors in drug dealing are statistical--social and perhaps economic, but hardly ideological in nature. And the need to prevent drug dealing cannot even remotely be compared to the need to prevent suicide bombings.

Which brings us to the other operative word, prevent. With backpack searches in mass transit, we are not looking to solve a crime by finding a criminal ex post facto. We are looking to prevent a crime that has the potential for mass murder. If this doesn't justify a bit of racial profiling that acknowledges what type of person is most likely to be a perpetrator, what would?

It's not that random searches have no place in the prevention of suicide bombings--they do. As terrorists turn more and more to those who don't fit the traditional profile (Somalis, as in London; women, as in Palestine/Israel), the random search becomes more and more valuable, especially as a possible deterrent. It's unlikely that the police would happen upon an actual bomber by chance in a random search, but the knowledge that such searches are occurring might act to keep any non-Arab bombers from feeling safe, and could perhaps discourage some of them from even trying an attack. So I would not be one to argue against random searches--they are one more weapon in an arsenal that needs to be varied.

But it's not an either/or proposition. There's no reason not to do the most reasonable thing: random searches plus racial (or, in this case, religious and even gender) profiling. It's the only thing that makes any sense.

But political correctness often trumps common sense nowadays. The NY Times doesn't seem to feel, in the quoted editorial, that there is even a need to explain why being careful to avoid any hint of racial profiling is more important than the need to protect people who ride public transit against a terrorist attack. The authors of the editiorial seem to think the reasons are self-evident. I, for one, would like to hear their argument, because those reasons are certainly not evident to me.

And yes, I understand the need to protect our civil rights. But we are not talking about throwing young Moslem males of Arab origin into detention camps like those that housed Japanese Americans during WWII. We are talking about subjecting them to greater scrutiny in backpack searches; not exactly the most terrible violation of a person's rights. I like to think that, if I were a young Moslem Arab male in the US who was not a terrorist, I would understand and freely cooperate with such a need on the part of law enforcement.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Egyptians mugged by reality?

There have been a number of recent demonstrations in Egypt against terrorism. Blogger Big Pharaoh describes some of the goings-on here and here.

Big Pharaoh found the experience exhilarating and empowering:

Today was a great day for me. I feel very satisfied with myself. Today I felt that I really did something against the terrorists even if what I did was not so huge and lasted for 20 to 30 minutes...We stood on the pavement facing the passing cars and held those placards. I felt as if I looked like the guy who carries the "The End is Near" sign!!

Well, carrying and displaying the "No to Terrorism" sign made me feel soooo good. At last I did something. I felt as if I was poking my finger into the eyes of an ugly terrorist. People started looking and reading what was written. A number slowed down just to read what we were displaying. Others sounded their car horns...

I predict (and certainly hope) that more and more in the Moslem and Arab world will come to see that the terrorists are their sworn enemies who do not care one whit if they blow up thousands of their own people. It appears that, drunk on their own blood lust, the terrorists may have overplayed their hand.

As I wrote on this thread of Roger Simon's:

As time goes on, it becomes clearer and clearer that the terrorists are not as "strategic" and "smart" as some think they are. In fact, they appear to be motivated mainly by a deeply murderous nihilism. If they had just kept to killing Israelis and Americans, they might not have let the world know what they were about. But the more they commit acts such as these, the more unequivocally clear it becomes that--whatever excuses and motivations they may try to give for their actions--they are at war with all of humanity.

Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who's the fairest primate of them all?

Ever since Koko the gorilla learned a rudimentary form of sign language years ago, our concept of animal consciousness has expanded. Putting aside for a moment the debate over whether animal communication can ever constitute actual language itself--whatever you call it, it's still pretty amazing. When Koko coined new signs such as "drink fruit" for watermelon, or asked for a replacement pet cat when hers died, it's hard to imagine that there wasn't something quite advanced happening in that construct we would almost have to refer to as her mind.

And then there's the topic of mirrors, which can be used to measure an animal's consciousness of self, or self-consciousness. According to this NY Times article, humans, apes, and perhaps dolphins have the ability to recognize their own images in a mirror, and now there is new evidence that monkeys may have some capacity to do so, too.

Dr. Frans de Waal of the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta has done research that challenges the idea that capuchin monkeys only see strangers when they look in a mirror. The behavior of the capuchins indicated some awareness that the image was not a stranger, although it stopped short of showing a sense of self. The monkeys' behavior front of the mirror varied according to their gender (I suppose that shouldn't surprise us too much):

The female capuchins, the researchers found, avoided eye contact with a strange monkey while also making friendly overtures. But in front of a mirror their behavior was different. They looked often at their image, almost as if trying to flirt with it. The male capuchins, in contrast, were seriously bothered by their image. Unlike Narcissus, they "appeared confused and distraught by their reflections" and often tried to escape from the testing room, the Yerkes team reports.

Theories about what might cause these differences aren't all that convincing:

The male capuchins, particularly the high-ranking ones, may be discomfited by their reflection because it fails to play by the rules of the monkey hierarchy and show them due deference. On the other hand, this realization might be expected to build up gradually in the minds of the male monkeys, making it hard to explain why they instantly perceive that the image is not a stranger...Male capuchins probably react differently from females because they take their mirror image more seriously and don't know how to handle it, Dr. de Waal said.

But female chimpanzees, members of the ape rather than the monkey family, have no such problems. Far from being discomfited or distraught, they react to mirrors as though they've been waiting for one all their lives:

Give a female chimp a mirror, and one can have no doubt she knows just what it is for. The chimp will look at the two important parts of her body that she can usually never see, Dr. de Waal said. One is the inside of her mouth; the other is her rear end.

Apparently, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Child's play

Just a short while after the Afghan war ended, the articles began. They screamed "The Taliban are back;" "The Taliban are taking over;" The Taliban are currently in control of most of the country," (or they soon will be).

So, what's the truth? Are the Taliban like the phoenix, rising renewed in vigor from the ashes of their own seeming destruction? Or are the Taliban like the dying snake sinking its fangs into its enemies during its own death throes, as in Austin Bay's metaphor about the Iraqi "insurgency"?

This recent article about the Taliban is a good indication that they are suffering from the sort of desperation that indicates the latter rather than the former:

Fierce fighting in recent months has devastated the ranks of the Taliban, prompting the rebels to recruit children and force some families to provide a son to fight with them, a US commander said yesterday.

The fighting has fractured the Taliban's command structure, preventing the militants from regrouping, even though there has been an upsurge in violence, Major General Jason Kamiya, the US military operational commander in Afghanistan, said in an interview.

Despite the setback -- more than 500 rebels have been killed since March -- the militants are likely to step up attacks in the run-up to the Sept. 18 legislative elections, he said. ''The Taliban and Al Qaeda feel that this is their final chance to impede Afghanistan's progress to . . . becoming a nation," Kamiya said. ''They will challenge us all the way through Sept. 18."

He said the rebels were desperately trying to recruit fighters to replace those killed recently, and have forced families in some areas ''to give up one son to fight."

''They have been hit so hard, they now have to recruit more fighters. They are recruiting younger and younger fighters: 14, 15, and 16 years old," Kamiya said. ''The enemy is having a hard time keeping its recruit rates up."

The fact that the source of the article is the AP makes the information therein even more impressive, since the AP has hardly been known for being overly optimistic about either the Afghan or the Iraqi wars. If the AP is reporting this much, my guess is that the actual situation for the Taliban might even be worse than indicated.

Traditionally, the use of younger and younger soldiers is a sign of desperation in a military movement, the end of the road. This website of WWII Nazi posters features the following recruiting poster from a time very late in the war when the Germans were using boys hardly removed from adolescence:

Posted by Picasa

Sad, and strange.

This post began with an article about the Taliban. But, as often happens, my research on one topic led to some unexpected findings on a related, but broader subject. It turns out that, far from being exceptional, the pernicious practice of using child soldiers appears to be increasing, not just in Afghanistan but in many third world countries, especially in Africa.

I have only scratched the surface of these websites, so I can't vouch for their content, but take a look at this one, for example. And even though I have had some disagreements with Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch lately, this work reminds me of the reasons I originally joined Amnesty many long years ago (see also this, and this).

There used to be a lower limit to the age of soldiers. Strength was required--originally for hand-to-hand fighting, and later for carrying and operating the heavy weapons. The balooning use of child soldiers lately has been made possible in part because of advancements in armaments, making weapons easier to operate and carry (one example of the law of unexpected consequences, I suppose). There is also evidence that their youth makes them more likely, not less, to commit atrocities. Chilling, and sobering.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Today and tomorrow

Well, I'm home. I'm thankful to have had an uneventful return trip. But today has been a very hectic and busy day getting myself reorganized--or rather, that is, beginning to get myself reorganized. So, no time for blogging today, although I plan to post tomorrow.

By the way, on the plane back to Logan they showed the movie "Fever Pitch," supposedly a light and entertaining comedy about a rabid Red Sox fan. Being a fan myself--although I plan to take the next few decades off, now that they've finally won the Series--I thought I'd like it. Unfortunately, though, it was lame, unconvincing, and pretty unfunny (unless they cut all the good parts to give it that G rating). Ah, well.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Another travel day

This morning I leave San Francisco for the return trip home. Taking the day off, hope to return to blogging tomorrow.

I guess I need to visit this one

A museum completely dedicated to the works of Magritte is in the planning stages. His most famous work, of course, the apple-in-front-of-face "Son of Man," will be there.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Publicists for terrorists

Austin Bay has written an article that is both thoughtful and thought-provoking. It covers a great deal of territory quickly and concisely, which is what Bay himself did on his recent whirlwind visit to Afghanistan and Iraq.

The article contains some evidence that Iraqization is starting to be effective, which ultimately will be the key to success in Iraq and a smaller American presence there. Bay doesn't wonder whether the American military can do the job in Iraq, he wonders whether US public opinion and support can be sustained long enough to let them do it. It's an excellent question, and Bay rightly notes the enormous role the press has to play in stirring up doubts.

Bay likens the Islamofascist terrorists in Iraq and elsewhere to a snake which, when attacked, uses its waning strength to strike a blow by sinking its fangs into its killer. The trouble is that many in this country don't recognize that this particular snake is slowly dying, because its biting and thrashing look so scary at the moment. He adds:

An alarming number of [those in the US] these days betray impatience with our progress in the war on terror. It leaves you wondering if anyone in Washington--at least anyone in the Baby Boomer political class--knows what it takes to win a long, tedious, unavoidable war.

Previous generations did indeed seem to have more grit in that respect. But in this they were helped by journalists who considered it their duty to shape news in order to encourage morale on the home front, not discourage it. And these journalists, and the public, were also helped by politicians with a gift for stirring rhetoric, such as Churchill and Roosevelt. When Churchill spoke of blood, toil, tears, and sweat, the British people were willing to give those things, in part because of him.

Like it or not, we now live in an age that tends to look down with irony, cynicism, and disdain on whatever military-boosting press and politically stirring rhetoric we might be offered. And I clearly recall that in the post-9/11 weeks and months, George Bush attempted to warn us all that the war against terrorism (his euphemism for the war on Islamofascism) would be a very long and hard one, perhaps at times seeming interminable. But for whatever reason--his lack of sonorous and elegant delivery among them--many do seem to have forgotten his words and their obvious truth.

The press is proud of its post-Vietnam tendency to differentiate itself from the government and the military's aims, and to be a sort of gadfly to them both. But, agree or disagree with the domino theory, Vietnam presented no clear and present danger to our country within our own boundaries. Now we do face such danger, although the press seems reluctant to adjust to this crucial difference.

In recent years it seems that the press has replaced its old pre-Vietnam role as willing and cooperative mouthpiece of its own government and military and instead has become the unwitting mouthpiece of the terrorists--those who would destroy that government. It's not that the press praises the terrorists, of course; it's simply that the work of the press has the effect of increasing public weariness and fear, which are among the terrorists' goals. Every attack is trumpeted to the skies because it's big news, but this means that the press is now in the business of publishing what amounts to terrorist press releases. As Bay writes:

Winning the global war against Islamicist terror ultimately means curbing the terrorists' strategic combat power, and that means ending the media magnification of their bombs.

How to end this "media magnification?" Easier said than done; we have a free press, and we wish it to remain so. It is certainly not realistic to expect the press to stop publishing news of terrorist attacks, although one wonders whether such a voluntary blackout, if it were to actually happen, would in fact deprive the terrorists of a great deal of their power.

All we can try to do is to be watchdogs of the press. That's part of where blogs come in--to point out the effects of publicizing terror, and to try to counter the fear, negativity, and weariness that ensues.

As one of those inspiring orators of times past, FDR, said in a different context years ago, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." It may not be the only thing, but it's one of the main things, and it is as true of fighting terrorism as it was of fighting the Depression. Perhaps even more so.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Paul Robeson (Part III--conclusion)--a mind can be an impossible thing to change

Now, for the source of the Itzhak Feffer story. It was Robeson's son, Paul Robeson, Jr.

I could not locate the original account, but the story itself can be found at a number of websites. My guess is that it first appeared in one of the biographies Robeson's son wrote about his father.

Here is the son's version of the tale, complete with a few more details than Horowitz included :

Though he had been cleaned up and dressed in a suit, Feffer's fingernails had been torn out....Though he couldn't speak openly, Robeson later told his son that the poet indicated by gestures and a few handwritten words that Mikhoels had been murdered on the orders of Stalin and that the other Jewish prisoners were being prepared for the same fate. After the two friends said goodbye, Feffer was taken back to the Lubyanka and would never be seen alive again. ...However, when Robeson returned home he condemned as anti-Soviet propaganda reports that Feffer and other Jews had been killed. Not once did Robeson denounce Feffer's murder. Later on Robeson confided in his son Paul Robeson Jr. the details of his meeting with Feffer. He made his son vow not to make the story public until well after his death, "because he had promised himself that he would never publicly criticize the USSR."

Robeson Jr., by the way, is an interesting figure himself. He is dedicated to rehabilitating his father's image and legacy, so his version of the story is certainly meant to be a sympathetic one. He is sympathetic to his father in other ways as well, being a Communist Party member. Here's Junior speaking on that subject:

[My father] wasn't the communist in the family, I was," he says. "He never joined any party. He, being a great artist, didn't do that. He thought it would destroy his effectiveness. I, being a generation younger and not an artist, felt that the way to be effective was through an organization.

So, the failure to join the party was a self-serving strategy on the part of the senior Robeson, rather than an ideological hesitation. In 1952, Robeson Sr. was awarded the Stalin Peace Prize by the Soviets, in appreciation of his support. If you have the stomach for it, you can read in its entirety here his fulsome tribute to Stalin . A telling excerpt from it gives some insight into the education and the formative years of Paul Jr.:

[Stalin] was clearly a man who seemed to embrace all. So kindly - I can never forget that warm feeling of kindliness and also a feeling of sureness. Here was one who was wise and good - the world and especially the socialist world was fortunate indeed to have his daily guidance. I lifted high my son Pauli to wave to this world leader, and his leader. For Paul, Jr. had entered school in Moscow, in the land of the Soviets.

Robeson did some monstrous things in the cause of Communism, but he probably was able to successfully salve his conscience--at least for a while--about the Feffer incident by a bit of artistic defiance. At some point (accounts differ as to whether this was around the time of the Feffer incident, or in a 1952 visit) Robeson did make a gesture towards Jewish solidarity while in the Soviet Union--not that this helped his friend Feffer any:

In a concert broadcast live across the Soviet Union, Robeson subtly defied Stalin's campaign against "Jewish cosmopolitanism" by ending his set with a song sung in Yiddish, Dos Partizanenlied (also known as Song of the Warsaw Ghetto Rebellion), an act that was interpreted by many Jews listening to the broadcast as a sign of solidarity and sympathy. The Yiddish song was cut from rebroadcasts of the concert....

A side issue--although an interesting one--is the complicated role Jews played in Robeson's life. Not only was Feffer Jewish, but Robeson's son married a Jewish woman, as previously mentioned in Part II. And when I was researching the elder Robeson's life, I noticed that the full maiden name of his wife (that's Paul Junior's mother) was Eslanda Cardozo Goode.

Cardozo? The same as the famous Jewish Supreme Court justice Benjamin Cardozo? Research leads to more research--a veritable garden of the forking paths--and here is some information on Eslanda. It turns out that Robeson's wife's grandfather Isaac Cardozo was indeed Jewish, and a member of the prominent Cardozo family. See here for some information on Isaac's father and brothers, and their role in the Revolutionary War.

But back to Robeson himself. As previously stated, Robeson's later years, after his 1961 Moscow collapse, were ones of depression and illness. He died in 1976.

What a sad and terrible tale. Outraged at the injustices he had suffered, he ended up perpetuating and defending injustices himself in the name of a cause whose deeply evil nature he could not acknowledge. It is highly possible, and even likely, that his knowledge of his own complicity caused his breakdowns, although I have no way of knowing for certain (his son, of course, thinks the CIA poisoned him).

Clearly, once Robeson had cast his lot with Communism he felt there was no turning back, no matter what horrors were committed in its name. In this he was not alone.

What is it that ultimately distinguishes those such as Robeson, who refuse to abandon the cause even in the face of incontrovertible evidence, from others who are able to renounce the cause in which they once believed? We cannot know for sure. But my guess would be that it depends partly on how deeply they need to believe (the deeper the need, the more difficult to face reality), and how much they have already compromised their own integrity in the service of that cause.

For some, perhaps the implications of having to face their own guilt are simply too great. It's almost as though they reach a point of no return, where to admit that the betrayals they committed in the service of that cause (such as Robeson's betrayal of Feffer) would be to face their own terrible and unbearable heart of darkness. How many people can freely accept a guilt so vast, if there is a way out through denial? Sometimes, of course, as with Robeson, even that denial is incomplete, and in the end they are not fully able to escape the consequences of their own guilt, whether they ever actually acknowledge it or not.

Remember, Feffer himself had been both a loyal Communist and a Jew. Just as much of the appeal of Communism to Robeson was its promise to deliver him what he so passionately desired, a color-blind world--so, likewise, many of the early Communists came from the ranks of secular Jews who believed and hoped with all their hearts that Communism would deliver them from the anti-Semitism from which they had suffered all their lives.

Feffer and the other Jews learned the truth too late, and they were destroyed. Robeson closed his eyes, but in the end I think the truth destroyed him in a different way.

San Francisco

In San Francisco today, and it's not even foggy. I am fortunate enough to be staying with relatives/friends who live not far from the Golden Gate Bridge.

Who doesn't love San Francisco? It's such a unique and lovely city--and of course there's the food. I hope I don't give the impression I'm obsessed with food--but, well, it is one of the major pleasures of life, and San Francisco is one of the best places to indulge. So, I plan to do just that, and there's a birthday celebration (not mine) this evening that should provide a good venue for doing so.

Whenever I drive or walk around this beautiful place, the thought keeps recurring to me: what do they do about these hills in the snow? How can they get up them in the ice? And then I remember that no, I'm not in New England, and there's never any snow here. For some reason that's a hard concept for me.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Paul Robeson (Part II): a mind can be an impossible thing to change

In attempt to begin to answer the questions posed at the end of Part I, I did a bit of research.

Here, for background, is some general biographical material on Robeson, showing what a trailblazer he was, the sort of discrimination he faced, and some of the emotional turmoil of his life (notice, once again, how the article glosses over Robeson's Communist alliances, to the point of making him seem almost like an innocent victim of McCarthyism):

Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976)

Born Paul Leroy Robeson on April 9th 1898 in Princeton, Paul Robeson (as he was later to become known) was the youngest of 5 children. His parents were Reverend Drew and Maria Louise Robeson. His father was a former slave who had escaped to freedom at the age of 15 and had gone on to earn theological degrees at Lincoln University. Paul's mother was a schoolteacher.

When Paul was just 6 years old, his mother died after her clothing caught fire over a coal stove. He was not at home when the accident occurred. A couple of years later in 1907, his family moved to Westfield where Paul's father built a small church and started ministering. Paul started attending an integrated public school for the first time.

By 1910, Reverend Robeson had moved his family to Somerville and became the pastor of St. Thomas A.M.E. Zion Church. Around this time, young Paul started showing his talents in music, athletics and oratory.

When Paul was 17 he won a 4-year scholarship to Rutgers in a state wide written competition. He became the 3rd African-American to attend the 500-student private college. At 6' 2" and weighing 190 lbs, Paul made it into the football squad, but he was benched when Washington and Lee College refused to take to the field against a black man. His coach regretted it and didn't bow to peer pressure after that. In fact, Paul was placed on the All-American team of coach Walter Camp and during his 4 years at the university, Paul racked up 15 varsity letters in 4 sports and became Rutgers' star scholar, orator and singer.

In May 1918, Paul's father died at the age of 73. Two years later, Paul started attending Columbia University Law School and paid for his own tuition by tutoring Coach Sanford's son in Latin and playing professional football. It was during 1920 that he met Eslanda 'Essie' Goode, who was a pathology technician. She later became his wife and was the one who encouraged Paul to take the title role in 'Simon The Cyrenian' at the Harlem YMCA. His performance caught the eye of several experienced theatre people.

In April 1922, Paul made his professional acting debut as Jim in 'Taboo' at the Sam Harris Theatre. He also starred in a British production of the play entitled 'Voodoo' in London.

Paul graduated from law school in 1923 and was taken on by Louis William Stotesbury at Stotesbury and Miner, a New York law firm. However, a white secretary refused to take dictation from Paul and so he resigned ending his short law career.

Paul's path continued in the arts and he debuted in the lead role of Eugene O'Neill's 'All God Chillun Got Wings' in Greenwich Village. The play caused some controversy as it cast a white woman as Paul's wife. During 1924, Paul also sang his first formal concert at the Copley Plaza Hotel in Boston and starred in his first film entitled 'Body and Soul'.

In 1925, Paul did a 16-sing concert of black spirituals in New York and it launched him into the spotlight. He was signed with an agent, James B. Pond, and toured and recorded 4 albums for the Victor Talking Machine Company.

Although he was becoming a huge success, Paul was still being treated badly in the USA and was denied hotel accommodation in many cities during his concert tour in 1926. He continued to tour in 1927 and Essie gave birth to their only child, Paul Robeson junior in early November.

In 1928, Paul performed the song 'Ol Man River' in the play 'Show Boat' in London. It created such a sensation that he performed for the King of Spain after the Prince of Wales recommended it.

The following year Paul and Essie were refused entry into the Savoy Grill in England and repercussions about this were felt all the way to the Parliament.

In 1930, Paul played Othello and found it to be his most fulfilling role to date. His wife published a biography on him entitled 'Paul Robeson, Negro'. This fuelled the tension between them and they started speaking of divorce. In 1931 however, Paul fell ill with a nervous disorder after a 3-month concert tour of the USA and was bedridden for a week. This was to be the first sign of a depressive disorder that would shadow his life.

The divorce talks were back on the cards for the Robesons in 1932, but they reconciled after Paul's mistress, an English actress called Yolande Jackson, broke off their engagement to marry a Russian prince.

In 1933 Paul starred in his first "talkie", Paramount's 'The Emperor Jones' and a year later toured the Soviet Union and wanted to settle his family there in 1935 as he felt all races were treated equally.

In 1936 Paul featured in 2 films, 'Song of Freedom' and 'King Solomon's Mines'. He also decided to send his son, Paul Jr to a Soviet Model School in the hopes it would shield him from the racial oppression of American schools.

Paul filmed the movie 'Jericho' in Egypt and helped Max Yergan found the Council on African Affairs (CAA) in 1937. He went on to establish the Negro Playwrights' Company in 1940. When Paul became a chair for the CAA in 1941, the FBI placed him under surveillance believing him to be a Communist.

Paul received the NAACP's highest honour, the Springarn medal in 1945 at a ceremony at the Biltmore Hotel. His son, Paul Jr married a Jewish girl, Marilyn Paula Greenberg in June of 1949 and hostile crowds threatened their wedding procession.

Paul became the first American banned from TV in 1950 when NBC stopped his appearance on 'Today with Mrs. Roosevelt' under the new Internal Security Act. All this stemmed from his being labelled a Communist and in 1953 he was blacklisted from record companies, but he funded his own label and recorded 2 albums, 'Paul Robeson Sings' and 'Solid Rock'.

In 1958 Paul celebrated his 60th birthday and India declared a Paul Robeson Day on March 17th. Paul also released his autobiography entitled 'Here I Stand' and his passport was finally returned to him after many years.

During 1961 Paul suffered an emotional collapse whilst on a visit to Moscow and was hospitalised for several months. He suffered throughout the year from bouts of exhaustion and chronic depression. He was finally diagnosed in 1963 at a Berlin clinic as having Paget's disease (a bone disorder) and at the same time, Essie was diagnosed with terminal cancer. On December 13th 1965, Essie died just before her 70th birthday. The following year, Paul moved in with his sister, Marion, who cared for him.

It wasn't until 1974 that the FBI stopped investigating Paul Robeson and 2 years later, in 1976 Paul suffered 2 strokes in less than a month and died at the age of 77 in Philadelphia.

Note the staggering effects of racism on Robeson, and how it dogged his footsteps most of his life despite all his fame. Note that his father had been a slave. Note another Jewish connection through his son's marriage (more about that later). Note the fact that he had a severe emotional collapse while visiting Moscow in 1961 (the same site as his meeting with Feffer but over ten years later, and about five years after the shattering revelations contained in the Khrushchev Report, detailing Stalin's crimes).

This article offers some insight into what caused Robeson to become a Communist--or, rather, an extreme Communist sympathizer (apparently, he was quite careful never to officially join the Party):

A critical journey at that time, one that changed the course of his life, was to the Soviet Union. Paul Robeson author Duberman depicted Robeson's time there: "Nights at the theater and opera, long walks with [film director Sergei] Eisenstein, gala banquets, private screenings, trips to hospitals, children's centers, factories ... all in the context of a warm embrace." Robeson was ecstatic with this new-found society, concluding, according to New York Times Book Review contributor John Patrick Diggins, "that the country was entirely free of racial prejudice and that Afro-American spiritual music resonated to Russian folk traditions. 'Here, for the first time in my life ... I walk in full human dignity.'" Diggins went on to assert that Robeson's "attraction to Communism seemed at first more anthropological than ideological, more of a desire to discover old, lost cultures than to impose new political systems. ... Robeson convinced himself that American blacks as descendants of slaves had a common culture with Russian workers as descendants of serfs."

And in the same article we find Robeson's response to the Khrushchev report and its revelations:

After World War II, when relations between the United States and the Soviet Union froze into the Cold War, many former advocates of communism backed away from it. When the crimes of Soviet leader Josef Stalin became public--forced famine, genocide, political purges--still more advocates left the ranks of communism. Robeson, however, was not among them. National Review contributor Joseph Sobran explained why: "It didn't matter: he believed in the idea, regardless of how it might be abused. In 1946 the former All-American explained his loyalty to an investigating committee: 'The coach tells you what to do and you do it.' It was incidental that the coach was Stalin." Robeson could not publicly decry the Soviet Union even after he, most probably, learned of Stalin's atrocities because "the cause, to his mind," Nation contributor Huggins theorized, "was much larger than the Soviet Union, and he would do nothing to sustain the feeding frenzy of the American right."

So it seems that Robeson's love for Communism was rooted in his idea that it was the antidote to the racism that had tormented this very proud man all his life. In this, of course, he was utterly mistaken, but it was a powerful dream that he could not relinquish: "Here, for the first time in my life...I walk in full human dignity." When push came to shove and Stalin's crimes became known, Robeson, like so many others, faced a choice between clinging to an ideal and rejecting that ideal because of the horrifically flawed reality that it had become. Like so many others, he clung to the power of the dream rather than face a harsh reality. (Once again, in describing this, I am not offering an excuse; merely an explanation. Robeson is responsible for his own moral failures.)

By this time, Robeson's betrayal of Feffer had already occurred. Robeson was a brilliant man and one who believed deeply in human rights. If I had to guess, I would say that at some later point it became nearly impossible for him to continue to deny to himself that he had been tragically mistaken in serving a cause that in fact had made a mockery of those ideals. Caught in a trap, he couldn't see his way towards renouncing his Soviet dream and his own complicity in those very crimes. But the knowledge of what he had done may have seeped in anyway, causing a deep and irreconcilable depression. It is no accident, to my way of thinking, that Robeson's first breakdown occurred in Moscow, post-Khrushchev. The scene of the crime--or crimes.

(Conclusion tomorrow...Part III.)

Gastronomic interlude

I have to put in a plug for the best Middle Eastern restaurant in Los Angeles, IMHO: the Carnival on Woodman in Studio City. Cheap, plentiful, and delicious--who could ask for anything more?

For me, Mideastern food is the best type of food on earth. I first ate it when I was about seven years old, and it was a revelation. An uncle took us to an Armenian restaurant in Manhattan, and when I took my first bite I thought, "Where have you been all my life?" It was as though until then I'd been eating in black-and-white, and now the food was in Technicolor. In those days, the only ethnic foods around tended to be Italian (pizza and spaghetti, and if you were really adventurous, some lasagna), and old-time Chinese of the chow mein and chop suey variety, plus a few soggy eggrolls.

For years afterwards, I made quite a pest of myself unsuccessfully begging my parents to take me back to the Armenian restaurant. It wasn't until I was grown up that Mideastern food became readily available, and I could indulge my craving. I also acquired a stable of Mideastern cookbooks, and cooked up a storm.

If you go to the Carnival, order the combo appetizer plate: tabooli, falafel, baba ganoush, and hummus. Or, actually, order anything.

(Driving up to San Francisco this afternoon. More culinary adventures await.)

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Paul Robeson (Part I)--a mind can be an impossible thing to change

This post isn't really another one about Radical Son, although it was sparked by a story that appeared in the book.

Horowitz relates a bloodcurdling incident in the life of the great Afro-American actor, singer, football player, Columbia Law School graduate, and Sovietophilic Communist-supporter Paul Robeson. The story, and that of Robeson's life in general, illustrates the depths to which adhering to the party line brought this otherwise great man--and those depths, as you shall see, were very deep.

The trajectory of Robeson's life is a highly cautionary tale of the ideological seduction of a gifted man by what was originally an idealistic dream, his failure to see the horror that dream had become, his severe moral compromise as a result, and the cost of that compromise to him and others. Robeson was a perfect example of just how very difficult it can be for a mind to change, no matter how insightful or otherwise intelligent that mind might be.

Here, by the way, is the basic liberal/leftist view of Robeson's life: Afro-American artist as victim. As we shall see, if you stick with me through this one, the truth is far more complex--and, I think, far more interesting.

In Radical Son, Horowitz writes that during WWII Josef Stalin had created a group called the Jewish Joint Anti-fascist Committee, designed to improve relations with his anti-Fascist Western allies such as the United States. The Russian Yiddish poet Itzhak Feffer was a member of the group (one of the Jewish parts of the "Committee"). While on a visit with the group to the US, he and Robeson (who spoke fluent Russian, by the way) became fast friends. After the war was over, however, in the late 1940s, Stalin--who had murdered countless people from the 30s on--now decided it was the Jews' turn, after all. Feffer was a fairly well-known literary figure and a Party stalwart, but this didn't prevent him from being among those arrested.

There were rumors in the US about what was happening. Robeson visited the Soviet Union around this time and asked to see Feffer. Horowitz writes:

[Robeson] was told by Soviet officials that he would have to wait. Eventually he was informed that the poet was vacationing in the Crimea and would see him as soon as he returned. The reality was the Feffer had already been in prison for three years, and his Soviet captors did not want to bring him to Robeson immediately because he had become emaciated from lack of food. While Robeson waited in Moscow, Stalin's police brought Feffer out of prison, and began fattening him up for the interview. When he looked sufficiently healthy, he was brought to Moscow. The two men met in a room that was under secret surveillance. Feffer knew he could not speak freely. When Robeson asked him how he was, he drew his finger nervously across his throat and motioned with his eyes and lips to his American comrade. "They're going to kill us, " he said. "When you return to America, you must speak out and save us."

After his meeting with the poet, Robeson returned home. When he was asked about Feffer and the other Jews, he assured his questioners that reports of their imprisonment were malicious slanders spread by individuals who only wanted to exacerbate Cold War tensions. Shortly afterward, Feffer, along with so many others, vanished into Stalin's gulag.

It was not that Robeson had not understood Feffer's message. He had understood it all too well. Because it was Robeson, near the end of his own life and guilty with remorse, who told the story long after Itzhak Feffer was dead.

This story literally made the hair on my arms stand up. I knew Robeson had been a Communist, or at least a Communist sympathizer (although whether or not he was technically a Party member is more or less irrelevant, so openly dedicated was he to the cause). But how could he have been guilty of such betrayal on a personal level? And why? I also wondered about Horowitz's source for the story. Perhaps it wasn't even true. To whom did Robeson tell it "near the end of his own life and guilty with remorse," and why?

(To be Part II.)

More evidence that I'm not so young anymore

Okay, I don't quite get it.

I was in the elevator at my Woodland Hills motel, and in walked a lovely young girl. By "young girl" I mean she was somewhere between sixteen and twenty-six; I can't quite tell the difference nowadays. Long pale straight blond hair, angelic features, sweet as anything, polite and smiling. Her T-shirt, black and sleeveless, had the following printed on the back in large letters, "Vomit is erotic."

Yes, well of course. I've often thought so. Haven't you?

I can only imagine her T-shirt was ironic. But it seemed very very sad to me, nevertheless.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Journalists through the decades: tenure?

I know I've written quite a bit about the book Radical Son, in which David Horowitz details the process by which he changed from activist leftist to neocon (see here and here for examples of my posts).

But the book is one of those gifts that keeps on giving. One of the most intriguing aspects of Horowitz's tale, at least to me, is found in certain throwaway details that have taken on a different light in recent years, post-9/11.

Although the book was published in 1997 and therefore the portraits Horowitz paints of various figures on the journalistic left are frozen at that point, time has of course moved on and we've seen some interesting changes happen to a number of those people.

Horowitz isn't the sort to pull his punches, so part of his book is an attempt to show how very vicious some of his former colleagues on the left were when he "turned." The phenomenon I described here, in "Condescension and leaving the political fold," was operating very strongly in Horowitz's life when he emerged from a few years of thought and relative political inaction to announce his change of mind in a series of hard-hitting articles and lectures. As apostates, he and his writing partner Peter Collier not only found doors closed to them in the publishing world that had heretofore been open, but Horowitz experienced a great deal of personal animosity from former friends (including a woman who actually spat at him, I seem to recall):

Although we [Horowitz and Collier] were best-selling authors, there were no longer friendly pages for our writings in its influential liberal journals--the New York Times, the Atlantic, Harper's, the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, and (now that we had shown what our apostasy meant), the Washington Post. These were reserved for our literary executioners--Gitlin, Hitchens, Blumenthal, and friends.

These names may be strikingly familiar to you. Todd Gitlin is a prominent leftist critic of Bush, and Sidney Blumenthal is a former Clinton aide who is well-known as one of Clinton's biggest defenders during the Lewinsky scandal. They are both still on the same side as they were when Horowitz wrote his book.

But the other name, Hitchens, refers of course to Christopher Hitchens. Two of the most negative portraits in Horowitz's book--and, as I said, he's not one to pull punches, so the negative portraits are very negative--are those of Hitchens and the leftist Paul Berman, both of whom Horowitz reports as having been especially cutting and personal in their attacks on him (not very hard to believe about Hitchens, but Berman surprised me).

Both Hitchens and Berman have themselves undergone certain, shall we say, changes since the book was written. Although both still self-identify as being on the left--Berman especially--both have came close to becoming apostates themselves post-9/11 (although neither has gone anywhere near as far as Horowitz has in that respect), and both have gotten flak from former colleagues for their support of the Iraq war.

It is especially interesting to me that these two were vociferously and personally opposed to Horowitz at the time of his turning, and yet later both ended up doing a not insignificant bit of turning themselves, a fact which strikes me as deeply ironic. Now, Hitchens himself has experienced some of the ostracism he dealt out to Horowitz. Of course, Hitchens being Hitchens, he probably couldn't care less (or, if he does, he'll never tell).

But here is Horowitz's vivid portrait of Hitchens back in the late Reagan years, when Horowitz had just said goodbye to the left, and both men were appearing on the public television show "Book Notes," hosted by Lewis Lapham, editor of Harper's (in a remarkable feat of media longevity, Lapham remains its editor--and you may recall him as the man whose name recently, like that of Robert Fisk, became a verb, in Lapham's case for his remarkable time-traveling abilities prior to the 2004 Republican Convention):

As a Trotskyite himself, Hitchens had few illusions about the utopias that the Left had built, but--like Tom Hayden and Jim Mellen--he was driven by internal demons that could not be pacified. This inner rage fueled his animus against the country that had treated him so well, and prompted him to compose a recent article which provided a rationale for Shi'ite terrorists at war with the West...Sitting across from me at Lapham's right, Hitchens looked like a badger, his mood black and his head, with hooded eyes that scowled in my direction, sunk deep into his neck cavity. As soon as we began the proceedings, his bile spilled onto every surface; souring the entire mood of the show, which reached its nadir when I mentioned the passage in which I had written about my father's funeral. "Who cares about his pathetic family?" Hitchens snapped.

It is interesting to note that, although Hitchens has for the most part come over to the neocon side, and thus I appreciate and agree with quite a few (although not all) of his articles and points of view, Horowitz's description of him strikes me as spot on. When Hitchens is on one's side, his biting wit and ability to skewer the opposition are appreciated; when he is on the other side, beware. But, agree or disagree with him, he does seem to be motivated by an anger that appears to have some sort of internal genesis, and his nasty remark about Horowitz's father ties in perfectly with strains noted in the recent dialogue between Hitchens and his brother. One can safely say that Hitchens was certainly not then and is not now a sentimentalist about family.

One particularly fascinating detail of the above quote was that, according to Horowitz, Hitchens had written an article that seems to have been some sort of apologia for Shi'ite terrorists. The post-9/11 Hitchens would probably like to forget that.

Speaking of forgetting, I wondered whether, now that Horowitz and Hitchens have moved closer together in policy matters and have shared the strange experience of losing friends and colleagues over it, they are now on speaking terms with each other despite their conflicted history.

Well, it turns out they are; apparently politics does make strange bedfellows, unmakes them, and then makes them once again. In this 2002 article by Horowitz, he writes, "Christopher [Hitchens], who is also my friend..." And then there is this, promoting a rather remarkable excursion, "Tour London with Christopher Hitchens and David Horowitz."

Horowitz's book is replete with names from the past that still resonate now, in addition to Hitchens. The same crew of commentators and journalists seems to have been around for decades: Alexander Cockburn, Lewis Lapham, Seymour Hersch, Sidney Blumenthal, Eric Alterman, Todd Gitlin, Paul Berman, Hendrick Hertzberg, and Martin Peretz. All have roles, small or large, to play in Horowitz's book, and all are still writing in very influential periodicals today. Most of them are more or less on the same side now as they were then; only a few are "changers" like Horowitz and Hitchens.

It made me realize the huge influence a rather small number of people has had in shaping political perceptions in the US and around the world for many decades. In how many other fields would a book written about events occurring mostly in the 60s through the 80s contain so many names that were still highly influential in the year 2005? Do journalists, like academics, have tenure?

Monday, July 18, 2005

Tengo una remera del Che y no sé por qué

A recent issue of the New Republic featured this article entitled "The Killing Machine" by Alvaro Vargas Llosa. The subject is Che Guevara, that familiar and longstanding "logo of revolutionary (or is it capitalist?) chic."

That seems to be what it's come down to: Che as poster boy (literally). Vargas Llosa calls him "the socialist heartthrob in his beret." Perhaps that's all he is now to most of those who sport his dark and brooding image on their "mugs, hoodies, lighters, key chains, wallets, baseball caps, toques, bandannas, tank tops, club shirts, couture bags, denim jeans, herbal tea, and of course those omnipresent T-shirts."

Che's visage has had remarkable staying power; I remember it was already in vogue when I was in college. He's been dead for thirty-eight years now, and the legend only grows--although, if he hadn't been good-looking and photogenic, he'd probably be an obscure footnote to history by this time.

Although Che is far from forgotten, his true history is. How many of those sporting reproductions of his photo as a fashion statement know much about what he actually stood for and the crimes he perpetrated? For in fact, as the article's title indicates, he was quite the "killing machine."

The article is available by subscription only. But it provides many details of Che's life as a man in love with violence, both as a strategic tool and for its own sake. He left a number of writings that attest to this point of view, and his actions were consistent with it. The handsome and debonaire Che was instrumental in setting up the apparatus of Castro's police state, and was in charge of a kangaroo court that rubber-stamped the executions of anyone he thought might be getting in the way:

At every stage of his adult life, his megalomania manifested itself in the predatory urge to take over other people's lives and property, and to abolish their free will.

His economic policies were laughable and helped lead to Cuba's impoverishment:

The great revolutionary had a chance to put into practice his economic vision--his idea of social justice--as head of the National Bank of Cuba and of the Department of Industry of the National Institute of Agrarian Reform at the end of 1959, and, starting in early 1961, as minister of industry. The period in which Guevara was in charge of most of the Cuban economy saw the near-collapse of sugar production, the failure of industrialization, and the introduction of rationing--all this in what had been one of Latin America's four most economically successful countries since before the Batista dictatorship.

His stint as head of the National Bank, during which he printed bills signed "Che," has been summarized by his deputy, Ernesto Betancourt: "[He] was ignorant of the most elementary economic principles."

Why bring this all up now? It's a reminder that there is always a certain element ready to idolize, lionize, and popularize a thug, as long as he meets the criteria of being from a third-world country and against the US (never mind that, within that country--in Che's case, Argentina--he was a member of its elite). Some may idolize him because he's a thug, some may not know or care what he is as long as he's popular and it's cool to wear the T-shirt, while some may need to idealize him beyond all recognition in order to join the worshipping crowd.

Vargas Llosa's article quotes a little rhyme devised by a group of young Argentines to mock this phenomenon: expression that rhymes perfectly in Spanish: "Tengo una remera del Che y no sé por qué," or "I have a Che T-shirt and I don't know why."

Perfect, indeed.

California dreamin'

Dreaming of what? Of real estate.

I picked up one of those "Homes and Land of the San Fernando Valley" freebies from the supermarket. Glossy pictures of page after page of home listings. Most of the actual buildings look surprisingly modest from the outside, although their insides might boast six bedrooms and a private theater.

I've also noticed that, at least in their photos, the realtors themselves are all dolled up, very slick and glitzy. As a group, they look as though they keep the plastic surgeons of the region mighty busy. The realtors of New England are more the banker types, trying to convey the idea that they're sober and trustworthy. But the realtors of southern California resemble movie stars--or maybe TV stars, or telemarketing stars. "Stick with me and you'll be a star, too."

But the prices are a giggle, an absurdity. Over the years, I've watched them move up and up and up, but this is beyond belief. No home appears to be priced lower than about $550,000. Most of them are well above one million, and many are above two. Here's one of my absolute favorites:

Wonderful starter home on prime street in Hidden Hills. Beautiful wooded lot...Potential to build your dream estate here, great upside for developers. $1,175,000.

I know that Hidden Hills is one of those exclusive gated communities, so I suppose this represents the low end of the Hidden Hills market. But surely the phrase "starter home" is a bit of a misnomer?

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Where have you gone, Steven Den Beste? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you

I miss Steven Den Beste.

No, I never met him; and yes, I know he's not returning to political blogging (he still blogs on anime here).

He's very ill; and, what's more, even if he weren't, I don't get the sense that he's the type who would respond to pleadings from his audience. He's no Andrew Sullivan, playing the "Hello I must be going" game. He's the type who makes up his mind and that's it. No looking back. At least that's what I imagine.

But I still miss him, and hope he's doing well. I think, when I reflect on it, that he was my favorite blogger. There was nothing easy about him; no cheap shots, no funny stuff. He didn't pander, and he was the hardest worker imaginable, churning out reams of lucid prose on a daily basis. I never understood how there were enough hours in a day for him to write as much as he did, even if he was working round the clock. And of course I didn't know at the time that it was done at enormous physical cost to him because he was suffering from a progressive degenerative illness. When he quit blogging about a year ago in July, 2004, he cited both the illness and a massive psychological burnout that seems to have come from the fact that almost all the mail he got--and he got a lot of it--was negative.

I felt guilty, having never written him an e-mail myself that let him know how much I admired and appreciated his work. I wrote one afterwards, but he never replied, nor did I expect him to. I like to think it was because he was inundated with similar missives.

Den Beste had never impressed me as being the type to care whether people appreciated him or not, though. In fact, Bill Whittle famously called him the "Krell Mind Machine"--and those of you who read the book The Forbidden Planet in your youth and loved it (as I did), or saw the movie, will understand what Whittle was getting at. But I suppose even the most cerebral of us--and Steven Den Beste was nothing if not cerebral--have feelings, too (something that should be glaringly obvious, but is sometimes clear only in retrospect).

To those of you who got into reading blogs after Den Beste had retired and who don't know what I'm talking about --I urge you to visit his archived writings. Here's a guide. Of course, it's not the same as reading his analyses at the time he wrote them. For example, during the buildup to the Iraq war, when the US was presenting its case (interminably, it seemed) to the balky UN, I recall that it was Den Beste who had the best (yes, puns are irresistible) writings on the situation. He was the one I relied on.

You had to be patient to stick with Den Beste--he wasn't what you'd call a quick read. Step by laborious step, he'd take the reader through a beautifully and logically reasoned argument or explanation, and he didn't really care how long it took. He respected his readers and figured they were up to the task--and for him, they were. He sometimes dealt with minutiae and technical things (after all, he'd been an engineer), and some of his posts were arcane. If on a certain day he wanted to write about something obscure and tech-y, or anime--well then, that's what he wrote about that day (and that's the day I might take a break from his blog). But most of the time he worked large, weaving together examples from disparate sources in new and unexpected--and, above all, deep--ways, bringing the sharp order of his mind to the chaos of politics and world events.

As Den Beste himself put it (and he put it best) in this essay about the process by which he wrote his articles, he used an "internal mechanism" which was especially "good at...finding non-obvious relationships." That was indeed his specialty. In the same essay, he says: I write about something because I'm compelled to, because it's often the case that if I don't, then I can't get it out of my head. Putting my thoughts into print relieves an internal pressure which also isn't easily described.

That came across in his essays. He seemed to be a pressure cooker of some sort--throw in a bunch of data, seal the top, add heat, and the pressure would build until--voila!--out came a tasty feast, in his case an intellectual one, cooked in far less time than conventional pots and normal pressure could ever accomplish. It's not surprising he burnt out. Even if he hadn't had an illness, I can't imagine anyone keeping up that sort of pace.

Den Beste was a master of the long essay form and a blog pioneer, beginning in early 2001, when most of us had never even heard the word "blog." I'm a practitioner of the medium-to- longish essay myself, and I tip my proverbial hat to Den Beste for setting the bar very very high.

Should I? No, don't think so

I had no idea when I planned my trip, but it turns out that today is Disneyland's 50th birthday.

Well, it seems serendipitous--after all, I'm here, it's here; a rare confluence of events.

But no, I won't go. I must confess, I'm no Disney fan. As a child I actually had a sort of horror of cartoons--all those animals being squished pancake-flat and then popping up again, phoenix- and accordian-like, only a tiny bit the worse for wear.

Even back when I first visited Disneyland in 1960 (perhaps on its fifth birthday? I liked it at the time, by the way) it was mild stuff like the teacup ride that was my cup of tea. My mother and I did the teacups and the like, while my brother and father went on to heartier fare. And, although I did manage to ride the Matterhorn, I kept my eyes closed most of the time.

Then, as a parent, I put in many a long hour in lines at both Disney parks. But now that the child is grown, no need any more to pretend. I just don't like the place.

I hope this post doesn't end up being the most controversial thing I've ever written.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Action and reaction: prayer

At American Digest, Gerard van der Leun has written an interesting piece on prayer and why it isn't often answered in the way people might want (and sometimes even expect) it to be.

Reading it brought to mind an article I read quite a few years ago on the subject of prayer. It appeared where I would have least expected it--in some magazine like Esquire, or perhaps Vanity Fair, which I think I was probably reading in a dentist's office.

Unfortunately, I no longer recall the author's name or the magazine in which it actually appeared. But the premise of the article was that the writer, a complete nonbeliever who was experiencing some sort of huge crisis (midlife or otherwise), decided in his desperation to pray daily, even though he was without belief. He kept this up for a year or more, not knowing quite where he was going with it, and he found to his great surprise that the very act of prayer had an effect--but the effect was on him.

Prayer didn't necessarily get him what he wanted, not by a longshot. But he ended up changing as a person. He changed what he wanted, and changed what he was praying for, or praying about. He was calmer, more accepting, more "spiritual." And this was true even though he initially felt awkward and stupid praying, and was without any belief for quite a long time.

If you go back to one of my early pieces on change, I wrote:

So here is a somewhat dry (and, mercifully, relatively brief!) introduction to the topic of how therapists view the process of change in therapy.

Of course, like any other discipline, therapy has no lack of theories from which to choose. But the one that made most sense to me when I was studying marriage and family therapy was the idea that change can occur on any--or all--of the following dimensions: cognition, feeling, and behavior (another way to describe the three would be thought, emotion, and action). I would also add a fourth, the spiritual, but for the purposes of therapeutic change or political change we can safely ignore that one...

Intervening to change one dimension could end up changing another, and ultimately changing them all. The idea was that lasting change could start anywhere, but would then (at least, ideally) cause a ripple effect that would end up changing the family or individual on all three dimensions.

To use a very simple example with an individual: changing a thought ("I'm ugly") could lead to a change in behavior (going out more) that could lead to a change in feeling (from depression to joy). It usually seems much easier to start with either a thought or a behavior, because they are fairly easy to define and describe (to operationalize). Usually the change in feelings would follow the other changes.

So, my interpretation of what happened to the author of the article was that he changed on the behavioral dimension, and it sparked a change on the fourth dimension, the spiritual one, and probably on the others as well.

This certainly is not an attempt to take the mystery out of the process of prayer. I think there's still plenty of that left. But it is a framework for understanding part of the more mundane human dimension of what might be happening when a person undertakes a practice of prayer.

With age, wisdom?

In the comments section of my recent post about the direction of political change, neuroconservative asked:

I wonder what you (and the other neos here) think your younger self would have made of your older self? More broadly, how do you imagine that thinking liberals encode the fact that neo-cons exist but neo-libs don't? This is hard for me to answer, since I have always been conservative.

Interesting question, I think. My guess is that my younger self would have ascribed it to a phenomenon I’d always heard about—that of people in general growing more conservative as they grow older. As a young person, I probably would not have thought much about why such a thing might occur. I probably would have thought it to be some sort of natural phenomenon, like getting wrinkles or gray hair or sagginess or all those other signs of fusty old age that of course were never, never, ever going to happen to me.

The fact that one might actually grow wiser with age, or might increase one's store of information about history and human nature and what it all means, would probably have been a somewhat alien concept to me at the time. Sad, but true.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Speaking of terrorists and families: the Moussaouis

In a previous post, I referred to an article that appeared in the February 2003 Sunday NY Times Magazine, about the family of Zacarias Moussaoui. It's unavailable now except through the archives, but I saved a copy of it when it first appeared. Here, for those of you who might be interested, are a few short excerpts to give you a flavor of the family.

One caveat: by presenting these facts, my aim is not to exonarate Moussaoui in any way. He is completely responsible for his own actions.

The title of the article is "Everybody has a mother," and it focuses particularly on Moussaoui's rather strange and emotionally labile mother, Aicha el-Wafi. Moussaoui is one of two brothers and two sisters. His brother has written a book purporting to tell the story of Zacarias' life; both sisters are considered mentally ill and perhaps schizophrenic.

First, the mother and brother:

A divorced 56-year-old born in Morocco, el-Wafi has lived in France for close to 40 years. Having spent two and a half decades working for France Telecom, she now lives in a comfortable home, complete with deck, grill, sea view and a dog named Tango. One of her sons has admitted in court to being a member of Al Qaeda and will be tried for conspiracy in the Sept. 11 attacks. The other has written a tell-all condemning her for what he recalls as her unloving, harsh ways. It's unclear who has disappointed her more...

It's a book that tries to account for the genesis of a terrorist, relying not just on familiar, sweeping geopolitical terms but on the language of pop psychology, referring to the specifics of a dysfunctional family -- a vocabulary irresistible to some but inherently untrustworthy to others. Politics versus psychotherapy: one seems to explain, while the other can seem to excuse, or even victimize, the wayward. ''We're scared about this book, and we don't scare easily,'' Simon says. ''If it had a hard time finding a publisher here, it's because people like Moussaoui are untouchable. It's leprosy.'' Publishers assume, in other words, that Americans don't want to see an accused hijacker humanized. ''But we thought it was important to point out that this is not 'Lord of the Rings, Part II,' with evil characters coming out of the mud,'' Simon says. ''Everybody has a mother.''

Aicha El-Wafi married in Morocco at 14 and moved, with her husband and two babies, to France five years later. By the time she was 22, she had four children, the youngest being Zacarias. After 10 years of making excuses about her children's bruises, as well as her own, she finally managed to leave her husband, putting the kids in an orphanage for a year while she stayed in a shelter. She worked a series of menial jobs -- in a factory, as a seamstress -- before starting work as a cleaning woman for France Telecom. She may have been sweeping floors, but she had secured that particularly prized French status of fonctionnaire, a government employee, with superior benefits, virtually guaranteed employment and reliable housing...

Here is the brother's account of the radicalization of Zacarias (note particularly the London connection):

In 1991, unable to find a job, [Zacarias] picked up and moved to London, where at age 23, he became, as his brother observes, a perfect target for well-financed, dangerous Muslim extremists who prey on disillusioned young men. Abd-Samad's book devotes a chapter to the ways that fringe extremists -- especially the more violent factions of the Wahhabi strain -- recruit young foundering Muslim men, giving them inflammatory religious texts, offering them free meals, relying on a language of exclusivity that would apply to the vanity of ambitious, but thwarted, searchers. ''I am convinced of one thing,'' Abd-Samad writes. ''If it worked with my brother, it can work with plenty of other young people.'' Moussaoui started attending lectures by radical clerics like Abu Qatada and Sheik Abu Hamza al-Masri and became a regular at the Finsbury Park mosque.

And here are the two sisters. Notice especially Nadia, the elder of the two:

Nadia is wearing jeans, a green fleece under her windbreaker and no makeup; by Parisian standards she looks like someone who has stayed home for a sick day, which is basically the case. Nadia's life has been a series of sick days since around 1985, when, as she says, ''the craziness came,'' triggered by a bad breakup. She has since suffered through depression and four suicide attempts. Like her younger sister, Jamila, she has been told she is schizophrenic. Her life has frozen since her first illness. Although she is clearly bright and strikingly articulate, there's something disconcertingly adolescent about the eagerness of her smile, the high pitch of her voice, even the look of her face, which belongs to a woman much younger than 39. She has had odd jobs here and there, but in the months since the 11th, she has barely been able to leave her small, state-subsidized apartment. ''I like solitude, and I tend to hide myself in sleep,'' she tells me. ''I love to sleep. Sleeping, that's my sport.'' If her life is lonely, she has partly engineered it that way. ''I was afraid to repeat my mother's history, having all those kids, marrying a man who was abusive,'' she says. ''Jamila herself says she did just that.'' (Jamila eventually divorced her husband; now when el-Wafi is not laboring on behalf of Zacarias, she's going to court to fight for her daughter's visitation rights.)...

Like her brothers, Nadia has a complicated relation to her religious background. Unlike her brothers, she speaks Arabic fluently and spent many summers as a child with her mother's family in Morocco. But if her brothers left mostly secular homes to devote themselves to Islam, Nadia looked altogether elsewhere, developing, when she was in her 20's, an abiding devotion to Judaism. ''In my heart,'' she tells me, ''in my heart, I am Jewish.'' What's more, she loves Israel, would go tomorrow if she could, without blinking; her dream is to see the Brooklyn Bridge, to go to Brooklyn, ''because that's where all the Jews are in America.'' If you mention Palestine, she'll point out sternly that no such nation has been recognized; she returns frequently to the subject of Israel with a passion that cannot be circumnavigated. She regularly listens to Radio Shalom or Radio Communaute Juive, reads books like ''Jewish Thought'' and ''Bibliotherapy.'' She has written her brother to say that she loves him but says that even if she could fly to the United States to visit him, he would refuse to see her.

Tolstoi famously wrote, "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." But some families are unhappy in especially unique ways, and this seems to be one of them.

Valley girl

Two days in California. Two days away from my usual amount of frenetic news-checking and computer connection, and I'm experiencing a bit of withdrawal and culture shock, as expected.

I certainly know Los Angeles--in fact, I lived here for a year, back in the 70s--but it changes all the time. It gets more and more crowded, with more freeway traffic. Back then, the only really congested times on the freeways were rush hours, but those days are gone. In recent years rush hour seems to have expanded to fill almost all the hours.

There are other differences. One hears English only somewhat sporadically in certain locations (the airport and the car rental place, for example). Then there's the unique and almost endless consumer variety of Ventura Boulevard, which has grown exponentially. To me, the excess is somewhat off-putting and seductive at the same time, its greatest attraction by far being the restaurants and groceries with their amazing variety and almost dizzying choice of ethnicities. In a single block or two, one can find Argentinian, Thai, Persian, Cuban, Indian, barbecue, and Japanese food, in an enticing parade of my very favorite sort of diversity.

One thing that doesn't ever change is the strangeness and the beauty of the vegetation, which hits me anew every time I arrive here from New England--the tropical flowers, the oleanders and the bougainvillea, and all the other cacti and trees and plants which to me are nameless and exotic, and tell me immediately and wordlessly that I've arrived in a very different place.

And then there's the heat, at least in the San Fernando Valley, where I'm based. (That's "the Valley" to most people, as in "Valley Girl," the song). When we landed at LAX the night was cool and almost brisk, with a fine breeze, so much so that I wished I had on a sweater. But by the time I got to the Valley, only a forty-minute drive later, the temperature had risen by about twenty-five degrees. It's been too hot during the day to enjoy doing much outside except scurrying from one air-conditioned venue to another. But still, enjoyable for my purposes, since my goal here is not to sightsee, but to visit old friends and new, and of course to do a lot of fine eating. The weather doesn't interfere with that.


I'm having trouble seeing my new posts. This is a test.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

The neo-neocon has landed

Thanks for all the good wishes on my trip. I'm here in very sunny (and mega-hot) southern California--the San Fernando Valley, to be exact, where many of the people I'm visiting happen to live. I am just touching base for the moment on a friend's computer, to say a quick hello to you all. But I'll be having a lot more to say later, perhaps this evening or tomorrow.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Travel day

Today I'm setting off for California, to Los Angeles and then San Francisco to visit relatives and friends and even to see a few sights. I should be gone until July 25.

I do plan to post fairly regularly, since I'll have access to a computer there, although I don't know whether posting will be a daily event or not. I even have a couple of pieces that are already written, which I plan to plug in here and there. So we'll see.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Families in the aftermath of terrorist attacks

Much fast-breaking news on the London bombings--so fast that, by the time I finish writing this post, new events may have taken over. Things will probably continue to change moment by moment, but the questions right now are: did all the bombers die in the blasts? And, if not, will they be caught? And, of course, who are they?

These details are not known yet. But there is virtually no doubt that the bombers were (or are?) Islamicists, most likely living in Britain for some time. I am also amazed, as I was after 9/11, at the ubiquity of surveillance cameras, and their ability to help the police in cracking the case. In the last decade or so, the use of security cameras has mushroomed, and my guess is that they will continue to be a vital forensic tool.

Unfortunately, though, the cameras only come into play ex-post-facto. They record events in real time, but they cannot tell us what is happening or what will happen; they can only give us information after the fact. Photos that at first look utterly ordinary become chilling and telling only in retrospect, containing information that, but for the cameras, we might never have learned.

Another interesting detail that has just emerged in the London case is that the family of one of the bombers (yes, I know: "alleged bombers") reported him missing after the blast. This is a strong indication that they had no idea of his role in the attack. This is not surprising, of course. I would imagine they are undergoing a very difficult time right now, as they learn what their loved one was actually up to that day.

Of course, sometimes the families of bombers are sympathetic to their cause. Or, sometimes they pretend to be, the better to fit their community's twisted type of political correctness (for example, among the Palestinians). But sometimes family members' sympathies lie elsewhere. The large Bin Laden family is a case in point--quite a few members have spoken out against their most famous relative. And back in February of 2003, a lengthy profile of the family of Moussaoui, the so-called "twentieth hijacker," appeared in the NY Times Sunday Magazine. It was extraordinary for a number of reasons, but one of the most interesting was that it revealed that one of Moussaoui's two sisters is a converted Jew and fervent Zionist. So, one cannot assume much of anything about the families of terrorists.

Speaking of families, I was wondering why we've seen virtually nothing about the victims of the London bombings. It seems that, at least according to this story, which features a brief description and photos of three of the victims, the reason for the delay is that progress has been slow on identifying the bodies and notifying the families.

Those families, and the families of the many other people who are missing and presumed dead, are undergoing a very special and horrific type of torment right now. What they are experiencing is the stuff of nightmare. It is a strange thing to think that, even as I write this, there are families in such widely scattered places as Netanya in Israel, London, and of course Iraq who are all mourning the victims of terrorists. What do these families have in common? Simply this: their loved ones were going about the ordinary business of life, and were blown apart by followers of a branch of Islam that is indeed "in love with death," and which has been allowed to flourish in the fertile soil of Western tolerance.

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