Tuesday, February 28, 2006

The current prospects of civil war vs. unity: Iraq the Model

When events such as the mosque bombing and the subsequent unrest and violence in Iraq happen, I turn--as I've done so many times before--to Iraq the Model for some inside information.

I've written this previous post about Iraq the Model, a tribute to its authors and the fine job they've done over the years since the official Iraq War ended. I've been reading the blog for all that time, and you know what? Omar and Mohammed, the Baghdad-based Iraqi brothers who write the blog, have never disappointed.

That's not to say they've never had negative things to say--they certainly have. But, in retrospect, I can't recall a time when they turned out to be seriously incorrect about anything important that was happening in their country. Unlike some even in our own beloved MSM, their reports and predictions on Iraq have withstood the test of time.

A few days ago, right after the bombing, Omar seemed shaken by the turn of events. Usually calm and level-headed, he displayed uncharacteristic anxiety:

As if we didn't have enough problems already!

The quality of the target and the timing of the attack were chosen in a way that can possibly bring very serious consequences over the country....

Things look scary here in Baghdad and I hope there won't be more updates to report as I can't see a positive thing coming out of this.

What are the brothers saying now? They seem to have found quite a few positives, although the difficulties of the situation are far from over.

Take a look:

Life is coming back to normal in Baghdad and marketplaces and offices are open again after being shut for 4 days...

However, it seems there are also some positive outcomes from this incident and its aftermath; the first one in my opinion was the performance of the Iraqi army which had a good role in restoring order in many places. Actually the past few days showed that our new army is more competent than we were thinking.

But the latest events have also showed the brittle structure of the interior ministry and its forces that retreated before the march of the angry mobs (if not joined them in some cases) and I think the statements that came from the meetings of our politicians pointed this out so clearly when Sunni politicians said they wanted the army to replace the police and police commandos in their regions and this indicates growing trust between the people and the army.

The other positive side is represented by the line we've seen drawn between clerics and politicians.

In spite of the attempts of clerics to look like as if they were the defenders of national unity with all their meetings, joint prayers and hugs, the political leaderships got a sense of their growing danger and the meeting at Jafari's home (which al-Hakeem didn't attend) showed that the government is keen to keep the country intact and the government systems as functional as possible to contain the crisis. This meeting indicates that politicians have realized that those clerics whether Sunni or Shia are the origin of the problem and are ready to coup on even their political allies which made the politicians more aware of the danger imposed by clerics on the project of building a state ruled by the law.

It's worth reading the whole thing. As I said, I've grown to trust the brothers' analysis and insight more than I trust that of the media. It appears that the bombing has created an opportunity, at least. We'll see whether the government can capitalize on that opportunity in order to form a more unified state.

Unity, in traditionally fragmented Iraq, a country cobbled together post-WWI, and with the additional legacy of decades of Saddam and his Sunni Baathists persecuting the Shi'ites and Kurds? Gateway Pundit has a roundup of stories, photos, and posts that seem to indicate there is more desire for unity among Iraq's people than many think.

Perhaps some of this unity comes from the recent adversity that the Iraqi people have shared. There's an old Bedouin saying that you've probably heard:

I against my brother I and my brother against our cousin, my brother and our cousin against the neighbors all of us against the foreigner.

The saying has been invoked many times to illustrate why Iraqis will rise up against any US occupation. But as I read Omar and Mohammed's posts, it seems that the Iraqis may actually be in the process of becoming more united against a different foreigner (or, rather, foreigners) influencing events in their country lately: Syria and Iran.

[ADDENDUM: The NY Times is reporting that the Sunnis have returned to participate in discussions for a new government. The talk, at least, is of unity:

The Sunni negotiator, Mahmoud al-Mashhadany, said Sunni politicians now recognize the need to form a widely inclusive government as quickly as possible to succeed the current interim government, dominated by religious Shiites and Kurds.

"We've canceled our withdrawal from the talks," Mr. Mashhadany said in a telephone interview. "We should hurry up and form a national unity government, to change this hopeless government. In the new government, everyone will handle responsibility."...

But he [Mashhadany] generally struck a conciliatory tone, saying "there's a desire to accelerate the formation of the cabinet" and adding, "This is from the leadership of all the groups — the Sunnis, the Shia and the Kurds."

Doesn't sound exactly like civil war to me. We'll see.]

Death by Chocolate?--not

No fair, no fair!!

In the continuing and ongoing revision of health directives by medical science, today's bulletin is that chocolate has been found to be non-hazardous to your health.

In a study conducted in--where else?--the chocolate-loving chocolate-producing Netherlands, it was found that older men who ate a third of a bar of chocolate a day had lowered blood pressure and a decreased risk of death.

You'd think this was good news--and for most people (especially older men in the Netherlands), it is. But not for me. Because, as I wrote here, I can't eat chocolate. And that's really sad, because I love it.

But to the rest of you: enjoy. Don't mind me, sitting in the corner, watching you all, tears slowly rolling down my face.

And maybe it's time to rename this dessert.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Conspiracy theories, Arab and otherwise

Not too long after 9/11, I read an interview with Mohammad Atta's father in which he said his son could not possibly have committed the attack.

I would have written this off as the typical and understandable reaction of a grieving and distraught father--after all, who wouldn't be in denial, under similar circumstances?--if it hadn't been accompanied by a curious charge about who had done it: the Mossad. The Jews.

So preposterous did this assertion seem to me at the time that I came up with an alternate theory: Atta's father was somewhat out of touch with reality. Whether he'd already been this way before 9/11, or whether he'd been driven off the deep end by the event, I didn't know. But he was clearly a crackpot, with some unusual ideas.

That was then; this is now. In the years that followed I learned to consider people such as Papa Atta almost mainstream--especially in the Arab world, although also not so unusual elsewhere, including the US and certainly Western Europe. I've become all too aware that conspiracy theories and theorists are everywhere (lurking under the bed, no doubt).

Just Google "mohammed atta father jews 9/11," or any similar combination of words, and a long listing will spring up of websites dedicated to the proposition that some combination of the Jews, Bush, and Israel engineered 9/11 and framed the loveable Atta Junior--and the authors of said websites have far less reason to want to exonerate Atta than his own father had. So, what's their excuse? And, if such a proliferation of "evidence" can be proffered even in the face of the facts of 9/11, how much more easily can conspiracy theories take root to "explain" events that are less well-documented?

Conspiracies are very appealing. They appeal to simplicity (one or two linked and evil groups are responsible for the horrors and turmoil of the world, rather than many groups and a complex sequence of events that we understand only poorly). They appeal to the need to know (rather than the acknowledgement that some things are mysterious). They appeal to a sense of order (rather than chaos). They appeal to predictability (rather than the unknown). They appeal to scapegoating and displacement and denial of one's own culpability. They appeal. They appeal. (Some of the reasons for their widespread appeal are discussed in psychological terms in Dr. Sanity's fine essay on defense mechanisms).

And the granddaddy of all conspiracy theories, of course, is anti-Semitism (although anti-Americanism is now breathing down its neck in the "anti" sweepstakes). There is little doubt in my mind that the need to believe in conspiracies is one of the main reasons for anti-Semitism, rather than any other single factor related to Jews, who are merely a convenient target. It's the conspiracy part of anti-Semitism that gives the phenomenon its punch and its "legs."

But there is never any lack of targets, I'm afraid. If the Jews didn't exist we'd have to invent them--or find somebody else to take the rap.

The need to find conspirators certainly has not let up recently, and shows no sign of doing so--au contraire. According to Big Pharaoh, our Egyptian informant, US/Israel conspiracy theories continue to be overwhelmingly dominant in the Egyptian (and, by extrapolation, perhaps much of the Arab) world in explaining the recent mosque bombing in Iraq.

And, of course, Iran has wasted no time getting into the blame act.

Here's a BBC article on reactions around the Arab world (plus Iran) to the mosque bombing (hat tip: Roger Simon). Note the unanimity of conspiracy theories coming from Iran, and their absence in the Iraqi press.

I find it exceptionally interesting that--at least as far as their media goes--the Iraqis, the ones facing the real danger in this particular case, don't seem to be in denial about who's doing what. At least in the quoted excerpts, there's no blaming of either the Jews or the Americans for the bombing (although I have little doubt there's a contingent in Iraq who heartily blame both).

The relative strength of conspiracy theories in the Arab and Iranian world, serving to deflect blame from other Arabs/Iranians/Moslems and onto the usual suspects, protect that world from looking in the mirror and facing its own need to change, and the rot within. Because the mosque bombing is an affront to the Islamic faith as a whole, to believe that fellow-Arabs or fellow-Moslems did it is tantamount to admitting a truth that many cannot, and will not, acknowledge. To do so would be too shattering.

But conspiracy theories are hardly the sole province of the Arab/Islamic world; not by a longshot. They may indeed be more common there (I seem to recall some post-9/11 polls that indicated the vast majority of Egyptians agreed with Atta's father about who was responsible for 9/11, for example). But one only has to tune into Coast to Coast on almost any night, or surf the web--or, of course, go to the websites of David Irving's rabid supporters (I refuse to show the links, but you can find them easily enough yourself) to see the universality of the theme that some group--Jews or Illuminati or Bush's Minions or Aliens--is Behind It All, pulling the strings of the world's puppets.

[NOTE: Jeff Goldstein's post about evaluating the situation in Iraq mentions that one of the ways to counter the ascendance of conspiracy theories would be a much stronger effort to publicize the truth--in other words, propaganda, as I've defined it here.]

Sunday, February 26, 2006

More on photos: Kodachrome

A companion piece to the previous essay: Paul Simon's "Kodachrome."

[ADDENDUM: Another companion piece, this one by blogger Ed Driscoll in TCS daily, describes some of the newest technology in recording and communicating, and how they might affect the blogosphere through videoblogging.]

Lottery winners, the camera, and the mirror

The other day I happened to be catch part of the Powerball winners' interview on TV.

I missed the beginning, so I didn't hear all them speak. But I thought those I did hear were very impressive. There were eight winners, co-workers from a meat-processing plant in heartland flyover country, Nebraska.

Three are immigrants, two from Vietnam and one from central Africa. One of the Vietnamese immigrants said simply, when asked about his motives for emigrating, "I came here to be free."

Several of the winners had habitually worked about seventy hours a week in the plant; no doubt, that will change (some had already quit by the time of the interview). Working in a meat packing plant for seventy hours a week sounds like a punishing job, although many spoke of liking their fellow-workers. I listened to about five of the interviews, and the winners I heard sounded remarkably relaxed--so much so that they drew gales of laughter for their humor--as well as articulate, poised, and very levelheaded, especially considering their about-to-be transformed lives.

It's one of those stories that seems to be a combination of the human dream and the American dream, and somehow it's not just about money. It's about hardworking people getting lucky, and trying to keep their heads on straight. I get the impression that these particular people will do just fine; I certainly hope so.

But another thing that struck me (and which has nothing to do with the lottery) is how comfortable people have become in front of a camera. One day you're a worker on the assembly line in a meat-packing plant, the next day you're at a full-court-press press conference in front of America and the world? No sweat--just open up your mouth and talk.

It wasn't always that way. When I was a kid, the older generation didn't even feel comfortable talking on the telephone, especially long distance. Terse and tense, their conversations were the equivalent of Civil War era photos in which the people posed, stiff and rigid. Long distance calls cost a lot of money back then, not just in relative terms but in absolute terms--at least twenty-five cents a minute, and often a great deal more. So a long-distance phone call was usually just a way to hear a person's voice; and then, over and out.

When my boyfriend went to Vietnam back in the late 60s, letters were pretty much the only means of communications, and delivery was sporadic and chancy. No e-mail of course, but even no telephones. For a year--his entire dangerous tour of duty, when he was in the thick of things--I only spoke to him once, and that was when he called me unexpectedly from Australia, where he'd gone for his R&R. Our one-hour conversation may have cost him a hundred dollars or so, to the best of my recollection (not that he much cared; what difference did it make at that point?). Expensive thought it was, it seemed nothing short of miraculous to be able to have a telephone conversation with someone halfway round the world.

Do you remember the first home telephone answering machines? There was a time when they were rare. Then they became common, but it still took a while for people to get used to them. At the beginning, I tended to freeze whenever I encountered one, nervously trying to frame my message, unaccustomed to being recorded. Now the words usually flow in a relaxed little monologue, including quips and conversational asides.

In the audio/visual realm, first there were home movies (already quite well-established in my childhood, but rare, expensive, and short). Then sound came into the picture, and then home videos. At first, people would pose for home movies as though for the still camera, especially older people--they had to be reminded to move around, that this was a move-ie-- and then, later, to speak.

Then there was the first time I saw and heard myself on videotape. It was on TV, of all things, on a show entitled "It's Academic," a sort of College Bowl-type quiz show for New York City high school students. I was the only girl on the show that day, and I wore a red suit and heels (we used to dress up back then). I was the literature expert on my high school's team, and I fulfilled the purpose for which I was chosen: I got all the lit questions right, although we ended up losing. And then I got to go home and watch myself a week or two later--but only once, and in black-and-white. There were no video recorders back then, so it was all ephemeral, and I didn't really identify with the person on the screen, who seemed a stranger.

About seven years passed before I saw myself on video again. This time I was in graduate school, taking a course in interviewing techniques. Bulky and elaborate videotape equipment had been set up by the professor in a special room, and we had to team up with a partner from the class and then go to the room and interview each other while we were recorded. The video session lasted about a half hour, and my friend and I got so into our conversation that after a few minutes we forgot that the camera was running and acted fairly natural.

So for the very first time I got to see myself as others see me--at least, somewhat, although in two dimensions only. I was surprised to find I seemed a bit different that what I'd always pictured in my mind's eye--friendlier, more relaxed, not displaying whatever tension I felt inside.

Home videos came much later. At first they were a novelty, then we all got used to them. Then they became a bore, much too much of a good thing. The cute kids--subject of most of the videos--grew up, and after that no one was all that eager to document the advance of wrinkles and sag in the parents.

But the permanent legacy of it all is that virtually everyone seems comfortable in front of a camera now. Still another legacy is that we're much more acutely aware of the aging process. That's a function of the ubiquity of cameras (digitals make it ever easier to take more and more photos, and to distribute them to more and more people, who seem to care less and less about seeing them).

I imagine the days when there were no cameras, and the only way to chart the process of age in oneself was through memory. Did recollection accentuate the gap--"oh, I used to be so beautiful, and now look at me"? Or did it smooth things over--"I still don't look half bad, even though I'm older; I really haven't changed that much"?

Either way, however, there was no need--and no way--to confront the actual evidence of what one's younger self had looked like, as we now can do so easily through the mechanism of photos. Painted portraits were only for the few back then, and the more wealthy, and of course they lied. Photos lie also, but ordinarily much less (for example, the snapshots we've saved from our youth are the more flattering ones, and so the gap between past and present becomes even wider).

Our current obsession with looks and youth is partly a human constant; most societies value such things, although standards of what is beautiful may differ. But in modern life, it's been exacerbated by all the ways we can remind ourselves of what used to be. Narcissus, after all, had only a pool of water in which to see his reflection, but still it drove him mad and led to his death. Crossing the river Styx, his shade bent down to try to glimpse its reflection in the waters. I wonder what it saw there.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Mark Twain had the same problem I do

I've written before, here, about how hard it is for me to write short posts.

But now I've learned that I'm in very good company. This NY Times piece on the demise of the Western Union Telegram (RIP, telegrams!) describes how Mark Twain dealt with the same problem:

Mark Twain, like most writers, found it easier to write long than short. He received this telegram from a publisher:


Twain replied:


But just to prove I can write short--there. That's it.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Neocons at war, and at war with neocons

Yesterday's post about the mosque bombing and the general topic of making political decisions drew forth a host of interesting comments. I gave a very brief response here, but I think a few more words are in order because the issues raised are quite important and the answers are not intuitively obvious.

First, let me say that anyone who wonders what "neocon" actually means, and why I had the temerity (or the stupidity) to name my blog thusly, should look here for a brief discussion and a good link to further information. It has become clear to me that the name "neocon" functions at times as a sort of red flag waving in front of the bulls who've decided--for whatever reasons--that neocons are the scourge of the world. As I put it in that linked "Why neo-neocon?" post:

Neocon" is used by critics as a code word for a lot of things, among them: imperialist, unrealistic dreamer, and scheming puppeteer (along with its subset, scheming evil Jewish puppeteer).

The comments on the thread about the mosque bombing display the three charges to a greater or lesser extent. I think, however, that the accent there was on the "unrealistic naive and stupid dreamer" part.

The question raised in the comments that especially interested me (and the one that I plan to try to answer in this post) is this:

Purely as an exercise. If 9/11 was the trigger event to "make you a neo-con". What kind of event would make you give up this credo?

Is there an outcome in Iraq that would suffice for this event?

The questioner is probably a new reader here, and therefore may have missed my previous statements about how 9/11 was the trigger for my change only in the sense of starting a process that took several years to complete. I tried to make that clear in my "About me" section, and I took several thousand words to explain it, here. Please read them.

But suffice to say it actually wasn't a single event that changed anything for me. And I doubt a single event would change me back.

What would? The brief and quick answer I offered last night was this one:

What would it take for me to stop believing that, as Churchill said, "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others"? Perhaps nothing, short of seeing another form of government that is superior, in action. I have yet to see that. What would it take to get me to believe that someone like Saddam shouldn't have been overthrown? Perhaps nothing, short of a demonstration that leaving him in would have been better (and I can't quite imagine how that would be demonstrated).

If the neocon agenda were to guide foreign policy for the next couple of decades (highly unlikely, by the way), and if in that time the world erupts in an enormous conflagration of some sort, it will be clear that the neocon agenda did not prevent very very bad things from happening. I always knew that was a distinct possibility. But if I managed to survive such a conflagration, I still would never know what the alternatives might have brought--the same, worse, or better?

All I can do--all anyone can ever do--is evaluate the situation on the basis of my reading, my thoughts, and my observations. I do quite a bit of all three, and I have seen no other policy that seems as though it would have been a better way to have handled the world we have faced during the last four and a half years. I'm not talking about the details--clearly, there's room for improvement there--but about the big picture.

I'd like to expand a bit on that answer of mine. To do so, I want to refer to another comment from the previous thread (boy, that thread is the gift that keeps on giving). This comment contains the heart of one of the main serious criticisms of the Iraq war and the hand that the neocons had in it: the writer calls the war an "elective military adventure" that "aggravat[ed]...existing problems."

I think that the quoted commenter, and many others who would state something similar, are quite sincere in their belief that the Iraq war was elective. Part of that belief system is based on the "no WMD" argument, the one that's been repeated ad infinitum and ad nauseum on this and other blogs, so I'm not going to rehash that part of it.

The idea that this war was elective has some possible corollaries. The first is that it was waged for dark and nefarious purposes by an evil administration (oil, racism, love of slaughter). I think these arguments have been disposed of so many times that I'm not going to address them further here; those who believe them at this point are beyond the reach of any argument I could muster. The second is the "neocons are naive fools" contention, which is the one that's relevant to today's topic. The idea behind this assertion is that those who started us on this "adventure" (note the word choice: they are silly boys who had no idea that war is not a scouting trip) were stupid and shortsighted, having no notion and taking no thought of possible and/or probable consequences before they blundered in to break a lot of eggs.

So, in summary, the criticism goes as follows: neocons naively and stupidly, and for no good reason, electively embarked on a war they saw as an easy ("slam dunk") adventure. Now we all reap the consequences, including the long-suffering people of Iraq.

I've previously written a post that deals with the issue of whether neocons, or Bush, or Rumsfeld, actually thought the postwar reconstruction would be a "cakewalk", here.
The short answer: they did not. The longer answer: they underestimated the problem of the aftermath, and made some mistakes in going about the reconstruction.

But this in no way invalidates the decision, in my opinion. And this is not a simple failure to admit error on my part--I think this entire blog has proven that I can admit making mistakes, and that I can change my mind. But I've seen no reason to do so in this case. Why? One reason is that I did not consider (and still do not consider) this war to have been elective.

Oh, it was elective in the sense that the land mass of the continental US hadn't been invaded by an enemy force of millions of soldiers bent on our destruction. It was elective in that no country had vaporized our cities with nuclear weapons, or the like. But it was not elective in the following ways:

The evidence or lack thereof of actual WMDs aside, there was (and still is) strong and incontrovertible evidence that Saddam was planning to reconstitute his WMD program as soon as possible. And, combined with the postwar evidence of French and Russian collaboration with Saddam to lift sanctions, that "as soon as possible" would have come sooner rather than later. Nothing would have stopped it short of war, and the UN was complicit in the whole thing. Saddams's defiance of the UN and weapons inspectors set a terrible precedent that had to be stopped, and the UN was completely uninterested in doing so.

This is not just neocon rhetoric. It is the conclusion of the Duelfer report (not a neocon document). The new Saddam tapes only solidify the idea, and the Oil for Food scandal is part of the picture. The humanitarian plusses in deposing Saddam are also clear; and, although these benefits were most assuredly not the main reason the war was waged, they are a strong side benefit.

And what of the negatives, which are very real and quite serious? The fact that this endeavor was not perfectly executed--well, that was simply inevitable, I'm afraid. I take issue with some of the decisions that were made, but that does not mean I think the whole thing should not have been attempted.

How is it that I can still say this? Well, for one thing, we have no idea whether civil war will actually occur or not; the jury is still out on that. But, for the sake of argument, let's say it does. What then?

My answer is that it was always a possibility, a risk inherent in the toppling of Saddam. If you remove one threat it does not mean another less-than-desirable outcome will not take its place, not in the real world vs. the world of wishful thinking. And those who accuse the neocons of the latter are guilty of it themselves, I'm afraid, if they ignore the dangers inherent in all the possible choices we faced, including that of inaction.

Because the truth is that the forces leading to unrest in the Middle East are not necessarily stoppable, but the creation of a functioning democracy, if successful, would constitute a counterforce of some magnitude.

If the democracy/human rights experiment in Iraq falls into civil war and chaos, does that mean that doing nothing would have been better? Allowing Saddam to laugh at the sanctions and the UN inspections, and later to rearm himself with WMDs? Would this have been a good outcome? I don't think so; just a different bad one.

The forces of hatred and destruction have been building up all over the Middle East and Iran for quite some time now. It is very possible they cannot be stopped; that is Wretchard's Three Conjectures, required reading for all who might desire to understand some of the deeper reasons behind the launching of the Iraq war, and what it hoped to possibly avert.

In fact, civil war in Iraq is not an artifact of American intervention via the invasion of Iraq. It is a manifestation of forces that have been brewing for centuries and especially since the division of the Ottomon Empire after WWI. Saddam controlled and manipulated these forces in his own way, which was to orchestrate his own Sunni-dominated war against the Shi'ites, a type of civil war waged by dictator. Taking Saddam away does not create the problem; it simply changes it in a way that at least gives the Iraqi people a chance of ending up with a better result.

Because the truth is that Moslem-on-Moslem violence is hardly a new thing, or a small thing, or a US-generated thing, much as the anti-neocon faction would like to pretend it is. As Wretchard writes in Three Conjectures:

Revenge bombings between rival groups and wars between different Islamic factions are the recurring theme of history. Long before 3,000 New Yorkers died on September 11, Iraq and Iran killed 500,000 Muslims between them. The greatest threat to Muslims is radical Islam; and the greatest threat of all is a radical Islam armed with weapons of mass destruction.

And Saddam, who did not directly represent radical Islam, was more than willing to arm himself with WMDs and to use them against his own enemies, and/or to support factions of radical Islam with WMDs and use them to revenge himself against his enemies. Does anyone honestly doubt that, had Saddam re-developed his weapons program as he planned, he would have hesitated to use nuclear-armed terrorists to get back at his arch-enemy the US, or his other enemies, both internal and external?

The Iraq war always was a gamble, and it still is. But doing nothing (as well as all the other proposed alternatives) was at least as great a gamble. Perhaps greater. And I believe that those who fail to see that are the naive ones.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

The mosque bombing and its aftermath: civil war about civil war; pundits and predictions

See an excellent roundup of differing views on the current post-mosque bombing crisis in Iraq, here.

And the latest from Iraq the Model, who's on the scene in Baghdad.

Belmont Club writes:

The good news is that there are enough cools heads on both sides to try to keep the lid on. That fact alone attests to the accomplishment of those who have tried to build a unitary Iraq. The bad news is that the pressures -- stoked by parties unknown, though Iraq the Model suggests they are "foreign terror groups" -- may be too much to handle.

Bottom line--no one really has a clue, or too much more than a clue.

The doom-and-gloomers who cried "civil war" at the very outset of any discord in Iraq are now practically salivating with glee (I'm sorry, but that's how I see it) at being able to say--like the hypochondriac who wrote "I told you so!" on his tombstone--"See, civil war! Here it is, at last!"

As for me, I cannot see the future. But my experience of the past tells me that neither extreme pessimism nor extreme optimism is warranted right now. I know that the goal of those who have done this is to spark a civil war, and I know that the goal of those who hate President Bush and the entire Iraqi war is to have it sparked, and to be able to say "We told you so."

Is my motivation for wanting things to turn out well to be able to say, myself, "I told you so?" I certainly don't think it is. I want things to turn out well for the sake of--well, for the sake of things turning out well for the Iraqi people, the US, and the world.

But I never was naive enough to believe this would be at all easy, or that it was necessarily going to turn out well, or that it was a "slam dunk." And the kneejerk characterization of the neocon endeavor as being composed of people who think that way--that bringing democracy plus human rights to the Arab world, or any part of the world that doesn't already have that tradition--will be easy is, I think, mischaracterizing the movement.

I've already written a long post on the whole meme that neocons thought the Iraq war would be a "cakewalk," which I think is a misrepresentation of the basic neocon position. The
post is here
for anyone who wants to review it; I see no need for me to rewrite it.

I would summarize my position as follows: all alternatives in these situations (prewar Iraq, for example) are fraught with danger and possible chaos. But we must nevertheless choose the course that looks best given all the knowledge we have at the time, knowing that it might lead to failure. That's the risk one must take.

In fact, it's impossible not to take a risk. Because don't think you can avoid making a decision by simply choosing to do nothing. That has consequences, too, although they are easier to deny. And, since we don't have a variety of worlds in which we can try out all the different actions as a sort of scientific experiment, we have to make all decisions with very imperfect knowledge, making it up as we go along, never quite knowing whether we were correct or not--even ex post facto.

That's history (and life) as it's lived, I'm afraid. Which is not to say that we shouldn't try to evaluate decisions, of course. We must, in order to try to learn to make better ones. I think we can now safely say, for example, that securing the Iraqi borders very early on would have been a very good thing to do--if indeed a way could have been found to do so. But I certainly don't think we can rightly say that the war itself was an error, looking at the situation as a whole so far--although, of course, some say it, will say it, and have been saying it from the moment the very first difficulties began.

I wrote a previous post on this subject of evaluating decisions that affect history. It was based on the writing of one of my favorite authors, Milan Kundera. I'll repeat some of his words here:

Several days later, [Tomas] was struck by another thought, which I record here as an addendum to the preceding chapter: Somewhere out in space there was a planet where all people would be born again. They would be fully aware of the life they had spent on earth and of all the experience they had amassed here.

And perhaps there was still another planet, where we would all be born a third time with the experience of our first two lives,

And perhaps there were yet more and more planets, where mankind would be born one degree (one life) more mature.

That was Tomas's version of eternal return.

Of course we are here on earth (planet number one, the planet of inexperience) can only fabricate vague fantasies of what will happen to man on those other planets. Will he be wiser? Is maturity within man's power? Can he attain it through repetition?

Only from the perspective of such a utopia is it possible to use the concepts of pessimism and optimism with full justification: an optimist is someone who thinks that on planet number five the history of mankind will be less bloody. A pessimist is one who thinks otherwise.

And this is what Kundera (a Czech) wrote about the history of his people:

There is only one history of the Czechs. One day it will come to an end, as surely as Tomas's life, never to be repeated.

In 1618, the Czech estates took courage and vented their ire on the emperor reigning in Vienna by pitching two of his high officials out of a window in the Prague Castle. Their defiance led to the Thirty Years War, which in turn led to the almost complete destruction of the Czech nation. Should the Czechs have shown more caution than courage? The answer may seem simple; it is not.

Three hundred and twenty years later, after the Munich Conference of 1938, the entire world decided to sacrifice the Czech's country to Hitler. Should the Czechs have tried to stand up to a power eight times their size? In contrast to 1618, they opted for caution. Their capitulation led to the Second World War, which in turn led to the forfeit of their nation's freedom for many decades or even centuries. What should they have done?

If Czech history could be repeated, we should of course find it desirable to check the other possibility each time and compare the results. Without such an experiment, all considerations of this kind remain a game of hypotheses...

The history of the Czechs will not be repeated, nor will the history of all of Europe. The history of the Czechs and of Europe are a pair of sketches from the pen of mankind's fateful inexperience.

"Mankind's fateful inexperience" is always operating on this, the planet of inexperience.

And so the inexperienced pundits pronounce, predict, and pontificate--while the caravan moves on.

Geography genius--not!

[NOTE: I'm not sure why this post has so much blank space in it. It has something to do with the text I copied to display the results. I can't seem to fix it, so just scroll down a bit.]

I got this from Callimachus. I'm not usually all that great on geography, but maybe blogging and reading so much in order to blog has helped (or maybe the test isn't that all-fired difficult after all).

At any rate, I'm not as good as Mr.-Done-With-Mirrors-Smarty-Pants. But I did pretty well.

Geography Genius

You scored 91% knowledge, and 0% confusion

Excellent! This is the highest score. You are very knowledgeable about the world. You didn't answer any (or many) of the questions with seriously incorrect answers. Great work. You are now ready to write your own Geography Knowledge test. Don't forget to vote on this test!

Test is found here.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Neo neo test 3

New Neo test2

My Mommy is a Democrat; your Momma wears combat boots

Gerard Van der Leun has called our attention to a children's book that has to be seen to be believed. Actually, scratch that; this book cannot be believed, even after being seen.

Take a look. Take a long look. Then come back and agree with me that Why Mommy Is a Democrat simply must be parody; it is so perfectly simpleminded that it could be nothing else. Spawn of the Onion, perhaps, or Mad magazine--something, anything but an actual serious effort at writing a children's book.

After giving the post at American Digest some serious in-depth study, and Googling around (including a visit to the book's website), I can only conclude that Why Mommy Is a Democrat is on the up and up after all, as serious as serious can be.

In the book, the words "Democrat" and "good person" seem to be used synonymously and interchangeably, and the illustrations--oh! the illustrations!--featuring what I can only conclude are meant to be squirrels (although they look more like antennaed aliens to me)--are quite stupendously hideous in a sentimental and strangely retro Dick-and-Jane-y way.

I can't quite fathom having the concept of writing such a book in the first place, the need to explain the ordinary everyday political affiliation of a parent to a very young child. I just don't think it's an issue that's uppermost in a child's mind, or even something about which a child would care at all. But I suppose that, even though this is a children's book, it's really wasn't written with the child in mind.

And it turns out the book is not alone. Research is my thing, and careful research has turned up a host of similar items, children's books about Mommy and politics. So I now present them for your edification (by the way, all these books are quite real, although my interpretations of them might be just a tad suspect):

Sometimes My Mommy Gets Angry: this one's easy; Mommy must be an evil Republican.

Mommy Hugs: here Mommy's clearly a loving Democrat--although that elephant illustration on the cover must be in error; the characters should be donkeys.

Mommy CEO: 5 Golden Rules: obviously a Republican again, and a dirty capitalist to boot.

Mommy Diagnostics: The Naturally Healthy Family's Guide to Herbs and Whole Foods for Health: a Democrat, what else? Lives in northern California, perhaps Marin county.

Mommy Knows Worst: Highlights from the Golden Age of Bad Parenting Advice: not only Republican all the way, but note the nefarious author: blogger James Lileks! Need I say more?

Mommy and Daddy Are Fighting: we obviously have a mixed marriage here: a Democrat has married a Republican (was this book by any chance written by the offspring of James Carville and Mary Matalin?)

Mommy is Missing: apolitical and unaffiliated, Mommy probably doesn't even bother to vote; she's a shirker

I Saw Mommy Kicking Santa Claus : The Ultimate Holiday Survival Guide: Mommy is a liberal/leftist secular Democrat who is gamely fighting all the trappings of Christmas

Mommy You're My Hero: a military Mommy, more likely than not a Republican, although she certainly could be a Democrat instead

Mommy Poisoned Our House Guest: can there be any doubt? Mommy's a Republican all the way.

The DIY Guide to Mommy Sanity: clearly, this is about our very own Republican Dr. Sanity

Mommy Under Cover: CIA Mommy.

Dear Mommy and Daddy When I Grow Up I Don't Want To Be BROKE: written by the budding Republican child of Democrat parents, an ungrateful turncoat

Mommy And The Policeman Next Door: don't ask, don't tell; you don't want to know

And, by the way, my mommy really was a Democrat. Still is, actually.

All kidding aside, children are nearly always indoctrinated by their parents in their initial political affiliation, and most of the time this affiliation lasts for life. In fact, one of the very first posts in my "A mind is a difficult thing to change" series talks about that at great length, here. But Why Mommy Is a Democrat is an unusually overt--not to say heavy-handed and preposterous--example of politicizing directed towards children.

Somehow, it reminds me ever so slightly of this:

"Elementary Class Consciousness, did you say? Let's have it repeated a little louder by the trumpet."

At the end of the room a loud speaker projected from the wall. The Director walked up to it and pressed a switch.

"… all wear green," said a soft but very distinct voice, beginning in the middle of a sentence, "and Delta Children wear khaki. Oh no, I don't want to play with Delta children. And Epsilons are still worse. They're too stupid to be able to read or write. Besides they wear black, which is such a beastly colour. I'm so glad I'm a Beta."

There was a pause; then the voice began again.

"Alpha children wear grey They work much harder than we do, because they're so frightfully clever. I'm really awfuly glad I'm a Beta, because I don't work so hard. And then we are much better than the Gammas and Deltas. Gammas are stupid. They all wear green, and Delta children wear khaki. Oh no, I don't want to play with Delta children. And Epsilons are still worse. They're too stupid to be able …"

The Director pushed back the switch. The voice was silent. Only its thin ghost continued to mutter from beneath the eighty pillows.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006


We didn't start the fire: should Holocaust Denial be criminalized?

The controversy over yesterday's David Irving conviction, and the more general question of whether Holocaust denial should be a criminal offense, seem on the surface to be no-brainers, easily resolvable by saying that the principle of free speech dictates that Irving should be given a get out of jail free card, and that the crime itself be wiped off the books.

That's my knee-jerk answer, and the answer of most of those who wrote in the comments section here.

But, as with almost everything on earth, the actual situation is a bit more complicated than that. First, a little background.

When I started doing the research for this post, I was surprised to find that Holocaust Denial is not a crime in just Germany and Austria, as I'd previously thought. Ten European countries, plus Israel, have established criminal penalties for it:

There are laws against public espousal of Holocaust denial in Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Israel, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Switzerland.

The first thing I noticed is that Holocaust Denial itself is not a crime; it's the public pronouncement of it that is penalized. The speech itself is allowed; what is not allowed is to say it publicly in front of groups--that is, to preach it. It may seem a small distinction, but it's an interesting one.

The second thing I noticed was that, with the exception of Switzerland (and of course Israel, which represents an obvious special case), the countries involved have characteristics that Great Britain, the US, and Canada do not share: their experience of Nazism or of Nazi occupation in WWII.

To Germans and Austrians the danger of public promulgation of Holocaust denial may indeed (especially when the laws were first passed) have seemed like the danger of yelling "Fire!" in a crowded theater. Likewise--although to a lesser extant--to countries such as Poland, who have reason to know the Holocaust in a way that countries such as Britain and the US never can, Holocaust denial may seem a particular affront and a special danger. "He jests at scars that never felt a wound;" and so it is much easier for countries who have not experienced such a cataclysmic upheaval to be absolutist about protecting freedom of speech.

Author D.D. Guttenplan has some insight on these points, as well as a discussion of the differing legal history of the Anglosphere vs. the continent:

In Britain and the United States we regard Free Speech as sacred. Americans venerate the First Amendment, while Britons cite Milton, who in Areopagitica said true Liberty only exists "when free born men / Having to advise the public may speak free". Holocaust denial is currently a crime in Austria, France, Germany, Israel, Belgium, Poland, Lithuania and Switzerland. Do the citizens of those countries value freedom less than we do? Or might other factors be involved?

Robert Kahn, author of Holocaust Denial and the Law, points to a ‘fault time’ separating the ‘common law countries’ of the US, Britain, and former British colonies from the ‘civil law countries of continental Europe’. In civil law countries the law is generally more prescriptive. Also under the civil law regime the judge acts more as an inquisitor, gathering and presenting evidence as well as interpreting it.

Unlike the Anglo-American adversarial system, where fairness is the primary attribute of justice, and the judge functions as a referee, trials under the continental system aim at arriving at the truth...

Ultimately, though, it is the difference in historical experience that ought to constrain our attitude to other countries. In Germany and Austria Holocaust denial is not ‘mere’ Jew-baiting but also a channel for Nazi resurgence much like the Hitler salute and the display of the swastika, which are also banned.

The case for a ban in Israel should also be obvious, if not beyond argument. Similarly, countries where the experience of occupation and the shame of collaboration still rankle ought to be able to make their own decisions...

Guttenplan believes, in the end, that countries such as Britain, with its combination of the adversarial legal system and a history free of the Holocaust collaboration shared by much of continental Europe, should never outlaw Holocaust denial, because the danger it represents here is very small compared to the larger negatives of restricting freedom of speech. But he refuses to say the same for countries such as Germany.

Professor Hajo Funke, a German historian, agrees:

"In Germany and in Austria there is a moral obligation to fight the kind of propaganda peddled by Irving. We can't afford the luxury of the Anglo-Saxon freedom of speech argument in this regard," he says.

"It's not that I don't understand it, it's just not for us. Not yet. Not for a long time."

It was about sixty years ago that WWII ended. To those who are young, it may seem to be ancient history. But it really was not so long ago. Countries that know, through bitter and personal experience, the dangers to which anti-Semitism led a mere sixty years ago do consider it (and other hate speech) to be the equivalent of yelling "Fire!" in that proverbial crowded theater.

I can't find the quote right now, but I remember reading (I believe it was in Primo Levi's fine and highly recommended Survival in Auschwitz) that one of the ways in which the guards taunted prisoners in the concentration camps--those prisoners who were "lucky" enough to have escaped the ovens, at least for a little while--was by saying to them that they would never live to tell their tale, and that the world would never know or care what they had suffered. What's more, the guards said, if by some slim chance some of them did somehow survive and report to the world what had happened, the world would never believe them. And in fact the Nazis worked hard to cover their traces, in hopes that the evidence would remain hidden.

Holocaust denial, seen in this light, is a continuation of Nazi thought, and was in fact part of the Nazi plan--and, if allowed to grow and spread, might represent their final triumph. And so (to continue to use the fire metaphor) the who espouse criminalizing it want to snuff it out while it's still a harmless little brush fire. Because they know that brush fires can grow into--well, into Holocausts.

The Anglosphere has no direct experience of that, fortunately for us. And it has a stronger tradition of freedom of speech.

My personal opinion on Holocaust denial is aligned with that tradition: I believe that it should not be criminalized. I believe it shouldn't be a crime in the Anglosphere, nor should it (at this late date) be one in Europe.

But I also see Guttenplan's point about why Europeans are particularly sensitive to this issue, and why they come down harder on Holocaust deniers: these European countries (and Israel) are the ones who've been burned.

As for David Irving (remember him?), the Wikipedia article has some interesting background information:

The Holocaust denial movement grew into full strength in the 1970s with the publication of Arthur Butz' The Hoax of the Twentieth Century: The case against the presumed extermination of European Jewry in 1976 and David Irving's Hitler's War in 1977. These books, seen as the basis of much of the deniers' arguments, brought other similarly inclined individuals into the fold.

So, far from being a peripheral figure in the movement, Irving has been instrumental in fanning the flames for quite some time.

In addition, the Austrian government has a special reason for wanting him in jail--and that is that he has openly defied its warnings. Austria issued the warrant against him in 1989, and informed him that if he returned he'd be arrested. And so he did, and so he was:

He was arrested in Austria on 11 November last year when he arrived to give a lecture. He was detained on a warrant issued in 1989 under Austrian laws that make Holocaust denial a crime.

During the trial the judge, Peter Liebtreu, compared him to a "prostitute who has not changed her ways for decades".

Mr Liebtreu told the court: "He showed no signs that he attempted to change his views after the arrest warrant was issued 16 years ago in Austria. Although he tried to persuade the court, he failed.

"He is not just someone who sold Hitler statues or who made people do Hitler salutes. He served as an example for the right wing for decades."

So, what about the argument that arresting Irving only gives him publicity, and sympathy for his new status as a free speech martyr? A good point, in my opinion. But here's a differing one that broadens the geographic context of Irving's influence:

The fact is, however, that Irving and his ilk have become dangerous. The interests of the European and North American Holocaust deniers - from Ernst Zundel (on trial in Germany) to the French "scholar" Robert Faurisson - are merging with those of the anti-Semitic ideologists of Arab nationalism and Iranian theocratic rule. If Irving walks free from the Wien-Josefstadt Prison next week he will soon be packing his suitcase for the Holocaust conference in Tehran.

The German authorities have already sensibly confiscated the passport of Horst Mahler - a neo-Nazi who has been advising Zundel on his courtroom defence - to prevent him travelling to Iran. Will we do the same for Irving? Of course not. Suspected English football hooligans will be under virtual house arrest during the World Cup, but Irving, as usual, will be free to travel anywhere. You know: freedom of speech.

The Irving-is-a-chump school describes him as a "fringe academic addressing a group of loopy far-right radicals wearing silly hats in a basement in Vienna". Jailing the man is supposed to award him an undeserved importance. This is a truly parochial view, given that the problem is not strange, skinheaded Austrians in lederhosen (though I worry a bit about them, too) but bearded men in turbans who have never made their peace with Israel. The European input has always been important to the development of anti-Semitism in the Middle East. The widespread Arab hatred of Jews does not derive from the Koran: it stems from the need of national liberation movements for hate figures.

European anti-Semites have fed them from the start. Palestinian nationalists aligned themselves with Nazi Germany, identifying Zionism as the enemy. As the state of Israel took shape, Arab writers (borrowing heavily from European deniers) presented the Nazi gas chambers as a flimsy myth designed to justify a land-grab.

An interesting point. But, in the end, an irrelevant one. Because the sad truth is that the damage has already been done. The horse is out of the barn, the cat is out of the bag, Humpty Dumpty has fallen off his wall and all the king's horses and all the king's men and all the jailers in Austria will not undo the influence of the European anti-Semitism that has been tainting the Arab world for much of this century.

So it seems to me that the only remedy is free speech in the theater of ideas. We must believe in the ability of truth to ultimately triumph, and in our ability to wage war against those who would preach hate and follow through on it with destruction. If Irving and his ilk have influenced Iran, the damage is long done, and the remedies lie elsewhere--unfortunately.

[ADDENDUM: Sigmund, Carl, & Alfred has related thoughts. In addition, thought-provoking posts on the subject are provided by fellow psychobloggers Shrinkwrapped and Dr. Sanity.]

Monday, February 20, 2006

David Irving sentenced

I don't have time to write a post about this now, but I plan to later: David Irving has pleaded guilty to Holocaust denial, and has been sentenced to three years in prison, which he will appeal.

See this, and also my previous post on Irving, here.

Dancer from the dance

A while back, as I listened (or tried to listen) to the President's State of the Union address, it struck me once again that I'm just not very good at listening to speeches. Unless it's Winston Churchill, I much prefer to read them.

Even though I was always a good student, I rarely enjoyed classes. In retrospect, I think one big reason was the "sit in your seat and listen while we talk--and talk--and talk" format. In college, I was one of those people who sat at the very back of the room during lectures, swinging my leg restlessly, doodling and smoking.

Ah yes, kids: smoking. We used to be allowed to do that in classrooms. I was never much of a smoker--I really didn't inhale--but I liked to light up, and to amuse myself by making perfect, long-lasting smoke rings, like the old Camel's ad in Times Square (mine were much better than his).

The point of all this is that I'm most definitely not what is known as an auditory learner. A speaker has to be riveting--and, preferably, very, very funny--to catch my attention. I've been to several authors' book and/or poetry readings, and despite my best intentions and resolve (and love of books and poetry), I find that I ordinarily drift off within five minutes or less of the moment the author opens his/her mouth, "coming to"--unaware of any lapse in time--only when the applause starts that signifies the reading has ended.

On the other hand, when I'm reading or writing, I concentrate hard. Time tends to pass very quickly, but my mind does not wander. I've been known to try to fix a problem with a single line of poetry for what I would estimate to be ten minutes--but then, when I look at my watch, two hours have somehow passed.

In the olden, pre-computer days, when I used to work at a word processor (and before that, an electric typewriter) in a room without a clock, I've been known to think it was about midnight and then to hear the birds chirping as a soft light slowly filled the room and I realized it was actually dawn. Now, with computers that have built-in clocks, that's not going to happen. But I still experience the phenomenon of time passing extraordinarily quickly without my realizing it.

I used to experience the same sort of concentration back in my ballet dancing days. Classes usually involved an hour and a half of intense physical activity. But what isn't commonly known is that dancing is a mental activity as well, although of an utterly different sort from that involved in writing or in listening to a lecture.

A ballet class consists of a series of graduated exercises that follow a certain strictly determined order, aimed at warming up all the major (and minor) body parts in a way that's thought to be least likely to lead to injury. The first portion is boring but utterly necessary, the barre. It's the equivalent of scales for the musician or singer, and it often used to go rather slowly, especially those long intervals of holding the leg up very high and still.

The only thing that got me through the barre was the music. Most of the time we had a live pianist playing classical music (most often Chopin), with the odd Scott Joplin rag thrown in to keep us on our toes (sorry, couldn't resist). The music transformed the whole exercise into something other than an exercise; it became an art.

Next we took our positions away from the barre for what was known as "center work." First, a port de bras; mostly arm movements and slowly changing body positions, nothing too difficult. Then, an adagio, or series of slow unfolding movements, ordinarily very very difficult, but lyrical. Then, turns in place. Then some faster movements in place, then small jumps in place. Then bigger jumps in place. And then what was the payoff, the raison d'etre for the whole thing: moving combinations, usually across a diagonal from corner to corner.

Big sweeping jumps that crossed an imaginary stage coupled with linking steps, a series of small ballets that the teacher would choreograph on the spot. Turns that covered space were incorporated into these combinations. Sometimes we'd revolve in a great big circle, faster and faster, until some of us had to stagger out of the group and rest on the sidelines.

The combinations were difficult, and they had to be memorized on the spot, one after the other. The teacher would tell us the steps, then we would "mark" them (do them in a sort of shorthand movement, not full blast). Then the music would start, and off we'd go. And it wasn't just steps that we had to memorize; it was steps coordinated with arm movements, head movements, body positions, all set down for us in a few moments and then integrated into the body memory and performed full out.

Then, the same thing to the other side. Where the right leg had led before, now it was the left. Where the left arm had been raised during a certain leap, now it was the right. These changes had to be accomplished instantaneously and automatically, almost without thinking.

One of my favorite parts of all was when the teacher would say "reverse the combination." This was not everyone's favorite part, to be sure. It was like a tongue twister; the best way to describe it would be that we were required to turn the steps inside out. It was fiendishly difficult; if a jump had featured the back foot leading and ending in front, now the front foot led and ended up in back. If a one-legged turn had been an "inside" turn (that is, turning in the direction of the supporting leg), now it had to be an "outside" turn (turning away from the supporting leg).

We would usually end the big combinations with the largest of leaps on the diagonal, across the room. It was a totally ordered and controlled set of movements; every angle of each part of the body was dictated by tradition. But, within that structure, the utter sense of freedom and expansion--of soaring and flying and oneness with the music--was phenomenal. And, at the end, it was amazing that an hour and a half had passed with my hardly being aware of time at all.

There is nothing like it on earth. I miss it still.

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

[ADDENDUM: To end this piece, I want to describe how a ballet class always ends, with something called a reverence (it's French, which is the language of ballet). A reverence is a stylized bow, very courtly in nature--which is only fitting, since the origin of ballet lies in court spectacles.

But the reverence that ends a class is very simple. After all the frenetic activity of the minutes before, the students assume their places in the center again. They may be huffing and puffing, they are almost certainly soaked in sweat and exhausted, but all calms down as the music changes to slow and lyrical. To its strains, the students bow in a prescribed manner: first to one corner, then swivel and bow to the other (the corner where the pianist is sitting, ordinarily). Then bow to the center, where the teacher stands, who bows back in return. Each bow is a thank you, and also a grounding.

Sometimes I would experience a feeling of relief as the strains of the reverence music began, relief that a very difficult class was over. Sometimes I'd feel regret, because the class had been so much fun it seemed to end all too soon.

But always, a feeling of gratitude would come to me in synchrony with the body language of the bow. And once in a while, tears would even spring to my eyes at the beautiful coming together of all these things: the movement, the feeling, the music, and the people gathered around me and dedicated to the pursuit of excellence and transcendence in this particular form.]

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Those calcium pills--Emily Litella again?

First it was low fat diets. Now it's calcium supplements that have been tested and found somewhat wanting, according to the Washington Post and many other newspapers reporting on a recent study. What's a woman to do?

First, a personal note. I've been taking those things for at least twenty years. And, you know what? I'll continue to take them.

I've always detested milk, and couldn't even drink it while pregnant, relying instead on those horse-pill-sized supplements. I've never had a kidney stone (the study reports that supplements slightly increase the risk of one); and, although there's always a first time, I'll take my chances on one. I try to eat other foods high in calcium, but there's just no substitute for milk products in that respect. I'm part of a subgroup of women who probably get less calcium in the diet than is the norm.

And so far (although I don't have a clone and therefore there's no control subject in my own little study) those calcium pills appear to have done right by me. Or at least, something has. A year or two ago I had my first bone density test. Given my history with milk, I wasn't looking forward to getting the results. So I was stunned when I was told the test showed that I had the bones of a healthy eighteen-year-old.

Now, that may just be the first time since--well, since about twenty-two--that I've been told I had the anything of a healthy eighteen-year old. Granted, there might be a few characteristics that would be higher on my list of coveted eighteen-year-old traits than bone density--but I'll take it, I'll take it.

However, I strongly suspect that I have the something else of an eighteen-year-old--namely, her bone density test results, which I suspect accidentally got switched with mine. Somewhere in my town there may be a terrified eighteen-year-old taking tons of (worthless?) calcium supplements because she's been told she's sporting the bones of a creaky fifty-something-year-old.

But I digress; back to that research. It was undertaken by the federally-funded Women's Health Initiative, which found indications in the seven-year study of about 36,000 women aged 50-79 that calcium supplementation doesn't appear to do all that much, except lead to a few extra kidney stones. There was a small increase in bone density at the hip, it's true, and a significant reduction in hip fractures for the oldest group of women who took the full complement of supplements. But no significant reduction in fractures or in colorectal cancer was found for the group as a whole.

It wasn't discussed in most of the newspaper reports, but if you go to the NIH website for a fuller report of the study, you'll find that it had some very strong limitations in design, according to a Dr. Rebecca D. Jackson, who was in charge of the research:

The low rates [of fractures or change in their incidence] could be due to a number of factors, such as the high body mass index of participants (heavier people have stronger bones), the inclusion of relatively few women over age 70 years, and the fact that many participants were already using calcium and vitamin D supplements, or were on hormone therapy.

I find it quite astounding that a large and well-funded seven-year study of the benefits of calcium supplementation in reducing bone fractures could be conducted without including many women over seventy. That group is, after all, the population in which almost all such fractures occur.

I assume there are reasons for this lack--for example, it may be more difficult to recruit women of that age, more of them would be expected to die over the course of the study, and an intervention at that late stage might be considered too late to afford measurable benefit. Such long-term lifestyle/diet intervention studies are notoriously difficult to design, and therefore the results are often subject to criticism. But the relative lack of inclusion of such women makes the study almost worthless in studying the phenomenon, I'm afraid.

The cumulative effect of these "on again, off again" dietary recommendations and their Emily Litella-like findings can only be confusion and skepticism about all medical studies of this sort--and depression on the part of those who make and market low-fat food products and calcium supplements.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

And today's Hamas bulletin from the NY Times is...

...this article, entitled: "Hamas leader faults Israel sanction plan."

It's not that the Times has become a mouthpiece for Hamas propaganda. Not exactly. Not precisely.

But it certainly comes uncomfortably close. Here are the first three paragraphs of the article (the part most people are likely to read):

The man many expect to become the new Palestinian prime minister, Ismail Haniya of the militant Islamic group Hamas, on Friday criticized Israeli proposals to restrict the movement of money, people and goods into and out of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank under a Hamas-run Palestinian Authority.

"These Israeli decisions are part of the policy of repression, terrorism and collective punishment against our people," Mr. Haniya said after leaving Friday Prayer in Gaza City. "Hamas reflects the choice of our people, who will not be broken by a few measures taken by the Israeli occupiers."

A new, Hamas-dominated parliament will be sworn in on Saturday at simultaneous, videoconferenced sessions in Gaza and the West Bank, and afterward, Israeli officials say, relations with the Palestinians will change.

Here, the Times somehow manages to write three entire paragraphs without an iota of context, merely reporting what the "Hamas leader" says. It's an interesting moment for the Times to revert to "just the facts, ma'am, just the facts."

Later, at least, there's this (the only acknowledgement in the article of who and what Hamas is):

The [Israeli sanction] effort is intended to force Hamas to satisfy the three conditions imposed by Israel and other countries: to recognize Israel's permanent right to exist, to forswear violence and to accept the validity of previous Palestinian-Israeli agreements, which are based on the concept of a two-state solution as the foundation stone for a peace treaty.

But then it's followed by this:

Dov Weissglas, an adviser to the [Israeli] prime minister, was quoted by the Israeli news media as telling an official meeting: "It's like a meeting with a dietitian. We need to make the Palestinians lose weight, but not to starve to death." Mr. Weissglas was quoted in the past as saying that Israel would be ready to make peace with the Palestinians when they became as responsible as the citizens of Finland.

That last sentence, especially, is a remarkable one to place in this particular article. Bringing up this particular quote from the past seems to have the intent of making the Israelis sound as though they are asking for the moon from the Palestinians, rather than their rather reasonable request that Hamas quit talking about destroying Israel, and stop purposely blowing up their kids.

The fact that the Times gratuitously dragged it in, undated and unsourced (Weissglas "was quoted in the past"--could a blogger get away with that?), in an article that is minus a single Hamas quote about obliterating Israel or drinking the blood of the Israelis (oh, surely the Times wouldn't have had too much trouble finding a few representative ones if it cared to look; for example, this and this), can only be interpreted as bias on the part of the Times.

I'm getting rather tired of this myself. Tired of reading it, tired of fisking it. No doubt you are, too. So I'm not planning to turn this Times-bashing into a daily event. But sometimes it just cries out to be done.

It appears that Rumsfeld reads neo-neocon

According to Reuters (and who am I to doubt them?):

The United States lags dangerously behind al Qaeda and other enemies in getting out information in the digital media age and must update its old-fashioned methods, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said on Friday.

Let's see, I post it on Tuesday, Rumsfeld says it on Friday--works for me.

Then he even cites blogs:

The Pentagon chief said today's weapons of war included e-mail, Blackberries, instant messaging, digital cameras and Web logs, or blogs.

Here's the text of Rumsfeld's entire speech (at RealClearPolitics). Well, perhaps he's not reading neo-neocon after all.

You'll notice that, although the headline of the Reuters article is "US lags in propaganda war: Rumsfeld," he does not actually utter the word "propaganda" during the speech. Instead, Rumsfeld speaks many times of "communication" and "communications," and of truth. It's not surprising that Rumsfeld is reluctant to use the "p" word; propaganda has gotten a bad name. But, as I wrote in my previous post on the subject, it by no means precludes telling the truth; on the contrary.

You may also notice that Rumsfeld's speech deal entirely with foreign propaganda ("communications") rather than domestic, which he ignores. Ah, well.

Friday, February 17, 2006

The pragmatic NY Times

Right from the start--its very title--this NY Times article is a good example of what's wrong with the paper.

Are there any incorrect facts in the piece? I doubt it. My guess is that, strictly speaking, it contains not a single lie. But the wording, the shading, and the placement of information are all quite stunning in their subtle bias.

To start with the title, "Pragmatic Hamas figure is likely to be next premier"--that's a little bit like calling Goehring pragmatic as compared to Hitler. It's true, but somewhat irrelevant. In this case, the Times offers not single example of Ismail Haniya's "pragmatic" views. In fact, it doesn't even identify who finds him so very pragmatic:

Hamas plans to nominate Ismail Haniya, viewed as one of its less radical leaders, for prime minister.

Does the Times see fit to report anything about the policies he advocates, his past, or his attitude towards certain little details such as the right of the state of Israel to exist, of the suicide bombers, and of the Second Intifada? Just this, which occurs towards the end of the lengthy article rather than the beginning (is the Times counting on the fact that its readership might not get that far?):

Mr. Haniya, 42, has good relations with other Palestinian factions. He was at the top of the Hamas election list and has been viewed as the most important Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip, the group's stronghold, since the parliamentary election. While considered to be part of the more pragmatic side of Hamas, he endorses its fundamental positions.

So, he endorses all the fundamental (is that a pun?) Hamas postions. Boy, I'd dearly love to know what "pragmatic" could mean in that context. More willing to pretend to be reasonable, in order to get concessions, like the very pragmatic Mr. Arafat? I really don't know what the Times means, and I read the article a few times in a vain effort to find out, since they saw fit to highlight the word in the headline.

There's food for thought in almost every paragraph of the article, I'm afraid. But I'll just highlight a few. The opening paragraph is a good example:

The militant group Hamas on Thursday appeared poised to name its candidate for Palestinian prime minister, while Israel's Defense Ministry drew up sanctions likely to be imposed after the new Palestinian parliament dominated by Hamas is sworn in on Saturday.

So (from the headline) we've got the "pragmatic" (read: "reasonable?") Prime Minister elect of the "militant" (surely if any group richly deserved the appellation "terrorist" instead, it would be Hamas) Hamas, and then the Israelis preparing those nasty sanctions, without even giving the pragmatic militant a chance! How vengeful of them!

The next few parapraphs focus on what form the sanctions will take, without giving further background about Hamas except that the Israelis consider it a terrorist group and say that they will not transfer money to terrorists. An example of what the Israelis are planning:

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz held talks about possible restrictions to be imposed to reduce Israel's already limited contact with the Palestinians. The measures would include preventing Palestinian workers from entering Israel and making it even more difficult for Palestinians and their goods to move between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Then there's a delicately nuanced paragraph about Europe:

The European Union, the largest single donor to the Palestinians, prefers a wait-and-see approach before any punitive measures are imposed. That position was reaffirmed Thursday by Javier Solana, the European Union's foreign policy chief, who met with Ms. Livni. After the Palestinians began an uprising against Israel in late 2000 their economy crashed, and they depend heavily on roughly $1 billion in annual aid.

Aren't those Europeans kind and forgiving compared to the punitive Israelis? But it's the last sentence in the paragraph that is especially masterful in what it says--and what it doesn't say. Yes, after refusing the offers made at Camp David and launching the murderous and repellent Intifada (oh, I forgot, let's just use the Palestinians' own definition of the Intifada: "uprising"--they're just freedom fighters), the Palestinian economy fell on hard times. But let's not explicitly blame that on the Infitada and what it did to relations with Israel.

And then there's this (still with me?), the next to last paragraph of the piece. Note that the Times finally calls Hamas a terrorist organization, perhaps long after most people have stopped reading:

Israel, the United States and the European Union regard Hamas as a terrorist organization. Israel, which has been hit by dozens of Hamas suicide bombings, is seeking to isolate the group internationally.

Oops, my error. I guess the Times doesn't call Hamas a terrorist organization after all. It reports that Israel, the US, and the European Union regard Hamas as a terrorist organization. At least the Times does acknowledge that Hamas is responsible for suicide bombings--almost at the end of the lengthy article.

This may all seem needlessly picky, a fuss about semantics. But as a former believer in the NY Times as the paper of record, I can attest to the power of such subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) shadings to shape opinion. There is no doubt that, whatever faults they may have, the writers and editors of the Times know the meaning of words. I cannot believe that they are not purposeful in their choice of exactly which words to use, and how and when to use them--and which ones to leave out.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

The Saddam WMD tapes: smoking gun or cap pistol?

The WMD tapes story that aired last night contained no smoking gun. In fact, as presented on Nightline, it was almost a nonevent. Sandwiched between Dick Cheney's hunting accident and another feature, the story was given short shrift.

So, how are we to evaluate whether the tapes have any meaning or not? The people behind the release of the tapes--a former weapons inspector named Bill Tierney and attorney John Loftus--have both been labeled as having a few skeletons in the closet.

Loftus's official bio, found on the website of the group with which he's affiliated ("The Intelligence Summit"), seems on the up and up. But then again, so did Ramsey Clark's--for a while. A quick Googling of Loftus reveals only vague charges of sketchiness from various critics on the left (if you have something more specific, please let me know).

As for Bill Tierney, the situation is similar, although there's a bit more to go on there. He's been fingered as a demonstrator on the right during the Schiavo affair (oh, no![/sarcasm off]), and as a believer in his own ESP. His biography seems otherwise rather impressive, but that doesn't really tell us much about the man.

So I'll just stick to what I heard on Nightline. Brief though the presentation was, it indicated the following (assuming the tapes are authentic, which they so far appear to be):

(1) Saddam had the will, determination, and ability to reconstitute his WMD programs, just as the Duelfer Report alleged.

(2) Saddam had the will, determination, and ability to deceive the weapons inspectors.

Most reports on these tapes are short, and emphasize the fact that they contain no information about events immediately prior to the Iraq War. That is certainly true. Nightline indicated (without being extremely precise on the matter) that the tapes were made mainly during the mid-90s. And this very short Newsweek piece emphasizes the age of the tapes. However, the Intelligence Summit website states that the tapes continue into the year 2000, which certainly would make some of them far more relevant to the question of later events.

I will be interested in knowing whether there is anything further these tapes will end up revealing. According to the Intelligence Summit website, there will be an unveiling and discussion this coming Saturday. But don't expect that event to be covered by the MSM in any more depth than the original Swift Vets' news conference was.

I have no idea how this will pan out. It may wind up like so many previous WMD "smoking guns"--a cap pistol.

But if all that the tapes ever reveal is what was shown on Nightline last evening, I think they still tend to bolster the WMD argument rather than negate it. Certainly, they substantiate the Duelfer report's conclusions about the dangers of the fact that Saddam could easily reconstitute his weapons programs.

For me, this is actually enough. For me, the combination of the human rights benefits of liberating (yes, I do still use that word) the Iraqi people from Saddam's violent and tyrannical regime, coupled with his clear intent to restart his weapons programs as soon as his European friends helped the sanctions to be lifted, coupled with his clear violations of UN resolutions and inspections, were enough to justify the invasion.

But hey, that's just me--and after all, what would you expect? I'm a neocon.

Bush lied, people lack a ride

The Chairman at Maggie's Farm has a complaint about Bush that I think deserves--practically begs for--a hearing.

Check out the photo, too. "The Outcasts of Poker Flat" have got nothing on this one.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Let's hear it from those moderate Palestinians

A while back, I speculated on how many Palestinians who voted for Hamas in the recent elections were playing a voting game.

An article from the Telegraph had quoted a young Palestinian voter as experiencing post-election regret:

Like many others, a young Fatah activist wished yesterday he could go back in time and replay the Palestinian elections all over again.

"I voted Hamas so that my own Fatah Party would be shocked and change its ways," he said, giving his name only as Mohamed, in the Palmeira cafe in Gaza City. "I thought Hamas would come second.

"But this is a game that went too far. Nobody thought Hamas would win - even them. I know lots of people who voted Hamas, who regret it now. If I could vote again, I would vote for Fatah."

At the time I wrote, "I wonder how large a group he represents."

I still wonder. And I still haven't read anything that would allow me to answer the question with anything approaching authority.

But I have read two more articles that would indicate--if the Palestinians they feature are at all representative of the majority--that the Mohamed quoted above may in fact be extremely typical of Palestinian voters, and not just in his name. An awful lot of them--at least the ones who seem to find their way to journalists to be interviewed, agree with him on the reasons they cast their precious votes for Hamas.

Case in point: an article that appeared one week ago in the Boston Globe, entitled "They voted for Hamas but were surprised by its victory."

Here are some excerpts:

Muayad Abu Ghazaleh, 36, is the ultimate Palestinian swing voter. A lifelong backer of Yasser Arafat's Fatah party, he grew so disgusted with its cronyism and corruption that in parliamentary elections on Jan. 25 he cast his ballot for Hamas, never suspecting the militant group would actually win.

What he wants from Hamas now, he said, is good government, plus something that the group's charter says it can never deliver -- a peace deal with Israel.

Swing voters such as Abu Ghazaleh -- who doesn't share Hamas's vision of Islamic rule and unending war with Israel -- handed Hamas its surprise victory in Palestinian parliamentary elections. Now those voters are confronting the confusing reality of the day after.

Many say they voted with specific and sometimes contradictory hopes -- for a government that won't let Israel push it around but will ultimately make peace -- that they now have to square with Hamas's uncompromising record. While these voters say they believe Hamas will turn more pragmatic as it moves from violent outsider to governing party, Hamas leaders so far have not given any indication that they plan to abandon their more fiery tenets.

Whether or not Hamas will abandon these "fiery tenets" is a question I've answered here (and my answer is "probably not"). But the intentions and hopes of the Palestinian voters who actually cast their lots with Hamas are another thing.

The Globe article is, unfortunately, quite mum on how its author, Anne Barnard, selected her pro-Hamas but relatively reasonable-sounding Palesinian voter interviewees. It's even more silent on whether we should consider them to be representative of anything more than the particular point of view the writer wishes to promote. And I haven't seen any polls on the matter.

So it may be a case of quote selection by Ms. Barnard. Or it may be a real phenomenon: that the Palestinian support for Hamas itself is much less than the vote would indicate, and that a huge number of voters were voting as a protest against the corruption of Fatah, never expecting that Hamas would actually win a majority, much less the solid majority it now owns.

According to the article, many of these voters have the (somewhat delusional, IMHO) hope that Hamas--perceived by them as a sort of "strong horse"--might actually be able to get results if they could ever be convinced to enter into negotiations with the Israelis. How they might thus be persuaded is left rather vague--and rightly so, since, as the article points out, there is absolutely no sign that this might be the case.

But that doesn't stop some--such as the following Hamas voter--from hoping:

''We want peace," he said. ''I have children. I want to live. I don't want the Israel Army to come in here. The extremists [in Hamas] are very few. I love Jews and Israel, I just don't like their politicians."

The article makes the excellent point that, even if it were theoretically open to moderation, Hamas now is riding high, and therefore has little to no incentive to listen to such voters.

Some voters realize this, including a man named Zakaria, who actually ended up as campaign manager for a Hamas-backed candidate. Now he is experiencing a sort of "buyer's remorse;" he sounds rather worried:

Ameed Zakaria, a lifelong Fatah member who dresses in the uniform of Palestinian secular nationalists -- leather jacket, jeans, no beard -- broke from the party to manage the campaign of a Hamas-backed independent candidate. He wanted Hamas to win a solid opposition bloc; the competition, he felt, would shock Fatah into reforming corruption, while the burdens of office would make Hamas more pragmatic.

''I want Hamas to get into the heart of the event, rather than shouting from the sidelines," he said. ''They will have to admit reality. It's not good for Hamas to keep saying, 'We want Palestine from the river to the sea' " -- its demand for a Palestinian state that would not only include the West Bank and Gaza but also replace Israel on the map.

But when Hamas won outright, taking five of the six district seats in Nablus, Zakaria began to fear for the secular order -- and for the prospects for a pragmatic deal with Israel.

''They use religion for political purposes," he said last week.

As I wrote earlier, it's always dangerous to vote for someone in whom you don't believe, thinking it will register only as a protest. If enough people do the same thing, you may find that you've actually voted the bums in. To the voters, it probably seemed impossible that Hamas could win, and that therefore a vote for Hamas would be a relatively harmless protest. A miscalculation, and perhaps a fatal one.

The following is the only indication I could find in the article of how many of these protest votes there might have been:

Yasser Mansour, who ran Hamas's Nablus campaign and won a parliament seat, now spends much of his time offering reassurances. Nearly half of Palestinians are independents without strong loyalties to Hamas or Fatah, he said. ''These are the people who gave us the victory."

So, it's those swing voters again. If Mansour is correct, there may be a great many of them among the Palestinians. And one can't really say they had much of a choice, either: Fatah hatred and proven corruption vs. Hamas ultra-hatred and promises (most likely empty) of ending corruption.

If we can trust the article, there doesn't seem to be a groundswell of popular support for an Islamic state among the Palestinians. Note the article's conclusion, from brokerage manager Numaan Khosrawi, who voted for a secular party:

"But if [Hamas members] start trying to control Palestinians' lifestyles," he added, "it will be their grave."

I'm afraid this is bluster; Hamas would have even less hesitation than Fatah did about killing off the opposition. But it seems, at least, that there may be more internal opposition than originally thought. And that--if we can believe the sincerity of the people quoted--does offer some hope that there is more than a small chink in the seemingly monolithic Palestinian support for those who would like nothing better than to blow all Israelis to kingdom come.

I offer as a companion piece this article from the NY Sun. It gives more background on the vote for Hamas. The article features interviews with two Palestinian expatriates, Khaled Abu Toameh and Nonie Darwish--the former was a Palestinian reporter, and the latter grew up in Gaza City as the daughter of a man who was head of Egypt's fedayeen.

Here's what they have to say:

Mr. Abu Toameh's views are shaped by what he has seen as a reporter - not so different from what the Palestinian Arabs who voted for Hamas have seen. He sees former Arafat officials like Jibril Rajoub and Mohammed Dahlan - "icons of corruption, warlords" - depicted by some Western Arabists as a "younger generation, reformists."

"The Palestinians don't buy it," Mr. Abu Toameh said. Mr. Dahlan, with no official government position, moves around Gaza in a 12-car convoy with 70 bodyguards. "People look at him and say, 'This is all the CIA money.' I think Mohammed Dahlan is one of the main reasons why people in Gaza voted for Hamas."

Much of what Mr. Abu Toameh and Ms. Darwish have to say is unconventional. "A lot of times we hear, 'Is America going to pressure Israel for peace?'" Ms. Darwish said. "I don't hear the media asking, 'When are the Arabs going to pressure the Palestinians for peace?'"

Mr. Abu Toameh said American policy in advance of the Palestinian elections can be summed up as "If you don't vote for the same thieves who have been stealing your money for ten years, we are going to punish you."

He said that the linkage between Gaza and the West Bank is more in the minds of Western diplomats and even Israelis than in the culture of the Palestinians. The West Bank feels more Jordanian, Gaza more Egyptian. They are "two separate entities," Mr. Abu Toameh said...

Both Ms. Darwish and Mr. Abu Toameh emphasized the limits to free speech and freedom of the press in the Middle East. "If I speak in the Arab world, I will be shot," Ms.Darwish said. Mr. Abu Toameh notes that an independent free press does not exist in the West Bank or Gaza. "They burn it down. They beat you up," he says. "The media there is controlled by the PLO."

So we cannot discount the existence of those "moderate Moslems," those "moderate Arabs," and those especially elusive "moderate Palestinians." But with their voices quite understandably muted, we have no way of knowing how many there actually are.

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