Sunday, April 30, 2006

Beautiful day

I've been out most of this beautiful day, and now I'm going to take a pizza over to my mother's. So I'll just say see you tomorrow, with Part IV--the final one in the series, I think.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Question authority: Part III (Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers)

[Part I]
[Part II]

The initial coverup of My Lai in the late 60s, discussed in Part II, helped make Americans more cynical--more likely to believe the government couldn't be trusted to uncover wrongdoings through the mechanism of internal investigations. The press came to be seen as the more reliable watchdog, and whistleblowers were now more likely to go directly to the media to report governmental offenses. The media, in turn, felt freer to oblige without fear of negative consequences to itself.

My Lai had some special (perhaps even unique) characteristics that make it the purest example of an event that needed a whistleblower. The offenses involved were of an extraordinarily serious and profound nature, and the initial coverup was virtually complete. Furthermore, the whistleblower was not bound by any vow of secrecy. Whether he needed to go to directly to the media (as Ridenhour eventually did, after the second investigation--sparked by his letters--was already in progress and had led to Calley's being charged with murder) is unclear, however.

Another seminal case from the 60s, somewhat more analogous to present-day leak situations, is that of Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. It is perhaps the most famous example of someone in a national security position leaking classified information to journalists. Far more than My Lai, the Ellsberg case has certain parallels with the present situation involving the CIA detention center leaks.

At the time he gave the Pentagon Papers to the press, Ellsberg was not a CIA employee. But he was an employee of the RAND Corporation, with access to classified information; one can safely assume he had taken an oath to keep those papers secret. His growing disillusionment with the Vietnam war (although, interestingly enough, Ellsberg had been strongly against the war from his earliest exposure to it, way back in 1961) led him to copy the classified documents with the idea of making them public and exposing the cynicism and duplicity with which he felt the Vietnam war had been conducted.

Ellsberg hoped that the publication of the Papers would cause people to become upset on learning they had been lied to by their government, and then to clamor for the war to end. As such, his position was essentially political--although it was not narrowly partisan, since the Pentagon Papers was an equal-opportunity disclosure; the information obtained therein implicated both Democrat and Republican administrations.

Like Ridenhour, at the outset Ellsburg did not release the documents to the press, but sought instead to persuade certain sympathetic antiwar Senators (chief among them J. William Fulbright) to go public with them on the Senate floor. His motivation for this scheme was that he knew he would be liable to prosecution if he went to the press, and he fully expected to be sent to jail as a result, whereas Senators would be immune from such prosecution.

But no Senator would take the bait, not even Fulbright. As a result, Ellsberg gave the Pentagon Papers to the media. Initially, he made an effort to escape prosecution by hiding out:

Although the Times did not reveal Ellsberg as their source, he knew that the FBI would soon determine that he was the source of the leak. Ellsberg went underground, living secretly among like-minded people. He was not caught by the FBI, even though they were under enormous pressure from the Nixon Administration to find him.

However, Ellsberg surrendered voluntarily to authorities only a few weeks later:

On June 28, Ellsberg publicly surrendered to the US Attorney's Office in Boston, Massachusetts. He was taken into custody believing he would spend the rest of his life in prison; he was charged with theft, conspiracy, and espionage.

But Ellsberg never went to prison. In a stunningly ironic turn of events, the actions of Nixon's "plumbers" (who later carried out the Watergate burglary, but whose nickname came from their earlier attempts to fix Ellsberg's "leaks") ended up inadvertently freeing Ellsberg. As in a Shakespearean tragedy, Nixon's wild overreaching against Ellsberg sowed the seeds of Nixon's own downfall, through the mechanism of those very same plumbers:

In one of Nixon's actions against Ellsberg, G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt broke into Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office in September 1971, hoping to find information they could use to discredit him. The revelation of the break-in became part of the Watergate scandal. ..Because of the gross governmental misconduct, all charges against Ellsberg were eventually dropped.

Earlier, the administration had sued the Times to try to stop publication of the Pentagon Papers on the grounds that such publication would threaten national security. The case went to the Supreme Court; here's an excerpt from a review of a book written about it, "The Day the Pressed Stopped," by David Rudenstine:

Despite Americans' constitutional right to a free press, certain government information--particularly that concerning military affairs--has been placed beyond the realm of public access. A U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1971, however (brought about when the Nixon administration sued the New York Times) knocked a howitzer-sized hole in that theory when the case allowed the New York Times and the Washington Post to print excerpts from the Pentagon Papers, a 7,000- page document regarding U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

I haven't read Rudenstine's book--although I've added it to my ever-growing, always-daunting, reading list--but the above quote describes what a watershed event the publication of the Papers was. Before then, newspapers would have been reluctant to print such things--whether out of loyalty to the government or out of fear of repercussions, or both. After the 1971 case, the gloves were off.

[For anyone interested in reading some original sources around that groundbreaking Supreme Court ruling--I confess that I've not yet done so, myself--this site looks to be an excellent place to start. And, by the way, on the question of whether the publication of the Pentagon Papers actually did pose any true threat to national security, the Rudenstine book supports the controversial contention that they did).

Fast forward to now. National security officers presently are encouraged to spill information with which they disagree--and are provided with support groups, networking, and free legal advice--organized by none other than Daniel Ellsberg himself.

It's now almost assumed that the proper course of action for such whistleblowers is his final course of action: going to the press, rather than launching an internal investigation or going to Congress with the information. As I wrote previously, it appears that national security whistleblowers are being encouraged to act as virtual moles within their own organizations, remaining in their jobs in order to gain more of the sensitive material and to reveal it as they see fit, according to the dictates of their individual consciences, and often for political reasons. And the idea that there will be any serious legal consequences for the whistleblowers has been weakened; Ellsberg expected to be charged with treason (and was), but many whistleblowers today seem to consider such possibilities to be idle threats.

I believe that, as in so many things, the pendulum has swung too far in one direction. We would not want go back to the era when something of the scope of a My Lai could be successfully covered up. The exposure of My Lai was a shock, but one of the benefits is that My Lai has been studied in depth and used as teaching tool by the military, which has instituted reforms that make such an event far less likely to ever happen today.

But it hardly seems necessary--or productive--to allow national security employees to leak like sieves to the press, much of the time about matters that are not clearly illegal, and motivated sometimes by pure partisanship. And it hardly seems good to allow the press to be the final arbiter of whether their own disclosures will damage national security or not.

The next post in the series will deal with suggestions as to how the pendulum might swing back to a more evenhanded position, one that balances the public's need to know with the need to protect national security. One thing's for sure: it won't be easy.

Chayefsky: ahead of his times?

The Anchoress recently watched a video of the 1976 film "Network," written by Paddy Chayefsky. She found the movie's satire to be strangely prescient, featuring TV networks that would do nearly anything to make a buck, including suck up to terrorists.

I saw the film when it first came out, but I can't say I remember too much about it except the always-arresting Peter Finch , and Faye Dunaway's nervous edginess. Maybe I'll have to rent it again to refresh my memory.

I had developed a mild crush on Peter Finch in his younger incarnation in "The Nun's Story," which turns out to have been his favorite movie of the ones he made prior to 1968. And, by the way, doesn't Finch look just the tiniest bit as though he might have been the somewhat glum father of the smilier Tony Blair? (don't want to start a rumor, but...):

After reading the Anchoress's post, I got curious about Chayefsky, and looked him up. There wasn't a whole lot of information, but I found this in Wikipedia, indicating that Chayefsky may have not only been prescient, but that he also didn't shy away from speaking up and speaking out himself:

[Chayefsky] is known for his comments during the 1978 Oscar telecast after Vanessa Redgrave, when she went to accept her award for Best Supporting Actress in Julia, made a controversial speech denouncing extreme elements of Zionism. He made a comment during the program immediately after hers in which he stated that he was upset by her using the event to make an irrelevant political viewpoint during a film award program. He said, "I would like to suggest to Miss Redgrave that her winning an Academy Award is not a pivotal moment in history, does not require a proclamation and a simple 'Thank you' would have sufficed."

Friday, April 28, 2006

Question authority: Part II (My Lai and the press)

I continue to be impressed by how many current trends in public life appear to have their roots in events of the 60s. Beginning at that time, there seems to have been a growing conviction that internal investigations are futile and can only end in coverups and failure, and that going to the press with the story is the only way to redress institutional or governmental wrongdoing.

One of the seminal events that led to this perception was the horrific and shocking My Lai massacre, and the subsequent initial investigation/coverup. I believe that some of the current tendency to go directly to the press without even attempting redress a problem through the usual channels--the checks and balances established by the Constitution (Congressional oversight, for example) or internal investigations by the military, the CIA, or the body in question--can be traced to the trauma of this event.

The massacre at My Lai was a turning point in America's perception of itself. It represented a loss of innocence about the military, who until then had been thought incapable of the kind of atrocity that occurred there. It also made Americans more cynical towards the military command and its ability to investigate its own wrongdoings. And lastly, the press was seen in the role of heroes bent on publicizing the truth.

The facts of My Lai were sensational, and they make shocking reading today, even in our far more jaded age. I've written about My Lai before, here. It was an event of great complexity, and I highly recommend this must-read teaching case study on the subject, which comes as close to explaining what happened there--and why it happened--as I think anything ever could.

There is no question that My Lai was an atrocity, and the shock of learning that the American military could be guilty of such a thing was a great factor in turning people against the Vietnam War. Another terrible aspect of My Lai that led to great distrust was that the original field investigation of the events conducted by the Army was unquestionably a coverup (read the case study for the details, as well as a discussion of how the normal and recommended Army procedure for dealing with events involving possible atrocities was not followed in the case of the initial My Lai investigation).

Present at My Lai on that dreadful day were those who witnessed the massacre but did not participate. There were also some who tried to stop it from happening to the point of threatening to shoot their fellow soldiers if they did not cease the indiscriminate killing.

But such a thing couldn't be covered up for long; too many people knew about it, and the facts were so shocking that they motivated those in the know to eventually speak out.

How did the truth finally come to light? Many of you are no doubt familiar with the fact that reporter Seymour Hersh is credited with publicizing the story, and that he received a Pulitzer Prize for his work. But it was actually a less well-known man named Ron Ridenhour who was responsible for bringing the My Lai massacre to the attention of the authorities--after the initial coverup, but before the press ever got hold of it.

Ridenhour had served in Vietnam but was not a member of the company responsible for the My Lai killings, nor was he a witness to them. Here is how Ridenhour's knowledge and disclosure occurred (keep in mind that the My Lai massacre itself had taken place in March of 1968):

Ridenhour learned of the events at My Lai from members of Charlie Company who had been there. Before speaking with Hersh, he had appealed to Congress, the White House, and the Pentagon to investigate the matter. The military investigation resulted in Calley's being charged with murder in September 1969 -- a full two months before the Hersh story hit the streets.

Over a year after My Lai occurred and the original investigation/coverup was closed, Ridenhour composed this letter about My Lai and sent it off to the White House, the Defense Department, the State Department, and various members of Congress. It is credited with motivating the Pentagon to begin a new official investigation of My Lai about a month after the letter's receipt.

It is significant to me that Ridenhour did not initially go to the press (nowadays, I'm almost sure that would be where he'd go first). In his letter, he gives his reason for approaching the matter the way he did initially [emphasis mine]:

Exactly what did, in fact, occur in the village of "Pinkville" [My Lai] in March, 1968 I do not know for certain, but I am convinced that it was something very black indeed. I remain irrevocably persuaded that if you and I do truly believe in the principles, of justice and the equality of every man, however humble, before the law, that form the very backbone that this country is founded on, then we must press forward a widespread and public investigation of this matter with all our combined efforts. I think that it was Winston Churchill who once said "A country without a conscience is a country without a soul, and a country without a soul is a country that cannot survive." I feel that I must take some positive action on this matter. I hope that you will launch an investigation immediately and keep me informed of your progress. If you cannot, then I don't know what other course of action to take.
I have considered sending this to newspapers, magazines and broadcasting companies, but I somehow feel that investigation and action by the Congress of the United States is the appropriate procedure, and as a conscientious citizen I have no desire to further besmirch the image of the American serviceman in the eyes of the world. I feel that this action, while probably it would promote attention, would not bring about the constructive actions that the direct actions of the Congress of the United States would.

So, at first, Ridenhour was very sensitive to the damage that going immediately to the press could cause to the nation and to the military. Instead, he went to the proper investigative authorities charged with oversight, rather than seeking to sensationalize the issue by widespread press coverage.

But later on he apparently changed his mind, and did go to the press. Why?

From a reading of this article about Ridenhour by leftist journalist Alexander Cockburn, which appeared in the Nation in 1988, I've pieced together the following story:

Ridenhour had been initially shocked and traumatized by hearing about the My Lai massacre. and felt he needed to do something about it because of the early coverup. He went through a period in which he agonized over whom to tell, which he resolved by writing the letter previously quoted and sending it to the proper authorities.

This is how Ridenhour (who later became an investigative reporter, by the way) described what happened after he wrote the letter and sent copies off:

"I was in Arizona, waiting to go to school and working in a popsicle factory," Ridenhour said. "They came and interviewed me, and then some of the people I mentioned in the letter-maybe five other soldiers-gave them more names. It sort of bumped and grinded along from late April to September, when they charged Calley.

So far so good. But the news of Calley's arrest only agitated Ridenhour:

I was convinced there was a cover-up going on, that these guys were not sincere in pursuing the business. They stopped accepting my calls. Then they called me and said they had arrested Calley. I waited to see what would happen, and then, when no one else was arrested, I knew what they were going to do. They were going to flush Calley, claim that this was the act of a wild man and then let it go. That's when I started trying to get in touch with the press."

It's clear that Ridenhour had been outraged at the initial coverup, and feared another. It's also clear that, by this time, he had a definite agenda: he had decided that the problem was not Calley, but rather a systemic military policy set by the higher-ups, and he was determined that his version of who bore the true responsibility for the massacre was going to be the one heard.

Then Hersh came on the scene:

[Ridenhour] talked to a man from The Arizona Republic. Nothing got published. The Army had put out a brief statement-two paragraphs long-saying that it had charged a lieutenant, Calley, with the murder of an unknown number of civilians. The Associated Press carried the story, but no one picked it up. As Ridenhour tells it, a general who had worked on the Calley investigation became indiscreet at a cocktail party in Washington, let drop details of My Lai and the Calley arrest to a relative of Seymour Hersh, who duly passed on the news. Hersh found the brief item mentioning Calley's arrest and interviewed Calley, who was being held at Fort Benning, Georgia. (Hersh says he had already been working on the story after a tip-off from a public service lawyer.)

Hersh's first story prompted The Arizona Republic to print its article, which Hersh, in turn, saw. He flew out to talk to Ridenhour, who gave him the names and addresses of the people who had been at My Lai. Hersh asked Ridenhour to hold the story from anyone else for three days and went about his business. "I was glad to give him the three days," Ridenhour said. "He was the first person to respond. He went off and started finding those other kids, and they told him those horrible stories."

The rest, of course, is history.

No more Mr. Nice Guy: Ahmadinejab and the UN

I would say that Iran's President Ahmadinejad (and is anyone else besides me incongruously reminded of food--trout almandine, for example--by his name?) is dropping any show of being amenable to pressure from international bodies such as the UN--if he'd ever given any sign of such tractability in the first place.

What I don't understand is those who believe he cares about such things as the UN. But perhaps because they care so much, they have a difficult time giving up the hope that he does. No doubt such true believers will say this current pronouncement is just strategic bluster, and that he doesn't really mean it. Or, alternatively, that he is stating the truth when he says he's just interested in atomic energy for electrical power and such.

So, now we hear this from our dear friend Ahmadinejad, on the UN and its effort to slap Iran's wrist for its nuclear program:

Iran won't give a damn" about any U.N. resolutions concerning its nuclear program, its president said Friday, hours before an expected finding that Tehran has failed to meet a Security Council deadline to suspend uranium enrichment.

The anticipated finding by U.N. nuclear chief Mohamed ElBaradei will set the stage for a confrontation at the Security Council.

If Iran does not comply, the council is likely to consider punitive measures against the Islamic republic. While Russia and China have been reluctant to endorse sanctions, the council's three other veto-wielding members say a strong response is in order.

And what sort of "confrontation" is it that the UN contemplates? Unclear, if NATO is any indication:

However, NATO foreign ministers meeting in Sofia, Bulgaria, did not offer any specific threat of sanctions against Iran, in part to avoid a rift with Russia and China.

"On Iran, there was unanimity," Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos told reporters. "Although the clear message to the Iranian authorities is one of firmness, we have to continue with the diplomatic path."

If that's "firmness," I'd hate to see flabbiness.

From Secretary Rice:

Rice said it was time for the Security Council to act if the world body wished to remain credible.

"The Security Council is the primary and most important institution for the maintenance of peace and stability and security and it cannot have its word and its will simply ignored by a member state," Rice said....

U.S. Ambassador John Bolton already has said he plans to introduce a resolution requiring Tehran to comply with the council's demand to stop its enrichment program. The resolution would not call for sanctions now, but it would be introduced under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, which allows for sanctions and is militarily enforceable.

Ah, that's the game Saddam played, as I recall. The one we decided to end by the Iraq War.

And then there's this:

Iran's U.N. ambassador, Javad Zarif, said Tehran will refuse to comply with such a resolution because its activities are legal and peaceful. Enrichment can be used to generate fuel or make the fissile core of nuclear weapons.

"If the Security Council decides to take decisions that are not within its competence, then Iran does not feel obliged to obey," he said Thursday in New York.

I'm afraid that most decisions undertaken by the UN are not within its competence. On that, if nothing else, Javad Zarif and I seem to be in agreement.

[CORRECTION: I noticed I spelled Ahmadinejad's name incorrectly in the title of the post. Freudian slip, no doubt.]

Thursday, April 27, 2006

The "United 93" premiere: not too soon for some

Some say it's too soon for a movie about Flight 93. I don't understand that argument; how can nearly five years from the event be too soon? After all, this is not an in-depth exploration of the event's historical ramifications. It's a movie depicting the event itself, in real time.

It seems to me that those who say we're not ready yet are really saying they don't want to face the truth--not then, not now, not ever.

Some people who had to face the truth were present at the movie's NY premiere. They were ninety family members of those who died on Flight 93.

It sounds as though viewing the movie was a deeply emotional experience, both for those family members, and for many others in the audience:

The sobbing at the back of the auditorium was not the sentimental sniffling you normally hear at the cinema. It was the full-throated grief more typically heard in a hospital or a funeral home.

On Tuesday night anguished families wailed as they watched the last moments of their loved ones’ lives unfold on screen at the world premiere of United 93...

“It’s horrific to see my brother, Edward, on the screen, knowing what is going to happen,” Gordon Felt said. “It’s shattering, but it needs to be. This is a violent story.”

Despite the ornate surroundings of the Ziegfeld Theatre in Manhattan, the event was almost certainly the most sombre film premiere in the history of New York. The audience gave the victims’ families a standing ovation before the screening but were overwhelmed towards the end by the open weeping of the relatives and left the auditorium in stunned silence.

The article mentions that the film was made with the cooperation of the victims' families, in addition to the surprising--at least to me--fact that some air controllers and Federal Aviation Authority officials played themselves in it. I wonder if that was therapeutic for them, or difficult. Or both.

The movie's British writer/director Paul Greengrass gives some perspective that sounds more realistic than the usual facile Hollywood cliches:

The writer-director, whose features include Bloody Sunday, said that he was chastened by his experience of working in Northern Ireland.

“Northern Ireland is one of the few examples of where political violence has been negotiated away, thanks to the political engagement of all the parties in a peace agreement,” he said. “My time making films there has shown me it takes a long time.”

Greengrass seems like an interesting figure, with a background primarily in documentary filmmaking. Here are a few quotes from an interview with him:

I think in the end that movies are the principal means of mass-communication. They’re the principal way that we tell stories about the way we’re living to each other. We tell stories to entertain ourselves, and to divert ourselves, and we tell stories that are wonderful pieces of escapism, to give us a nice time on a rainy day. There are all sorts of reasons why we like to tell stories to tell each other. But one of the things we do is tell stories about the way the world is. I believe in a movie industry that operates across the board – it makes all sorts of different types of films. Including films about the big stuff facing us. Hollywood has always done that, throughout it’s history. It’s always done that, as well as all the other things. And it will have to grapple with 9/11 because it’s the single most important event that’s occurred in our lifetime... had forty people – or slightly less, as some had been killed – essentially you had a small number of people on an airplane who were the first people to inhabit the post-9/11 world. For all the rest of us, whether we were in civilian air traffic control, Presidential bunkers, or just ordinary folks like us watching on TV, we knew something terrible was happening, but we didn’t really know what. We maybe knew it was terrorism, but we didn’t know what. But for those people on the airplane they knew exactly what it was, they could see what was facing them, and here’s the thing – they faced a terrible, terrible dilemma. The dilemma was: what do we do? Do we sit here and hope for the best? Or do we strike back at them before they do what we think they might be about to do? In the course of action of whatever those two choices we make, what are the chances of a good outcome from either of those two choices?

That dilemma is the post-9/11 dilemma. It’s the dilemma we have all faced since then. The things we face in our world – whether it’s Afghanistan or Iraq or Abu Ghraib, issues of world peace, issues of national security, it doesn’t matter. And it doesn’t matter where you are on the political spectrum and how you view those issues. I would submit that all of us, whatever our persuasions are, all of us understand that that is the dilemma. What do we do? How do we deal with this thing?

To answer your question, we know from the fragments that we can we know from the airplane – the phone calls, the cockpit voice recorders, the evidence we can deduce from the other planes – we know they weighed, they debated the issue. They voted on it. In the end they acted, and there were consequences. I think that if you build this film up on a strong foundation of fact, that by the time you get to the last minutes of that airplane journey you’ll be inhabiting a debate that, whilst we cannot know exactly what it was, we know broadly how it goes – because it’s our debate now.

And what of Greengrass's politics? One might think he's a neocon. But if one thought that, one would be wrong.

He doesn't discuss his political opinions in any recent interviews I've read of his that promote "United 93." But, from this article written in 2004, it's clear that he's against the Iraq War; he calls it "the most calamitous decision of our generation."

Interesting, interesting, interesting. Greengrass doesn't seem to have let his politics interfere with his desire to make this movie. He really does appear to be interested in just presenting the facts, and letting the viewer decide. And that seems both refreshing and unusual to me.

Slight delay

Apologies. I got delayed by some personal matters both yesterday and today (some of them pleasant, fortunately), as well as by the fact that I may have bitten off a bit more than I can chew with my plans for later parts of "Question authority."

So, Part II should be coming along tomorrow, not today. And it may not deal with every issue I thought it would. But it's on the way.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Question authority: Part I

[This is the first installment of a two-, three-, or possibly even four-part series. I plan to publish the posts in the series on consecutive days.]

The story of the CIA detention centers leak raises issues far bigger than the personal fate of the leaker, or even whether the particular information divulged in this case might have damaged national security.

What could be more important? The old, old question of individual conscience and responsibility.

For a person joining a group that requires confidentiality and/or obedience to a certain set of rules, when is it all right to disobey the rules and/or to break confidentiality? In fact, when does it become a duty to disobey or to break confidentiality? And, if so, how best to go about doing so? And what should the personal consequences be to the person who disobeys?

It's the same issue raised during the Nuremberg trials, when defendants used the "we were just obeying orders" line as an excuse for egregious crimes against humanity. It's a question that comes up in the life of nearly every military person, whose duty to obey goes hand in hand with a concomitant duty to disobey what is a clearly illegal order, if such an order should ever be given.

It's an issue faced by psychotherapists and all others who are privy to confidential information and are duty-bound to protect it for certain obligatory exceptions. For example, ever since the landmark Tarasoff case was decided in 1976, therapists have struggled with the so-called "duty to warn," which requires them to breach confidentiality whenever they receive credible information that their client is planning to harm another person.

CIA officers and others whose jobs involve national security are in a position of strict confidentiality, and the secrets they are sworn to keep ordinarily involve much higher stakes than therapists ever encounter. In fact, you might say that secrecy is the essence of the work of the CIA; it is impossible to imagine a functional intelligence agency without it.

The question of when and how the individual decides to breach confidentiality and rules is a basic one. If it happens too easily and often, the all-important functioning of institutions such as the military and the CIA is lost, and these vital institutions dissolve into impotent anarchy. If it never happens at all, the unchecked power of such institutions can foster terrible abuses.

Harvard Law professor Martha Minow deals with some of the issues involved in the case of the military in her recent article entitled "Living Up to Rules: When Should Soldiers (and Others?) Disobey Orders?" I confess that I've only read the beginning of the article so far (it's very lengthy), but this quote seemed especially apropos:

Here is the central difficulty: Telling soldiers that they face punishment, unless they disobey illegal orders means telling them to think for themselves, and question authority. Taken to an extreme, directives to “think for yourself” and “question authority” would disturb the command structure and practice of drilled obedience in the military. As one military expert has explained, during military operations decisions, actions and instructions often have to be instantaneous and do not allow time for discussion or attention by committees. It is vital to the cohesion and control of a military fore in dangerous and intolerable circumstances that commanders should be able to give orders and expect their subordinates to carry them out.

All of us are often in a position where we are expected to obey laws, directives from a boss, assignments from teachers or clients, dress codes or the traffic directive of police officers ... Even for civilians, individual thought and resistance jeopardizes the order sought by official rules and the rule of law itself.

Obedience seems to have become a bad word, post-baby boomer generation and post-WWII. And rightly so, at least to a certain extent; we've seen where absolute and rote obedience can lead. So those "Question Authority" bumper stickers are no joke.

But the kneejerk questioning of authority and the reflexive suspicion of all institutions of government (a suspicion which often amounts to certifiable paranoia; witness the number of emails I receive purporting to explain how Bush was responsible for 9/11), as well as the elevation of individual partisan personal opinion in those making the decision to breach national security, are crippling our ability to effectively fight those who would destroy us.

[Planned subsequent posts in the series (hope I actually get around to all of this!) will deal with issues raised by My Lai, the Ellsberg/Pentagon Papers case, and suggestions for dealing with national security leaks.

Tune in tomorrow for Part II...]

Spamming 101

Note to spammers--

Never a good way to begin an email:

Before I introduce myself, I wish to inform you that this letter is not a hoax mail and I urge you to treat it serious.

American Idol: the day after

Some of you may recall that I sorta, kinda, like, follow "American Idol." Yes, it's the populist in me.

I'm actually somewhat more interested in the soap opera aspect of the show (correction: the "human interest" aspect of it) than the music. Oh, whatever; it's fun.

This week--and the week before--I missed it; had other fish to fry. That shows you that my commitment is somewhat less than rigorous. But no matter; the blogosphere came to the rescue and pointed me in the direction of videos of the performances of my two favorites this year: Chris and Elliot. Ann Althouse has her usual no-punches-pulled roundup, and The Anchoress has obliged with comments of her own and links to the videos. Enjoy, if you care to see what all (or at least some of) the "American Idol" fuss is about.

And Dean Esmay comes aboard to prove that the appeal of Chris and Elliot is not just limited to the distaff side; he agrees, they were awfully good.

And to those who complain that it's more a popularity contest than a music contest I say, "Du-uh!"

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Some comments on comments

Lately I've noticed a certain degeneration of the comments section here, and I'd like to comment on it.

Lots of bloggers don't have comments sections, and I can understand why. But I'm not that kind of blogger; it was always my intent to have a lively comments section, and I've been gratified that that's exactly what has happened.

But lively is one thing, free-for-all is another. As blogs grow, there's a natural law of comment entropy (I just made that up) that seems to take over. The quality tends to go down as the quantity goes up, and the bickering, name-calling, and off-topic meandering increases.

I don't really mind the meandering, and a good argument is always fine, but petty bickering, name-calling, obscenities, and of course good old-fashioned trolling aren't things I really enjoy having in the comments section.

I can change policy and make comments more restrictive in various ways; it's not all that hard to do. But I'd really rather not. So I'm asking people to please clean up their acts. I don't know whether that will work--for some, it may only act as a spur--but I thought I'd try that approach first. I'm a polite person, and I expect the same from others.

So, these are my requests (they actually seem to boil down to two, for now):

(1) No obscenities, especially name-calling obscenities.

(2) Do not respond to trolls, obscenities, and/or obvious provocateurs.

Tony Blair: the defining moment that was 9/11

Maybe this isn't exactly and precisely an example of a changed mind. But it's an excellent description of that moment of insight and clarity that comes with a watershed event whose significance can't be denied (for some, at least).

Tony Blair describes (via Austin Bay) what happened to him on 9/11, and it's remarkably similar to what happened to me, and to so many of us:

...9/11 for me was, 'Right, now I get it. I absolutely get it.' This has been building for a long time. It is like looking at a picture and knowing it was important to understand it, but not quite being able to make out all its contours. And suddenly a light was switched on and you saw the whole picture. It was a defining moment.

He continues, about Britain:

We stood shoulder to shoulder with America because my belief then, and my belief now, is that America was attacked not because it was America - but because it was the repository of the values of the Western world, and it was the main power embodying them. It was an attack on all of us. And I don't mean that in a sentimental way.

The long long reach of Vietnam: Ellsberg's Truth-Telling Coalition and the encouragement of national security leaks

[NOTE: Today we have news that the CIA detention center leaker might not have been Mary McCarthy after all; at least, she is denying any involvement. So for now I'll stop referring to it as the McCarthy case. But even though the identity of the leaker is not yet clear, it's fairly certain that the source was a CIA employee who had access to very sensitive information.]

Since I'm nothing if not a child of the 60s, for me the CIA detention center leak case has raised distant echoes of a well-known Vietnam era whistleblower who leaked classified information to the press: Daniel Ellsberg, of Pentagon Papers fame.

I was further reminded of Ellsberg by a detail mentioned in Wretchard's Sunday post at Belmont Club:

...the press has quoted two former counterterrorism experts in defense of Mary McCarthy but omitted one interesting detail, which may or may not be relevant...Ray McGovern and Larry Johnson [the counterterrorism experts in question] are associated with Daniel Ellsberg's The Truth-Telling Project.

"The Truth-Telling Project"--now, what might that be? Wretchard quotes from its web page, which offers the following description of the organization's purpose and function:

The Truth-Telling Coalition, comprised of high-level national security truth-tellers, as well as non-profit whistleblower organizations, provides a personal and legal support network for each other and for government insiders considering becoming truth-tellers.

So, according to its own description, the group appears to be an organization dedicated to supporting the spilling of secrets by national security officers in the interests of "truth."

The fact that the Truth-Telling Project has deep roots in the Vietnam War era (query: doesn't everything?) is made exceedingly clear if one reads its manifesto, "A Call to Patriotic Whistleblowing," whose title not only indicates the organization's commitment to supporting whistleblowers, but to encouraging them as well.

I quote here at length from this document (issued Sept. 9, 2004); see if you think the motivations and goals expressed therein sound nonpartisan:

It is time for unauthorized truth-telling.

Citizens cannot make informed choices if they do not have the facts—for example, the facts that have been wrongly concealed about the ongoing war in Iraq: the real reasons behind it, the prospective costs in blood and treasure, and the setback it has dealt to efforts to stem terrorism. Administration deception and cover-up on these vital matters has so far been all too successful in misleading the public...

Many Americans are too young to remember Vietnam. Then, as now, senior government officials did not tell the American people the truth. Now, as then, insiders who know better have kept their silence, as the country was misled into the most serious foreign policy disaster since Vietnam.

Some of you [security officers] have documentation of wrongly concealed facts and analyses that—if brought to light—would impact heavily on public debate regarding crucial matters of national security, both foreign and domestic. We urge you to provide that information now, both to Congress and, through the media, to the public...

Needless to say, any unauthorized disclosure that exposes your superiors to embarrassment entails personal risk. Should you be identified as the source, the price could be considerable, including loss of career and possibly even prosecution. Some of us know from experience how difficult it is to countenance such costs. But continued silence brings an even more terrible cost, as our leaders persist in a disastrous course and young Americans come home in coffins or with missing limbs.

This is precisely what happened at this comparable stage in the Vietnam War. Some of us live with profound regret that we did not at that point expose the administration’s dishonesty and perhaps prevent the needless slaughter of 50,000 more American troops and some 2 to 3 million Vietnamese over the next ten years. We know how misplaced loyalty to bosses, agencies, and careers can obscure the higher allegiance all government officials owe the Constitution, the sovereign public, and the young men and women put in harm’s way. We urge you to act on those higher loyalties.

I'm not sure what to call this (although I can think of quite a few things). But it is certainly, at the very least, active incitement and encouragement to divulge secrets. It is both politically motivated and clearly and consciously connected to the memory of Vietnam, and it unequivocally equates the current war with that past one.

How did the project come to be?

The Coalition stemmed from a symposium entitled "When Silence Is Complicity: What Should Officials Do? Whistleblowers Speak Out," held at American University on September 8, 2004, co-organized by Sam Adams Associates for Integrity in Intelligence, the Truth-Telling Project, and the Department of History at American University. At the symposium, the first-ever gathering of high-level national security whistleblowers, many of the participants discussed the isolation they felt after breaking ranks with their colleagues and making the step to come forward as truth-tellers. In the discussions following the symposium, some of the participants discussed the value of forming a support-network for current and potential whistleblowers, and the Truth-Telling Coalition was launched.

It seems to be a sort of support group for CIA operatives and others engaged in national security who plan to become leakers. The model of a support group is one taken from a discipline with which I'm familiar, therapy. But this is quite a cutting-edge support group; it also offers free legal counsel to those who come forward:

The Truth-Telling Project is working with the Center for National Security Studies, the Project on Governmental Oversight and the ACLU to locate first-rate lawyers who will announce publicly their readiness to provide pro-bono legal counsel for government insiders contemplating truth-telling. At the request of the Truth-Telling Project, the ACLU has announced that is will provide free legal advice to government insiders considering becoming whistleblowers.

I don't know about you, but I find this all very troubling. It appears that these people are being encouraged to break security in the name of fostering their personal agendas about the war in Iraq. For example, the document mentions disclosing "wrongly concealed facts and analyses that—if brought to light—would impact heavily on public debate," not just war crimes or other criminal acts of the government.

These leaker-wannabees are not even given guidelines as to what might constitute a serious enough offense to justify blowing the whistle and breaching national security, other than their own not-so-humble opinions and perceptions. There is no discussion of trying to make the institutions themselves more responsive in their internal review process, the far less dangerous and more traditional avenue for corrections of problems; it is assumed that going to the press is the proper course of action. Another traditional avenue, approaching the Congressional intelligence oversight committee, is likewise ignored. Nor is it suggested anywhere (at least, not that I could locate) that a whistleblower ought to resign from his/her job before or after spilling the beans. Rather, it seems assumed that the whistleblower will stay on, even after his/her oath has been violated.

This last point is almost the one that bothers me the most, because it raises the specter of people being encouraged to remain as employees in security organizations after secretly becoming enemies to those agencies' policies. It's hard to escape the notion that their motivation for remaining in these positions at that point would be to act as press informants and hidden moles, in a sort of spy vs. spy routine.

I have no idea whether Ellsberg's Truth-Telling Coalition had any part to play in the CIA detention center revelations. Maybe it did, maybe it didn't. We simply do not know, just as we don't know the identity of the leaker. But there is no doubt that the Coalition was designed to foster just such leaks in order to undermine the war in Iraq, and that it's not hiding that fact, but proudly broadcasting it to the world via its website and press releases.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Scilla goes wild

The scilla grows like a weed here, and it's unusually prolific this year. The color in real life is actually much more intensely blue than in this photo:

And then there's Charybdis:

Yes, I know; a lousy pun.

It's a photo of one of two azalea bushes I planted last year. Both seem to be dead in the water. I'm not totally certain, though, because there is one tiny branch with green leaves coming in on each. Is this evidence that the entire bush might actually have a chance of reviving? Or are they both goners?

More on McCarthy and the Washington Post

This NBC News article, about the firing of CIA officer Mary McCarthy for leaking to Washington Post reporter Dana Priest, mentions an interesting tidbit or two.

It seems that McCarthy had flunked a polygraph test earlier when queried. This, of course (assuming the polygraph was accurate), should come as no surprise--but it's another illustration of the depth of her commitment to protecting herself rather than her oath of office. She appears to have wanted to have her cake and eat it too, and to continue at her post in the CIA while violating its most basic tenet.

Unlike McCarthy, the CIA is playing by the rules:

Citing the Privacy Act, the CIA would not provide any details about the officer’s identity or assignments.

The article contains the following information about the effects of McCarthy's disclosures:

The Washington Post report caused an international uproar, and government officials have said it did significant damage to relationships between the U.S. and allied intelligence agencies.

CIA Director Porter Goss told the Senate in February that leaks to the media had damaged national security. Subsequently, Goss ordered an internal investigation on leaks involving classified security data.

Ah, but true to form, the Washington Post is unrepentant about its role in presumably undermining national security. Following the traditional lines of the MSM in such matters in these post-Watergate decades, the Post thinks we owe it a debt of gratitude (and a pass) for protecting us from what it appears to regard as the far greater threat of possible government overreach:

Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. said people who provide citizens the information they need to hold their government accountable should not "come to harm for that."

"The reporting that Dana did was very important accountability reporting about how the CIA and the rest of the U.S. government have been conducting the war on terror," Downie said. "Whether or not the actions of the CIA or other agencies have interfered with anyone's civil liberties is important information for Americans to know and is an important part of our jobs."

McCarthy violated an oath, but the press has taken no such oath. Therefore it uses its judgment about what to disclose and what not to disclose. Traditionally, the press has been immune from any repercussions for its disclosures, even if they violate national security. There are checks and balances on the government, but so far virtually none on the press, except its own discretion.

However, this might change. In the Post article, the Bush administration is presented as an antagonist to the press and its mission, and the one to blame for the current bad relations between the press and the administration. In addition, the press has been warned that it could be liable to prosecution for espionage. (My own guess is that the latter will never come to pass; "could be" is a far cry from "will be," and the burden of proof for espionage is probably not met in cases such as this one) :

In an effort to stem leaks, the Bush administration launched several initiatives earlier this year targeting journalists and national security employees. They include FBI probes, extensive polygraphing inside the CIA and a warning from the Justice Department that reporters could be prosecuted under espionage laws.

The effort has been widely seen among members of the media, and some legal experts, as the most extensive and overt campaign against leaks in a generation, and has worsened the already-tense relationship between mainstream news organizations and the White House.

Note that verb "targeting." Ah, the poor MSM, once again innocent victims of a marauding executive branch out to get them!



Sunday, April 23, 2006

The UN Through the Looking Glass: it's getting curiouser and curiouser

It's a wonderful world, full of magical events.

Like this one, for example (via Dr. Zin at Regime Change Iran):

The U.N. Commission on Disarmament elevated Iran to a leadership post - despite the terrorist regime's dogged pursuit of nuclear capabilities and defiance of its international obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Iran on the Disarmament Commission; it's rather like naming a member of the Ku Klux Klan to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights....

Speaking from its new perch of authority, Iran demanded that Israel sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and open all of its nuclear sites to international inspection. Such demands are considered statesmanship by a nation whose leader has vowed to "wipe Israel off the map."

For those who would rather watch train wrecks than tightrope artists, the United Nations may just be the greatest show on earth....Simply put, too many (quite possibly most) U.N. members put a much higher priority on America-bashing and anti-Semitism than on such U.N. ideals as disarmament, fighting hunger or advancing human rights.

Yes, the inmates are running the asylum, the fox is in charge of the hen house, the barn door is being shut after the horse has left (except, as far as I can see, it's not being shut at all)--and, as with Alice, we can only marvel, not only at my mixed metaphors and clichés, but at the wonder of it all:

"At any rate I'll never go there again!" said Alice as she picked her way through the wood. "It's the stupidest tea-party I ever was at in all my life!"

Just as she said this, she noticed that one of the trees had a door leading right into it. "That's very curious!" she thought. "But everything's curious today."

Everything's curious today. It does seem as though the upside-down quality that Alice politely referred to as "curious" has become more prominent in world--and especially UN--affairs lately.

Although maybe it was always that way.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

CIA leaks and the press; Iraqi compromise

I don't often do roundups and links. But lately, there have been so many important stories that I haven't had time to cover--and that others have covered so very thoroughly--that I thought I'd handle them this way rather than ignore them.

The story of CIA officer and political partisan Mary McCarthy leaking intensely sensitive information about the possible existence of secret CIA detention centers in central Europe is one of these stories. Recommended posts on the subject (some of which contain links to still other posts on the subject) are the following: Dr. Sanity opines on the story's relation to "truth," Alexandra at All Things Beautiful offers her take on White House efforts to stop such leaks and distortions, Richard Fernandez of Belmont Club gives his usual deep perspective on intelligence leaks and the press, Gerard Van der Leun at American Digest offers a compendium of quotes on the sad state of journalism today, Jeff Goldstein of Protein Wisdom sees a possibility for the press to redeem itself depending on how it covers this story, and Ace muses on the motivations of the CIA leaker in question.

It's all been said, and I hardly need to add a word. But I can't resist adding a few anyway.

For me, this story brings another "remembrance of things past." In particular, it calls to mind the fact that, ever since Nixon's pernicious Watergate efforts (the formation of the "plumbers" was at least partly a misguided and illegal effort to stop leaks such as the Pentagon Papers), the press has considered the possibility of overreaching and illegal activities by the executive branch to be more of a threat than any security considerations attendant in leaking secrets.

The current case is merely another example of this. And now the press has also become so arrogant that it apparently feels there is no requirement to make absolutely certain that the security leaks it publishes are the truth (see this and this for evidence of the lack of evidence that the detention centers constituting the subject matter of the leak even existed in the first place).

In this post of mine, I discussed the turning point that Vietnam and Watergate represented in this respect. The present-day tag-team phenomenon of CIA-leaking plus press publication of those leaks--with both players of the sport showing an almost casual disregard of the possible national security consequences--is an extension and expansion of a process that began then:

The left, and many liberals, seem to feel that the raising of security issues in these situations is almost always bogus--a sort of screen, used by a proto-totalitarian government to cover its own misuse of power.

A second important news story of the day is the promising compromise reached in Iraq. Here's the AP article on the subject:

Iraq's president designated Shiite politician Jawad al-Maliki to form a new government Saturday, starting a process aimed at healing ethnic and religious wounds and pulling the nation out of insurgency and sectarian strife.

That just might be the most positive AP lede about Iraq since the day of the purple fingers.


Parliament elected President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, to a second term and gave the post of parliament speaker to Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, a Sunni Arab. Al-Mashhadani's two deputies were to be Khalid al-Attiyah, a Shiite, and Aref Tayfour, a Kurd.

The tough-talking al-Maliki was nominated by the Shiites on Friday after outgoing Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari gave up his bid for another term. Al-Jaafari's attempt to stay in office was adamantly opposed by Sunnis and Kurds, causing a monthslong deadlock while the country's security crisis worsened in the wake of December's election.

U.S. and Iraqi officials hope that a national unity government representing Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds will be able to quell both the Sunni-led insurgency and bloody Shiite-Sunni violence that has raged during the political uncertainty. If it succeeds, it could enable the U.S. to begin withdrawing its 133,000 troops.

A consummation devoutly to be wished. We shall see whether or not it comes to pass.

Iraq the Model has a play-by-play account, Gateway Pundit has this roundup (and I agree that Sistani seems to be looking good), and Powerline comments on the length of time it took to get to this point.

Friday, April 21, 2006

The Euston Manifesto

A group of bloggers and others on the Left have recently composed, signed, and disseminated this document, known as "The Euston Manifesto." Prominent blogger and Marxist professor Norman Geras was highly involved in the writing of the Manifesto, and has posted a great deal of commentary about it on his blog, both here and here.

Norm is one of those "principled leftists" who recognize the liberation aspects of the Iraqi invasion by the US. The document is well worth reading, and the signatories are an impressive bunch (scroll down to the bottom of the Manifesto link to find them).

There's little in the document with which a former liberal (rather than leftist) and present neocon such as myself would disagree. And that little is exceedingly tangential to the main thrust of the Manifesto, which is to place these leftists back in the forefront of the worldwide struggle for human rights and in opposition to the sort of kneejerk embracing of reflexive anti-Americanism that ends up sending certain other self-labeled "progressives" straight into the loving arms of dictators such as Saddam, and terrorists who purposely target innocent people and blow them to bits.

My quarrels? As I said, they are tangential. Some of them are only with a phrase or an emphasis here and there, hardly worth mentioning. Two slightly larger ones are as follows:

(1) The document's unqualified support of trade unions. Trade unions have done a lot of good, especially back when they began, when capitalism was utterly laissez-faire. But in recent years they've sometimes overcorrected and created new problems. Another topic perhaps, for another time.

(2) The seventh statement, about Israel, is vague and extremely general. My guess is that it represented a compromise between some widely disparate views held by the signers on this incendiary topic. The words "We recognize the right of both the Israeli and the Palestinian peoples to self-determination within the framework of a two-state solution. There can be no reasonable resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that subordinates or eliminates the legitimate rights and interests of one of the sides to the dispute" are actually words with which I agree, but they are so open to interpretation (especially what's "legitimate") as to mean virtually nothing.

But that's okay; this document isn't really about Israel and the Palestinians. Nor is it, of course, about trade unions.

There are so many good sections in the Manifesto that I would suggest, once again, that you read the whole thing. But I'd like to especially highlight the following (a job well done, and very few punches pulled):

2) No apology for tyranny.
We decline to make excuses for, to indulgently "understand", reactionary regimes and movements for which democracy is a hated enemy — regimes that oppress their own peoples and movements that aspire to do so. We draw a firm line between ourselves and those left-liberal voices today quick to offer an apologetic explanation for such political forces....

6) Opposing anti-Americanism.
We reject without qualification the anti-Americanism now infecting so much left-liberal (and some conservative) thinking. This is not a case of seeing the US as a model society. We are aware of its problems and failings. But these are shared in some degree with all of the developed world. The United States of America is a great country and nation. It is the home of a strong democracy with a noble tradition behind it and lasting constitutional and social achievements to its name. Its peoples have produced a vibrant culture that is the pleasure, the source-book and the envy of millions...

11) A critical openness.
Drawing the lesson of the disastrous history of left apologetics over the crimes of Stalinism and Maoism, as well as more recent exercises in the same vein (some of the reaction to the crimes of 9/11, the excuse-making for suicide-terrorism, the disgraceful alliances lately set up inside the "anti-war" movement with illiberal theocrats), we reject the notion that there are no opponents on the Left. We reject, similarly, the idea that there can be no opening to ideas and individuals to our right. Leftists who make common cause with, or excuses for, anti-democratic forces should be criticized in clear and forthright terms. Conversely, we pay attention to liberal and conservative voices and ideas if they contribute to strengthening democratic norms and practices and to the battle for human progress.

12) Historical truth.
In connecting to the original humanistic impulses of the movement for human progress, we emphasize the duty which genuine democrats must have to respect for the historical truth. Not only fascists, Holocaust-deniers and the like have tried to obscure the historical record. One of the tragedies of the Left is that its own reputation was massively compromised in this regard by the international Communist movement, and some have still not learned that lesson. Political honesty and straightforwardness are a primary obligation for us...

We repudiate the way of thinking according to which the events of September 11, 2001 were America's deserved comeuppance, or "understandable" in the light of legitimate grievances resulting from US foreign policy. What was done on that day was an act of mass murder, motivated by odious fundamentalist beliefs and redeemed by nothing whatsoever. No evasive formula can hide that.

The founding supporters of this statement took different views on the military intervention in Iraq, both for and against. We recognize that it was possible reasonably to disagree about the justification for the intervention, the manner in which it was carried through, the planning (or lack of it) for the aftermath, and the prospects for the successful implementation of democratic change. We are, however, united in our view about the reactionary, semi-fascist and murderous character of the Baathist regime in Iraq, and we recognize its overthrow as a liberation of the Iraqi people. We are also united in the view that, since the day on which this occurred, the proper concern of genuine liberals and members of the Left should have been the battle to put in place in Iraq a democratic political order and to rebuild the country's infrastructure, to create after decades of the most brutal oppression a life for Iraqis which those living in democratic countries take for granted — rather than picking through the rubble of the arguments over intervention.

The Manifesto (love that word! it's so apropos for leftists and Marxists) amounts to a shot across the bow from one segment of the Left to the other--a declaration that the Left is not monolithic, nor has it gone entirely mad. Bravo and thank you to the signers!

We few, we proud, we psychobloggers

I've noticed that the small but extraordinarily prolific and insightful group known as the psychobloggers (me, Dr. Sanity, Shrinkwrapped, Sigmund Carl & Alfred, and Dr. Helen) has gained some new additions: two, in fact.

One of them is not actually such a recent arrival to the blogosphere. But I guess I'm slow on the uptake; I just noticed him via this link from the Anchoress. He's Gagdad Bob (yes, of LGF comment fame) and his site is known as One Cosmos. Gagdad Bob (otherwise known as Dr. Robert Godwin, in his day job) turns out to be another mental health professional and former-leftist-turned-somewhat-to-the-right who, along with his alter ego "Petey" (physician, heal thyself!) started his blog back in October of 2005.

Bob writes here about his own change process (please read the whole thing):

[Back when I was a leftist] I was also completely ahistorical. Or worse, there was a sense in the 1960s and 1970s that history had labored for lo those many dark centuries to finally give birth to our enlightened generation. We were superior to all of the past benighted generations, including our clueless parents. There was no sense whatsoever that the extraordinary economic and personal freedom that began opening up at that particular time had had any cost whatsoever. If only all of the stupid and violent ideas of past generations were obliterated--ideas like war, sacrifice, capitalist greed, Western religion, etc.--the natural goodness of humans would bloom like a flower.

Of course, like all leftists I was economically illiterate--or innumerate. That's the problem with the Left, since Marxism in all its permuations is just bad literature, not economics. Like socialist Europe, I knew nothing about the creation of wealth. I just assumed it. The only problem was its distribution....

I also lacked gratitude. Again, somehow there was no understanding of the extraordinary sacrifices people had made in the past to make my unbelievably easy and pleasant life possible.

And then there's another (very different but still excellent) new psychoblogger: Stanley Renshon. His blog, with the simple, elegant, and exceedingly descriptive title "Political Psychology," is devoted to just that--political psychology, which happens to be his specialty. I've never studied political psychology formally, but it seems to me that it's what I've been writing about in so many of the posts on this blog, as well.

Renshon, however--unlike me--is not only highly trained in the discipline, it's his field of expertise. Just take a look at Renshon's biographical information; among his many impressive credentials is the fact that he is coordinator of the Interdisciplinary Program in the Psychology of Social and Political Behavior at CUNY.

On his blog, Renshon has posted an excellent series on the reaction of the Iraqi people to the US presence there (Parts I and II).

Here's an excerpt (once again, I suggest you read the whole thing--in this case, both whole things):

The post-war psychology of the Iraqi people reflects a profound case of ambivalence. Ambivalence reflects conflicted feelings, views that pull emotionally in opposite directions. When the pulls are roughly equal, as they were in the liberation/humiliation question it means that most people felt some of both. The central issue for Iraqis was the split between Iraqi nationalism and relief and appreciation of being out from under the murderous regime of Saddam Hussein. Each of those strong emotional currents pulled in direct directions.

On one hand Iraqis did feel “liberated,” yet they also recognized that their liberation wasn’t by their own hand but rather by an outsider about whom they felt ambivalent feelings, at best. The fact that they were not the authors of their own liberation produced a sense of shame and “humiliation.” They were both relieved and aggrieved.

So, on behalf of the other psychobloggers (who elected you, neo-neocon?) I want to extend a hearty welcome to Drs. Godwin and Renshon.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

On forgetting, unpersons, and doublethink: Milan Kundera and George Orwell

One of my favorite authors is Milan Kundera. Yes, I know, I've said it before--I've discussed Kundera's work here and here, as well as here and here.

So, why Kundera yet again (and I doubt this will be the last time)? His work is so rich, and so dense with striking and relevant images, that it just keeps coming to mind. I wanted to try to whet your appetite a bit and see if I could entice anyone who hasn't yet read his books into taking a look.

Probably my favorite work of Kundera's, and the first one I ever read, is The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. I initially encountered it in an abbreviated version that appeared in the New Yorker magazine in the late '70s.

How to describe its unusual qualities? Kundera himself has tried:

This book is a novel in the form of variations. The various parts follow each other like the various stages of a voyage leading into the interior of a theme, the interior of a thought, the interior of a single, unique situation, the understanding of which recedes from my sight into the distance...

It is a novel about laughter and about forgetting, about forgetting and about Prague, about Prague and about the angels...

If you haven't read the book, that probably doesn't tell you all that much. The novel isn't a conventional one with a linear plot; rather, it contains seven sections that are more like rambling and discursive short stories, loosely connected by various themes.

But that's not what hooked me: it was Kundera's utterly unique voice that pulled me in immediately. He ranges widely in topic and tone, continually expounding (and expanding) and commenting on the story in a free-wheeling monologue. Always conversational, his voice is at turns rambling, poetic, incisive, earthy, funny, and philosophical. The voice grabs the reader (at least, this reader) from the outset, and almost never flags or becomes anything less than fascinating, while keeping that same reader continually off-balance and surprised. It is indeed like variations in music, or riffs in jazz.

Although the book is fictional--and, at times, fantastical--Kundera continually throws in meditations on history and politics. The book begins not with an introduction to the plot or to the characters, but to the theme on which Kundera's variations are played: the forgetting of history, both historical and personal:

In February 1948, the Communist leader Klement Gottwald stepped out on the balcony of a Baroque palace in Prague to harangue hundreds of thousands of citizens massed in Old Town Square. That was a great turning point in the history of Bohemia. A fateful moment.

Gottwald was flanked by his comrades, with Clementis standing close to him. It was snowing and cold, and Gottwald was bareheaded. Bursting with solicitude, Clementis took off his fur hat and set it on Gottwald's head.

The propaganda section made hundreds of thousands of copies of the photograph taken on the balcony where Gottwald, in a fur hat and surrounded by his comrades, spoke to the people. On that balcony the history of Communist Bohemia began. Every child knew that photograph, from seeing it on posters and in schoolbooks and museums.

Four years later, Clementis was charged with treason and hanged. The propaganda section immediately made him vanish from history and, or course, from all photographs. Ever since, Gottwald has been alone on the balcony. Where Clementis stood, there is only the balcony. Where Clementis stood, there is only the bare palace wall. Nothing remains of Clementis but the fur hat on Gottwald's head.

For anyone who has also read Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, this mirrors--at least partially--the creation of what Orwell called an "unperson:"

unperson - Person that has been erased from existence by the government for breaking the law in some way. An unperson is completely erased from history. All record of their existence is removed...and all party members are expected to remove them from memory.

One of the themes of Orwell's work (which was mostly written in the year 1948, the year of the Gottwald/Clementis hat exchange) is this purposeful distortion and rewriting of history. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell describes the process taken to an extreme in his fictional world:

This process of continuous alteration was applied not only to newspapers, but to books, periodicals, pamphlets, posters, leaflets, films, sound-tracks, cartoons, photographs -- to every kind of literature or documentation which might conceivably hold any political or ideological significance. Day by day and almost minute by minute the past was brought up to date. In this way every prediction made by the Party could be shown by documentary evidence to have been correct, nor was any item of news, or any expression of opinion, which conflicted with the needs of the moment, ever allowed to remain on record. All history was a palimpsest, scraped clean and reinscribed exactly as often as was necessary.

Orwell's main character Winston Smith was part of this process. He can describe it, although he doesn't quite understand it:

The past not only changed, but changed continuously. What most afflicted [Winston] with the sense of nightmare was that he had never clearly understood why the huge imposture was undertaken. The immediate advantages of falsifying the past were obvious, but the ultimate motive was mysterious. He took up his pen again and wrote:

I understand HOW: I do not understand WHY.

Orwell could not have been aware of exactly what was to happen to Clementis and his photo--after all, his death and the erasure occurred in 1952, years after Orwell's book was written. But he was certainly familiar with similar efforts by the Soviets to rewrite history, and he had used this as his inspiration for the book; art imitates life.

But the effort Kundera describes--to erase Clementis from that moment of Czech history--seems especially absurd. Why absurd? Well, how could the Czech Communists be so silly--and so transparent--as to do away with Clementis's image in a photo that every school kid in the country already knew by heart? How could they think they could get away with the rewriting of a history that was already so well-known? And, as Winston Smith asks in another but strikingly similar context, why would they want to?

So why was Clementis erased from the photo, if his presence was so easy to remember? For future generations, of course, it might be possible to eliminate even the appearance of any jarring notes in the supposedly harmonious symphony of the history of Czech Communism, and so some of the erasure was undoubtedly for them.

But for those contemporaneous with the incident, who knew better, those rewriting history must not have cared how transparent their actions were, because their real aim was probably to teach a different object lesson. Perhaps what they were really saying was not "Clementis the traitor didn't exist" but rather, "Take heed: if you become a traitor like Clementis, you'll become an unperson, too." Perhaps they meant the erasure to be transparent, to demonstrate quite graphically how they had the power to crush a person--not just the body, but the history of the life, as well.

In so doing, they were also relaying another message. They were exhorting the Czech populace to practice what Orwell called "doublethink," saying, in effect, "Even though we know that you know full well that Clementis existed and was even a member in good standing of the Party at one point, we are also saying that you must will yourself to unremember. If we say he didn't exist, then he didn't exist. Who are you going to believe, us or your lying eyes (and your lying memory)?"

Orwell wrote that "doublethink" requires a person: forget whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again: and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself. That was the ultimate subtlety: consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed.

The havoc that such mind games wrought on the people of Czechoslovakia is a major theme of Kundera's work. The effect was pervasive, and the tension reached into almost every endeavor, including love and sex--subjects that occur with great frequency in Kundera's work, as well.

And speaking of love and sex--yes, there was a sexy movie made of Kundera's other great novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. But if that's all you know of Kundera, you owe it to yourself to supplement it with some reading; the movie is thin gruel indeed compared to the writing.

In researching this post, I looked for the photo Kundera is describing. Here is Gottwald's Wikipedia biography, which mentions the purges and Clementis's execution. But the photo there doesn't fit the bill; it's a Soviet-art-style propaganda poster of Gottwald with Stalin.

But take a look at this one: its Gottwald, standing on what appears to be a balcony, addressing a crowd, and wearing a fur hat--perhaps the hat, which, like the Cheshire Cat's smile, would be all that is left of Clementis's presence on that day:

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

The sea of faith: the ebb and flow of religion

Starting in the mid-1800s, the Welsh Presbyterian Church was active in proselytizing, sending missionaries around the world. One of the places those missionaries went was Mizoram, an area of northeast India.

They were wildly successful there with a tribe called the Mizos, according to this article that appeared in the Telegraph of March, 2006. In response to the ministrations of the Welsh missionaries, the Mizos converted to Christianity in vast numbers:

The missions, at the height of the Christian revival in Wales, were phenomenally successful, with more than 80 per cent of the population [of Mizoram] becoming Christian.

The Mizos are believed to be ethnically Mongoloid and are hilltribe people divided into a number of tribes. Recently some of them have started identifying themselves as one of the lost tribes of Israel, but the incidence of Christianity is still very high.

The ties to the Presbyterian Church of Wales, which Mizos refer to as the "Mother Church", are also very strong.

But the tide has turned, and the Mizos are now worried about the state of Christianity--in Wales. And they've decided to do something about it. They're sending missionaries back to the land of the Mother Church to see if the Mizos can do unto others what was done to them:

The Rev Zosang Colney, of the Diocese of Mizoram, said that the churches in Wales seemed to be "declining physically and spiritually".

"Many church buildings have been closed down," he added. "The Mizos, therefore, have a burden to do something for their Mother Church in Wales."

I've read about the decline of religion in Europe; the consensus is that it's a widespread phenomenon (although some may differ), and certainly not limited to Wales. The British poet Philip Larkin wrote about the waning of religious observance and the emptiness of churches way back in 1955, in his well-known poem "Church Going" (the title can be seen as a pun).

In this excerpt from the beginning of the poem, the speaker finds himself stopping--he's not sure exactly why--at a church during a pause in his bicycling excursion:

Once I am sure there's nothing going on
I step inside, letting the door thud shut.
Another church: matting, seats, and stone,
And little books; sprawlings of flowers, cut
For Sunday, brownish now; some brass and stuff
Up at the holy end; the small neat organ;
And a tense, musty, unignorable silence,
Brewed God knows how long. Hatless, I take off
My cycle-clips in awkward reverence,
Move forward, run my hand around the font.
From where I stand, the roof looks almost new-
Cleaned or restored? Someone would know: I don't.
Mounting the lectern, I peruse a few
Hectoring large-scale verses, and pronounce
"Here endeth" much more loudly than I'd meant.
The echoes snigger briefly. Back at the door
I sign the book, donate an Irish sixpence,
Reflect the place was not worth stopping for.

Yet stop I did: in fact I often do,
And always end much at a loss like this,
Wondering what to look for; wondering, too,
When churches fall completely out of use
What we shall turn them into...

What, indeed? Museums, relics? Or, as with Wales and the Mizos, will the fruit of some seeds put forth long ago return to complete the cycle and cause a revival of faith at their place of origin?

Larkin isn't sure what churches will be used for in the future. But towards the end of the poem he (or the speaker) acknowledges within himself a deep yearning for the "seriousness" they represent, a yearning he suspects will never go out of style:

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognised, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.

Matthew Arnold, a very different poet from Larkin, wrote much earlier (1867) of the same phenomenon: the generalized loss of religious faith in Europe. Here is a stanza appearing near the close of his poem "Dover Beach:"

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl'd.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

In the poem, Arnold laments the "melancholy, long, withdrawing roar" of the sea of faith's retreat, leaving the beaches empty and denuded ("shingles" refers to pebbled shores). But he offers a suggestion for dealing with a world bereft of faith and its comforting certitudes--the lovers in his poem must cling to one another in the face of the chaos that surrounds them:

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

"Dover Beach" was another of those poems I was assigned to study back in high school. I didn't really understand it then and yet it moved me and I remembered it. Somehow I was under the impression that it was a later poem than it actually is; if I'd had to guess, I'd have placed it around the time of World War I. And even as an adult, I continue to be amazed at the modernity of the sentiments it expresses; it almost seems as though Arnold could see into the future.

Arnold himself, it turns out, stopped writing poetry rather early in life ("Dover Beach" was one of his last poems) and turned to literary criticism and religious writings. The crisis he had wrestled with in the poem was one he tackled in his prose, too; in later life Arnold became a religious reformer, a founder of Anglican "modernism."

With the long slow decline of religious belief in Europe, who would have thought that the twenty-first century would feature a revival of the phenomenon of religious war? But this time the strife is no longer between Christians and other Christians, or between Christians and Jews; it is between Islam and Islam. A fundamentalist militant political Islam is at war with a reformist and modernizing strain (and if you don't think there is such a struggle, please read this), and the former is also at war with the West.

Unfortunately, at the moment, the fundamentalist militant strain of Islam is handily winning out over the moderates in parts of the Moslem world, causing the clash of civilizations that leads to "Islam's bloody borders." It seems that, for the last few decades, the sea of faith of Islam has reversed any "withdrawing roar," and is currently crashing back towards the beach with the force of a tsunami.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

The perfect war, the perfect peace

Dr. Sanity has written here about our current desire for a perfect, error-free war. No, not our desire; our demand.

It often does seem as though the prosecution of this war is being held to an impossible standard, quite unlike any before in history. In some ways this is related to the progress we've made in technology; we've effectively reduced civilian casualties as compared to the bluntly massive killing instruments of WWII and even Vietnam, which caused a huge number of civilian deaths whether that was the aim or not.

The "smart bomb" saw its debut during the 1991 Gulf War, and bombs have only gotten smarter since. Now they're really, really smart; in some cases, they can actually vaporize a single person and leave those not too far away from him/her (but it's usually a "him") unharmed.

But the smart bombs of that Gulf War also gave us the vision of a future in which wars would be surgical and relatively "clean"--at least, as far as civilian casualties go, and even (or perhaps especially) for casualties in our armed forces--as compared to previous wars of the 20th century.

It's interesting that, as our desire and our ability to minimize civilian casualties increases, the enemy has become more and more wedded to exactly the opposite tactic: the deliberate murder, with malice aforethought, of civilians. And this is contemplated and executed not as unavoidable "collateral damage" in the pursuit of other targets, but as a purposeful strategy to strike terror into the heart of what they perceive to be our softened and excessively tender Western sensibilities. They realize that that is a very good way to reach us, perhaps the most economical and parsimonious of all.

What a paradox: our own desire to wage war that is more humane, and our incredible advances in war technology, have resulted in an enemy strategy aimed to counterbalance our advantages with exactly the opposite modus operandi. And in the meantime, our military planners are criticized for conducting a war that has any casualties at all, one which features the usual errors attendant in any war.

This demand for an unreasonable standard--the near-perfect execution of an inherently imperfect endeavor, war--seems to me to be linked to a similar desire for perfection in our everyday lives. It's easier than ever (although never quite easy) to leave a marriage if it doesn't fulfill our every need. We expect perfect health and extreme longevity as our birthright. And we try to arrange it so that our children never know want or fear (or that horror of horrors, a blow to their sacred self-esteem).

This is all part of an understandable impulse to better our lives. But alas; perfection is unattainable, in war or in peace. And its pursuit, although a worthy goal, can lead to unexpected consequences: a war that may end up bloodier than the one it aims to prevent, for example; or a child lacking the emotional strength to face the ordinary disappointments of life.

It's a conundrum. We don't want to go back to the days of more generalized suffering, when unhappy couples were yoked together, when people died in droves of diseases that are now easily prevented or cured, and when there were massive civilian bombings in wartime. But the law of unintended consequences sometimes seems determined to extract its full measure of payment nevertheless.

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