Friday, June 30, 2006

Blog talk

Last night I went to a meeting of the Boston bloggers.

It's really the New England bloggers, since not all of us live in Boston (I don't, for example). We've gotten together a couple of times before and it's always been fun. Because, you know what? We bloggers are fun people. Strange perhaps, but fun.

I've written before on the topic of meeting bloggers. The New England group shares the general blogger characteristic of being a bunch of talkers. Two things in particular seem to be the most salient characteristics of bloggers: ideaphoria, and an especially energetic way of expressing themselves.

Some, no doubt, would call us a bunch of blowhards. But I say no; we are intense and thoughtful, as well as articulate.

For many of us, I suspect, we've been this way our entire lives, and never found a really good outlet for the type of thinking we do and the personalities we seem to have. For many of us, I suspect as well that the minute we discovered blogs we realized that it was a good match. And so that's why, when bloggers get together, there's often a certain "here I am, with my peeps at last" feeling wafting through the air; a real zest and zing.

I've been a writer of sorts for many years, and I've participated in writing groups for about fifteen of those years. I remember a similar feeling when I first joined one: here were people who, if not of exactly like mind, were somehow of a slant of mind that was akin to mine.

This doesn't always happen in life; for instance, I only sometimes feel it among fellow therapists. But when the feeling does come, it often means you're in the right place, doing what you were meant to do, with people who understand and share that feeling.

Is blogging a calling? That's way too pretentious a way to look at it. But sometimes I feel that, for most bloggers, we didn't choose blogging so much as blogging chose us. And, for most of us, it's a labor of love, requiring us to do work without a great deal of remuneration--except, of course, for the wonderful rewards of saying one's piece and even being heard and responded to in thoughtful and meaningful ways.

My guess is that many of the commenters here may share some of the same traits as bloggers: lots of ideas and the need to express them. And now, with blogs, we don't have to bore our friends and relatives silly--we can entertain each other.

[Whoops--forgot the links. Present and accounted for were: Sissy Willis of sisu, Richard Landes of Second Draft, Sol of Solomnia, Teresa of Technicalities, Harry of Squaring the Globe, Marybeth of Miss Kelly, New England Republican of blog of same name, and special guest Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe. Regretfully absent but ordinarily a regular: Daniel in Brookline.]

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Out of the Republican closet: Black Like Me

Reginald Bohannon is a Republican.

That in and of itself is not remarkable. But what is unusual--although certainly not unheard of--is that he is a black Republican, raised in a culture in which 90-95% of the ethnic group to which he belongs is Democrat, and in a family with a politically active Democrat mother.

Not altogether unlike myself, actually, come to think of it (although I'm not a Republican; I'm an Independent).

And, in another similarity, Bohannon has written about his "change" experience, in a book entitled Coming Out of the Republican Closet: Coming to Terms With Being Black, Patriotic, and Conservative (it could be subtitled: not an oxymoron.)

Here's a recent interview with Mr. Bohannon. His "coming out of the closet" metaphor is especially apt, I believe. It's one that has come up quite often on threads on this blog that discuss the experience "changers" have had (see this, for example).

As you all no doubt know, "coming out" is a phrase that previously had been used primarily to describe the experience of gays who'd been hiding their sexual identities for fear of discrimination and recrimination, and who finally decide they can no longer live the secret life. They tell the truth, and let the chips fall where they may; sometimes they fall hard and painfully.

Before my own change experience, I would not have believed in any possible comparison to the experience of gays; I actually might even have considered it preposterous if someone had asserted discrimination from liberals because of "turning" in a conservative--or a neocon--direction.

But now I'm a believer. Personal experience, and being the recipient of emails from all over the world describing the phenomenon, have convinced me. And yet I still feel some amount of shock at the depth and breadth of it all. I like to think--and really, I know, since I always had a few conservative friends--that in my liberal days I would never have had this reaction to a "changer." After all, doesn't it seem especially antithetical to the openmindedness and respect for opinions of others that liberals profess to feel?

But, as I've written before, a political identity is much more than that: it often becomes a moral and personal identity, and there are groupthink aspects that lead to ostracism of the apostate. Zell Miller likens political identity to a birthmark, and in a way it is.

In his interview, Bohannon discusses the tagline to his book, "Not wanting to disappoint his family and bring ill-repute on them, Bohannon chose to keep his political viewpoints to himself." He feared name-calling and anger directed not only at him, but at his family.

But over time he gained the courage of his convictions, bolstered by the history of the Republican party's support of freedom for blacks during and after the Civil War. An especially interesting aspect of his position is that he believes black people to actually already be more conservative on many issues than they themselves know. He sees himself as a person willing to point this out and make it easier for more of them to cross over into formerly-dreaded Republicanism. Bohannon sees the scarcity of blacks in the Republican Party as a function of lack of education as to what Republicans really stand for--now, and historically--and an incorrect perception of the Party as racist.

Bohannon says: takes some intelligence to be a black Republican because you have to do your homework. ...To be a Democrat, you just have to join the Party that your family belongs to and you don't have to learn anything at all.

No, it's not true that black Democrats--or Jewish Democrats, or any other ethnic or socioeconomic group that's predominantly and overwhelmingly Democratic, for that matter--are unintelligent. Not at all, and I would strongly quarrel with Bohannon's use of the word.

But I do identify with Bohannon's larger message--which is that, as I grew more interested in reading about political events, both domestic and international, as well as historical--I grew away from the Democratic Party and more to the right.

That certainly is not an inevitability; I know that some people go in the opposite direction. But, as I've written here, it appears to be a trend. Reginald Bohannon is part of it--and, if he has his way, more black people will join him.

First step

After a certain amount of research and thought, I have decided to institute the simplest possible change to the blog. I have now closed Blogger comments and installed Haloscan.

It shouldn't be too difficult to use; I think the instructions are self-explanatory. We'll see how this goes.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Rewatching movies

Ann Althouse has written a post about rewatching movies.

She says:

To watch something the first time is to respond to some mysterious mix of your own imagination and the various things you've heard. Maybe something about a poster or some feeling about a movie star pulls you in. Then you find out if it was what you thought it would be or if you're surprised in a good way. But rewatching a movie, you know basically what's there, and you're making a choice to relive what you know or you have a sense that there are places in there where new things can be found. It's a richer, deeper experience. Oh, that reminds me of what Andre says about marriage -- as opposed to an affair -- at the end of my most rewatched movie, "My Dinner With Andre."

Ann and I part company there--I wasn't all that keen on "Andre" the first time I saw it--although perhaps if I watched it now I'd like it. But her remarks resonate nevertheless, reminding me of my own earlier comments on love, the theme and variations vs. the symphony.

It's true that rewatching a movie involves a type of love. Same for rereading a book, or going to a play we've already seen. We know what to expect in the general sense, just as we know the character of the beloved. But there's always some sort of surprise amidst the repetition, and part of the surprise is that we ourselves bring new knowledge and experience to it.

One of my favorite authors, Jorge Luis Borges, wrote a story entitled "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote," about a writer who set about re-experiencing and recreating Cervantes's writing of his novel Don Quixote. Borges's story is a gently humorous dig at, among other things, literary criticism; but it also makes the interesting point that a work can be exactly the same, but if the context is different the work itself changes for the reader.

With film rewatchings, the context is never the same. I watched familiar favorites of mine post-9/11 and often saw something new and different in them than before (see this for a recent reassessment of "High Noon," for example). The same is true of the romantic movies I loved as a teenager, although this has nothing to do with 9/11 but more to do with age; the old Zefferelli "Romeo and Juliet" says one thing to a nineteen-year-old and another to a fifty-something-year old, although it speaks volumes to both.

It turns out, now that I think of it, that my favorite rewatchings over the years don't include many new movies. The only one I can think of is "Groundhog Day." But that seems appropriate; isn't it what that movie is about? Keep doing it till you get it right, with deepening understanding every time.

Construction has begun #2

[Construction has begun #1]

Last night I was up late, working. I went to bed very late, fully expecting to sleep in; I didn't have any early commitments.

Ah, but the best laid schemes....

I was awakened at around 7 AM by the sounds of blasting. Rock blasting. Just outside my bedroom window, it seemed. I hunkered down and covered my head with every piece of bedding I could muster, determined to squeeze a few more drops of sleep out of the morning. Which I managed to do, although not for long enough to suit me.

When I got up and looked outside, I saw that the end of my small driveway was no more. Instead, there was a twelve-foot-deep trench, and three workmen next to two enormous gray concrete pipes.

Yes, I knew they'd been working on the sewers lately in my neighborhood--but, till now, nowhere near me, and rather quietly at that.

I asked them why they hadn't at least warned me this was going to happen, since it would have been a simple matter to have taken my car out of the driveway before they started and parked it a little ways down the street. Now I was trapped here. Their answer was that this was their first day on the job, and they hadn't thought of it. I politely suggested it might be something they should consider adding to their job description in the future whenever were about to obliterate someone's driveway.

Fortunately, today was a rare day when there was no place I absolutely had to be; I was able to jettison the things I'd scheduled. It's actually been sort of fun to have an enforced day in the house, although I wouldn't want to make a habit of it. I've even been getting a few--just a few--long-postponed tasks accomplished. I've been able to notice just how very excellently the new gutter performs during a deluge--because, like almost all the other days here since I've returned, we've had rain. I've wondered just how much more rain we can stand. I've been grateful I live on a hill and therefore don't have to worry--yet--about my basement flooding.

The workmen promised me that this would be done by late afternoon, the hole miraculously filled in as though it never had happened, and that I'd be liberated to use my car once again. But the rain has made the workers stop and start periodically, and so I wonder--and then, at the very moment I'm typing this sentence, I realize the noise itself has stopped just a few moments ago.

And so I stop as well, look out the window again--and voila!


Construction has begun

My "technical advisor" has started work on the changes to the blog, since the nuts and bolts of this type of thing is not my forte. It will take a while, probably as much as a week, but I wanted to let you know that it's at least a work in progress. Patience.

Inside the mind of the Times

Cassandra at Tigerhawk speculates on how the NY Times, in its infinite wisdom, decides for us what is newsworthy and what is not.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Islamist totalitarianism

I've written before about the dilemma of choosing a term to describe our enemies in this war.

Islamofascists? No, not exact enough; and misleading, hearkening back to our World War II enemies who had different political ideologies and methods. Islamic fundamentalists? Incorrect as well; not all Islamic fundamentalists have adopted violence as a way of life. "Jihadis" is too inclusive and not specific enough.

Austin Bay has called attention to a recent article appearing in the London Times, written by Michael Gove. Well worth reading, it is a good summary of the aims and ideology of the enemy, as well as offering the useful and descriptive term "Islamist totalitarians" to refer to the movement.

The piece is an excerpt from Gove's recently published book, Celsius 7/7. The thrust of Gove's article is that the enemy we face is, first and foremost, our old nemesis: totalitarianism. The jihadis are at war not only with the West, but with most of their co-religionists, whose version of Islam they consider fatally compromised and in need of revision, violent if necessary (and they deem violence to be necessary).

"Islamist totalitarianism" may indeed be the very best name of all for those who adhere to this vision, since it places the movement firmly in the twentieth/twenty-first century context in which it belongs, which is one of world dominance through force, and the negation of human freedom. That is why all totalitarian movements are, in their dark hearts, a reaction to and a profound rejection of the Enlightenment. Islamist totalitariansim is no exeption to this rule.

As Gove writes:

Islamism is a twentieth-century phenomenon. Like its sibling ideologies, fascism and communism, it offers followers a form of redemption through violence. Like fascism, Islamism envisages the creation of a purified realm purged of toxic outside influences and internal corruption. Like communism, Islamism is not ethnically exclusive, it seeks to enlist new converts through proselytisation, political education and military advances. Like both, it reserves a special hatred for the West, for political freedom the separation of the public and private realms, dissent, sexual tolerance and a belief in the sanctity of individual life. And like both it finds a dark and furious energy in hatred towards the Jewish people.

Politically correct thinking dictates that we respect all religions. When Islamist totalitarianism is described as the enemy, many have a kneejerk response that such thinking as anti-Moslem or racist in some way. But it is not. Make no mistake about it. The war the Islamist totalitarians have decreed is every bit as much against the everyday, garden-variety Moslem as it is against all the rest of us.

Monday, June 26, 2006

The ailing NY Times: the watchdog has rabies

Recently the NY Times has been engaged in what appears to be a campaign of its own: the publication of security secrets in the current war (on terror, on jihadis, call it what you will) waged by the US. Why is the Times bent on forcing the issue, publishing secrets that appear to violate no known rule or law, using as its excuse the public's need to know?

Yesterday, in response to that question, I discussed one possible motivation for the Times' behavior: to relive the glory days of the Pentagon Papers case. But there's more.

The issues are large; see Alexandra's post of today for a further discussion and roundup of the case against the Times. Also today, columnist Michael Barone ups the ante, asking, "Why does the NY Times hate us?", writing that the paper's editors, "have gotten into the habit of acting in reckless disregard of our safety."

Towards the end of the piece, Barone asks:

Why do they hate us? Why does the Times print stories that put America more at risk of attack? They say that these surveillance programs are subject to abuse, but give no reason to believe that this concern is anything but theoretical.

I submit the following answer:

The press has long seen itself as a watchdog protecting the people. I'm not sure when this attitude began, but it was certainly present in the activities of the muckrakers of the early years of the twentieth century, journalists and writers who saw it as their calling to expose and publicize some of the excesses of big business, especially trusts. As such, they were crusaders, but they never (at least as far as I can determine) published secret information that threatened national security. Their concerns were almost exclusively domestic.

That changed, as so much did, during the Vietnam and Watergate era, in which national security concerns were added to the muckraking function of the press. I've delineated and explored the change in many previous posts (see this and especially this, for example).

Here's an especially relevant quote from the latter:

The antiwar movement that rose as a result of the Vietnam War had a distrust of American power and intelligence gathering and of agencies such as the CIA. The events of Watergate only "deepened the aversion," since the burglars included former intelligence officers, and Nixon also used the CIA to obstruct the work of the FBI in trying to investigate the break-in. Furthermore, the CIA was engaged in some domestic spying scandals and other acts considered excesses, such as attempts to assassinate foreign leaders (investigated by the Congressional Church Commission of the mid-70s). The upshot of all this was, among other things, a desire to limit the power of the executive branch of government and of intelligence-gathering, because the fear was that these entities, unchecked, could (and would) combine in corrupt ways to undermine our liberties.

Some have said, cynically, that the Times editors are simply out to sensationalize and boost readership. This certainly may be operating, at least in part. But in my opinion that it's not the main motivation. I see the driving force for this campaign as the editors' deep conviction that providing this information to us is their way of protecting us: it's the muckraking impulse gone mad.

In the decades since the 60s, the press has come to see itself as a sort of secret society, bound to protect and serve us by curbing what it sees as a government that--as in Watergate, as in 1984--is bound and determined to spy on us and curb our liberties. As such, editors make the decisions as to what is in our best interests, and they have deemed the threat from the actions of our own government to be far greater than any threat from jihadis.

This is both arrogant and an inappropriate throwback to the Vietnam-Watergate era, but I actually believe (and call me naive, if you like) that the vast majority of these MSM campaigners (such as Keller, Times editor) are convinced of their own rightness and self-rightousness, and that this is primarily what fuels them. And their arrogance has continued to grow because they have suffered virtually no consequences for their actions; they have become a law unto themselves.

Alexandra's post quotes Glenn Reynolds, who makes the important point that:

The founders gave freedom of the press to the people, they didn't give freedom to the press. Keller positions himself as some sort of Constitutional High Priest, when in fact the "freedom of the press" the Framers described was also called "freedom in the use of the press." It's the freedom to publish, a freedom that belongs to everyone in equal portions, not a special privilege for the media industry.

Reynolds refers to the Times editor's position as "hubris," and I think he is exactly right, at least in the metaphoric sense. And Austin Bay sums it up quite succintly when he says that, "exposing the terrorist finance-monitoring operation information amounts to spying for terrorists."

There is really no other way to put it. The press considers itself to be a watchdog, but the Times is a rabid one that has turned on its owners and keepers, the people.

What to do? One possibility is the passage of a National Secrets Act, as I've discussed here and here. But perhaps that's not necessary. The current Espionage Act may be enough, as Barone suggest in his column; rather than prosecute the Times itself, the leakers who are breaching national security by divulging information to the Times could themselves be prosecuted, and in the course of discovery for such a case, the Times would have to testify as to who the leakers are or face contempt of court charges.

Would that be enough? Hard to say, but I think it should be done. The watchdog is ill, and needs to be curbed.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

NY Times cruising for a court battle?

The Anchoress has an excellent roundup of posts about the recent publications by the NY Times of security leaks.

The Anchoress asks whether the Times "is trying to force a legal confrontation…are they actively trying to have members of the fourth estate brought up on charges of treason? To what purpose?"

I submit the following answer to the Anchoress's question: The Times is trying to relive its glory days. Don't forget that, as I described in this post, a lawsuit by the Nixon White House against the NY Times to stop the publication of Ellsberg's Pentagon Papers in 1971 was a seminal step in determining the freedom of the press to publish national security secrets. Although the security breaches involved in the publication of the Pentagon Papers were smaller than those involved today, the precedent is there. The Times was victorious, and the case set the stage for the publication of today's security leaks.

In that earlier post, I quoted from a book on the Court's decision in the Pentagon Papers case, written by David Rudenstine and entitled The Day the Presses Stopped. I'll quote the book again:

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.

Why wouldn't the Times think that history will repeat itself? After all, it's been clear for a while that Vietnam is the liberal template for the Iraq war. The left is counting on it.

Islam: tear down this wall

San Francisco is one of the most "progressive" (read: liberal) cities in the US. And, as this NY Times article describes, there's a movement there to modernize Islam, at least in a small way.

As part of renovations to the Darussalam mosque in San Francisco last fall, a wall separating the women worshippers from the men was demolished and not reconstructed. This was the result of a campaign by what the Times calls "a small if determined band of North American Muslims, mostly younger women," to change practices they feel are discriminatory, and not a necessary part of Islam.

The women point to the fact that the tradition of separation is a relatively recent one, the result of Wahabism's ascendance in 18th-century Saudi Arabia. Wahabism is, of course, the extremely strict sect of Islam, still based in Saudi Arabia, responsible for much of the growth of what might be called fundamentalist Islam, and to which many jihadis, including Osama Bin Laden, ascribe.

It's a commonplace to say that Islam needs a reformation; but in fact, technically, Wahabism was a reformation. But let's not get so technical; I think what is meant is that Islam needs a reforming and modernizing movement--as in, for example, Reform Judaism. And of course, anyone who is aware of Reform Judaism knows that one of its changes was exactly the one that has occurred in the Darussalam mosque: the mixing of men and women in worship.

Reform Judaism was a product of the Enlightenment and the relative assimilation and freedom afforded Jews in 18th century Germany (hmmm, same century as Wahabism, different direction). We tend to associate Germany and Jews with the later horrific events of the Holocaust, so its easy to forget that--as far as human and civil rights for Jews went--Germany was probably the most "enlightened" country in the world in the 18th century. And it was that freedom that allowed and fostered the changes and modernizations resulting in the birth of reform Judaism.

I'm not equating Judaism with Islam; there are tremendous differences. But if Islam requires reform--and I believe it does--it stands to reason that reform would begin in the climate of the freedoms afforded by a Western country such as the US or Canada.

Of course, as the Times article states, reform and change can cause backlash and retrenchment. And there isn't much cross-fertilization between what happens in a mosque in the US and what happens in mosques in Saudi Arabia or Pakistan.

But it's still an encouraging sign that this was allowed to go forward. And the spread of such changes in the Moslem third world, not just in the West, is one of the possible benefits of events such as the Iraq war, and increasing freedom in that country. A backlash is possible, but so is a ripple effect.

The tearing down of the wall in the Darussalam mosque is a small change, it's true. It may not even rise to the level of a pebble being dropped in a lake; perhaps, instead, a tiny grain of sand. But even a grain of sand can cause ripples.


Those of you who read this blog regularly have no doubt noticed that trolls have virtually taken over many of the comment threads. You've also probably seen me state that a reordering of the blog is going to be occurring soon in order to eliminate the problem.

It can't happen soon enough; I agree. Trolls are edifying up to a point, because they're instructive about a certain mindset and a particular type of puerile emotional behavior. However, enough is enough--and it's definitely been more than enough, here. We get it; no further demonstration is necessary.

But there are various options to be studied and considered, and this takes quite a bit of time. Then, implementing the change takes time as well. And I have an enormous number of other backlogged things to do after getting back from my vacation. So, although I'm working on this and I definitely plan to get to it some time this coming week (or almost definitely the next), I ask for your patience and forbearance. I am aware of the problem, I am on the task, and it will be done.

In the meantime, I can only repeat that you not feed the trolls, although the temptation seems to be great--and, for some, apparently irresistible. Feeding the trolls brings the worst out in everyone.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

And the voice of neo-neocon is heard in the land

If you've ever had a yen to hear my voice, now's your chance. Here's an interview I did for "Blog Week in Review" at Pajamas Media.

I was in illustrious company, at least in blogosphere terms: Austin Bay is the moderator, and my fellow-interviewees were Glenn Reynolds and Marc Cooper.

Friday, June 23, 2006

WMDs and true believers

There are those who remain convinced that prewar intelligence was not incorrect--that Saddam was still cranking out WMDs prior to the war, and that these weapons are hidden somewhere and could be found if a proper search were ever to be mounted.

And, according to this NY Times article, this group is not limited to fringe-y lunatics. Those espousing the view, and who are still trying actively engage an effective search, include such figures as:

...retired Air Force lieutenant general, Thomas G. McInerney, a commentator on the Fox News Channel who has broadcast that weapons are in three places in Syria and one in Lebanon, moved there with Russian help on the eve of the war.

"I firmly believe that, and everything I learn makes my belief firmer," said Mr. McInerney, who retired in 1994. "I'm amazed that the mainstream media hasn't picked this up."

Also among the weapons hunters is Duane R. Clarridge, a long-retired officer of the Central Intelligence Agency who said he thought that the weapons had been moved to Sudan by ship.

"And we think we know which ship," Mr. Clarridge said in a recent interview.

Are these guys the equivalent, on the right, of those who believe that 9/11 was planned and orchestrated by Bush (the latter of whom, by the way, are not shy about spamming me to tell me so, day after livelong day)?

No; McInerney and Clarridge seem more rooted in realistic possibilities, although I have come to believe that the probability of their being correct at this point is 10% or less (and probably much less, at that).

But the task of ascertaining whether any post-1991 WMDs are still kicking around somewhere is a difficult one. How can one prove whether something purported to be hidden does or does not exist?

The only way the issue could be absolutely resolved is by either of these two things occurring:

(1) A post-1991 WMD cache is found; or

(2) Every inch of the earth, including underground to a reasonable depth, is searched and found to be empty of post-1991 WMDs.

Since #2 is not possible, the possibility of #1 remains, although the likelihood of its occurrence shrinks over time.

When a person is heavily invested in a particular thing being true, it is ordinarily very difficult to give up the idea that it is so. This is the case whether the believer is on the left or on the right. In my opinion, those in the middle are less likely to be so firmly anchored to their beliefs in the face of overwhelming evidence, for the simple reason that their identities are not so deeply and rigidly tied to them in the first place.

Why we should consider a National Secrets Act

Dr. Sanity has this to say on the most recent spilling-of-the-national-security-beans by the MSM (see this for Jeff Goldstein's take on the story, as well).

For those of you who may have missed it, back in early May I posted an in-depth discussion of the basic issues involved, offering a possible remedy based on a law in Britain known as the National Secrets Act. It provides penalties not only for national security employees who leak, but also for the press publishing such secrets, as well.

When I wrote that post, I stated I wasn't sure exactly where I stood on the issue of whether such a law should be passed in this country. However, since then, I have become more convinced that penalties--at the very least, for the leaker--would be a good idea.

After all, it's not as though there aren't other avenues to follow short of disclosure to the press and to the world. A relevant excerpt from my post:

It seems logical to me that in order to have any sort of workable national security at all, it should only be breached for extremely serious governmental offenses, and then only after other ordinary channels have been exhausted and found wanting. My suggestion would be penalties for national security leakers who go to the press first, without trying other remedies, as well as penalties for the press if the information damages national security as defined by the courts (and I would hope they would define it at least somewhat less narrowly than in the Pentagon Papers decision).

Amnesty International tiptoes around third-world torturers

Amnesty International is oh so very careful not to offend the tender sensibilities of those responsible for the brutal torture, killing, and mutilation of two captured US soldiers.

Note the two qualifiers in the Amnesty statement: "if" and "may." It's the "may" part that Belmont Club--and myself--find so especially offensive.

{And see this for my own small previous efforts to try to communicate with the folks at Amnesty.)

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Home again

I'm back!

The redeye flight was fine and uneventful, just as a flight should be--but of course I'm exhausted, although I also slept a few hours in an actual bed on my return.

The garden's overgrown. The mail has to be picked up. The bags need to be unpacked. Groceries must be bought. My mother should be visited. And on and on and on....

I'm taking the rest of the day (evening?) off from blogging.

See you tomorrow!

Wednesday, June 21, 2006


When I was about three years old I liked to listen to the music from "Guys and Dolls" on our scratchy old record player.

For some reason--perhaps because I was fond of animals--I particularly loved the lyrics of "Fugue for Tinhorns," which I'd often warble semi-tunefully for a small audience of my parents' friends (yes, I know, shameless self-aggrandizer).

Do you know the song? It offers advice for betting on horse races. Here's a little sampler:

I got the horse right here
The name is Paul Revere
And here's a guy that says that the weather's clear
Can do, can do, this guy says the horse can do
If he says the horse can do, can do, can do.

What did I understand about the words? Not very much, although I did know that they had something to do with horses and racing, and that "Paul Revere" and the other names in the song (I especially liked "Valentine") referred to the animals.

But much of the meaning of the song was unintelligible to me. The many parts I didn't comprehend ("I've got the feed box noise"??) I memorized in a sort of phonetic, syllable-by-syllable rote way, trying to give them meaning as I went along, or ignoring meaning when I couldn't divine any.

"Feed box noise," for instance, was just that--a lot of noise, full of sound and fury, signifying absolutely nothing. I couldn't make it into any words at all, so it remained something like "fee pox voize" in my mind.

But other parts seemed to include recognizable words, although those words didn't always make a whole lot of sense. There was this: "It's from a handicapper that's real sincere," which I turned into "It's from a handy capper that's real sincere." A handy capper: someone good with his hands who made caps, or who wore caps--whatever.

And in my mind there it stayed--as "handy capper."

I hardly ever thought of those song lyrics again, until one day well into middle adulthood, when for some reason the song came up. I was discussing the lyrics with a friend, and I started to say, "One thing I don't understand; what's a 'handy capper'?" But as those words were about to come out of my mouth, they suddenly coalesced into a single word, one I actually knew and connected to horse racing--"handicapper"--and I burst out laughing at my own stupidity.

What I'd done was to create something known as a "mondegreen," and by no means one of the most amusing ones around. But the internet comes to the rescue; here's a site with some wonderful mondegreens. Especially fine, I think, are the following:

All my luggage, I will send to you.
(Actual lyric: All my loving, I will send to you--Beatles)

Baby come back, you can play Monopoly.
Actual lyric: Baby come back, you can blame it all on me.
(Player "Baby Come Back")

Come shave my heart.
Actual lyric:Unchain my heart.
(Ray Charles)

Donuts make my brown eyes blue.
Actual lyric:Don't it make my brown eyes blue.
(Crystal Gale)

Give me the Beach Boys and free my soul.
Actual lyric:Give me the beat, boys, and free my soul.
(Dobie Gray "Drift Away")
(I think I may have succumbed to this one myself.)

Hold me closer, Tony Danza
Count the head lice on the highway.
Actual lyric: Hold me closer, tiny dancer.
(Elton John "Tiny Dancer")

Just brush my teeth before you leave me, baby.
Actual lyric:Just touch my cheek before you leave me, baby.
(Juice Newton "Angel of the Morning")

Last night I dreamt of some bagels.
Actual lyric:Last night I dreamt of San Pedro.

he's got a chicken to ride.
Actual lyric:She's got a ticket to ride.

She's got electric boobs, a mohair too.
Actual lyric:She's got electric boots, a mohair suit.
(Elton John "Benny and the Jets")

Sugar fried honey butt.
Actual lyric:Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch.
(Four Tops "Can't Help Myself")

Got any of your own?

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

By their works shall ye know them: barbarians and sadists

The news was all but inevitable: the bodies of the two missing soldiers have been found in Iraq, and spokespeople say they have been "tortured in a barbaric fashion." No details have as yet been provided.

Pajamas Media has a roundup of reactions from both sides of the political spectrum.

All thoughtful people--myself included--mourn their loss, and the suffering they endured before their deaths.

When I read the sad news, however, the use of the word "barbaric" caught my eye. Like many familiar words, ordinarily we hardly think about what it really means.

Here are some synonyms:

barbarian, barbarous, boorish, brutal, coarse, cruel, fierce, graceless, inhuman, lowbrow, primitive, rough, rude, tasteless, uncivilized, uncouth, vulgar, wild

The word is the essence of cultural non-relativism. Its origins are in antiquity:

...from Latin barbaria, from Latin barbarus, from the ancient Greek word βάρβαρος (barbaros) which meant a non-Greek, someone whose (first) language was not Greek. The word is imitative, the bar-bar representing the impression of random hubbub produced by hearing spoken a language that one cannot understand, similar to blah blah or rhubarb in modern English.

Many cultures traditionally have had terms for "the other." Even if those appellations don't start out as pejorative, they usually wind up that way. And so it is with "barbarian" and "barbaric," which have come into general use to mean especially vicious, cruel, and sadistic.

It's really that last definition--sadistic--that seems to be the most important element here. When a soldier kills, there is always violence, no matter how the killing is accomplished. But barbarism implies a gratuitous level of mayhem, a sort of overkill, which indicates an emotional element that drives the perpetrator towards inflicting the maximum amount of pain for personal enjoyment and sensations of power.

One of the hallmarks of jihadi violence has been this element of barbarism--or, perhaps more correctly, sadism. There is a practical and strategic goal as well, which is to instill fear. Sadism and strategy are not mutually exclusive, however; they can coexist, and both may be driving this particular behavior. No one who has watched the beheading videos--or even read descriptions of them--can avoid the sense that those doing the deed are reveling in their own barbaric power, unleashed.

Sadism traditionally has been linked to sexual kinkiness. If you Google the word "sadism," most of the definitions you find will have some connection to sex. Many have also remarked on the disturbances in Arab culture's treatment of women and their sexuality (see this, for example), so it's easy to surmise that there's a connection between the two.

But it's certainly not as simple as that--sadism is probably overdetermined among the jihadis. And another one of the elements that go into it are the backgrounds and personality disorders of some of those who rise to positions of power, such as the late and unlamented Zarqawi, who was clearly both a sadist and a psychopath in the classic sense.

But sadism and psychopathology are not limited to Arab culture, of course. In fact, the infamous Abu Ghraib prison scandal clearly involved elements of sadomasochism of the sexual sort, although the sadism did not even begin to rise to the level of that seen with the jihadis.

Then there were the Nazis, who came from a culture with enormous cultural achievements, one that was thought to be almost ultra-civilized prior to WWII. That's one of the reasons the deeply barbaric turn many Germans took at that time was so very shocking: the degree of sadism that was unleashed in the concentration camps, for example, rivaled anything in history, classical or otherwise (and yes, I'm aware that not all the guards were German, but the guiding vision sprung from that society, and was largely a product of German or Austrian nationals).

The bottom line is that barbarism and sadism are possibilities for all human beings. But some societies and some historic times seem to encourage their fuller expression. And the task of a "civilized" military is to reduce the elements of sadism, while preserving the ability to kill.

I've written previously about how US soldiers are trained to kill without sadism, here. It's not an easy task, but it's the goal of the US military to reduce combat stress and make atrocities far less likely to occur (read the post for the details of how this is done). In contrast, the goal of the Nazis was to maximize the expression of sadism in their concentration camp guards. Likewise, this seems to be the goal of the jihadis, or at least many jihadi elements.

And they're not the only ones who are drawn to the admiration of the barbaric. As the Wikipedia article on barbarians indicates, in a discussion of the fictional Conan the barbarian (and with an interesting connection to German history):

The modern sympathetic admiration for such fantasy barbarians as Conan the Barbarian is a direct descendant of the Enlightenment idealization of the "Noble Savage". The German Romantics recharacterized the barbarian stereotype. Now it was the civilized Roman--or that modern Romanized Gaul, the Frenchman--who was effeminate and soft, and the stout-hearted German barbarian who exemplified manly virtue. The reforming of Arminius as "Hermann" the noble barbarian countering evil Rome provided a prototype from the 16th century onwards.

In fantasy novels and role-playing games, barbarians (or berserkers) are still depicted as brave uncivilized warriors, often able to attack with a crazed fury. Conan is simply best known of the type.

Many of those who defend jihadis, make excuses for them, and/or sympathize with them, may indeed be feeling these sorts of Rousseauvian/Romantic stirrings.

One petite step for womankind

Not that I ever shop there--but still, I'm happy to know that Saks has bowed to popular demand from its vertically challenged female shoppers and announced it will revive its petite section.

The ripple effect has already been felt. As a result of Saks's return to the petite biz, designer Ellen Tracy, who had opted out of the petite game, is coming back.

For those who are wondering what I'm talking about and why, see this previous post of mine.

And, in the interests of rigorous honesty, I confess that the title of this post was suggested to me by a thoughtful reader.

Monday, June 19, 2006

The difference between trolling and disagreeing

I know I wrote that I wasn't going to post any more threads about trolls, and that I would simply implement a solution instead. And that is my plan.

But I found this to be so excellently put that I simply could not resist highlighting it here. It's from a commmenter, Brad, on the subject of how to differentiate between trolls and mere dissenters:

So confud,
why have I never been branded a troll? I have clearly stated several times that I don't like Bush; that I didn't vote for him; that I was completely opposed to the war in Iraq; and that I never went through any 9/11-related epiphany. Clearly, I don't agree with a lot of what is stated here. Despite this, none of the people who comment here, aside from you, have insulted me or labelled me a troll. And the same is true at other blogs where I comment, across the political spectrum.

Perhaps it is because I don't repetitively post hate-filled mockery, laced with insult and misused epithets (such as your constant misuse of the term "racist"), and inform people that I am once again laughing at them. Having spent a life time in higher ed, around people who either have strong opinions (faculty) or are developing them (students), I have learned to disagree with someone, listen to any response, and move on. You, on the other hand, have barged into a virtual room, screaming invective, shouting down dialogue, attempting to shut down the forum, and then you smugly state that they call you a troll because you disagree with them. Horse poop, they call you a troll because you are a virtual violent bully.

[ADDENDUM: I am planning to be home by the end of the week, and hope to implement some of the promised changes in the blog not too long after that. It may take a while, so please be patient, but it will be done.

But because I'm such a polite hostess, I thought I'd provide this thread to give my beloved and esteemed trolls a place to vent. As I've said many times before, I believe that every time a troll goes about his/her business (I think I'll just drop the cumbersome PC inclusive pronoun designation here and go with the masculine, if you don't mind) he provides further and ever more detailed evidence of his trollish nature. So it's all in the nature of an exhibit of trolldom.

But enough is enough, and as I've said, in a little while, changes will be instituted. Please bear with me till then.]

Hawks, chickenhawks, and other birds of prey

Democratic Representative John Murtha has been in the news lately, most recently in his appearance on "Meet the Press" with Tim Russert. Many have commented on his strangely disjointed and virtually unintelligible utterances during that interview (for example, see this from Jeff "I don't speak Murtha" Goldstein, and this from Ann Althouse).

I don't know what accounts for Murtha's near incoherence lately. I'll leave speculation on that to others. I want to comment instead on a phenomenon that comes up often in connection with Murtha as well as so many others: whether service in the military (or lack thereof) is a legitimate way to credit or discredit a person's judgment on military matters.

In other words, the old hawk vs. chickenhawk argument.

"Hawk" probably isn't the best term, however, because the hawks in question tend to be--like Murtha--former military men who are against the Iraq war, or at least many aspects of it. Perhaps they should be called "dovehawks," instead? This is, of course, in contrast with the "chickenhawk" phenomenon--the term is always applied to those who have not served in the military but who are advocating military action of some sort of other.

Murtha himself has served in the Marines; no chickenhawk he. But military service does not a master military strategist make. Murtha has given his critics plenty of ammunition by offering up some rather spectacularly strange military suggestions in the Russert interview--for example, the idea that Zarqawi could have been (and should have been) effectively dispatched with bombers launched from, of all places, Okinawa. At Blackfive, Murtha's military judgment in offering his "Okinawa option" seems pretty effectively demolished (please read the linked text for details).

On the subject of Murtha's dovehawk credentials, Blackfive's Froggy writes:

As an ex-Marine Colonel, Murtha is probably the senior military veteran in the Democratic Caucus which somehow earns him a pass on his ridiculous military proclamations.

This is the opposite of the "chickenhawk" accusation. To summarize, the chickenhawk assertion is that anyone who did not serve in our armed forces and yet advocates military action is suspect, and the hawk (or dovehawk) assertion is that anyone such as Murtha with a history of military service by definition knows what he's talking about in military matters by virtue of that history. Both arguments are used by the antiwar left: the hawk argument to give extra credit to military men who are now antiwar, the chickenhawk argument in an attempt to invalidate the pro-war views of those who didn't serve.

Why have these arguments become so popular lately? Part of it may be due to the relentless twenty-four hour news cycle. The need to fill airtime dictates countless interviews with retired military experts who don't necessarily have access to up-to-date information, and were not necessarily military strategists even when they did serve. But they are considered very qualified to pass judgment on the details of military decisions in the Iraqi theater and elsewhere. So when any of these military people are antiwar (and there are so many of them that some are bound to be antiwar, just by the law of averages), it's understandably considered a huge advantage by the left.

Another factor is a change in the demographics of the military. Ultimate control of the US military has always rested in the civilian hands of the executive branch. It was never a requirement that, in order to hold the post of Commander in Chief--the Presidency--a candidate must have served in the military, and of course some Presidents have not (most recently and notably, Bill Clinton comes to mind). Nor does the Secretary of Defense need to have actually served.

But back when the draft was still in effect, it used to be far more common for US citizens (that is, males) to have served, so opportunities for mounting the chickenhawk argument were few and far between. But with the end of the draft in the early seventies, and the start of the all-volunteer military, the number of people in public life--both pro and antiwar--who have a history of military service has gone way down, and there's no reason to believe that it will go back up any time in the near future.

(One interesting sidelight is that now, with far greater numbers of women in Congress, they constitute a large group in government who are especially unlikely to have served in the military. And yet, strangely enough, the hawk vs. chickenhawk argument is almost never mounted towards women--although, paradoxically, woman bloggers are considered vulnerable to it. But I digress.)

The chickenhawk accusation is actually a form of ad hominem argument:

An ad hominem fallacy consists of asserting that someone's argument is wrong and/or he is wrong to argue at all purely because of something discreditable/not-authoritative about the person or those persons cited by him rather than addressing the soundness of the argument itself. The implication is that the person's argument and/or ability to argue correctly lacks authority.

The dovehawk argument is an ad hominem argument as well, although of a different sort:

In contrast, an argument that instead relies (fallaciously) on the positive aspects of the person arguing the case is sometimes known as "positive ad hominem," or appeal to authority.

Murtha's military experience doesn't help his argument much if he's not making a logical and thoughtful point; the argument must stand or fall on its own merits. Likewise, those who have not served should not be automatically discredited. But, as the above linked Wikipedia article states, ad hominem arguments are extremely tempting to mount because they feel so powerful and convincing, and are therefore very common.

All else being equal, it does make a certain amount of sense to believe that someone who has served in the military might have more knowledge of military matters, and be more inclined to make good military decisions, than one who has not. But all else is very rarely equal; arguments can and must be judged on their own merits.

That should go without saying, but it seems there's a need to spell it out once again.

[See this video for an example of Murtha himself using the chickenhawk argument to deflect criticism from Republican Congressman Louie Gohmert.]

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Sunday in Seattle

I think I've done a pretty good job of keeping up with this blog, considering I'm on vacation. But of course my concentration hasn't been focused on it like a laser.

I've got a few more days here--returning in midweek to my home, where I hear it's been about ninety degrees lately. New England's like that; nothing subtle about the change of seasons. Weeks of cold driving rain and then bam!, it's summer, and you remember just why summer is not necessarily your favorite season, although it has its pluses.

I can just imagine how much the mosquitoes have loved the recent rains and proliferated to epic proportions. There's a joke in some parts of New England that the mosquito is the state bird, its only serious competition for that honor being the black fly. Both of these insects bite, of course, but true connoisseurs can tell the difference between the itch and swelling caused by one and the other (personally, I think the discomfort of the black fly's bite lasts longer and is sharper, but that's just me).

New Englanders live for summer, since so many of them own boats, praying for nice weather so they finally can get out on the ocean or lake. It's not often it works out the way they want, but it's all the more appreciated when it happens.

Seattle is a bit the same, from what I can gather from my short stay here--nice weather is an elusive commodity. The gardens are different--although not so different as one might think. The same azaleas and rhododendrons, which thrive here, and I've never seen such tall foxglove. Watering isn't necessary, of course, but sun can be an issue. Seattleites wait for the summer with almost as much anticipation as New Englanders do, because it's the only time of relatively reliable sunshine and warmth.

That's why I timed my trip for now; I figured I'd have a chance of good weather, and that's the way it's panned out. The quality of the light here is very similar to the light at home, as well--must be something about these high latitudes that adds a certain bright shimmer. And it stays light so late that I lose track of the time, enhanced by the fact that I rarely wear a watch.

The food is good in Seattle--very very good--and I think the shopping, too, although I've not done much of it (I must remedy that failing before I leave). I can see there's a big hip music scene, a predominantly young one. Lots of street people and panhandlers, though, not unusual in a large liberal laid-back town like this, especially one where it's possible to live on the street year-round without freezing to death (although one might be in danger of drowning).

The rain, when it comes, is mostly short-lived this time of year. It can be a sunny day and suddenly, without your even realizing it, the cloud cover comes and you feel the first familiar drops and try to take cover. Real Seattleites don't care--they do it (whatever "it" might happen to be) in the rain. People carry a windbreaker or fleece wherever they go, and most of the time they get a chance to use them several times during the day. Taking one's jacket off and on is an aerobic exercise in Seattle.

And now I'm going out. It's cloudy, with a chance of rain. So, what else is new?

[ADDENDUM: About three minutes after I published this post, the sun came out; beautiful day. But by the time I came to write this addendum and remark on that fact, completely overcast again.]

Saturday, June 17, 2006

I think you'll agree...

...that this may indeed be the most unique dog on earth.

When you watch the video, pay special attention to the way the dog gets up.

Smarter monkeys

Maybe Bush really is a chimp, after all--or perhaps a rhesus monkey.

It turns out that monkeys are smarter than they were thought to be, even understanding causality, and not just in situations to which they've been exposed to before, but in novel ones as well.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Reaching critical mass in Iraq?

Both before and after we invaded Iraq, one of our problems was lack of good intelligence from inside that country. Many of our advisors were Iraqi expatriates whose information was out-of-date and not necessarily reliable, and Iraq itself seemed opaque and nearly impenetrable.

After the invasion the situation couldn't be turned around all that quickly. Iraqis were wary, and for very good reason. Why trust Americans to have Iraqis' best interests at heart or to be competent in building a new and better Iraq? Why believe that the awesome and terrible control of Saddam was no more? Why believe that al Qaeda and the foreign terrorists streaming into the country would not remain powerful forces?

But it seems that the long slow process of winning the trust of Iraqis has begun to pay off, and the more this happens, the more it will tend to happen. It's a snowball effect; small accretions build on each other, and finally some sort of critical mass is reached. It's as though the situation in Iraq immediately prior to Zarqawi's death resembled a supersaturated solution, and his demise-- and especially the resultant capture of a vast treasure trove of related intelligence on al Qaeda's working in Iraq--was the trigger that caused a host of cascading events to crystallize, which in turn appear to be profoundly weakening the terrorist network in Iraq.

The increased trust and cooperation that probably contributed to Zarqawi's end was no doubt due to a combination of factors, not the least of which was the nascent Iraqi government with its growing police force and army. And now (in the immortal words of none other than Bin Laden himself) since people tend to back a strong horse, with the killing of the hated Zarqawi and the arrest of many of his confederates, the US probably seems as though it just might be a stronger horse than previously thought.

Although there's always the possibility that the following represents some sort of psych-ops operation rather than the real deal, if we can believe the authenticity of a document reported to have been recently captured by our forces, the insurgency knows itself to be in trouble:

The document said the insurgency was being weakened by the American program to train Iraqi security forces, as well as "massive attacks and arrests," the disruption of insurgents' financial networks and the launching of a propaganda campaign that was prompting Iraqis to believe that the insurgents were acting against the public interest.

Effective anti-insurgency and anti-terrorist operations have been slow to build, but that is changing:

So far, the June 7th strike has led to over 500 more raids. There have been so many raids, that there are not enough U.S. troops to handle it, and over 30 percent of the raids have been carried by Iraqi troops or police, with no U.S. involvement. Nearly a thousand terrorist suspects have been killed or captured. The amount of information captured has overwhelmed intelligence organizations in Iraq, and more translators and analysts are assisting, via satellite link, from the United States and other locations.

Zarqawi's successor must be feeling at least a trifle edgy since his promotion, unless of course he aches for martyrdom. His identity and photo have already been posted with a speed that is still another indication of the recent improvement of our intelligence.

Does any of this mean that terrorist attacks such as this one will suddenly become a thing of the past in Iraq? Of course not, although it would be wonderful to see them begin to decrease.

And note the planned timetable for the increase in the use of Iraqi forces, mentioned in the same NY Times article that discusses Zarqawi's successor:

"There is an agreement to take over the security responsibilities from the British, Australian and Japanese forces in southern Iraq during this month," al-Zubaie said. "We hope that the Iraqi security forces will live up to their duties there. It is the dream of all Iraqis that our forces will handle security issues all over Iraq."

Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki announced shortly after taking office on May 20 that Iraqi security forces will start assuming full responsibility for some provinces and cities this month, beginning an 18 month process leading to the eventual withdrawal of all coalition forces.

None of this means things will inevitably continue to go in the right direction. But events do build on events, not only in terms of concrete information gained, but also in terms of changed perceptions. Greater strength on the part of the allies can only inspire more people to come forward with more information, which can only increase the number of terrorists and insurgents captured, which can only result in more intelligence information gained from their laptops and the like, which can only lead to more captures and more cooperation from Iraqi citizens. It's the opposite of a vicious cycle--that is, it's vicious only to those who are the hunted, al Qaeda and the insurgents.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Last thread on trolls

The goal of trolls? To take over a thread and ultimately a blog, and get everyone to dance to your tune. The technique? Have a feed and jump on the thread immediately, setting the tone and the topic. If at all possible, let your comments be off-topic and repetitively insulting. Have a lot of energy for this. And then, wait for the reaction of the other commenters, since--people being the way they are--reaction there will be, and plenty of it.

Trolls are many things, but among those things are provocateurs, egotists, and parasites. The first because they like nothing better than to cause a stir and get people energized and enraged, the second because they like to be the center of attention, and the third because rather than start their own blogs (or, if they have a blog, deal with the small amount of traffic they have, and try to attract more) they feed off the audience they get from a more heavily-trafficked blog.

Right now the trolls have come way too close to dominating the conversation, for the simple reason that people are responding. With trolls, as I've said before, the best response is no response. This is true for several reasons: the first is the aformentioned thriving on attention. The second is because trolls only give the appearance of wanting to have a substantive discussion, and only do that for a short time; there is no way to discuss issues with them in a logical and respectful manner except for very brief periods, which are a sort of setup for the next barrage of personal invective, goalpost moving, non sequitors. The tone of the troll is a dead giveaway: insulting, arrogant. And now, with the trolls on this site, the gloves and the masks are off, and they've dropped even the pretense (always somewhat transparent) of having a substantive discussion.

One would think trolls might have something better to do with their time. But apparently not. To a troll, there is something remarkably and deeply satisfying about what they do. Harrassment is no doubt very reinforcing to some personalities.

But what's most interesting about trolls is how, in the playing of the game, they give themselves away. Trolls, as I've noted before, are instructive. They are their own worst advertisement. Even an argument with some weight to it loses something when esposed by a troll. But most of their arguments are not of that nature, they're instead a demonstration of those logical fallacies I never did get around to writing about. Logic isn't a troll's interest, though. Either they simply don't get it, or the emotional rewards of trolling far exceed the emotional rewards they might get by actually advancing an argument point by point, and following a discussion.

They also love "last touch," almost as much as they love "first touch."

Psychologically, the profile is similar to that of a person who makes harrassing phone calls. But perhaps more than anything else, trolls are an excellent example of what I've called the "Martin Higby phenomenon," and written about, here.

This will probably be my last pronouncement on the troll problem until I implement the solution.

On the topic of trolls

I'm on vacation for a few more days, and am unusually busy--having fun. A novel idea. Therefore my access to computers is far more limited than usual. For example, yesterday I hardly saw a computer at all except to post relatively early in the day.

Of course, the trolls have been out in force, jumping on the thread and trying to derail it in a fairly transparent and offensive manner. Not a surprise. I don't have the time right now (or perhaps ever, but certainly not now) to be on constant troll patrol. So, for now, all I can ask is that you ignore them.

However, rest assured that there are remedies. I can't employ them now because they require a certain amount of time to implement. When blogs reach a critical mass, sooner or later--if they have comments sections--they are all faced with this problem. I am planning, when I get back and have a good chunk of time, to add and/or change certain elements here that will allow me to deal quite effectively with trolls, never fear. But it will be some time before that happens, so I counsel patience.

And now I'm outta here. I do plan to post later today, however, on a more substantive and (hopefully) interesting issue.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

The theme and variations vs. the symphony: on love

I try to do about three miles of brisk walking every day for exercise. On rainy or snowy days, I'm off to the gym and its treadmill, which feels like--well, like being on a treadmill. But on beautiful days or even halfway decent days, I prefer to be outside.

I live in a beautiful area, and there are a wide variety of choices for walking. But, somehow, I almost always end up at the same place: a park by the ocean. It's convenient, only a two-minute drive from my house. I know exactly what route to follow to get in my requisite three miles. It has just the right combination of flats and hills, sun and shade, dogs and owners, parents and children. Part of the walk lies in a wooded area, but most of it is open and within sight of the water, some cliffs and crashing waves, and even a couple of lighthouses. The sort of thing people journey to New England for from all over the world.

So, how could I ever ask for anything more?

And yet, to walk along essentially the same route, day in and day out, for several years? Doesn't it get boring?

Well, every now and then I guess it does get boring--like almost anything can, even dessert. But mostly it's not boring at all, even though it's the same walk and the same scene. Because, like that proverbial river that one never steps in twice, it's somehow ever-changing.

Some of this is due to variations in light and weather. When the sun is out, the place is transformed from the landscape when the sky is overcast. The wind whips the waves on a turbulent day, which is different entirely from a calm sea. The dogs change, although not so much as the weather; the canines and their owners are nothing if not creatures of habit. The babies get older. The seasons work their magic, especially the brilliant falls.

So yes, it's the same park and the same ocean. But it's never really the same. And, although walking repeatedly in the same place is very different from traveling around the world and walking in a new place every day, is it really so very much less varied? It depends on the eye and mind of the beholder; the expansive imagination can find variety in small differences, and the stunted one can find boredom in vast changes.

And I submit that love is like that, too. Some people spend a lifetime with one love, one spouse; plumbing the depths of that single human being and what it means to be in an intimate relationship with him/her. Others go from relationship to relationship, never alighting with one person for very long, craving the variety.

It would seem on the face of it that the second type of person has the more exciting time in love. But it ain't necessarily so. Either of these experiences can be boring or fascinating, depending on what we bring to it: the first experience is a universe in depth, and the second a universe in breadth. But both can contain multitudes.

I'll let author Milan Kundera take over on the subject now, since he was actually my inspiration in the first place (from The Book of Laughter and Forgetting). Here he is describing his musicologist father who, during the last ten years of his life, had lost the ability to speak:

Throughout the ten years of his illness, Papa worked on a big book about Beethoven's sonatas. He probably wrote a little better than he spoke, but even while writing he had more and more trouble finding words, and finally his text had become incomprehensible, consisting of nonexistent words.

He called me into his room one day. Open on the piano was the variations movement of the Opus 111 sonata. "Look," he said, pointing to the music (he could no longer play the piano). And again, "Look," and then, after a prolonged effort, he succeeded in saying, "Now I know!" and kept trying to explain something important to me, but his entire message consisted of unintelligible words, and seeing that I did not understand him, he looked at me in surprise and said, "That's strange."

I know of course what he wanted to talk about, because it was a question he had been asking himself for a long time. Variation form was Beethoven's favorite toward the end of his life. At first glance, it seems the most superficial of forms, a simple showcase of musical technique, work better suited to a lacemaker than to a Beethoven. But Beethoven made it a sovereign form (for the first time in the history of music), inscribing in it his most beautiful meditations.

Yes, all that is well known. But Papa wanted to know how it should be understood. Why exactly choose variations? What meaning is hidden behind it?

That is why he called me into his room, pointed to the music, and said, "Now I know!"

And, somehow, Kundera the son finally understood (or thought he understood; the father wasn't telling) what his father meant:

I am going to try to explain it with a comparison. A symphony is a musical epic. We might say that it is like a voyage leading from one thing to another, farther and farther away through the infinitude of the exterior world. Variations are like a voyage. But that voyage does not lead through the infinitude of the exterior world. In one of his pensées, Pascal says that man lives between the abyss of the infinitely large and the abyss of the infinitely small. The voyage of variations leads into the other infinitude, into the infinite diversity of the interior world hidden in all things.

...Variation form is the form in which the concentration is brought to its maximum; it enables the composer to speak only of essentials, to go straight to the core of the matter. A theme for variations often consists of no more than sixteen measures. Beethoven goes inside those sixteen measures as if down a shaft leading into the interior of the earth.

The voyage into that other infinitude is no less adventurous than the voyage of the epic. It is how the physicist penetrates into the marvelous depths of the atom. With every variation Beethoven moves further and further away from the initial theme, which resembles the last variation as little as a flower its image under a microscope.

Man knows he cannot embrace the universe with its suns and stars. Much more unbearable is for him to be condemned to lack that other infinitude, that infinitude near at hand, within reach....

It is not surprising that in his later years variations become the favorite form for Beethoven, who knew all too well...that there is nothing more unbearable than lacking the being we loved, those sixteen measures and the interior world of their infinitude of possibilities.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Bush in Iraq

And speaking of propaganda, Bush's visit to Iraq is a nice piece of it.

The quote I like the best:

I’ve come to not only look you in the eye. I’ve also come to tell you that when America gives its word, it keeps its word.

Especially poignant in light of this sad history.

On a Gaza beach: what hath conspiracy theories wrought?

Conspiracy theories are widespread and exceedingly popular. They appeal to the all-too-human need to make order out of chaos, and to assign blame to a convenient and/or strategic scapegoat. They arise spontaneously, or they can be manipulated for political and propaganda reasons.

I've noted that, in my lifetime, the beginning of the extreme popularity of conspiracy theories seems to have been the JFK assassination, in which a charismatic and powerful President was blown away before our very eyes by what appeared to have been a protagonist too lowly and insignificant to have been worthy of the deed (I've written at greater length on this topic here).

But conspiracy theories have a long and illustrious history. One only has to look at the antiquity of anti-Semitism, just to give one example, to understand that. The blood libel, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion--there's no dearth of illustrations on that score. And, to be equal-opportunity about it, conspiracy theories exist on both sides. I was appalled, for example, by the "Clinton killed Vince Foster" garbage from segments of the right not so very long ago.

No, unfortunately, conspiracy theories are not the sole province of one side or another; they appeal to something deep within human nature. However, that fact shouldn't keep us from attempting, as best we can, to evaluate the truth or falsehood of conspiracy claims--because, just as not all conspiracy claims are automatically true, not all claims are automatically false, either. The situation resembles the old saying, "just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you."

How does this all relate to the deaths on the Gaza beach, and the way they are being reported?

In evaluating such incidents, sorting out fact from fiction, and then coming to conclusions, we must rely on Arab reports vs. Israeli reports. In the present case, initial claims from the Arab side are that the deaths were a result of Israeli shells. However, the evidence from an IDF report analyzing, among other things, the content of the scrapnel, indicates non-Israeli origins for the blast.

If the IDF reports are true, this will never convince the unconvinced. Because the power of propaganda is almost immeasurably large, and (in the words of Churchill) a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to put its pants on.

In this case--as in all cases of investigations--one has to believe in the veracity of those issuing the report to be convinced of anything by it. If a person believes that Israel is a Nazilike state bent on the conspiratorial, racist, and evil destruction of the Palestinians, then how could an IDF report convince that person otherwise? Not possible. Even though the initial reports blaming Israel were pretty much nothing more than rumors, and the IDF report used forensics and science--which should ordinarily trump rumors--accepting the report still depends on believing that the IDF and Israel itself are not engaged in bending the truth for their own purposes.

So there's an intrinsic problem in a report from any investigation (whether it be the Warren Commission, the OJ Simpson police, or anyone else) if it comes up with a finding that goes against the conspiracy grain in which so many believe. And that fact is relied on by anyone who wishes to spread a rumor for strategic reasons.

So, is Hamas trying to exploit some tragic deaths that may indeed have been caused by Palestinian mines, in order to stir up more anti-Israel feeling, both internally and around the world? To believe this would, of course, be to believe in still another conspiracy--this one on the part of the Palestinians (or, to be more exact, on the part of some Palestinians). But the evidence that has emerged so far from the competing Arab and Israeli "narratives"--as opposed to the rumors--points in that direction. And in evaluating that evidence one must take into account previous false propaganda campaigns on the part of the Palestinians that have been effectively proven as such: the initial inflated reports on Jenin, and Mohammad al-Durah's staged footage (for an in-depth discussion of the latter, please take some time to peruse the detailed information at Second Draft).

For many years now, it's been clear that the Palestinian authorities and press are among the world's best purveyors of propaganda, and that we--and the Israelis--are quite poor at responding to it (I am not using the word "propaganda" in a solely pejorative sense here, by the way; I'm using it as I've defined it in a previous post: "information spread to influence a populace towards a certain opinion").

I'm going to quote the post of mine further on the topic of propaganda:

Propaganda, by its very nature, is of course not a reasoned and leisurely debate in which both sides are given equal time and equal measure. Neither is it an academic exercise in politically correct fairness, nor a well-intentioned effort in being kind to the other side. It is most-decidedly one-sided. But the best propaganda is truthful, especially in this day of internet fact-checking. The best propaganda understands the arguments of the other side and counters them effectively. But all propaganda does have one thing in common: a conviction that it is acceptable to use it.

By definition, an IDF report about scrapnel and shells cannot possibly have the propaganda power of photos and video of grieving children and bodies on a beach. That is a simple fact, one the Palestinians have learned to exploit, most especially with al Durah. In that affair, Israel initially claimed possible responsibility, before a number of reports (including those from German and even French media) exonerated them and indicated that the al Durah footage was suspect--and that the most likely possibility was, if the boy was killed at all, that it was at the hands of Palestinians.

That in and of itself, however, smacks of a conspiracy theory, and an especially horrific one at that. Such a chain of events seems so much more far-fetched than the idea that Israel might have killed the boy, either purposely or accidentally (and yes, there's no doubt that Israel sometimes does cause the death of innocent children as collateral damage--which is quite different from purposely targeting them).

And yet it is my contention that any fair-minded person who takes a good look at the evidence can only conclude that this far-fetched chain of events--false claims in the Durah case, and even the possibility of deliberate staging--is true. And that means that the fair-minded person comes to the conclusion that the al Durah incident did represent a conspiracy of sorts. Does that mean that the Gaza incident is the same? Not at all. But it means that, until further notice, it must be taken with a grain of salt and an open mind.

The al Durah affair, which was especially influential in Europe, could not have been effective as propaganda without the cooperation of some in the French press, in particular reporter Charles Enderlin, who was not present at the shooting but who edited the footage shot by a Palestinian stringer and who did the voiceover blaming the Israelis. This is what Enderlin had to say in his own defense about his rush to judgment, after so much criticism was mounted against him:

He insisted that he stated that the bullets were fired by the Israelis for a number of reasons: First, that he trusted the cameraman (Abu Rhama) who, he said, had made the initial claim during the broadcast, and had worked for France 2 for 17 years, and later had it confirmed by other journalists and sources, and the initial Israeli statements. He also stated that the IDF never asked his team to collaborate on an inquiry, even though they had written to the IDF spokesman proposing they do so. Second, that the idea of the IDF shooting al-Durrah corresponded with what Enderlin saw as "the reality of the situation not only in Gaza, but also in the West Bank"...

Another French journalist, La Conte, responded as follows: "I find this, from a journalistic point of view, worrying." It smacks, among other things, of the somewhat Ratherian claim that the truth or falsehood of certain facts is not as important as the point of view they express. That this is not what journalism is about ought to go without saying. But perhaps it needs saying, once again.

The IDF appears to have learned from the al Durah incident. This time they've been much quicker to launch an investigation, rather than to assume that initial reports from the scene were correct and to shoulder the blame. Time and the preponderance of evidence will reveal the truth or the falsehood of the Israeli vs. the Palestinian claims on the matter.

And what has the press learned? That remains to be seen.


Every now and then I do some linking. Now seems to be one of those times:

(1) At the news of Zarqawi's untimely demise, many in the blogosphere (including myself) reached towards "Ding Dong the Witch is Dead" for inspiration. But not the far more lyrically gifted Dr. Sanity, who's channeling Sondheim instead.

(2) Richard Landes speculates on whether or not the latest Gaza killing of a family on the beach might be Ballywood inspired or manipulated. A tragedy any way you look at it; you be the judge (and see here for initial results of the IDF probe into the incident).

(3) At Treasure of Baghdad, an Iraqi journalist who had not heretofore been pro-American or pro-occupation expresses joy, and a burgeoning optimism and trust, at the death of Zarqawi and its ramifications.

(4) The above Treasure of Baghdad post came via a link at Alexandra's All Things Beautiful. Alexandra herself has been working overtime lately on topics such as Haditha; as well as the manner, effect, and media coverage of Zarqawi's death.

(5) They can smell cocaine and cancer, and cows in heat.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Laryngitis and sympathy

A few weeks ago I had a bout of laryngitis.

It's a funny thing, laryngitis; an excellent tool for making a person feel powerless. Something most of us ordinarily take for granted--the voice--mysteriously vanishes without a word of warning. Now you hear it, now you don't.

In this particular case, I woke up one morning (to be exact, I was awakened by a phone call), fumbled around for the receiver, and opened my mouth to say "hello," just as I had on so many other days of my life. But alas, this time no sound emerged. I tried again, to no effect. My voice had totally and utterly disappeared.

I've lost my voice perhaps five times in my life, invariably after a cold. The departure of the voice always comes as a surprise, because one of the odd things about laryngitis is that it usually cannot be felt at all. The sufferer (and that may be the wrong word, because laryngitis doesn't ordinarily involve any pain) opens his/her mouth, does whatever one usually do with the vocal cords to produce the sound known as a voice--an act that's second nature. But nothing emerges.

And it continues to be a surprise as long as the laryngitis lasts--both to the one who has it, and to those he/she encounters. If you happen to be someone who relies on your voice for a living--a teacher, for example, or an actor--laryngitis is serious. But to the rest of us it's not much more than a nuisance, something to weather and endure; it too shall pass.

In the meantime, it's even good for a laugh. Real laughter, of course, isn't possible with laryngitis; just a silent strained shaking or some sort of whistling wheeze.

This time my laryngitis had a unique feature. I discovered, while doing some housekeeping, that every time I bent over a small seal-like squeal would emerge involuntarily from my larynx, turning me into something akin to a dog's squeeze toy. I kept forgetting about the phenomenon, and then every time I'd bend over it would happen again, and my squeak sounded so absurd to me that it would start me laughing silently, which in turn seemed so absurd to me that it would make me laugh all the more in a helpless vicious cycle.

Going out in public garnered misplaced compassion from all I met. In the market, in a store--any time I had to encounter people and talk--I was the recipient of incredible concern. The more I tried to say my voice loss was really nothing, the more dreadful and noble I sounded, and the more concern they expressed, I've never gotten so much sympathy for so little effort.

It occurs to me that laryngitis would be the perfect illness for a hypochondriac: minimal pain, maximal concern from others. Also quite easily faked. Not that I'd ever do that, of course. Although now, as I'm recovering from a recent cold, I feel a certain something coming on....

Seattle innovations: storms in the produce section

Yesterday I was in a large Asian grocery store in Seattle. When I say large, I mean mega-supermarket size. About a hundred types of soy sauce, fifty of tofu--oh, perhaps that's hyperbole, but definitely many more than I've ever seen before in one place. A fresh produce section that contained the usual suspects and so many more, some of them varieties of fruits and vegetables I'd never seen before and couldn't identify without their labels.

While I was standing in awe in front of a bunch of mysterious greens, a mysterious sound met my ears. Actually, it wasn't a mysterious sound, it was a familiar one: the rumble of thunder. Only it was a beautiful day, with no threatening storm.

I looked about for guidance, and at that moment the sprayers that keep the produce fresh and crisp turned themselves on. So it seems that Seattle has grocery stores that display both politeness and a sense of humor: the sprayers announce themselves with a recording of a thunderstorm, so that customer can step back and avoid getting spritzed.

What a town.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Why Zarqawi's death matters

Despite the chorus of "yes, buts..." on the left that, although Zarqawi was indeed a nasty man who deserved to die, his death will only serve as the inspiration for more terror and was therefore not such a great event, there is evidence cropping up that the positive repercussions of his demise (and the manner of it) could go far beyond the simple fact that he is no longer around to personally perpetrate graphic evil.

Claudia Rossett has laid out the possible/probable international ramifications of his death: the importance of a command leader being taken out of commission, the significance of the fact that it was cooperating Iraqis who were part of the reason he got caught, and the intelligence information that was gained and has resulted already in a plethora of arrests.

The whole event can have a cascading effect, both emotional and practical. Zarqawi traded on his image as not only an excessively brutal man but as one who cannily eluded capture, operating under the noses of the US and Iraqis. His myth of invincibility and power is shattered. But perhaps even more important is the fact that information gathered as a result of locating his whereabouts has led to what is perhaps the largest cleanup operation of terrorists ever:

In Iraq alone, some 16 or 17 terror cells were attacked at the same time as Zarqawi was killed. And the wave of arrests — just yesterday the Swiss reported they had broken up a cell planning to attack an El Al passenger plane — is like nothing I have seen before, bespeaking an encouraging degree of international cooperation. It goes hand in hand with the devastating campaign in Iraq against the terrorist leadership. Zarqawi is just the latest to fall; most of his top associates had been eliminated over the course of the past several months.

Even the Washington Post seems to agree that Zarqawi's death may indeed have dealt a major tactical as well as propaganda blow to Al Qaeda and to terror around the world:

It is unclear which of 39-year-old Zarqawi's lieutenants, or deputy emirs, will attempt to fill his role. But whoever succeeds him will be hard-pressed to achieve the same level of notoriety or to unite the foreign fighters in Iraq under a single command, analysts said.

Some European and Arab intelligence officials said they had seen signs before Zarqawi's death that the number of foreign fighters going to Iraq was already waning. For recruitment efforts, the importance of Zarqawi's death "cannot be overestimated," Germany's foreign intelligence chief, Ernst Uhrlau, told the Berlin newspaper Der Tagesspiegel.

Of course, the killings in Iraq continue, as expected. But although they are still full of sound and fury and personal tragedy to these they directly effect, they may indeed signify less than they used to. New recruits to the jihadi cause seem to have few of the skills of the old ones, according to this AP report.

And this is no accident. The days of the training camps in Afghanistan are gone, many of that generation wiped out. It may be getting a great deal more difficult to recruit "quality" people, not to mention keeping them. High turnover is always a serious personnel problem.

Yes, we don't know what the future will bring. But the signs right now are good, and we should be heartened by the fruits of the incredible effort mounted by our military, worldwide intelligence, and the Iraqi people.

[ADDENDUM: Zarqawi's body may not be all that welcome in his country of origin, Jordan, since he enraged a few people there a while back.]

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