Thursday, August 31, 2006

A trip back in time: Bakhtiar and the Revolution (Part II)

[Part I of this series can be found here. Part III is here.]

Shapour Bakhtiar took office as Prime Minister of Iran on Jan 6, 1979. He was appointed by the Shah in one of the latter's final acts in Iran, a country from which the Shah departed on Jan 16.

But Bakhtiar was not the Shah's man. He was a well-known dissident who was appointed in an effort to show that the Shah was ready to reform in ways that would satisfy those who were proponents of greater freedom and civil liberties in Iran.

The Shah is one of those figures in history who, like Ataturk in Turkey, was faced with the dilemmas common to those who would modernize and Westernize a third-world country, and especially one with a strong traditional Islamic clerical tradition. It is beyond the scope of this post to discuss why Ataturk was able to successfully buck the fairly substantial opposition of religious leaders and the populace in Turkey, and why the Shah's effort ultimately failed in Iran. Some day I may attempt to tackle that one--but suffice to say for now that the Iranian Shah had the same goal of modernization as Ataturk, but the opposition to his rule was stronger, and his efforts to crush it far more Draconian.

The Shah's secret police--SAVAK, usually referred to with an adjective such as "dreaded" or "hated" before the acronym--was active in Iran to stifle those who would oppose him. There is a great deal of controversy over just how dreadful SAVAK actually was in the larger scheme of things. Was it a wide-ranging and indiscriminate effort to track down, torture, imprison, exile and/or murder all those who dissented, or who even were thought to dissent, much like the operations of the Soviet KGB? Or was it far more benign, only dealing with those who would violently overthrow the government (such as Khomeini and his henchmen), and using torture only sparingly? If history is written by the victors--and, in this case, the victors so far in Iran have been the Khomeinists--then how can we know the truth about SAVAK?

What we do know, however, is this: there were many protests against the Shah's modernizing changes, which especially threatened the religious establishment in Iran. For example, religious students demonstrated against land reforms that the Shah had instituted to try to offer the populace of Iran some economic benefits, with the goal (among other things) of increasing his popularity with them.

If that was the Shah's intent, it backfired, because the land reforms imposed hardships on the Shiite clerical establishment (which had owned some of the land). Khomeini, who was still in Iran at the time, issued a fatwa. Protests were organized, the Shah's government began to ridicule the clerics as old-fashioned, and more clerics took offense and joined the opposition. In addition, crackdowns on protesters became very brutal--for example, a group of theological students protesting against the opening of liquor stores were killed, and these deaths ultimately reached into the hundreds.

It appears that the Shah was already fighting the same extreme fanatics who were to take over the country in 1979. As often happens, his efforts to stop them had the paradoxical effect of making them martyrs, agitating their sympathizers, and ultimately making the movement against him grow stronger. Had his policies against his enemies--the enemies of modernization--been less heavy-handed, might the movement have died down? Or would it only have grown larger and more powerful more quickly? Unanswerable questions, I'm afraid.

History gave its own answer. I've written before about how the Shah had hesitated to have Khomeini executed in 1964 when the latter was imprisoned, because the Shah feared making the already popular and powerful cleric into a martyr. Perhaps if he'd done so others would have filled Khomeini's shoes and carried on in his name, and history would have taken more or less the same course as it ultimately did.

But perhaps not. Perhaps there was something especially charismatic about Khomeini that would have been lost to the clerics' cause without his particular presence. Once again, we'll never know; what we do know is that Khomeini's life was spared, he was ultimately exiled, and he lived to return to Iran in triumph and take over the government. As unrest and discontent with the Shah was brewing in the late 1970s, Khomeini became the de facto head of the opposition, which was a strange amalgam of restrictive clerics, liberals who supported human rights, and socialists--each with an agenda, each jockeying for position:

Anti-Shah intellectuals, secular and Islamic, moderate and leftist misread developments. They believed that they were using the popular Khomeini and that he could be shunted aside as democracy was established. It was believed that with the success of the revolution the ulama (official community of scholars of Islam) and Khomeini would return to their mosques and schools and perhaps advise the government on Islamic matters.

Such hubris is misplaced. The moral of the story is to never underestimate the power of a demagogue fully bent on acquiring it (the same mistake was made, by the way, by Franz von Papen and Hindenberg. In the waning days of the Weimar Republic, they thought they could "control" that silly-looking upstart, Hitler.)

Which brings us to Bakhtiar. On Bakhtiar's appointment as the new Prime Minister, Khomeini condemned him, of course, from his exile in France. But Khomeini continued to live his charmed life; Bakhtiar allowed him to return to Iran shortly thereafter. The reason? A combination of Bakhtiar's own devotion to freedom of speech, and the Shah's old conundrum: Khomeini was so popular that to try to ban him would cause such public unrest in Iran that it seemed counterproductive. In essence, Bakhtiar, although a far different ruler than the Shah, faced the same dilemma; he resolved it in favor of not suppressing the opposition.

So who was Bakhtiar? Like many Iranians, he'd spent many formative years in France, acquiring graduate degrees in political science, law, and philosophy. But he was also a man of action; residing in France during the Nazi occupation, he fought for the Resistance. Returning to Iran after WWII, he continued his resistance, becoming an opponent of the Shah, who imprisoned him for many years.

Thus Bakhtiar had his bona fides--no patsy of the Shah, he had been one of the leaders of those who were against the Shah's regime because of its human rights abuses, and he himself had suffered greatly for his bravery. But by the time Bakhtiar came to power it was most decidedly too late, both for him and for the Shah's modernization program, as well as for the civil rights that Bakhtiar championed. Perhaps the only beneficiary of that campaign for civil rights was Khomeini himself, ironically enough.

Bakhtiar's regime lasted about two weeks before Khomeini and the clerics took over, establishing the primacy of Sharia law, abolishing most of the rights women had enjoyed, banning alcohol and gambling and a host of other un-Islamic pursuits as well as newspapers, and instituting his own murderous crackdown to stifle all opposition. Khomeini didn't have to worry about making martyrs of his enemies, nor about whether to allow them to remain in Iran and exercise freedom of speech. Tyranny doesn't struggle with the same sort of philosophical questions about how much toughness is too much, questions with which its opponents wrestle mightily:

It was announced that any spreading of corruption would be punished by death. A variety of the Shah's former friends, colleagues and generals were seized, and after trials of a few minutes they were executed immediately - to prevent news spreading to the others who were detained - the executions lasting without stop for several weeks. The bodies of the prisoners were loaded into meat containers and dumped into mass graves. Khomeini dismissing international protests, saying that criminals did not need to be tried, just killed.

Bakhtiar, however, was not one of them--at least, not right away. He left Iran and settled in Paris again. From that venue he organized another resistance--a movement to fight the Islamic Republic of the mullahs. For his pains, he was almost assassinated in 1980; a policeman and a neighbor died, but Bakhtiar lived to fight another day.

In 1991, however, the number of this brave man was finally up. The assassins got their man; Bakhtiar and his secretary were murdered in his home. The assailant later was captured and tried in France. At his trial he admitted to having been sent by the Iranian government.

What lessons can we draw from the life of Bakhtiar? The first is that one can be both committed to freedom and personally courageous, and yet lose the battle against repression and tyranny. The second is more of a question: is it sometimes acceptable (or perhaps even necessary) to use greater ruthlessness, to be willing to use oppressive tools against an enemy that--if successful--would not hesitate to abolish all the civil liberties and the advances for which you are fighting?

This is the dilemma faced not just by Bakhtiar, but by all those who would oppose the likes of Khomeini. How much of a crackdown is too much? How little is too little? At what point do you compromise your own principles so much that you become too much like the enemy you are fighting?

There are no easy answers. Only the questions--and Khomeini's regime, in its present-day manifestation, Ahmadinejad-- remain.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Podcast time again

The latest Sanity Squad podcast is now playing at Politics Central at Pajamas Media. We discuss the kidnapping and release of the Fox News correspondent and cameraman--both the psychological effects of such kidnappings and the phenomenon of forced conversion.

My headset has been generating some weird audio effects, from low volume to hissing and popping and otherwise strange carryings-on. The very patient and kind audio guy at Pajamas did some troubleshooting yesterday, and has decided that the problem is one of microphone placement. So next time I think that my voice will sound more as it actually does in real life. Stay tuned.

Oh, and the following has nothing to do with the podcast (at least I hope it doesn't!), but it's a photo of Keith Richards I found at the PJ website. Be afraid, be very afraid.

A trip back in time: Khomeini and the Revolution (Part I)

One of my favorite verses from The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (the Fitzgerald translation of the Persian original) is this:

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it.

Ah, but if only we could go back, to wash out a few of the most terrible words! That's the deep desire that propels most time travel fantasy: to undo some event that you know led to untold suffering.

The answer given by science fiction--and life--is that it just can't be done. Even if it could, doing so might cause a cascade of other unforeseen effects. But the wish remains, especially for those happenings that seem to have been unmitigated tragedies for humankind.

One of those events was the triumphal return of Ayatollah Khomeini to Iran from his long exile in Iraq and his short sojourn in France (and Khayyam is an especially apt source to quote for the occasion--since modern day Iran is, of course, ancient Persia).

I was around when Khomeini made his return trip, one that propelled Iran's own trip back in time to some horrific amalgam of the Dark Ages crossed with the tools of a modern totalitarian state. I noticed Khomeini's arrival in Iran, although I had no idea of its significance. Neither did most.

He seemed and dark and brooding figure from some stern and gloomy ancient past. Or the sorcerer from Disney's "Sorcerer's Apprentice:"

It was difficult to understand the veneration the Iranian people seemed to have for him. In this photo, taken on his return, he looks as though he's already become a statue:

Here's an article that chronicled the event. Reportedly, "up to" five million people lined the streets of the capital to witness it. The revolution he had helped orchestrate from Paris (how apropos!) was in motion; its Reign of Terror was about to begin.

The Iranian revolution took almost everyone by surprise, including many of its participants. It was an amalgam of several of the strangest bedfellows in the world--a religious movement to impose a theocracy of strictest Islamic law, a group dedicated to Westernization and classical liberal human rights, and an active Marxist contingent.

All in all, a heady concoction that couldn't fail to explode. The only question at the beginning was which faction would win out, because they certainly couldn't all coexist. Khomeini was pretty sure he had an answer to that question. While in exile he had carefully played to the crowd that believed in human rights, but he made it crystal clear once he had consolidated his power that he had no intention whatsoever of following through on that score. Au contraire.

Khomeini addressed the assembled crowd at the Cemetery of Martyrs a few miles south of Tehran on February 1, 1979:

I will strike with my fists at the mouths of [the current Iranian] government. From now on it is I who will name the government.

Khomeni had learned his French lessons well: L'etat, c'est moi.

Shapour Bakhtiar, the newly-minted and ineffectual Prime Minister of Iran at the time--he had less than two weeks to go in that position--replied as follows:

Don't worry about this kind of speech. That is Khomeini. He is free to speak but he is not free to act.

I almost wrote, "the ineffectual and clueless Bakhtiar." But I'm glad I didn't, because when I started to do some research on Bakhtiar himself, I found a man of rare courage and no small prescience, a tragic figure in history who made at least one fatal error.

[To be continued tomorrow, in Part II.]

Must-read: on Israel, chosenness, supercessionism

Richard Landes of Second Draft and Augean Stables has written what just might be the definitive answer to those who--like Norwegian writer Jostein Gaarder--accuse Israel of heinous crimes and intents based (among other things) on the accusers' complete misunderstanding of certain principles of Judaism such as the knotty problem of "chosenness." There's also a clear and concise discussion there about what's known as "supersessionism," and how various religions stack up on that score.

One of the many problems with discussions on these topics is that people of good will often feel they are starting with a basic agreement on concepts. They are not. A phrase such as "chosen" is one that people often think they intuitively understand. Because Christians and Jews have a common history that goes way back, it's easy to jump to the conclusion that the religions have more in common than they actually do.

The problem is compounded by the fact that many--if not most--Jews in this country and elsewhere consider themselves secular and have very little grounding in the tenets of their own nominal religion. Therefore even most Jews probably share the misconceptions common among non-Jews about some basic Jewish concepts such as that of having been "chosen."

So, please read.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Who's afraid of the big bad UN?

Certainly not Ahmadinejad.

On the other hand, the rest of us should be afraid--very afraid.

Because the UN, by holding out a false promise that it cannot possibly keep--that it is able to defuse potentially explosive conflicts--diddles and fiddles as the situation is allowed to grow exponentially worse.

We are all investigative reporters now--or should be

David Frum has summarized some of the hoaxes perpetrated on and by the media in recent weeks. From Reutergate to counterfeit bills passed by Hezbollah, from Green Helmet guy doing photo ops at Qana to the Ambulance Hoax, the MSM has been at the very best disingenuous and at the very worst complicit in the spread of lies and fraud. If not for bloggers, none of this would have been exposed.

Also, please check out Richard Landes's latest efforts at Second Draft, entitled "The Birth of an Icon." As you watch more of the footage of the alleged death of the boy Mohammad al Durah ("caught in the crossfire"), it becomes ever more likely that the entire thing was a hoax--and a very influential one at that, especially in Europe, where al Durah's death became a rallying cry for sympathy with the bloody Second Intifada.

So, what's up with the media? Frum lists the possibilities: they are gullible, they are biased, they are in collusion, they are frightened of retaliation, they are some of the above, they are all of the above.

Here is my call to the MSM: put the "investigative" back into reporting. Traditionally, investigative reporting--in which the writer deeply questions the obvious, and brings an attitude of skepticism and critical thinking to the story, almost like a detective researching a case--has been limited to local scandals and corruptions. But it needs to be more broadly applied these days. What used to be a straight news story of war reportage--a photographer comes upon a bombed vehicle, is told by the locals what happened, and takes a photo--is no longer so straightforward. Perhaps it never was. And local stringers, who are often used as photographers and reporters in war torn areas--even those who've worked a long time with a news agency-- might be found to have their own political agendas that distort coverage.

It makes for a lot more work, to be sure. And if the reporter isn't ideologically inclined to doubt the sources, the healthy skepticism that's a prime requirement of all investigative reporting is going to be especially hard to bring to the story. But at this point it couldn't be more clear that it's necessary to do so. No, not just necessary; it's absolutely vital.

Monday, August 28, 2006

The Palestinians: loving death, loving life

It's been said before in parts of the Arab world, by Hezbollah leader Nasrallah and others: "We are going to win because [the Israelis] love life and we love death."

Loving death: what an amazing thing to brag about. It's a boast that's meant to make the listener cower in awe of the bravery of the speaker, and to feel as though opposing such a person would be futile.

How can one deter or fight an enemy with such determination, one who's not even wary of death? And this love of death is not just a macho pose or hyperbolic rhetoric (although it's at least partly that); suicide bombers have definitely put their money where their mouths are in that respect. The Palestinian indoctrination of children has been an education in the veneration of death, and has borne fruit in this desire for martyrdom.

It goes without saying that such an attitude isn't healthy for a society. In a less looking-glass world, it would in fact be a sign that such a culture was about to get its wish--that it was on the brink of extinction. Why? In the past, self-preservation and the desire to live, both as individuals and as a group, was one of the basics for societal survival.

It's true that all societies require a certain amount of sacrifice, as well. For example, in order to keep both internal law and order, as well to defend the group against attacks by outsiders, there always needs to be a certain number of people who are willing to give their lives in order to protect the others (these people can be conceptualized as sheepdogs, in a metaphor that was discussed previously, here).

But in most societies, these protectors are far from eager to give up their lives. As General Patton famously said, "The object of war is not to die for your country but to make the other bastard die for his."

Exactly and precisely. Patton was one of the least PC military men who ever lived. He was controversial even back in WWII, when political correctness was hardly a gleam in the Left's eye. But now even the military is far more PC than it ever was; in recent decades, the military has become more reluctant to make "the other bastard" die for his. Like it or not (and Jacksonians don't like it), the gloves are on when we've fought the wars of this century, at least so far.

One can only conclude that if the Palestinians, Hezbollah, and Iran had the weaponry the US has, they would not hesitate to obliterate anyone they perceive as having wronged them, shamed them, or gotten in their way. Their love of death is not limited to seeking their own deaths; they definitely embrace the deaths of their enemies.

And in a more Darwinian and less PC world, the Palestinians' love of death, their lack of advanced weaponry, and their aggressiveness towards an enemy who does possess that weaponry would long ago have resulted in their getting their wish: death. Their own deaths, and the death of their society.

But in a strange ironic twist, such a culture can continue to exist if it faces an enemy that has such a love for life that it refuses to unleash its own arsenal on those who would seek to destroy it. So Palestinian society is protected by the reticence of its enemy, even as it declares that enemy to be ruthless and evil. It counts on that reluctance, that "love of life"--even the life of the Palestinians--to allow Palestinian society to live to fight another day.

The picture is a dismal one, to be sure. So I'm going to clutch at a tiny ray of light; I'll take it wherever I can find it. This time it's from Hamas spokesman Ghazi Hamad, of all people (hat tip: Captain Ed.)

An article in the Jerusalem Post quotes Hamad as complaining that Gaza is "caught in anarchy and thuggery." What's new about that? Simply this: Hamad isn't blaming the Israelis, he's blaming the Palestinians themselves.

This is different, especially for a Hamas spokesman. Those in Israel who advocated the withdrawal from Gaza hoped this would be one of the benefits: Palestinians taking responsibility for their own failures. Without the convenience of being able to blame the occupation, the Palestinians would have to face their own flaws (I wrote about this previously, here)

Here's a quote from Hamad:

"We're always afraid to talk about our mistakes," he added. "We're used to blaming our mistakes on others. What is the relationship between the chaos, anarchy, lawlessness, indiscriminate murders, theft of land, family rivalries, transgression on public lands and unorganized traffic and the occupation? We are still trapped by the mentality of conspiracy theories - one that has limited our capability to think."

It's not that Hamad has suddenly become an Israelophile (if he had, it might be his own ticket to death). Perhaps he just wants Palestinian society to reform, the better to attack its old enemy.

But perhaps not; I like to think not. And this final quote from Hamad lends credence to that possibility. It sounds to me as though it might even be a crie de cour, his reassertion of the energy of life rather than death:

Addressing the various armed groups in the Gaza Strip, Hamad concluded: "Please have mercy on Gaza. Have mercy on us from your demagogy, chaos, guns, thugs, infighting. Let Gaza breathe a bit. Let it live."

Dr. Sanity channels Elton

My esteemed colleague Dr. Sanity is at it again.

Here's another wonderful song parody of hers, this time of Elton John's "I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues."

To refresh your memory (and to better appreciate Dr. Sanity's--dare I say it--yes, her genius), here are the words of the chorus of the Elton John original:

And I guess that's why they call it the blues
Time on my hands could be time spent with you
Laughing like children, living like lovers
Rolling like thunder under the covers
And I guess that's why they call it the blues.

And here's Dr. Sanity's version:

And I guess that's why they all hate the Jews;
Blame them for their failures; and kill them for news
Blow up their children, bask in confusion
Believe that their strengths are just an illusion--
And I guess that's why they all hate the Jews.

Read the rest, and sing along.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Hezbollah: still Miss Congeniality in Lebanon?

Our modern asymmetrical wars, post-Tet, no longer seem to consist of strategic battles fought on the ground by the military, with the winners declared through the gaining of territory and the loss of fighters and equipment. Rather, they are mainly propaganda wars, won or lost in the press and the field of public opinion.

In this country, views about foreign wars are largely shaped by the MSM. So the basic perception here is that Hezbollah, despite its losses in men and materials, won last month's round with Israel handily. That opinion is probably widely held in Europe, for similar reasons, not to mention Europe's greater sympathy to the Hezbollian cause.

And perhaps, after all--as that North Vietnamese colonel famously told the American negotiator at the end of the Vietnam War--winning battles isn't so very important, but rather irrelevant; perception of victory is all that matters.

I don't pretend to know whom the Lebanese perceive the winner to have been. One thing I think we can safely say is that they don't regard themselves as the winners. But there do appear to be rumblings in Lebanon, among the people who experienced this war up close and personal rather than filtered through the giant maws of the MSM, that the verdict on Hezbollah is becoming a bit harsh.

Here's Amir Taheri's take on the subject. He points out that criticism of Hezbollah in Lebanon has been growing since the war, not shrinking, and that public opinion is against those rightly perceived as starting a useless war in which the Lebanese people suffered. Nor were those Lebanese people consulted, and they appear to be quite angry, despite the payoffs Hezbollah has tried to mount--featuring crisp new money from Iran--to buy them off.

Then there's Michael Totten, who made a lot of friends during his lengthy prewar sojourn in Lebanon. He sees the unprecedented statements by Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora accepting the possibility of peace talks with Israel as a watershed. Prior to the war, to breathe even a hint of the possibility of peace with Israel was committing political suicide.

And of course, perhaps it is; Siniora may have signed his own death warrant, as Alexandra speculates.

To those who say I'm picking and choosing articles that support my own wishful thinking, I plead guilty. But at least I'm acknowledging that fact. Yes, it is indeed my hope that Hezbollah has lost face and support in Lebanon. And it's my fervent wish that this loss of popularity will end up mattering, that the people and government of Lebanon will muster both the will and the force to excise this entity from their body politic and their society.

And I have another hope, and that is that our own MSM would stop doing the propaganda work of the enemy. I can dream, can't I?

[ADDENDUM: It's not short, and yet it's concise and well worth reading--an article that concurs with the notion that it's only in the MSM that Hezbollah won this war. Hat tip Pajamas Media.]

{ADDENDUM II: And then there's this.]

Saturday, August 26, 2006

If you only read one thing today... should be this (hat tip: too many sources to list).

The Red Cross Ambulance Incident appears to have been an influential hoax, picked up by an uncritical, unthinking, and uninformed MSM and then disseminated around the world to great effect. It took blogger "zombie" a great deal of time and effort to deconstruct the story.

One of the advantages the blogosphere offers is that--and this is no secret, nor is it a criticism--many bloggers have some form of OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder). Now, OCD in its milder form isn't necessarily a bad thing. It's only really a problem if it's over the top and out of control, such as the Jack Nicholson role in the movie "As Good As it Gets." But the milder form of OCD merely lends those who demonstrate it an enhanced ability to tend to detail, to persevere and follow through on a line of questioning and research.

And this tendency, marked in many bloggers, allows them to have uncovered a phenomenal phenomenon, to wit: the number of hoaxes perpetrated both on and by the media. From the debunking of the Rathergate memos to Pallywood to Green Helmet Guy to the present sordid and alarming story, the Red Cross Ambulance Hoax, it took the time and perspicacity available to bloggers to uncover some exceptionally disturbing--and historically influential--trends.

How long has this deception been going on? How much of world opinion has been formed by what amounts to deliberate lies, spread and perpetrated by either a naive or actively colluding media (I vote for naive, but others may differ)?

Friday, August 25, 2006

"Unsatisfactory" is diplomatspeak for bad, bad, bad

France gives Iran quite the tonguelashing: Foreign Affairs Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy describes Iran's refusal to halt its uranium enrichment program as "unsatisfactory".

"Unsatisfactory" is such a tepid way to describe what Iran is actually doing, which is to defy and mock the entire international community, and to continue blithely with its nuclear brinksmanship.

"Unsatisfactory." It's a term that conjures up my grade school report cards. Remember those report cards, fellow boomers?

Well, I happen to have one of mine from third grade, circa 1950-something:

Not an "unsatisfactory" among those grades, I'm proud to state. Satisfaction all around. And note that my better marks were in reading, writing, and spelling. There's a certain consistency in my life, I guess.

As there is consistency in diplomatic life. That's probably why John Bolton isn't regarded as the diplomat's diplomat; he's much too blunt for that. Diplomacy is all about nuance and appearances, about allowing others to save face while deals are cut behind the scenes.

I hope that some deals are being cut behind these dismal scenes, because there's absolutely no evidence that Iran is negotiating in good faith. Here are a few clues that there might be at least some sort of method behind what appears to be the diplomatic madness:

State Department officials, on the other hand, pressed to “keep the temperature down,” as one American put it...."The thinking was, even though we all know the Iranian response doesn’t amount to much, before rejecting it out of hand we should remember that at least two members of the group have a Security Council veto,” one European diplomat said, referring to Russia and China and their historic aversion to penalties. He referred to the strategy as “giving Iran the rope to hang itself.”

Even though diplomats--especially European ones--are not known for hyperbolic rhetoric, this "enough rope to hang itself" routine seems an exaggeration, to say the least. And speaking of exaggerations, I think the UN could give Iran an infinite amount of rope without there being quite enough for it to "hang itself." Because all of this delicate diplomatic maneuvering leads, in the best-case scenario--to what? Sanctions.

And to "weak sanctions," at that. China and Russia both have substantial economic interests in Iran, and are loathe to shoot themselves in the foot, to coin another hyperbolic metaphor (but then, I'm not a diplomat).

What are some of these sanctions China and Russia might be persuaded to get behind? Why, "a ban on travel by Iranian officials and curbs on imports of nuclear-related technology."

I am sure that the mullahs are shaking in their robes. I was probably more terrified of getting an "Unsatisfactory" on that third-grade report card than they are of whatever the diplomats might impose on them in the way of penalties.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

To editors: thanks for all the fish

Back in the 80s I read the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series by Douglas Adams.

I opened the first page of the first book in the series without much expectation, started reading, and immediately realized I was encountering a most unusual and almost endlessly entertaining and quirky mind, one that could truly be described with that overworked word, "unique."

I'm not sure what made me look Adams up yesterday. I was tired of thinking about politics, perhaps, and the phrase "So long, and thanks for all the fish," was roiling around in my head for some reason. I remembered that Adams had died suddenly and way too young some years ago, and I became curious to read more about him.

Despite a wide-ranging and probably frenetic mind, and varied interests, Adams's creative output was narrow rather than wide. His lasting oeuvre, his literary contribution, was the Hitchhiker series itself. That's not anything to be ashamed of; it's a great accomplishment to have entertained and amused people at such an extraordinary level of wit.

As a writer and ideaphoric myself (although admittedly one of a lesser degree than Adams) I wondered how he managed to harness his freewheeling brain long enough to do the sort of sustained work necessary to create so many novels.

I got my answer in Wikipedia:

While working on the radio series (and with simultaneous projects such as The Pirate Planet) Adams developed problems keeping to writing deadlines that only got worse as he published novels. Adams was never a prolific writer and usually had to be forced by others to do any writing. This included being locked in a hotel suite with his editor for three weeks to ensure that So Long, and Thanks For All the Fish was completed. He was quoted as saying, "I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by."

Locked in a hotel suite with his editor. So he got by with a little--or perhaps a lot--of help from his friends.

That's true of a number of authors, I believe; we just usually don't see the workings of the behind-the-scenes handlers and shapers and coaxers and helpers. Editors, for example, are often very instrumental in forming the work, even in motivating the writer, but only the insiders know for sure.

Spouses can act as literary helpers, as well. As inspiration, of course, but also in more practical ways. Some day I may write a piece on the marriage of Tolstoi and his wife (that's quite a segue, Neo--from Doug Adams to Tolstoi). I happen to be a minor expert on the subject of the Tolstoi marriage, having read a number of books many years ago on the subject, notably this one.

The story isn't pretty, although it starts the way most marriages do, with love. The relevant part in terms of this essay, however, is that Tolstoi's wife Sonya, who was responsible for overseeing the day-to-day matters of his estate, who gave birth to and raised thirteen live children as well as having several other pregnancies, was also Tolstoi's scribe and sometime editor.

Yes, in those days before there was Word there was the written word, penned by the human hand. Every night after her other duties were done (not that they were ever done; you know what they say about women's work, and she had more of it than most) Sonya carefully transcribed a fair handwritten copy of what her husband had penned in messy draft form.

Here is a description of Sonya's efforts, based on a book William Shirer wrote about the Tolstoi marriage:

Sonya had the burden of copying her husband's almost illegible scrawls into her meticulous handwriting. She copied War and Peace seven times. Shirer calculates, ``Since it runs to 1,453 printed pages in my edition that means that her fair copy came to at least 3,000 manuscript pages. So she must have written down in her own careful handwriting 21,000 pages.'' (Actually, Sonya's burden was much greater than Shirer envisions. Like most English translations, Shirer's edition is well shy of the Russian original. My Russian-language edition of War and Peace contains 1,544 pages; an equivalent English version would have more than 2,000 pages.)

I think Adams's editor probably had it easy in comparison.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006


The newest Sanity Squad podcast is up at Pajamas. Take a listen.

Please allow me to introduce myself: the Klinghoffer case and sympathy for the terrorists

Thomas Sowell writes with clarity and succinctness on one unusual and especially troubling characteristic of the enemy we now face: its undeterrability (hat tip: Pajamas Media). Undeterrability makes this fight different from previous ones. It makes efforts at peaceful negotiation directly with that enemy worse than futile; it makes them dangerous.

There was one sentence in Sowell's column that especially caught my attention. In describing the nature of the enemy, he harked back to the 1985 Achille Lauro incident, in which 69-year-old wheelchair-bound Leon Klinghoffer was murdered by Palestinian hijackers and his body dumped overboard.

Sowell asks:

What kind of people would throw an old man in a wheelchair off a cruise liner into the sea, simply because he was Jewish?

What kind, indeed? Human beings, for starters, not devils. But that doesn't mean we need to sympathize with them. And certainly we would be well within our rights to call Klinghoffer's murderers Nazi-esque, in targeting this particular man and treating him with such brutality merely because of his Jewishness.

I recall hearing the news of the hijacking and the shocking manner of Klinghoffer's death. At the time I had no context in which to place it; it seemed an inexplicable atrocity that chilled my blood. But it was incomprehensible, and so its significance as a signpost to the nature of the enemy was muted and blurred. It's only in retrospect that I'm able to say, "But, of course."

There's another thing I neither noticed nor comprehended at the time, but that I'm certainly aware of now. And that was the almost immediate post-modern interest of some in understanding--empathizing with, and even sympathizing with--Klinghoffer's murderers.

The opera "The Death of Leon Klinghoffer," produced in 1991 and written by composer John Adams and librettist Alice Goodman, includes beautiful arias for the terrorists. It was received with accusations by some that it glorified terrorism, and kudos by others for its evenhanded treatment of the perpetrators' grievances.

In previous years, an opera on such a theme might have featured the terrorists as traditional villains steeped in evil, with thunderous and dissonant music to signify the horror of what they did. But in this version, they were given sonorous and lovely melodies to sing and sympathetic words to portray, whereas the Klinghoffers and their associates were apparently portrayed as petty and materialistic bourgeoisie.

To have taken this particular incident--in which a helpless and innocent man in a wheelchair was murdered in cold blood, his body dumped overboard--and somehow turned it into a vehicle for Palestinian grievances seems to me to be multiculturalism gone mad.

Who wrote the opera? The librettist, Alice Goodman, is an interesting tale herself. Born and raised as a Jew in Minnesota, educated in literature at Harvard, married to a British poet, she became an Anglican priest and opera librettist.

You can listen to Ms. Goodman discussing the opera here, in a BBC interview that features part of an aria from it by one of the terrorists (or maybe it's a recitative; I'm no opera expert). Despite having read about the opera fairly extensively prior to hearing the clip, I was still surprised at the emotional tenor of the singing. Yes indeed, without even being able to decipher the words of the libretto, just hearing the music and the voice of the kidnapper made it clear that he was being given a respect and a certain esthetic elegance and dignity that could only serve to elevate him in the eyes of the listener.

Then I listened to Ms. Goodman speak (an aside: why does she have a British accent? Is this some sort of affectation, is it a requirement for the Anglican clergy, or has she resided in Britain so long she's taken on the speech patterns?).

Ms. Goodman's answer to the question of whether the opera is anti-Semitic or an apology for terrorism is an interesting one. She says no (no surprise there); she believes that the charges of anti-Semitism and the rest are a result of her showing the terrorists as "human beings."

I disagree. I happen to think that terrorists are most decidedly human beings, as were Hitler, Pol Pot, Stalin, and--well, every other human being who's ever lived. We all know how Hitler loved dogs, and was a vegetarian. To be evil does not require that one be a devil; being a human being who does evil will suffice. I believe in treating people as human beings, but that does not require giving evildoers a forum and writing lovely arias for them to sing.

Ms. Goodman says she speaks not just as the librettist, but as a priest, when she recognizes the perpetrators as human beings with ideals--wrongheaded, yes, but idealistic nevertheless--as though idealism somehow has a value in and of itself. Perhaps she's never heard about the road to hell, and what it's paved with.

Ms. Goodman acknowledges that the music and the words Adams and she wrote for the terrorists who committed this atrocity were lyrical and heartfelt, and she understands that this fact created "a dissonance difficult for some people to take."

Count me in as one of those people. I guess I'm just not highly evolved enough to understand the convoluted mental gymnastics required in comprehending how that doesn't constitute some sort of sympathy and apology--if not for the devil, then for the human beings who perpetrated this heinous act.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Who's got it tougher, men or women?

Fausta has written a new riff in an attempt to answer that ancient question: is it a man's world, or is it a women's? Who's got the better right to sing the blues?

In the end, though, I consider the question truly unanswerable. Unquantifiable, unmeasurable, and unknowable.

My own take on the matter? Everybody Hurts (click on the link and scroll down, then click on "Watch" under "Everybody Hurts." Enjoy a good cry.)

Snakes on a plane, spiders in the house?

Nope, I haven't seen the movie "Snakes on a Plane." I just wanted to get your attention, and the subject matter is actually tangentially related to the topic of this post. The ads for the movie are quite enough for me, thank you very much.

Not that I'm especially afraid of snakes. I'm not. But neither am I a good candidate for "Fear Factor." I've never liked horror movies, either, ever since I was allowed as a five-year-old child to attend one, taken to a Saturday matinee by my eight-year-old brother. Too much information, far too soon, for this imaginative youngster.

And those uniformed matrons who patrolled the theater aisles with whips (remember them, folks of my tiresome boomer generation?) didn't help, either, although the thirty-five cent admission was a great attraction. And, by the way, my brother always got Good and Plenty (yuk and double yuk) whereas I was a Nonpareil gal.

But I digress.

It's spiders I'm interested in, because this is spider season in my home. Living in the semi-country within a small city, near a wooded area with deer and wildlife and all that good stuff, I tend to forget how much of that wildlife intrudes on the house in the summer. Despite the obligatory screens, spiders and insects (see; I'm aware that spiders are not insects; I looked it up) find their way inside quite readily, to make themselves at home.

I am happy to say I'm not one of those people afflicted with arachnophobia. I can even kill one if need be, without flinching or carrying on (no chickenhawk, I). I believe that any spider who comes into my house uninvited (and they are all uninvited) is fair game.

Today I noticed that, almost overnight, my house had turned into a maternity ward for spiders, particularly the ground floor--I guess they don't do stairs. Little hanging egg casings had burst to reveal small dark particulate mounds of--something or other.

And here's where the mystery deepens, and I must humbly ask, once again, for the help of my wonderful readers. I'm stumped, because those small dark mounds don't look all that spiderlike. In fact, they look somewhat like ants. And they look dead. But that's not the way ants reproduce, is it? Nor, according to this, is it the right time of year for little ant babies to be hatching. And why would they be hatching dead?

At any rate, they're gone now, swept away by that great broom which no doubt features prominently in their nightmares--or in the horror movies ants and spiders would make, if they only could.

Monday, August 21, 2006

The Israeli left takes a hard right

I've quoted William Lloyd Garrison before, and I'm going to do it again:

With reasonable men I will reason; with humane men I will plea; but to tyrants I will give no quarter, nor waste arguments where they will certainly be lost.

A while back I wrote about a group of Israeli peace activists whom the recent war in Lebanon has changed into hardliners convinced that Israel is now in an existential war against an implacable enemy dedicated to its destruction.

Well, it's not just an isolated peace activist here and there; it seems to be a trend. Allison Kaplan Sommer offers a piece that appeared in the British Daily Express by Michael Diamond, telling of the shift to the right on the part of a great many Israelis who had previously considered themselves members of the "sane left."

Diamond speaks for many who once considered the Palestinian position to be a case of a reasonable grievance against an injustice. Believing that "with reasonable men I shall reason," these Israelis therefore advocated the return of the territories and the 2000 pullback from southern Lebanon, strategies they predicted would be met with a softening on the part of Israel's enemies.

But it didn't work out that way, although it seemed to the left as though it should have. Instead, the pullout from Lebanon six years ago, and the more recent withdrawal from Gaza, led to a moment of clarity that crystallized as the Katushas rained down on Israel and the press of the world mourned the plight of the Lebanese and ignored the context of what was actually happening there.

The intent of the enemy was exposed, and it turns out it was not the end of the "occupation;" it was the end of Israel. The two-state solution that had been pursued so vigorously was a sham, because the "reasonable men" were not in charge on the other side.

Where were those reasonable men? Perhaps they'd all been killed off a while back by the tag team of Yassir Arafat and the mullahs of Iran, as well as a few decades of civil war in Lebanon. Perhaps they were terrified and silent. Perhaps they'd emigrated. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.

So Diamond and others on the Israeli left found to their surprise and shock that they were dealing with tyrants, after all. And in dealing with tyrants, as Garrison said, there's only one way to deal, and that's to give them no quarter. But the Olmert government was neither willing nor able to do that.

"Give no quarter?" Aye, there's the rub. When the Jacksonian impulse to wage all-out war is unleashed against aggressive enemies--a resolve that drove the Allies to wreak carnage on the Axis powers in order to utterly defeat them in World War II--it can lead to results that are hideous to contemplate, especially in the age of nuclear weapons.

Take a look at the comments in response to Sommer's post. Most of them are from people wrestling with the consequences of their newfound knowledge that the current Mideast situation is not going to be solved by diplomacy, by half-measures, by wishful thinking, by restraint--or, in Garrison's words, by reason or by pleading. But oh, how much we (and they) would like it to be!

Here is an example of the questions being asked:

...people continue to talk about "We have to win this war" without really explaining HOW. Ok, so appeasement doesn't work. Let's concede that point. Now what? Nuke the crap out of the arab and muslim worlds? All 2 billion of them? Will that solve the problem? (I'm thinking not) I think it's hard time to stop pointing out the obvious, and start offering some realistic, pragmatic and constructive solutions.

But no one can come up with them; the cupboard appears bare at the moment. So the following is the reluctant response. It's a description of the terrible choices faced by those who find they are dealing with tyrants rather than humane or reasonable men. These choices were faced, and made--first for appeasement, and then, reluctantly, for war--many years earlier by the members of "The Greatest Generation":

The Allies fought, not because they wanted a fight or were sure they could win one, but because it had become understood that the consequences of not fighting were impossible to accept. To an apparently increasing number of us, there is a sickening feeling that we are now in a situation analogous to the 1930's. Our side has not yet reached the conclusion that another great upheaval is inevitable, and we are casting around in increasing despair for the alternatives—which is why there is so much division amongst us. But war it may be, whatever we all want.

How to defeat an ideology? First, by presenting a compelling one of your own and second, by showing would-be supporters of your enemy the hollowness and evil of the one they are now tempted by...the rotten fact is that an ideology that places triumph of arms at its center will probably have to experience at least several shattering military defeats. I'm afraid I don't see much chance of anything less transforming it into something that can live with the rest of the world.

Try as I might, I don't see it either.

[NOTE: It seems that the stock of the Likud Party has risen.]

[ADDENDUM: Ralph Peters says, "You can't win if you won't fight." Get ready for Round Two.]

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Fiddler on the okugai

It may not exactly be traditional, but it's "Tradition." proving once again that, although translations may be imperfect, we still speak the same language.

One caveat: I really think this particular Tevye is too thin for the role. Maybe if he eats more sushi, he'll grow into it.


Friday, August 18, 2006

Idle idyll on the asphalt

Two days ago I got a flat tire.

I was in a hurry, as usual, racing to meet a friend for dinner, and as I pulled out of my driveway I immediately heard the sickening "flub" and felt that pulling to the side that signaled the nasty news. Drat.

Off to the gas station, which was still open. But the tire wouldn't fill with air. This was much worse than the usual flat--this tire was a goner. Finito.

No, of course they didn't have one in stock that matched the others. And these days spare tires are those little doughnut thingees that don't allow you to go over fifty-five miles per hour, and the next day, as luck would have it, I needed to do a lot of highway driving. So the doughnut fix would be a very temporary one.

Yesterday I resentfully resigned myself to spending time I didn't think I could spare driving over to the discount tire place. I resentfully resigned myself to spending money I didn't want to fork over purchasing the mate to the others.

Plus, the waiting room in a discount tire place was not exactly where I wanted to be. There were the usual plastic chairs and car magazines from 2003 (it was a very good year), along with the gumball machine and the water cooler. There was a woman chattering on her cellphone, laptop perched in a place one doesn't usually see it--her lap--frantically doing business, multitasking away.

I went outside for a moment to get my own cell phone before returning to settle in for the wait. But before I reentered the room I stopped for a moment. And when I stopped, I realized something: even though I was in a strip mall gazing at acres of asphalt, a Lowe's, a Radio Shack, and all the usual trimmings, it was a beautiful beautiful day.

And not just a beautiful day. It was a glorious day, a spectacular day. It wasn't just the blue sky and the fluffy white clouds and the perfect seventy-two degree temperature. There was something in the air, some freshness and cleanness, some mix of ions and light and smells that made it seem like air from a different time and place, a better one. It struck me that I needed to stay outside and simply breathe in that air, and relax.

So that's just what I did. And when my car was ready, it seemed as though the wait hadn't been nearly long enough.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

What do you get when you cross Jeremiah with Cassandra? Solzhenitsyn

Richard Fernandez of Belmont Club has posted the entire text of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's 1978 Harvard Commencement speech, in which the then-exiled Russian warned the Western world that its time might be up soon if it didn't get religion.

That's a flip summary of Solzhenitzyn's message--his speech is actually much more than that. It's an indictment of many of the flaws of Western society, and when I read it just now I could only imagine how the students, faculty, and guests at that occasion almost thirty years ago received his stern and gloomy Jeremaid.

Solzhenitzyn is a strange figure, a man of a complexity that belies facile description. His speech must have been shockingly strange at the time. Today it is shocking in another way, because the first two-thirds of it--a critique of the flaws of Western society--seems shockingly familiar.

That makes him somewhat prescient; he's both a Jeremiah and a Cassandra, although I don't necessarily agree with his suggested solution to the problem because, paradoxically and ironically, Solzhenitzyn's remedy--a return to religion--gives at least the appearance of resembling the remedy of the Islamicist fundamentalist jihadis.

First, a few excerpts from his speech, to give you some of its flavor:

On courage:

The Western world has lost its civil courage...Such a decline in courage is particularly noticeable among the ruling groups and the intellectual elite...

The individual's independence from many types of state pressure has been guaranteed; the majority of people have been granted well-being to an extent their fathers and grandfathers could not even dream about...So who should now renounce all this, why and for what should one risk one's precious life in defense of common values, and particularly in such nebulous cases when the security of one's nation must be defended in a distant country?

On politics:

A statesman who wants to achieve something important and highly constructive for his country has to move cautiously and even timidly; there are thousands of hasty and irresponsible critics around him, parliament and the press keep rebuffing him. As he moves ahead, he has to prove that every single step of his is well-founded and absolutely flawless....

When a government starts an earnest fight against terrorism, public opinion immediately accuses it of violating the terrorists' civil rights.... Such a tilt of freedom in the direction of evil has come about gradually...

On the press:

The press can both simulate public opinion and miseducate it. Thus we may see terrorists heroized, or secret matters, pertaining to one's nation's defense, publicly revealed, or we may witness shameless intrusion on the privacy of well-known people under the slogan: "everyone is entitled to know everything."...Such as it is, however, the press has become the greatest power within the Western countries, more powerful than the legislature, the executive and the judiciary. One would then like to ask: by what law has it been elected and to whom is it responsible?....

On the consequences of the Vietnam War:

However, the most cruel mistake occurred with the failure to understand the Vietnam war. Some people sincerely wanted all wars to stop just as soon as possible; others believed that there should be room for national, or communist, self-determination in Vietnam, or in Cambodia, as we see today with particular clarity. But members of the U.S. anti-war movement wound up being involved in the betrayal of Far Eastern nations, in a genocide and in the suffering today imposed on 30 million people there. Do those convinced pacifists hear the moans coming from there? Do they understand their responsibility today? Or do they prefer not to hear? The American Intelligentsia lost its [nerve] and as a consequence thereof danger has come much closer to the United States. But there is no awareness of this. Your shortsighted politicians who signed the hasty Vietnam capitulation seemingly gave America a carefree breathing pause; however, a hundredfold Vietnam now looms over you.

So, what is Solzhenitzyn's remedy? A return to the overarching influence of religion--specifically, Christianity--in Western society. He believes that godless humanism, elevating the individual above all else, and eliminating the context of a greater and transcendent meaning to human life, has led inexorably to the societal flaws he described so well in his speech.

This is where Solzhenitzyn appears to circle round to a position that resembles that of our current enemies. Because isn't that exactly what they're saying? Counter the flaws of the Western Enlightenment with a return to the hegemony of religion in human life?

The issues are huge, and worthy of a book, or perhaps several books. But I'm only going to briefly touch on them; this is in the nature of a quick sketch.

Solzhenitzyn falls in the tradition of Russian thought known as "Slavophile" (a personal aside: back in the late 60s when I was in college, I learned of the movement in a course entitled "Russian Intellectual History," which I've written about here). His return to Russia in 1994, where he now resides, is no surprise in that context, nor is his devotion to religion.

I agree with Solzhenitzyn that some sort of higher meaning seems necessary to get us out of the trap into which we've fallen. But religion can be another trap, and the jihadis are perhaps the best example of where that can lead.

I have no way of knowing what Solzhenitzyn really thinks or feels. But it's my contention that the difference between what he is advocating and what the jihadists are advocating is profound, although there is a superficial resemblance in that they both rely on religion to save us. This difference goes back to a fundamental (pardon the pun) difference between Islam and Christianity, as I understand it.

People are fond of saying that religion is the problem; it's caused no end of trouble on earth. While that's true, it's also true that it's caused no end of good on earth. That paradox is resolved by understanding that religion is a malleable tool that can be used to many purposes.

One extremely important dimension on which religions--and divisions within religions--differ greatly is on how much personal freedom they advocate. Fundamentalists in all religions lean strongly to the side of unquestioning obedience, whereas those in other wings emphasize individual freedom of choice.

Another very important difference between religions is on the dimension of whether that particular religion should be spread, and, if so, how it should be spread. Islam (which means "submission") has historically been a religion that doesn't shy away from the idea of forceable and coercive conversion, whereas the forceably coercive strain in Christianity (never as much a part of its holy texts as in Islam) has now shrunk virtually to the vanishing point.

So there are differences between religions, and differences within each religion. Right now the fundamentalist, coercive, triumphalist, and violent strain of Islam is growing. Thus the special danger that this segment of Islam represents to the world, a danger that no other religion currently presents in anywhere near its numbers, strength, goals, weaponry, and aggressiveness. Fundamentalists in many religions may resemble each other in the rigidity of their obedience to the rules of their respective religions, but they don't necessarily resemble each other in how they view the rights of the rest of the world to practice a different one.

What does mainstream Christianity have to say about freedom? To cite another famous Slavophilic Russian writer, Dostoevsky, in his remarkable work "The Grand Inquisitor," although freedom is part of Christ's message to the world, it has at times been subverted and undermined by Inquisitors who don't trust humanity with freedom.

If you've never read "The Grand Inquisitor," which is actually a chapter from The Brothers Karamazov, you owe it to yourself to do so. Here's the text.

Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor doesn't just stand for the historical figures of the past who were the actual Inquisitors. He represents all attempts by religions and belief systems--including secular ones such as Communism--to perfect humanity by denying people their freedom in the hopes of creating a better world.

I cannot believe that Solzhenitzyn, with his experience in the Russian Gulag, meant to advocate a return to a religion that denies that individual freedom. At any rate, it's not Solzhenitzyn's particular views that are important, it's the questions he raises. The dilemma remains, and it's an ancient and exceedingly important one: how to foster and protect freedom without leading to anarchy and loss of meaning, including the loss of the courage to protect ourselves?

The answer is still unclear, but the hour is getting late--much later than it was in 1978.

Trolls and comments

Periodically I get an infestation of trolls here. It's always interesting to me to note that trolls tend to proliferate any time Israel is being discussed.

Those of you who've been following this blog know what I'm referring to when I say "trolls," but for others I'll just summarize by saying that trolls are not just those who disagree with me. Trolls are people who come to a blog only to stir up trouble, move goalposts, get the commenters agitated, instult (sometimes quite viciously and/or obscenely), and ultimately ruin a blog and its comments section by causing commenters to leave or the blogger to shut down the comments function.

I ask the serious, nontroll commenters here, whom I highly value, to please bear with me as this gets corrected. It may take a while since I'm very busy and I use a friend to deal with technical matters such as these. In the meantime, please don't respond to trolls in any way.

I instituted Haloscan comments rather than Blogger some time ago in order to have better control over trolls. This worked for a while, and it still works to a certain degree. But it's relatively ineffective against what I will now refer to as semipro trolls--meaning trolls of a certain sophistication, who use proxies and other forms of hiding in order to avoid being banned.

I am in the process of considering another comments system that will be more effective against this type of troll as well. In the meantime, I will be deleting comments from those trolls who use proxy IP numbers and IP shields, as well as those who post under multiple identities (sock puppets). One example of the first category is "justaguy," and an example of the second is Robert and Dave the Rabbit.

Robert/Dave the Rabbit is an interesting case, because many of his/their comments are not really trollish. But by definition, posting under multiple identities is troll behavior, unless it's done only once in a while for reasons of humor.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The opportunities presented by the failed state

Ah those helpful young men of Hezbollah! See this.

For those of you without access to the NY Times, here's the gist of the article:

Hezbollah’s reputation as an efficient grass-roots social service network — as opposed to the Lebanese government, regarded by many here as sleek men in suits doing well — was in evidence everywhere. Young men with walkie-talkies and clipboards were in the battered Shiite neighborhoods on the southern edge of Bint Jbail, taking notes on the extent of the damage.

“Hezbollah’s strength,” said Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, a professor at the Lebanese American University here, who has written extensively about the organization, in large part derives from “the gross vacuum left by the state.”

So Hezbollah starts the war, puts civilians in jeopardy, and then gets credit for cleaning up the mess. Sweet.

The most important part of the article is the quote by Saad-Ghorayeb: "the gross vacuum left by the state." After decades of civil war and outside influence, Lebanon is now teetering on the brink of being a failed state. In fact, it may be a failed state already. And in a failed state, evil rushes in where angels fear to tread, and evil does it in the guise of good.

I'm reminded of how the Taliban got started in the yawning vacuum left by the withdrawal of the Soviets after their lengthy and destructive war there. The Taliban seemed like helpful young men at first, too, trying to create order out of chaos.

This, however, from the blog Lebanese Political Journal (via Pajamas Media), sounds a faint--very faint--note of hope.

The passive voice in the news: anything but passive

Commenter Tatterdemalian calls my attention to this AP news item.

Take a look. Take a good look.

It's a well-known fact that many newspaper readers only peruse the headlines, and this one--"Rockets hit Lebanon despite cease fire"--would lead one to believe that Israel had fired rockets at Lebanon in violation of the cease fire. Wouldn't it?

The first paragraph--"Tens of thousands of Lebanese jammed bomb-cratered roads Monday as they returned to still-smoldering scenes of destruction after a tenuous cease-fire ended 34 days of vicious combat between Israel and Hezbollah"--is devoted to the destruction the Lebanese people have suffered. It's only in the second paragraph that the writer reveals what the headline refers to, which is the fact that the rockets fired "despite cease fire," the ones that fell short of their targets in Israel and landed in south Lebanon, were fired by Hezbollah.

The use of the passive voice in this headline is far from an isolated instance, and is emblematic of the rot that has taken over news services such as the AP and Reuters. And don't for a moment think that the passive voice would have been used if it had been the Israelis doing the firing.

[In case you've missed all the studies that show consistent MSM bias in its coverage of the Middle East, here's one.]

[CORRECTION: Those who wrote that the headline is not in the passive voice are correct. The problem with the headline is that the rockets are considered the actor rather than those who launched them. Thus the true actor is disguised, and it's left to the reader to fill in the blanks, which most would naturally do by assuming the actor was Israel.]

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The Sanity Squad: we're baaack!

The second podcast of the illustrious Sanity Squad is now up at the new and redesigned Pajamas Media site.

My "s" and "f" sounds aren't really as hissy as they sound; I'm still trying to find a good mic position that doesn't distort my voice. I'm also trying to rid myself of my new and inexplicable love affair with the word "um" (is it a word? Well, at least I sound contemplative).

Guess the origins of Siggy's accent, and you may be the one to win our prize.

Israel's broken heart

A piece by Israeli journalist Yossi Klein Halevi entitled "Israel's Broken Heart," in the current New Republic (subscription only), places the blame squarely on the Olmert administration for mishandling the opportunities of the last month.

Israeli public opinion was united as never before; only the furthest reaches of the far left failed to see this war as an existential one--and that's "existential," not in the sense of some arcane Satrean philosophy, but in the original sense of "a battle for its very existence."

In such struggles, it's useless to pretend that one can fight halfheartedly, or with one hand tied behind one's back because of PC considerations. Halevi describes a political cartoon that appeared in Maariv showing Olmert as a boy playing with a yo-yo inscribed "Israel Defense Forces." Halevi writes:

None of Israel's wars was ever fought with greater micromanagement by a government, and no government was ever less qualified to manage a war as this one.

But it wasn't just Olmert. In recent years, Israel experienced cutbacks in its defense forces much like the US did in the Clinton years. Lulled by Oslo and Camp David and a vision of its own strength, as well as the dream of peace that seemed close at hand, the state of military readiness that Israel had maintained for so many years seems to have softened.

And who can blame them, really (oh, I know; many people can blame Israel for just about anything and everything)? As others have stated before, Israel was tired, bone-tired and weary, of being Sparta all the time.

The immediate post-World War II generation in Israel had no such illusions. They were used to the idea that they would have to struggle against the world merely to be allowed to exist. Subsequent generations lost some of that edge. But events are conspiring to force them to resharpen the swords they were so eager to beat into plowshares.

Halevi ends his article on a note of hope; he believes that this is only one round in a lengthy battle, and that Israel will ultimately be victorious.

But what does "victory" mean in this context, I wonder? How bad will it get before this is over? Will it go nuclear on Iran's part? And how much time is left before it does? If so, what sort of preemption is necessary, what sort is effective, and what sort is possible?

The ultimate in piercings

This is beyond description. So I won't bother to describe it.

I'll just add this commentary: what hath the Sixties wrought?

And this caveat: please, readers, DO NOT try this in your home! Or anywhere else, for that matter.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Tet Two, Brute?

Here's what Powerline has to say about the war against Hezbollah in Lebanon so far, and the present ceasefire:

So Hezbollah goes out on top. My guess is that the IDF has had quite a bit of success in killing terrorists, but that will go largely for naught as no one knows about it, and Hezbollah's claims of victory will be deemed credible.

Tet, anyone?

There was a famous comment by an NVA Colonel in Vietnam during the final negotiations of that long ago but still hugely influential war, which I wrote about in this segment of my "A Mind is a Difficult Thing to Change" piece. I offer the quote once again:

"You know you never beat us on the battlefield," I [Harry G. Summers Jr., American negotiator] said to Colonel Tu, my NVA counterpart.

"That may be so," he said, "but it is also irrelevant."

My observation:

Lessons learned from Vietnam: all that is necessary to win a war against the US is to turn domestic public opinion against it, even if you are militarily outclassed, even if you are defeated in every battle. It's a lesson that was not lost on our current opponents.

Nor on Israel's current opponents, as well. Although in the present case I would emphasize "international public opinion" rather than domestic.

Lebanese army receives its marching orders: from Hezbollah

The Lebanese army received its marching orders today.

Actually, it received two sets of marching orders: one from its own commanders, and then another from Hezbollah, superceding the original command.

Though we hardly needed any more clarity on the impotence of the Lebanese government, we've gotten it. Hezbollah has pulled rank on the Lebanese.

The Lebanese army was ready to head south to form a large force in a buffer zone south of the Litani River, but the two Hezbollah Cabinet ministers took control of a Cabinet meeting and made it clear to the de jure (but not de facto) Lebanese government that the troop movement just wasn't going to be happening.

The result? Humiliation of the Lebanese government and its armed forces. Its lack of power cannot be denied in any sort of face-saving move. And humiliation is an especially negative and intolerable emotion in the Arab world's shame-based culture.

Captain Ed believes this dynamic will work to force a civil war in Lebanon (another one; the country has had more than its share of civil wars, I'm afraid):

The humiliation traveled from the generals to the troops, as everyone understood exactly why their orders to move out got countermanded. Government officials finally gave voice to the conundrum that all of us knew existed during this entire conflict, complaining that the Hezbollah "political party" would not abide by government decisions.

Hezbollah is a shadow ruler in control of Lebanon, and it's coming out of the shadows, emboldened. Heretofore it had a great deal of support among many Lebanese, but has that changed? I've written about this possibility before, here, based on Michael Totten's predictions that the Hezbollah/Israeli war would be followed by a Lebanese civil war against Hezbollah.

I question whether this ceasefire will hold and, if it does hold, whether it will further the cause of a probably illusory "peace process," or merely serve to give Hezbollah more cover to burrow ever deeper into Lebanon.

If one studies the rise to power of Hitler in Germany, it becomes clear that his ascendance was far from inevitable. There were many forces arrayed against him; unfortunately, they were all incompetent, miscalculating, double-dealing, or just plain unlucky.

But it's clear that when Hitler came to power he did not have the support of the majority of Germans. Nevertheless, come to power he did--and the rest, as they say, is history. And if you read the linked article, please note the role of paramilitary groups such as the Storm Troopers in his rise, as well as the fatal flaw of an extremely weak central government in Germany.

The combination of the paramilitary Hezbollah troops taking the ascendance in Lebanon and the weakness of the Lebanese government bodes ill for the future of Lebanon and the world. Like our parents and grandparents before us, who watched the events of the 1930's unfold, we do indeed live in "interesting times."


The [Lebanese] army's equipment is poor, and no match for the Israelis. Lebanon has no air force or navy. One soldier said Hezbollah was better armed and organised, and that he was reluctant to confront "the resistance fighters". Another soldier said his brother and a cousin were fighting for Hezbollah. "I can't turn a gun on the resistance, because they are family," he said.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Crafts, mountains, friends

Yesterday I made one of favorite my annual treks to get away from it all, driving a few hours to the western part of New Hampshire to the Sunapee Crafts Fair.

That website doesn't even begin to do it justice, nor do the words "Crafts Fair," which conjure up macrame planters viewed by granola-chumping strollers in Birkenstocks.

No, not this one. The crafts are as sophisticated as they come, and as beautiful (also, alas, as expensive--I spent part of the day trying on the most spectacular suede coat in the world, priced at $1450, and then sadly bidding it adieu. A person can dream, right?).

The setting is a state park in the mountains near a lake. The weather was unusually glorious--and, just as unusual, somewhat chilly. The exhibitors (all 200+ of them) are set up in a series of huge tents: fiber artists and jewelers and printmakers and iron forgers and furniture artisans of indescribable flair and grace. One picture is worth a thousand words, but the photos at the website don't express how stupendously and splendiferously beautiful these wares are.

There are also the usual overpriced sausage sandwiches and pizza slices, not all that lovely--I had one of the former. And I managed to purchase three gifts for others (wedding and two birthdays), all wonderful, all unique.

I noticed once again, as I've noticed many times before, that craftspeople at this level tend to look quite striking. Visually and artistically inclined, of course, as well as individualistic, they pay attention to colors and textures and uniqueness. Many of them have a calm and centered quality that must come from the Zen-like concentration required to work this way, day after day.

This is in contrast to what I've noticed when groups of writers get together (bloggers, of course, are in a different category altogether). About 20% of writers seem to be visual people, as well, and pay some attention to how they look (I count myself among their number). The other 80% appear to have emerged from their garrets resembling nothing more than a bunch of moles blinking from the unaccustomed light of day. Their clothes are thrown together from a ragtag grab bag--styleless and formless and shapeless; their bodies something only tentatively inhabited, poorly tended housing for their vast and overworked brains.

Okay, maybe that's an exaggeration. But it's not really all that far off; I've been to a bunch of writers' workshops in my time. And a more colorless-looking lot of people you'd be hard pressed to find.

But I digress; back to the Crafts Fair. Best of all, I always meet my old college roommate there (we always joke about that word "old," too, especially as the years go by and we edge closer to being just that). She lives in western New Hampshire, and I don't get to see her all that often, so the Fair is a good venue for a get-together.

There's nothing, nothing, nothing like a friend for life, a best friend, a true friend. We've been there for each other through all the considerable ups and considerable downs of the last--well, who's counting?--years, through sickness and health and through not-all-that-rich and poorer and through love and marriage and kids and even changes of politics.

Afterwards we ate in a dreadful restaurant with a beautiful view on the shores of Lake Sunapee, until the sun set and we went our respective ways, she to the northwest and me to the northeast. But the friendship remains.

Insider tip, eavesdropped phone call

As some of the details of the airplane attack case are revealed, it seems clear that the investigation proceeded slowly and painstakingly over a period of months. But several interesting facts stand out so far.

The first is that breaking the case involved a strong degree of international cooperation, especially between the UK and Pakistan, as well as the US. Although for some this may conjure up thoughts of James Bond, the work no doubt was decidedly unglamorous. It started on a tip from someone in the Moslem community in Britain following last year's London bombings, the informant being an example of one of those "good Moslems" many people search for, Diogenes-like (it's my contention that they are not so very hard to find).

The investigation seems to have picked up steam as a result of a phone call from Pakistan to a plotter in the UK, intercepted by the police, on the arrest of his brother in Pakistan. Both were British citizens, as were all the conspirators arrested in Britain so far. I'm curious to know whether this phone call was monitored as the result of a search warrant. At any rate:

This telephone call intercept in Karachi and the arrest of Rashid Rauf helped a lot to foil the terror plan," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Friday, August 11, 2006

No need to imagine: these terror attacks were deja vu all over again

Yesterday I wrote that the word "unimaginable" makes no sense in terms of the thwarted terror attacks. After 9/11, they were not only imaginable, but eminently so.

But it turns out it's even worse than that. Not only were they imaginable, there was even something vaguely familiar about them. It didn't take long to realize that the plot resembled what is known as Oplan Bojinka, an aborted 1994-95 al Qaeda plan to blow up a group of airliners in flight.

On further study, it turns out that the details of the most recent plot were not just vaguely similar to Bojinka. The resemblance was far greater than that: take a look.

Oplan Bojinka was conceived by our old friends Ramzi Yousef and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, both now in custody and the designers, respectively, of WTC attacks #1 and #2. The details? Blow up eleven airliners using nitroglycerine packed into contact lens solution bottles. It is estimated that, had the plan gone into operation, about 4,000 people would have died and air travel would have been disrupted for weeks.

The similarities to the current plot are profound, but the apparent differences are interesting, as well--the main one being that the Bojinka operation was to be carried out by the higher-up planners themselves rather than by underlings, and that they would not be committing suicide--although there's evidence that at least one part of the plot involved suicide: a terrorist pilot would commander a plane and crash it into the headquarters of the CIA (sound familiar?)

Bojinka was meticulously planned: the bombers would plant the explosives in life vests and then disembark from the planes at scheduled stops, before nearly simultaneous detonation over the South China Sea and the Pacific Ocean. The timers for the bombs were in Casio watches.

To give you an idea of Bojinka's scope, here are the airports that were to be affected:

* Kai Tak International Airport, Hong Kong
* New Tokyo International Airport (Now Narita International Airport), Narita, Chiba Prefecture, Japan, near Tokyo
* Ninoy Aquino International Airport, Pasay City/Parañaque City, National Capital Region, Philippines, near Manila
* Chiang Kai Shek International Airport, Taoyuan, Taiwan, Republic of China near Taipei
* Singapore Changi Airport, Singapore
* Gimpo Airport, Gimpo City, South Korea (Now a part of Seoul)
* Bangkok International Airport, Bangkok, Thailand
* Honolulu International Airport, Honolulu, Hawaii
* JFK, New York, New York
* LAX, Los Angeles, California
* Portland International Airport, Portland, Oregon
* San Francisco International Airport, San Francisco, California

The plot was foiled through what might be called a "work accident." The bombers' experimentations started a fire in their apartment and they fled while authorities were on the way, leaving behind a precious laptop with all the information about the plot. A confederate who was later sent to retrieve it was caught, and his cell phone led to the capture of some of the others.

The entire story reads like a movie. But if it does, it seems to be a movie that wasn't viewed very often or with much attention. Because the question remains: how, with all of this history, could the present-day attacks have been called "unimaginable" by the British police? And, semantics and hyperbole aside, why weren't bans on carry-on liquids in airplanes instituted long ago?

Oh, I know; it's a risk-benefit ratio. Passengers don't like being inconvenienced; I don't like it myself.

One reason all of this may have been ignored is that the way the perpetrators of Oplan Bojinka were caught made them seem like a pack of bumblers. The same was true of the first WTC bombings in 1993. The result? No one took them seriously.

But after 9/11, Bojinka needed careful attention and thoughtful revisiting. All of the previous modi operandi used by al Qaeda should have been studied in great detail, and policies instituted to circumvent them in the future.

It's a well known fact that Al Qaeda has a marked propensity for recycling its ideas, and it appears that the present-day plot was tantamount to deja vu all over again. It wouldn't have taken a particle of imagination for authorities to have known that. All it would have taken was the study of history--which, like al Qaeda, has a tendency to repeat itself.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

"Unimaginable" terror attack foiled: denial

A planned terrorist attack to destroy airliners in flight through explosives hidden in carry-on luggage has been thwarted in Great Britain.

The police described the plot as involving "mass murder on an unimaginable scale." My reaction: unimaginable to whom? Folks, where've you been for the past five years?

Of course, you might say it shouldn't have been "unimaginable" even before 9/11. But for most of us, it was. At the time, it was easier to be in denial of the intent and the capability of the jihadis because they'd never managed to pull it off before.

But at this point, the use of the word "unimaginable" is either a case of rhetorical hyperbole, or the reflection of an attitude of unfortunate denial in the face of clear and uncontrovertible evidence and statements of intent. Nothing of this sort should be unimaginable these days, and one doesn't even need a very active imagination to envision it.

It's also true that some still find it almost impossible to do so. One of my first thoughts on hearing the news--after I'd heard some of the details of what, where, how, who (I didn't need the "why" since we're all-too-familiar with that)--was to wonder how long it would take for someone to imagine the whole thing a conspiracy by the authorities to scare the public.

Preliminary reports aren't saying all that much about the perpetrators, except that they are "home-grown" and part of the Pakistani community. This is the trend in terror attacks lately--not foreign nationals but locals, which is especially worrisome to authorities and, I would imagine, to the local communities as well, who could experience a backlash against them by the public at large. Not that the perpetrators care; it's not "unimaginable" to me that generating such a backlash might even be desirable to them. After all, if their own community feels more oppressed, it could gain them more dissatisfied and disgruntled potential jihadis to martyr themselves in the cause of blowing up innocents.

[ADDENDUM: Dean Bartlett wonders about that word "unimaginable" as well.

And Alexandra has a nice list of reactions from the Left that are about as predicted.]

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

On Reutergate and Qana

A must read (via Pajamas).


Lieberman's been drummed out of the Democratic Party, the party he refused to abandon on his own.

I wrote here about how difficult it is ordinarily to change party affiliation, quoting Zell Miller's remark that it's almost like trying to remove a birthmark. Lieberman seems to have undergone a sort of radical surgery to remove that birthmark against his will.

Today, people such as Lieberman--Democrats who are foreign policy hawks-- must align themselves more closely to Republicans than Democrats on those issues, leaving them open to charges of party disloyalty. But 'twas not ever thus. One only has to think of such Democratic luminaries as FDR, Harry Truman, and JFK to realize how different mainstream Democratic thought on these issues used to be.

But that was before the watershed experience of Vietnam, which changed the Democratic Party. Following that era there originated the term "Scoop Jackson Democrats," after Henry M. ("Scoop") Jackson, a Democratic Senator who was hawkish in the mold of Harry Truman. He's also considered by some to be the father of neoconservatism, although he remained a Democrat his entire life.

I hereby propose a new term for Democrats who remain in the party but are hawkish on security and foreign policy matters: paleodems. It lacks the heavy baggage of "neocon," and it's more descriptive as well, because such people are not conservative in most senses of the word (nor am I, by the way). It also retains a reference to the Democratic Party, reflecting the 20th century history and tradition of that party as muscular on defense.

Of course, I may be too late, because paleodems are becoming an endangered species. If extinction occurs, the "paleo" prefix becomes even more apropos.

A historical note of interest on Scoop Jackson himself, with some resonances to today:

Coincidentally, Jackson in 1970, like Lieberman in 2006, faced a primary challenge from left-wing Democrats unhappy with his support for a controversial war; Jackson fended off Spokane lawyer Carl Maxey in a fiercely-contested primary, and went on to win the general election by a record margin.


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