Sunday, December 31, 2006

Happy New Year!

I want to wish you the happiest of Happy New Years! May the coming year be much better than the last for everyone--except the terrorists and their henchmen.

Party on, and drive safely.

How the crowded blogosphere works

Richard Fernandez has a thought-provoking take on how the blogosphere works, including the various categories of Finders, Linkers, and Thinkers, and the roles they play.

In his comment on that thread, blogger Tigerhawk discusses Fernandez's contention that, originally, it was feared that the blogosphere would be a powerful force for the dissemination of disinformation. But it turns out that it's been more instrumental in countering the spread of disinformation so far. Tigerhawk attributes this to something in the structure of blogs; "perhaps their sheer numbers."

If so, I think it's an illustration of the principles in the book The Wisdom of Crowds. In it, author Surowiecki asserts that:

...large groups of people are smarter than an elite few, no matter how brilliant—better at solving problems, fostering innovation, coming to wise decisions, even predicting the future.

This seemingly counterintuitive notion has endless and major ramifications for how businesses operate, how knowledge is advanced, how economies are (or should be) organized and how we live our daily lives.

As for "predicting the future," I thought it was pretty funny that blogger William Beutler at P.I. managed to predict Time magazine's rather inane selection of "You" as Person of the Year, and even got the cover of the issue close to right (hat tip: Pajamas Media). But then, when I thought about it some more (I try to be a "Thinker," after all) I realized the sheer size of the blogosphere indicates that, merely by chance, somebody's bound to get it right. Right? (Not quite like those infinite monkeys and Shakespeare, however--not yet).

Yes, the blogosphere is very large indeed. But, as Tigerhawk also points out, its actual readership, though growing, is still relatively small. Right now it only has true influence in certain very dramatic cases like Rathergate; otherwise, the news (for example, of Hezbollah's disinformation campaign during the recent Lebanon/Israel war) doesn't truly penetrate the still vastly greater audience and influence of the MSM.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Mistah Saddam: he dead

It has been announced that Saddam Hussein was executed by hanging a few hours ago.

I'm not a death penalty fan. But I've always realized that there are some situations in which execution seems only appropriate.

A trial of Adolf Hitler would have been one of them, if he hadn't finessed the situation by killing himself first. It's difficult to see how keeping him alive after a trial would have been anything but a trivialization of the enormity of his crimes.

Saddam wasn't Hitler, but he was definitely evil enough, and on a large enough scale, to justify the death penalty. His continued existence would have had other dangers, as well--it would represent a rallying point for future hopes of a Baathist resurgence.

Unlike Saddam, Hitler cheated his executioner, as did the clever Goering, who managed to swallow poison just a few hours before he was due to hang. Then there was Milosevic, who died during his four-year-long trial, which had seemed interminable up till that point.

But many other prominent Nazis were executed after being sentenced at the Nuremberg trials, and the disposal of their bodies was treated with great care. Photographs were taken and distributed to prove they were actually dead (the same, apparently, is true of Saddam; as I write this, the photos and videos are expected to be released shortly). But after that documentation, the bodies of the executed Nazis were thoroughly destroyed, to avoid any possibility of a grave with remains that could inspire veneration and devotion in followers:

Afterwards, the bodies of the executed were photographed and, writes Anthony Read in The Devil’s Disciples (W.W. Norton, 2004), “wrapped in mattress covers, sealed in coffins, then driven off in army trucks . . . to a crematorium in Munich, which had been told to expect the bodies of fourteen American soldiers. The coffins were opened up for inspection . . . before being loaded into the cremation ovens. That same evening, a container holding all the ashes” — including those belonging to Field Marshal Hermann Göring, who had committed suicide a few hours earlier — “was driven away into the Bavarian countryside, in the rain. It stopped in a quiet lane about an hour later, and the ashes were poured into a muddy ditch.”

The Soviets and the Chinese Communists, on the other hand, have managed to make the bodies of their mass murderers into Madame Tussaud-like figures, embalmed and displayed as relics in shrines that have an almost religious quality (see this post I once wrote on that strange and grisly subject).

Mussolini, on the other hand, would probably have preferred any of the previous body dispositions to his actual fate--a fate that was on Hitler's mind when he not only shot himself, but also gave orders for the destruction of his own corpse to prevent it from falling into the hands of his enemies.

Mussolini had been executed by Communist partisans, his body dumped in a public square, then strung up and beaten and otherwise desecrated by a crowd that had gathered. But he was later cut down and buried in a family plot, which became the focus of visits by neo-Fascist admirers.

What will happen to Saddam's remains is unclear. His daughter is requesting temporary burial in Yemen, until Iraq can be "liberated" and he can be reinterred there. She is probably well aware of the tradition of destroying the bodies of executed dictators, and the reason this is done. She's clearly hoping for some almost-Soviet style veneration in Saddam's future. A fitting wish, since Saddam himself was a great admirer of Uncle Joe Stalin, the butcher of millions who himself died peacefully of natural causes--or did he?.

[ADDENDUM: The precedent of the past isn't being followed: Saddam's burial place is known, in his home base of Tikrit, about two miles from the graves of his sons. Thus, shrine possibilities remain intact.]

Friday, December 29, 2006

Resisting the Nazis (Part II)

[Part I here.]

By early 1943, the time of the Rosenstrasse Protest, the Final Solution were well underway. The Nazis had been very careful about their policy of extermination of the Jews; one can view the entire operation as a series of slowly escalating experiments to see what the German public and the world would tolerate.

The persecution of the Jews started out with a group of racial laws in Germany (the Nuremberg Laws) that isolated and ostracized them from other Germans; previously the Jews of Germany had been among the most assimilated in Europe. What happened as a result? Not much, apparently. Here is a summary of German reports of the time evaluating the responses of the general population of Germany, reported to have been either "satisfaction," "enthusiasm," "understanding," or "silence" (the latter in the predominantly Catholic town of Aachen, which bordered Belgium).

The Nazis were well aware that their policies required cooperation, active or at least passive, from the public. They had learned this during an earlier "experiment," the T4 program, which had involved murdering the mentally and/or physically disabled. When word had gotten out about the T4 program, there were massive protests (the only large ones for any policy of the Hitler regime) and Catholic officials spoke out publicly to criticize it.

As a result the program was officially scrapped, although it continued to a certain degree in a more clandestine way. But this outcome shows the power of German public opinion, even for the Nazis. They were indeed worried about the perception of the public towards their policies, and weren't willing to create public discord by firing on German demonstrators and causing a backlash.

This is an interesting fact. The Nazis were indeed brutal killers, but they were canny about what they did. Mass murder of their own people--in the style of other tyrants such as Stalin and Pol Pot--was most definitely not the style of the Nazis. They needed and wanted the cooperation of the German people, and were well aware of how far the people could be pushed before they would withdraw that cooperation and begin to cause trouble. Therefore the Nazis carefully calibrated their moves, backtracking (or becoming more secretive and hidden) when the rumblings threatened to get out of control.

The reaction to T4 clearly indicates that a stronger protest by the German people to the Nuremberg Laws, and then to the roundups of Jews, could have either halted the entire endeavor or made it far more difficult. T4 had another significance: it was a chance for the Nazis to perfect some of their techniques, since it featured the first mass gassings, cremations, and even the decoy shower heads in the gas chambers, all prototypes for the techniques of the death camps.

Other well-known early "experiments" in mass killings--this time of the Jews--were the notorious Nazi "Einsatzgruppen" mass murders on the Eastern front in Russia and Eastern Europe. These killings were quite different from those in the subsequent death camps. They featured open-air shootings over mass graves dug by the victims themselves, and were supervised by the SS but were mainly performed by squads of specially trained German and Austrian police.

Although not publicized, these killings could hardly be kept totally hidden from the German people, as Goldhagen's controversial book Hitler's Willing Executioners makes clear. Nor were they secrets to the occupied countries involved--in fact, locals were sometimes recruited to help out with the proceedings.

The relatively primitive and bloody chaos of these massacres on the Eastern Front occurred mainly in 1941 and early 1942, and were limited to those occupied territories. Later efforts were the death camps, a more "refined" and hidden "solution" to the problem, as well as a far more efficient one: less manpower and ammunition required.

It is sobering to think that the near-extermination of the Jews of Europe occurred without anything resembling the protest that marked the German reaction to the T4 program. It's sobering partly because it's very clear that such protests would, and could, have been at least somewhat effective. The Nazis were clearly afraid of the power of public opinion--at least in Germany, at least for pragmatic reasons.

The one example (besides the T4 protests) of this type of group demonstration by a significant crowd of Germans was a very specialized one. Known as The Rosenstrasse Protest, it is a relatively little-known event in the history of the Third Reich,

Because of the prewar assimilation of the Jews of Germany, there were a number of intermarriages, especially in Berlin. When the Jews of Germany were rounded up and sent to the camps, these Jewish spouses were spared--temporarily.

This in and of itself is in interesting fact, another example of the Nazis' cunning. Rounding up regular Jews was one thing, and they correctly surmised it was unlikely to occasion more than a ripple among the ordinary German population. But taking away the Jewish spouses of "regular" Germans could be expected to be a much more emotional undertaking. And so, mindful of the need to keep the public calm, the selection of those spouses was postponed.

The roundup action, in early 1943, was meant to be a birthday present for Hitler:

The Gestapo called this action simply the "Schlußaktion der Berliner Juden" (Closing Berlin Jew Action). Hitler was offended that so many Jews still lived in Berlin, and the Nazi Party Director for Berlin, Joseph Goebbels, had promised to make Berlin "Judenfrei" (free of Jews) for the Führer's 54th birthday in April.

It was mostly successful; 8,000 of the 10,000 rounded up were not spouses in mixed marriages, and they were sent off to Auschwitz with hardly a ripple. The 2000 remaining were the spouses (all husbands, actually; I've never seen a report that mentioned what may have happened to Jewish wives in mixed marriages). In a spontaneous reaction, their non-Jewish wives came to the place where they were being held--an office in central Berlin that gave the protest its name.

The weeklong demonstration grew in numbers and seriousness, although it was never officially organized. SS guards threatened to shoot the women, but the wives were defiant and no shootings ever happened. In fact, the men were released, and even a few who had already been sent to Auschwitz were returned.

What was going on here? Once again, we see the Nazi respect for public order and the desire not to push the German people one ounce beyond what the latter could and would tolerate. Two thousand Jewish men remaining in Berlin were considered a small price to pay to maintain the public order. The plan was to take care of them later--but "later" never happened; almost all the men survived the war safely in Berlin.

In a recent book on the matter, Nathan Stoltzfus concludes that the German people had far more say in Nazi policies than they would have you believe. The evidence is fairly clear that protests would have made a difference. The sad fact is that the Germans were only energized a few times to engage in protests, and only in certain very specialized situations.

Many who advocate nonviolence consider it almost a panacaea. It is not, of course. The Nazis had a particular and relatively benign and respectful attitude towards their own people that not all tyrannical regimes share. For a peaceful protest to be successful, there must be that all-important attitude on the part of the government: a modicum of respect for the people involved, and a reluctance to upset them by a show of force and muscle. Because if the authorities decide to go for brutality and power, nonviolent protesters can be easily deterred and silenced.

Gandhi didn't think so, as I've written here. The type of absolute pacifism he suggested is both unrealistic, given human nature, and absolutely ensures a mass bloodbath if the authorities being challenged are brutal enough. As I discussed in the linked piece, Gandhi famously advocated that the Jews go willingly and meekly to the slaughter to prove a point and take the moral high road.

But it turns out he would have done far far better to have suggested to the German people that they undertake nonviolent protests in order to protect the Jews--if, in fact, they had any motivation to do so, which seems to have not been the case. Because it's clear from the evidence that protest by the German people themselves would have been successful in forestalling the Holocaust, as it was for other resisting groups such as the Danes and the Bulgarians whom the Nazis happened to respect.

One remaining question is whether the German people knew, or should have known, their own strength. In order to have the courage to act en masse in protest, most people need to believe they are not going to be mowed down in cold blood by superior firepower. The overwhelming evidence is that, if the Germans had been paying attention, they ought to have known their influence because of the precedent set in T4. The nearly inescapable and sorrowful conclusion is that most Germans simply did not care enough about what was happening to the Jews to mount any sort of protest at all, because if they had, it would have been successful.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Resisting the Nazis (Part I)

Nonviolent resistance to totalitarian governments can be very difficult because of Draconian retaliation against such efforts and the resulting climate of fear among the populace, as well as the constant propaganda designed to reduce dissent to a minimum. But not all totalitarian regimes are alike in how far they are willing to go to crush resistance. And even the same totalitarian regime is not always willing to go equally far to crush resistance under all circumstances at all times against all comers.

The German Reich was a case in point. The Nazis were relentless in their drive to conquer Europe and make it Judenfrei. But the Nazis had a hierarchy of countries in their racial pantheon, and treated the inhabitants of those places differentially based in large part on the Nazi system of racial classification.

The top of the heap, of course, were the "Aryans" of Germany and Austria. But countries defined as "Nordic" were considered just about as good. And, although supposedly "Aryan," the Slavic races were regarded as markedly inferior, so the conquered Poles were accordingly treated far more harshly than the Danes, for example.

In looking at the idea of whether successful nonviolent resistance to some of the Nazis' harshest edicts was possible, one must always remember this differential treatment of occupied countries. What was successful in one place could never have been so in another. Just as Gandhi's success depended on the fact that he was facing the relatively humane British, so it was that the brutality of the Nazi occupation in one country wasn't the same as the Nazi occupation in another. Different policies allowed differential responses, such as, for example, the ability of the relatively autonomous and respected Danes to evacuate and thus rescue their relatively small Jewish population.

The Nazis were well aware of the possibility of resistance and the need for a cooperative captive populace. That's one of the reasons they thought it best to disguise and keep quiet the scope of their genocide. They feared a public backlash against it, even (or perhaps especially) in Germany.

The Nazi racial laws that singled out the Jews for special persecution started slowly in Germany during the early 30s, increasing the Jews' isolation from the general public over the years and culminating, as we know, in the Final Solution. There's a great deal of controversy over how much the German people actually knew about the true nature and extent of the death camps. But certainly extreme persecution of the Jews of Germany and elsewhere was common knowledge, as was their deportation to parts unknown, never to be heard from again. So even if the German people didn't know everything, they knew a great deal.

Some of those "parts unknown" were in concentration camps in Germany itself, such as Dachau and Mathausan-Gusen. So the Germans in the surrounding area clearly knew about these camps. However, the term "concentration camp" is so familiar that most people do not realize that it's a general term covering two horrific but somewhat different types of institution: the labor camp and the death camp. The camps in Germany were labor camps.

Although conditions in labor camps were dreadful, and death was a common and expected occurrence in them, the main purpose of these camps was not to exterminate directly, but rather to harshly extract the full measure of hard labor out of the inmates with the least cost. If they happened to die from the conditions there, then so be it--and die they did, in droves. The death camps, however, existed solely for the purpose of efficiently killing virtually all their inmates shortly after arrival.

A related distinction is also not ordinarily understood: none of the death camps was located in Germany. Rather, all six were in Poland. Why was this? Poland had a large Jewish population, and therefore the camps were located near the source and less transport would be needed. But it seems that the Nazi leadership may also have wanted to protect the German population from exact and precise knowledge of what was happening, by placing the death camps far away. Perhaps they didn't have full confidence that their own populace would support outright extermination if it came to know, unequivocally and undeniably, that this was what was actually happening.

In order to accomplish the task of genocide, especially the all-important initial action of rounding up the Jewish population, the cooperation of the local non-Jewish population was a requirement for success. And, as the example of the Danes shows, that cooperation was not always a given. So it would be best to keep the final destination as quiet as possible, to reduce the probability of protest.

It didn't always work. In addition to the Danes, the Bulgarians were able to defy the Germans and save their Jews. The Bulgarians were even more autonomous than the Danes (in fact, they were unoccupied German allies). They saved their Jews through a combination of church leadership and the fact that anti-Semitism had never really taken much hold there. The Nazis didn't want to strong-arm the citizens of countries such as Denmark and Bulgaria, who were not considered enemies, into giving up their Jews. They were willing to wait and concentrate on places such as France where it was much easier to get public cooperation for the roundup of their prey. Later, they thought, they'd tie up loose ends in other places.

Anyone who knows Holocaust history knows that Poland was its center. The Polish people have often been condemned for their participation in the death of their Jews--but, although there was indeed a great deal of cooperation from the Poles, it turns out that the situation was far more complex than that. Not only were there also a great many rescuers in Poland (see this book for a thorough documentation of these stirring tales), but the Poles had a great deal more to lose than most from saving Jews. Not to minimize the accomplishments of the Danes or the Bulgarians, but to be a hero in Poland was a lot more meaningful than to be one in Denmark or Bulgaria--or even, as it turns out, in Germany.

Why? Because Poland was the only Nazi-occupied country in which helping Jews would officially get you the death penalty. Here are the horrific facts (read them and ask yourself if you would have been as brave as the many Poles who did shelter and save Jews):

Poland was the only place where German law rendered any assistance to Jews punishable by death. That punishment was severe and collective: It was meted out not only to the rescuer but also to his entire family and to anyone else who knew about such activities and did not report them. Almost 1,000 Poles were killed this way, including entire families whose children were not spared.

Germans of the World War II era have defended themselves against criticism by saying they not only didn't know the details of the Holocaust, but if they'd tried to protest, they themselves would have been imprisoned or killed. But in Germany--unlike Poland--this was not true at all. Successful resistance was most definitely possible, as the little-known but fascinating story of the Rosenstrasse Protest shows.

[In Part II, tomorrow, I will explain what this protest was and why it was important.]

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

"Dreaming" of the Supremes

Last night I went to the movies to see "Dreamgirls." I wanted some light entertainment, and I got it.

I was in Brooklyn, and the audience at the large and crowded theater I happened to go to was approximately 99% African-American. This made for a more interesting viewing experience than I would have had if I'd been back home. I expect that audiences in far northern New England are enjoying the film, too. But I very much doubt that their delight goes quite as deep or is expressed quite as strongly as that of my fellow viewers last night.

This audience especially adored Jennifer Hudson and her vocal riffs. And Eddie Murphy (who, to my surprise, actually can sing) was a crowd favorite.

For me--well, I have to say, I loved the costumes, the wigs, and the makeup. They brought back memories of the original Supremes--sorta, kinda.

The movie moved me to go to my computer (where else?) and refresh my memory on some of the real history of the Supremes, which of course is very different from that of the fictional group in the film. For one thing, there was no dreamy rapprochement among the girls--Flo Ballard stayed estranged from the rest. There were many other differences, as well--including Ballard's untimely death at the age of thirty-two.

But although the film doesn't purport to be a documentary, it can't help but dredge up the Supremes' memory for those of us "of a certain age." And being of that age myself, I can say that the Supremes really were a glamorous bunch, the first mainstream crossover African-American (Negro, in those days) sex symbols, which was exactly what they were designed and marketed to be. Berry Gordy was some kind of genius; whatever else you might say of him, he really knew his stuff.

The movie is too long, the music inferior (and quite different) to my ears than the Motown originals, and the film has the annoying habit--de rigueur in theatrical musicals; acceptable on stage but always bizarre and almost comical on film--of the main characters breaking into song at odd intervals when they should by all rights be speaking to each other. But, once you accept that convention (and accept it you must, if you want to have a good time), it's a fun evocation of a small part of an exciting era in musical and American history.

Those who weren't there may think the costumes are over the top. But I don't think so. The Supremes were known for their elegant, and then flamboyant (but still elegant) costuming and elaborate wigs, which managed to keep up with the times--and the times they did a-change during the years of their greatest popularity, mid-to late 60s.

They were also known for their stylized choreography, and in this the film is quite different from that of the earlier era; these days more pizazz is demanded. There is nothing I noticed in the movie that can quite compare with the wonderful just-this-side-of-camp hand business that accompanied the Supremes' hit "Stop! In the Name of Love!," which featured a breezy and almost self-mocking recurrent traffic-cop-like gesture, arm outstretched and palm towards the audience.

If you want to see it, tune in to U-tube for the original--or several originals; it features a few different performances. Please admire those simple classic white dresses at the beginning; I had one just like them. Notice, also, that Florence Ballard (on the left in the first clip, and on whom the Jennifer Hudson character was roughly modeled) was nowhere near heavy, unlike the character in the movie. In fact, she's perhaps the most graceful mover of the three, and that's saying quite a bit.

If you want more early Supremes, take a look. Once again, you'll see that the choreography was limited to a suggestive but restrained body shake, and expressive hand gestures. Simple white dresses again. Filmed somewhere in London, this clip also demonstrates a fact I first noticed in the 60s: British teenagers were unable to dance. It was as though they'd missed out on some important formative phase of life--they just couldn't do it. I don't know whether that problem has been remedied in the intervening decades, but at the time it seemed very odd but very noticeable--despite the Beatles and the Stones, these kids just couldn't shake it.

For a slightly later, more sparkly, more glam phase of the Supremes oeuvre, try this. Still having fun with the hand motions (a sort of hula-like thing going on there for this one), and the wigs look like they're about to take off and fly, at least on one side.

Lastly, for those who think that the scene in the film where the group sports geometric Vidal Sassoon-ish haircuts and Courreges-inspired minis might be fiction, think again. The Supremes definitely had a mod phase; here's the album cover to prove it (one I owned once upon a time, "The Supremes A' Go-Go"):

The 60s were a big tent, musically. The Supremes and other "girl groups" were a large part of it, and they were innovative in their own way. Motown was the prototype of something unusual at the time: an African-American owned and run company featuring predominantly African-American singers, that was tremendously successful in appealing to mainstream audiences, paving the way for many other African-American musicians who followed. And they were fun.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

On using an entire people as martyrs (your own; plus, of course, the Jews)

I've been noticing lately that two lovely impulses seem to go hand-in-hand--virulent anti-Semitism plus the willingness to use one's own people as a sacrifice to the larger goal of destroying the Jews.

Take a look at this post of Dr. Sanity's, and the Ron Rosenbaum essay on which it's based. Sobering reading, indeed.

Here's the heart of what Dr. Sanity has to say (read her essay; she offers an interesting suggestion, as well):

From [the Iranian mullahs'] warped perspective, the involuntary martyrdom of a few million muslims in Iran is a small price to pay to "wipe Israel off the map" and finish the job that Hitler started.

What a grand gesture for the muslims of the world to witness and emulate! Iran strapping on the suicide bomb around its entire population to gloriously rid Islam of the Jewish menace.

In order to "strap the suicide bomb around its entire population," it takes a remarkable lack of reverence for human life and regard for one's own people. Even the Japanese in World War II, who invented the kamikaze pilot (a specialized form of suicide bomber: military bomber, military target), a country which certainly asked its population to be willing to die for the cause, surrendered after the atomic bombs were dropped. It turns out enough sacrifice was enough.

The mullahs of today in Iran see their mission as occurring primarily in the realm of religion. Yes, it's played out on the stage of this world--the goal is control of Iran (mission accomplished) domination of the Moslem umma (in the works), and triumph over the Great and Little Satans (the US and Israel; consummation devoutly to be wished). But the eyes of the mullahs are very much on the other world, as well, and one of their goals (perhaps the most important one, in their eyes) is ascendance in that world to come. And, as such, they have far less reluctance than most regimes to facilitate the martyrdom of some segment of their own population--after all, they would achieve glory in heaven. What's not to like?

Here's how Rosenbaum puts it:

[These words have been] uttered by the leader of what the Western press has lately taken to calling the “pragmatic conservatives” in Iran, Ayatollah Hashemi Rasfanjani:

“If one day the world of Islam comes to possess the weapons currently in Israel’s possession [meaning nuclear weapons]—on that day this method of global arrogance would come to a dead end. This…is because the use of a nuclear bomb in Israel will leave nothing on the ground, whereas it will only damage the world of Islam.”

Sounds pretty pragmatic to me.

Religious motivations are not the only ones leaders can have for sacrificing their people. Pol Pot certainly wasn't averse to killing a goodly number of his own, nor was his predecessor (and no doubt, inspiration) Stalin, and they were not religious in the usual sense. Communism isn't interested in the world to come, only power in this one--but it shares with religion the strength of the belief system of its "true believers," and their possible ruthlessness.

Hitler, a leader about whom Rosenbaum has also written a book attempting to explain the origins of his evil, was the anti-Semite par excellence. Originally, he didn't ask his people to martyr themselves in the process of killing the Jews; his concentration camps were a model of efficiency, and cost few--if any--extra German lives. But, strangely enough, at the end of the war when all was lost (except, of course, the war against the Jews of Europe, which he mainly won), he wanted the German people to die.

That impulse was expressed in his last days, when he ordered the destruction of what was left of Germany. The German people had been tried and found wanting; they hadn't been up to the task, and he wanted them to go down with him. Apparently, his generals failed to cooperate, but the destructive impulse on his part was there; no surprise, actually.

Hitler's last testament is an interesting document. It calls on the German people and generals to sacrifice to the death and never surrender. It excommunicates generals such as Goehring for even considering negotiating with the enemy. And it shows, among other things, the complete domination of Hitler's anti-Semitism. From beginning to end, that's the guiding light; blaming the Jews for the war. Here is the last sentence:

Above all, I enjoin the government and the people to uphold the race laws to the limit and to resist mercilessly the poisoner of all nations, international Jewry.

Remember, these are Hitler's last words, his final attempt to influence history. And influence it he has. There is no question that the Arab and Iranian worlds have followed Hitler's rhetoric and example in their anti-Semitism (and take a look at this book for an excellent study of the details of how that happened).

Holocaust denial, the current Iranian vogue, is an ironic tribute to the master, Hitler. It simultaneously attempts to whitewash his evil history while contemplating the completion of the task he considered his most valuable. And these heirs of Hitler are so emboldened by decades of anti-Semitic propaganda round the world that they don't feel they have to keep mum about it--just as Hitler knew he could count on the cooperation of much of Europe, without whose help he could not have accomplished his glorious task.

There's a great deal of room for irony, as well, in the establishment of the modern state of Israel. Zionism predated World War II, but without the Holocaust it probably would not have gained enough support to actually influence the UN into establishing a tiny Jewish state alongside the Palestinian one (yes, the UN solution was a "two-state" one, which the Palestinians and the Arab world rejected).

Why did the Jews so desperately want and need a state? Before then, they'd been dispersed around the world for centuries (millennia, actually), and country after country had denied them citizenship and full rights, expelling them time and again. With the single exception of the US, which granted them full citizenship from the start (France was next, by the way), most of the countries of Europe gave them citizenship only in the mid-1800s.

But extreme prejudice remained, and Jews continued to be considered the "other," suspected of lack of loyalty in most countries in which they resided (this, by the way, was the essence of the Dreyfus Affair). In order to facilitate his destruction of the Jews of Europe, Hitler had to hunt them down, country by country, and gather them together in central places (the camps) to be murdered. The prescient Jews who tried to escape found the way blocked--emigration was barred to most, even by the US.

That very special horror--the closing of the doors of countries that could possibly offer refuge, except to a select few--was part of the legacy of the Holocaust. It has been given graphic representation in Art Spiegelman's highly recommended Maus, a two-book depiction (in comic/cartoon form) of his parents' sufferings and survival in the Holocaust.

Spiegelman's concept sounds odd--and indeed, it is. But read it. It's a masterpiece, building in power as the the strangeness of the concept--Jews drawn as mice, Germans as cats, and so forth--creates its own hypnotic and horrific world.

The Spiegelman book captures in literal terms the cat and mouse game of the Holocaust--the hunters and the hunted. The vast majority of the hunted--the Jews--found the trap closing in on them with no escape possible. Afterwards, the weary survivors were convinced that the only way out for the future was to finally have a country of their own again. That way, several problems would be solved: Jews could never again be expelled from a country at its whim, considered interlopers, with no place to go (the right of return guaranteed that); and they would be able to have their own defense forces and not go "as lambs to the slaughter."

There was only one catch, it turns out. Although Jews had been in the area from time immemorial, and constituted sizeable populations in both Palestine and other Arab countries as well (populations which were now "transferred" to Israel. much in the way of other such partitions and transfers such as much of the Muslim population of India going to Pakistan on partition there--a transition far more bloody, by the way, than anything that has occurred in Israel/Palestine) Israel didn't count on the lack of absorption of the Palestinian population by their Arab brethren. That the Palestinians would be kept in "camps," under UN welfare aegis, for decades, rather than being absorbed by countries such as Jordan (basically composed of other "Palestinians") was not foreseen. The enduring enmity of countries such as Iran, which had no particular dog in this race, was also not predicted.

Iran is presently the cheerleader of Muslim anti-Semitism, otherwise focused mainly in the Arab world. And Israel, as has been pointed out many times, is a "one-bomb country," so small that it wouldn't take much to wipe it out.

Thus, in a rather intense irony (sorry for the repetition, but I can't seem to stop using that word in relation to this topic) the "ingathering" of Jews that the formation of the state of Israel represented, which was supposed to have been essential for Jewish survival, has instead facilitated the work of Hitler's heirs.

A great deal of Hitler's energy was involved in rounding up a widely scattered people--one of the main Holocaust themes is the cattle car, the trains on which the Jews were transported to their doom.

But now there's no longer need for any such effort. Because of the "ingathering" that Israel already represents, one strategic bomb would destroy half of world Jewry in a moment. If the Jews are the canaries in the mine (and I believe that's an apt metaphor), half of them are now in a single mine, and it's sprung a gas leak.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

'Twas the Blogger's Night Before Christmas


'Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the ‘sphere
Bloggers were glad to see Christmas draw near.
Their PCs were turned off and all put away
The bloggers were swearing to take off the day.

Their children were nestled all snug in their beds
While visions of extra time danced in their heads
With a father or mom not distracted by writing
No posts to compose, and no links to be citing.

But we all know that vows were just meant to be broken
And the vows of a blogger can be just a token.
There’s always a chance that some sort of temptation
Will rise up to make them of fleeting duration.

For instance, there might be found, under the tree
An Apple; well, what better sight could there be?
And who could neglect it and wait the whole day?
It has to be tried out, one just can’t delay.

Or maybe somewhere there’s a fast-breaking story
Important, and complex, and covered with glory.
It can’t be ignored, there’s really no choice,
So add to the din every blogger’s small voice.

And then there are some who may just like to rhyme
(I’m one who at times must confess to this crime),
And it’s been quite a while since Clement Clarke Moore
Wrote his opus (though authorship’s been claimed by Gore)—

So it seems about time it be newly updated
And here’s my grand effort—aren’t you glad you all waited?
Forgive if it sounds a bit awkward to read.
Writing, I set a new record for speed.

I had to get under the wire and compose it
Before Christmas Day. Now it’s time that I close it.
But let me exclaim (or, rather, to write)
Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night!

Christmas in New York City

Yesterday I drove down to New York to spend Christmas at my brother's. This involves no hardship whatsoever, except perhaps for the tedious drive itself. There's a bunch of parties, a great deal of fabulous food (each day spent there is good for a net gain of approximately two pounds), and much conversation. Oh, and probably a couple of presents as well, but that's exceedingly secondary.

I've written before about the fact that I'm "in transition"--thinkng about moving--and that I don't really have a single city that I consider home. You'd think that New York, the place I grew up, would fit the bill. But it doesn't. Oh, it's familiar, all right. But even when I was a child and teenager here (I left at seventeen, never to return except for visits), it didn't feel all that "homey" to me. Too overwhelming, too uncaring, so huge that to traverse it took hours. No. I always knew I'd leave as soon as I got the chance. And I did.

But still, but still...when I drive in on a clear night, as I did yesterday, and see that skyline suddenly loom in the distance to the right of me (I come in over the Bronx-Whitestone bridge and then onto the Brookly Queens Expressway), it's not only an impressive sight, it's an iconic one, as well.

Somehow New York has become the American city. That feeling has only been accentuated, post-9/11. It's the biggest, the best, the everythingest, "if I can make it there I'll make it anywhere." LA may be a great big freeway (I've lived there, too, and I can attest to that), but New York is just great and big.

And beautiful. In recent decades New York has lit itself far more colorfully than it ever did in my youth, the tops of the skyscrapers (particularly the Empire State building) sporting seasonal red and green lights, makng the skyline look from far away (as I saw it last night) like a string of sparkling jewels, diamonds and emeralds and rubies. New York at Christmastime was always a very special place, anyway, with the tree at Rockefeller Center, and the skaters, and the elaborate store windows, and the tempting smell of roasting chestnuts.

The temperature was in the mid-50s yesterday and the same today, however; not so very Christmasy. In fact, we've only had one or two days of cold so far this winter. So I feel a bit as though I've been transported to the Carolinas or thereabouts rather than New York City. That's better, though, than the Christmases I spent in Los Angeles, where the holiday decorations always looked oddly out of place no matter how elaborate they might be.

In contrast, where I live it usually looks like a Currier and Ives print around this time. Although the lack of snow this year makes it a little less perfect, visually, it's still the qunitessential Christmas scene (wish I'd had the prescience to have taken some photos to post here, but I didn't, and a search didn't reveal any of the sort I'm seeking). In New England the most popular type of house decoration is minimalist: a single candle (electric, for safety's sake) in each window--classic and simple, and lovely in an old colonial home or antique cape.

And now I'm going to be out enjoying this beautiful day--and the first party. I hope you do the same, wherever you are, whatever the weather and whatever the scene.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Revising history: Vietnam (yes, again)

Dean Esmay has linked to my second post on Cronkite and Tet, and a commenter there named "mikeca" called what I had to say "revisionist history."

His comment was identical to one he posted on this blog as well, which I now reproduce here in full:

This is conservative revisionist history and rationalization.

According to the new history, the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese were defeated in Tet and we had the war won. Only the media, and Walter Cronkite snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

Totally wrong. Before Tet the US government was saying that the war was winding down. Tet showed that the enemy was far from defeated. In fact it was clear that if the US had not had 500,000 men in Vietnam, the South would have been overrun. More than half of the Americans killed in Vietnam came after the Tet offensive was over.

What Tet showed was that it took 500,000 American service men in Vietnam to keep the South Vietnamese government in power, because the South Vietnamese people did not really believe in their government. The fact that the South Vietnamese military and government collapsed like a house of cards as soon as the US left, shows just that. The US was just propping up a corrupt and incompetent government.

Cronkite talked with lots of government and military officials off the record. Many of them told him of their doubts about the situation in Vietnam. The US government knew the South Vietnamese government was probably a hopeless cause. The US could keep the South Vietnamese government in power by keeping 500,000 men there forever, but that effectively made South Vietnam a US colony. The American people eventually realized that while the US could keep the South Vietnamese government in power forever, we could not make the South Vietnamese people support that government.

You can rationalize all you want. Try to blame the Democrats in congress, try to blame the media. The facts are there are limits to what can be accomplished with military power, even overwhelming military power. If you fail to learn that lesson from Vietnam, perhaps you will learn it in Iraq.

The following is based on a reply I posted on Dean's World. I decided to highlight it here-and expand on it--because I think mikeca's comment is an excellent example of the sort of argument often mounted when there's an attempt to portray the Vietnam War in a way that contradicts the original MSM version of the truth.

First I want to say that rationalization is most assuredly not my motive. In fact, if I were trying to rationalize, I actually would have a vested interest in holding onto the original viewpoint of the war that mikeca expresses. After all, I protested that war, and was relieved when we pulled out and it was over. If I were going to rationalize my own role in things, I'd be with mikeca all the way (and see this for a lengthy discussion of how those who were against the war tend to use rationalization when they decline to take responsibility for its aftermath).

Second, I want to say that my post is revisionist history, but not in the way mikeca means the term. "Revisionist" often is used to refer to history rewritten falsely as propaganda, such as by the Soviets. That's the sense in which mikeca is using it, of course, only in this case--as he writes-- it would be "conservative" revisionist history.

But sometimes that "first draft" of history--such as the Vietnam War as perceived in real time and told in the MSM--cries out for revision, as in "to revise." To look at again with fresh eyes and new information, and to question whether the standard viewpoint of the time was correct. Here's another definition of revisionist history, the one I'm using (a revised one, as it were):

In its legitimate form (see historical revisionism) it is the reexamination of historical facts, with an eye towards updating historical narratives with newly discovered, more accurate, or less biased information, acknowledging that history of an event, as it has been traditionally told, may not be entirely accurate.

So to mikeca and those who agree with him, I suggest that they read Braestrup's The Big Story on what happened during Tet (including the incorrect MSM evaluation of it), a book recommended in my Cronkite post. Or read this shorter Bishop discussion and review of Braestrup's book.

If you've read Part II of my Cronkite/Tet post, you will see that I briefly summarized some of the myths Braestrup's book challenged, as discussed in Bishop's article. Here, though, I'll spotlight one in particular, since it reflects on mikeca's contention about the sanguine war predictions of the US prior to Tet:

Misconception: There had been no warning of a coming offensive. Actually, the press ignored cautions expressed by General Earle Wheeler and General William C. Westmoreland in December and January.

Braestrup concluded that the press had made a two-pronged error: minimizing US military warnings before Tet that something big was still in the works, making it seem as though they were far more falsely hopeful than they actually were, and then maximizing North Vietnamese/Vietcong victories during Tet.

As far as the South Vietnamese people's lack of support for their own government went, it was actually during Tet that the North Vietnamese and Vietcong learned the South Vietnamese wouldn't support the North, if given the choice. The North had expected a great many South Vietnamese to join them during Tet, but it didn't happen:

..the NLF apparently did expect large sections of the urban populace to rise up in revolt. With a few exceptions, this didn't happen. South Vietnam's city dwellers were generally indifferent to both the NLF and the Saigon Government but the VC clearly expected more support than it actually got.

I've never indicated that Walter Cronkite singlehandedly lost the war, or that the task would have been easy otherwise. But it would have been a lot easier if the truth of Tet had been told at the time, and if Cronkite hadn't taken it on himself to be judge and jury of the war effort. The point is not that, but for Cronkite, the war would have been over after Tet--it most certainly would not have. The point was the mischaracterization of Tet by our own media, and Cronkite's sudden switch to agenda-driven opinion journalism.

And now for that South Vietnamese government which, according to mikeca, "collapsed like a house of cards after the US left."

In this post I discuss the drawdown in troops known as "Vietnamization." Take a look at this diagram, featured in that post. You'll notice that by early 1972 there were very few US combat troops in Vietnam; by August of 1972 they were all gone.

Read this article on the fall of South Vietnam, and note that the ARVN was not doing half badly several years later (late 1974), until the US Congress pulled the plug on them and left them with sharply diminshed funds to pay their troops or to arm themselves. That was the turning point, not the much earlier departure of US combat forces. The financial betrayal occurred at a time when there were no longer any US fighting forces in Vietnam, and had not been for years (here's a history of that shameful episode). Meanwhile, the North saw its golden opportunity, fully and generously funded by its Chinese and Soviet allies.

Here are some of the details of how it happened:

In May 1973, Congress voted to cut-off all funds for military action in Indochina, including air support. Having deprived Saigon of U.S. firepower, Congress then cut aid to South Vietnam in [December] 1974, resulting in shortages of fuel, spare parts and ammunition. A month after this Congressional action, the Hanoi Politburo decided to launch a new invasion in 1975. The Soviets increased their military aid to Hanoi, building a heavily armed force that the abandoned Saigon government could not stop. When President Gerald Ford asked Congress for an emergency grant of funds to rush ammunition to South Vietnam on April 10, 1975, he was turned down.

The author of these words, William R. Hawkins, believes that the antiwar Left of the Vietnam era could not tolerate the idea that the South Vietnamese might actually hold off the North; this would contradict some of their most dearly cherished notions. And so, even though there were no longer any American combat soldiers at risk there, funding (which at the time was very modest) had to be cut off; the South had to be abandoned so that the North could win and vindicate the Left.

I'm not quite that cynical; I'm not at all sure that was the motivation. But reading the Hawkins assertion certainly gave me pause, I have to say. Because that's the sort of mindset I see all too often today regarding Iraq--a need on the part of many on the Left to have us fail there, in order to prove themselves right. I'm not saying that's true of everyone on the Left, but it most definitely seems to be the sentiment of a significant portion. And I think one can detect what may be a trace of that sentiment in the final paragraph of mikeca's comment:

The facts are there are limits to what can be accomplished with military power, even overwhelming military power. If you fail to learn that lesson from Vietnam, perhaps you will learn it in Iraq.

If we don't "learn it in Iraq"--if our Iraqi endeavor were to ultimately succeed on some level--it would call into question some of the most deeply and long-held notions of the Left. That can be a very upsetting experience.

Did Vietnam show "the limits" of "military power," "even overwhelming military power," as mikeca contends? For political and PC reasons, as well as fear that the conflict would escalate further, we never did unleash our full and overwhelming military power. And it's indisputably true that, when we cut the ARVN's funding, we not only were not using our military power, we were not even allowing them to use their military power--which was certainly less than overwhelming.

But back to Tet and the MSM, the topic of my original post: Braestrup (who was a seasoned war reporter and Korean war veteran, and who did exhaustive research on Tet for his "revisionist" book, considered the definitive text on the subject) wrote:

Rarely has contemporary crisis journalism turned out, in retrospect, to have veered so widely from reality. . . To have portrayed such a setback for one side as a defeat for the other—in a major crisis abroad—cannot be counted as a triumph for American journalism.

Braestrup also called the coverage of Tet by the MSM "press malpractice."

And so it was. Sounds like a history that might cry out for just a bit of revising, doesn't it?

Friday, December 22, 2006

Iranian elections: free and fair, or changing the display windows?

At the end of this week's podcast, the Sanity Squad briefly mentioned the election results in Iran, which were being counted and reported (preliminarily) even as we spoke. First the results showed a repudiation of Ahmadinejad, then new "results" seemed to be coming in that negated that.

Now the final results are in, and it appears that they've favored what Iran calls "moderate conservatives" (i.e. people whose mouths are not quite as big as Ahmadinejad's) and "reformers."

Who are these people? They give the appearance, at least, of being an improvement on the loose cannon-esque Ahmadinejad. For example, as the AP reports (via, in this case, the New York Times--and note how, although the article is almost solely about the Iranian election results, the headline manages to be about Bush-hatred):

"We consider this government's policy to be against Iran's national interests and security. It is simply acting against Iran's interests,'' said Shariati, a leader of the Islamic Iran Participation Front, Iran's largest reformist party. His party seeks democratic changes within the ruling Islamic establishment and supports relations with the United States.

Sounds good. The AP and the Times treat the story as though this election were utterly bona fide, a slight change of power at the local level in a democracy, the people speaking out in order to effect change. This is hardly unique; much of the coverage of the Iranian election seems to resemble that of the AP and the Times, taking the whole thing at face value (see this, for example, which quotes an Iranian official who compares the Iranian election to the recent one in the US that repudiated Bush via the defeat of his fellow Republicans).

I find it odd that there's not a hint in the Times or much of the MSM of any behind-the-scenes maneuvering in Iran, the fact that all candidates must be approved by the mullahs, ballot tampering, or even the fact that Iran is a theocracy run by a dictatorship since 1979. Do dictators ordinarily allow free and fair elections?

Sometimes it's easy to tell--in the old Soviet days, only the Communist candidates were on the ballot, unopposed, and the results were always something like 99% in favor (surprise, surprise!). But these days tyrants have become far more sophisticated in their PR. Therefore it's possible and commonplace to report this election as though people were merely repudiating the hardline policies of Ahmadinejad:

"The result of the elections, if there is any ear to listen or any eye to see, demands reconsideration in policies,'' the [a moderate daily newspaper] said in an editorial Thursday.

Conservative lawmaker Emad Afroogh also called on Ahmadinejad to learn a lesson from the vote. ''The people's vote means they don't like Ahmadinejad's populist methods,'' Afroogh told The Associated Press.

Reformist Saeed Shariati also said the results of the election were a ''big no'' to Ahmadinejad and his allies, who he accused of harming Iran's interests with their hard line.

But do these people actually have any power in Iran? Or is this just a new window display in the Iranian shop, much of it for gullible Western consumption, for folks who believe an election is an election is an election (unless, of course, it was Bush's in 2000)?

Michael Ledeen has been on Iran's case for a long time, and he sees the Iranian elections rather differently than the AP and the Times, to say the least. In his National Review article on the subject, he (or his editor) puts the word "votes" in scare quotes, for example, demonstrating Ledeen's profound skepticism about the whole process.

Ledeen's contention is that the entire enterprise is a planned and orchestrated propaganda ploy executed by those who really rule Iran (and hint, it's not Ahmadinejad): the mullahs. Common sense, and previous evidence, dictates that they would not allow a spontaneous and fair election to be held in that country; in Iran's dictatorship, there are no accidents allowed in the elective process. Here's the way Ledeen says it actually works:

Yes, people get mobilized and go to the polls and mark their ballots and put them in the ballot box. But then Groucho comes into play: “I’ve got ballots. And if you don’t like them, I’ve got other ballots.” So, as usual, candidates (featuring, as usual, the unfortunate Mehdi Karubi, the eternal loser who nonetheless remains at the top of the mullah’s power mountain) complain that ballot boxes disappeared, and new ones magically appeared, and numbers change, and counters are replaced. It’s all part of the ritual.

Well, who's correct--the AP or Ledeen? I'll go with Ledeen, myself; you, of course, may differ.

Ledeen points out that Ahmadinejad--although colorful and newsworthy--has been, like every other Iranian President, a mere figurehead, window-dressing for the real leaders of the country, the mullahs. Khatami, his predecessor, was his exact opposite--he talked the talk the West wanted to hear. But neither he nor Ahmadinejad can walk the walk without the mullahs pulling the strings.

The Iranian President plays nothing like the powerful role of the chief American executive, although the mullahs count on the West's confusion about the title being similar to make it seem as though the Iranian President is actually a more important figure than he is. However, he's used to send whatever message the mullahs may want to signal at any specific point in time.

Ledeen writes:

["Moderate" Khatami's tenure, Ahmadinejad's predecessor] was a period when Iran sought to lull the West into the arms of Morpheus, distracting attention from the real horrors of the regime and its preparations for war against us, including the nuclear program.

With Ahmadinejad, the mullahs bared their fangs to us. Convinced they were winning in Iraq, foreseeing the destruction of Israel, the domination of Lebanon, a jihadist reconquista in Afghanistan and the expansion of their domain into the Horn of Africa, they gave us the face of the unrepentant conqueror. He’s played his role well, and he will continue to play it.

So what's actually going on right now in Iran, according to Ledeen? A power struggle for the succession to the real throne in the country, the one held by ailing (and probably dying) head cleric Khameini:

The war policy is not in dispute among the rulers of Iran, whether they call themselves reformers or hard-liners. Nor is the decision to use the iron fist of the regime against any and all advocates of freedom for the Iranian people. What is decidedly at the center of the current fighting within the regime — a fight that has already produced spectacular assassinations, masqueraded as airplane crashes, of a significant number of military commanders, including the commander of the ground forces of the powerful Revolutionary Guards — is the Really Big Question, indeed the only question that really matters: Who will succeed Khamenei?

Ledeen suggests that even the regime's management of the recent student demonstrations (which were real, not staged) reflects this power struggle--they wanted the news to be publicized, and made sure it was. He also mentions that some Western news agencies, by publishing photos of the demonstrators, unmindful of the possible consequences, have forced them into hiding--nice going, guys (and gals).

[NOTE: Ledeen is considered by many to be a hothead, bent on war between the US and Iran. I wrote about Ledeen previously, here; I don't see any indication from his statements that this is what he's advocating, although he certainly is in favor of regime change there. Here is an interview with Ledeen that I recommend if you are interested in learning more about his point of view.]

[ADDENDUM: Amir Taheri, an Iranian expert whose views I respect, treats the elections with something between the total cynicism of Ledeen and the total acceptance of the AP. He acknowledges the inherent unfairness there, but still thinks they reflect trends in the thinking of the Iranian public. He reports that "the real winner" of these elections is Khameini--no surprise there, somehow. And that the results were a repudiation for Ahmadinejad in Tehran, but not in other areas of the country.]

Thursday, December 21, 2006

New Sanity Squad podcast: be afraid, be very very afraid

Why afraid? Well, take a look at the graphic for this week's podcast.

But you needn't be too frightened; it merely illustrates the artist's conception of one of Siggy's many sound bites The topics: Barak Obama's pumped-up candidacy and the possibility of civil war in Palestine. Join Dr. Sanity, Shrinkwrapped, Siggy, and myself for all talk, no action.

Tet, Cronkite, opinion journalism, and a changing press: Part II (changing the course of history)

In his introduction to that Cronkite interview featured in Part I, Dick Gordon writes:

It was February 1968, and in a three minute editorial essay on the CBS Evening news Cronkite quite simply changed the course of history. On that night, the anchor told Americans that the war in Vietnam was unwinnable; that the generals and pundits were wrong...

Think about that for a moment. Cronkite, a news anchor, goes on a trip to Vietnam (I can't find any information on how long it lasted, but my guess is a couple of weeks at most). This happens around the time of the Tet Offensive, and he's briefed on that, among other things. Then he returns home. With no particular military expertise--and, as it turns out, no basic understanding of the strategic realities of the Tet Offensive itself--he comes to the opinion that the war cannot be won.

Although prior to this he's always considered his role to be the reporting of facts and events, he now develops the idea that he must use his bully pulpit, and the influence he's gained thoughout his years as a solid and relatively nonpartisan newsman, to tell the "truth" that the government and the military have been keeping from the American people.

Why Cronkite decided to make that transition is still somewhat mysterious, although I aired some theories about it in Part I. Of course, there's no doubt that Cronkite had--and has--a right to his opinion; but we're not talking about merely having an opinion. Did he have a right to leap over the traditional boundaries of news reporting and to intone, in a voice almost all Americans had grown to implicitly trust and revere, that the situation was hopelessly stalemated?

The rules about reporting were there for a reason, after all. The responsibility journalists have is an awesome one; we rely on them for the information on which we base our votes in a republic. Journalists need to make sure that the information they convey is correct, properly sourced, accurate. But anchors are generalists, not experts--except in a very narrow field, that of conveying the news. They are good writers and talkers. They are able to keep their calm with a camera on them, and even to ad lib if necessary. But reporters should guard against the hubris of thinking that they've become expert in every field they cover.

In his broadcast of February 1968, Cronkite was careful to say in his introduction that what he was about to say was "speculative, personal, subjective." He then indicates he doesn't know who won the Tet campaign. He goes on to list a series of battles and conflicts that haven't been resolved to his satisfaction; it's all a stalemate, the whole thing.

He then makes a rather extraordinary leap, saying it's clear this will always be the case. He knows that North Vietnam can--and most definitely will--match us for every measure we can come up with, not just in the past but in the future.

In fact, in clinical terms, one might say Cronkite is speaking of his own weariness and depression in the face of the ongoing conflict. He offers no proof of his assertions of hopeless quagmire, even for Tet--he just doesn't know. But his language is the language of emotion, not facts or strategy. He is dispirited and disillusioned, experiencing a loss of faith more than anything else:

We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds.

He calls the conclusion that we are "mired in stalemate" the "only realistic" one. And then he makes the most peculiar declaration of all: the next few months we must test the enemy's intentions, in case this is indeed his last big gasp before negotiations. But it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.

So, even if Tet turns out to have been a last-ditch effort for the North and the Vietcong, and if the enemy really does prove to have nothing left ("his last big gasp") before submitting to negotiations--Cronkite sees the US "not as victors, but as honorable people who...did the best they could."

But under the circumstances, why wouldn't the US then be negotiating as victors? We see that, even when Cronkite posits a relatively optimistic position as a hypothetical, he still can't bring himself to draw the proper conclusions from it: that it would represent at least some sort of victory. What comes across instead is an utter weariness, a personal one: that of Walter Cronkite himself.

Cronkite remains exceedingly proud of this broadcast. He's often called "avuncular," but I think the following statement of his could be more rightly called paternalistic:

There is a point at which it seems to me if an individual reporter has gained a reputation of being honest, fair as can be, and helps the American people in trying to make a decision on a major issue, I think we ought to take that opportunity.

This illustrates better than anything I can think of the slippery slope that comes from being a reporter and especially an anchorperson. For it's clear that Cronkite had come to believe in his own persona, and to feel that it conferred a certain amount of wisdom on him. If he is honest and fair and trusted in his reportage of the facts, then he seems to think it follows that his own personal opinions and judgments--even about matters outside his field of expertise, journalism itself--are also reliable ones. And that he is therefore qualified to advise the American people in decisions they make on matters of national and military policy.

So, how wrong was Cronkite about Tet? About as wrong as can be, it turns out. History has declared unequivocally that there were winners and losers in Tet: it was a grand strategy that failed miserably for the North in the tactical military sense but succeeded beyond its wildest dreams as a propaganda ploy--due in large part to Cronkite and his colleagues in the MSM.

One of the oddest things about Cronkite isn't what he did then; it's that he's still proud of it today. I've read and listened to a number of his interviews on the subject; at no time does he even address the fact that he was wrong about Tet in the military sense--nor do his questioners bring it up. Is this reticence on their part a show of respect for the frailty of an elderly man? Or are both he and his interviewers largely unaware of the discrediting facts that have been uncovered and widely aired in the intervening decades? Or do they not care if they were wrong about those things, because, after all, they were pursuing that "higher truth?"

The "lower" truth (otherwise known as the actual truth) is that Tet was a disaster for the Vietcong and the North--especially the Vietcong, who never recovered from the blow. But, in the end , it didn't matter. How they managed to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat was detailed in the definitive work on the subject, Peter Braestrup's 1978 analysis of MSM coverage of Tet, entitled "The Big Story."

...the nationwide Vietcong offensive turned out to be an "unmitigated disaster" for the communist side. But the media consensus was just the opposite - an "unmitigated defeat" for the United States.

Cronkite, along with several hundred reporters from two dozen countries, focused on how the Vietcong guerrillas managed to blast their way into the U.S. Embassy compound (but didn't make it past the Marines in the lobby). War correspondents were also impressed by the view from the cocktail bar atop the Caravelle Hotel: C-47s, equipped with three Gatling guns on one side, were strafing Vietcong pockets in Cholon, the capital's twin city 2½ miles away.

Yet the Vietcong didn't reach a single one of their objectives and lost most of their 45,000-strong force in their attacks against 21 cities. It was also a defeat that convinced North Vietnam's leaders to send their regular army - the NVA - south of the 17th parallel to pick up where the Vietcong left off.

If you want to read a summary of the conclusions Braestrup--a seasoned war reporter and former Marine who had served in Korea--reached in his book, please see this. You'd do well to read the whole thing; it's rich in important and informative detail.

Interestingly enough, Braestrup doesn't posit press political bias as a major part of the problem. The real difficulty was sheer ignorance, especially about anything military. Here are just a few of the MSM-created myths about Tet that Braestrup effectively destroys:

There had been no warning of a coming offensive.

The offensive was a victory for Hanoi.

The North Vietnamese military initiative bared the unreliability and inefficiency of our own allies, the South Vietnamese.

The characteristic American response was to destroy city districts and villages with overwhelming, indiscriminate firepower.

The sapper raid on the American embassy, the fighting in Hue, and the siege of Khe Sanh typified the war.

Khe Sanh was to be America's Dien Bien Phu.

How did the press get it so very wrong?

The press corps lacked military experience and the ability to grasp and present matters of strategy and tactics...The press's lack of knowledge and maturity resulted in a lack of discrimination in the presentation of hastily gathered or incomplete facts and contributed to the disaster theme.

The views of experienced military commentators like Joseph Kraft and Hanson Baldwin and the analyses of Douglas Pike were virtually ignored. The press reflected American ignorance of Vietnamese language and culture, had no expertise in the area of pacification, and almost no sources on the South Vietnamese government or army.

...The press was impressionable. General Bruce Palmer succinctly summed up the problem when he stated that the foe "took the battle down around the Caravelle Hotel and, so, from the standpoint of the average reporter over there, it was the acorn that fell on the chicken's head and it said 'The sky is falling.'"

And then you have what I think are the three most important press failings of all, of which Cronkite is guilty as charged, their staying power reflected in his inordinate pride in himself even today, a pride that persists in the face of a book like "The Big Story" (one wonders whether Cronkite has even read it):

There was no willingness to admit error or correct erroneous reporting after the fact. The classic example was the Associated Press's continued assertion that sappers had entered the U.S. Embassy building in Saigon more than twelve hours after it was clear the attack had been repulsed on the grounds.

...By the time of Vietnam, it had become professionally acceptable in some media to allow reporters to "explain" news, not merely report it...

...In their commentary on events in Vietnam, reporters "projected" to the American public their own opinions and fears based on incomplete data and their own inclinations.

Has any of this changed today? I think things have gotten worse, if anything; the MSM failures illustrated by the press coverage of Tet have become institutionalized in the intervening years.

Tet was a turning point all right, but in a very different way than Cronkite envisioned it: it marked the beginning of a special and destructive type of MSM hubris, in which our own media--without realizing it was doing so, and without meaning to--became, effective ly, the propaganda arm of the enemy.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Holiday ode to ibuprofen, as well as to joy

[NOTE: That post on Cronkite, Part II, is coming, coming, coming--but due to holiday doings, I'm on a slightly delayed schedule. The post will appear here later today. Meanwhile...]

Last night, some combination of keyboarding, exhaustion, coughing from the lingering cold I still am fighting, and who knows what else conspired to give me some sort of weird muscle pain in my upper back. It was just one tiny little point--but what a point it was! A knifelike stab whenever I moved, and especially when coughing.

I went to bed with it and woke up with it, unchanged. Hmmm. I started to envision the holidays with this thing, and decided: time for ibuprofen, the over the counter painkiller with the best muscle relaxant properties.

And about a half hour later, to my surprise, joy, and wonderment--the pain is all gone. Normalcy. Sometimes medications do exactly what they say they will.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Leftists, Rousseau, and Islamicist totalitarianism: brothers under the skin

[NOTE: I ran out of time today for Part II of the Cronkite piece. My plan is to have it appear tomorrow. In the meantime...]

There are several banned trolls whose comments I ordinarily delete here as a matter of course. But every now and then one writes something that I decide to leave up as an example of a certain type of thinking.

Thus, this recent effort from one of my most loyal non-fans in Toronto:

'Militant' Islam isn't going to go away as long as the U.S and Israel continue to control the region through it's military and corrupt policies.

Given that, there is no U.S chance of winning a military victory there. None.

I'm hoping this site will still be around in a few years when defeat is total and humiliating...

A pithy rendition of a certain type of leftist thinking that, like a snake swallowing its own tail, would devour itself if what it wished for came to pass. Because make absolutely no mistake about it: if this commenter had his way, and defeat of the current effort being mounted by the US were to be "total and humiliating," and the other side (Islamicist totalitarianism) were to get its way and become victorious in its goal of a worldwide caliphate, not only would there be no sites left like this, the commenter would find his freedoms curtailed so forcefully that he would no longer be able to exercise his own freedom to be a troll. And that would be the least of his (and our) worries.

I've often wondered about the failure of the Left to understand this very simple fact. Surely, they are interested in the Enlightenment values of reason, human rights (such as for homosexuals and for women) and individual freedom? Surely they understand what sharia law is all about? Surely they understand that these people are quite serious?

But no; the highlighted comment demonstrates all the basic elements of leftist thought: the attribution of all third-world violence and ills to the always-dastardly doings of those twin repositories of all that's really evil: the Great and Little Satans, the US and Israel. These beliefs of the Left are offered as a matter of faith, without even an attempt to back them up with facts or logical argument (although if what passes for logical argument is the work of Chomsky and the like, they needn't bother). Yes, yes, yes, of course; it's the corruption of the US and Israel that is the cause of all the flaws of the Arab world, and if those things went away all the other problems would magically go away--(or perhaps "wither away," in the old Marxist phrase).

What's going on here? I believe that at least part of the answer lies in the philosophical underpinnings of Leftist thought. One of these days I hope to write a long post on its origins in the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who had a similar reductionist theory of human nature and history (I've been wading through this book on the subject, which I highly recommend).

To Rousseau, civilization and society (and reason itself, to a certain extent) were corrupting influences, and must be reformed to better reflect the condition of pre-civilized humanity--a relatively happy state of nature in which people were at peace and non-exploitative towards each other. Civilization led to power inequities and private property (very important to Rousseau, as well as to his heirs, the Jacobins, the Left, and the Communists) and all sorts of unfairness that needed redressing by a state that was not afraid to use Draconian measures and subordinate the people to its will.

In Rousseau's seminal Social Contract (which, along with Hobbes' Leviathan, we were made to read in public high school; somehow I doubt whether that's still the case) he writes [my emphasis]:

...whoever refuses to obey the general will will be forced to do so by the entire body [the public and the state]; this means merely that he will be forced to be free...[if the leaders of the state say to the citizen] "it is expedient for the state that you should die," he should die.

So the resemblance of the Left to Islamicist fundamentalist totalitarianism isn't such a stretch after all. The similarity is their profound dislike of modernism, jettisoning of individual freedom for a sort of mythical collective freedom that will be expressed in the general will, the embrace of violent methods for achieving this heaven on earth, and the glorification of feeling over reason. It's all there in their hero, Rousseau--whether they've read him or not.

Gone phishin'

Just got this email that somehow evaded my spam folder:

In a brief introduction, my name is George Michael. My intention of contacting you is to have a discussion with you regarding an investment that I want to build in your country. Urgently confirm the receipt of this message with your direct telephone number to enable me call you immediately and furnish you with details.

I will be waiting for your reply as you finish reading this message.

My question: does anyone respond to these things? I know the answer must be "yes" or people wouldn't bother to generate them and send them, but it's still hard to believe, since the ploy is so transparent.

[ADDENNDUM: Due to busyness, part II of the Cronkite piece will appear somewhat later than usual today.]

Monday, December 18, 2006

Tet, Cronkite, opinion journalism, and a changing press: Part I ("to tell a conflicted people a higher truth")

While Bush formulates a new plan for Iraq, and others say all is lost there no matter what, I'm reminded of a famous "all is lost" moment from that ever-festering sore of history, the Vietnam War: Walter Cronkite's editorial on Tet.

Cronkite's famous post-Tet broadcast of February 27, 1968, delivered on the CBS Evening News, is widely regarded as a turning point in the Vietnam War, as well as broadcast journalism. It caused President Johnson to famously say, "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost the country," and was apparently instrumental in Johnson's decision to drop out of the 1968 Presidential race.

Those too young to remember may find such a set of circumstances almost impossible to believe. But Walter Cronkite,"the most trusted man in America" during his 18-year tenure as the anchor for the CBS evening news, is widely regarded to have had great influence on public opinion.

Take a moment to mull that one over and contemplate how the times they have a'changed: it would not seem possible for a major network anchor to be the "most trusted man in America" today (and, by the way, that "most trusted" designation wasn't just hyperbole; Cronkite was actually judged that in a Gallup Poll of the time. And, of course, today it would be "the most trusted person in America." But I digress.)

The avuncular Cronkite (and it seems no piece on Cronkite can avoid that perfect description of the man: "avuncular") held America's trust for most of his time at the job. Was it simply a more naive era? The fact that so many Americans got their news from that TV half hour (which Cronkite was instrumental in making a full half hour rather than the 15 minutes he originally inherited) through either CBS, or NBC's rival Huntley-Brinkley, made it seem as though the truth were being told there--after all, there were few competing stories to hear.

And do not underestimate Cronkite's voice and demeanor, perfect for television. Never slick, not handsome, he seemed profoundly sincere, with a deep and resonant voice and a slight (at least to me) resemblance to another familiar and fatherly icon of the times with the same first name, Walt Disney. Cronkite had distinguished himself during his coverage of the Kennedy assassination, displaying controlled but moving emotion as he took off his glasses to announce the President's death. It was a deep bonding with the US public through a traumatic time.

Cronkite earned his trust the hard way: by reporting the unvarnished news. In this 2002 radio interview (well worth listening to for insight into his thought process at the time) Cronkite describes his orientation towards his job prior to that watershed moment of the Tet offensive broadcast.

Previously the top brass at CBS, as well as the reporters there, had understood their function to be reporting "the facts, just the facts." Editorializing was kept strictly separate; at CBS, it was a function of Eric Sevareid, and clearly labeled as such.

The president of CBS news, Dick Salant, was a man of almost fanatical devotion to the principles of non-editorializing journalism, according to Cronkite's interview. Cronkite said that, till Tet, he "almost wouldn't let us put an adjective in a sentence" when reporting, he'd been such a stickler for "just the facts."

But, according to Cronkite, as the Vietnamese War had worn on, and because of the confusion of the American people about the war, reflected in letters to the station, Salant sent Cronkite on a trip to Vietnam with the idea of doing a piece of opinion journalism when he came back, in order to help the American people "understand" what was going on by explicitly editorializing and advising them.

One can speculate long and hard about why Salant decided it was time to make such a drastic change. From Cronkite's interview, it appears that the brass at CBS was part of the turmoil of the 60s with its "question authority" ethos. If you listen to Cronkite (and he expresses not a moment's ambivalence about his actions), you may hear, as I did, an anger at a military that seemed heedless of the difficulties of the Vietnam endeavor, and too sanguine--similar to the "cakewalk" accusation towards the present Iraq War.

Another fact that becomes apparent in the Cronkite interview is that he felt personally betrayed by the military men he'd talked to as Vietnam churned on. He'd been a war correspondent in the Second World War, and that conflict, in which the press had been heavily censored, had featured public pronouncements of public optimism but private "off the record" discussions with the press that were more realistic and often more gloomy. Cronkite had been privy to these. But during Vietnam, when there was no official censorship, the military self-censored when talking to the press--they were profoundly optimistic, because they knew everything they said would be reported. Cronkite seemed miffed that he wasn't given the inside info, as he had been in WWII.

Cronkite is up-front about these differences in his interview. I think it's ironic that, if there had been more censorship during the Vietnam War, war correspondents such as Cronkite might have understood better where the military was coming from and might have cut them some slack. However, that's mere speculation. What actually happened is that Cronkite felt betrayed, and he and Salant thought the American people had been betrayed, and they felt it was important enough that they needed to break their own long-standing rule and spill the beans to the American people.

It never seems to have occurred to them, of course, that in reacting to Tet as they did they were participating in a different falsehood, the propagation of North Vietnamese propaganda about the situation.

Whatever Cronkite's motivations may have been, it's hard to overestimate the effect it had when he suddenly stated on air that the meaning of Tet was that the situation in Vietnam was hopelessly stalemated and the war could not be won. We're used to this sort of thing now, and many of us have learned to brush it off. But then, to much of America, Cronkite's was the voice of trusted authority that could not be denied--despite the fact that he had no special expertise to make such a proclamation.

Of course, we are reaping the fruit of that moment today. Journalism has changed, and not for the better, mixing opinion and facts in messy attempts to influence public opinion rather than inform. In connection with that radio interview, for example, see this statement, rather typical of the genre:

It was a bold move for Cronkite, and it was an seminal moment for journalism, to go beyond the reporting of events, to tell a conflicted people a higher truth, something beyond the cataloguing of casualties or shifting front lines.

To tell a conflicted people a higher truth. That seems to say it all, does it not?

[ADDENDUM: Here is the text of Cronkite's Tet statement:

"Report from Vietnam," Walter Cronkite Broadcast, February 27, 1968.

Tonight, back in more familiar surroundings in New York, we'd like to sum up our findings in Vietnam, an analysis that must be speculative, personal, subjective. Who won and who lost in the great Tet offensive against the cities? I'm not sure. The Vietcong did not win by a knockout, but neither did we. The referees of history may make it a draw. Another standoff may be coming in the big battles expected south of the Demilitarized Zone. Khesanh could well fall, with a terrible loss in American lives, prestige and morale, and this is a tragedy of our stubbornness there; but the bastion no longer is a key to the rest of the northern regions, and it is doubtful that the American forces can be defeated across the breadth of the DMZ with any substantial loss of ground. Another standoff. On the political front, past performance gives no confidence that the Vietnamese government can cope with its problems, now compounded by the attack on the cities. It may not fall, it may hold on, but it probably won't show the dynamic qualities demanded of this young nation. Another standoff.

We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds. They may be right, that Hanoi's winter-spring offensive has been forced by the Communist realization that they could not win the longer war of attrition, and that the Communists hope that any success in the offensive will improve their position for eventual negotiations. It would improve their position, and it would also require our realization, that we should have had all along, that any negotiations must be that-negotiations, not the dictation of peace terms. For it seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate. This summer's almost certain standoff will either end in real give-and-take negotiations or terrible escalation; and for every means we have to escalate, the enemy can match us, and that applies to invasion of the North, the use of nuclear weapons, or the mere commitment of one hundred, or two hundred, or three hundred thousand more American troops to the battle. And with each escalation, the world comes closer to the brink of cosmic disaster.

To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past. To suggest we are on the edge of defeat is to yield to unreasonable pessimism. To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion. On the off chance that military and political analysts are right, in the next few months we must test the enemy's intentions, in case this is indeed his last big gasp before negotiations. But it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.

This is Walter Cronkite. Good night.

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