Wednesday, February 28, 2007

New blog glitches: oh, how I love this technical stuff!

Surprise, surprise--the course of designing a new blog never did run smooth (I'm still feeling a trifle Shakespearean, I guess). There'll be a bit of a delay with the new blog's official grand opening while I iron out (or attempt to iron out) some glitches.

Some people have said they are being stopped from commenting on the new blog. Others have complained about problems with the RSS feed. I think I may have fixed the problem that was stopping the commenting, and will be working on the other. I encourage all of you to visit and try to comment: please let me know if you experience any problems.

Due to these technical difficulties and general busyness, "Strategies for Children (Part II): killing them" will be delayed till tomorrow.

Talking to Iran: don't want to stink up the place

I heard the news with surprise on the radio: the Bush administration has announced that the US will participate in talks with Iran and Syria.

That seemed awfully odd to me, given the administration's previous declarations that this will not happen. And, although politicians are notorious for changing their minds depending on which way the wind is blowing--and although not all changes of mind are bad ones, by any means--this one made me very suspicious, indeed (see this for my discussion on talking with Iran).

The money quote from that post is here:

If by "talk" you mean threats with a big stick to back them up, I'm all for talking. But...[t]he talks that are proposed [at the time the post was written] are to elicit Iran's cooperation in covering a planned retreat from Iraq, to "stabilize" the country. The only stabilization Iran is interested in there is stabilization under Iran's thumb, and they will say anything and do anything to get it. Thus talks are inherently duplicitous and counterproductive.

So, if the present proposed talks contain two elements: (1) a strategically viable "big stick" threat from the US; and (2) Iran's awareness that the talks are not a cover for a planned precipitous US retreat from Iraq--then I think talking to Iran and Syria would not be a particularly dangerous thing to do. Although I still doubt the productivity of any such talks, they would no longer be especially risky, as long as we remain realistic about their chances of success, and continue to pressure Iran in other ways.

Whether these two needed elements are fully in place right now, I'm not sure. The second one appears to be--albeit weakly, albeit temporarily--since the antiwar resolution advocates in Congress don't seem to be winning out (yet). But there's no pretense of a united front on that score, either, and Iran knows that.

As for the first element, take a look at this. It's a very promising development I first heard about at a lecture I attended a couple of months ago: a new form of economic sanctions (under the umbrella of that favorite bete noir of liberals and the Left, the Patriot Act, which appears to be doing some good, after all). The economic effects of these sanctions have already been felt by both Iran and North Korea. Hmmm. Previously (as the article points out), sanctions have been relatively feeble and toothless, but these seem to have a bit of a bite.


Another point is that the proposed talks are not just between the US, Iran, and Syria. They involve twenty key countries in the region including Iran and Syria. The goal is, apparently, to improve Iraq's relations in the area as a whole, and the US is attending in deference to Iraq's need to establish regional credibility, not necessarily to do a whole lot of negotiating with Iran and Syria.

In a delicate metaphor, Jon Alterman, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington says:

The [Bush] administration is still skeptical, but they were not going to be the skunk at the garden party and say we are not going at all.

So, let's retain our skepticism, have some tea and some cucumber sandwiches, and talk.

Who says kids have gone soft?

As you can plainly see, they're still pretty tough in New England:

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Strategies for children: (Part I) saving them

[This is the first of a two-part series. Tomorrow Part II, "killing them," will appear.]

Last night I was working at my computer when I got a call from a friend telling me to turn on my TV and watch the Oprah Winfrey special called "Building a Dream."

I don't watch much TV to begin with, and Oprah isn't usually on my list. But I trust this friend so I turned it on, even though I'd missed the first twenty minutes. And within a few moments I was surprised to find tears streaming down my cheeks.

The premise? The plans began five years ago, when Oprah went to South Africa to build a boarding school (grades 7-12) for girls who'd shown special scholarship and leadership abilities. These were not children of the elite; she combed the countryside to find girls in out-of-the-way places, children of poverty who'd known terrible privation and yet hadn't been beaten down by it--yet.

Oprah's idea was to make sure that never happened, and in doing so she believes the project could have a transformative effect on the next generation of the whole country--Oprah thinks big. There's no doubt there's something to what she's saying; children are the future of any society and as they go, so goes the nation.

Oprah's got money, scads of it, so she spared no expense in constructing a school with 28 buildings, and began a process that would ultimately select the 152 young girls who would be the members of its first class.

And it was those girls who were the stars of this show, the ones who caused my tears. You can take a look at Oprah's (rather simplistic) website for some information and photos, but I urge you to watch the repeat of the show (I can't believe I'm doing this!), which airs the evening of March 3 on ABC at either 8 or 9 PM (check your local listings).

What was it about these children that was so moving--and yes, so inspiring? Even though they were individuals--some fat, some thin, some quiet, some talkative, some pretty, some plain--they all shared a common charactistic that is actually quite uncommon, at least in my experience, a trait not usually seen in girls in their early teens. They showed remarkable poise and self-possession without a hint of obnoxious arrogance, a sweetness combined with a steely strength. All were well-spoken and almost superhumanly polite, obviously intelligent, with a maturity not only beyond their years, but beyond the years of most people on earth even if they lived to be 100. And yet somehow they retained the lightheartedness of children.

These girls have known hardship, all right. There are Lincolnesque scenes of doing homework by candlelight, no running water, primitive outhouses. And material privations are not the only ones they've experienced; far worse is the amount of violence and death--particularly of parents--in their young lives. But even as they describe these things there is a reluctance to consider themselves victims--or, as one girl, Lesego, says, in her lilting, musical voice (speaking of herself in the third person, but charmingly rather than obnoxiously), "Lesego is a fighter and she'll never give up."

When you hear her say this, you believe it's not just idle boasting. In fact, it's not boasting at all, just a simple statement of fact. She's been through enough already to know whereof she speaks.

There's a famous statement by Ernest Hemingway: The world breaks everyone, and afterwards, many are strong at the broken places." These children are among that "many."

What has given them their phenomenal strength? That certain something is mysterious, but from studies of so-called "resilient" children (also see this), we've learned that it usually includes the loving support of at least one adult. Often, in these cases, it's a grandmother, something Oprah (and I) can identify with. Resilient children also probably have some innate personality traits that predispose them to doing well despite the odds: they usually possess a naturally optimistic and outgoing personality, for starters.

These girls appear to fall into that category. Despite their losses, they all seem to have at least one loving adult in their lives (perhaps even a village of them). You can see it in their faces when they bid good-bye and leave for the school; there are heartfelt tears there. But they know they are going on to a place that will give them opportunities they may have dreamed of, but were impossible--till now.

There's a celebrity presence at the ceremony for the opening of the school. Besides Oprah, of course, there's Nelson Mandela, as well as the usual Hollywood biggies (Spike Lee, Sidney Portier). But the true celebrities are the shining faces of these girls, standing proud and as tall as they possibly can (maybe even taller) in their new uniforms.

The new blog: move imminent!

I know, I know--I've been saying I'm going to move for a long time now. But it really should be happening very soon--perhaps even tomorrow.

This is the URL of the new blog. Please bookmark it, if you haven't already.

At first, not everything on the new blog will be in its final state. So please bear with me. The blogroll there, for example, is rudimentary, as are a number of other things, and they may take a while to fine tune.

I am also planning to duplicate virtually all the posts on this blog on the new blog, and that won't be done right away, either. For that transfer to take place, this blog will have to go from what's called "Old Blogger" to "New Blogger," among other things. That transition is supposed to go smoothly, and if it does, you won't notice any changes on this blog; it should look the same. We'll see.

The end result--and this could take quite a few weeks to complete--will be that this blog will remain as is, and no more new postings will take place on it. But it will still be possible to read the old ones here. The new blog will go forward with all the new posts, but all the old ones will be imported there, as well.

In addition, there will be an index system on the new blog. All new posts--and, ultimately, all of the old ones from here--will be categorized. For example, if you wanted to take a look at all my posts on "dance," you could just go to that category and you'd find the list of links to all my posts on that subject.

Other improvements (at least, I hope they'll be improvements!) will be happening there as time goes on. But in the meantime, it should be quite functional.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Impending move to new URL

[I'm going to keep putting this post at the top of the page until I actually make the move.]

Here is the URL of the soon-to-be-unveiled new home of my blog. It's getting closer to being ready.

Lieberman: carrying that big stick

Senator Lieberman has had a strange year. His ostracism from the Democratic Party failed to stop his re-election, and has paradoxically put him in a stronger position than ever--although, for many reasons, I doubt he'll ever hold national office, even were he to switch parties.

In such an evenly divided Senate he holds the threat of upsetting the balance between the parties were Joe--now an Independent (like me!)--to defect. Despite the fact that he votes with the Republicans on security issues, he's still not officially tied to them, and thus the Democrats hold onto their slim majority and their power over all the committees. Lieberman's rejection by his fellow-Democrats has bought him a certain amount of freedom--and potential power to gum up the works and rain on the Democratic parade, were he to make an outright switch to Republican, a possiblity he has wisely refused to rule out.

With that in mind, Lieberman has written an appeal to Congress. It appeared in today's Opinion Journal, explaining exactly what's at stake and why members of Congress needs to focus on reality instead of playing petty games. The tone strikes me as reasonable and measured, practical and realistic. But it's backed up with an implicit threat of Lieberman's power of defection, nowhere mentioned in the piece:

What is remarkable about this state of affairs in Washington is just how removed it is from what is actually happening in Iraq. There, the battle of Baghdad is now under way. A new commander, Gen. David Petraeus, has taken command, having been confirmed by the Senate, 81-0, just a few weeks ago. And a new strategy is being put into action, with thousands of additional American soldiers streaming into the Iraqi capital.

Congress thus faces a choice in the weeks and months ahead. Will we allow our actions to be driven by the changing conditions on the ground in Iraq--or by the unchanging political and ideological positions long ago staked out in Washington? What ultimately matters more to us: the real fight over there, or the political fight over here?

I fear if the truth be known that many in Congress would answer: the latter.

Lieberman then goes on to detail the differences between the new approach and the old. He agrees that there's no way of guaranteeing the former's success, but:

We are now in a stronger position to ensure basic security--and with that, we are in a stronger position to marginalize the extremists and strengthen the moderates; a stronger position to foster the economic activity that will drain the insurgency and militias of public support; and a stronger position to press the Iraqi government to make the tough decisions that everyone acknowledges are necessary for progress.

Unfortunately, for many congressional opponents of the war, none of this seems to matter. As the battle of Baghdad just gets underway, they have already made up their minds about America's cause in Iraq, declaring their intention to put an end to the mission before we have had the time to see whether our new plan will work.

True, and very shortsighted, as well as cowardly. Lieberman points out their basic lack of bravery in refusing to do what they should do if they really believe what they say: cut the funding. Instead, they are proposing the death of a thousand cuts--the "slow bleed."

Lieberman again:

Many of the worst errors in Iraq arose precisely because the Bush administration best-cased what would happen after Saddam was overthrown. Now many opponents of the war are making the very same best-case mistake--assuming we can pull back in the midst of a critical battle with impunity, even arguing that our retreat will reduce the terrorism and sectarian violence in Iraq.

Lieberman then appeals to his colleagues to give peace a chance--peace in Congress, that is. He asks for a moratorium on political squabbling till the end of summer, in order to give General Petraeus and the plan some time to begin to prove itself, or not.

My guess is that his pleas will fall on deaf ears. But don't forget--Lieberman may be walking softly, but he's carrying a big stick--the stick of his potential defection.

Words to the wise

I had Chinese food for lunch, and this was my fortune:

Wise men learn more from fools than fools learn from the wise.

Which may actually have been one of the deeper fortune cookies I've ever gotten.

Random Oscar notes

Okay, so I watched the Oscars. In addition to observing the usual self-congratulatory self-righteousness from the very rich and very famous, I observed what's far more important, of course: the fashions.

Since I've seen none of the movies except "Dreamgirls," I had no dogs in most of those races--nor have I really cared much about the Oscars even when I did go to the movies far more often. But fashion and hair--ah, that's another story!

A small digression and small confession: when I was about eleven, I wanted to be a hairdresser (that was a few years after I'd given up my dream to become a roller derby star--but more about that, perhaps, another time). When I announced my hair salon aspirations to my mother she was a bit distressed, "Don't you think that would be--ummm--wasting your mind?" I eventually abandoned the idea, but not after spending quite a bit of time in high school and college cutting friends' hair and applying their makeup for proms and special occasions.

And so you're reading the observations of a semipro here, although a very outdated one. And I'm happy to report that this year's fashions (guys, are you still with me?--thought not) were better than in recent years that had featured the sloppy nightgown look. The gowns this year erred in the other direction: very tightly constructed, almost trussed (although what these skinny ladies need trussing for I'll never know). But rather pretty and much more elegant.

Ann Althouse described Nicole Kidman's dress as "all plastic-y and shiny. She's wearing an impossibly tall, thin red dress." True; she looked less like a human than like a walking larger-than-life Barbie. She's a woman with an unusual body to begin with--very broad shoulders and narrow hips--and her dress emphasized the broadness of the former and the narrowness of the latter (no, it's not just envy speaking and being critical--oh, well, maybe just a teeny tiny bit).

Diane Keaton looked oddly severe; but she's always been a very eccentric dresser. Also, she looked rail thin, which I don't remember before. In fact, "rail thin" was very much in evidence in general; did you take a good look at Kate Blanchett's extra shoulder bones, the little ones that stick up when a person goes down to starvation weight? None of that for Jennifer Hudson, who seemed very revved up, but in a manner that seemed natural for an excited young newcomer.

Helen Mirren set a subdued and dignified tone for the Woman of Certain Age (after all, she played a queen). A bit monochrome for my tastes, though. Al Gore--well, he continues to look stuffy, but he actually did a funny bit when his "announcement" was drowned out by the "time to go" music.

As for Jack Nicholson--whom I think long ago became a parody of himself, a self that was already dangerously close to parody even at the outset--he looked bizarre. The camera kept going to him--why, I don't know: celebrity? disbelief? awe? disgust? To me he looked like a cross between Daddy Warbucks and Lex Luther, but even that is being kind.

I don't get Leonardo di Caprio. A good actor who absolutely doesn't interest me, and he looks like an eternal boy. Peter O'Toole, a good actor who does interest me, looked so shockingly old and frail that I didn't recognize him until he was identified. I've always liked Forrest Whitaker, and his speech seemed very genuine. I want to ask Martin Scorcese to take off the Groucho disguise, but I'm too polite to do so.

And I'd like some information on whatever it is that Catherine Deneuve's been doing to keep herself looking forever young. Of course, it doesn't hurt to start out gorgeous, but that's no guarantee that you'll stay that way, as she has.

Enough fluff, don't you think?

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Understanding (and misunderstanding) Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet

One of the most famous misunderstood lines in all of literature is Juliet's balcony query: "Oh Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?"

As most of you probably know, the archaic "wherefore" means "why." But the misconception that the word means "where" persists, even though the latter would make no sense in the context of the scene: Juliet is musing to herself and Romeo is eavesdropping, overhearing her words without her knowledge. She's certainly not searching for him at that moment.

Shakespeare is difficult, and it's not just because of his use of outdated words that require explanation in order to understand (well, we can hardly blame him; they weren't outdated at the time). We're simply not accustomed to hearing such sophisticated speech and being able to divine meaning from its poetry, its playful images and complex metaphors. Apparently in Shakespeare's day people were more adept at that, but it's since become a lost art.

Studying Shakespeare with a good teacher can bring the words and their meaning alive in a way that makes the plays the beloved masterpieces that they have been for centuries. I once had such a teacher; we'll call him Mr. Jones.

Mr. Jones was an ex-actor with a vaguely British accent crossed with a hint of a Jamaican lilt. He was also a black man at a time when African American teachers weren't all that common, back in my junior high school days. How he ended up at my school I don't know, nor do I know much else about him except that he lived with his elderly mother.

Mr. Jones was very big on reading aloud. He had an old-fashioned over-the-top rhetorical style, a huge voice left over from his days treading the boards of un-miked stages, and a fearless disregard for giggle-prone eighth-graders. He would declaim in that commanding voice, and his presence would stifle any desire to laugh. The sounds would wash over us impressively, even if the meaning eluded us.

But he wanted us to understand the meaning, as well. And to this end we spent months studying Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet." One would think that this work would be the best choice among all Shakespeare's plays for a bunch of eighth-graders, and one would be right. After all, Juliet, at fourteen, could have been an eighth-grader herself.

But she wasn't like any eighth-grader we'd ever known. And Romeo was no better. What were they talking about? It seemed an impenetrable thicket of verbiage.

Mr. Jones tackled the whole thing by making us read every single word aloud. He called on some students to act out each part for a few pages, then switched to other students, and on and on, right to the last line. It took months. No matter how embarrassed we were, or what poor actors we were, or how we stumbled and faltered, we had to read those words. And he was big on non-traditional casting, too; he'd sometimes call on the boys to read the female parts and vice-versa. Talk about embarrassment!

One boy, Carl Anderson, who had the platinum hair and fair skin of his Norwegian forebearers, blushed scarlet every time he was called on to read. Then he'd blush even more startlingly scarlet as embarrassing words were revealed ("Sleep dwell upon thine eyes, peace in thy breast! Would I were sleep and peace, so sweet to rest!"). But read he did.

Some read in monotones, some gave it pizazz. And then, after every couple of lines, Mr. Jones would have them pause and try to explain the meaning. If they couldn't guess, the class would tackle it. If all else failed, Mr. Jones would tell us. But, line by line, the wonderful and sorrowful story emerged, and we slowly got better at deciphering it.

As the characters came alive for us, line by line, Shakespeare (and Mr. Jones) managed that feat at which the writers of so many modern movies fail abysmally: making us care about the characters, and making us believe the lovers actually love each other, and showing us why. We loved Romeo and Juliet, too; and we could see that they were exceptionally well-suited to one another, each able to express emotions in ways no other teenagers ever have or ever will.

When Romeo and Juliet first meet at the ball, they have a conversation in which both show an equal adeptness at imagery and playfulness. The whole scene is an extended metaphor that compares the religious (the hands in prayer) with the sexual (the lips in a kiss).

Classier pickup lines were never heard, at least not in my life:

ROM: If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle fine is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.

Juliet plays hard-to-get with an equally witty rejoinder:

JUL: Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims' hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers' kiss.

Ah, but Romeo is not so easily put off from his goal:

ROM: Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?

But again, Juliet is equal to the task of parrying him:

JUL: Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in pray'r.

But Romeo is not to be dissuaded. He cleverly extends the image in an attempt to get what he's looking for--a kiss (to understand what he's getting at here, think of two hands clasped together in prayer):

ROM: O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do!
They pray; grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.

Ah, who could resist? Certainly not Juliet, who clearly doesn't even wish to hold him off, although she pays some final lip service (pun intended; after all, Shakespeare likes puns!) to restraint:

JUL: Saints do not move, though grant for prayers' sake.

And Romeo sees his opportunity:

ROM: Then move not while my prayer's effect I take.
Thus from my lips, by thine my sin is purg'd. [Kisses her.]

Are they not well-matched? Precocious and intensely emotional, they exude the essence of heady young love, love that has as yet no experience of sorrow or betrayal (although they'll know sorrow soon enough). These two love with all their hearts; they are made for each other, and the audience knows it immediately through their words.

A few years later when I saw the Zefferelli film version of "Romeo and Juliet," I marveled at the scene as it was acted out with suitable hand gestures (oh, so that's the way it works!) by the achingly-young Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting (I can't locate a photo of that scene, but here's a different one--and, by the way, Whiting was a ringer for my boyfriend at the time):

If you've never seen that film, please take a look. Yes, it was roundly criticized for leaving at least half the play on the cutting-room floor. And for including nakedness (as I recall, a rear shot of Romeo during the post-wedding rendezvous in Juliet's bedroom). And for casting unknown actors who were so young they lacked the requisite Shakespearean gravitas.

But for me, the film made the play come alive. You believed they loved each other. You believed their desperation. And in the death scenes, you could not help but cry at the waste of these two beautiful young lives.

In the film, the meaning of all those Shakespearean lines was clear; a testament to the actors' skill. But they wouldn't have been anywhere near as clear to me--or as wonderful-- without those efforts of Mr. Jones.

[ADDENDUM: I'm pleased to report that fellow blogger and Romeo-and-Juliet-aficionado[a?] Fausta has found a photo of the scene I described from the Zefferelli movie, where the lovers use "suitable hand gestures" in their prayer/kiss conversation. Here it is:

And here Fausta elaborates on her own relationship to R&J, as well as how a nun at her Catholic school inadvertantly drummed up business for the movie.]

Friday, February 23, 2007

Thoughts on Hillary and other female heads of state

The Clinton-Obama Democratic matchup is study in contrasts, so far.

We know Hillary only too well; one of her problems is that of too much exposure. Obama is the proverbial blank slate. They're both trailblazers, demographically speaking, but of different types: she, a woman and ex-First Lady; he, an African-American with a multicultural past. Hillary possesses many interesting and useful traits, but charisma seems not to be one of them. Obama has almost nothing but charisma.

Commonalities are that they are both smart, and they both lean to the Left, as does the party itself these days. Who leans more heavily to the Left is anybody's guess.

If I were forced to choose between the two--and "forced" it would have to be, because I have no interest in voting for either--I think I'd go (albeit very reluctantly) for Hillary's toughness over the sketchy touchy-feely (but so far, empty) "inspiration" of Obama. This, of course, could change, if he fills in the blankness with something of substance.

I've never hated Hillary, and still don't. And yes, I know, that's not a very strong endorsement, nor is it meant to be. But I well understand the hatred for her. She emanates the same vibes that made people hate Leona Helmsley (remember her?), Martha Stewart, and any other woman who is perceived as both coldly ruthless and powerful.

We've had so few female heads of state that comparisons are hard to find. Actually, I amend that thought: there have been many female heads of state, but most of them aren't widely known, and most ascended to power through a sort of inheritance--the death of a husband or father.

Even the very-well-known Indira Gandhi and Golda Meir were somewhat in this mold: Gandhi filled a power vacuum her father Nehru's sudden death left open, and Meir ascended to the office of Prime Minister when chosen by her party after the sudden death of former PM Levi Eshkol. Both were political beings prior to those events, particularly Meir, but there's little question that the openings left by the deaths of prominent men facilitated their rise in an atmosphere in which women leaders were by far the exception rather than the rule.

Interestingly enough, Hillary fits very well into that mold. Her career has been closely linked to that of her more conventionally electable husband. And now, although Bill is still very much alive, he's "dead" in the political sense. Since he can no longer run for President, Hillary has taken on the mantle.

Margaret Thatcher is the one woman leader who seems to have climbed to the pinnacle without the help of a father or husband who was a political predecessor, or the sudden death of a political colleague creating an opportunity that otherwise would not have existed. Of course, she was elected not through a direct process of people voting for her, but voting instead for her party, (as is always the case in Parliamentary systems). But still, she was elected under her own steam.

Thatcher was certainly in the mold of a woman perceived as exceptionally strong and rather cold, and was hated by many in her time. But (at least to the best of my knowledge; and I don't pretend to be an expert on Thatcher) she was not perceived as corrupt or amorally opportunistic, as is Hillary. Instead, Thatcher was hated for her policies, and for her no-nonsense firmness in implementing them. Thatcher was devoted to conservative ideas, and was unusually and rather firmly consistent about them for her entire life. Her iron qualities seemed to be less in service of self-aggrandizement than in service of her political cause. But iron she was.

Hillary's iron has been shown more in the cause of getting first her husband and then herself elected, at least so far. And she's tainted by the brush of her own possible corruption as well as Bill Clinton's moral failings, and her own compromises in service of his career and the preservation of their marriage.

As far as the latter goes, I have some sympathy for the position in which Bill's philandering placed her. Despite his lengthy history of infidelity--of which she no doubt knew--the Lewinsky affair during his Presidency must have violated some important pact between them. I'm not sure of the nature of that agreement (no, they haven't taken me into their confidence), but it certainly must have included refraining from misbehaving in such a way as to get caught and jeopardize both of their political careers. And if she'd left him at the time, her calculation was probably that it would have jeopardized them still further. Call me naive, but I also believe she was wounded in the personal sense, as well.

The idea of Bill in the White House again, if only as a spouse, must fill many with dread--just as it fills many with glee. He's a polarizing figure of great intensity. Perhaps that's why many Democrats prefer the blank slate of Obama. He may seem to be a lightweight, but at least he carries no real baggage.

Venezuela update: is anyone surprised by this? Except Jimmy?

Chavez may have rigged the referendum of 2004, according to a statistical study by two Venezuelan scientists.

An isolated study or two wouldn't mean much. But there's a lot more evidence that this particular election was rigged.

And is there anyone who doubts Chavez capable of such a thing? In fact, is there anyone who thinks he would think twice about doing such a thing?

And is there anyone who believes that certification of the election results by Jimmy Carter has any meaning whatsoever, except as another example of why he's the worst ex-President in history (and yes indeed, I voted for him--twice).

From the not-particularly disputed Wiki entry on the Venezuelan referendum 0f 2004:

European Union observers did not oversee the elections, saying too many restrictions were put on their participation by the Chávez administration. The Carter Center "concluded the results were accurate." However, a Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates (PSB) exit poll showed the opposite result, predicting that Chávez would lose by 20%, whereas the election results showed him to have won by 20%. Schoen commented, "I think it was a massive fraud". US News and World Report offered an analysis of the polls, indicating "very good reason to believe that the (Penn Schoen) exit poll had the result right, and that Chávez's election officials — and Carter and the American media — got it wrong".

According to the Center for Security Policy (disclosure: many of those nefarious neoconservatives are affiliated with the group):

"The [Chavez] government did everything—including granting citizenship to half a million illegal aliens in a crude vote-buying scheme and “migrating” existing voters away from their local election office—to fix the results in its favor. The outcome was then affirmed and legitimated by ex-President Jimmy Carter’s near-unconditional support." "Jimmy Carter ignored pleas from the opposition and publicly endorsed the results, despite the fact that the government reneged on its agreement to carry out an audit of the results. Carter’s actions not only gave the Venezuelan regime the legitimacy it craved, but also destroyed the public’s confidence in the voting process and in the effectiveness of international observers."

Voting fraud allegations have become commonplace--almost required--lately. But in this case they seem only too correct. The evidence is strong, plus Chavez's later acts leave little doubt in my mind that voter fraud is exactly what he would have done to hold onto his power and allow him to carry out his plans for becoming dictator of Venezuela. And Jimmy Carter was his willing enabler, either a pious dupe or a fraud himself.

Most ex-Presidents adhere to the Hippocratic oath when they are out of power: first, do no harm. Would that Carter would stick to it, as well.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

These fickle and reversing politicos and press, then and now

I'm reading a fascinating book by Robert Kagan entitled Dangerous Nation: America's place in the world from its earliest days to the dawn of the twentieth century. A mouthful, I know--and that's only Part I, which goes up to the beginning of the Spanish-American war.

I haven't finished it. But I wanted to point out the following passage about the build-up to that war:

Republican newspapers that had been excoriating [Democratic President] Cleveland for his inaction on Cuba right up until the last days of the Democrat's term now reversed themselves [after the election of McKinley, a Republican] and backed McKinley's inaction. The small group of Republican barons who directed affairs in the House and Senate were dead set against intervention in Cuba and war with Spain. When Cleveland had been in office, they had let party members loose to criticize the Democrats for betraying the cause of Cuban freedom. But once in power they preferred Cleveland's course.

So, in terms of hypocrisy and self-serving political wheeling dealing, twas ever thus! When I'm tempted to think that there was a golden age when politics was more civil and profiles in courage were more common, all I have to do is read history to get a corrective lesson.

And don't think we're just talking about Republicans, here. A few sentences later we read this:

The Democrats, meanwhile, released from the burden of defending Cleveland's inaction, now assailed McKinley for pursuing the same course.

So, what else is new?

I hope to write more about this book soon. It makes some fascinating points that indicate certain parallels between the Spanish-American War and the Iraq War--although they may not be the ones you think.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Podcast: the Squad takes on the Presidency

In honor of Presidents Day (or President's Day, or perhaps Presidents' Day), the Sanity Squad yaks it up about good Presidents and bad, and the office itself. We also discuss the recent terrorist train bombing in India. Please join me, Siggy, Shrink, and Dr. Sanity. And take a look at this, Siggy's intro to the podcast, in which he outs some information about my secret past.

More reasons to visit the blogs of my esteeemd colleagues: Dr. Sanity proves she is a lyrical parodist extraordinaire in her "Rime of the Ancient Socialists," while Shrink has a multi-parter on abortion (just go to his blog and scroll down; I may post something on the topic soon, as well). And Siggy has a personal story of his own to share, in addition to some general reflections on this most weighty and profoundly controversial subject.

Our Iraq allies and spin: past and present, British and otherwise

As Blair announces and Britain prepares a phased pull out from Iraq, I noticed this list of our allies who are still there.

It's a somewhat varied and lengthy group, considering that basically this has been a US effort. And of course the numbers from most of the countries are small.

But I'm surprised that so many are still there at all, although I'm not surprised that that fact has been kept fairly quiet--perhaps, even, at the behest of those countries, who no doubt have a valid fear of retaliation by terrorist groups.

Critics will say the forces involved are mainly symbolic rather than meaningful. But any support has meaning and carries risk, and some of the countries involved are very small themselves. Note the strong participation of "new" Europe--the eastern, previously Russian satellite, part:

• South Korea – 2,300 troops in northern city of Irbil; plans to bring home 1,100 troops this spring and parliament has called for a complete withdrawal by the end of the year

• Australia – 1,400 troops; Prime Minister John Howard Wednesday called Britain's move “good sense” but reject calls to follow suit

• Poland – 900 non-combat troops, mission extended to end of this year

• Romania – 865 troops, with most serving in the south under British command 460-member contingent from southern Iraq by August and transfer security responsibilities to Iraqi forces.

• Denmark – The country's 460-member contingent will be pulled by August, with security responsibilities transferred to Iraqi forces. During the conflict, six Danish soldiers have been killed in Iraq

• El Salvador – 380 troops doing peacekeeping work in Hillah; no plans for withdrawal

• Georgia – 850 troops serving under U.S. command in Baqouba; no withdrawal plans

• Azerbaijan – 150 troops, mostly sentries on patrol near Hadid

• Bulgaria – 150 troops, including a large number of non-troops guarding a refugee camp north of Baghdad • Latvia – about 136 troops serving under Polish command

• Albania – 126 troops, mostly doing non-combat duty near airport Mosul • Czech Republic – 100 troops

• Mongolia – 100 troops, no withdrawal plans

• Lithuania – 50 troops as part of Danish battalion near Basra; a spokeswoman for the Baltic nation said Wednesday the country is “seriously considering” not replacing the troops with the mission ends this summer, marking the first time the staunch U.S. ally has indicated it would reduce its Iraq commitment

• Armenia – 46 troops, mission extended to the end of 2007

• Bosnia and Herzegovina – 37 troops

• Estonia – 34 troops serving under U.S. command near Baghdad

• Macedonia – 33 troops in Taji, north of Baghdad

• Kazakhstan – 29 troops, mostly military engineers

• Moldova – 11 bomb-defusing experts returned home in December; parliament has yet to decide on a new mission

• Fiji – The South Pacific nation contributed 150 troops, but the contingent was deployed as part of the UN Assistance Mission in Iraq

Of course, the US is the main act in Iraq. But Britain has been an ally right along--although the majority of the people there were always against British participation (as best I can recall); and, if not, they certainly are now.

So the British withdrawal is no mystery; it's been an unpopular war there, and Blair is mindful of his party's future. But the removal of these forces has been telegraphed for ages; no mystery there, as well. If you Google some phrase like "Blair forces leave Iraq" you'll find articles going back to 2006 and even 2005 discussing Blair's plans in that direction (this, for example).

The usual suspects claim the usual intrigue around the move, as described in this CNN article. Blair's statement that the withdrawal represents success in Basra (the area in which the British were always concentrated), and Bush's seconding of that motion, are questioned, especially since the surge is on. And everyone is using the move's announcement to score predictable political points.

In one way the timing does seem odd; why leave now, when more troops are supposed to be needed? On the other hand it's not so odd at all: the area is relatively calm at the moment, and Blair's hand has been virtually forced, in the political sense--he's been stalling on this move for years, and it's hard to imagine how he can stall much longer and still preserve any vitality for his party in the next elections.

Australian Prime Minister Howard is singing a different song. He's adamant about the fact the the Aussies are staying for now. Note, by the way, the subtly snarky tone of the linked article from the Sydney Morning Herald, a type of reporting that almost seamlessly merges editorializing with straight news in a way that's become so familiar as to be the rule rather than the exception (thanks, Walter Cronkite!).

In the article, Howard's announcement that Britain's pullout represents success in Basra is immediately characterized as "play[ing] down the importance" of Blair's announcement, and putting "a positive spin" on Blair's move. And this sort of editorializing occurs in the first two sentences of the story, rather than later on in the article, or even (gasp!!) being saved for an opinion piece.

The Sydney Herald piece does indeed contain some straight reporting and useful information, including quotes from Howard and other Australian officials on their opinions of what's involved. But this comes much later, in the second half of the piece (when most people have probably stopped reading, a fact of which the editors are no doubt fully aware). And it also comes after these opinions have been effectively discredited by the earlier parts of the article; whatever Howard and company may say, the Sydney's editors know it's mere spin--and they're not the least bit shy or retiring about telling us so, right up front.

This, by the way, has nothing to do with whether those editors are correct or not. Whether they are or aren't, I want my news straight, and any interpretation and opinion on another page--or at least in another article clearly labeled opinion, thank you very much. But you can't always get what you want, can you?

Howard is quoted in the article as saying, "A reduction has been in the wind (a while), and the reason I understand Mr Blair will give is that conditions have stabilised in Basra." That is certainly undisputed, as I pointed out.

Defence Minister Brendan Nelson adds that there's no discrepancy between the British pullout and the surge plans by the US:

"People ought to remember that 60 per cent of the violence comes from Baghdad and al-Anbar province, where al-Qaeda is particularly active," he told ABC Radio. "The rest of Iraq is quite different".

Undoubtedly true. But, with the surge so clearly telegraphed, and many of the terrorists and insurgents fleeing, aren't more troops needed in Basra, not less? So isn't the timing of the pullout a problem?

To know whether it's likely to be, it would help to know where those fleeing insurgents might have been going. Well, we know that al Sadr is likely to be whooping it up right now with his fun buddies in Iran.

But where are the others? To try to answer the question, I did a bit of research, and all I've come up with so far is this and a few other articles like it, which indicate that the fleeing insurgents seem to have gone to an area north of Baghdad and not all that far away from it. Certainly not to Basra.

Ah, here's a bit of news on the subject, embedded as a few words in an AP article found in the Guardian:

Analysts say there is little point in boosting forces in largely Shiite southern Iraq, where most non-U.S. coalition troops are concentrated.

Okay; I assume that the nameless "analysts" aren't of the Freudian type; they're experts on the situation in Iraq, supposedly. I'd love to hear a bit more about that, and about who they might be, but we don't. What we do hear is AP writer David Stringer immediately following it up with this speculation of his own (at least, apparently his own; there's no attribution for the statement):

Yet as more countries draw down or pull out, it could create a security vacuum if radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr stirs up trouble.

Interestingly enough, in the very first article I linked in this post (here, from NPR), which features that same AP article, there was another paragraph directly following the above quote about a security vacuum (this extra paragraph was omitted in the Guardian version):

A British withdrawal is not likely to have much effect on the stepped-up U.S. operation in Baghdad or the war against the Sunni-led insurgency focusing on Anbar province west of the Iraqi capital.

So, which is it? Will the British pullout matter, or not? Is it naivete to actually take what Blair says at face value: that the mission is pretty much accomplished in Basra, and that this doesn't represent a huge and terrible break with Washington and with Bush? Well, it's hard to know; but experts seem to believe the British withdrawal and the surge are not contradictory at all.

Wouldn't it be nice if all speculation by journalists would remain where it belongs, in a column or op-ed piece? Or, of course, they're welcome to start their own blogs and spout off like me--but then they'd be letting their biases out into the clear light of day, which could only be a good thing. Ah well, you can say I'm a dreamer.

[NOTE: Apologies for all the song lyric links in this post; my only excuse is I've still got golden oldies on the brain.]

Caution on troll-feeding

It's tedious work to prepare the new blog, and I don't have a lot of spare time to devote to it. I believe it will be ready in a few days, however.

In the meantime, I would like to reiterate that all commenters here refrain from feeding the trolls. I deleted an entire string of comments yesterday that was just back and forth squabbling. The comments section here is something I really value, and I don't want it to degenerate into childish namecalling on either side.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Peace/love: a golden oldie

I went out dancing the other night.

No, not ballet. My ballet days are over, I'm afraid.

And no, most assuredly not the tango. My tango days are over, I'm very happy to say.

This was dancing to the music of the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s. Golden oldies, silver oldies, brass oldies, tin oldies. The music of that last decade, the 80s, is a bit unfamiliar to me. But the rest of the songs rang a bunch of pleasant although somewhat rusty bells.

A portion of those bells involved raucous fraternity dances with spilled beer and even cigarettes (yes, yes, I smoked! But never inhaled; I just enjoyed making the most well-formed and longlasting smoke rings on earth.) Other bells rang for even earlier memories--of dancing in somebody's knotty-pine-paneled basement to an old record player with a stack of 45s that dropped, one by one, onto a turntable.

This dance the other night was held in a so-called ballroom, a large hall with one of those revolving globes with mirror fragments that cast moving points of light onto the wooden floor. It was a lot of fun; I think I'll do it again some time (the next day I was only slightly, rather than terribly, sore). I discovered that one of the benefits of getting more--ahem, mature--is that I don't have to worry quite so much about making a fool of myself on the dance floor. I just assume I'm doing so--at least a little bit--and, at this point, who really cares?

You might think, by the way, that being a former ballet dancer would make a person confident as a social dancer. Not so; the two genres are exceedingly different.

This was a Valentine's dance. You could tell that because most of us women--and even some of the men--managed to wear something red. And there was chocolate all around.

And then, as the evening was coming to an end, the youngish DJ came over to me and handed me a gift. Or maybe it was a prize (although for what, I don't know; maybe just for the courage to have gotten out there).

It was a tiny object sealed in a little plastic bag, sort of like something one might find in a crackerjack box. When I opened it, I found this pendant on a chain (those are sparkly blue rhinestones, by the way):

Maybe the DJ was trying to tell neo-neocon the chickenhawk warmonger something or other. Or maybe not; maybe his hawk eye just recognized an ex-semi-hippie-chick when he saw one.

But looking at that peace symbol brought back some other memories. And wouldn't it be wonderful if peace--real peace, meaningful peace, peace because the need to make war had gone away--were possible? That's the only kind of peace I can imagine, not a false peace that happens because we're tired of defending ourselves, or because we're lulled into a false sense of security by the lying words of an enemy.

I remember back when "All we are saying is give peace a chance" actually seemed like all one needed to say on the subject. Would that it had been so then; would that it were so now.

Teflon Don at Acute Politics: a blogger worth noticing

I came across the writing of milblogger Teflon Don via Pajamas Media, and I've added him to my blogroll. I strongly urge you to take a look at his blog Acute Politics.

There are many excellent milbloggers, but there's something about Teflon Don's work that stands out.

Maybe it's his use of a quote from Robert Frost at the top of his page; you know how partial I am to Frost. But no; it's actually the fine quality of his writing.

It's not merely that he's informative and intelligent--although he's certainly both of those. He doesn't just give us a vivid picture of what it's like to be serving in Iraq at this particular time in history-- although he does that, as well. Teflon Don writes with style and elegance--and eloquence--and combines it all with a great depth of feeling and sensitivity, and a profound emotional honesty. For such a young man (or a person for any age, for that matter), he's got a lot of wisdom--as well as humility, which is part of wisdom.

I wish this courageous man well, from the bottom of my heart.

Tell your friends in the service about this

Here's a website that might interest you if you're serving in the military, or know anyone who is. It's for military personnel to register an official appeal to Congress called a redress.

Here's the text he/she can sign on to, which will be delivered to members of Congress:

As an American currently serving my nation in uniform, I respectfully urge my political leaders in Congress to fully support our mission in Iraq and halt any calls for retreat. I also respectfully urge my political leaders to actively oppose media efforts which embolden my enemy while demoralizing American support at home. The War in Iraq is a necessary and just effort to bring freedom to the Middle East and protect America from further attack.

Monday, February 19, 2007

"I supported the troops before I cut the legs out from under them"

On "Face the Nation" yesterday, Tony Snow made what seems to me to be an eminently reasonable request:

What I would say to members of Congress is: Calm down and take a look at what's going on, and ask yourself a simple question: If you support the troops, would you deny them the reinforcements they think are necessary to complete the mission?

What does this business of "supporting the troops" actually mean, anyway? Most of the time, I'm afraid, it's empty rhetoric. And exceedingly condescending empty rhetoric, at that.

"Support" is a nice,touchy-feely word, vague enough to mean almost anything. Here are some definitions, however, for those more inclined towards precision:

# the activity of providing for or maintaining by supplying with money or necessities; "his support kept the family together"; "they gave him emotional support during difficult times"
# give moral or psychological support, aid, or courage to; "She supported him during the illness"; "Her children always backed her up"
# aiding the cause or policy or interests of; "the president no longer had the support of his own party"; "they developed a scheme of mutual support"
# support materially or financially; "he does not support his natural children"; "The scholarship supported me when I was in college"
# something providing immaterial assistance to a person or cause or interest; "the policy found little public support"; "his faith was all the support he needed"; "the team enjoyed the support of their fans"
# back: be behind; approve of; "He plumped for the Labor Party"; "I backed Kennedy in 1960"
# a military operation (often involving new supplies of men and materiel) to strengthen a military force or aid in the performance of its mission; "they called for artillery support"
# hold: be the physical support of; carry the weight of; "The beam holds up the roof"; "He supported me with one hand while I balanced on the beam"; "What's holding that mirror?"
# documentation: documentary validation; "his documentation of the results was excellent"; "the strongest support for this view is the work of Jones"
# confirm: establish or strengthen as with new evidence or facts; "his story confirmed my doubts"; "The evidence supports the defendant"
# subscribe: adopt as a belief; "I subscribe to your view on abortion"
# the financial means whereby one lives; "each child was expected to pay for their keep"; "he applied to the state for support"; "he could no longer earn his own livelihood"
# supporting structure that holds up or provides a foundation; "the statue stood on a marble support"
# corroborate: support with evidence or authority or make more certain or confirm; "The stories and claims were born out by the evidence"
# defend: argue or speak in defense of; "She supported the motion to strike"
# the act of bearing the weight of or strengthening; "he leaned against the wall for support"
# accompaniment: a subordinate musical part; provides background for more important parts
# play a subordinate role to (another performer); "Olivier supported Gielgud beautifully in the second act"
# patronize: be a regular customer or client of; "We patronize this store"; "Our sponsor kept our art studio going for as long as he could"
# any device that bears the weight of another thing; "there was no place to attach supports for a shelf"
# digest: put up with something or somebody unpleasant; "I cannot bear his constant criticism"; "The new secretary had to endure a lot of unprofessional remarks"; "he learned to tolerate the heat"; "She stuck out two years in a miserable marriage"
# financial resources provided to make some project possible; "the foundation provided support for the experiment"

Hard to see the current "slow-bleed" activities of Congress as "support" under any of these definitions: they provide neither money, psychological encouragement, aid to the cause, backup, approval, corroboration, weight-bearing, nor defense of the troops (although I suppose it could be argued that--for the 20,000 troops that would be included in any "surge"--they "defend" those particular troops by preventing them from going to Iraq and risking their lives--even if it is the wish of many of them to do so).

The phrase "we support the troops" uttered by antiwar activists and Congressional leaders is meant to deflect the sort of charges that became commonplace during the Vietnam War, when the conflict over that war was personalized into disrespect towards those who had served in the military. Most of those who declare support for the troops while hating the war are careful not to insult the troops directly, and certainly not to their faces.

But it's often the subtext of their message. And others are not so careful: witness the enormous (and well-earned) flap created by Washington Post "blogger" William M. Arkin's column characterizing our troops as a "mercenary" force who should be grateful to the American people for supporting them. (Please read the comments after his post, as well; many are far more interesting--and intelligent--than Arkin's original piece.)

How can the troops be said to be supported by the "slow bleed" envisioned by the Democratic leadership? One doesn't necessarily have to be a complete Jacksonian in order to see that wars should be waged competently or not at all. The Democrats and their seven Republican supporters refuse to go out on a political limb and cut off funding for the war. The fact that they are allowing troops to remain in harms' way there, and yet refusing to give them the support (actual support, not symbolic and empty words) that commanders think would help the mission, protect the troops, and ultimately help the Iraqis as well, is profoundly hypocritical and short-sighted.

The idea of the troops as naive (Arkin's word), exploited, poor, misguided, and stupid saps is a meme that won't die, despite demographic evidence to the contrary. But if one continues to promulgate (and possibly even to believe) these things, then the term "support" becomes translated into something other than "support what they are doing and what their commanders feel is needed." It becomes "support them by telling the poor misguided little ones what the truth is in order to protect them from their own ignorant perceptions." And what's that truth? "It's what we understand it to be."

The condescension is thick. Here's Arkin again, in a follow-up post:

In the middle of all of this are the troops, the pawns in political battles at home as much as they are on the real battlefield. We unquestioningly "support" these troops for the very reasons that they are pawns. We give them what we can to be successful, and we have a contract with them, because they are our sons and daughters and a part of us, not to place them in an impossible spot.

And yet, strangely enough, one can easily say (and I hereby say it) that those Democrats (and the seven Republicans) who voted for the recent resolution are guilty of using the troops as political pawns and of doing their best to "place them in an impossible spot."

Their condescension is especially misplaced in regards to an all-volunteer military. With a draft, there's a better argument to be made for the reluctance or naivete of troops. Volunteers are presumed to know what they're getting into: they have a choice, and they've chosen the military. That's why Arkin and others have fallen into the "mercenary" charge; it's the best one they can muster to counter the fact of an all-volunteer military, besmirching the motives of those who serve and reducing them to a desire for money.

Of course, being a volunteer in the military doesn't mean a person who serves has chosen this particular war. Although it's also a well-known fact that the majority of the military tend to vote Republican, there's also no question that some who serve would--and will-- vote for Democrats, and would prefer not to go to Iraq. But that's by no means a universal point of view, and reenlistment statistics--as well as interviews with military personnel such as the one that sparked the original Arkin article--certainly tell a different tale.

I'll close with the incomparable Steyn on the entire subject:

So "the Murtha plan" is to deny the president the possibility of victory while making sure Democrats don't have to share the blame for the defeat. But of course he's a great American! He's a patriot! He supports the troops! He doesn't support them in the mission, but he'd like them to continue failing at it for a couple more years. As John Kerry wondered during Vietnam, how do you ask a soldier to be the last man to die for a mistake? By nominally "fully funding" a war you don't believe in but "limiting his ability to use the money." Or as the endearingly honest anti-war group put it, in an e-mail preview of an exclusive interview with the wise old Murtha:

"Chairman Murtha will describe his strategy for not only limiting the deployment of troops to Iraq but undermining other aspects of the president's foreign and national security policy."

And I'll offer a rather simple definition of the word "undermine": it's the opposite of "support."

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Making music: on playing the cello

I used to play the cello.

Well, perhaps "play" is too strong a word. I was chosen for the instrument (no, that's not a typo; I was chosen for it, rather than the reverse) in fifth grade, at the public elementary school I attended in New York back when all such schools had numbers instead of names.

They tested us to see who had some musical aptitude, and for what instrument. Some of these tests were pretty simple. For example, one was as simple as "Are you a boy or are you a girl?" Stringed instruments went only to girls (Jascha Heifetz, eat your heart out), and cellos went only to tall girls.

I was a tall girl back then, although I'm not anymore (no, I haven't shrunk; it's the pictures that got small.) I reached my full height around fourth grade, and so in fifth I was still much taller than average, considered a good candidate for a big instrument like the cello.

And I could differentiate between on key and off, an absolute prerequisite for any stringed instrument. After all, on a cello, you create the notes; they're not ready-made.

A few drawbacks to the cello: carrying it back and forth to school twice a week was an arduous task, especially when I had to carry hefty books as well (this was in that punishing interval before backpacks became standard but when bookbags after first grade were only for nerds.)

And, of course, as with all musical instruments, you had to practice.

I understood practicing in principle. I even liked the gorgeous rich mellow sound a cello makes, and wanted to emulate it. But the gap between that sound and the one I managed to create was too immense to be bridged, even in my imagination. In other words, I wasn't motivated enough to put in the hours required.

Although I never really managed to make a truly pleasant sound, I did learn just enough to saw away at that cello in the junior high school orchestra, and even put in a couple of years with the high school group, where our repertoire leaned heavily towards Sousa marches that had no cello part (we were supposed to play from the trombone sheet music). I didn't make much progress in all that time, and I quit in mid-high school, with no regrets. Listening to the cello was fine, but playing it held no special interest for me, and I haven't really thought about it since.

Until the other evening, that is. I was at a meeting of my book group (great book, by the way: Cry the Beloved Country). A gleaming cello was leaning against the wall in the hostess's dining room, and she told us she was just starting to take lessons, a lifelong dream. She gave a demonstration of what she'd learned so far--basic scales.

Afterwards, the cello was passed around so we all could have a go at it. And as it came close to me I felt a strange sensation, a certain feeling in my arms and hands of being about to start something familiar--and yet almost from a previous life, it seemed so long ago.

My friend who'd taken a couple of lessons had to prompt me even to remember the fingering for a simple scale. I took the cello from her, positioned my left hand on its neck and my right on the bow, placed the bow on the strings, pressed down, and began.

It didn't sound like Yo Yo Ma, but it didn't sound half bad. It sounded as though I'd actually played a cello before, once upon a time. My body memory had kicked in, and all these little habits sprang forth as though they'd only been hibernating all that time: how hard to press, how to move my right wrist back and forth in a wave motion, how to lean slightly on the inside edge of the bow with the downstroke and the outside with the upstroke, and even how to create a bit of tentative vibrato with the left hand.

Probably the sound was better than my old cello for the simple reason that this was a better cello: richer, fuller, more resonant. I'd forgotten what it was like to create music with my own hands, and to feel it vibrate in every cell of my body and every corner of the room. Writing is wonderfully creative, but there's nothing physical about it except the risk of carpal tunnel syndrome.

The creation of music is very physical. The most personal and direct form of that physicality, of course, is singing; there, one's body is the instrument (dance, the art I know best, is even more so in that respect). In playing a stringed instrument the body is the medium that evokes and releases the music, but ultimately the creation of the sound depends on the interaction between the two.

I'd forgotten, but it was wonderful to remember.

----Edgar Lee Masters

The earth keeps some vibration going
There in your heart, and that is you.
And if the people find you can fiddle,
Why, fiddle you must, for all your life.
What do you see, a harvest of clover?
Or a meadow to walk through to the river?
The wind's in the corn; you rub your hands
For beeves hereafter ready for market;
Or else you hear the rustle of skirts
Like the girls when dancing at Little Grove.
To Cooney Potter a pillar of dust
Or whirling leaves meant ruinous drouth;
They looked to me like Red-Head Sammy
Stepping it off to 'Toor-a-Loor.'
How could I till my forty acres
Not to speak of getting more,
With a medley of horns, bassoons and piccolos
Stirred in my brain by crows and robins
And the creak of a wind-mill--only these?
And I never started to plow in my life
That some one did not stop in the road
And take me away to a dance or picnic.
I ended up with forty acres;
I ended up with a broken fiddle--
And a broken laugh, and a thousand memories,
And not a single regret.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Beware post-Vietnam syndrome

This is certainly interesting (hat tip: Pajamas Media): a warning to the Democrats not to repeat their errors in Vietnam in the mid-70s.

And just as interesting is the fact that it was written by Lawrence J. Haas, former communications director for Vice-President Al Gore.

Democracy, its spread, and the neocons (Part II: Iraq)

Neocons are accused of having started the war in Iraq in order to further the naive and unattainable dream of bringing liberal democracy to the Middle East.

But the Iraq War was actually a multi-determined one--although the Left often seems to focus sequentially on whatever cause they might be critiquing at the time, pretending for the moment it was the only cause of the war, or at least the most important one.

I doubt that the goal of imposing democracy, in and of itself, would ever be considered a justification for war, even by neocons. The reasons for this war that were stated most often and emphatically were (in no particular order) (a) defensive: the idea that Saddam actually had WMDs or was developing them shortly and might give them to terrorists and/or threaten neighbors (b) humanitarian: the repressiveness and extreme cruelty of his regime, including sadistic torture and mass murder on a large scale; and (c) legal: his violations of the terms of the Gulf War armistice, including his lack of cooperation with UN arms inspections, which also of course ties in with the first reason.

But critics of the war routinely disregard these reasons—or, rather, they cite them only when trying to debunk them (“no WMDs”). They see the “real” impetus behind the war as having been to control that country's oil (the complaint on the Left) and/or to impose democracy on Iraq (this is a complaint of both the Left and the isolationist wing of the Right, although each group complains for different reasons).

To the isolationists on the Right, neither humanitarian motives nor the goal of making Iraq a democracy would have justified an invasion. Only the idea that Saddam represented a substantial and uncontrolled threat to our security, or that of our allies, would have sufficed.

The Left, however, has traditionally considered that military intervention in other countries can be justified for humanitarian reasons. In fact, humanitarian reasons alone are often considered by the Left as sufficient for such intervention. So, why their objection to overthrowing Saddam?

Saddam's rule was widely acknowledged as tyrannical and murderous; this fact is really not in dispute. So, to the Left, the invasion should have been overdetermined, not underdetermined; the fact of Saddam's butchery of his people ought to have been enough. But the Left opposed the war from the start with such vigor that one can only conclude humanitarian considerations and goals were hollow in this case.

So, was it BDS--anything the nefarious Bush does is automatically wrong? Alliance with internationalism and "old Europe," which had its own reasons for opposing the war (hint: they were not humanitarian)? Or was it the fact that Iraq has strategic importance to the US (unlike, for example, Haiti), and that deposing Saddam could benefit us, making the prospect of doing so a self-interested one as well as a humanitarian one and therefore automatically suspect (only when a war is for purely humanitarian reasons, it seems, does it pass the Left's muster)?

Or is it the fact that the Left likes to make a big to-do about its humanitarian goals, and yet almost always opposes the possible ways to free a people from an oppressive regime, such as military intervention or other means of forced change, such as assassination? (See this, for example.)

Once the decision was made that it was necessary to remove Saddam, the US faced the question of what its role should be in determining what sort of government might replace him. These were the choices: (a) walk away and let things sort themselves out without US help (likely to result in much bloodshed and a new tyrant of some sort, and perhaps a worse one); (b) in the time-honored realpolitik manner, install a dictator friendly to us who would crack down on the opposition in a Draconian way; or (c) try to help establish a functioning liberal democracy.

The Bush Administration choose (c) as the best of a bad lot ("bad" in the case of (c) only because of its difficulty in execution), and in doing so they made the error of underestimating the murderous forces arrayed against them. But those who criticize the decision are comparing choice (c) to an imaginary ideal alternative that simply did not exist.

What about the alternative of not going to war, and leaving Saddam in power (really, the only remaining one)? If that had happened, no doubt his own carnage and obscene cruelty to his people would have continued--and, on his death, would have gone on under the hands of his murderous sons, schooled almost from birth in sadism and power. And, when sanctions against Saddam were lifted (as they would have been--and fairly quickly, at that), all the evidence indicates that he might indeed have assembled a nuclear and/or chemical arsenal and given it to terrorists to use, or threatened his neighbors with it. These arguments about the probable results of inaction in Iraq are pooh-poohed by the Left, of course, who need to ignore them in order to maintain their own stance.

But why were all the alternatives in Iraq either so bad--or, if desirable (democracy), so very difficult to achieve? Some people are of the opinion that Islam is innately incompatible with democracy. But there are countries in the world (Turkey, for example) in which the two coexist, although somewhat tenuously. And Iraq itself has its own history with democracy: a system of constitutional monarchy somewhat resembling the traditional British one, with a bicameral legislature featuring an appointed branch and an elected branch, and a Constitution. This phase lasted approximately 25 years, from 1925 to the early 1950s, and was toppled in 1958 by a military coup that ended the monarchy and abolished the parliament. That ushered in the current era of dictatorships, culminating in Saddam, who had learned from the errors of previous dictators and consolidated his power through a long-lasting reign of terror.

Yes, Islam and democracy are a not an easy match, but they seem to be a possible one. Another--and perhaps more important reason--it's been difficult for democracy to gain traction in Iraq is not any inherent and absolute incompatibility, but that fact that a population as traumatized as the people of Iraq have been under decades of Saddam have had their social contract broken. To use a therapy cliché, the country has become dysfunctional, both structurally and psychologically. Saddam unified the nation through force and through fear, warring against all groups who might be his rivals. Thus, the seeds of great anger and the need for payback were sown on the part of the victims, as well as the creation of a climate of distrust, one in which the use of violence had become the standard way of dealing with differences. And this climate had lasted for decades.

Another factor not to be ignored in the difficulty of establishing an Iraqi democracy is the influence of its neighbors such as Iran, who have a vested interest in causing instability in Iraq to spiral, and who see a golden opportunity to create a sphere of influence there.

The difficult task the Bush Administration took on in Iraq was not impossible, in my opinion. But it required a great deal: commitment to a fairly lengthy period of occupation, knowledge of the best way to go about the task in terms of balancing firm guidance with increasing Iraqi autonomy, the effective sealing of the borders, willingness to suffer US casualties that would be far greater than in a quick operation such as the Gulf War, and a US public who understood the long-term need for commitment and sacrifice as well as the possible payoffs of success.

It's very clear that not all of those necessary elements were in place. Some deficits were the result of errors in judgment or execution in situations that could or should have been anticipated; some were due to the rise of unforeseeable circumstances.

But wars virtually always contain errors and surprises. I remain of the opinion that declaring “failure” in Iraq is premature, and that if the will were there on the part of the American people, Iraq could still--over a period of some years---become a functioning if imperfect democracy, with the ability to defend itself against internal and external threats. But I am not at all convinced that we have this will.

However, I am well aware the task is a difficult one. As far as I know, Iraq is the first time it's been tried under these exact conditions. Can a nation that has been under the lengthy sway of a brutal and divisive dictator who is then violently overthrown by an outside force, a nation with divisive factions and a weak history of democratic institutions, lacking a strong sense of national identity, be rebuilt as a democracy after a war to depose that dictator? A further question, if the answer is in the affirmative, is what the minimal conditions would be for the success of such a transformation.

We need to know the answers, because it is possible that another set of circumstances might arise in the future--especially in this brave new world of rogue nations and international terrorism--in which we find we have no realistic alternative but to invade another country and try to rebuild it. My guess is that we can and should be far more cautious about doing so next time, both in our threshold for invasion and in the comprehensiveness of the plans we make—that is, that we learn greatly from our mistakes.

But, unfortunately, we may again find ourselves in the regrettable and dangerous situation in which all possible choices we face are very bad--and that the neocon agenda is (to paraphrase Churchill)--the very worst of them, except for all the others (although I will no doubt be labeled "warmonger" for even venturing to say it).

But the truth is that developments in recent years have made it possible, for the first time in history, for rogue nations and/or terrorists--or both in league with each other--to wreak havoc on the West. It used to be that such elements either threatened only their own people, or that the destructive power of their aggressive acts were limited by their own undeveloped technology. But technological advances in weaponry combined with modern communications and ease of travel, as well as an influx of money, have it possible for a small and fiercely angry group to obtain weapons with enormous destructive power, and to deploy them against the West, with the help of rogue nations and leaders who feel their own interests lie in such an attack.

Encouraging the growth of liberal democracy in the region would short-circuit that process, if successful. The big question is, of course, can it be successful, and what are the keys to that success.

Do the Iraqi people themselves want a liberal democracy? The high voting turnout in the elections can be seen as a "yes;" or, if one wants to be cynical, as a strategic effort to grab power for one group against another (of course, this is not incompatible with democracy; peaceful elective power struggles are part and parcel of it).

The evidence is that many Iraqis value liberty, however, even if they have no idea how to effectively combat the forces conspiring to deprive them of it. In a recent interview with Charlie Rose, New York Times journalist John Burns, a reporter who has observed and written about Iraq for many years (and who is certainly no neocon), and who has spoken to a large number of Iraqis, said: yes, I do believe, number one, that most Iraqis still believe that for all of the price they have paid, amidst all of this chaos, that the possibility of a different kind of future for the country that was opened by the arrival of American troops was net an advantage....

And then Burns stated the dilemma in all its complexity, including the fact that we don't yet know whether the goal of liberal democracy is possible there:

[M]y sense of it is that if [the Iraq reconstruction] fails, that history may say it was mission impossible from the beginning, which is to say that when you remove the carapace of terror that Saddam had imposed on that society, what was revealed underneath it was an extremely fractured society which had never resolved the question of power, political and economic power...[A]n extremely complex, extremely violence-prone society, a society that has proven to be resistant to, not yet ready for, and maybe will not be ready for a very long time, for Jeffersonian democracy of the kind that the United States hopes to install there. We’ll have to see what history’s verdict is, but my sense is that Iraqis still, in the main, are happy at least that Saddam is gone, very unhappy about other things, but happy to see him gone.

Iraq has been a tragic country for a long time. It remains one today. But history has not yet given its final verdict on whether it will continue to remain so indefinitely.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Oh, those lying neocons

[Apologies for the delay, but part II of "Democracy, its spread, and the neocons" will be coming tomorrow.]

Commenter TC asserts in yesterday's thread on neocons and democracy that neocons lie for strategic reasons, and that Paul Wolfowitz actually admitted to lying to the American people about the reasons for the Iraq War:

You might recall...that it was Paul Wolfowitz's own admission that the WMD story was simply the most 'convenient' one available - and that regime change, preventative (imaginary) war-was the real rationale.

In the above comment, TC is backing up this earlier comment of his in the same thread, in response to a challenge by commenter Ariel to come up with a specific instance of neocon lies:

It's neoconservative doctrine--Wilsonian stuff--'lying for the survical of the state'.

If you don't know that than you don't know anything about neoconservatism--for the neo-con's the ends jusfify the means.

I don't need to do research for you.

This is a common meme, and one of its favorite illustrations is the Wolfowitz interview statement that TC references, which was widely characterized by the MSM as an admission that the WMD argument for the war was only used because it was "convenient," not because it was believed or was important.

Of course, as it turns out, if one actually does do the research for oneself, that is not what Wolfowitz really said.

Fancy that.

Even though this is very old news, I bring it up now because I think it's both instructive and typical of the sort of distortions I've spoken of so often, and it's also relevant to the series I'm writing at the moment.

Here's a discussion of the issue at Patterico, and here's the acerbic Christopher Hitchens's take on the mischaracterization of Wolfowitz's remarks.

What did Wolfowitz actually say (and see the full transcript of the Wolfowitz interview if you have the patience to wade though the entire thing, which I freely admit I have not done)? This is the statement involved:

The truth is that for reasons that have a lot to do with the U.S. government bureaucracy we settled on the one issue that everyone could agree on which was weapons of mass destruction as the core reason.

It is crystal clear that Wolfowitz was saying something quite the opposite of the MSM characterization of his remarks--and that either journalists have no reading comprehension, no ability to express themselves in English, or are purposely distorting his remarks; take your pick.

Wolfowitz is not saying WMDs were a cooked-up excuse or a meaningless one or even--in the widely disseminated headline about his remarks--a merely "convenient" one. He was saying that, in a bureaucracy in which many different departments with understandably different emphases are trying to make a policy statement together, it makes sense to emphasize the policy statement on which they all agree--and in this case it was WMDs. It was a real and important reason at the time (although subsequent events have made it clear that the intelligence relied on was deeply flawed), so real and so important that all involved happened to agree on it. Perhaps it was even the one reason on which they all did agree (and, by the way, count the Clinton administration and most of the world as in on that agreement).

We can--and have--argued about WMDs ad nauseum. The evidence is that Saddam didn't have them, but the evidence is that he wanted to, and that he had the power and the plans to reconstitute his WMD programs as soon as sanctions were lifted. But that's not the point here; the point is what Wolfowitz actually said in his interview and how this reflects on the issue of purported Machiavellian neocon lies.

It's a meme that will not die, and it's both connected to and symptomatic of the demonization of, hatred towards, and misunderstanding of neocons. It also illustrates the typical sloppiness of the work of the MSM, and the use made of that sloppiness by polemicists such as TC in spreading the word.

And now I'm going to quote Winston Churchill again. Yes indeed, I'm sure that, as another commenter pointed out, there are many who despise the man. I don't admire everything he ever did, but I most definitely greatly admire many things about him, and one of them is his way with an aphorism. And it was Churchill who made the following wonderful statement, as true today as it ever was when he first said it:

A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Democracy, its spread, and the neocons (Part I)

Neocons believe that the spread of liberal democracy--democracy with safeguards for human rights and liberties--would be of general benefit to the US, to the citizens of the countries involved, and to the world.

Although I'm sure there are some exceptions, most neocons also believe that the spread of liberal democracy to countries that have not known it before, or that knew it only briefly and/or erratically, is neither inevitable nor easy. But they believe it is possible rather than impossible.

Contrary to the notion of some critics, however, neocons neither prefer nor require that such transformation to democracy be accomplished by force--a peaceful evolution, relatively sudden or relatively gradual, is far superior. However, neocons are unwilling to rule out force under certain circumstances. A circumstance that could justify the use of force would be a country or leader constituting a serious threat to the US or its allies, one that doesn't appear containable by other means. Neocons most definitely do not advocate warring on nation after nation for the sole purpose of installing democracies.

About the desirability of liberal democracy itself, neocons tend to be in basic agreement with Winston Churchill on the subject:

Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those others that have been tried from time to time.

The authors of the Declaration of Independence thought liberty was both the universal desire of all humanity and an "unalienable right" of all human beings, and that this was a "self-evident" truth. (This fact, by the way, was one of the reasons even the framers knew--and many wrote in their private papers--that ultimately slavery would have to go, and that retaining it at the outset of the establishment of the country was a hypocritical, strategic, and ultimately tragic compromise with the high principles stated in the Declaration).

And, of course, the value of liberal democracy is not all that self-evident to the numerous tyrants who readily deny people liberty--and even life--for their own purposes (as the Grand Inquisitor understood all too well).

Why do I bring all of this up? In my recent discussion of the reasons neocons are so hated, commenter Loyal Achates (not a neocon, to be sure) advanced this critique of the neocon agenda:

Neo wonders why the liberals could be opposed to the advancement of liberal democracy by military means, and comes up with a rather elaborate psychological explanation. A simpler answer might be, I dunno, that so far it hasn't actually led to liberal democracy but chaos and ruin. One might well ask why non-Communists are opposed to providing food for everyone by collectivizing the farms: duh, it doesn't work and people starve.

Actually, I was wondering something quite different, since I disagree with Loyal's notion that neocons predominantly advocate advancing democracy by military means. I certainly don't, and I've not heard of anyone who does. Nor do I think that bringing democracy to Iraq was the only reason--or even the major one--for the invasion of that country.

But let's put aside those arguments for a moment while I address Loyal's assertion that we know that the idea of advancing democracy by military means is wrong in the practical sense because it's already been proven that it just doesn't work.

Loyal compares the promotion of democracy through military means to Communist experiments in collective farming, in that he feels both to be self-evident failures. But that's only true if you define Iraq as a failure at this point (I believe this would be premature) and if you discount post-WWII Germany and Japan, both cases in which liberal democracy was imposed as a result of those countries' defeat in war (they both had a stronger prior tradition of democracy than Iraq did, but in both cases it wasn't all that strong and it wasn't all that liberal).

That's not to say that Iraq and Germany/Japan are similar places; they are not. But there's no denying that the present form of liberal democracy in both Germany and Japan are direct results of their defeat in war, and a subsequent occupation and rebuilding effort spearheaded by the US. So it's at least possible, under certain circumstances.

Loyal's "neocon agenda=collective farms=failure" analogy also breaks down if you consider the fact that we have a great deal of evidence in the case of collective farming, multiple and repetitive failures in both economic and human terms all around the world with no apparent successes; whereas the number of attempts to impose democracy through military means just isn't all that that large. And, among that small number, as I said, only Iraq so far could be arguably counted as an actual or potential failure. The others are successes. (South Vietnam, by the way, doesn't count, since we were not trying to defeat South Vietnam itself and install a liberal democracy, but trying instead to conserve a system already in place in the South--with some rather violent changes of personnel along the way--and to stop the North from taking over and installing a Communist government.)

Another problem with Loyal's argument is the errors made in postwar Iraq. Whatever one believes those errors to have been (in my case, I think that paramount among them was the failure to get the looters under control at the outset, and the kid glove treatment handed al Sadr), there's a general agreement that there were a great many of them. If this is so, how can we measure whether or not any perceived failure in Iraq might have been a result of those errors?

If the occupation in Iraq had been executed flawlessly in terms of tactics and Iraq was still experiencing the kind of sectarian violence that's going on there today--then, paradoxically, this would be a stronger argument against the viability of the endeavor of establishing liberal democracy there in the first place. But the more inept the occupation is seen to be, the more any resultant problems can be regarded as flaws of execution rather than problems with the basic concept itself.

The bottom line is that it's just not possible to tell much of anything from the single example of what's happened in Iraq; as they say in science, the n is too small.

That's not to say that Loyal couldn't be proven right in the end, and that all future attempts similar to the one in Iraq, if tried (and they may never be tried), will inevitably end in failure. Maybe there's just something about the endeavor that goes against the human grain in some basic way--as collective farming seems to--something that will make every effort ultimately fail.

But such a conclusion would be extremely premature. There's not enough evidence at the moment to allow us to decide that all such efforts are doomed to failure, just on the basis of what's happened so far in Iraq. And, in fact. there is some evidence that could lead us to conclude the opposite (post-WWII Germany and Japan). The preliminary answer might be that success depends on a host of conditions, including the previous experience of each country with democracy, whether the country has undergone the exhaustive process of a long war and a resounding defeat, whether it has a pre-existing strong sense of nationhood, how much effort and direction the postwar occupiers are willing to put into the process of reconstruction, how well they understand the particular conditions and demands presented by each country, and how much patience the American people has for the task.

[Part II coming tomorrow.]

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