Regions of Mind
Self-assured but self-questioning.
Geitner Simmons is an editorial writer with the Omaha World-Herald.
This weblog expresses his personal views only.
He is also
a husband, a father, a son. And always
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Wednesday, July 31
Freedom, responsibility and Maury Povich
Staunch libertarianism is too doctrinaire for my taste. But I do admire libertarians’ devotion to doggedly defending individual liberties. P.J. O’Rourke delivered a marvelous speech espousing such principles at a recent dinner in D.C. marking the 25th anniversary of the Cato Institute. Some examples:
You can find the complete text , including some terrific jokes, here.
They just don’t want to talk about Bias
John Stossel, whose libertarian-tinged reports for 20/20 so visibly test the patience of Barbara Walters, delivered the keynote address at the same Cato Institute dinner where O'Rourke spoke. Here are the opening two paragraphs of Stossel's speech:
The rest of the speech is here.
Tuesday, July 30
Scholarship, Islam and propaganda
I’ve recently mentioned that the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is being sued for requiring freshmen this fall to study a book of translations of and comments on the Koran. Learning about religions and cultures from around the globe ought to be a goal that should interest any intellectually curious person. And in the post-9/11 era, the need for young people to understand something about the Islamic world (a "world" I don't regard as monolithic) is a legitimate goal.
It’s odd, though, that UNC would require a study of the Koran when Carolina, like many universities, has already jettisoned or watered down many traditional academic requirements.
It would be adequate simply to encourage a general introduction to the broad scope of Islamic history, in the spirit of a fair-minded study such as The Oxford History of Islam, a marvelous and well-edited anthology.
The problem, of course, is that Islamic studies at the university level are too often exercises in propaganda rather than attempts to study Islamic experience in its full complexity (meaning a warts-and-all consideration rather than a sanitized examination). Albert Hourani’s book A History of the Arab Peoples is a classic example. The book, much praised in academic and publishing circles, contains some fine scholarship. But it also sidesteps or gives short shrift to many less than uplifting aspects of Islamic history.
I'm not saying that all professors of Islamic studies have intellectual blinders on. I can think of one, whom I've known personally for years, whose intellectual integrity is impeccable.
Still, it's hard to see how the problem can be denied. The New Republic, which can be almost self-caricaturing in its zeal to expose inanities among Islamic scholars, has devoted considerable attention, for example, to the awkwardness experienced by the Middle East Studies Association since Sept. 11.
Russia and the EU
Nick Denton's fascinating post about a Declaration of Independence for Europe included a call to "begin talks on Russia's accession to EU."
Maybe that's an achievable goal for the long term, but incorporating Russia into the EU any time soon would short-circuit the entire EU enterprise. (Not that I'm a fan of the EU and its hyper-bureaucratic ways.) As I've pointed out before, Russia at present does a pitiful job of protecting economic liberties and providing a legal-financial environment for fostering growth. For example:
Heritage’s 2002 Index of Economic Freedom gave Russia low marks on a range of concerns and assigned the country to the category of “mostly unfree.” Putin’s Russia was outranked by some 130 countries.
Russia, in other words, doesn't come anywhere close to meeting the many requirements for participating in the euro. If Russia were admitted as a full-fledged member to the EU any time soon, the euro would drop like a stone.
It would also be hard to to see how the EU's Common Agricultural Policy could be financially sustained if Russian's millions of farmers were included under it. (Incidentally, although my newspaper is in Nebraska, we've editorially criticized the recently passed U.S. farm bill on a range of points, including its cost.)
Sure, welcoming Russia as a partner of the West should be a fundamental policy goal for the United States. If negotiations between the Europeans and Russians on possible EU membership can help entice Russia toward economic improvement, terrific. But the magnitude of Russia's economic problems, and the likelihood of overcoming them, shouldn't be underestimated.
A Capitol Hill contact of mine (a Republican, incidentally) told me today that one rumor making the rounds in D.C. is that Donald Rumsfeld will be tapped as the head of the new Department of Homeland Security.
My contact also said that Republicans in Congress are extremely jumpy about the fall elections. GOPers have found the poll data to be quite discouraging. Democrats are having success in tying Republicans to the business scandals.
Monday, July 29
A war that mattered
Matt Welch sent some traffic my way through a generous mention of this blog in a piece Matt did on red state/blue state matters for Tech Central Station.
Readers who have used Matt’s link to arrive here for the first time might be interested in a set of history-related posts I did for July 4. That material, under the title "Centennial," was probably the most serious work I’ve put into this blog so far. It shows up only in the archives now, so I thought I'd mention it since folks are still discovering this site.
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, my undergraduate alma mater, is being sued for requiring freshmen this fall to read a book that provides translations of and comments on the Koran. I’ll comment more on the topic when I have time (the requirement is ill-considered though probably not illegal, in my view), but for now I’ll point out something that struck me as odd in regard to the lawsuit.
UNC is being sued by a group called the American Family Association Center for Law & Policy, which champions social traditionalist causes. In its legal brief, the group says the book promotes Islam, then adds: “This is nothing less than proselytizing. Proselytizing speech is inherently coercive, and the Constitution prohibits the government from endorsing or advancing it.”
It seems peculiar, if not opportunistic, for a group generally associated with evangelical Christian causes to sound alarms about proselytizing and coercion. In the never-ending uproar over school prayer, for example, attorneys for Christian conservatives generally go to extraordinary lengths to downplay concerns over whether students are being proselytized or coerced. The argument being advanced by the activist attorneys in the UNC case may be logically consistent, but it struck me as an about-face.
Textile plants close, but delis keep opening
More observations from my stay in western North Carolina, my original home turf:
Sunday, July 28
The homeplace, then and now
I’m back. The vacation in my native North Carolina was great, although driving in Charlotte was a white-knuckle experience, literally, for me.
A few points of possible interest from my experience over the past two weeks:
Friday, July 12
My father grew up in the 1920s and ’30s in a Southern way of life that was even then fast disappearing.
The world he knew, at least in his earliest years, was an old-style farm life with resonances of the 19th century -- pre-electricity, pre-automobile, certainly pre-mass consumerism.
Pop grew up poor in a 13-sibling family that survived through the vagaries of the cotton and corn harvests and the occasional sale of a hog. It was a rough-hewn life in which candles and clothes alike were made at home, and luxuries such as new shoes were too often beyond the family’s grasp. One Christmas, deep in the 1920s, the only present he got was an orange.
Pop dropped out of school in eighth grade. His life took an important turn when an old man took a stick and drew marks on the ground, explaining to my father, then a young man, how an electrical circuit functioned. The lines in the dirt inspired Pop to make a change in his life. He became an electrical lineman. Construction jobs would take him and Mom to projects across the East Coast and as far west as California.
He even worked for a spell on a construction project for a U.S. Army base -- in Greenland. (Things got a bit jumpy up there when, not long after Pop’s arrival, Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Khrushchev got into a spat over some missiles in Cuba.)
Pop, who worked in later life as an upholsterer, was hardly an intellectual. But when I made clear that I would choose the world of books and ideas instead of the world of the slide rule and construction tools, he was entirely supportive. I learned much from him and Mom about unconditional love.
My wife and I fly back to North Carolina this weekend, taking our two children back to see the grandparents.
This year, however, Pop will not be there to greet us.
He died in February, not long before what would have been his 85th birthday.
A few days after the funeral, I sat down for a long visit with Pop’s lone surviving brother, Dexter -- my Uncle Deck. We talked -- and I took notes -- about the course of the family’s history, following this narrative trail, then that one. I asked Uncle Deck, who at 87 is a bit unsteady physically but still mentally alert, to recount certain childhood stories, so I could make sure I had the details and context just right.
I hadn’t seen my uncle in years, and during the course of our conversation I began to notice something I hadn’t anticipated. As he talked, at times he sounded just like Pop.
The inflection, the use of particular phrases, even the way in which a story was told.
I will be away from blogging for the next two weeks. I intend to spend part of the time with my Uncle Deck, just listening.
Thursday, July 11
Both the Washington Post and Howard Bashman (whose hard work and vision have made How Appealing a stellar contribution to the blogosphere) point out that the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision insisting that the death penalty be imposed by juries may provide Zacarias Moussaoui with grounds to challenge a death sentence against him. (Here in Nebraska, incidentally, that decision has put current capital cases and some past convictions in a real muddle, as yet unresolved.)
Prosecutors in the Moussaoui case may try to get around the problem by filing new indictments that will spell out aggravating factors.
Here's my point: Did anyone else notice a curious change the feds made the last time they filed a superseding indictment against Moussaoui, on June 19? That indictment, unlike the original one, made no mention of the charge that Moussaoui and Mohamed Atta had looked into starting crop-dusting companies. I wonder why the charge was deleted.
Changing one's mind
Here is an interesting FindLaw commentary about a recent opinion in which Antonin Scalia described how he had reversed his thinking on some weighty judicial matters. It was fascinating to read Scalia's candor. (And I say that as someone more in tune with the O'Connor/Kennedy faction than with the court's hard right or liberals.) For example, Scalia writes:
It's been refreshing to see the way people in the blogosphere openly rethink their stances from time to time. Doubt and modesty can be intellectually healthy. But it's especially striking to see such qualities demonstrated by a Supreme Court justice.
Sounds familiar, all right
I’m reading “Prairie City,” Angie Debo’s fantastic blend of historical study and novelistic imagery. In that 1944 book, Debo, a much-praised historian of the Plains region, used vivid prose to explain the course of white settlement. The book tells the story of a fictional town that was a composite of several actual Oklahoma communities.
One particular passage leaped out at me the other night:
Yes. That seems a powerful motivation among anti-establishment types in any era, doesn’t it?
Just as I thought -- the Rob Reiner look
The year 1977 has several memorable associations for me. It marked the end of high school (where, among other things, I'd taught myself to arrange instrumental music and went through a curious spell of scoring musical accompaniments for various public events). It was the year I started down the path of serious intellectual pursuits, by beginning four invaluable years of study in Chapel Hill.
It was also the year that the terror wrought in New York City by David Berkowitz, the "Son of Sam" killer, reached a crescendo.
Berkowitz, who started his jail career shortly after I had begun my undergraduate career, was denied parole this week. When I saw one of the old 1977 photos of him sent out by the AP the other day, I realized that I had been seeing the same familiar pictures of him for nearly a quarter-century. I wondered what he looks like now. So, I went hunting online.
Hence: Then. And now.
Too weak to fight it at the moment
I'd pledged in a recent post to blog against the International Criminal Court, but my brain is way too tired. I've organized my thoughts on the topic, and I hope to regain enough mental energy to address the issue tonight.
Shameless marketing ploy
I start a two-week vacation on Saturday, and my posting for this week could end at just about any time. My wife and I have a lot to juggle over the next several days.
I will have little or no access to a computer while I'm away. But, for those who somehow tolerate my idiosyncracies, I can offer a small inducement to return. Here are some of the topics on my list to blog (some briefly, some at length) after my sojourn in the Tar Heel State:
There's more, but I'll stop. I hope somebody remembers to come back in two weeks.
Our unhealthy friend
In 2006, Russia will assume the presidency of the G8 and host the organization's annual summit. On balance, that’s a positive development as far as strengthening the economic and diplomatic ties between Russia and the West.
But, as was pointed out by, I believe, the Heritage Foundation the other day, Russia is by far the G8’s odd man out in terms of economic liberties. Heritage’s 2002 Index of Economic Freedom gave Russia low marks on a range of concerns and assigned the country to the category of “mostly unfree.” Putin’s Russia was outranked by some 130 countries.
Russia’s approach to property rights is particularly poor, earning the country Heritage's lowest mark possible. Legal protections are weak and the courts tend to be incompetent, if not corrupt, in their oversight of business matters.
In the old Soviet Union, the strangling of private property rights was, of course, one of the first orders of business once the Bolsheviks began seizing control in 1917. “Private ownership of land shall be abolished forever,” Lenin said at the time. He sent Red Guards and Bolshevik sailors to banks to assert control physically as well as psychologically. “Gold will cease to have power,” one government decree stated (although the Soviet state failed in that particular objective).
“Everything was being canceled,” Aleksei Tolstoi wrote in his history of the Revolution. “Ranks, honors, pensions, officers’ epaulettes, the 13th letter of the alphabet, God, private property and even the right to live as one wished -- all were being canceled.”
Judging from the Heritage study, it sounds as if far too many aspects of Russia's economic life continue to be canceled.
Wednesday, July 10
Surprising trade numbers
Here’s an example of one of those DLC Trade Facts of the Week I mentioned in the post immediately below. According to an e-mail I received today, in 1990, the United States exported $62 billion of goods to Latin America but $99 billion to European Union members. By 2000, a significant change had occurred: The export levels were $153 billion to the EU but $156 billion to Latin America.
NAFTA played a key role, but that wasn’t all. Exports to Brazil nearly doubled, and those to Central America and Chile tripled. For the first time since 1790, U.S. exports to Latin America exceeded those to Europe.
U.S.-Latin American trade has slowed since 2000, however, and plans to negotiate greater openness are somewhat adrift, the DLC says. Instability in Colombia, Venezuela and Argentina has contributed to a major drop in U.S. exports.
As I said, that kind of worthwhile, trustworthy analysis has real value. It's too bad that partisan organizations and advocacy groups don't try harder to provide that kind of material to journalists and the public at large rather than churning out "analysis" that's so radically skewed you have to strain to separate the partisan blather from the useable info.
Democratic/media elite conspiracy revealed?
I'm on the e-mail list for the Democratic Leadership Council. The policy materials I'm sent are wildly uneven -- some are relatively straightforward, useable analyses, while others are so stuffed with partisan hyperbole that it's hard to separate policy fact from political spin. I do recommended, highly, the DLC's Trade Fact of the Week e-mail feature, though.
At any rate, I just received the following correction in an e-mail from the DLC. An honest mistake -- or evidence of a hidden conspiracy? You decide:
UPDATE: Andrew Sullivan noticed the very same thing. (There's a glitch with the link, apparently; I'm referring to his Wednesday, July 10 post slugged "Freudian Slip.")
Economics and political viability
In reading Brad DeLong's essay on Brink Lindsey's new book, I was particularly struck by this observation:
Yes. Finding nuggets like that are precisely what keeps drawing me back to the blogosphere. It may not be encouraging to read that there's nothing inevitable about the triumph of democratic capitalism, but a prerequisite for sounding thinking is to see the world as it truly is.
The scene was totally unexpected.
I was sitting on a chair in the back yard, beneath the canopy of trees, reading the newspaper.
I turned ’round, toward the house. On the deck, my 6-year-old daughter was holding an old loaf of bread and tossing bits of it into the yard for the birds. My daughter smiled, the light dancing on her neat pageboy haircut as she strained to throw the bread-bits as far as she could.
A scene of perfect contentment.
Time slowed as I watched her carefully break off a white shard, then fling it with the exuberance that only a child could bring to such a task.
In short order, the bread bag was empty. She looked at me and beamed, then called out her victory cry.
She skipped back into the house, oblivious to my gratitude for unexpected moments.
I spent so much time working on the rather overwrought post immediately below, on talk show hosts, that I used up the time I'd intended to spend posting about war crimes tribunals. Some tangents I'll explore when I get around to the topic later this week: jujitsu vs. boxing (metaphorically speaking); hidden vs. stated intentions; U.S. domestic political realities; values gap; Gulliver.
Tuesday, July 9
"A Soweto that dare not speak its name ..."
In reading Slate during lunch, I ran across a Mickey Kaus item about this terrific Weekly Standard article. I'd call the latter a must-read for anyone wanting to learn more about the dynamics between alienated Muslim communities and the larger European societies in which they reside.
I have no time right now to blog at length on this, but this Washington Times article, about a call for the Balkan war crimes tribunal to indict Bill Clinton and several of his advisers, further illustrates the justified concern level-headed critics have voiced about a related institution, the new International Criminal Court. Expect to see a more extensive post, with additional links, on this topic by tomorrow.
Those Republican totalitarians
An attorney evidently had no shame in voicing this opinion in an op-ed that appeared in The Register-Guard of Eugene, Ore. (a paper, I can honestly say, with an impressive editorial-writing shop) :
A nice piece of demagoguery, that. The author manages to lace his text with imagery -- “threats of violence,” “guns,” “gulags” -- that is completely irrelevant yet tars conservative commentators as suspect and devious, even sinister. (And I didn't even mention his resort to the word "totalitarian.")
Is that a good example of what passes for argument in legal briefs these days?
The liberals who have tried their hand at talk radio over the years include some heavy hitters such as Larry King, Mario Cuomo and Jerry Brown. Each of them bombed. (I know Larry King did well in the late-night time slot; I'm talking about his failed effort to win an audience in the mid-afternoon time slot in the '90s, which amounted to a real comeuppance to him.) The failure of left-leaning talk show hosts didn't stem from some Stalin-like strangulation of free expression. It was merely a reflection of the marketplace
-- of the judgments made by listeners exercising the freedom to tune in or tune out.
Hey, I have gripes about right-wing talk show hosts and commentators, and I plan to post about that before long. But there are legitimate ways to lament the demise of the Fairness Doctrine (which is the focus of the attorney’s essay), and there are illegitimate ways. There is little doubt in what category that particular op-ed, so chock full of cheap shots and misdirection, belongs.
Writing with a crutch
Study the work of any individual journalist over time, and you’ll tend to find that certain phrases or stylings pop up repeatedly in the writer’s work. Sometimes such devices can serve a useful purpose. But often they are the mark of inattention, laziness or lack of self-awareness. (I know what my own cliched phrases and constructions tend to be, but I’m not telling. I do my best to avoid them, sometimes without success.)
Here is one example of writerly overuse of a particular, conspicuous adverb. (A friend once pointed out this example to me.) Do an Internet search for these words: “George F. Will famously Newsweek.”
You should find that a certain award-winning columnist (whom I like) tends to use a certain word way too much.
Monday, July 8
More dangerous than mere script kiddies
Glenn Reynolds links to an LA Times piece about hacker threats to utilities.
Here are the first two grafs of the piece:
In reading that article I was reminded me of a useful analysis by James Dunnigan at StrategyPage.com from last April. He examined the hacker issue in relation to various security concerns. Among his observations:
As InstaPundit would say: Read the whole thing.
Everybody loves racin'
My Moon Pie post immediately below made passing notice of a New York Times article I'd read that examined the national popularity of NASCAR. I don't have a link to the original story, but I did find a printout I'd filed. The story appeared in the Times on April 20, 2000. Here is an excerpt:
I'm by no means a NASCAR fan myself, but I'm ignorant on sports generally. I did go to high school in the late '70s with Dale Jarrett, who's become one of the superstars of the Winston Cup circuit. I never knew Jarrett personally (he's two years older than me), but he was known pretty much as a down-to-earth, regular guy in high school. Which reminds me: I understand that a guy who was a real goof-off in my high school class has gone on to do remarkably well financially as a pit-crew mechanic for one of the NASCAR racing teams.
Those Moon Pie-chewing Trotskyites
Fascinating observations at Scott Rubush's blog about thoughts from Matt Welch (man, I keep running into Matt’s commentary everywhere I turn, even though his blog is down!) on the persistence of Okie culture in parts of California.
Rubush links to this Welch post from April on the same topic. (Rubush grew up in North Carolina and moved two years ago to Los Angeles.)
Rubush discusses how John Steinbeck relied on faulty analysis and wishful thinking when he depicted the Okies as alienated proletarians well on their way to embracing leftist politics. Left-liberals have been making the same mistake for years about Southern textile workers, describing them as ripe for radicalization, as the textile strike in Gastonia, N.C., supposedly “proved” in the 1920s. The movie “Norma Rae,” released in 1979, put forward the same message -- a Dixiefied version of the Wobblies would spring up virtually overnight, the movie indicated, if it weren’t for the deviousness and ruthlessness of New South corporate powerbrokers.
The humbug touted by Steinbeck and the left-liberal analysts of the Southern textile “proletariat” deserves to be slapped down as mere myth ("myth" being the overused epithet that left-leaning academics hurl incessantly at much of traditional Western and Southern historiography).
What I want to know about California, though, is, how much of a following does NASCAR racing have there? Seems like at least one race is held in the Golden State.
I know that the New York Times reported a few years ago that, surprisingly enough, the majority of Winston Cup races are run on tracks outside the South. That fact is a remarkable indication about popular culture in this country, although I'm not sure of its full ramifications. Since moving to Nebraska from North Carolina in 1999, I've been struck at how enthusiastically working-class prairie dwellers follow NASCAR.
(I discovered Scott Rubush’s excellent blog, incidentally, through happenstance while doing a Google search for “idiotarians” for another post I’m working on -- and which I’ll have to postpone completing, since I got diverted to writing this Southern-flavor item.)
Oh, for those of you who don't know about Moon Pies (which in some Southern households is considered one of the major food groups), here's some info.
Which makes me wonder -- can you buy Moon Pies in California?
Sunday, July 7
Martin Devon salutes the formidable talent of director John Frankenheimer, and rightly so. Regrettably, I didn’t see “Ronin,” which Martin praises.
“The Manchurian Candidate” will probably go down as Frankenheimer’s best-known work. A movie superior in vision and verve, however, was the remarkable 1966 film “Seconds,” a clever variation of the Faust story. The work in “Seconds” by master cinematographer James Wong Howe showed just how crucial the vision of the “cameraman” can be to creating a film of distinction.
My favorite part of “Seconds”: Will Geer’s performance at the end, as the awful secret is revealed. Chilling.
Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha is going to get a big piece of the military’s psy-war action, it appears.
That’s one change expected from the planned merger of the U.S. Strategic Command (headquartered at Offutt) and the U.S. Space Command (in Colorado Springs). Donald Rumsfeld recently announced plans for the merged command, which will be headquartered at Offutt. Colorado Springs will still retain the space commands for the Army and Air Force.
The new command at Offutt will also be playing key roles in missile defense and research into the use of conventional and nuclear weapons for bunker-busting purposes.
It’s the war, stupid
Cal Thomas caught flak, appropriately, for loudly arguing that the appeals court panel’s ruling on the Pledge of Allegiance “has inflicted on this nation what many will conclude is a greater injury than that caused by the terrorists.”
Less remarked on was that a recent column by Paul Krugman contained a related claim:
What’s the connection? Each writer is arguing that America’s most serious problem concerns the policy area he specializes in. For Thomas, it’s the rancorous culture war agenda. For Krugman, it’s domestic economic matters.
If Ellen Goodman took up the same approach, she’d say the country’s No. 1 problem is something like Title IX. (In making that argument, she’d also make sure she worked in the phrase “the personal is political,” or some overly cute variant thereof, at least once.)
This country has plenty of problems outside of the terrorist threat, and commentators are certainly welcome to address them. But no matter how they attempt to shift the nation’s focus away to other matters, the reality is that there’s a war to win. And we’d best keep focused on the need to prevail.
Saturday, July 6
I had originally dismissed this column by David Broder (which argues that rank-and-file Democrats are shedding their reluctance to criticize Bush’s handing of the war). My take was that Broder, whose columns too often suffer from an off-putting piousness, was exaggerating the significance of predictable partisan grousing he’d heard from Democratic activists in Iowa.
But now that someone as sensible as Matt Welch has started arguing that support for Bush is slipping in important ways, I’m putting more credence in the claim.
Matt, by the way, is a hell of a decent fellow. Months ago, I sent him a set of e-mail questions about blogging for an article I was preparing for the National Conference of Editorial Writers. Unknown to me, Matt was about to leave on an overseas trip. A lot of people would have sent a quick response legitimately saying there was no time.
Not Matt. He not only responded to my questions but also took the time to compose extended, thoughtful observations. His quotes made a big difference in the quality of my article.
I thought the way Matt chose to handle that situation said a lot about his character. Riordan chose well when he tapped someone like that to help launch the LA Examiner.
It was like high-definition TV, only a lot better
Martin Devon did such a terrific roundup of July Fourth posts from the blogosphere that I wish I’d posted on the most memorable part of the holiday period at my household. (There are four of us -- myself, my wife, our 8-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter. Well, plus the three cats. Which reminds me -- am I the only who blogs with a cat occasionally on his lap?)
The Friday night before the Fourth, a concert and fireworks display were held in a large public park here in Omaha about a mile west of our house. Our gang of four waited on the front porch until, a bit after 10 o’clock, we heard the first roar of a fireworks explosion. Following our plan, we hurried upstairs to the third-floor attic. It’s just high enough for us to see the entire display.
We pressed our faces to the glass and watched the shower of color and sparkles -- with the scene entirely contained within the rectangle of the ancient window frame. The stillness of the evening was interrupted by a concussive boom! ... boom-boom! ... boom! as if the Jolly Green Giant were just over the hill beating a gargantuan bass drum.
My favorite part wasn’t seeing the fireworks display, though. It was turning around and watching the faces of my kids. Their expressions are a reward of parenthood for which I’m grateful.
Talking past each other
The Pledge of Allegiance was last the subject of national attention in the 1988 presidential contest, when the George Bush campaign attacked Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis, the technocratic governor of Massachusetts, for vetoing a billing requiring students to recite the pledge.
E.J. Dionne described in a recent column about how he received a phone call from Newt Gingrich in May 1988 gleefully reporting the Dukakis veto. “Gingrich immediately grasped the political possibilities,” Dionne wrote.
Garry Wills wrote a lively (if idiosyncratic) book about the interaction of religion and politics during the ’88 campaign. The title for the 1990 book consisted of two words much in the news of late: “Under God.”
Wills’ book focused in large part on the often amusing difference in cultural and political assumptions that can separate social liberals from Christian conservatives. Anyone who has interacted at length with the two subcultures can especially appreciate his point.
He takes particular aim at the willfulness of liberal secularists in ignoring the continuing influence and demographic weight of conservative Christian believers. “It seems careless for scholars to keep misplacing such a large body of people.” he writes. “No group making up a fifth of the population can safety be ignored by anyone trying to understand America.”
Writing about how liberal intellectuals such as Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrongly dismiss the significance of religion, Wills writes: “Much of American (indeed, human) experience is off their mental maps. They have a serene provincialism ...”
Writing about Dukakis, he observes: “Much of their assault on him relied on religion, a force he did not even know was in play.” The “deep hostility to the American Civil Liberties Union” (of which Dukakis was said to be a “card-carrying member”) was a “force inexplicable to him.”
In the same vein, Wills is on the mark about the mindset of the national press corps: “When George Bush accused Dukakis of belonging to the ACLU, that struck most people in the press as the equivalent of discovering that Dukakis was on the board of a local museum.”
It’s a point demonstrated time and again: Academic and journalistic elites that pride themselves on intellectual insight can be woefully ignorant of key cultural and political dynamics shaping the country. Perhaps the most egregious example was the February 1983 Washington Post article that said evangelical Christians tended to be “poor, uneducated and easily led.”
Some of Wills’ passages concerning the flap over the Pledge of Allegiance have particular resonance now, in the wake of recent constitutional propounding by Bay area jurists:
I wonder if a reporter has asked Michael Dukakis for his reaction to the current Pledge of Allegiance flap?
Friday, July 5
Mr. Rehnquist, tear down this 'wall'?
This year marks 200 years since the phrase "wall of separation" was coined by Thomas Jefferson to refer to the principle that underlay the First Amendment (as Jefferson interpreted it, at least). He used the phrase in a letter to Baptists in Danbury, Conn.
On church-state matters, the approach you'll find promoted at this site is a Sandra Day O'Connor/Anthony Kennedy kind of thing -- you know, a let's-compromise-and-recognize-the-need-for-balance-and-not-stray-too-far-from-the-center approach. Some neutrality here, some accommodation there. That doesn't mean hard choices won't be necessary in specific cases. But the goal generally should be to let everybody have some space in the public square. (But forget about rote application of those Lemon tests -- too anal retentive and mechanistic. Plus, they're just one more construct the court created and then applies arbitrarily, similar to the tests it set up in the 1980s on race and redistricting.)
An enthusiasm for compromise on church-state matters is too messy and impure for a lot of social conservatives and secularists, I know. But if any issue demanded it, this is one.
On the federal panel's ruling itself, here is one take I agreed with.
E.J. Dionne, who's to my left on many issues, provided a voice of reason on the issue in a recent column.
Jefferson sounded the right note when he said, "It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are 20 gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg." The important point is less Jefferson's observation about the value of tolerance than his emphasis on approaching church-state questions soberly and calmly.
Thursday, July 4
Today marks exactly 100 years since President Teddy Roosevelt declared an official end to the Spanish-American War. The conflict is generally regarded as a historical footnote, but it actually had an considerable impact on U.S. foreign policy and the nation’s military.
The war gained its fundamental significance by revealing America’s new status as a rising world power.
Below are several posts that examine various aspects of the war.
The war involved the first large-scale actions outside North America by the U.S. Army. It led to the first transport of American soldiers across the Pacific.
Little light in the Filipino tunnel
Although the United States defeated Spanish forces in short order in Cuba and the Philippines in 1898, by early 1899 U.S. forces and Filipino guerrillas were locked in a bloody struggle that dragged on for three years.
Several aspects of the U.S. campaign in the Philippines resembled those of the Vietnam War six decades later:
The U.S. resort to isolating Filipinos in garrison zones was ironic, since a key factor leading to war in 1898 had been U.S. indignation over Spain’s confinement of Cuban villagers in “concentration camps” in an effort to break an insurgency movement.
The British employed the same tactic against the Boers during another turn-of-the-century conflict, in South Africa.
‘There is no North and no South’
The Spanish-American War led to a remarkable reconciliation between the North and the South -- or, more accurately, between whites in the North and the South. (More on the conflict’s racial dimensions shortly.)
When Worth Bagley, a young naval officer from North Carolina, became the first U.S. casualty of the war, a newspaper in New York City declared, “There is no North and no South after that.” Bagley’s father had been a major in the Confederate army.
The United Confederate Veterans, meeting in a convention, declared full support for the U.S. military campaign against Spain.
Many Southerners said the war provided an invaluable opportunity to prove their region’s loyalty to the nation as well as the military prowess of Southern men.
In Raleigh, North Carolina, members of a state militia marched into a temporary military camp while wearing Confederate uniforms, then changed into the blue uniforms of the U.S. military.
Southerners cheered when President William McKinley, a Union veteran, named four former Confederate generals as generals in the war with Spain. One of them was a nephew of Robert E. Lee.
Another of the ex-Confederate generals, Joe Wheeler, performed ably in Cuba and, eight years later, was buried in his U.S. officer’s uniform. An old Confederate comrade is said to have observed beside his coffin, “Jesus, General. I hate to think of what ol’ Stonewall’s going to say when he sees you arrivin’ in that uniform.”
In 1906, four years after Teddy Roosevelt declared an end to the conflict in the Philippines, Arlington National Cemetery held its first ceremonies for Confederate Memorial Day.
‘Unloose themselves from ... prejudice’
Racial considerations provided the Spanish-American War with some of its most fascinating aspects -- and certainly some of its most tragic.
Many black Americans reacted to the war in a similar fashion as white Southerners: They seized on it almost desperately as a chance to prove their loyalty to country. But blacks, especially in the South, held tightly to an even greater hope: that their demonstration of patriotic dedication would be rewarded with recognition, finally, as equal citizens by law and custom.
From war in Cuba, it was hoped, would spring justice in the Jim Crow South.
Wrote N.C. Bruce, who volunteered for the all-black North Carolina Third Regiment: “The war has begun for Justice to Humanity -- justice at home as well as abroad.”
But it was not to be.
Even worse, the lesson was cruelly inflicted.
The war occurred just as lynching, disenfranchisement and Jim Crow segregation laws were gaining ominous momentum across the South.
In North Carolina, Democrats regained control of the Legislature in 1898 by mounting a white supremacy campaign that featured vote fraud and outright intimidation by paramilitary thugs called Red Shirts. Two years later, all but a handful of the state’s blacks would be disenfranchised through a voter referendum (with electoral fraud so blatant that the disenfranchisement even “passed” in majority-black counties). Such efforts were loudly championed by a Raleigh editor named Josephus Daniels, a key figure in Democratic politics.
In South Carolina, the Democratic governor not only refused to form an all-black unit for the war but also commanded that black militiamen in Charleston be disarmed. Their weapons were shipped to Columbia for use by whites.
In Georgia, several black soldiers who challenged Jim Crow restrictions were killed by white civilians (none of whom were subsequently convicted). In one instance, a regular Army “buffalo soldier” with the 25th Infantry was shot dead after he entered a drugstore and asked for a glass of soda water.
Foster Gaines, a history professor at Louisiana State University, notes, “A soldier was seen as manly, a hero and a citizen, and Southerners were working very hard in that era to make sure that those three words never applied to blacks.”
Still, black soldiers fought in Cuba and were generally recognized for their dedication and military skill. Black troops also saw action in the Philippines, where the irony was much noted that they were carrying the “White Man’s Burden” against dark-skinned Filipinos even as blacks were subjected to Jim Crow horrors on the U.S. mainland.
“The U.S. has no right to subjugate these people,” a black sergeant wrote from Cuba.
Emilio Aguinaldo, leader of the Filipino insurgents, used propaganda to play on black soldiers’ unease, citing a particularly heinous lynching incident in Georgia as evidence that blacks had no obligation to defend U.S. interests.
That very point had been the subject of intense debate among black intellectuals at the start of the war. E.E. Cooper, editor of a black newspaper in Washington, D.C., wrote that he expected “the Anglo-Saxon people ... to rise in their might and unloose themselves from the bondage of race prejudice.”
Such arguments met with heated rebuke from figures such as Henry McNeil Turner, an African Methodist Episcopal minister and veteran advocate of Africa colonization by black Americans. In America, Turner said, blacks had “no home and never will have.”
The same hopes and the same debate would arise in the black community during World War I. Race riots in 1919, soon after the war’s end, ranked among the worst in the nation’s history.
Josephus Daniels, the former North Carolina newspaper editor, went on to hold positions in both the Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt administrations. In 1941 (the same year that Japanese forces would attack U.S. installations in the Philippines), Daniels published his memoirs. In looking back on the Spanish-American War, he granted that some of his rhetoric at the time had been too harsh.
The black North Carolinians who had volunteered to serve, he wrote, “made much better soldiers than anybody expected.”
Seemingly charitable words, but they came four decades too late.
Monday, July 1
Europe and nationalism (and plaintiff attorneys)
A good friend of mine, Craig Brelsford, has frequently sent me thoughtful e-mails about conditions in Europe. Craig, a native Pittsburgher, worked as an editorialist for a newspaper in my native North Carolina before moving to the Netherlands last year with his wife, Cathy.
Here are some of Craig’s thoughts from two of his recent e-mails, prompted by an item I had sent him about Europe and nationalism. He wrote:
See, I told you -- worthwhile stuff.