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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Tuesday, November 26
Does Canada have rednecks?
I saw two cheap shots against Southerners today.
First (as was pointed out by an e-mail correspondent of mine), Glenn Reynolds this morning quoted a Washington Post article by the father of a Marine describing the disapproval from other New England parents toward his son’s decision to go into the Marines:
“Terribly Southern” -- what is she trying to say? That the Southern mindset is reflexively uncouth, crude, backward, racist?
Sure, the U.S. military subculture reflects values of a certain Southern traditionalism, such as “honor,” duty and bare-fisted machismo. But do you really think that’s all the woman was referring to?
Then, this afternoon, I got a message from a diplomatic history listserv in which a Canadian slathered on the condescension in talking about neoconservatives. After defining what he claimed were the core principles of neoconservatives, he wrote:
First, it’s ironic to see a left-wing professor accusing people on the right of the very same sin Rush Limbaugh and countless bloggers claim is fundamental to liberals: that they let their hearts control their minds.
Second, it’s interesting to hear a Canadian use the word “redneck.” Through what cultural filtering, I wonder, does a Canadian come to know the term “redneck”?
I once heard a co-worker who had lived in various places around the United States say that every American region has its rednecks, in a broad cultural sense. I’m not well-traveled enough to make a judgment on that claim, but I’ve long found it fascinating. Here in Nebraska, the killers of Teena Brandon, whose murder was depicted in the movie “Boys Don’t Cry,” came from a gritty blue-collar subculture that could qualify as a prairie variant of redneckism.
By the way: To be fair, I also heard a conservative Republican take a cheap shot at the blue states this week. From a Washington Post article Tuesday:
Lott is talking as if the “two coasts” are relatively insignificant demographically and politically -- as if the areas along the Atlantic and Pacific had been magically reduced in population to 17th century levels. It's legitimate to criticize the left-leaning blue-state mentality on honest policy grounds. But it's silly to act as if opposition from "only" the two coasts can be blithely dismissed as of little consequence.
Monday, November 25
This week I’m posting a series of items about the Confederate battle flag, given that The New Republic has an article this week about the role that public agitation over the flag played in this year’s gubernatorial contest in Georgia. I’m looking at various historical aspects of the flag; the lead-off post is here. My personal view is that displays of the flag on public property should be banned -- the flag is too divisive a symbol, irredeemably tainted by its association with white racism.
That doesn’t mean, however, that study of the “Rebel flag,” and of the symbolic power of flags in general, is without value. As I noted in the lead-off post, for time in the 1950s, the Confederate battle flag was flown in many non-Southern states as an innocuous commercialized emblem, devoid of racist connotations.
In 1995, I put together a newspaper project on the Confederate battle flag. To provide context about the importance of the flag in the military subculture for everyday Confederate soldiers, I interviewed Mickey Black, a North Carolinian with an intense devotion to studying American history across all periods. Black, who is a student of Civil War banners, ably explained how the Confederate battle flag fit into the military cultural context of its day.
“In the middle of a battle you couldn’t hear,” Black said. “You could hear a drum. You could hear a fife. You probably couldn’t hear a man yell a command. But you could see the colors.”
He continued: "When you put a thousand men shoulder to shoulder in private ranks, you have to be able to tell where you are. The point of reference has to be something -- the flag. If the flag advanced, so did you. Day in and day out, you’d go where the flag was."
Each day commenced by lining up soldiers and parading the flag -- “the colors” -- before them. Each day ended with a repeat of the ritual.
The battle flag, Black said, “was the first thing they saw in the morning, and the last thing they saw at night. ... To soldiers, it was as revered as much as the cause they fought for.”
During the chaos and clamor of battle, few goals were more critical than maintaining control of the colors, and few were more exhilarating than capturing those of the enemy. The soldiers who were selected to hold the flag, the color guard, received a high honor -- and braved great danger.
On the first day of Gettysburg, Black noted, the 26th North Carolina Regiment locked in combat with the 24th Michigan Regiment. Before the fighting ended, the regimental colors for the North Carolinians had fallen 14 times. Each time, a Confederate stepped forward to pick up the banner and raise it aloft.
My father’s paternal grandfather was a private in Company E of the North Carolina 57th Regiment. In battle, I’ve read, Company E stood closest to the regimental colors.
The Confederate battle flag was known officially as the Army of Northern Virginia (ANV) battle flag. Over the course of the war, it became the battle standard for most Confederate units.
John Coski, a historian with the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, has written, “Someone gazing down the line of a Confederate army during any battle of the war was likely to see a variety of battle flag patterns and national flags employed as battle flags, but all drowned in a sea of ANVs.”
Later this week: Confederate graves in Nebraska. Comments from Shelby Foote on Southerness. And the power of flag symbolism in countries around the globe.
Symbol of backwardness, or a symbol of pride
A consistently thoughtful e-mail correspondent of mine, responding to my Monday posts on the Confederate battle flag, noting the huge generational difference within his family as far as attitudes toward the flag:
When I put together a set of articles about the Confederate battle flag in 1995 for a North Carolina newspaper, I solicited reader comments to include in the project. Almost all the responses were generally favorable to the flag. This comment was one of the few critical ones, and also one of the most vivid:
Most of the reader comments were couched in terms of “Heritage, not hate,” a phrase frequently used by Southern Civil War antiquarians who attempt to distinguish between the flag’s symbolic connection to regional identity and its appropriation by racists as an emblem of white supremacy. Among those letters:
Pretty cushy job
Dahlia Lithwick, Slate’s catty Supreme Court reporter, claims that service on the nation’s high court isn’t so stressful:
The current court term involves such a bland set of cases, Lithwick argues, that it’s doubtful Rehnquist would retire this year. He would prefer to go out on a note of triumph, she says.
Robert Samuelson writes an op-ed column about the German economy. I write a post about it. Jim Bennett, a columnist for UPI, e-mails me some thoughts in response. I post them. Jim refines them and turns them into his column for this week.
This blogosphere thing can be quite interesting.
For those who haven’t seen the site since Friday, there is a ton of new stuff. Today I kick off a set of posts on the Confederate flag; the posts on that topic will continue for several days.
Among other topics addressed here over the weekend: tax cuts, asbestos litigation, two recent books I highly recommend, and Michael Jackson’s “children.”
The surprising Confederate flag
During the U.S. assault on Okinawa in the spring of 1945, American forces struggled for 30 days to dislodge the Japanese from Shuri Castle, a centuries-old stronghold on the island. When the castle finally fell in May, a U.S. Marines regiment rushed forward to mark the victory -- by raising the blazing red banner of the Confederate battle flag.
The flag incident received considerable attention. The Marine captain in charge was later reprimanded. Not that the episode was unique during the war. During World War II, Southern communities sometimes sent Rebel flags to soldiers overseas.
In 1948, Congress authorized National Guard units whose ancestor units had fought for the Confederacy to fly the Confederate flag above their regimental colors. Displays of the Confederate flag were also reported during the Korean War.
In short, the Confederate battle flag -- the familiar, 13-starred blue cross on a red field -- has made appearances in several surprising venues -- on foreign battlefields, in European countries as a symbol of secession or just of rebellion in general, even for a time in the 1950s in many non-Southern states as part of a “flag fad” in which the banner was displayed as an innocuous commercialized emblem.
I mention this historical side note in light of a new article in The New Republic about how the Confederate flag flap contributed to the defeat of the incumbent Democratic governor in Georgia. As I said in a post below, the Confederate battle flag, in my view, is now far too divisive a symbol to warrant inclusion in a state flag.
The familiar “Rebel flag” I’m talking about here is officially known as the Army of Northern Virginia (AVN) battle flag. It was never the national flag of the Confederacy, nor was it called the “Stars and Bars.” The Confederacy had three national flags over the course of its existence. The first was jettisoned because it resembled the Stars and Stripes in several ways. The second was junked because it included such a large white field it gave the impression it was a flag of surrender. The third, adopted in March 1865 (only a few weeks before Lee’s surrender), featured the AVN flag symbol on a white field with a vertical red bar.
The Confederate battle flag became associated with white supremacy during the civil rights battles of the 1950s and ’60s. As noted by a well-curated and critically praised exhibit at the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond in the mid-1990s, “the flag was waved in the face of blacks at almost every major incident of the civil rights struggle.”
One of the photos at the exhibit showed Martin Luther King Jr. at a civil rights protest in Selma, Ala., in February 1965. Standing beside him was a deputy sheriff with a Confederate flag emblem on his helmet.
That historical exhibit was fittingly titled “Embattled Emblem.” After reading a review of the exhibit by historian Edward Ayers of the University of Virginia in 1995, I drove to Richmond to put together a newspaper project on the flag. (I was then working at a North Carolina newspaper.)
Curiously, the flag was not always associated with such repulsive connotations. Consider this observation from the New York Times Magazine in October 1951:
Interest in the Confederate battle flag as a pop culture symbol began in 1947 in connection with a college football game. Fans of the University of Virginia football team had displayed the flag in large numbers during a home game against Harvard in which UVA triumphed by a score of 47-0. The next month, when the Virginia squad traveled north for a game against Penn, the ubiquitous appearance of the flag among the visiting UVA fans piqued the curiosity of the national press, and the flag fad soon took on a life of its own.
The flag fad died out in the late 50s, as the intensity of Southern resistance to desegregation was making itself clear. Curiously, the fad had arisen despite the fact that the Dixiecrats had displayed the Confederate flag prominently in 1948 in nominating Strom Thurmond on a state’s rights/segregationist platform.
The embrace of the Confederate symbol during the '50s flag fad was in marked contrast to the experience in 1997, when New York Gov. George Pataki, at the urging of two black state legislators, had the Georgia state flag removed from the State Capitol because it incorporated the Confederate battle flag. The flags of the states, including Georgia, that had been the 13 original colonies had been displayed in a Capitol corridor since the late 1970s.
As for European interest in the flag, John Coski, the curator who oversaw the “Embattled Emblem” exhibit, explained it to me this way: “There’s the chic. It’s the popularity of things American as much as it is the Confederacy. It’s seen abroad as essentially American.”
Irredentism is a part of life in much of the world, Coski added, so it’s understandable that people in parts of Europe and other areas affected by separatist movements would take an interest in the experience of the Confederacy as well as its symbols.
The American Civil War, he said, was the kind of event “that nations of any age, in all eras, have gone through or are presently going through. Wars over secession and disputes over what is a nation are a continuing part of history.”
A few years later after I interviewed Coski, the 135th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg was marked, in 1998. The Civil War re-enactors who participated in the event included more than just Americans. Some of the re-enactors had flown over from Europe -- from France, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, Finland and Sweden.
By the way: In looking through my files on things Southern, I came across a lot of noteworthy items about the Confederate flag -- items, such as the info above, that stand apart from the familiar debate in recent years over the display of the flag on public property. I plan to portion the items out over the course of this week. I’ll mention two more nuggets in the posts that immediately follow, then save the rest for later.
Symbol of slavery
The “Embattled Emblem” exhibit won praise in academic circles for its honesty and fair-mindedness. For example, the exhibit straightforwardly acknowledged that the Confederate battle flag is inextricably burdened by its association not just with present-day white supremacist movements but also with antebellum Southern slavery:
Those statements, remember, were made by the Museum of the Confederacy itself. Pretty significant.
A big Confederate tent
I talked in a post below about some of the dynamics affecting the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Tony Horwitz, a writer with The New Yorker who wrote the much-praised “Confederates in the Attic,” summed up the SCV well in a 1998 interview with the journal Southern Cultures:
Exactly. Elsewhere in the interview, Horwitz notes that the SCV tends to be very decentralized.
Sunday, November 24
Grand compromise on new tax cuts?
According to this AP story, some observers predict that Dems and GOPers in Congress may strike a compromise next year involving two key components:
Not that those are the only possibilities, by any means. From the article:
By the way: Jane Galt explains the specifics for her own ambitious tax-revamping regime.
Confederate flag and more
I mentioned in a post below that I would try to find the set of articles I did in the '90s about historical and cultural aspects of the Confederate battle flag, in light of new articles in The New Republic and Salon on the flag flap in Georgia. The flag controversy played a role in the Republican victory in the Georgia gubernatorial contest.
I found the articles this afternoon. I intend to blog on the topic late tonight.
My files on things Southern had several things I'll mention here either tonight or later in the week. Among them: a good analysis by Tony Horwitz of the Sons of Confederate Veterans; comments from Shelby Foote about his Southern-centric view on the world, Confederate battle flags in Nebraska, and Civil War re-enactors from Canada. That only scratches the surface of the stuff in my files. And my files on the Midwest and West are growing in similar fashion these days. Definitely future fodder for blog posts.
The asbestos lawsuit scandal
With the GOP headed for control of both houses of Congress next year, discussion of tort reform is in the air. Robert Samuelson examines one of the main factors fueling the call for change: the recklessness displayed by asbestos litigation.
It’s a familiar subject, but Samuelson provides useful observations:
Samuelson says such lawsuits amount to fraud -- strong words. And exactly on the mark.
Parenthood is a privilege for which I'm grateful. (Sure, it can be exasperating, too.) Here is one of the reasons for my gratitude:
About three years ago, when my son was 5, we were reading a book that included a picture of the Statue of Liberty. My son had heard of the statue, but he'd apparently never given thought to one aspect of it.
He looked at me and asked, "What's liberty?"
That's why parenthood is such a great privilege.
Prairie landscapes, Irish settlement in the South
I’m hearing and reading good things about two recent books, one relating to Nebraska and the other to the South.
“Cold Snap as Yearning,” a collection of essays by playwright Robert Vivian, is winning praise for its evocations of exteriors -- Nebraska landscapes, including locales around Omaha -- as well as explorations of interiors -- intimate self-examinations, as well as considerations of the spiritually transcendent.
Here is what my friend Hilda Raz, poet and editor of the literary journal Prairie Schooner, wrote about the book, which has earned critical praise as well as a regional book award:
The book is from the University of Nebraska Press, which publishes more titles per year than any other U.S. university press except the University of California Press. NU Press is also in the top 10 among university presses in terms of annual sales volume.
A few years ago, I drove down to Lincoln and spent an afternoon meeting and interviewing the editors at the NU Press -- a very stimulating day, and certainly among the most rewarding of my 17 years in journalism.
The other book is “The Irish in the South, 1815-1877” by David T. Gleeson. Here are some of the comments in a review by Mark I. Greenberg, of the University of South Florida, Tampa:
Gleeson’s book is from the University of North Carolina Press, affiliated with my undergrad alma mater. One of the pleasures of my personal reading is that the wider my explorations of American history extend, the more I run into quality titles on that topic published by UNC Press.
My hope is that Midwesterners would take a look at "Cold Snap as Yearning" and that Southerners would check out Gleeson's study of the Irish. My greater hope, though, is that people would nurture their intellectual curiosity by perusing a book about a U.S. region besides the one in which they live.
Saturday, November 23
Michael Jackson’s children
Michael Jackson was once an impressive pop music talent, but in the years since his 1980s heyday he’s gradually migrated into ever-deeper levels of peculiarity, with overtones of poorly concealed depravity. Jackson is such a lightweight and eccentric, it seems he should be beneath the consideration of any serious-minded person.
The latest column from Michelle Malkin, however, uses bracing prose to explain why serious-minded people should be paying attention to Jackson’s disturbing personal life: He has legal custody, apparently, of three young “children” (whose faces he literally shrouds from public view), including the infant he dangled off a balcony in Germany. The children have been thrust into a family situation that is not merely cartoonish -- in its potential, it is quite troubling.
A sidenote: Malkin is on a big roll right now with her fine investigative work on the bollixed work by the INS and other agencies in failing to keep the country safe from nefarious illegal immigrants. As for her writing style, her pieces stay in the same predictable groove -- scaldingly indignant, with the volume control always turned up to an ear-splitting maximum, heavy-metal-style. I’m not a big fan of that approach (it’s hard to take someone serious when they always sound outraged), but she can raise significant points.
Her piece on Michael Jackson is a good case in point. In addition to pulling together various facts about Jackson (although I’m not keen that she includes mere rumors in the mix), she comes up with some striking phrases to sum up her points:
Exactly right. Her column jolted me out of my blase attitude, awakening me to the real issue: concern for the young lives Jackson has already begun to warp. Can anything be done legally? I assume not -- unless someone in Jackson's entourage has the moral fortitude to step forward if there is anything that authorities need to know.
Should Michael Moore read ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’?
Chris Anderson is a Cincinnati-based, independent-minded blogger whose site, Queen City Soapbox, is worth checking out.
Here is a recent post of his:
As much as I hate to seem ungrateful, the vision of Michael Moore “doing good” doesn’t put me at ease. Far from it.
This put me in mind of a favorite passage from To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. Scout is describing her across-the-street neighbor Miss Maudie Atkinson, who had been condemned by “foot-washing” Baptists as a sinner (because of her flowers!):
My confidence in pulpit gospel lessened at the vision of Miss Maudie stewing forever in various Protestant hells. True enough, she had an acid tongue in her head, and she did not go about the neighborhood doing good, as did Miss Stephanie Crawford. But while no one with a grain of sense trusted Miss Stephanie, Jem and I had considerable faith in Miss Maudie. She had never told on us, never played cat-and-mouse with us, she was not at all interested in our private lives. She was our friend.
In three sentences, Harper Lee captures the difference between a leftist like Michael Moore and a genuine liberal. Too often, the one who consciously and conspicuously “does good” is infringing on the very people who are supposed to be benefited. Understandably, trust does not follow.
Interestingly, in the book Miss Maudie is the character who most often (aside from Atticus Finch) gives voice to matters of conscience and rectitude. In constructing her character, I think that Harper Lee embodied in her a more universal precept. We have faith in those who trust us to make our own way and freely struggle to perfect our own lives. It’s the busybodies like Miss Stephanie and Michael Moore (and Jesse Helms, for that matter) who make us uneasy.
By the way: Chris also has an interesting post titled “Conservatives against prison rape.”
Friday, November 22
A long history of insults
Glenn Reynolds, Jonah Goldberg and assorted bloggers have commented of late about the use of pork and pork fat as a tool for combating terrorism (using pork-fat-covered bullets, for example, or wrapping the bodies of terrorists in pigskin before burial). Such measures were used by the British in the Sudan in fighting the Mahdi and his supporters in the 19th century. The Russians are said to be using such tactics now against Chechen guerrillas.
Which reminds me of another historical note: In the Middle Ages, Christian writers raised the topic of pigs in hurling fanciful, insulting accusations against Islam and its founder. The propagandistic chansons that spurred Christian support for the Crusades were replete with such anti-Islamic imaginings.
A French writer from the 11th century, Hildebert of Tours, wrote a Latin poem titled “A History of Mohammed” that one modern historian has described as “probably the most widely read medieval poetic work dealing with Islam.”
“It includes scurrilous narratives about the Prophet of Islam,” historian Jane I. Smith writes in “The Oxford History of Islam,” “such as his having returned home in a drunken stupor, fallen into a dunghill, and been eaten by pigs.”
The medieval chansons ignored actual Islamic beliefs in many respects and claimed, for example, that Muslims worshiped multiple gods. In the “Song of Roland,” a group of Arabs angry over a military defeat smash the idol of one of the gods, Apollin, then throw Mohammed into a ditch where he is devoured by hogs and dogs.
That is only a small sampling of the depths to which medieval Christian writers stooped in slandering Islam. In fact, the spirit of creative cruelty found in the chansons resembles that of modern anti-Semitic works such as the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” (now being shown as a TV mini-series in Egypt).
Not surprisingly, medieval Christian writers and theologians fixated on the sexual aspects of Islam -- Mohammed’s multiple wives, for example, as well as the pleasures of the garden of paradise.
The Koran was first translated into English in its entirety (despite errors and omissions) in 1141. The translation was done by an English scholar, Robert of Ketton, at the request of a French monk, Peter the Venerable, abbot of Cluny, who had visited Cluniac monasteries in Spain. In line with the approach of most Christian theologians who took time to study Islam, Peter regarded Muslims as Christian heretics rather than as followers of a separate religious path.
The study of Islam by Christian scholastics was normally pursued with the aim of combating it intellectually. A common approach was the creation of imagined Christian-Muslim dialogues in which the arguments for an Islamic viewpoint were invariably refuted.
The hostility of Western Christian writings toward Islam stemmed in considerable measure from the fact that such writings tended to be influenced by the Byzantines, who often displayed a burning hatred of the Muslim world. In the end, of course, the Turks prevailed and Byzantium became absorbed into the Muslim community.
The Chinese government is taking Western countries to task for their alleged disrespect toward Tibet, Best of the Web mentioned this week. Westerners, the Beijing government insists, should end their use of the name Mount Everest and start using the official Chinese name, Mount Qomolangma.
Now that takes real nerve: China’s communist government posing as a defender of Tibetan cultural integrity. I doubt the Dalai Lama would be impressed.
By one count, the Chinese occupation of Tibet cost some 1.2 million lives over the 20 years following the intervention of 1959. Many Tibetans were placed in prison or labor camps. The extension of Chinese control resulted in the calculated destruction of Tibetan monasteries, temples and other cultural or historical buildings -- in all, more than 6,000 structures.
From a pro-Tibetan Web site:
It’s bad enough that the Chinese Community Party smashed Falun Gong, a movement intended merely for spiritualist and physical development, out of raw jealousy and paranoia over the movement's popularity. For the Chinese government to now pose as a guardian of Tibetan cultural traditions only provides new proof of Beijing's cynicism and arrogance.
Thursday, November 21
Will the EU learn from Germany's currency problem?
Jim Bennett e-mails me from time to time with keen analyses about European economic matters. That was the case the other day, when he reponded to my excerpting from a Robert Samuelson column. The column talked, among other things, about how the one-to-one currency transformation between eastern and western Germany in the early reunification period failed to bring about the hoped-for results for eastern Germany.
The German currency situation will become quite relevant, Jim says, when Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic join the EU:
Lots of good stuff
Some quick mentions of interesting blog work I've happened upon this week:
That's not all. I'll mention more over the weekend.
More on gays in the military
Donald Sensing has a different take on the firing of the Army linguists than I do, but his post ably examines what specific sections of the legal code are involved.
By the way: In a separate post, Don addresses the question: What would Jesus drive?
The Kyoto debate in Canada
A sharply written, Kyoto-related op-ed in the Calgary Herald by two Canadians was candid in describing how the Liberal government in Canada has a political incentive to oppose U.S. policy on the accord (via the Web site for the National Post):
The current debate in Canada over Kyoto involves crucial constitutional questions for the country, the op-ed writers argue:
Right. Kyoto is, among other things, an attempted power grab by overreaching regulators and their allies in the foreign-policy NGO community.
China’s leadership struggle isn’t over
I’ll have several posts on China in coming days. For now, a few observations by Kenneth Lieberthal, a professor at the University of Michigan, who oversaw Asia policy for the Clinton administration’s National Security Council from 1998 to 2000, writing in the Los Angeles Times about Jiang Zemin’s machinations at the just-completed Communist Party Congress: (to register to see the article, I just do what Matt Welch suggested a long time ago: use laexaminer for both my user name and the password):
Wednesday, November 20
Defending the neocons
A post at a listserv I belong to used civil, measured language to defend the neoconservative foreign policy viewpoint against a glib attack that "neocons" are fired, above all else, by an obsession to safeguard Israel:
As Sidney Hook used to say (I'm paraphrasing from memory): Attack my arguments before you attack my character.
The power of the truth
A fine column from Austin Bay this week about the power of the BBC, and of truth-telling in general, in the developing world. A few excerpts:
Hey, WSJ: Give credit where it's due
David Hogberg not only introduced the blogosphere to the woman from Kalona, Iowa, who used grocery-cart-themed sloganeering to make an eccentric antiwar message; he even came up with a great little blog contest around the theme of consumer products as morally imbued objects.
But when Best of the Web reported on the Kalona consumer-as-moralist, it made no mention of the role played by Dave's blog -- no fair, WSJ.
Best of the Web usually does a good job in crediting bloggers, but in this case it fell down on the job, needlessly.
John Pike's GlobalSecurity.com site has a lot of satellite images of presidential compounds and other sites in Iraq. Among the sites:
Monday, November 18
Welcoming the conquerors
Trudy Rubin, in her latest column for the Philadelphia Inquirer, writes that when the Israelis invaded southern Lebanon in 1982, the local Shiites at first welcomed them. “The Shiites were happy to see the departure of the Palestine Liberation Organization,” she writes. The Israelis wore out their welcome, however, through the military occupation that followed.
Her point reminded me of something I read by historian Jane I. Smith about a much earlier time in the Middle East:
Other factors of course facilitated the spread of early Islam, including the weakness of the Byzantine and Persian Sasanian empires, Smith writes.
She also points that “for a number of centuries Christians remained the majority in much of what was nominally Muslim territory.”
The Wizard of Oz and genocide
L. Frank Baum, author of the “Wizard of Oz” book series, indeed seems to have had many admirable qualities. As a review by Brooke Allen in the New York Times indicates, in his personal life, Baum appears to have been kind and generous. In his series of 14 Wizard of Oz books, Baum demonstrated thoughtfulness and perceptiveness. (The review looks at “L. Frank Baum: Creator of Oz” by Katharine M. Rogers; St. Martin’s Press.)
Among observations from Allen’s review:
It is strange that a review, in the New York Times of all places, would pass up a chance to strike a revisionist pose and mention a striking exception to Baum’s kindliness and good cheer. When he owned and edited a South Dakota newspaper, The Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer, from 1888 to 1891, an instance arose in which Baum displayed a far different side of his personality than that depicted in Rogers’ new biography. (This was a decade before the first Oz book was published.)
Baum’s transgression: He editorialized, twice, in favor of genocide against Native Americans.
Shortly after Sitting Bull was killed by Indian police, Baum editorialized in the Dec. 15, 1890 edition of his paper:
After the Seventh Cavalry killed 250 men, women and children at Wounded Knee on Dec. 29, 1890, Baum again advocated the obliteration of the Indians:
Baum’s editorials, written at a time of widespread concern among the settler community and U.S. military about the Ghost Dance phenomenon, expressed a sentiment that was no doubt common among white settlers of the day. But among present-day Lakota Sioux, the words of Baum’s editorials continue to be cited and still provoke pain and anger.
By the way: Allison’s review notes that Baum’s depiction of Oz essentially amounted to
The movie version of the original book took liberties in many ways, the review explains. In the book, the Wicked Witch of the West wasn’t a thoroughly vile character -- she was afraid of the Cowardly Lion and even of the dark.
And when Dorothy accidentally killed her with a dash of water, in the book Dorothy
Less praiseworthy is reviewer Allison’s knee-jerk contempt for what she calls “patriotic bombast” -- which, she claims, is “born from base provincialism.”
Grrrr. (That’s me, imitating an angry Cowardly Lion.)
On a roll
Impressive feat by William Safire. He's written two back-to-back columns that have won widespread attention, justifiably, among the chattering classes and the blogosphere: first his shot at John Poindexter's grand surveillance schemes, and now his column about JFK's medical condition.
Loved the title the NYT put on the latter: "Kennedy Agonistes." "Nixon Agonistes" was one of those books I heard about when I was a teen-ager, but I don't believe I've ever opened a copy of it, even at a used bookstore.
Safire can be tiresome with the self-congratulatory references he sprinkles in his columns (" ... as Ariel Sharon told me in a phone conversation just as he exited the Cabinet conference room ... "). That JFK-related column, though, is one time when Safire can refer back to his now-ancient political operative days and have the reference be genuinely useful.
Bean town boos
Boos go out to a conservative Republican and a liberal Democrat:
“Voodoo economics,” a call for a federal-urban “partnership“ -- Menino is stuck in the past, and pitifully so. He laments that we haven’t resurrected 1970s-style revenue sharing and resorts to tired, 1980s-vintage Democratic rhetoric about federal fiscal policy (originated, I know, by the elder George Bush). But the big-city mayors used to complain just as loudly about the Clinton administration’s reluctance to institute a grand “partnership” with urban America (meaning a massive infusion of federal cash so Democratic mayors can approve hefty bargaining packages with public-sector unions). I don’t question Menino’s Americaness. But I do question his scapegoating the federal government for urban fiscal woes that stem from something else entirely: a very weary national economy.
Kevin Drum has a terrific little post at CalPundit about modern art. An excerpt:
Yes, indeed. That sort of thing, incidentally, isn’t done at the art galleries included in my permalinks. (I’m serious.)
I recommend checking out Kevin’s whole post.
By the way: My appreciation to CalPundit for generously including what the peak time for the meteor shower will be here in Omaha. (My wife will be getting up and taking out our daughter. Our son is one of the soundest sleepers in the world; may be impossible to rouse him. Whether I get up depends on how late I stay up blogging tonight. Before turning in, I intend to write separately about Oz and Islam -- kind of sounds poetic.) If you check out Kevin's last graf in that post, you'll find a personal secret about myself.
Time to break out the good stuff
There have been way too few history-centric posts here of late -- my apologies. I'm going to rectify that this week.
One post in the pipeline is titled "The Wizard of Oz and genocide." Another (and perhaps a third) will look at some historical aspects of Islam. Plus a post that will look at lynching among other things, and another that will take point to an interesting column about the 19th century business battle that pitted the proponents of AC electrical current against those supporting DC.
Germany, the sick man of Europe
It’s no great revelation, but Robert Samuelson’s newest column summarizes things well about Germany’s economic rigidities:
Another systemic factor inhibiting German economic performance is the magnitude of subsidies for the former East Germany:
A British economist quoted by Samuelson says Germany’s approach would be like the United States absorbing Mexico and trying to raise incomes there to U.S. levels within five years.
Politically, it seems unavoidable that West Germany’s absorption of East Germany would have involved an energetic effort to boost incomes there. And, as Samuelson’s column says, Germans in the west seem quite willing to continue the subsidies.
Samuelson concludes his column: “Germany is Europe's ‘sick man,’ just as Japan is Asia's. Only 15 years ago, these countries seemed poised to assume leadership of the world economy. Now they are dragging it down.” Unfortunately correct.
Saturday, November 16
Arab intellectuals still snoozing
Worthwhile article from the Chicago Tribune about how Arab leaders and intellectuals are struggling to come to terms -- or, in many cases, struggling not to come to terms -- with how their societies have become the source for catastrophic terrorism.
Doesn’t sound like there was much fresh thinking, regrettably.
It would be a pleasant surprise if Arab intellectuals came around to acknowledging that their countries’ stagnation comes not from U.S. oppression but from systemic failures, from educational mismanagement to governmental corruption to economic protectionism, that are holding their countries back in fundamental ways, as a U.N. report accurately noted not that long ago.
In his Slate point-counterpoint with Robert Reich this week, Joe Klein (an articulate political moderate -- see his post here) talked about the need for politicians to cultivate a new American generation:
To which Reich responded:
Klein is right about the irresponsibility of politicians in incessantly pandering to seniors. Reich is right that the boomers, notorious for their narcissism for three decades now, aren’t likely to change character as they cross into retirement.
At age 43, I’m at the tail end of the boomer generation. I’ve never seen myself as belonging to the ’60s generation; that decade of separation in our ages is like a chasm, in terms of generational identity. I was a child of the mid- and late ’70s -- post-Vietnam, post-Watergate, post-flower child. That makes me a fossil, of course, compared to today's twentysomethings.
No placating the terrorists
Another comment from Reich:
Wouldn’t assigning a NATO-style organization the main anti-terrorism duties mean that the decision-making authority for that mission would be shifted out of the hands of U.S. officials and given to a U.S.-Western European collaboration? Yes, it would seem so. Now, that arrangement would certainly make for quick decision-making and decisive action, wouldn’t it?
As for Reich’s call to “fight terror with hope,” it’s true that many countries, jealous of our power and alienated from some of our values, regard the United States with wariness if not disdain. I’m skeptical of our practical ability in coming decades to go it alone in the international arena, despite, in the present era, the rightness of the administration's cause in rejecting the International Criminal Court and the Kyoto accords (neither of which would have won approval in the Senate anyway). Over time, furthering our interests will necessitate allies and a measure of international support, along many dimensions. Matt Welch touched on this topic in a column not long ago.
How we build international support for U.S. policy and still remain true to crucial values -- support for free markets and for robust national sovereignty over foreign policy -- seems a monumental challenge, given the international community's eagerness to impose statist solutions and smother national sovereignty under new supranational arrangements.
Reich is deceiving himself, though, when he argues that foreign aid and other U.S.-led social work initiatives will calm the anger of radical Islam. The Islamists are spurred by a warped understanding of world affairs -- they are at war with modernity -- and nothing this country will do, short of transforming itself into a Talibanic theocracy, will come close to placating them.
We’ve all read about how the Dutch, or the Danes or the Italians, hid Jews from the Nazis during World War II. Such moral assertiveness in the face of danger is inspiring. At the same time, it seems far removed from the everyday lives of comfortable middle-class Americans, myself included.
Thursday night, I and a group of fellow Omahans had dinner with someone who demonstrated that kind of moral courage not long ago in Afghanistan: a 42-year-old teacher from Kabul.
Before the liberation of her country last winter, she repeatedly defied the Taliban’s ban on female education by holding secret instructional sessions in her home. Girls and young women would leave their homes, bag in hand, as if they were going on a shopping trip to the bazaar. Instead, they went to this woman’s house, where they quietly studied math, science and grammar, freed, for a brief time, from the Taliban’s obsessive meddling.
I met that remarkable women at a dinner honoring her and 12 other Afghan women -- all teachers -- who are visiting Omaha for a month. Their trip, sponsored by the State Department, was organized by the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. As I’ve mentioned here before, the center, under its energetic director, Tom Goutierre, is doing impressive work helping Afghanistan right itself after the tumult of the Taliban years. The more than 3 million new textbooks issued this year in all Afghan schools, for example, were developed and prepared by the Nebraska center.
At the event Thursday night, the discussion at our particular table turned at one point to how marriage arrangements in Afghanistan differ from those in America. In Afghanistan, custom, influenced by Muslim tenets, dictates that marriages are arranged -- parents choose the bride and groom. Such an approach is looked on as backward in this country, said our Afghan visitor (a confident, wise-eyed woman dressed in black, her hair partially draped in a dark scarf). Yet in America, where men and women choose their mates freely, divorce is strikingly common. Why, she asked, do husbands and wives go their separate ways in such large numbers in this country?
Several of us said that men and women in America place so much emphasis on individual freedom that they sometimes neglect to accept that a marriage involves compromises on that freedom. I added that one reason divorce was made more accessible was to give women trapped in abusive relationships a chance to legally escape.
In Afghanistan, our guest from Kabul said, it is up to the husband alone to determine whether a marriage remains intact or not. She turned to me and asked: Did I intend for my marriage to remain whole? The question was asked in a friendly way, and her dark eyes scrutinized me closely as she waited for my answer.
Yes, I said. That is one of my strongest intentions in life.
Our discussion covered many other topics: her home life (with six children, she and her husband have little time for relaxation), the state of agriculture in her country (the Taliban’s destruction of irrigation canals in the ’90s still plagues the farm economy), her school (quite modest) and Afghan television (more modest, still).
As the evening neared its end, several of the Afghan women went to the front and sang a patriotic song in one of the native languages -- Dari or Pashto, I’m not sure which. Several times, one of the women sang a verse by herself, each time putting emotional inflection on the end of a particular line. Then, the others joined in for the chorus.
Tom explained the words. They express a love of country, he said, and the willingness to sacrifice for the future.
The Afghans I met this week deserve our admiration and help. Their courage needs to be rewarded.
Update: When my wife took our son for art lessons this morning at Omaha's Joslyn Art Museum, she saw the Afghan women being given a tour of the museum.
I was unable to find some notes when I wrote the post above. I've since found them and want to add here that the name of the Afghan teacher who sat at my table was Baizaa -- no last name. A Dari speaker, she lives in Kabul and is a native of Mazari Shareef in the northern province of Balkh.
Friday, November 15
Islam and democracy
Donald Sensing has put up some great analytical posts this week on various military tangents relating to a U.S. invasion of Iraq. Glenn Reynolds already linked a particular post of Don’s, but I’d like to mention it too. Although Don’s observations primarily related to civilian casualties, he also made a detour into discussing the nature of Islam:
This is a topic Don has addressed intelligently since the beginning of his venture into blogging. Posts like that are one more reason why One Hand Clapping is a worthwhile stop on the blogosphere tour.
Back again tonight
I didn't get around to blogging Thursday night because I was at a dinner honoring a delegation of 13 women from Afghanistan who are visiting Omaha for a month under the auspices of Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. A terrific event. I'll post some things about it tonight.
By the way: Glenn Reynolds quoted an e-mail Thursday saying the election might have been affected had the public known that John Poindexter was heading a DoD effort for mass surveillance of Americans. News that Poindexter had been given the Pentagon post was reported in The New Republic early this year, however. In March, the Omaha World-Herald, bouncing off the TNR item, did a short editorial questioning Poindexter's selection. It's true, though, that the exact scope of the "Total Information Awareness" project wasn't publicly known until the New York Times did a story on it shortly after the election.
Thursday, November 14
Al-Qaida and nuclear weapons
What sort of nuclear weapons has al-Qaida shown the most interest in developing or acquiring, in light of documents obtained in Afghanistan? Two kinds:
That conclusion is part of a new report from physicist David Albright, president of a D.C.-based think tank called the Institute for Science and International Security.
One of his main conclusions: "The documents strongly suggest that al-Qaida was intensifying its long-term goal to acquire nuclear weapons and would have likely succeeded, if it had remained powerful in Afghanistan for several more years."
Albright is not reassured by the claims of two Pakistani nuclear scientists who say they passed along no significant information when they met with al-Qaida officials in August 2001. He writes:
Indeed, outside help will be crucial if al-Qaida succeeds in creating a nuclear weapon, Albright says. The bin Laden organization benefited greatly from having facilities and other assets made possible by the Taliban.
The quality of information on nuclear weapons in the recovered al-Qaida documents ranged widely. Some of the analysis was accurate and useful; some was grossly mistaken (as the blog community, responding to a particular Times of London report, noted at the time).
In countering terrorist efforts to obtain such weapons, Albright writes, it is important to recognize that al-Qaida might try to build a bomb using an unconventional design that still might work. Such a consideration is relevant in anticipating what materials, equipment and expertise the terrorists might pursue.
By the way: Albright cites a “senior Pakistani official” who stated that al-Qaida’s annual budget was $200 million.
Wednesday, November 13
Dems to go west (toward Pelosi paleoliberalism)?
If Pelosi is selected as the new Democratic House leader, the party will be accused, rightly, of re-McGovernization, with the old Clintonian approach (of liberalism-when-possible/centrism-when-necessary) in retreat.
Many House candidates support Pelosi because, indeed, she probably could help energize blue-state Democratic activists to a degree that cautious Dick Gephardt never could. (Of course, her hard-left politics could complicate things mightily for Democrats in marginal, red-state districts.)
On policy questions, of course, she seems so retro, so mid-1980s. When reporters ask her about national security policy, it wouldn’t be at all surprising if she responded by calling for a nuclear freeze.
If Democrats intend to nominate a Pelosi-style paleoliberal as their presidential nominee in 2004, they would be wise to heed a fundamental point of national politics made long ago by Horace Greeley as the election of 1860 approached. If a candidate is going to champion views well outside the national consensus, Greeley wrote, his agenda had better be “sweetened” by including other, more palatable stances:
Normally, paleoliberals aren’t keen to embrace political pragmatism at election time. But in 2004, after four years of George W., they just might be desperate enough to win to give it a try.
A veteran’s son
Max Sawicky had a great Veterans Day post in the best spirit of blogging: He ably mixed personal experience into his analysis, producing an effective combination.
Max is firmly on the left and hotly opposes Bush’s foreign policy. Does that mean Max regards the military as his enemy? He writes:
Max’s description of his father’s service during World War II is also well worth reading.
Joyce Appleby, the Second Amendment and Michael Bellesiles
Glenn Reynolds links to an essay by historian Joyce Appleby that accuses the Bush administration of "radical bellicosity" in its foreign policy.
Glenn and fans of InstaPundit may be interested to know that Appleby was part of a group of academicians who filed an amicus brief in 1999 that argued for an anti-individual-rights position in the Emerson case. The brief, which cited Second Amendment history in making a claim for a "collective-rights" interpretation, is here.
An excerpt from the brief:
I am familiar with some of academicians who signed the brief, and I respect specific works they've done on topics aside from the Second Amendment. An example is Jill Lepore, who wrote a terrific, award-winning book on King Philip's War.
On the other hand, one of the signers was the now-discredited Michael Bellesiles. In fact, his historical writings on the Second Amendment figure prominently in the brief's footnotes.