Regions of Mind

Self-assured but self-questioning.

U.S. regionalism,
foreign policy,
politics, life.

Geitner Simmons is an editorial writer with the Omaha World-Herald.
This weblog expresses his personal views only.
He is also
a Midwesterner,
a Southerner,
a husband, a father, a son. And always
a student.

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Plains poetry
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Worthy institutions:
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of note:
Prairie Cats

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:

John's enlisting was unexpected, so deeply unsettling. I did not relish the prospect of answering the question "So where is John going to college?" from the parents who were itching to tell me all about how their son or daughter was going to Harvard. At the private high school John attended, no other students were going into the military.

"But aren't the Marines terribly Southern?" asked one perplexed mother while standing next to me at the brunch following graduation. "What a waste, he was such a good student," said another parent.

“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:

These can also be seen as attitudes, because they are not in fact the visible product of scholarly or scientific study, and only marginally of ratiocination. They are more akin to "gut feelings". ...

The problem is not just what some might call "red neckism," (or more properly simple ignorance) the problem is also with the desperation which such attitudes are likely to produce. When foreign policy becomes more the product of attitudes, or emotions, and less that of rational calculation there then arises an absolutely central question: what limits and what restraints will those driven by "gut feelings" accept? Do they accept constitutional or legal restraints? Do they respect world opinion? I am afraid the answers are absolutely clear. ...

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:

Senate Majority Leader-elect Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said most of the country is hungry for policies that discourage abortions and encourage churches and other groups to help families.

"The only places where these ideas are considered bad are on the two coasts," Lott said in an interview last week. "Where the meat is in the sandwich, the rest of America, these are pretty mainstream ideas."

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
The colors

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:

My father, a Southerner born in 1921, considered the flag to be virtually co-equal with the national flag. I remember him commenting that there ought to be a law against defacing a Confederate flag. My son, also a Southerner but born in 1985, has never known a time when the Confederate flag did not represent atavistic attitudes. This past summer we visited Gettysburg and, while walking around the Virginia monument noticed several dozen small Confederate battle flags stuck in the ground at its base. My son saw them and then commented, "Looks like a bunch of rednecks came by and put flags here." His was not a political statement; he had just never seen that flag in any other context.

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:

I see the Confederate flag flying as antagonistic to minorities. We have one flag, and that’s the American flag. In the South, in my hometown, when I see the Confederate flag flying, I feel a little bit afraid, afraid of the reaction which its purposes cause.

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:

  • The Rebel flag simply means to me that I’m a Southerner, and it shows respect for my ancestors who served the South during the war, and that’s all it means.

  • I am embarrassed by the flying of the Confederate battle flag for the purpose of flaunting racist beliefs. ... Despite these negatives, all of the flags of the Confederate states hold a place in my heart as well as for those who can appreciate the valor and courage Southern troops displayed in their fight for independence. While slave use in the South should be considered one of the darkest hours of our country’s brief history, it should not tarnish the valiant efforts of the men who fought overwhelming odds in hellish conditions, whom this flag represents.

  • This flag represents Southern heritage, not hate or slavery. ... This flag today represents more than a symbol. It represents a people who were defeated by numerical superiority but were never defeated in spirit.

  • ... many members of my family fought for the independence of our beloved Southland ... none of them were slaveowners. One of them fought and was wounded and captured at Gettysburg. Three of them were in the Fifth North Carolina Cavalry, with one being captured and dying in the terrible Yankee prison at Point Lookout, Maryland. ... When I see the flag or hear “Dixie,” I am reminded of the pride and love I have for North Carolina and the South, where my family has been since this was a British colony. I am reminded that the South is a place, while North is just a direction out of the South.

    Pretty cushy job

    Dahlia Lithwick, Slate’s catty Supreme Court reporter, claims that service on the nation’s high court isn’t so stressful:

    Consider, also, that these people do not exactly work coal miner's hours. The justices of the high court listen to arguments for 12 hours a month, six months a year-the functional equivalent of three days down a coal mine. The rest of their time is devoted to deciding which meager 80 cases they'll hear all year, how they'll vote, and writing opinions -- for which a good deal of the research and drafting is done by law clerks who never sleep or eat. In sum, a Supreme Court justiceship is a dream job for anyone over the age of 80 or under the age of 7. ... Almost five years ago, my colleague David Plotz assessed the chief justice and tried to answer the speculation raging back then as to whether a Rehnquist retirement was imminent. His conclusion: Why would he possibly want to retire? "Every year he has less work to do. He's made sure of that. The efficient justice arrives at the court around 9 and leaves by 3 -- what other job in Washington has such sweet hours?"

    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.

    Intellectual cross-pollination

    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.

    Since Friday

    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:

    Everywhere along the Atlantic seaboard, from New York to Miami and westward into the Mississippi watershed, pert little [Confederate] banners flap in the breeze -- from car antennae, souvenir stands, bicycles or in the hands of youngster, teen-agers and grown-ups. ...

    Why do cars of Northern states which defeated the Confederacy display it? And why is it being carried by Shriners in New York jamborees, at Atlantic City beauty contests or on planes in Detroit air races?

    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:

    As the most familiar symbol of the Confederate States of America, the flag is also associated with slavery -- an institution that underlay the southern economy and society. ...

    The U.S. Constitution ‘legalized’ slavery and the U.S. flag flew over a slaveholding nation and was thus a ‘symbol of slavery’ for far longer than were the flags of the Confederacy. ...

    By 1861 slavery was all but confined to the southern states, and the Confederacy was formed in large part to ensure the survival of slavery. To admit this is neither to pass judgment or cast blame, but merely to acknowledge what most historians consider undeniable truths.

    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:

    The SCV is a very big tent, embracing local “camps” around the world that range from scholarly book clubs or genealogical societies, to rabid political cells devoted to defending the Confederacy’s symbols and in some cases advancing a right-wing political agenda.

    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:

  • Exempting the first $10,000 in individual earnings from the Social Security payroll, which would please Democrats who want relief for lower-income households.

  • Acceleration of the reduction in income tax rates under the 2001 tax bill plus exclusion of investors' dividend earnings from taxation.

    Not that those are the only possibilities, by any means. From the article:

    the administration is considering a number of ideas. ... These include expanding the current $600 child credit to $1,000 next year rather than waiting for the credit to increase to that level in 2010. ...

    The Business Roundtable, an influential group of executives from 150 of the country's biggest corporations, is urging the administration and Congress to adopt $160 billion in specific tax cuts to help individuals as a way to bolster consumer demand next year.

    The biggest chunk of the business group's package -- $129 billion -- would go to exempt the first $10,000 in individual earnings from the Social Security payroll tax, which would translate into an extra $620 in spending money for each worker and a similar saving on the employer share of Social Security taxes.

    The business group also recommended accelerating personal income rate reductions that were scheduled to take effect in 2004 and 2006, having the lower rates go into effect next year, and eliminating the tax investors must pay on their stock dividends, something conservatives have long sought.

    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:

    ... litigation was expected to decline because asbestos use dropped sharply. In 2001 it was only 3 percent of its 1973 peak.

    Instead, new claims have exploded. By 2000, they totaled 600,000 and were rising by about 50,000 a year, says the Rand Institute for Civil Justice, a think tank. Contrast these numbers with the [Johns] Manville experience. After bankruptcy, it proposed a trust (to be funded by non-asbestos businesses) to pay victims. At the time, experts said the trust would receive from 83,000 to 100,000 claims. It's already six times that level.

    What happened? The answer is that claims are paid to people who aren't sick. Asbestos litigation has become less about justice and more about business. ...

    As costs and claimants have grown, more companies have been sued; the total now is about 6,000. Many simply used some asbestos product.

    When the costs become overwhelming, companies go bankrupt. More than 50 have already done so, a third in the past two years. Once in bankruptcy, companies suspend payments to asbestos claimants but continue normal operations. Ultimately a company may emerge from bankruptcy with a "trust," which owns most of its stock and resumes partial payments to claimants. There's a transfer of wealth from today's shareholders -- pension funds, mutual funds, retirees, workers -- to lawyers and victims.

    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:

    In playwright Robert Vivian's debut collection of personal essays, an eight-year-old child finds in a snowstorm not a place to play but the void. Kids shoot out church windows to discover what's savage, old women scavenge garbage to make order from chaos, and the commuter parses his highway until it ignites with meaning. Vivian's pentecostal words on the page resemble the crows in snow he calls ‘the dark hangnails of God.’ His ordinary subjects pulsate with vision.

    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:

    Contrasting the "forgotten" theme, Gleeson devotes considerable attention to Irish ethnic institutions and awareness. "It would not have been surprising if the Irish in the South, under pressure from a dominant Protestant majority, had jettisoned their diasporic baggage and sacrificed their Irishness for native acceptance. They did not, however, commit cultural suicide," he writes. Instead, he notes countless examples of how the Irish exhibited a cultural heritage, used it to their advantage, diverged from contemporary ethnic stereotypes, and integrated into the non-Irish community. ...

    Overwhelmingly an agrarian population in Ireland, the Irish in America eschewed rural life. Unfamiliar with a cash crop economy, lacking capital, and fearing physical isolation and continued destitution, they settled overwhelmingly in towns and cities. At most 2 percent of the Confederate states' white population, the Irish urban presence exceeded 20 percent in 1860 Savannah and over 14
    percent in Charleston, Mobile, and New Orleans. ...

    Residential clustering, marriage, social and benevolent organizations, militia companies, and political activism for Irish home rule support Gleeson's assertion that the Irish exhibited an ethnic identity in the South. Faith in God offered cultural stability as well. Ulster immigrants established Presbyterian churches and Catholics gave Roman Catholicism a distinctly Irish tinge.

    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:

    The facts are plainer than the collapsed nose on Jackson's frightful face. This man is unfit to be anywhere near children, let alone to be a make-believe parent of three. In the obfuscatory language of the psychological experts, Michael Jackson has Major Issues. He's more than a sideshow freak. He's a menace. ...

    Jackson's inner demons -- resentment of a distant father, self-hatred of his skin color, confusion over his sexuality, and anger over the sacrifice of his childhood as the price of fame -- have eaten away at the once-gifted entertainer's soul. If you think his outer visage is a mess, imagine the rotting core inside.

    If Jackson is willing to butcher himself into near-oblivion over his inadequacies, imagine what he will do to his own purported sons and daughter when they don't meet his twisted expectations. Yet, Jackson's friends and enablers and professional defenders blithely ignore the obvious danger he poses to himself and those poor children now in his possession.

    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:

    Steve Ramos, not surprisingly, wrote a complimentary story in this week's CityBeat about Michael Moore and his new movie, Bowling for Columbine. I haven’t yet seen the movie, so I can’t comment on whether Ramos is on target or not. One paragraph of the interview, however, grabbed my attention:

    Moore says he's not a cynic. He says he hasn't given up the fight. He says he wants to make the country a better place and making a movie like Bowling for Columbine is his way of doing good.

    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.

    Chinese hypocrisy

    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:

    In 1980 Hu Yao Bang, general secretary of the Communist Party, visited Tibet -- the first senior official to do so since the invasion. Alarmed by the extent of the destruction he saw there, he called for a series of drastic reforms and for a policy of "recuperation." His forced resignation in 1987 was said partially to result from his views on Tibet. ... Relaxation of China's policies in Tibet came very slowly after 1979 and remains severely limited.

    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.

    Jim writes:

    I wonder if the real mistake wasn't so much the exchange rate between the DM and the ostmark, but the whole idea of currency union, at least at that time. If they had merely let the ostmark become freely convertible, it probably would have plunged, like the zloty and forint, but then stabilized around a realistic value.

    Sure, lots of Ossis would have gone west, where they would have ended up on unemployment, but eventually many of them would have gone back home where they could have a job paying a livable local wage, and probably a bigger house or apartment. Meanwhile fewer eastern factories would have gone under because the labor and products would have been priced realistically, and all the infrastructure money the FRG spent would have gone a lot further, especially in providing jobs.

    The British Euroskeptic economists keep making the point that currency unions work better after political unions, than before. This seems to be a case in point.

    You're right, it was the triumph of politics over economics. Although to be fair to the Germans, the political drivers were very strong. Somebody who is a college student today probably would have trouble understanding the mindset of 1989-91 (I find I need to make an effort to recall it), when it wasn't at all obvious that the Soviet Union was really going away for good.

    To the German politicians then, the primary driver was the need to grasp what might have been a very narrow historic window to achieve reunification, and the secondary driver was the fear of a huge flood of East Germans swamping the West German social welfare system, with all the domestic backlash that would have caused. Immediate currency union and a high conversion rate probably seemed like a cheap price to pay for the benefits. (and they're paying, paying, paying it still...) So this critique is very much done with the luxury of hindsight.

    The German currency situation will become quite relevant, Jim says, when Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic join the EU:

    Let's see, the acquis communitaire will suddenly add new regulatory burdens to the private sector. Adopting the euro (mandatory) will rob them of currency flexibility, which was one reason they adapted better over the last decade than eastern Germany. EU infrastructure spending will not be nearly as great as German infrastructure spending in the east, which partially offset their problems. Harmonized EU labor regulations means they will not be all that more attractive for manufacturing than Western Europe, so new job creation will be slow, while the Western Europeans will be free to sell their products on the newly-opened Eastern markets. Meanwhile, asymmetrical CAP payments will burden Eastern European agriculture vis-a-vis Western European (specifically, French) farmers.

    It's going to be an interesting decade.

    Lots of good stuff

    Some quick mentions of interesting blog work I've happened upon this week:

  • Kudos to Brink Lindsey on his three-part NRO series on the "new barbarians."

  • Kevin Drum at CalPundit has been giving no quarter this week in taking up contrarian positions as far as the blog mainstream. He's challenged conservatives on the magnitude of the federal tax burden and the size of federal spending (here and here) and poked blogospherians in the eye (well, at least gave the blog community's nose a tweak) in regard to recent chatter over the homeland security bill. (It's not contrarian, but he also talked about why Al Gore should forget about imagining he could win the White House in 2004.)

  • Matt Welch has a well-crafted Reason piece that skillfully dissects claims by "reformers" within the media elite.

  • John Ellis linked to a brutal Michael Kelly column that included this observation about Gore:

    The unsubtle Gore made his initial move with a strategy declaration that, henceforth and in implicit contrast with his posture of 2000, he would "speak from the heart and let the chips fall where they may." He followed this with strident but incoherent attacks on President Bush over the handling of the war on terrorism and the economy, and, most recently, with the pronouncement that Gore had "reluctantly come to the conclusion" that the solution to the "impending crisis" in American health care was the "single-payer national health insurance plan" -- the idea he savaged his 2000 Democratic primary opponent, Bill Bradley, for supporting.

    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):

    If the government backs away from Kyoto, the Europeans, and especially the French, will whine that Canada has become a lackey of President Bush. Their irrational dislike of the American President is grounded in their inability to understand his sense of responsibility, in their own pusillanimity, and especially in the resentment that comes from an awareness of their own weakness and decadence. Here Chrétien has displayed a pathological desire to side with the Europeans by disagreeing with the Americans in public, as often as possible, and on as many issues as it can imagine. Kyoto is just another example of this perversity in action. ...

    The current debate in Canada over Kyoto involves crucial constitutional questions for the country, the op-ed writers argue:

    Third, there is the little matter of constitutional responsibility. ... fundamental constitutional battles in the 1920s and 1930s between Ottawa and the provinces took place to decide which level of government would regulate, for example, air transport and broadcasting. The federal government won both these battles.

    Today the Ottawa Mandarins have decided the time is ripe to pick a fight over environmental jurisdiction. These faceless power-seekers wish to increase the scope of their regulatory reach, and incidentally get their little paws on Alberta's resource revenue. Kyoto for them is the key to the kingdom.

    The provinces, however, have a powerful case precisely because there is no mention of the environment in the Constitution and because they have jurisdiction over natural resources. David Anderson, who is nothing if not a spokesman for bureaucracy, is well aware that the importance of Kyoto is as much constitutional as anything else. His recent attacks on the provincial governments, especially Alberta, is sure proof of where his real anxieties lie.

    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):

    The basic shift was to stack the new nine-man Politburo Standing Committee with Jiang Zemin proteges, two of whom (the recent heads of Beijing and Shanghai municipalities) are surprise promotions. Jiang apparently sees himself as emulating Deng's strategy of resigning from top posts but continuing to guide policy for years to come. In this sense, this succession is incomplete.

    Like Deng, Jiang is retaining his leadership of the Chinese military. But Jiang lacks Deng's level of prestige and unquestioned obedience. His touch will be less certain as he tries to maintain his influence through his protege majority on the standing committee and seriously hem in the few others, including new General Secretary Hu Jintao ...

    Jiang's maneuvering has increased the chances of an unstable leadership dynamic. Because Jiang will try to meddle from afar but cannot simply dictate, there is now greater potential for political infighting.

    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:

    Regardless of whether one finds merit in neocon policy prescriptions, neoconservatism represents a distinct worldview of legitimate intellectual pedigree, rooted in the thought of Leo Strauss, Reinhold Niebuhr and others. Many neocons are Jewish. Many are concerned that the state of Israel not be extinguished. Probably there is in many cases a relationship between these two beliefs. It does not follow that we can collapse their worldview to a simple syllogism featuring Jewishness and support for Israel. That is an injustice to Jews -- who have for centuries faced the charge of “dual loyalties" -- and to neoconservatives, whose outlook should be engaged on the merits rather than delegitimized as mere ethnic politics.

    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:

    Call BBC World Service Western civilization's WMI -- Weapon of Mass Instruction -- but the reason it works is credibility, not megawatts or megabucks. ...

    Tell the Big Lie, Hitler's propagandist Josef Goebbels advised, and tell it often. But the good news is, on a planet where individual, choice-producing communication technology proliferates, the small, steady truth-with-a-little-t ultimately overwhelms the big spin-jobs, conspiracy theories and prevarications. Eventually, the man with crops withering from drought no longer listens to the government who assures him it's raining.

    In the long haul, truth penetrates. It happened in Eastern Europe during the Cold War ...

    For people living in an oppressed or corrupt society, the truth can whet demand for change. When demands go unrealized, people tantalized feel denied. Local autocrats play on that frustration, and attempt to shift blame for lack of local change from themselves to the United States and the West. Sometimes they succeed, though BBC World Service covers that political judo trick, as well.

    Himalayan trust in the BBC's factual reporting, however, is bad news for anti-Western multiculturalists, particularly the Marx-drenched dolts in American academia who argue that "cultures erect their own unique truth" and that the BBC is "colonizing the minds" of "other peoples." What garbage. People know what's what. Drought-wracked farmers know it ain't raining. Unfortunately, too many people on this planet still live in hellholes where speaking freely gets them killed.

    Truth alone does not make a people free, but even in Afghanistan, it's a big leg up when building a better nation.


    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.

    Bird's-eye view

    John Pike's site has a lot of satellite images of presidential compounds and other sites in Iraq. Among the sites:
  • A map of presidential palaces.

  • One of the palaces.

  • An amusement park for vacationing members of the Iraqi elite and their families. (The graphic points out the Ferris wheel and merry-go-round.)

  • A Republican Guard position near a presidential complex.

  • 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:

    The Byzantine state ruled its eastern subjects with an authority that was often experienced as ruthless and oppressive. Thus it was that many Oriental Christians welcomed Muslim political authority as a relief from Byzantine oversight and cooperated with their new Muslim rulers. This was one of the most important factors in the remarkable ease with which Islam was able to spread across Christian lands. Within 20 years of the Prophet’s death, the Byzantine Empire lost the provinces of Palestine, Egypt and Syria.

    For many Christians the arrival of Islam was actually seen as a liberation from the tyranny of fellow Christians rather than as a menace or even a challenge to their own faith. ... The arrival of the Muslims in Damascus was welcomed by a significant portion of the population, many of whom were only vaguely aware that their new rulers represented another religious faith.

    The Muslims, for their part, had little interest in Christian theological disputes, and although they forbade Christians from building new edifices, their rule was considerably more benign than that of the Byzantines.

    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:

    ... a charming figure Baum turns out to be. He appears to have been one of the very few writers who really were exactly as one would want them to be: sweet-natured, kind, a loving husband and father. He was also reasonable and liberal, with a sardonic sense of humor that prevented his books from ever becoming cloying. His only real fault was ineptitude with money, but he was wise enough to marry a woman whose gifts complemented his.

    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:

    The Whites, by law of conquest, by justice of civilization, are masters of the American continent, and the best safety of the frontier settlements will be secured by the total annihilation of the few remaining Indians. Why not annihilation? Their glory has fled, their spirit broken, their manhood effaced; better that they die than live the miserable wretches that they are. History would forget these latter despicable beings, and speak, in later ages of the glory of these grand Kings of forest and plain that Cooper loved to heroism.

    We cannot honestly regret their extermination, but we at least do justice to the manly characteristics possessed, according to their lights and education, by the early Redskins of America.

    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:

    The PIONEER has before declared that our only safety depends upon the total extirmination [sic] of the Indians. Having wronged them for centuries we had better, in order to protect our civilization, follow it up by one more wrong and wipe these untamed and untamable creatures from the face of the earth. In this lies safety for our settlers and the soldiers who are under incompetent commands. Otherwise, we may expect future years to be as full of trouble with the redskins as those have been in the past.

    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

    “an idealized version of America in 1900, happily isolated from the rest of the world, underpopulated and largely rural, with an expanding magic technology and what appear to be unlimited natural resources.'' And the values Baum unobtrusively preached to his young readers are also characteristically American: egalitarianism, tolerance, suspicion of pomp and ceremony, and a deep mistrust of leaders -- even democratically elected ones.

    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

    is not overcome by emotion and remorse as is Judy Garland's tenderhearted celluloid Dorothy. Instead, she simply ''drew another bucket of water and threw it over the mess. She then swept it all out the door.'' This is entirely characteristic of the unsentimental tone of Baum's 14 Oz books, their emphasis on the homely American virtues of self-reliance and practicality.

    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:

  • A thumbs down to Dick Armey, who gave this reaction when asked by the Christian Science Monitor for his reaction to Boston being selected for the 2004 Democratic national convention: “If I were a Democrat I suspect I would feel a heck of a lot more comfortable in Boston than say, in America.” Armey followed up to indicate he was sort of kidding. Sorry, but at this blog, that kind of talk earns disdain: Ultraliberals in Boston or San Francisco or NYC are as fully American as the right-wingers in Dallas or Colorado Springs or Boise.

  • No sooner do I say that, though, than I have to quote some silly retro-liberal rhetoric from Boston’s mayor, quoted in Bob Herbert’s latest sky-is-falling column:

    Thomas Menino, the mayor of Boston and president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, said: "The cities are struggling because we don't have the partnerships that we've had in the past with the state and federal governments. They've somehow abandoned our needs, and that's unfortunate.'' ...

    "I'm not a big raising-taxes kind of guy,'' he said. "But you have to get revenue from somewhere to pay your basic costs. We don't run government with voodoo economics. We run it with real cash to fund real programs that help people.''

    “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.

    Understanding art

    Kevin Drum has a terrific little post at CalPundit about modern art. An excerpt:

    Any piece of art which is alleged to exist in order to "challenge our assumptions of what art really is," or to "challenge the boundaries between art and non-art," or to "challenge commonplace notions of what an artist does" — in other words, solely to comment on what is art and what isn't — is BS.

    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:

    Less understood is the fact that Europe's troubles stem significantly from Germany. It's the engine that drives other countries: Its population (82 million) is about a fifth of the EU's; its gross domestic product (about $2 trillion) is almost a quarter.

    The engine is sputtering. In 2001 German GDP grew a meager 0.6 percent; this year it is expected to grow 0.4 percent. Since 1991 unemployment has averaged about 8 percent; the number of jobs today is roughly what it was a decade ago. Worse, things won't get better soon. "German underperformance could easily persist for another decade or more," concludes a study by economists Dirk Schumacher and David Walton of Goldman Sachs.

    As they diagnose it, Germany has two major problems. One is common in Europe: overregulation, especially of labor markets. Laws make it hard to fire workers, so companies are reluctant to hire. Generous unemployment benefits discourage the jobless from seeking work. Wage bargaining remains too centralized; companies have too little flexibility to fashion contracts that fit their needs. High payroll taxes raise labor costs.

    Another systemic factor inhibiting German economic performance is the magnitude of subsidies for the former East Germany:

    Germany also suffers from mistakes made during unification a decade ago. The goal was to equalize East and West German wages, even though Eastern workers were much less productive than their Western counterparts. East Germany's currency (and wages) were converted into West German marks at an unrealistic exchange rate of one to one; then, East German wages were raised more than 50 percent from 1991 to 1995. Instantly, high labor costs made many firms uncompetitive and rendered Eastern Germany unattractive for new factories. Massive unemployment resulted; it still exceeds 18 percent.

    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.

    An excerpt:

    ... Thus was born last month's "First Arab Thought Conference." The lavish three-day summit here was supposed to generate some fresh thinking.

    In attendance were Saudi princes, retired politicians, government ministers, dignitaries. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak submitted a written speech blaming the stagnation in the Arab world squarely upon Israel. Others at the conference blamed the West, especially the United States.

    Only a few risked offending the meeting's Saudi sponsors by suggesting that Arabs themselves bear some responsibility.

    Doesn’t sound like there was much fresh thinking, regrettably.


    One public argument has caught the attention of many Arab intellectuals. It began with an open letter by 60 American academics, who defended U.S. military action in Afghanistan.

    The letter, drafted by the Institute for American Values, said "there are times when the first and most important reply to evil is to stop it. There are times when waging war is not only morally permitted but morally necessary as a response to calamitous acts of violence, hatred and injustice. This is one of those times."

    A few months later, a group of Saudi intellectuals replied with a letter condemning the Sept. 11 attacks but arguing that Americans need "to recognize that some sort of causative relationship exists between American policy and what happened."

    The American group replied, noting a Saudi tendency "to blame everyone but your own society for the problems that your society faces."

    The Saudi government banned the edition of Al-Hayat newspaper that carried the U.S. response. But the exchange has been a hot
    topic on the Internet in the Arab world, and the letter writers are planning a face-to-face meeting early next year.

    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.

    Generational politics

    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:

    The Democrats seem to be aiming their anachronistic pitch to constituencies on the wane. The Greatest Generation was pretty damn great, and should not be forgotten (since they
    are chronic voters), but there are new generations to be wooed. I suspect that focusing on the payroll tax, worthy though that may be, just won't cut it. I'm not sure what will.

    This is a difficult thing for old baby boom codgers like you and me to admit, but we may have to start asking rather than pontificating — asking young people to show us the way, tell us what's important. I loved Harold Ford Jr.'s challenge to Nancy Pelosi — not just because Pelosi needed challenging — but because of its generational implications. Ford looks like a tyke. We have to remember how old and stodgy
    our parents seemed when we were his age — that's how we must seem now. After 40 years of generational solipsism, we boomers have been crowding the stage for too damn long. We need to learn how to share the spotlight and then, gradually, how to leave it.

    To which Reich responded:

    Watch out. Over the next two decades, the Greatest Generation's elderly will be replaced by old boomers, who'll be the largest, noisiest, and most demanding political constituency in American history—you and I among them. Tens of millions of boomer bodies all will be corroding. If you think prescription drug coverage is a big deal now, wait until medical science promises boomers we can look young and have sex like rabbits and party until we drop. Across the land there'll be outcroppings of "Med-Meds" for boomer geezers — think of Club Meds combined with medical facilities. Snorkeling all morning; extra oxygen in the afternoon. Worse yet, most boomers haven't saved a dime for retirement. All the equity's in their homes. And home prices will take a dive when the boomers all want to sell.

    In other words, brace yourself. We'll be lucky if the Dems, as well as Republicans, don't sell out completely to aging boomers. Increasingly, a fault line in American politics will be generational. Who will represent the young? Who'll inspire them? Enable them to feel the joy of politics? I haven't seen a Dem among the current crop who comes close.

    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:

    On foreign policy, create a new global version of NATO designed to root out terrorists anywhere. Create the best and most elaborate global intelligence operation money can buy. But also recognize that if more and more people out there are willing to kill themselves in order to kill us, we've got to give the poor and cynical of the world something positive to believe in. Debt-forgiveness, foreign aid, economic development, literacy, immunization, and low-cost drugs for the Third World have to be understood as part of a new global effort to fight terror with hope.

    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:

    I have noted before that there is no inherent contradiction between the religion of Islam and democratic institutions. On the contrary, I am convinced that it is state Islam, as practiced in the Arab countries today, that serves to amplify rather than create political and cultural oppression. The real problem with Islam is not actually Islam; it is how Islam is practiced in Arab lands.

    Saudi Arabia is a paradigm. According to Prof. Fouad Ajami of The Johns Hopkins University, Islam has been "the handmaiden of the state" since the beginning of the modern Saudi realm, resulting from "an alliance between a desert chieftan, Muhammed bin Saud, and a religious reformer named Muhammed ibn Abd al-Wahhab. This partnership anchored the kingdom. The House of Saud defended the country and struck bargains with world powers, while the descendants of the Wahhab family dominated the judiciary and an educational system suffused with religion.

    The real enemy of Western civilization today is not Islam. It is arabism: a system of political and social authoritarianism in Arab lands using Islam as a handmaiden, as Prof. Ajami put it. (Remember, most Muslims are not Arabs.)

    Our task is therefore over the long term to bring home to these nations, at every level of their societies, the fact that Japan had to face: the times, they are a-changing. These nations must come to realize at every level that they cannot successfully continue with business as before. They must transition into democratically based institutions with free-market systems and individual freedoms. The question is, can these reforms be brought about non-violently, with lesser violence, or do they require profound suffering by their peoples?

    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:

  • Radiation-dispersal devices (“dirty bombs”).

  • A relatively simple nuclear device that would use a gun-type mechanism by which a slug of highly enriched uranium would be fired down a barrel into another uranium slug. (Plutonium, in other words, would not be required for such a device.)

    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:

    In summation, these scientists are believed to have provided al-Qaida a blueprint for making nuclear weapons. They are suspected of providing classified information about producing nuclear weapons to al-Qaida or the Taliban or of facilitating access to others in the Pakistani nuclear program who had that knowledge. These two scientists, who had years of experience in Pakistan's nuclear program, could have provided important tips or direct assistance on managing and running a complex nuclear project. This type of assistance would have been critical to al-Qaida, which had limited experience in technical projects or their management.

    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:

    I want to succeed this time. Yet I know the country is not anti-Slavery. It will only swallow a little Anti-Slavery in a great deal of sweetening. An Anti-Slavery man per se cannot be elected; but a Tariff, River-and-Harbor, Pacific Railroad, Free-Homestead man
    may succeed although he is Anti-Slavery. ... I mean to have as good a candidate as the majority will elect.”

    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:

    I honor all veterans. The overwhelming majority served with honor. A few did not, but I don't care about that. The responsibility for criminal actions lies elsewhere -- with their superiors and political leaders. ...

    Finally, for his military service I honor Ollie North, favorite of a disputed number of warbloggers. I do not extend this to his behavior in later life as a facilitator of state-sponsored terrorism, violatior of the Constitution, and manufacturer of talk-radio sewage. But I give him his due. ...

    I and my left-oriented friends believed then that veterans were part of the working class, not to be regarded as any sort of enemy. Now I do not make any such distinctions. Veterans are those who have paid their dues and deserve honor, plain and simple.

    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:

    The Second Amendment is about the allocation of military force. Those who framed and ratified it intended to prevent the new central government from disarming the states' militia. Because the Statute has no effect on the militia, it does not violate the Second Amendment. ...

    Following common usage, the framers of the Second Amendment used the phrase "bear Arms" to refer to possession of weapons for military use. The Amendment further specifies that its purpose is to protect the states' "well regulated Militia." ...

    The temporary denial of firearm possession to an individual who is not affiliated in any way with the National Guard or any other organized state militia simply cannot count as a Second Amendment harm.

    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.