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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Saturday, November 30
Loathing Kissinger

I can understand why the selection of Henry Kissinger to head the 9/11 investigative commission has come under some vehement criticism, especially from the political left. What’s curious to me, though, is that I well remember Kissinger’s appointment by Ronald Reagan in 1983 to head a bipartisan commission on Central American policy, and the response to Kissinger’s selection then wasn’t anywhere nearly as outraged as the blasts sounded against him this week.

In ’83, Reagan’s aides acknowledged upfront that the president had tapped Kissinger because he was the best-known foreign policy figure in the nation and it was felt that his name would lend the desired gravitas to the commission’s findings (which, as it turned out, endorsed the administration’s policy, even, after sharp internal debate, to the point of endorsing Reagan’s contra policy).

It seems likely that the Bush administration picked Kissinger for the new commission for a similar reason.

Kissinger is like the CIA in a curious respect: Both draw heated fire from both the foreign-policy left and the foreign-policy right. That was especially the case during the Cold War years. When the Reagan administration announced in ’83 that Kissinger would be heading the Central America commission, I can well remember the distaste and consternation sounded by Jesse Helms, who was heavily involved in policy in the region. The North Carolinian had long expressed deep distress over Kissinger’s policy of detente with the Soviets and thawing relations with the Chinese.

The passion with which various commentators denounced Kissinger this week reminded me of the sharp, even embittered, criticisms leveled at Richard Nixon by old-time liberals at the time of his death. I’m not at all minimizing the affronts to the Constitution done by Nixon and his henchmen as far as Watergate. My point, rather, is how some people seem to retain -- indeed, seem determined to hold onto -- a burning anger against a particular public figure (Alger Hiss, Joe McCarthy, Nixon, Kissinger) long after they have passed from positions of power in Washington.

Sure, anger over public policies can be warranted. But the sort of long-term personal loathing displayed toward Kissinger and the others can hardly be healthy. It's beyond me why some people don't understand that they can stay true to their political values without surrendering to bitterness.

Wednesday, November 27
Yes, Canada has rednecks; so do California and Minnesota and ...

I asked in a post this week, "Does Canada have rednecks?" I received a marvelous response from Kevin Trainor, of Minneapolis. He writes:

Having been back and forth across America a number of times in my life, I can wholeheartedly agree that there are rednecks everywhere, in both the pejorative and merely descriptive senses of the word. (By way of clarification, let me say that I have always understood "redneck" in the way Lewis Grizzard defines the term in "My Daddy Was A Pistol, And I'm A Son Of A Gun" and not in the way Jeff Foxworthy abuses the term in his "comedy". The proper term for the folks Foxworthy pokes fun at are "white trash", or as some urban blacks say, "whiggers".)

You can find rednecks all over the place in farm country, and as that ignorant Boston woman mentioned in the WaPo piece implied, in the military as well. I have met plenty of rednecks in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and the Dakotas, to say nothing of the rest of the Grain Belt states stretching east to Ohio, and have also met them in California and Texas, though down there they tend to speak Spanish and prefer menudo and tamales to chicken-fried steak with gravy. I don't find it at all remarkable that there would be rednecks in Canada -- my grandfather on my daddy's side came from a family of potato farmers in Prince Edward Island, and I figure you can't get much more redneck than that.

I guess it all depends on how tightly you want to define the term. If all you require is that someone do manual labor, love country music and drive an American truck in preference to a Volvo, then sure, you can find rednecks in all manner of places you wouldn't have expected them. On the other hand, you could add enough ethnic and regional qualifiers in so as to exclude anyone except white boys from the Old South. I hold with the former, and even though I'm an accountant who drives a Kia Sportage I think my upbringing and values qualify me as a redneck.

You can take the boy out of the South, but you can't get the South out of the man.

Well-conceived and well-said.

Jeremy Rifkin’s chimera

Jeremy Rifkin, the old New Leftist who has been preaching radical Luddite views for years now, is pursuing a plan to try to short-circuit the medical use of human cloning. His strategy: file a patent for a genetically engineered half-human, half-animal creation.

An article in Legal Affairs magazine, tells how Rifkin has teamed up with biologist Stuart Newman to propose the creation of a “chimera”:

Five years ago, he submitted a patent application to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for a chimera, a creature that would be made by melding human and animal embryos. Concoctions included the huMouse, a mixture of man and mouse; the humanzee, a cross between a human and chimpanzee; and blends of human with pig and human with baboon.

The chimeras' real purpose, however, is their shock value. If the notion of human-ape half-breeds rising from the laboratory makes your stomach churn and your mind reel, then the monsters are serving their creator's subversive goals. ... It took a few years for all the pieces to come together; in December 1997, Newman and Rifkin jointly submitted their application to the patent office.

Neither man has any intention of actually making a chimera. Instead, by applying for a patent the pair hopes to prevent anyone else from making one. If the patent office says that human-animals like these blends can't be patented, the decision will block other similar applications. If the chimera application succeeds, then anyone who wants to make one will have to apply to Newman and Rifkin for a license for the 20-year life of the patent. "If we lose, everyone else has to lose," Rifkin says. "If we win, we lock it up."

Sounds a little too pat to me.

Blue-state blues; Lindsey’s wisdom; taxing the poor; African entrepreneurs

It’s the night before a holiday and my time is limited. Here are some short takes on various topics:

  • Lott of hot air: Last night I noted Trent Lott’s slap at blue-state America. Matthew Yglesias says he’s tired of all the bashing of blue-state America and praise for the “heartland.” Hey, perfectly understandable reaction, although as my post also mentioned, the South comes in for more than its share of condescension from critics. And folks in the heartland took a drubbing from Paul Krugman (named the other day by Editor & Publisher as its columnist of the year) in a column he did a few months ago. On the lighter side, my friend and inspiration Madeleine Begun Kane has composed some lyrics that are less than flattering to Mississippian Lott.

  • A trustworthy voice: What a good feeling it was this week to read a short wire story about Bush’s tariff proposal and, not long afterward, see that Brink Lindsey had posted a fine analysis of the initiative at his blog. (Plus, Thomas Friedman's latest column quotes from Brink's recent NRO series on the "barbarian" threat.)

  • Rich and poor: Kevin Drum of CalPundit rallies around E.J. Dionne’s call to stand up to the WSJ’s complaints about the level of taxation on low-income people.

  • Hope for Africa: Austin Bay isn’t only an expert on military affairs. He also has direct experience in economic development issues in Africa, from where he recently returned. His latest column examines the positive potential for African entrepreneurs at the small-scale level. (“I spent two weeks in Kenya and Uganda examining several micro-development and aid programs,” Austin writes. “Micro-development attracted me a decade ago as a means of slipping capital into developing nations beneath what I dubbed 'the corruption horizon.' ")

    Brits display the flag

    I’m just about out of time tonight, so I’ll have to wait till later in the week to write about additional aspects of the Confederate battle flag.

    I will pass along a great flag-related anecdote that an old North Carolina friend e-mailed me on Tuesday:

    Do you remember the Clash, an English punk band? "Rock the casbah" was their biggest US hit. Anyway, they had a very left-wing slant to their music, going on about 3rd world rights and American imperialism and the rest, and liked to call themselves rebels in that sense. They came to the US for a tour in 1982 or so and I saw them in Atlanta. They had these huge Confederate flags draped
    over their amps, one on each side of the stage.

    My theories (no particular order):

    1. They were naive Brits. Rebels? Sure, we're rebels. Put up the flags!

    2. In your face: We dare you to make an issue out of it. (The Sex Pistols used Nazi imagery like this, for shock value alone, to scare the bourgeoisie.)

    3. They were snookered. All these good old boys were going tee hee hee as they put up the flags. ("THIS'll get them in trouble with their trendy New York friends!")

    I like theory 3 the best although number 1 is probably it. I was a big fan at the time and wanted so to tell 'em that they had it all wrong. Looking back, I only smile -- at them -- and me.

    Rules are OK, but remember the example of Charles Mingus

    Posts by Eugene Volokh (here and here) have spurred useful discussion at his site about writing style. I’ll toss in a few observations of my own on the subject.

    A distinction can be made between writing that is straightforward and to the point and writing has a sense of style, of elevation of technique. Either one of those can serve the purpose of communicating one’s ideas effectively. The latter, however, adds a vital element of playfulness that, in my view, should be the goal of an ambitious writer.

    If the goal is the more practical one of (merely) eliminating poorly conceived writing, I would recommend a first principle given me by a mentor and close friend: Clear writing is possible only from clear thinking.

    So, to straighten out a poor writing style requires first straightening out one’s thinking -- strengthening the way one makes connections of logic, for example, or the way one explains the context of a question. Unless that fundamental step is taken, all a writer’s studying of rules of grammar or copying of stylistic flourishes may accomplish little.

    I generally shy away from recommending that effective writing, let alone eloquent writing, must follow certain rules of style. The jazz bassist Charles Mingus was once praised by a reviewer in Down Beat magazine, for example, for his genius in knowing when to play the wrong note. A skilled writer, similarly, will develop a sense about when it is appropriate to ignore certain stylistic “rules” in crafting individual sentences.

    That said, I’ll mention some ideas that may be helpful to some people:

  • Be mindful that the most important parts of a sentence are its beginning and ending. So, if you want to emphasize a certain point or word, don’t sandwich it in the middle of the sentence where it will lose its power.

  • A related point: Beginning a sentence with a dependant clause generally isn’t a way to attract a reader’s attention. My point isn’t that such a usage should be avoided altogether. But it should be used sparingly and only when helpful in conveying the point.

  • Hunt for ways to split long, complex sentences into two separate sentences.

  • Active verbs are generally more effective than passive verbs. I don’t flinch from using the passive voice, however, if it allows me to put just the right word at the end of the sentence, to give it the desired whip crack. (Same thing with dependant clauses: If you need to start your sentence with one to serve a larger purpose, have no regrets about it.)

  • Look at your paragraph and see if most, if not all, of the sentences start with “the.” If so, the paragraph has a good chance of being dull as hell.

  • Imagine that you absolutely have to trim your post or essay by 10 percent. Such pruning almost invariably will lead a writer to find more concise, and often more effective, ways of phrasing things.

  • Strive to develop a sense of cadence. Look for ways to vary the length of sentences over the course of a paragraph or set of paragraphs. An essay that features one long, complicated sentence after another will tend to lack the power of a composition that includes a few short sentences, or ones with an unusual structure, punctuating the rhythm of the language.

  • Once a writer gains a minimal level of competence, my main recommendation is simply to work on developing one’s voice, using whatever style one feels most comfortable with -- provided that that style amplifies, rather than muddles, one's message.

    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.