Regions of Mind

Self-assured but self-questioning.

History,
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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artwork:
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Nebraska Center
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First-class
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Worthy institutions:
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Musicians
of note:
Prairie Cats

Monday, May 5
 
Terrorists and the nuclear trigger

Sorry for the blogging hiatus, but I've been addressing other duties, including a terrific out-of-town trip with the family. (We got back Sunday afternoon just as a tornado warning was announced, but we made it home before the really bad weather arrived in Omaha. A pretty frightening storm system.)

I intend to post a set of items for Tuesday, either tonight or tomorrow morning before work.

One new item. From a column by Bruce Blair, a longtime security analyst who now heads the Center for Defense Information:

If scores of armed Chechen rebels could slip into the heart of Moscow and hold a packed theater hostage for days, could terrorists infiltrate missile fields in rural Russia, seize control over a nuclear-armed mobile rocket roaming the countryside, and launch it at Europe or America? It's an open question that warrants candid bilateral discussion of the prospects of terrorists capturing rockets and circumventing the safeguards designed to foil their illicit firing.

Another specter concerns terrorists spoofing radar or satellite sensors, or cyber-terrorists hacking into early warning networks. Could sophisticated terrorists generate false indications of an enemy attack that results in a mistaken launch of nuclear rockets in 'retaliation?' False alarms have been frequent enough on both sides under the best of conditions. False warning poses an acute danger as long as Russian and U.S. nuclear commanders are allowed, as they still are today, only several pressure-packed minutes to determine whether an enemy attack is underway and decide whether to retaliate. Russia's deteriorating early warning network coupled to terrorist plotting against it only heightens the risks.

Russia is not the only crucible of risk. The early warning and control problems plaguing Pakistan, India, and other nuclear proliferators are even more acute. As these nations move toward hair-trigger stances for their nuclear missiles, the terrorist threat to them will grow in parallel.

In addition, U.S. nuclear control is also far from fool-proof. For example, a Pentagon investigation of nuclear safeguards conducted several years ago made a startling discovery -- terrorist hackers might be able to gain back-door electronic access to the U.S. naval communications network, seize control electronically over radio towers such as the one in Cutler, Maine, and illicitly transmit a launch order to U.S. Trident ballistic missile submarines armed with 200 nuclear warheads apiece. This exposure was deemed so serious that Trident launch crews had to be given elaborate new instructions for confirming the validity of any launch order they receive. They would now reject a firing order that previously would have been immediately carried out.




Wednesday, April 30
 
Building a new house and a new society

I’m going to punch out three quick posts tonight. First, an excerpt from a Baltimore Sun article about two documentary films about reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan:

One of the journalists working in Afghanistan during the fighting was National Public Radio reporter Sarah Chayes. When the war came to an end, Chayes decided to stay, to try to do something for the Afghans. She cast her lot with a charity organization run by Baltimore restaurateur Quayam Karzai, whose brother Hamid had just been named Afghanistan's interim president.

The hour-long documentary tells of many frustrations and few triumphs as Chayes struggles to get the first of 17 houses built in a community near the Kandahar airport that had been bombed by U.S. planes.

Who gets the first house? A village meeting decides on a respected elder. How big should it be? Chayes' group budgeted for five-meter rooms. But the man wants seven-meter rooms. If you're going to build five-meter rooms, don't even bother, he says. For him, the walls aren't strong enough, their mud coating isn't thick enough.

“I think Sarah was taken aback that people weren't completely and quickly grateful for what she was bringing them," says Brian Knappenberger who filmed and directed “Life After War.” “Ultimately I see it as a question of identity, they want to have a say in what their place looks like, basically to make some of the decisions that determine their future.”

Chayes' attempt to buy the stones for the house's foundation was another straightforward transaction that turned into a complicated problem. The local strongman, Gul Agha Shirzai, had essentially confiscated all the stones, planning to use them for cement and to make a lot of money when the United States would finance rebuilding the road to Kabul.

Only a Byzantine series of negotiations -- amazingly all recorded by Knappenberger's camera -- procured the stones needed for Chayes' house.

“This imperial project that the United States has embarked upon is very complex,” says Larry Goodson of the Army War College in Carlisle, Penn., speaking about the nation-building projects in both Afghanistan and Iraq. “If it is that hard to build one home, how hard is it to build a new society? A new government?”




 
Images, war, truth

From an e-mail this week from John Matthews, a good friend in North Carolina:

I have trouble accepting that Americans watched a “sanitized” Iraq war. Certainly my wife and I didn't. We watched CBS, Fox, MSNBC, and ABC. All four showed dead and wounded, and destroyed buildings.

Some of the dead were by roadsides, some in bunkers; wounded we saw aided on battlefields, med evaced, and treated in hospital. We saw footage of Marines firing at point blank range at a vehicle whose driver did not see, or understand, or ignored a signal to stop at a check point. We saw lots of footage of bombed out buildings and people sleeping in rubble. We saw scenes of Iraqis in hospitals. Some were children with stumps for arms that they held up to the camera. We saw mothers cradling injured and dying babies. And yes, we saw coffins. And remember the looting? We saw a lot of that, too.

I want to remark on two events in the war we didn't see. One was by choice. That was the videos of American POWs being interrogated by Iraqis and American service personnel dead nearby with gunshot wounds to their heads. Like other Americans we had chances to watch including video streaming on the net. We just didn't care to watch then or since. Maybe we will sometime.

The other event we didn't see we wished we had. It involved the Marines tearing open the gates of the Iraqi prison where children, some as young as seven, were held. The story was covered extensively in the French media but received scant attention here. We would have loved to have watched scenes of the parents who helped lead the Marines to the prison embrace their children as they were set free.




 
Hip-hop, in decline

I don’t pretend to be a devotee of hip-hop, but I do respect it, broadly speaking, as a legitimate musical form with significant roots in urban culture dating back to the 1970s, long before the genre came to be dominated by the cognac-and-whores crowd.

The Boston Globe had a well-done piece about how hip-hop has fallen into utter predictability, not to mention appalling coarseness, although some rappers are trying to change things:

Nearly three decades since spoken wordscapes were married to beats to create a new musical vocabulary, rap music is flirting with creative bankruptcy. A genre once characterized by innovative, restless spirit now seems little more than an assembly-line product. Take a menacing scowl, a few platinum rings and pendants, a video filled with lip-licking, come-hither hotties, and someone who can rhyme about bullet-riddled mayhem, cognac, sneakers, dubs, or the latest Hummer -- and an MTV or BET-ready rap star is born. ...

''Familiarity makes people feel secure, and that's why you get the same kind of music over and over,'' says K-OS, a rapper from Toronto, whose stunning new album, ''Exit,'' challenges rap's current bang-bang, bling-bling status quo. ''That's the problem, and you have to delete the whole mentality where people feel they need to project a certain persona to feel secure.” ...

Also gone are the days when the hip-hop universe was big enough for such diverse acts as N.W.A., a Tribe Called Quest, the Beastie Boys, MC Hammer, Digable Planets, Arrested Development, Wu-Tang Clan -- all of whom enjoyed critical and commercial success around the same time.

''No matter what your taste, there was something for you. That was always the beauty of hip-hop,'' says Jane Marchley, 26, of Brooklyn, who frequents such online news and discussion websites as hip-hop.com and undergroundhiphop.com.

''The creativity was without limits. That's what kept the music from becoming a fad. Now, the hip-hop most people are exposed to is a joke. I mean, you've got guys rhyming about how many times they've been shot. What kind of [expletive] is that?'' Rumors of rap's demise may be greatly exaggerated, but that hasn't stopped some from offering lamentations. Even a cursory Internet search will yield page after page pondering the purported death of hip-hop. ...

''Why can't there be black music out there with the power of Radiohead, the power of the Beatles or Bob Marley?'' K-OS says. ''It seems like companies emphasize the most juvenile parts of the music, and it paints a picture of black people as uneducated and juvenile.''




 
Norman Mailer on ‘courage’

Andrew Sullivan links to an op-ed in which Norman Mailer puts forward a novel explanation for why Bush launched the Iraq campaign: assuaging the bruised white male ego. “If we cannot find our machismo anywhere else,” Mailer writes, “we can certainly settle in on the interface between combat and technology. Let me then advance the offensive suggestion that this may have been one of the cardinal reasons we went looking for war.”

Mailer’s through-the-looking-glass analysis of security policy is of a piece with his post-9/11 statements later cited in The New Republic’s “Idiocy Watch”:

And then came the next shock. We had to realize that the people that did this were brilliant. It showed that the ego we could hold up until September 10 was inadequate. ... Americans can't admit that you need courage to do such a thing. For that might be misunderstood. The key thing is that we in America are convinced that it was blind, mad fanatics who didn't know what they were doing. But what if those perpetrators were right and we were not? (Emphasis added.)

It is ironic for Mailer, of all people, to condescendingly denigrate what he characterizes as Bush's easy resort to violence, given that a central part of Mailer's literary legacy was his 1957 “White Negro” essay in which he winked at horrific violence as long as it was rationalized as the anti-bourgeois action of the “hipster.” Note the parallel between Mailer’s description of the “courage” of the al-Qaida terrorists in 2001 and of the hipster-hoodlums in 1957 :

It can of course be suggested that it takes little courage for two strong eighteen-year-old hoodlums, let us say, to beat in the brains of a candy-store keeper. ... Still, courage of a sort is necessary, for one murders not only a weak fifty-year-old man but an institution as well, one violates private property, one enters into a new relation with the police and introduces a dangerous element into one's life. The hoodlum is therefore daring the unknown, and so no matter how brutal the act, it is not altogether cowardly.


Just as notorious and ill-considered, of course, was the grotesquery of Mailer’s insistence on romanticizing the murderous impulses of Jack Abbott:

Mailer: "This guy isn't a murderer, he's an artist!"

Even though Abbott described in chilling detail how it felt to kill a man, Mailer the intellectual, got Abbott freed from prison. Just six weeks later Abbott stabbed to death Binibon Cafe night manager Richard Adan, a 22-year-old kid, on Manhattan's Lower East Side.

Mailer’s self-congratulatory intellectual posing grew tiresome long ago. The inanities he has spouted about 9/11, and now Iraq, merely reveal the full measure of his intellectual and moral shallowness.



 
Franco-German sabotage of NATO

They’re trying to downplay what they’re doing, but France, Germany and Belgium (with support from Luxembourg) moved forward unapologetically this week to form what this article calls “the core of a new European Union army separate from NATO.” The obvious aim is to weaken U.S. influence in NATO and on European security affairs in general.

Not that everyone in Europe is fooled by Chirac’s claims that the move is purely innocent and high-minded:

The German daily Die Welt slammed Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder for attending the Brussels summit, saying the idea would have not attracted any attention if he had stayed home.

"The number of soldiers Luxembourg can offer is in the region of a three-digit figure," the newspaper said, "and Belgium's power of deterrence lies mainly in the calorie content of its heavy chocolates."

By the way: Speaking of Europe, this article talks about how the Czechs feel torn between loyalty toward the U.S. and toward the Europeans critical of Bush.

UPDATE: No, what's actually going on, says this post at Bite the Wax Tadpole, is that France is maneuvering to get Russia included in NATO. And then the mischief can really begin.



 
Nuclear targeting

I don’t agree with everything that Bruce Blair, a veteran security affairs analyst, says about U.S. strategic nuclear policy. But I did find his remarks from a recent conference on that topic quite fascinating and informative. For example:

Nuclear planning is an extremely conservative business. The genesis of this extensive planning against more than a dozen countries that potentially threaten the U.S. with chemical or biological as well as nuclear weapons goes back decades. North Korea targeting goes way back to the 1950 and 1960s. Iran got on the hit list in the 1980s. But it was the Clinton team that most consciously fashioned the policy of reserving the right to use nuclear weapons to deal with chemical and biological threats. It was the Clinton White House that signed the directive that lowered the nuclear threshold to deal with chemical and biological threats, and that restored China to the U.S. strategic war plan after a hiatus of nearly 20 years.

This enduring conservatism in nuclear planning is even evident in our continuing nuclear relationship with Russia. It's been over a decade since the Soviet Union collapsed, and yet the vast bulk of our alert strategic missiles remain aimed at Russia with thousands of them ready to fire within two minutes. We continue to prepare to fight a large-scale nuclear war with Russia at a moment's notice, to destroy about 2,000 targets in Russia. We still fly spy planes around Russia's border looking for holes in air defenses through which U.S. strategic bombers could fly to drop nuclear bombs on Russia. Our attack submarines still trail Russian missile submarines whenever they go on patrol (according to Russian active-duty Naval officers who reported this to me in December 2002). Russia, for its part, maintains a similar hair-trigger posture aimed at the United States.




 
Hard times for Portland; ‘the brains of the Confederacy’; anti-Americanism

This and that:

  • Blogger/urban planner Chris Anderson of Cincinnati looks at the problems facing Portland, Ore., which started promoting “new urbanism” ideas decades ago. Chris quotes an article that states:

    But the urban prospect for Portland, Oregon these days is nothing but bleak. The poster child for progressive urban planning is reeling from the national media debacle of middle- and upper-income Portlanders fleeing across the state border, in this case the Columbia River, to the neighboring city of Vancouver, Washington. And the residents of Vancouver find themselves in the odd position of telling Portland, Oregon residents to "Visit, but please don’t stay."

  • Gay-friendly municipal statutes have won easy passage in two staid Midwestern cities, Mike Silverman notes from Lawrence, Kansas. Mike and I, incidentally, have something in common. I noted recently that I began gardening last year; Mike e-mailed me this well-done post of his saying he did the same thing.

  • Who knew?! I certainly wasn’t aware that there is a Southern Jewish Historical Society. (But I did know about Judah Benjamin, a Sephardic Jew praised as the “brains of the Confederacy.”)

  • You want to hear about a faith-based organization that is making a real difference in society? Here’s one. It’s doing very smart and competent work in helping rural residents in Nebraska get mental health counseling -- using federal vouchers. The group does a fine job routing clients to a wide range of services; that’s impressive, given the bureaucratic problems that often gum up mental health services.

  • I posted the other day about anti-Americanism in Greece and John Brady Kiesling, the U.S. diplomat who quit while posted in Greece, to protest the Bush policy on Iraq. Here are some cogent thoughts by another blogger on the same topic.



  • Monday, April 28
     
    Christianity and superstition in early America

    Not much time for posting this morning; only three new items here. More is in the pipeline for this week, though.

    Around Easter, a good friend mentioned how a minor Easter holiday tradition he was familiar with in North Carolina perhaps had its origins in non-Christian tradition. (I can’t remember what it was and unfortunately have deleted his e-mail message.)

    I wrote him that his observation reminded me of the book “Awash in a Sea of Faith,” by Jon Butler. In its look at religious beliefs in the American colonial period, it talked at length about the intersection of Christian faith and non-Christian folk traditions and superstitions.

    An interesting illustration is the ubiquitous inclusion of the strange anatomy/zodiac imagery in farmer’s almanacs. The tradition goes back centuries, as Butler explains:

    Almanacs played a central role in popularizing occult religious concepts in the colonies, much as they had done in England. American historians have observed that almanacs were the most popular books published in the colonies and outsold the Bible. ...

    Colonial almanacs closely followed their English counterparts. They provided the astronomical information necessary for astrological calculations in a 12-month calendar called the “ephemerides,” and they also included the “anatomy,” the crude male figure encircled by the 12 zodiac signs that were thought to control various portions of the body. Using the almanac, even semiliterate colonists could plant, breed, marry, or breed on correct days and, by following its guide to the stars, predict the future.

    Colonists demanded that almanacs contain occult material, and almanac makers feared to exclude it. Printers sometimes complained bitterly. In his 1728 almanac, Dedham’s Nathaniel Ames reprinted a poem that protested the demand for the anatomy from a 1633 English almanac and added his complaint that even his most ignorant readers insisted that the anatomy be included.

    Pick up a copy of a farmer’s almanac in contemporary America, and you’ll find that it dutifully reproduces the “anatomy.” Even in the 21st century.


    UPDATE: I e-mailed my friend today, asking him to tell me again about the Easter tradition he had mentioned. His reply:

    Yes, the tradition is this, that you plant your garden on Good Friday to ensure success with the crop. The other thing I remember was that once when I was driving from [one North Carolina community to another] on a Good Friday it was raining like the dickens and I saw this couple planting out in their garden. I didn't stop to ask, but was reminded of the tradition.

    I don't know the origin of it, but wonder if in part it derives from John 12:24: "Amen amen I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit." Jesus is speaking about his coming death and resurrection, which could have led to a literal tie-in among country folk between Good Friday and good crops.






     
    How the Greeks see us

    I wrote last fall about the anti-Americanism shared by the political left and the nationalist right in Greece. John Brady Kiesling, a 20-year U.S. diplomat who recently resigned over Bush’s Iraq policy, offers a useful analysis of Greek attitudes toward the U.S. in a recent piece for the New York Review of Books.

    Kiesling, who was serving at the U.S. embassy in Athens at the time of his resignation, oversaw the embassy’s analysis of Greek politics. His article, while sharply critical of the military campaign in Iraq, provides useful analysis about Greek atttitudes.

    The Greek government, he says, has muted its opposition to U.S. policy, even to the point of allowing American access to military air facilities on Crete (in obvious contrast to the approach taken in neighboring Turkey, normally a loyal booster of U.S. policy). The Greek government has pursued this approach despite fervent opposition to Bush’s Iraq policy among the majority of Greeks.

    From the article:

    Greek public opinion had been mobilized fiercely against the war. On television, Greeks were seeing unrelenting images of maimed Iraqi children, weeping Iraqi grandmothers, collapsed apartment blocks and makeshift coffins, not the sanitized war Americans were watching. ...

    Greeks have enjoyed bashing the United States for decades. They have never forgiven the United States for accommodating the dictatorship of the colonels between 1967 and 1974. They are convinced that our pro-Turkish bias, not the criminal stupidity of the colonels, insured the partition of Cyprus from 1974 to the present day.

    Nevertheless, our war had caused a remarkable rebirth of Greek public hatred for U.S. leadership and policies. This hatred showed only modest signs of subsiding as the Iraqi regime collapsed. ...

    Despite the popular outcry, Greece proved a loyal U.S. ally in the war against Iraq. The crucial Mediterranean port and air field of Souda Bay in Crete quietly handled thousands of U.S. military flights and hundreds of ships en route to the Gulf. ...

    Greeks like inflammatory rhetoric from their politicians but responsible behavior from their governments. This is a difficult balance to maintain in wartime, and the Bush administration owes a debt of gratitude to Greece's prime minister, Kostas Simitis, and his Atlanticist foreign minister, George Papandreou.

    Simitis and Papandreou publicly criticized the war. But both were careful to say that Greece's position would be governed by Greece's national interests and its obligations under international agreements. There would be no rupture with the United States.

    By the way: Kiesling’s self-congratulatory tone over his resignation can be hard to take. In an interview with Terri Gross on “Fresh Air” last week, he praised his own “moral courage.” And in an online interview (the link is screwed up this morning), he says, “it's wonderful to be a hero to those people who are looking for a hero on this issue, but -- um -- I have to figure out where to go from here.”


    Friday, April 25
     
    Canadians and petards

    "Funny how Canadians love squishy institutions of global governance until one of them acts the least bit peremptory towards them": The redoubtable Colby Cosh in a fine post on the WHO/SARS/Toronto topic.

    (via a Jim Henley post at Unqualified Offerings)



     
    The UN-ization of the WTO

    Brink Lindsey isn’t the only one at the Cato Institute who can write cogently about international trade issues. Razeen Sally, of the London School of Economics, has written a fine piece for Cato that goes beyond the mountain of technical jargon inevitably involved in trade matters to examine the big picture concerning the World Trade Organization.

    The picture isn’t very encouraging.

    Sally writes:

    ... the WTO is manifestly more politicized than the old GATT. Externally, it faces the brunt of the anti-globalization backlash, and it is constantly buffeted by a combination of old-style protectionist interests and new-style nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) ... The arcana of trade policy, previously handled through low-key diplomacy and negotiation, now seem to be the crucible for global controversies, with their fair share of adversarial sloganeering and point scoring.

    ... The hyperinflation of the GATT/WTO, that is, the accession of so many developing and transitional countries during and especially after the Uruguay Round, has added new sets of interests and preferences to the organization’s ongoing business. Decision-making has become even more unwieldy and snail-like, more often than not distracted by windy rhetoric and political grandstanding in the WTO General Council, on the one hand, and the Geneva trade officials’ obsession with procedural minutiae, on the other. As worrying, it appears that an increasing number of recent appointments to the WTO Secretariat have been made more on the basis of appeasing developing-country pressure for more representation within the Secretariat than on the basis of merit.

    All of the above -- empty windbag speechifying, political point scoring, running around in procedural circles, appointments made according to informal developing-country quotas and not on merit -- are vexing signs of the UN-ization (or UNCTAD-ization, after the UN Conference on Trade and Development) of the WTO. ...

    If present UN-style trends continue, the WTO will simply be unable to function as an effective multilateral forum for trade negotiations. It will become a marginalized talking shop, and attention will shift elsewhere, particularly to bilateral and regional negotiating settings.

    Some additional worries:

  • Influential European members are attempting to the turn the WTO “into a lumbering regulatory agency” in the fashion of the EU’s Brussels-based bureaucratic behemoth. Sally writes: “This implicit standards harmonization agenda, aimed at raising developing-country standards to developed-country levels, is now the most insidious force in the WTO.” The do-gooder NGO community is, of course, pushing the same agenda. But, as Sally observes, “the result could be an extra layer of developed-country regulatory barriers that would shut out cheap developing-country exports.”

  • Given the slow progress by the WTO, regional free trade agreements are becoming far more common, especially among industrialized countries. In fact, Sally writes, “a weak and demoralized WTO is increasingly overshadowed by events on the bilateral/regional track, and it is in serious danger of becoming marginalized by spider webs of discriminatory trading arrangements.”

  • The WTO has regained a degree of stability and confidence after the disastrous WTO conference in Seattle in 1999. But since then, national governments and the business community generally have shown too little energy in pushing the WTO process forward. As a result, the process has become more vulnerable to stagnation and distraction.

    The next set of major WTO negotiations, as part of the current Doha Round, will take place in Cancun this September. The breadth and complexity of the agenda are increasing as multilateral negotiations expand away from traditional tariff and quota concerns to an ever-broader circle of (sometimes questionable) issues. That trend, along with the ones mentioned above, raise considerable hurdles for the negotiations.

    By the way: This piece from the Democratic Leadership Council provides a useful summary of the immediate trade-related issues specifically confronting the United States. In addition to the Doha Round, they are free trade agreements with Chile, Singapore and Loas; a Free Trade Area of the Americas (a very challenging diplomatic project, especially given the major differences that separate the U.S. and Brazil); Russia’s accession to the WTO; and reducing the economic isolation of the Muslim world.

    And: Some Western ranchers are voicing strong opposition to a U.S. free trade agreement being worked out with Australia and New Zealand.



  •  
    A bothersome ‘conscience’

    Boosters of the International Criminal Court, including its newly elected prosecutor, sounded tones of moderation during a gathering this week. (See one of the April 23 items on that Web page.) The court will seek to give deference to national sovereignty, stay within the bounds of ICC statutes and be subject to checks and balances, they said.

    During the event, the president of the diplomatic “Assembly of State Parties to the ICC,” Ambassador Zeid Ra'ad Zeid al-Hussein of Jordan, used an innocuous-sounding phrase, however, that actually is less than reassuring. Even as he insisted that the court “will station itself in the background,” he said that the ICC will “act as the world's permanent conscience.”

    “The world’s permanent conscience.” The phrase sounds similar in spirit to the Turkish military, which excuses its extraconstitutional excesses by styling itself as a higher agent above the law. It’s similar, too, to the rhetoric of Oliver North in 1987, as he rationalized his shredding of constitutional constraints on executive branch action -- noble intentions as justification over nitpicky legal considerations.

    The point isn’t that the court is likely to step outside its legal constraints in the short run. It probably won’t. The point, rather, is that the court’s supporters -- in diplomatic circles and the NGO community, buoyed by aid from journalistic boosters -- will work over the long term to see that the world’s “permanent conscience” is ultimately empowered with the sovereignty-trumping authority it supposedly deserves in order to carry out its enlightened mission.

    UPDATE: A coalition of human rights activists and lawyers is gathering evidence on alleged U.S. and British war crimes, with the aim of hauling U.S. and British officials before the ICC. The U.S., of course, isn't a signatory.





     
    Unsettling postcards

    My “Brutal times” post about the incorporation of violence into popular culture mentioned the mass-produced Nebraska postcard from the 1920s showing a blindfolded man apparently about to be executed in the electric chair. I mentioned examples from the 19th century West and the Jim Crow South, but a visitor here pointed out a direct parallel, postcards showing lynching photographs, and that the recent book "Without Sanctuary,” whose authors include Congressman John Lewis and historian Leon Litwack, provides a compilation of lynching photos. A companion Web site also provides photos. The material is, by its nature, quite disturbing; I wouldn’t recommend visiting the site if you’re especially sensitive to harsh images.

    The Leon Litwack book “Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow,” covers the same subject in chilling detail. In preparing my post I had thought about citing some of the incidents he describes, but I didn’t want to overload my post with grotesqueries. Popular culture could be particularly coarse in regard to the lynching topic; it was fairly common for body parts of lynching victims to be publicly displayed, sometimes in store windows.

    Litwack notes that an opponent of lynching once tried to sway South Carolina Gov. Cole Blease, a particularly vile supporter of white supremacy, against lynching by mailing him the finger bone of a lynching victim. Blease, utterly unaffected, contentedly planted the bone in his garden as a sign of his indifference.




     
    Looking for a home

    Some short takes:

  • Maybe New Hampshire. Or Idaho. Or Montana. Those are some of the lightly populated states that boosters of something called the Free State Project are considering. Their aim: persuade 20,000 staunchly libertarian-minded people to move there and create a utopia of limited government and expanded liberty. It’s the idea of a poli sci student at Yale, the article says. Makes for a great “brite” for newspapers, but it doesn’t seem a workable proposal. Montana, for example, is absolutely gorgeous, a real treasure. But you know how brutal the winters are up there? Not a very welcoming climate for sensitive types.

  • Then again, that sort of strategy appears to have worked in Iowa’s newest incorporated community: Vedic City. There, the Constitution of the Universe has been adopted as the city's constitution, Sanskrit has been approved as “the ideal language for use in the city,” the Raam Mudra is in use as an additional currency, and the city government’s official apparatus includes the Central Bank of Global Country of World Peace. The link is down for the article that had that info, but here is a piece that gives an overview of the community.

  • It’s good to read that Alabama may be straightening out some of the inanities in its state constitution, even if the current proposals provide only half a loaf of improvement. The document, ludicrously long and saddled with an amazing assortment of egregious special-interest perks, racist references and rococo approaches to local governance, has long been in need of a thorough revamping, as many commentators in that state have noted.

  • Eugene Volokh and Jacob Levy offer terrific observations about the difficulties that independent-minded people encounter in weighing their allegiance to the Democratic or Republican parties. Eugene’s post is here; Jacob Levy’s, here.

  • More fine analysis by Austin Bay on matters Iraqi. I need such encouragement to counter my naturally wary, even pessimistic, attitude on foreign policy.

  • This year marks the centennial of the publication of W.E.B. DuBois’ “The Souls of Black Folk.” A good NYT article, reprinted in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.



  •  
    Scary, not scary

    Last night I turned on a light in my and my wife’s bedroom and had a jolt at what I saw. On our beds, pillows and cushions had been piled together to form what looked like a teepee or volcano.

    For a few moments, though, I was a bit spooked. The image didn't make any sense at all. It reminded me of the eerie trinkets left behind in “The Blair Witch Project.” That may sound foolish, but it's the truth.

    Actually, the explanation for the "teepee" was a silly one. Earlier in the evening, my 8-year-old son, unknown to me, had created the structure. In the center of the teepee, he had placed Alice, our super-fussy cat. Son and cat had long since departed, leaving only the supposedly spooky structure.

    Now you know what passes for entertainment in our household.

    I mentioned “The Blair Witch Project.” Thinking about the movie reminds me of how, on occasion, I have gone to the movies with the full expectation of being petrified with fright. But during the movie, it slowly dawns on me that I’ve been conned: This movie isn’t that scary, it’s just dumb!

    That was my reaction to “Blair Witch” in 1999.

    Twenty years earlier, that had been my reaction, too, to the little horror movie “Phantasm.” I had watched an interview with the director on “Tomorrow” with Tom Snyder and became convinced that the movie was probably the scariest thing ever. The next day, I got my college roommate all worked about the movie too. That weekend, we went to the theater prepared for the absolute worst.

    Then the movie began to unfold, and we began to realize that I was very, very mistaken.

    My roommate turned to me in the theater and said, “I’m going to kill you! You had me scared to death!”

    Not an uncommon movie experience, I imagine.



    Wednesday, April 23
     
    Iranian manipulation in Iraq

    It’s not just the Washington Post that is reporting less than encouraging news about the dynamics in the Iraqi Shiite community. In NRO, Michael Ledeen writes:

    We have a very narrow window in Iraq to win the support of the Shiite community, which constitutes a majority of the Iraqi people. If we do not manage that in the next month or two, the radical Iranian regime will almost certainly succeed in its ambitious and, thus far, brilliantly managed campaign to mobilize the Iraqi Shiites to discredit the Coalition victory, demand an immediate American withdrawal, and insist on “international” — that is, U.N. and European — supervision of the country.

    That would leave Iran with a free hand in Iraq, strengthen the regime in Tehran to our detriment, and give a second wind to the terror network. Our victory, as the old saying goes, would turn to ashes in our mouths. ...

    But the true audacity of Tehran lies in their political moves. The Iranians have infiltrated more than a hundred highly trained Arab mullahs from Qom and other Iranian religious centers into Iraq, especially to Najaf and Karbala, the holy cities of the Shiite faith. They are poisoning the minds of the (largely uneducated) Iraqi mobs with a simple slogan, repeated five times a day in the mosques: “America did it for the Jews and for the oil.” They are also distributing cash to the Iraqis.

    Just as they did against the shah, the Iranian Shiite leaders intend to build a mass following, leading to an insurrection against us. Look carefully at the banners carried by the Shiite demonstrators. They are very clean and well produced, with slogans in both Arabic (for the Iraqis) and English (for Western media). That is the Iranian regime at work, one of the most brilliant and patient intelligence organizations in the region.

    The Iranians will combine this political strategy with terrorist acts and assassinations, as in the case of the very charismatic Ayatollah Khoi in Najaf. He was a real threat to them, because of his personality and his solid pro-Western views. So they killed him, and they are planning to kill others of his ilk, along with as many Coalition soldiers as they can murder. Thousands of Iranian-backed terrorists have been sent to Iraq, from Hezbollah killers to the remnants of al Qaeda, from Islamic Jihadists to top Iranian Revolutionary Guards fighters. ...

    Our best strategy consists of two programs, one defensive and one offensive. The first is to support pro-Western, pro-democracy mullahs in Najaf and Karbala. ... Similarly, it is next to impossible for us to identify the Iranian-backed terrorists, but the Iraqi Shiites can do it, once they are convinced that their real salvation lies with us. ...

    The second program is to support the anti-regime forces inside Iran. That insane regime is now very frightened, both of us and of their own people. The ayatollahs know that the Iranian people long to be free, and the regime has intensified its repression during the run-up to the war.

    There are several pro-democracy groups in Iran (student and teacher organizations, trade unions, workers group, especially in the oil and textile sectors) that can organize an insurrection in Tehran and other major cities. They need money (a fraction of what was squandered in the CIA’s failed program to induce an insurrection in Basra), satellite phones, laptop computers, and the like. At the same time, we should support the pro-American Persian language radio and TV stations in Los Angeles, that are the principal source of information for most educated Iranians.




     
    Something funny about war

    Several bloggers have linked to this article about the Iraq war and humor writers. Let me mention the war-related material from two humorists, not mentioned in the piece, whose work I enjoy even though my foreign policy take tends to be on another wavelength. (Both writers are in my blogroll.)

    Madeleine Begun Kane, in New York, has written “All I Want Is A New Regime” (sung to “Wouldn't It Be Loverly” from “My Fair Lady”):

    All I want is a new regime,
    In the White House a brand new team,
    From ear to ear I'd beam,
    Aow, wouldn't it be loverly?

    No more war talk from Bush and Blair,
    Say good-bye to that plund'ring pair,
    Bush out of my gray hair,
    Aow, wouldn't it be loverly?

    The rest is here.

    Syndicated humorist Rick Horowitz, who lives in Milwaukee, recently had a column he titled “Tipping Point”:

    WASHINGTON, Any Day Now -- Still relishing the overthrow of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, President Bush asked Congress today to provide the Pentagon with emergency funding to help deploy -- and destroy -- statues of other foreign dictators.

    The president's request, for $5.3 billion in supplemental appropriations, will be formally sent to Capitol Hill by the end of next week, administration sources confirmed.

    "We saw what happened when they pulled down Saddam's statue in Baghdad," Mr. Bush said in a Rose Garden appearance this morning. "Why shouldn't we make it easier to pull down other statues, and get rid of other evil leaders?"

    If approved by Congress, the new money would go toward creation of a special multi-service force informally dubbed "the Topplers." Their mission: to help create additional opportunities for decisive overthrows of stone and metal icons. Though details are yet to be worked out, the "Topplers" are expected to be active in all phases of statue design, placement and -- in conjunction with the Army's 3rd Mechanized Winch Corps -- demolition.

    And from a column that Rick titles “Dear Whoever: You’re Next”:

    To Whom It May Concern:

    This is to inform you that the executive branch of the government of the United States of America is (troubled/ highly troubled/ deeply troubled) by the current situation in (insert country). Because of specific activities you have (undertaken/ encouraged/ financed/ permitted), the prospects for peace in (insert region), and indeed throughout the world, have been placed in grave jeopardy. ...

    The activities now going on in (insert country) constitute a clear and (immediate/ growing) danger, one that cannot be allowed to continue. Through the use of (surveillance satellites/ unmanned aircraft/ human intelligence/ Miss Cleo), we have (incontrovertible evidence/ solid information/ a pretty good hunch) that you've been up to no good.

    In particular, we are most concerned that you are (stockpiling weapons of mass destruction/ attempting to develop weapons of mass destruction/ transferring weapons of mass destruction to other countries/ jealous of our weapons of mass destruction). In addition, we have the strongest possible suspicions that your government has been (harboring terrorists/ terrorizing harbors). Finally, serious questions have been raised about (the way you wear your hat/ the way you sip your tea/ other).

    Our long reliance on (diplomatic channels/ The Weather Channel/ Chanel No. 5) has gotten us nowhere in resolving these matters, and has been met only by (further deceit/ vacant stares/ heavy breathing) on your part. We have been obliged, therefore, to consider a variety of additional steps to ensure our safety, and that of your neighboring states, (insert country, insert country), not to mention (insert country).

    As (President Bush/ Vice President Cheney/ Secretary Rumsfeld/ Rush Limbaugh) said very clearly just the other day, "(insert bellicose language)."

    We couldn't agree more.

    We are also well aware of the tragic human costs that your behavior has exacted upon your own nation as well. For more than (insert number) years, your repressive regime has denied your own citizens basic (rights/ freedoms/ cable). They, like people the world over, yearn to be free, and we understand those yearnings. ...

    You and your (cronies/ toadies/ phonies/ ponies) are through. Your (shady associates/ sleazy friends/ skanky relatives) should be under no illusions: We intend to bring them all to justice.




     
    NASCAR seeks diversity

    Wyeth Ruthven (Democratic activist, law student, blogger) pointed to an intriguing AP story on a listserv he runs. The piece says that NASCAR is looking for the Tiger Woods of racing:

    The only black driver to win at NASCAR's highest level never got a proper celebration in Victory Lane. Wendell Scott beat the field in a 200-mile race in 1963, but as the story goes, NASCAR officials were worried about how the predominantly white crowd in Jacksonville might react to seeing a black man hoist the winner's trophy.

    Buck Baker was declared the winner, and only after two hours of review -- with the crowd long gone -- was a "scoring error" detected and Scott named the official winner.

    "It was a night my dad said was a very good feeling, but a frustrating feeling because he couldn't get the full enjoyment from his victory," says Sybil Scott, the daughter of the late NASCAR pioneer.

    Nearly four decades later, NASCAR still hasn't seen a black driver celebrate in Victory Lane, mostly because blacks remain a rarity in stock-car racing.

    Two years ago, NASCAR signed a $2.8 billion TV contract. In the past decade, it has moved up alongside football, baseball and basketball as one of the nation's most popular sports.

    With that growth, the lack of a black presence is no longer just a regional or cultural anomaly. It has become a costly business problem, as well.

    As a result, leaders of a sport where Confederate flags still often outnumber black fans in the infield are beginning to realize the pressure to bring blacks into the fold isn't all coming from the outside. There's money to be made by attracting black participants and more black fans. ...

    Yearning for a chance to start a team are black men like Herbie Bagwell of Bridgeport, Conn. Bagwell, who says he's a qualified driver, has been working the phones and soliciting on the Internet trying to find sponsors for a team that could eventually make it to Winston Cup.

    He says he's not looking for any handouts from NASCAR, but is surprised at the reluctance he encounters from sponsors. Headline sponsors pay up to $15 million a season to put their logo on cars in Winston Cup, but drivers can get in at the lower levels of racing for about $300,000.

    Bagwell thinks many possible sponsors look at the crowds at the tracks, don't see any blacks there and don't see what gains they would get by spending millions to advertise in the sport.

    Media buyer Tom DeCabia agrees.

    He says if he runs into a corporation looking to focus on young black males, he would steer them toward the NBA and NFL, or maybe even major league baseball. ...

    NASCAR cites a recent ESPN poll that shows trends are changing in the sport. The poll says the black fan base rose 17.8 percent between 1995 and 2001, a remarkable shift considering the number of black drivers and owners hasn't really changed at all. That same poll says NASCAR has added about 2 million black fans since 1999.




     
    Not everyone in Minnesota is above average

    The governor talks about his state's "two-tiered economy," in which the Twins Cities are progressing but much of rural Minnesota is struggling.



     
    Legislative priorities

    It’s depressing that at a time when the state’s budget crisis needed attention this week, the Georgia Senate had to take up time debating a proposed new design for the state flag.

    From an article (the link is kaput) in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: “Republican senators and lawyers for the governor worked throughout the day Monday, looking for a way around a faulty bit of legalese in the bill that would result in a new flag that, proportionately, would be the longest in the nation. A standard flag has dimensions of 3-by-5 feet. The new flag, a variation of the Confederate Stars and Bars, would be 3-by-6 feet.”



     
    Budget cuts and historic preservation

    I linked the other day to an article talking about the debate over state arts funding in New York state. Dan Hobby writes:

    In Florida we are facing the same issues. For years this state has had one of the most active and well-funded historic preservation programs in the nation. State appropriations has led to a remarkable increase in the identification and preservation of historical resources, from pre-contact archeological sites, to Spanish colonial missions, to the art deco architecture of Miami Beach. Any number of municipalities have established historic preservation boards and have created hundreds of historic districts ...

    However, in the governor's and legislature's zeal to cut taxes much of the state's historic preservation funding has been axed (or at least it appears it will be -- the budget has not been approved and signed).

    And these figures do not include the program and staff cuts in the state's Division of Historical Resources. The governor wants to cut the staffing of this agency from 94 to 43. ...

    On a related note, the governor has recommended closing the state library, giving its collection to a private university almost 500 miles away from Tallahassee. Along with this he wants to end funding of the State Historic Records Advisory Board local historic records grants program.. This small budget program, administered through the state Division of Library and Information Services, provided easily obtainable funding for all sorts of agencies--not just established historical institutions. ...

    Of course historic preservation is not alone in this sorry spectacle. As one Tallahassee lobbyist told me recently, "Dan, they're throwing widows and orphans out on the street." All to reduce taxes in one of the nation's least taxed states.




     
    President Bush and President Davis

    The Harold Meyerson piece in The American Prospect in which he compares George W. Bush to Jefferson Davis has triggered considerable blog reaction. One contrast between the two: Because of the decentralized nature of the Confederate political system, Davis had far less power to encroach on civil liberties compared not just to Bush but to Abraham Lincoln.

    Historian Forrest McDonald wrote in his recent book, “States’ Rights and The Union: Imperium in Imperio, 1776-1876”:

    Given the absence of a supreme court, the limitations on the powers delegated to the Confederacy, and the emphasis on states’ rights, the Confederacy government might have been fatally handicapped in trying to fight the war. Actually, however, except for the bungling and feuding in dealing with his generals and for lacking the common touch in making patriotic speeches, Jefferson Davis was quite as effective in bringing about the necessary centralization as Lincoln did, and he did so with less repression. In no small measure, his accomplishment was possible precisely because the institutional framework in which he operated made it imperative for him to plead with people for their cooperation rather than, as Lincoln did, attempt to ride roughshod over them.

    Not that there weren’t loud complaints in some quarters accusing the Davis government of gross infringements of civil liberties. An especially outspoken critic was William Holden, an independent-minded newspaper editor in Raleigh, N.C., who was later named a Reconstruction-era governor of North Carolina by Andrew Johnson (a Tennesseean born in Raleigh).



    Monday, April 21
     
    A thumb’s down for caucuses

    Centrist Democrats should not support the shifting from primaries to caucuses, the Democratic Leadership Council cogently argues in a new e-mail:

    ... there is a strange and dangerous counter-trend developing today in the Democratic Party towards the use of caucuses rather than primaries to choose delegates in 2004. This trend threatens to give interest groups and highly ideological activists disproportionate influence over the nominating process; to disenfranchise rank-and-file Democrats while excluding independents altogether; and, quite frankly, to isolate Democrats from the center of American politics at the worst possible time.

    Already, two of the states that will choose delegates very early in the nominating process, Michigan and New Mexico, have traded primaries for caucuses. Another early decision state, South Carolina, is thinking about doing the same, as is Kansas, which will hold its delegate selection later. The usual reasons are financial -- caucuses are less expensive than primaries -- and legal -- it's easier to change the date of a “private party” caucus than a statewide primary election if you are trying to take advantage of the Democratic Party's open invitation to states to move up their delegate selection to February of 2004.

    But the combination of a large presidential candidate field, a “front-loaded” nomination calendar, and a shift towards caucuses, could produce an outcome that will deeply disappoint most Democrats nationally, not to mention the independent voters necessary to a Democratic win in the general election.

    As DLC CEO and Founder Al From recently pointed out in Blueprint magazine, the critical, even dominant, role of independent voters in general elections argues for Democratic primaries that are open and welcoming to independents. Not only shutting them out, but also limiting the franchise to Democratic activists willing to negotiate often-complex caucus procedures, is a move in exactly the wrong direction. ...

    Caucuses are likely to help move the Democratic Party back into the self-isolating and losing ways of the 1980s.

    By the way: The DLC is using some tough language in criticizing the New York City Council’s recent move to soften work requirements for welfare recipients.




     
    Our man in Baghdad

    My friend from Fred Ray e-mails a question I would never have expected: “Did you know that actor Victor McLaglen was once the Provost Marshall of Baghdad?”

    Well, no, I didn’t.

    Fred links to this site, which says:
    A boy soldier during the Boer War, British actor Victor McLaglen later worked as a prizefighter (once losing to Jack Johnson in six rounds) and a vaudeville and circus performer. He served in World War I as a captain with the Irish Fusiliers and as provost marshal of Baghdad.

    In the early '20s he broke into British films. He soon moved to Hollywood, where he got lead and supporting roles; his basic screen persona was that of a large, brutish, but soft-hearted man of action. He appeared in many John Ford films, often as a military man. McLaglen made the transition to sound successfully, and for his work in Ford's The Informer (1935), he won the Best Actor Oscar. He remained a busy screen actor until the late '50s. Five of his brothers were also film actors: Arthur, Clifford, Cyril, Kenneth, and Leopold. He was the father of director Andrew V. McLaglen.

    So there you have it.



     
    The end of Partisan Review

    A once-important institution in American intellectual life, and the Jewish experience in America, has expired. There will be no more new issues of the quarterly journal Partisan Review, once the signature vehicle for the group of brilliant writers described by the shorthand phrase “the New York intellectuals.”

    From the late 1930s through the 1950s, Partisan Review provided a remarkable forum in which a set of forceful intellectuals, many of them young Jewish writers, stepped forward to assert themselves. Among the contributors were Lionel Trilling, Alfred Kazin, Irving Howe and Edmund Wilson. The caliber of political argument -- and its intensity -- was formidable.

    From a New York Times article on the journal’s demise:

    “It was one of the four or five greatest magazines in America,” said Morris Dickstein, a professor of English at the City University of New York and a contributing editor to the journal. “It was a very small enterprise to begin with, the work of a very small circle, mainly Jews in the New York area, who were not academically credentialed. And they turned out to be among the most brilliant intellectuals America has ever produced.”

    Partisan Review was founded by non-Stalinist Marxists, several of whom embraced anticommunism in the 1950s. The most notable example was the thoughtful and genial political philosopher Sidney Hook.

    In his lovingly written look at the experience of the Eastern European Jews in New York, “World of Our Fathers,” Irving Howe observed that Partisan Review

    was the first journal in which it was not merely respectable but a matter of pride to print one of T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets” side by side with Marxist criticism -- and even a few reviews of Sholom Aleichem and Peretz. Not only did the magazine break down the polar rigidities of hard-line and hard-line nativists; it also sanctioned the idea ... that there existed an all but incomparable generation of modern masters who in a terrible age represented the highest possibilities of the imagination.

    Howe also wrote: “To resort to a term of Renato Poggioli, the New York writers constituted not so much an intellectual elite as an intelligentsia in the European sense, that is, ‘an intellectual order from the lower ranks ... created by those who were rejected by other classes; an intellectual order whose function was not so much cultural as political.’ ”

    Among the many streams that have come together to form American intellectual life, Partisan Review was once a mighty tributary. Its quiet passing into historical memory deserves to be noted and mourned.



    Sunday, April 20
     
    Political change in Mississippi?

    Have Trent Lott's egregious statements about the Dixiecrats and his subsequent shift in tone on racial matters created a political opening for black Democratcs to gain statewide office in Mississippi?

    This interesting piece in the Clarion-Ledger of Jackson, Miss., considers the topic. Winning statewide office is a feat no black has accomplished in Mississippi since the late 19th century. From the article:

    It is no longer unusual to see blacks emerging with years of legislative or other government expertise. In fact, Mississippi has the most black elected officials of any state in the country.

    But the state with the proportionally largest black population is behind its neighbors in numbers of black statewide elected officials. Now, Blackmon and others, including state fiscal officer Gary Anderson and Jackson businesswoman Cindy Ayers Elliot, could change those statistics. ...

    Black leaders point to a confluence of events that make this year prime time to run, including U.S. Sen. Trent Lott's racially insensitive remarks praising Strom Thurmond's 1948 presidential bid on the segregationist Dixiecrat ticket. The outcry that followed prompted Lott to commit to minority causes, and some black leaders see a new environment with more room for change.

    They also point to the opening of three statewide seats without Democratic incumbents, and other incumbents who may feel more vulnerable in the fragile economy. They believe some of the perceptions white voters held about black political leaders have, at least in part, dissolved over the years. ...

    Most of the state's black elected officials have been elected in districts with a large number of black voters. Now, assuming the statewide candidate wins most of the black voting-age population's 33 percent, he or she would still have to garner about 20 percent from white voters to win a majority in Mississippi.

    That kind of coup is becoming increasingly more difficult for black candidates dependent on Democratic votes, as the Reagan-initiated Republican realignment moves across the South, recruiting white Democrats to its ranks, [Emory political scientist Merle] Black said.

    It also is difficult when those candidates must fight a “liberal” label, which white Mississippians may place on them. ...

    But at the same time, Brown, who owns a landscaping company and is making his second bid for lieutenant governor, said running on a conservative platform as he plans to do could backfire. Being a conservative, he says, could work against him because conservatism has become a “bad word” in the black community.




     
    Over at Blogcritics ...

    Congratulations to Eric Olsen and his colleagues at Blogcritics. The Blogcritics site has a new design using a horizontal format and various features making for easier use. The site has also added a service that allows self-publishing.

    Well-done.



     
    Renewal

    I spent a good part of this weekend planting flowers in our back yard. It's a hobby I started last year, completely from scratch. I'm still learning, but I know enough to make some pretty good choices. It's awakened a new dimension to my aesthetic sense.

    An appropriate activity this weekend, given the Easter theme of renewal. And the Saturday rains made the soil good to work with.

    Now if I can just teach our goofy but lovable new dog that the flowers are off-limits. It's not going to be easy.



    Friday, April 18
     
    'Christos Voskrese!'

    On a lighter note, a good friend -- Friend 2, to use a term that regular visitors here may recognize -- sends along a delightful Easter note. (Friend 2 is Roman Catholic, but is also a student of the Eastern Orthodox churches.) He writes:

    The Eastern Christian societies have a wonderful custom. They greet each other with religious greetings that change with the church season. For instance, in Slovakia or Ukraine you greet someone after Easter with the saying "Christos Voskrese!" and the other person responds, "Voistinu Voskrese!" Translated: "Christ is risen!" "Indeed He is risen!" I don't know the Slavic words, but at Christmas it is "Christ is born!" "Glorify Him!" It is a nice little way to incorporate your faith into your daily life, no?

    Have a fine weekend, everyone.



     
    Fixed

    Sorry for the garbled text that some of you may have seen early this morning. I believe I've fixed the problem. I have five new posts today.



     
    Brutal times

    A colleague at work once dropped by my office to show me an old postcard, mailed from Nebraska, bearing a surprising photographic image. He had run across the card in our newspaper’s library. The card, with a 1920 postmark and apparently mass produced, showed a man in a dress shirt and pants, wearing a tie. He was blindfolded and sitting down.

    In an electric chair.

    Evidently, the photo was taken only shortly before the state of Nebraska sent the man to meet his maker.

    My colleague and I talked about how the postcard appeared to indicate that ours was hardly the American generation in which brutality was sometimes casually incorporated into the popular culture.

    An example of that from my own life: Not long ago, I let my kids watch the sweet-natured sci-fi comedy “Galaxy Quest.” But, because I had already seen the movie, I stopped the tape at one point and had the kids leave the room while I fast-forwarded through part of a particular sequence -- the part where the villain has someone on an electro-shock gurney and forces him to endure not one but two brutal bouts of torture.

    Another example: When my wife and I were married in the early ’90s, we started watching videotapes together far more than in the past. One of the things we quickly discovered was that my tolerance for screen violence far exceeded hers. (Evidently we must have watched romantic comedies during our courtship period, since the issue of movie violence hadn’t come before.) I well remember how she had to leave the room while watching “Blood Simple” when the Frances McDormand character grabbed the hand of that sleazy private investigator and plunged a steak knife into it, pinning his hand, then pulled a window down on it.

    At some point in the ’90s, even before my children came along, I started to develop something of a repulsion toward what struck me as violent excesses on the screen. A particular example was a sequence in “Robocop 2” in which the audience watches from Robocop’s perspective as an adolescent villain directs the hero’s literal dismemberment. At one point, the villain holds up a severed arm and lets the blood drip on Robocop’s face.

    On the other hand, I can still tolerate a lot. I’m a fan of “The Sopranos,” a series known for eruptions of ugly violence.

    Although movie violence has escalated in recent decades, previous generations of Americans were hardly isolated from violent depictions, as the Nebraska postcard shows.

    Alexandra Fuller’s vividly written travel log for Slate last year about 19th century “outlaw trails” in the West and the Southwest included an anecdote about the outlaw George "Big Nose" Parrott. Parrott, part of a gang that had killed and dismembered a deputy sheriff and a leading citizen from Rawlins, Wyo., was later lynched by a mob in that town. “At first try,” Fuller wrote, “the rope broke, searing Parrott’s ears off.”

    She added:

    Shortly thereafter, a Dr. John Osborne had the body removed from the casket; made a death mask of the criminal (the death mask is on display at the [Carbon County, Wyo.] museum, sans ears); skinned him; tanned his hide to make the valise, coin purse, and shoes; and sliced off the top of his skull to examine the "criminal brain" and for secondary use as an ashtray.

    In 1893, Osborne became as Wyoming’s first Democratic governor. At his inauguration, he wore the shoes he had made from Parrott’s hide.

    Another illustration of the intersection between popular culture and brutality comes from Edward Ayers’ magisterial “The Promise of the New South.” A classic passage:

    Juxtapositions of the modern and the archaic constantly jarred the New South, as Mell Barrett, a young white boy, discovered when he spent a nickel to hear his first Edison talking machine at a country picnic in 1896.

    “With the tubes in my ears, the Pitchman was now adjusting the needle on the machine. ... My excitement increased, my heart was pounding so I could hardly hold the tubes in my ears with shaking hands.”

    At first, he thought he was listening to a recording of a convention of some sort.

    “ ‘All right, men. Bring them out. Let’s hear what they have to say,’ were the first words I understood coming from a talking machine.” The young boy listened as two men confess to a rape, then beg for mercy.

    “The sounds of shuffling feet, swearing men, rattle of chains, falling wood, brush, and fagots, then a voice -- shrill, strident, angry, called out, ‘Who will apply the torch?’ ‘I will,’ came a chorus of angry voices.”

    Barrett could hear “the crackle of flames as it ate its way into the dry tender,” and the victims asking God to forgive their tormentors. The crowd fell quiet, only the sound of the flames remained.

    “My eyes and ears were dry. I tried to wet my lips, but my tongue, too, was parched. ... I stood immobile, unable to move. Now the voice of the Pitchman saying, ‘That’s all, gentlemen -- who’s next?”

    As Barrett took the tubes from his ears, the next man asked, “What’s the matter, son -- sick?”

    The Pitchman, “sensing what the trouble was, said, ‘Too much cake, too much lemonade. You know how boys are at a picnic.’ ”




     
    Bloc voting, 18th-century style

    Blacks and women “are not well represented” from the Pittsburgh region in terms of elective office, whether at the local level or in Congress, a new study says.

    Some will deride the study as more affirmative action hysteria, typical of today’s politically correct times. That’s a legitimate argument to be made, of course. But when I read about the study, I couldn’t help but think of the political firestorm in Pennsylvania in 1788 when the state’s German population demanded political representation proportionate to the Germans' demographic weight.

    Gordon Wood describes the situation, which curiously adumbrated the present-day debate over affirmative action:

    Both the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists scrambled to place a couple of German names on their tickets for Congress and for the presidential electors. But once aroused, German dissatisfaction “at having so small a representation” could not be appeased. Some tried to resist this ethnic pressure by pointing to its apparent logical absurdity and asked why the Germans should be singled out for attention. ...

    The Germans, voting very much as a bloc, went on in 1788 to elect three German congressmen from Pennsylvania -- every German candidate they could find on the Federalist and Anti-Federalist tickets.




     
    Lessons for the Russians

    The easy U.S. victory in Iraq has raised alarms among Russian military leaders, the Christian Science Monitor reports:

    The Iraqi Army -- which was cloned from the Red Army in the final decades of the Soviet Union -- mounted only a feeble defense before falling apart.

    "The key conclusion we must draw from the latest Gulf war is that the obsolete structure of the Russian armed forces has to be urgently changed," says Vladimir Dvorkin, head of the Russian Defense Ministry's official think tank on strategic nuclear policy. "The gap between our capabilities and those of the Americans has been revealed, and it is vast. We are very lucky that Russia has no major enemies at the moment, but the future is impossible to predict, and we must be ready."

    The swift victory by mobile, high-tech American forces over heavily armored Iraqi troops dug in to defend large cities like Baghdad has jolted many Russian military planners. "The Iraqi Army was a replica of the Russian Army, and its defeat was not predicted by our generals," says Vitaly Shlykov, a former deputy defense minister of Russia.

    Like its Soviet prototype, Iraq's Army was huge but made up mainly of young, poorly trained conscripts. Its battle tactics called for broad frontal warfare, with massed armor and artillery, and a highly centralized command structure. But those forces were trounced in a few days by relatively small numbers of US and British forces, who punched holes in the Iraqi front using precision weapons and seized the country's power centers more rapidly than traditional military thinkers could have imagined.

    "The military paradigm has changed, and luckily we didn't have to learn that lesson firsthand," says Yevgeny Pashentsev, author of a book on Russian military reform. "The Americans have rewritten the textbook, and every country had better take note."




     
    Church and state

    I posted the other day about William F. Buckley's statement about how he'd like to see the political role of Islam in Arab-Muslim countries resemble that of the Anglican Church in Britain. I asked whether Anglican church leaders still sit in the House of Lords. Yes, they do, Martin Adamson says, writing me from the UK.

    By the way: Here is another short follow-up. I've posted, citing the observations of others, about how there was no general surrender of the Confederacy at the end of the Civil War. Linda Seeback, an editorialist with the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, writes:

    As one of the things we did pre-millennium, I was asked to go back and look at our microfilm for some "this is how it was" material. ... I was startled to discover the issue of the Rocky Mountain News that reported the surrender at Appomattox did not consider it the end of the war. Fighting was still going on in various places closer to Denver.




    Wednesday, April 16
     
    NGOs and radicalism

    Many nongovernmental organizations, it’s true, are doing commendable work in helping developing countries with humanitarian, economic and medical needs. NGOs are playing a crucial role in the reconstruction of Afghanistan. They will undoubtedly provide vital help in post-Saddam Iraq.

    But there is also a dark side to the NGO community.

    Many foreign policy NGOs are working tirelessly to undercut the ability of the United States to protect its interests. Many seek to nurture a foreign policy culture that empowers an “enlightened” transnational elite made up of U.N. functionaries, like-minded diplomats and, of course, NGOs at the expense of the sovereignty of individual nations.

    But many NGOs have demonstrated an egregious irresponsibility that advertises their lack of qualifications for wielding power.

    A penetrating expose on this topic is available at the Web site of, of all places, the World Federalist Movement. I disagree vehemently with the World Federalists in regard to the International Criminal Court, but I have to give them credit for keeping the report on NGO misconduct in a prominent place at their site.

    The report, by Natalie Steinberg, examines the bumbling as well as the radicalism of NGOs in 2001 during the U.N.-sponsored conference on human rights in Durban, South Africa. The gathering stumbled to an unsteady conclusion only a few days before the 9/11 attacks. (The conference’s full title: the “World Conference on Against Racism, Racial and Ethnic Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance.”)

    The Durban conference was covered widely, of course, in the press and in the blog world. But Steinberg’s report provides especially damning details.

    Excerpts:

    An attempt to produce a NGO declaration and program of action went a shambles. Over 77 NGOs claimed that they could not accept the final document mainly because of its hate filled language. ...

    The most striking thing (and most common complaint) about the NGO Forum was its disorder, the high unclearity on procedures, and time tables that could not be met. Voting over the amendments and paragraphs was slow, with lots of confusion, shouting and screaming, insults and people breaking out into tears. Overall it was very chaotic. ...

    Despite the centrality of caucuses to the Forum, there were never any clear rules, or indeed any written rules, about who could form a caucus or how a caucus could be formed. In practice any group of individuals could signify to the organizers that they wished to form a caucus based on region or victim group or theme ...

    There was much confusion in the process of setting up the caucuses, several groups felt disenfranchised, and were allowed to form caucuses after the deadline (on condition that there were at least ten people in the caucus), then this decision was repealed and some had to disassemble. ...

    The offensive wording in the NGO Forum Declaration and Program of Action gave only a hint of the difficult atmosphere that prevailed in the Forum. On the Entry to the Forum grounds, every participant was accosted by anti-Semitic slogans, pamphlets, slurs and chants. There was a steady stream of incidents of people from the Jewish Caucus being threatened, verbally abused and harassed, solely because they were Jewish (and equated with Israel), it was clear they were unwanted and unwelcome. ...

    An officially sanctioned booth at the Forum of the Arab Lawyers Union handed out anti-Semitic hate propaganda (that violated Int’l HR and South African legal standards) -- cartoons portraying Jews with hooked noses, blood dripping form fangs, with pots of money surrounding them. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (a 19th century Czarist forgery of a Jewish plan to take over the world) along with other traditional anti-Semitic literature were on sale at the Forum. ...

    A large group of NGOs were using a slogan for the conference which they believed promoted the topic of fighting racism. The slogan said "THERE IS ONE RACE -- THE HUMAN RACE". They were very surprised to learn that many black participants at the conference took offence with the slogan and felt that it denied the experiences of persecution they suffered because of existing racial definitions.

    Steinberg offers a cogent summation of the central conclusion to be drawn:

    The non-governmental world is no holier than the governmental world, by virtue of its mere powerlessness. There is nothing inherent in the worthiness of the causes of non-governmental organizations. However, human rights NGOs are so used to mobilizing civil society to call governments to account that they find it hard to grapple with threats to human rights from the non-governmental world. Human rights NGOs have seen other non-governmental organizations as potential allies in the struggle for human rights, rather than potential threats to respect for human rights, and therefore have been blind to political manipulations of some NGOs and have bought into the agenda of those political movements which use the proper human rights vocabulary.

    Exactly right. May her warning be heeded.



     
    The Anglican example?

    William F. Buckley wrote in a recent column about political change in Iraq and the rest of the Arab-Muslim world: “The need is great to move toward a constitution in which Islam is acknowledged as a state religion, but only in the sense that the Church of England is a state religion.”

    I suppose Buckley is simply saying it would be best if political systems in Arab-Muslim countries would constrain the influence of Islam in the political sphere.

    Still, the mere mention of Anglicanism in comparison with Islam is odd, at least when one considers the enormous contrast between the social influence of the two religious institutions.

    Islam, of course, retains spectacular power in Muslim societies -- even in one, such as Turkey’s, that has long stressed the secular character of its government. The animating force of Islam in Middle Eastern countries could hardly be more different from the pitiful irrelevance that characterizes the Church of England’s current role in British life.

    By the way: Do Anglican church leaders still automatically sit in the House of Lords, or did that entitlement end in the ’90s when the Blair government tossed out all those squawking old-line aristocrats from the upper chamber?



     
    Economic entanglements

    It’s not that often that you see me quoting approvingly from an Ellen Goodman column. But she offers some examples of the types of economic complications that arise when boycotts are attempted in a globalized economy, a point made here in several recent posts:

    Pity the South Carolina Legislature, whose cry for a boycott was cut off by the discovery that Michelin tires are made in their state. How about the liquid news that Evian is actually distributed by Coke while the American alternative, Poland Springs, is owned by the Swiss?

    As for continental condiments, French's Mustard is owned by the British. Grey Poupon, on the other hand, is owned by Philip Morris ...

    By the way: Blogger xavier Basora of Buscaraons writes me in regard to the same general topic:

    ... I came across a faxed newsletter from an outfit called the New York-Quebec border coalition(!) Never heard of it. It simply mentions meeting, get-togethers and news of like minded organizations discussing transborder issues.

    I forgot to mention that the New England governors' conference always invite the Quebec, Ontario and some of the Atlantic province premiers. They latter aren't just guests but informal members of the conference whenever the cross-border issues are discussed. New York is Quebec and Newfoundland's biggest customer for electricity. I remember that both provinces assured Giuliani during the California blackouts that his state would the electricity it needed with no price changes (due to a 20-year contract) Another reason Canada and the US have to work closely together no matter how impassioned both sides can become.




     
    Privacy and progress

    Some short takes:

  • On a journalists’ listserv I’m on, a Florida newspaper editor says that a hospital in his community is no longer providing his paper with birth announcements, a change that apparently stems from the new medical privacy act. I don’t know if that is an isolated case or not.

  • Eve Tushnet went to a think-tanker roundtable about postwar Iraq. She summarizes the discussion. The watchword from the analysts: caution. By the way: Did you know that Eve’s columns are available at Jewish World Review?

  • I recommend that you take a look at the new blog Curveball. I can’t divulge the identity of the blogger (who uses a pseudonym) although I know who he/she is.

  • I posted last week about the scandal of the World Health Organization’s refusal to aid Taiwan in regard to the SARS epidemic. Alan Henderson has more.

  • The state government in New York spends almost $38 million a year to support artists. Some lawmakers say the amount should be cut. The article looks at the debate and includes a chart showing the top states in terms of arts funding per capita.



  •  
    The letter

    I pinned a short, handwritten letter to my corkboard at work this week. The note was written by my mom, who is still going strong at age 88.

    A woman of enormous good sense.

    She is a woman whose memory extends back into the 1920s. Yet her handwriting still retains its essential qualities: clean lines, attractive script. Even now, as she nears her 90th year, it remains a constant in my life. Her letter that I pinned up this week looks basically the same as a note she would have written 20 years ago.

    I know, things change. Confident lines yield to uncertain ones. Familiar patterns erode. Vitality dims. Families have to cope.

    But not yet, thankfully, in our family.

    For now, the lines on the paper remain confident. The link between past and present is intact. A sense of continuity, of stability, manifests itself in the familiarity of graceful T’s and elegant O’s.

    I sit at my desk and reach out to touch the letter. To touch the past, and hold it close.

    Reassurance.



    Monday, April 14
     
    Lessons from the Rev. Edwards

    What a joy to begin a book as stimulating and, indeed, wise as George M. Marsden’s “Jonathan Edwards: A Life.” Edwards (1703-58) was a New England religious intellectual and revivalist who had a powerful effect on American religious development well into the 19th century. The book is just out from Yale University Press.

    From my notes on the first 50 pages, which I read over the weekend (any quote marks indicate the words of the author, Marsden, a professor at Notre Dame):

  • Ongoing religious tensions and injustices were very much on the minds of Protestant dissenters in that era. Congregationalists and Presbyterians in Britain were denied political office and access to a university education. The Catholic son of deposed British king James II -- the pretender “James III” -- lived in France, and it wasn’t considered unlikely that an effort might be made to seat him on the English throne. Huguenot refugees in New York City, whom Edwards saw when he was a young pastor at a Presbyterian congregation there in the early 1720s, recounted the harsh treatment they or their ancestors had experienced in France.

  • “The world into which Edwards was born will make a lot more sense if we think of it as British rather than American. ... Edwards lived in a thoroughly pre-Revolutionary British province.”

  • “How does a religion that claims universal and exclusive truth fit into a pluralistic environment? ... Much of the ‘Enlightenment’ thought of that time was a direct reaction to the conflicting absolutist claims of the preceding era of deadly religious wars.”

  • “A precocious teenage intellectual ... Edwards was confronted with how hopelessly quaint, dated, and even laughable the provincial world of East Windsor [Connecticut] would look to British sophisticates.” Yet, Marsden notes, the Puritan heritage of New England gave the region a heritage of intellectual seriousness.

  • One challenge facing a biographer, Marsden notes, is how to include significant material in the subject’s life even though it doesn’t “contribute to dramatic narrative as well as others.” Marsden also notes that “to make sense of Edwards’ life, one must take seriously his religious outlook on his own terms.”

  • New England settlements in Edwards’ day tended to be armed camps, not picturesque, idyllic villages, in light of the threat from Indian attacks.

  • “Jonathan Edwards is sometimes criticized for having too dim a view of human nature, but it may be helpful to be reminded that his grandmother was an incorrigible profligate, his great-aunt committed infanticide, and his great-uncle was an ax-murderer.”

  • In any era of American history, a very large percent of the white population was unchurched. What surprised me from Marsden’s book was to learn that the Puritans denied many people access to baptism and communion, saying those sacraments should be made available only to the truly converted. This was a major point of debate among Puritan religious leaders in the early 18th century.

  • When Edwards lived in New York City for nine months during 1722-23, the town had between 7,000 and 9,000 inhabitants. A decade before his arrival there, “19 participants in a bloody slave insurrection had been brutally executed in retaliation for killing nine whites.” In that era, a slave market was occasionally held on Wall Street.

  • His stay in New York provided Edwards with his first occasion to meet Jews. One Jew who lived near him, Edwards wrote, “appeared to me the devoutest person that ever I saw in my life.”



  •  
    Big money for Sen. Edwards

    The Note was certainly enthusiastic the other day about how John Edwards has made a big splash in terms of fund-raising for his presidential run.

    One quote from the post:

    Wagner also quotes The Hotline's Chuck Todd, who summed up the achievement thusly: "'It's an impressive total, and it should put him at the top or a very close second … This is incredibly important. This is what makes John Edwards a top-tier candidate in 2004 instead of a rookie candidate running to build a name for himself for 2008.'"




     
    Exploiting the children

    The State Department’s annual human rights report now includes a section on child soldiers. From one analysis of the report:

    An estimated 300,000 children are currently fighting in conflicts around the world. Children as young as seven years old serve as cooks, spies, messengers, clerks, porters and often end up on the front lines of combat. The use of children as soldiers is clearly a violation of a child's human rights and a particularly malicious form of child labor. In that vein, the United States has begun reporting on the many countries' security and rebel forces that recruit under-18s into their ranks. The reports highlight 22 countries currently using child soldiers; among the worst violators are Sri Lanka, Uganda, Philippines, Burma and Colombia.

    The report’s description of Iraq’s use of child soldiers:

    During the year, the regime held 3-week training courses in weapons use, hand-to-hand fighting, rappelling from helicopters, and infantry tactics for children between 10 and 15 years of age. Camps for these “Saddam Cubs” operated throughout the country. Senior military officers who supervised the course noted that the children held up under the "physical and psychological strain" of training that lasted for as long as 14 hours each day. Sources in the opposition reported that the army found it difficult to recruit enough children to fill all of the vacancies in the program.

    Families reportedly were threatened with the loss of their food ration cards if they refused to enroll their children in the course. The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq reported in October 1999 that authorities were denying food ration cards to families that failed to send their young sons to Saddam Cubs compulsory weapons-training camps. Similarly, authorities reportedly withheld school examination results to students unless they registered in the Fedayeen Saddam organization.




     
    Russians and truth

    Paul R Duffy writes in regard to a recent post here about “pravda,” literal truth, and “istina,” transcendent truth:

    Your correspondent was correct about “pravda” and “istina,” but I thought I might just add a few philological notes:

    You hardly ever hear the word “istina.” The normal translation for “That's true” is “Eto pravda”; to say “Eto istina” would sound archaic, almost liturgical.

    If you etymologize the words you'll see that “pravda” comes from the concept of “rightness.” “You're right” is “Ty prav.” Right hand, right
    wing, etc., is all “pravyi.” “Pravo” means “law” or “a right.”

    “Istina,” on the other hand, seems to mean “real,” the real truth. God’s truth, for example, is “istina.” I think it’s connected with some form of the verb “to be”; this is how things are, never mind what is correct.