Sunday, February 27, 2005

Light posting right now

I haven't posted anything here for the last week, because I am recovering from an injury that makes it difficult to use the computer right now.

I'm recovering fine, and as soon as I am able to walk with the crutches downstairs to my office, hopefully next week, I will be posting more regularly in a week or so. For the next few days posting will still be light.

During the last week the most interesting news story for me has been the new reporting on just how cocerned the British goverment had been about the legality of the Iraq war prior to the Anglo-American invasion in 2003.(see " a familiar tale" by Richard Norton-Taylor,  02/26/05

Friday, February 18, 2005

The blogosphere goes Zen

Or goes cosmic. Or enters a new dimention, maybe.

Whatever you call it, Jerry Brown - former California governor, current mayor of Oakland and future California state attorney general - has just started his own blog.

It's called simply Jerry Brown.

This one is sure to be interesting.

Part of the Zen idea is "living in the moment." Since Jerry's current "moment" involves being both Oakland mayor and candidate for attorney general, it's appropriate that his first two posts have to do with his approach to violent crime in Oakland.

The first one is In Defense of Oakland's Probationer Curfew, responding to a group that had criticized his policy of having a curfew for people on probation. He says in part:

The assertion that 80 percent of parolees are homeless is as baseless as the claim that Oakland does nothing for probationers. In fact, Oakland is home to some of the most progressive probationer/parolee rehabilitation programs in the nation. Unique among cities, Oakland sends staff into state prison to help inmates train and prepare for life on the outside.

I invite Critical Resistance to step back from the ideological edge and assist us in turning lives around. Men and women leaving prison need lots of help, and activist energy could be creatively engaged.

In his second post, he talks about Oakland On the Rise 02/17/05

I’m glad to see all the lively responses to my entry into the blogosphere. I welcome the robust debate. And, I will say that Oakland’s doing great. Crime is down, new housing is springing up all over town, the bar scene is coming alive and the arts are thriving. The new Oakland School for the Arts has taken up residence right behind the old Fox Theatre in downtown.

The blogosphere will never be the same again. Brown may turn out to be this medium's first genuine "blogosopher."

"Jeff Gannon" and Bush-dynasty government

Okay, the "Jeff Gannon" thing is definitely a big deal. This whole scandal reeks to high heaven.

Joe Conason has been on the case:

Gannon: The early years Salon 02/18/05

Long before "Jeff Gannon" became a household pseudonym in the nation's capital, he had earned considerable recognition among the political elites of South Dakota. During that state's closely contested Senate race last year, the Talon News writer -- whose real name is now known to be James Dale Guckert -- dug his claws deep into Tom Daschle, the former Senate minority leader narrowly defeated by Republican John Thune.

'Liberal' media silent about Guckert saga 02/16/05

Salon's Eric Boehlert and Sidney Blumenthal have also been taking it on.

Midnight Cowboy in the garden of Bush and evil by Sidney Blumenthal Salon 02/17/05

The Bush White House is the most opaque, allowing the least access for reporters, in living memory. All news organizations have significant economic interests subject to government regulation. Every organization seems to be intimidated, and reporters who have done stories the administration finds discomfiting have received threats about their careers. The administration has its own quasi-official state TV network in Fox News; hundreds of right-wing radio shows, conservative newspapers and journals, and Internet sites coordinate with the Republican apparatus.

Lifting the heavy Puritan curtain draping Bush's Washington reveals enlightening scenes of its decadent anthropology. Even as Guckert's true colors were revealed, the administration issued orders that the words "gay," "lesbian," "bisexual" and "transgender" be removed from the program of a federally funded conference on suicide prevention. But the transparent hypocrisy of conservative "values" hardly deters a ruthless government.

The experiment of inserting an agent directly into the White House press corps was a daring operation. Guckert's "legend," in the language of espionage, was that he was a news director, and his "false flag" was journalism. Until his exposure, this midnight cowboy in the garden of Bush and evil proved marginally useful for the White House. But the affair's longer-run implication is the Republican effort to sideline an independent press and undermine its legitimacy. "Spin" seems too quaint. "In this day and age," said McClellan, waxing philosophical about the Gannon affair, "when you have a changing media, it's not an easy issue to decide or try to pick and choose who is a journalist." The problem is not that the White House press secretary cannot distinguish who is or is not a journalist; it is that there are no journalists, just the gaming of the system for the concentration of power.

"Jeff Gannon's" incredible access by Eric Boehlert Salon 02/17/05

Noting that "Gannon" was allowed in to a White House press briefing in February 2003, Boehlert writes:

But what's significant about the February 2003 date is that Talon did not even exist then. The organization was created in late March 2003, and began publishing online in early April 2003. Gannon, a jack of all trades who spent time in the military as well as working at an auto repair shop (not to mention escorting), has already stated publicly that Talon News was his first job in journalism. That means he wasn't working for any other news outlet in February 2003 when he was spotted by C-Span cameras inside the White House briefing room. And that means Guckert was ushered into the White House press room in February 2003 for a briefing despite the fact he was not a journalist.

Whereas it was once suspected that White House press officials in charge of doling out coveted press passes went easy on Guckert, a Republican partisan working for an amateurish news outlet who would routinely ask softball questions, it now appears those same unnamed White House officials simply ignored all established credential standards -- including detailed security guidelines -- and gave Guckert White House access, even though he had no professional standing whatsoever.

If there seems to be a disproportionate number of Salon references on this, it's because our sad excuse for a press corps is trying to avoid covering it.

The following link is to some original reporting by John Arovosis of AmericaBlog: I don't know his credentials or track record on other stories, but he's done very well so far in digging up material on the "Gannon" story: Gannon reportedly knew about Iraq attack four hours before it happened 02/18/05. According to Arovosis' information, "Gannon" was telling people four hours before Bush's official announcement the he was going to war with Iraq in 2003 that Bush was going to do just that. Inside information? Loose lips, as in the Second World War saying, "loose lips sink ships"? Or a good guess? I mean, at that moment, an announcement by Bush that he was not going to war would have been far more surprising. His post raises some serious questions.

Keep in mind on this one that Arovisis is quoting a single, anonymous source for the main claim in his post. This one is straight blogosphere, not a story with professional journalistic vetting. As much as I badmouth our Potemkin press corps - and "Jeff Gannon" the fake reporter with the fake name is about as Potemkin as it gets - the idea and practice of professional journalism is far from dead, even with the US press.

Science Friday: Evolutionary psychology, fossils, UFO abductions, global warming and the Big Bang

Today's Science Friday is a bit of a potpourri.  First up is a brief article poking holes in the contemporary version of Social Darwinism, which currently goes by the name of "evolutionary psychology."

They may have spoiled a good name by glomming onto that one.  Real biologists do come up with observations that actually do shed some light on human psychological evolution, as in studies of primate social behavior.  But the "evolutionary psychologists," who are really Social Darwinists in (thin) disguise, basically try to argue that some version of a conservative white guy ideal of social behavior, particularly relating to gender roles but not restricted to that, are hard-wired in the human genes.  This article jabs at a few of their favorite claims.  As the article indicates, today's Social Darwninists are long on speculation and analogy, short on empirical research.

Love, Lust and Homo Sapiens by Caryl Rivers and Rosalind Barnett Los Angeles Times 02/14/05

What about the notion that men seek out very young, presumably fertile women? Many economists have noted that in these days when men's wages are flat or stagnant, their mating strategies are changing. More often they seek a woman who has completed her education. In fact, today, the more education a woman has, the more marriageable she is. Forty percent of married women earn more than their husbands, and studies show their marriages are as happy — and at least as stable — as those in which the male is the major breadwinner.

Men indeed do like good-looking women, but they don't have to be very young. In one experiment, when men were shown pictures of plain women in their 20s and more attractive women in their 30s and 40s, the men chose the good-looking older women. However, for men, beauty is not the prime ingredient in a mate. A worldwide study found that for both men and women, "kind and understanding" were the most sought-after traits in a mate.

And do women set their caps for older, wealthy men? No. In societies with a high degree of gender equality, where women have their own resources, they seek out men who are caring and able to bond with children, report psychologists Alice Eagly of Northwestern and Wendy Wood of Duke. In truth, what men and women look for most in a mate may simply be someone like themselves.

In the March 2005 Scientific American, Michael Shermer writes in his Skeptic column on "The Fossil Fallacy," a favorite of creationists.  (This column is usually made available online, but the Web site doesn't have the March issue available yet.)  He writes:

When I debate creationists, they present not one fact in favor of creation and instead demand "just one transitional fossil" that proves evolution. When I do offer evidence (for example, Ambulocetus natans, a transitional fossil between ancient land mammals and modern whales), they respond that there are now two gaps in the fossil record.

This is a clever debate retort, but it reveals a profound error that I call the Fossil Fallacy: the belief that a "single fossil"— one bit of data—constitutes proof of a multifarious process or historical sequence. In fact, proof is derived through a convergence of evidence from numerous lines of inquiry—multiple, independent inductions, all of which point to an unmistakable conclusion.

He expands on the point, referencing Richard Dawkin's The Ancestor's Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution (2004), which he recommends as "convergent science recounted with literary elegance."  He even says its "[o]ne of the finest compliations of evolutionary data and theory since Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species."

Shawn Kimbro provides an description of the phenemenon of "sleep paralysis": Letters, Oh We Get Letters! 02/07/05.  Responding to an inquiry from a reader, he says:

"Out of body" experiences like the ones you've described have been documented in sleep research. They are often associated with a sleep disorder called sleep paralysis and they sometimes occur in REM sleep.

It's normal for us to have no control over our muscles in REM.  But sometimes, for various reasons, our mind wakes up and our body remainsparalyzed. This can result in feelings like the ones you decscribed.  Since this has happened more frequently in recent weeks, you mightconsider speaking with your doctor about it.

The doctor would probably ask if you were under more stress than usual, or if you were sleeping less.  It's unusual to go into REM sleep immediately upon falling asleep, and that can sometimes be an indication of narcolepsy.

At least some of the reports that are interpreted by "UFOologists" as being a memory of being kidnapped by space aliens are very likely based on sleep disorders, including this one, that produce weird sensations or visual hallucinations.  A lot of them, of course, are just made up.

Noami Oreskes of the University of California-San Diego takes novelist Michael Crichton to task for siding with the "climate-change deniers" who are that global warming is unproven: 'Fear'-mongering Crichton wrong on science San Francisco Chronicle 02/16/05.

Climate scientists have been in agreement for some time that global climate change is real and happening now. We know that humans have changed the chemistry of Earth's atmosphere, most measurably through the addition of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossils fuels. We also know that these changes are having a detectable effect on Earth's climate. These are not speculations, guesses or predictions, but observations over which there is no significant scientific argument.

Moreover, given that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, and the theory of greenhouse gases is well established, it is nearly certain that a continued rise in carbon dioxide will lead to more changes: increased average temperatures, melting of polar ice (and a subsequent rise in sea levels), and, perhaps, an increase in floods, droughts and hurricanes. Finally, we know that the predicted changes could occur rapidly, giving both humans and nonhumans little time to adapt. Anyone who denies this has simply got the science wrong.

Also in the March 2005 Scientific American, astronomers Charles Lineweaver and Tamara Davis clear up some "Misconceptions About the Big Bang."  Ones that have been troubling me, and proabably a lot of others.  First of all, the Big Bang that beganthe universe wasn't like a lump of stuff exploding, it was all of space exploding.  And one of the lingering effects of that event is that galaxies are receding from the center of the universe at faster than the speed of light.

What, you thought Einstein's special theory of relativity ruled that out?  No, no, no, mis amigos.  "This is not a violation of relativity," they write, "because recession velocity is caused not by motion through space but by the expansion of space."  So let's not be talking trash about how galaxies can't recede faster than the speed of light, okay?  But since they're receding faster than the speed of light, we can't see them, right?  You know, the light waves have to get here, and so forth.  Wrong again!  They slow down after a while so we can see them!

And if you thought that light-wave thing meant that space couldn't be any bigger than 14 billion light-years in radius, the Big Bang having been 14 billion years or so ago, you're wrong about that, too.  Nope, the part of space we can see has a radius of more than 14 billion light-years.  So there!

And that expanding space is the reason there is a cosmic redshift, even though some people say it comes from receding galaxies that exhibit a Doppler shift.  Can you believe people actually would think that?  I mean, how out of it can you be?

And one last piece of disillusionment.  It's the universe that's expanding, y'all, not the stuff in the universe.  Swelled heads and expanding waistlines can't be blamed on the Big Bang.  So live with it.   I mean, you had to find out this stuff sooner or later, right?

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Chuckie Watch 89: Chuckie hearts America, except for all them Americans who hate America

Chuckie is really pretty bent. In the opening paragraph of Love It or Leave It 02/14/05, ole Chuckie gits philosophical and says:

I have never been a love it or leave it kind of guy. [!?!?!!] I’ve always felt that people who have disagreements about what’s going on in our country have a constitutional right and obligation for that matter to express their opinions and do their best to change things.

He then proceeds to explain why he thinks pretty much every Democrat is a traitor to America.

In the process, he indulges in what I've come to think of as the football-game theory of war, the idea that victory or defeat depends on how loudly and enthusiastically the fans in the stands cheer for their team. It doesn't work that way, of course. But Chuckie and the rest of the 101st Fighting Keyboarders would be hard to convince.

The only real answer to this kind of thing is to quote our esteemed Vice President's most famous line, "Go [Cheney] yourself." But we might as well look a little more closely at Chuckie's latest expression of Chistian love.

Chuckie also says that Ward Churchill, Chuckie's Evil Injun, "is an admitted anarchist."

Is Churchill an anarchist, "admitted" or otherwise? Beats me. Of course, we might wonder whether Chuckie considers anarchists to be Democrats, too. Or whether Chuckie has any idea what an anarchist is. It would be pretty entertaining to hear ole Chuckie explain the concept of the General Strike. Or recounting the history of the Wobblies.

Now, as we saw in Chuckie Watch 88, one of the things Chuckie says he don't like about America his own self is that "our nation is divided to the point of polarization." Now he's complaining that the Democrats were giving aid and comfort to The Terrorists during the State of the Union address when they booed Bush's lying claim that Social Security faces a crisis, or has WMDs, or whatever bogus phantom he was conjuring that day. Calling people traitors is generally a good way to polarize a discussion.

It's hard to know in individual cases whether this kind of contradictory way of thinking is cynical posturing or plain fanaticism. Possible clinical explanations aside, I'm leaning toward the pure fanaticism explanation in Chuckie's case. Here's Chuckie's own purple prose on the Dems at the State of the Union:

I’m sure that every two bit slime ball terrorist on the planet with access to satellite television took great pleasure and comfort in your display of juvenile antics trying to show just how much disdain you have for the Commander in Chief who has the gonads to take them on and try to make this nation a safer place to live.

Chuckie seems to be under the impression that reducing Social Security benefits is critical to the war against The Terrorists. And for what it's worth - nothing to Chuckie, I'm sure - the Consitution makes the president the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, not anyone else's. To quote the actual language of Article 2, "The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States."

I think Chuckie should just start calling him Dear Leader Bush.

Unfortunately, this kind of sleaziness of calling people traitors for not agreeing with Dear Leader on something or other, foreign-policy related or otherwise, is really off the map. But it's becoming more and more common for Republicans these days. And whatever quirks of personality may make it appealing for particular individuals like Chuckie, there is a larger reason for it, too.

For the national Republican Party today, the three most important groups setting the tone and the program for the party are the Christian Right, postsegregationist conservative Southern white guys, and secular authoritarian types like Cheney or Rumsfeld. Any one of those groups is likely to regard its political opponents not just as opposition or competition, but as a deadly danger. Mix them all together as in theBush dynasty's Republican Party today, and you've got a major party that can't be satisfied with just winning and passing its programs. It has to destroy its political enemies, discredit and humiliate them.

And as goofy as he is, Chuckie is unfortunately a pretty good example of the Nasty Southern White Guy portion of that coalition. He overlaps with the Christian Right, of course, but doesn't bother much with stick-in-the-mud preacher-style talk.

Other recent blog posts on the general theme of if-you-don't-cheer-for-Dear-Leader-you're-a-traitor theme:

Digby, The Company You Keep 02/16/05

Digby, Avowedly With Them 02/11/05

Kevin Drum, The Voice of the Right .... 02/16/05

Matt Iglesias,
Traitors Everywhere 02/16/05 He refers to Richard Hofstadter's The Paranoid Style in American Politics which I discussed back on 12/30/04.

David Neiwert,
The Apocalyptic One-Party State 10/10/04 (long).


Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Chuckie Watch 88: Chuckie's in almost-Heaven, except for all these here bad people around

Yep, Chuckie says Amurica is the best dang place in the whole world.  Probably in the whole material universe: A Better Place 02/11/05.  (Sorry, Chuckie's Web site has some wires - or at least links  - crossed, so I have to link to the queasy-making white-on-blue version instead of the more legible print version.)

But with all our shortcomings, all our flaws and all our faults, the United States of America is the most benevolent, the most progressive and the most compassionate nation on the face of God’s earth.

It is the envy of the planet, the only superpower, the overwhelming choice of immigrants and the pride and joy of those of us who love her.

I don’t claim to be a world traveler but I have visited over twenty countries in different parts of the world and I have never found one that can touch my America.

However there is a far better place than America. It’s called Heaven and when I leave the U.S.A. that’s where I want to go.

For some reason, this reminds me of a song that Nina Hagen wrote with Dee Dee Ramone, which I first heard in a tribute that Nina H did for the 1920s expressionist dance pioneer Anita Berber.  The chorus says:

Sometimes I feel like screaming
Sometimes you just can't win
Sometimes I feel like I was born
To die in your arms in Berlin

I guess the free-association connection here is that this kind of doofus "America the Beautiful" airhead-nationalist posturing is really a lot of hot air.  And the reality is that patriotism and the "sense of place" which gets so much emphasis among Southern writers are, at the same time, more simple and more complicated than Chuckie's blowhard-white-guy ramblings and rantings make them out to be.

And it's just mindless jingoism for Americans to be bragging that we are better than all them there foreigners and heathens and lesser peoples because the US is "the most benevolent, the most progressive and the most compassionate nation on the face of God’s earth."  Aside from the pomposity of it all, the problems with this kind of nonsense are too painfully obvious.  Are we the most benevolent country, when our regular foreign aid is far lower relative to the size of our economy than that of most nations when a comparable level of development?  (And a huge portion of what we do provide goes to Israel and Egypt in pursuit of fairly direct and immediate strategic goals.) 

Are we the most progressive nation in the world, with our death penalty, our money-dominated electoral process and "Florida-2000" style voting problems?  Is it really "the most compassionate nation on the face of God’s earth" that has set up systematic torture in a gulag of prisons from Abu Ghuraib to Guantanamo to Afghanistan?

Of course, the Oxycontin crowd doesn't give a [expletive deleted] about that stuff.  They're just repeating their jingo clichees.  And blasting their country constantly for the things they don't like.

And Chuckie is doing plenty of the latter, as those of us who follow his ranting faithfully know well.  In this particular rant, Chuckie finds plenty he don't like about "his" America, "the envy of the planet" and yadda, yadda.

For instance, Chuckie don't like: lying (Democratic) politicians; special (Democratic or labor) interests; "greedy business executives" (who get caught and embarass their Republican friends); Democratic judges; Political Correctness (as opposed to the Patriotic Correctness of Chuckie Thought); criminals and violent people (unless the violent people are dismembering and killing Evil Injuns or other people Chuckie don't like); (Democratic) lawyers; wimmin who git abortions; foreigners; separation of (the Christian) church and state; racism (i.e., how come these here blacks are so prejudiced against us white folks?); cities; national debt (Chuckie must have missed the part about borrowing a bizillion dollars to reduce Social Security benefits); and people who criticize Bush the Magnificent ("our nation is divided to the point of polarization").

And Chuckie says:

The judicial system routinely turns convicted child molesters back out on the street to practice their depravity on the helpless.

Uh, no, Chuckie, it doesn't.  And if your concern about this issue were more than an excuse to indulge your own violent fantasies, you would be aware of that.  The problem in that area is not judicial laxness, but catching perpetrators in the first place.  The last time I heard, the arrest rate for the most serious class of this type of crime, cases in which children are kidnapped and eventually murdered, was about 5%.  That means that only five out of every 100 cases result in an arrest.

But to get that arrest rate up to something closer to 95% or higher, it would require the proper type of police staffing, training and communications.  Speedy response immediately after the kidnapping is critical, both to catching the perps and saving their victims.  The courts can't act on the cases at all unless the police can first solve them.  People who only think about politics as a way to indulge their own angry fantasies or to promote a vigilante mentality just don't get too excited about expanded police training classes or upgrades to computer systems at police stations.

In Chuckie Watch 89, we'll take a look at people who Chuckie really don't like.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

The Rightly Guided Caliphs: ‛Umar

After Abū Bakr's death in 634, his formally designated successor Umar ibn al-Khaţţāb became caliph.  On the formal succession planning, Hans Küng in Der Islam (2004) writes, "One had learned something from the crisis after the death of the Prophet."

Umar (also called Umar I)set out to give greater emphasis to the Islamic nature of the caliphate.  He did this be selecting close associates of Muhammad for high governmental positions.  He also declared himself to be not only the Deputy of the Prophet but the Commander of the Faithful.  This combination bound him "as caliph with the traditional authority of the elected tribal leader and the new authority as the top official of the Muslim community." (Küng)  The elites of Mecca and Medina were still the dominant leadership group in the caliphate, and Medina was still the seat of the caliphate.

Umar built Abū Bakr's on the victory over Byzantium at Ağnādain in 634 by pressing the Muslim conquests further.  He seized the Syrian capital of Damascus in 635.  He took Jerusalem in 638; Byzantium would later recapture it, but could only hold it for a few years.  In 641, Muslim forces seized Egypt from the Byzantian Empire.  Byzantium continued as a power in Europe, but its eastern territories were now largely reduced to Anatolia (present-day Turkey).

In combat with the Sasanian (Persian) empire, ‛Umar seized their capital, Ctesiphon and other Persian cities including Isfahan.  His conquests extended as far as Aserbadjan.  Although the caliphate fought over various principalities for decades still, the great Sasanian Empire was destroyed by ‛Umar's forces.

How could the Muslims do it?

Küng stresses how remarkable it was that by the the time ‛Umar's death in 644, the two great empires of the area, Byzantium and the Sasanian Empire, were defeated and lost such large amounts of territory to the Muslim movement, whose existence dates from Muhammad's first revelations in 610.  Up until Muhammad, the Arab tribes were were a weak collection of tribes squeezed between the two great empires next to them.

Relying in particular on Fred McGraw Donner's 1981 Early Islamic Conquests, Küng thinks that the traditional Muslim historiography is basically right when they give credit to Islam as a motivating and unifying force which made possible this historically rapid and far-reaching shift in regional power relations.  The Islamic provided a common ideology and inspiration, and the political structures and leadership of Muhammad and the first two caliphs created a practical governmental form that made such conquests achievable by the heretofore scattered Arab tribes.

It's worth noting that Küng's reading of the role of the Islamic religion contrasts with that expressed by Karen Armstrong in her Islam (2000):

It is important, however, to be clear that when the Arabs burst out of Arabia they were not impelled by the ferocious power of "Islam." Western people often assume that Islam is a violent, militaristic faith which imposed itself on its subject peoples at sword-point This is an inaccurate interpretation of the Muslim wars of expansion. There was nothing religious about these campaigns, and Umar did not believe that he had a divine mandate to conquer the world. The objective of Umar and his warriors was entirely pragmatic: they wanted plunder and a common activity that would preserve the unity of the ummah. For centuries the Arabs had tried to raid the richer settled lands beyond the peninsula; the difference was that this time they had encountered a power vacuum. Persia and Byzantium had both been engaged for decades in a long and debilitating series of wars with one another. Both were exhausted. In Persia, there was factional strife, and flooding had destroyed the country's agriculture. Most of the Sassanian troops were of Arab origin and went over to the invaders during the campaign. In the Syrian and North African provinces of Byzantium, the local population had been alienated by the religious intolerance of the Greek Orthodox establishment, and were not disposed to come to their aid when the Arabs attacked, though Muslims could make no headway in the Byzantine heartlands of Anatolia.

Küng's book also deals with the weakness of the two large empires against which the Muslim armies were fighting.  But he gives a stronger weight to the contribution of Islam as such to making those conquests happen.  And I'm inclined to agree with him, at this stage of my own knowledge about that period.  And I'll even go out on a limb and speculate a bit about why Küng's reading differs from Armstrong's.

The main reason is probably that Armstrong is relying more on the Western liberal tradition of historiography.  To digress a bit, historians in the nineteenth century started giving much more weight than their predecessors to economic and social considerations in looking at the causes of wars.  And in the European context, the efforts to establish democratic institutions had to contend with the power of the institutionalized state Christian churches, both Catholic and Protestant.  Part of the result was that religious explanations for events, including the traumatic and extremely destructive Thirty Years' War (1618-1648), were given much more intensive scrutiny.

This tradition has carried over into present-day historiography, which tends to de-emphasize religious motivations in political conflicts and to view such expressed motivations as superficial justifications for deeper-lying causes.  And such caution in giving credence to official explanations for wars is certainly in order.  Americans in 2005 shouldn't really need any reminders about that, given what we know know about the nonexistent "weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq.

But religious belief is also an historical fact.  And today's accounts of the Thirty Years War are more willing to look at the religious conflicts that were involved.  In fact, the century following the Protestant Reformation saw the set of conflicts in Europe now known as the Wars of Religion and then the Thirty Years War, which began with the revolt of Bohemian Protestants (Bohemia is part of today's Czech Republic) in defense of their right to practice Protestantism.  It's also clear that other key events of the early modern period in Europe - the witch hunts, the settlement of the Americas, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 (yes, the same year that "Columbus sailed the ocean blue" financed the the Spanish "Catholic Monarchs" Ferdinand and Isabella), the Spanish Inquisition - clearly involved religious motivations, whatever other forces may also have been at work.  All of North America was first explored by Jesuit missionaries, the shock-troops of the Pope in the Counter-Reformation, because they were willing to go to the most God-forsaken corners of theNorth American wilderness to win the souls of the heathen savages for Jesus and the Catholic Church.

And a big part of Küng's approach is to try to take an honest and realistic look at the role religion plays in historical events.

I suspect another factor is that Karen Armstrong is trying hard to present the most benign face of Islam to her readers, especially in Islam, which is part of the Modern Library Chronicles series, which tries to provide readers with a brief and "popular" but substantial overview of the current state of scholarship in the various topics covered.  Don't get me wrong.  Armstrong is a serious and respected religious scholar, and I would highly recommend her books to anyone interested in Islam or the other subjects she covers.  And her ecumenical outlook certainly compatable with Hans Küng's.  In the passage I quoted, for instance, she's at pains not to give ammunition to those who try to paint Islam as a "violent religion."

But I do think on this particular question, Küng's view which gives much greater weight to the religious factor is the more realistic one.

But Küng also makes clear, as Armstrong does, that the Muslim expansion in this period was not a matter of, in her words criticizing such a view, "a violent, militaristic faith" imposing "itself on its subject peoples at sword-point "  In fact, Küng also gives credit to the Muslims' relatively accomodating attitude toward the conquered populations as an important factor in the successful expansion.  There was no question that the Muslim Arabs ruled in those situations, and the people of the conquered territories had to recognized their authority and provide tax revenue for them.  But they also did not force conversions among the conquered populations.  In fact, at this stage, conversions to Islam were not particularly welcomed, in part because non-Muslims had to pay taxes from which Muslims were exempt.  As he puts it:

Islam was understood at this time primarily as an Arab religion, a religion for Arabs.  And it was thought that it should remain so. ...

And the missionary-religious zeal to convert others?  The Arabs hardly developed any such thing.  There are nowhere reports [from either Muslim historians or Western ones] of the conversion of wholecities, villages or regions, and certainly  none of forced conversions.

Given Küng's ecumenical outlook, it's not surprising that he takes particular note of the fact that the new Muslim rulers were more tolerant of Jewish and dissident Christian communities and their religious observances than the previous Byzantine Christian empire had been.   He writes that Jews in Palestine as well as the Coptic Christians in Egypt and Nestorian Christians in Iraq experienced the new Muslim rule as a genuine improvement from the previous restrictions placed on them.  Muslims also allowed Jews to live in Jerusalem, which Byzantium had not.  The Muslims regarded adherents of other monotheistic religions - Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians - as "people of the book" who would be protected as long as they recognized Muslim political supremacy in the conquered lands.

The past isn't even past (as Faulkner once wrote)

The following is an interesting example of how the actions of the Rightly Guided Caliphs are used by contemporary Muslims to reflect on the Islamic approach to issues. The Taliban, the Buddhas, and Islamic Teaching by Azizah al-Hibri, (which has an annoying habit of not providing the dates for articles; this one is apparently from the first half of 2001).  She refers here to Umar as the third caliph, apparently counting Muhammad as the first, though normally Muhammad is not counted as a caliph.

For centuries, Islam has preserved and even maintained all prior cultural expressions, including the Egyptian Sphinx, the Persian Persepolis, ancient houses of worship belonging to other religions, and the pictures, images, artifacts and possessions housed in those sanctuaries. In fact, had it not been for Islamic protection, these structures and artifacts may not have survived. Khalifah 'Umar, a companion of the Prophet and the third Muslim Caliph, provides an excellent example. Upon entering Jerusalem in the seventh century, he prohibited the destruction of any Christian images or places of worship.

The point of reference was the plan of Aghanistan's former rulers, the Taliban, to demolish two historic giant statues of Buddha,a plan which they carried out.

Umar was killed in 644, as Küng puts it, "murdered by a, so it is said, discontented slave.  The "Successor to the Messenger of God"and the "Commander of the Faithful," violently killed by a slave!  That is for Muslims a shocking experience.  It would not remain the only political murder of a caliph ..." (The ellipse is Küng's.)

The traditional reading of Umar's death, which the Persian slave carried out in the mosque of Medina, was that it resulted from a personal grudge.  Küng clearly doesn't buy it.  He refers to explicitly as a "political murder."  Maybe that was an early version of what today we might call a "lone gunman" theory.  (Although I do believe that Oswald was acting alone, but that's a whole other discussion.)

There would be no question about the political nature of the ultimate fates of the final two Rightly Guided Caliphs.  And both the political and religious implications of them still reverberate in the world today.

See also Index to Posts on Hans Küng's Der Islam

Reading Aloud

Several years ago, I went to hear a reading from Moby Dick by the actor Patrick Stewart.  I was curious to hear him do it, because I thought he did a great job as the obsessed Captain Ahab in a mini-series film version of the story.

And I wasn't disappointed.  On the contrary.  It was like having Ahab there in person, speaking to us directly.

Something he said in his introduction has always stuck with me.  He said that he had heard that in the nineteenth century, people ordinarily to not read silently, but always read aloud, even when they were alone.  He said he didn't know if it was true, but he found the idea appealing.

I recently came across something related to this idea.  It seems that classical scholars tend to believe that in ancient Greece and Rome, people probably read aloud when they read.  But apparently there is a heavy amount of speculation involved.  One of the more substantial pieces of evidence is in Book 6 of St. Augustine's Confessions.  He writes of his observations as a young man of Bishop Ambrose.  And his description seems to imply that the practice of "reading to oneself", i.e., silently, was quite a novelty.  From the Edward Bouverie Pusey translation (1996):

With whom when he was not taken up, (which was but a little time,) he was either refreshing his body with the sustenance absolutely necessary, or his mind with reading. But when he was reading, his eye glided over the pages, and his heart searched out the sense, but his voice and tongue were at rest. Oft-times when we had come, (for no man was forbidden to enter, nor was it his wont that any who came should be announced to him,) we saw him thus reading to himself, and never otherwise; and having long sat silent, (for who durst intrude on one so intent?) we were fain to depart, conjecturing, that in the small interval, which he obtained, free from the din of others' business, for the recruiting of his mind, he was loath to be taken off; and perchance he dreaded lest if the author he read should deliver any thing obscurely, some attentive or perplexed hearer should desire him to expound it, or to discuss some of the harder questions; so that his time being thus spent, he could not turn over so many volumes as he desired; although the preserving of his voice (which a very little speaking would weaken) might be the truer reason for his reading to himself. But with what intent soever he did it, certainly in such a man it was good.

I guess in those days, saying someone "can't read without moving his lips" wouldn't have been considered an insult.

Ivan Illich also talks about the significance of reading aloud in his book Shadow Work (1981).  This particular passage can be found online: Books Henceforth Shall Be Seen and Not Heard.  It was originally published in CoEvolution Quarterly, apparently in 1980. 

Silent reading is a recent invention. ... Loud reading was the link between classical learning and popular culture.

Habitual reading in a loud voice produces social effects. It is an extraordinarily effective way of teaching the art to those who look over the reader's shoulder; rather than being confined to a sublime or sublimated form of self-satisfaction, it promotes community intercourse; it actively leads to common digestion of and comment on the passages read. In most of the languages of India, the verb that translates into "reading" has a meaning close to "sounding." The same verb makes the book and the vina sound. To read and to play a musical instrument are perceived as parallel activities. The current, simpleminded, internationally accepted definition of literacy obscures an alternate approach to book, print, and reading. If reading were conceived primarily as a social activity as, for example, competence in playing the guitar, fewer readers could mean a much broader access to books and literature.

Reading aloud was common in Europe before Nebrija's time. [The reference is to Elio Antonio de Nebrija, 1441-1522, author of an important grammar text to which Illich's essay is giving particular attention.] Print multiplied and spread opportunities for this infectious reading in an epidemic manner. Further, the line between literate and illiterate was different from what we recognize now. Literate was he who had been taught Latin. The great mass of people, thoroughly conversant with the vernacular literature of their region, either did not know how to read and write, had picked it up on their own, had been instructed as accountants, had left the clergy or, even if they knew it, hardly used their Latin. This held true for the poor and for many nobles, especially women. And we sometimes forget that even today the rich, many professionals, and high-level bureaucrats have assistants report a verbal digest of documents and information, while they call on secretaries to write what they dictate.

This is one of the rewards of reading Ivan Illich.  Aloud or silently.  He invites us to think about the development of everyday habits, how they have changed over time and how those changes affect the nature of social interaction.  The results are often surprising.

And it was a different experience hearing passages from Moby Dick read by Ahab, live on the stage.

The "Jeff Gannon" issue

John Aravosis and his AmericaBlog blog have been focusing heavily on this story. This post (A man called Jeff 02/14/05) includes a good summary of why that aspect of the story is not only legitimate but essential:

So in the end, why does this matter? Why does it matter that Jeff Gannon may have been a gay hooker named James Guckert with a $20,000 defaulted court judgment against him? So he somehow got a job lobbing softball questions to the White House. Big deal. If he was already a prostitute, why not be one in the White House briefing room as well?

This is the Conservative Republican Bush White House we're talking about. It's looking increasingly like they made a decision to allow a hooker to ask the President of the United States questions. They made a decision to give a man with an alias and no journalistic experience access to the West Wing of the White House on a "daily basis." They reportedly made a decision to give him - one of only six - access to documents, or information in those documents, that exposed a clandestine CIA operative. Say what you will about Monika Lewinsky - a tasteless episode, "inappropriate," whatever. Monika wasn't a gay prostitute running around the West Wing. What kind of leadership would let prostitutes roam the halls of the West Wing? What kind of war-time leadership can't find the same information that took bloggers only days to find?

None of this is by accident.

Someone had to make a decision to let all this happen. Who? Someone committed a crime in exposing Valerie Plame and now it appears a gay hooker may be right in the middle of all of it? Who?

Ultimately, it is the hypocrisy that is such a challenge to grasp in this story. This is the same White House that ran for office on a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. While they are surrounded by gay hookers? While they use a gay hooker to write articles for their gay hating political base? While they use a gay hooker to destroy a political enemy? Not to mention the hypocrisy of a "reporter" who chooses to publish article after article defending the ant-gay religious-right point of view on gay civil rights issue.

Actually, the Republicans in Mississippi did cook up a gay prostitution-related scandal against a Democratic candidate for governor years ago, which fortunately didn't keep the Democrat from being elected. This would be the same Mississippi state Republican Party whose current governor and at least some elected Republican officials are happy cozying up to the racist, anti-Semitic White Citizens Council group.

I should note that, so far as I'm aware, the notion that the White House is "surrounded by gay hookers" is hyperbole and a hypothetical.  Although, rereading that paragraph, I initially thought "While they use a gay hooker to destroy a political enemy?" was meant to be a hypothetical.  But he probably meant that to be a characterization of "Gannon's" having received a confidential CIA memo on Valerie Plame that supposedly cast doubt on her husband Joe Wilson's account of exactly how he was selected to investigate the "yellowcake from Niger" story in 2002.

Eric Boehlert at Salon has been covering the "Jeff Gannon" story: "Jeff Gannon's" secret life 02/15/05.

Most White House reporters obtain a permanent, or "hard," press pass only after passing an FBI background check, and only after first securing Capitol Hill credentials. Guckert was denied Hill credentials when the committee in charge of issuing them could not confirm Talon was a legitimate, independent news organization. Instead, Guckert, with the help of someone inside the White House press office, used a daily pass for nearly two years. Daily passes require only instant background checks, compared to the ones the FBI conducts for hard-pass applicants, which can take several months to complete.

According to Eberle, Guckert provided White House officials with his real name, which means they knew he was writing under a false one. White House officials refuse to discuss why they let Guckert in or what, if any, criteria they used to determine his qualifications. "We're trying to get more details about how this was done," says Mark Smith, vice president of the White House Correspondents Association.

Last week, Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., requested from McClellan all documents related to Guckert's press passes. "As you may know, Mr. Guckert/Gannon was denied a Congressional press pass because he could not show that he wrote for a valid news organization. Given the fact that he was denied Congressional credentials, I seek your explanation of how Mr. Guckert/Gannon passed muster for White House press credentials," Lautenberg wrote. On Monday, House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer noted, "This issue is important from an ethical as well as from a national security standpoint. It is hard to understand why a man with little real journalism experience was given a White House press corps credential."

Earlier Boehlert articles include:

Fake news, fake reporter 02/10/05
Giving "Gannon" a pass 02/11/05

Sunday, February 13, 2005

The (probably short) future of NATO

Rummy got over his travel jitters long enough to make the trip to Germany for the international Conference on Security Policy this weekend.  With a little reassurance from German officialdom: German Prosecutor Won't Pursue Rumsfeld Case by Daryl Lindsey Der Spiegel (English) 02/10/05.

For more than two months, a legal petition to investigate United States Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on war crimes charges connected to the Abu Ghraib torture scandal threatened to further strain relations between Berlin and Washington, where diplomats have been working overtime to patch up relations lately. The case made headlines again in recent weeks in the run-up to an annual Security Conference in Munich because Rumsfeld had threatened to sit out the meeting if the petition against him wasn't dropped.

On Thursday, Germany's federal prosecutor, Kay Nehm, said his office would not pursue the case. In his statement, Nehm said that German authorities could only pursue the allegations if US authorities refused to do so -- and currently, there is no evidence that they won't. The men accused of torture at Abu Ghraib are all American citizens, none of the victims are German, and the cases should either be tried in the US or the victims' own countries, Nehm's office said.

The article gives a good background on the issues at stake in this particular case.  The German prosecutor decided to "punt" (to use an American football metaphor), postponing rather than completely rejecting the notion of a prosecution of American officials over torture in the gulag.  And reading between the lines a little bit, the German government didn't seem to mind reminding Rummy that he might have to worry about being arrested for war crimes if he sat foot on German soil:

Though German politicians were outspoken in their criticism of the Abu Ghraib torture scandal, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's government, which has been working to smooth over German-US relations that soured in the run-up to the war in Iraq, had little appetite for the the divisive and negative publicity-generating petition. Many, too, were frustrated that it took so long for [the] Federal Prosecutor's Office to drop the case.

By "reading between the lines," I mean this, which is the diplomatic equivalent of crocodile tears:

"This has been a very uncomfortable incident for the German government," Gernot Erler, the deputy head of the Social Democrats in parliament, said in a phone interview from his home, "that has also, of course, caused a lot of irritation for the Americans. We regret that a decision wasn't made punctually enough to possibly have an influence on the Munich conference. But this is a constitutional country and we couldn't do anything about it. It was a question for the prosecutor and it surprised us it took so long to answer, since it does nothing but irritate." He added that any German has the right to file this type of case, but that it was "still regrettable."

Gosh, we're sorry we caused you any discomfort, Rummy!

I posted earlier about the initiation of this case.

Germany, NATO and the Bush administration

There have been lots of noises lately about better trans-Atlantic relationships.  Rummy was on apparently good behavior at the conference, although given Rummy's level of diplomacy, "good behavior" for him would be bull-in-the-chian-shop for most anyone else.  Germany even went so far as to look the other way when the US kidnapped a German citizen, Khaled el-Masri, in Macedonia as a suspected Al Qaeda member: Kräftiges Beben von Holger Stark und Georg Mascolo Der Spiegel 02/14/05.

But it's obviously a sticky point.

Andererseits kann es kein Staat der Welt einfach so hinnehmen, wenn eine fremde Nation seine Staatsbürger verschleppt, als wären sie vogelfrei. Doch als Außenminister Joschka Fischer öffentlich gefragt wurde, ob er den Fall Khaled el-Masri bei seinem Gespräch mit Außenministerin Condoleezza Rice angesprochen habe, knurrte er nur ungehalten: "Nein."

[Translation: On the other hand, no state in the world can simply accept it, if a foreign nation snatches it citizens, as though they were without national affiliations.  Yet when Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer was publicly asked whether the case of Khaled el-Masri was discussed in his talks with Foreign Minister [Secretary of State] Condoleezza Rice, he just growled indignantly: "No."]

But when it comes to the question of the Bush administration's view of NATO as a "farm team" (to use another sports metaphor) from which the US can pluck participants on demand for its "coalitions of the willing" for wars legal and otherwise, the German government isn't concealing all its differences: Schröder verärgert die Nato von Thomas Kirchner und Frank Nienhysen Süddeutsche Zeitung 02/13/05.

Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and Foreign Minister Fischer are calling for reforms in NATO.  Or, more precisely, they are calling for an expert commission to do a study and make recommendations for a reform, the classic bureacratic move to refer something to a commission or committee.  It seems pretty clear that, in fact, they are putting the Bush administration on notice that European nations (with the possible exception of Britain under Tony Blair) do not consider themselves military vassals of the United States.

Schröder hatte unter anderem gesagt, die Nato sei "nicht mehr der primäre Ort, an dem die transatlantischen Partner ihre strategischen Vorstellungen konsultieren und koordinieren". Einige Tagungs-Teilnehmer interpretierten dies als Abkehr Schröders von der Allianz.

[Translation: Schröder said, among other things, NATO is "no longer the primary place in which the transatlantic partners consult and coordinate on their strategic concepts."  Some conference participants interpreted this as Schröder's renunciation of the alliance.]

It wasn't quite a renunciation.  But its hard to see how the EU countries have a strong interest in remaining part of NATO at this point.  Under the Bush administration strategy of pursuing (in its more extreme version, at least) a series of wars of liberation in the Middle East, the US has much more of an interest in having the EU countries as willing partners under the NATO umbrella than the EU countries have in being under such an umbrella.  They're not interested in pursuing wars of liberation.

Britain has somewhat of a different situation, because it has integrated its armed forces' operations with those of the US to a far greater degree than other NATO partners.  But whether the British voters are as willing as Tony Blair to have British soldiers serve as hoplites for the Bush administration's wars of choice is highly unlikely.

Here is an English report on this issue: Debating NATO's Future in Munich Deutsche Welle 02/12/05.

In addresses to the annual Munich security conference, both German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was still a crucial institution at the core of the transatlantic security relationship.


"However, it is no longer the primary venue where transatlantic partners discuss and coordinate strategies," Schröder, who did not attend the conference due to illness, said in a speech read by his Defense Minister Peter Struck to top-level defense and security experts from around the world.


The German leader said there had been "strains, mistrust and even tensions" between the United States and the European Union in recent years and while a US troop presence in Europe was still of "political significance," it was no longer the security priority that it was during the Cold War.

It also mentions that Rummy thinks the "farm team" concept is just fine:

"Were you to reverse it and say the coalition defines the mission, that would have meant nothing would have happened in Liberia, if you're talking about that NATO coalition, or Haiti or any number of other activities," Rumsfeld said.

Rumsfeld, who coined the term "the mission defines the coalition" ahead of the US-led war on Iraq, made clear Saturday that this principle was still very much at the center of new US security thinking.

Rummy, by the way, momentarily relieved of worries of being arrested for war crimes, said he didn't see any need for any NATO reforms: "Natürlich wollen wir die NATO nicht abschaffen" Deutsche Welle 02/13/05.

The problem with "coalitions of the willing" as a grand strategy

Philip Gordon and Jeremy Shapiro defined the core weakness of the Bush-Rumsfeld notion of relying on ad hoc "coalitions of the willing" in their 2004 book Allies at War: America, Europe, and the Crisis Over Iraq:

The "if you build it, they will come" theory of coalition management that has been applied with such vigor and purpose by the Bush administration has the virtue of allowing quick and decisive action. But it requires that the coalition move from success to success. When even one setback occurs—and setbacks inevitably occur, as they already have in Iraq—the theory fails, and fails badly, because there is no reservoir of legitimacy and consent to see the coalition through hard times. Not to do the minimum necessary to ensure that Europeans remain positively disposed to American aims—or worse, to actually provoke Europe into playing a sort of "balancing" role—would be to squander the potential advantages of a position of strength.

In the past, the United States maintained a sort of "European empire" so successfully because it was an "empire by invitation" as historian Geir Lundestad puts it: The United States was predominant in European affairs because Europeans wanted it to be. Today, that feeling remains strong among many European governments, but European publics are less certain. U.S.-European cooperation is sustained by the conscious decision of most European governments to defy domestic public opinion in the interests of maintaining an alliance with the United States.

It's hard to see how NATO can survive the current sharp divergence of perceived interests between the US and Europe.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

What have the Republicans done for us lately?

Well, they're making good progress on chipping away (or slicing, or maybe even chopping away) the independent press in the US.

The following articles taken together are a sad commentary on the extent to which authoritarianism continues to extend its hold over Republican Party thinking these days. Josh Marshall reports (02/07/05) on how the party is taking "working the ref" to a new level. They have their lawyers ("trial lawyers"?) threatening legal action to stop from criticizing Dear Leader's Social Security phase-out proposal.

For decades now, the Republicans have railed about the Liberal Press! Liberal Press! Liberal Press! The result has been that reporters now bend over backward to avoid accusations of "liberal bias." All the while, we have more and more cable and radio outlets with conservatives screaming, "Liberal Press! Liberal Press! Liberal Press!"

Marshall points us to a story on how the Reps have their lawyers ("trial lawyers"?) threatening legal action to stop from criticizing Dear Leader's Social Security phase-out proposal.

Combine that with Joe Conason's look at Totalitarian Scribblers Salon 01/27/05, which analyzes the payola-to-pundits scandal, and with this reminder of past misdeeds from Eric Alterman in his 02/07/05 blog post (scroll down to "Here is another figment").

Together, they give a pretty good sense that the Republican hardliners won't be satisfied until every news outlet is a clone of party-line Fox News, all of them blaring, "Liberal Press! Liberal Press! Liberal Press!"

To quote Conason:

It is remarkable that Williams and Gallagher, who claim to understand why democracy and freedom are superior to tyranny, don't fully understand why pundit payola is so repugnant. American journalists don't take money from the politicians they cover because we don't live in a totalitarian regime where state-subsidized scribblers are expected to glorify the Beloved Leader.

Yet that's essentially what Williams and Gallagher did. While quietly taking money from the Bush administration, they promoted the president and his party, as well as his policies, while denigrating the opposition. Their misconduct gives off a nauseating whiff of totalitarianism that should outrage any honest conservative.

The Ward Churchill flap

For some reason, conservatives for decades have nursed the notion that American colleges and universities are crawling with Marxist professors. Anyone half-familiar with US universities and not totally spaced out on Oxycontin knows what a joke that is!

But Ward Churchill, the guy ole Chuckie was grumping about the other day, has become a poster boy for the rightwingers of what they would like to think liberals and "the Left" are about. This is related to the press issues I just mentioned, and I'll get to that.

James Wolcott, in the process of sending up Signal Flares 02/07/05, points us to this long and thoughtful post by Digby on W Churchill: Witnessing History 02/06/05. Digby writes with weary irony:

I realize that we soulless, decaying leftists are supposed to step up and repudiate him (or maybe tie him up and throw him in water to see if he floats) but I'm just too tired. Since I'd never heard of the guy before the right raised him to the status of leftwing icon I don't really feel like I have much of a stake in his allegedly treasonous three year old book. Anyway, I'm still busy disavowing Jane Fonda and and Joseph Stalin, my personal role models.

This makes me think that it would probably be a pretty painful thing to hear today's Republican zealots try to describe just what was wrong with Stalin. Most of them would probably make him sound like Bill Clinton with a moustache. But I digress.

Wolcott has a few thoughts himself. In the following quote, I should explain that some rightwingers have decided that the film by director Clint Eastwood, former Republican elected official, Million Dollar Baby, is somehow Patriotically Incorrect or otherwise sinful, I forget just how. Maybe there was a picture of Spongebob Squarepants in there somewhere that I just didn't catch. Also the Michael Medved he mentions is a former liberal who know goes around endlessly repenting for his blindness and general mistakenness during his much-regretted liberal years.

If there's anything positive to be gleaned from the Ward Churchill hooga-booga, it's that the Right seems to be wandering farther afield to pounce upon ever flimsier and more obscure "outrages." Ward Churchill is a pale spectre compared to the juicy target of Michael Moore, and the phony uproar over Million Dollar Baby is a desperate attempt to plug the Oscar Hollywood Liberal Controversy Gap now that Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 and Mel Gibson's The Passion of Michael Medved have been eliminated from the best-picture steel-cage deathmatch category. And, of course, the Super Bowl was so carefully sterilized that it gave the praying mantises nothing to waggle their antenna about this morning. If the cultural-values conservatives ever succeed in cleaning up culture, they won't know what to do with themselves since it was never culture they were interested in anyway. The cultural conservatives of decades past actually read T. S. Eliot, Irving Babbitt, F. R. Leavis, and other custodians of tradition. Today's cult-cons scrutinize cartoons for butt-cracks and tabulate penis references in sitcoms, and then wonder why no one wants to sit next to them in the sauna.

Since the guardians of Patriotic Correctness have made him a nationally-known figure for a few days, I heard Churchill on C-Span Wednesday night. I don't usually vege out in front of C-Span, but I did for a while then and listened to the guy speak, from the Univerisity of Colorado earlier this week.

I'm not impressed with his analysis of the world. I can see how people might mistake him for a leftwinger, because he talks about sympathizing with the Third World and talks about various nasty things Americans have done since the day they started being Americans, if not before.

But if you ever have one of those geeked-out moments where you find yourself wandering around the public library - yes, I confess, it does happen to me sometimes - see if you can find a copy of one of the book The Dynamics of War and Revolution by Lawrence Dennis, who in the 1930s was the leading American theorist of fascism. He also seems to be railing against the aggressive and warlike tendencies of the American past.

The American admirers of Hitler, Dennis one of the more prominentm among them, were eager to complain about the "warmongering" tendencies of Franklin Roosevelt, because they had an immediate interest in having the US not stand in the way of the march of Nazi progress in Europe. But besides that particular perspective, just listing a string of atrocities and injustices in the past is not the same thing as opposing them. Dennis and his type were glad to have people think that war and aggression and genocidal killing were as all-American as apple pie.

And hearing Churchill's speech reinforced by early suspicion that I discussed in an earlier post, that his brand of Third-World-romanticist ethnic-nationalism is closer to a rightwing viewpoint than to anything "left", much less "liberal." (Someday I'll do a post about the difference in the European and American meanings of "liberal," which will be sure to give a headache to any of Dear Leader Bush's admirers who wade through it.)

I don't want to pigeonhole him too much. Maybe he is "left" in some reasonable definition of the word. But his description of the Palestinian situation just reinforced my earlier suspicion that he's encouraging something that sounds a lot like a Jewish-conspiracy view of the world. And the thing I mentioned in the post I just linked, his take on the German Historikerstreit controversy and the weird but intense scorn he directed at several well-known critics of the Holocaust denial pseudohistory make me think he basically has a rightwing ethnic-nationalist viewpoint.

Having said all that, though, in his speech that C-Span carried, he certainly seemed to be intelligent and articulate. And he did describe his view of American collective guilt for various problems in the world that was at least coherent enough for me to be able to articulate why I reject it. And the basic reason is that collective guilt is essentially a meaningless concept. While it's absolutely true, for instance, that the blowhard fools who dismiss the torture scandal as just frat-boy entertainment are contributing to the political climate that makes such a thing possible.

But while regular citizens people who defend torture in the gulag are jerks for doing so, there's a huge difference in saying that that Joe and Jane Voter have a responsibility to think about such things seriously and saying they are guilty of the acts in the way that Donald Rumsfeld, Alberto Gonzales, and others in the line of command down to the torturers themselves are guilty. It's a very short step from "everyone is guilty" to "no one is guilty."

I'm not sure how we could define even collective responsibilty, much less guilt, for the way the Dutch took Manhatten Island from the Indians there, a topic which Churchill touched on in his talk. But real crimes are being committed today in the torture scandal and a number of other areas, and the individuals actually involved in those crimes need to be brought to justice for their actual deeds. Blurring that responsibility into some vague notion of collective guilt just helps criminals get away with things no one should get away with.

But what ties this to the press issues I started off with is that academic freedom, and freedom of speech generally, mean that it's okay for people to say even damn fool things, as long as everyone else if free to say what a damn fool thing it is. And trying to get him fired for expressing what is a controversial opinion would be a bad precedent. A lot of the talk from politicians about how he should be fired reminds me an awful lot of the McCarthy era. And an awful lot of the segregation era in the South.

And though they've seized on some of Ward Churchill's bad taste in phrasing, especially the "little Eichmanns" notion, the real target of the criticism seems to be an attempt to demonize the idea that American policy has anything to do with the terrorist threat. The Bush hardliners prefer to have people think that "they hate us for our freedom" or something similar, that The Terrorists are motivated by irrational and unquenchable opposition to the United States that amounts to mental illness or Evil against Good. Good against Evil is a prescription for endless conflict, endless arms races, endless military interventions. But if American policy can be changed in ways that affect the support for jihadist groups, a world of less conflict and less fear would be possible.

However faulty his formulation of his message and however off-putting his rhetoric is, Ward Churchill is asking people to look at the ways that American policy generates violent hostility to the US. It's a discussion that should be encouraged, not suppressed.


Science Friday: *Vespertilio-homo* on the moon

Back in August of 1835, the New York Sun newspaper announced a remarkable and historic scientific discovery.  A famous astronomer, John Herschel, son of the astronomer credited with discovering the planet Uranus, had observed life on the moon.

An account of this particular hoax appears in "Paper Moon" by Paul Maliszewski Wilson Quarterly Winter 2005.  References to it can be found various places online, though not Maliszewski's article.  For instance:

The Great Moon Hoax by Alex Boese, Museum of Hoaxes (2002)
Fooling the Masses: Astronomer Sees the Moon's Bat-men by Fred Fedler (1989)
The Moon Hoax by Donald Simanek (undated) has reproductions of some of the drawings illustrating the tale.
The Great Moon Hoax of 1835 by R.J. Brown,

The moon had a number of interesting creatures on it, it seems: frolicking blue goats, bison, raindeer, minuature zebra, and much more.  Most interesting of all were the humanoid creatures observed at some length by Herschel's super-telescope:

These beings, who averaged four feet in height and had yellow faces and shocks of copper-colored hair on their heads, flew with the aid of long, thin, almost translucent wings, which they could fold neatly behind them. The scientists likened their wings to those of bats, and named the Lunarians Vespertilio-homo, Latin for man-bat. The man-bats' "attitude in walking," the Herschel team reported, "was both erect and dignified." They lived in pastoral bliss, spending "their happy hours in collecting various fruits in the woods, in eating, flying, bathing, and loitering about on the summits of precipices." Locke lavished many words on the happiness of his creations. The man-bats, for example, whose beaut}' "appeared in our eyes scarcely less lovely than the general representations of angels by the more imaginative schools of painters." lived without apparent strife. "The universal state of amity among all classes of lunar creatures, and the apparent absence of every carnivorous or ferocious species, gave us the most refined pleasure, and doubly endeared to us this lovely nocturnal companion of our larger, but less favored world."

But, it was all fake.  According to Maliszewski, it was the papers head writer Richard Locke who cooked up the story.  John Herschel was a real astronomer, one element that lent credibility to the hoax.  When Herschel himself finally heard about the hoax in South Africa, he seemed to be more amused than outraged by it.

This story was reportedly widely believed for a while, much like, say, Judith Miller's New York Times articles about WMDs in Iraq, to take a similar example from just a couple of years back.

Wednesday, February 9, 2005

Chuckie Watch 87: Chuckie tells us about "real men"

Yep, two Chuckie Watches in one day!  Chuckie Thought is a gift that keeps on giving.

Besides admiring the guys in uniform at the Super Bowl, Chuckie's also been thankin' about Real Men 02/05/05.  But, heck far, we cain't define a "real man" without gettin' a bad woman into the picture, now can we, Chuckie?

I believe that a real man is always kind and courteous to the opposite sex. I know that opening doors for ladies or taking your hat off in their presence is not considered PC by the feminist crowd these days but to a lot of men it just comes natural and is a sign of respect not condescension.

You know, I've heard guys whining about this my entire adult life.  And I've actually run into quite a few feminists who we could safely describe as "strident."  But I've never heard a single one of them complain about the American custom of (as Miss Manners would say) gentlemen opening the doors for ladies.

This is one of them ole Southern "heritage" thangs that guys like Chuckie like to "honor."  That's dismissing something serious by reducing it to an issue of superficial manners.  As in, "I don't have anything against the nigras saying they ought to be allowed to vote.  But they shouldn't be so rude about it!"

But I may be the only guy that I know that this has really happened to, and more than once.  But not for the reason Chuckie's whinin' about.  My wife is from Austria. The conventional manners there calls for the gentlemen to enter a house or a building first with the lady following, and for the lady to leave the house first with the man following.

So for quite a while, until she got used to the frontier customs here in America, my wife would get irritated when I would hold the door for her to enter a house or a restaurant or whatever.  But not because she was promoting some counter-culture manners or something.  It was because she thought I was being rude or tacky in not following the conventional manners she was used to on that.

Sorry, Chuckie, I thank you may be misunderstandin' what's happening.  Maybe those were Austrian women who got irritated that you were opening a door for them.  Or, you know, if you smirk and say, "After you, little lady,"while you're holding the door, that might not go over so well, either.

Chuckie also thanks that "real men" have to be kind to children.  As we know, ole Chuckie is worried about child abuse, at least as long as it gives him the chance to fantasize about various ways an Evil Person can be tortured and killed.

I wonder what Chuckie thanks about his fellow Chrisitan fundamentalists who sell instruments online to help discipline children in the spare-the-rod-spoil-the-child philosophy: Christian crusaders go to battle over spanking: Tools of discipline horrify some of faithful San Francisco Chronicle 02/06/05.

To raise a child, one needs three invaluable allies: the Bible, the help of an extended family and "biblical-based resources" -- 9-inch-long spanking paddles of blue polyurethane, according to Steve Haymond from Bakersfield, who sells the paddles online for $6.50 apiece.

Twyla Bullock, in Eufaula, Okla., swears by the Rod -- a 22-inch, $5 white nylon whipping stick her husband designed and produced until recently. Named after the biblical "rod of correction," the Rod provides "a faith-based way to discipline children ... and train them as Christians," Bullock explains.

Obviously, not everyone thinks that's the ideal Christian approach.  But I wonder if that counts in Chuckie's view as being unkind to children.

Now, this may be a sign that I've become a jaded Californian.  But, you know, I just bet that not everyone who orders spanking paddles and nylon whipping sticks online is planning to use them for training their children.

Yep, that's ChuckieWorld:  Chuckie performing at the Super Bowl with breasts safely covered, feminists with bad manners, elaborate dismemberment fantasies, and spanky-spank for Jesus. 

Hmmm, it makes you think doesn't it?  I mean, Chuckie, Janet Jackson, paddles, nylon switches ... Can't you see Chuckie saying, "Janet, I've been a bad boy"?  No, no, I can't go there.  I'll give myself nightmares!

Chuckie Watch 86: Chuckie, the Super Bowl and guys in uniform

So, Chuckie got to play at the Super Bowl this year!  I hear he done good, too.  I didn't watch the pregame show.  Gretchen Wilson that played with him is really a good singer.  Her song "Redneck Woman" even mentions ole Chuckie.

I guess since the Super Bowl had to show it was more moral this year, after Janet Jackson's famous appearance last year, they figured Chuckie would be a safe choice for sure.  A bearded boop instead of a nekkid boob?  (And she had a pastie on, it wasn't really a nekkid boob anyway.)

In fact, Chuckie wrote a pregame blurb about his appearance Hats Off To Jacksonville Florida  02/07/05.  Yes, I know that was the day after the game.  But, you know, Chuckie's not really down with this whole "e-speed" business.  He seemed to be much more excited about seeing all the security and guys in uniforms and stuff than he was about appearing with Gretchen Wilson:

Of course we had rehearsals Friday and Saturday for our Super Bowl performance, which required a lot of moving around in a town which has been locked down tighter than a drum, with streets closed and barriers blocking entrances. ...

This is all post 9-11 security and absolutely neccessary. ...

Since the stadium is right on the water, the local police, the Coast Guard and even the border patrol have boats patrolling the Saint John’s River.

There is said to be a forty-mile no fly zone around the stadium but that doesn’t apply to the surveillance planes and fighter jets securing the airspace.

Heck, after a couple of more years of the Bush dynasty in power, and they may invite Chuckie to do the halftime show by just standing there and ranting to the crowd about how everybody has to obey Dear Leader Bush along with detailed descriptions of the ways that enemies of the State should be dismembered.

That's not so far-fetched, y'all.  One of the key moments in the buildup to the treasonous riots that Mississippi officials and private goons staged against the integration of the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) in 1962 was an appearance by Governor Ross Barnett at Ole Miss football game and ranting to the crowd about defending Mississippi's sacred right to persecute blacks.  Here's an account from some admiring white-supremicist hate site,

[In 1962] Minority James Meredith is forced into the University of Mississippi at bayonet point by President John F. Kennedy. The entire State of Mississippi rebels. The Confederate flag is central to the protests against oppression by minorities, tyranny by government officials and intrusion by communist-instigated agitation. Clean-cut, all-American youth raise their fists -- and their flags -- in defiance. Governor Ross Barnett, in Mississippi's Finest Hour, waves his own Confederate flag at the Ole Miss football game. In one of the most dramatic events in history, Barnett declares: "I love Mississippi. I love her customs. I love her people." Observers say that every white man in the state would have laid down his life at that very moment for freedom.

One of Chuckie's most famous songs says, "Be proud you're a Rebel 'cause the South's gone do it agin."

So, don't be surprised at Super Bowl 2007 if ole Chuckie's there channelling Ross Barnett.

The Rightly Guided Caliphs: Abū Bakr

The first of the "rightly guided caliphs" was Abū Bakr, who had been one of Muhammad's earliest followers.  Like his three successors in the caliphate, he was considered one of the "Companions of the Prophet."  His rule lasted only two years (632-634).  But his two years were very important in establishing the instituiton of the caliphate and in holding the Arab tribes together while expanding the power of the Muslims with new conquests.

Abū Bakr's daughter ‛Ā'iša was one of Muhammad's wives, making Abū Bakr the Prophet's father-in-law.  Though the partisans of Άli, the fourth caliph, would later claim that Muhammad had designated Άli as his successor, there was no clear process or public declaration of a mode of succession.  Muhammad had selected Abū Bakr to be in charge of his final pilgrimage to Mecca and had designated him an "imām," or leader of prayer, shortly before he died.  He was also from the Quyrash tribe and was one of the "emigrants" who had followed Muhammad to Mecca in the hiğra.

Whatever Muhammad's intention, Abū Bakr took on the leadership role, which he evidently assumed peacefully with no major opposition.

Hans Küng in Der Islam (2004) calls atention to a couple of distinctive aspects of the caliphate at this stage:

(1) The caliph was seen as the deputy of the Prophet, not as a leader by virtue of any direct divine revelation.  "There was no longer any self-renewing legitimation by new divine revelations."

(2) The establishment of the caliphate represented the substitution of a leadership office for the charismatic leadership the Prophet had exercised.

The caliph became the political leader, but the Prophet himself was still seen as the religious leader.  Abū Bakr declared that he sought to emulate the "sunna," the exemplary standard set by Muhammad.  The "sunna" also referred to the Prophet's relatives, who initially carried on an important religious function in the community.  As Küng says, the Qur'ān, the collection of Muhammad's divine revelations, became "in the long run the ultimate religious (but indirectly also the political) authority."

Hans Küng takes the conventional Sunni viewof the meaning of the caliphal title.  But Patricia Crone in God's Caliph (1986) argues that the title used by the rightly guided caliphs and the Umayyads was khalifāt Allāh, or deputy of God.  She says that during the Άbbasid caliphate, the title khalifāt rasūl Allāh, or successor of the messenger of God, also came to be used.  In traditional Sunni historiography, the rightly guided caliphs were said to have used khalifāt rasūl Allāh, and that it was the first Umayyad caliph Mu'āwiya I who first adopted khalifāt Allāh.  But she discounts this, arguing that the evidence indicates that the rightly guided caliphs used it, as well.  This title would imply a greater authority to speak on religious matters than the khalifāt rasūl Allāh title.

Abū Bakr continued to unite the Arab tribes, including Beduins who began to fall away from the Muslim umma (community) after the Prophet's death.  And he led them in successful military drives against neighboring tribes.  Most of Arabia was thus brought into the Islamic camp.  And Abū Bakr led the first Muslim war against the Byzantine Empire, which ended in Muslim victory at the battle of Ağnādain in 634.

See also Index to Posts on Hans Küng's Der Islam

Sunday, February 6, 2005

The bombing of Dresden

Der Spiegel's English site recently carried a story that gives a good glimpse at one way the politics of remembering the Second World War plays out in Germany, in this case in connection with the bombing of Dresden on February 13, 1945: A War of Words 02/02/05.

The firebombing of Dresden presents some unusual twists.  Many American readers know it from Kurt Vonnegut's novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, which tends to present it as unnecessary excesss.  After the war, the Soviets and their client regime in East Germany condemned the bombing of Dresden as an example of British and American savagery, even though the USSR was fully in support of the strategic bombing campaign during the wartime alliance against Nazi Germany.

Those who want to rehabilitate Germany's role in the Second World War, in the sense of minimizing Germany's blame for causing the war, also tend to focus on the bombing in general and the firebombing of Dresden in particular as a way of depreciating the Allies.

And Holocaust deniers use the bombing, especially of Dresden, as some kind of balance against Hitler's campaign of murder against Jews.  Their argument suggests or outright claims that the killing of Jews was in retaliation for the bombing of Germany civilians.  Also, in a contradiction of a kind not uncommon among extremists groups, they minimize the number of Jewish victims and exaggerate the numbers of deaths in Dresden.

"The Bombing of Dresden" section (click on "The Judgment" and then Part XI) of the judge's report in the failed lawsuit of Holocaust denier David Irving against author Deborah Lipstadt,  and how Irving uses it, gives a lot of historical material about the bombing of Dresden, and also about what an ideological football it's become, particularly in the dark corner of thought known as Holocaust denial: 

The Spiegel article gives this background:

The spectacular firestorm caused by the carpet bombing left Dresden, long known as "Florence on the Elbe" because of its splendid Baroque architecture, in ruins, officially killing at least 30,000 people. The exact number will always be the subject of great debate and some estimates count tens of thousands more deaths. There is no doubt that the horror was a tragedy of terrible dimensions, but wasit an act of vengeance on the part of the British and Americans for the Nazi bombings of Britain or was the decision to attack born out of the perception of military necessity?

One prominent argument is that it was a needless act on the part of the British at a point when the Germans were retreating on many fronts and the Russians had already crossed the Oder River into Germany. The other, most recently proffered by British historian Frederick Taylor is that the Allies saw in Dresden an important communications and transportation hub from which supplies and troops were being sent to the eastern front, where the Soviet Army was suffering heavy troop losses. The latter, one could argue, would make Dresden a legitimate military target. Residents of Dresden, indeed, across Germany, remain divided between these theses as the 60th anniversary of the Dresden firebombing approaches.

My own view is that within the context of the "strategic bombing" campaign, Dresden was a legitimate military target.  It's also worth noting, especially since it has become a common criticism of the Allies that not enough was done to interfere with the Nazi killing of Jews, that Dresden at the time was a key transit point for Hungarian Jews being shipped to Auschwitz.  But, as destructive as the bombing was, the shipment of Jews from Dresden to Auschwitz resumed very quickly. 

I have larger concerns about the whole strategic bombing campaign in the Second World War.  The Army's own survey after the war found that the bombing had actually achieved little in terms of its military aim to interfere with critical war production.  John Kenneth Galbraith, who was part of that survey himself, explained in his famous book The Affluent Society, first published in 1958, that the bombing may have been actually counter-productive in that sense.  The bombing destroyed so many businesses not directly related to military production that it freed up a huge number of people to work in the armaments industry.

Der Spiegel also provides this article from Salon on  Dresden: "Dresden: Tuesday, Feb. 13, 1945" by Frederick Taylor by Laura Miller 02/02/05.  The Salon original appeared there 03/01/04.

And speaking of Salon, they just published a review of Deborah Lipstadt's book on the David Irving lawsuit: Shilling for Hitler by Charles Taylor 02/07/05.  In that article, Taylor notes:

Gray [the judge in the Irving lawsuit]handed down a decision that, to anyone sentient and breathing, ended the myth of David Irving as a historian. In his judgment, Gray not only said that Irving was an "antisemite" and a "racist" but that his "falsification of the record was deliberate and ... motivated by a desire to present events in a manner consistent with his own ideological beliefs even if that involved distortion and manipulation of historical evidence."