Day By Day

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Playing With My New Toy -- Camera Bloggery

"She Who Must Not Be Named," for reasons too complicated to explain, gave me my birthday gift a bit early this year. It's a new camera! Joy, joy!

"She" had noted that I've been taking pictures everywhere I go and decided that I could do with some decent equipment instead of the silly little "point and click" pocket camera I currently use. (I know, I know..., what counts is the photographer, not the equipment.)

I had been thinking along much the same lines and had even consulted with some commercial photographers, one of whom used to work for National Geographic. All of them said much the same thing. The Nikon D-50 is an excellent starter camera. Don't go overboard on equipment. Stay away from the professional gear until you really know what you are doing. You know, the standard stuff.

So, I am now the proud possessor of a new Nikon and am beginning to explore its potential. Here's one of my first attempts using the 18-55 Nikkor lens bundled with the camera. It's certainly not what I see in my mind's eye, but it is a big improvement over the point and shoot I've been using.

On What Do Economists Agree?

Hat Tip, Greg Mankiw [original article behind subscription screen]. Read his summary here.

A survey of members of the American Economic Association shows some interesting areas of agreement:
  • 90.1 percent disagree with the position that "the U.S. should restrict employers from outsourcing work to foreign countries."
  • 87.5 percent agree that "the U.S. should eliminate remaining tariffs and other barriers to trade."
  • 85.2 percent agree that "the U.S. should eliminate agricultural subsidies."
  • 85.3 percent agree that "the gap between Social Security funds and expenditures will become unsustainably large within the next fifty years if current policies remain unchanged."
  • 77.2 percent agree that "the best way to deal with Social Security's long-term funding gap is to increase the normal retirement age."
  • 67.1 percent agree that "parents should be given educational vouchers which can be used at government-run or privately-run schools."
  • 65.0 percent agree that "the U.S. should increase energy taxes."
Note that this professional consensus constitutes a ringing endorsement of major themes advanced by the Bush administration: promoting free trade and economic globalization; fixing social security; and choice in education, all of which the Democrat Party currently opposes.

The only Democrat proposal among those with majority support among professional economists is an increase in energy taxes and that is opposed by one-third of the economists surveyed.
The Democrats' signature policy proposal, raising the minimum wage, was approved by only 37.7 percent of the economists, while nearly half [46.8 percent] wanted to eliminate the minimum wage altogether.

Yet the dominant political mood in this country, certified in the recent elections, runs directly counter to the recommendations of the experts. Expect a Democrat majority in Congress to push for economic policies that the experts agree will be economically debilitating at best, and potentially catastrophic.

If the Bush administration, which to date has had a superb economic record, cannot stand tough against the Democrats, there will be bad days ahead for us all.

Run Newt Run!

It looks as if Newt Gingrich is running for President. I certainly hope so! Not because I want him to win, that would be disastrous for the country, but because he thinks long and seriously about important issues and has the audacity to actually give voice to important questions that have to be confronted in these dangerous times. We are seriously in need of a broad national dialogue that challenges many of the fundamental assumptions that have characterized our political culture for the past half century. Newt can be counted on to raise those kinds of issues and, if he is a serious contender for the Republican nomination, it will be impossible to ignore them. This next Presidential go-round could be the most interesting campaign in decades, and Newt's the kind of guy who could make it such.

Consider, for instance, his most recent argument on first amendment rights. He notes that we live in times when enemies are openly plotting to commit acts of mass destruction; when the instuments of mass destruction are increasingly available; and when the free global exchange of information, capital, people, and materials makes us more vulnerable than at any time in the past. In such times, he suggests, we might need to rethink our current understanding of first amendment rights.
This is a serious, long-term war," the former speaker said, according an audio excerpt of his remarks made available yesterday by his office. "Either before we lose a city or, if we are truly stupid, after we lose a city, we will adopt rules of engagement that use every technology we can find to break up their capacity to use the Internet, to break up their capacity to use free speech, and to go after people who want to kill us to stop them from recruiting people.
Or this proposal to push for major changes in the international law of warfare:
We should propose a Geneva Convention for fighting terrorism, which makes very clear that those who would fight outside the rules of law, those who would use weapons of mass destruction, and those who would target civilians are, in fact, subject to a totally different set of rules that allow us to protect civilization by defeating barbarism before it gains so much strength that it is truly horrendous.
Read it here.

These are the kinds of hot-button issues that most candidates would run from, but Newt joyfully engages them and in doing so forces us to pay attention to them. I don't necessarily agree with him, and I certainly don't plan to vote for him, but I sure hope he runs and runs strong.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Legal Pluralism

In case your attention had wandered, a reminder; this is what we are fighting against.

The Independent reports:

The gunmen came at night to drag Mohammed Halim away from his home, in front of his crying children and his wife begging for mercy.

The 46-year-old schoolteacher tried to reassure his family that he would return safely. But his life was over, he was part-disembowelled and then torn apart with his arms and legs tied to motorbikes, the remains put on display as a warning to others against defying Taliban orders to stop educating girls.

Mr Halim was one of four teachers killed in rapid succession by the Islamists at Ghazni, a strategic point on the routes from Kabul to the south and east which has become the scene of fierce clashes between the Taliban and US and Afghan forces.


Fatima Mushtaq, the director of education at Ghazni, has had repeated death threats, the notorious "night letters". Her gender, as well as her refusal to send girls home from school, has made her a particular source of hatred for Islamist zealots.

Read the whole horrifying thing here. We long ignored these kinds of things, thinking it could never affect us, and even tried to deal with such animals. But since 9/11 that is no longer an option. The evil of Islamism must be confronted, and it must be defeated.

Now, look at what is happening in Britain.

The Telegraph reports:

Islamic sharia law is gaining an increasing foothold in parts of Britain, a report claims.

Sharia, derived from several sources including the Koran, is applied to varying degrees in predominantly Muslim countries but it has no binding status in Britain.

However, the BBC Radio 4 programme Law in Action produced evidence yesterday that it was being used by some Muslims as an alternative to English criminal law. Aydarus Yusuf, 29, a youth worker from Somalia, recalled a stabbing case that was decided by an unofficial Somali "court" sitting in Woolwich, south-east London.


Some lawyers welcomed the advance of what has become known as "legal pluralism".


In his book Islam in Britain, Patrick Sookhdeo, director of the Institute for the Study of Islam and Christianity, says there is an "alternative parallel unofficial legal system" that operates in the Muslim community on a voluntary basis.

"Sharia courts now operate in most larger cities, with different sectarian and ethnic groups operating their own courts that cater to their specific needs according to their traditions," he says. These are based on sharia councils, set up in Britain to help Muslims solve family and personal problems.

Sharia councils may grant divorces under religious law to a woman whose husband refuses to complete a civil divorce by declaring his marriage over. There is evidence that these councils are evolving into courts of arbitration.

Faizul Aqtab Siddiqi, a barrister and principal of Hijaz College Islamic University, near Nuneaton, Warwicks, said this type of court had advantages for Muslims. "It operates on a low budget, it operates on very small timescales and the process and the laws of evidence are far more lenient and it's less awesome an environment than the English courts," he said.

Mr Siddiqi predicted that there would be a formal network of Muslim courts within a decade.

Read it here.

What are the implications for women?

According to the Sharia, despite declarations of the equality of the sexes before God, women are considered inferior to men, and have fewer rights and responsibilities. A woman counts as half a man in giving evidence in a court of law, or in matters of inheritance. Her position is less advantageous than a man’s with regard to marriage and divorce. A husband has the moral and religious right and duty to beat his wives for disobedience or for perceived misconduct. A woman does not have the right to choose her husband, or her place of residence, to travel freely or have freedom in her choice of clothing. Women have little or no autonomy and are deemed to need the protection of their fathers, husbands or other male relatives throughout their lives. Any conduct that undermines the idea of male supremacy will fall foul of the Sharia.

Read about it here.

And there's this from Canada:

Sharia law in Canada? Yes. The province of Ontario has authorized the use of sharia law in civil arbitrations, if both parties consent. The arbitrations will deal with such matters as property, marriage, divorce, custody and inheritance. The arbitrators can be imams, Muslim elders or lawyers. In theory, their decisions aren't supposed to conflict with Canadian civil law. But because there is no third-party oversight, and no duty to report decisions, no outsider will ever know if they do. These decisions can be appealed to the regular courts. But for Muslim women, the pressures to abide by the precepts of sharia are overwhelming. To reject sharia is, quite simply, to be a bad Muslim.

Read it here.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Western Politics in an Age of Discontent

One thing that becomes blindingly apparent to any serious student of modern history is that American domestic politics, for all its exceptional character, still represents a variation on the common Western experience. In other words, the United States is not so unique that we cannot learn much about our condition by looking abroad and seeing what is happening there.

The recent American elections saw a remarkable strengthening of radical elements in both the Republican and the Democrat Parties, and in both cases the focus of the challenge was globalization. The Republicans' anti-immigration rhetoric was more than matched by Democrat demagoguery on the subject of multinational corporations and outsourcing. In both parties there was a consistent drumbeat of concern about the perils of a national debt, most of which was held by foreigners.

But concerns related to globalization were not unique to the American political scene. Der Spiegel reports on recent elections in Europe.
Three major European states currently find themselves in the unfortunate position of struggling to form a working government. Along with Austria and the Czech Republic, The Netherlands is now facing weeks if not months of horse-trading in order to form a government coalition, following its inconclusive election last week. The Dutch political system at the moment, one could be excused for saying, is a bit Amsterdamned. Dutch voters punished the established parties at the polls last Wednesday and now not even a grand coalition between Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende's conservative Christian Democrats and the leftist Social Democratic Labor Party is feasible.
Extremely close elections and an inability to agree on common policies, even a common approach to governance..., sound familiar?

And then there's this:
The massive erosion of the political center has been to the advantage of parties on the far right and far left. Anti-immigration populist Geert Wilders was one of the big winners. He is the political heir to the murdered Pim Fortyn, who demanded a ban on the building of new mosques and called into question the constitutional right to freedom of religion. On the other side of the political spectrum, the left-wing Socialist Party made huge gains...
The collapse of the center and major strides by elements of both the left and right, focusing on the threat of globalization..., hmmmm..., all too familiar.

And then there's this piece of analysis:
The Netherlands is not going through an economic downturn. In fact, its unemployment rate is now at a very low 3.9 percent. "And yet the election results reflect fear and insecurity in the face of globalization, and of technological and social change," [a Dutch commentator] says. At the lower end of the highly flexible labor market people are constantly in fear of losing their jobs.
Even more familiar! And this:
Like European society itself, the political landscape is gradually splintering, says Rene Cuperus, a political scientist and adviser to Germany's left-leaning Social Democrats. Populists, whose only policy is to criticize reforms, are becoming important players in European politics.
Oh my! Remember the Democrats' successful strategy in the past election of incessant sniping, refusal to advance a reform agenda, and divisiveness? Of course you do! They could be talking about Lou Dobbs' fans. And finally this:
[The current political mood] could make the reformers think again before embarking on anything more than a superficial tinkering with the system.
Clintonian politics anyone?

I used to blame the Clintons and their acolytes, like Rahm Emanuel, for sending American politics into a barrel, for failing to address the important issues facing us in any serious way, and for disuniting our common political culture. Now, it has become apparent that they [and the least attractive elements in the Republican Party] were and are simply responding to a set of populist fears, generalized throughout the West in response to global integration. People wanted comfort and distraction and a confirmation of their biases rather than a sustained attempt at general reform, and that is just what the Clintonoids have been giving them. We are living in mean and dangerous times that has called forth a generation of small-minded, mean, and defensive leaders.

George Bush is a great man of expansive and generous vision. He does not fear the future, rather he embraces it. He seriously seeks to address the great challenges facing not just us, but our children and theirs. But he has the misfortune to have come to power at the wrong time. People like the Clintons and their ilk are far better suited to govern in these constrained and nasty times.

Read Der Spiegel's commentary here.


Robert Samuelson discusses the irrationalism of much of the anti-globalism sentiment and its potential costs. He writes:
We may be about to shoot ourselves in the foot -- or maybe the chest -- on trade. In the name of "fair trade,'' we may punish our own exporters. In 2005, worldwide exports exceeded $10 trillion. Since 1980, they've more than tripled while the overall global economy doubled. Like it or not, massive international flows of goods and services (aka "globalization'') underpin all modern economies. We can accept this reality and try to benefit from it. Or we can rail against it. We seem to be edging toward railing.
We are dealing with something new here. It transcends traditional protectionism, which tries to shield specific industries and workers from imports. It's trade obstructionism: a reflexive reaction against almost any trade agreement. The idea is that much trade is inherently "unfair.''

[Globalization] is an easy scapegoat. It enables critics to blame foreigners and suggest a solution -- restrict trade. Globalization becomes a convenient explanation for many economic discontents, from job insecurity to squeezed living standards.


The timing could not be worse. The U.S. economy is now moving away from growth led by housing and consumer spending, because heavily indebted American consumers are curbing their borrowing. Something will have to replace that spending if the economy is to continue to expand. The obvious candidates are exports and investment (in factories, machinery) related to exports.

It would be insane to hamper our export prospects -- exactly what trade obstructionism threatens.

Read the whole thing here.

Let Us Now Praise Moderate Men

A few weeks ago I participated in an academic conference. It was interesting – even fun, but too much of that sort of thing drives me to distraction. To unwind and sooth my mind after far, far too much immersion in theoretical jargon, I decided to escape into the magnificent prose of Thomas Babington Macaulay’s History of England From the Accession of James II. Previously I had only read the famous third chapter of his first volume – you know, the one in which he effortlessly guides his reader through a description of the “State of England Since 1685.” Now I determined to read the whole thing starting from the beginning.

It’s going to be a long journey, not because the work is difficult – it’s perfectly lucid – but because it’s so damn good. I keep stopping to admire the prose and the mind that crafted it and every few pages I run across an idea or observation that makes me stop and think…, hard. So it’s slow going, but very much worth the effort.

One of the passages that stopped me for a while was Macaulay’s description of Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury during the reigns of Henry VIII and Edward VI, who was martyred under Bloody Mary. He did more than any other individual to shape the character of the Church of England in its early years.

Macaulay describes Cranmer thusly:

He was at once a divine and a courtier. In his character of divine he was perfectly ready to go as far in the way of change as any Swiss or Scottish Reformer. In his character of courtier he was a desirous to preserve that organization which had, during many ages, admirably served the purposes of the Bishops of Rome, and might be expected now to serve equally well the purposes of the English Kings and of their ministers. His temper and his understanding eminently fitted him to act as mediator. Saintly in his professions, unscrupulous in his dealings, zealous for nothing, bold in speculation, a coward and a timeserver in action, a placable enemy and a lukewarm friend, he was in every way qualified to arrange the terms of the coalition between the religious and the worldly enemies of Popery.

The compromise that emerged, largely due to Archbishop Cranmer’s efforts, was the Church of England, comprised in its constitution, its doctrines, and its services in such a way as to allow scope to a wide range of practices and beliefs. Although Thomas Cranmer did not himself survive the religious turmoil of his times, the Church of England did, largely because of the flexibility imbued in it by this inconstant man.

Macaulay’s point is a simple one, yet one that all too often escapes us – that in times of intense ideological and political conflict the politics of principle can be terrifyingly destructive. In such perilous times it may be appropriate to look for leadership, not to zealous men of strong principle, but to those who are willing to compromise nearly anything. Only such men as these can lead the way to a settlement that, however ideologically inconsistent and doctrinally dissatisfying, can provide the basis for long-term accommodation.

Monday, November 27, 2006

It's That Time Of Year Again

The hills are alive..., with the sound of gunfire. Yes folks, it' s deer season again! All day long the hunters have been bangin' away in the forests behind and around our place in the mountains. It sounds as if at least one guy back there has an automatic weapon. It's not quite the snap-crackle-pop sound of firefights, but at times it gets close.

Trail tromping season is over.

I will not be walking through the woods and fields anytime soon. Sigh!

The picture is by Michael Ringer and can be purchased at his website here.

Blowout in Baltimore!

Sunday -- what a bummer! I went with a friend to see my beloved Steelers play the Ravens. It was a blowout. Cowher's guys were never in the game and were shut out 27-zip. Nine -- NINE sacks! Aaaargh! Well, at least I got a few pictures out of it.

When I was a kid, I used to go with my father to see the Steelers play at Forbes Field. Later it was Three Rivers, then the Eagles at the Vet, and finally the Ravens at Memorial Stadium, but none of those was anything like the spectacle they put on at M & T Stadium. And the facilities..., wow! I don't remember them serving lobster at Forbes Field. Of course, you pay for it. A day at the game is damn expensive.


That afternoon "She Who Must Not Be Named" and I went up to the Walters to view their small exhibit of landscapes by Gustave Courbet. I like Courbet. He was self-taught and went on to be an immensely successful purveyor of art. He worked fast, and together with his numerous students and assistants turned out a prodigious amount of work that was snapped up by the Parisian bourgeoisie.

The first painting below was in the exhibit and is one of my favorites. In it you can see that Courbet, though he is classified as a "realist", displays strong neo-classical elements in some of his work. He's a complex guy with an enormous range of techniques. The second painting, "Houses of the Chateau d'Omans" was not in the exhibit, but I included it because it is probably my favorite of all his work. The third picture, which was part of the exhibit, is more typical of his landscapes -- messy, romantic, slap-dash product for display in a middle-class parlour, but it also displays some hint of impressionist tendencies, probably because that was an easy way to slap paint on the canvas.

One of the things I like best about Courbet is that his styles were so popular and efficient that he was widely copied, and that fact confounds experts who are often unable to distinguish the real Courbets from the fakes. The whole problem is compounded because he often did portions of a painting and left the rest to students to finish. Anything that causes problems for the "experts" gets my vote.

I also like Courbet's commercial sensibility and his view of art as ornament and as a marketable product. Additionally, I like his republican sentiments, which caused him troubles in later life when he got mixed up with the Communards [not a smart move]. And I like his irreverent approach to his craft. He could be sappy and sentimental when the market demanded it, but he could also be shocking or deliberately ugly if that's what the customers wanted. Warning! Some of his stuff is downright pornographic. Check out, for instance, "The Origin of the World" here. Warning: Not work safe!

Harbor Reflections -- The WTC

I also tried to capture the World Trade Center building as reflected in various surfaces around the harbor.

Harbor Views -- More World Trade Center Photos

Here's the place up close and personal

More Harbor Views -- The World Trade Center

One of the most striking features of the Inner Harbor is Baltimore's "World Trade Center" building -- yes, we have one of those too! I decided to spend a couple of hours taking pictures of the place, just to see what came out. Here are some conventional views. It's interesting how in most shots, this pentagonal building looks square.

Harbor Morning

Since I was already up and about and had my camera with me I decided to wander around for a while taking pictures. Here are some of them.

A Rude Awakening

We drove down to Baltimore for the holiday weekend. On Saturday morning I planned to sleep in, but "She Who Must Not Be Named" got up early to walk the harbor with her girlfriends. Soon I was awakened by the phone. It was her. "There's a new boat in the harbor. You've gotta come down and see it! Take some pictures..., take some pictures." I looked out the window and indeed there was something new and strange lurking down there. So, I got up, got my camera, and checked it out. This is what I saw..., a futuristic solar-powered craft nestled up against the "Constellation". The past and future of seamanship..., neat!

Some of the local seabirds were checking it out too! They don't seem to be very impressed though.

What A Difference An Election Makes

The WaPo, which before the election favored redeployment and withdrawal from the Middle East turmoil, has suddenly (now that Democrats have won) discovered a get-tough attitude.

They editorialize:

Those most focused on rescuing the Iraq mission -- such as the Baker-Hamilton study group -- are most interested in the engagement option. We, too, have supported including Iran and Syria in a regional diplomatic initiative to promote an Iraqi political accord. But it's vital to keep in mind that such an effort has a low probability of ending the bloodshed in the near future, even if all parties cooperate.

What's more, no attempt to reason with Mr. Assad and the Iranian mullahs will succeed unless they perceive that the United States and its allies wield sticks as well as carrots. As long as the Bush administration is unable to win U.N. Security Council approval for sanctions against Iran -- or impose them through an ad hoc coalition -- Tehran will have no incentive to make concessions. Mr. Assad will demand that the West concede him Lebanon and call off the murder investigations that would likely implicate him -- unless he worries that his failure to cooperate will result in fresh international sanctions against Syria.

Iran and Syria are ruthlessly waging war against Western interests in the Middle East. Offering to talk is only a small part of what it will take to stop them.

Read it here.

But isn't that what the Bush Administration has been arguing all along -- that diplomacy without a credible threat of force is useless? Of course it is! Before the election, when Democrats were cynically exploiting the war issue, the WaPo judged such a course to be irresponsible -- now it is pure wisdom.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

So Is It A Civil War Or Not?

The NYT thinks so. Today it asserts:

Though the Bush administration continues to insist that it is not, a growing number of American and Iraqi scholars, leaders and policy analysts say the fighting in Iraq meets the standard definition of civil war.

The common scholarly definition has two main criteria. The first says that the warring groups must be from the same country and fighting for control of the political center, control over a separatist state or to force a major change in policy. The second says that at least 1,000 people must have been killed in total, with at least 100 from each side.

American professors who specialize in the study of civil wars say that most of their number are in agreement that Iraq’s conflict is a civil war.

Read it here.

Other important scholars disagree. John Keegan, for instance, argues in Prospect:
Objectively, it must be concluded that the disorders in Iraq do not constitute a civil war but are nearer to a politico-military struggle for power. Such struggles in Muslim countries defy resolution because Islam is irreconcilably divided over the issue of the succession to Muhammad. It might be said that Islam is in a permanent state of civil war (at least where there is a significant minority of the opposing sect) and that authority in Muslim lands can be sustained only by repression if the state takes on a religious cast, since neither Shia nor Sunni communities can concede legitimacy to their opponents.
Read it here.

Why does it matter what they call it? To the left it matters because calling the Iraq conflict a "civil war" would reinforce their argument that Iraq is a replay of Vietnam and that the US has no right to be interfering in the internal affairs of a sovereign country. Such a defninition also helps them to conceptually divorce the Iraq conflict from the larger war on Islamisr radicalism. The Bush administration and its supporters resist that argument and see Iraq as merely one front in the larger conflict. That is why they avoid using the term. You can support either position depending on how you define "civil war" and how you choose to define it depends in large measure on your political leanings.

UPDATE: On Monday NBC, dutifully following the NYT line again, announced that it would now start referring to the Iraq conflict as a "civil war." Take that, Bush!!!

Saturday, November 25, 2006

The War Gulf

The recent upsurge in violence in Iraq has prompted blog postings that make clear the vast and probably unbridgable chasm that separates left from right on the subject of the war.

First from the left we present Glen Greenwald, a NYC "litigator" who proclaims his hatred for the Bush administration here.

Why does he hate Bush so much?

He cites a number of administration officials speaking to the effect that the increased violence in Iraq over the past couple of months was at least in part an attempt on the part of insurgents to influence the American elections. He notes that since the elections Iraqi violence has continued unabated and may have even escalated. From this he concludes that the rising tide of violence was in no way related to the American elections, that administration officials were well aware of that, and that they dishonestly drew a spurious connection in order to panic Americans into voting Republican so as to deny the terorists a victory at the polls.

Greenwald writes:
The idea that the sectarian violence in Iraq, which has been spiraling out of control since the beginning of the year, had anything to do with trying to make Democrats win the election was always as transparently false -- stupid even -- as it was repugnant. Yet they say anything, and the media largely lets them get away with it.

And now the incontrovertible proof is here that what they said was a lie designed to manipulate Americans into voting Republican out of a desire to punish the Democrat-favoring terrorists in Iraq, and what are the consequences? They lie and manipulate like this not only because they lack any shred of integrity and character -- although that's true -- but also because they know they can do so with impunity.

Ponder how corrupt and misleading their coordinated pre-election claim was: All the increased violence in Iraq was just about the midterm election, not a sign of a spiraling civil war. It was just The Terrorists who hate Bush, because he is so tough with them, trying to help the Democrats. Nothing was really that bad in Iraq. Once the elections are over, it will all subside, because it's only about that.

The only thing worse than government leaders lying to their citizens so blatantly about a war is lying in order to benefit themselves politically for cheap electoral gain, so that's exactly what Bush officials and Bush followers do.
In other words what happens in Iraq is unrelated to American domestic politics and the outcome of the recent elections was not a factor in the calculations of terrorists. This is at least consistent. The same people who for decades declared that the communist threat was a paranoid vision concocted by Republicans to win elections, are now assuring us that the Islamist threat is more of the same. To Greenwald and his friends on the left, Iraq, like Vietnam before it, was an illegitimate and ill-considered imperialist venture, imposed on a gullible American public by lying right-wing politicians seeking political gain and an excuse to suppress civil liberties, and made possible through the active cooperation of a complaisant mainstream media.

Don Surber, a West Virginia journalist, takes a different view. He writes:
Dem victory brings chaos to Iraq
The Democratic Party victory is seen as a victory for the opponents of democracy in the Middle East in general and Iraq in particular....

In October, violence ramped up in an effort to bring Bush to his knees, politically, at home. But instead of ebbing, the violence has escalated, as the various bad guys see the U.S. forces leaving soon and so grab for all the power they can get.

How can things get any worse, voters asked on Nov. 7.

On Nov. 24, they got their answer....

It always amazes me, but no longer surprises, how the “peaceniks” always wind up creating more chaos, more deaths and more misery....
Read him here.

Surber assumes that Democratic victory in the recent elections was noted in Iraq and was widely assumed to herald American withdrawal. Thus encouraged, the insurgents escalated their attacks while the Shiite majority, no longer believing that America would remain to protect them, have responded in kind. What had been an insurgent attempt to drive America out of Iraq has now become a turf fight of the most vicious kind.

Like most on the right, Surber sees the Islamist threat as real, just like the communist threat before it, and he accepts the administration's argument that the Iraq war is an essential element in the larger war on terror. He does not see in the Bush administration any plausible threat to civil liberties, and sees the war effort as an entirely legitimate, even a humanitarian, exercise of American power. He, too, looks back toward Vietnam, but the parallel he draws is with the end, not the prosecution, of that war.

As in Vietnam, Surber argues, Democrats are forcing a withdrawal that will be nothing short of betrayal. In effect we,
are throwing away lives of our Iraqi allies who were foolish enough to trust us when President Bush said we were in Iraq to stay.
He notes that,
The American pullout in Vietnam led not to peace, but to the fall of Saigon and the killing fields of Cambodia, where evil men killed 2 million people.
What now, he wonders, will be the human cost of withdrawal.

Each of these positions is founded on logical extrapolation from fundamental assumptions. The problem is that these assumptions are deeply felt and ultimately irreconcilable. Either the Islamist threat is real or it is a paranoid fantasy. Either the Iraq venture is a war of liberation or it results from baser and illegitimate motives. The American presence there is either a restraint on or a provocation to violence. I could go on, but the point is clear --the political left and right cannot be reconciled.

That leaves the moderates on both sides. Is it possible to forge a bi-partisan moderate coalition that can sustain a continued effort in Iraq? We will see,,,, we will see.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Funniest Phone Call Ever!!!

A telemarketer calls, and this happens....

Highly recommended..., check it out!

Hat tip: Secular Blasphemy

Another Great One Passes....

Anita O'Day has died, but she still lives in the hearts of jazz lovers everywhere. Tonight I plan to honor her memory by relaxing, pouring a long -tall drink, and listening to some of her greatest hits. Now if I could just find a copy of "Jazz on a Summer Day"....

She was a tough and tragic lady -- went through a lot of pain, much of it self-inflicted -- but at her peak she was one of the best ever.

"Honeysuckle Rose" we will miss you!

Read about her here.

The Return of Scientific Racism

The Independent [UK] reports:

Scientists have discovered a dramatic variation in the genetic make-up of humans that could lead to a fundamental reappraisal of what causes incurable diseases and could provide a greater understanding of mankind.

The discovery has astonished scientists studying the human genome - the genetic recipe of man. Until now it was believed the variation between people was due largely to differences in the sequences of the individual "letters" of the genome.

It now appears much of the variation is explained instead by people having multiple copies of some key genes that make up the human genome.

Until now it was assumed that the human genome, or "book of life", is largely the same for everyone, save for a few spelling differences in some of the words. Instead, the findings suggest that the book contains entire sentences, paragraphs or even whole pages that are repeated any number of times.

The findings mean that instead of humanity being 99.9 per cent identical, as previously believed, we are at least 10 times more different between one another than once thought....

And then there is this chilling observation:

The scientists looked at people from three broad racial groups - African, Asian and European. Although there was an underlying similarity in terms of how common it was for genes to be copied, there were enough racial differences to assign every person bar one to their correct ethnic origin. This might help forensic scientists wishing to know more about the race of a suspect.

Read it here.

BBC report here.

Let's see now..., hereditable differences among people are more significant than has usually been thought or admitted, and characteristics tend to cluster along racial lines. These are fundamental tenets of "scientific racism." Just a few years ago any such assertions would have been widely denounced, but now they pass without negative comment and are held to be positive developments that might hold the key to curing a wide variety of human ailments.

The times they sure are are a'changin'.


Clayton Cramer spells out the implications of this recent work when he writes:
the widespread claim that race is entirely a social construct collapses.
This is big..., really big. The idea that race is a social construct is the bedrock upon which our moral and political cultures have been based for more than half a century. Are we heading toward a time when calling someone a "racist" will be a complimentary observation on his scientific literacy?

Read Cramer here.

AJ Strata look at the implications of this research for the debate over research based on embryonic stem cells. His conclusion is that this provides further proof that research based on embryonic cells rather than adult cells is far less likely to yield benefits. Read it here.

Thursday, November 23, 2006


Becca and the Diggers

Meet the "anti-Dixie Chick". Her name in Becca Cole, she's from down under, and she's a gorgeous talent. Here's her tribute to the "Diggers", the Australian troops fighting in the long war.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Surber Shoots..., he Scores!

Don Surber comments on Rep. Rangel's proposal to reinstitute the draft:
I realize Charlie Rangel has a point to make about the military reflecting society as a whole; today's recruits are too white, too rural, too middle-class and too well-educated for their age group to truly represent the breadth of the society (and also too male).

But the military's job is not to reflect society.

The military's job is to win wars.
Read it here.

Only the Beginning...

TMZ reports:

We ain't seen nuthin' yet in the divorce battle between Britney and K-Fed. Sources say that K-Fed's strategy is simple – make Britney's life such a hassle it will be a bargain to pay him to permanently exit her life.

We're told he's given his lawyer the green light to turn the courthouse into a revolving door, with the endgame making it difficult for Britney to stage a comeback while the custody fight lingers.

Read it here.

In other news:

Lawyers for both B and K say there are no "sex tapes" [wink, wink], but Kev is reportedly threatening to write a "tell-all" book about life with Brit.
He aims to paint a lurid picture of Britney's visits to gay bars and her physical encounters with other women...discuss her reported use of cocaine and marijuana...her plastic surgery and embarrassing physical problems....

Oh goody!

Sounds like Kev's strategy is basically the same as that of the Iraq insurgents..., American's just don't like to be hassled and will do anything to make it stop.

"Bush Was Right"

This has been floating around the net for a while. Check it out here.

Boy, When Things Fall Apart....

In the wake of Republican election losses that were widely interpreted as a repudiation of Bush policies, we get this....
Two of the three Honolulu Police Department motorcycle officers involved in a crash while escorting President George W. Bush to Hickam Air Force Base are in serious condition at The Queen's Medical Center.
Read it here.

And this....
The acting director of the White House Travel Office was robbed and beaten in Waikiki early on Tuesday morning outside a nightclub, according to Honolulu police. "He was knocked down, punched, kicked -- his wallet and id were stolen," Honolulu Police Department Capt. Frank Fujii said. Pitts' passport and international phone were also taken.
Read it here.

And this....
First Daughter Barbara Bush had her purse and cell phone stolen as she had dinner in a restaurant in Buenos Aires, Argentina, even though she was being guarded by a detail of Secret Service agents, according to law enforcement reports made available to ABC News.
Read it here.

And finally, this....
A Secret Service agent on the advance detail got into an "altercation" with someone after a night out and was badly beaten, according to the law enforcement reports. The Secret Service said today the incident was an attempted mugging that occurred while the agent was on his own time. The agent is doing fine.
George Soros could not be reached for comment.

Hey, I just noticed..., young Barb is turning into a major babe!

Monday, November 20, 2006

Dropping Out

ABC News notes the building crisis in American education.

Nov. 20, 2006 — In several of the largest school systems across the country — from Baltimore to Cleveland to Atlanta and Oakland, Calif. — half of the students are dropping out.

And the problem is not only in the big cities.

A recent study by the Department of Education found that 31 percent of American students were dropping out or failing to graduate in the nation's largest 100 public school districts.

Read it here.

Maybe it would help if the schools actually tried to teach students something.

Surber on Foreign Policy Realism

Don Surber, one of the best analysts on the net, and the one with whom I most often find myself in agreement, cites George Packer's description of the foreign policy "realists."
“These are the same men who, fifteen years ago, abandoned Afghanistan to civil war and Al Qaeda, allowed Saddam to massacre his own people, and concluded that genocide in the Balkans was none of America’s business.”
He argues that a "realist" approach to Iraq, as is now being advocated by both Republicans and Democrats, would impose a horrendous "stability" on that long-suffering nation at the expense of human freedom and lead to immense suffering. He writes:
I do not want to see America throwing away 3,000 lives again. Stay. Fix the nation. Make every life sacrificed — American, Iraqi, Pole, Brit, Aussie, Dane, whomever — count.
Read it here.

Henry Kissinger has often complained that the United States has long had a habit of going about the world creating "bloody messes" and then walking away from them, leaving local populations to suffer the consequences. That is what the "realists" are counseling now -- and Kissinger is among them. The Iraq war has been one of the most efficiently and effectively prosecuted campaigns in the history of warfare, and yet is being regarded as a failure. We must recognize it's astounding successes as such and carry the war on to a satisfactory and honorable conclusion.

No more boat people! Please!

You can read Packer's New Yorker article here.

Bond Is Back

Many years ago at the Highway Drive-In theatre I saw three blind men dance across the screen to the tune “Three Blind Mice”. “That’s strange,” I thought, and I watched on, dividing my attention between the screen and my date. Then something interesting happened on the screen. There was a brutal assassination [of a beautiful woman – unusual for those times], then Sean Connery appeared and the Bond theme blared and I said to myself “hmmm… this is something different!” My date was equally entranced and for the next hour and a half we sat, our attention fully focused on the screen. “Dr. No” was my introduction to the James Bond series and today it still compels my attention. The girl I was dating at the time has long faded from my memory – I suppose she’s a grandma by now -- but I know that I will carry the image of Ursula Andress rising from the sea with me to the end of my days.

“She Who Must Not Be Named” and I took a female friend of ours to see the new James Bond flick, “Casino Royale”, recently. I wonder if they were similarly struck by the sight of Daniel Craig rising from the sea, an obvious reference to the divine Ursula’s entrance in “Dr. No” [which of course, referenced Botticelli’s “Venus on the Half Shell”]. Probably not. {Hey, I just made an obscure reference to Kilgore Trout, a fictional author who was Kurt Vonnegut’s obscure reference to Ted Sturgeon…, I could go on, but infinite regression gives me headaches.}

The basic Bond template, with its chases, explosions, beautiful babes, exotic villains and locales, etc. is absolutely rigid, but within that structure it can accommodate such a wide diversity of types as Sean Connery, Roger Moore, Vin Diesel, Ice Cube, Pierce Brosnan, even George Lazenby. You can make of him an educated thug, or a fop; you can even blacken him, change his name to a roman numeral, and give him hip-hop arrogance, but he is still recognizably Bond. And so he is in this latest attempt to re-imagine the franchise.

“Casino Royale” takes Bond back to his roots – even before he had acquired his “license to kill” [although to get it he has to kill people, which sort of undermines the specialness of the double-oh designation, doesn’t it?] He’s a thug – an educated thug – but not yet the sophisticate he appears to be in other incarnations. The familiar elements are all there, but with variations – there’s the car [but he starts with a Ford and only later gets the super-machine that he immediately turns into a hunk of junk]; there’s the girl [but her heart really belongs to another and, to her, Bond is not quite irresistible]; there’s the exotic villain [but he’s relatively small scale and doesn’t have a secret lair]. I have heard that the producers want to redo the entire Bond canon, and if that is true they’ve made a good start. Daniel Craig has given us a proto-Bond as interesting in its own way as that Sean Connery brought to the screen back when I was young.

Like its predecessors the new Bond film has accommodated changing fashion, and does so with style. In this age of fitness fantasies, when the physicality of films like “Ong Bak” and “District 13” is considered cutting edge, “Casino” eschews the excesses of special effects and over-the-top stunts and focuses more on sheer athleticism. An early chase sequence, featuring free-running legend Sebastien Foucan, is easily as spectacular as anything the CGI engineers could imagine and it provides a perfect opportunity to showcase the new knockabout style of Craig’s Bond. The cinematography, by Phil Méheux, is impeccable. The scripting, fairly faithful to the source, is adequate. Martin Campbell’s direction is better than most, starting well with crisp and efficient integration of complex action scenes, but lags a bit at the end. But what really counts here is Daniel Craig’s interpretation of the main character.

Craig’s Bond seems to be a winner. I had read that his physique was “ripped”. “She” and her friend agreed enthusiastically. They liked what they saw, and in this film they saw a lot. Yes, folks, he does get nekkid. That evening, at home, I was flipping around the dial and ran across an earlier Craig effort, “Layer Cake.” “She” stood transfixed in the kitchen for an hour and a half watching it on a small-screen TV. Later “Apocalypse Now: Redux” was on and “She” commented on how “scrawny” Martin Sheen was compared to Daniel Craig. Her reaction tells me that the new Bond is as riveting a screen presence as the one I saw at the Highway Drive-In long ago and that Craig stands on the brink of success not unlike that enjoyed by Sir Sean.

There’s more than just physical draw here. Craig’s Bond has personality. He’s a rough character – a thug really -- but behind his pugilist’s mask and demeanor lies a complicated, insecure individual who reacts in complex ways to the rituals of the genre. He surprised me several times.

The supporting cast was good, but of little consequence. I doubt that Judi Dench will last much longer as “M” -- she’s showing her age. Samantha Bond’s Moneypenny was conspicuous by her absence. The latest Bond girl – Eva Green – was formidable, easily a match for Craig’s character, but like all such women turned out to be disposable, just like the villain du jour, well played by Mads Mikkelson. He didn’t even make it to the last third of the film.

What remains? -- just the powerhouse formula and the actor who fills the title role. There’s a lot of juice left in the old formula, and with Craig the producers seem to have found an actor up to the task of taking Bond forward well into the new century.

Head Out On the Highway....

Der Spiegel reports:

European traffic planners are dreaming of streets free of rules and directives. They want drivers and pedestrians to interact in a free and humane way, as brethren -- by means of friendly gestures, nods of the head and eye contact, without the harassment of prohibitions, restrictions and warning signs.

A project implemented by the European Union is currently seeing seven cities and regions clear-cutting their forest of traffic signs.

Read it here.

But..., but..., without traffic fines how will local communities raise revenues? Oh..., that's right! This is the EU. They'll simply raise taxes.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

A Walk on the Weird Side: Part Three

Where have all the hippies gone…, long time passing?

Well, at least some of them are at the cult Center re-living the idiocies of their youths. The Boomer generation was well-represented among the clientele, although most of the women padding around the place seemed to be in their thirties and forties.

The center is very much into nonspecific and morally non-demanding spirituality. It’s a smorgasbord of new-age spiritual silliness. If you are into crystals they are for sale in the gift shop. You can have your “aura” photographed or your tarot read for a price. Wandering around the grounds I noted a plethora of shrines. At one point in its existence the place had been a Jesuit seminary and there are still Catholic remnants here and there. But a few dozen yards away you can find a shrine to Buddha, or Ganesh, or Krishna, or simply to the Earth [presumably a nod to the Gaia cult].

People not involved in the exercise regimen communed with spiritual essences in various ways. Most, like me, just strolled around the grounds and surrounding woods enjoying nature’s beauty. One guy sat alone in the forest with his flute and guitar making non-specific, non-structured, semi-musical noises. I suppose he found them meaningful -- I didn't. At one point I encountered a couple near the earth shrine who were expressing their love for each other in a more physical manner. Having lived in big cities for much of my life I knew the appropriate response – eyes straight ahead…, blinkers on…, I didn’t see anything…. I didn’t notice any Wicca stuff during my wandering, but it wouldn’t have surprised me to find some.

The old-timers say it wasn’t always that way. The center had once been spiritually pure and dedicated solely to yoga training. They also looked back with admiration on the Jesuits who once inhabited the place. Now, they note with disgust, all sorts of spiritual paths are represented and there are classes on aerobics, dance exercises, and other non-yoga subjects.

And here they are putting their finger on the essential change that has overtaken the center. It is now cultish, not cultic. It still proclaims its purpose in vague, new-agey, eco-friendly, multi-culti, anti-capitalist, terms, but it lacks any real conviction. As an idealistic youth portrayed in an advertisement for the center proclaims:

I know a thing or two about the world. I know pollution isn’t progress. I know there is strength in diversity, I know we are the leaders we’ve been waiting for…. I know I’m ready to make things change, starting with myself.

And that sums up the problem with the center, indeed with the new-age cultural imperative it represents. More than anything it, for all its spiritual and communalist pretensions, is all about intense egoism. At the center guests engage in communal activities, classes, dances, meals, exercises and so forth, but in practice each one of them is working determinedly on herself. Rather than submerging ego for the common good, the center exalts it. To change the world, it proclaims, you must begin with self-improvement. The new-agey spirituality is simply a mask for unbridled self-regard – rampant narcissism. The people may be seem to be dancing as a group, but each is actually dancing with herself.

And in a way that is sad. People who attend the center are expressing a deep dissatisfaction with themselves and their lives. They may want to change the world around them, but mostly they want to change themselves. After a couple of days “She Who Must Not Be Named”, normally an eminently sensible person, got into the spirit, dancing around our room exclaiming, “I ate like a pig for two days, and look how flat my tummy is!” I looked. Indeed it was flat, but to her mind not flat enough. She started to jabber on about “six-pack abs,” whatever those are.

The indoctrination process practiced at the Center and its affiliates is simple and effective – carefully graded stages of effort, clear goals, positive feedback from sympathetic instructors, accomplishment that leads to the setting of further goals, assurance that what you are doing is personally and socially beneficial, and a sense of moral superiority compared to those sluggards who aren’t with the program. It works; that sort of thing always has.

All of this, of course, costs a pretty penny – and that, ultimately, is what the Center is all about. It is a profit-generating enterprise that feeds on the insecurities and dissatisfactions of its customers. What started long ago as an anti-capitalist attempt to achieve spiritual purity has in recent years morphed into a blatant and exploitative manifestation of advanced capitalism. Already they are planning expansion into major cities with the possibility of franchising down the road. Rather than representing a retreat from the imperatives of modernity the Center has become an expression of them. That is what bothers the old-timers, but interests and gratifies me, unapologetic bourgeois capitalist pig that I am.

The operation of the Center is not unlike that of a cruise ship. In fact, one of the managers I spoke with had come from the cruise industry and was glad to discuss the similarities. What they are selling is an experience that they hope people will find gratifying. But, I would note, the experience is a bit like drug dealers giving you a “free taste” of their product.

Was “She” hooked? Not really. “She” enjoyed the experience, appreciates the health benefits of the exercises, and plans to spend a few hours each week doing them. That is to the good. But she also turned down an offer to get more involved – to take advanced training and become an instructor [she’s pretty good at the stuff]. On our way home to Pennsylvania we stopped for pizza.

What about me? I actually enjoyed my time at the Center. More than a few days would have been too much, but it was a restful and pleasant environment; an interesting break from my usual routine. “She” wants to know if I would like to return in the Spring.


Milton Friedman Has Gone

AP reports:
Milton Friedman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist who advocated an unfettered free market and had the ear of three U.S. presidents, died Thursday at age 94.

Friedman died in San Francisco, said Robert Fanger, a spokesman for the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation in Indianapolis. His daughter, Janet Martell, told the Wall Street Journal the cause of death was heart failure.

“Milton’s passion for freedom and liberty has influenced more lives than he ever could possibly know,” said Gordon St. Angelo, the foundation’s president and CEO, in a statement. “His writings and ideas have transformed the minds of U.S. presidents, world leaders, entrepreneurs and freshmen economic majors alike.”

Read the whole thing here.

Oh my! So much understanding! So much wisdom! Gone! One of the greatest has passed.

Here's Bush on Friedman in 2002:
“He has used a brilliant mind to advance a moral vision — the vision of a society where men and women are free, free to choose, but where government is not as free to override their decisions.... That vision has changed America, and it is changing the world.”
At least we still have his writings..., and, of course, Rose.

For some of his pithier quotes go here.

For myself, I plan to spend a couple of hours tonight with Capitalism and Freedom.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Borat:: Dumb, Duplicitous and Dangerous

"She Who Must Not Be Named" and I went to see “Borat” recently. The reviews had led me to expect something special. It wasn’t. For one thing, the print we saw seemed to have been an edited for content. The much discussed “Jew in a Well” scene seemed to be missing and some of the frontal nudity was masked. What else has been removed and why?

What we saw was intermittently funny, consistently offensive, and not at all worthy of the accolades heaped upon it.

For me the best moments were throwaway images and sounds – a chicken’s squawk of protest, a bear’s head, or an artificial hand – each of which was the payoff for a joke set up long before. The set pieces, however, did not work nearly as well. Several of them – a painful dinner party, the Jewish bed and breakfast, hangin’ in the hood, the frat boys on the road – just were not funny. Others – the rodeo, the gay guys, the Pentecostal meeting -- were merely strange and freakish. The tours of Borat’s village were just plain dumb. The only set piece that worked for me was the book signing and that was due to the (dare I say it?) acting talents of Pamela Anderson. Her reaction to the word “marriage” made the whole piece work.

The one bit that is worthy of notice is the prolonged wrestling scene that bursts the bounds of gross humor – upping the ante in much the same way as recent horror films have done. You keep saying, “That’s disgusting! I don’t believe they put that on film!” That sequence, incidentally, was the only part of the film that elicited strong reactions from the suburban, mostly teen-age audience at the matinee performance I attended. There was a lot of “eeeewing” going on and understandably so.

Comedies are revealing social documents, but only in a limited sense. Effective comedies play off the deepest apprehensions and perceived limitations of their target audiences and can tell us a lot about that sector of the general public, but little else. To the extent they transgress perceived limitations they are liberating and exhilarating, allowing the audience to vicariously give vent to forbidden impulses. To the extent they address apprehensions, comedies can be therapeutic, allowing the audience to identify and confront their deepest anxieties.

Borat apparently serves these purposes for a segment of the American public – one that seems to include most of the nation’s critical establishment. Overwhelmingly the critics found the film to be both exhilarating and profound. But in a diverse and pluralistic culture such as our own, different groups react in different ways to comedic tropes, as the producers and stars of “Borat” are beginning to discover. Canny distributors realized this and released the film only in areas where it could be assured of good reviews that would produce packed houses. Only after setting attendance records and stirring an immense amount of commentary, nearly all of it positive, was “Borat” sent into wider release. As a marketing strategy it was superb, and “Borat” will undoubtedly be a financial success, but relatively few people outside the major urban centers will find the film as engaging as did the early reviewers.

“Borat” is very much a movie made by and for affluent Jewish boomers. It addresses directly and repeatedly the fears and insecurities of that demographic/cultural group. Its great theme is the multifarious manifestations of anti-semitism in modern Western society. Though the “Borat” character derives in some ways from the legacy of comic ethnic sages like “Mr. Bones” and “Mr. Dooley”, or might be seen (in Niall Ferguson’s words) as an expression of “Oxbridge irony”, it is more accurately described as a “put on” – a form of comedy that rose to prominence in the Sixties. It is a cruel, deceptive, and vicious form of comedy in which comics misrepresent themselves to people in hope of eliciting responses that will embarrass their victims. “Putting on” people invariably results in “putting them down.” It has usually been justified by its practitioners as a means of revealing truth and of speaking truth to power, but in “Borat” it is nothing of the sort. It is an instrument of deception directed as much at the audience as at Borat’s victims.

One reviewer, I forget which, made a very perceptive observation. He noted that, though the methods employed by Sacha Baron Cohen, who plays Borat, remain fairly constant throughout the film, the object of ridicule shifts constantly. It certain segments – the encounter with aging feminists, or the episode in the Jewish home for instance – it is Borat himself who is the fool and we are invited to laugh at his idiocy. In other scenes – the rodeo, the Pentecostal meeting, the fraternity ride, etc. – we are invited to laugh at his victims. And ultimately, Borat shrinks from taking a real risk with his comedy. He makes fun of Americans right and left, but [unlike Woody Allen, who really is an intellectual and really does take risks with his comedy] Cohen never directly challenges the sensibilities of his core audience – urban Jewish intellectuals. Rather he supports and affirms them.

Borat is in essence a litany of bourgeois Jewish insecurities and resentments – worries about international anti-Semitism; the suspicion that anti-Semitism lurks just beneath the surface of ordinary Americans; a paralyzing fear of the “Schwartzers”; disdain for a white Protestant culture that Jews see as being dumb and discriminatory. But, as Christopher Hitchens has noted, the casual and deliberate viciousness and offensiveness displayed by Cohen’s Barat stands in sharp contrast to the determined niceness and tolerance of the Americans he ridicules. One is struck by how easily Borat, with all his obnoxiousness, is welcomed by ordinary Christian Americans, both black and white, and how far they are willing to go to tolerate his outrageousness. As a result Barat’s exercise in sadistic nastiness reflects far more poorly on him and his adoring fans than on his victims.

The spirit of the film is one of sadism masquerading as joyous anarchism. Two ostensibly delusional cultural forms are being deconstructed here – Jewish paranoia and obsessive goyish niceness, even in the face of escalating outrage. However both of these, I might note, are socially functional and in these trying times are arguably necessary. Shared paranoia is a powerful instrument for forging and maintaining ethnic solidarity – especially in a time when the Jewish community seems to be dissolving; and an uncompromising, even lunatic, devotion to meliorative social rituals and illusions is necessary to sustain an increasingly factious social pluralism. Borat is thus ridiculing and undermining two characteristics of modern American culture that may be essential to its survival. That is destructive, dangerous, and dumb.

But is there more to "Borat" than that?

In the end I am undecided about “Borat.” Either it is a stupid and vicious display of ethnic bias or it is an ingenious and elaborate double “put on” that victimizes its most ardent proponents and exposes their paranoia and bigotry. “Borat” is a duplicitous and dangerous film, and our understanding of it depends on just how much ingenuity and malice we are willing to grant the film-makers. At the most obvious level “Borat” is a semi-documentary “put on” that victimizes unaware ordinary Americans and as such it has been understood by most reviewers. But, on reflection, it seems obvious that many of the scenes were staged and possibly scripted. We must remember that even in what appear to be the most spontaneous and authentic scenes the participants were very much aware that there was a camera, and most probably a cameraman and production crew, lurking just beyond our [but not their] field of vision. Moreover, it now appears that the film is not the authentic documentary it purports to be, but rather it is more like “extemp” comedy in which the participants are given working assumptions to guide their performances.

Ever since the film hit theatres articles, excerpts, “making of” features, etc. have been made available though the press and the internet, showing just how carefully crafted and severely edited this film was, and just how much preparation and planning went into the staging of its components. And with each revelation the authenticity of the project is diminished. It now seems probable that the entire film was itself an elaborate “put on” designed to elicit from upscale Jewish audiences and leftish critics precisely the reaction it has gotten. Sacha Baron Cohen may well be having a last sadistic laugh as his adoring fans begin to ruefully realize that it is they, not the goys, who are the real objects of "Borat's" disdain.

If such is the case, Sacha Baron Cohen is much smarter and more gutsy than I gave him credit for.

Somehow I doubt that.


It seems I did not underestimate Cohen. He broke character enough to explain that
The journalist from Kazakhstan who sings anti-Semitic songs and refers to women as prostitutes was created "as a tool" to expose people's prejudices....
He said he was particularly interested in exposing American anti-Semitism and "indifference to anti-Semitism" because such indifference characterized the German population during the rise of Hitler.

So I was right the first time. He's just a nasty little bigot trying to draw a moral equivalence between America and Nazi Germany and nothing more.

Read his comments here.


David Brooks agrees with the general tenor of my critique. Cohen is nasty and bigoted and plays to the status anxieties of his target audience, and in the process reveals their bigotry. Read his column here.

Jeff Jarvis agrees here.

And Charles Krauthammer exposes the blatant lie upon which the bond between Cohen and his most ardent supporters is based -- the myth of American Christian anti-semitism.
[A]n alarming number of liberal Jews are seized with the notion that the real threat lurks deep in the hearts of American Protestants, most specifically Southern evangelicals. Some fear that their children are going to be converted; others, that below the surface lies a pogrom waiting to happen; still others, that the evangelicals will take power in Washington and enact their own sharia law.

This is all quite crazy. America is the most welcoming, religiously tolerant, philo-Semitic country in the world. No nation since Cyrus the Great’s Persia has done more for the Jews.
Read him here.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Kayak Country

Kayaking is big here in the Pennsylvania mountains. I hadn't realized just how big until we visited the new L. L. Bean store that recently opened near here.

The Baker Commission

Ok! I'm only going to say this once, so listen. The whole point of the Baker Commission is not to provide cover for a withdrawal, or any other such thing. Rather it is a sincere attempt to discover a mode of conducting the Iraq operations that will be politically acceptable to a majority of members of Congress.

It is a recognition that in the post-Vietnam political climate it is impossible for any administration of either party to mount a prolonged military campaign without cooperation across the party spectrum, yet in today's increasingly dangerous international situation, American military impotence would be disastrous, for the nation and for the world. By establishing a bi-partisan commission, including prominent critics of his administration's performance so far, Bush has sought to elevate national security concerns out of the realm of political combat, to include significant input from the opposition party, and to establish conditions that will allow a moderate bi-partisan Congressional majority to sustain support for the effort as long as possible.

Bush is a long range thinker who seeks to create conditions in the present that will bring about desired effects in the future. He know that future presidents will face international and domestic problems not unlike those that plague his administration. It is hoped that the Baker commission will provide a model for resolving the partisan antagonism that has to date characterized modern military efforts.


Austin Bay has a similar take:
Enter the James Baker and Lee Hamilton-led Iraq Study Group (ISG). It's my bet that it will produce nothing original in terms of strategic and operational thinking. It may well produce a set of policy recommendations palatable to Democrats and Republicans -- in other words, consensus political cover that allows the sober and wise to continue to support Iraq's war for freedom and modernity.
Read it here.