Friday, March 26, 2010

A remarkable story about one of the United States and Iran

Every once in a while a news story shakes up your comfortable view of what the world is like. I have my cliché views of Mississippi, backward and conservative, and though I am not nearly so paranoid about Iran as most people in North America, it is a place with a repressive government, tremendous economic problems, which poses certain dangers to people in countries that its government disapproves of.

Before you read this, I would not have expected to hear that people in the state of Mississippi and the Islamic Republic of Iran were cooperating on a project to bring Iranian public health techniques to Mississippi. Since I think that a serious commitment to public health is practically synonymous with "civilization," this article in the Times Online both flabbergasted and pleased me.

An excerpt:


...with Congress acrimoniously debating the reform of healthcare, it is to Iran that one of America’s poorest communities is turning to try to resolve its own health crisis.

A US doctor and a development consultant visited Iran in May to study a primary healthcare system that has cut infant mortality by more than two-thirds since the Islamic revolution in 1979.

Then, in October, five top Iranian doctors, including a senior official at the health ministry in Tehran, were quietly brought to Mississippi to advise on how the system could be implemented there.

The Mississippi Delta has some of the worst health statistics in the country, including infant mortality rates for non-whites at Third World levels.

“It’s time to look for a new model,” said Dr Aaron Shirley, one of the state’s leading health campaigners.

“Forty years ago, when I was a resident at Jackson hospital, I was in charge of admitting sick babies and was astonished at all the children coming in from the delta with diarrhoea, meningitis, pneumonia.

“After years of health research and expenditure of millions of dollars, nothing much has changed.”
...
Facing shortages of money and trained doctors at the start of the Iran-Iraq war in 1980, the new government launched a system based on community “health houses”, each serving about 1,500 people.

Locals were trained as health workers known as behvarz, who would travel their area, dispensing advice about healthy eating, sanitation and contraception as well as monitoring blood pressure and conditions such as diabetes.

It was a stunning success, reducing child mortality rates by 69% and maternal mortality in rural areas from 300 per 100,000 births to 30. There are now 17,000 health houses in Iran, covering more than 90% of its rural population of 23m.

Miller contacted Shirley, who is seen as a community health pioneer in Mississippi and had recently converted a deserted shopping centre in Jackson into a “medical mall” for the poor.

“I thought if the Iranians could do it with a fraction of resources we have, then why shouldn’t we?” said Shirley.
...
Shirley and Miller visited Iran in May and were astonished to be welcomed with open arms. When they went to remote villages to see the health houses, the Iranians were equally amazed.

“They told us this is a miracle,” said Miller. “Not only were Americans coming here, but also they were learning from us rather than telling us what to do.”

One villager exclaimed: “We always knew rain fell down but never knew it could fall up.”

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Magical thinking -- a scary survey of the present crisis

Allan Gregg talks to Chris Hedges on his book Empire of Illusion. Thanks to Arabist.net for drawing my attention to this TVOntario interview.


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Thursday, March 04, 2010

Lies, damned lies, and the official version

At the Harper's site is an article by Sam Smith called The revision thing: A history of the Iraq war, told entirely in lies. with a further subtitle, "All text is verbatim from senior Bush Administration officials and advisers. In places, tenses have been changed for clarity."

I have to wonder how many ancient monuments are the exact equivalent of this, except they were meant to be taken seriously. Yes, I'm looking at you, Ramses II.

Thanks to Randall Winn for the tip.

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Monday, March 01, 2010

"The crisis we are in"

I thought I did not have an hour to listen to Stephen S. Cohen talk about his recent book with Brad DeLong, The End of Influence: What happens when other countries have the money. But I was wrong.

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Sunday, February 14, 2010

History and forgiveness

Once again Brad DeLong points me in the right direction, which in this case is to a column by Ta-nehisi Coates at the Atlantic site:

It's been twenty years since Nelson Mandela got out. This was like the defining political event of my youth. I was either a freshman or sophomore in high school, can't remember which. What I think is pretty cliche: Whatever South Africa's problems, the fact that the country (and its leaders) did not descend into mass revenge mode is an enduring tribute to compassion and empathy.

It's a great object lesson on how to handle being wronged. It's one of the things I've struggled to accept as an African-American. There is no Rosewood. Often you are wronged, and by your hand, or even in your lifetime, your persecutors will never be brought to account. There are limits to our justice. It doesn't mean you shrink in the face of injustice (South Africa did no such thing) but that you recognize that it's not really in your power to even the odds.

I've been thinking about this a lot in my study of the crimes of slavery, the Civil War and Jim Crow. I don't think the scales will ever be evened. I don't even know how you would begin to do that in any kind of moral way. That said, I want to differentiate between recognizing your limits, and sweeping a wrong under the rug. Our greatest problem, in regards to the legacy of white supremacy, is not it's effects, it's that we don't understand the rudiments of what happened.

There is a long and interesting comment section for this post, much of it about the Confederate general Longstreet, but on the main topic this response is sterling:
You know, I think part of what you're getting at here is revelatory. Most people believe forgiveness is conceptually similar to absolution, in that it is a transaction between people, given from one to another for wrongs against them, and that it wipes the slate clean.

In fact, forgiveness is a far sweeter and more complex thing. It has little to do with the person or thing being forgiven; they are incidental. Instead, it is a letting go within yourself; a surrendering of the right to feel victimized and hurt. You use the example of slavery and systematic dehumanization and oppression of blacks and the longing to have some "evening of the odds". Who is most affected by gripping the hurt of that injustice so strongly, so closely for so long? Who does it weight down and fill with anger and tip over and spill onto the ground? Not the people who perpetrate the injustice; just the people who suffer it.

The revelatory aspect of your post comes in your distinction between recognizing and calling out injustice, and allowing it to take hold in your heart like a cancer: "It doesn't mean you shrink in the face of injustice..." to "That said, I want to differentiate between recognizing your limits, and sweeping a wrong under the rug."

To reiterate: forgiving a wrong is not absolving a wrongdoer. 99% of people conflate these two very, very different concepts. Forgiveness is something you do for yourself; absolution is something you do to someone else.

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A creaky old country

That's what I sometimes think when I read the news out of the USA. The most recent exhibit is a column by Bob Herbert in the New York Times:

Two weeks ago, as I was getting ready to take off for Palo Alto, Calif., to cover a conference on the importance of energy and infrastructure for the next American economy, The Times’s Keith Bradsher was writing from Tianjin, China, about how the Chinese were sprinting past everybody else in the world, including the United States, in the race to develop clean energy.

That we are allowing this to happen is beyond stupid. China is a poor country with nothing comparable to the tremendous research, industrial and economic resources that the U.S. has been blessed with. Yet they’re blowing us away — at least for the moment — in the race to the future.

Our esteemed leaders in Washington can’t figure out how to do anything more difficult than line up for a group photo. Put Americans back to work? You must be kidding. Health care? We’ve been working on it for three-quarters of a century. Infrastructure? Don’t ask.

It really is a disgrace that China with all its resource problems and under the leadership of the Communist Party seems to have a much more forward-thinking attitude about some really basic stuff. It's like Americans have given up on practicality in favor of theological conflict -- about evolution, marriage equality, and "don't ask, don't tell."

Thanks to Brad DeLong for the heads-up.

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Thursday, February 11, 2010

Celebrity intellectuals


If you want to be known world-wide as wise and insightful, being wise and insightful is not enough -- or maybe even necessary. Consider the case of Bernard-Henri Lévy, a French philosopher currently being pummeled for making a dumb mistake in public. From Scott McLemee at Inside Higher Ed.: :
Ten years ago, Pierre Bourdieu coined a term for certain French intellectuals whose writings counted for less than their TV appearances. He called them “ les fast-thinkers.” Everyone knew who the sociologist had in mind as the prototype of this phenomenon. Long before the American public got used to hearing references to J-Lo and K-Fed, the French press had dubbed him BHL. His books, movies, TV appearances, political interventions, and romances have been a staple of the French media for more than three decades. But only in the past five years has he become as much a fixture in the U.S. media as the French....

The role of the intellectual as famous, full-time spokesman for the Universal is well-established in France. It began with Voltaire and culminated in Sartre, its last great exemplar. (Not that other philosophers have not emerged in the meantime, of course, but none has occupied quite the same position.) From time to time, Lévy has mourned the passing of this grand tradition, while hinting, not too subtly, that it lives on in him. Clearly there is a steady French market for his line in historical reenactments of intellectual engagement.

It seems surprising, though, to find the BHL brand suddenly being imported to these shores after years of neglect -- particularly during a decade when Francophobia has become a national sport.

But like the song says, there’s a thin line between love and hate. Lévy has capitalized on American ambivalence towards France -- the potential of fascination to move from “-phobia” to “-philia” -- by performing a certain role. He is, in effect, the simulacrum of Sartre, minus the anti-imperialism and neo-Marxism.

“Lévy plays on both registers,” explains Goldhammer. “At the height of anti-French feeling in the U.S., in the period just before the Iraq War, he positioned himself as a philo-American. He made himself the avenger of Daniel Pearl. Arrogant he might be, airily infuriating in just the right way to confirm the philistine's loathing of the abstract and abstruse that philosophy is taken to embody, and yet there he was, pouring scorn on "Islamofascism" and touring the country with the New Yorker reader's nonpareil Francophile, Adam Gopnik.... Lévy chose his moment well. He insinuated himself into the American subconscious by playing against type.”


"Historical reenactments of intellectual engagement." Wow! That is the most cutting thing I've heard since...ever. This implicit characterization of life at the "top" of the intellectual "heap" (or is it "intellectual" heap?) may console you for not being part of this particular club.

Image: Voltaire -- bad example?



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Friday, February 05, 2010

The American experience of war


John Quiggin at Crooked Timber has some interesting remarks on an article in the American Conservative which critiques the recent faith that the USA has shown in military solutions. The author of that article, Andrew Bacevich, said, "Contra Kristol, force is an 'instrument' in the same sense that a slot machine or a roulette wheel qualifies as an instrument." (Maybe he is a conservative!) Quiggin comments:

First, it’s important to remember that, for a very long time, America’s standard experience of war was that of near-continuous advance towards victory. For everyone else involved, the Great War involved years of pointless slaughter, with thousands dying for every yard of mud gained or lost. The US entered late and its forces immediately turned the tide of battle. World War II was similar – by mid-1942, a few months after Pearl Harbor the Allies were advancing on every front.

Paradoxically, as these two cases indicate, the US faith in force reflects a long history of aversion to foreign wars, going back to the Founders. The US had its share of bellicose nationalists, but compared to nearly all previous states, where success in war was taken as the primary measure of greatness, the US in the 19th century stands out for its pacific nature. But on the relatively rare occasions when the US went to war, it usually did so under (perceived and sometimes actual) conditions of necessity and with the unqualified commitment that entailed.

In the second half of the 20th century, as Europe finally tired and sickened of war, the US went in the opposite direction, taking military power to be a standard instrument of national policy. Sixty years of failure have not shaken this new faith in force.

There's more here.

Image: Japan surrenders. As Bacevich says, this kind of unambiguous ending of a war is a rarity.

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Thursday, February 04, 2010

Why Pakistanis don't see the USA as an ally -- the long-range consequences of colonialism

US policy in the Middle East depends in part on the cooperation of the governments and populations in areas where unfriendly groups exist. But despite the fact that most Muslims in the Middle East mostly oppose people who claim to represent "Islamic government," there is very little enthusiasm for a US alliance. From a distance it looks a lot like sheer crankiness. Juan Cole at Informed Comment tries to explain, using a current example, of how Pakistanis like others with a recent history of colonial occupation, see US and NATO intervention as the same old, same old, and deeply humiliating.

Juan Cole writes
:

Opinion polls show that many observers in Pakistan already feel that the US is humiliating their country and sowing discord there, and this revelation of the presence of US troops on the ground, along with the Department of Defense role in building girls' schools, will further raise hackles (and risks making girls' schools unpopular even among non-Taliban).

The USG Open Source Center translated an editorial by Dr Hussein Ahmed Paracha: "How Much Dignity is Left?", published in Nawa-e Waqt in Urdu on January 18, 2010, which exemplified this point of view:

'The United States has been attacking within Pakistani land with drones for the last four to five years and is also killing innocent people. . . There were 44 drone attacks in 2009 alone in which more than 700 innocent people, majority of whom were innocent children, elderly, and women, were killed. According to the statistics provided by various agencies, those who belonged to "Al-Qa'ida" or the Taliban could not be more than 18. . .

Having made sure that the wealth of our national dignity has turned to ashes and the last flame has burned down, the US Administration has now announced a program of naked screening for the passengers coming from a few countries. All these countries are Muslim countries, and Pakistan is one of them. Yes, the same Pakistan, which is the frontline US ally in war against terror. Pakistan has danced to death in others' parties and has made fun of itself. It is the same Pakistan, which left its citizens starving and spent $35 billion in others' war. . .

The United States is bent on treating us shamelessly. Moreover, we pay too much regard to anyone coming from the United States. The Blackwater operatives, who committed heinous and inhuman crimes in Iraq, come wherever they please in Pakistan without visa or travel document. They keep on roaming around in vehicles with fake number plates with dangerous weapons. These US officials point guns at the security people if asked to reveal their identity. During a few minutes debate, there is a series of phone calls from the high officials, and they, who consider Pakistan as their playground, are allowed to go with honor.'


In an opinion poll done last summer, 64% of the Pakistani public said that they saw the US as an 'enemy,' and only 9% saw it as an ally.


The previous post on robowars with robotic bombers is relevant here.

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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

I believe the war is over...

If you are old enough, name that tune. And the singer.

Back to the present, sort of. Juan Cole argues in a post that the Iraq war is over, and that Obama's policy has worked, but we have not noticed it because media attention has been elsewhere. Bolding indicates my emphasis.

The Iraqi military and police, over which Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had largely gained control, proved able to keep order about as well as had their American and British colleagues. In July, 2009, with the US no longer patrolling, attacks and deaths declined by a third, and went on down from there. Despite two dramatic bombing waves in the capital, in August and November, the situation has in most places calmed down on an everyday basis. Flashpoints such as Mosul and Kirkuk remain, but had been violent when the US military was there, too.

Most Americans do not realize that US troops seldom patrol or engage in combat in Iraq anymore, accounting for why none were killed in hostile action in December. The total number of US troops in Iraq has fallen from a maximum of 160,000 during the Bush administration's 'surge' to about 110,000. After the early March parliamentary elections, another big withdrawal will begin, bringing then number down to 50,000 or so non-combat troops by September 1.

Critics of Obama often charge him with failing to end the Iraq War. But there is no longer an Iraq War. There are US bases in a country where indigenous forces are still fighting a set of low-intensity struggles, with little US involvement. Obama is having his troops leave exactly as quickly as the Iraqi parliament asked him to. Most US troops in Iraq seem mainly to be in the moving business now, shipping out 1.5 million pieces of equipment.

The last 4,000 Marines will hand over responsibility for al-Anbar Province, once among the more violent places on earth, to the US Army on Saturday, and shortly thereafter the Marines will depart the country.

...

Contrary to the consensus at Washington think tanks, Obama is ahead of schedule in his Iraq withdrawal, to which he is committed, and which will probably unfold pretty much as he has outlined in his speeches. The attention of the US public has turned away from Iraq so decisively that Obama's achievement in facing down the Pentagon on this issue and supporting Iraq's desire for practical steps toward sovereignty has largely been missed in this country.

...

Obama was handed a series of catastrophes. He has done better in handling some than others. But his decision on Iraq was the right one, the one that allows the US to depart with dignity, and allows Iraqis to work out their own internal problems. It is in this sense that Obama won the Iraq War.


What really struck me about the post is the video clip from Al Jazeera on "Sovereignty Day;" I like to think that I read a bit deeper and wider than many people, but the situation depicted here mostly passed me by:



Or maybe it's the fact that video gives you a whole different feel than even good analytical prose.

This indicates to me that I've got to read more news from outside the USA.

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Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Driftglass on Mark McGwire's steroid use


The blogger Driftglass is capable of drawing amazing, well-written insights out of any aspect of American life. Here he is on Mark McGwire's admission that he was using steroids when he racked up his amazing home run records (in Major League Baseball, for those who don't know). The emphasis is mine:

Baseball is a business in which thousands of people have tens of billions of dollars at stake.

It provides a service which is entirely voluntary -- no one is forced to attend a game, watch one on teevee, listen on the radio, or read about on dead trees -- and yet, as we saw with the case of Tiger Woods, the revenues generated by this utterly unnecessary activity keep hundreds of media companies and secondary businesses solvent.

These businesses dance always on the edge of disaster -- trafficking in fickle, wispy products like yearning and nostalgia, with a public that could so very easily wake up one day and find the whole ritual too ridiculous and ridiculously expensive to play along anymore.

Like every other bubble of the last 30 years, the Home Run Bubble was a perverse outcome created by incentive structures which rewarded bad behavior, punished ethical behavior and placed a premium on secrecy and protecting corrupt institutions.

It is a lesson that we are obviously incapable of learning.
File this one under "bubbles as a general historical phenomenon."

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Saturday, January 09, 2010

Religious development is not just a matter of chronology


Kamal Al-Solaylee's Yemeni family is a lot more conservative now than it was in 1975, when the picture above was taken. Al-Solaylee talks about this in a Globe and Mail article.

Isn't this about the time a teenaged Osama bin Laden was touring Sweden?

Juan Cole has an interesting post
on outright radicalization, namely the radicalization of Humam al-Balaw, the double agent who killed a number of CIA operatives in Afghanistan. No surprise to me that a figure with his background -- educated Jordanian-Palestinian -- would be hostile to American policy. Quotation from Cole (bold is my emphasis):

What is fascinating is the way al-Balawi's grievances tie together the Iraq War, the ongoing Gaza atrocity, and the Western military presence in the Pushtun regions-- the geography of the Bush 'war on terror' was inscribed on his tortured mind.

Morally speaking, al-Qaeda is twisted and evil, and has committed mass murder. Neither the US nor Israel is morally responsible for violent crackpots being violent crackpots. Al-Qaeda or a Taliban affiliate turned al-Balawi to the dark side. Gandhi and Martin Luther King taught us the proper response to social injustice (and it should not be forgotten that Gandhi had a significant following among the Pashtuns). But from a social science, explanatory point of view, what we have to remember is that there can be a handful of al-Balawis, or there can be thousands or hundreds of thousands. It depends on how many Abu Ghraibs, Fallujahs, Lebanons and Gazas the United States initiates or supports to the hilt. Unjust wars and occupations radicalize people. The American Right wing secretly knows this, but likes the vicious circle it produces. Wars make profits for the military-industrial complex, and the resulting terrorism terrifies the clueless US public and helps hawks win elections, allowing them to pursue further wars. And so it goes, until the Republic is bankrupted and in ruins and its unemployed have to live in tent cities.

So, yes, this al-Balawi person was going to help Jordan and the US find al-Qaeda leaders Usama Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. Sure he was. Walmart does better background checks on its store clerks than the CIA and Jordanian intelligence did on this guy.

You also may want to read the comments to that post.

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Airport security


I was flying this week and had the opportunity to test out the new scanning system on my way home. Unfortunately I didn't get to see how I looked -- I just know it presumably confirmed that I wasn't carrying any dangerous items.

On that trip my luggage contained some heavy pieces of metal -- family silver, a big tuned windchime made of hollow tubes, and a mantel clock from the 19th century. When we got home we found notices from the Transportation Safety Administration that the luggage had been checked and if TSA busted something, well, sorry but those are the breaks. I found that reassuring. They ought to be able to catch suspicious tubes etc. in my luggage.

It was all dealt with without anyone being obnoxious.

Update: Then there is this.

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Hard-hitting quote


From the New York Times, on America's imperial overstretch affecting relations with Yemen:

The administration doubled Yemen’s economic aid last year, but as Barbara K. Bodine, another former ambassador, pointed out, the amount “works out to $1.60 per Yemeni.”

“That won’t even buy you a cup of coffee in Yemen,” she added, “and they invented coffee.”


Ethiopians, BTW, have a widely-accepted claim on coffee.

Image:Yemen Hufashi green coffee beans.

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Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Defeat by 1000 cuts?

Mark LeVine in Al Jazeera:
Indeed, far from heralding a more successful US effort to stamp out Islamist terrorism, the soon to be deepening footprint in Yemen is a sure sign of America's defeat in the war against violent extremism in the Muslim world...

Think about it. One angry young man with about three ounces (around 80 grams) of explosive material, $2,000, and a pair of specially tailored underwear has completely disrupted the US aviation system.

It does not even matter that he failed to blow up the plane.

The costs associated with preventing the next attack from succeeding will measure in the tens of billions of dollars - new technologies, added law enforcement and security personnel on and off planes, lost revenues for airline companies and more expensive plane tickets, and of course, the expansion of the 'war on terror' full on to yet another country, Yemen.

And what happens when the next attacker turns out to have received ideological or logistical training in yet another country? Perhaps in Nigeria, which is home to a strong and violent Salafi movement, or anyone of a dozen other African, Gulf, Middle Eastern or South East Asian countries where al-Qaeda has set up shop?

Will the US ramp up its efforts in a new country each time there is an attempted attack, putting US "boots on the ground" against an enemy that is impossible to defeat?

Such a policy would fulfill al-Qaeda's wildest dreams, as the US suffers death by a thousand cuts, bleeding out in an ever wider web of interconnected and unsustainable global conflicts.
Looking at US initiatives since 2001 it is hard to day he's wrong.

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Monday, January 04, 2010

Yemen and al-Qaeda


A discouraging report from an expert in the journal Foreign Policy. Desertification meets terrorism.

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Saturday, January 02, 2010

Torture is still on the table

Andrew Sullivan is one of the few prominent commentators trying to roll back the easy approval of torture as a reasonable or even necessary tactic which of course the United States must use (bold indicates my emphasis):

The Bush administration treated the shoe-bomber exactly as the Obama administration has treated the pantie-bomber - and convicted him the way no one has yet convicted anyone directly connected to 9/11. But after years of banging the drum for torture as a routine tool for US government, and accountable only to one supreme leader, the right has now shifted the goalposts again. The ticking time bomb is now an ancient criterion. Torture, for Cheney, is about treating every seized terror suspect as an intelligence target, and the entire system he created - of lawless prisons, disappearances, black sites, freezing cells, stress position shackles, upright coffins, neck-braces to slam prisoners repeatedly against plywood walls, waterboards, sensory deprivation techniques, dietary manipulation, forced-feeding, threats against relatives and children - was designed for torture as its end.

Marc Thiessen, one of those most committed to institutionalizing torture as part of the Western tradition, wants to torture the Detroit pantie-bomber:

It likely would not be necessary to use the waterboard to get Abdulmutallab to talk — only 3 terrorists underwent it and only 30 had any enhanced techniques used at all. But the vast majority of Americans have it right: You don’t put an enemy combatant who just committed an act of war into the criminal-justice system — and you certainly don’t give him a lawyer and tell him “you have the right to remain silent.” You make him tell you what he knows so you can prevent new attacks.

There is a lie in this, of course. Far, far more than thirty people were subjected to the torture techniques Cheney borrowed from the Gestapo, the Communist Chinese and the Khmer Rouge. Hundreds were treated this way at Abu Ghraib, Camp Cropper, Camp Nama (under the authority of Stanley McChrystal), Bagram and in many secret sites taken over from the KGB (yes, I'm not making this up!) in Eastern Europe.

But here's the critical line:

You make him tell you what he knows so you can prevent new attacks.

That's the line that defines torture. If you can impose enough mental or physical pain or suffering to make someone tell you something you want to hear you have forced them to say something, true or false, to get the torture to stop. The fact of the matter is: this is illegal under any rational understanding of domestic and international law. In fact, domestic and international law mandates that governments do not even contemplate such measures, especially in extreme circumstances.

So National Review is urging law-breaking at the very highest levels of government. They are urging an extra-legal, extra-constitutional apparatus to seize and torture terror suspects outside of ticking time bomb scenarios as a matter of first resort. And yes, if they are advocating it against the pantie-bomber now, days after his capture, it is a first resort.

This is how far Cheney and the pro-torture camp have moved the debate, and why Obama's calm attempt to overlook it is dangerous in the message it sends. What the Cheneyites themselves once refused to do, with Reid, they are now demanding Obama do to the pantie-bomber.

More here.

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Sunday, December 20, 2009

The end of American exceptionalism

Mark LeVine says:
The awarding of the Peace Prize to Obama reads like a desperate attempt to resuscitate the discredited idea of a "Great Man" of history ushering in a new era. It is an understandable fantasy, given the magnitude of the problems the world confronts.

But it distracts from the reality that it will be movements from below, however imperfect and irrational they can be, that will create, in Obama's words, "the world that ought to be," not leaders from above, however audacious their rhetoric.

In that regard, perhaps the most historically significant aspect of Obama's speech is its irrelevance on the ground.

Around the world people who once looked to the US for inspiration or support are taking matters into their own hands. No one is waiting for the US to save or even support them anymore.

More here.

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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

"Security contracting"


The official US military establishment, large and expensive as it is, has a substantial shadow, organizations like the former Blackwater. If you don't think these guys have political influence, which exists beyond the rather shaky limitations of constitutional government -- think again.

Here's a primer from At War in the New York Times
.
Note where I have bolded some material:
The news that Blackwater Worldwide (or its new name, Xe Services) collaborated with the Central Intelligence Agency was one news event that did not surprise me. I think the spate of recent news is just the tip of the iceberg.

It has been argued that our servicemen overseas do not receive enough attention in the news media about all that they do. But if that is the case, then it is doubly true for contractors, as their actions have been even more underrepresented in the news then the military’s.

When President Obama announced a troop surge in Afghanistan, many people focused strictly on the number of troops and the time line he presented. What was missing was a discussion of how many contractors would be needed to support the increase. Currently the ratio of United States servicemen to contractors is roughly one to one. Thus, the actual number of additional personnel members who will be added to the American footprint in Afghanistan could be closer to 60,000 — 30,000 additional military personnel members plus 30,000 contractors.

Security contracting is a business that will probably be a fixture in security operations for years to come. It is partly an outgrowth of a capitalist drive to reduce everything, even war, into purely fiscal terms. Contractors, be it those with weapons or those with cooking tools, are at first glance cheaper than deploying and sustaining an equivalent number of an all-volunteer military service members.

Contracts are close-ended, and hence there are no enduring requirements like providing these contractors with aid in expediting United States citizenship. Nor do they require open-ended benefits such as a G.I Bill, veteran benefits, disability payments or a retirement pension.

But their involvement has shown that war is not simply a sacrifice for those who fight it. It can also be a lucrative economic enterprise. Their deaths are also easier to accept because they are not even reported. No obligatory half-staff flags. This, in turn, reduces the overall cost of the human effort needed to sustain America’s war overseas as contractor casualties and deaths do not add to the tally of combat casualties that news organizations report.

The author also suggests that many veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan have in this recession better prospects as contractors than as anything else. Makes you wonder where this process of militarizing the US population will end. Or which country will be the first to be taken over by unhappy or ambitious "contractors."

Image: Landsknechts, German mercenaries of the 16th century.

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Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Juan Cole explains the limitations of the US media

Discussing coverage of yesterday's coordinated bombings in Baghdad, he makes this worthwhile point:

Aljazeera notes that some US media outlets did not bother to cover these attacks in Iraq, and wonders if the story will return. I think the answer depends on the journalistic integrity of the outlet. For many, the answer will be no. Many US media are nationalist media, and cover stories having to do with US national projects. Americans have already decided that Iraq was a mistake, and they know the US military is leaving, and so what happens there is not "news" as much of the corporate media defines it (i.e. a story that generates profits because of wide public interest in it).
This may strike some readers as too charitable, but I think it captures one dimension of the problem of the US media. If you really want to know what is going on in the world, you've got to sample other sources.

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Sunday, November 29, 2009

Someone in China doesn't want you to read Phil Paine

Specifically, the post A Gift of Earth and Water (November 16, 2009). Why? Have a look.

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Sunday, November 15, 2009

Taqwacore: The birth of punk Islam (2009)

Last night I saw this movie at the Windsor International Film Festival. Taqwacore is supposed to be a combination of "taqwa" ( God consciousness) and "hard core punk." I think the word is an invention of Michael Muhammed Knight, a young Muslim from New York State whose immediate family is Roman Catholic. At some point in his life he thought, "What if a bunch of musicians got a house together and lived the true Muslim/punk life?" He wrote a novel called Taqwacore about the possibilities, and soon enough he was the center of a network of American Islamic punks who wanted to do it for real. Taqwacore the movie tells the story of what happened next, in the USA and Pakistan.

One of the most memorable scenes in the movie shows the band, of course called Taqwacore, playing for a convention of middle-aged, mainstream American Muslims in Chicago, who are so offended by the hard-core presentation, and the use of a female lead singer, that they call the police to eject the band. At the same time, all the 15-year-old daughters, dressed in hijab, are giggling and smiling and grooving to this rebellious music.

And then there is the confidence that these Americans have that they can take the true spirit of Islam to Pakistan, again with mixed results.

I found the whole thing as American as... Walt Whitman and Jack Kerouac. It's one more version of On the Road.

The trailer is here. Do have a look.

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Tuesday, November 03, 2009

You can't trust anything these days: mixing up Kentucky and Tennessee

Patrick Neilsen Hayden at Making Light (thanks Brad DeLong):
John Keegan, author of the excellent The Face of Battle (1976) and many other books, is possibly the most widely-respected military historian alive. James M. McPherson is an eminent historian of the American Civil War; his Pulitzer Prize-winning Battle Cry of Freedom (1988) is often called the best single-volume history of that conflict.

Keegan has now published his own history of the American Civil War, and McPherson has reviewed it in the New York Times. And by “reviewed,” I mean “discredited it for the ages,” if even only a portion of the factual errors McPherson cites are in fact present in Keegan’s book.

As usual at Making Light, the comments are well worth reading, and in this case add a great deal to the topic at hand.

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Sunday, November 01, 2009

Late for Hallowe'en: Boo!

US figures. From Mark Thoma via Brad DeLong.

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Friday, October 30, 2009

An opinion on the Afghan war

I found this here, in comments:

Paul McGeough of the Sydney Morning Herald:

"McChrystal, I fear, has arrived too late – for Afghanistan and for Washington. He is asking for a huge act of faith on two fronts – first, by the international community; and second by the Afghan people. But after almost a decade of these constituencies having their trust abused, the miracle promised by McChrystal is a mirage, an ephemeral outcome that even with inevitable, subsequent requests for thousands more troops and billions more in reconstruction dollars likely will not eventuate. The general wants a blank cheque for a jalopy on which he offers no warranty."

Then there is this (from Thomas Ricks' main post):

Dave Lamborn emphasized that we can't help give the Afghans stability unless we have better continuity between American units deployed there:

"We have been in Afghanistan for 8 years now, but ... information is not being captured and passed along for each locality. In many cases each commander has to start from scratch, which is not only inefficient, but is also downright counterproductive. The locals get sick of having a new guy researching his backyard every year, he gets sick of having to adapt to a brand new personality, and he gets sick of seeing the new rookie commander kill innocent civilians or make other rookie mistakes. So it is natural that so many Afghans are currently ripe for the political plucking of the Taliban or Mujahadeeb."


Scary, yes?

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Thursday, October 29, 2009

Brad DeLong provides an approach to the last 20 years of world history

He calls it: Six Issues for a Panel... and it's US-centric, but worth some thought:

Twenty years ago--with the end of the Cold War--American policy got dammed up:

  • It was clear we needed to do something to balance the long-term social-insurance spending promises both parties were making with the long-term tax base, and we haven't.

  • It was clear--first for national-security and domestic-congestion reasons, and then for global-warming reasons as well--that we needed to start imposing Pigovian taxes on coal and oil-driven energy use, and we haven't.

  • It was clear that we needed to reform America's health care financing system, and we haven't.

  • It was clear that America, as the globe's sole hyperpower, had a unique opportunity to build a world in which we could live very comfortably and peacefully once we were no longer a hyperpower or even a superpower but instead only one (if we are lucky) of several great powers--and we haven't.

To this in the past three years we have added:

  • A recognition that the "Greenspanist" bet--deregulate finance, rely on financial company shareholders via corporate control to limit moral hazard, and bet that the Federal Reserve can lean up after any elephants that stampede through--was wrong. We need to restructure financial regulation--and we haven't.

  • A recognition that the "central problem of macroeconomics" has not in fact been solved. We need to solve it--both in the short run of recovery from this recession, and in the long run of creating a world that is net, whether through global imbalances or other factors, as vulnerable to episodes like this as our world turns out to be.

About these six issues, two questions:

  • Which of these six policy issues will--as many of them have been doing--continue to drift, and what damage will drifting do?

  • Which of these six policy issues will the Obama administration actually be able to address--and what will be the consequences for the world of how it addresses them?

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Thursday, October 15, 2009

I'm shocked! Shocked!

From the New York Times Magazine:

Worse yet, for all of America’s time in Afghanistan — for all the money and all the blood — the lack of accomplishment is manifest wherever you go. In Garmsir, there is nothing remotely resembling a modern state that could take over if America and its NATO allies left. Tour the country with a general, and you will see very quickly how vast and forbidding this country is and how paltry the effort has been.

And finally, there is the government in Kabul. President Hamid Karzai, once the darling of the West, rose to the top of nationwide elections in August on what appears to be a tide of fraud. The Americans and their NATO allies are confronting the possibility that the government they are supporting, building and defending is a rotten shell.
Come on now, possibility? These people should be old enough to remember the Vietnam War.

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Saturday, October 10, 2009

Obama's Nobel


When something big (or at least noisy) like this happens, I don't feel obliged to add an opinion that has already been expressed, more or less.

However, if anyone actually cares what I as an individual think, here are two posts that are close to my take:

Juan Cole, Obama as Nobelist, Obama as game-changer.

Nashville fan at Daily Kos, Nobel Shock shows America oblivious to its reign of terror.

Image: The Nobel Peace Center in Oslo.

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Monday, September 21, 2009

Meet the Afghan Army: Is It a Figment of Washington's Imagination?

This is one title of an article by Ann Jones in Tomdispatch.com and the Huffington Post that simply must be read. Will any Canadian MP have the guts to ask the Government where the Afghan Army is?


The killer excerpt (lots more, it's a long and detailed article):

The Invisible Men

What is there to show for all this remarkably expensive training? Although in Washington they may talk about the 90,000 soldiers in the Afghan National Army, no one has reported actually seeing such an army anywhere in Afghanistan. When 4,000 U.S. Marines were sent into Helmand Province in July to take on the Taliban in what is considered one of its strongholds, accompanying them were only about 600 Afghan security forces, some of whom were police. Why, you might ask, didn't the ANA, 90,000 strong after eight years of training and mentoring, handle Helmand on its own? No explanation has been offered. American and NATO officers often complain that Afghan army units are simply not ready to "operate independently," but no one ever speaks to the simple question: Where are they?

My educated guess is that such an army simply does not exist. It may well be true that Afghan men have gone through some version of "Basic Warrior Training" 90,000 times or more. When I was teaching in Afghanistan from 2002 to 2006, I knew men who repeatedly went through ANA training to get the promised Kalashnikov and the pay. Then they went home for a while and often returned some weeks later to enlist again under a different name.

In a country where 40% of men are unemployed, joining the ANA for 10 weeks is the best game in town. It relieves the poverty of many families every time the man of the family goes back to basic training, but it's a needlessly complicated way to unintentionally deliver such minimal humanitarian aid. Some of these circulating soldiers are aging former mujahidin -- the Islamist fundamentalists the U.S. once paid to fight the Soviets -- and many are undoubtedly Taliban.

American trainers have taken careful note of the fact that, when ANA soldiers were given leave after basic training to return home with their pay, they generally didn't come back. To foil paycheck scams and decrease soaring rates of desertion, they recently devised a money-transfer system that allows the soldiers to send pay home without ever leaving their base. That sounds like a good idea, but like many expensive American solutions to Afghan problems, it misses the point. It's not just the money the soldier wants to transfer home, it's himself as well.

...

Recently Karen DeYoung noted in the Washington Post that the Taliban now regularly use very sophisticated military techniques -- "as if the insurgents had attended something akin to the U.S. Army's Ranger school, which teaches soldiers how to fight in small groups in austere environments." Of course, some of them have attended training sessions which teach them to fight in "austere environments," probably time and time again. If you were a Talib, wouldn't you scout the training being offered to Afghans on the other side? And wouldn't you do it more than once if you could get well paid every time?

Have a cheery day!

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Wednesday, September 02, 2009

The burning planet

Monday, August 31, 2009

Imperial decadence -- the Fisher King bleeds

I have been trying to keep most of my political commentary off this blog (by putting it on the even more ephemeral Facebook) but sometimes, like Sir Percival, you have to say something about an event that seems to indicate what direction things are going. Why is the Fisher King bleeding? Better find out!

The event today is about Today -- the US TV news show. It has just hired the eminently qualified Jenna Hager, daughter of George W. Bush, as a reporter.

Two comments from other bloggers pretty much nail the significance.

From Glenn Greenwald at Salon
:

They should convene a panel for the next Meet the Press with Jenna Bush Hager, Luke Russert, Liz Cheney, Megan McCain and Jonah Goldberg, and they should have Chris Wallace moderate it. They can all bash affirmative action and talk about how vitally important it is that the U.S. remain a Great Meritocracy because it's really unfair for anything other than merit to determine position and employment. They can interview Lisa Murkowski, Evan Bayh, Jeb Bush, Bob Casey, Mark Pryor, Jay Rockefeller, Dan Lipinksi, and Harold Ford, Jr. about personal responsibility and the virtues of self-sufficiency. Bill Kristol, Tucker Carlson and John Podhoretz can provide moving commentary on how America is so special because all that matters is merit, not who you know or where you come from. There's a virtually endless list of politically well-placed guests equally qualified to talk on such matters.

About this latest hiring by NBC, Atrios observed: "if only the Villager values of nepotism and torture could be combined somehow." The American Prospect's Adam Serwer quicky noted that they already have been: "Liz Cheney." Liz Cheney is really the perfect face of Washington's political culture, a perfect manifestation of all the rotting diseases that define it and a pure expression of what our country has become and the reasons for its virtual ruin. She should really be on every political TV show all day every day. It's almost as though things can't really be expressed thoroughly without including her. Jenna Bush as a new NBC "reporter" on The Today Show -- at a time when every media outlet is firing and laying off real reporters -- is a very nice addition though.

UPDATE: Just to underscore a very important, related point: all of the above-listed people are examples of America's Great Meritocracy, having achieved what they have solely on the basis of their talent, skill and hard work -- The American Way. By contrast, Sonia Sotomayor -- who grew up in a Puerto Rican family in Bronx housing projects; whose father had a third-grade education, did not speak English and died when she was 9; whose mother worked as a telephone operator and a nurse; and who then became valedictorian of her high school, summa cum laude at Princeton, a graduate of Yale Law School, and ultimately a Supreme Court Justice -- is someone who had a whole litany of unfair advantages handed to her and is the poster child for un-American, merit-less advancement.

I just want to make sure that's clear.


Note: if you don't follow political geneology, you may want to look up Greenwald's panelists on the Web.

And from Patrick Nielsen Hayden:


Our children and grandchildren will remember these strutting second- and third-generation media peacocks they way we look back at the White Russian officer corps—as examples of astonishing decadence. They will wonder how these people, out of all those who could be discussing the day’s events, were the ones chosen to be on television, day after day, as the world careened toward ruin.
Just to be clear, I don't think that either of them is overstating the case. This really is the news of the day, the item you have to know and think about.

Thanks to Brad DeLong for these links.

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Tuesday, August 25, 2009

War and American society


Wonder of wonders, a substantial piece on a meta-question of public policy in the New York Times (not of course written by a staff writer). Army captain Timothy Hsia writes on the place of war in American society, and civil-military relations, and his readers respond with not a single stupid, canned rant. I bet the majority of those commenters are at presently in the military or veterans (an easy bet if you read what they have to say).

To tempt you to read the whole article and comments, let me quote one of the better sections:

At West Point one of the most spirited debates I witnessed as a cadet revolved around a discussion concerning civil-military relations. The class was divided into three camps, one group which argued that the military was a microcosm of American society, a small circle within a larger circle. Another group claimed that the military shared some beliefs with society, but also had values which were incompatible, and hence the relationship was better represented by two circles which overlapped in some areas. A third group of cadets disputed both groups, and contended that the American military and society were really two distinct circles sharing only one point in common, a commitment to the Constitution.

The discussion and questions raised in that class have increasing relevance as the duration of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have lasted longer than the combined time which the United States was engaged in fighting during World War I, World War II, and the Korean War.

The questions raised should not be confused with shouldering burdens, as the recession’s impact has been felt far and widespread amongst many Americans who are struggling to put food on the table and find jobs.

Moreover, the new G.I. Bill, the first lady’s outspoken commitment to military families, and the overall support by Americans for the troops has been incredible. But can Americans honestly say this country is at war, when less than one percent of the country wages war? Perhaps the blanket support for troops is merely a coping mechanism for Americans in order to wash away any psychological discomfort for not feeling more involved in the nation’s supposed wars.

If this is the case, then the country could be entering an era of persistent conflict, not because of the threats the U.S. faces, but rather because society has become inoculated to the concept of the ever-present war. Has the idea of war become less of an aversion as long as it means not me or my family?

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Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Dixie down

I feel compelled to post most of the material following from Brad DeLong's blog, because "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" is the only depiction of the Civil War, historical or fictional, that has ever made me feel any sympathy for those who fought for the Confederacy:

Thus Robbie Robertson [member of "The Band" who wrote the song in 1969] incites the ire of Ta-Nehisi Coates, who believes that we have very different memories of the Winter of '65, and don't need to invent Robertson's particular one:

Ta-Nehisi Coates: What you see above is the train of Rebels fleeing the city, as the Union troops enter from the other side. I was thinking about the Richmond yesterday, and The Band's "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down."... I'm told that it's a great song, and I don't so much doubt this, as I doubt my own magnanimity. I'm reminded of one of my father's favorite quotes, "The African's right to be wrong is sacred." Or Aaron McGruder's line, "I reserve the right to be a nigger." I can no more marvel at The Band then a Sioux can marvel at the cinematography of "The Died With Their Boots On." I wouldn't fault the man who could, but it's not me My empathy is a resource to be rationed like all others. My right to be wrong is sacred. My right to be a nigger is reserved. I started to play the song yesterday, and stopped myself. Again, I was angry. Again, another story about the blues of Pharaoh, and the people are invisible. The people are always invisible....

The expectation that someone else will tell your story for you, will write your ballads for you, will reconcile your history for you, is foolish and vain.... I'm no Robbie Robertson, but I do carry the words of my old, magical people:

I have just returned from the city of Richmond; my regiment was among the first that entered that city. I marched at the head of the column, and soon I found myself called upon by the officers and men of my regiment to make a speech, with which, of course, I readily complied. A vast multitude assembled on Broad Street, and I was aroused amid the shouts of ten thousand voices, and proclaimed for the first time in that city freedom to all mankind. After which the doors of all the slave pens were thrown open, and thousands came out shouting and praising God, and Father, or Master Abe, as they termed him. In this mighty consternation I became so overcome with tears that I could not stand up under the pressure of such fullness of joy in my own heart. I rested to gain strength, so I lost many important topics worthy of note.

Among the densely crowded concourse there were parents looking for children who had been sold south of this state in tribes, and husbands came for the same purpose; here and there one was singled out in the ranks, and an effort was made to approach the gallant and marching soldiers, who were too obedient to orders to break ranks.We continued our march as far as Camp Lee, at the extreme end of Broad Street, running westwards. In camp the multitude followed, and everybody could participate in shaking the friendly but hard hands of the poor slaves.

Among the many broken-hearted mothers looking for their children who had been sold to Georgia and elsewhere, was an aged woman, passing through the vast crowd of colored, inquiring for one by the name of Garland H. White, who had been sold from her when a small boy, and was bought by a lawyer named Robert Toombs, who lived in Georgia. Since the war has been going on she has seen Mr. Toombs in Richmond with troops from his state, and upon her asking him where his body-servant Garland was, he replied: "He ran off from me at Washington, and went to 'Canada. I have since learned that he is living somewhere in the State of Ohio." Some of the boys knowing that I lived in Ohio, soon found me and said, "Chaplain, here is a lady that wishes to see you." I quickly turned, following the soldier until coming to a group of colored ladies. I was questioned as follows:

"What is your name, sir?" "My name is Garland H. White." "What was your mother's name?" "Nancy." "Where was you born?" "In Hanover County, in this State." "Where was you sold from?" "From this city." "What was the name of the man who bought you?" "Robert Toombs." "Where did he live?" "In the State of Georgia." "Where did you leave him?" "At Washington." "Where did you go then?" "To Canada." "Where do you live now?" "In Ohio." "This is your mother, Garland, whom you are now talking to, who has spent twenty years of grief about her son."

I cannot express the joy I felt at this happy meeting of my mother and other friends. But suffice it to say that God is on the side of the righteous, and will in due time reward them. I have witnessed several such scenes among the other colored regiments.

Late in the afternoon, we were honored with his Excellency, the President of the United States, Lieutenant-General Grant, and other gentlemen of distinction. We made a grand parade through most of the principal streets of the city, beginning at Jeff Davis's mansion, and it appeared to me that all the colored people in the world had collected in that city for that purpose. I never saw so many colored people in all my life, women and children of all sizes running after Father, or Master Abraham, as they called him. To see the colored people, one would think they had all gone crazy. The excitement at this period was unabated, the tumbling of walls, the bursting of shells, could be heard in all directions, dead bodies being found, rebel prisoners being brought in, starving women and children begging for greenbacks and hard tack, constituted theorder of the day. The Fifth [Massachusetts] Cavalry; colored, were sfill dashing through the streets to protect and preserve the peace, and see that no one suffered violence, they having fought so often over the walls of Richmond, driving the enemy at every point.

Among the first to enter Richmond was the 28th U.S.C.T. better known as the First Indiana Colored Volunteers. . Some people do not seem to believe that the colored troops were the first that entered Richmond. Why, you need not feel at all timid in giving the truthfulness of my assertion to the four winds of the heavens, and let the angels re-echo it back to the earth, that the colored soldiers of the Army of the James were the first to enter the city of Richmond. I was with them, and am still with them, and am willing to stay with them until freedom is proclaimed throughout the world. Yes, we will follow this race of men in search of liberty through the whole Island of Cuba. All the boys are well, and send their love to all the kind ones at home."

Chaplain Garland H. White,
28th USCI, Richmond, Virginia,
April 12, 1865; CR, April 22, 1865

White's letter can be found in the book A Grand Army Of Black Men (p. 175.) For the serious civil war nerd, this book, a massive collection of letters written by black soldiers during the War, is indispensable.

Then again, maybe Robbie Robertson is saying something else. Virgil Cain may say so, but we all know that the real killer of Cain's brother Abel wasn't no Yankee stranger from afar, was he?

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Friday, July 03, 2009

On her way to jail?

From the Guardian and every place else:
Alaska governor Sarah Palin, former Republican vice-presidential candidate, said today she is resigning from office at the end of the month, raising speculation that she would focus on a run for the White House in the 2012 race.

My speculation, on the other hand, is that a humongous scandal is about to break and that she'll be spending months if not years in courtrooms and committee rooms.

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Tuesday, June 23, 2009

It's not a show for the spectators

US coverage of world events is very Washington-centric. Like domestic political issues, international ones are usually seen as an opportunity to show that one is on the right side, or that one's domestic opponents are on the wrong side, or if you're a journalist, to write a real horse-racing style piece-- who is ahead, who fell on his or her face. This all too easily slops over on us next door.

Joe Klein, a political columnist at Time, wrote a column today which in part says what I feel about this tendency. As others have put it, "it's not about us," what Iranians are doing comes from their own needs and perceptions, although it is important to us and the rest of the world and we will be affected. We should remember that simple phrase while we wait to see what emerges from Iran.

Joe Klein:

Again, the crucial fact about the protesters is this: they may hate the Khamenei-Ahmadinejad regime--who wouldn't?--but that doesn't make them particular fans of the United States. I have yet to meet an Iranian who does not believe that the United States gave poison gas to Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war, gas which injured thousands upon thousands of Iranian men, who still live, incapacitated, in the shadows of that society. (Indeed, the attention Ahmadinejad has paid to the Iran-Iraq war veterans and their families is a major source of his extensive support among the Iranian working class.)

The protesters admire our freedom, but they are appalled--and insulted--by our neocolonialist condescension over the past 50 years. The reformers, and even some conservatives, consider Ahmadinejad the George W. Bush of Iran--a crude, unsophisticated demagogue, who puts a strong Potemkin face to the world without very much knowledge of what the rest of the world is about. This was an anology that came up in interview after interview, with reformers and conservatives alike.

Certainly, Bush the Younger, McCain and the rest of that crowd have absolutely no idea who the Iranian people are. The are not Hungarians in 1956. They do not believe they live in an Evil Empire. They still support their revolution. They shout "Allahu Akbar" in the streets, which was the rallying cry of 1979. They are proud of their nuclear program, even if many have doubts about the efficacy of weaponizing the enriched uraniam that is being produced. They want greater freedom, to be sure. And they believe that the Khamenei-Ahmadinejad forces--and the militarized regime they have empowered, the millions of basiji and revolutionary guards--is a profound perversion of that revolution. They are right. They deserve our prayers and support. But they don't need grandstanding from an American President, and they certainly don't need histrionics from blustery old John McCain.

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Sunday, June 07, 2009

Footnote people


There is a Statuary Hall in the US Capitol, and Thomas Starr King's statue has been removed to make room for another Californian. The New York Times reflects on the moment:

Stop a moment, please, to say goodbye to Thomas Starr King. After more than 75 years of quiet and unwavering government service, he has lost his job of representing California in Statuary Hall in the United States Capitol. He has ceded his spot to Ronald Reagan, whose statue was unveiled on Wednesday.

Each state gets to honor two citizens in Statuary Hall. For California, first and second prize now belong to the Gipper and Junípero Serra, the Spanish friar who founded all those missions. Third prize is you’re fired, which for King means a one-way ticket to Sacramento.

He wasn’t a powerful politician or businessman. He was sickly and funny-looking. ...

He was a Unitarian preacher, and an amazing one at that; spellbinding, said people who heard him. He spoke up for slaves, for the poor, for union members and the Chinese. Most memorably, he spoke up for the Union, roaming the state on exhausting lecture tours, campaigning for Abraham Lincoln and a Republican State Legislature, imploring California not to join the Confederacy. He succeeded, but he did not live to see the Union victory. He died of diphtheria in 1864, age 39.

“He saved California to the Union,” this paper wrote, quoting Gen. Winfield Scott.

Statuary Hall is an exclusive club, but its members are not all well remembered. ...it would be hard to fill a schoolbus with New Yorkers who know Robert Livingston, one of the lesser founding fathers, and George Clinton, not the guy with Parliament Funkadelic, but the other one who was Thomas Jefferson’s vice president.

And that’s as it should be. Boldface names get all the attention. The Capitol needs a place for footnote-face names. Isn’t that what bronze and marble are for, to affix dimming reputations and outlast frail memories?

Here, then, a final toast to the worthy but obscure. To the frail patriot Thomas Starr King. And to Gov. George Washington Glick, bumped by Kansas in 2003 for Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Of course, in the long view even Eisenhower will be forgotten, unlikely as that might seem this week.

Image: today's footnote person.

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Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Diversity on the US Supreme Court


An interesting New Yorker piece points out that what constitutes "diversity" in US Supreme Court appointments has a long and winding history. It also makes a few other good points:

As with earlier breakthrough nominations, Obama’s selection of Sotomayor has stirred some old-fashioned ugliness, and in that alone it serves as a reminder of the value of a diverse bench and society. Some anonymous portrayals of the Judge offered the kind of patronizing critiques (“not that smart”) that often greet outsiders at white-male preserves. Women who have integrated such bastions will be familiar, too, with the descriptions of her temperament (“domineering”), which are of a variety that tend to reveal more about the insecurity of male holdovers than about the comportment of female pioneers. The pernicious implication of such views is that white males, who constitute a hundred and six of the hundred and ten individuals who have served on the Court [emphasis SM], made it on merit, and that Sotomayor is somehow less deserving.

At the Court, as in American life, the rules of diversity have changed. Regional differences faded long ago. The fact that two Arizonans, O’Connor and William H. Rehnquist, served together for almost a quarter century mattered little to anyone. Religious tensions have also cooled. By the time Bill Clinton named Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer to the Court, the fact that both are Jewish (and replaced non-Jewish predecessors) was little more than a curiosity. If Sotomayor is confirmed, there will be six Catholics on the Court, which is also of minor significance. George W. Bush appointed John G. Roberts, Jr., and Samuel A. Alito, Jr., because they are conservative, not because they are Catholic. (The Catholic Brennan was the Court’s greatest liberal.)

Thanks to Talking Points Memo for the link.

Image: The US Supreme Court in October.

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Sunday, May 03, 2009

Torture works, of course. But for whom?

For the Dark Lords of Torture, who are living in comfort and respectability. So far.

Update: but then there's the reassuring fact that the fourth-graders care.

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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

CBC One at its best

I spent a lot of time in the car this past weekend, much of it listening to the CBC. I am quite the CBC fan, it is one of the things that made me a Canadian, but it doesn't always suit my mood. Those of you who listen too know what I mean. This time however, I won the radio lottery.

On Saturday morning's edition of Go!, Brent Bambury conducted "The Hunt for Canada's Alt Anthem." As the website puts it:

In tough uncertain times, it always pays to have a contingency plan... for EVERYthing. This morning, GO! is on the hunt for Canada's alt anthem.

We love O Canada, but we wonder what its hip 2009 B-side would sound like.
Of course, this idea had great potential for lameness, even lameness on a cosmic scale. But although one of the three candidate songs was only true and apt, the other two were BRILLIANT! One of them had me sitting in the car with my mouth agape, amazed (not for the first time) at how, sometimes, people can rise to the occasion. With so much mean-minded insanity out there in the world, it was great to hear some fun, sane stuff coming from my compatriots.

Was this what Marconi was aiming for?

Here is a page where you can listen to them yourself. They are the three excerpts listed under 03/28/2009, from Amanda Martinez, Tiny Bill Cody and the Word Burglar.

Go ahead, take a chance on the mothership.

On Sunday, on the way home, the show Tapestry was equally good in a completely different way. Usually Tapestry drives me a bit nuts, it being a show that specializes in earnest interviews with people about their unremarkable spiritual experiences. I only listen to it in the car, and not always then. Sunday's show, however, was fascinating. Mary Hynes talked to Michael Muhammad Knight, a formerly Catholic convert to Islam from upper New York State (the Burned Over District lives!). Discouraged by his inability to be a good Muslim by his own standards, Knight wrote a novel about a fictional punk rock house full of young punk rock Muslims, all of them searching for the true way. Knight started photocopying the book for would-be readers, and now The Taqwacores is a hit. You can hear the whole interview here.

I found it interesting that Knight shares an idea I've had-- that any reasonably successful religious tradition expands to include many disparate elements; as he said, "Islam is what Muslims do," and quite evidently they do many different things. I came to this as a historian, he as a believer. It was not surprising to me to hear such a thought from an American from the Burned Over District (a region known for new, even anarchic movements since the early 19th century). I would be happy if I heard people from Pakistan same the same thing occasionally. But then, maybe they do and I'm just too far away to hear it.

By the way, the current government wants to cut back on all this wonderful stuff from the CBC -- the Conservatives have always hated it. If you value the CBC and its potential, do something. Call or write your MP.

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Friday, March 27, 2009

Obama's Afghan policy -- nuts?

Dan Froomkin, one of the few sensible voices at the Washington Post, had a good column today on Obama's Afghanistan pronouncement. Froomkin often counterposes critical voices in the media to the news of the day, and today he did so with good effect, showing that Obama's so-to-speak policy in Afghanistan can't stand up to the critique that Sen. Obama made of George W. Bush's Iraq policy a few years ago: what if it doesn't work? What's the exit strategy?

Just as worthwhile as the Froomkin column are the comments by readers that follow. They are very instructive, mixing the usual fantasyland hawkish overconfidence with some reality-based criticism.

I wonder if any of my students who are now reading David Edwards' Before Taliban think that Obama's plan has any chance at all?

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Monday, March 23, 2009

One sentence that says so much about the Middle East


Concluding an article published by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy:
Given current regional trends, the fight to reconstruct Gaza is a contest that Israel, Fatah and Washington cannot afford to lose.
In other words, on the issue of who controls reconstruction funds, these three are allies against Hamas.

Image: Gaza damage.

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Friday, March 13, 2009

Breaking: United States Department of Justice promises to obey international law

Here is part of a DoJ announcement taken from Talking Points Memo:
In a filing today with the federal District Court for the District of Columbia, the Department of Justice submitted a new standard for the government's authority to hold detainees at the Guantanamo Bay Detention Facility. The definition does not rely on the President's authority as Commander-in-Chief independent of Congress's specific authorization. It draws on the international laws of war to inform the statutory authority conferred by Congress. It provides that individuals who supported al Qaeda or the Taliban are detainable only if the support was substantial. And it does not employ the phrase "enemy combatant."

The Department also submitted a declaration by Attorney General Eric Holder stating that, under executive orders issued by President Obama, the government is undertaking an interagency review of detention policy for individuals captured in armed conflicts or counterterrorism operations as well as a review of the status of each detainee held at Guantanamo. The outcome of those reviews may lead to further refinements of the government's position as it develops a comprehensive policy.

"As we work towards developing a new policy to govern detainees, it is essential that we operate in a manner that strengthens our national security, is consistent with our values, and is governed by law," said Attorney General Holder. "The change we've made today meets each of those standards and will make our nation stronger."

Now let's see the follow-through. Canadian Prime Minister Steven Harper may not care about the treatment of Omar Khadr, but I do.

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Thursday, March 05, 2009

You speak for me, Jon Stewart

Yesterday on the Daily Show, Jon Stewart played an old clip of a CNBC "business reporter" asking one of the biggest crooks on Wall Street whether it was fun being a billionaire. Stewart's response was entirely appropriate: "I don't know which of those guys I'd rather see in jail."

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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The 300 Spartans (1962) and Charlie Wilson's War (2007): two historical movies

Last night I took it easy and watched two movies: The 300 Spartans, the 60s film that inspired the Frank Miller graphic novel and the recent movie The 300, and the much more recent Charlie Wilson's War, which tells the story of a Texas congressman who took the initiative in financing covert operations to counter the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, with, as IMDB says, unexpected consequences. They really provided an interesting contrast in filmic style.

I saw The 300 about a year ago and enjoyed it, though I did not think it was a particularly serious movie. Lots of perhaps unintentional laughs in that treatment of the battle of Thermopylae. Certainly in decades to come, people will kill themselves laughing at the cultural hangups revealed in the movie. But it was enjoyable. At least once.

Like Frank Miller, I saw the older movie treatment as a child and I wondered how the previous film would hold up. The answer is, not very well at all. It had its virtues: Greek landscapes, reasonably good depiction of military operations, some good sets (for instance, Xerxes' royal pavilions). The story, however, was slow and plodding and really not very much truer to the real situation than the Frank Miller version. It was a movie made up of old Hollywood clichés of character, and if you have seen enough old movies you could've written it yourself. My guess is that very few people today would write something similar from scratch. The year 1962 as seen through this particular lens, seemed a long way back.

I am not familiar enough with the small details of US policy towards the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to critique Charlie Wilson's War as a depiction of history, but it certainly is a modern movie. Movies go a lot faster now, they are much more efficient in setting the scene and characters and establishing plot points. Of course this movie was produced by Mike Nichols and written by Aaron Sorkin, who are consummate pros, but what they are professional at is noteworthy.

Interestingly enough, this weekend I also saw the classic British flick Darling (1965), when Julie Christie burst upon the film scene and won an Academy award for one of her first roles. She was fabulous but so was everything else. It had that same efficiency of pacing that I noted in Charlie Wilson's War. Perhaps someone better acquainted with the history of film could tell me how unusual those qualities were when they appeared in Darling.

As for yesterday's two films as historical films, let me quote something that a friend of mine posted at her blog two days ago. Sandra Dodd said:
So I'm sewing and watching Brother Sun, Sister Moon, a movie [about St. Francis and St. Clare -- SM] I will love for life despite that criticism of those who can't appreciate religious-art in the form of a movie. Had it been a painting with discrepancies from the historical record, or a sculpture, or a medal, no one would care. But make it HUGE, with real scenery and real medieval buildings and costumes and music, and people say "the armor is crap" and "Clare wasn't that age," and blah blah. ART. Art.
You know, I hear a lot of that, too, and I too get impatient.

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Sunday, February 08, 2009

Cuneiform, politics, and international law


From the Tehran Times:

About 700 Iranologists and Iranian cultural heritage lovers have recently signed a petition asking President Barack Obama to prevent confiscation of Iran’s 300 Achaemenid clay tablets loaned to the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute.

The petition has been organized by the European Iranologist Society (Societas Iranologica Europaea, SIE) in its website www.societasiranologicaeu.org.

The petition reads the artifacts “being cultural property, should not be considered as a common property, whose financial value can be exploited for the purpose of legal compensation.”

“The antiquities belong to the cultural heritage of Iran on behalf of human kind and should therefore remain in public hands.

“We therefore, well aware of the separation of powers, nevertheless apply to you in order that this unconscionable decision with irreversible consequences should be avoided.

“A country such as the United States should not be complicit in the sale of the world’s cultural heritage.”

...

In spring 2006, U.S. District Court Judge Blanche Manning ruled that a group of people injured by a 1997 bombing in Israel could seize the 300 clay tablets loaned to the University of Chicago and the university cannot protect Iran’s ownership rights to the artifacts.

...

The tablets were discovered by the University of Chicago archaeologists in 1933 while they were excavating in Persepolis, the site of a major Oriental Institute excavation.

The artifacts bear cuneiform script explaining administrative details of the Achaemenid Empire from about 500 BC. They are among a group of tens of thousands of tablets and tablet fragments that were loaned to the university’s Oriental Institute in 1937 for study. [My emphasis, SM] A group of 179 complete tablets was returned in 1948, and another group of more than 37,000 tablet fragments was returned in 1951.

Image: One of the tablets, showing Old Persian written in cuneiform.

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