Saturday, December 31, 2005

Elijah Zarwan's Blog -- The Skeptic

The blog doesn't identify the blogmaster except by the name, Elijah Zarwan.
A Google Search turns up this:

Elijah Zarwan is a Cairo-based consultant for Human Rights Watch. He is the author of a report on freedom of expression and censorship online in the Middle East and North Africa. He has previously worked as a journalist and editor in the Middle East and the United States.
And from Global Voices:
Our friend Elijah Zarwan writes from Cairo, where he’s involved with a number of human rights efforts. He recently travelled to Alexandria to meet with MohammedMorsi and Malek Moustafa, Egyptian bloggers who’ve been working hard to document the arrest and detention of Abdolkarim Suleiman. Elijah, Mohammed, Malek and an human rights attorney met with Suleiman’s family, trying to learn more about the case...

After commenting on the Egyptian police raid and killing of Sudanese migrants in Cairo, here is part of what he has to say in today's post:

Reminds me of a time, oh, maybe six months before Gulf War II. I was in New York. A German-Israeli-American coworker brought me a Wall Street Journal opinion piece to read. It was the first time I’d seen the argument that a war in Iraq would unleash a domino effect of democratization on liberation across the Middle East articulated. I was amazed that any intelligent person (and the writer sounded like he knew what he was talking about) could argue this with a straight face. Surely anyone who’s spent a minute in the Middle East (outside Israel, I guess I should stipulate) would know this was bunk? That the war was far more likely to destabilize the regionand prompt more terrorist attacks in the Middle East and on U.S. soil?

So now we’ve seen years of anarchy and bloodshed in Iraq. We’ve seen Iraqis launch a large-scale attack in Jordan, previously (and still) a miraculous island of peace and stability wedged between Iraq, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Lebanon. If this report is true—and that’s a very big “if”—then we’ll also have seen Iraqis attacking Israel and prompting Israel to bomb southern Lebanon just as things are getting really ugly again in the Gaza Strip (See BBC and B’tselem).

So where has this democratic flowering taken hold in the Middle East? Lebanon? No, the crowds came out in response to a bombing, not the toppling of Saddam Hussein. Egypt? Have you read anything about the elections here? And the Kifayah movement took hold first with the Palestinian solidarity committees and gained strength with the antiwar protests in 2003. Other suggestions?

After the U.N. bombing in Baghdad (which, in retrospect, really seems like the tipping point), a friend asked me if I was gloating even a little, if I was enjoying my “I told you so” moment. I was horrified. This wasn’t about U.S. politics. This was about real people in Iraq. Since the war in Iraq had begun, I had hoped I was wrong, that everything would go swimmingly and that a wave of democracy really would sweep across the region. And if I was right, then my life, as a New Yorker, was in greater danger after April 2003 than it was in February 2003. How could I be happy?

But now, since I’ve confessed to having been in a hotel room in Jordan watching “Kill Bill II” for the second time when I should have been in Mostafa Mahmoud square, let me confess that I have sometimes felt a bit of smug “I told you so” satisfaction. I know that even if every Bush voter woke up tomorrow morning and realized how terribly wrong he’d been, that good wouldn’t be worth the life of one innocent victim. But another part of me can’t help feeling vindicated.

There's more.
Plenty more.
I'm beginning to wonder how long it is going to take until we get a wake-up call that what we are doing in the Middle East is not working out as planned and advertised.

Baghdad Taxi Dance

This is why I keep up with Abu Khaleel.

I was watching a short documentary on one of the many new TV channels the other day. The crew was accompanying a taxi driver around a day of ‘usual’ business in Baghdad describing his experiences with people, traffic jams and dangers.

The man, who seemed to be in his late 40’s, was an engineer who had left for Britain in 1989 and then went to Malaysia for a better job. He was laid off and took another job as a calligrapher of Qur’anic verses that took him to Abu Dhabi. He missed Baghdad and, according to his narrative, was prodded by his wife’s nagging. He came back home. The only job he found he could do was using his own car as a taxi.

This reminded me of the many taxi drivers I met over the past few years. In fact, taking a ride in a cab in Baghdad, and in other Iraqi towns, is almost always a unique experience.

Although there was always a law prohibiting the use of private cars as taxis, nobody bothered to enforce that law since the onset of those sanctions in 1990. You therefore meet all sorts of people working as taxi drivers; teenagers, granddads, university professors, civil servants, engineers, jobless army officers… and occasionally, the professional taxi driver.

Before the invasion, I rarely took a cab. Although I always hated traffic congestions, those were usually manageable before the unchecked rush of new cars, the total abandonment of traffic signals, traffic laws and the absence of traffic police rendered driving in Baghdad almost a unique and detestable experience. Now, the traffic police are back, but the numerous roadblocks, the various check points and the continuing disregard to all traffic laws still makes driving in Baghdad a nasty experience.

After the invasion, I began increasingly relying on taxis for a variety of reasons in addition to avoid driving. I used to take long walks for the benefit of my bad back, go to the internet shop etc. and then come back home in a taxi.

Taking a taxi in Baghdad has its own rituals. As soon as the taxi stops, he is told of the destination. If he doesn’t like it, he says so… sometimes apologizing, sometimes he just drives off. The price is then negotiated. Once that matter is settled, you get in. Men invariably take the front seat next to the driver and chat all the way to the destination. Women take the back seat and keep to themselves.

Following the usual greeting of “Allah bil Khair” the dance begins. Both driver and passenger start making tentative small talk to gauge one another for extreme views… or simply to determine where the other guy stands on the most important issues. The idea is to just touch on a few subjects and see the other’s reaction to them. This ‘dance’ usually takes about three minutes. Most people are very efficient and get that ritual out of the way in the minimum of time.

The driver is usually the more cautious party. He usually has to keep a long list of dangers in mind. Drivers know of too many stories of taxi drivers being stabbed or killed for their cars. Having an old run-down car is no guarantee of safety. Once that is done, a wide variety of topics, depending on the two people and their moods and interests, are talked about.

Like barbers, taxi drivers are usually full of stories. They meet so many different people everyday from all walks of life. If you can identify their personal filters and biases, you can learn a lot about the pulse of the street from a half hour taxi ride.

2005 comes to an end

Hodge-podge post coming up...

Cavalcade of bright minds
3 Quarks Daily has a neat line-up of snapshots of everyone in their blog, with a Monday Musing selection picked for each. I wish they had a better way to pick each of their best so that only the ones that I liked personally would appear. Sigh. Abbas Raza is all too modest. His most gripping Monday Musing is one I will not forget
He's baaaaack
After a year's hiatus The Dissident Frogman resolves to resume blogging. Something in me gets great satisfaction when I read takedowns of what passes for authority, even if the takedown comes from the right and is aimed at the left. Get a load of this:
To love Jesus, just because that - and a valid NRA membership - is a winner when one's little joy in life is to upset post-modern French deconstructivist drones and the mindless legions following Mr. 'M', Prophet by trade and Pedophile by taste.
Plus Jesus is really cool, and really big on free will - unlike a certain self-proclaimed prophet and revealed pedophile, and the deconstructed drones.
Progressive thought is down but not out
Lean Left has an essay that struggles manfully with some of the contradictions in thinking that continue to plague the cause. If "the cause" is redress for inequity and maltreatment of those at the bottom of all measurable ladders -- which it is -- then the challenge grows larger as prosperity seems to wash over the whole world.
...It is commonplace for conservatives to argue that there really isn’t any actual poverty in the US, because almost all “poor” families own a color TV and many own a car. I don’t know what line of reasoning leads to this conclusion (when has poverty been defined in terms of color TVs?); it seems to be based on a stereotype of what poverty is like (color TVs used to be expensive and owning one was a luxury; poor people can’t afford luxuries, so anyone who owns a color TV isn’t poor), with the conclusion that if actual poor people’s lives don’t match the stereotype, they can’t be poor. (Color TVs, and even cars, are no longer that expensive, especially if you get them second-or-third-hand, and anyway it’s easy for a family to afford a few one-time purchases of expensive items when they have the cash, then still own those items years later when the family is struggling to get by. Real poverty has to do with lacking the means to meet the necessities of life, with constant grinding to survive - which can very easily be the case even for someone who owns an honest-to-goodness color TV.) [How do you spell H-e-a-t-i-n-g B-i-l-l-s this winter?]
There is a lot of psychological research to suggest that people’s subjective happiness levels are really set by comparisons between themselves and their neighbors, rather than by objective standards of well-being - which is embarrassing and unfortunate for many theories of economics and human welfare. But, mere jealousy or resentment aside, the issue of equity and privilege is of great importance.
People’s lives today are better than they were centuries ago because of the material progress that has been made, largely as a result of industrialization and the technology revolution. But their lives are also subject to inequities that did not exist, and in some cases were impossible, previously.
Today, those with what would previously have been inevitably fatal heart disease can get literally a whole new life with a heart transplant. That is an amazing advance over barely 50 years ago. But you cannot get one if you are one of the 15 million or so Americans who have no health insurance at all, or the tens of millions more whose insurance is inadequate. So today, the “medically indigent” are in essentially the same position as 100 years ago - a bad heart means an early death - while still enjoying many of the less-expensive benefits of medical science (vaccinations, antibiotics, etc.).
Arguably, they are no worse off than before, and in many ways better off. But they face an inequity that never before existed: others around them can get a new heart, while they cannot. In inventing heart transplants (it was actually a South African surgeon who did so), but putting them in a capitalistic healthcare system, we have given “the miracle of life” to the privileged few who can, directly or indirectly, pay for them, while holding them visibly out of reach of many who cannot, and who die each year in that knowledge.
It’s hard to argue they are not harmed by that, or that any resentment they may feel is unjustified or just selfish whining. Looking at that from the opposite perspective, we have created a system in which the most affluent and most-privileged get to live while watching the less-well-off die around them - and doing so while having the power to create a more-equitable system (that would give them less privilege) and refusing to do so. In healthcare, housing, education, childcare, job training - virtually every aspect of life that touches on and influences people’s well-being - we have created a system that is the equivalent of locking the steerage-class passengers out of the Titanic’s lifeboats.
As for me, I plan to continue chipping away at whatever inequities and contradictions I come across. Having nothing more than a keyboard and a fading mind, I take it as my duty to do all in my power to inch forward the Great Commision and the Golden Rule. Logic and theology aside I find the most compelling argument for the existence of God and Jesus as his Son to be His command (at least, I don't think it was an option) that we love our enemies. Such an idea could never have originated in the mind of man. It must have come from God. And hardly a week passes that I do not experience anew some sure evidence of His power. There is a saying that for the believer, no evidence is needed, and for the non-believer, all the evidence in the world will never be enough.
Now he tells us...
Seems like the practice of letting terrorist suspects be held prisoner in other countries (rendition they call it) was started during the Clinton administration.
Well why didn't you say so, boss? That makes it all better.
Love this line: In Cairo, people are not treated like they are in Milwaukee.
I'll bet!
Later, December 31...
Eerie! I picked up on that last line to be cute, but within hours we get this report...
At least 20 Sudanese refugees and asylum-seekers, including three children, have been killed and dozens injured after authorities cleared a protest camp in the Egyptian capital, Cairo.
According to Sudanese witnesses, up to 4,500 central security police surrounded the small park late on Thursday night. After negotiations failed, the police turned water cannons on to the men, woman and children who had been living in squalid conditions inside in the camp since September.
Shortly before dawn, police used tear gas before charging the camp, destroying tents and beating the protesters in an attack which lasted half an hour.
The refugees lived crammed together with no clean water and no lavatory facilities. By night they huddled under plastic sheeting, with suitcases marking their family groupings.
As the Egyptians began to clear up the park, Mr Eddin said: "I am very, very afraid. I have nowhere to stay. I am afraid of what will happen to us now."
However, there was no sympathy from local residents. "They've all got Aids, they're filthy, they stink," Samir Mohammed said. "They should go back where they came from."
God, save us. Forgive us. Show us the way.

Friday, December 30, 2005

C.S.Lewis resources

You want cold, fresh water? Then find a mountain spring.
You want to drink deeply of C.S. Lewis? Then go to Mere Comments, the Touchstone Magazine blog. Here you will find a trove of articles and quotes by and about C.S. Lewis thanks to the box office success of The Chronicles of Narnia. The most dedicated Lewis aficionado will think he has gone to heaven already...

Noting the gratifying interest in C. S. Lewis sparked by the release of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, a reader sends links to two articles on C. S. Lewis by John West of Seattle Pacific University you might want to see: C. S. Lewis and the Materialist Menace and Finding the Permanent in the Political: C. S. Lewis as a Political Thinker.
And while I'm at it, I will point you to some of our articles on Lewis (please pardon my referring to myself by name but "my' looks a tad egotistical)...

Go to the link to find ten more Lewis links as well as references to articles not on line. This list will keep a reader busy for a very long time.

If I ever get around to it I want to put together a post enlarging on Lewis' writings about pacifism. I am not competent to counter his views, but since he was at work in the shadow of the Second World War, prior to the breaking of apartheid in South Africa and the American Civil Rights movement I think there might be at least some epilogue to take into account some achievements of modern civil disobedience. Not pacifism, exactly, but certainly a shirt-tail relative.

Keeping up with Andrew Cusack

Earlier this year I came across the Andrew Cusack blog.
Twenty-one years old, to the manor born, silver spoon and all that. He struck me as a breath of fresh air, in-your-face Britishness (Scots, whatever) notwithstanding. I mentioned it at the time. Any young man reading Touchstone is cut from the right fabric.

Well I'm still impressed. He is apparently now employed at New Criterion and on the fast track to journalistic success. As we say down heah: Go ahead on, boy!

One day when he's in the news, getting attention because of something or other, I can say, Yeah, I've been watching that kid since he was in school. Great, isn't it?

Bruderhof online -- the light no longer shines

(Update: when you finish reading here, see February 20, 2006)
(Also February 27, 2006)
(Also July 31, 2007)

My blog has received several hits in the last few weeks as the result of searches for the term "Bruderhof." I didn't think much about it because with the onset of Christmas I figured there could be an interest in religious subjects. This morning, however, I searched myself and discovered that the gentle, enlightened, and spiritually rich online presence of the Bruderhof Community has gone missing with no explanation.

Ir is a sad development to me but it is not surprising. As wonderful as it is to go to the beach, one cannot continue to swim in the waves forever. There will come a time when one has to stop swimming, go get something to eat, rest and sleep. It is the way our bodies are put together. We cannot do anything forever. And in the end, the ocean will continue to be there with or without our swimming. This image is what I receive when I try to imagine what has happened to the Bruderhof on line. I have no way to know for sure, but my instinct is that a very small handful of their number were ever involved with maintaining their internet connection. At some point, I am guessing, a kind of fatigue set in and a decision was made to redirect that energy to some more practical, tangible enterprise.

In Ecclesiastes there is some mention about "of words there is no end" and that is what the internet is all about: words. And images, of course, but with only a keyboard and monitor, the impact of words and images is sharply limited, especially when compared with spoken words audibly exchanged live, personally, once and for all between living persons in conversation with one another, together with body language, voice inflections, and yes, human touching...when compared with a living human exchange, the words of the internet are a very pale, even worthless substitute for the real thing.

My guess is that the Bruderhof have figured this out. I say, good on 'em. But I hope at some point some of them will be led to return to what struck me as a powerful online ministry, not unlike that of Gordon Atkinson whose Real Live Preacher was (is) a glowing ember in cyberspace for several years before he got all famous and published. He's still a real treasure, of course, but there was something very special about a preacher in a small Texas Baptist church with an anonymous online ministry reaching thousands more via the internet than he was preaching to in "real life."

There is a qualitative difference between living ministries and those directed by media. One glance at the dedicated television channels will quickly confirm this truth. Even the most unblemished among them -- the Billy Graham people come to mind -- are beset by what has to be a vast, mundane network of what can only be described as secular infrastructure, including careers, vacations, health care, and other benefits for those who work there, and all that goes along with maintaining a corporate presence that takes on a life of its own.

If even the pure Christ-driven message of Billy Graham can be subsumed by a secular infrastructure having nothing to do with that message, I can understand how the ways of the world can very easily come into conflict with the mission and themes of maintaining the Bruderhof community. From what I gather, they are not far removed from the Mennonites in lifestyle and purpose, a community of dedicated Christians seeking to live in but not of the world. This is a lifestyle not suitable for everyone. Just two days ago I listened to Krista Tippett's wonderful radio journey discovering the L'Arche communities and knew as I listened that I was hearing a description of a modern Christian ministry not unlike those of the monastic traditions. I recalled my visits to the Monastery of the Holy Ghost in Conyers, Georgia and wondered once again how anyone could take a vow of silence that might last for years, even a lifetime, and come to terms with giving up conversation, that most human of all human contacts.

Selfishly, I only wish that I had captured a little more of what I knew was there for the taking. I feel like the guest at a reception who remembered going home that there was yet another table of scrumptious delights in another room that I missed altogether. But I already ate and drank to my heart's content already, so I really have no reason to complain.

After the London bombing in July I came across, via ROFTERS, Johann Christoph Arnold's wise commentary. I captured a couple of paragraphs for my blog and left a comment at the Bruderhof site. The same day I received an email reply.

Thanks for writing in response to Johann Christoph Arnold's article. We forwarded your response to him. Due to traveling and his busy schedule (check out: ), he may not have time to respond to you personally in the moment. But he reads all his mail eventually and appreciates feedback very much.
Ed & Julie

And within hours this came.

Dear Friend,
Thanks for your encouraging words.
J Christoph Arnold
That email response is for me like one of the little treasures in an autograph collection that really has no meaning for anyone else, but for me brings back imortant moments in my life.

It has been my good fortune to have seen, sometimes even met and interacted with, a handful of individuals who have each left a mark on my development. I don't like name-dropping, so I resist the urge to do it here. But having said that, I will always include my brush with the Bruderhof on line and my little missals from Ed & Julie, whoever they are, and Johann Christoff Arnold as one of the most satisfying and important developmental experiences of my life.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Another great headline...

RIAA shooting itself in the foot and quickly releoading

Spying, schmying...who cares?

Looks like not many people are upset about government surveilance of their private affairs.

Sixty-four percent (64%) of Americans believe the National Security Agency (NSA) should be allowed to intercept telephone conversations between terrorism suspects in other countries and people living in the United States. A Rasmussen Reports survey found that just 23% disagree.Sixty-eight percent (68%) of Americans say they are following the NSA story somewhat or very closely.
At least they don't make a connection between the Big Brother approach to security and a more controlled approach.

Meantime supporters of the Patriot Act and it's spinoff effects are having a great time being snarky about those who raise concerns.

Keep those cards and letters coming, folks...
Er, I forgot. We don't do that any more, do we?
How about Keep those pings, e-mails and phone messages coming, folks!

"Honor" Killing

This is grotesque. (dated Christmas Day)

Bibi recounted how she was woken by a shriek as Ahmed put his hand to the mouth of his stepdaughter Muqadas and cut her throat with a machete. Bibi looked helplessly on from the corner of the room as he then killed the three girls — Bano, 8, Sumaira, 7, and Humaira, 4 — pausing between the slayings to brandish the bloodstained knife at his wife, warning her not to intervene or raise alarm.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Matthias Küntzel on Iran and Germany

Will somebody please reassure me that this is wrong!

In pondering the behavior of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, I cannot help but think of the 500,000 plastic keys that Iran imported from Taiwan during the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88. At the time, an Iranian law laid down that children as young as 12 could be used to clear mine fields. Before every mission, a plastic key would be hung around each of the children’s necks. It was supposed to open for them the gates to paradise.

The “child-martyrs” belonged to the so-called “Basij” movement created by the Ayatollah Khomeini. The Basij Mostazafan – the “mobilization of the oppressed” – were volunteers of all ages that embraced death with religious enthusiasm. They provided the model for the first Hezbollah suicide bombers in Lebanon. To this day, they remain a kind of SA of the Islamic revolution. Sometimes they serve as a “vice squad”, monitoring public morals; sometimes they rage against the opposition – as in 1999, when they were used to break the student movement. At all times, they celebrate the cult of self sacrifice.

Matthias Küntzel is an author and a political scientist whom I have linked before. He doesn't sound like a nut case. His writing has the even tone of an academic who tends to understate rather than exaggerate. And he's on the ground in Europe which gives him a closer perspective than we have in America. My earlier post referred to something he wrote a year ago linking European antisemitism with that of the Middle East. I linked to something like a blog at the time, and tonight I came across this...

Ahmadinejad forms part of the first generation of Basiji militants and still today he is often to be seen wearing a Basiji uniform. He would like to bring about a renaissance of the Basiji culture of the 1980s – in order, among other things, to combat the burgeoning Western-oriented youth movement that has, for instance, given rise to some 700,000 weblogs in the last years. Thus Ahmadinejad made a personal appeal this year for Iranians to participate in the annual “Basiji Week” that took place in late November. According to a report in the newspaper Kayan, some 9 million Basiji heeded the call, “forming a human chain some 8,700 kilometers long in which President Ahmadinejad also took part. In Tehran alone, some 1,250,000 people were mobilized.” (Cited in Wahied Wahdat-Hagh, „Bassiji: die revolutionäre Miliz des Iran“, on MEMRI Deutschland.) Ahmadinejad used the occasion to praise the “Basij culture and the Basij power” with which “ Iran today makes its presence felt on the international and diplomatic level”. Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, Chair of the Guardian Council, went so far as to describe the very existence of Iran’s nuclear program as “a triumph of the young people who serve the Basij movement and possess the Basiji-psyche and Basiji-culture.” He added: “We need an army of 20 million Basiji. Such an army must be ready to live for God, to die along the way of God, and to conduct Jihad, in order to please God.”

Is the Iranian population being thus prepared for the announced nuclear war against Israel? Three years ago, the then Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani explained that a single atom bomb used against Israel “would leave nothing on the ground”, whereas the damage done by a possible retaliatory strike would be limited (
source: MEMRI Special Dispatch, 3 January 2002). Even with a million dead, the Islamic world would survive, whereas Israel would be destroyed. Thus the logic of Rafsanjani’s argument. It is this murderous calculation – the sort of calculation that lies at the base of every suicide attack – that distinguishes the atomic ambitions of Iran from the interests of all existing nuclear powers.

There is more. And it is disturbing. This is a description of evil on a very large and well-orgnized scale. Read the rest.
In short, he puts together a description of a neo-Axis with Germany and Iran as the basis rather than German and Italy. Pretty disturbing.

Here is the Wikipedia reference to Basij.

Basij (or Baseej) is a Iranian voluntary militia force, which was founded by Late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in May of 1979. Basij is currently a branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Sepah. They are armed and work with other other law enforcement entities to enforce Iran's Islamic codes; Basij a branch in almost every Iranian mosque .. Although military forces cannot interfere in politics according to the Iranian law, Baseej has played a very active role in supporting Islamic hardliners since the end of Iran-Iraq war. According to Islamic Republics statistics 15 percent of the the population are member of this organisation this could be possible considiring 74 percent of the population are below the age of 30 however the active members are likely to be a lot less. The Basijis are a hated figure in the Iranian society they are commonly knowen as the government thugs who violently opress the people, spy on youth gathering such as parties (mix gender western style parties involving youth's are outlawed officially in Iran) and take part in oppressing the anti government demonstrations usually orginised by the University students which usually turns violent.

Sorry. I am not reassured.
This strikes me as a deeply entrenched and very dangerous phenomenon. If they are, in fact "hated" but no one has figured out a way to control or eliminate them, that opposition may as well be non-existant.

Roger Simon says...Basij is everywhere in Iran, in mosques, schools and government institutions. Just like Hizbullah, they claim to represent the Shia and have enough followers to back that claim. Their legitimacy comes from the Iranian constitution and the constant support of the Iranian government. Even reformist President Mohammad Khatami would often say that there is no "reconstruction" in Iran without Basij.

Anton Efendi says... Fellow Lebanese blogger Kais has quite an interesting post comparing Hizbullah to the Iranian Basij, and noting their negative impact on the Shiite community in Lebanon, and on Lebanon as a whole. Criticism of Hizbullah has been growing more bold and vocal, and I've noted and linked to several of the most devastating articles. The more they continue like this, the more they will continue to lose support in the Shiite community. But that's why they have made sure to silence all voices of Shiite dissent, and why they will not give up their weapons. They know that's their only source of power.

Here is a Radio Free Europe piece about the Basij...
The Basij Resistance Force, a paramilitary organization connected with the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, appears to be undergoing something of a revival under the administration of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad. (More at the link)

Helena Cobban on the Iraq elections

Anyone who thought the December 15 election would quickly resolve anything in Iraq's internal politics must be starting to feel disappointed. I listened with half an ear the other night as the US t.v. network ABC News declared "the Iraqi voters" to be their "Persons of the Year". The voice on the segment said all kind of saccharine things about how brave the Iraqi voters were, etc etc. Yes, many of them were very brave. But one election does not a democracy make-- and nor, either, do two elections and one referendum all held within a single year...

Democracy, after all, is centrally about the accountability of the government to the citizenry. We have not yet seen that happen inside the "New" Iraq-- and it looks extremely unlikely to be the outcome of the present, very complex negotiations going on in Baghdad. In all the accounts of the present government-formation discussions that I've read, US Ambassador Zal Khalilzad is portrayed as taking part in them in a very direct way: almost exactly like all those descriptions of the way British Viceroys used to conduct their affairs in the long-gone days of the British Raj in India.

That opening sets the tone for a good analysis by Helena Cobban of an event in Iraq being called an election. As a self-described optimist I hate to admit it, but I share her less than optimistic concerns. The post is about ten monitor screens long, but reflects a lot of homework on her part.

She refers to Juan Cole's comments which mention an important development outside the country referred to as Muram.

The Sunni fundamentalist National Accord Front, along with the secular NationalDialogue Council and the National Iraqiya list of Allawi, have planned a big demonstration in Baghdad for Tuesday. They, along with 39 other political parties and lists have formed an organization, the Conference for Rejection of the Fraudulent Elections, CRFE (Muram in Arabic). They charge that the Shiite fundamentalist coalition, the United Iraqi Alliance, stole the election through electoral fraud. They also accused the IECI of not actually being an independent electoral commission, implying that it was serving Shiite interests.

The name speaks for itself. Helena Cobban sees Cole's take on the situation as unrealistic. On paper it reads well, but a look at everyday realities makes Cole's analysis appear too academic. I tend to agree. She comments...

After all, the main thing the Iraqi political system needs right now is internal and international legitimacy. The Maram pols are in a position to withhold that, at the internal level, and to cause serious complications to the regime's quest for it at the international level. Legitimacy, as I've come to understand it over the years, is an attribute of governments that is determined primarily at the internal, domestic level-- but in which the attitudes and policies of the "international community" can also play a strong role, and especially at times of intense political uncertainty and threat.

There's more. Anyone who cares to follow along should take a look.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

The Fortnight of Christmas

I didn't know this.
The Twelve Days of Christmas becomes two weeks this year.
The song won't make any sense.

You would think that a Liberal would be all in favor of chipping away at traditions, but I'm not enthusiastic about this change. The accretions of time are sometimes like a case of cataracts. Heck, modern medicine has decided to remove cataracts as soon as possible. The old wisdom of "wait until they get ripe" is long ago out the window. Kids of the future will never know what cataracts look like (or goiters) unless they travel to a third world country where people don't have modern medicine...or downtown in any American city where poor people live. But let's not think about those unpleasantries. Besides, I digress. Again.

I recall the priest at an Episcopal church telling us the first Sunday in January that the Methodists across the road were tearing down the manger scene they had put up for Christmas.
"I wanted to say, 'Wait! Don't tear it down yet! The Magi haven't got there yet!' "

He was being cute, of course. He knew that the Magi didn't get there for a a year or two, probably. There is nothing in the New Testament to indicate that they got there at the same time as the shepherds. Or that they ever even saw the manger. That is tradition, not scripture.
What we are told is that when Herod heard about the Newborn King he took no chances. He could have been born any time in the preceding two years, so the death squads dispatched to kill the innocents were after any child under the age of two.

But the Twelve Days of Christmas are sacrosanct. Or so I thought.

What kind of Epiphany are we having when we lose respect and understanding of the past?
Oh, well. If they can change the official birthdays of Washington and Lincoln to fit the needs of the economy, I guess anything is possible.

Falling Sand Game

Okay, then.
You're gonna have to see and play with it it sooner or later, so go ahead and get it over with.
I'm personally bored with games, but I know how important they are to the world, so have at it.

(Warning: Do. Not. Scroll down to the bottom and start playing with "Salt," "Oil," or "Water." And by all means don't fool around with "???")

And don't complain that you weren't warned.

Robert Fulgham and the packrats

One of my "referrals" tapped into a old post about Robert Fulgham. That's a great feature of blogging...I have collected so much stuff that I don't know myself how much is there or how best to access it. Perhaps the next generation will be better organized.

Anyway, Fulgham is still at war -- no, that's too savage a word, tug-o-war, maybe -- with packrats.

Packrat update.

Those who read this journal know that there's been an ongoing war between me and these single-minded creatures that seem determined to build nests in the walls of my house. A live trap baited with peanut butter caught one. But word got around. Then some oversized rat traps baited with bacon got a couple more. But word got around, and the rats even ran off with three of my traps. And they started building a nest under the hood of my car.

In desperation, before I bought a 12 gauge shotgun and started blowing packrats out of the walls, I called for professional help. Jay, from Spanish Valley Pest Control, came up from town with some vicious-looking black stealth devices that he baited with . . . prunes.

Prunes. Packrats are mad about prunes. Who knew?

I won't go into the gory details, but I did carry off a bucket of corpses. The bobcats and coyotes will get a free buffet. Word will get around.And for a week now the traps have been empty and the walls silent at night.


His prairie dog saga was documented in October.

But here is a man who can't hurt a fly without remorse.

There are not enough Robert Fulghams in the world. If I may be allowed to quote myself:

It would seem that Robert Fulgham is about to join that elite club of reclusive creative people whose egos are healthy enough that public scrutiny is not on their need list. I find that to be a definite plus in my book. A few names come to mind: Harper Lee and Kurt Vonnegut are private people. The late Johnny Carson was a sterling example of how to live life to the fullest and go out at the top of your game. I heard on the radio today [May 27, 2005] that Eddie Albert died at the age of ninety-nine. There could be a fairly long list of accomplished people who value privacy over ego-stroking. If that is what he wants to do, I say good on Robert Fulgham for joining them.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Cheerful post for Christmas Day

A double-header: Quick hit in favor of warrantless searches and capital punishment at the same time. Nice touch for peace and goodwill.

So many words, so little time...

Christmas and the end of the year are a time to lift your head from your work, look around and evaluate what you're doing and where you're headed. Maybe that's where the notion of "New Year's resolutions" comes from. There are a few people who seem never to reevaluate what they are doing or where they are going. Those are the sad ones whose journey through life eventually becomes a tired, plodding existence ending in a correspondingly boring era of "old age."

Being old represents a state of body and mind, and too often the two do not end together. After working for three years now in a retirement community I have been able to witness the decline and fall of a lot of people -- a good many more than the average person ever observes in the space of three years. I have decided that if I have any wish for my own old age it is that my mind and my body will play out at the same time. It is a painful thing to watch someone struggle physically when the mind is still active, and perhaps even more painful to see someone lose cognition long before their body quits functioning. In a few cases both functions phase out together, but at a pace measured in decades rather than months or years, and we can look into a mirror of us all in that protracted end, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

An essay by Joe Queenan in yesterday's New York Times captured a moment of truth for me which helped me come to terms with a preoccupation that has hobbled me all my life: the impulse to acquire and read books. Like a substance abuser or OCD patient coming to terms with a crippling, self-destructive behavior I was able to push past denial. I copied and printed the article, pinched the three pages at the corner with a little paper clamp, installed a hook right in the middle of my library and hung it there to remind me: I already have more books than I will ever read, so getting more is not about reading but ego: owning, displaying and sporting --but certainly not reading. In the same way that shopping in a mall for yet another pair of shoes, shirt or knick-knack for which I have no earthly use is a waste of time and money, getting yet another book must be something that I do with serious circumspection. No need to spend the money if I don't invest the time to read.

Several years ago, I calculated how many books I could read if I lived to my actuarially expected age. The answer was 2,138. In theory, those 2,138 books would include everything from "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" to "Le Colonel Chabert," with titles by authors as celebrated as Marcel Proust and as obscure as Marcel Aymé. In principle, there would be enough time to read 500 masterpieces, 500 minor classics, 500 overlooked works of genius, 500 oddities and 138 examples of high-class trash. Nowhere in this utopian future would there be time for [yet another obscure, uninteresting tome probably "re-gifted" from someone posing as a friend]

True, I used to be one of those people who could never start a book without finishing it or introduce a volume to his library without eventually reading it. Familiarity with this glaring character flaw may have encouraged others to use me as a cultural guinea pig, heartlessly foisting books like "Damien the Leper" (written by Mia Farrow's father) or the letters of Flannery O'Connor upon me just to see if they were worth reading. (He wasn't; she was.)

I can truthfully say that blogging has become the pastime of choice where my reading is concerned. During the last four years (blogging really only took off in the aftermath of the WTC attack) I have allowed magazine subscriptions to lapse, quit looking so lustfully at bookstores and rarely buy a newspaper, except for local stories. It may be that like the substance abuser who substitutes coffee and chewing gum for another substance of choice I have only redirected a habit, but when I look at that habit in the shadow of impending old age, mentioned above, I think it is a move in the right direction. It has been my observation that the mind is as subject to exercise or neglect as the body. Like it or not, use it or lose it.

Toward that end, this morning's reading starts off with a great new discovery. I have added yet another blog to the aggregator, Words Without Borders Blog: Literary Notes from Around the World. There isn't much of an archive yet. It seems to have started less than six months ago, but two snips I found this morning are enough to get me hooked.

The other day at a function, a woman I hadn't met before came and sat down beside me. She expressed great interest in getting to know me, and to make an acquaintance. Naturally, some conversation is required. She asked me a few questions, such as: [Insert here a tedious list of trivial questions, ed.]

After nearly an hour and a half of my answering her various questions, she was satisfied that she was acquainted with me. But reader, believe me, I am not making up any of this--that woman asked me absolutely nothing. Who am I, where is my house, who are my parents, what work do I do, even what is my name! A woman who after a whole hour and a half of talking to me doesn't even know my name, but who feels quite content that she has fulfilled her duty of getting to know me.

That is, to coin a line, too good for words. It is a cultural snapshot comparable with that old adage that a picture being worth a thousand words.
Words, like the eyes, are a lens into the soul.
And here are two excerpts from another essay that tells me that what is being advertised as a war between two civilizations, a war that is being waged by conventional military means, is really a symbolic conflict that will be won or lost, not in the streets of some distant land, but in the minds of those taking part in the conflict. As I read these words I could not help wondering how well "our side" does at introspection and reevaluating values.

When I was a child, I experienced the two different rereadings of Islam firsthand. As the child of a single mother, there was a time when I grew up with two different grandmothers. At the first glance these two women were so alike: they were both Turkish, they came from similar class backgrounds, and both were Muslims. Yet, my father’s mother was a follower of the religion of fear. The Jalal side of Allah appealed to her more than anything else. She taught me about the patronizing, paternal, and celestial gaze always watching me from above to then make a note of all the sins I committed down here. I came back from her house slightly traumatized, unable to go to the bathroom for fear of being seen naked by Allah, ashamed of the body given to me.

But shortly after, I moved to the house of my other grandmother and thus entered an iridescent universe replete with folk Islam and superstitions. This was an old woman who poured melted lead to ward off the evil eye, read the coffee cups and taught me not to step on the thresholds where the djinn danced at night. She was a follower of the religion of love. For her Allah wasn’t a God to be feared but a God to be loved. Indeed, the celestial gaze watched us constantly, she agreed, but it also blinked from time to time, just like any other eye would. Those times of blinking were the moments of freedom when we were invisible to God. “Sure, the religious authorities are rigid, and yes, some teachings are constraining, but do not worry,” she would say, “for they are bricks, you are water. They will stay put, you will flow.” She is the one who taught me all about water. Love and faith could be just like water, so fluidlike. I doubt if I have entirely managed to follow the path of the water in love and faith, but eventually, that was the model my fiction writing followed.

This woman, a Turkish writer, displays a great depth of cultural intelligence. She packs very important ideas into a very tight little space.

...the woman writer chooses to speed up the flow of time because it is easier to be respected as an old woman in a patriarchal society than as a young woman. Thus, we end up with women in their thirties acting as if they were in their sixties. In the Middle East women age quickly, leaping from the category of “virgins” to “old women,” as if there is nothing in between. The quicker the jump, the more esteem and authority a woman writer earns in the eyes of the society.
...I sometimes liken my fiction writing, both in language and content, to walking on a pile of rubble left behind after a catastrophe. I walk slowly so that I can hear if there is still someone or something breathing underneath. I listen attentively to the sounds coming from below to see if anyone, any story or cultural legacy from the past, is still alive under the rubble. If and when I come across signs of life, I dig deep and pull it up, above the ground, shake its dust, and put it in my novels so that it can survive. My fiction is a manifesto of remembrance against the collective amnesia prevalent in Turkey.

Two or three times in the last week I have heard the same theme from unrelated sources: our real enemy is not belief, but fundamentalism, whether it be ours or theirs -- Christians, Jews or Muslims. It is okay to know that you know that you know that yours is the only truth and the truth of others is badly, even sinfully incorrect. But to conclude that the only way to deal with that difference is to anihilate the other believer, is as mindless as that line from the Vietnam conflict that it was necessary to destroy the village in order to save it.

Thanks again to 3QDaily for raising my consciousness.

"But in the end we found nothing."

That is literally the bottom line of a report.

For 30 years, NEST undercover teams have combed suspected sites looking for radioactive material, using high-tech detection gear fitted onto various aircraft, vehicles, and even backpacks and attaché cases. No dirty bombs or nuclear devices have ever been found - and that includes the post-9/11 program. "There were a lot of false positives, and one or two were alarming," says one source. "But in the end we found nothing."
No warrants.
None needed, they say.
Sleep well, America. Big Brother is watching more than we know.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Merry Christmas

Video treat for Christmas.

Another one...a bit quirky toward the end, but nicely done (Via BoingBoing).

[Time permitting -- and this note points to a serious reference -- take a few minutes to read yesterday's post. The remembrance of 76-year-old LtCol George Goodson, USMC retired, is one of the most moving testimonies I have ever read to the pain of losing a family member to military duty.]

NPR links to a classic from 1992 about life as a Santa's Elf in at Macy's . Since that time David Sedaris has had an illustrious career. This is one of the reasons that I keep up with what Pejman notices...we like a lot of the same things.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Too much time on their hands

If you find yourself with too much time on your hands, take a few minutes to watch and compare these two videos.

I found this one first. (Eight minutes)
Then came across this one today. (About six minutes.)

The first one is better, but the seasonal knock-off is clever. I would say don't try this at home.
Is "traceurs" a European phenomenon or what?
I recall a few months ago some kid got killed jumping decks on a parking garage. Via Google I learn that deer have done the same thing.
Wierd. Really wierd.

(Don't you have something better to do? Isn't it time you got back to work?)

Uh, Terror alert?

Just asking.

How do we explain what appears to be a night and day difference between the year prior to November 2004 and the year since in terms of terror alerts and scares?

"You Are Beautiful"

Light entertainment for the weekend...
Keep clicking.
Thanks blogsnow.

Tomorrow's lawyers today

Sleep well, America.
The next generation of lawyers is learning to look out for one another.

Brokeback Mountain -- best comment

Found at Althouse...

The hats are not for cushioning.

They make the cowboys look better in bed than they would otherwise. Ever known anyone that worked outdoors and always wore a hat? Their faces get very tan, but only below the hat line. When they take the hats off, the area above the hatline is whiter than white. Very jarring! Watch the end of a PGA event during the summer. When the winner takes his hat off, he looks like a half-painted Easter egg. It even happens to Tiger, whose skin isn't really that dark, and tans well.

So, the boots are for traction, and the hats are for aesthetics.

That's all I have to say about that. If you want more, do your own homework.

"The tigers had been fed so did not eat the man"

Yann Martel would appreciate this. Thanks Joseph Britt.
I read The Life of Pi soon after it was published and the story has stuck in my mind ever since.
(Glancing at the reviews I notice they are very mixed...either love it or hate it -- over a thousand of them! I was entranced by the writer's ability to make an unbelievable situation become believable. There were moments of crack-up funny stuff that made me want to laugh out loud, but it helps if you have either been to India, had an Indian friend or two, or have done more than casual reading about India.)

Saudi-Israeli détente? Creeping progress

John Burgess at Crossroads Arabia points to a bit of progress in Saudi Arabia's view of Israel. Movement in the right direction in the Middle East is so slow it is like watching a tree grow.

This Arab News item, clearly from a governmental press release, clarifies the situation of Saudi Arabia in terms of trade with Israel.

The Saudis will continue to prohibit imports of Israeli goods, or dealing directly with an Israeli company. (First degree boycott)

They will no longer prohibit business that deals with Israel through an intermediary.(Second degree)

They will also no longer prohibit business that do business in Israel from doing business in Saudi Arabia. (Third degree), though this has already been the case, generally, since 1991 and the Gulf War.

Apparently, the Saudis are exercising their sovreign right to choose with whom they will do business. Under WTO, this is permitted. Extended boycotts are prohibited, however, so they will drop those.

I suspect that it will take diplomatic relations with Israel, under the terms outlined by Abdullah in 2003 and accepted by the Arab League, before the First Degree boycott goes away.

Symposium Revisited.

Evangelical Outpost got a link from First Things.
There is now a welcome note at the top of the EO home page directing newcomers to the Essays of the Symposium.
If you look around you will find...

Here's what others have to say about Torture Symposium:

...which does not take you to the original comments thread which now runs to fifty comments and has gone moribund.

I can't decide if this was an oversight by one of the internet's most careful and savvy bloggers, or a deliberate effort to redirect new traffic from a discussion that might have gone off in the wrong direction. Rev. Phippips and I made some fairly cogent points, I thought, that are now buried even deeper than a comment thread...
I have become accustomed to and understand the passive-aggressive comeback to a passive-aggressive action. It's my own personal weapon of choice. It is, however, a poor substitute for a gentlemanly admission to having lost a discussion point.
Oh well, it's not my blog. He can run it any way he likes.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Season's Greetings

Via Touchstone...
Please accept with no obligation, implied or implicit, our best wishes for an environmentally conscious, socially responsible, low-stress, non-addictive, gender-neutral celebration of the winter solstice holiday, practiced within the most enjoyable traditions of the religious persuasion of your choice, or secular practices of your choice, with respect for the religious/secular persuasion and/or traditions of others, or their choice not to practice religious or secular traditions at all. We also wish you a fiscally successful, personally fulfilling and medically uncomplicated recognition of the onset of the generally accepted calendar year 2006, but not without due respect for the calendars of choice of other cultures whose contributions to society have helped make America great. Not to imply that America is necessarily greater than any other country nor the only America in the Western Hemisphere. And without regard to the race, creed, color, age, physical ability, religious faith or sexual preference of the wishee. By accepting these greetings you are accepting these terms. This greeting is subject to clarification or withdrawal. It is freely transferable with no alteration to the original greeting. It implies no promise by the wisher to actually implement any of the wishes for herself or himself or others, and is void where prohibited by law and is revocable at the sole discretion of the wisher. This wish is warranted to perform as expected within the usual application of good tidings for a period of one year or until the issuance of a subsequent holiday greeting, whichever comes first, and warranty is limited to replacement of this wish or issuance of a new wish at the sole discretion of the wisher.

If you happen to be Muslim, there are also ways to adapt Christmas tunes to the faith.
How do the savvy amongst us cope with the ubiquity of the Holiday Sonic Season? If we can't tune out, we make up our own lyrics! Having attended Anglican and Episcopalian schools, this author became adept at adapting what he heard each Yuletide. Here are 10 Christmas melodies -- probably already inexorably etched in your brain -- with suggested lyrics for Muslim listeners:
2. Jingle Bells
Originally composed for an 1857 Boston Thanksgiving service.
Allah Hu, Allah Hu, Allah Hu Allah
Allah Hu, Allah Hu, Allah Hu Allah
8. Rocking around the Christmas tree
A popular American melody that hit the top of the charts in Christmas 1958 when released by Brenda Lee, who was fourteen years old at the time. We should be mindful of the creeping consumerism around Muslim holidays too:
Flashing a credit card with glee
Have a happy holiday
Everyone's spending merrily
In a new old fashioned way
9. Deck the Halls
Originally a Welsh melody for "Nos Galan", a winter carol that Mozart used in the 18th century for a violin and piano duet.
Nabi Yun Nabi, Nabi Nabi
Nabi Yun Nabi, Nabi Nabi
Nabi Yun Nabi, Nabi Nabi
Fa la la la la La la la la is also easily morphed into:Allah Hu Allah, Allah Allah

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

"Brother Can You Paradigm?"

Jim Gilbert's headline, not mine.
But it's in the wish-I'd-said-that category.
@Large is one of the sites I check daily (actually he only posts two or three times a week but I can't remember when...he's not like me, he knows when to be quiet and writes only when he has something meaningful to say) and linked a few times since he began blogging in the Spring.
Here is a self-described Charismatic who hits all the right notes. He's getting wound up now like the preacher who leaves the pulpit, lays down his props, and walks down to the front of the sanctuary to preach, making eye contact with as many people as he can see. Get the point?

He's about to punch out a powerful word, so I'm giving you a head's up...

I've ingested, digested, even indigested the subject of worldviews and what it means to hold a biblical one. The purpose of this series is not to write a tome -- there are plenty of big, heavy books full of five syllable words already keeping the masses off topic -- but to provide an outline. And in the spirit of George Barna, I'm going to reduce the universe to seven, count 'em seven, simple points, which I'll explain in full by the middle of January....
Since Psalm 24 says, "the earth is the Lord's," I've decided to name these principles "The Ground Rules." Here they are:
***God is God, and no one else is God.
***Jesus Christ has been crowned King of all the earth, everyone therein, and everything they do.
***All of the Bible is authoritative for all of life.
***Righteousness works.
***Sin doesn't work.
***Judgment happens.
***The meek shall inherit the earth.

I think we Christians have bought into a bit of false advertising. Millions of us think the devil is more powerful than he is, that Lordship stops at the public schoolhouse door, that the first 39 books of the Bible count less these days, that righteousness circles the wagons and waits for Jesus while sin takes over the world, that we should be afraid of the future, and that the only way out is up.

But Jesus is no slumlord of the Rings, and the Battle of the Ages is not a squeaker. So enough subtlety on my part! Next post we'll examine Who's really calling the shots on Planet Earth. And I'll give you a hint: Satan is alive, but he is not well.

Go back a couple of posts and read some background. I have a feeling that Jim Gilbert is about to come on strong. He isn't another "Me, too" preacher. I don't think he's into pop theology a half mile wide and only inches in depth.

I remember a line from John Steinbeck in Travels with Charlie. He traveled all across the country with his dog Charlie and kept a journal. I don't remember what state it was, but one Sunday morning he went to church. It was a smallish country church with just the basics. Pews, friendly people, and a preacher who would tell it like it was. He said "I whited my sepulchre and went in" for a sermon to set him straight.
So get your sepulchre whited and go read.

Iraq elections: one man's opinion

Via the Crooked Timber post by Chris Bertram linked earlier, a look at Patrick Cockburn's followup analysis of Iraq's election.
We can hope he is unjustifiably wrong, but I'm afraid the results point to his being on target.

...he now has an analysis of the Iraqi elections in the Independent . The religious parties are in the ascendant, women’s rights are being trampled, everyone is retreating the their ethnic and religious identities, and the break-up of the country is on the horizon.
Snips from the piece...
The US ambassador in Baghdad, Zilmay Khalilzad, sounded almost despairing yesterday as he reviewed the results of the election. "It looks as if people have preferred to vote for their ethnic or sectarian identities," he said. "But for Iraq to succeed there has to be cross-ethnic and cross-sectarian co-operation."

The election also means a decisive switch from a secular Iraq to a country in which, outside Kurdistan, religious law will be paramount. Mr Allawi, who ran a well-financed campaign, was the main secular hope but that did not translate into votes. [If this is so, then Abu Khaleel missed his bet...and I don't think he even supported the guy.] The other main non-religious candidate, Ahmed Chalabi, [Our (other) dog in the fight...remember?] won less than 1 per cent of the vote in Baghdad and will be lucky to win a single seat in the new 275-member Council of Representatives.
The break-up of Iraq has been brought closer by the election. The great majority of people who went to the polls voted as Shia, Sunni or Kurds - and not as Iraqis. The forces pulling Iraq apart are stronger than those holding it together. The election, billed by Mr Bush and Mr Blair as the birth of a new Iraqi state may in fact prove to be its funeral.

The first comment adds to the bleakness of the picture. I haven't read anything substantive that makes me think these guys are too far off.
Sad, if so.
Very bad sign

You Need Me On That Wall

Couldn'ta said it better myself. Delicious.
Go read.

Spying, lying and torture denying

As Mr. Justice Thomas would say, something is seriously awry when Christians defend the practice of torture and celebrate Christmas at the same time. Words fail me, but that is what I found when I checked back to read the comments made at Evangelical Outpost that I linked Monday. This articulate comment appeared down the thread. I copy it here to keep in my cyber-scrapbook. Read it and be edified.

Thanks for hosting this important forum. In my view, this is a watershed issue for both the United States of America and for the Evangelical movement in America. I fear greatly that both will fail with serious repercussions. The United States will fail in upholding the very values that have made our nation a shining light of hope in this cruel and bloody world. Evangelicals will fail our duty both to Christ and to the culture in which we serve. If we do, we will not only do irreparable damage to our image, but to our actual identity. America, especially, will have lost its credibility as an agent of mercy among the nations. But, worse, the very people who clamor so loudly for America's status as a "Christian nation" may support or at least facilitate America's abandonment of the very Christian values we supposedly hold dear. Make no mistake, the sanction of torture represents a radical break with American military ideals and the tolerance of this by Evangelicals would represent a radical failure to speak prophetically to our nation. Our "culture of life" message will be reduced to hypocritical rhetoric at the very moment in our nation's history when it is in fact most imperative.

It is true that there are difficult matters here. How do we define torture? (I thought John Jefferson Davis did an outstanding job of this). How do we enact useful and relevant laws regarding it? These are difficult . But the basic question of torture should not be difficult for Christians, and Christian leaders must speak clearly to the nation about it. If our response is one of technical jargon and situational-ethics equivocation, we will lose our moral high ground (such as we still have) -- and we may deserve to lose it if we do not. This is especially true, given that Evangelicals have encouraged the idea that we stand as the power behind the Bush throne. Do we write blank checks to our culture-war allies? And if we silently consent to officially sanctioned torture, who are we to complain about "the barbarians at the gate" of our treasured Christian culture?

I am the son of a multi-generation Army officer corps family. My father and grandfather, both distinguished wartime commanders, instilled in me the belief that America must not merely win her wars but must do so in a manner that retains our great values. They believed that life was not everything, but that the way of life was more important. When I was a young combat officer, my instructors and commanders taught that we would not torture -- not merely because it is ineffective (and McCain is right about this) but also because it is ignoble. American soldiers are not brutes, we believed, but honorable defenders of human life and dignity. We did not teach the kind of situational ethics that says that our own survival justifies any behavior. We admitted that torture happens in war, but we stood against any official sanction of it and we exercised our authority to suppress the cruel employment of deadly force.

When I was teaching leadership at West Point in the early 1990's, a news report emerged of Serbian soldiers who had entered a convent and proceeded to rape and murder the nuns there. My cadets were outraged. But I informed them that they and their future soldiers would be capable of performing these very acts under the right circumstances, and that it is the duty of American officers to stand against the evil in human nature especially when enflamed by the zeal of hatred and the lust of battle. The photographs of Abu Graib bear this out. Abu Graib was not merely a failure of policy or of oversight. It was a window into what our young men and women are able -- and even eager -- to do when our depravity is enflamed by war, unless leaders set a clear moral and ethical tone and enforce it with brave dignity. As our young people grow up in an entertainment culture more and more satiated with gratituous violence, the danger of barbarity will grow dramatically worse.

When I became I Christian, I learned that the value of human life is not measured with a utilitarian yardstick. Mankind's dignity stems from the image of God that we bear. What Dr. Jefferson's article defined as "methods of interrogation that use severe force, pain, or coercion, and as such threaten to undermine the inherent dignity of the person created in the image of God" should be simply unthinkable for Christians. And we must say so clearly and forcefully.
Moreover, I learned from the Bible that human nature is corrupted by a terrible depravity. Therefore, especially when required by duty to employ deadly force, it is imperative that Christians place clear limits on permissible behavior. To equivocate on this issue is to commit a grave folly that can only have terrible results.

The official government sanction of torture -- for the first time in American history -- is a defining moment that threatens to set a new and barbarous precedent. It is not an isolated issue, but a door. Will we keep it shut, voluntarily restraining our self-interested behavior for the sake our our virtue, our national purpose in the world, and (for Christians at least) our faith in God? How terrible it is that a government so strongly supported by Evangelical Christians should facilitate the argument that the words "In God We Trust" really should be removed from our currency. For if we still are trusting in God, we will not sanction (much less demand) wartime actions that cause hell to rejoice and heaven to weep.

Richard D. Phillips is to be commended for clear thinking and his willingness to stand as a Christian witness in an arena of marginal arguments that seek to compromise Christian principles. In a patient, respectful manner he engages others in the comments in what appears to be a fruitless attempt to change their hearts and minds. At one point he was able to invoke the Golden Rule [Jesus told us that we should do to others as we would have them do to ourselves. This tells us to put ourselves in others' positions when we are making moral decisions.] which sailed past the attention of other commentators as though it were nothing more than a sneeze.

Thank you Richard Phillips for your good witness.
You stand as an example to follow. Are you by any chance this Richard D. Phillips?

...M.B.A. from the Wharton School of Business and a M.Div. from Westminster Theological Seminary, where he studied the Bible and its languages. He served in the United States Army for thirteen years as a combat officer, was assistant professor of leadership and organizational studies at West Point, and is a management consultant and frequent seminar speaker on the topic of leadership and organization. He currently resides in Philadelphia, where he is chief executive officer of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, a nonprofit radio and publishing organization.

I almost forgot. My post title also refers to spying and lying. I put the title together before I wrote the post, thinking of the current high-profile story emmanating from the White House, because I liked the rhythm of the words. No need to elaborate. Most of the same nominal Christians defending the practice of torture are defending all the kings men as they push the legal envelope about what they can get away with snooping into private communications. There isn't much in the Old or the New Testaments regarding topics like Echelon, Carnivore or other network sniffers, so all we have left is the hypothetical WWJD and the, uh, Golden Rule. Hello.

(Deuteronomy 30:19 is a reference I like. One of my favorite preacher lines is "If sin felt like a stick in the eye, we wouldn't do it." The temptation to do evil presents itself in many persuasive forms. End of sermonette.)

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

What's legal?

Professor Orin Kerr at Volokh Conspiracy gets the prize for timeliness and comprehensive analysis regarding the legality of surveillance of emails and/or phone calls as argued and authorized by the president.
This very long post together with comments (nearly two hundred and counting, most of which are substantive) can keep a reader tied up for the rest of the morning...

Eugene Volokh is impressed.
Me too.
I think I'll wait for the big guys to sift through this one before I come to any conclusions.
My instinct is to ask why a president wants to skate so close to the edge of the law, even if he is keeping to the right of the center line. Reminds me of Clinton's "depends on what the difinition of 'is' is". Or Gore's "no controlling legal authority..." How many of the president's supporters rail against "moral relativism"?

My comment: I'm relieved that Alberto Gonzalez isn't on the Supreme Court. Legal minds that advise the president how best to keep out of legal trouble to that degree are like physicians who amputate limbs under Sharia law in order avoid septic side effects.

Voice of "The People" and the internets...

Came across an interesting comment thread at a short Crooked Timber post about how Chinese authorities are being circumvented in official efforts to blackout a news story.

At first glance, it looked like a spirited online discussion about an essay written nearly 80 years ago by modern China's greatest author. But then again, the exchange on a popular Chinese bulletin board site seemed a bit emotional, given the subject.

[Commenters were using the essay] as a pretext to discuss a more current and politically sensitive event -- the Dec. 6 police shooting of rural protesters in the southern town of Dongzhou in Guangdong province.
Comments left at this post make interesting reading.
(Aside: When I decided to report my find I noticed the date was three days ago -- ancient history in the world of blogging. In the information age we measure history in hours more than days. I come across references to "news cycles" as though the phenomenon is a natural as the smoke-trail of a campfire splashed with water. That's a great feature of blogging. If I want to grab an old meme and give it new life, the idea is not as crazy as it seems. According to my Sitemeter "entry pages" list I'm still getting hits from posts I have long forgotten, some of them a year old. Go figure.)
This is harvested from the comments thread...

I wonder what the real impact of the Internet is having in Iraq. I think the one major difference between Vietnam and Iraq is the Internet, and especially the many Iraqis who are now blogging. In any closed society great power is held by the government press, and in Vietnam this was true. But the VC gained great power by use of the rumor mill. So, are the blogs in Iraq just modern rumor mills? Or are they a source of what is really taking place in the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people?

This sort of thing has a very long history in China. Metaphors of one sort or another as code for political speech. It’s lovely to watch.And when have things not involved such elites?

The other more recent case is to bear in mind is the beating to death in detention of Sun Zhigang by the police in 2003 (IIRC). The subsequent outcry, which began online, and an open letter by prominent academics, led directly to a reform of China’s system for detaining and repatriating those in the cities who could not produce the required paperwork, “vagrants and beggars” I think the law said (very reminiscent of the Elisabethan Poor Law) but also used as a catch-all against migrant labourers.I have become a deal less sceptical about the value of the internet, partly because of cases like that, and partly because of once working with a migrant worker support group in Panyu (a suburb of Guangzhou) on their website. That showed me that in fact, perhaps because of the prevalence on internet cafes here, a surpising number of ordinary workers and even peasants do get on line.

I think the basic problem with international blogging is far simpler than most people think. I don’t want to sound like a tedious old reactionary here, but one of the most disturbing things about the way Britain and the US (and to a lesser extent, Australia and Canada and the rest) are going is simply the fact that less and less young people learn a foreign language at school.

But if you restrict yourself to English you commit yourself (obviously) to only reading and accessing what English speaking people can say. There are translations services but of course they can cherry pick what they translate and translate in the most ‘unfriendly’ possible way (not thinking of anyone in particular here…….).

So in Iraq I think blogging is going to be a huge force for democracy and freedom……for Iraqis. Whether it will help outsiders understand the situation is another question. ‘We’ can only read the blogs that are written in English, which tend to be orientated (reasonably enough) towards those who have been educated in English speaking countries or who have done business with English speakers: i.e. the highly educated middle class. This is an important part of Iraqi society of course, but we always run the risk of extrapolating, and deciding that the views of these people are representative of the views of Iraqis as a whole. For example, if it is true (and it may not be) that Allawi has done far worse in the current elections than we were led to believe by the Western media, this may be because Allawi’s broadly secular, pro-American policies were more popular with the secular pro-American middle class, and I would guess that a disproportionate number of these people are bloggers.

This goes double for the rest of the world. There are growing numbers of bloggers in African languages and South American languages (not to mention, as the article above, Chinese bloggers) but how many of us will have a chance to read these in the original?

Of course you’re right about an English-only speaker reading only English written … well, English written anything. But nevertheless, one can easily factor that into the equation, and one has to admit the enormous difference the Internet makes for the ‘common’ folk telling their story. Diaries and journals have always been the glee of the historian, reading about daily life in rural 17-Century America puts a whole new perspective to the written history of 17-Century America. But a dozen discovered diaries does not history make. But now with countless blogs, in all languages, we have history writing itself!

For an example how bloggers and the Internet community can be wrong about the mood in a country witness the latest Iranian election. Very few thought Ahmadinejad would have any chance, because his support among the middle class was very small.

The lack of knowledge of foreign languages in the West Brandon brings up may to some extent be a good thing. It does make it a lot harder for foreigners to start large propaganda efforts to corrupt the exchange of information, leaving the locals somewhat free to develop their own dialogue. We know CIA bought stories in Iraqi newspapers, and they would probably want to swamp all of the Iraqi media with their own sanitized stories, but I doubt they have the people to do it.

Another classic example, it occured to me, was Venezuela. Not only were pro-Chavez bloggers more likely to write in Spanish or in indigenous languages rather than in English, but in a wildly divided country like Venezuela, few members of the poor/ethnic classes who were the bedrock of Chavez’ support even had access to a computer, let alone the internet.

So in the West when we read Venezuelan blogs, we tended to read blogs written in English by the uppper middle class elite, who were disproprtionately anti-Chavez. This helps to explain, I think, why so many in the West were shocked by the result of the recall vote.Hopefully the ‘access to a computer’ issue will become less of a problem over the next few decades, but until we in the West (for example, as regards Iraq) actually bother our arses to learn some Arabic we will always get a one sided view of the situation.

What is interesting about blogs and bloggers is that they reveal just how human it is to want to be stripped bare. In the past what did we fear? The FBI and CIA tapping our phones, injecting us with truth serum, locking us up until we talk, anything to make us expose our deepest thoughts and plans and schemes. Yet now everyone is freely telling the world with blogs their deepest thoughts and plans and schemes. How ironic?

How long would it have taken the CIA to uncover this bit of information? Blogs are the new truth serum.

Where journalists once gave us “experts say,” blogs give us the experts themselves. And where faceless, “objective” editorial boards once handed down opinions and endorsements, bloggers sound off, the numbers on their public sitemeters lending them unassailable credibility as voices for the rest of us.”

There may be more, but I have observed that comment threads tend to dry up after a few days. Like sliced bread goes stale left out of the package, so goes the comments thread...too bad. Just when things could have become interesting...