Wednesday, June 30, 2004

WCRP: (Who Can Resist Puns?)

Home plate umpires are excessively theatrical; always making casting calls.

Sunday, June 27, 2004

Good and temptation

Recently den Beste wrote an essay in which he attempted to prove that temptation was good for morality, in that those who resisted were stronger and better people. I oversimplify somewhat, but that's the gist of it.

I conclude that den Beste is not a parent. Raising children will leave you with the intuitive understanding that something is wrong with that argument somewhere: the conclusion is wrong. (In science and engineering, experience leads to what we call "physical intuition:" an ability to estimate what the result of some operation will be without having to run the numbers. Parent can gain a similar intuitive understanding of human nature.)

The flaw in his argument is that he thinks of good in terms of being not-evil, or resisting evil. But good is a positive thing in its own right. Marital fidelity (his example) over years produces changes in the person and in the character of the relationship. Infidelity damages these or prevents them from forming at all. His hypothetical wife who has never been tempted will have built a good thing in her life and her husband's life. So will the wife who was tempted but faithful. Perhaps the one who was never tempted will be more likely to stray than the one who has been tempted and resisted. Perhaps not: the fact of the changes in character produced by years of exercise of virtue must have some impact on her power to resist.

So with children: you don't throw all kinds of temptations at them gratuitously: the world is full enough of them. First you try to teach and model what good is, and then warn them about the bad. If you leave your children in front of the TV, don't be surprised if they come away with all sorts of new desires for toys. They'll be tempted enough from seeing their friend's new goodies. Why expose them to that most efficient delivery system for temptations to greed, kid's TV? We did our best to teach our kids about sharing, and to avoid greed, and how to detect the psychological manipulations of the advertisers. As they go out into the world they are at least partly armored against being manipulated.

Adults are usually less vulnerable than children, but unless you think carefully about what goes on around you, it will shape your attitudes. I remember reading reports and viewing footage of people protesting the Little Rock Central High desegregation. Project Tiger was a LRCHS student project to make a movie about the events and compare with today. Great fun. What is the difference between the people then and the people today? Some were convinced that what they thought then was wrong, but most followed the fashions in attitudes; and just never think about it. Most people today seem to think such discrimination is wrong (at least if you're white), and so you conform.

Another example is attitudes towards homosexuality. I'm old enough to remember when it was thought of with revulsion, or at best bemusement. Now it is fashionable, and (on the basis of no solid evidence) it is considered normal. Don't bother pointing out various studies: I know about them, and I also know about how to properly set up and interpret studies, and what they can and cannot prove. I stand by my evaluation.

It seems to make sense that, just as you filter what you give to your young children in order to help them grow to be virtuous, so you should filter what adults are immersed in to help them stay virtuous. Unfortunately, experience shows that you can't trust any particular set of guardians of public morality. At best they only promote their favorite virtues and ignore the rest. At worst they cover up their misdeeds and disguise evil as good (the Nazis being a classic example).

We are discovering that having no filtering at all, coupled with an educational philosophy that there are no universal standards of goodness, is having a very ugly effect on public and private virtue. But what can we do about it? I wouldn't trust Chomsky with a soft rubber ball, much less custody of the nation's morality. He wouldn't trust me (and I don't want the job).

The short answer: somehow moral filtering has to come from the below, and not be imposed from above. How do we get there from here? I suspect that it has to be a side effect, but I'll think about this some more.

Who can resist puns?

If, on a fine gardening day, Walmart sells their entire stock of sacks of manure, must they hang a sign saying "Out of Ordure?"

Saturday, June 26, 2004

Bible and Sword by Barbara Tuchman

In 1956 historian Barabar Tuchman published her first book: a history of Britain and Palestine up to the Balfour Declaration.

Instead, before Allenby entered Jerusalem, Britain, in an odd gesture known as the Balfour Declaration, declared that the country would be open to resettlement by the Jews. As a voluntary assumption of an obligation by a conqueror to a stateless people, the Declaration was something new in the pattern of protectorates.

The reasons why the British would do such a thing run deep in the national mythos and religion, despite the revisionist memoirs of Lloyd George which claimed that it was issued to curry favor with Russian and American Jews. "How could a Declaration favoring Zionism be expected to influence favorably the very people who would regard it with the most distaste?" The Russian Jews were completely powerless and the American Jews anti-Zionist.

The real history is much more interesting. Early on Joseph of Arimathea was claimed to have founded the church among the Britons, and the fable expanded in the telling, until it was accepted officially! In 1431

at the Council of Basle, precedence in seating and other sensitive matters of protocol were determined by the antiquity of the churches of the respective countries. The English cited Joseph as establishing their claim for precedence. In a furious quarrel with the Spanish delegates . . . the English insisted that Joseph had arrived in Britain before James in Spain . . .
and wrote an official document claiming that Glastonbury was the site of the chuch so founded. The embroidering of the legends claimed an early connection of Britain to the Christians of Palestine.

But this was just one piece of the puzzle. After the church spread, pilgrimages to the Holy Land were so popular among the Britons as to attract some notice (and a bit of disapproval). This dried up somewhat after the Moslem capture of the area--some rulers welcomed pilgrims (especially their money) but others enslaved them; and bandits and slavers made the long journey dangerous in any event. The Crusades formed another connection; even though the English contribution was not usually as great as France's. Still, the stirring story of Richard Lionheart's (actually quite professional!) campaign that almost won kept alive another sort of link in English memory. And trade slowly grew.

And then came the Bible in English, which had tremendous impact on the English culture. (It did in Germany too, but for other reasons Germany did not become the champion of the Jews.) For the first time the Old Testament became well known to the ordinary citizen, and the great stories were taken as emblematic of their own; especially of the story of such oppressed groups as the Puritans.

The Puritans were the first of many groups to look to the return of the Jews to Palestine as a necessary fulfillment of prophecy before return of Christ. Of course, it was expected that they would convert to Christianity first, but in any event the Puritans looked to the revocation of the order banishing the Jews and to giving them aid in returning to their ancient homeland. This went out of style with the Restoration, of course, but what came into style was the fashionable tour of the ancient world's sites (mostly Greek and Roman, but sometimes of the Holy Land).

And international politics has to play a role: to stifle French and Russian ambitions Britain committed itself to the support of the Turks. The British fleet destroyed Napoleon's, and their armies drove him out of the Middle East. Ever after Britain held the region strategic, especially as the India trade became more important.

The Evangelical Revival in Britain had influence "impossible to overestimate." Lord Shaftesbury's faith led him to successfully push through legislation such as "the Ten Hours Bill (the Factory Act), credited with staving off revolution in the industrial counties, as well as the Mines Act, the Lunacy Act, and the Lodging House Act, which Dickens called the finest piece of legislation ever enacted in England up to that time." And it led him to push for England to acknowledge its debt to the Jews and help restore them to Palestine.

He didn't ask the Jews, most of whom were poor and tried to lie low. The ones who weren't generally were trying to assimilate, and didn't want to rock the boat. Jews sometimes did try to go to Palestine, but since the land was in poor condition and no-one would give them jobs they usually teetered on the brink of starvation. But this began to change, as small amounts of money helped those who lived there, and events like the Damascus Incident (riots, murder, torture after an accusation of ritual murder) began to worry the better-off Jews. The Russian May Laws and pogroms (Hitler only added concentration camps and gas chambers) tried to make Jewish life impossible, and even in "civilized" France the Dreyfus Affair showed how deep ran the antiSemitism. Zionism finally appeared, though many of the Western Jews wouldn't believe (some until too late) that they were in as much danger as their eastern brothers.

Disraeli bought the Suez canal, which had of course to be defended--on both sides. So Britain needed Egypt in its sphere of influence, and eventually would need Palestine as well. When the Turks betrayed their old alliance in World War I the opportunity and necessity combined, and British forces eventually dominated much of the Middle East, excepting Lebanon and Syria under French control. But in the meantime, the confluence of Zionism, the sympathy for the Jewish homeland left by the old and new Evangelicals, plans for establishing a buffer state, and the search for a noble cause to back up the political necessity of controlling the Holy Land led to the acceptance of the watered-down Balfour Declaration. Mr. Balfour and others had clearly meant for the document to refer to a state, but there was opposition, and the final document was ambiguous:

His Majesty's Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.

And at this point Tuchman ends the story. She found that the subsequent history, with the British

betrayal of their own impulse in establishing the national home, the White Paper policy, the collusion with the Arabs, the ramming of the Exodus and detention of Jewish refugees from Hitler in new concentration camps on Cyprus, and finally the encouragement of the Arab offensive on the heels of Britain's departure was all impossible to relate without outrage. This is not a suitable condition for a historian.

You won't learn a great deal about the current Middle East from this book, but you will learn a lot about British history. Barbara Tuchman is a very readable historian. Go read it.

Thursday, June 24, 2004

Cave Riri Tastas

My wife is an alumnus of Rosary College (now Dominican University), and so we get their alumni magazine. (College grads never need to worry about being cast away on a desert island--the alumni association will find them.) In the most recent issue they proudly describe honoree Cobell performing the spirit smoke ceremony, and boast of the character of Daley--a founder of Call To Action. They praise their new peace pole, dedicated by Hindu and Muslim as well as presumably Christian prayers. The faculty news highlights such classic efforts as "The Powerpuff Girls: Empowering the Post-Todler Generation." I will mercifully omit the name of the professor of communication arts who perpetrated this illiterate title.

When my wife studied there the school had the reputation of a very good liberal arts college; and in certain majors their connections guaranteed high profile jobs to the graduates. Now I detect a distinct odor of post-Christian decay, and a decadence in the liberal arts that is about as bad as UW-Madison's. And the school doesn't have a strong science or engineering department to anchor it in reality . . .

Maybe I'm being a bit harsh, but it wasn't that long ago that Eldest Daughter and I toured Edgewood College, and I took the time to read the posters and fliers on the bulletin boards. The place cared more about other cultures than Christ, and more about the fate of old trees (think sit-ins with a big drum) than about the fate of unborn babies.

If you're going to go to a new-Age ultra-leftist college, why not pick a state university? They're cheaper. And who knows, you might get tired of the sloppy thinking in the liberal arts (what a horrible degeneration of an honorable phrase!) and have some fun with reality over in math or agriculture.

OK, to be fair, the magazine also honored an heiress who became a nun and popular economics teacher, and several other noble or at least amiable alumni. But in the Births section's photos of babies was the picture of somebody's dog. Can't they make distinctions any more?

My wife thoroughly enjoyed her college reunion there, and found many of the people she had known had grown up to be good and happy people. She came home later than planned after an impromptu prayer session in the morning lasted much longer than anyone expected. And she enjoyed her years at Rosary, which perhaps she'll write about some day. No, neither of us is Catholic.

Alumni will understand this post's title :-)

Baseball

Is Beelzebub the god of baseball? He requires sacrifice flies . . .

Saturday, June 19, 2004

Entitled and frustrated

There are few things uglier than the sight of a man who feels entitled to wealth or privilege casting around for someone to blame when he suffers a setback. And I worry about that, because we're going to see more of it soon.

Bush has made several mistakes during this war (though prosecuting it was not an error), but the worst was at the very beginning. He failed then, and has consistently failed since, to explain to the American people that the war is going to mean sacrifices. I do not expect to be as well-off five years from now as I am now. Oil prices must go up, and the stress on companies around the world will cause some to go bust; people out of work start to lose their homes and then banks start to go bust (and we've let some banks get so huge that that could be disastrous). At least a minor depression seems likely, not even mentioning the cost of prosecuting the war for another twenty years or so.

It is far better to say in advance "This is going to hurt" than to surprise people, especially people as comfortable with ever-increasing prosperity as we are these days. Remember the astonishment when people found that stock prices could actually go down? In a suburb of Chicago I saw a bumper sticker that read "Prosperity is my birthright." When that woman loses her job and her home, will she think herself robbed of her birthright?

I worry because demagogues find fertile soil among the frustrated; and we've trained up a couple of generations to consider themselves hyphenated-Americans. It will be horribly easy to find groups to blame and hate. And what holds us together as a country is not so much our systems of law as the social contract that says that we're all in this together. The politics of victimhood (baby demagoguery) is already magnifying every discrepancy into an offense; what is going to happen when there are some real losses?

Simple answers and Reagan

Menken said "For every human problem, there is a neat, simple solution; and it is always wrong."

Everyone knows Fermat's last problem: For positive integers a,b, and c, the equation a^n + b^n = c^n has no solutions for n greater than 2. It is a deceptively simple problem, unsolved for hundreds of years until Wiley's proof recently. Wiley's proof is hard, and relies on the efforts of generations of mathematicians. I don't understand the proof myself, but the answer is quite simple: a child can understand it.

Another problem: tie a lot of strings together at some large knot, so that the whole thing looks rather like an octopus. How do you pick the pair of strings which together stretch out farther than all other pairs? Answer: Pick any string and dangle the bundle from it. Pick the string that hangs down the farthest, and dangle the bundle from it. Holding onto that one, grab the string that hangs down farthest now. Those two span farther together than any other pair of strings you could have picked. Pretty obvious, right? Proving it might be a bit harder than most of us would care for, but it isn't that tough; and most of us would have tried the solution as our first guess.

I've read a few retrospectives of Reagan which claimed he was much smarter than he looked. I have my doubts: I still remember my shock when during the course of a televised debate he said "The Shah (of Iran) did our bidding." You don't say things like that out loud--it gives ammunition to the opponents of leaders of friendly countries, who then have to thumb their noses at us for a while to re-establish domestic credibility. (And as far as I can tell it wasn't completely true, either.) And of course there was the klutzy handling of the Lebanese intervention: it was never quite clear why we were still hanging around.

But you don't have to be brilliant to be right. And he was right to call the Soviet Union "an evil empire." And he was right to consider it fragile and susceptible to sustained pressure. And he was wrong to think that American troops in Lebanon would be some kind of talisman for peace.

Menken was a fool. Sometimes the simple solution is wrong, but sometimes it is right. Never mind the source--Reagan, Clinton, Bush--is the answer true or false?

Ents

If one of Tolkien's Ents grew lazy, would he become a beech bum?

Friday, June 18, 2004

Wild pictures

For those of you who haven't seen them yet, look at the pictures from Comet Wild 2. I don't have any details on the constituents of the dust. We may have to wait until the spaceship gets back.

But the pictures are fascinating. Craters, chips, pinnacles .. It looks like something battered and baked. Think how a wad of dirt and ice would look if you cooked it while shooting rocks at it. I look at it and wonder where the pieces that cracked off wound up.

Gratitude

Victor David Hanson has another essay on Europe and America out. I don't greatly dispute most of what he says, but one point bothers me. "I won't even speak of a sense of gratitude, because that is an emotion almost as archaic to the contemporary European mind as patriotism. Nearly 30 percent of all Frenchmen polled last year wished Saddam to defeat the United States in Iraq."

Gratitude? World War II ended almost 60 years ago. Gratitude is an attribute of human beings, and people die. We've had 3 generations born since then with no first-hand knowledge of the Nazis, and history is often a rather pale thing. And why should my counterpart in France be grateful to me? I didn't help his father and grandfather; I'm only 49.

One can justifiably claim some debt of gratitude for defending Western Europe against Soviet imperialism. Unfortunately, people easily forget what didn't happen, and the Red Army didn't move west. The "not invented here" attitude isn't just restricted to institutions; it also shows up between generations. Young leaders want a hand in making policies, not just in inheriting them. So they have to show why old policies need to make room for new ones. So they have to focus on the inadequacies and unfortunate side effects of old policies and alliances--and that makes it very hard to be grateful. (The modern West isn't very good at respecting ancestors.)

Of course the flip side of these effects is that it can be easier to make peace with former enemies: "The Nazis did horrible things to my grandparents, but not to me." That's usually a good thing, though sometimes old enemies are merely biding their time and only an (unfortunately ubiquitous) ignorance of history hides the danger. Think "hudna," and remember that over the centuries European countries resupplied the Turks with military technology in hopes of gaining advantage in their own local squabbles.

So, little appropriate gratitude, and little appropriate fear.

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

"WWTD: What Would Twain Do?"

The BBC has done us all a great favor and provided a summary of Ulysses, an infamously obscure book by James Joyce. not as obscure as Finnegan's Wake, but still quite hard to read.. I read a paragraph or two of Ulysses in an anthology and promptly decided that watching paint dry was more rewarding.

In contrast, consider Mark Twain's thoughts on literature as described in Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses:

There are nineteen rules governing literary art in the domain of romantic fiction--some say twenty-two. In Deerslayer Cooper violated eighteen of them. These eighteen require:

1. That a tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere. But the Deerslayer tale accomplishes nothing and arrives in the air.

...

10. They require that the author shall make the reader feel a deep interest in the personages of his tale and in their fate; and that he shall make the reader love the good people in the tale and hate the bad ones. But the reader of the Deerslayer tale dislikes the good people in it, is indifferent to the others, and wishes they would all get drowned together.

...

18. Employ a simple and straightforward style.

James Joyce may rest in peace. I'll go re-read Huck Finn.

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Harry Potter

Last year the Wisconsin State Journal ran a contest for the best last sentence in the last book of the Harry Potter series. The published candidates fell into a few classes: comeuppance for his muggle family, victory, defeat, celebration, etc. I can't find the list anymore, and frankly I didn't care for most of them. The idea is fun, though. I hereby waste electrons in predicting that the last line of her last Harry Potter book will be something like:

"You know they'll always welcome you here at Hogwarts: just say the word and we'll come," Hermione told Harry as they turned away from the glass case displaying Harry's splintered wand.

Too much of a downer? Have a better line? Email it. (I don't have comments set up.)

Sunday, June 13, 2004

This Old Cub

This biography of Chicago Cubs announcer and former third baseman Ron Santo was produced by his son. It feels more like a documentary, and a loving one, than the usual slickly produced movie fare. It is hard to build up dramatic tension, and it was a mistake to try: even my wife (a lifetime Cubs fan) started to get irritated at the Hall of Fame references. But does the story of a good man have to have classical dramatic tension?

Ron Santo passed over better offers to play for the Cubs, and for 14 years was one of their (and baseball's) star players. He was on the '69 team that almost made it to the World Series (losing to the "Miracle Mets"). And he did it despite diabetes.

With both leadership skill and an infectiously cheerful spirit he became popular with players and fans, and kept playing on until his diabetes began to slow him down. For those who have the disease, imagine trying to play baseball while estimating your blood sugar levels without benefit of testing gear. Think of adjusting your blood sugar levels with a candy bar from your locker stash. Diabetes took first one and then his other leg, but he's soldiering on; walking and announcing and cheering "This is the year!"

If you're a baseball fan you've probably heard of Santo somewhere already, and are making plans to see the movie. Have fun!

The Arab Predicament by Fouad Ajami

This was published 23 years ago (1981), and is not a book you'd look to for analysis of current trends. Nevertheless, his study of Arab, and in particular Egyptian, reaction to the the defeat of 1967 (and to the in some ways more disastrous victory of 1973) is still worthwhile today. Some of the same forces are still at work; the effect of corrupt governments is still as strong; and the confusion about what went wrong is still as great. Ajami predicted the growing primacy of Islamic "traditionalism," but points out that traditionalism (a conscious focus on the way things were done in the past) generally heralds the decay of tradition (an unconscious but general understanding of the way things ought to be done). And so Islamic traditionalism will also be another failure, though I wonder if he understood on how big a scale.

Why would a victory be more disastrous than a defeat? You may be blamed for a defeat, but you aren't generally expected to perform miracles afterwards. But after a victory . . . First the Sinai was recovered, and then the oil states humiliated the West and began swimming in money. It must be miracle season, right? But nothing important changes. And the West rebounds, and Israel becomes more powerful, and the sea of money is spent on foolishness and the spread of Wahabism. And even a baby could see that the Saudis bargain with the Wahabis will destroy them.

This isn't on my buy-it list, and I wouldn't call it critical for understanding the situation today. But if you want a better rounded picture (and I do), read it.

You say 73 wasn't a victory? But it was, wasn't it? The Egyptian armies crossed back into Sinai, into enemy territory, and weren't completely creamed. Isn't that what counts?

Friday, June 11, 2004

Nuking the Peninsula

From time to time I hear hot-heads suggesting that we "destroy Islam" by nuking Mecca and Medina in some kind of super-ArcLight. No Kabba or Mecca means no haj which means one of the pillars of Islam is gone, and it all falls down, right?

Um, no. Set aside for now the immorality of killing a few cities worth of people, maybe half of whom aren't our enemies. The plan fails on its own terms anyway.

Remember that Islam is, despite the best efforts of the Saudis, a fairly diverse collection of schools of theology/politics. In fact there are 5 major classical schools, plus a couple of new ones: Qaddafi's variety and the Wahabbi school (which I'm told has a sufficiently different approach to the Hadith from its parent Hanbali to count as a different school). The Sufi aren't counted as a separate school, but their influence is reputed to have been substantial. They tend to focus on inner spiritual qualities rather than the outward rituals.

Since pretty much any respected scholar can make fatwas, you can find vast numbers of them governing the minutia of life; and you can find contradictions among them even within a particular school. To make matters even more flexible, some scholars produce fatwas designed to achieve some result, rather than on the basis of clear scholarship. (one reason for the contradictions mentioned above)

The haj is only mandatory for those able to make the journey. Illness and poverty obviously influence ability, and so presumably does the danger of the journey. If Mecca is a radioactive hole, I assume it is too difficult to go there.

The day of ijtihad was declared over long ago. But if Mecca disappeared, certainly one of the schools would reopen ijtihad and re-evaluate the pillars of Islam in the light of recent events; and if one does, all will have to. You might speculate about possible Sufi influence on the results, since the literal application of the Koran wouldn't seem to apply anymore. I'm certain that the scholars would come up with some clever re-interpretation that would keep them in business if they had to. They can say things along the line of:

Five times a day, pray towards where Mecca was. (A no-brainer)

and

The haj was only mandatory if you were able to do it. Since no one is able to do it any more, it is obviously not mandatory. (Seems fairly benign and irrefutable)

or

Mecca is gone, so the end is near, so we need to be found as devoted fighters for God! The new pillar is jihad! (Sounds like bad news)

or

Where is Mecca? It can't be just the city, which kept changing over the years, (and no doubt became polluted in the process), but the place of Muhammad's obedience and Abraham's obedience. And if one place of obedience is gone, we can obey in another. We can make our pilgrimage to a nearby place from which we can see where Mecca was, or (if the Sufis have enough influence) in any place where one of God's prophets has been.

and

God sent the stone of the Kabba to Earth, and He's entitled to remove it if He doesn't like the way we've been treating it, right? And in any case the stone isn't supposed to be all that critical, no matter what the folklore says. (True. It isn't.)

But I don't believe they would have to work hard at it. At least one, and probably many, Muslims visiting the outskirts of the cratered zone would find a black rock, and inspired by dreams of glory or else just dreams would declare this to be the miraculously preserved stone of the Kabba. If some local scholar is on the ball, he'll celebrate the first find and cut off further searching (violently if necessary); and the New Kabba will rise in New Mecca. If he's not on the ball, the scholars will face a number of contenders and a more complex problem. The clever thing to do would be to recognize all of them in some sense and stash them all in the same building, but that may not be politically possible. As a fall-back position they could recognize all of them in some sense, and urge their distribution around the world into many Mecca's, which God mercifully provided because the first one was getting too crowded.

My point is that even if Mecca vanished, it takes little creativity to justify a new Mecca, or many new ones. Sufi influence might make the new Mecca a local or symbolic inner one; and fake relics would easily provide a center for a New Mecca. And in any event, people who would abandon Islam if Mecca vanished are probably not the dedicated sort who would be our enemies anyhow.

And no matter whether they take the position that God was angry and withdrew Mecca/Kabba, or that God protected its essentials from the devices of the devil--we wind up in the role of the devil. It would automatically become a fundamental Muslim doctrine that Americans were devils, and we'd have a billion devoted enemies instead of a few hundred million. Forever.

Thursday, June 10, 2004

Whole foods?

On the way back from This Old Cub last night, we drove past Whole Foods of Madison. I still don't understand what that could mean. Does a "whole foods" establishment have no sliced bread, or mashed potatoes?

Strength and self-doubt

William Whittle wrote a famous essay on strength and self-doubt in America. He likens our current situation to that of a body in too-clean an environment: with nothing for the immune system to attack, it attacks the body a la lupus.

Some years ago another writer put the situation better, and touched on what I think is the real problem:

From A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller (1959):

... children of Merlin, chasing a gleam. Children, too, of Eve, forever building Edens--and kicking them apart in berserk fury because somehow it isn't the same.

...

The closer men came to perfecting themselves a paradise, the more impatient they seemed to become with it, and with themselves as well. They made a garden of pleasure, and became progressively more miserable with it as it grew in richness and power and beauty; for then, perhaps, it was easier for them to see that something was missing in the garden, some tree or shrub that would not grow. When the world was in darkness and wretchedness, it could believe in perfection and yearn for it. But when the world became bright with reason and riches, it began to sense the narrowness of the needle's eye, and that rankled for a world no longer willing to believe or yearn.

(I wish I could write like that..) The struggle for the soul of the West is only partly political; only partly philosophical: its core is a spiritual struggle. On one side lie believers in _this_ earthly approximation to Eden, on the other berserk deniers, and in between a narrow road with a warning not to turn to one side or the other. The nominal cultural combatants are united in a focus on Me and what I can do, while the road is focussed on Him.

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

Reagan and the pundits

This is Madison, and so immediately after the newspaper published the official bios came the "Reagan was a liar" columns. I'm only surprised they waited a day. As for me, I think he gets too much and too little credit, and too much and too little blame. Everything that happens on a President's watch gets attributed to him. . .

It is hard to take a time slice and try to judge somebody's legacy from that one time slice. "History" isn't a good judge either: the student can see more of the ups and downsides of some policy, but tends not to notice the alternatives and finds the passions of the era unevocative. And how much of some given policy is the leader's idea, and how much is logrolling?

Consider the current war (which arguably started during the Carter administration). Our rather klutzy handling of the Lebanese intervention certainly emboldened our enemies. The Reagan era expansion of military spending let us develop new systems which have helped us fight more effectively and cleanly. Which is more important right now?

I can safely say that we've elected worse presidents in the not-too-distant past, not to dwell on the numerous candidates who didn't make it. Something everybody can agree with :-) The Democrats will think I mean Bush and the Republicans will think I mean Clinton.

Monday, June 07, 2004

Safire, Reagan, and stem cells

In today's NYR Op-Ed, Safire write in "Reagan's Next Victory:"

The outpouring of respect and affection for Ronald Reagan--the principled president and principal Alzheimer's victim--may help resolve the impasse blocking greater federal support of the use of embryonic stem cells in biomedical research.

...

But Washington neither starts nor stops the progress of science. A Harvard biologist, privately supported, developed 17 new lines of cells and is making them freely available. South Korean researchers went further, extracting stem cells responsibly from a cloned human embryo. And now the state of California will vote in November whether to go deeper into debt with a $3 billion bond issue to advance this biomedical research.

I understand a little of the pain Nancy Reagan is going through, and I sympathize. But may I point out that the art and science of cooking are also still developing, but we still refuse to make room in the kitchen for cannibalism?

Sunday, June 06, 2004

The Dream Palace of the Arabs, A Generation's Odyssey by Fouad Ajami

Suppose dictators control the state, and always have. The way to wealth is through power, and whoever controls the army has the power. People who agitate for political power wind up in prison or worse, and you're never quite sure who is going to be running the show next year.

Your history recalls days when your land was the center of power and culture, but it has been ruled for hundreds of years by local appointees of a distant emperor, which collapsed in front of even more powerful foreigners. Now suppose that there's no indigenous scientific scholarship, that the religious scholars teach that the world was perfect 1400 years ago, and that your land is now a backwater in the world.

In that sort of setting, how can you have any influence? Not in politics, if you value your health. Nor in commerce; not without political influence. Not in religious scholarship, unless you want to out-do them in piety or rigor. Not in science, or in technology; all that's left is the arts.

And the arts are influential. What you are immersed in shapes the way you think. If you can influence a circle of literary friends, you can perhaps influence the literature of a country. If you can shape the stories and songs of a generation, you can shape the way they think.

And this is why Ajami's book deals largely with poets and novelists, even when he is writing about Sadat or Arafat. Ajami uses leisurely story-telling, drawing the background so detailed that his subject almost seems like a shadow moving on the canvas by comparison. Not that Ajami neglects his subject, but he sees the character as part of a bigger world, and shows you the world as well.

In "The Suicide of Khalil Hawi" Ajami introduces Lebanon and Khalil Hawi, a son of the Lebanese mountains trying to make his way in cosmopolitan Beirut. He found acclaim and hard-won success, but the Lebanon he knew with its dreams of modernity and pan-Arabism was savaged by the Palestinians and the rising Shi'ites. Neither in safe "exile" in the West nor in his return was there any comfort or hope, and he shot himself--and the sound was overlooked because gunfire was so commonplace.

The poet and critic whose pen name was Adonis wrote "I come from a Shia home. And every Shia home inherits tragedy while it awaits a coming deliverance." The Shi'ite history is a history of martyrs, punctuated only with the occasional doomed dynasty--until Khomeini. The old pan-Arab dream had shattered after the 1967 war, and the new focus of power shifted to the oil-moneyed Gulf states and the revolutionary theocracy of Iran. And in the chapter "In the Shape of the Ancestors" Ajami describes the forces that fought across the MidEast:

When it rode high in the aftermath of 1967, the Palestinian movement insisted that it had the answers not only to the problems of the Palestinians but also to broader Arab ailments. It was the Palestinian belief that "guerrilla warfare" or "wars of national liberation" or "revolution" would deliver Arab society from its superstitions and weaknesses, that the Palestinian movement would create a new, emancipated society. The pamphleteers went to work, and so did the gunmen, proclaiming an era of daring and defiance. But it was all delirium.

. . .

For all its drama, the battle in Beirut and southern Lebanon was really an extension of the battle raging farther east between the Iranian revolution and the Iraqi regime. It was there that the Arab political order would make its stand. The "Persian state" had to be kept at bay and the Iranian revolution quarantined if the familiar order of things in the Arab world was to have a chance. Just was it was no accident that Khomeini named his military campaigns for Karbala, the great Shia shrine to the martyrdom of Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, it was also no accident that Saddam Hussein of Iraq labeled his campaign Qadisiyyat Saddam. (Qadisiyya was the seventh-century battle in which the Arabs conquered Persia and converted the Persian realm to Islam.) The Iraqi campaign was to be phrased in the simple and crude language of race: Arab versus Persian. Since the 1920s and 1930s, Arab nationalism had fallen under the spell of Germanic theories of nationalism--the unity of the "folk," the bonds of race, the entire baggage of German populism. This strain of nationalism found particularly fertile soil in Iraq. It was natural for Saddam Hussein to fall back on the call of the race and the nation. The tribe was threatened, so the tribe struck back.

. . .

In Khomeini's rendition, Hussein Ibn Ali, a grandson of the Prophet and a son of the Prophet's cousin, Imam Ali, rode to a sure death at Karbala. In this manner the hero-martyr of Shia history was turned into a prototype for the suicide driver. . . . For centuries, Karbala had been the material for lament, sorrow, and political withdrawal. In Khomeini's sermons, the pendulum swung to the other extreme. Karbala became a warrant for unrelenting zeal.

...

The victory had been swift, American and allied casualties surprisingly light. There was a desire to let well enough alone. The British wanted the military campaign to continue. They wanted to "close the loop" on the fleeing Iraqis. But they were overruled by Washington and told that it was not in the American military tradition to shoot a fleeing enemy in the back. Men use and misuse history and analogy. The specter of the "Lebanonization of Iraq" stayed America's hand. The Bush Administration did not trust its knowledge of Iraq and its distant ways and sects. America was haunted by the memory of Lebanon--the warring sects, the deadly fault lines--and convinced that the Shia of Iraq were destined to fall under Iran's sway. The Shia were the majority of Iraq's population, a people of that country, the Shia faith having spread in the nineteenth century (the tale has been told in an exemplary work of scholarship The Shi'is of Iraq, by Brandeis University historian Yitzhak Nakash) because the nomadic tribes of Iraq had taken to it when they settled near the Shia shrine towns of Najaf and Karbala in search of water for their agricultural work. There had been no "racial" divide, no clear-cut distinctions between the Sunnis and Shias of Iraq. All this was unknown to those who had waged the war against Iraq. America had seen the terrible harvest of aggrieved Shi'ism in Tehran and Beirut. No one wanted a replay of the past. Hard as the Shia leaders of Iraq would insist that they had no "sister republic" of Iranian theocracy in mind, they could get no hearing for their case.

"In the Land of Egypt" describes Sadat and the intellectuals of Egypt. "Sadat died isolated from the intellectual class; they had not been able to alter his policies, but they had done what was within their grasp: They had stripped him of his legitimacy." Because in his pragmatic search for relief for his impoverished and damaged country Sadat "betrayed" the varied goals of the pan-Arabists, the Palestinian-worshippers, and the fundamentalists, they in their turn undermined him. In the end the Islamists proved the deadliest. Egypt has for a thousand years been the intellectual heartland of Islam, and as the intellectuals and scholars of Egypt became more radicalized, so also have been the intellectuals elsewhere. Ajami doesn't dwell on the influence of the Gulf states' money, preferring to tell what native Egyptian poets and novelists said. And, of course, not all the writers hated Sadat and what he stood for--some hoped for peace and an end to the nonsensical delusions. Ajami has great faith in Egypt:

The country is too wise, too knowing, too tolerant to succomb to a reign of theocratic zeal. Competing truths, whole civilizations, have been assimliated and brokered here; it is hard to see Cairo, possessed of the culture that comes to great, knowing cities, turning its back on all that. The danger here is not sudden, cataclysmic upheaval but a steady descent into deeper levels of pauperization, a lapse of the country's best into apathy and despair, Egypt falling yet again through the trap door of its history of disappointment.

"The Orphaned Peace" shows the reaction of the artists to the Oslo accords and Arafat's betrayal of the cause. "This peace of Oslo could not win over the Arab intellectual elite. It was not their peace but the rulers' peace, they insisted, made at a time of Arab disunity and weakness, in the aftermath of a season of discord in the Arab world." The head of the syndicate of Egyptian artists and performers "prided himself on his hostility to Israel and on the resistance he put up to 'normalization' of cultural traffic with Israel." In a curious division of labor, the governments agreed to nod towards peace and the intellectuals (who publish newspapers, etc) agreed to reject normalization.

A culture's repect and approval can be strange. There is no justice in the way they are given or withheld. In an Arab political history littered with thwarted dreams, little honor would be extended to pragmatists who knew the limits of what could and could not be done. The political culture of nationalism reserved its approval for those who led ruinous campaigns in pursuit of impossible quests.
That sounds a lot like European history too.
The old Arab world with its truths could not be reconstituted. The exiles could not find the way back to their old homes and their lost cities. The one truth that could not be bartered or betrayed, the one sure way back to the old fidelities, was this enmity with Israel that harked back to the past. This was the one domain that the rulers could not hand over to their American patrons and protectors, their inner space and sanctum, which would remain inviolable and intact.

One theme shines through the book--the Arab "Who am I?" Were they socialist modernizers, Arab Arabic speakers united together (which somehow always wound up meaning Sunnis), revolutionaries, theocrats, members of nations to which they felt no necessary connection, or what? Whatever path they seemed to pick, the rulers ruled the same way and the people were no better off. Juntas ruling in the name of the great Arab nation looked the same as juntas ruling in the name of socialism. With no role in the governing of the countries, the cultural elite picked the role of opposition. If the government is pragmatic (as governments generally have to be), then scream against the peace and all who benefit from it. Israel is the focus of not just Islamic detestation of uppity Jews, but of borrowed European anti-semitism and of a hatred of all successful aliens. They need Israel as something to be against in order to define themselves.

Go read this book. His style takes a little getting used to at first. Get used to it.

Thursday, June 03, 2004

The mosques of the Middle East

From Memri, IMRA, Arab News (link broken, removed): PA sermons, Saudi sermons, joy in the "espionage shuttle's failure, television, gloating over 9-11 . . . Where have I seen this before?

It was nearly eleven hundred, and in the Records Department, where Winston worked, they were dragging the chairs out of the cubicles and grouping them in the centre of the hall opposite the big telescreen, in preparation for the Two Minutes Hate.

. . .

As usual, the face of Emmanuel Goldstein, the Enemy of the People, had flashed on to the screen. There were hisses here and there among the audience. The little sandy-haired woman gave a squeak of mingled fear and disgust. Goldstein was the renegade and backslider who once, long ago (how long ago, nobody quite remembered), had been one of the leading figures of the Party, almost on a level with Big Brother himself, and then had engaged in counter-revolutionary activities, had been condemned to death, and had mysteriously escaped and disappeared. The programmes of the Two Minutes Hate varied from day to day, but there was none in which Goldstein was not the principal figure. He was the primal traitor, the earliest defiler of the Party's purity. All subsequent crimes against the Party, all treacheries, acts of sabotage, heresies, deviations, sprang directly out of his teaching. Somewhere or other he was still alive and hatching his conspiracies: perhaps somewhere beyond the sea, under the protection of his foreign paymasters, perhaps even -- so it was occasionally rumoured -- in some hiding-place in Oceania itself.

Winston's diaphragm was constricted. He could never see the face of Goldstein without a painful mixture of emotions. It was a lean Jewish face, with a great fuzzy aureole of white hair and a small goatee beard -- a clever face, and yet somehow inherently despicable, with a kind of senile silliness in the long thin nose, near the end of which a pair of spectacles was perched. It resembled the face of a sheep, and the voice, too, had a sheep-like quality. Goldstein was delivering his usual venomous attack upon the doctrines of the Party -- an attack so exaggerated and perverse that a child should have been able to see through it, and yet just plausible enough to fill one with an alarmed feeling that other people, less level-headed than oneself, might be taken in by it. He was abusing Big Brother, he was denouncing the dictatorship of the Party, he was demanding the immediate conclusion of peace with Eurasia, he was advocating freedom of speech, freedom of the Press, freedom of assembly, freedom of thought, he was crying hysterically that the revolution had been betrayed -- and all this in rapid polysyllabic speech which was a sort of parody of the habitual style of the orators of the Party, and even contained Newspeak words: more Newspeak words, indeed, than any Party member would normally use in real life. And all the while, lest one should be in any doubt as to the reality which Goldstein's specious claptrap covered, behind his head on the telescreen there marched the endless columns of the Eurasian army -- row after row of solid-looking men with expressionless Asiatic faces, who swam up to the surface of the screen and vanished, to be replaced by others exactly similar. The dull rhythmic tramp of the soldiers' boots formed the background to Goldstein's bleating voice.

Before the Hate had proceeded for thirty seconds, uncontrollable exclamations of rage were breaking out from half the people in the room. The self-satisfied sheep-like face on the screen, and the terrifying power of the Eurasian army behind it, were too much to be borne: besides, the sight or even the thought of Goldstein produced fear and anger automatically. He was an object of hatred more constant than either Eurasia or Eastasia, since when Oceania was at war with one of these Powers it was generally at peace with the other. But what was strange was that although Goldstein was hated and despised by everybody, although every day and a thousand times a day, on platforms, on the telescreen, in newspapers, in books, his theories were refuted, smashed, ridiculed, held up to the general gaze for the pitiful rubbish that they were in spite of all this, his influence never seemed to grow less. Always there were fresh dupes waiting to be seduced by him. A day never passed when spies and saboteurs acting under his directions were not unmasked by the Thought Police. He was the commander of a vast shadowy army, an underground network of conspirators dedicated to the overthrow of the State. The Brotherhood, its name was supposed to be. There were also whispered stories of a terrible book, a compendium of all the heresies, of which Goldstein was the author and which circulated clandestinely here and there. It was a book without a title. People referred to it, if at all, simply as the book. But one knew of such things only through vague rumours. Neither the Brotherhood nor the book was a subject that any ordinary Party member would mention if there was a way of avoiding it.

In its second minute the Hate rose to a frenzy. People were leaping up and down in their places and shouting at the tops of their voices in an effort to drown the maddening bleating voice that came from the screen. The little sandy-haired woman had turned bright pink, and her mouth was opening and shutting like that of a landed fish. Even O'Brien's heavy face was flushed. He was sitting very straight in his chair, his powerful chest swelling and quivering as though he were standing up to the assault of a wave. The dark-haired girl behind Winston had begun crying out 'Swine! Swine! Swine!' and suddenly she picked up a heavy Newspeak dictionary and flung it at the screen. It struck Goldstein's nose and bounced off; the voice continued inexorably. In a lucid moment Winston found that he was shouting with the others and kicking his heel violently against the rung of his chair. The horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but, on the contrary, that it was impossible to avoid joining in. Within thirty seconds any pretense was always unnecessary. A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledge-hammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one's will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic. And yet the rage that one felt was an abstract, undirected emotion which could be switched from one object to another like the flame of a blowlamp. Thus, at one moment Winston's hatred was not turned against Goldstein at all, but, on the contrary, against Big Brother, the Party, and the Thought Police; and at such moments his heart went out to the lonely, derided heretic on the screen, sole guardian of truth and sanity in a world of lies. And yet the very next instant he was at one with the people about him, and all that was said of Goldstein seemed to him to be true. At those moments his secret loathing of Big Brother changed into adoration, and Big Brother seemed to tower up, an invincible, fearless protector, standing like a rock against the hordes of Asia, and Goldstein, in spite of his isolation, his helplessness, and the doubt that hung about his very existence, seemed like some sinister enchanter, capable by the mere power of his voice of wrecking the structure of civilization.

It was even possible, at moments, to switch one's hatred this way or that by a voluntary act. Suddenly, by the sort of violent effort with which one wrenches one's head away from the pillow in a nightmare, Winston succeeded in transferring his hatred from the face on the screen to the dark-haired girl behind him. Vivid, beautiful hallucinations flashed through his mind. He would flog her to death with a rubber truncheon. He would tie her naked to a stake and shoot her full of arrows like Saint Sebastian. He would ravish her and cut her throat at the moment of climax. Better than before, moreover, he realized why it was that he hated her. He hated her because she was young and pretty and sexless, because he wanted to go to bed with her and would never do so, because round her sweet supple waist, which seemed to ask you to encircle it with your arm, there was only the odious scarlet sash, aggressive symbol of chastity.

The Hate rose to its climax. The voice of Goldstein had become an actual sheep's bleat, and for an instant the face changed into that of a sheep. Then the sheep-face melted into the figure of a Eurasian soldier who seemed to be advancing, huge and terrible, his sub-machine gun roaring, and seeming to spring out of the surface of the screen, so that some of the people in the front row actually flinched backwards in their seats. But in the same moment, drawing a deep sigh of relief from everybody, the hostile figure melted into the face of Big Brother, black-haired, black-moustachio'd, full of power and mysterious calm, and so vast that it almost filled up the screen. Nobody heard what Big Brother was saying. It was merely a few words of encouragement, the sort of words that are uttered in the din of battle, not distinguishable individually but restoring confidence by the fact of being spoken. Then the face of Big Brother faded away again, and instead the three slogans of the Party stood out in bold capitals:

WAR IS PEACE

FREEDOM IS SLAVERY

IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH

But the face of Big Brother seemed to persist for several seconds on the screen, as though the impact that it had made on everyone's eyeballs was too vivid to wear off immediately. The little sandy haired woman had flung herself forward over the back of the chair in front of her. With a tremulous murmur that sounded like 'My Saviour!' she extended her arms towards the screen. Then she buried her face in her hands. It was apparent that she was uttering a prayer.

At this moment the entire group of people broke into a deep, slow, rhythmical chant of 'B-B! ...B-B!' -- over and over again, very slowly, with a long pause between the first 'B' and the second-a heavy, murmurous sound, somehow curiously savage, in the background of which one seemed to hear the stamp of naked feet and the throbbing of tom-toms. For perhaps as much as thirty seconds they kept it up. It was a refrain that was often heard in moments of overwhelming emotion. Partly it was a sort of hymn to the wisdom and majesty of Big Brother, but still more it was an act of self-hypnosis, a deliberate drowning of consciousness by means of rhythmic noise. Winston's entrails seemed to grow cold. In the Two Minutes Hate he could not help sharing in the general delirium, but this sub-human chanting of 'B-B! ...B-B!' always filled him with horror. Of course he chanted with the rest: it was impossible to do otherwise. To dissemble your feelings, to control your face, to do what everyone else was doing, was an instinctive reaction.

George Orwell, 1984

Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Water world

A lengthy stretch of the south side of East Washington Avenue here in Madison has 3 lanes torn up and excavated to a depth of from 3 to 6 feet deep. We've also had quite heavy (for the MidWest) rainfall. And so, in our "Venice of the MidWest," we have a 2 foot long carp living in East Washington Avenue. Of course the workers are going to have to drain the ponds to finish their work, and leave the poor critter high and dry; but in the meantime the city between the lakes has another tourist attraction.