31 May 2006


Todd Gitlin, possessed of infinite lefty street cred for having been head of the SDS in the '60s, opens up a can on Theory, identity politics, and other forms of academic unreality in an essay, “The Self-Inflicted Wounds of the Academic Left.”

I love the seductions of armchair radicalism and high theory as much as the next guy and more than most, but Gitlin is spot on. Check his essay out if you happen to care about such things. (And if you do, you may want to check out another old post of mine on lefty academic blather.)

Snakes on a plane

At the moment, there are over a dozen videos on YouTube for Snakes on a Plane. Many of them are things I think you would find charming if you understand the charm of Snakes on a Plane in the first place.

And really, why does the studio need to create trailers for this movie when a fan will create a terrific trailer of their own?

Update: I see that this fan trailer really captures the magic of Snakes on a Plane.

30 May 2006

Today's spam subject line

Internet is a good way to get into the Net
Um, yeah, I guess.

29 May 2006

Oh no! No mo' PoMo!

I recently found this table among papers from 1991. I had to share:

Cool postmodernism Hot postmodernism
Office Home
White collar No collar
Urban/Multinational Local/Global
Ironic Passionate
Head Heart
Fusion Solar
IBM Apple
Hobbes Calvin
Memphis Group Zona
New York / LA Montreal / New Orleans
Michael Graves Christopher Alexander
Philip Johnson Adres Duany
Cyberpunk Fantasy Fiction
Cynical Romantic
Detached Engaged
Ted Koppel Morton Downey, Jr
Neither Left nor Right Both Left and Right
Philip Glass Enya
Blade Runner Koyaanisqatsi
Apocalypse / Arcadia Realism
Laurie Anderson Queen Ida
Academic Empathetic
Mannerist Visionary
East European novels Latin American novels
Allan Bloom Joseph Campbell
Bowling Ballroom dancing
Sharper Image Smith & Hawken
Jean Beaudrillard Ivan Illich
The Three Davids:
Hockney, Letterman, Byrne
The Three Abbeys:
Hoffman, Edward, Road

Hmmnn. Things change.

For young 'uns, I should explain that Morton Downey, Jr. should not be confused with Robert the actor. Downey was a host of a ubiquitous vulgar TV talk show, the Anti-Oprah, sort of a cross between the worst aspects of Jerry Springer, Bill O'Reilly, and Rush Limbaugh.

Memorial Day

In honour of the day, Thomas Paine writing in The Crisis, #1.
These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated.
He goes on to talk about the use of force of arms in the American Revolution. But set that aside, and read this bit again.
Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated.
He's talking about integrity.

28 May 2006

See: Loop, infinite

Like any good geek, I've long been charmed that the name of the operating system GNU, which is a -nix operating system, stands for “GNU is Not Unix.” Self-referential on two levels: it refers to itself, and then denies its Unix nature. This is even wittier if you're familiar with the history and politics of Unix.

Via the Chairman, I learn that GNU is not the only recursive acronym. In fact, there are over two dozen; I particularly like “TINA is no acronym.“

While we're on the subject, let me also inform any readers unfamiliar with them about the handy acronyms TLA and TUA: Three Letter Acronym and Totally Useless Acronym.

27 May 2006


Billmon is on top of the latest atrocity by US soldiers.
Executing helpless women and children while they're huddled on the floor, praying to their God, is a war crime committed by terrorists. It's Lidice and Rwanda and Srebrenica and, of course, My Lai. The men who committed this crime aren't really human any more -- they shed their humanity like a snake sheds its skin when they walked into those houses and started shooting. All that's left of them is a dark pit at the center of their reptilian brain stems, a place that knows no pity or remorse or even self-awareness. They're lost souls -- lost to the world and to themselves.

I don't know if it's better or worse that this atrocity seems to have been committed by a military unit completely out of control, instead of one that was following orders, as was clearly the case at Abu Ghraib ....

I know that many war hawks respond to this with some “you can't make an omlette” talk about what it takes to fight a war, and how this kind of public scrutiny is traitorously unfair to Our Brave Soldiers and makes their job harder. Phil Agre forsaw the importance of this point.
(2) Because the fighting is all on television, the fine details of the fighting become political matters. Soldiers complain bitterly about politicians' interference, not understanding that technology has eliminated their zone of professional autonomy. The politicians are *right* to be interfering.

(3) The US military thought that the Republicans would save them from the Democrats' boundary-breaching conceptions of the 21st century world, but Donald Rumsfeld's abortive reform efforts -- which are really attempts to transpose the traditionally narrow view of military affairs into a science-fiction key -- have only clarified how archaic the traditional conception of warfare really is.

I note that Agre was writing four days after 9/11.

26 May 2006

Today's quote

Matthew Yglasias points out a double-bind about Iraq policy.
What Iraq needs is a political settlement among the important factions such that everyone would prefer living under the terms of the agreements to fighting with each other. Absent such an agreement, the American military can't “fix” Iraq. Given such an agreement, the American military would be superfluous.

Music box

Via SterlingSF, I learn of the Whitney Music Box, which takes very simple rules for making patterns with musical scales to create little musical/visual works with delightful structure. The compositions in the Box would make a great singing wall hanging in a '70s science fiction movie, or something the Max Cohen from the movie π would like.

25 May 2006

Hell freezes over

the Christian Coalition and MoveOn respectfully agree

They want to run it as a full page ad in The New York Times. If this doesn't motivate you to give money, then I don't know what will.

Save the Internet!

Yellow badges and the VRWC

A few days ago, I blogged about a story that had been going around about Iran passing a law requiring Jews to wear yellow badges—a story that turned out to be bogus.

I observed that the story was a good example of one of the tricks of the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy: some guy backed by a conservative think tank feeds a news outlet a story, it gets reported, other news outlets pick up the story, and it eventually gets debunked. But the point is that much of the public doesn't remember the final resolution, they remember—or better still for the VRWC, half-remember—the original story. Enough of this and drip, drip, drip, you have millions of people believing stuff like Iraq's involvement in 9/11.

I also observed that Right Blogistan had been good about correcting the yellow badges story, but often with an odd tone that it didn't matter that the story wasn't true because, gee, it's just the sort of things those Islamofascists would get up to, isn't it? I quoted Alexandra von Maltzan of All Things Beautiful as an example. Ms von Maltzan has been good enough to drop by and comment twice on my original post.

In her second comment, Ms von Maltzan asked me a good question, which leads me to outline further how the VRWC works.

Could you be precise and tell me which part of Taheri's article is “trumped up” and “false”, by quoting the article itself.
Nothing could be simpler, thought I, and I went back to Taheri's original article to pull a nice juicy quote. I come to this:
a law passed by the Islamic Majlis (parliament) on Monday [15 May 2006] ... envisages separate dress codes for religious minorities, Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians, who will have to adopt distinct color schemes to make them identifiable in public. The new codes would enable Muslims to instantly recognize non-Muslims so that they can avoid shaking hands with them by mistake, and thus becoming najis" (unclean).
... and later in the article, this ...
Religious minorities would have their own color schemes. They will also have to wear special insignia, known as zonnar, to indicate their non-Islamic faiths. Jews would be marked out with a yellow strip of cloth sewn in front of their clothes, while Christians will be assigned the color red. Zoroastrians end up with Persian blue as the color of their zonnar.
And since Iran has not, in fact, passed a law requiring Jews to wear a yellow strip of cloth, the story is false. QED. Right?


Mr Taheri has written a follow-up to his article. He is shocked, shocked to learn that others picked up the story and reported that Iran has started requiring Jews to wear yellow badges.

Regarding the dress code story it seems that my column was used as the basis for a number of reports that somehow jumped the gun.

As far as my article is concerned I stand by it.

The law has been passed by the Islamic Majlis and will now be submitted to the Council of Guardians. A committee has been appointed to work out the modalities of implementation.

Many ideas are being discussed with regard to implementation, including special markers, known as zonnars, for followers of Judaism, Christianity and Zoroastrianism, the only faiths other than Islam that are recognized as such.

Aha. The law hasn't been ratified and implemented yet. The zonnars are just being considered.

Read my quotes from the original article carefully and, sure enough, Mr Taheri reports that the law has only been passed by the Majlis. Any fool knows that this means that it still has to be submitted to the Council of Guardians before it becomes enacted. He says that the law “envisages” the use of zonnar, not that it requires them. Ms von Maltzan underlined this distinction in her first comment to me, and I did not fully register its importance. Mr Taheri says that religious minorities “would” have special colour schemes, not that they will have them.

Mr Taheri has been very, very careful in phrasing his article, taking care to not overstep the truth. How could he have possibly guessed that his report would be so badly misread?

Ms von Maltzan is correct. Mr Taheri's article is neither false nor trumped-up. It is, instead, a cunning work of deliberate deceit.

I sincerely apologize for misrepresenting it before.


Enjoy the t-shirt for a moment. I know I want one.

Alas, you're not going to like where I got the image. It's from an account on dKos of a Christian Right youth rally that will make your blood run cold.

After Franklin “Islam is a Wicked Religion” Graham came out to thunder against the evils of homosexuality and the Iraqi people (whom he considers to be exactly the same people as the ancient Babylonians who enslaved the tribes of Israel and deserving, one would assume, the exact same fate) we heard an explosion. Flames shot out on stage and a team of Navy Seals was shown on the big TV monitors in full camouflage creeping forward down the hallway from the locker room with their M16s .... 10 seconds later they rushed out onstage and pointed their guns in our direction firing blanks spitting flames. About 1000 shots ...
That account has lots more. And then there's these quotes from another firsthand account at Truthdig:
Luce, the BattleCry founder, hammered away at the dominant theme of the night: his contention that “pew-sitters ... passive Christians ... the Christians who just want love, joy, peace ... ” were the problem, and that the world needed more radical and extreme God-worshippers—those who would be obedient and fully submit to Christ.
“He doesn’t just want to be in your heart, He wants to own your heart.... There’s only one good reason to come to Christ: because He’s the rightful owner of your life.... You don’t have to know much about Jesus, just enough to surrender your whole life.”

Throughout this section, a loud crowd from the back of the stadium would periodically erupt, “We are warriors!”

Yeah, what's with those “love, joy, peace” Christians? Where do they get the idea that Christianity is about all that hippie dippy crap?

And most of the t-shirts lacked the ironic charm of the one I started with:

sported by many attendees that night: Jesus on the cross, robes waving, and emblazoned across the front the words “Dressed to Kill.”
Lots more if you follow the links, and Orcinus, of course, has a long, scary post full of additional analysis.

24 May 2006


In the past few years, war hawks have taken to calling doves “appeasers,” in reference to the legend of Neville Chamberlain foolishly imagining that he had acheived “peace in our time” by permitting the Nazis to keep their ill-gotten gains in Czechoslovakia without a military challenge ... rewarding their evil and emboldening Hitler to seek further gains by arms, plunging Europe into the Second World War.

If we don't invade Iraq, said the hawks, we're appeasing Saddam the same way that Chamberlain appeased Hitler. And now they're starting to say the same things about attacking Iran.

Billmon at Whisky Bar takes a closer look at the history. He makes a strong case for a rereading Chamberlain not as the fool of the legend, but rather a man who made a fatal misstep at the end of a long road of European foolishness.

In the neocon wisdom tale, Munich is always about Neville Chamberlain and that scrap of paper. But that's only half the story — or not even half. Hitler might never have risen to power in the first place if the allies had dealt justly with Germany and the other defeated powers at Versailles, or if the Western governments of the 1920s and early ’30s had shown one tenth the willingness to compromise with the democratic governments of the Weimer Republic that they later did to appease the Nazi regime.

The source of much of Hitler's political appeal — and the topic of most of his stump speeches before coming to power — was the spinelessness of the Weimer politicians in kowtowing to the Versailles Treaty, and the need for a strong leader who would stand up to the allies. The British and French only understand force, the would-be Furhrer shrieked. Germany must take what was rightfully hers, instead of going hat in hand to plead for concessions.

And of course, the allies proved Hitler right.

More importantly, the article digs into the implications in Iran, and sees us with a similar road of error lying behind us. A fascinating, if troubling, read.

Sep 2006 update:

Now I discover that Matthew Yglasias, filling in at Talking Points Memo, offers another examination of the question.

It's also certainly the case that, in retrospect, we can see that Hitler outlined those ambitions in advance, in Mein Kampf and elsewhere. People have, however, a terrible habit of overinterpreting these data points. In particular, they want to propose that the 1930s teach us the lesson that we should always take foreign leaders at their word.

Except, of course, that nobody actually thinks we should take that lesson away.


So the “lesson” people want to draw from the 1930s isn't that we should take people's statements more seriously. Rather, the “lesson” they've learned is that we should always adopt the most alarmist possible interpretation of every given situation. But, of course, they never put it that way. Why don't they? Well, because when you put it that way it sounds like a stupid lesson.

Speaking for myself, I am baffled when folks invoke the alleged lesson of Hitler to say that we have to take seriously that the United States is at war with the Muslim world because that's what Osama bin Ladin says he's doing.

Hitler said that Germany's destiny was the conquest of Europe and the elimination of the Jewish menace, and this was important ... because he was dictator of Germany. In comparison, yeah, bin Ladin has declared war between East and West, but he isn't in charge of the Muslim world. He's just a thug with a small network of dedicated, scary followers. That's bad, yes, but it doesn't mean we're fighting World War III just because he said so.

2012 update:

Leslie H. Gelb at Foreign Policy says something similar about misunderstandings of the Cuban missile crisis.

U.S. President John F. Kennedy's skillful management of the Cuban missile crisis, 50 years ago this autumn, has been elevated into the central myth of the Cold War. At its core is the tale that, by virtue of U.S. military superiority and his steely will, Kennedy forced Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to capitulate and remove the nuclear missiles he had secretly deployed to Cuba. As Secretary of State Dean Rusk rhapsodized, America went “eyeball to eyeball,” and the Soviets “just blinked.” Mythologically, Khrushchev gave everything, and Kennedy gave nothing. Thus the crisis blossomed as an unabashed American triumph and unmitigated Soviet defeat.

Kennedy's victory in the messy and inconclusive Cold War naturally came to dominate the politics of U.S. foreign policy. It deified military power and willpower and denigrated the give-and-take of diplomacy. It set a standard for toughness and risky dueling with bad guys that could not be matched — because it never happened in the first place.

Of course, Americans had a long-standing mania against compromising with devils, but compromise they did.

2014 update: Billmon returns to the subject in Twitter form.

If US seen refusing fair deal with Iran — under Israeli pressure — sanctions regime will soon crumble like punitive Versailles Treaty did. Without deal, with sanctions crumbling, with proof that hanging tough works, Iranian hardliners would be empowered, motivated to build bomb. So if neocons/Israel get their way now, it could easily lead to result they fear most … a weak, divided group of Western powers, unwilling either to invade or enforce sanctions on a hardline Iran. In other words: Munich.

2018 update: Nick Baumann for Slate in 2013, Neville Chamberlain Was Right

Historians often find themselves moving against popular opinion. In the case of Chamberlain, though, the gap between public perception and the historical record serves a political purpose. The story we're told about Munich is one about the futility and foolishness of searching for peace. In American political debates, the words “appeasement” and “Munich” are used to bludgeon those who argue against war. But every war is not World War II, and every dictator is not Hitler. Should we really fault Chamberlain for postponing a potentially disastrous fight that his military advisers cautioned against, his allies weren't ready for, and his people didn't support? “People should try to put themselves into the position of the head of the British government in the 1930s,” Dutton says. “Would they have taken the apparently huge risk of a war [that] might mean Armageddon for a cause that nobody was really convinced in?” Chamberlain's story is of a man who fought for peace as long as possible, and went to war only when it was the last available option. It's not such a bad epitaph.

23 May 2006

Yellow badge

So you may have heard this story kicking around about a new dress code law in Iran which requires folks of religious minorities to wear colored strips of cloth identifying them: red for Christians, blue for Zoroastrians, and ... you students of the Holocaust see it coming ... yellow for Jews. And so maybe you're like me and you know that Iran is a theocracy, with all kinds of bad stuff happening in it, so it seems plausible, if even more chilling than anything you've heard about before.

One thing, though. The story isn't true. Even the source where I first saw it is backing off.

Jim Henley at High Clearing got suckered by the story and circulated it ... but then very shortly afterword did some meticulous following up and found that the story came from a dubious source and doesn't survive scrutiny.

Now I'm pleased to see that Right Blogistan has picked up the ball and corrected the story. But as Henly observes in a later post the damage is done.

Taheri and The Post ran a provably false report, on their own initiative or at the behest of some publicity-shy agency of some government or other, played in as inflammatory way as possible. Why? So that months from now, someone hearing about plans to bomb Iran, or seeing footage of bombing on TV, will say to themselves, “Didn’t I read that Iran was going to round up all the Jews and make them wear yellow stars like the Nazis? Something like that. Well, good riddance.” All the story had to do was live long enough to get into circulation.

Okay, that's not the fault of Right Blogistan—that's just how the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy operates. But I'm not going to break my arm patting Right Blogistan on the back for getting this one right. Consider this, the very first sentence of a post from Alexandra von Maltzan at All Things Beautiful.

It really doesn't matter whether or not the Iranian Mullahs have actually passed the law forcing Iranian Jews and Christians to wear colored badges identifying them as non-Muslims.

Wait, it doesn't matter? Why?

Because Ms von Maltzan has telepathic powers, and can thus inform us that Iran's leaders are all ...

most certainly breathlessly awaiting the day when such laws are testament to their progress towards establishing the Caliphat, complete with Shari'a laws imposing segregation of first class, i.e. Muslims and second class citizens, otherwise known as Dhimmis, whose right to live depends at best on their ability to pay ‘protection tax’, or Jizya poll tax

Those tricky Islamofascists! They didn't pass that law, but you just know they wanted to!

Nuclear Iran

Yglasias patiently explains why a war with Iran is a really bad idea.
with all due respect to those who correctly ascertained in advance that backing Bush’s march on Baghdad was insane, following the neoconservatives to Teheran would be far, far, far more insane
But wait, what about the Bomb? Isn't a nuclear-armed Iran bad news? Of course it is, says Matt, but let's not panic. They're just not going to nuke Jerusalem.
Just as they taught me in Hebrew school, the Islamic world’s governments like to talk a big game about Israel, but don’t actually give a rat's ass about the issue and never have.

They’ll do anything to help the Palestinian cause unless it involves spending money, risking the stability of their own regimes, or deploying their military assets. Now we’re supposed to believe that, suddenly, the Mullahs are willing to guarantee their own destruction in order to turn the holy city of Jerusalem into a radioactive wasteland. That’s absurd.

Of course, Billmon observes that a radioactive Jerusalem is actually a fulfillment of the apocalyptic fantasies of the folks in Bush's base who see it as the curtain-raiser for the Rapture.
Israel's national security elites don't seem to mind. From their point of view, who cares if Pat Robertson is bat shit crazy .... as long as it can be assumed with a high degree of certainty that the President of the United States doesn't share their maximum program — which, let's not forget, includes the destruction of Israel, even if it is for the greater glory of Christ.

Unfortunately, we can no longer make that assumption with the degree of conviction we would ordinarily like to have about the man with his finger on the button. To say that Bush is an emotionally unstable man under absolutely skull-crushing pressure isn't to say he's gone completely off the deep end and thinks God wants him to start the countdown to the Apocalpyse. But it's pretty hard to ignore the growing signs of megalomania ("I'm the decider, and I decide what's best.") We also know from his personal history that religion is Bush's crutch — his substitute of choice for the drugs of his youth. When a dry drunk who came to Jesus rather than seek treatment starts talking obsessively about protecting Israel from the Iranian Hitler, it seems reasonable to be worried, particularly when he has the world's largest military machine at his instant disposal.

Jim Henley, on the other hand, uses Yglasias' essay as a starting point to suggest a more prosaic description of how the motives and rhetoric of the Bush administration are likely to spiral our of control on this.
Just as the Bush Administration and its more straightforward freelance publicists in the hawkosphere said we needed to topple Saddam Hussein to show that we could, the same crowd may feel that we need to bomb Iran for the same reason. So they superheat a problem (for the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran is that) into a crisis (which it is not).
And as Billmon observes in another terrifying post on the subject ...
a nuclear first strike on Iran would be the worst war crime imaginable, save for mass genocide
... which leads me to quote Ken MacLeod again:
You know how this stuff ends? It ends with your cities in rubble, your capital occupied, and your leaders hanged.
And God help us, we'd deserve it.

22 May 2006

Breakfast doggerel

Thomas Disch is not only the author of the little known great SF novel Camp Concentration, he's also a master of doggerel poetry. I have long been a fan of his poem “The Brave Little Toaster,” from his childrens' book of the same name.
Lives there a man with soul so dead
He's never to his toaster said:
“You are my friend; I see in you
An object sturdy, staunch, and true;
A fellow mettlesome and trim;
A brightness that the years can't dim.”?
Then let us praise the brave appliance
In which we place this just reliance.
And offer it with each fresh slice
Such words of friendship and advice
As “How are things with you tonight?”
Or “Not too dark but not too light.”
Via Content Love Knowles, I learn that he's now blogging with LiveJournal, and offering more little poems, like this one which goes nicely with the toaster.
Hi There!

Although I know you're just an egg,
Without an arm or yet a leg,
Something in me seems to say
I'd like to beat you up today—
Reduce you to a yellow froth,
Then stir you into boiling broth.
Tell me if you feel the same,
And, for the record, what's your name?

21 May 2006


If you're the sort of person who knows who 3Jane, Case, and Molly were, then these adorable young Hungarians will give you a chuckle.

It's the future now.

20 May 2006

Who are They?

A while ago, I plugged a book by Jon Ronson, The Men Who Stare At Goats, which is about some folks in US Army Intelligence believing and doing some very strange things.

He has another book, Them: Adventures with Extremists, even more fascinating. The title comes from his realization that most of the folks he spoke to, who ranged from Muslim Jihadists to Klansmen, believed in a Secret Room somewhere where a handful of powerful men—Them—decide how the world is going to be.

Who are They? This turns out to be a very strange and slippery question. ....

Ronson spends much of the first half of the book hanging around with Randy Weaver, Jack McLamb, and Bo Gritz, and presents the conversations he has with them his deadpan style. Compared to some of the obviously crazy people he talks to, they read as just eccentric folks with a hypertrophied but still classically American sense of independence and distrust of the federal government. They don't come off as really nuts.

Ronson also has an adventure with a guy named James P. Tucker who writes for The Spotlight, a conspiracy-theory newsletter obsessed with the Bilderberg Conference, which really is a group of extremely rich and powerful men who meet behind closed doors. Visiting the site of the Bilderberg Conference he and his extremist companions learn very little ... but they are pursued by a mysterious man in dark glasses for a while. Spooky.

One gets the sense that though Ronson is not turning into a paranoid extremist himself, he can see how one could get sucked into a little paranoia. Weaver in particular has a good reason for this: feds actually killed his wife, daughter, and dog in a bizarre armed standoff over ... well ... it's a little hard to tell what it was over. Especially if these are the guys trying to explain it to you.

And then he pays a visit to the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai Brith.

When Gail Gans had given me fact sheets proclaiming Randy Weaver and Jack McLamb and Bo Gritz to be far-right extremists, I considered to to be an overstatement—particularly because I couldn't think of anything they had said to me that could have been interpreted as being anti-Semitic. I had raised this point with Gail, and she had explained to me about their use of code words.
I did, however, believe that the ADL might be guilty of utilizing a scattershot approach that seemed designed to label any antigovernment radical as an anti-Semite
Then Gail handed me her Spotlight file. With eyebrows dubiously raised, I picked it up and glanced through it, immediately to discover, with alarm and embarassment, articles denying the Holocaust, tributes to neo-Nazi skinheads, books written by Spotlight editors dedicated to Adolf Hitler, and on and on. These were articles from some years ago, before The Spotlight began to utilize code words (phrases such as “International Bankers” and “International Financiers”).

So it turns out that all of those guys were extremists, racists, anti-Semites, but were speaking carefully in Ronson's presence.

2017 Update

A new PBS documentary includes this astonishing photograph of the Weaver family in their cabin sometime shortly before the standoff, which I had never seen before. Randy is wearing a t-shirt which says ‘Just Say “No” to ZOG’!

“ZOG”, of course, stands for “Zionist Occupation Government”, the supposed Jewish totalitarians whom the racist far right believe covertly control the American government.

This business of code words turns out to be a big deal. Anyone familiar with anti-Semites and racists—or even the uglier parts of the Republican party's past or present political strategy—has seen this code word business, where they soften what they're saying for public consumption while winking toward their kin who know what they're really talking about.

But then Ronson starts to deal with an organization worried about David Icke.

“David Icke represents a political threat. His writings are anti-Semitic. David Icke states that the global elite, the Illuminati who dominate every aspect of our lives, are genetically descended from an extraterrestrial race of reptiles who came to earth some time ago in the form of humans, who are capable of changing their shape, who engage in ritual child sacrifice, who drink blood ...”


“Do you think that when David Icke says lizards he means Jews?” I asked.

“Of course!” he said.

Now Ronson is a Brit who already knows about Icke because Icke was a popular BBC host who went very publicly nuts. Given Ronson's interests, he had spoken with Icke before. For instance, Ronson knew that Icke had accused a number of specific individuals of being pedophile extraterrestrial reptiles ...

Bob Hope, George Bush, George Bush, Jr, Ted Heath, the Rosthschild family, Boxcar Willie, the Queen of England, the Queen Mother, Prince Philip, Kris Kristofferson, Al Gore, and the steering committee of the Bilderberg Group

... but none of these folks had sued Icke for defamation—which Icke had discussed with Ronson in an interview ...

“Come on, Ted Heath! Sue me if you've got nothing to hide! Come on, George Bush! I'm ready! Sue me! I'm naming names! Come on, Jon! Why are they refusing to sue me?”

There was a silence.

“Because they are twelve-foot lizards?” I suggested, meekly.

“Yes!” said David. “Exactly!”

Ronson also notes that Icke's behavior has been batty for a long time. For instance, Icke spent a long span insisting on only wearing turquoise clothes, and claiming to be the Son of God. And, well, he talks like this:

.... this planet is actually controlled not from the physical level, which is just one level of it, but actually from what people call the lower astral, or I call the lower fourth dimension. It is the lower cess-pit end of the dimension closest to this one. And, it seems that, talking to people who have worked on the inside with these people and taken part in their rituals—indeed, in one case, conducted them—these lower fourth-dimensional entities who, of course, the satanic rituals interact with—the legendary realm of the folklore demons and all this stuff—that somehow, these particular genetic lines, in their most pure form, have a much greater vibrational reasonance and vibrational sympathy with the lower fourth dimension ....

In light of all this, Ronson says:

I guessed that when he said that twelve-foot lizards secretly ruled the world, he really was referring to lizards. But what did I know? The code words did seem to be increasingly abstruse.

... and to that point ...

I had felt a similar sense of bafflement when Gail at the ADL had told me that “Bilderberg” was a code word for Jews. (Again, very few of the Bilderbergers who had whisked past me through the gates of the Caeser Park were Jewish.) One would presume that this would pretty much disqualify them from being, by anyone's reckoning, a Jewish consipracy.

And this takes us to the heart of his observation about Them.

Surprisingly, the only group I discovered that had addressed this complex issue head-on was Combat 18, Britain's fearsom neo-Nazi outfit. They recently published a fact file entitled “What is ZOG?” It reads:
ZOG is Zionist Occupied Government. Not all the controllers of ZOG are Jews. ZOG is “Zionist” because their agenda seeks to realize their conviction that they are the “Chosen People.” Their aim is to be the Masters of the World.

So there's the answer. In the absence of statistical substatiation, you need to put words in inverted commas. The Jews are metaphors now. You no longer need to be Jewish to be a Jew.

This is how things now stand: The Anti-Defamation League is searching for code words that have replaced the word “Jew” and for the anti-Semites the word “Jew” has become code for non-Jews who meet in secret rooms, just as the anti-Semitic tracts of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—the Protocols of Zion and Henry Ford's The International Jew, for instance—portrayed the Jews.

And so the code words have taken on a life of their own.


More on Icke. He explicitly describes both space lizards and endorses the anti-Semitic fabrication The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

When asked about the Protocols Icke retorted, “Just because Hitler used the knowledge for negative reasons doesn’t reflect on the knowledge itself.” Indeed when Hitler himself was told beyond all doubt the Protocols were fabricated he responded, ‘Well that proves the Jews wrote it.’

[Icke's book] The Robots Rebellion sold out and was reprinted twice. In his next books Icke began to flirt explicitly with Holocaust denial and lost his publishing deal as a result. In And The Truth Shall Set You Free Icke repeated his previous claims that the Protocols were true, and went on to state: “I strongly believe that a small Jewish clique which has contempt for the mass of Jewish people worked with non-Jews to create the First World War, the Russian Revolution, and the Second World War…. They financed Hitler to power in 1933 and made the funds available for his rearmament.”

He described the Nuremberg Trials as a ‘farce’ and went on.. “why do we play a part in suppressing alternative information to the official line of the Second World War? How is it right that while this fierce suppression goes on, free copies of the Spielberg film, Schindler’s List, are given to schools to indoctrinate children with the unchallenged version of events….The “All-Seeing” Jews, however, and their non-Jewish conspirators, use the smokescreen of “anti-Semitism” and the genuine suffering of real Jews to prevent investigation of their sinister activities.”

Readers familiar with overt neo-Nazis will recognize these rhetorical moves.

Eye candy

Michael Levy's Giant Steps is a lovely example of pure, sensual joy in animation: no characters or narrative, but a progression of elements producing pleasure. Mmmmm.

Via Monkeyboy's Linkblog.

19 May 2006


Hmmnn. Roger Ebert says that the movie version of The Da Vinci Code is better than the book.
Dan Brown's novel is utterly preposterous; Ron Howard's movie is preposterously entertaining.
This has me thinking. Dan Brown cunningly turned the religious-historical-conspiracy “nonfiction” fancy about the Merovingian Kings Holy Blood, Holy Grail into a thriller, and it made for a good movie.

So why not do the same with Trevor Ravenscroft's The Spear of Destiny, another religious-historical-conspiracy “nonfiction” fancy, which claims to recount Hitler's obsession with the spear which supposedly pierced Jesus' side on the cross? You'd get to have Nazi villains, which is always cool.

Of course, most folks aren't familiar with the Spear in the way they have heard of Da Vinci and the Grail. So maybe instead of the Spear of Longinus, the movie could use a more famous biblical artifact. The Ark of the Covenant might be a good pick.

I think that would make a pretty good premise for an adventure movie.

Sir Ian

Speaking of The Da Vinci Code, it has Sir Ian McKellen in it, which is always a good thing. God bless those classically trained Brits who give us the gift of dignifying silly movies. With the possible exception of the amazingly amazing Ian Holm, McKellen is the best of 'em. Elsewhere in the review from Ebert, we learn that Sir Ian (of course!) once again delivers the goods.

Tom Hanks, Audrey Tautou and Jean Reno do a good job of not overplaying their roles, and Sir Ian McKellen overplays his in just the right way

Not only is McKellen a super duper actor, but he's as wry and witty as you prefer to imagine actors must be. Punk Ass Blog sings his praises, inspired by a comment of his on television.

“There have been calls from some religious groups, they wanted a disclaimer at the beginning of this movie saying it is fiction because one of the themes in the book really knocks Christianity right on its ear, if Christ survived the crucifixion, he did not die for our sins and therefore was not resurrected. What I’m saying is, people wanted this to say ‘fiction, fiction, fiction’. How would you all have felt if there was a disclaimer at the beginning of the movie? Would it have been okay with you?”

There was a pause, and then famed British actor Ian McKellen [Gandalf of Lord of the Rings], piped up:

“Well, I’ve often thought the Bible should have a disclaimer in the front saying this is fiction. I mean, walking on water, it takes an act of faith. And I have faith in this movie. Not that it’s true, not that it’s factual, but that it’s a jolly good story. And I think audiences are clever enough and bright enough to separate out fact and fiction, and discuss the thing after they’ve seen it.”

Well, there you go.

18 May 2006

Today's quote

Chairman Bruce is reflecting on the current drought in England.
Imagine a permanently drought-stricken London also under water from rising seas. It's like two J.G. Ballard novels for the price of one!
Yeah, drought in England that green country where they say it rains all of the time. Not this year.

But don't worry. Global climate change is just something scientists are making up to piss off the Republican party because they're all partisan Democrats.


Silent Hill so baffles Roger Ebert that his one-and-a-half-stars-out-of-four review is not so much negative as sort of discursive.
Rose has come here with her daughter Sharon because the girl has taken to sleep-walking at night, and standing on the edge of high cliffs while saying “Silent Hill” in her sleep. Obviously the correct treatment is to take her to the abandoned town itself. Rose and Sharon race off in the night, pursued by Rose's husband (Sean Bean) and a motorcycle cop (Laurie Holden) who is dressed like a leather mistress. The usual zombie-like little girl turns up in the headlights, there is a crash, and then everybody wanders through the town for two hours while the art direction looks great. I especially liked the snake-like wires at the end which held people suspended in mid-air. I also liked it when Johnny Cash sang “Ring of Fire” on the sound track, since if there was ever a movie in need of a song about a ring of fire, this is that film.
I really need a word for "bad movie full of good things."

17 May 2006

What kind of nerd am I?

How did the International Space Station get so elaborate without me realizing?

Gun control

I'm kind of wondering whether the Vice President's recent gun accident wasn't more important in eroding the administration's support in Red America than folks realize ...

Digby worried at the time that it wouldn't stick.

Now if Cheney had received fellatio and hidden it from his wife instead of drinking beer while on medication, shooting a man at close range and hiding it from the public, the story might not fade. Not because they would be concerned about his personal sex life, of course. It would be because of what it said about the his character.

But I suspect that actually, a lot of folks who have firearms as part of their lives do see this as a reflection of character.

Consider Mike Leggett of the Austin American-Statesman who didn't like Cheney staying sequestered for a few days after the incident, unwilling to speak to the press while his spin people tried to erase his responsibility.

Be a man. You shot a guy.

That would be my unsolicited advice for Vice President Dick Cheney.

You shot a guy. At least stay in town until he's out of the hospital.

You shot a guy. Don't blame the sun or the wind or the rotation of the Earth. And for goodness' sake, don't blame Harry Whittington.

He's the guy you shot, and unless he pulled the trigger himself, it wasn't his fault. Unless he was invisible, it wasn't his fault. And it wasn't his fault that he didn't "announce his presence," either. He was supposedly 30 yards behind you. His only fault was being a human being standing on two legs.

He's in the hospital. You're in Washington. And others are making excuses for you.

You shot the guy.

I've been hit with pellets, and it felt like a swarm of bees coming upside my head. I didn't spend several days in the hospital. I've picked shot out of other people sitting on the tailgate of a pickup, and they didn't even have to go to the doctor. They went back out hunting.

They got peppered. Whittington got shot. By you.

Cheney did—eventually—come out and take responsibility. I'm guessing that a guy like Leggett wasn't too impressed. I suspect that he's a lot like ReddHedd at Firedoglake, who descibes how important and deep-rooted firearms safety is for folks who grow up around guns.

One of the first things my dad taught me was how to move around in the woods or in a field to maximize my safety. Aside from the blaze orange requirements today for visual safety, you stay behind the person with the gun, you keep your muzzle pointed away from people and dogs who are your companion animals (and reports are that they were using dogs to flush out the birds, so guns would have been pointed skyward to minimize potential accidents for the dogs), and you never, never, NEVER squeeze off a round without first ascertaining the entire visual in front of where you will be shooting, within the designated path of your particular firearm (different guns have different ranges and shot patterns, depending on caliber and load) -- in other words, look very carefully before you ever pull the trigger.

That Mr. Whittington was in the line of sight for Dick Cheney is regrettable. But no matter whether Whittington walked into the line of sight or whether Cheney turned to shoot at quail and placed Whittington within his line (which is a more likely hunting scenario, given that you generally try to walk up on a hunting party from behind if at all possible if you are at all experienced, to minimize possible accidents), it is the hunter's responsibility at all times to be secure in what he is seeing before he ever pulls the trigger. Period.

And no amount of trying to spin this to a press corps who has never fired a shotgun takes away from the fact that the shooter always has the obligation to ensure safety before pulling the trigger. ALWAYS.

Not doing so as a kid would have gotten me a serious butt whipping and worse. My dad was very, very serious about it, having known idiots who went out in the woods and caused just this sort of accident. You never, ever shoot without looking very carefully first. Cardinal rule of gun safety number one.

And this is not just a matter of screwing up a thing about handling guns, which is bad enough. It's what guns represent. Eric S. Raymond writes with a kind of chilly romanticism about how owning and using guns is inherently a deeply moral exercise.

There is nothing like having your finger on the trigger of a gun to reveal who you really are.
Nothing most of us will ever do combines the moral weight of life-or-death choice with the concrete immediacy of the moment as thoroughly as the conscious handling of instruments deliberately designed to kill. As such, there are lessons both merciless and priceless to be learned from bearing arms — lessons which are not merely instructive to the intellect but transformative of one's whole emotional, reflexive, and moral character.

He lists them, and they are illuminating in this story.

  • it all comes down to you .... No one's finger is on the trigger but your own. All the talk-talk in your head, all the emotions in your heart, all the experiences of your past — these things may inform your choice, but they can't move your finger .... They can change how you feel about the choice, but only you can actually make the choice. Only you. Only here. Only now. Fire, or not?
  • never count on being able to undo your choices
  • the universe doesn't care about motives.

Indeed, Raymond argues that practice with firearms is inherently and necessarily a meditation on these questions.

These are hard lessons, but necessary ones. Stated, in print, they may seem trivial or obvious. But ethical maturity consists, in significant part, of knowing these things — not merely at the level of intellect but at the level of emotion, experience and reflex. And nothing teaches these things like repeated confrontation with life-or-death choices in grave knowledge of the consequences of failure.

I don't imagine that most American gun owners would reach for the moral and ethical dimension quite so directly as Raymond does—though I think he's hardly alone—but I do think that his perspective does live in the psyche of many American gun owners in some form.

There is nothing like having your finger on the trigger of a gun to reveal who you really are.

I suspect that a lot of Americans who used to trust Cheney have seen him reveal something about who he really is, and they don't like it.

16 May 2006


Via DeLong, an interview with the President that made my blood run cold.

Visualize it.

One of the interesting things about the presidency is people watch me like a hawk. They're looking at my moves. And if I'm going to be wringing my hands and if I'm all worried about the decisions I make are not going to lead to a better tomorrow, they'll figure it out.

And so when you talk to me today, I just want you to know I not only strongly believe in the decisions I make, I'm optimistic that they're going to work—very optimistic.
Lincoln—this is the place on the Oval Office wall where the President puts the most—the best President, and I put Lincoln here, and I don't think there's any question—now, people will have their—but I think he was the most influential President ever. And the reason why is because that in the midst of a difficult presidency, needless to say—the Civil War, thousands of people dying, with Americans killing Americans—he had a vision of a United States. It's conceivable this country would have ended up being two countries had he not had a clear vision, even though all around him was seemingly falling apart. He was a great President.

DeLong observes that this paranoid, self-justifying babbling about resolve in the face of criticism and trouble comes before the interviewer has even asked a question at all.

This man is President of the United States.

15 May 2006


Timothy Burke says exactly what I think about Michael Moore.
I think he’s got a good comic touch, which helps distinguish him from the schoolmarm left (though I’m fascinated with how he doesn’t get attacked by the schoolmarms for some of what he does—his montage on the "Coalition of the Willing" in Fahrenheit uses loaded racial and ethnic imagery, for example). If he was content to be a humorist, he wouldn’t annoy me so much. But he’s not content, and habitually insists on sticking in every cheap shot, misleading claim, exaggeration, simplification, and agit-prop sleight-of-hand that he can get away with while pursuing very serious, accurate, important and substantial political arguments. Even when I substantially agree with much of what he has to say, as I do about the Iraq War and the Bush Administration, he still manages to irritate me.
This is a failure of discipline.

Consider Roger & Me. The point of the film is the devestating effects of GM layoffs on the Michigan economy, and the Moore's suggestion that the leadership of GM make decisions with callous disregard for these consequences. It's a good subject for a film.

So what is the "pets or meat" lady doing in the movie?

The answer is obvious. She's an irresistable piece of footage. She's the thing everyone remembers best, the thing people talk about on their way out of the theater. She's sad, funny, and astonishing, and I can just see Moore thinking to himself, "This is amazing. I have to put this in my movie."


She does not contribute to the point. And whether your movie is a documentary or screwball comedy or a thriller, you must maintain a disciplined focus on where you are going, what you are doing. If something doesn't make your point in a documentary or make you laugh in a comedy or move the plot in a thriller, then you must cut it for the sake of the health of the film. Prose writers understand this, and so one of the great adages of writing is "murder your darlings," because the greatest threats to the structure of your work are the bits you love too much.

And this is even more true in film than in prose, because film is a very unforgiving medium. The ideal running time for a feature film is 100 minutes, which if you think about it is very little time. Break down your favourite film sometime, and you'll see that it probably has less than a dozen real scenes, plus a few little bits of glue holding it together—and the better the film, the less of that mortar you'll find between the bricks of the major scenes. In that short time, you must control the pace every single minute. If you kill the pace—if events drag and you lose interest, or if things get rushed and you cannot follow what's happening, or if the focus goes to the wrong place and you're so intersted in what's happening to offscreen characters that you're frustrated by what the film is showing you now—then you poison, or even kill, the whole movie. Conversely, mastery of pace will sustain a film that might otherwise disintegrate. Think of the fast pace of Lola Rennt, the languid pace of Apocalypse Now, or anything Hitchcock ever did.

So, discipline. Two contemporary favourites are cases in point.

P. T. Anderson's Magnolia is a perfect example. It's brimming over with terrific performances by the actors ... which is the problem, because P. T. Anderson just loves actors too much. He cannot bear to cut a single golden moment. The actors love it, of course, but the film as a whole suffers, becoming a jumbled slog through great performances. No discipline.

Compare that to Steven Soderbergh's Out of Sight, which is a mix of visual and emotional tones that works because the rhythm is right. Go rent the DVD, watch the movie, and then look at the deleted scenes. Even if you've seen the film before you'll thank me because there's a little bit of dialogue that would have gone right before the tub scene which is one of the funniest, wittiest things you'll ever see. It must have killed Soderbergh to take it out of the film. But he did it, because it would have completely screwed up the pace, as will be obvious once you've seen it. Discipline.

And Michael Moore does not have it. God bless him, he has so much going for him. He has a terrific eye for the telling detail—think of the ash and papers drifting through the air at the beginning of Farenheit 9/11, which I'm not too proud to admit made me cry. He has a true talent in talking to Americans and getting them to tell their stories—think of the patient, compassionate manner he had with the Columbine families in Bowling for Columbine, the antithesis of our tabloid television reportage, which again I'm not too proud to admit made me cry. He knows how to milk the humour and irony in a situation—think of him with the rifle in the bank, again in Columbine. He knows how to use his fame—notice how in his later films, he's encountering senators and corporate PR flacks and security guards, saying, "hi, I'm Michael Moore," and they respond tightly, already wary, "I know who you are."

But he just can not resist the cheap shot. The "pets or meat" lady in Roger & Me. Harassing Dick Clark in Bowling for Columbine. Interviewing Britney Spears and rearranging the sequence of events in Farenheit 9/11. It corrodes his whole project.

That said, Farenheit was tragically flawed but still much more disciplined than his earlier films. I think he saw the stakes as higher. I hope that the trend continues, and he becomes the truly great filmmaker he has the capacity to be.

14 May 2006


This actually kind of made me wish I'd spent last night watching TV. Though the first five seconds are sort of the best part.

Bonus: There's a joke in there that is more sophisticated than it appears at first.


Indri points us to a CNN article: Mentally ill troops forced into combat.
The paper reported that some service members who committed suicide in 2004 or 2005 were kept on duty despite clear signs of mental distress, sometimes after being prescribed antidepressants with little or no mental health counseling or monitoring. Those findings conflict with regulations adopted last year by the Army that caution against the use of antidepressants for “extended deployments.”

Although Defense Department standards for enlistment disqualify recruits who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, the military also is redeploying service members to Iraq who fit that criteria, the newspaper said.

“I can't imagine something more irresponsible than putting a soldier suffering from stress on (antidepressants), when you know these drugs can cause people to become suicidal and homicidal,” said Vera Sharav, president of the Alliance for Human Research Protection, a New York-based advocacy group. “You're creating chemically activated time bombs.”

This reminds me of a passage from Jon Ronson's book The Men Who Stare At Goats.
studies conducted after the Second World War ... interviewed thousands of American infantrymen and concluded that only 15 to 20 percent of them had actually shot to kill. The rest had fired high or not fired at all, busying themselves however else they could.

And 98 percent of the soldiers who did shoot to kill were later found to have been deeply traumatized by their actions. The other 2 percent were diagnosed as “agressive psychopathic personalities,” who basically didn't mind killing people under any circumstances, at home or abroad.

The conclusion—in the words of Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman of the Killology Research Group—was that “there is something about continuous, inescapable combat which will drive 98 percent of all men insane and the other 2 percent were crazy when they got there.”

Like I couldn't have guessed that.

13 May 2006


Yezida tells me she knew I would dig this little BBC piece about French feminism and language.
Chiennes de Garde say they do not want an equivalent to the English Ms but the use of madame for women of all ages, married or not.

Whether the guardians of the French language, the Academie Francaise, will accept that is another matter.

It still insists that female cabinet ministers are referred to by the male le as in Madame Le Ministre.

Perhaps, then, this issue will have to wait until France has a Madame le President?

It's funny how these things shake out. The texture of language and culture is subtle. There's no objective answer to what is sexist and anti-sexist; these things play out in highly specific context.


It's tempting to think that we're ahead of the curve on the French on this one. Sort of. Newspapers and government documents and so forth in the US generally use Ms ... but if you fill out a form to rent an apartment, you'll probably be offered check boxes for Mr, Mrs, Miss, and Ms, to cover all of the bases. American feminism has come to a place where a commitment the rhetoric of personal choice—itself tangled up in distinctly American ideas of individualism and independance—demands that we respect the preferences of women who are uncomfortable with "Ms," even if we believe that this preference supports sexism and patriarchy.


And that "Madame le President" bit tickles me. Honestly, my first thought is of Battlestar Galactica, where crewmembers refer to officers, male or female, as "sir." It's a little science fiction gimmick which tells you that there's a kind of gender egalitarianism in their society which is somehow subtly different from what we have in our own.


Which brings me back to how I said that it's tempting to think that we're "ahead of the curve." But consider: we all know, somehow, that when a woman is finally elected President of the United States, we will address her as "Madame President." But how odd that we've quietly agreed on this issue when we still appear to be miles away from actually electing a woman to the job, when Pakistan had a woman as Prime Minister almost twenty years ago—and that's a country where many women are wearing burqas, which we think of as a kind of sign of Infinite Sexism. Which is, of course, a vast oversimplification.


12 May 2006

Whatever It Takes

I have some friends who love Dan Simmons' SF novels. At the risk of breaking their hearts, as happens to lefty fans of Orson Scott Card, I want to ruminate at length on a chilling story of his that I found via DeLong.

The Time Traveler appeared suddenly in my study on New Year's Eve, 2004. He was a stolid, grizzled man in a gray tunic and looked to be in his late-sixties or older. He also appeared to be the veteran of wars or of some terrible accident since he had livid scars on his face and neck and hands, some even visible in his scalp beneath a fuzz of gray hair cropped short in a military cut.

The Time Traveller comes from the future with a warning, of course.

“I mean the Century War with Islam,” interrupted the Time Traveler. “Your future. Everyone’s.” He was no longer smiling. Without asking, or offering to pour me any, he stood, refilled his Scotch glass, and sat again. He said, “It was important to me to come back to this time early on in the struggle. Even if only to remind myself of how unspeakably blind you all were.”

The Time Traveller goes on at length about the horrors of the future. A repressive Muslim regime has spread across most of the world, with millions killed in an ongoing war. It should have been obvious to us back in our present that it was coming but, you see, we hadn't read Thucydides.

The Time Traveler shook his head. “You’ve understood nothing I’ve said. Nothing. Athens failed in Syracuse — and doomed their democracy — not because they fought in the wrong place and at the wrong time, but because they weren’t ruthless enough. They had grown soft since their slaughter of every combat-age man and boy on the island of Melos, the enslavement of every woman and girl there. The democratic Athenians, in regards to Syracuse, thought that once engaged they could win without absolute commitment to winning, claim victory without being as ruthless and merciless as their Spartan and Syracusan enemies .... ”

Ah, there it is. Ruthlessness.

Okay, the Time Traveller is right that I have not read Thucydides. But, this being the internet, I have some folks who have right here. Belle Waring, while musing about the madness of advocates for attacking Iran, says that Simmons' Time Traveller ...

... takes grave misreadings of Thucydides to a whole new level, a category in which the competition is stiff ...

... most notably from Victor Davis Hanson, who Matthew Yglasias describes as writing ...

... pretty clear-cut misreadings of Thucydides such that a book about how a once-great country ruined its foreign policy and its own moral virtue in an unnecessary foreign adventure somehow becomes a book about how wars that look really stupid are, in fact, good because they provide a lot of opportunities to show resolve.

Thus Bogged Anderson agrees that Simmons' misunderstanding here is pretty astonishing.

So much for the great books: Somebody claims to have read Thucydides & come away with the message that it's bad not to be ruthless enough.

Wow. Next we'll be hearing about how the Sermon on the Mount really means “kill them all, God knows his own.”

(Update: I cannot resist throwing in a caveat about facile readings of Thucydides from S. N. Jaffe at War On The Rocks.)

I presume that these folks are right, because it's how I responded when I read the Time Traveller's own description of Thucydides' story. It sounded to me not like a parable about the need to be ruthless, but like a warning about the horrific consequences of imperial overreach through war.

But hawkish Right Blogistan loves the Time Traveller's tale, have just been eating the story up. Take a close look, for instance, at what Stephen Green, the Vodkapundit, has to say.

But after 9/11, it became our duty to teach the barbarians that they must cry uncle — that we are willing to do whatever it takes to defend Western Civilization.

We touched on this issue yesterday, after Kevin Drum wondered exactly what “whatever it takes” really means. I said then, and still believe today, that “‘Whatever it takes’ is what we're trying to avoid.” What Simmons has reminded all of us is that just because we're trying to avoid something, doesn't make it avoidable.

There it is, the sneaky fatalistic implication in having a Time Traveller from the future as the mouthpiece, confirming what these folks want to hear. We've been dragged into a grand historical conflict with a billion Muslims. It's unavoidable. It's not because of anything we did or did not do, it's a madness that has already overtaken the Muslim world. All we can do—what we must do, to even survive — is learn to be utterly ruthless, right quick.

I expect that those folks would say that this is not “what they want to hear,” but their reluctant acceptance of an unhappy reality. There's this tone of sober, grim realism about this difficult, inescapable situation. How sad, that this should be the burden of us in this time.

But if you follow the talk of a grand Clash of Civilizations with “Islamofasists” since 9/11, or you look in Green's post and many of the comments on his comments thread, or you look at the other hawkish sites I linked above, or you read Simmons' story itself, you see that there is an unwholesome satisfaction at the prospect of the Time Traveller's Century War. I see some transparent hungers at work.

There's the old, poisonous idea that of course we could have won the Vietnam War had we just tried hard enough, but those wimpy liberals wouldn't let us Do What It Takes. We won't make that mistake again.

And this plugs into a kind of masculine American Rotary Club Nietzcheism which Robert Farley at Lawyers, Guns and Money sums up well in the course of a long post describing how scary this point of view turns out to be.

I think that this is the most important element of the attractiveness of Will to warbloggers, the idea of Will is extremely appealing to a particular construction of masculinity. Toughness, understood as a male characteristic, is more important than skill, capability, technology, etc. The French lose because they are effeminate. The Democrats lose because they are effeminate (and shot through with feminists in any case). The individual warblogger may not have been trained for war, or have any particular physical talents, or have done much more to study war than read and re-read Victor Davis Hanson, but he knows that he is tough, and he knows that this toughness must matter in some way.

Personally, I also suspect that there's a kind of generational hunger at work here, too. I'm a subscriber to Niel Howe and William Strauss' theory that American history turns on a four-generation cultural cycle that takes about a human lifetime to make its circuit. Once each cycle, America decides it's time for a crisis: the Revolution, the Civil War, the Depression and WWII. The wheel has turned, and it's that time again. I've felt the call myself, a hunger for national purpose. But the kind of national purpose that speaks to me is very different than what these hawks dream of — their dream is of endless, bloody war.

And that is rooted in the romance that war holds for some folks. Reading Simmons' story, the Time Traveller as a character doesn't stand as a warning about the tragic consequences of the war he describes. Instead, he's a wise, noble, scarred warrior who Sees The Truth. So manly. There's a scent of fascistic psychosexual posturing there, what Arthur Silber calls “The Apocalyptic Crusader: Redemption, Purification and a New World -- through Sacred Violence and Death.” Because, again, we see this not-so-hidden relish in Doing Whatever It Takes, a bloodlust lying close to the surface.

And I see another brother influence to that, the romance of being the vanguard, the most deeply dedicated of all, ahead of your time.

But what do they want to do?

The Vodkapundit alludes to Kevin Drum asking what this “whatever it takes” talk really means.

So: what's the plan, hawks? “Whatever it takes” is just cheap talk. Are you suggesting higher taxes to fund a dramatic increase in military end strength? A draft? A ground invasion of Iran? A permanent military occupation of the entire Middle East?

Jim Wright sharpens the question at the end of a long, dark meditation on military strength and instilling fear.

If the objective is fear, fear to such a degree our enemies will not challenge us, then the only measure is that they don’t. Ever.

It’s about will. Remember?

Imagine such a nation.

Imagine a nation so unassailable, so powerful, so utterly ruthless, so utterly without sympathy or humanity, so willing to use force, willing to carpet bomb entire populations out of existence, willing to torture its enemies, willing to sacrifice its sons and daughters and its treasure, willing to forgo education and healthcare and even eating, to do anything and everything to preserve its security. And to do so to such a degree that no enemy would ever dare to even think about resisting it.

Now, you tell me: what does that nation look like?

The Poor Man answers this question with satire.

We are Americans, after all, and with that comes a solemn responsibility to be somewhat less cruel and evil than the most cruel and evil people ever. This is a valid criticism. But criticism is not a substitute for a strategy. If mass crucifixion — despite its proven record for short-order insurgency-squelching — is too brutal for war hawks to contemplate, I feel that the onus is on them to explain just what positive, proven, non-rhetorical (and preferably non-Canadian) measures might be implied by “whatever it takes.” Because, not to put too fine a point on it, I don’t exactly think the war is suffering from a shortage of pro-war chin music. The war is suffering, as Reynolds so astutely observes, from a lack of resolve. And if war supporters are unwilling to advocate for the methods which millenia of proven are necessary to bring order to the Middle East, then they really have no business advocating these occupations in the first place.

Considering the campaign of torture we are already doing, that many Americans approve of, satire is quickly becoming impossible.

Billmon also, in a more serious tone, grants the effectiveness of ruthless occupation.

it's no good arguing that massive and indiscriminate casualties — inevitably, of civilians and combatants alike — won't defeat a popular insurgency or uproot a terrorist network. That's the polite fiction, but the record tells us otherwise: Given a sufficient level of murderous efficiency, it is possible to do both, as the French proved in Algeria and the Guatemalan Army and its U.S. advisors demonstrated in the highlands of Guatemala.

He asks what the actual methods are. He observes that the increasing turn toward air power that the occupation is taking won't do it.

Moral questions aside, the practical problem is that the preferred American instrument for inflicting state violence on a grand scale — air power — isn't very useful for this purpose. It's true the British had some success with air tactics (using both conventional bombs and poison gas) during the first Iraqi anti-colonial rebellion, in the '20s, but airplanes were new and had shock value back then. Subsequently, there hasn't been a single example of a country or a people surrendering simply because they were bombed back into Stone Age. And while modern “smart” bombs may be devastating against conventional targets, or even irregular infantry (as the Taliban learned) their ability to terrorize civilian populations into renouncing, and denouncing, the guerrillas in their midst is unproven. As for poison gas, well, that would be a bit much, wouldn't it, after all that fuss we made about Saddam gassing his own people?

So what do we do, in the Whatever It Takes scenario?

No, for that kind of work you have to go in and look people in the eyes as you burn their houses and slaughter their livestock and rape their wives and torture their children. You have to make very visible examples out of “enemy” villages, and let everyone know you'll be around and watching. That takes ground forces, far more than we've got, even if our troops had the stomach for that kind of butchery on the necessary scale. It also takes first class local intelligence, and we don't have that either.

And there you are, making real the worst fantasies of American imperialism that the Bin Ladens of the world have been warning the Muslim world about. These evil jihadists have tried for decades to convince the Muslim world that the West is at war with Islam, but they have so far failed, else we would already be at war on terms that no one could dispute. But with our help, providing them with daily news of American soldiers killing Muslims in Iraq? With our help, spreading our attacks to Iran or elsewhere, as we Demonstrate Our Resolve to Do What It Takes? Can you doubt that the voices of the Bin Ladens would win over entire nations?

The horror here is that in believing that a wrenching, endless war with Islam is inevitable, in rushing to be as brutal as possible to show that we will Do Whatever It Takes, we can create a Century War with Islam. In this, the Bush Administration's mad postmodern solipsism becomes real. The President sincerely believes that we are fighting “World War III.” His words, not mine. If we believe that the entire Muslim world is at war with us, and so invade Muslim countries at random, torture Muslim people at random, brandish nuclear weapons for long enough, we will turn that belief into reality. By accepting Simmons' apocalyptic vision, we will create it.

Then may God have mercy on these United States. Though I hear that the God who shapes the American destiny is not merciful, but just.

11 May 2006

Save those internets

Via Yglasias, I see that Lawrence Lessig—who will be appointed head of the FCC in the Miniver Cheevy Administration, if I ever get elected President—wrote an excellent article on the subject of network neutrality for The American Prospect some time ago. As ever, his writing is as illuminating about deep legal theory as it is about the subject at hand.
There is deep confusion about the idea of “regulation” within our political culture and about its relationship to innovation and the Internet. The fashion is to say that regulation harms innovation; that government-backed rules undermine creativity; that the best or most effective policy for regulators is, as Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman William Kennard put it, to allow the “marketplace to find business solutions ... as an alternative to intervention by government.” Any talk about “regulating” cyberspace invites the breathless reply of the impatient young Capitol Hill staffer: Cyberspace was born in the absence of regulation. Don't kill it with regulation now.

This attitude is profoundly mistaken. It betrays an extraordinary ignorance about the history of the Internet, and this ignorance threatens to undermine the innovation that the Internet has made possible. Innovation has always depended upon a certain kind of regulation; the greatest examples of innovation in our recent past evince this reliance. And unless we begin to see the relationship between this type of rule and the innovation it promotes, we are likely to kill the promise of the Internet.

As for net neutrality, well, you know what to do.

10 May 2006

Strange bedfellows

So here I was just saying that it's odd that our warmongering president professes to be a Christian—as in Jesus “turn the other cheek” Christ—and I see this quote in the news.
Can one be a follower of Jesus Christ (Peace Be Upon Him), the great Messenger of God ... but at the same time, have countries attacked?
That's Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaking, in a long letter to the President published today.

I'm not sure how to feel about that.

Secret War

So maybe you're a comics nerd like me, and you've seen Secret War there on the shelf at your local comics shop, and thought to yourself, “Gee, yet another crappy overblown faux-serious superhero comic with painted art. Marvels was truly lovely, but that doesn't mean that painted art is always a good idea, even when you have Alex ‘the Norman Rockwell of superheroes’ Ross doing it. But, wait: Brian Michael Bendis!”

Because Bendis is a magnificent writer, I have succumbed to temptation, and bought this thing, and read it, but I don't know whether I can recommend it.

The story is silly; I just didn't care. The art is amazingly awful, except for the covers and every place Captain America shows up. Gabriele Dell'Otto really knows how to do the Captain. But there are a couple of panels where he's very obviously using Tom Cruise as reference art for Peter Parker, and I hope I don't have to explain to you how wrong that is.

But. Bendis.

Brian Michael Bendis is, as Erik Red points out, the Aaron Sorkin of superhero comics. His dialogue is unbelievably amazing. If you haven't seen his series Powers yet, I recommend it to anyone, even if they don't dig superheroes. Even if they don't dig comics. It's a police proceedural about two cops working the superhero beat: one part noir, two parts post-Bochco cop show, one part superhero comic, with a splash of screwball comedy.

So there's some of that in Secret War, heavy on the fan service. Consider this bit of dialogue, where our heroes have been getting pounded by a raft of villains, and Nick Fury's been working the phone trying to get help.

Ugh, if I had half a brain I would just sneak on out of here and go home to my wife.

Oh yeah, but there's that whole “power and responsibility” thing.


Oh, what now?

Voice, off panel
Hey! Guess what time it is?

Whoo, thank God!

(This is the end of the page, so you get a moment of anticipation before you get to see who's talking. As if you didn't know.)

The Thing
I'll give you hint! It begins with a C and has a lobbering in it!

Human Torch
Lobbering? Dude.

It's one in the frickin' morning. Whaddaya want from me? I was in my pajamas, eating a burrito, and alluva sudden I gotta get my little blue Fantastic Four pants on and come down to--

Not to take the wind out of your sails, Ben, but these guys aren't reacting well to quips and wisecracks!

Yours, maybe.

Oh, like yours are so much better than mine.

Mine have character. Yours are all nasal.

Not quite Bendis at his very best, but fun. And the bits of Nick Fury's files are priceless. But check out Powers first.