Friday, February 27, 2004

Why Do They Hate U.S.?

We are not exactly the flavor of the month in most countries abroad. In fact, we haven't been that popular for a long time, but recently the hatred of the United States as a country has reached a new peak. A survey last spring showed a further decline in the American reputation:

[In 1999-2000], in a State Department survey, 78% of Germans said they had a favorable view of the U.S. That fell to 61% in our 2002 poll – and to 45% in the survey conducted this spring. Opinion of the U.S. in France has followed a similar track: 62% positive in 1999-2000, 63% last year and 43% in the most recent survey.

What is most striking, however, is how anti-Americanism has spread. It is not just limited to Western Europe or the Muslim world. In Brazil, 52% expressed a favorable opinion of the U.S. in 2002; this year, that number dropped to 34%. And in Russia, there has been a 25-point decline in positive opinions of the U.S. over the past year (61% to 36%).

If anything, fear and loathing of the U.S. has intensified in recent months. A Eurobarometer survey conducted among European Union countries in October found that as many people rate the U.S. as a threat to world peace as say that about Iran. Even in the United Kingdom, the United States' most trusted European ally, 55% see the U.S. as a threat to global peace. And in four countries – Greece, Spain, Finland and Sweden – the United States is viewed as the greatest threat to peace, more menacing than Iran or North Korea.

The U.S. image in the Middle East has been dismal for some time. State Department surveys show that, four years ago, just 23% of Jordanians expressed a favorable view of the U.S. What has changed is that these sentiments have now spread to predominantly Muslim countries far outside of the region. Just 15% of Indonesian Muslims look favorably at the U.S. – down from 61% in 2002, there is considerable evidence that the opinion many Muslims have of the United States has gone beyond mere loathing. In this year's Pew survey, majorities in seven of eight predominantly Muslims nations believe the U.S. may someday threaten their country -- including 71% in Turkey and 58% in Lebanon. And Muslims are increasingly hostile to Americans as well as America; in the past, as the 1983 Newsweek survey showed, people did not let their distaste for U.S. policies affect their view of the American people.

Whether this trend is worrying depends on whom one asks. The American neoconservatives don't care, of course: the Empire is strong enough without a single ally, they think, and 'power is to be exercised -never negotiated'. But Americans answering a recent poll about the importance of foreign opinions beg to differ. Three quarters of the respondents felt that the poor American reputation in other countries is a problem, especially in the war against terrorism. I think that it might also prove uncomfortable in many other international fields such as the containment of infectious diseases, environmental protection and global trade, not to mention the unpleasantness it causes the average American tourist abroad. Some signs of these more general problems are already visible:

The Bush administration has suffered a significant loss of leadership already as a result of snubbing its nose at diplomatic relations. Treated as children by clumsy and arrogant U.S. diplomats..., many nations are rebelling with angry rhetoric and contrary policies.
International trade meetings reflect this defiance. The failure of the World Trade Organization talks in Cancun, the implosion of the FTAA in Miami, and the lack of results at the Special Summit of the Americas in Monterrey are evidence of the mounting resistance to U.S.-tailored economic integration. They also reflect a widespread and deepening rejection of the "our way or the highway" diplomacy of the Bush administration.

The causes of American unpopularity elsewhere are many and some of them are likely to be present for a long time. The United States is the only remaining superpower and as such will stay an object of envy and fear for that reason alone. Its general policies affect other countries in ways which are not always taken into account by those who make the policy, and this causes understandable resentment in the affected countries when the results are negative. There will always be a dislike of the U.S. as so much wealthier than the majority of the world, and disagreement about its proper role in the development of the poor countries. American values differ considerably from those in Western Europe; Americans are more religious than any other developed country, most favor capital punishment, and the U.S. currently votes on social issues in the United Nations in a block with Saudi Arabia, Iran and Pakistan. The military might of the U.S. makes the military budgets of other countries look ridiculous. And the U.S. Middle East policy has been a cause for anger in the Arab world for a long time.

But the current administration has certainly made things much worse than they needed to be. It is Bush that most foreigners fear and loathe, not the American people. He has succeeded in focusing so many negative emotions on one man by acting as an international bully boy. The Europeans, in particular, hate his unilateral policies and the withdrawal of the U.S. from environmental treaties or the attempt to build a global legal court. And the concept of 'pre-emptive defense' causes people sleepless nights all over the world. If Bush intends to globally advertize the neoconservative policy of 'might makes right', he is doing a great job. He recently boasted about being a 'war president' as part of the 2004 election campaign. But how will this boast sound abroad?

Given that the United States is not currently involved in a formal war, the president's bellicose language--"I make decisions here in the Oval Office in foreign policy matters with war on my mind"--has set other nations, allies and foes alike, on edge. Around the world, the administration's approach to international affairs has governments and their citizens feeling alienated and apprehensive.

It's all very unfair to all decent and nice Americans who know that they are not the sort of war-hungry, dollar-grasping monsters that the foreigners fear and loathe, and who might not have even voted for Bush in the first place. And now they can't even be sure of a friendly reception on their next vacation trip to somewhere exotic. Most unfair. No wonder that the Bush administration is trying to mend matters by various advertizing campaigns and by attacking those foreign news organizations that portray the most anti-American messages.

But these are vain attempts, because the reason for the anti-American sentiment are largely not in biased reporting or ignorance about what America stands for. Consider this parable to the current U.S. situation:

A small village somewhere has a varied population. Most inhabitants are quite poor, a small number (the minister, the lawyer, the teacher and so on) are relatively well-off, and one family, those who live in the big manor house, are rich. Traditionally, the village has pulled together in solving the common problems of fighting crime, maintaining the roads and caring for the environment, though the shares of each inhabitant in the total costs of these activities have disproportionately fallen to the more affluent.

Then the manor house is sold to a new owner. The village organizes a welcoming party in the village hall and hangs up banners to greet the new owners of the manor. But the new owners refuse to attend the party; instead they inform the rest of the village that they will no longer participate in the maintenance of roads or the prevention of pollution or the police activities. When they are asked about the wisdom of this choice, they point out that they can afford to hire their own defense forces and to maintain adequate nature in their own park. They don't need roads as they commute by private helicopters.

Things go on like that for a time. Then there is a break-in at the manor house: a criminal gang kills some of the owners' family members and burns down part of the building. The village acts as one, sending food and cards and asking how they can help. The owners of the manor house tell the whole village to go out to apprehend the killer, the house is turned into a fortress, and the owners still stay away from all village parties. Slowly the roads fall into disrepair and pollution levels rise. The police force (consisting of one officer) is overstretched by the need to keep looking for the criminal gang that attacked the manor house, and everyday tasks remain undone. Then the manor owners suddenly decide that it might be useful to open the house and garden for a day so that the general riff-raff could see how kind and generous the new owners are. Nobody turns up.

This is very much like the U.S. world standing right now. Unfair? For ordinary Americans, very much so. That's why it is so urgent for all of them to vote in the next elections.

On Chicken Litter and Mushrooms

What do these two have in common? Probably nothing except for the fact that they will both perform in this post, one about the wonders of politics and policies. First this piece of very good news:

The US Food and Drug Administration recently announced that the following things can no longer be fed to cows: cow blood, poultry litter (consisting of bedding, spilled feed, feathers and fecal matter), and restaurant wastes. I don't know whether to feel relieved that they've been removed from the list or shocked that they were ever on it to begin with. And I shudder to think what's still on the list.

If a human who likes to snack on other humans is called a cannibal, what is a cow who drinks cow blood called? At least the humans had some choice in developing their weird culinary tastes. Got milk?

Next, something that has to do with mushrooms:

...the Arizona state legislature is led by the draconian speaker Jake Flake. When one moderate Republican representative voted for the governor's program for basic children's services, he was stripped of his committee chairmanship. The conservatives at the statehouse are known as the "Kool-Aid Drinkers", after the religious cultists who committed mass suicide, while the few remaining moderate Republicans call themselves the "Mushroom Coalition" - kept in the dark and covered with excrement.

I love mushrooms. Too bad that from now on I'll be thinking it's moderate Republicans that are sliding down my throat with a bit of garlic butter as an accompaniment.

Wednesday, February 25, 2004

The U.S.A as a Smorgasbord

The following are my musings on recent political events here, from the AWOL debate about the president to the proposal of a constitutional amendment to 'defend' marriage.

The United States of America is not a melting pot, or even a tossed salad of different ingredients. If it resembles any culinary treat at all, it resembles the smorgasbord: an offering of many separate dishes together; some cold, some hot, some savory, some sweet. It encourages greed and gorging, and the outcome of this is indigestion when the warring ingredients meet each other in the stomach. Indigestion and possibly ulcers.

But also an exquisite sensory experience, a cookbook full of flavors. Whatever one wishes to eat, the smorgasbord provides it: old, familiar dishes in abundance, novel experiments from every culinary culture ever invented. Still, too much variety in food causes increased appetite which causes obesity, an engorgement of everything from myths and religion to body sizes. We dinner guests at this table are obese in such a way, full of grandiose dreams and stomach aches, conflicting desires and violent rage, beautiful principles and the intent to be good. But to feel this maelstrom in ones stomach is hard, so hard and painful. It would be a relief to simplify the menu, limit it to wholesome myths and stories, lofty principles, easy ideas.

No dinner guest can agree about which these might be, of course, so the menu can be changed only with force, ruthlessness, aggression, which are then met with force, ruthlessness and aggression. For how could it be otherwise when ones favorite dishes are threatened, those on which everything depends? And threatened by someone who is not the same, is different, is The Other (who shouldn't have been allowed in the room in the first place, should be booted out now, or at least made to respect this religion, this ideology, this language, this dish.).

There is a violence in this country, in its dining-room, which differs from the violence of guns and knives. This is violence as a basic push-and-shove in how to run a country, a kitchen or a world, open and in-your-face kind of violence. If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. If you're not for us you're against us. America: love it or leave it.

But what do you expect, no mere mortal can survive serenely the overabundance, the glut of aromas, tastes, philosophies which attack each other, and the diners, at this table of choices. No mere mortal in some other countries even needs to try, for smorgasbords are rare, and many nations have long ago agreed on a menu of just a few dishes. Boring, perhaps, or, as many believe, a sign of government oppression on freedom of choice. But not always; in some cases the choice of dishes is limited because that is what the diners wish, having come to their preference along the same shared road of a shared past. This may have once contained a smorgasbord, too, but the battles it caused, if any, are now faded into a shared mythology.

But the United States of America is a teenager, as countries go, and its repast is freshly laid. The ingredients are appetizing: freedom, faith, justice, equality of opportunity, but the final dishes can't satisfy everybody: private property, religious orthodoxy, free markets, democracy, equality. Which would you like to sample? How about intolerance, fanaticism and aggression? No? But these, too, are on offer. And so are caring, neighborliness, kindness.

So the dinner guests pick and choose, watching other diners with wary suspicion, urging them to try a different dish, and when this fails, forcing them to do so. Or they taste every dish on the table, hoping that the hot balances the cold, the savory neutralizes the sweet. No wonder that it sometimes seems better if someone else plans the menu: Adam Smith, Karl Marx, Ayn Rand, Rupert Murdoch, or perhaps even a divine power or a president. But this would never satisfy the majority of the diners.

Tuesday, February 24, 2004

Blog Maintenance and Quarter- Anniversary

I now have trackback, so ping to your heart's content. The other blog maintenance is of the sort that most of my housekeeping tasks tend to be: on the eternal to-do list. I plan to reorganize the links and add to them considerably when I get a round tuit.

And this is not really maintenance, but my blogging career is now three months old, and I wish to thank all of you who read here for that. I have met many wonderful people here, I have learned a lot and I have had great fun. I hope you haven't been bored to death, either. In any case, I plan for another three months.

The Presidential Prayer Team

Do you belong to it? Is it real or a joke? I'm still not sure, but this article about the presidential prayer team is excellent. A short excerpt:

I was praying in private until someone got the bright idea of starting a Presidential Prayer Team. If you sign up on the Internet--no fee required--you get a sticker that shows George Washington genuflecting, his head bowed, his hat in hand. Each week members receive an e-mail detailing the difficulties the President must deal with that week so that they can pray for heavenly guidance. After all, scientific studies have shown that prayer helps those who are ill to heal even when they don’t know that people are praying for them! (What kind of a control group did they use for this study, I wonder?)

So I signed up and the e-mails started coming. They asked for God’s blessings on Bush and various members of Congress. (Heaven knows they need our prayers: 435 people who can’t agree on what to put on a pizza are making decisions for our whole country!) They prayed for the debut of Mel Gibson’s controversial film on Jesus Christ, and for the end of "unlawful unions" taking place between same-sex couples in San Francisco, though I can’t imagine what either of those issues have to do with the presidency. They offer weekly prayers for the members of the president’s cabinet and the Supreme Court. So I looked again: All of the names mentioned are _Republican_ members of the government. How odd. If I were a conservative, I think I’d be praying to change some liberal minds.

What America do the founders of the Presidential Prayer Team live in? It doesn’t look like my America. Where I live, there are people living on the streets. In winter, they are forced by the cold into emergency shelters. There are more food banks than ever and greater contributions than in the past but they still run short. Seniors buy their drugs from Canada; they used to buy them from Mexico before the U.S. government forbade us to buy them there. So much for NAFTA. Women on welfare have no childcare and few choices. I’ve never seen them mentioned as recipients of the Presidential Prayer Team rogations

Do read the whole thing.

Monday, February 23, 2004

Rara Avis, Part V: The Life and Times of Caitlin Flanagan

She's the newest staff writer of the venerable New Yorker, one of such literary talents that her fuzzy thinking and careless ways with evidence are quite forgiven by the East Coast Literary Establishment. What would they not forgive for a brilliant writer who is a woman (a definite boost for the affirmative action lefties) and a feminist-basher (an equal bonus for the life-is-a-jungle-and-home-its-refuge righties)? Now the intelligentsia can have their very own Dr. Laura, a woman who tells how it is, puts the blame squarely where it belongs, and suffers no emotional nonsense. Flanagan sees her role at the New Yorker as the insightful critic of the modern family life, a sort of hybrid of Mary McCarthy and Erma Bombeck. That this family life will only belong to the upper classes and that the insightfully critical eye will only focus on the women in these families goes without saying, at least to anyone who has read her columns during the last two years in the Atlantic Monthly.

Which I have done, one of those small things that I like to do to make a life worth living for others. Just as Flanagan believes in the importance of using real napkins as opposed to paper tissues at home dinners, I believe that her writing deserves real scrutiny rather than merely superficial murmurs of "You go, girl."

Her Atlantic Monthly columns, all book reviews, are wonderful little mini sermons on the importance of being a housewife and on the nastiness of educated career-minded women, and I'm using the word 'housewife' quite advisedly here. Flanagan doesn't like stay-at-home-mothers; she likes women who revel in ironing their husband's shirts, planning dust ruffles, darning socks and telling their children to get out of their hair. You might think that she'd therefore be very fond of me, for example, as I'm excellent at all those tasks. You would be wrong. I'm one of the nasties in her books as I'm also highly educated and career-minded. Women must be one-or-the-other in Flanagan's world, and one side must wear the white hats (the good), the other one the black hats (the bad).

I was initially quite shocked to find how deeply Flanagan hates the uppity women of our times. To explain what I mean, here are some examples of her opinions on them:*

"De-cluttering a household is a task that appeals strongly to today's professional woman. It's different from actual housework, because it doesn't have to be done every day...Scrubbing the toilet bowl is a bit of nastiness that can be fobbed off on anyone poor and luckless enough to qualify for no better employment..." (March 2002)

"...this is a book from the perspective of "high-achieving women", and the main impression we get of the type is that they are going to get exactly what they want, and damn the expense or the human toll. These are women who have roared through the highest echelons of the country's blue-chip law firms, investment banks, and high tech companies....

Hewlett does her best to make us sympathetic toward such fiercely driven women, but the comments of a young male New Yorker—meant to reveal what cads high-achieving single men can be—backfire on her. He observes, "There's a whole bunch of them where I work. They're armed to the teeth with degrees—MBAs and the like—they're real aggressive, they love to take control, and they have this fierce hunger for success and for stuff. Everything they do and everything they want is expensive.
""(June 2002)

"the hotshot career women who can't manage to coax eligible men into the honeymoon suite."(November 2002)

Take that, you selfish investment bankers, physicians, lawyers, scientists and - dare I even say this? - journalists. You must choose: either stay on the course, and you will be punished with eternal singlehood or a loveless, sexless marriage in a messy, uninviting house, or repent and join the new Future Housewives of America with Caitlin Flanagan. If you do the latter, your life will be good, she vows:

What's missing from so many affluent American households is the one thing you can't buy—the presence of someone who cares deeply and principally about that home and the people who live in it; who is willing to spend a significant portion of each day thinking about what those people are going to eat and what clothes they will need for which occasions; who knows when it's time to turn the mattresses and when the baby needs to be taken out for a bit of fresh air and sunshine. Because I have no desire to be burned in effigy by the National Organization for Women, I am impelled to say that this is work Mom or Dad could do, but in my experience women seem more willing to do it. Feminists are dogged in their belief that liberated, right-on men will gladly share equally in domestic concerns, but legions of eligible men who enjoy nothing more than an industrious morning spent tidying the living room and laundering the dust ruffle have yet to materialize. (March 2002)

It turns out that the "traditional" marriage, which we've all been so happy to annihilate, had some pretty good provisions for many of today's most stubborn marital problems, such as how to combine work and parenthood, and how to keep the springs of the marriage bed in good working order. What's interesting about the sex advice given to married women of earlier generations is that it proceeds from the assumption that in a marriage a happy sex life depends upon orderly and successful housekeeping. (Jan/Feb 2003)

Of course, you might not agree with Flanagan that it is pointless to expect men to carry out any household chores or childrearing, or that sex indeed is a wifely duty (as she argues in the column from which the second quote is taken). If these trouble you or if you wonder what evidence she might have for the argument that people in traditional marriages had better sex, well, then you're probably one of the black hats and not intended to read the Atlantic Monthly or the New Yorker in the first place. You are not in their desired readership profile.

Flanagan is a stubbornly dualistic thinker. That housewives equal 'good' and professional women equal 'bad' is only one example of this pattern. Another one is her habit of seeing the world as consisting of only two classes: the upper class where women have nannies for their children and the class of the poor immigrants from which these nannies come. There is something innocently childlike about this vision of the world, as there is also in her fictional dream of a housewife's life, but the truth is that her treatment totally omits all the women whose lives fit none of these descriptions, and these women are numerically the majority.

And what about men in Flanagan's writings? Here are some of her views on the male sex:

The national Boy Project may have taught America's young men to treat women with new respect in the classroom and the boardroom, and it has certainly prepared them for an unprecedented amount of no-strings nooky; what it has not impelled them to do is to make a bride of every hard-charging woman who suddenly—and fleetingly—wants to play fifties girl with a diamond solitaire and a box full of Tiffany invitations. (December 2002)

What we've learned during this thirty-year grand experiment is that men can be cajoled into doing all sorts of household tasks, but they will not do them the way a woman would. They will bathe the children, but they will not straighten the bath mat and wring out the washcloths; they will drop a toddler off at nursery school, but they won't spend ten minutes chatting with the teacher and collecting the art projects. They will, in other words, do what men have always done: reduce a job to its simplest essentials and utterly ignore the fillips and niceties that women tend to regard as equally essential. And a lot of women feel cheated and angry and even—bless their hearts—surprised about this. In the old days, of course, men's inability to perform women's work competently was a source of satisfaction and pride to countless housewives. A reliable sitcom premise involved Father's staying home for a day while Mother handled things at his office; chastened and newly admiring of the other's abilities, each ran gratefully back to familiar terrain.
Under these conditions, pity the poor married man hoping to get a bit of comfort from the wife at day's end. He must somehow seduce a woman who is economically independent of him, bone tired, philosophically disinclined to have sex unless she is jolly well in the mood, numbingly familiar with his every sexual maneuver, and still doing a slow burn over his failure to wipe down the countertops and fold the dish towel after cooking the kids' dinner. He can hardly be blamed for opting instead to check his e-mail, catch a few minutes of SportsCenter, and call it a night .
(Jan/Feb 2003)

The Between Boyfriends Book describes men in a manner so dismissive and callous that had a man written such a book about women, the cries of misogyny would be deafening. But upper-middle-class women hold a lot of power in our culture these days. Still, though, there's one bit of power women will never wrest from men: the decision to deem one group of women candidates for marriage and another group candidates for quick and quasi-anonymous sex. (December 2003)

It's a long time since I last read something similar to these ideas. In fact, it was in the 1950's. Flanagan's men are 1950's men, unchanged and unchangeable. Do they wear white or black hats in her tales about life? This is difficult to decide: on the one hand men are given the freedom and liberty not to have any nonfinancial responsibilities towards their wives and children, on the other hand men are treated as genetically incapable of learning the simplest household chore if it hasn't always been labeled a guys' job.

Given Flanagan's tendency towards rigid, dualistic thinking, there must be one Wicked Witch orchestrating all these breakdowns in the family lives of the comfortable classes. And there is! It's feminism, as is pretty evident from the quotes I have included here. Feminism is all wrong, thinks Flanagan, because men will always be 1950's men and women will always have higher housekeeping standards than men. For Caitlin Flanagan feminism was and is nothing but an upper class white woman's ego trip. Her view of feminism pays no attention to feminist-sponsored legislation that now guarantees equal treatment of women and men at work or in education or to the feminist-initiated changes in societal views on rape and domestic violence. That it might actually be a good thing for the society to have women who are physicians or lawyers or politicians or managers or even journalists doesn't seem to occur to her either. Instead, her latest book review takes a step even further and accuses feminism (i.e. uppity women's ego trips) of surviving only due to serfdom (i.e. the use of nannies from poor, developing countries). In fact, it's titled "How Serfdom Saved the Women's Movement".

This article contains revelations about Flanagan's own life that stunned me. It turns out that she hired a nanny to help her in the house while she was trying to be a good housewife, and it turns out that neither she nor her husband have ever changed the sheets in their beds. Either they have the filthiest house imaginable, or - is this too mean to say? - a form of serfdom must be taking place in their household: someone else is changing the sheets.

It is now very hard for me to take anything she writes seriously. Yet she does talk about topics which are important, and she does have a point, though not the one she thinks she has. If she could only drop her obsession about the uppity feminists, she might notice that what she's really writing about is class, and class is one of the few things that are non-mentionable in the mainstream media. That's why it is quite acceptable to blame professional women who employ nannies under poor working conditions, as this is a problem caused by selfish, ambitious women (and the job of child-rearing, in any case, is seen as not a job at all, but something women are supposed to do for nothing), but not acceptable to ask about the wages and benefits of the person who bags your groceries at the supermarket or cleans your windshield at the gas station or vacuums and dusts your office at work.

She also has a second unintended point, and that is the tremendous demands of work that are now seen as expected. Most professionals think nothing about sixty hour workweeks, and much longer weeks than that are not unheard of. What is homelife like for someone with such hours? Never mind if the worker is male or female, there is something deeply disturbing in expecting someone to work so hard that no meaningful time can be spared for ones nearest and dearest. And Flanagan is right to state that those in the upper classes can refuse such hours; it doesn't make them or their families starve. Indeed, I'd like to see a major strike amongst the well-heeled, with a general renewed emphasis on the goal of an eight-hour day for all workers, and Barbara Ehrenreich, at least, agrees with me.

Flanagan is even partly right in goading feminists to work harder on behalf of the poorest women, though her total refusal to acknowledge that any such work is already being done makes it tricky to find the arguments where her accusations are valid.

I suspect that Caitlin Flanagan will not try to adjust her writing so as to properly address these issues. Why not continue with the recipe that has proven so successful: the general bashing of uppity women? In this she's not really a rare bird, of course, but rather a participant in a female growth industry with such luminosities as Camilla Paglia, Ann Coulter, Wendy McElroy and Laura Schlessinger: the anti-feminist movement. The more I think about this series, the more convinced I become that I'm a poor human-watcher, that my copybook is full of jottings about the most ordinary of all sparrows: people in the service of the prevailing powers.

Now, if I could find the male equivalent of Caitlin Flanagan, a man who consistently and mercilessly bashes other men as men rather than as individuals, now that would be a find! A true rara avis for my collections. Can anybody help me here?
*You can link to the articles from which these quotes were taken by going to the back issues of the Atlantic Monthly . They are ordered by year and month, and Flanagan is always under the Book Reviews in the lists of contents.

Sunday, February 22, 2004

Random Rants

1. "Girls having sex with snakes" shouldn't bring up my blog. Do you hear me, Google?

2. Listen to old Herodotus:

When Heracles reached the country which is now Scythia, the weather was bad and it was bitterly cold, so he drew his lion's skin over him and went to sleep. While he slept, the horses which he had unharnessed from his chariot and turned loose to graze mysteriously disappeared. As soon as he awoke Heracles began to look for them, and roamed all over the country until he came at last to a place called Hylaea, or the Woodland, where in a cave he found a viper-maiden - a creature which from the buttocks upwards was a woman, but below them was a snake.

Can you guess who he is talking about here?

For a moment he looked at her in astonishment; then asked if she had seen his mares straying around. She replied that they were in her own keeping, and promised to return them to him on condition that he lay with her.

Utter rubbish. I didn't have to use any extortion methods whatsoever!

Heracles complied. The viper-woman, however, did not at once give him back the mares, but put off the fulfilment of her bargain in order to keep Heracles as long as possible for her lover, though all he wanted himself was to get the horses and go.

All he wanted was to get the horses and go. Right! And pigs do fly. Herodotos got it all wrong, and it gets even worse after this bit. Lies, all lies. Why Herodotos calls his book The Histories is one of those eternal mysteries, in the same class as the Fox News' slogan "Fair and Balanced". Come to think of it, the two sources have a lot in common, though Herodotos is considerably more entertaining.