Saturday, July 21, 2007

Saturday Night Fun

By Max Blumenthal.

Editorializing in the Washington Post

This editorial on what the Congress is doing about the Iraq strategy is being torn to shreds all over the liberal/progressive blogs, and for good reasons:

The decision of Democrats led by Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) to deny rather than nourish a bipartisan agreement is, of course, irresponsible. But so was Mr. Reid's answer when he was asked by the Los Angeles Times how the United States should manage the explosion of violence that the U.S. intelligence community agrees would follow a rapid pullout. "That's a hypothetical. I'm not going to get into it," the paper quoted the Democratic leader as saying.


There's no guarantee that Mr. Bush can agree with Congress on those points or that he will make the effort to do so. But a Democratic strategy of trying to use Iraq as a polarizing campaign issue and as a club against moderate Republicans who are up for reelection will certainly have the effect of making consensus impossible -- and deepening the trouble for Iraq and for American security.

It causes the rage to rise, doesn't it? As tboggs put it, the argument seems to be that Reid is responsible for the lack of an exit strategy in the Iraq debacle.

And note that bit about "there being no guarantee that Mr. Bush can agree" on anything whatsoever. He is released from all responsibility for this horrible mess we find ourselves in, even though he has gritted his teeth, decided on his destiny in private conversations between his god and himself, and continues to ride into the solitary and bloody sunset on the Horse of History. Nope. It's not George Bush and the neocons that are to blame for the problems in Iraq; it's Harry Reid.

But when I write all that I'm doing exactly what the Washington Post people want me to. I'm giving them clicks and that gives them advertising revenue. To some extent the editorials are often nothing more than places where somebody can say the most shocking thing imaginable so that others get angry enough to read them, too. Or places where the government supporters can insert their propaganda. They can also be places where interesting arguments are presented, true, but this seems to be less true now that the newspapers in general are in financial trouble. (Why go there when you can read me for zilch?)

Meanwhile, in Birmingham

At a clinic which also performs abortions:

On-the-Ground Report from Birmingham.

By Rev. Katherine Ragsdale

You might have heard about what's going on in Alabama, but the media coverage has been largely biased, if there's any at all, and I want to make sure that our story is told.

Can you imagine going to your doctor's office and navigating through a crowd of 150 protesters screaming at you? Let's mix in the shouts of "baby killer" and other verbal attacks with the amplification of bagpipes playing.

What if the doctor's office had volunteers using umbrellas to shield patients from the mob scene and shouting as they traveled to and from their cars?

That's what is happening outside the New Women All Women Health Clinic, where I arrived yesterday as a representative for the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. "Operations Save America" is targeting this clinic and another one in Alabama as part of its ongoing intimidation and violence campaign against a woman's right to choose.

The clinic in Birmingham holds a harrowing place in the history of violence against women's clinics. It was the site of a bombing in 1998 by convicted felon Eric Rudolph that killed a security guard and maimed Emily Lyons, a clinic nurse.

Read the whole post.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Phila's Friday Hope Blogging

It's important to look at the bright side, too. And Phila does the hard work in putting uplifting and optimistic stories together.

Nothing To Fear But Fear Itself?

Suppose that you get up in the morning, see the wonderful sunrise and amble downstairs to the kitchen for your first cup of hot coffee. You sit down at the kitchen table and start reading the newspaper, and this is what you read:

Nearly six years after the United States set out to crush Al Qaeda, the terrorist network has "regenerated key elements" of its ability to attack targets in America, and is intensifying its efforts to put operatives inside the country, according to a sobering new report released today from U.S. intelligence agencies.

The document warns that the United States is "in a heightened threat environment" because Osama bin Laden and other senior leaders of Al Qaeda have taken advantage of a more secure environment in their hiding places in remote Pakistan to reestablish their leadership of the far-flung network and refocus its energies on striking the United States.

The report also concludes that Al Qaeda "will probably seek to leverage the contacts and capabilities" of its violent offshoot organization in Iraq, where the war has given a new generation of operatives lethal experience and helped the broader organization raise money and recruit.

What emotions would all that elicit in you? My guess is that the average reader (not a political geek) would feel fear laced with some anger. A 2005 article by Paul Vallely, written after the London bombings, addresses the psychology of terrorism and especially the reactions it hopes to elicit in the real objects of the attacks: the survivors:

Terrorism works not just by instilling fear in us, but by inducing a sense of helplessness. That is why its violence is random. Indeed, the more indiscriminate it is in selecting its defenceless victims, the better it suits the terrorists' purpose.

Outrages take us into mental territory which is beyond our normal comprehension. And the sheer irrationality of this psychology of fear makes it hard for us to construe what is happening around us.


Psychologists talk here of the "anticipatory anxiety" as the population waits for the next bomb to go off. They add in the notion of the "learned helplessness" as we come to terms with the fact that there is nothing or very little we can do to stop it. A profound sense of loss of control results. And control, according to Joanna Bourke, is a key ingredient in combating fear.


Intriguingly, what in the United States came to be called 11 September syndrome was not something which affected those directly involved in the trauma. Rather it affected people across America, in epidemic numbers, and was most prevalent among those who had remained transfixed to their television sets for hours, watching the towers crash over and over again. If the propaganda value of 9/11 was immense, the response of a TV-addicted nation made it even more so. "If there were no television the terrorists wouldn't bother," ventures Dr Reddy. Terrorists want a lot of people watching, more than a lot of people dead.

Helplessness, anticipatory anxiety, the role of the television in spreading what I think amounts to a national post-traumatic stress disorder. Hmm. Is the U.S. media perhaps doing the work for the terrorists here, quite without intending to do so? And what is the role of the Bush administration in reducing the fear that terrorists wish us to feel?

This may be a good place for that old quote by Franklin D. Roosevelt about fear, especially as the above psychological musings set it into sharp contrast with the way we are reacting today:

This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.

Cross-posted on the TAPPED blog.

How Nasty Is Iran?

Matthew Yglesias writes a post with that title on the way Iran is treated these days in much of the American media:

For example, Iran is often characterized in the American press as a "totalitarian" regime, by both conservative and liberal hawks. Leading Democratic Party political operatives like Ken Baer will call you an apologist for the Iranian regime if you dispute this "totalitarian" concept. Thus "you" may well think that Iran is, in fact, a totalitarian society.

Which it isn't. The Iranian regime, though harsh on political dissidents, isn't Stalin's Russia or China during the Cultural Revolution. Crucially, it's not more repressive in any clear way than lots of countries -- China, Saudi Arabia, etc. -- we have perfectly normal diplomatic relations with. One of the reasons Hirsch probably overstated the case somewhat is that so many people -- powerful people -- seem invested in overstating things on the other side.

Nothing wrong with that, as far as I can see. But then the post is accompanied by this photograph of young Iranian women:

One picture is worth a thousand words, right? And what does the picture tell us? That Iranian women dress pretty much like their Western counterparts? That the rules about dress don't seem that strict at all? That's the quick message the picture seems to give me.

Of course it's impossible to tell how common the pictured dress is in Iran or how well the relaxed dress code of these young women reflects better women's rights in general.

I'm all for not bombing Iran under the pretense that this would be good for its human rights record. It wouldn't work that way at all, partly, because dead relatives tend to make people sort of angry at everything the killer represents, including things such as supposedly Western feminism. But I'm also not comfortable with the idea that the problems women and many other groups suffer in Iran should not be discussed because it might give warhawks more material. That sounds too much like the old idea of women's issues never being important enough to discuss until things somehow settle down. Which they never do.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

The Lessons Not Learned

If you follow political punditry you must have come across several pieces which argue that talking about who was against the Iraq occupation before it started is a pointless exercise and that all we should focus on right now is how to win the "war" or how to get out with faces saved so that we still come across as the longest in war inches. Let's not blame each other and let's not point fingers at each other and so on. Instead, let's discuss how many months we are willing to give the Bush administration to prove that the surge works.

But what this argument completely misses is that there was a lesson to be learned from the events preceding the Iraq occupation, and unless that lesson is learned we will enter into a similar poorly planned war in no time at all.

The lesson is to use the expertise presidents have at hand, to talk to all sorts of people and not just to those who have a knife to hone for their own causes. The lesson is not to ignore history and culture and the experiences of other countries before diving headlong into a war without any plans on how to climb out of it later on.

I see no evidence that the lesson has been learned.

A Literary Appetite

I found this old stump for an essay on books and food, and it seemed relevant for the current discussion about the Harry Potter books and whether they are any good at all as a first course in a literary feast that will last a lifetime:

What snack goes best with Walt Whitman's poetry? There is no etiquette about food and books (unless the book belongs to someone else than the diner), perhaps because books are supposed to be food themselves, food for thought.

But many types of books can make the reader literally hungry. If one is careful and the book isn't borrowed, why not satisfy this hunger?

In my case it all began with Enid Blyton's children's books, full of picnics and cream teas. In those days I had little control of my snack times, and Blyton's books made me both ravenous and enraged. To read about thick slabs of chocolate cake and then to be told that dinner wouldn't be for hours makes a girl mad.

Later on I had more freedom to respond to my urges. Dostoyevsky, one of the heroes of my teenage years, seemed to insist on rye bread and pickles. Lots and lots of both; otherwise the misery of it all was simply too much. Jane Austen's elegant irony might have evoked the desire for cucumber sandwiches in more refined readers. It made me ache for hot, greasy French fries straight out of the carton, perhaps to keep the world balanced.

Philosophy, physics and mathematics beg for sinfully rich chocolate truffles to refuel the reader's brain after the needed mental gymnastics. This was one of the reasons I didn't major in any of these fields in college: chocolate truffles were beyond a student's budget.

As I grew up, I realized that almost all genres of books taste better with food. Science fiction often describes an unreal, cold world of outer space. Everything happens in the artificial surroundings of spaceships. The food these books require is fruit: fuzzy, perfumed peaches with their juices running down the pages, purple grapes with slimy seeds, translucent pears which melt in the mouth and leave the page-turning fingers sticky. This grounds the stories in real planetary nature.

Detective stories go with nuts. Nuts to crack? The best nuts are unshelled, but this makes an unpleasant mess after a couple of hundred pages. For the trickiest plots nothing beats salted cashews and smoked almonds with their complicated flavors. Unless, of course, the murderer used nuts to do the dastardly deed.

Travel books need portable snacks: finger food. Stuffed olives and chunks of hard exotic cheeses go nicely with tours of France and Italy, crumbly halva is ideal for any trip through Turkey and boiled sweets tucked in the cheek go well with almost all other travels. The one exception is stories about deserts. They must be accompanied with ice cream, preferably vanilla or mint-flavored and in a half-melted state.

I can only think of one type of books which can't be made more enjoyable by eating along. This is cook books. I used to read them while having dinner during the poor periods of my life, hoping to deceive my palate into believing that it wasn't tasting plain boiled spaghetti but duck with oranges, not cold baked beans straight out of the can but risotto with porcini mushrooms. This doesn't work. It makes all appetite go away.

Neither does it help to eat the dish actually described in the book. It never tastes as mysteriously delicious as it reads.

The correct way to read cook books is before dinner, best prepared by someone else. But other than cook books, almost any book can be improved by enjoying it with suitable food. What that might be depends on the reader. Caviar with Tolstoy? Mint humbugs with Dickens? Perhaps. But I am still not sure what would go with Whitman.

It doesn't really work with the Harry Potter topic, which is all about how the Potter books are not good literature and how people should read something more uplifting instead. Or the other Harry Potter topic which is the argument that those books are from the devil and will consign the reader to hell, too. At least the barbecues should be good down there.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

An Off-Day

Nothing makes my creative juices flow today. Even that sentence brings only thoughts of stomach acids and how they feel when overly active.

Mysterious are the ways of both creativity and the stomach. Why is it that certain topics go "ping" inside my guts and then I want to write about them, whereas reading about some other topics makes me want to gouge out my eyeballs and unlearn the English language altogether? It's not just that I pretend to know some topics better than others and that this would cause the pings. The areas of my greatest expertise are the ones I will not touch with a six-foot pole, unless lots of money is offered, of course.

So. This is an off-day and all the blather above is from my morning random-writing exercises. I edited it by removing all the swear words and moans and my personal monster references. And the description of the sun dress I bought for five bucks at the charity shop.

Pole Dancing as Feminism

Jennifer Pozner likes this spoof on the Colbert show on pole dancing as a form of feminism. What do you think?

The Neocon Cruise

Johann Hari has written up his adventures while participating on a wingnut cruise. These cruises are a popular way for opinion magazines to make some money, and also a way for party faithfuls to get within spitting distance of their political and media idols. Reading the story is sort of fun for a middle-of-the-road goddess such as me, but it should be taken with a biiig pinch of salt before it is used to characterize all conservatives.

The reasons for this are obvious: People who go on these types of cruises are a self-selected lot. They are likely to have more extreme beliefs than your average conservative and they are also likely to have more disposable income and time. So what you have here is a narrow group of the true believers, and Hari discusses their beliefs using the anecdotal method. That is also a little dangerous, because given an hour or two I could probably find someone to spout almost any weird arguments for your entertainment.

Still, what I do find disconcerting about the stories Hari tells is the extent to which the individuals he interviews appear to live with a totally different set of not just values but "facts" about the world. Europe, for instance, has already been lost to the Muslim hordes and so on. This is one of the reasons why reading only sources which agree with our own views is not a good idea, even for those of us who are not wingnuts.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

How It Is Done

For a fantastic example of photoshopping replacing reality, check out this post by Jezebel. And this one. Via Pandagon.

The Vicious, Venomous Womenfolk

The Prince of Darkness a.k.a Robert Novak, a wingnut columnist, is not happy with the fairer and gentler sex, especially the Bush-haters among us:

Novak: I hate to say it, but I think the hatred toward George W. Bush is just mad. I listen to, sometimes in the car radio, on talk shows, and the venom that comes out of the mouths of some of these women, particularly, I'm not trying to be sexist, but they're so vicious toward him. And I don't think that really contributes. And also, the bloggers, I don't read the bloggers very much, but it is really, it's really vicious.

O-oh. Are there no vicious or venomous men, other than perhaps among bloggers? I doubt that very much. Bob is just one of those guys who has put women up on a pedestal (in order to stop them from moving about? to peek up their skirts? sorry).

But even if it were true that it is somehow mostly the women who are angry at this administration, well, George Bush's war against women might be enough of a reason for that.

Today's Scary Thought

From a Guardian article on Monday:

A well-placed source in Washington said: "Bush is not going to leave office with Iran still in limbo."

I Smell A Rat

With this popularization piece in the New York Times "If You're So Rich, Why Aren't You Tall?", but I'm too pressed for time to do research in it. The gist of the piece is this:

From the days of the founding fathers right on through the industrial revolution and two world wars, Americans towered over other nations. In a land of boundless open spaces and limitless natural abundance, the young nation transformed its increasing wealth into human growth.

But just as it has in so many other arenas, America's predominance in height has faded. Americans reached a height plateau after World War II, gradually falling behind the rest of the world as it continued growing taller.

By the time the baby boomers reached adulthood in the 1960s, most northern and western European countries had caught up with and surpassed the United States. Young adults in Japan and other prosperous Asian countries now stand nearly as tall as Americans do.

Even residents of the formerly communist East Germany are taller than Americans today. In Holland, the tallest country in the world, the typical man now measures 6 feet, a good two inches more than his average American counterpart.

Compare that to 1850, when the situation was reversed. Not just the Dutch but all the nations of western Europe stood 2 1/2 inches shorter than their American brethren.

Does it really matter? Does being taller give the Dutch any advantage over say, the Chinese (men 5 feet, 4.9 inches; women 5 feet, 0.8 inches) or the Brazilians (men 5 feet, 6.5 inches; women 5 feet, 3 inches)?

Many economists would argue that it does matter, because height is correlated with numerous measures of a population's well-being. Tall people are healthier, wealthier and live longer than short people. Some researchers have even suggested that tall people are more intelligent.

The article goes on to argue that all races have the same potential to be tall. It then states that something is happening in the United States which is making people shorter and this "something" is bad:

In another recent paper, Komlos and Lauderdale also found height inequality between American urbanites and residents of suburbs and rural areas. In Kansas, for example, white males are about as tall as their European peers; it's big cities like New York, where men are about 1.75 inches shorter than that, that drag America's average down.

Now Komlos has started comparing the heights of children to determine at what age Americans begin falling behind their peers across the Atlantic. Not surprisingly, he sees a difference from birth, an observation that suggests prenatal care may be significant contributor factor to the height gap.

All those sweeping and simple-minded theories make me suspicious. For instance, why doesn't the piece point out that the racial mix of people is pretty different in the rural Midwest from New York city and that New York city has many more immigrants than the rural Midwest, immigrants who may have grown up in poor areas with diminished nutrition? Or is Komlos only comparing white or Anglo males to each other?

I'm also not so sure about that argument that all races have about the same likelihood of growing tall and that good nutrition and so on will help you to get there. What research is that based on?

If that is true we should observe the ruling classes of the past in countries such as China to have been six feet tall while the ordinary people were quite short. Is that the case? I would have thought that some history book would have discussed this astonishing finding.

The piece also confuses the use of relative height as a health indicator within a community and the use of height as some kind of a general measure of excellence. The former can be useful, the latter not so much. Taken to its absurd extreme the latter idea means that we are supposed to find a twelve foot tall person the very picture of good health, never mind all the health problems that person would have.

Who knows what the research really says, of course. But I don't think the world is as simple as this story and other similar stories suggest.

Monday, July 16, 2007

On Troy Davis

He has been sentenced to death for killing a police officer. But since his trial new evidence has surfaced. As Scott Lemieux says, for very stupid reasons this new evidence cannot be heard and Troy will executed, perhaps as soon as today:

I recently posited elsewhere that the exceptionally odious Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act was the worst legislation signed by Bill Clinton, although there are many more candidates for the title than a Democratic President should allow. At any rate, a man who is very likely innocent is about to be railroaded to the death chamber because he's now statutorily barred from presenting evidence that 7 out of the 9 witnesses -- essentially the entire case against him -- have recanted, a tragic absurdity that underscores the appalling nature of the habeas corpus restrictions Clinton signed. Amazingly, this case has attracted relatively little attention from people making (stupid and offensive) analogies between the Duke lacrosse players and the Scottsboro Boys, although this case is rather more analogous.

Washington Post discusses the case today, too.

It doesn't actually matter to me whether Davis is guilty or not. It's important for the new evidence to be considered. A rule which makes that impossible is ultimately going to cause the executions of innocents, and Davis might very well be one of those.

You can go to this site to protest on Davis' behalf.

The Invisible Saudi Terrorists

These guys truly tend to be invisible in the U.S. public debates about terrorism, and the main reason for that seems to be the Bush administration's desire to keep them out of the limelight. For reasons of oil, naturally.

But still. There is something odd about a country which sees a terrorist attack (9/11) where the majority of the terrorists come from Saudi Arabia and which appears to choose to do nothing about that fact, even though the president of the attacked country gives a speech in which he argues that countries who harbor terrorists are themselves terrorists.

Then you get news like this:

Although Bush administration officials have frequently lashed out at Syria and Iran, accusing it of helping insurgents and militias here, the largest number of foreign fighters and suicide bombers in Iraq come from a third neighbor, Saudi Arabia, according to a senior U.S. military officer and Iraqi lawmakers.

About 45% of all foreign militants targeting U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians and security forces are from Saudi Arabia; 15% are from Syria and Lebanon; and 10% are from North Africa, according to official U.S. military figures made available to The Times by the senior officer. Nearly half of the 135 foreigners in U.S. detention facilities in Iraq are Saudis, he said.

Fighters from Saudi Arabia are thought to have carried out more suicide bombings than those of any other nationality, said the senior U.S. officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the subject's sensitivity. It is apparently the first time a U.S. official has given such a breakdown on the role played by Saudi nationals in Iraq's Sunni Arab insurgency.

He said 50% of all Saudi fighters in Iraq come here as suicide bombers. In the last six months, such bombings have killed or injured 4,000 Iraqis.

The situation has left the U.S. military in the awkward position of battling an enemy whose top source of foreign fighters is a key ally that at best has not been able to prevent its citizens from undertaking bloody attacks in Iraq, and at worst shares complicity in sending extremists to commit attacks against U.S. forces, Iraqi civilians and the Shiite-led government in Baghdad.

Read the whole article. It tells you how this particular characteristic of terrorism is kept on the sidelines in this country.

Another reason why we might expect more discussion of the role of Saudi Arabia in radical Islamic terrorism is that Saudi Arabia is the home of Wahhabism, a rigid, fundamentalist form of Islam, and Saudi Arabia uses its enormous wealth to export Wahhabism to countries all over the world.

A Mistake

I realized I made a mistake on that Sunday's post, because I suggested that the comments thread could be used as a depository for the eggs of your great wisdom. It was a mistake, and I apologize for it.

It was a mistake, because I have noticed that many people don't think their opinions are great eggs of wisdom (even when they are). Women are especially prone to this belief.

Why do I think so? Mostly because of the experiences I have had over my life and also in cyberspace. It's not that all women would be modest about their ideas or worried about coming across as foolish, or that all men would be certain of the brilliance of what they say. But I definitely get less self-promotion mail from women than from men and the mail I get from women includes many more hedges and apologies. There are exceptions, naturally, in both directions. Still, there is something about the opening I used which might bias the selections. And of course what I really meant was for everybody to say whatever they wanted in the comments thread.

This topic may have a link to that age-old question why political opinion columnists tend to be men. That may be changing now that goddesses can go and bloviate, but as Digby said in her speech at the Take Back America conference, all that you need to opionionate is to have an opinion. Really. Just see what Bill Kristol gets away with and he is on television all the time.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Sunday Snake Blogging

Courtesy of JohnJS:

You could regard this as an open thread wherein you can deposit the snake eggs of your great wisdom.