Body and Soul

Thoughts on the body politic, the human soul, Billie Holiday songs (and other people's) -- with a lot more questions than answers

Saturday, August 31, 2002

A Skeptical Blog has a great history lesson for Labor Day.

But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. -- George Orwell

Joseph Duemer has a fascinating post up at Reading & Writing exploring the connection between language and thought, focusing specifically on the often incoherent speech of George Bush, and asking whether his inarticulateness has some significance beyond simple ignorance.

It's not a new question. Mark Crispin Miller devoted a book to the topic, and James Carroll recently explored the idea in the Boston Globe. But Joseph had an interesting insight into the moral qualities (or lack of them) in Bush's twisted language:

We can use language to either sharpen or dull our perceptions & concepts: whether we choose accuracy or muddle depends, not upon language, but upon how we use language. That is, our use of language reflects our moral & ethical constructions. By this argument, GWB's morality is as incoherent as his syntax. Which is why American soldiers may very soon be engaged in house-to-house combat in Baghdad.

The last sentence involves an awfully large mental leap that I'm not quite willing to take. I don't think we'll end up at war just because of Bush's fuzzy language and fuzzy morals. But I do think there's a connection between language and ethics. There is an arrogance woven through Bush's refusal to bother explaining himself, an assumption that he's too important to make the effort, and lesser mortals will just have to work to figure out what the hell he means. It makes his language muddled, but it also shows up in his priorities, and in the way he treats other people and other countries. Our way or else. Whatever he says goes. He can't be expected to think through the consequences and understand that anyone else might have a different point of view. If you don't get it, it's your problem, not his.

You could argue that Bush's arrogant language merely reflects his arrogant mind, and I wouldn't entirely disagree, but I think it works the other way as well. The habit of speaking arrogantly (and getting away with it) encourages greater arrogance.

And that's true for all of us, not just for presidents.

All of this got me thinking again about something I wrote yesterday regarding the dullness of a lot of leftist writing, and why I don't think the solution to that is to take up the vituperative style of the right wing. It just hit me that the main reason I don't like that idea is that I think there's a connection between language, thought, and action. If we choose name-calling and distortion, it influences the way we view the world. I'll be glad to tear apart any lies Ann Coulter spreads, and to point out the hypocrisy of her statements. I won't call her Ann Thrax, or even make fun of her thinness. (I called her a whore yesterday, but in context I think the metaphor makes sense). A lot of what I hate about the Republicans is their nastiness, the coarsening effect they have on the culture. It's not just an aesthetic issue. I think when mockery and meanness rule, compassion and justice fall by the wayside.

The left is nothing without compassion and justice on its side.

What I'm getting at is that I can't find a way to argue that anyone should care about anyone else -- whether its farm workers in California, Nike employees in Indonesia, elderly people who can't afford their medicines, or abused altar boys -- in a smartass voice. One undercuts the other.

At some level, we become the language we speak. I have no desire to become like George Bush.

Is President Bush even aware that we have a Congress?

First he told us he didn't need the approval of Congress to go to war with Iraq, now he says he can give federal money to religious charities "even if Congress does not approve."

If they're talking about helping churches get money that they're legally entitled to but don't know about or aren't sure how to apply for, I don't see anything sinister or underhanded about it ( although it would be nice if they gave the same consideration to veterans and poor people).

But one of the suggestions the head of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives makes to churches is to give their charities "neutral-sounding" names -- in other words, hide the fact that they are churches.

Ironically, that means that federal money will flow to churches headed by the kind of people who don't see any ethical problems in twisting the truth for money, people who believe, like George Bush and Ken Lay, that rules are for little people, and the smart guy knows how to get around them.

Enron ethics in the pulpit. That might be George Bush's religion, but it isn't mine.

Dan Knauss at Locust Eater calls attention to a series of Bible study materials related to current news events that Christianity Today is selling, and expresses skepticism that the materials will encourage study group members to "think outwardly in relation to the larger world and complex issues."

Just looking at the titles of the materials and the overviews that are offered online, I share the skepticism, and I think the focus of the materials points up a basic difference between conservative and liberal notions of religious values.

Look, for example, at the series entitled Corporate Integrity Begins At Home. Corporate integrity is certainly an issue any person of faith should be thinking about at the moment, and I commend them for taking it on. But two of the "teaching points" -- " Moral uprightness has to begin on an individual level" and "Personal integrity promotes corporate (national) moral responsibility" -- suggest to me that it will be difficult if not impossible for anyone using such materials to get to the real ethical issues.

Conservative Christians, by focusing all their attention on individual integrity, miss what left-wing Christians know in their bones: that evil is not always a darkening of one person's heart, but is often built into the system. If you live with an economic system that encourages and rewards greed, the message of Jesus is not that you do whatever you need to do to get by, try not to be worse than anybody else, and count on God to forgive you because your heart is in the right place. The message is, as Archbishop Romero once expressed it, to "reject all that cannot be just in the world" and to see the face of God in the victims of injustice. That's a commitment that just praying for kinder and gentler CEOs doesn't come close to meeting.

I wonder, for instance, what members of a study group working with CTs materials would make of this article :
Poor countries will suffer massive losses of food production and agricultural land as global warming takes hold but North America will benefit, a United Nations report released at the summit said.

The conclusions Ð which add a new dimension to the Bush administration's rejection of the Kyoto Protocol to combat climate change Ð show food production declining sharply in up to 73 countries during the next eight years, even as their population grows.

It says growing wheat will "virtually disappear from Africa", and decline by up to 95 per cent in South-east Asia and up to 75 per cent in the Indian sub-continent. Other crops such as sugar and roots and tubers crops will also decline, though not by so much.

The article goes on to state that the United States and Russia will gain land and be able to "substantially" increase food production. The number of starving people will increase, and they will become more and more dependent on the United States for food.

If all I'm asked to care about is my own personal integrity, that article shouldn't bother me. Surely God's not going to blame me for global warming. And if some people gain and others lose, well, maybe that's just all part of God's plan.

But it's not so easy to dismiss if you believe that you are morally responsible for the injustice that grows out of your government's actions. Under those circumstances, fighting the American government's indifference to global warming becomes a moral imperative. Liberal Christians can't squirm off the moral hook quite as easily as conservatives.

Friday, August 30, 2002

I'm so proud of myself. Someone googled "Sean Hannity's lies" and I came up eleventh on the list. The ten ahead of me were all right-wing sites or book sellers that mentioned "Hannity" and "lies," but didn't connect the two. So now I can honestly say I'm number 1 in connecting Sean Hannity and his lies. Hooray for me (okay, and Atrios, who pushed me up the list by connecting to that post)!

I apologize for the absurd overuse of quotation marks in this post, butÉ

Several people have written to tell me that I have a "problem" with the "characters" on this site -- my quotation marks and apostrophes get replaced by umlauted O's or O's with a tilde (that little squiggle over the Spanish n, for non-linguists).

I have a similar problem when I read a few of my favorite blogs, notably The Rittenhouse Review (which is so good, making it all the more frustrating to have to read around the apostrophes that turn into accented i's), so I sympathize.

A reader suggested that I type everything on Word with "smart quotes" disabled, and then cut and paste onto Blogger, which is what I'm doing right now, testing to see if the apostrophes and quotation marks are coming out "right."

Of course I have no way of knowing if it's working, since on my computer they've always looked just fine. So if anybody has been having problems with foreign characters appearing on this site, I'd appreciate it if you'd let me know whether this post shows any improvement. Thanks.

UPDATE: I would also appreciate it if anyone had suggestions for how to accomplish the same thing directly on Blogger without having to pass through Word.

That old leftist State Department is at it again...

The State Department has invited about 20 scholars to a two-day conference in September to hear their views on why the United States seems so unpopular around the world.

Richard Boucher, a department spokesman, said the conference - on September 5 and 6 - was the culmination of a project that looked at anti-Americanism in Europe, Russia and in the Muslim world, and how it could be addressed.

Apparently trying to understand the roots of rage is no longer anathema. Or is is only liberals who aren't permitted to try to understand the reasons we're hated?

An old '70s slogan of female pride pointed out that Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did -- only backwards and in high heels. Update that to the 21st century: A woman can do anything a man can do -- even in full Islamic dress.

If I canÕt dance, itÕs not my revolution. -- Emma Goldman

Any leftist who writes (yes, blogging counts -- just because you do something more for love than money doesn't mean you can't try to do it well) ought to read John PowersÕ piece in this weekÕs L.A. Weekly on the dreariness of left-wing writing. In a way, it picks up on the Media WhoreÕs Online controversy of awhile back: Does leftist writing lose its soul if it adopts the vituperative tone of the right?

I think it can. I donÕt lament the lack of a left-wing Coulter or Limbaugh. In fact, I think itÕs a contradiction in terms. Leftist politics has its roots in compassion; weÕll never be comfortable or convincing selling meanness and hatred. More than that, I think in the long run, nastiness is counter-productive. Ann CoulterÕs political pornography may feed the lusty anger of bigots and gun nuts, but I doubt sheÕs ever lured a single person off the fence. SheÕs a whore, not a siren. There may be some value for the right in holding the interest of its angry, resentful base, but the leftÕs base isnÕt angry or resentful. ItÕs frustrated and ready for change, but it isnÕt inherently angry. It isnÕt entertained by hostility. And that leaves very little for a left-wing Coulter to feed on.

WhatÕs interesting about PowersÕ piece is that heÕs not complaining about the lack of a left-wing demagogue, but about the lack of a Weekly Standard, with its wit, style, great cover art, and, above all, its willingness to go after the loonier side of its own wing. He contrasts it with The Nation which, while I donÕt think itÕs nearly as dull as Powers makes it out to be, certainly doesnÕt look as good as the Weekly Standard and often seems out of touch.

Powers cites John NicholsÕ touting of Dennis Kucinich as a serious candidate for President as an example of the NationÕs cluelessness, but I think even worse was the response of Katha Pollitt (normally a terrific writer), who not only took the suggestion seriously, but responded in such an orthodox and predictable way (but heÕs pro-life, I donÕt want to hear any more about it!) that it seemed like a parody of the left written by a right-winger. IÕm normally a semi-religious reader of the Nation, but that week was depressing even for me.

LetÕs face it: Sometimes, in our earnestness and with all our good intentions, we seem to be parodying ourselves. I donÕt think we can copy the right-wingÕs style, but we sure as hell have to work on finding our own.

Chris Bertram at Junius takes up an interesting issue: the idea that "just war theory" should not be taken into consideration in deciding whether or not to go to war with Iraq (since itÕs a "Christian" doctrine and foreign policy shouldnÕt be determined by religious beliefs.) Chris notes that "just war theory" isnÕt a church doctrine, but a theory that developed within Christian tradition.

HeÕs right, but the objection can be taken even farther than that. Augustine didnÕt invent just war theory. Nor did Thomas Aquinas. They just produced systematic expositions of a tradition that went back to the earliest wars. Some acts of war have always been considered beyond the pale. The need to justify war is almost as old as war itself. As soon as you feel the need to give reasons, you inevitably start asking yourself, "Are they good enough reasons?"

I have some problems with just war theory, as IÕve discussed before, but the only way you can ignore it completely is to suggest that ethics and morality mean nothing when youÕre at war. IÕd love to see the vociferously Christian George Bush go on television and try to make that case.

Thursday, August 29, 2002

Do you ever come across an article in the newspaper that you take personally, even though it has no immediate bearing on your life?

Until I was in third grade, I lived in the Bronx, in Highbridge to be more precise, a short distance from Yankee Stadium. We moved a lot, from apartment to apartment, but always stayed pretty much in the same neighborhood. I've never understood why we moved so often. Irish Catholic kids in the '60s would not presume to ask their parents, "Why do we have to move?" But moving within the neighborhood wasn't unusual. One of my best memories from childhood is of the times when a family rented a U-Haul and loaded everything they owned into it. If you knew a kid in the family, you could finagle a ride on the U-Haul, the whole three or four blocks it traveled. A bunch of kids sitting atop boxes and chairs, shoving at each other and feeling important up so high -- it was like being grand marshall in the world's shortest parade.

The last year we lived in the Bronx was one of many years when my mother got tired of being beaten up, packed a suitcase, dragged me out of bed in the middle of the night and took off. I remember walking down Woodycrest Avenue in the dark with a sweater on over my pajamas, and I remember the gratings over the store fronts making me think of jails.

My mother's younger sister took us in. For a little over a year, we lived with my aunt, her husband and their three kids -- seven of us in a two-bedroom apartment.

I've been thinking about that time since I read this article, about homeless families with children housed in a converted wing of the Bronx House of Detention for Men. Above and beyond the fact that it's a gloomy, stinking place where contagious diseases spread easily, it's a jail. A jail. If there is one thing I know from unwanted experience, it's that a child on the run is convinced she's done something wrong. I don't care how few options you have and how small your resources are, you don't put her in a jail. The message that sends is despicable.

The world has changed for the better in so many ways since I was a child. A lot of cultural conservatives nurse the fantasy that there were "good old days" with nothing but two-parent, relatively happy families and somehow that nice world exploded somewhere between Ike and Woodstock. They desperately want it back. But, of course, it never existed. They just got to pretend that it existed because of the silence of women like my mother. At some point, my mother got sick of trying to hide her black eyes under sunglasses, and so did a lot of other women.

People aren't as silent about family problems as they used to be, and that's a very good thing. But just about the time women stopped keeping quiet, the resources they had to fall back on dried up. I know there's no logical connection, but it seems like a punishment: if you won't shut up and let us pretend, we'll take away your food stamps and let your children's schools decay.

We have come to the point where we put children without resources in a jail. I keep thinking about those children, how some of their lives aren't that different from what mine was like, but the consequences of having that kind of life have become so much worse, so Dickensian that you don't even want to think about it. Unless you take it so personally that you have to.

Two articles that seem to speak to each other:

New Survey Reveals Surprising Potential for Nonviolent Intifada 80% of Palestinians would support a large-scale non-violent protest movement and 56% would participate in its activities.

Islam's Kahn a teacher of peace Both Christianity and Islam have both violent and pacifist traditions. Instead of lecturing the Arab world about civilization and development, shouldn't we be learning and building on indigenous influences like [Muslim pacifist Badshah] Kahn's to help bring us all closer to peace?

"My spirituality boils down to that there is a God, and it ain't me. That's what's important for me to remember. Our attempts to be God are where we fuck up." -- Steve Earle

Salon has an interview with Steve Earle today (and it's not premium -- so you can read it even if you don't subscribe) that's a lot longer and more interesting than last Sunday's mini interview in the NY Times Magazine. The Times' interview is mostly about the controversy over "John Walker's Blues," and the relationship between politics and music. In the Salon interview he talks about politics, drugs, different art forms, Ireland, Texas, religion, haiku and bonsai. Even if I weren't a huge Steve Earle fan, I'd find it an great portrait of a quirky and intriguing artist's mind at work.

Wednesday, August 28, 2002

Top 10 Police Excuses for Pepperspraying Infants

Just when you think fundamentalists can't get any weirder...

I thought Jeb Bush had pushed religious idiocy to its outermost limit when he tried to get away with calling opposition to a man who defended child abuse "religious bigotry." But Jerry Sibley, coordinator for Jewish ministries with the Southern Baptist North American Mission Board, has him beat.

To its enormous credit, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops recently issued a statement that "campaigns that target Jews for conversion to Christianity are no longer theologically acceptable in the Catholic Church." Citing an appreciation for Jewish tradition that has grown since Vatican II, the bishops concluded by by "urging Jews and Christians to articulate a common agenda to heal the world."

Jerry Sibley calls that "an extreme form of anti-Semitism."

Yes, I understand the theology behind that. If you believe that only Christians are "saved," then to give up on "saving" Jews is anti-Semitic.

Spare me. If we haven't learned anything in the past year about the dangers of dividing people by religion, we don't have a learning curve. If we focus on the differences between religions instead of nourishing the fundamental impulses that join them, religion will add far more evil to the world than good.

I'm glad Hesiod is on our side, because when he's on your case, he doesn't let go.

He's on Jerry Regier's case.

His latest discovery is that the man Jeb Bush appointed to head Florida's troubled child welfare department, allegedly because of his strong record on child welfare isssues in Oklahoma, turns out to have had an embarrassing record on child welfare issues in his home state. According to the most recent federal studies, Oklahoma was not only below the national average on most measures of child welfare, it was below Florida. The rate of child abuse in Oklahoma's foster care systerm was twice the national average. Florida isn't bad enough? You want a guy whose standards are lower than Florida's?

Jerry Regier is an incompetent man with dangerous ideas about families and children. No whining about "religious bigotry" can cover that up.

The LA Times has a front page article today about Zambia's refusal to accept genetically modified corn, despite the fact that millions are dying of starvation.

It's one of those stories that makes you despair of anything good ever evolving in Africa. The corrupt government stories that make people give up on aide donations (What's the point? It will only end up building a mansion for the latest incarnation of Idi Amin.) The stories of superstition and sharia.

The problem is, the story is misleading -- and I think fundamentally racist.

To be honest, I don't know enough about genetically altered food to have an opinion on the topic. In fact, I know enough about myself to feel confident that my feeble understanding of science will keep me from ever having an intelligent opinion on the topic. I wouldn't presume to express an opinion on whether Zambia's policy is a good one or a bad one.

What I do know, however, is that it is not a matter of starving Africans turning down perfectly good food because of their silly fears and superstitions -- which is the way the Times portrays it. They point out that the United States, United Nations and humanitarian aid groups -- in other words, everyone whose opinion the Times considers worth listening to -- say the food is safe, but still the Zambians won't take it. They're starving, why not take a chance? How can the health risks of altered food outweigh the risks of starvation?

What the Times' article barely mentions is that the Africans' biggest fear is not the immediate impact of the genetically altered corn, but the long-term one. If the corn is planted, it could contaminate their natural varieties. That doesn't seem like a reason that countries whose economies are based on grain exports can afford to brush aside.

I'm not arguing about whether the Zambians should or should not accept altered corn. I am suggesting that a newspaper (especially one as good as the Times usually is) should not fall back on the racist assumption that Africans don't make rational decisions. Their reasons may be wrong, but they certainly are arguable -- and they deserved a better hearing than the Times gave them.

UPDATE: A reader directed me to this Washington Post article which deals with Zimbabwe's difficulties in dealing with the same issues that were raised in Zambia. Far more balanced than the LA Times piece, the WP article demonstrates that the fears African governments have about the corn's long-term impact on their economies are not only reasonable, but involve considerations the governments would be negligent to overlook.

Moreover the WP article raises ethical issues that the LA Times avoids. Is the United States using the African food crisis to get U.S. gene-altered products established in a corner of the world that has largely resisted them? And if we really care about starvation in Africa, are we willing to pay the cost of milling the grain so that it cannot be used for seed, thereby overcoming many of the Africans fears?

It's a complex issue -- both in scientific and ethical terms. The LA Times over-simplification simply pandered to racist stereotypes.

A few days ago, , I wrote about the controversy over bringing children to demonstrations. I just wanted to add that Drucilla Blood has posted some interesting thoughts on the subject over at Blog Sisters, and her readers have followed up with some thoughtful comments of their own.

Tuesday, August 27, 2002

"When the man who feeds the world by toiling in the fields is himself deprived of the basic rights of feeding, sheltering and caring for his own family, the whole community of man is sick." -- Cesar Chavez

What can you buy for $1.5 million? Let's hope it's not Gray Davis' conscience.

When Davis speaks to Hispanic groups in California, he often cites Cesar Chavez as a major influence in his life. The United Farm Workers have always supported him, although not with money (Seventy-five percent of California farm workers make under $10,000 per year -- that doesn't leave a lot for campaign contributions).

They need him now. A bill arrived in his office yesterday that would permit binding, third-party arbitration when negotiations hit an impasse. That happens a lot. Since 1975, when Jerry Brown signed the Agricultural Labor Relations Act, farm workers have voted for the UFW at 428 companies. Only 158 have signed contracts with growers. With a steady supply of labor coming from Mexico and workers who move frequently, all the growers have to do is drag out the bargaining process, and the farm workers never get the union contracts they voted for. These are the most vulnerable and oppressed workers in the state. Besides low pay, ninety percent of them have no health insurance. They desperately need another tool.

The bill on Davis' desk (SB 1736) would force growers to bargain in good faith or face having a contract imposed by an arbitrator. You can't live in California (at least not in the central part of the state, where I live), without witnessing the backbreaking labor these people do. You can't send children to school without being aware of the difficult lives of some of the children who share their classrooms. If you have a conscience, any shred of a conscience, they pull at it. Protecting their interests ought to be the rock bottom minimum level of decency you can expect from a Democratic governer in a relatively liberal state. Californians don't oppose this bill, only a handful of growers do. But at the moment it doesn't look like Davis will sign it. He has until September 30th to decide. Agribusiness has a lot of money on its side. All the farm workers have is justice.

Support the farm workers.

Faith in America gets wonderfully crazy sometimes. The Brits could learn a thing or two from us.

Yesterday was Women's Equality Day, which commemorates the day the 19th Amendment passed, giving women the right to vote. President Bush used the occasion to laud the suffragettes who "risked attack and arrest to organize marches, boycotts, and pickets, while mobilizing an influential lobbying force of millions" (which must be the first time on record the president has praised marches, boycotts and pickets -- but since he has grown so fond of them, perhaps a few thousand American citizens could be persuaded to show him even more of this brand of democracy). He also seized the opportunity to remind American women how much things have improved since 1920 and to provide the obligatory reminder of how bad things were for the women of Afghanistan before he so chivalrously saved them.

All well and good, but now that the ceremonial celebration of womenÕs equality is over, I had some thoughts on ways the president might really do some good:

1. Have a talk with Jeb. It's hard to convince women that enormous progress has been made and we're no longer oppressed when the president's little brother is busy humiliating women and sending them the message that they should consider working outside the home as "bondage," that adultery and desertion are the only legitimate reasons for divorce, and that feminism "has damaged the morale of many women and convinced men to relinquish their biblical authority in the home.''

2. Stop using the plight of Afghan women to burnish your credentials as someone who cares about women's rights, unless you mean it.

3. Whether in Nigeria, or Saudi Arabia, don't let oil stand in the way of the United States speaking up loudly and clearly for women's rights. (Make it easy on yourself, just add one item to todayÕs agenda .)

4. Fight AIDS in Haiti. Train midwives in Algeria. Save women's lives. Restore funding to the United Nations Population Fund.

5. Save more women's lives and make those lives worth living. Support ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

6. Make a contribution.

Monday, August 26, 2002

Imagine there's no countries...

The West-Eastern Divan is an orchestra consisting of 78 young musicians, roughly half of them Jewish, half from Arab countries. It is the creation of Israeli conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim and Palestinian-American writer Edward Said. Last week, the orchestra was in Seville, where it is considering locating permanently, rehearsing in a Catholic seminary.

God did not comment, but He is said to be pleasantly surprised.

I received a thought provoking e-mail this weekend, from a reader responding to my post about the video of the Oregon protests. Her response -- and I think it's a very reasonable one -- is that, while it is unconscionable for a policeman to pepper spray children, the parents were not very wise in bringing their children to that demonstration. These days, the risk of the situation getting out of control is too great.

I'm torn about the issue. I must admit, I had the same thought the reader did. I have a seven-year-old daughter, and there is no way I would bring her to a demonstration. Even in my quiet little town, the potential for danger (or at least a situation uglier than anything I'm willing to expose her to) is too great. At the same time, a part of me feels that saying that parents shouldn't bring children to a peace demonstration is kind of like saying a woman shouldn't go out alone after dark or else she's risking being raped or killed. It's undeniably true. But it's equally true that a woman ought to be able to go out at night, and parents ought to be able to expect that they can express their opinions as citizens and not put their children at risk. People should be careful, but we have to be equally careful not to blame the victim.

Women ought to be careful. But they also have a right to be angry that they have to be so careful. Parents should protect their children. But they ought to be angry that one of the things they have to protect them from is their own government.

I'm also concerned that if ordinary people, elderly people, handicapped people, people with children, people at greater risk in dangerous situations, stay away from protests, the protesters who people see on their televisions (on those rare occasions when protests are acknowledged by the media at all) will all be 19-year-olds with blue hair and piercings. I have nothing against 19-year-olds or blue hair (piercings, however, give me the willies) but theyÕre a lot easier to dismiss than middle-aged moms. An army of mothers and fathers and grandmothers and grandfathers saying "no" can be very powerful.

And in a strange way, I feel like I'm cheating my daughter by not allowing her to participate in demonstrations. Not long after the bombing of Afghanistan began, I mentioned one night at dinner that there was going to be a demonstration downtown the next day. I had no intention of going. My feelings about the war at that point were still amorphous. I couldn't say I thought it was wrong.

But my daughter wanted to know what a demonstration was. I told her that some people thought the war was bad and they wanted to tell other people that. My daughter suddenly announced, with astonishing passion, "I think war is bad." And she asked me if we could go. I gave her the usual evasive mother answer, "Maybe some other time."

But I kept thinking about the passion with which she responded. She doesn't really know what a war is, of course. At the time I was reading her a children's book that takes place during World War II, and the small deprivations of war are mostly what she imagines. She had also seen bits and pieces of the news from Afghanistan and what she saw seemed to bother her so deeply that we simply banned TV news from the house for awhile. Even now, if she sees a picture of a desolate place, she asks if that's Afghanistan, and do they still have a war there, and did anybody die.

Yes, sweetheart, people died.


Kids, too.

I told her not to worry, she was safe. We would always take care of her. That's what they tell you you're supposed to say.

It doesnÕt help , though. I have the kind of child who worries as much about children she's never met as she does about herself.

She asks how many children died. I tell her I don't know. (And I bite my tongue before telling her that nobody knows and precious few people seem to care.)

She got a lot of patriotism in school this year and that's fine. In a way, she loves it. She loves flags and the Pledge of Allegiance and singing America the Beautiful. She sings America the Beautiful to me at least a few times a week, and stands up very straight and proud when she sings it. But she also knows the flags and the songs have something to do with war, and she hates war, and I think at some level she's already gotten the message that it's not o.k. to say that.

When she heard that some people were going to say "war is bad" she wanted to say it too. She wanted to see for herself that she's not the only one who feels that. It would have been good for her to get the chance.

But knowing that, if I had the chance to do it again, I still wouldn't take her. And yet I wouldn't blame any parent who made a different choice.

Spinsanity's stabs at plague-on-both-your-houses fairness are looking increasingly pathetic. Today's Salon has a piece by Ben Fritz and Bryan Keefer raking through the lies in Sean Hannity's new book. That's their good deed for the day. But, after noting that Hannity lies about President Clinton's famous Georgetown University Speech, in which Hannity claims Clinton blamed America for September 11th (he did nothing of the sort, of course), Fritz and Keefer try to balance their criticism of Hannity by arguing that many conservatives disseminated that same lie for awhile, but had the "class" to back down after they read the full speech. Fritz and Keefer's example of conservative "class"? Andrew Sullivan.

The closest Sullivan comes to apologizing to Clinton for mischaracterizing his speech is to admit "it's not Noam Chomsky." But mostly, in this post, Sullivan, backed into a corner after being caught jumping to conclusions, if not out and out lying, simply whines that while he was wrong, he wasn't really wrong.

He was really wrong, and he didn't have the class or the guts to admit it.

I'm sorry, but you can't criticize Media Whores Online for being over the top and then use Andrew Sullivan as an example of class.

Shafeeq Ghabra, a professor of political science at Kuwait University, who went to college in the United States, has written an ode to America's greatest strength:

In graduate school, in the 1980's, the most Zionist of all my teachers would listen with empathy to my opinion and my difference of perspective, then argue. This opened the way for respect, learning and understanding. Tolerance, even without accepting the other view, does have a moderating power on people and permits for the repetition of the cycle of understanding. Tolerance breeds tolerance. As a professor of political science at Kuwait University, I practice my old professor's technique on my own fundamentalist students.

A willingness to listen can sometimes be a weapon of breathtaking power.

Sunday, August 25, 2002

Today someone googled "Ethiopian models showing their body" and somehow ended up here. I did have a post recently about the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, but somehow I don't think that's what the googler had in mind. My heart goes out to him. He must have been really disappointed.

This is an interesting development: The Kurds of northern Iraq have traditionally been moderate Muslims and they've created a relatively open and free society with many of the foundations of democracy. But Islamic fanatics, linked to al-Qaeda, have occupied several Kurdish villages near the Iranian border in recent months, where they've established brutal, misogynist, Taliban-style administrations. They're having some success attracting young supporters among the Kurds through a campaign of hardline preaching tied to schools and charities funded by -- you see the end of this sentence coming already, don't you? -- wealthy Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia.

Protecting the Kurds from al-Qaeda attacks could easily provide George Bush with a legitimate reason to begin the war with Iraq that he seems to want, but be unable to justify. The enormous irony is that the best way to "fight" that war is not to wait a few months and send in the military to fend off an army of fanatics, but to stand up right now to the "allies" who are paying for those fanatics' recruitment program.

Thomas Friedman explains today why our oil addiction means that isn't going to happen. In Friedman's apt phrase, "Addicts never tell the truth to their pushers."

Don't ask me how to..

Today's Observer has an interesting little piece in which they asked several famous people what they they know nothing about or are unable to do. The most revealing answer, to me, was Andrew Sullivan's. He admitted to having read "alarmingly little fiction."

Chalk my reaction up to injured pride, if you like -- I write fiction and so I'm a little frustrated with the (ever-expanding) number of people who never read the stuff -- but somehow I'm not surprised that Sullivan's not a fiction reader.

I've always liked Sartre's comment that reading fiction is an act of generosity, because you can't do it unless you're willing to let another person inhabit you. I don't think fiction readers are necessarily better people than non-readers, but I don't think it's possible to read good fiction regularly without developing a certain subtlety of mind -- tolerance of others' foibles, compassion for their lives, willingness to look beneath the surface of actions, understanding the complexity of motives. I don't read Sullivan much, but on the rare occasions I've waded into his rants, I haven't found those qualities much in evidence.

A woman I know, a devoutly Catholic novelist, once told me that she hit a crisis in writing her first novel when she realized that her main character was going to have an abortion. She was shocked. She did not approve. But at some point she realized that characters, like people, make their own choices, and whether you approve or not, you have to let them. You can't push your characters around. You can't tell them what to believe.

It's a lesson every fiction writer worthy of the name learns quickly, and one I think, at some level, good readers intuit.

You can't bully people into doing what you think is best. You can't harrangue them into sharing your way of seeing the world.

Andrew Sullivan should definitely curl up with a good novel. I can think of quite a few politicians I'd like to give novels to as well.

Saturday, August 24, 2002

My bloglist is getting so long, and I hate HTML so much that I'm really reluctant to add any more unless I can't resist. These two I can't resist:

Alas, a blog is smart and well-written on a wide variety of subjects, feminist (please, god, more feminists on the web -- especially ones who have a sense of humor and can write), full of great cartoons (check out Mickey's copyright rant especially) and is just plain pretty to look at.

Sisyphus Shrugged's Journal is tough and funny, personal and political, and (thank you, god) unapologetically feminist. And she can "coulter in a good cause." (I don't know if she's the first person to use coulter as a verb, but I like it and plan to steal it and disseminate it everywhere.)

I have very mixed feelings about abortion, but this makes me angry:

Abortion Foe Plans to Violate WomenÕs Privacy on Television Show

Dave Leach, an anti-abortion extremist and candidate for the Iowa House of Representatives, plans to air footage of women entering and exiting a Des Moines Planned Parenthood clinic on his local cable access show "The Uncle Ed Show." "By shining a light on wickedness, IÕm hopeful people will be awakened," said Leach, according to The cable company that airs LeachÕs show, Mediacom, has said that it will not air the show unless the womenÕs faces have been obscured. However, Leach objects to this requirement because his stated purpose is to keep women from going to the Planned Parenthood clinic, according to the Associated Press. "The Uncle Ed Show" has been the subject of controversy in the past because of episodes which demonstrated bomb making techniques and discussed killing doctors who perform abortion, according to the Des Moines Register.

The Des Moines Register has more.

Bush: DCF chief's critics use `double standard'

Hesiod and Atrios are both right on the mark in hitting Jeb Bush over his attempt to paint criticism of Jerry Regier -- the child abuse-friendly "Christian" Bush appointed to head Florida's child welfare department -- as religious bigotry.

Sorry to be a broken record on this subject, but criticizing someone's beliefs is not religious bigotry. Calling child abuse a religion is.

Jeb Bush claims that a person describing himself as lacking in faith would not get the same scrutiny Regier is getting. Setting aside the obvious fact that it would be a rare act of political courage for a governer to appoint someone who described himself as "lacking in faith" to any public position, someone who expressed Regier's opinions without trying to put a veneer of religion over it would have been dismissed long ago as a monster or an idiot. God is not a monster or an idiot. Jerry Regier should defend his strange ideas if he can, and stop trying to hide behind God.

Joseph Duemer has a beautifully written piece on Ann Coulter's phony populism over at Reading & Writing.

Hesiod has a link to a video from the Oregon protests that's very disturbing. As he recommends, scroll ahead a little more than half-way to the place where a woman tells about an incident in which children were pepper sprayed.

Ernest Hemingway once said that the one trait every writer needs is a built-in, fool-proof "bullshit detector." Mine isn't foolproof by any means, but it's always been pretty reliable, and it's telling me that the way this woman recounts the story is trustworthy to the bone. To be honest, my "bullshit" radar is little uncomfortable with the man interviewing her. He's trying to push her to say things she's not ready to say. But the woman could not be more believable.

Several things jumped out at me. The first was the way she corrected herself after she said the police pepper-sprayed three children. She immediately backtracks and says that he actually only sprayed two of the children. That's not the way people talk when they're telling a rehearsed story. That's the way people talk when they're struggling to describe accurately an emotional and chaotic situation and trying to be fair.

The second telling detail was the way she used an obscenity in talking about the police. It's not the obscenity itself, it's the way she says it, with a small hesitation before, and a slight look of discomfort after. She's trying so hard to speak calmly and gently (she reminds me, in that, of a nun or a preschool teacher). And yet she spits the words themselves out from a place of deep anger and hurt.

The woman is forty-something, like me, a mother, like me, and I recognize that hesitation and that look -- I know what they feel like on the inside, and I know what they mean. If you're not a forty-something mother, let me translate. Obscenities don't come as easily to the lips of women of my generation as they do to many younger women, especially those of us who've spent years with children, being very careful about what we say. (The soft and clear way the woman speaks is a signal to me that she's spent a lot of time talking to children.) Like me, this is not the kind of woman who calls someone an obscene name just because he cut her off in traffic. We hoard our obscenities, as if they were precious objects. The words, which don't feel entirely comfortable in your mouth, come only when there is nothing left in polite language that will capture what you feel about what you've witnessed.

And finally, at the end of her interview, there is her response to the question about how she feels about her country now. I watched the video twice, and I was in tears with her both times. She says she always thought this was a "good country," and leaves hanging in the air the change in her feelings, which she clearly still can't articulate. She's unwilling and unable to say anything negative, but also unable to reaffirm her old feelings. All that's left is tears.

That's exactly how I feel after watching the video -- unwilling to resort to a scathing reproach of what is happening in my country, a reproach that might come easier if I were twenty years younger. But I want to cry.

And I want to know why this story isn't in the press. I searched the Washington Post. Not a word. The LA Times has very brief AP coverage. The NY Times website has the same AP story, and another quick summary from Reuters. As for its own reporting, the paper of record covered, in a positive light, Bush's defense, in Oregon, of his indefensible new logging policy (if the president would like some sensible free advice on the topic, I can't think of a better place to start than this Lean Left post), but the protests tumbled to the article's final paragraph:

Mr. Bush was greeted in Portland tonight by hundreds of protesters outside his hotel protesting his talk of an Iraq invasion and his environmental policies. It was one of the largest groups of demonstrators Mr. Bush has encountered since Sept. 11.

The Portland Oregonian has good, even-handed coverage (once you get past the somewhat less than objective headline). They acknowledge both the diversity of the protesters -- a few looking for trouble (anyone who has ever participated in a demonstration knows they're always there), most of them ordinary Americans expecting simply to have their peaceful objections to war and assaults on the environment heard -- and controversy over the police tactics. They estimate the crowd at about 1300 -- considerably more than the "hundreds" the NY Times suggests.

But this is not a local story. If the editors of our major newspapers consider police firing rubber bullets into crowds of ordinary Americans and pepper spraying children so run of the mill that it's hardly worth mentioning, something's seriously wrong.

Friday, August 23, 2002

Shocker of the day: I agree with L. Brent Bozell III, the president of the right-wing Media Research Center. Not about liberal bias in the media, of course, but about the way the movie industry undercuts parents by marketing stuff to kids that isn't appropriate, and employs a rating system that is increasingly useless.

I haven't seen the movie Mr. Bozell writes about -- the latest Austin Powers. The first was so-so, I'm not going to bother with the sequels. But I know what he's talking about. Every parent has had the experience of watching a PG video with kids and suddenly thinking, I'm sorry. This is not the kind of language I want my child exposed to. Okay, maybe not every parent. But I've thought it often enough to make up for the slackers.

There's an odd phenomenon I've noticed over the years in casual conversations with other parents who I don't know very well. They think I'm more conservative than they are. You'd be amazed at some of the people who think I'm more conservative than they are. Years ago, waiting for a PTA meeting to start, I had a conversation about children and movies with the mother of one of my sons' third-grade friends, a nice woman on a personal basis, but also an extremely conservative Christian who'd made a pain of herself by objecting to half the books in the school library (okay, I'm exaggerating -- but she did try to evict Natalie Babbitt and Roald Dahl).

We agreed, in general, that some parents were just plain too permissive about what they let their children see. But then I, stupidly, decided to get more specific. I had just -- with some trepidation -- let my then 8-year-old son rent his first PG video, and while it was a great movie, I told her, I thought some of the language was a bit too much for a third-grader.

The movie was E.T.

E.T.? You're in trouble when a right-wing Christian is laughing at you. They aren't a cheerful group as a rule. You object to E.T.? I'm gonna have to tell my husband that one. You make me look like a flaming liberal.

Terrific. A woman to the theological right of Pat Robertson, a book banner, for God's sake, thinks I'm too conservative. I never got a chance to say that I like E.T. I just don't want my 8-year-old to call anybody a "douche bag."

The interesting thing is that I've also thrown a lot of these people for a loop when anything political comes up. I don't ordinarily bring up the topic, but sometimes they bring it up, assuming, I think, that since I'm a stay-at-home PTA mom who objects to unsuitable language in movies (at least for kids), I must be a Republican. Over the years, I've had lots of snide comments about "liberals" whispered to me, that seemed to come with the assumption that I'd agree. I get stunned looks when I don't, as if I were one of those people with strange mixtures of ideas no one can make any sense of. You know, like gay Republicans.

Where did this come from?

Stupid question. It came from years and years of right wing propoganda that says liberals are all a bunch of over-educated, over-paid professional snobs who don't have time for families. The success of that propaganda is why I find myself watching a certain smug, young, blonde woman on television, one who obviously devotes a great deal of time and attention to her appearance and career, telling me I'm a snob and she understands the needs of ordinary people. She's the one on television making a fortune selling hatred and mile long legs. I'm the one frosting cupcakes for the class party. What's wrong with this picture?

Which brings me to this article, which probably bothers me more than it should. Polls show white working women who didn't go to college are moving away from the Democratic Party, mainly, according to a Democratic pollster, because of "values" issues -- they're more socially conservative, more religious, and more pro-life than well-educated women.

As a practical matter, it probably doesn't matter. More and more women are going to college, and non-college women will be a smaller and smaller pool of voters.

But they're a pool of voters the Democratic Party has stood up for going back to when my mother was a kid (when, she once told me, election day was celebrated in the Bronx by burning in effigy whoever was running against Franklin Roosevelt.) It would be bad enough if the Democratic Party lost those voters because it stopped standing up for them. But they're losing them because of very effective lies.

You know those bumper stickers that say "I'm pro-life and I vote"? I want one that says "I bake cookies and I'm a Democrat."

What I Did On My Summer Vacation

Some people have accused President Bush of doing favors for the state of Florida only because his little brother is governor of the state. Republicans leap to his defense. Nepotism has nothing to do with it, they say, Bush is just trying to buy votes for 2004 in a shaky state.

Gee, it's great to see ethics back in the White House.

Don't get me wrong, I'm happy to see the president back down on Iraq. But he's going about it in such a childish way -- trying to pretend he never said what he's on the record saying. Kids try to pull that scam all the time --I didn't say I'd be home by 10, mom, you must have imagined it. -- but they don't seriously expect to get away with it, and no grown-up should either. Surely we ought to be able to count on a little more maturity from a president.

Just under a year ago, Bush vowed he would get Osama bin Laden "dead or alive." Some of us said maybe that wasn't the best way to phrase it, that he might be "painting himself into a corner with his rhetoric" and that focusing too much attention on one man might prove counterproductive. It was an argument some of our staunchest allies agreed with. But most of us learned quickly that making that obvious point would quickly get us branded as terrorist-sympathizers, and stopped talking about it. We figured Bush would realize it for himself eventually, and of course he did. Having failed to catch bin Laden (for which he certainly should not be blamed), he never mentions his name anymore and pretends that catching him was never all that important in the first place.

Now, having realized that every time he mentions Iraq even his closest friends start looking pale, and Americans, now that they've had a chance to think about it, are growing less and less comfortable with the idea of a war, he's trying to get away with "Who me? Did I say anything about Iraq? I don't even know where Iraq is." He acts as if he is amused by press speculation about "the particular country that you seem to be riveted on." Donald Rumsfeld calls Iraq-talk (the press's, not theirs, of course) a "frenzy."

Hey, don't look at me, mom. I don't even know anybody named Saddam Hussein.

Unfortunately for them, it wasn't all that difficult for the LA Times to compile some old quotes.

Here in California, we will be watching the next couple of days to see how skillful a politician George Bush is. Can he come to the state, raise a few million dollars for Bill Simon's collapsing gubernatorial race, convince right-wing Californians (already on the endangered species list and desperate for a few kind words) that he loves their boy and is one of them, and at the same time not been photographed standing next to the priviledged son of a prominent Republican politician who is looking at a $78 million judgment in a corporate fraud case -- which might raise a few discomforting comparisons?

Bring your jogging shoes, Mr. Bush, you may have to move fast.


Oops. Not fast enough.

Thursday, August 22, 2002


There is an article in today's LA Times that I find both moving and strange. It expresses so much that is intriguing about the nature of faith.

Luis Cruz, a Salvadoran native who lives in the San Fernando Valley, was stranded for 12 days in Angeles National Forest with a fractured back before being rescued last Tuesday. Yesterday, from his hospital bed, he told reporters, "I was never afraid to die. I was in real pain, real tired...but God never left my side. I was never alone."

What I find strange is the preceding paragraph, in which the Times' reporter sums up the young man's statement. According to the reporter, he said that "he never lost his faith that he would survive the ordeal."

I suppose it's possible that Luis Cruz made two statements, one, which the reporter quoted indirectly (and which became the dramatic sub-head of the story), about his faith that he would survive, and a second about not fearing death. But the way it's written, it sounds as if the reporter didn't realize those were two very different, even contradictory statements. The first one you see all the time in newspapers, the second one far more rarely.

Whenever someone survives the seemingly unsurvivable, someone will say, "God must have been there," without thinking of the cruel flip side to that statement: Does it mean God was not there for all the innocents who have died? I certainly wouldn't criticize anyone else for saying such a thing, because I'm sure I've said it myself a few times. Although, if questioned, I'd have to admit I don't really mean it. I don't believe in a wish-granting, here-for-some-and-not-for-others God. A God like that would not be worthy of faith.

But for an awful lot of people who tell pollsters they believe in God, that's about all faith amounts to -- God as the uber-fairy godmother (or fairy godfather, I guess, since people who trot out their faith only when they have a wish to make would probably be uncomfortable with the concept of God as a mother, although "godfather" has some unfortunate cinematic connotations they might want to stay away from). The Oh lord won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz school of theology.

But Luis Cruz's statement that he never feared death is the essence of faith. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Cruz describes an acceptance and a source of strength that can't really be found outside a life of faith. I can't be sure, but there is something in the tone of the article that makes me think that the reporter could not tell that Luis Cruz was talking about that kind of faith, not the more common and superstitious variety.

There is one other thing I found intriguing about this story. There's a picture of Luis Cruz with his cut and bruised hands holding a wooden rosary. That wouldn't be anything to remark upon, except that the article describes him as a "born-again Christian." Born-again is not a phrase that comes readily to the lips of Catholics I know, so I assume Luis Cruz is one of many Latin American converts to an evangelical church. And yet, wounded and in pain, he reaches for a rosary.

It seems to me that in some way a born-again Christian fingering a rosary might just be the quintessential image of what faith will look like in the 21st century. People will reach out to churches that make sense to them, that reflect their understanding of God, or will pursue their own ways of worship, and at the same time cling to old images and rituals that retain some spiritual meaning. Or they will stay in old churches, with comfortable rituals, and push the boundaries of those churches to see how far they'll stretch before they break. Luis Cruz's example says it works.

But it won't be easy. In a recent New Republic there was a review of Garry Wills' Why I Am A Catholic, which argued that Wills was fighting a losing battle in trying to be a liberal, open-minded, critical Catholic: "too loyal to be the best kind of critic and too critical to be meaningfully loyal." Poor Garry Wills. Conservative Catholics don't quite trust him (some even loathe him) and non-Catholics think he's wimping out. Personally, that alone makes me like him.

I definitely fall into the "too critical to be meaningfully loyal" category. I've been wounded by the Catholic Church so many times and in so many ways that for me to return to it would be like a battered woman returning to an abusive husband. I don't care how much he changes and finds religion, a woman is a fool if she goes back to a guy who beat up on her. And what is true for men is equally true for churches.

(I didn't choose the simile lightly. I am the battered daughter of a battered wife, who went back again and again largely because the Church told her to. The coddling of pedophile priests is not the only sin the Church needs to atone for.)

But I find Garry Wills' combination of loyalty and trueness to his own way interesting, inspiring and utterly worthy of respect, not all that different, really, from the struggle of the brave young woman whose name I borrow when I write here, hoping that she will also lend me a little bit of her courage and integrity.

I am not a Catholic. My hero is a Catholic saint. Like a born-again Christian reaching for a rosary.

Of course, there will be people who tell you that evangelical faith and Catholic ritual is a silly theological mix, and that you're either Catholic or you're not, believe it all without question, or get out.

But I'm not buying it, and I think fewer and fewer believers are. I live in California, the land of Jewish Buddhists and pagan Christians (Not a new concept, really. I often wear a small, gold Celtic cross, a cross with a circle around it, which I was told as a child, merged the Celts' old "sun" god with their new "son" god. I later learned that the story is probably a myth, but I don't care. I like it and I'm sticking by it.) I won't even blink twice the first time I meet someone who tells me she's a Jewish Muslim. What's the use of faith without miracles?

If I managed to make you feel guilty a few days ago about helping women in Afghanistan (causing guilt -- that's what I'm here for), but not quite guilty enough to call the White House to complain about President Bush's cut in the funds Congress appropriated for them, the Feminist Majority is making it really easy to do a good deed: Click here and it will take you a few seconds to e-mail the White House with your support for Afghan reconstruction. That's as cheap and easy a way of buying a clear conscience as you're going to find.

The era of Britney Spears in officially over. I don't know what is happening to her singing (or moaning, really) career, and I couldn't care less, but her real career -- teaching little girls how to dress and move -- is over. Dead. Don't bother to send flowers.

A year ago, my daughter, entering first grade, made a transition every mother dreads. When I took her to buy school clothes, I found that she'd moved out of the little girls' section (sizes 2-6X) and into the big girls' (sizes 7-14). Mothers confronted with this change have one universal reaction: What do you mean she's not a baby any more? She still has most of her baby teeth. Look at this baby fat. This is not a big girl.

Unfortunately, my daughter hit that transition in the worst possible year to officially become a big girl -- the year clothing manufacturers, who gear larger children's sizes to the taste of twelve-year-olds, decided that any self-respecting pre-adolescent (ranging down to chubby first graders) had only one goal in life: dressing like the beloved Britney.

Believe me, you do not want to see a six-and-a-half-year-old in see-through fabrics with her navel hanging out and BRAT written in spangles across her chest (and if you do want to see that, I don't want to know you).

Britney is bad enough. My daughter tried on clothes (which she did not get to take home) that made her look like Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver.

Last year, a friend and I were talking in the school parking lot about the difficulty we'd had buying school clothes that summer, and my friend suddenly banged the hood of her car and yelled, "What ever happened to smocking? I want smocking!"

Smocking is back. Peter pan collars are back. Little plaid jumpers that the Brady Bunch girls would have worn are back. The closest thing to weird my daughter bought was an embroidered peasant blouse that looks like something I wore in high school. But I'll take 1971 hippie over 2001 hooker any day. She can have tie-dye, if she wants it -- as long as it covers her navel.

Little girls in little girls' clothes. This is what heaven looks like.

Last year, I dragged my daughter from store to store to store, thinking Please, God, a pair of cotton pants and a shirt that covers her stomach -- is that too much to ask?

This year -- one store. A little over an hour and the whole ordeal was done. There was so much to choose from that the hard part was not finding things, it was mustering the will power not to buy too much. Oooo, this one is so cute. Can't we just buy one more outfit? (Unfortunately, that was my question, not my daughter's. A model of mature shopping behavior I am not.)

My daughter goes back to school next Tuesday, and I am so looking forward to walking up the main hallway to her classroom the first day, and seeing hundreds of children looking like children.

You can go home now Britney. Maybe we'll let you come back if you promise to wear smocking.

Wednesday, August 21, 2002

I've just added two new links to my weblog list. Liberal Oasis not only has consistently interesting comments, it's got a pretty design as well. Ginger Stampley's What She Really Thinks is smart and entertaining, and combines the political and the personal in an always interesting way.

Jesus is the most controversial human being to ever walk the face of the planet, and people don't want to hear his name. -- Franklin Graham

If that were true, a man who said Jesus was his favorite philosopher would not be president and would not have asked Franklin Graham to pray at his inauguration. The Pope would not be on the front page of the newspaper. Tim LaHaye's books would be on the remainder tables.

Over the centuries, Jesus' name has proved itself to be a money-maker and a power-builder. Many people have become rich and powerful hiding behind that name.

It's not the name, it's the ideas people have a hard time with.

U.S. to Seek Mideast Reforms

The Bush administration intends to launch an effort this fall to promote democracy in the Middle East, combining the president's ambitious rhetoric -- and moves such as last week's rebuke of Egypt's human rights performance -- with dollars meant to improve political institutions and public debate in often repressive societies.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell as early as next month will unveil a program aimed at promoting economic, education and political reform, including $25 million for pilot projects and additional millions for training political activists, journalists and trade union leaders, according to U.S. officials.

A central goal of the effort, which would include a review of the effectiveness of $1 billion in U.S. foreign aid to the Middle East, is to develop economic opportunities and political safety valves in a region that is home to significant anti-American sentiment.

This is potentially such good news that I'll tell that cynical little voice in the back of my head that says it's just p.r. to shut up for awhile. I knew some good would come of Colin Powell sticking it out and continuing to chip away Bush's ignorance and arrogance.

Of course words aren't enough. Bush will have to have the cajones to stand up to American "friends" in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Pakistan. So far, he hasn't shown any sign of that courage. But this is a good first step. It's a verbal commitment to democratization. Let's hold him to his promise.

In a related vein, Thomas Friedman has a great piece today on why it is just as important to press for democracy in Saudi Arabia as it is in Iraq. It's provides a good background on the importance of this apparent change in policy.

Reporting from Afghanistan last week, Robert Fisk noted that while Americans have a well of Afghan good-will to draw on, the well isn't bottomless and it's showing signs of getting low. Afghans are growing increasingly frustrated with American arrogance. Today's NY Times reports a similar story, but in a more optimistic way. The Pentagon, the Times reports, is aware of the potential for alienating Afghans and is doing everything in its power to hold that support, including a greater commitment to avoiding civilian casualties.

I'm sure the Pentagon is aware of the problem and I'm sure they're doing their best. No one doubts the good intentions of American soldiers. Fisk's reporting suggests, however, that they may be trying to do a job they're unsuited for -- humanitarian intervention -- and interfering with the work of organizations that know what they're doing in this area. The military's alliance with thugs preying on their fellow Afghans doesn't help either.

I'm glad the Pentagon is aware of the problem, but I wish they were showing a little more awareness of their own contributions to it.

Amendments Give Musharraf Power to Dismiss Parliament

Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf said on Wednesday he would have the right to dismiss parliament as part of a package of constitutional amendments finalized after weeks of debate.

The decision restores to the president a key constitutional power which was taken away by the government of the last prime minister, Nawaz Sharif.

In remarks carried by state television, Musharraf said that his plans for a National Security Council, a civilian-military body to monitor future governments, would be upheld despite strong opposition among political parties and many Pakistanis.

"The majority of people spoke against it. Some also spoke in its favour, but honestly, I think this (council) is very important and this will be done," he said.

Musharraf, who came to power in a bloodless coup in October 1999, said that the president would also have the right to name the chiefs of staff and the head of the joint chiefs of staff committee.

The proposed amendments were put forward in June but were rejected by mainstream political parties and legal bodies, who said they would cement the grip on power of the military, which has ruled Pakistan more than half its 55-year history.

Musharraf is clearly losing his hold on Pakistan and believes he can hang on if he tightens his grip.

I realize dealing with Pakistan is very complicated. No matter how committed we are to our faith in democracy and human rights, any rational person fears the results of a truly free election in a nuclear power teeming with hardline Islamic fundamentalists. And the democratic opposition to Musharraf is weak.

Musharraf's actions, though, look less like an attempt to keep the fanatics under control than an effort to keep genuine democratic opposition from offering alternatives to both theocracrats and military rulers. In the long run, that's a tragedy for Pakistan, and a danger to the rest of the world.

President Bush, to his credit, recently decided to turn down an increase in aid to Egypt to protest the jailing of Saad Eddin Ibrahim, an Egyptian pro-democracy advocate. It would be wonderful if that were the first step in a change in American policy in which we support moves toward democracy, not increasing dictatorship, in the Arab world. Bush's reaction to Musharraf's move will be interesting to see.

Tuesday, August 20, 2002

Ann Coulter says "her people" live in Queens. A resident of Queens replies, and demonstrates some of the lessons Coulter might have learned if there were any truth in her claim.

NOTE: Thank you to the reader who recommended this story to me.

UPDATE: Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. I didn't realize that the reader who called my attention to this story was also its talented author. Thank you to the author/ reader (who wishes to remain anonymous), for permission to link to your post, and for writing such an honest and moving story.

The Republican Party loses another voter

''After the terrorist attacks, I was so angry that I really didn't care to learn anything about Muslims. But I know now that refusing to learn is what causes more anger and confusion.'' -- Matthew Dale, 18, a freshmen at the University of North Carolina after a discussion of Approaching the Qur'an: The Early Revelations, a book a conservative Christian group asked the court to block.

No wonder they wanted to block the book. If it weren't for anger and confusion, who would vote Republican?

Thanks to Patrick Nielsen Hayden for pointing me in the direction of this insightful piece on religion and politics by Sam Coopersmith at Liberal Desert. It's a topic that's been gnawing at me for a long time, too -- the way politicians call themselves Christians (or, in a few cases, deeply religious Jews -- anyone come to mind, here?), wrap themselves up in a mantle of faith (with its presumption of virtue) and expect people to take their religious faith into consideration when they go into the voting booth, and yet somehow it's considered bad form, even bigoted, to criticize a politician because of those beliefs.

For me, the worst example of that was when, during the election, George Bush called Jesus his favorite philosopher. The press took the remark badly, but it seemed to me they did so for the wrong reason. The press on the whole is far less religious than most Americans, and they often act as if the only way you can keep church and state separate is if politicians have no religious beliefs at all, or at least have the good grace not to mention them in anything beyond the most ceremonial and trivial way.

I have no problem with Bush talking about Jesus' influence on his life. But once he raised the issue, he should have had to explain it. He should have had to explain how Jesus taught him to use his business connections to scam investors and to mock a woman on death row who asked for clemency. If Jesus is so important to him, he ought to have to explain what Jesus would have to say about a follower who seems so anxious to play at war and does not show any interest in the victims left in the wake of that war.

And if he can't give convincing answers, the rest of us ought to feel perfectly free to say, sorry, but that isn't any kind of Christianity I recognize.

When President Bush decided last week to block 5.1 billion dollars in spending approved by Congress, it got a lot of negative press, mainly because several of the things being cut were politically popular. Cutting money for firefighters and ground zero rescue personnel, veterans' medical care, and domestic security doesn't seem like the smartest political move ever made.

When a president makes mistakes on that level, it's easy to miss smaller, or at least less politically deadly mistakes. So another cut didn't get a lot of notice: 134 million dollars for Afghan humanitarian aide, including 2.5 million dollars for the Ministry of Women's Affairs, which planned to use the money to build women's centers focusing on health, education, and vocational programs.

It doesn't seem like that long ago that Laura Bush was on the radio telling us that "The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women. " I guess at some point, when we weren't paying attention (and how often do we pay attention to the needs of poor women?) that stopped being true.

Two organizations -- Women's Edge and CARE -- are organizing a call-in campaign to the White House urging the release of the aide money. I'll make my obligatory call, mainly because I'd feel guilty if I didn't (hey, what good is Catholic school if it doesn't make you feel guilty the rest of your life when you don't do the right thing?)

But I don't feel very hopeful about this. If this president considers fire fighters and veterans expendable, what chance do Afghan women have?

A few years ago, Maureen Dowd won a Pultizer Prize for commentary for op-ed pieces on the Lewinsky affair that had no purpose except as a vehicle for Dowd to display her cynical and nasty cleverness. The Pulitzer Prize Committee could redeem itself after that moment of insanity by recognizing the remarkable achievement of Paul Krugman, whose stunning prose, willingness to say what no other mainstream voice has the courage to say, and ability to make complex issues comprehensible without sacrificing their complexity has been a godsend in recent months.

Krugman is especially good today, discussing the fake populism of George Bush. Don't miss it.

Conservatives are mad at the NEA. I suppose thatÕs somewhat redundant, isnÕt it? Conservatives come into the world angry and spend the rest of their lives hunting for places to pin that anger. For some reason, teachers always make a handy target.

The anger, in this case, is fairly specific.

September 11th will arrive not long after the school year begins. Two or three weeks with a new group of kids -- kids teachers have barely gotten to know -- and they are going to have to face a horrible anniversary with those children.

Welcome to school, boys and girls. We're going to have a wonderful year. Now let's talk about death. Let's try to make sense of evil.

Teachers are free to ignore the anniversary, of course. They can pretend that children donÕt watch television after they go home from school and that they donÕt notice the odd looks on their parentsÕ faces all day.

(I was ten years old when John Kennedy was shot, and my most vivid memory of that day is the way, when you asked a grown up a question, they just stared at you, and stared, and stared, and staredÉas if language itself had died.)

You can try to ignore it -- if you are an absolutely worthless teacher. People without children and people who are too important and too busy for their children (you know, the "family values" crowd) believe the schools are full of such teachers. I have two kids in school, and IÕve seen very few worthless teachers.

(One thing I have learned over the years: the less time people spend in schools, the more they think they know about them. Those of us who work and volunteer in classrooms are far less certain than people who haven't been in a classroom in decades.)

September 11th is an anniversary teachers are dreading and wondering how to deal with far more than the rest of us -- and the topic wasnÕt covered in education classes. Somehow Piaget and Dewey didnÕt foresee Osama bin Laden.

So the National Education Association decided to help those teachers out with suggestions for how to recognize the anniversary, depending on the age of the students.

Conservatives read about this in their conservative paper, The Washington Times, which told them that the lesson plans would encourage teachers to "discuss historical instances of American intolerance," so that the American public avoids "repeating terrible mistakes."

What seems to have angered The Washington Times so much is a potential lesson on Tolerance in Times of Trial, which asks students to consider the ways legitimate anger at a countryÕs actions more than fifty years ago sometimes translated into a racist hatred of Americans who had originally come from that country. It asks students to understand both the anger (write a letter from the point of view of a "parent or spouse of a U.S. soldier killed by German or Japanese soldiers during World War II") and the innocent and misplaced victim of that anger ( write a letter from the point of view of a "recent German or Japanese immigrant, living in the U.S. during World War II" ). That history has some pretty obvious resonance in our time. And looking at the reaction of Americans more than a half century ago and comparing it to the response of Americans this year says something very good about this country, something that ought to incite more genuine patriotism than all the flag factories combined: we havenÕt made the same mistake. And as IÕve said before, a good deal of the credit for that goes to someone conservatives claim to admire.

And yet somehow conservatives, hearing that American children might be asked to take seriously the presidentÕs plea to distinguish between evil people and good people who share their religion or ethnic background, came to the conclusion that asking children to understand racism and intolerance would teach them that "America is racist, sexist, and imperialist" and would drive from their innocent minds the knowledge that America is "a place where the FDNY and the NYPD selflessly put themselves in harms way to save the men and women trapped in the World Trade Center."

Conservatives apparently believe that intolerance keeps the patriotic fires burning.

Or maybe they simply believe that American children are so small-minded and small-hearted that they cannot simultaneously care about more than one group of people at a time.

LetÕs give them the benefit of the doubt, and assume simple ignorance. They overlooked the lessons on patriotism and heroism. Certainly they overlooked the part of the lesson plan entitled Remembering the Uniformed Heroes at the World Trade Center, which asks students to choose one hero to write about, so that they can truly understand the enormous loss of each individual human being and celebrate their heroism. The lesson reminds students that when the history books are written, they will probably only list numbers of casualties. It reminds them that those numbers (like all the numbers they learn in their history books) represent human beings.

ThatÕs something liberals do -- we look past numbers at human beings. We care about individual human lives. IÕm sorry if that offends conservatives. IÕm sorry if they find that politically incorrect. ItÕs a little peculiarity of ours -- we care more about people than symbols, numbers and abstractions.

That isnÕt the only thing the lesson will ask of students, of course. It asks them to think about what it means to be a hero and what is an appropriate way to deal with our grief and memorialize those who died. Those seem to me questions that we are all asking ourselves. They've been in our heads and our conversations for almost a year. I don't see any reason to exclude high school students from the conversation.

As a mother, IÕm deeply offended by conservatives carping about my kidsÕ teachers' attempts to do a very difficult job. I wish they would just put their anger to rest for one day. On that very difficult day, teachers all across this country are going to be accomplishing something better than anything most of us will do in our lifetimes. They will try to help children feel safer, stronger and more in control in a threatening and confusing world. I have very little respect for people who think they have accomplished something by making that job harder.

(Story via Atrios, Max, and especially Kevin Raybould, who's written the definitive comments on the topic.)

Monday, August 19, 2002

I have cousins in Tennessee who think Elvis will always be king, but Saint Elvis?

Talk about a change of heart. A year ago, David Corn wrote a piece in The Nation headlined Al, Don't Run, arguing that Gore was a horrible campaigner and an unbelievable populist, and that Democrats ought to do everything they could to discourage him from running. His latest piece is called All For Gore in '04. The reason for the change is not a re-evaluation of Gore's populist credentials, but a sense that only Gore can stop Joe Lieberman from running.

At this point, I'll take any Democrat, including Lieberman, over Bush. But I think David Corn's change of heart is interesting and may reflect an increasing willingness of people on the left to accept the good and not hold out for the perfect.

I hope so.

Just to start Monday with some good news

Freedom House reports that the number of freely elected governments in the world has continued to climb, reaching 121 of the world's 192 independent countries this year.

More good news about the growth of democracy around the world.

Sunday, August 18, 2002

On blogging as an art form and a writer's worst nightmare

I don't have a place for comments on this site for two reasons. One is ineptitude. I once wasted a couple of hours trying to add them and it just wouldn't work. My computer skills are minimal, to put it mildly, and I figured if it was going to be that much trouble, it wasn't meant to be.

But the truth is, if I were one hundred percent convinced I really wanted them, I probably would have kept playing with the HTML until I got it right. My incompetence just provided an excuse to do what my instincts were already telling me: don't give up control.

I'm a writer in part because I'm a control freak -- and writing is something you can control. (Unless you have a really bad editor -- and I'm the only writer I know who doesn't have a single bad editor story to tell.) I polish stories until they are as perfect as I can make them. I've had a few stories land on the page needing little revision (thank you, God), but in most cases, I do hundreds of drafts. Galleys are hell for me, because at the last moment I always see far more changes I'd still like to make than I know even the kindest editor will let me get away with.

Blogging is already a loss of control. It's fast and unpolished, closer to journal writing than traditional published writing -- and yet it's public. Unless you have an ego far larger than mine, an absolute conviction that every word you write is gold, you realize that you've just invited people in to look at the messy and sometimes incredibly dumb contents of your brain. I usually proof-read what I write a couple of times, but for someone who's used to spending months on stories, and even a few days doing last minute proof-reading before putting a story in the mail, that doesn't feel like much. I hit publish, and send posts out into the world (a small world, admittedly, but the world nonetheless), knowing there are uncaught typos, misused words, awkward phrasings, and spelling errors a sixth grader shouldn't have made. Worse, there are ideas that if I'd thought about them for a day or so would make me recoil at their shallowness or wrong-headedness. I've looked at several posts a few days after I've written them and thought, What in the world made me say that?

I feel obligated to leave the dumb ideas there as well as the reasonable ones. I'm not sure why. When I write what I realize is a hopeless story, I have no mixed feelings about throwing it in the trash. But somehow this is different.

Comments would take away even more control. I like getting e-mail from people about things I've written, but I'm not sure I want to open it up to the point that anyone can put anything they want on here. I feel about this site the way my daughter feels about her teddy bear -- this is mine, nobody can touch it.

Yet I sometimes find other people's comments fascinating. One of the best threads I've read recently began with Patrick Nielsen Hayden's comments on the debate over Spinsanity's attack on Media Whores Online. Patrick's initial remarks -- basically agreeing with Spinsanity -- were interesting, mainly because they differed from almost everyone else's, but they weren't detailed. At first, I agreed with all the defenders of MWO, although my own defense was pretty tepid, reflecting, I think, some rather mixed feelings about MWO.

Reading through the comments on Patrick's post, though, my mixed feelings started hardening into the anti-MWO camp. I won't get into the reasons I changed my mind. If you read through the thread and watch Patrick refine and develop his idea, I think he makes the case eloquently and convincingly. I have nothing to add.

What interests me right now, though, is not so much the idea itself as the way it came about -- developed and deepened by the give and take on the comments board.

I got interested in doing this blog in part because it's a kind of writing I don't know how to do. In fact, it's a kind of writing nobody knows how to do yet. Everyone is still sort of figuring out what works and what doesn't. Can you mix the personal and the political? How much and in what way? How creative can you get with links before it starts getting merely annoying? Are there any real rules and forms at all? (Probably not yet, but eventually there will be. What constituted a novel stayed a pretty open concept for awhile -- and those early is this a novel? novels are some of my favorites.)

I know how to write an essay, a story, a prose-poem, a sonnet and villanelle. I have no idea how to do what I'm doing at the moment, and if you love writing, that not knowing is exciting.

It's also exciting when you begin to see a form develop. A comments board, at its worst, is nothing but people cutting each other, but at its best, it's a kind of group essay that forces everyone to think and rethink until it comes to a meaningful end. In a really good personal essay, you usually see the writer's thoughts evolve. On a good comments board, you watch several people evolve, overlap, come together, and come apart. Sometimes it works so well -- as it does in the comments I mentioned -- that it's hard to believe it's organic. It looks choreographed.

I have a feeling this may be one of those posts that embarrasses me the day after I write it -- old comparative literature students have to find some strange way of using their useless skills at literary analysis -- but I find something really intriguing and potentially artistic in that.

UPDATE My iffy feelings about comments, however, just hardened into a definite no. I just got my first truly nasty (and semi-literate) e-mail. I'm afraid that sort of thing brings out the English teacher in me. Semi-literate bothers me at least as much as nasty (and anyway, I'm a firm believer that there's a connection between the two.) I'm not putting anything on my site unless I can red pencil the errors.

But I appreciate it when other people do it. I guess that's my own little piece of hypocrisy.