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

Monday, October 07, 2002

My Salon subscription will be expiring any day now, and I'm on-again off-again about renewing it. But today I'm on. Eric Boehlert has a terrific piece comparing Bush's tactics in pushing the tax cut last year to his tactics in pushing for war with Iraq this year. The techniques:

* Shifting rationales (What exactly was the tax cut supposed to accomplish? And what exactly is the purpose of this war?)

* Misinformation (Lies, to those of us with smaller vocabularies) (Did you hear the joke about the $1,600 dollar tax cut the average family was going to get? How about the one about the aluminum tubes on their way to Iraq?)

* Panaceas (I'd just call it snake oil, but what do I know?) (Buy my tax cut and all your economic problems will be solved. One bullet and Iraq will be a democratic paradise.)

* Fear (The economy is falling! The economy is falling! no wait, make that The Arabs are coming! The Arabs are coming!)

* Politics That one probably goes without saying, doesn't it?

In my blogburst letter (below), I said that our representatives need to start asking hard questions. If they can't think of any, Hesiod has a few suggestions.

This letter was written as a contribution to The Open Letters BlogBurst opposing war with Iraq. You will find many more writers concerned about the impending war by following the link. By publishing and linking these letters, we hope to encourage anyone opposed to war to write to newspapers and/or their representatives expressing their opinions. This is still a democracy. Your voice matters.

An open letter to Congresswoman Lois Capps, and Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein
I am very concerned about the rush to war with Iraq and I strongly oppose the resolution authorizing the president to wage that war.

I have been a Democrat all my life, but lately I have been wondering why. We have come to a moment in our history when the very essence of who we are as a country is at risk. Will we be a democracy or an empire? A country that believes in the rule of law and respects other nations' rights, or the toughest gunslinger on the planet? Will we wage war only after careful consideration by Congress, or on presidents' whims? At such a crucial time, and with so many urgent matters to deal with, the Democratic Party -- with the exception of a few brave dissenters like Dennis Kucinich and Robert Byrd -- has fallen silent.

That silence does not reflect the best history of our party. The first presidential candidate I campaigned for, before I was old enough to vote, was Robert Kennedy. If Robert Kennedy were still in the Senate today, he would not be silent. He would not stop asking questions until he got straight answers. That's the opposition party's job. Robert Kennedy is gone. You need to ask his tough and peace-loving questions.

You will be voting this week on a war powers resolution authorizing President Bush to attack Iraq. This is not a simple declaration of war. It gives the president the right to attack countries that have not attacked us and have not even threatened to do so. It gives the president the power to launch an attack without demonstrating that he has exhausted all other possibilities.

This is un-American. Tyrants overthrow regimes because they believe they should be overthrown, and they answer to no one. Presidents, in democracies, do not send a single citizen into battle until they have demonstrated the need to do so, and responded to citizens' questions. So far, all we have heard from this administration are intimations of secret evidence and demonization of anyone who questions them. That is not the way a democracy works.

Pre-emptive attack is also contrary to our moral code. The U.S. war on al Qaeda and other terrorist groups has received wide-spread support from American religious leaders because it is clearly a necessary and "just" war. There is no such support for an attack on Iraq. The World Council of Churches' central committee called on the United States "to desist from any military threats against Iraq" and urged U.S. allies "to resist pressure to join in preemptive military strikes against a sovereign state under the pretext of the 'war on terrorism.' " The public policy office of the 8.3 million-member United Methodist Church issued a statement opposing military action as "reckless." In a letter drafted by the 60-member administrative committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Rev. Wilton D. Gregory wrote, "Given the precedents and risks involved, we find it difficult to justify extending the war on terrorism to Iraq, absent clear and adequate evidence of Iraqi involvement in the attacks of September 11th or of an imminent attack of a grave nature." Religious leaders are not military experts, but as Gerard Powers, director of the office of international justice and peace at the Catholic bishops conference, noted, given the cost in lives we -- and innocent Iraqis -- face, legislators simply must "think through the moral dimension of using military force."

Not only is a policy of pre-emptive attack un-American and immoral, it is also dangerous. The president and vice-president have argued that we need to attack immediately, because the threat of Saddam Hussein's weapons will only increase with time. They have argued that the cost of inaction may be enormous.

The problem is, the cost of rash and unilateral action may be worse. We could leave Saddam with nothing to lose, and no reason for restraint in launching whatever weapons he has. Many military analysts fear that we will undercut our war on al Qaeda, both by diluting our efforts and by destroying our relationships with countries whose co-operation we need. Establishing the principal that any country can attack another if it feels threatened makes the world a more dangerous place.

Perhaps most threatening of all, we risk de-stabilizing the entire Middle East, which could lead to the downfall of already unpopular governments such as that of Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan. If the thought of a tyrant like Saddam possessing nuclear weapons is worrisome, the thought of such weapons in the hands of the kind of people who might replace Musharraf is terrifying.

In no way do I minimize the threat that Saddam Hussein poses. The truth is no one knows exactly what weapons Saddam possesses, nor how close he is to nuclear capacity. President Bush is right to be worried about that ignorance. The status quo is unacceptable. But he is wrong to believe that our fear of what we don't know gives us the right to attack and overthrow governments. There are alternatives to war. We need to work with the UN to eliminate the weapons Saddam possesses and destroy his capacity to build new ones, including a nuclear arsenal. We need to pressure the UN to make sure its inspections are complete, and that there are enforcement mechanisms in place if Iraq does not comply.

And above all, we need to keep asking tough and peace-preferring questions.

Sunday, October 06, 2002

The Slacktivist has evidence that Ashcroft is a four-letter word.

A NY Times editorial this morning makes the important point that if we care about democracy in the Middle East, the most effective strategy is not overthrowing tyrannical thugs and installing "democratic" governments (otherwise known as more compliant dictators), but looking for signs of liberalization that we can encourage and for instances where our condemnation and political and economic pressure can stop abuses and stimulate reform. Matthew Yglesias adds Iran to the list of places where the seeds of democracy need our support -- and I couldn't agree more.

Talk Left has several fascinating pieces today -- on the Portland suspects, the Seattle man charged with providing material support to al Qaeda, and on FBI surveillance of Muslim men -- all of which suggest that there is reason to be suspicious of trumpeted law enforcement "successes" in finding potential terrorists in the US. The people arrested have been hustlers. bumbling petty criminals, and wannabes, not dedicated and disciplined terrorists. That worries civil libertarians -- as it should -- because, as Jeralyn points out, "we are moving towards prosecuting beliefs and thoughts instead of actions." We don't prosecute thought crime, or even stupid statements, in America. We never used to, anyway.

Saturday, October 05, 2002

From Afghanistan to Iraq (continued from yesterday)
The most powerful argument for attacking Iraq now, and eliminating the threat of Saddam Hussein, is that the cost of inaction, or even hesitation, could be too great. It is difficult not to be cynical about that argument. If George Bush had evidence that there really was an immediate threat, surely he would offer more then fear-mongering rhetoric, and so far, that's all we've heard. And it is hard to trust people who demonize anyone who asks questions. The inevitable follow-up question is: what are they hiding? Moreover, the Bush administration's history of deception and exploitation of fear does not make anyone who has been paying attention inclined to take their word for anything.

Still, sometimes the boy cries wolf, and there really is a wolf. The moral of Aesop's fable, after all, is not that lying is bad, but that it is dangerous, because we may not believe the habitual liar when we ought to. As a former chief of the CIA's Near East division, who dismissed the threat and insisted Saddam could be deterred, told Josh Marshall, "If I'm wrong, I'm wrong bigtime."

The more I think about it, the more it seems to me that anyone who is absolutely sure of his opinion -- pro-war or anti-war -- is wrong. There are too many unknowns, and the consequences of being wrong are too great -- on both sides. And if that is the case, the only reasonable response is caution.

And the cautious approach is to drop the rash notion of regime change and focus on inspections and disarmament. No one knows how close Saddam Hussein is to being able to build a nuclear weapon, and that is an area of ignorance the world can't be comfortable with. But making sure the inspections are real, not show, requires us to work with the UN and make our case honestly, without bullying tactics or contemptuous dismissals of other points of view. Unfortunately, the Bush administration has shown no capacity to work that way. As has been the case so often with this administration, there is an important, maybe even urgent, job to be done, and their arrogance and deceit make it far less likely that it will be accomplished.

Dick Cheney argued that if we don't know, we need to attack and eliminate any risk, because the threat will only increase over time. It's a seductive argument -- fear is a great seducer -- but it pretends that there are no risks involved in action. The families of soldiers sent to Iraq will tell you that there are some very real risks, and Iraqi citizens will echo that argument. We risk, as well, leaving Saddam with nothing to lose, and no reason for restraint in launching whatever weapons he has -- most likely at Israel. We risk undercutting our war on al-Qaeda, both by diluting our efforts and by destroying our relationships with countries whose co-operation we need. We risk establishing the principal that any country can attack another if it feels threatened. Give the vice-president his due: leaving Saddam Hussein in power is a risk. But attacking him could easily prove an even greater risk.

And I haven't yet mentioned the biggest risks of all. By attacking Iraq -- especially if we arrogantly go it alone -- we'll feed the fires of anti-American sentiment in the Middle East, and increase the likelihood of governments in the region collapsing and being replaced by religious fanatics. Conservatives often brush aside that argument by noting that the governments of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Pakistan are not worthy of our support anyway -- and I don't know anyone who would disagree. But if the thought of a tyrant like Saddam possessing nuclear weapons is worrisome, the thought of such weapons in the hands of the kind of people who might replace Musharraf is terrifying. Better a weapon in the hands of an evil man afraid of dying than in the hands of a zealot with his eye on Paradise.

And there are still more dangers. As James Fallows recently discussed in The Atlantic, a post-Saddam Iraq would be so chaotic it would make Afghanistan look easily governable in comparison. The US would have to make Iraq virtually, in Fallows' words, "the fifty-first state." We could not allow Iraq, with its arsenal, to become the kind of failed state that made Afghanistan a home for the Taliban and al-Qaeda. But keeping it from doing so would require international support and a commitment to nation-building that dwarfs anything in our history, including the occupation of Japan.

That's a commitment that ought to give us pause and force some serious thinking, no matter who is president. But in Afghanistan, Bush demonstrated that he does not consider the commitment to re-building a part of his war strategy. If Karzai's government fails and Afghanistan falls back into anarchy, we face a threatening situation, but it is nothing compared to the situation we would face if Bush were to abandon Iraq after an invasion the way he has abandoned Afghanistan.

I see two ways of dealing with the problem of Iraqi weapons, and I'm not optimistic about either one. Focusing on inspections and disarmament (which I support) requires a president with a commitment to international law, to building consensus, to carefully, reasonably, and honestly making his case. We do not have that kind of president. We have the kind who says, we want your support, and if we don't get it, the hell with you, we'll do what we want.

The second course of action -- attack Iraq, take out Saddam, and install a new government -- seems to me not only immoral and contrary to the spirit of everything this country has ever stood for, but a far more dangerous option to boot. But beyond that, it would have no possibility of "succeeding," as Fallows' article demonstrates, without international co-operation and a commitment to nation-building -- two things that Bush has shown nothing but contempt for.

In essence, neither action -- the reasonable nor the outrageous -- can accomplish anything unless Congress finds its conscience, its courage, and its voice and reins in George Bush. Giving him the powers he is asking for only feeds the idea that he doesn't need to explain or justify his actions, the he has no need for compromise. It tells him that he is a law unto himself, and that is the last thing we should be telling George Bush. His arrogance, disregard for the Constitution, and contempt for international law are putting us all at risk. And it has to stop.

I'm still working on the second part of the piece on Iraq and Afghanistan that I posted yesterday. It should be up this afternoon (evening if you're way over on the right coast). In the meantime:

* Read Senator Byrd's speech opposing the resolution authorizing the President to use whatever force he deems necessary in Iraq or elsewhere.

* Write your letter for the Open Letters BlogBurst

* Write a check to Bill McBride. Think how good you are going to feel on election day when Jeb Bush loses.

Friday, October 04, 2002

From Afghanistan to Iraq
On the day the bombing of Afghanistan began, I told my husband that George Bush would turn out to be a better president than we could have hoped for. That was an odd statement because up until that moment I'd been unimpressed by any of his actions (not to mention scared to death by his first day's performance, and scared again by how few people were willing to admit that his unsteady demeanor disturbed them.) His highly praised National Cathedral speech would have been good, if it had not contained the threat of our wrath. Maybe it was my prissy Catholic schoolgirl sense of propriety or maybe something deeper, but I was horrified by the vow "to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil" issued in a cathedral. You do not plan for war under the gaze of the prince of peace. To do so seemed to me thoughtless at best, bordering on blasphemy. His similarly praised address to Congress was full of mindless platitudes unworthy of a mature man, let alone a president.

And then the bombing began, and with the bombs yellow food packets rained, and when I read about it in the morning paper, I said out loud, "Oh my God, he gets it." George Bush, to my shock and delight, seemed to understand that he needed to both smash and build, that one could not succeed without the other.

I remember reading polls at the time indicating that ninety-some percent of Americans supported the war, and I thought that if a pollster asked me, I'd count myself in with that enormous majority, even though I was fairly certain that the war I thought essential was not the same war the majority of Americans backed, and probably not the same war George Bush intended to fight.

Talking to friends and neighbors, chatting with other parents in front of school as we waited for children to exit, even in the mommy gatherings at the edges of little girls' pink and yellow birthday parties, all I heard was a need for vengeance -- get them, kill them, show them they can't hurt us and get away with it -- that left me feeling sad and lonely, because I don't believe in vengeance, and could not say so.

I assumed that even though Bush was willing to exploit that sentiment (and, in fact, clearly shared it), he, or at least his advisors, understood that the real need was not setting an example, but destroying the means of attack: smashing training camps, seizing plans, killing or capturing leaders (or putting them on the run -- I'd be perfectly comfortable with Rumsfeld's assertion that if they're running, they're not planning, except that I'm not sure that, having apparently settled into Pakistan, they really are running any more, and I'm not convinced we Americans have a long enough attention span to keep them running.) And that was -- and remains -- a war I'm more than willing to support.

But while I was confident in Bush and Company's ability to run a war, I had less confidence in their ability to create and nurture the conditions for peace. And if they didn't accomplish both those tasks, any success they had in one area wouldn't amount to much.

The little yellow food packets were a symbol to me -- for a short time at least -- that there was a good chance that Bush understood the enormous human needs in Afghanistan, and recognized that meeting those needs was at least half the war effort. It was a token, of course -- but a good one. I took it as a promise that food, doctors, and medical supplies would be coming as soon as possible. And this time we wouldn't abandon the Afghans, because this time we understood how intimately our interests were mingled with theirs.

That afternoon I discovered I was wrong. When I went to pick up my daughter at school, everyone was talking about the food. Not the bombing, the food. What a wonderful gesture. They have to love us for doing something like that. Americans are the most generous people in the world. I remember trying to say, "Well, sort of, I mean, it's just a beginning, of courseÉ" and then realizing that no one heard me, because it wasn't a beginning. Everyone I talked to believed that the job was done, those little packets were all that was needed.

The essence of democracy -- whatever most people believe is true. Or all that counts anyway. George Bush obviously understood something about the American psyche that had whizzed right past my Catholic schoolgirl innocence: people in Afghanistan did not matter; what mattered was being able to tell ourselves that we are loved -- even by people we are bombing.

When Doctors Without Borders asked the administration to stop dropping the food because they were putting people's lives at risk, and making humanitarian workers' jobs harder in the long run, Bush didn't respond, and they kept dropping the food. What concerned DWB -- helping suffering people -- was irrelevant, and the issues they raised were not even worth responding to.

And if there was an implied promise to the people of Afghanistan in those packets, it has long since been broken.

The cynicism Bush displayed in manipulating humanitarian concerns (along with a similar cynicism in the exploitation of a genuine concern for women's basic human rights) and the failure to follow through in stabilizing the government of Afghanistan, continued to trouble me as I tried to decide whether or not to support war with Iraq.

And not just the cynicism. Competence is an issue as well. My initial doubts about their ability to build proved well-founded. And it turned out they weren't even all that good in the area I assumed they'd excel at -- waging war. In June, the CIA and FBI suggested that the war may have increased the threat of terrorism by scattering attackers across a wider geographical area. They were better at smashing than building, but not good enough at either.

I continue to support a war on al-Qaeda, but I have very little faith in Bush's ability to wage it. In the long run, his cynicism, his deceit, his unquestioning faith in raw power, his sense that the U.S. is above the law, his refusal to listen to or co-operate with other countries, all make things worse instead of better.

And all of that is rumbling around in the back of my head whenever I think about Iraq. (To be continued)

Thursday, October 03, 2002

I'm not sure how Dwight Meredith manages to be so good day after day after day, but today he makes the case for disarmament, not regime change -- and makes it well. It's a must-read for anyone still trying to decide, or not settled comfortably in a decision.

Skippy on the cost of war (in dollars) and with a reminder that time is running out.

Further thoughts on Clinton's speech

There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein's regime poses a threat to his people, his neighbours and the world at large because of his biological and chemical weapons and his nuclear programme.

Of course there's doubt. Plenty of it. The evidence that's been offered so far is not convincing. There's also, however, a real possibility that the threat exists. The need to find out is real; the need to destroy hasn't been established yet.

In December of 1998 after the inspectors were kicked outÉ

You know better than that, Mr. Clinton.

I agree with many Republicans and Democrats in America and many here in Britain who want to go through the United Nations to bring the weight of world opinion together, to bring us all together, to offer one more chance to the inspections.

I'm with you on that one, although I'm not certain we've got the same reasons for wanting the UN involved. I think going through international channels re-establishes the principal that there isn't one law for the powerful and another for the powerless. In and of itself, that's a good thing. Having to go through the UN also slows Bush down, and that's also a good thing. Anything that forces him to articulate and justify his actions increases the possibility that sanity will prevail.

The United Nations should scrap the 1998 restrictions and call for a complete and unrestricted set of inspections with a new resolution.

I'm not sure. The question is, what's more important -- time or perfect conditions. I can see both sides on that one.

The prospect of a resolution actually offers us the chance to integrate the world, to make the United Nations a more meaningful, more powerful, more effective institution.

I have no idea what you mean by "integrate the world," but put me down for the more powerful and effective UN.

... today Saddam Hussein has all the incentive in the world not to use or give these weapons away but with certain defeat he would have all the incentive to do just that.

That's the fundamental argument for continuing to rely on deterrence.

Weighing the risks and making the calls are what we elect leaders to do, and I can tell you that as an American, and a citizen of the world, I am glad that Tony Blair will be central to weighing the risks and making the call.

If he'd only stop making promises of "evidence" that he can't deliverÉ

Now, let me just say a couple of other things. This is a delicate matter but I think this whole Iraq issue is made more difficult for some of you because of the differences you have with the Conservatives in America over other matters, over the criminal court and the Kyoto treaty and the comprehensive test ban treaty. I don't agree with that either, plus I disagree with them on nearly everything, on budget policy, tax policy, on education policy. On education policy, on environmental policy, on health care policy. I have a world of disagreements with them. But, we cannot lose sight of the bigger issue.

So, I'm supposed to overlook the fact that over and over they've demonstrated that they care about nothing but raw power, and assume that a belief that no rules should apply to the United States will have no bearing on a war with Iraq? Don't you think previous conduct might be somewhat relevant?

An excerpt from Bill Clinton's speech on Iraq:

There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein's regime poses a threat to his people, his neighbours and the world at large because of his biological and chemical weapons and his nuclear programme. They admitted to vast stores of biological and chemical stocks in 1995. In 1998, as the prime minister's speech a few days ago made clear,. even more were documented. But I think it is also important to remember that Britain and the United States made real progress with our international allies through the UN with the inspection programme in the 1990s. The inspectors discovered and destroyed far more weapons of mass destruction and constituent parts with the inspection programme than were destroyed in the Gulf War, far more, including 40,000 chemical weapons, 100,000 gallons of chemicals used to make weapons, 48 missiles, 30 armed warheads and a massive biological weapons facility equipped to produce anthrax and other bio-weapons. In other words the inspections were working even when he was trying to thwart them.

In December of 1998 after the inspectors were kicked out along with the support of Prime Minister Blair and the British military we launched Operation Desert Fox for four days. An air assault on those weapons of mass destruction, the air defence and regime protection forces. This campaign had scores of targets and successfully degraded both the conventional and non-conventional arsenal. It diminished Iraq's threat to the region and it demonstrated the price to be paid for violating the security council's resolutions. It was the right thing to do, and it is one reason why I still believe we had to stay at this business until we get all those biological and chemical weapons out of there.

What has happened in the last four years? No inspectors, a fresh opportunity to rebuild the biological and chemical weapons programme and to try and develop some sort of nuclear capacity. Because of the sanctions Saddam Hussein is much weaker militarily than he was in 1990, while we are stronger, but that probably has given him even more incentive to try and amass weapons of mass destruction. I agree with many Republicans and Democrats in America and many here in Britain who want to go through the United Nations to bring the weight of world opinion together, to bring us all together, too offer one more chance to the inspections.

President Bush and Secretary Powell say they want a UN resolution too and are willing to give the inspectors another chance. Saddam Hussein, as usual, is bobbing and weaving. We should call his bluff. The United Nations should scrap the 1998 restrictions and call for a complete and unrestricted set of inspections with a new resolution. If the inspections go forward, and I hope they will, perhaps we can avoid a conflict. In any case the world ought to show up and say we meant it in 1991 when we said this man should not have a biological, chemical and nuclear weapons programme. And we can do that through the UN. The prospect of a resolution actually offers us the chance to integrate the world, to make the United Nations a more meaningful, more powerful, more effective institution. And that's why I appreciate what the prime minister is trying to do, in trying to bring America and the rest of the world to a common position. If he was not there to do this I doubt if anyone else could, so I am very very grateful.

If the inspections go forward I believe we should still work for a regime change in Iraq in non-military ways, through support of the Iraqi opposition and in trying to strengthen it. Iraq has not always been a tyrannical dictatorship. Saddam Hussein was once a part of a government which came to power through more legitimate means.

The west has a lot to answer for in Iraq. Before the Gulf War when Saddam Hussein gassed the Kurds and the Iranians there was hardly a peep in the west because he was in Iran. Evidence has now come to light that in the early 1980s the United States may have even supplied him with the materials necessary to start the bio-weapons programme. And in the Gulf War the Shi'ites in the south-east of Iraq were urged to rise up and then were cruelly abandoned to their fate as he came in and killed large numbers of them, drained the marshes and largely destroyed their culture and way of life. We cannot walk away from them or the proved evidence that they are capable of self-government and entitled to a decent life. We do not necessarily have to go to war to give it to them, but we cannot forget that we are not blameless in the misery under which they suffer and we must continue to support them.

This is a difficult issue. Military action should always be a last resort, for three reasons; because today Saddam Hussein has all the incentive in the world not to use or give these weapons away but with certain defeat he would have all the incentive to do just that. Because a pre-emptive action today, however well justified, may come back with unwelcome consequences in the future. And because I have done this, I have ordered these kinds of actions. I do not care how precise your bombs and your weapons are, when you set them off innocent people will die.

Weighing the risks and making the calls are what we elect leaders to do, and I can tell you that as an American, and a citizen of the world, I am glad that Tony Blair will be central to weighing the risks and making the call. For the moment the rest of us should support his efforts in the United Nations and until they fail we do not have to cross bridges we would prefer not to cross.

Now, let me just say a couple of other things. This is a delicate matter but I think this whole Iraq issue is made more difficult for some of you because of the differences you have with the Conservatives in America over other matters, over the criminal court and the Kyoto treaty and the comprehensive test ban treaty. I don't agree with that either, plus I disagree with them on nearly everything, on budget policy, tax policy, on education policy. On education policy, on environmental policy, on health care policy. I have a world of disagreements with them. But, we cannot lose sight of the bigger issue. To build the world we want America will have to be involved and the best likelihood comes when America and Britain, when America and Europe are working together.

I don't necessarily agree with everything Bill Clinton had to say (I don't necessarily disagree either -- I'm still thinking about it), but I posted this section, which represents most of his thoughts on Iraq, because I thought it included a great deal of interest. Clinton's support for the U.S. insistence on dropping the UN's 1998 restrictions and pushing for a new resolution, while simultaneously insisting on the need to go through international channels, and recognizing the danger of pre-emptive action is so much more reasonable and moderate than anything you'll hear from the current administration, that it sounds glorious in comparison. One of the most worrisome aspects of the threatened war is that Bush refuses to make the case. Clinton would have done so, but Bush believes that the most powerful country in the world doesn't owe anyone a reason or an explanation. That's not leadership, that's bullying.

I'm also pleased that Clinton mentioned America's ignoble past involvement with Iraq. I'm sure conservatives will jump on it -- how dare he criticize his country? But I think it helps clear the air when an American politician -- even one whose career has moved into the past tense -- acknowledges our role in this mess. I have an deep-seated Catholic faith in the importance of confession. You can't solve a problem until you've acknowledged your part in creating it.

Worth reading:
The Christian Science Monitor reports on the war dissenters in Congress.

The BBC on where other countries stand on Iraq

Bush's Iraq Stance Hints at a Bid to Settle Old Score

The C.I.A. refuses to provide Congress with a report on its role in an American campaign against Iraq. Congressional leaders accused the administration of not providing the information out of fear of revealing divisions among the State Department, C.I.A., Pentagon and other agencies over the Bush administration's Iraq strategy.

The Vatican renewed its opposition to war in Iraq yesterday.

Why Nelson Mandela is angry

Gershom Gorenberg argues that Bush's rush to war could create dangers for Israel.

Bill Clinton's speech to the British Labour Party conference in Blackpool.

Jay Bookman on the lure of empire.

The rush to war is an old joke.

Wednesday, October 02, 2002

Jeff Cooper has an eloquent piece on patriotism and dissent.

Things are getting too serious. Mad Kane goes back to the '60s for a little inspiration: Don't think twice, let's just fight.

A word from the wise (and experienced)
In a message dated Wed, 2 Oct 2002 6:53:08 PM Eastern Standard Time, LiberalOasis writes:

I was just reading about your hesitancy to pen your own letter as part of the blogburst. Having spent a little time in Congress sifting through constituent letters, here's a suggestion to make it less stressful. The Hill staffers don't pick through the nuances of each letter, especially when they get so many on a particular issue. For the most part, the letters just get put into two piles, pro and con. The staff will tally it up, so their boss which know generally how his/her constituents are feeling. And then the appropriate form letters (there will likely be a letter for the pros and on for the cons) will be sent to the constituents. So all you really need to do is write one or two sentences telling the congressperson what you want him/her to do. I wouldn't worry about the why.


Good point. I wouldn't my struggling over the issue to make anyone hesitant to write a letter under the illusion that it has to be perfectly argued in deathless prose to be convincing. I may yet end up at Stop The Rush To War In Iraq as I try to figure out what to actually send my congresswoman. I want to make sense of things for myself, and the "need" to write a letter pushes me to do that. But even if I don't arrive at a conclusion I'm entirely comfortable with (or language I'm particularly pleased with), I'll still send the letter. Better a form letter than no letter.

Some things that concern me about the threat of war with Iraq (a constantly growing list)

* I can't figure out what the goal is, and, more than that, I don't think I'm supposed to be able to figure it out. I think the ambiguity is part of the point. The stated goal and rationale: Saddam has weapons of mass destruction and will soon acquire nuclear weapons, which he could either give to al-Qaeda or use to threaten American allies and dominate the Middle East. Put aside the fact that Tony Blair presented a dossier of evidence trying to prove that and defense experts were somewhat less than impressed, and the suspicions that if Saddam were an immediate threat to his neighbors, his neighbors would probably be the first to recognize that fact. I'm still left wondering why, if your goal is to find and eliminate weapons, and insure against the possibility of building them in the future -- reasonable, even urgent, goals -- you would go out of your way to undercut everyone who is working toward that goal, and more than that, make it very clear that you're not the least bit interested in "just" finding and eliminating weapons. The whole situation looks less like a problem with no solution but war, than it does like a planned war desperately afraid of having its rationale pulled out from under it.

* If Saddam "could" get nuclear weapons in the future, where would the materials come from? What unguarded source or nasty salesman? And why don't we seem to be the least bit concerned with plugging those holes?

* Of course there's always what I have come to think of as the Martha and the Vandellas argument: Iraqis will throw off their chains and start dancing in the streets. Saddam is a threat to his own people, and we will do them an enormous favor by getting rid of him and creating a democracy. If I can forget for a moment that I'm old enough to remember Vietnam and get the willies when people start talking about installing democracies, that's an argument I actually have some sympathy with. Maybe I'm the quintessential na•ve American (forget the maybe, there's no doubt about it) but I don't completely write off the reverse domino theory -- the notion that democracy in the Middle East could spread. I think genuine democracy is a compelling idea, and if there were a real possibility of Saddam being replaced by a democratic leader, I might find the idea seductive. And, to be honest, IÕm as offended by liberals who blithely say "Well, there are lots of bad leaders in the world, and we can't get rid of all of them," as I am by conservatives who say, "There will always be civilian casualties, and nothing can be done about it." (There's a horrible truth in both those statements, but something cracks in your soul when you can dismiss suffering and death so casually). But there is no possibility of replacing Saddam with a democrat. No one is making plans for it. No one cares about it. No one seems to have the slightest interest in the idea, except as a secondary reason for war.

*If we want to nurture the conditions for creating a democracy in the Muslim world, we might want to start with Afghanistan instead of abandoning Afghanistan.

* By the way, what ever happened to that tall guy with the scraggly beard whose name George Bush seems to have forgotten? Because he scared the hell out of me, and still does, and I wonder what he's going to be up to while we're off fighting a new war.

* I have lived nearly half a century in a democracy. I'd like to continue to do so. I'd like my children to do so. that means a country where the president consults with congress and congress is not afraid to ask questions.

* Oil. War and oil are not a trustworthy mix.

* I went to Berkeley in the '70s, and used to laugh at people who said America (excuse me, Amerikkka) was an imperialist country. I want to continue to be able to laugh at those people.

* When George Bush says he has the right to attack a country because he knows what it will do in the future, I want to yell, "You're not God!"

* If Saddam has nothing to lose, what is going to stop him from launching whatever he's got at Israel? What will stop Israel from retaliating? (I'm not even going to think past that pointÉ)

* I don't want to undercut the UN. I want the still shaky idea that there are rules of conduct that apply to everyone to grow, not shrink. This administration has done everything in its power to assert the notion that rules are for the powerless, the powerful make their own rules. This war feels like the culmination of that philosophy. When we rejected the Kyoto Protocol, fought the International Criminal Court, opposed the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, I could still say, calmly, "This decision is damaging on many levels." At this point the contempt for international law has gone so far that I want to yell, "Enough already. Stop."

* When I think of all the people I've ever met who are absolutely certain of their beliefs and who dismiss anyone who disagrees with them as either stupid or evil, I find their opinions less trustworthy than those of people who question and ponder and listen. I don't trust blind and unquestioning faith.

* They lie. Is anyone but me old enough to remember the words "credibility gap?"

I was typing up some notes I scribbled this morning about things that concerned me about war with Iraq, went to the New York Times to double check a fact, and discovered that things are moving a lot faster than my ability to keep up with them. I've only skimmed the article, but doesn't the word "deal" usually suggest that both sides give a little? I'm hoping when I read the article more carefully that there will be some small sign of compromise in the Bush administration's position. But a quick reading doesn't leave much room for hope.

Tuesday, October 01, 2002

Briefly, and without comment, I just want to call attention to a thoughtful, layered piece by Ampersand on right-wing anti-Semitism, left-wing anti-Semitism, and the importance of not letting the real meaning of the word be gobbled up by partisans on either side. I'm certain it will be the most sensible and intelligent thing you read in any weblog today.

I think this flash video sums up a lot of my unease about the threat of war, and the reason I don't really feel like trying to make sense of the "issues." I am not by nature a cynical or mistrustful person, and yet it is impossible to avoid the bone-weary feeling that the whole point of the war itself is to make us all forget the real issues, to make us too afraid to think and act.

The power of prayer
"Those of us in Sacramento have been seeing images five or six times a day of people fasting, praying, sitting around the Capitol. I think it's been effective. It has kept his toes to the fire." -- Barbara O'Connor, Institute for the Study of Politics and Media

I was going to try to write exclusively about Iraq this week, but I just can't skip over news this good. Gray Davis has signed the bill to give farmworkers the right to mandatory mediation -- a tool they desperately needed to get around growers' stalling techniques. Since 1975, farmworkers have voted for UFW representation at 428 companies, but only 158 have signed contracts. Under the new rules, a mediator will be able to propose the terms of a binding contract if the two sides can't agree after 30 days of mediation.

I was always going to vote for Davis -- there was no alternative. But doing so just got a lot easier.

Like a growing number of people, I've committed myself to writing a letter next Monday as part of the Open Letters BlogBurst, in which bloggers (or anyone else who wants to join in) write letters to the editor, or to their representatives in congress, opposing war with Iraq, and also post those letters on their blogs. (If you don't have a blog, but still want to participate, Ampersand will provide space for your letter.)

I hesitated a day before agreeing to participate, not because I disagree in any way with the purpose, but because -- well, I'm not that kind of writer. I poke at ideas and prod them and turn them upside down. A simple statement of "this is what I think" comes hard to me.

Of course I could always turn to a site like Stop The Rush To War, which will practically write the letter for you after you click a few buttons. But I have a bizarre, old-fashioned prejudice in favor of choosing my own words and stumbling over my own ideas -- and so, thanks kindly, but no.

I haven't written anything about Iraq, at least not directly. I think the reason I haven't done so -- even though I have strong concerns about it -- is that taking part in that debate seems to require me to line up all my reasons for opposing the war and be ready with rebuttals of anyone else's argument. The job needs a good lawyer, no poets or mommies need apply. That's certainly the tone of the "debate" (such as it is):

Hey, I can take down your "Iraqi agent in Prague" nonsense without breaking into a sweat.

Your Brent Scowcroft op-ed doesn't stand a chance against my Dick Cheney speech.

Take that, Scott Ridder.

(It's like fifth grade: When the boys start slinging rocks, I run for cover -- noticing that there are a lot of girls over here with me on the sidelines, and wondering if they, too, are uncomfortable with this game.)

That's the nature of debate, I suppose. My evidence against your evidence. My ad hominem beats your post hoc. And yet somehow, at the moment, all that flying, banging, whizzing evidence (and lack of it) feels oddly irrelevant.

A few weeks ago, Ted Barlow did an intriguing chart, comparing a potential Iraqi war with the war in Vietnam. It was well done. And if you're trying to work your way through the issues, it's a useful place to begin. But what I liked most about Ted's chart was its honesty and modesty (both qualities being in short supply on the Web). Honesty, because he was clearly taking reasons for supporting a war and reasons for opposing them seriously, not swatting any of them away. Modesty, because he didn't rank the reasons, but set the undeniably and universally important ("A nuclear-armed Saddam is a serious threat to the US and allies.") next to the personal ("My brother in the army could be called to fight in Iraq.")

I trust a person who recognizes and is willing to admit that "my brother is in the army" is as valid a factor in a decision as "Saddam Hussein could obtain nuclear weapons," and doesn't apologize for that.

I have an 18-year-old son. When I was his age, questions about the Vietnam War had passed from "should you support it" to "nobody is in favor of this stupid war, but how the hell do we get out?" And yet young men continued to go, including a good chunk of the boys I graduated from high school with. Nobody believed in it. Maybe in 1964 boys went off with dreams of fighting for their country, I don't know. But in 1971, I didn't know any boys who went off to save us all from the Communists. The went because they had no better offers, because there was college money waiting for them at the end, and because they were immortal and there were never going to be any costs to pay.

I'm not young enough anymore to believe there are no costs, although strangely, George Bush -- who is several years older than I am -- seems to be.

Today I know no one who is likely to die in an Iraqi war. Unless the need for troops grows beyond anything I can imagine, my son isn't likely to be drafted. But as a mother now, I know the fragility and irreplaceable value of eighteen-year-old boys. All of them -- not just my son. And ironically now, more than in 1971, my reaction to the threat of war is, "You'd better have a damn good reason to risk even one of their lives." An eighteen-year-old boy's life is more precious to me than it was when I was eighteen. The first time I read about the death of a teenage boy in Iraq, I'm going to realize it could have been my son. I'm going to take it personally.

Is it obvious yet why I haven't written anything about Iraq?

I could make you a nice, neat list of reasons to support the war and reasons to oppose it, with evidence supporting and rebutting each of those reasons, along with URLs, so you could follow up the arguments yourself. Inspired by Ted's chart, I tried for quite a while to keep a chart of my own, taking note of each new "reason" introduced into the mix, until I finally realized that as important as it was to evaluate how great and how immediate a threat Saddam Hussein is, it really didn't touch on my own concerns about the war.

I'm confused -- if that's not already obvious. Not about whether or not to oppose the war. I admit I was confused about that for awhile, or at least more than willing to be persuaded to support it, but at some point hesitation slipped over into opposition. And the truth is I can't put my finger on exactly when or how or why that happened. And I assume that before I write a nice, neat, organized, perfectly spelled letter to my congresswoman, I need to figure out why I am so worried about this war and be able to put it into words.

Yesterday, I decided that I would spend this week writing about Iraq, expressing the nagging little doubts as much as the places I feel certain of what I believe, contradicting myself again and again -- thinking out loud at the computer, working through chaos and confusion, and hoping to arrive, eventually, at a place where I can make some solid statements that I honestly believe.

The problem with debates is that they are in the control of people who are very sure. And sometimes I suspect the people who are unsure, the people who are debating things inside their own heads, are actually closer to the truth and to what's important than the people who are absolutely sure of their opinions.

Writing about confusion and doubt is hard, and I'm tempted to hit delete, and go on to another, easier topic. But it is something I have to figure out. And I've generally found that if you write through confusion, there's some sense, some meaning at the end.

Sunday, September 29, 2002

Artists vs. Techies III: Where do scientists fit in?

First, I don't know that it is correct to characterize computer usage/programming as science. In my opinion, it has more in common with fine arts (you're using a tool to create something). Learning C+ and trying to understand quantum mechanics or modern physics aren't all that similar. I'm also not sure if your remarks were confined deliberately to engineering (as opposed to chemistry or physics or biology, which are very different) or it was shorthand for "science." Because again, I think the mindset is going to be different. "I need to make something useful by a deadline" is a very different starting point from "why is DNA based on furanose sugars instead of pyranose" -- the former probably has a flowchart describing how to proceed (I would imagine that building a workable bridge isn't terribly mysterious, for example); the latter is a different sort of question. What is the real question, the testable question? Or at least, what do we think is the testable question? Is "furanose based nucleic acid chains have a particular melting temperature " a satisfactory answer? Is the geometry of the chains important? Maybe the reason is chance and a six-membered ring would work as well. Regardless, you're not done until you've made some of the pyranose material, probably via chemistry you had to invent, and run an experiment or two, which you also had to invent. This is a better representation, I think, of science.

Also, scientists love good writers. Science is a story. A good lecture/paper should have a plot. I have to care about why you did what you did, after all. And I won't care if I'm asleep or bored. "1000 reactions I ran" is a boring talk, even if they all worked, hell especially if they all worked. A good talk will have a certain amount of drama -- this step in the synthesis was really tricky/gave us an unexpected byproduct/led us away from our initial goal. It has to have a conclusion. It has to provide a why not just a how.

As for arrogance, I think one difference might be that the sciences have right answers, or at least wrong ones. "Why did Rembrandt do so many self portraits" can't really be answered definitively. He was a narcissist might be a perfectly adequate answer, who knows. "No definite answer" might translate to "well then, I'm right" in certain minds, especially aggressive ones. Or the lack of a clear answer one way or the other might just be irritating, which manifests as frustration disguised as anger. Just a guess.

-- Brian


Thanks for the response, Brian. Your thoughts are very interesting and challenging.

First, yes, I was referring specifically to engineers (and threw in business majors later when I realized that I saw some of the same mindset in them), and no, I didn't mean that as "shorthand" for science (I try to be more precise about language than that, although God knows I don't always succeed.) I think -- and this came out more in the letters I got, I'm not sure if you read them -- that scientists and humanists actually have a great deal in common. It's not a common interest that either one often recognizes, and it defies stereotypes. We're still stuck in that "brainy" scientist vs. "emotional" artist notion. (Artists and humanists often get lumped together, and though there are people -- like me -- who straddle the two, they can be quite different, as different as biologists and engineers. I know there's an enormous difference in my mental processes between when I am thinking like a humanist/academic and when I'm thinking like an artist.) But the fact is, education in both lab science and humanities involves learning to think at least as much as it does acquiring a given set of facts.

One of the letter writers, who taught history, mentioned that some of his best students were biology majors. I didn't get many science majors when I was teaching. The few I had were pre-med, but pre-med majors tended to be among my better students, although they were often frustrated by the fact that they didn't get easy A's -- they assumed humanities classes were easier than science classes and therefore an A ought to be automatic. (My response was, "You're acing Chem 1A and struggling for a B in Humanities 1A. Do you think you might want to revise that thesis about 'easy' humanities classes?") Nevertheless, many of them had an appreciation of alternate ways of approaching things that I suspect their science studies had nurtured. Or perhaps it was an innate interest in different ways of approaching problems that led them to study science. I find, even today, as I write on this site, that some of my most interesting and thoughtful letters come from scientists. They appreciate the way I think. I appreciate the way they think. (Although I'm not sure they understand how hard I have to work to understand some of the things they tell me. But I do make the effort, because it always turns out to be worthwhile once the mental effort is done.)

It's interesting to me, though, that so many people seem to have misread what I said in that way. I think the science vs. the arts clash is so firm in people's heads that they see that, even when it's not there. It's an old problem: People quickly plug into the story they think they know and have a hard time even perceiving that the story has changed.

My problem was with the emphasis on technical education, which I think does not ask students to look at things from many points of view, or re-think assumptions. It's a time-consuming and difficult education, without being a challenging one.

As for the idea that humanities doesn't have "wrong" answers -- I think that's a little bit of a cliche. It's true up to a point, but humanities aren't as relativistic as most non-humanists think. "Why did Rembrandt paint so many self-portraits?" isn't the kind of question I'd expect an art historian to ask. I have only a minor in art history, so don't expect a sophisticated analysis, but I can give you some indication of the kinds of things art historians would consider.

My interest is more in Italian art, so I'll switch from Rembrandt to questions that fascinated me when I was studying medieval Italian art: Giotto began painting in the early 14th century using techniques that we associate with the Renaissance -- perspective, convincing use of space, three-dimensionality, greater attention to natural detail, close observation of facial expression, individualized faces, etc. And yet no one continued with Giotto's work. The art of the 14th century, after Giotto, appears to be simply a reworking of medieval themes, styles and iconography? Why? Why did the Renaissance "begin" with Giotto and then stop -- with no artist picking up on his innovations for another hundred years?

How do you answer a question like that? I think people without strong backgrounds in humanities think that art historians sit around throwing out any answer that comes to mind -- maybe fourteenth century artists just weren't very talented -- and since this is "squishy" liberal arts, anything goes and all answers are equal. But that's silly. First you have to look at the works created in the fourteenth century and decide if it is true that artistic development went on hold after Giotto. It's a testable thesis. And when you look closely -- and looking closely at a painting is something you have to be taught how to do -- you see that, despite first appearances, it did not. No one truly captured the spirit Giotto began, but artists used some of his innovations here and there. It's provable. You can point to the influence. So now you've got new questions. Why did artist's pick up some innovations and not others? And why, when artists clearly caught on to some of the new techniques, were they not able to build on that understanding? Why did they use them for different, more conservative purposes?

Once again, you're forced back on the work, and there are answers that are definitely "wrong." Answers that just won't hold.

I could go on and on about this, and the questions get more and more complicated. They involve history (social changes wrought by the Black Plague may have played a role, for instance) as much as unfathomables. Does "progress" in the arts come in spurts, with geniuses emerging that no one can understand for generations? That's a possibility, and a "testable" one (you'd have to look at a broad span of when and under what circumstances enormous changes have taken place in art) but there are better, simpler explanations. Just like in science -- there are explanations that cover what's known better than other explanations. And, just as in science, answered questions don't settle things forever. They just lead to newer questions.

I won't dwell on this any more -- even though I'd love to -- because I doubt many people find Trecento painting or the Bubonic Plague as fascinating as I do. But I hope you see how similar, in many ways, science and humanites are.

I realize that in technical fields you have to "test" whether something works, but, as you suggest, "how do I get this to work" is a fairly limited question compared to the kinds of questions scientists and humanists ask. I love your idea that "science is a story" and believe it absolutely because the description you give of putting together a good science lecture/paper sounds very much like the way I think when I'm putting together a story.

And that, really, was what I was trying to get at. The old science vs. the arts division isn't terribly useful. What we do is different, but not as different as the stereotype would have it. But people with straight technical and practical educations -- and nothing more -- are the new piece of the puzzle. And I think what they study asks very little of them as complete human beings, or as thinkers. That worries me. Especially because I see them more and more defining the way we as a society view things.

The current administration is composed mostly of MBAs, not engineers. And yet I notice enormous similarities between the way they speak and perceive things and the way my old engineering students thought and perceived. I just have a hunch that there is some connection between that simplistic mode of thought and the "practical" education they received.

-- Jeanne


Eh, the Rembrandt question is one I remember being frustrating in an art history class I took. Frustrating because I was coming at it from a studio art perspective -- most of my free electives were drawing or painting classes. "Why do a self-portrait" is a very different question to the painter/drawer than to the non "artist." Or at least, it seemed that way to me. Why would I do a self portrait? I want to play with technique with no worries/expectations about how it should turn out. I got funny looks when I argued that particular point with the non-painter/non-drawer art historian in one class. And "the no wrong answers" is probably confined to studio arts, where you don't want to squash the next Shiele or Pollack or Picasso. "Did you mean/want to do that" is often the way the question is phrased. Also, you look at art in a different way in a drawing class than in an appreciation class, I think.

-- Brian


I'm really surprised by the Rembrandt question. I can't remember ever hearing such a silly and unanswerable question posed in a humanities class of any kind. You characterize the class you took as an "appreciation" class, and I wonder if that had anything to do with it. Every university has its set of classes that exist for the sole purpose of getting people through their general education requirements as painlessly and mindlessly as possible. Usually they're not very good, and they sometimes confirm the silliest cliches about the field.

One of the classes I took to get through my science requirement in college, for instance, was an Introduction to Astronomy that simply asked me to memorize an enormous number of facts, all of which I forgot as soon as the class was over. If I hadn't known better already, the class wouldn't have served much purpose except to confirm a popular notion of science: that it's simply a huge body of facts, and that great scientists are "smart" because they know more of those facts than the rest of us dummies. Here was one of the few science classes many liberal arts majors would take, and it "taught" a hackneyed and utterly false notion of science. I suspect your "art appreciation" class might have served the same purpose.

But you raise another issue as well, and that is the difference between people who "do" art and people who study it. And you're right, people who write about the arts can be mind-bogglingly off-base about how they're produced, and about the kinds of questions artists ask themselves. But I think that's beyond the scope of what I've been talking about.

If there's a "no wrong answers" approach in studio classes, however, I doubt it has anything to do with not wanting to squash budding artists. Condescension probably has more to do with it -- a belief that "these fools will never be real artists, so just let them be." I took a couple of drawing classes too, and was encouraged by my teachers, and, believe me, no one could mistake me for the next Picasso. But once you get into "real" art practice classes, it's a different matter. I don't know anything about studio art classes beyond the basic level, but writer's workshops -- which you have to be selected for, based on a portfolio of your work, and everyone assumes that you are seriously trying to become a writer -- are famously brutal. You go back week after week to have your heart torn out and roasted, and your work savaged. I can not imagine a writer's workshop -- and I'm not talking about lower division or community "creative writing" classes -- in which anyone gave a damn about the writers' feelings, or believed that there were "no wrong answers."

-- Jeanne

Saturday, September 28, 2002

If you have a blog (or just an opinion) and are concerned about the rush to war with Iraq, please consider joining the Open Letters BlogBurst. You count. Make yourself heard.

"The repression of women [is] everywhere and always wrong." -- George Bush

There was a strange little article in Tuesday's Washington Post. Fourteen Afghan women met with George Bush, Condoleeza Rice and Colin Powell in the kind of gathering usually reserved for "the most powerful foreign visitors."

Okay, I'm impressed. I was under the impression that women had been virtually shut out of the Afghan government. That there were fourteen Afghan women who had achieved positions high enough to be considered "powerful foreign visitors" was news to me. Good news.

But ordinarily, powerful foreign visitors have names. These women apparently left theirs at home. At least the Post did not consider them worth mentioning. And my instinct tells me the president did not christen them with any cute little nicknames either, because this is probably the last time he will see them. They weren't ministers of this or that, but students "selected to receive computer training."

Granted, computer training for Afghan women is a wonderful thing. And I think in the long run we get back far more than we give when we bring foreign students to the United States.

But most foreign students don't get the same champagne and snacks as Pootie-poot. And these women obviously weren't in Washington to discuss their ideas for strengthening women's rights in Afghanistan. They were there to have their pictures taken. They were there so George Bush could say something like "women must play prominent roles."

Women, you know, they just love it when you tell them sweet lies.

I'd be a little more impressed if one of the women at that meeting had been Sima Samar, the minister of women's affairs under the interim government who was forced from her position last June because of death threats. Samar would make it harder for Bush to pat himself on the back, but she would have plenty to tell him about what still needs to be done.

If he was interested.

I'm not the first (and I'm sure I won't be the last) to note the hypocrisy in the world's most powerful Deke trying to pass himself off as a feminist. In fact, Katherine Viner had a good piece in last Saturday's Guardian called Feminism As Imperialism, not only noting Bush's hypocrisy, but tracing its historical roots back to Lord Cromer, the British consul general in Egypt from 1883 to 1907, who loudly condemned the way Islam treated women, and yet was a founding member of the Men's League for Opposing Women's Suffrage.

For Cromer, as for Bush, women's rights were only an issue when they provided an excuse for attacking "less civilized" people. That doesn't mean the abuses of women are not real, but it does mean that their "champions" are phonies, and it means the issue will be dropped as soon as it's no longer needed. Cromer raised school fees in Egypt (keeping girls out) and discouraged the training of female doctors. Bush has turned his back while warlords with a history of using rape as a weapon of war run Afghanistan, and he didn't say a word on behalf of Sima Samar.

Viner makes a good case that there's more than hypocrisy at issue. By stealing feminist language and yoking it to oppression, in the long run men like Cromer and Bush make women's lives harder, because they discredit feminism, and leave women struggling for their rights without a language in which to describe their struggle. When feminism is used as an excuse to bomb a country, it's hard to be a feminist.

Roger Ebert finds an encouraging sign of a growing attention to women's rights in a recent Iranian film. And the movie screen is not the only place the struggle is going on.

The detective who investigated the beating and rape of the Central Park jogger has a new theory about the case. First, the five teenagers who were convicted of the crime bludgeoned the woman and left her for dead. Matias Reyes, who has admitted committing the crime (and DNA evidence backs him up), and insisted he acted alone, came along later, found an unconscious woman and decided to rape her and beat her more. Since Reyes wasn't described by anyone in the group, doesn't know anyone in the group, and wasn't with them at the time, that's the only theory Detective Burt Arroyo can come up with that makes sense.

I know truth can be stranger than fiction, and I don't know what cops and lawyers will make of that story, but I wouldn't want to bet my reputation as a writer on trying to sell it to a publisher.

Honey, there are holes in that plot Stephen King couldn't patch.

Via Sisyphus Shrugged

UPDATE: Ignore my gut instincts about the strangeness of the new theory, and go straight to Talk Left for a thorough analysis of the problems in the story.

If you've followed the story of Amina Lawal, the Nigerian woman condemned to death for adultery, there's an interesting article from a South African newspaper exploring the politics of Islamic law as it relates to her case.

Friday, September 27, 2002

Techies vs. Artists (continued)
I got so much interesting mail on my post yesterday on humanities as a mode of thought (and the limitations of business and tech educations), that I'd like to share some. The writers bring up lots of thought-provoking issues.

(I'm going to split the letters up into separate posts, because otherwise I suspect Blogger will simply devour the words -- so just keep reading through all the posts for today.)

I just read your bit on the arts vs. the sciences, and I think there's an even more nuanced and tricky layer to the discussion as well.

First, I was an historian (less romantic or Romantic than being able to say "I had a farm in Africa," but there you go). In my experience as a grad student (5 years) and as a TA (3 years), I encountered very few engineers at all. They hated history more than anything, because it required a rigorous analysis and a LOT of reading (much of Kevin's point about schedules and demands is well taken) that was founded ultimately on processing a wide variety of opinions and positions very different from their own experience. The unwillingness to step beyond the preconceptions and rigid formalities of the technical fields presented in their major core colored every aspect of their intellectual lives.

Equally annoying were the majors in Film Studies, Sociology and Communication Studies, who thought reading 10 pages on one subject for more than one perspective was onerous. My best students were English and Poli Sci majors, followed by Psych and Bio majors.

Scientists in general are too large a group to easily taxonomize, but I do find that they share a very defensive attitude about writing. Many of them resent that good writers often achieve a certain measure of success not based on what they see as 'real skills.' Thus, a clear communicator might get a decent job in academia or the private sector that an engineer feels is unwarranted, because writing just a waste.

Of course, the WORST offenders are the Bus/Econ guys in accounting or marketing concentrations. They fear engineers and scientists, and hate arts and letters people. This generalization may be overbroad, but the boys in the back from Fin 102 tend to be racists, loudmouths, and wastrels. They are particularly hostile to good writers who beat them out for positions in marketing and sales. Most really good companies often have more Liberal Arts people around than one might think, and the internal culture can get very nasty. I know of more than one English major hired by a merchant bank for writing skills and smarts forced out by a vicious hazing.

In truth, the well of hate that the right-wing techies on the web seem to tap into on a near continuous basis is really appalling. Kevin is truly one of the good ones.

-- Atticus Finch

QUICKIE REACTION: You're right, the issue is a lot more complex than I made it out to be in a single post. And I don't mean to jump on techies and business majors. I don't want to play Armey's game of figuring out which is the dumbest or laziest group of people. My concern is more with the fact that we seem increasingly to respect people with technical degrees more than anyone else, and believe that they will solve all our problems. That concerns me because I see so many limitations in the way most techies view the world, limitations that have their roots in extremely narrow and, in many ways, unchallenging educations.

You brought up a problem with engineering majors that I didn't mention, but experienced as well -- the unwillingness to deal with points of view other than their own. They seemed to have a sense that anyone who saw things differently was just being obstinate (another belief I see prominently displayed in the White House.) I see an enormous danger in "educating" a generation without forcing them to deal with the fact that not everyone perceives the world the same way they do.

Your ranking Biology majors high on the list of good history students interested me because I had the same impression of pre-med students. Arrogant sometimes, sure that they were so smart that they deserved A's on everything they breathed upon, and often so overworked that they had a hard time getting the reading done -- and yet most pre-med majors recognized and respected the amount and the kind of thought required of them and made at least some attempt to live up to it. I think scientists and humanists have more in common with each other than either does with people in tech fields or business.

And you're right about Kevin. Thoughtful and well-read techies are rare and wonderful. And when they can write clearly as well, they're a godsend. I wish there were more like him.

Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. I am a liberal arts major who drifted into computer work because it pleased me esthetically. I've been doing it for over a quarter century now, but your observations about the arrogance of "pure" engineering types is right on, as is your observation about the apparent thought processes of our President. There are so many people (mostly men) with absolutely beautiful minds who cannot form two coherent sentences in a row and seem not to consider that a problem. I am at heart a writer, seduced by the lofty salary available to me by going over to the Dark Side, and sometimes it gets so lonely over here waiting for someone to produce or even recognize something beautifully said. Your essay cheers my heart immeasurably. I'm going to pin it up on my cubicle wall as spiritual sustenance for the next time I have to review another technical document from an author whose approach is "Writing documents is a waste of time. Why can't you just let me code? And besides, you know what I mean."

-- Roberta Taussig

QUICKIE REACTION: I know quite a few English teachers who are aesthetically pleased by computers, but have taken the opposite approach. They've chosen to teach, despite the low pay, for various reasons, but primarily because they need the daily fix of responding to writing (whether Chaucer or remedial English compositions), and yet they spend enormous amounts of time learning about computers. Everyone calls them "the techies," but of course they have more in common with people like you and Kevin than with "pure" techies (how about "techie fundamentalists" -- the people who accept code literally and unquestioningly?)

Y'know, I understand what you're saying and know exactly the kind of people you're talking about, but I think you've still got things backward.

Are there tech people who lack essential knowledge of the humanities, and don't give a damn? Absolutely. Is this a bad thing? Yep. But the problem of humanities-illiterate techies is nothing compared to the problem of tech-illiterate art-folk.

Any person with a college degree is going to have at least some exposure to the humanities; there's simply no way around it. They'll have read some Shakespeare, they'll have taken some history. But it's easy -- and common -- for humanities people to graduate college with no more science than maybe a quick, tossed-off Rocks For Jocks. Humanities people can graduate from college without even knowing how to do a simple integral.

What really convinces me that the isolation comes from the humanities side rather than the tech side is that everyone I know who straddles the line considers themselves a techie. Back in college, I double-majored in CS and early modern history; I took classes in aesthetics, physics, Greek drama, linear algebra, ethics, algorithm analysis, and the intellectual history of the 12th century. But for all that my interests fall equally on either side of the tech/art divide, I consider myself foremost a tech person -- because it's not uncommon for self-identified tech people to have deep interest in the humanities, but it's absolutely unheard-of for self-identified humanities people to have deep interest in tech fields.

Try as I might to be fair, I can't think of a single counter-example to that. There are definitely humanities people who have a shallow interest in science, who'll read Gould or Hawking's popularizations; but I can't think of a single one in my acquaintance who's ever delved into real science.

So, yeah, it's problematic that there aren't more people who know both tech and the humanities on a substantial level, but it's not primarily tech people who are stubbornly refusing to cross the divide.

-- Mike Kozlowski

QUICKIE REACTION: I'm guessing Roberta would disagree with you about how everyone who combines a humanities background with tech knowledge considers herself a "techie," and so would the computer-crazy English teachers I know. Their tech skills are just a tool in the creativity kit -- art and language are what matters to them. If most people who combine both skills consider themselves more techies than humanists, I suspect it's because of exactly what I was talking about -- that's where the money and the prestige lies.

I'm also a little amused by your idea that humanities people who read Gould (I don't believe anybody really reads Hawking; you put Hawking on your coffee table so people will think you're smart) are exhibiting a "shallow interest in science," and yet techies who have taken a class in Shakespeare (and I think that's rarer than you think -- kiddie lit and film studies are more common choices) are well-rounded. I'd suggest that humanists who read writers like Stephen Jay Gould, and keep up even with the fairly shallow coverage of developments and issues in science that you find in first-rate newspapers and general interest magazines have a far better understanding of science -- far from perfect, but better -- than techies who have some vague memory of who Hamlet and Lear are.

But once we get past "who's the worst," we basically agree -- most people don't understand much about the world beyond their specialization.

Well, this is a big subject. I just read your posting and think its quite good and very important in many ways. I was just thinking how this re-building in Afghanistan might go if the education were more about the humanities and art and less about how to build an infrastructure. If you teach a nearly illiterate society to build houses and sewage plants, you will not change the society very much, but if you toss in a copy of Voltaire and Shakespeare and a bit of Dostoyevsky and Melville you will, in a generation, actually change the way people live. Why this isn't obvious is a bit beyond me. Americans have always been Puritans.....and suspicious of anything that couldn't be measured or weighed.....anything deemed impractical. This was simply the legacy of our founders....practical meant what could serve an observable purpose....and it followed an Enlightenment notion about progress (which also is what haunts Marxism).

So now we have a government run by a figure head President with little education and who is close to functionally illiterate and is vaguely proud of it. I was reading some old Paul Goodman essays just recently, and was astonished to hear him bemoan the coming tide of ignorance.....that education was coming to mean the ability to follow orders and be employable. I wrote an essay for the Padua Hills Playwrights Festival about some of this in regards to that "alternative" festival, and how when one has nothing to "sell" one is looked upon as useless and marginal. This seems to reinforce the reasons for the paucity of good and serious works of fiction and theatre and even painting -- the culture industry (which I worked in for far too long) wants only distraction, things that are familiar and which support a fantasy about "real life". Today's right wing tends to be made up of engineers and wonks and technicians of one sort or another who revel in a faux-populism that accepts mass culture as good because it is mass -- all with an odd trope of irony tossed in (the trivia games about Gilligan's Island etc) -- and part of this stems from (or is caused by) the post modern mind set of absolute relativism. I argued with a colleague several years ago who maintained a Harlequin Romance was just as valuable as King Lear, it was only a matter of what "games" and "rules" one had learned. Now, to so torture logic and reason as to arrive at something this idiotic speaks volumes about the bankruptcy of academia, but it also points to some greater failures of the left these days. From cultural relativism comes moral relativism -- and apologetics.

Anyway, I could go on and on -- but I do think the new Imperium is in part so scary exactly because of this anti-humanist bent and the loss of historical perspective that goes with it. Russell Jacoby's End of Utopia touches on some of do many others -- and certainly the mass media and marketers out there don't want to suggest to anyone that reading some Milton might deepen their lives and make them better people -- reading Milton doesn't make you want to run to the mall and shop.

-- John Steppling

QUICKIE REACTION: There's so much here, your comments deserve a lot more than an off the cuff reaction, and I will probably come back to some of your ideas later (interesting ideas often linger in my brain for a long time before germinating), but I'm immediately drawn to your insight about the rebuilding of Afghanistan (to the extent that it's going on at all) being purely a matter of infrastructure. Please excuse the disorganized nature of these fetal thoughts, but two things came to mind when I read your comments. One was an essay I read about a year ago, and unfortunately I can't remember who wrote it, so I can't dig it up. It was written by a film critic who had been involved in some kind of cross-cultural program in which he showed American films to filmakers in Eastern Europe, I believe in the '70s. He also watched and critiqued their films, which were mostly turgid Communist propaganda. The filmakers weren't stupid and they weren't party hacks, they just had not been exposed to much of what film could do beyond propaganda. The critic discussed the excitement of these filmakers when they encountered American films that were critical of the American system in some way. I remember that he mentioned two films in particular -- "All The President's Men" and "Twelve Angry Men." The Watergate film was a revelation -- writers with nothing but the truth on their side can overthrow a president? That's an oversimplificaton, of course, but it was an empowering thing for artists in Communist countries to realize, and it also, ironically, taught them something very good about the United States. Similarly, "12 Angry Men" deals with racism and injustice -- not what you would ordinarily think to use as pro-American propaganda. And yet at its heart the message of the film is that each individual's conscience matters in a democracy -- again, an empowering message to artists and one that offers a positive message about the U.S. (although few right-wingers would perceive it that way). The Bush administration seems to understand that "hearts and minds" count, but their reaction is to send in the advertising people to sell a product. I think we would be better served by a generation of leaders who had a deeper understanding of American culture (and Western culture as a whole), who could explain it better than we ever could to their own people.

The other thing that came to mind is that if an education focused too tightly on technical fields encourages an unquestioning mindset, an unwillingness to engage with different ideas -- as I think is the case -- then pushing technical training, rather than a broader humanistic and scientific education, in a part of the world where black and white, moralistic, fundamentalist thinking is rampant, and dangerous, does not seem like a very good idea.

Once again, fetal thoughts -- not well-reasoned or consideredÉ

You are correct about the differences. To be fair to the engineers, they cannot see shades of grey and they cannot be educated to do so. Humanists see the grey shades and can have a scientific outlook too.

In my opinion, the world's population is roughly 50-50 black & white types (including engineers) to humanistic types. Obviously, if there were more humanists the world would be a finer place. If there were more of the black & whites, we'd be wearing burqas while driving our perfectly engineered tanks on our last day of life.

-- LT

QUICKIE REACTION: An interesting thought to keep in mind in relation to what I just said above about emphasizing tech skills and education in rebuilding Afghanistan.

I just finished reading your wonderful post on the benefits of a true liberal arts education. I think that the disdain that many feel for the humanities comes from a fundamental misunderstanding. They believe that art, literature and writing is basically undisciplined.

Last year, my oldest was in Cub Scouts. One of the activities was to build a race car from a small block of pine. Many of the dads were talking about the power tools they would use, how to reduce drag coefficients, and the best lubricants for the wheels (liquid or powdered graphite?). One dad, an aerospace engineer, announced that he would test his son's entry in a wind tunnel at work to ensure that air resistance had been minimized. Being more comfortable with ideas than power tools, my son and I had planned on using a pocketknife and a can of spray paint to build our model. Fearing that humiliation of father and son was eminent, I casually asked if there was a liberal arts division that we could enter. My question was met with laughter and a number of comments to the effect that a liberal arts education was worthless and was nothing more than a haven for mush-brained non-thinkers.

I wish that people with that opinion would write for publication every day for a week. Then, perhaps they would understand that writing demands discipline on a number of levels. The first level is the discipline to actually write. I started my blog, in part, because I thought that if I published my writing on the net, I could pretend that I had an audience. The pretence of an audience would help me maintain the discipline to writing every day. It is hard to write every day. While I do not post every day I do write every day. Many of the things that I wish to write about are difficult to compress into 25 words or less. It often takes several days for a post to ripen from an idea or a thought into something that I willing to let others read.

The second type of discipline required of a writer is to think carefully about the organization of what is sometimes a free floating idea. I have often realized when writing that my central idea is simply wrong. That realization results from the process of writing. The flaws in my logic become apparent only when I begin to explicitly set down the reasoning.

The third type of discipline is to express your ideas in a manner that is understandable to the reader. Steven Den Beste recently wrote a manifesto that many readers felt called for the military destruction of much of the middle east and the imposition of western culture on the populations of the middle east by force of arms. The next day, Den Beste clarified his position in another post in which he said that the primary weapon the west would use for the destruction of the Arab culture was not military might but rather was the Barbie Doll. I suggest that Mr. Den Beste failed to express his idea in a way that was reasonably understandable to his audience (another option is the that he simply backed down from his original post in the face of stiff opposition). Mr. Den Beste is an engineer.

I think that the effect on our culture of the dismissive attitude towards reading and writing anything but computer code and technical articles is quite distressing. The market simply does not reward the generalist as greatly as the specialist. I chose law as a profession in part because it allowed me to establish a practice in which a wide variety of skills (writing, speaking, logic, storytelling, compassion and others) were necessary.

I think it is a sad day when the leader of the free world cannot utter three coherent sentences without a speechwriter. Mr. Bush is not only an example of the failure of a liberal arts education but he openly derides those that exhibit one. For example, he upbraided a reporter who had the temerity to ask the prime Minster of France a question in French.

As long as the market rewards those with narrow skills that do not depend on interaction of ideas or people, we will slowly lose a large part of what made western culture great.

-- Dwight Meredith

P.L.A. -- A Journal of Politics, Law and Autism

QUICKIE REACTION: I think you've described the most important "virtue" derived from doing a lot of writing -- you learn to question yourself, to recognize many of the flaws in your own thinking. Writing keeps you modest. People who do a lot of writing usually don't think of themselves as brilliant, because every time you sit down to write -- if you write honestly and well -- you're confronted with your own ignorance. I think that willingness to deal with your own limitations serves most people well in life.

Thanks! My girlfriend and most of her friends are math people (actuaries, esp.) and while they're much more liberal arts-savvy than most of my engineering friends, we have this ongoing dialog in which I've trying for years to explain why a good humanities background matters. Frankly, I've been continually surprised by how much they don't get it, and even more surprised by their arrogance in thinking there is no reason they should. I'll never convince them a humanities major had to think as much as they did in college.

(I'm a public policy person, and they buy the idea that the economics part of my major might have been worthwhile [I think it was useless, except that it helps in arguing with armchair libertarians] but they don't see the same thing with the philosophy part of my major. And they don't understand why my unfinished second major, English, would be worthwhile at all.)

(They probably won't be impressed by your blog either, but I am, and I thank you. I'll send it to them just in case.)

Last thought: living in the Bay Area I've met quite a few computer science/engineering types that went out of their way to get a good humanities education, either formally or on their own time. They're some of the most creative and freaky (good way) people I know. But still, probably the exception.

-- BJ

Robbed By A Fountain Pen

QUICKIE REACTION: Yes, I know what you mean. I knew several counter-culture computer freaks in Berkeley in the early seventies. Never had the vaguest idea what they were doing, but they were extremely creative, and I could often see that creativity displayed in areas that had nothing to do with computers.

My 18-year-old son, actually, is kind of a current generation version of that type. He's a musician. He plays piano, french horn, trumpet and guitar (and occasionally drums), and he has been composing music ever since the first time he got his hands on a piano (at four). He also writes, does cartooning, makes films, and is wildly creative in just about anything he touches. He also loves computers, and has been doing most of his composing at the computer since he was twelve and I bought him a keyboard and software for that purpose (best present he ever got). He's good at math, has taught himself quite a bit of programming (or picked it up from friends) and wants to combine that with music. So obviously I know from experience that tech skills and creativity are not mutually exclusive categories.