Body and Soul

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

Saturday, November 30, 2002

This entry has also been posted at Stand Down -- the anti-war blog that explores reasons for opposing war with Iraq from multiple politcal perspectives. If you'd like to comment, you can do so here.

The outpouring of mainstream religious opposition to war with Iraq demonstrates both how weak the ethical case for war is, and how wide and mainstream (and difficult to categorize and demonize) the opposition really is. The Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago, an organization of the city's Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders, was formed in 1984, and in 18 years has never issued a statement on a national issue. They just found an issue they could all agree on and felt they needed to issue a statement about -- the conditions for justifying war with Iraq, they said, have not been met. The religious leaders expressed the belief that opposition to the war represents "a broad spectrum of society," and that they hope that their public opposition will help President Bush realize that even "normally conservative and cautious" Americans believe that war should not be pre-emptive and unilateral, but should always be seen as a last resort.

A young woman is raped by her cousin, and her family, ashamed (of the victim, not the rapist) sends her away to a place where she has to work 364 days a year, with no pay and little food, where she is beaten and humiliated, made to pray all the time, and forbidden contact with the outside world. Damn those crazy, misogynist, religious fanatics -- all of them.

Alum's past hinders Philly school naming

WEST CHESTER, Pennsylvania (AP) -- When Bayard Rustin died in 1987, President Reagan said the civil rights activist who organized the 1963 rally at which Martin Luther King gave his "I Have a Dream" speech had "won the undying love of all who cherish freedom."

But that love apparently has limits in Rustin's hometown.

School board officials in West Chester are reconsidering their decision to name a new high school after Rustin following complaints from some board members that they had been unaware he was a conscientious objector during World War II, and that he was gay…

What year is it again? This is so stupid I don't even want to comment. Just let it stand as a monument to ignorance.

Signs of Hope and Reason
In Turkey, an atheist and an Islamist have written a book together exploring issues including the existence of God and the role of women from their differing points of view. It's a little bit of a gimmick, but as Sanar Yurdatapan, the atheist, pointed out, secularists who buy the book because they want to hear what he has to say are going to be stuck with half a book by an Islamist, and Islamists who buy the book might just end up reading something by a secularist. If nothing else, their relationship holds out the promise that people with wildly divergent ideas can have respect, even affection, for one another. It's a beginning.

Wednesday, November 27, 2002

Let's see -- make cranberry sauce and croutons for the stuffing, bake the pumpkin pie, go buy flowers, (oh dear, and I just remembered that I didn't buy cream -- my daughter has decided that making our own butter is a Thanksgiving tradition, a tradition that only goes back to last year, but, hey, this is California, we make it up as we go along), clean the house, pick up my son at the Greyhound station (call at noonish to make sure he actually has managed to find the bus station -- he can be a little scattered sometimes), find time to play chess with a seven-year-old who's going to get very bored while I'm doing all those things -- and that's just today.

I'll be too busy to write anything for the next few days -- and anyway, it's Thanksgiving, and I'm not going to waste a perfectly good holiday (probably my favorite, in fact, because it is the only big one that is quiet, cardless, and presentless) fretting about the state of the world, but I did want to remind everybody that the day after Thanksgiving is Buy Nothing Day -- when you can take a swipe at consumerism and over-consumption just by refusing to be part of the biggest shopping day of the year. Stay home, sleep late, teach your kids how to play a card game you remember playing as a kid, read a book, listen to music, ride your bike, help out at the local shelter (what, you don't think homeless people need to eat the day after Thanksgiving?). Just don't shop. You don't need any more junk, and you know it. It's your holiday, not Walmarts.

And if you have time (and at least one child to read to), go to a library and pick up one last thing before Thanksgiving -- a copy of Barbara Cohen's book, Molly's Pilgrim. It's about a Russian Jewish girl who everyone at school makes fun of. At Thanksgiving time, the other kids tease her because she's never heard of the holiday. Then Molly's class gets an assignment to make a pilgrim doll. Molly tries to explain to her mother what pilgrims are -- people who move to a new country so they can practice their faith without being oppressed -- and, of course Molly's mother understands exactly what that experience is like, and makes Molly a pilgrim doll that looks exactly like her. It's a great lesson -- pilgrims aren't all dour people in black and white (in fact, maybe the first pilgrims were not really even all that dour); we still have pilgrims, and will as long as we remain a country worth coming to. It's also a beautifully written book that renews the meaning of the holiday. (Now if only it didn't make me cry every time I read it...) If you have any children around who are over five or so, old enough to sit still for a fairly long picture book, you've got a good excuse to read a wonderful story. After all, you're not going shopping, right?

UPDATE: The Agonist has found the "Buy Nothing Day" ad in an unexpected (but appropriate) place.

Tuesday, November 26, 2002

Glenn Reynolds may not realize it, but he's been dressed, stuffed and is ready for basting. It's a couple of days early, but Happy Thanksgiving!

Where are the leaders in the Muslim world who are trying to make real reforms? Some of them are still hiding under burqas.

A year ago, there were few newspapers available in Kabul. Now there are sixty. It sounds promising, but the press in Afghanistan isn't dealing with some of the most important issues facing the country -- particularly women's issues and stories about the warlords' crimes -- because some Afghan journalists believe the government is still so vulnerable that it shouldn't be criticized.

Enter aina -- a French group trying to help build an independent media in Afghanistan. One of their projects involves teaching Afghan women how to make television documentaries -- particularly on topics the local press isn't covering. So far, the women have made films on child labor, teenage marriages, and women imprisoned for refusing to marry. They are currently planning an hour-long documentary on the condition of women in the country. The entire film crew will be made up of women -- in order to make it easier for the women they interview to feel comfortable talking about their lives.

Their films are being shown on French television, but not in Afghanistan, where state-run television is becoming increasingly conservative, recently banning images of women singing or dancing, for instance, out of fear that "the Taliban and Al Qaeda are still around and could use it as propaganda."

The reformist voices are there. But they're still being silenced.

"I also understand how tender the free enterprise system can be." -- George Bush, White House press conference, Washington, D.C., July 9, 2002

Maybe I don't understand this story because I've never had tender feelings about business. I come from a long line of the kind of people the free enterprise system chews up and spits out. You can shake the family tree as long as you like and not a single entrepreneur will drop out, not even a reasonably paid wage slave. Failure runs in the blood.

But somehow -- just in an abstract way -- I always thought capitalism was supposed to reward people for providing a service. I thought it was efficient. I thought the whole point was that if you screw up, you pay for your mess. There's no escaping the consequences of your mistakes. And the people who screw up least make out the best.

When did that change?

Until recently, Hamid Karzai was guarded by US military bodyguards. They did a damn good job, too -- foiling an assassination attempt last September. You've got to give our military credit -- when they're doing the right thing, they're the best. But Bush, Inc., of course, has a deep-seated belief that whatever government can do, business can do better. So the State Department hired a private military corporation to guard Karzai. Not surprisingly, the company is one of George Bush's major financial supporters -- DynCorp.

If the name sounds familiar, it might be because this is the same DynCorp whose employees, according to a lawsuit by an aircraft mechanic who worked for the company, participated in a sex trafficking ring while working for the UN in Bosnia -- buying and selling girls as young as twelve as sexual slaves. When Ben Johnston, the mechanic, blew the whistle, he was fired because he "brought discredit to the company." Another employee, Kathryn Bolkovac also spoke out on what was happening. She was fired as well. No one involved in the ring ever faced criminal charges.

Ben Johnston revealed not only the sex ring DynCorp employees were running, but also the fact that fraud was rampant, and that it was common practice for DynCorp mechanics to work on airplanes while falling down drunk. These are planes, you understand, that U.S. military personnel would be flying, not realizing that they'd put their lives in the hands of drunken mechanics.

That's what the company is infamous for. But they've had a few other problems as well. You might remember a tragic story from last year -- a plane carrying a family of Baptist missionaries was shot down in Peru. The plane had been mistakenly identified as belonging to drug smugglers. Veronica Bowers and her 7-month-old daughter were killed. But it was more than a tragedy. There were measures the crew of the surveillance plane were supposed to follow to prevent such mistakes, and didn't. The death of Veronica Bowers and her baby wasn't just a tragic error, it was the result of recklessness. And according to an article in last week's New Republic, the reckless and incompetent spotters worked for DynCorp.

And then there was that little narcotics trafficking incident in Colombia. DynCorp is the main U.S. anti-narcotics contractor in Colombia, employing pilots and other workers in the drug war. Last year a Colombian newsweekly ran a cover story describing the pilots as "lawless Rambos."

And maybe I should also mention that lawsuit for allegedly spraying Ecuadorian peasant farmers and Amazonian Indians with toxic chemicals. At least two children died from exposure to the poisons.

I know I don't have much of a head for business, but I grew up believing that prostitution, drug dealing and reckless disregard for the lives of others were the kinds of things that got you into a whole lot of trouble.

When did that change?

I'm not sure, but let's try out a theory: It changed when we found ourselves stuck with a president who spent his entire life screwing up and never learning that there was such a thing as consequences, a man who therefore came to believe, "I do not need to explain why I say things. — That's the interesting thing about being the President. — Maybe somebody needs to explain to me why they say something, but I don't feel like I owe anybody an explanation." A man who apparently believes the same rule applies to his friends and contributors.

Monday, November 25, 2002

Your Monday To Do List

Did you vote yet? (No, not that election. I'm still trying to forget that one…) Lou Dobbs wants to know if you think the media is liberal, conservative, or neutral. (The poll is on the left-hand side of the page -- scroll down a bit). As they say, vote early and vote often. (Via Busy Busy Busy)

You have to read two pieces at Alas, a blog -- the first, a further exploration of the men's rights movement, looks at why some men feel shame and guilt when faced with feminism, and why opposing patriarchy is just as important for men as it is for women; and the second reveals what you learn about George Bush when you draw him. (Have you ever noticed there are some bloggers so good you can't keep up with how many exceptional things they write?)

And speaking of people who write so many interesting things it's hard to keep track of them all, don't miss Jim Capozzola's "Al Gore and The Alpha Girls." It's not only witty and insightful -- you just start with the assumption that you get wit and insight when you go to The Rittenhouse Review, right? -- it's one of the most perceptive pieces on journalism and opinion that I've ever read. Go discover why so much punditry consists of one long sour note.

And of course you already read Slacktivist, didn't you? You didn't? Go! And I'm not just telling you that because I'm mentioned in it. (Although I would like to tell WebBlocker that while I often write this blog in my robe -- hey, how fancy are you dressed at 5 o'clock in the morning? -- full nudity I don't do. And you should be grateful for that.)

And, in a far more serious vein, you probably already heard that the Supreme Court will be reviewing the Miranda decision, and I hope you already know that when legal issues are in the news (and, lately, that would be every day, wouldn't it?), the one site you must visit is the indispensable Talk Left . But if you haven't read Jeralyn's analysis of the case, you should.

Sunday, November 24, 2002

Hijabs and Democracy at the Tehran Carl's Jr.

Over the past week or so I've had an interesting e-mail conversation with a reader about how politics, religion, women's rights, business, cultural values (and sensitivity) and a lot of other things all weave together. At some point I realized that a lot of the issues we were talking about were things I hadn't seen much conversation about between people with basically liberal values. Mostly the "conversation" (if you want to call it that) has consisted of liberals defending themselves against attacks by conservatives -- attacks that have been outrageous and irrelevant. That the right wing use of the issues has been stupid and opportunistic, however, doesn't mean there aren't issues here to discuss. Are liberals too culturally sensitive, too "politically correct"? Is there a conflict between standing up for women's rights and refusing to demonize people who don't value those rights? How do you separate encouraging democracy from creating a corporate-friendly (and exploitative) environment? Those are just a few of the questions that arose.

It occurred to me that other readers might be interested in the debate so far -- and might like to contribute their own thoughts. And so, here it is:

In a message dated 11/14/2002, John Steppling writes:

I draw your attention to the Richard Just article in The American Prospect. Liberals for the war. What bothers me about this argument is the claim that the only argument for an anti-war position is that Saddam can be deterred. Well, I for one don't argue that and I am against the war. This assumption that Saddam is somehow a threat is what really gets glossed over. Apparently asking for evidence is just part of a bygone era. The received wisdom is now that he is a threat to America and I guess everyone else too.

The other big reason to be against this war is that it creates a precedent for future pre-emptive action and encourages and excuses civil liberty abuses domestically.

Saddam is bad -- ok -- and he has about 18 planes left and an ambivalent army and little in the way of a future, but I guess he's a lot easier to deal with than North Korea or Saudi Arabia.

Yours, JS

I thought the Richard Just article was interesting. Obviously I disagree with him, but he makes a reasonable case -- probably more or less the case Hitchens would make if he weren't so full of bile (along with the other things he's full of). I agreed with a lot of what Just said -- liberals have always had an ambition to make the world a better place, liberals are the ones who are supposed to pay attention to human rights (surely an issue in Iraq) -- I agree completely. I'm sort of a wary Wilsonian. I would like to believe in the possibility of using power to make the world better, but I've read enough history (and literature, for that matter) to know that even with the most genuinely idealistic motives, that ambition can turn sour. And there are always people waiting to take advantage of idealism and twist it into something else. That doesn't mean I completely abandon hope, but you have to be very careful about fixing your eye on the prize and not seeing all the traps in the way of getting there -- including your own arrogance about your "values."

And in this case, we're not even starting with ideals. The motives are so blatantly greedy and cynical. That's why Just completely loses me at the end when he talks about how liberals should encourage wars that will "repair the earth." First, that requires me to accept the idea that Bush is interested in repairing the earth -- which is just laughable. Then I have to believe that the precedent set by a preemptive strike would not matter, that when the strongest country decides it can overthrow other regimes at will, that doesn't gouge a hole in the idea of justice and liberal ideals.

Take care,


I have been thinking about your last note -- on the Just article. It's the dilemma we keep circling. How to make the world better, how to deal with the built-in problems of power and the limitations of democracy and the delusions of the hegemonic culture.

I can't say I have any real answers at all. I know trying to support women's rights in Muslim countries is right, and yet it seems that support becomes part of a fabric of Barbie Dolls, Starbucks, and Blockbusters franchises -- how to tweeze it apart and how to begin the educating, at home at least, of a society so numbed to its own privilege and its own form of misery.

Don't know.


I was intrigued by your comment about the relationship between supporting women's rights and having that turn weirdly into support for a corporate-friendly universe. There's no logic in that, of course, but I know what you mean. I've been on the verge of putting something similar into words for awhile, but I can't get it to come together in any reasonable way.

There was an article awhile back in the NY Times about a woman in the Netherlands, an immigrant from Somalia, who is a strong voice against Dutch laws that aim at "respect" for immigrant cultures, because she sees those laws used by Muslim men to protect their cultural right to oppress women. She's gotten many death threats -- an amazingly brave woman.

Many conservative Muslims, of course, see her as attacking their culture. I started to write something about her, but I got sidetracked, and then I noticed right-wing blogs picking up the story -- and using it, of course, to attack Muslim culture. Which made me realize that as much as, of course, my heart is with this woman, in some way her critics have a point, -- well, that's putting it much too strongly, but at some level I understand their anger -- she's providing ammunition for people to make broad, nasty attacks on Muslim culture. But I don't think she has an alternative either. Those are "attacks" that have to be made. She's wonderful, and I applaud everything she's doing. I just hope she gets some Muslim support -- people who are able to back her criticisms, without attacking the culture. (Thank God for the students in Iran who have come out for that professor they're threatening to execute.)

That sounds off topic. I often go round in circles before I get anywhere, sorry. I was thinking that just as the bigots are ready to pounce when someone makes a criticism that has to be made, the Starbucks and Walmarts (not to mention the Halliburtons and Exxons) seem to be waiting for an infusion of American values to become a turn to American consumer culture. Our values are often turned against us. And it certainly seems that most Americans don't see a big difference between supporting American values and expanding American corporate influence. There was an article in Time a few weeks ago about the loosening of clerical control of Iran, but the picture they put with it was of smiling countergirls in hijabs in a pseudo-Carl's Jr. As if the fact that some Iranians are eating hamburgers is a sign that democracy is just around the corner -- or people questioning clerical rule leads directly to Carl's Jr. franchises. There's a difference between hamburgers and democracy -- I don't know why that's such a hard idea to get across.



The old cultural imperialism bugaboo. These are bone hard issues for the left, because we place enormous value on women's rights, and we also value cultural differences, and at some level those values are in conflict in much of the world (maybe slightly less so for feminists than for leftists with less focus on women's issues, because feminists long ago got used to saying, the hell with cultural sensitivity, genital mutilation is an outrage.)

Call it p.c. if you want, and it certainly can dissolve into that kind of mindlessness, but there's a genuine value at the core of that cultural sensitivity, and one I don't want to lose. If my only choices are a mindless "mustn't criticize anyone's culture" or "convert them or kill them" -- I'll take the former. But I don't think those are the only choices.

Anyway, speaking about how cultures become twisted in the ways that radical Islam clearly has ("radical Islam" is a stupid phrase -- but I haven't got a better one handy), and about keeping consumerism and American values separate, and keeping the xenophobes from co-opting the issue of reforming Islam (or, at least, creating the conditions for reasonable Muslims to reclaim it), and how assimilated Muslims are, and the whole idea of cultural sensitivity versus women's rights -- do I have enough issues there, or should I toss in a few more? -- there are a lot of threads to explore:

First, did you read the article in Salon recently on Oriana Fallaci ? She's pulled a Hitchens and written a book defending Western civilization from the Muslim hordes. I haven't read Fallaci's book (don't plan to, either), but the author of the Salon piece says that it has "more bigotry" than "any other book worth reading" and he gives a few repulsive examples. But then he tries to dig some worthwhile stuff out from under the dirt. He suggests that despite its nastiness, even racism, Fallaci's book is "a bracing response to the moral equivocation, the multi-culti political correctness, the minimization and denial of the danger of Islamo-fascism" that you find on the left. Which is sort of what you're saying, I think, only without the borderline acceptance of la Fallaci's operatic bigotry.

The issue is, can we get the "bracing" honesty without passing through xenophobia, and if we don't manage it, aren't we ceding the issue to the bigots?

One of the ideas the Salon article brings up is that we have to grapple with the notion of religion, its values and its darkness -- which is something neither the left nor the right does a very good job of. On both ends of the political spectrum, and all through the middle as well, most of us approach religion in one of two stupid ways. Either we go around attacking other people's religions without any attempt to understand them (Hitchens is the master of this because he despises all religion -- this is a man who told a Salon interviewer that he felt "exhilaration" about the war because "there has to be a stand made against the worst kind of tyranny that there ever could be, which is religious," and he's not just talking about fundamentalist Islam, he sees this as a war against "the religious worldview" -- and while he gets some good shots in here and there, he can be astoundingly dense about the nourishment people draw from religion, not to mention what it would mean to a society to lose thousands of years of moral teaching). If we don't attack, we put on our nice faces and insist that all religion is fundamentally good and we should never criticize. Neither of those approaches is terribly helpful.

As usual, I'm probably spinning off topic here, but sometimes my way of making sense of what I don't know is to look at its connection to something I do understand, and what comes to my mind is my own difficulty recently in writing about the Catholic Church. I grew up in the Church and had a lot of horrible experiences in it, but right now my attitude toward it is a combination of respect for its traditions -- no, actually, it goes deeper than that: I think the moral questions the Catholic Church asks and even its symbols and rituals are irreplaceable -- and fury at its misogyny, its homophobia, its anti-Semitism, its power games, its hypocrisy…well, I could go on forever about my anger at the Church, but the point is that when I started writing on this site, I sometimes wrote about what I knew of the horrors in the Church. But something disturbing happened. I'd see what I wrote picked up by other bloggers and twisted. Often unintentionally, I think. There were people who just had a gut level mistrust of religion and they'd pick up things I wrote with a "see I told you religion is bad" attitude. And I eventually stopped writing about it because I had no interest in attacking the Church and I don't want to feed misunderstanding. What I wanted to do was explore the way the good and the bad wove together -- but I discovered that that was very difficult to do in a public forum. Not impossible -- but I had to be careful about the way I went about it.

I promise, I'll eventually get back to Islam. And there really is a connection.

Lately, it's gotten even harder because the Church has gotten easier to attack, and people are taking nastier shots at it. I don't know if you've followed the sex scandals in the Church at all, but about a week ago, the bishops apparently softened their policy toward pedophile priests. I haven't delved into the details, so I don't really know how good, bad, or indifferent the new policy is, but there was one horrible thing, and that was when Bishop Gregory lashed out at people who are supposedly hostile to the Church and all it stands for and who are just using the scandal to destroy it. Now, I admire Bishop Gregory, he's a good man, but that was a stupid thing to say. He seemed to be attacking the victims' groups -- the very people he desperately needs to listen to.

Anyway, I gathered some articles about it because I wanted to write something, because I think, as someone who stands slightly outside the circle of the Church, but still respectful, even admiring, of it, (basically the same situation many Arab intellectuals find themselves in, I suspect, in regards to Islam) I understand some things that neither people fully in it nor people indifferent or hostile to it do.

But I ended up not writing what I intended to, because I started running across some obscene comments about the bishops that made me queasy. And at the same time the bishops issued a really good statement opposing war with Iraq -- bringing up all the ethical and moral issues that I wish everyone was dealing with. I saw a lot of rightwingers using the pedophile scandal to attack the bishops' moral authority, and making a connection with their statement on Iraq in a way that I thought was unfair. It's not just that I think their moral authority is important because right now, politically, they agree with me. I think the kinds of moral questions they ask are important to deal with, even when I disagree with them. And so I couldn't write about the things I understood about how power operates in the Church, because at the moment I have a sense that there is a greater danger in the voice of the Church being silenced than there is in the abuse of clerical power.

I can't tell you how ironic I find that. I grew up knowing the Church's power to silence people. I never expected to see it silenced. That doesn't mean I'm one bit less angry about the abuse of power, but I'm reluctant to speak of it because it's so easy for people to use anything I say to attack the Church in ways that it doesn't deserve to be attacked.

Now if I, from outside the Church, feel that way, imagine how people who have more commitment to it than I do, even very liberal, reform-minded people, feel. There was a op-ed piece recently by Andrew Greeley, who's a liberal priest, someone who's never been reluctant to criticize the Church, but he basically repeated what Bishop Gregory said -- the victims' group leaders are power hungry and the media is out to get us. People under attack -- even good, thoughtful people -- are not terribly open to the possibility of reform. And outrageous attacks put even sympathetic apostates like me on the defensive.

I've just finished reading two books by Fatima Mernissi, a Moroccan feminist, one on gender relationships in Muslim societies, and the other on Islam and democracy, and I'm in the middle of a book by Leila Ahmed on the history of women under Islam, and while both authors are vehement in their denunciations of how women in Islamic cultures have been treated, and honest about the misogyny that is an inescapable element of Muslim tradition (and I find their denunciations a lot more "bracing" and honest and than those of people like Fallaci and Hitchens who have ulterior motives for their attacks, besides not understanding the cultures), they also -- especially Mernissi -- see a situation far more complex than most of us appreciate. And also, rather than rejecting the religion outright, they search for alternate readings, and traditions that were lost along the way, as an alternative to the misogyny. Reading Leila Ahmed, who wonders how the lives of Muslim women would be different if some of the less misogynist scholarly traditions (and there are some) had taken hold reminded me a lot of the former Catholic priest James Carroll writing about how the Catholic Church might have been different if Peter Abelard's voice, for example, had become a central part of the tradition. In any faith, I think people who search the tradition for what could have been and might yet be are precious. Neither the Bible nor the Koran are fundamentally anti-female, and many women find support in both books.

I read an interview some time back with Kanan Makiya, a professor of Middle East studies at Brandeis and an Iraqi dissident, who said that part of the problem with Islam in much of the Arab world today is that Arab intellectuals abandoned it -- and that left religion in the hands of imbeciles. I think there's something to that. (I also think we've got a similar problem in this country -- although obviously on a much smaller scale -- with the decline of the old mainstream churches and the growth of both dumbed down smiley face religion -- the kind you find in a lot of popular religious books -- and, well, the imbeciles and thugs, Falwell and worse.)

I think some intellectuals in the Arab world are trying to claim Islam back. That’s why the situation with Hashem Aghajari in Iran is so interesting. He's a threat to the clerics because he's talking about texts being interpretable -- meaning isn't set in stone. That's something Leila Ahmed talks about a lot -- the need to get back from the clerics the power to argue about meaning. (I mean, fundamentally, it's the quintessential feminist demand: Let us tell and interpret our own stories.) I'm obviously not an expert, but some reformist Muslims I've read suggest that the whole idea of clerical mediation between God and man is foreign to Islam anyway -- a power grab that has no basis in the Koran. In any case, Aghajari is not attacking Islam, he's attacking powerful people trying to control the meaning of Islam. And on the one hand, he was sentenced to death for that, but on the other hand, he's apparently gotten overwhelming support -- although, of course, there's a backlash as well. But maybe that support suggests a longing to peel faith and power apart. And maybe there's your Reformation. There's a real struggle for the soul of Islam here that's very heartening -- and it's in the streets, not just a fight among clerics, politicians, and intellectuals.

Anyway, what I'm trying to say is that if we go looking for honest criticism of how Islam has interwoven itself with some brutal power relationships -- and reading Ahmed, it's pretty obvious that's not a recent development, although it has recently gotten more dangerous, at least for us -- those are the people we should be paying attention to, not Fallaci or Hitchens or Bush or Falwell. Or even Huntington. Because they know what they're talking about, in the first place. And their critique obviously comes without any nasty assumptions about Western superiority, even with love for what is best in the culture (Love is a quality you can't miss in Mernissi's books.) And generally it comes with an awareness of Western complicity -- which you're never going to get from the right -- a refusal to let the West off the hook. I don't remotely mean you can blame imperialism for the problems, but if you take honesty about how the West has reinforced and encouraged a lot of garbage in the Arab world out of the mix, you end up with a very distorted picture. I don't ever expect to see Oprah choosing Nawal el Saadawi or Taslima Nasrin for her book club, but I'd like to see intelligent people on the left spend less time defending themselves against Christopher Hitchens and more time exploring the legitimate critics of the darker elements of Islamic culture, not the crypto-colonialist ones. You want non-pc honesty -- that's where it is.

This letter's gotten much too long for me to deal with assimilation. My experience makes me think Muslims are a lot more assimilated in the US than in Europe, but I may be wrong, and even if I'm right, I don't know why that would be true. Well, I have some theories, but I've already written too much, so I'll drop that for now.

Look forward to hearing from you,


On supporting women's rights and Wal Mart invasions: I think this is related to the culture imperialism discussion. That woman in the Netherlands is indeed right. The culture of Islam at present, in many contexts, is very repressive in regard to women. There are signs it is changing a bit -- but of course hard line Judaism is also oppressive in regard to women, and one might argue so is Christianity in its more extreme manifestations. So why is it that Islam has been so hijacked by the radical elements?

I think it's partly something inherent in the belief system itself -- even if this sounds quite un-PC. Is it because, as some have argued, that Islam has had no reformation? No Martin Luther or Calvin? Perhaps -- although the parallels don't quite match up. It's probably more to do with the historical forces around those countries -- feudalism being forced to leap into the modern world, and Imperialistic powers helping keep big chunks of the Islamic world in their feudal state and propping up western friendly (business friendly) military regimes. The natural course of evolution is derailed.

Still, I think (as a five year resident of Europe) that Muslim culture has refused any form of assimilation in the countries where it has immigrated. The Netherlands is amazingly tolerant -- and it's been a tense dynamic from the start there -- and in different ways in France and Spain as well. In France, there is no denying that Muslims have been more self-isolating and difficult to deal with than, say, the west African community. Each situation in Europe is slightly different, but this refusal to assimilate has led to the Pim Fortuyn syndrome. Now Fortuyn wasn't a particularly nice man, but he also wasn't a demon, and when he said Islam was backward and intolerant, it struck a chord in Holland. Suddenly people were coming out and saying, well, yeah, I do find the Muslims all around me rather self isolating and their preaching against homosexuals and women's rights flies in the face of our tolerant traditions.

To some degree this happened with LePen in France in the same way (and LePen, like Haider, is a nightmare). And from personal experience, in Paris, the Arab and Muslim community is simply hostile and downright threatening at times.

My liberal (even Marxist) training kept looking for the economic and social analysis of this, but to be honest, it became harder and harder not to just admit that Islam was creating its own problems. The belief system trumps the national and even clan alliance. This is why so little in the way of moderate Muslim protest has occurred anywhere by dissenting Muslims. Notions of dissent are strangely absent -- and you're quite right that Iranian student protests are a welcome change to this (interesting, this is Persian though!).

The endless sensitivity about cultural offense becomes tiresome, to be frank. I've lived an awful lot of places: Mexico, Thailand, France, England, and now Poland -- and traveled to a lot of others -- and it's always been the Islamic countries and communities that have created problems -- which I know is making me sound like Samuel Huntington, but the cultural bias against women, to return to the original point, is simply so obvious that its hard not to condemn it outright. And even if the historical and material forces are behind this strange deformed curve in its social evolution, I would argue Muslims must start organizing against the radical influence. And the only organization I see is that of Muslim feminists -- and almost the entire Arab world is close to irrational in its defense of all Islamic society.

Arafat and the Palestinians are another example of this in a way. The Muslim community never comes out and really denounces suicide bombing and the gangsterism of the Syrian government or the corruption of the House of Saud. And this leads us back to the corruption of the US government and its invasion of Iraq (when probably a better case could be made for regime change in Saudi Arabia.)

I guess the final point is much what you said -- democracy and educational advance is not McDonalds and Baywatch. I think the values we should be exporting are choices about education and this can only come from showing that there are choices, and from this will lead, one hopes, a growth of tolerance. Its also important, no matter what, that women's rights be defended -- and if this includes (as it probably does) a clear distinction between those rights and racism and cultural bias (so the far right doesn't co-opt the issue) then that's what it includes. I believe Islam must reform itself -- which doesn't mean Islam or Muslims are "bad," it simply means a step toward self-critique is long overdue.

Best, JS

So much to discuss.

I will start with where I live -- Poland -- 99% Roman Catholic -- and I see the way that religion has meant a lot to people who needed John Paul when he helped create an order to the opposition to Communism, but I also see (given the backward, anti-modernist leanings of this Pope) the way it now contributes to the low-grade xenophobia and near paranoia of the Polish lower classes. Religion clearly is something more than people like Hitchens would like it to be -- so much of western culture can be traced to Church writing (from the New Testament to Augustine to Tillich) and this legacy seems in danger of utter debasement at the hands of current Catholic leaders (the leader of Opus Dei a saint?).

I can't help but see organized religion as institutionally corrupt at this point -- the excesses of far right Christians in the US and the Radio Maria types in Poland (or Opus Dei in Latin America and elsewhere) have seemed to gain in power and credibility. [ed. note: the cabinet appointed by Pedro Carmona, who briefly replaced Hugo Chavez as president of Venezuela in a coup last April, consisted of several members of Opus Dei; the organization has also achieved some measure of influence in the US.] I am no expert in this area but one does see parallels to what is happening in Islam.

Let me jump topics though and touch on this question of cultural sensitivity. I guess I am of the opinion that this sensitivity, as too often expressed these days, is rather over-valued and misdirected. Cultures change -- this seems to me to be the lesson of history -- and those that don't tend to self destruct. The Academic post-modern left (the PC police as I see it) seem to want, at least sub-consciously, to keep all cultures in a state of pristine and unchanging separation. I am all for preserving those aspects of a culture that should be preserved -- but stoning women to death for adultery and general lack of rights fall into the category of things I feel comfortable in arguing need reform.

That said, the fact that the west (meaning the US mostly), asks, in appearance anyway, for democracy in the Muslim world and then finds that the early election results have voted in mostly anti-democratic parties makes one pause. Of course mostly men voted and few women were even allowed to -- and as Stalin said, its not the voting that matters, but rather the counting. Does this mean one abandons the Muslim women who are working for change? I don't think so, but then the US just voted support for an administration that is clearly of an authoritarian bent (and a country that remains homophobic in a great many places and racist in others). The US simply cannot be seen (as we have talked about) as a leader of liberal values of tolerance and humanism.

So I think its important to keep the negative and militant aspects of Islam in mind. Just off the top of my head I can recall King Feisal of Iraq being murdered, and President Shishakli of Syria a few years later, and then Hamadi of what was North Yemen and Sadat, and Mouawad of Lebanon, and Boudiaf of Algeria (not to mention the various attempts at assassination in that country) and attempts on Mubarak -- and so on and on. Islam's militarist mind set is hard to deny -- and while this isn't to say that Islamic culture isn't full of singular and historically important advances, it is to say that over the entire post Ottoman-Arab war period the region has been nothing except violent (and the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and the Ba'ath Party sympathies with National Socialism ).

I will again quickly point out the endless conflicts the US has found itself in -- so perhaps it's simply the unwavering ignorance of mankind. However, I do think there is something in Islamic culture that tends toward reactions of a martial type, and what part of this is the product of post colonial residue and US foreign policy is hard to say. Clearly US policy in propping up western-friendly but corrupt and brutal leaders has done nothing to promote societal and cultural evolution.

I keep returning to the absence of moderate Muslim dissent and commentary. Almost the only ones I do hear are western educated and live in either Europe or the US. There are exceptions to be sure -- and probably it's hard to get word out in many circumstances. The compromised media in the US is certainly tending toward this as well ( I heard not a mention of the anti-Bush protests in Prague -- which Fox called Czechoslovakia a full three times -- and it was, according to Polish TV, a very large and peaceful protest) and I increasingly think this is of the utmost importance.

So yes, the idiot racist and bigoted and myopic Republicans and Democrats need to be debated (as they demonize Islam), and as you say, without the knee jerk apologetics of so much of the left these days. The opposition needs to be sober and honest and not look for strategies and opportunity. The best and most articulate argument I have heard against the war was from Pat Buchanan -- not a Democrat or a far left analyst. One does not need to take sides on all issues -- if Sharon is bad, that doesn't make Palestinian leadership good -- and it's time for US analysts to cram on history a bit -- investigate the American foreign policy that helped create the mess in the Middle East, while not trying to excuse the Islamists who issue fatwas on novelists they don't like and issue death sentences on most any dissent anywhere, anytime.

American leadership will only make things worse, but voices are needed to keep trying to tweeze apart the complexities of recent history and to look honestly at what is wrong and oppose it, at least philosophically.

Regards, JS

Well, I woke up this morning and thought I should add a couple more thoughts.

Let me give you an example of what I call over cultural sensitivity. In the Paris bus station (in Banilieu -- the Euro Lines station that handles all international bus traffic), there is a waiting area upstairs next to where you board. At the far end I happened to walk into what looked like a public restroom -- and was quickly kicked out and told in angry French/Arabic that this was a Muslim area and the whole end of this part of the waiting room was for Muslims and prayer. I had to wonder what this had to do with my needing to use the washroom -- but in any case I didn't see a Christian waiting area nor a meditation area for Buddhists or Jews, only this rather large area for Muslims that was cut off from everyone else.

Now I have no problem with an area for prayer -- but beyond that it seems to show a lack of respect for other cultures and religions. The four noble truths of Buddha are all about respect and honor and not fixating on the illusions around you -- but respect for self and others is most prominent.

This brings us to the problem I have with a lot of Islamic attitudes -- a lack of respect for other religions and beliefs. A novel is offensive -- ok, but why does the publisher have to apologize to the Muslim community? He wouldn't apologize to the Christian community, I'm guessing -- nor the Hindu. But then they would simply condemn a book that offended them and not issue death sentences.

So I think there is a kind of over sensitivity on the part of Muslims about Islam, and a kind of strident response to much that is different, and this is probably, again, education. The lack of education does tend to breed an inward looking ignorance that is in step with all fundamentalist behavior -- whether Morman, or Baptist, or Hindu.

So I don't want to sound culturally insensitive -- I'm not, and I think the bigoted rhetoric of so much of the right these days is exactly a precursor to worse kinds of behavior that will make them what they behold. Ashcroft isn't really all that far behind Mullah Omar at heart. But I do think Islam is in desperate need of coherent self criticism or it risks annihilation. Assimilation is a complex process that involves more than just learning the language of a new country. It also means accepting certain norms and values. In America, due to its history probably, Muslims have assimilated better -- but certainly not in Europe. My girlfriend covered her head and wore very modest clothes while we traveled through Islamic countries -- and this is what one might expect Muslims to do in non-Muslim countries -- show that kind of respect to the customs of the people they are living and travelling among.

How much of Islamic irrationality is born of fear and hatred of women I wonder? Another complicated question.


Well, yes, I think we can probably agree that stoning women is a bad thing. And jailing and torturing gay men. And suicide bombings. And executing children -- no, wait, we do that too, don't we? Forget I mentioned it.

But is anybody speaking in favor of those things? Ok, maybe that's too rhetorical a question. Is anyone on the left failing to adequately condemn those outrages? And that one I mean as an honest, non-rhetorical question. I'm willing to admit there may be some truth in that charge, but, honestly, I don't see it. The impression I get from the right is that leftists are barely aware those things exist, or don't care, but it's human rights groups like Amnesty and HRW -- which I constantly hear conservatives write off as "liberal," (they aren't, but if conservatives are rejecting their work, maybe there's some truth in the label) -- that struggled to draw attention to those kinds of things when most people couldn't have cared less. And feminist groups as well. I've been a member of Amnesty International for almost 20 years, and I've written "freedom writer" letters on behalf of people whose rights were being abused to every continent on earth except Antarctica. I don't think those are issues I've avoided, and I don't have a sense that they're issues other liberals have avoided either.

I know you're right, though, about tolerance for immigrants sliding over into tolerance of intolerance or acceptance of unconscionable beliefs. It happens. I'm not thinking of Muslims here, but I know of two problems that friends in education and social work deal with in relating to immigrants. A lot of immigrants bring from their own cultures the idea that education is for men. Not only are girls not encouraged to go to college, sometimes they're told flat out that they are not allowed to go. What's a high school counselor to do -- tell a young woman, the hell with your parents, this is America, if you want to go to college, go? Well, if you're down to that as a last resort, I'd say, yes. Don't tolerate misogyny. But the truth is, that girl is going to be a lot more comfortable in college if she has her parents moral support, and if you can avoid barging in and saying to the parents, look guys, you've got these idiotic cultural assumptions about women's abilities and you're just going to have to dump them now that you're here, it's better to do so.

And I've heard of similar problems in child welfare. People bring to this country some brutal notions of what constitutes reasonable child rearing practices. Of course, they are the same ideas Americans had a couple of generations ago, but still -- we've moved forward, and we can't let people go around sticking their children's hands in a flame in order to teach them not to play near the stove. I'm not being facetious. I grew up in a brutal home, and I don't have any tolerance for the smallest abuse of children, physical or verbal. But once again, barging in with a "what's the matter with you uncivilized brutes" attitude is not terribly effective. It's not a matter of saying, "Well, gee, that's their culture and we have to accept it," it's a matter of trying to understand the culture so that you can work with the parents to make things better for the kids. (Of course, I would say the same things about some fundie Christians, who have their own weird notions of child rearing.) But if you have to get them out, get them out. Beating children is not a cultural or religious value -- at least not one anyone should put up with. (Now if only we could get Jeb Bush to agree with that.)

But sometimes educators and social workers let things slide, and while I'd say overwork, or occasionally simple laziness, were bigger factors, a lack of desire to confront an ugly cultural difference can play a role too, and that kind of "cultural sensitivity" is stupid and wrong. And, sure, I'd agree with you that a publisher apologizing for a slur against Muslims in a novel is in the same category and beyond the pale. I'm sure you'd also agree that threatening the funding of an art exhibit because it offends Catholic sensibilities or of a gay-themed play because the local evangelicals aren't happy is equally beyond the pale. I don't have a problem saying Muslims can be idiots, as long as we extend that to recognize that they don't have exclusive rights to idiocy. Plenty of competition, unfortunately.

Can I come back to that issue of stoning for a minute? One interesting thing about the Amina Lawal case in Nigeria is that, as I understand it (and, once again, I'm no expert), although stoning is mentioned as a punishment in the Koran -- as it is in the Bible -- it hasn't been recent practice in any part of the Arab world. What's happened in Nigeria is that central government authority collapsed, and now you've got a bunch of men vying for power, and one of the means of exerting power is to say, we can do whatever we want and you have no way of stopping us. The outrageousness of the sentence is the point. It's meant to be provocative. The president of Nigeria has repeatedly condemned the decision, but his condemnation means nothing -- he doesn't have the power to enforce it. And part of the reason for the horrible sentence is to show that he has no power to enforce it. In fact, Muslims all over the world, including in Nigeria, including even in Amina Lawal's own village, have condemned the sentence. (I wrote about this awhile back, but unfortunately Blogger ate some of my archives so I can't find my links). To condemn someone for adultery, according to the Koran, you need four eye witnesses. You can read that as saying you shouldn't condemn anyone for adultery -- because how many people have sex in front of four witnesses? It's like Jesus saying don't cast the stone unless you've never sinned -- he didn't say straight out, don't stone the adulteress, but he created a condition that made doing so impossible. A sly bit of humanity and decency in both cases. The point is, the decision has little to do with culture or religion, and everything to do with groups of men fighting for power over the body of a poverty-stricken young woman.

Which I guess lends a lot of credence to your theory that hatred of women is at the root of a lot of the insanity. It doesn't grow out of a religious text, but out of a nearly psychotic need to control women. Fatima Mernissi has a theory that part of the problem, ironically enough, is that Muslims are less puritanical than Christians. Christianity has viewed women as virtually sexless -- well, most women, there's always the Madonna and the whore division -- while Muslims see women as being just as sexual as men. In some ways, that's a good thing, but it has also made men nervous. They have more need to control women. And that way a certain madness lies. Take it for what it's worth -- I'm not sure, but I thought it was an interesting idea.

One more quick, possibly incoherent thought -- just about the nightmarish list of assassinations in the Muslim world. You're right, it's a gruesome list, but worse than, say, the history of bloody coups in Africa and Latin America? I suppose I mean that only partly as a rhetorical question. I'm not sure how you'd decide which group of people had the nastiest history. What would be the basis of comparison? Which is to say, I'm not sure it's true that the post-colonial Muslim world has more bloodshed than anyone else. I'm not sure it isn't true either. But I don't think we want to tote up the numbers of dead, or weigh the blood. I think you have to look at the individual stories.

Obviously I'm not in any way trying to justify assassination as a way of getting rid of any leader, no matter how tyrannical (I differ from the current administration on that little point) -- but in this country a lot of people have a sense that all those assassinations are of people trying to reform Arab countries, or modernize them (or even "civilize" them, if you get far enough to the right.) And that supposedly proves that nothing can be accomplished in the Middle East, because "good," moderate leaders will always get killed by fanatics.

The model is Sadat -- Saint Anwar, who worked so hard for peace, but was murdered by Islamists who presumably hated peace. Which has a small amount of truth in it, and a lot of lies. (Most lies have some shriveled little truth buried in them somewhere, don't you think?) I mean, Sadat did some good and brave things, but what Egyptians saw was a man who dressed his wife in designer clothes and went on skiing vacations in Europe while the economy of Egypt was tanking. And when people complained, he censored the press, jailed his opponents and had demonstrators killed. Mubarak is even worse.

I'm not attempting to gloss over the violence, but it's important not to fall into the trap -- I don't think you do, but I think most Americans do -- of thinking he was assassinated because he made a deal with Israel and that proves no Arab leader can be reasonable and get away with it. The fundamentalists didn't kill the peacemaker Sadat, they killed the tyrant Sadat. But because in this country we're primarily aware of Sadat as a peacemaker -- that's a complexity it's hard to take in. And I think if you just make lists of all the atrocities, it reconfirms that false image.

As usual, I've written too much. Back to you…


I do agree that Latin America and Africa rival Islam in bloodshed -- but what I was trying to point up was a general pattern of militancy in the Islamic world, where you have almost no free press and almost no rights for women and dissent is seen as a threat to the regimes in power. One can say, yes, Sadat was killed because he was a tyrant (of sorts) but why have the ultra-reactionary anti-democratic parties done so well recently in Morocco, Algeria, and Pakistan? The Miss World riots are just the most recent demonstration of this excessive sensitivity on the part of the culture.

The lack of democratic values (and humanistic values) seems connected to the climate that Islam produces. Since almost 1800 there has been little sustained liberal-humanism in Islamic countries (the House of Saud is hugely guilty here as they have, over the last fifty years, funded first the Muslim Brotherhood, and of late, Osama Bin Ladin ). There is a critique that says such liberal values are a product of western thought, and the Enlightenment, but I might argue that almost all religious teaching (in theory at least) and most civilizations are founded on respect for others -- and I am not sure I can say that about Islam.

I must say that I have found a number of moderate Muslim voices however, in various blogs, where the criticism is articulate and very much anchored in Koranic teaching, so the phenomenon of "radical Islam" cannot, in the end, be said to be a direct result of the teaching of Mohammed. That said, I don't find similar patterns of violence in other place, don't find as many terrorist organizations elsewhere, and don't find this deep-seated intolerance in quite so substantial a way in other cultures.

I do think I am guilty in some respects of demonizing (or singling out) Islam, but that is what the discussion started with. Clearly the Crusades led to four centuries of Christian barbarity and I am sure I could find examples of even Buddhist militancy. I still think the particular historical situation in the Muslim world, or at least the Arab world, has intensified the backward and reactionary dimension to the culture. It has not always been so, but it certainly seems so now.

As for the sensitivity issue -- I didn't want to sound like the liberals and the left were advocating stoning, just that the logic of avoiding a critical position because of "cultural sensitivity" can create an atmosphere of avoidance of all critical positions. I feel the left has often insisted on taking sides, and this logic, also, tends toward an avoidance of critical awareness.

But your points are well taken. And indeed, the right is using the demonizing of Islam to create an illusory war -- a war against the abstract noun of terror -- when they should be examining the practices and policy that has led to so much resentment and try and work toward a strategy that supports the moderate and progressive voices in the developing world, instead of always looking for the most business friendly regime to support.

I do think however, that assimilation is important -- if your culture refuses to embrace in any way the values of your new country, I suspect that conflict will follow. And I guess I do think those parents need to be told to send their daughter to school -- even if she is uncomfortable without parental support -- because the next daughter will be a bit less uncomfortable and so on.

I wonder just how different the history of the middle east (and Islam ) would be if oil hadn't been discovered in the Gulf. The post-colonial world of Latin America and Africa, while violent and troubled, is still essentially different from that of the Arab world. Petro dollars have influenced a good deal -- and there is a lot of blood on the hands of the House of Saud, and of the oil companies who helped leverage support for them from, mostly, the US and England. If people are denied education and jobs and the opportunity to join the modern world, and all they have to turn to are the fundamentalist radicals at the Mosque -- they are going to learn nothing except intolerance. This is not to say I still don't find real problems at the heart of Muslim culture --- but I want to make clear an emphasis on the role of oil wealth and how it has affected Islam.

A good discussion, and I feel you've changed my position, a bit anyway, and that's always a good thing.

Regards JS

Friday, November 22, 2002

Just a few more blogs that I'll be adding to the blogroll this weekend. A couple are recent discoveries. Most of them I've been reading for quite awhile (and I'm adding them to my list so I can stop trying to remember who has the link.) If there are any here that you don't already know about, check them out -- I think you'll like what you read.

The Road To Surfdom


Natalie Solent

Eve Tushnet

Neal Pollack

Thinking It Through

The People's Republic of Seabrook


The Hamster

Notes From The Lounge

Michael Finley

Pen-Elayne on the Web

Progressive Gold


And, yes, you're right, a few of the bloggers on that list are people I disagree with far more often than I agree -- but they're interesting writers and thoughtful people, and those things count for a lot with me.

Thursday, November 21, 2002

A touch of wit and class has returned to the blogosphere. Welcome home, Jim.

It's common knowledge that terrorists are locked into their hatred of America and nothing we do can change that. Even I've said that, arguing only that many people -- especially young men -- in the Arab world can be tilted in our direction or theirs, depending on our actions.

So, if I start with the assumption that some people have simply set aside their humanity and can't be moved, how do I explain the fact that Mir Aimal Kasi, the Pakistani national who was recently executed for murdering two CIA employees in 1993, asked that Muslims not attack American citizens or attempt to avenge his execution? An American woman who corresponded with him for three years believes that during the time he was in prison, he got to know Americans and his hatred subsided. I find it so miraculous, I won't even speculate.

That Byrd can sing
In a Senate speech, Robert Byrd called the Department of Homeland Security a boondoggle. Some highlights:

We have not given the cities and municipalities -- the police, the firemen, the hospital workers, the first responders, who are on the front lines -- we have not given these people one red cent to help them keep us safer…

Because of reckless disregard for the reality of the threat to our domestic security, this administration and many in this Congress have taken part in an irresponsible exercise in political chicanery…

This White House has stopped this year's normal funding process in its tracks, and even turned back funds for homeland security in emergency spending bills that could have shored up existing mechanisms to prevent, or respond to, another devastating blow by fanatics who hate us. ..

This Department is a bureaucratic behemoth cooked up by political advisors to satisfy several inside Washington agendas.

1) It is intended to protect the president from criticism and fault -- should another attack occur.

2) It is intended to eliminate large numbers of dedicated, trained federal workers, so that lucrative contracts for their services may be awarded to favored private entities.

3) It will be used to channel federal research moneys and grants to big corporate contributors without the usual federal procurement standards that ensure fair competition and best value for the tax dollar.

4) It will foster easier spying and information-gathering on ordinary citizens which may be used in ways which could have nothing whatsoever to do with homeland security.

And now with this new bill, which showed up only last week on the doorstep of the Senate, insult has been added to injury by provisions that further exploit the already shamefully exploited issue of homeland security with pork for certain states and certain businesses.

My, my, my, how low we have sunk.
(Full transcript)

Dwight Meredith applies the Al Gore Consistency Standard to George Bush, and finds a man not really comfortable in his own skin -- and it's not Gore. (But the links are screwed up -- thanks a lot, Blogger -- so just find "Mistaken Identity" on the page.)

Halliburton Watch
Two Texas energy companies, both closely tied to the Bush White House, are lining up administration support for nearly $900 million in public financing for a Peruvian natural gas project that will cut through one of the world's most pristine tropical rain forests.

A top priority of Peruvian officials, who view it as key to energy independence, the Camisea project has encountered fierce opposition. Worldwide environmental groups and some members of Congress argue that the massive extraction and pipeline project will destroy the rain forest and the lifestyle of its indigenous people.

The project backers' quest for financial support from U.S. development banks will test the political pull of the Texas companies, Hunt Oil Co. and Halliburton Co., which have longstanding ties to the Bush-Cheney administration and the Republican Party….

See, now couldn't you just kick yourself for not writing that check to the Republican Party? You too could have had $900 million dollars in public financing, and the right to trash a rainforest. Next time plan ahead a little better. And don't forget to invite Dick Cheney for dinner once in awhile. He'll appreciate your thoughtfulness.

War crimes arrest blow to Iraqi opposition
DANISH police arrested last night an exiled Iraqi general tipped as a possible replacement for President Saddam Hussein. He faces charges that he was responsible for killing thousands of Kurds in a chemical weapons attack 14 years ago.

The arrest of General Nizar Khazraji, the former Iraqi Chief-of-Staff and the most senior officer to defect from Baghdad, appeared to wreck any chances that he might lead a mutiny in the Armed Forces and help to topple Saddam’s regime.

Don't you hate it when you think you've found just the guy to lead a mutiny in the Iraqi army and replace Saddam Hussein, and he turns out to be a war criminal? Major bummer.

Signs that war is imminent: You start getting reports of how appallingly the enemy treats women. We have to save them, of course, because we are knights in shining armor, and we cannot stand by while women are oppressed.

Do they have an affirmative action program?
Somehow I don't think I'll be championing the rights of these women to break through the glass ceiling.

I don't know how to take this. Maine's Attorney General recently told an audience that domestic violence and sexual assault cost the country $260 billion dollars every year, and that even if you don't care about the women and children who are battered and assaulted, you ought to care about solving the problem because of how much it's costing you as a taxpayer.

I guess the point is to drum up a little support for shelters and counseling, and other things that make victims safer. And that's a good thing. Part of me feels like, hey, however you get the money is fine. But it's the suggestion that it's perfectly okay if you don't care about battered human beings that disturbs me. It's the idea that making cost the most important issue is no problem that makes my skin crawl.

I grew up with a mother who had half her teeth knocked out, who I rarely saw without sunglasses and long sleeves covering the bruises. Believe me, the fact that she used up a few precious police hours or missed a few days of work because she could barely move is not the most important issue. No matter how good your intentions are, just don't go there, okay?

A few thoughts on that p.c. liberal media…
My local newspaper has a woman editor. Nice lady. Our kids were in the same kindergarten class and they're currently in second grade together, so I've chatted with her a lot at little girls' birthday parties, hosted class parties with her, and been through field trip chaperoning and fall carnival set-up with her. What do you think the chances are that Howell Raines has ever made paper pilgrim hats for the kindergarten Thanksgiving party, or guided children around the cow pies on the trip to the dairy? Has he ever helped out in a classroom, listened to first graders read, and watched in awe as a gifted teacher took five-year-olds from an inability to recognize a single letter of the alphabet to writing daily love notes to the teacher?

And does that have anything to do with the fact that one of the topics the local press covers well -- and relentlessly -- is education, while the New York Times coverage often leaves me wondering if anyone over there has been inside a classroom in the past forty years?

Rents have skyrocketed in this town in the past five years and one of the results is that doctors are leaving town so fast you can't keep up with them. Every few years you need to find a new pediatrician. My seven-year-old daughter is going on her fourth doctor. Calling the pediatrician for a sick child and finding the phone has been disconnected (as happened to me a couple of weeks ago) is not earth-shattering, but it is extremely disheartening, especially when it keeps happening.

Does Howell Raines make pediatrician's appointments?

And why is health care -- and the disappearance of doctors -- another area that the local newspaper does a good job on? Could there be any reason why the paper seems mildly obsessed with that topic? And does that have anything to do with the fact that health care was a major issue in our recent congressional election? And that our congresswoman is a former nurse who displays knowledge of and passion for the subject?

In 2000, the percentage of women editors at major newspapers was 25 percent. It's now down to 20. (If you look at newspapers as a whole, the numbers are 29 and 26.) Maybe that's a statistical blip and it will go back up next year. I hope it's not a trend. To be honest, my feminism has always focused more on women at the bottom than women at the top. I've never cried many tears for women's thwarted career ambitions. It's unfair, yes, but not what I care about most.

But this glass ceiling holds us all down, because it effects the kind of news and opinion we get. A survey last year by the Media Management Center's Readership Institute showed that newspapers with few women newsroom managers had more gender stereotyping in the way news assignments were handed out -- men covered politics, women covered human-interest features. According to another study, by the University of Wisconsin-Madison, male reporters are far more likely than women to skew what they cover by citing a disproportionate number of male sources. So not only is the perspective of women reporters lacking in much hard news, but the point of view of women experts gets shortchanged as well. And readers are the losers.

For some reason, a lot of men seem to have a hard time recognizing the value of what women have to say. Look, even, at blogs. Is there any significance to the fact that the professional media takes note of the existence of blogs, and as a measure of respect for a new medium, links to a handful of the better ones, and yet, out of 27 chosen only managed to find only one woman worthy of inclusion? Admittedly, they also overlooked a few indispensable blogs by men -- but one woman? Isn't it possible not only that there are women whose writing is just as good as that of any of the men on the list, but that those women have different experiences that might give them insights the men miss? It's not like they're hard to find. All you have to do is look.

Wednesday, November 20, 2002

This may not be important news -- at least not to people who live and breathe politics -- but Ruth Lilly, who is both a poet and heir to the Eli Lilly pharmaceutical fortune, just donated $100 million to Poetry magazine, one of the oldest and most prestigious literary journals in the country. I could go on and on about the importance of small journals, the necessity of finding a place for voices that don't fit into the mass market, and the miracle of a lit mag with an actual source of income (I once published a story in one of the better, more established journals, and there was a note on the acceptance that said how much I would be paid, with the caveat that payment would be made only if their funding came through. I formed an immediate mental image of the editors digging in the sofa cushions for spare change -- and I never did get paid.) But there was one little detail in the article that really charmed me. Ruth Lilly's poetry has been rejected repeatedly by the journal, but the rejection letters were, according to the article, "kind."

I wouldn't exactly call that a miracle. There are plenty of kind editors out there. I once even got a hilariously funny rejection -- which shows real class, I think, or at least real wit (It's not easy to make someone laugh while you're rejecting them.) But then there are the other kind. I don't know a single writer, no matter how good they are, who hasn't, at some point, gotten a letter that can only be described as vicious. Years ago, I asked a writer who had a lot more experience than I did (with both writing and rejection) why editors did that. His answer was, "Didn't you watch the Road Runner when you were a kid? Crushing people is fun."

The funny thing is, those nasty letters often come with a note begging you to subscibe to the journal. Yeah, right.

But anyway, as happy as I am for Poetry magazine, and for the poets who may get a few dollars more for their work, I couldn't help wondering if any editors of small magazines will read this article and hold the venom on the next rejection letter they write. After all, you never know who you're rejecting.

UPDATE: Somehow as I was writing the good news, it didn't occur to me to make a connection between Ruth Lilly's fortune and all I've learned recently from Dwight Meredith about the relationship between the vaccine-preservative thimerosal and autism, and about the -- well, I can't find an adjective strong enough -- provision of the Homeland Security Bill crammed in to protect Eli Lilly from lawsuits by parents who believe thimerosal caused their children's autism. I don't know what to say, except that I guess you never really get away from politics, even in a nice, comforting story, and that sometimes unraveling good and evil gets awfully complicated. (Dominion, by the way, also has an excellent piece up looking at the research on thimerosal and autism.) Thanks to Jim Capozzola for reminding me.

UPDATE: Oh, and by the way, Eli Lilly gave 1.6 million dollars to congressional candidates this year. Eighty percent of it went to Republicans. Not that that has anything to do with why the bill passed with a measure that has absolutely nothing to do with security still in it. I just thought I'd mention it.

The Village Voice has done a stellar job in recent months covering the complexities of the Central Park jogger case. This week's issue has a must read piece by Sydney Schanberg on what the case reveals about the justice system -- which is "full of human fallibility and error, sometimes noble, more often unfair, rarely evil but frequently unequal, and through it all inevitably influenced by issues of race and class and economic status." Schanberg also delves into the roll ambition played in the case (which is covered more extensively in a separate article on the prosecutor, Linda Fairstein) and how the need to protect reputations is still at work. The piece ends with an observation that seems relevant to so many issues beyond the jogger case, that I have to quote it here:

People sometimes use the phrase "the game" to describe how big systems like government and multinational corporations often get manipulated not for the common good but for the good of the people who run them. It's not a description of evil, but rather of human nature. It explains what happens when individuals have been doing things a certain way for a long time and come to believe this is always the right way. One symptom is when a player begins to focus only on winning, on trouncing the opposing side. Another is when people become so habit-formed and sure of themselves that they stop asking the question: "Could I possibly be wrong about this?"

The story of the Central Park jogger case may be in large part a story about people in the justice system playing the game—when they should have been doing the right thing.

Tuesday, November 19, 2002

The Rittenhouse Review isn't exactly back -- but maybe sneaking in the side door?

Our Friends at Work
The United Nations has found evidence that a leading Afghan warlord and strong ally of the US tortured witnesses to stop them testifying against him in a war crimes inquiry, a senior UN source said last night.

General Abdul Rashid Dostam, an Uzbek warlord from northern Afghanistan, was a part of the opposition Northern Alliance which overthrew the Taliban regime with US help, and has been used extensively by the American military in operations against al-Qaida and the Taliban.

Witness accounts suggested that his troops were responsible for torturing and killing up to 1,000 Taliban prisoners after the regime fell in November last year. If confirmed, this would be the worst atrocity committed during the US campaign in Afghanistan, and would raise questions about the role of US special forces troops who were supervising the detention of the prisoners...(more)

Reading for regressives
See what reading cheesey books does to you?

I mentioned over the weekend that Congress had passed an aid package for Afghanistan that includes funds to expand the International Security Force outside of Kabul -- which is desperately needed to ensure some measure of safety for Afghans, especially women, and also to make it possible for humanitarian workers to do their jobs outside the capital.InterAction, an alliance of American NGOs, has hailed passage of the bill -- which many humanitarian and relief organizations have been calling for for a long time -- and are urging President Bush to sign it. The administration, until recently, has resisted the expansion of the ISAF, but there have been signs of some openness to the possibility of increasing the force. General Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently suggested that it may be time for the United States to change its priorities in Afghanistan from combat to reconstruction. There is still some opposition within the administration however, and Afghanistan seems to be falling off the presidential radar. It's not a lost cause, but not an easy one either. A little citizen pressure might help. If you haven't already added your voice, please do.

A little arm twisting at the UN
We've all heard about the astonishing feat of diplomacy that earned George Bush a unanimous vote in the UN Security Council. How did he do it? According to an article from the Inter Press News Agency, by reminding a few countries that opposing the United States can get very expensive.

Monday, November 18, 2002

Once around the blogroll…

Cal Pundit finds less political correctness (and less support for women) in "liberal" academia than right-wing rumor might lead you to believe.

Hesiod notes that Wesley Clark may be considering running for President as a Democrat, and has some interesting thoughts about the reception that may await him.

Sam Heldman puts class action suits in perspective: Do you believe it's just too damn hard right now for a big company to cheat you? Should we make it easier?

Liberal Oasis watches the Sunday talk shows (so you don't have to), sees Tom Ridge's defense of all Bush and Company have done to make us safer shredded, and wonders why it wasn't the Democratic leadership running the shredder. Good question.

"I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused." -- Graham Greene, The Quiet American

I'm a little clueless when it comes to popular culture, including movies, so maybe everyone except me has already heard about this, but there's a new movie out -- well, sort of new -- based on Graham Greene's novel, The Quiet American, about an American who arrives in French-occupied Vietnam in the early fifties, with no understanding of the local language or culture, but with a great, and genuinely idealistic commitment to American values, and a belief that the United States knows what is best for Vietnam. His mixture of naïveté and arrogance leads him to support people involved in a terrorist bombing in Saigon.

Given the current administration's apparent determination to remake the entire Middle East in the American image, that would seem like a pretty timely subject for a movie.

The movie is actually more than a year old. Unfortunately, it had its preview on September 10, 2001 -- and the producers immediately decided that this was not the time to release a film with a less than glowing and heroic portrait of an American.

And over the past year, the film's theme has grown more and more eerily relevant. But has it grown any more acceptable? Are we allowed to suggest yet that cultural arrogance might get us into trouble again?

Well, The Quiet American is back. Sort of. Thanks to one of its stars, Michael Caine, who pressured the producers to release the film in time for Oscar consideration, it was shown at the recent Toronto Film Festival (where it got a standing ovation) and opens this week in New York and Los Angeles. But that's it. No general release is planned. But some of us out here in the boonies would like to see it as well, and think it would be a very good thing if a lot of other Americans got to see it.

Sometimes somebody else just says what I'm thinking a lot better than I could:
"The party has to work to build a Democratic majority, not simply wait for it to emerge, and it needs both its center and its left to do that. I feel silly stating the obvious, except it's apparently not self-evident to the two wings of the party, who are still taking daily potshots at one another, most recently over the election of "San Francisco Democrat" Nancy Pelosi as House minority leader. Democrats need a center that's courageous and inclusive, and a left that wants to be relevant, not merely righteous -- and at this moment, it has neither. They still have almost two years to get it together, if they want to build a majority in '04, but the clock is ticking, loudly." -- Joan Walsh, "Donkey In Distress"

So, John Ashcroft has a heart. All this time, he's been keeping secret from us his empathy for the powerless, but now the truth emerges. Ashcroft has arisen as the voice of the truly oppressed -- the last group it is still socially acceptable to mock and despise. While every other victimized minority group has found its champion, no one has ever had the moral courage to stand up for the most downtrodden and despised group of all. But that was before we had an Attorney General whose commitment to Christian ethics and understanding of the social message of the Gospel place him in the company of leaders like Martin Luther King and Cesar Chavez. Ashcroft has hoisted his standard for the too long unappreciated cause of downtrodden phone sex operators, massage parlor owners, and escort services.

Last month, a Los Angeles alt-weekly, L.A. Weekly, bought out a less profitable one, New Times. Sad, and it's always a shame to lose a journalistic voice, but there are only so many advertising dollars to go around. And there are limits to how much phone sex people can take -- even in Los Angeles.

But, truly, there was an outrageous injustice committed, one that no decent person could watch in silence. Once New Times closed, L.A. Weekly could -- and did -- raise its classified advertising rates. The hungry and desperate escort services were out on the streets (so to speak), with nowhere to go, until this week, when the Department of Justice began an investigation into whether the two newspapers violated federal anti-trust laws.

Once again, this administration is displaying its well-established commitment to fair business practices and a free press. But surely the most important factor in the decision to investigate this case, was the administration's famous preferential option for the poor. All I can say is that it's about time we had an Attorney General willing to fight for the rights of decent and hard-working pornographers. Bravo, John Ashcroft.