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

Wednesday, April 30, 2003

How does someone become a columnist for a major newspaper? I know nothing about it, and I'm just wondering. Discounting cases of nepotism and connections, can I assume people move up through the ranks as reporters (although not necessarily for the same paper) and become columnists when they run out of steam? Can I assume that if a paper has an ideological bent, the anointed columnists have to fit into that, and if it doesn't, the paper looks for a wide variety of voices? (The Los Angeles Times comes to mind -- a once virulently Republican newspaper that has shifted over a few decades to become...well...mushy. It doesn't seem open-minded to me as much as confused. It's hard to figure out the slant of a newspaper that has Norah Vincent and Robert Scheer on its editorial page. But, to be honest, sometimes that's a good thing. Because they don't know what they're looking for, they end up, with the great courage of ignorance, publishing some astounding stories that no other paper touches. The first story I saw in a mainstream paper on civilian casualties in Afghanistan, for instance, was in the LAT.)

I started wondering about how columnists are chosen yesterday after reading Paul Krugman's column on the deceptive sales campaign for the war, which is, by New York Times standards, wonderful, and by Paul Krugman's standards, mediocre.

When Krugman's writing about taxes and jobs, he's doing something nobody in America can do one-tenth as well. He brings to the subject depth, detail, passion, and an astonishing ability to untangle webs of deceit. He's a Godsend.

But it's really hard to see the same qualities in his writing on foreign affairs. When it comes to commentary on international issues, the NYT is usually so bad that I'm grateful just to hear someone say the obvious: that if the administration didn't lie about the WMDs that were supposedly the cause of this war, they at least didn't tell the whole truth, and that there ought to be a price to pay for that kind of mendacity. (Compare the Times' most celebrated foreign affairs columnist, Thomas Friedman, on the same subject: "As far as I'm concerned, we do not need to find any weapons of mass destruction to justify this war." Or his sick and scary column today, urging Bush to take lessons in governance from Saddam Hussein.) I'm amazed to hear anyone even bring up the way Bush sabotaged sending a peacekeeping force to Ivory Coast -- a story I don't think the New York Times even bothered to cover. (Krugman must read the rival.)

But as refreshing as that is, Krugman isn't bringing any depth of knowledge to the topic. I could have written yesterday's column, as could the majority of people on the blogroll to the right. All it required was an ability to read the newspapers and tell the truth. Blogs wouldn't exist (or at least no one would read them) unless there was an unmet need for people who can dig around in a few news sources and tell the truth -- but shouldn't we expect more from a paper that has the enormous resources of the New York Times? Where is the columnist who can do internationally what Krugman does domestically -- write with knowledge, experience, and fire?

The weird thing is, the Times is sitting on at least one potential columnist who could probably be the foreign affairs equivalent of Paul Krugman. I recently read Chris Hedges' War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning -- an intriguing and beautifully written book by a veteran NYT war correspondent on both the mayhem and dehumanization of war and why people are seduced by it. This is Hedges, with a bit of his own "resume":

I have been in ambushes on desolate stretches of Central American roads, locked in unnerving firefights in the marshes in southern Iraq, imprisoned in the Sudan, beaten by Saudi military police, deported from Libya and Iran, captured and held for a week by Iraqi Republican Guards, strafed by Russian Mig-21s in central Bosnia, shot at by Serb snipers and shelled with deafening rounds of artillery in Sarajevo that threw out thousands of deadly bits of iron fragments.


Here, before going on to write about culture in the former Yugoslavia, is Hedges describing a phenomenon we're also experiencing in this country:

Art takes on a whole new significance in wartime. War and the nationalist myth that fuels it are the purveyors of low culture -- folklore, quasi-historical dramas, kitsch, sentimental doggerel, and theater and film that portray the glory of soldiers in past wars or current wars dying nobly for the homeland. This is why so little of what moves us during wartime has any currency once war is over. The songs, books, poems, and films that arouse us in war are awkward and embarrassing when the conflict ends, useful only to summon up the nostalgia of war's comradeship.

States at war silence their own authentic and humane culture. When this destruction is well advanced they find the lack of critical and moral restraint useful in the campaign to exterminate the culture of their opponents. By destroying authentic culture -- that which allows us to question and examine ourselves and our society -- the state erodes the moral fabric.


And here is Hedges describing his experience in Gulf War I -- again, sadly relevant:

Television reporters happily disseminated the spoon-fed images that served the propaganda effort of the military and the state. These images did little to convey the reality of war. Pool reporters, those guided around in groups by the military, wrote about "our boys" eating packaged army food, practicing for chemical weapons attacks, and bathing out of buckets in the desert. It was war as spectacle, war as entertainment. The images and stories were designed to make us feeel good aout our nation, about ourselves. The Iraqi families and soldiers being blown to bits by huge iron fragmentation bombs just over the border in Iraq were faceless and nameless phantoms.

The notion that the press was used in the war is incorrect. The press wanted to be used. It saw itself as part of the war effort.


Hedges has a knowledge of war -- and of the seductions and deceits that surround war -- that would make him a valuable commentator. Moreover, he has an understanding of human rights issues that no columnist in the country that I know of has. He's also a graduate of the Harvard Divinity School (a personal prejudice -- I'd like to see someone other than Cal Thomas writing about spiritual issues) and a reader (you'd think they'd all be readers, but one of the things that grabbed me in Hedges' book was his knowledge, and obvious love, of literature, ancient to contemporary -- a rare passion in a modern political writer). I can't think of very many people whose perspective on international affairs I'd rather hear on a regular basis.

Chris Hedges has retired from war reporting (he told Bill Moyers last month that even if the New York Times asked him to go to Iraq as a reporter, he would not go), but he still works for the NYT, contributing to the "Private Lives" column -- profiles of interesting New Yorkers. He's done some fascinating profiles -- some of which touch on political issues -- from liberal theologians, to peace activists, to yesterday's story about George Rupp, the head of the International Rescue Committee. And maybe that's what Chris Hedges has chosen to do at the moment. But given the limitations of the New York Times foreign affairs commentary, it seems like a waste of a gifted writer with an experience of war and a concern for ethical and human rights issues that is desperately needed.

Letters

"Where is the columnist who can do internationally what Krugman does domestically -- write with knowledge, experience, and fire? "

He's either a conservative whacko, or a damn radical.  I don't think the Times' management would allow such a person.  In the case of the Islamic Middle East, a few hours sitting down with the Encyclopedia Britannica (which I did a few days ago), reading the history of the Middle East since World War I (sic) would make the basics of the on-going conflict glaringly obvious, show just why so many people there hate us, and cure the common cold...well, maybe not that.

But there's not much mystery there.  Problem is, on the Middle East your columnist would have to write a more educated version of the following bit, from a Usenet article I recently wrote:

"Between World War I and World War II, most borders in the region were drawn by the West and Russia, and all were drawn under Western and Russian influence...Thereafter the politics of the region was shaped by the Cold War, which was plenty hot in the Middle East, and the oil industry.  I don't know much of the Cold War history, but generally the West and especially the USA allied itself with Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf States, while the Soviets allied themselves with Egypt and Syria.  The Iraqi and Afghan governments changed and changed again as the US and the Soviets played their global chess game.  Some Middle Eastern states (notably Saudi Arabia) were able to play the two superpowers against each other, parlaying their oil into real wealth, but there never was any doubt that all successes ultimately were the result of persuading foreign powers -- none of the major states in the area had power independent of the superpowers.

"So since the fall of the Ottoman empire, Middle Eastern history has been shaped by the West, the Russians, and the Soviet Union.  Of course they feel powerless.  They were powerless for three generations.  The Palestinians in particular were uprooted by the Israelis and ended up on the losing side of the Cold War.

"It is completely consistent with this that many Arabs have decided that peaceful methods will win them nothing and are willing to send young men and women to bitter deaths."

And this:

"Do you therefore account the taking of all their freedoms at the end of World War I as nothing? Is it only Westerners who may rationally want freedom?  The most basic of freedoms -- the simple right to choose how they lived -- was taken from the Middle East when the Ottoman Empire was defeated.  The West followed that humiliating defeat with many others, of which the US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and this second sack of Baghdad have been the most recent. These were a proud people with a proud martial history -- how could they not hate us?  To me, their reasons have become obvious.  And, by the same token, I think I know what we might do about that hatred."

Which is nothing that could be seen on the editorial pages of the NYTimes without evoking a firestorm of controversy.  The remarks about the Palestinians, though they are plainly true, would play very poorly with many New York Jews, who are after all a major portion of their paying readership.  But that's almost a side issue; the plain facts of the history put the West and the USA in such a poor light that they would be met with intense criticism.

This point applies to many other world conflicts; the fact of the matter, as far as I can tell, is that by just about any fairly compassionate ethical reference, much foreign policy and the global order we have has a result of generations of policies (and not only Western policies) is cruel, destructive, and foolish, much of it has been so for a very long time, and the NY Times can hardly say so, even as a matter of opinion.

It occurs to me that Noam Chomsky -- who I don't know if I agree with -- has been saying such things for a very long time. -- Randolph





Tuesday, April 29, 2003

Once around the blogs
  • Mac Diva has an interesting perspective on Winnie Mandela.

  • Barry has a thought-provoking follow-up to Bean's post on whether men can be feminists -- Can Men Be Victims of Sexism?

  • (Via Matt Yglesias) TAPPED asks why we're giving reconstruction contracts to companies the bin Laden family owns a stake in.

  • For someone who writes a lot about politics, I'm pretty unideological. But I could sign on to Julia's manifesto.

  • And I'll sign on to Jim Capozzola's prayer, too. Although with a lot of anger that prayer is all we've got in this case.

As an update to my post yesterday on women in Iraq, I wanted to take note of two criticisms that I thought made important points. The first comes from Atrios' comment section:

I'm a bit confused here, because I thought I did see women among the groups of Iraqi's photographed in the south and even in Baghdad; granted it was a limited number but as others have noted that may well be as a result of the inevitable post-war chaos. There were 400 people at that meeting; I had heard reported on the BBC that women would be represented, but I've been disappointed by the fairly meaningless coverage thus far of what went on at the meeting.

Jeanne is certainly right to raise the question. As with so much else about Iraq after Saddam, we just don't know yet what they'll make of their future.

In view of that, I'd like to make a suggestion for those of who opposed the war to think about. Can we separate, to some extent, our on-going skepticism of the Bush doctrine and thus the negative uses to which this war is likely to be put, from a reflexive pessimism I sometimes sense, about the possibility of any positive outcome for Iraqis as a result of Saddam's removal. Can we not agree that it would be better for all of us and for the Iraqis and even for the rest of the Middle East if, in spite of all the other likely mistakes this administration will doubtless make, and all their posturing through which we'll have to live, if somehow, the Iraqi's can pull this off, i.e., keep Iraq together, forge some kind of democratic federalism that gives the Kurds their autonomy, and the Shias theirs if that is what they want, and secures the fundamental human rights of all Iraqi's. Yes, a tall order. But not an impossibility. And the faster that happens, the faster Iraqis will be able to reject us as occupiers. Isn't there a role for the left in all of this, to at least try to see that the Iraqis get the chance to define a decent future for themselves, (and BTW, democratic principles, including respect for the rights of minorities, aren't necessarily inconsistent with a non-fundamentalist Islamicism)?

I hesitated to leave this post. I know we're all suffering from nerve endings rubbed raw by the disgusting triumphalism of the right, so please, no one take this as some kind of holier than thou critique of anyone. But I have Iraqi friends living in London, most of whom were skeptical of the war, dislike Bush, understand what's dangerous for the world about this administration, but who, realists all, and more knowledgable about Iraqi possibilities than any of us, nonetheless feel real hope for Iraq's future. -- Leah A


First, I noticed women in the pictures from the south, too. Not many, but some. If there were women in Baghdad, they must have been pretty rare, because I watched a couple of hours of CNN that day, and combed through many news sources, including looking through a number of newspapers' slide show collections of photos, and didn't see a single woman.

But overall, I think Leah raises a good point. I didn't mean to suggest that the future would be bad for Iraqi women. If I had to make a prediction (something I'm very hesitant to do), my guess would be that it will be a mixed bag. I think it's extremely unlikely -- although not entirely impossible -- that the human rights situation in Iraq will ever return to the horrors that existed under Saddam. And obviously that benefits women as well as men. I also think it's quite likely that women will lose at least some of the rights they had -- and it isn't impossible to imagine ways in which they could end up much worse off than they were. My problem is that I see us ready to celebrate a "success" in Iraq that doesn't include women, and I won't celebrate that. If, in a few years, Iraq looks a lot like Saudi Arabia, or Iran, or even Pakistan, something will have gone seriously wrong -- and I'm not sure a lot of men in power see it that way, because women's lives aren't important to them. Maybe if more people realize now that that would be nothing to celebrate, it will be less likely to happen. Maybe.

But the bigger question is, is there any "role for the left," as Leah puts it, "to see that Iraqis get the chance to define a decent future for themselves?"

A reader offered a suggestion:

I didn't notice a great deal of women celebrating out in the streets of Kurdish controlled Northern Iraq either. Crazy huh? The only time they seem to be visible is when someone has died or is ill. On the upside -- I didn't see any women looters! :-)

When I left Iraq (having grown up there) 27 years ago, women had major rolls outside the home. I knew women doctors, engineers and journalists. During the Iran war, women would have doubtlessly carried out the work tasks of their absent menfolk, as was the case in Britain in the second world war.

Women are still not on a level footing with the men, but their plight is less worrying than most other counties in the region, however, now would be a great opportunity to move women's rights forward and I suspect that the new American Administrator to Iraq's central zone (including Baghdad), Barbara Bodine, may well have quite am impact on that. Perhaps we should lobby her? -- Unsigned


I must admit, it's really hard for me to dredge up much enthusiasm for holding this administration accountable for the future of Iraq. That doesn't mean I don't think it should be done, but at this point I have so little faith in their ability to get anything right, to even attempt to do anything that isn't greedy and cruel, that lobbying them seems like an enormous waste of time and energy.

A year ago, I would have readily agreed that our role was to make sure that as much attention was devoted to building as to smashing. A year ago, one of my favorite columnists was Thomas Friedman, who repeated pointed out the need to invest in Afghanistan. But after seeing what has happened in Afghanistan -- along with all the other signs of greed and inattention to human needs -- it is simply delusional to continue dreaming that if we just keep pointing out why building is more important than smashing, this administration will see the light. Friedman's columns are increasingly delusional, and I rarely bother reading him any more.

Somewhere, buried under a lot of callused emotions, I still believe that our role is to advocate -- for human rights, for women's rights, for transparency in all the deals going on. I just don't expect to have any impact whatsoever. Of course, I agree Leah's hope that Iraqis will be able to create a workable democracy for themselves, whatever form that takes (including an Islamic republic -- I don't think that's necessarily a contradiction in terms -- as long as it respects the rights of women and religious minorities.) But I think that anything Iraqis accomplish will come in spite of, not because of, the Bush administration. We can keep pushing for transparency, and supporting real democracy in Iraq, but the best thing the American left can do to support Iraqi aspirations is to send Bush back to Texas (and Bechtel back to San Francisco).

Monday, April 28, 2003

You know, I'm really beginning to hope Bush just made up everything about banned weapons. A lying president I can live with, but when I think of the alternatives....

Soldiers also found two mobile laboratories that contained equipment for mixing chemicals, but they appeared to have been ransacked by looters, Martin said.

"Ransacked by looters." That doesn't sound good to me.


It doesn't sound great to me, either. Steve Bates has more.

A long and rambling post about women and war that's been ambling around my brain for a long time without ever settling comfortably into any known essay structure, even by the loose standards of blogs, but which perhaps can be defined as a small stab at a still developing genre -- the quiet and hesitant rant

One of the things that struck me watching the crowds tearing down the statues of Saddam Hussein was that I didn't see any women. Another thing that struck me was that no one commented on this -- as if streets without women were entirely normal. Pardon my stereotypically feminist response, but to me a world wiped clean of women is a little disturbing. It seems to say, "Here is the future of Iraq. And people of your gender aren't in it." I don't want to be a party-pooper, but it seems that about 65% of Iraq didn't get its invitation to the party.

I hope that's not the future of Iraq.

It's not just what it says about Iraq that makes me uncomfortable. I don't like what it tells me about my own country either. At some point in my life, I'd like to live in a country where people looked at a place devoid of women and noticed that there was something strange about that, and where I didn't feel like I was committing a faux pas by bringing it up. I'd like at least one talking head to stop and comment, "Did anyone notice there are no women? Doesn't that seem eerie?"

Where were the women? To me, that was the first sign that there was more chaos than joy. If it's a party, women will be there. But if women are staying away, I thought, maybe they are reading it as a far more dangerous and threatening situation than what the American press was suggesting. Maybe the women of Iraq know something that Wolf Blitzer doesn't. The lawlessness that followed tells me that if that was their reading, Iraqi women are pretty smart, in a way that potential victims have to be if they're going to survive.

Atrios recently pointed out this statement by Howard Dean: We don't know yet whether the Iraqis will be better off without Saddam Hussein. I like a man who can be both obvious and stunning in the same sentence. I've been waiting for someone to say that, especially after some smart people simply accepted the "things will be better" motif. I'd like to think so, too. And there's certainly a possibility that will happen. But when you look at the options, there aren't any really good ones, a few don't seem to offer much improvement, and at least one definitely falls into the category of worse than Saddam Hussein.

At this point I figure anyone who'd hazard a guess as to what Iraq will look like in a year, let alone a generation, is braver than I am. Looking at the options, I see a range from frightening to lousy but not quite as bad as some of the other possibilities, and I don't want to make any guesses about which ones will pan out.

But among the sad, and not unreasonable, speculations is this article (Via Alas, a blog) on what could easily be a loss of rights for women in post-Saddam Iraq. There was a similar article in yesterday's Los Angeles Times, about the fear of many Iraqi women that as horrible as Saddam Hussein was, the future may be, for them, no better, if not worse.

That seems counter-intuitive. Gender equality doesn't mean a lot when it's combined with contempt for human rights. What could be worse than beheadings, rape, torture and murder?

Not much, obviously, but that description is a bit misleading. Some of what you see in the State Department report is proof that Saddam was an equal opportunity criminal. But some requires a little reading between the lines. As proof of Saddam's brutal treatment of women, for instance, the State Department cites a 1990 change in the Iraqi Penal Code exempting men who kill women in so-called "honor killings" from prosecution. Since 1990, more than 4,000 Iraqi women have been victims of honor killings. It also cites an Amnesty International report describing beheadings of women accused of prostitution. But beheadings and unpunished honor killings are not exactly rare phenomena in the countries of some of our allies. I'm not raising an issue of hypocrisy as much as pointing out that such brutalization was part of an attempt to placate fanatics and tribal leaders. The same fanatics and tribal leaders we now get to try to figure out how to deal with. I doubt we'll be as placating, but I don't see the Bush administration really standing up for women's rights either. They didn't in Afghanistan, and they won't in Iraq. The temptation to give in on something not terribly important -- the lives of women -- will be enormous. Religious nuts can be a nuisance, and women's lives and health are expendable -- no matter what the creed of the nut you're placating.

One of Iraq's oddest "little secrets" -- which Nicholas Kristof wrote an interesting piece about last year -- was that Iraqi women were probably more free and better off than women in most Arab countries. Because of general economic growth in the '70s and '80s, combined with widespread literacy programs, and programs to educate women, improve health care, and get women into the workforce, Iraqi women are among the best educated and most professional in the region. Two things cut into that progress. One was Saddam's attempt to control fanatics by tossing them a bone -- women's rights. The second was sanctions. Besides its effect on the health of all Iraqis, the crushed economy under sanctions caused many women to lose jobs and abandon education. The drop out rates became much higher for girls than for boys.

Look at the realistic options for Iraq and try to imagine which ones would actually result in improvement of the lives of women.

The Women's E-news article quotes a number of women who put their faith in the State Department's pledges of concern for women's rights, but who fear that the Pentagon has greater clout. That would be this State Department and Pentagon:

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Thursday that the United States would not tolerate Shiite rule in Baghdad. "If you're suggesting, how would we feel about an Iranian-type government with a few clerics running everything in the country, the answer is: That isn't going to happen," he said Thursday in an interview with Associated Press.

Pentagon planners are increasingly committed to Ahmad Chalabi, the secular Shiite leader of the Iraqi National Congress, as a means of countering the prospect of a theocratic government, despite new signs that Chalabi is not widely popular, according to administration sources.
In contrast, the State Department argues that the recent emotional Shiite commemorations of a martyred saint and the rise of religious leaders as the new local authorities are not a cause for long-term concern.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell even suggested Thursday that the United States could accept a new government with an Islamic identity.

"Why cannot an Islamic form of government that has as its basis the faith of Islam not also be democratic?" Powell asked, pointing to Turkey and Pakistan as Islamic countries that hold elections.

Iraq could serve as a model, he suggested.


I have to admit a few days ago, I was thinking in the same direction as Powell, although I wasn't thinking of Turkey and Pakistan, but Iran, and the idea that Iran may be closer to democracy than Iraq, and that democracy may have to develop after people live with a lousy choice for awhile and decide to eliminate it themselves.

Maybe a theocracy wouldn't be the worst possibility.

My brain wandered around in the dark and found its way back to the real world eventually. Democracy in Iran is a hope -- a fairly realistic one, I think, but one that hasn't proved itself yet. Theocracy might be a stage Iran had to pass through, but then again, it might turn out to be more tenacious than it currently looks. A theocracy in Iraq might, in fact, strengthen the theocracy in Iran.

And then there are the consequences for women, at least a generation of Iraqi women.

If I were an Iraqi woman, I wouldn't be terribly comfortable with Colin Powell's suggestion that we could live with a theocracy.

But American promises and alliances with Iraqi exiles don't look very promising either. Notice anything wrong with this picture?

Garner starts talks on Iraq future

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - The U.S.-led team in charge of Iraqi reconstruction has begun talks on the future of the country with Baghdad academics and community leaders saying it did not want to see fundamentalists come to power.

"You have a great pride, blood in your veins that comes from the birth of civilisation, the birth of government in Iraq," retired U.S. general Jay Garner, head of the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, told about 60 men invited to the meeting on Thursday.

No women attended the talks.


At some point in my life, I'd like to live in a country where a sentence like that last one makes everyone very uncomfortable.

Sunday, April 27, 2003

Kevin got to the LA Times a lot earlier than I did today, and has some good analysis of this disturbing article about how the Pentagon has so bungled the hunt for weapons in Iraq that they have "raised the threat of arms proliferation." His theory that the military was surprised by the speed with which Baghdad fell rings true to me. Although it certainly doesn't make me feel any safer.

Combined with earlier reports of the looted and still uninspected Iraqi nuclear facility, it's beginning to look like the best we can hope for is that either the Bushies were lying through their teeth about the WMDs, or intelligence was a mess ( not an unlikely possibility) and there was nothing there. Because the possibility that there were weapons, and now they're gone, and we have no idea where they went, is not a pleasant one.

Guest post by Donald Johnson
An open letter to the editors of the New York Times
I noticed a very clear demonstration of a common pattern in the Sunday New York Times -- leftwing opinions are mostly ghettoized (if that's a word) in the Arts section.  Frank Rich has written a scathing piece on the American government's responsibility for the looting in Iraq and Emily Nussbaum wrote a mostly sympathetic piece about the TV program MASH, pointing out that its extremely harsh criticism of the US government's lies would make some people very uncomfortable today.  (She says that some might find it "adolescent".)

The NYT also does short articles on particular people sometimes, written by various reporters.  Chris Hedges has done a few of these, and sometimes he picks a left-wing type to write about.  That appears in the Metro section.

In contrast, the "serious" political commentary in the Book Review, the editorial pages (where Frank Rich used to write until recently) and the Sunday Magazine section generally excludes such perspectives, except as something to be caricatured and dismissed.  So the Book Review carries a piece by Paul Berman, where leftwingers are portrayed as people who deny bin Laden's religious fanaticism and prefer to believe that al Qaeda members are motivated by legitimate grievances about American foreign policy.  In the 19 months since 9/11, I have not seen one single leftist in the Nation, the Progressive, Commondreams, Sojourners or Z Magazine who ever denied that bin Laden and al Qaeda are dangerous and murderous religious fanatics.  They do say that American foreign policy crimes and hypocritical policies contribute to an atmosphere where ordinary Arabs might come to sympathize with terrorists, but for Berman, it's more convenient to erect a strawman and attack that rather than confront what the left actually says.

And in the Sunday Magazine, we have a piece by Niall Ferguson which defends British imperialism and regrets that Americans don't have the stamina to establish an old-fashioned empire along the lines that Victorian England ran.  I wonder if the Indians and Irish and the Tasmanian aborigines feel the same regret. Perhaps they enjoyed famines and genocide.

It's not that there is no merit to anything that Berman says about the left -- the problem is that the NYT never lets the left speak for itself. Your readers, it seems, must be carefully shielded from firsthand exposure. I think the virtually all leftists would agree that even a corrupt Western democracy is vastly superior to Islamic fundamentalism, and that al Qaeda is a group of murderous fanatics who must be stopped. Most also think the US is guilty of various crimes, some of them on a massive scale.  The NYT refuses to accept that last proposition, so the left must be excluded from the pages where "serious" political commentary is offered and they must be portrayed as sentimental fools who can't face up to the fact that there are evil people in the world. The willingness to denounce the crimes of Islamic fundamentalism while whitewashing our own is dubbed "moral clarity" -- if you genuinely favor the principles of Western liberalism and want to hold the US to not terribly rigorous standards (don't support torture, don't target civilians with sanctions, etc...) then you must be a moral relativist who makes excuses for terrorists.

To be fair, there are some borderline leftist criticisms on the op-ed pages of the NYT, but they stay within certain limits.  Krugman is as harsh a critic of Bush's domestic policy as anyone could imagine, but foreign policy is not his specialty.  Kristof occasionally mentions, almost in passing, that the US sometimes supports monsters.  And Bob Herbert, who usually does a great job writing columns about domestic injustice, did point out that Bush's war might have been fought for sleazy economic reasons.  But they won't go that final step and hold the US accountable for possible violations of human rights overseas. That seems to be beyond the pale. Leftists who hold such positions are to be kept outside the pages of the Times and can only be mentioned in order to ridicule them.

So to the extent that anyone can expect to see a leftwing view of American foreign policy in the NYT, you have to go to the Arts section, and even here only Frank Rich is actually talking about real events;  the Nussbaum article is political criticism one step removed from actual events, where she discusses the kind of sitcom that would be acceptable today rather than the events which might call for a critique. The editorial pages, the Book Review, and the Sunday Magazine, where you might expect that freewheeling debate which the NYT supposedly favors, carefully excludes people to the left of the NYT editors.

This isn't censorship, of course, because the NYT has the right to its bias. But you pretend not to have a bias.   Your approved writers often refer to this overwhelming leftist din of "anti-American" voices that dominate the debate and yet there's barely a whisper of leftist opinion on American foreign policy that ever makes it into the NYT.  Except, of course, for the Arts section, where sympathy for a leftist critique is expressed in an article about an old television show.



Attack Sets Arms Depot in Iraq Afire

A fire that U.S. military officers blamed on an Iraqi guerrilla attack set off a chain of fierce explosions at a U.S.-controlled munitions dump today, sending rockets, missiles and other ordnance shrieking into residential neighborhoods in this southern Baghdad suburb. A number of civilians were killed or wounded, fanning anti-American sentiments that have been smoldering for days.


This doesn't seem like the wisest time to close the U.S. military's only center devoted to peacekeeping.

Human Rights Watch reports than in Northern Iraq, particularly in the oil-rich cities of Mosul and Kirkuk, the "peace" is proving "more lethal than the war." Ethnic tensions in the area, which a real concern before the war began, are part of it, as the victims of ethnic cleansing seek revenge. The Turks may not have invaded, as they threatened to do if the Kurds took control of Kirkuk, but it has to be disturbing that they are attempting to arm ethnic Turkmens in the city.

The New York Times has an interesting article about a program at Bellevue Hospital for torture survivors. One of the saddest parts is how increased federal surveillance and the threat of indefinite detention for some asylum-seekers is making life harder for people who have already suffered in ways that most of us can't even imagine.

Saturday, April 26, 2003

Well worth your time

Maybe they should change the name of the country to Oil Coast
This series of headlines says a lot, I think, about this administration's priorities:

April 7:
Fighting in western Ivory Coast


An Ivory Coast rebel group has accused President Laurent Gbagbo of "playing with fire" by breaking the terms of a French-brokered ceasefire.


April 14:
Cote d'Ivoire: Liberian Fighters Attack Civilians


According to recent Human Rights Watch research, both government and rebel forces in western Cote d'Ivoire are responsible for massacres of civilians, rape, reprisal killings and systematic looting. Liberian combatants fighting on both sides are committing many of the abuses.

"Liberian fighters are playing a major role in this war, and civilians are paying the price," said Peter Takirambudde, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Africa division. "We've seen this pattern before in West Africa. The Security Council needs to act now to prevent any further deterioration in Cote d'Ivoire."


April 15: Ivory Coast Government, Rebels Clash


Each side accused the other for Monday's attack in the village of Bin-Houye, in the western borderlands near Liberia. Army spokesman Lt. Col. N'Goran Aka said about 500 rebels attacked government troops, while rebel spokesman Antoine Beugre said the rebels were defending themselves from soldiers.

Later, Beugre released another statement claiming government forces had subsequently bombed Zouan-Hounien, 12 miles north of Bin-Houye, killing three people and injuring 14 others - all civilians.


April 18:
Ivory Coast rebels allege army attack


Ivory Coast's rebels accused the army yesterday of killing 11 people in a helicopter raid on a marketplace just as rebel ministers took office in a new government aimed at ending seven months of civil war. Aid workers said they knew of at least one death and were treating 50 people, including several children, who were wounded in the air attack on the western town of Vavoua.

''They all tell the same story. They did not hear the helicopters coming and they were caught out at the market by the fire,'' said Andre-Jean Pocheron of the French-based humanitarian body Medecins du Monde. (Doctors of the World).

''They are all terrified,'' he said by phone from Seguela, 45 miles north of Vavoua, which lies in a cocoa-growing western region of the world's top producer.

The rebels said 10 civilians and one rebel were killed in the raid Wednesday. Former colonial power France, which brokered a deal to end the war in the West African country, condemned what it called an ''unjustifiable attack that threatens the peace process.''


April 21:
Ivory Coast Refugees Tell of Surge in Killings


Weary and frightened villagers straggling from the bush in western Ivory Coast tell of dozens of killings and wanton abuses after a surge of fighting that has soured hopes of peace. The involvement of warring Liberian tribes, inured to atrocities by years of bloodshed, has made the rebel conflict in this corner of the West African country even more savage and tangled than elsewhere.

It is hard to get a precise toll for recent deaths from the accounts of those limping into the French-protected town of Duekoue -- two women shot by the road here, five people killed there, another nine at a cocoa farmer's camp in the bush.

"They killed 20 people last Wednesday. They just came and killed them. Women, old people, they killed them," said planter Cesar Zrho from a village north of Duekoue on Sunday.


April 23:
U.S. Blocks U.N. Peacekeeping Plan for Ivory Coast


The United States, trying to keep down U.N. costs, has blocked Security Council action on a plan to set up a small peacekeeping mission in strife-torn Ivory Coast, council diplomats said on Wednesday. A council resolution drafted by France nearly three weeks ago proposed setting up a U.N. operation with 255 military and civilian staff in the West African nation, which has divided along ethnic lines after months of civil war despite a peace deal reached in January. But the resolution stalled after Washington objected to the projected $27 million one-year price-tag for the mission. The United States, pouring billions of dollars into Iraqi reconstruction after toppling its former leader Saddam Hussein, has instead proposed a mission only about a third of that size, diplomats said.


Now what was all that stuff about caring for suffering people? And why is it reasonable to spend billions on a war and then balk at 27 million to keep people from being slaughtered?

I've never been much of an Instapundit reader, let alone debunker, but I got curious today about what war supporters might be saying now that the statue-toppling, fun part of the war is pretty much over, and the messier occupation has begun. I wondered how you spin

I honestly wondered if anyone looks at the papers these days and says to himself, "Gosh, things are going well in Iraq." Maybe there's a silver lining in the cloud that I don't see?

No, apparently the key is to avoid looking at the cloud. The only mention of Iraq yesterday was what appears to be a call to do a repeat performance in Zimbabwe. So far today, there's been a single post gloating over the fact that volunteers from other Arab coutries appear to have been killed in Iraq.

It's an interesting strategy: If I don't look, there's no problem, and everybody will forget about it and move on. Might work. Might not.


In the post below, I mentioned the Foreign Policy In Focus article on models for governing and rebuilding Iraq. Among the models is Afghanistan, which is actually one of the more promising possibilities.

Under the Afghan model, after a brief military occupation, perhaps lasting 90 days, a UN Assistance Mission, like the one established in Afghanistan, would be mandated by the UN Security Council to steer Iraq toward democracy and to coordinate humanitarian and relief activities. A UN approach has been widely endorsed internationally by members of the U.S.-led military coalition Britain and Australia, as well as by the EU, Russian, China, Japan, and the Arab League.

Along with the establishment of a UN Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI), the UN would convene a conference to select an interim Iraqi government. Similar to the Bonn Conference held shortly after the fall of the Taliban, such a gathering would assemble important internal and external opposition figures and groups. The meeting would exclude all political figures perceived to have been tainted by the Saddam Hussein regime. UNAMI would assist the nascent Iraqi administration in governing the country and coordinating the work of UN agencies and NGOs, who would be responsible for the bulk of relief and recovery duties. Control over the Iraqi oil industry would be placed under the jurisdiction of the Iraqi interim government, with the UN and the U.S. jointly retaining an authoritative advisory role. After an interim period of up to two years, during which a Constitution would be drafted through an open and consensual process, UN-monitored elections would be held to choose a broadly democratic government.

The U.S. would retain a military presence, not exceeding 20,000 soldiers, during the interim period before democratic elections were held and a national army was rebuilt. The U.S. troops would be supplemented by a UN-mandated peacekeeping force similar to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. The primary U.S. role under this model would be to secure vital resources such as the oil fields, to avert the breakup of the country along ethnic lines, and to prevent regional states from interfering in Iraqi internal affairs. Like in Afghanistan, U.S. influence over the newly established government and the reconstruction process would be strong but integrated into a multilateral framework and orchestrated from behind the scenes.


One of the main difficulties of this model is that Iraq isn't Afghanistan. On the up side, it's much more educated, urbanized, and resource-rich. On the down side, it is already proving to be far more hostile to American presence.

But the greater danger of this approach is that it's likely to be half-hearted and incomplete, as it has been in Afghanistan itself, where a lack of international attention, a refusal to adequately staff the security force, and a confusion of efforts, has crippled relief and rebuilding. An anecdote at the end of this New York Times article says it all:

Most aid agencies, and many Afghans around the country, would like foreign troops to disarm the private militias, reduce continuing robbery and extortion, and curb the power of the warlords, Mr. O'Brien said.

But the military teams are concentrating on small-scale projects -- building schools, or even just providing desks and latrines for them -- while the larger issues of disarmament and peacekeeping are left unfinished, he said.

Rafael Robillard, the director of a coordinating body of international aid agencies in Kabul, summed up the frustration of many aid workers. "I was talking to one civil affairs guy, and we were looking at a kindergarten the American military was building, and the soldier turned to me and said, "Why aren't you guys doing anything about disarmament?" I could not believe it. The military is building kindergartens, and they are asking me, a civilian aid worker, to do disarmament! The world is upside down."


Pentagon Sending a Team of Exiles to Help Run Iraq
Fascinating. The Pentagon is sending 150 Iraqi exiles to Baghdad to be the second rung of the government. The first rung, of course, is American. One disturbing and telling detail -- only seven of the exiles agreed to have their names revealed because "Most of these people believe that if they are seen as agents of America, they will be killed." Gee, there's a vote of confidence in the popularity of American rule. Weren't they supposed to be greated with flowers, or something?

UPDATE: Foreign Policy In Focus has a useful article this month -- Who Will Govern Iraq? -- exploring the strengths and weaknesses of various possibilities that could play out in Iraq, including the "Iraqi Exile Model."

UPDATE: Matt Yglesias definitely has the best comment on the exile situation.

Friday, April 25, 2003

The United Nations Commission on Human Rights meets for six-weeks every year. Theoretically, it exists to put pressure on countries with grave human rights abuses. This year, according to both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, it failed miserably. That's not surprising, considering that the commission was chaired by Libya, and included such stout upholders of human rights as Algeria, Zimbabwe, Cuba, and China. Candidates for next year's commission are, if anything, even worse.

Countries with bad human rights records shouldn't be on the commission, let alone be allowed to chair it. They're using it to make sure gross human rights violations don't get investigated and condemned.

As Human Rights Watch has noted, the strongest tool the commission has is its ability to name and shame. That power doesn't exist when the commission is in the hands of abusers. They don't name, and they have no shame.

And yet, reading HRW's report, I can't help wondering if the primary beneficiary of this nasty situation is not the Bush administration, which clearly doesn't want a UN Human Rights Commission with real moral stature. HRW criticized the role the US played in this year's session on several issues -- failing to co-sponsor a resolution comdemning Russian abuses in Chechnya, failing to sponsor a resolution critical of China, resisting human rights monitoring in Iraq, opposing a call for accountability for human rights abuses in Afghanistan, insisting that opposition to execution of juveniles be dropped from a resolution on children's rights, and fighting (unsuccessfully) to prevent the commission from calling for ratification of the International Criminal Court. The US has a big voice, and it can make an important contribution when it condemns human rights violations. But it can't do so while simultaneously taking justice into its own hands and claiming exemptions from international law. For a gang that simply wants to make its own rules, the best situation is one in which nobody takes the cops seriously.

For Bush, Libya is the ideal human rights cop -- the one nobody will take seriously.

Nice speeches are fine, but major powers need to stop being "indifferent" to the decline of the Human Rights Commission. Unfortunately, that isn't going to happen until we have an administration with a real interest in human rights.

CNN got Pentagon approval for the military talking heads covering the war?

Slipping through the cracks, though, is what [Eason] Jordan subsequently told Howard Kurtz, and it was equally troubling. It came out at the end of an appearance last week on "Reliable Sources," a CNN show that monitors media behavior.

Kurtz, who juggles two hats while covering media for the Washington Post and drawing a paycheck from CNN as regular host of "Reliable Sources," asked Jordan about government criticism of retired military men who had second-guessed aspects of U.S. invasion strategy during initial TV coverage of the war.

The essence of Jordan's reply to Kurtz was that he didn't understand the fuss because he had received clearance in advance. According to a CNN transcript of the program, he said: "I went to the Pentagon myself several times before the war started and met with important people there and said, for instance, at CNN, 'Here are the generals we're thinking of retaining to advise us on the air and off about the war.' And we got a big thumbs-up on all of them. That was important."

Important in what respect? CNN viewers were not about to learn, for time had run out. "OK, we've got to leave it there," said Kurtz.

Which was unfortunate, because Jordan had just revealed that he had asked the Pentagon, in effect, to vet and approve ex-military men that CNN hoped to use as analysts. That is getting cozy.

Such spit-and-polish multitudes were the backbone of coverage on all of the networks when the war was hot, and among the few who didn't always fall in line with the Pentagon was retired Gen. Wesley Clark, the top military pundit on CNN. Clark was anything but a Pentagon patsy, pulling no punches on the air after combat began.

Based on Jordan's own words, nonetheless, the news chief had asked the Pentagon to sign off on personnel assigned to a key element of CNN's war coverage, the equivalent of consulting with the White House in advance about political or policy experts it planned to use on the air. And he regarded the Pentagon's endorsement as "important."

Not the best way to inspire confidence in the media's independence.


You mean there are people who still have confidence in the media's independence?

This story hurts: Among the places looted in Baghdad was a home for abandoned children -- stripped of beds, chairs, tables, books, even electrical sockets and door frames. And children. Half the children in the home have disappeared, and while some may have run away, a spokesman for UNICEF thinks at least some may have been kidnapped by gangs. A few of the children have been found, and some of the girls seem to have been abused.

And, God help us, there are plenty of toys and playthings for them all over Baghdad.

There's an amazing and disturbing story in today's Washington Post.

A couple of weeks ago the Los Angeles Times reported that Iraqi warehouses at the Tuwaitha Nuclear Research Center were unguarded for several days. There was a great deal of looting at the center, although whether anyone made off with material that could be used for weapons was, at the time, still unknown. Seals meant to detect tampering, however, were broken (although they may have been broken by unwitting US Marines, who didn't realize they were dealing with a sanctioned and well-inspected site.)

Flash forward a few weeks, and, according to the Post, the Bush administration still hasn't sent inspectors to the site to assess whether any materials were stolen. The International Atomic Energy Agency -- which has authority over the site -- wants to get back in immediately to find out if anything has disappeared, but that would mean Bush and Company would have to co-operate with an international agency.

Cooperate? Nah. Too complicated. Just let a lot of radioactive material that terrorists would love to get their hands on go floating around Iraq for awhile before making its way across borders. There's no hurry in dealing with this. We'll get around to it.

Thursday, April 24, 2003

Julia has a story to tell. An old story, but it has a certain resonance.

Go read Tbogg: A lovely letter from lovely Zurich on changing European attitudes toward Americans.

(And yes, the link is bloggered. You'll have to scroll down. Out, out damn Blogspot! God, I hope this turns out to be as good as it sounds.)

Here is a revealing coda to the post I wrote a couple of days ago about the difficulty of keeping up free and nuanced thought in George Bush's infantilized America.

After the fall of Baghdad, Gary Kamiya wrote an extremely thoughtful and honest essay that captured the mixed feelings of many people who opposed the war -- the joy at seeing the fall of a truly evil man, the fear that it may not turn out to be the "liberation" people expect, and the odder, darker fear that it could turn out to be an unambiguous good for the Iraqi people, encouraging policies that will not be good for the world as a whole. I didn't agree with it completely. I'm far more pessimistic about the "liberation" than Gary Kamiya is, and I never entertained the slightest desire for things to go badly during the war (although I had a near certainty they would begin to go badly when it was "over" -- which has proved true.) But it was a good and interesting essay. If nothing else, its honesty was refreshing. How much honesty do you see from day to day in political writing?

Of course it didn't take long for the right-wingers, from O'Reilly to Limbaugh, to pick out bits of Kamiya's subtle piece to tar him as a "fanatic" who had "no place in the public arena." Bill O'Reilly accusing the always thoughtful Gary Kamiya of being a "fanatic." The last time I felt the moral universe tip this far on its side was when I heard Brit Hume mocking the journalistic ethics of Walter Cronkite. (Fox seems to have a talent for tilting the moral universe, doesn't it?)

I got a couple of e-mails the other day saying, Hey, toughen up! They have a simple message, and we need an equally simple message to counteract their effect. From the stand-point of practical politics, I suppose that's true. And yet it seems to me that one of the most perverse aspects of this administration and those who march behind it is their attempt to corral thought, and the best way to fight that off is with not just subtle and nuanced thought, but quirky, crazy, careening, brave, and intensely personal thought -- all the wonderful, human, messy stuff that make no sense to this crowd.

A human mind at work is a thing of beauty, a dangerous thing, an inspiring thing.

I have nothing against the people who write clever slogans, but in his subtle and personal way, I think Gary Kamiya is fighting the harder and more important battle.

Wednesday, April 23, 2003

One of the many things I love about Nina Simone
When I was a freshman in college, the non-academic employees went out on strike and I worked with a group of students supporting them. One morning I was sent over with breakfast donuts for maids walking a picket line in front of a dorm. "Walking" is a bit of a misnomer, as is "line." There were only three women, and most of the time they sat on a cement planter and drank coffee out of the most enormous thermos I ever saw in my life. It looked like a weapon -- a plaid missile. Out of nowhere, one of the women started asking me questions that at first seemed rude and suspicious. The gist of the questions seemed to be "Who the hell are you, girl? What do you have to do with us?" But eventually I realized the questions weren't suspicious at all. The woman just had a brusque way about her -- and maybe a little mistrust of self-righteous, liberal students -- that made her scary at first. She asked me a lot of questions about my family and my plans (I told her I was thinking of dropping out of school; she told me I wasn't going to do anything of the kind), and I answered them honestly. When you come from a background like mine, and you find yourself answering questions without worrying about how the answer will be perceived, you can trust you've found a good person, without entirely knowing how you know that.

She told me she had a son a few years older than I was and that he was in prison. That surprised me. Not that she had a son in prison. I knew quite a few people who had kids or brothers or sisters in prison. One of my best friends from junior high was married to a guy who was convicted of murder when she was sixteen and hugely pregnant. I just never heard anybody admit that to a stranger so matter-of-factly. When I was a kid, it was the kind of thing you heard about from a third party, and never mentioned in front of the family of the kid doing time. (I didn't even know about my friend's husband until I heard another friend making fun of her getting dressed all fine to go up and visit him. I just noticed she'd stop talking about him, and figured he'd skipped out on her.) I remember being so pulled in by the way the woman on the picket line talked about her son -- not making excuses for him, but obviously not the least bit embarrassed by him either. I didn't think anybody I knew could manage that moral balance, and it seemed to me to define the meaning of love.

As we were talking, a truck turned into the dorm driveway and the three women jumped up and grabbed their signs. The woman I had just been talking to, the one with the intimidating edge who, little by little, I had grown to like, started screaming epithets in a deep, terrible voice, and I saw the driver hunch down in his seat like he was trying not to be seen.

A voice to shame a truck driver. Honestly, at eighteen, I'd never seen anything that cool in my life. I was impressed.

Over the years I've said a number of times, only half kidding, that that woman had the voice of God. Okay, maybe God wouldn't call anybody a "scab" (and a few worse things), but nevertheless, there was something holy in that woman's voice. There was a goodness in it, if you got to know it, it stemmed from justice, it didn't give evil an inch to play with, but it got under the skin of strong men, filling them with the knowledge that they're doing the wrong thing, and better get straight.

Holy.

Nina Simone had that voice, too. I'm listening to one of her most powerful songs -- "Sinnerman." It's about as uncompromising and Old Testament as popular music ever gets.

Oh, sinnerman, where you gonna run to?
Sinnerman, where you gonna run to?
Where you gonna run to?
All on them day.

It's not just the lyrics. There's something chilly and stern in Nina Simone's voice. Righteous. A call to justice without mercy. Put a face on it, and it would be a Byzantine Jesus, which, in many of her portraits, Nina Simone resembled. You hear that coldness most clearly in her more political songs, like "Mississippi Goddam," (where she prods an audience to embarrassed laughter, and then admonishes, "...and I mean every word of it") or in the cold fury of "Pirate Jenny." This is what real moral clarity sounds like. And in "Sinnerman," even more clearly than in her political songs, Miss Simone insists there's no exit. Evil has consequences. That's just the way it is, child, no point in glossing over it.

But the song switches point of view in the second verse.

Well, I run to the rock. Please hide me.
I run to the rock. Please hide me.
I run to the rock. Please hide me, lord.
All on them day.

But the rock cried out, "I can't hide you."
The rock cried out, "I can't hide you.
The rock cried out, "I ain't gonna hide you, gal,
All on them day."


The lyrics are pleading, but the singer's voice isn't. A lesser singer -- and a more ingratiating woman -- would wrap it in compassion for the sinner. But Nina takes sin seriously, and understands its tenacity and its abiding faith in its own resources. The voice remains weirdly composed, convinced there's a way out, until finally, all avenues exhausted, the "sinner" returns to God.

But the Lord said, "Go to the devil."
The Lord said, "Go to the devil."
He said, "Go to the devil."
All on them day.

That verse stuns me every time -- and I've been listening to the song since I was in high school. The way she hangs on to the word "said," hisses the 's,' and snarls "Go to the devil" -- does it sound strange if I say there's something liberating in that bitterness? I went to Catholic school in the sixties, mostly post-Vatican II, a little after the era of the infamous ruler-wielding nuns. I had Kumbaya-singing nuns. Nuns with an absolute faith in big, open-hearted, loving, forgiving Jesus, and not much time for an angry, righteous God hissing, "Go to the devil." I adore those nuns to this day, and that gentle Christianity remains the core of what I have faith in, but from Nina Simone I learned that righteous and unmovable anger is a part of morality as well. My peasant Irish Catholicism has a history of ranging from moral mush to moral rigor mortis without ever making the acquaintance of moral authority. I love Nina Simone because no one ever sang with such moral authority.

Weirdly, I've always thought of "Sinnerman" as a political song, maybe because the first time I heard it was on The Best of Nina Simone, the first album I bought by her, when I was about 16. The tracks have been rearranged and added to on the CD, but on my old vinyl copy, "Sinnerman" immediately follows "Mississippi Goddam," and I've always heard them as related songs, so that the sinner trying to hide from the consequences of his sin is not, in my mind, some guy getting drunk on Saturday night, but the segregationists of the preceding song -- life-crushing bastards -- because that same theme of the consequences of sin that can't be escaped pervades "Mississippi Goddam."

Lord have mercy on this land of mine
We all gonna get it in due time
I don't belong here
I don't belong there
I've even stopped believing in prayer.


In "Mississippi Goddam," the woman longing for justice stops believing in prayer, and in "Sinnerman," the sinner calls out repulsively, hypocritically, "Don't you see me prayin', don't you see me down here prayin'?" (which prompts God's soul-lifting "go to the devil.") The two songs fit together in so many ways, upholding the value of righteous anger, grabbing prayer back from the hypocrites and returning it to those demanding justice. All of Nina Simone's justice-demanding songs have something prayerful in them, and something essential. I wish there were far more to come from her divine -- literally divine -- voice.

UPDATE: Monkey Media Report has a nice tribute to fellow North Carolinian Nina Simone, and Interesting Monstah has a whole slew of posts, as well as a place to listen to many of Miss Simone's gospel songs, including "Sinnerman."

Tuesday, April 22, 2003

Silver Rights has a fine tribute to the glorious Nina Simone, who passed away yesterday.

I think I may be burning out on this blogging thing. I began to realize why yesterday when I read Jeff Cooper's post on his own lack of inspiration, even though Jeff's reason isn't exactly mine. He's frustrated with the lack of reasonable discourse in the blog world, and seems to wonder if there's a place in it for a voice as calm and open-minded as his own. (Obviously, those are not words he uses to describe himself, but they are the qualities I most appreciate -- and the ones that make Cooped Up a refuge.) The blogosphere's beginning to seem more like a place for people to scream in each other's faces than to learn from each other.

I feel some of that frustration. But my problem is not so much what I see going on around me, as what I feel going on inside. For awhile now, I've felt that there was something off-key in my writing. It's been developing a certainty, a cockiness even, that I don't really feel, and which doesn't resemble my normal writing voice. I'm not sure why that is. Part of it, I think, is a response to the ugliness of the age. I am, by nature, both optimistic and drawn to complexity and ambiguity. I see a hundred sides to every story. I've always been fascinated by people whose beliefs are very different from my own, and especially interested in why they're different, how they came to believe what they believe, and how those beliefs shape -- and, presumably, enrich -- their lives. But those are traits I'm not sure it's possible to keep up these days. Or, if it's possible, I'm not sure it's wise. At least not when you're dealing with politics. George Bush is the worst president we have had in my lifetime. The people he has surrounded himself with are the most callous and venal crowd we've seen since Reagan. Many of them, of course, are Reagan retreads -- but circumstances have given them far more power than they had the last time around. Anyone who isn't scared of these people is living in a dream world. Anyone who isn't appalled by them has simply stopped caring about ethics.

I'm sorry, but there's simply no way to defend these people without lying.

For a time, I actually tried to build a cozy little castle in that dream world. I focused on idealistic words, and allowed myself to believe that maybe they meant them. I let myself think that George Bush and I had the same basic values, but just disagreed about how to achieve them. I gave them the benefit of the doubt. I tried telling myself that even though they didn't do things the way I would, maybe their way could work, too. Maybe there was a value that I would come to recognize over time.

But after awhile it started to feel a lot like living with an abuser. You can only make so many excuses for the creep, before you finally give up and admit that trusting him and trying to see things his way isn't being open-minded, it's just being a doormat.

The problem is, once you pull a Nora and slam the door, you spend a lot of time yelling about what a jerk he is, and pointing to examples. Ibsen was wise to end with the slammed door -- the ranting and raving that follows is neither pretty nor enlightening. You've got to get it out of your system, but it's easy to get trapped in anger.

I don't like writing in anger.

It's not just the times, it's also the place. Jeff is right about the way so many bloggers seem locked into their positions, as if absorbing an opposing point of view were anathema, and I have the same frustration with the way people twist other people's points of view. And I have a feeling that aspect of blogs -- the knowledge that some people are reading what I write not in order to understand what I mean, but to find (or create) holes in my argument, or even that honest and intelligent readers will take one of my questions for an answer -- also influences my writing in negative ways. I'm more defensive than I was when I started doing this, less likely to play with an off-the-wall idea because I see at least some of the ways people could misinterpret or distort what I say. That shouldn't matter -- but being repeatedly misunderstood is frustrating, and it makes me more likely to focus on what I'm sure of, rather than what I'm wondering about and musing on.

I'm a writer, not a lawyer. I'm better at musing and questioning than I am at building unassailable arguments. Arguments, to be honest, bore me. I don't write to persuade, I write to figure things out myself, and readers, to me, are not people whose minds I want to change, but people I've invited along on the journey (and who sometimes have suggestions for a direction to go in that I hadn't thought of before.)

Yesterday, I started reading a quirky but fascinating book -- War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning, by Chris Hedges who draws on his experience as a New York Times reporter in Latin America, the Balkans, and the Middle East, as well as the history of writing about war, to explore the myths of war, the myths it takes to create a war-intoxicated society, and what has to be destroyed in order to feed those myths. And the main thing that falls by the wayside is the ambiguity and complexity that are the essence of truth. And the hardest thing to do in a country wrapping itself in war myths is to avoid creating counter-myths and continue behaving like a thinking and feeling human being.

But sitting somewhere in the middle, taking a little from the left and a little from the right, trying to be "moderate" (yes, I'm back on that "extremism" debate again) doesn't help. Myth-making trying to pass itself off as thought just isn't worth taking seriously. You'll only lose heart if you try.

Hedges writes about a phenomenon he's experienced everywhere from Argentina to Bosnia -- people not caught up in the nationalist and triumphalist myths begin to lose faith in their own perceptions and memories. They begin to feel isolated. And I'm not sure, but I think that might be the value in blog writing for me at the moment. The blogosphere as a whole exists to promote myths and counter-myths. But if you tune that out, you can still find places where people are hanging on to humane values and coping the best they can with complexity. And when you find them, it makes you feel a little less isolated as you try to hang on to your own perceptions and awareness of complexity. But sometimes hanging on in the storm gets hard.

Saturday, April 19, 2003

Sad, but true.

(Thanks to Lynn Gazis-Sax for the link.)

Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in
Aaagghh! I wasn't planning to post anything this weekend, but this editorial so epitomizes what bugs me about the New York Times that I have to comment, at least briefly.

On the one hand, they get it: the Bechtel contract -- which has a lot to do with connections and contributions -- is an outrage. But the question is, why is it an outrage? It isn't, as the Times suggests, that it sends the wrong message. They make it sound as if it were a little PR problem, when in fact the corporate cronyism revealed by that contract is the essence of this war. Advising an administration that exists for the sole purpose of enriching itself and its friends to be a little less obvious about how it goes about doing so is kind of missing the point. Equally, suggesting that it would be better if we shared the spoils of war with our allies -- the British and Australians -- wouldn't undercut the idea that this war had imperialist motives, it would reinforce it. Yes, it is especially greedy not to share the loot with the other thieves, but wouldn't it be better to say that you shouldn't steal in the first place?

Go read....

Friday, April 18, 2003

When I turn on my computer, the Los Angeles Times page come on, and so, at 5 a.m., this is the first headline I read:

Bechtel Gets Iraq Contract


But it's Good Friday, and I'm just going to put that anger in a box for now. Maybe I'll come back to it after Easter.

Monkey Media Report has two related posts up -- on Syria and Hezbollah -- that are well worth your time if you're trying to make sense of all the saber-rattling in Syria's direction.

UPDATE: As a follow-up, there's an interesting op-ed in today's LA Times -- Avoid The Road To Damascus -- on why "Syria is not Iraq...and Americans should not allow themselves to be spun into thinking so." Of course, it should be added that Iraq isn't Iraq either -- at least not the Iraq that Bush and Company spun. All the more reason for staying ahead of the next con job.

Making Light is, in my opinion, the only indispensible blog at the moment. Teresa's posts on the loss of museums and libraries in Iraq have been breathtaking in their intelligence and heart. First, read this post about why the loss of records could be a boon to an ahistorical and secretive adminstration, then go to this one, which starts out being about the museum looting and ends up nailing the vertiginous history of the build-up to this war. Brilliant.

Thursday, April 17, 2003

There were several developments today related to the looting of libraries and museums in Iraq:
  • Curators assessing the damage say that some items from the National Museum may be recovered. Nothing remains of the National Library.

  • Thirty art experts and archaelogists met to discuss the situation at UNESCO headquarters in Paris, and said that international art traffickers were behind the thefts. UNESCO's director general announced he would press the UN Security Council for an immediate ban on internation trade in Iraqi antiquities and called for a "heritage police" to protect the sites from further looting. A fund has been set up for buying back artifacts within Iraq. Offers of money have come from Qatar, France, Britain and Egypt, but not from the United States.

    Experts: Looters had keys to Iraqi antiquity vaults

    Experts to Send Team to Iraq in Wake of Museum Looting

    Experts Say Gangs Behind Some Iraqi Looting

    Art gangs 'looted' Iraqi museums

    Experts: Looters Had Keys to Iraqi Vaults

    Method to Madness in Museum Looting

  • Three White House art advisors have resigned in protest over "the administration's total lack of sensitivity and forethought regarding the Iraq invasion and the loss of cultural treasures." Martin E. Sullivan, chair of the President's Advisory Committee on Cultural Property said that what happened was "foreseeable and preventable."

  • The FBI announced that it will send agents to Iraq to investigate the thefts.

  • And then an important blog contribution to the topic: Read Wampum on the mysterious (and somewhat larcenous) American Council for Cultural Policy and their desire to get Iraqi art out of Iraq and into the United States, why a moratorium on trade in Iraqi antiquities won't stop them, and how it may connect up with contributions to Republican Congressional candidates and the Republican Leadership Council. A fascinating and disturbing post.

  • And follow that up with a run over to CalPundit for a look at the creepy argument that -- you are sitting down, right? -- the looting of Iraq's heritage was a gain for humanity.

The marines have killed four more Iraqis in Mosul. Apparently part of the reason for the tension in the city is "American decisions to fly large American flags from their vehicles and repeatedly have fighter jets buzz the city after Tuesday's shooting."

Flags? I thought we were being extremely careful at least not to look like we were taking over.

This is outrageous! Save the Children made their first trip into Iraq since the war began on April 5th, and began assessing both the humanitarian needs and the safety situation for their workers. (The main need right now is not food, but medicine and, especially, water.) They immediately ran into roadblocks from the military and the State Department, who are curtailing their work because of "safety concerns." But -- this is the truly outrageous part -- since April 9, U.S. forces, breaching the Geneva Conventions, have repeatedly refused permission to land to a Save the Children plane carrying medical supplies. With all the looting of hospitals going on in Iraq, the medicines are pretty desperately needed.

The NGOs want to get in and are willing to deal with the lack of security. Why are we stopping them?

(Today's link via Brooke Biggs, who notes that while medicine can't get in, something this administration places a lot more value on is having no trouble getting through.)

Spunky heroines and innocent children whose plight touches the hearts of cynics and assures them that they are still good. We seem to be cribbing our myths from the Victorians these days -- which is probably appropriate: the combination of brutal imperialism and sticky sentimentality worked for the Brits, why shouldn't it work for us?

Joan Walsh has a piece up at Salon on Ali Ismail Abbas, the Iraqi boy who lost his parents, siblings, and both arms in an American missile strike, noting that the American media barely mentioned him when he was just a victim, but now that the military has airlifted him to Kuwait for medical treatment, and he can stand as a symbol of American goodness, the media is all over the story.

And the way the media is exploiting the story isn't pretty.

Atrios picked up on a CNN interview with Ali's doctor that is not only despicable, but emblematic of the values of George Bush's America:

KYRA PHILLIPS: Doctor -- what has he been saying to you, Doctor? Is he asking anything of you? Is he thanking you? Is he wanting to know about family? Tell us what this little boy has been saying to you.

AL-NAJADA: Actually, today he was in good condition after the operation and started speaking with a journalist and answering all their questions. The thing which he was -- they asking about -- the journalists, especially the broadcasting, what the message he wants to reflect from the war. He said, first of all, thank you for the attention they're giving to him, but he hopes nobody from the children in the war they will suffer like what he suffer.

PHILLIPS: Does he understand why...

AL-NAJADA: Kyra.

PHILLIPS: Doctor, does he understand why this war took place? Has he talked about Operation Iraqi Freedom and the meaning? Does he understand it?

AL-NAJADA: Actually, we don't discuss this issue with him because he is -- the burn cases, and the type of injury, he's in very bad psychological trauma.


This is Sally Field imperialism -- not only do we bomb you, take over your country and exploit your resources, but when we do, you must like us, really, really like us. The epitome of self-centeredness -- no matter what trauma you face, the important thing is that you understand how we feel, and what we want. Baby boomer imperialism, brought to you by our second baby boomer president.

We make very strange imperialists -- we want both oil and love. Well, maybe -- let's give it the best reading -- that's a sign that imperialism doesn't come naturally to us. It's not in our nature. We won't be good at it. Maybe it's a sign that we should go back to being a democracy.