Tuesday, January 31, 2006

I'll feel better when my generation is dead

Why don't you all f-fade away (Talkin' 'bout my generation)
And don't try to dig what we all s-s-say (Talkin' 'bout my generation)
I'm not trying to cause a big s-s-sensation (Talkin' 'bout my generation)
I'm just talkin' 'bout my g-g-g-generation (Talkin' 'bout my generation)
-- The Who, circa 1966, "My Generation"

Gerard Van der Leun at
American Digest has a few well-seasoned words for the stuffed-owl specimens of 1960s radical chic who occupy so many posts in academia, news organizations, and the entertainment industry:
Nostalgie pour la défaite [nostalgia for defeat] is that state of the soul when an American, who either came of age in the Vietnam era, or who was taught and mentored by a leftist or liberal of that vintage, yearns for the defeat of America. This state is then seen as confirmation that his or her world view and social milieu is the right view and right milieu. To operate otherwise would throw not only all the professional views and actions of the last thirty years into question, but the entire structure of the afflicted personality as well.

An America that is ascendant rather than retiring, an America whose policies are aggressive and not apologetic, is an America they are simply unequipped to inhabit or report on. They have, quite frankly, an empty tool box when it comes to this task and no raw materials with which to build.
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These are the people I used to hang with, back in Berkeley in the late '60s, and have encountered in great numbers ever since while working in advertising, radio, and publishing.

There were good qualities among the generation that came of age in the '60s … at the time. Some of the rock music was extraordinary, a cross-breeding between real songs and electric instruments, and launched into orbit by psychedelics — far more interesting and creative than the endlessly repetitive rhythm tracks and dog-bark "lyrics" of hip-hop and dance pop today.

There were casualties from drug abuse, but many young people of the '60s had a realistic understanding of the benefits and dangers of mind-altering chemicals. They were certainly less naive about them than anyone involved in today's full-employment program for bureaucrats known as the war on drugs. It's easy to make fun of hippie styles (the fashions of any previous era always look silly to later cohorts), but at least the counterculture had a healthy distrust of technology as the solution to every problem.

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I mention all this only to show that I retain empathy with the spirit of the '60s; I was there, involved in the magic and the revolutionary fantasies. So I'm sad to have to acknowledge that the United States will be better off when my demographic is gone.

Some kind of generational Gresham's Law seems to ensure that what is bad in any age group eventually drives the good out of circulation as that group grows older. Sixties hipness has soured into routine anti-Americanism, political correctness, and a patronizing favoritism for minorities. (Talkin' 'bout my de-generation … .) Today's yuppified Flower Children remind me of what Napoleon's minister, Talleyrand, said of the French royal family, the Bourbons: "They never forgot anything, and they never learned anything." Everything today's '60s-spawned Liberal Establishment members "know" is what they "knew" in 1969.

Their professed openness to new experience has devolved, down the years, into a herd instinct. They work in professions where everyone they meet reinforces the views they formed in the good old shut-it-down days. Any idea that won't fit on a picket sign is too big for their cerebral neuron count. Bill Clinton was their embodiment as a president: each time he opened his lips, a bumper sticker emerged ("Affirmative action — mend it, don't end it").

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They were right to question the ill-conceived war in Vietnam, wrong to draw the conclusion from it that America is a warfare state always looking for other countries to victimize. They can't admit that the American people individually and collectively make mistakes from time to time; to them, evil lurks behind our every move.

What was originally a concern for the world's poor and oppressed became a fashion statement, then an ideology, then a rationalization for psychopaths like "Che" Guevara or Palestinian explodey-dopes.

Whatever the problem, their analysis is the same: "It's the fault of America /capitalism/racism/ homophobia /sexism/Islamophobia."

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Listen up. I'm talking to you, my generation, you whom I dropped out of society with, protested with, shared Bob Dylan's music with.

You so-called professors who hide behind your tenure so you can submit your students to your pathetic stuck-record agit-prop: Sod you.

You so-called journalists who trip over yourselves in your eagerness to publish any story you think will make the United States and, above all, its president look bad, but turn a blind eye to Islamic terrorism, promised and present: Sod you.

You entertainers, who think it's down to you to use the immense resources of your industry to show your country, the source of your freedom of expression and your wealth, that America is oppressive and every anti-American regime on earth can do no wrong: Sod you.

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You are the perfect Marxist Lite paradox, a mass-produced elite, smugly enforcing your prejudices and simple-minded platitudes. It makes me sick that you occupy the commanding heights of our culture. The only forces that will change you are infirmity and mortality.

Why don't you all f-fade away?
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Friday, January 27, 2006

History's savage return

For people of my generation (early baby boomer) and younger — at least, those who didn't win the prize of a trip to Vietnam or Iraq, courtesy of the U.S. government — most of history's grimmer events have a slightly fictional aspect. History is gauzy, like something seen through a scrim.

When I read now about the Cold War, with its scenarios of mutually assured destruction, it triggers a chilling dart in my spine; but at the time I was too young or too ignorant to pay much mind. The Civil War? It was Gone With the Wind. The spool-up to the American Revolution had faintly comic overtones — dressing up like Indians and dumping tea into Boston harbor? I mean, come on. "We must all hang together, or we shall most assuredly hang separately"? A funny line, but really, weren't those colonials a little over-torqued? Surely the British Parliament was one of the more enlightened governments in the world at the time, even if a bit of taxation sans representation got up your nose.

Only a decade ago, the past's shrill voices and political passions, the dangers that asked people to put their lives on the line, seemed to be getting quaint and moth-eaten. Marx and Lenin had done pratfalls. Capitalism had won the Cold War and it was only a matter of time until the whole world was enjoying its benefits. Our worst nightmare was a bear market in which our portfolios would be down 20 percent for a year or two.

Lately, though, I have been able to identify much more strongly with the perils and tragedies of history. It's back, and maybe in a very literal sense, with a vengeance.

How could our colonial ancestors get so exercised about an intransigent parliament as to put their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honour on the line? Today, I am afraid, many of us understand, thanks in large part to the Bush Administration.

According to a poll taken last year, 60 percent of Americans are so concerned about illegal immigration that they would favor building a security barrier along the Mexican border. For the first time in living memory, people in this country have mobilized as private citizens to challenge illegals because the government refuses to enforce the laws. Now U.S. states are beginning to target The Invasion on their own because of federal inaction.

The "will of the people" is clear — and El Presidente Jorge W. Bush-Gonzales is blind, deaf, and dumb where it's concerned. The only voices he can hear are those of big business, which wants an endless supply of cheap labor with the social costs passed on to the taxpayer, and of his pals in Mexico's ruling class. At a time when a large majority of Americans are fed up with adding to the ever-growing Third World underclass in their midst, W. is pushing Congress to enact open borders legislation, euphemistically called — nudge-nudge, wink-wink — a "guest worker" program.

Sounds kind of like taxation — no, like getting screwed over — without representation, by a president, most members of both major parties, and a federal judiciary who believe they are rulers by divine right. If I thought that sticking feathers on my head and dumping tea in the Potomac would do any good, I would.

We aren't about to have another civil war in the United States, but France, The Netherlands, Denmark, and the rest of Scandinavia may be looking at one, thanks to their willful ignorance of the sequel to large-scale Islamic immigration. They can, like Sweden and Norway, make it a crime to criticize the multi-culturalist dreamworld, but that won't change the reality that is beginning to tear their societies apart.

Wars and rumors of wars.

The world was supposed to have gotten over such follies by now. Europeans believe we have, that there is no issue that can't be settled by negotiations and compromises. It's an enticing belief, and was very comforting to Britain and France in 1938 when one A. Hitler expressed his intent to put his footprint on Czechoslovakia.

Now, once again, the death wish that lingers in the human soul despite every scheme for spreading education and progress seems to be reaching a critical mass. The news from the Middle East could hardly be more ominous.

Iran's current president has promised to wipe the world clean of Israel, even as he has greenlighted renewal of the country's nuclear program. He's a flaming crackpot, but as history (there it is again) has shown, madmen as rulers can do whatever others can't stop them doing.

As if that weren't enough, the party of outright terrorism, Hamas, has been democratically elected to rule the imaginary country of Palestine.

I feel like I am at the edge of a cliff, looking into a sickening void.

Gerard Baker, a correspondent for The Times of London, which is hardly a neocon media outlet, writes that we must prepare ourselves for the "unthinkable," because "war against Iran may be a necessity":
If Iran gets safely and unmolested to nuclear status, it will be a threshold moment in the history of the world, up there with the Bolshevik Revolution and the coming of Hitler. What the country itself may do with those weapons, given its pledges, its recent history and its strategic objectives with regard to the US, Israel and their allies, is well known. We can reasonably assume that the refusal of the current Iranian leadership to accept the Holocaust as historical fact is simply a recognition of their own plans to redefine the notion as soon as they get a chance (“Now this is what we call a holocaust”).
Joe Katzman, in the excellent group blog Winds of Change, thinks we have nothing left but "faith without hope."
I personally believe that we're very likely to see at least 10 million dead in the Middle East within the next two decades, with an upper limit near 100 million. I do not believe pre-emptive action will be taken against Iran. I do, however, believe the extremist mullahs in Iran mean exactly what they say. They are steeped in an ideology that believes suicide/murder to be the holiest and most moral act possible. They have been diligent in laying strategic plans for an offensive Islamic War against Israel, America and the West. Plans backed by 25 years of action, and stated no less clearly than Mein Kampf.
How did we get to this awful position? Not through wickedness but through irresponsibility, very literally: we did not want to assume the responsibility for taking a firm line against one outbreak after another of Muslim fanaticism. We could have drawn a line and dared any wacko to cross it, at a lethal cost. We didn't, and now it's too late. "Dr. Bob," a philosphical physician, says in his blog The Doctor Is In:
Historians may well reflect on these times — if there are historians to record them — and wonder how it might have been different. They will look to November '79, and recognize the lost opportunity to crush the nascent Iranian Islamic revolution in its earliest days. They will ponder how a series of American leaders — from Carter in '79, to Reagan in Beirut, to Bush in Gulf War I, to Clinton in Somalia — squandered the opportunity to establish by strength a bulwark against the rising self-delusional tide of Islamic fundamentalist zealotry. They will marvel at the senescence of Europe — once colonical conquerors whose might and resilience survived two global wars, now weakened and whimpering, their grand cathedrals as empty as their souls, their rotting culture paying feckless fealty to impotent diplomacy.
Latest, but not least, George W. Bush and his neocon circus. They were right to drive from power one of the worst regimes in the world, a throwback to medieval tyranny which we had good reason to believe was bulking up with WMDs. Had we left it at that, we would have come out ahead, no matter if Iraq had devolved into the sectarian wars that still threaten to erupt as soon as we let go such control as we have. But finding themselves with no WMDs to hold up to the world and with egg on their faces, Bush and his crew moved from a forgivable error into a demented campaign to bring "democracy" to the badlands.

How ignorant of history and political philosophy do you have to be to understand that democracy isn't primarily a matter of forms like elections? That it requires minds that are at least mostly free, not sunk in generations of tribal enmity, and acceptance of concepts such as loyal opposition and compromise and weighing competing arguments? Well, the Palestinian authority is a "democracy," and it has just elected the straight Gangster ticket.

So the result of three years of armed missionary work in Iraq is that it's dubious whether we're ready for the next, and possibly even greater, test of removing a psychopathic nuclear power. Our military is stretched thin; our country, individually and collectively, has been living for years on credit cards (a $69 billion trade deficit, a national debt of $8,192,461,263,082.21 as of this writing); and a nation so divided that direct action to remove the Iranian threat would send a third or more of its citizens, not to mention a lot of the world, into hysterics.

There don't seem to be any good choices. Perhaps this is what some people felt like in 1938. Then again, it's still conceivable that sanity will win in a squeaker, or that we will somehow luck out. If we do, we must not go back to pushing our luck: we've got to be smarter and stronger and braver from now on.

Only one thing am I sure of. History — as savage, possibly, as often before — has returned. It's waiting for us, just out of sight.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Psychology of the cultural suicide network

Suicide Bombing for Dummies

The Discovery Channel and the BBC want to make sure you don't harbor any unworthy thoughts about sentient explosives. In "Psychology of Suicide Bombers," a Discovery-BBC co-production aired last night in the United States, the program plunged deep, deep into motivational territory and concluded that suicide bombers are just plain folks -- well, except that they're living away from the place they came from (often by their own choice, although the show doesn't mention that) and carried away by "group conformity." What used to be called bad company.

Islam? Jihad? Don't worry your pretty little heads about it, children.

The production ranged far and wide to locate a handful of talking empty heads to assure the viewer that chaps like the "London Four" who killed themselves and 52 others, and injured 700, in the Underground and bus bombings last July weren't under the spell of an aggressive Muslim politico-religious ideology. Barring a touch of "cultural estrangement" and a group hug that got a little out of hand, they were boring, salt-of-the-earth types, the selected experts said.

"People can do absolutely dreadful things, and yet be completely normal, completely ordinary, completely unremarkable," according to Dr. Andrew Silke of a British university. "You don't have to be evil, you don't have to be mad, you just have to be in the right context."

As the next of kin invariably say when the police arrest someone for walking into the office with a gun and wasting the boss, two salespeople, and a file clerk or two: such a nice man, very quiet, never caused any trouble. "I ask myself if there's anything I could have done, but how could I know he was becoming a group conformist and would fall into the wrong context?"

Another researcher spent years trying to find a common denominator among suicide bombers. No joy from the effort, except that many of these fellows with explosive tempers seemed to be caught between cultures. As the narrator put it, "It seemed that living away from home was significant."

The documentary put a cork in any notion about suicide bombing having a link with advancing Islam through terrorism.

"There's nothing in the Qur'an that justifies suicide bombing," said Professor Scott Atran of the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris. According to the narrator, "Atran concluded that suicide bombing has no direct grounding in any religion."

No, the mind of the suicide bomber is formed by group bonds, just like a crack military team. "These group bonds can grow surprisingly strong, resonating with our biological family unit," said the narrator. Or, in plain English, small groups of people who become suicide bombers think of their group like a family and will do anything for them.

As the program showed, the London bombers already had real families. Why should anyone be so invested in any of these alternative "bands of brothers" (as another expert described them) as to blow themselves up, not to mention any odd bods in the vicinity? Could it have something to do with ... Islam-centered terrorism? The program wouldn't go there.

The fourth London bomber was delayed for an hour after his three mates had sent themselves to Paradise, and he was late to the party. "What probably motivated him to blow himself up was that his buddies had already done it, and he couldn't let them down," said Atran. Don't ask; it's a pal thing, you wouldn't understand.

There's no reason to doubt that cultural dislocation and close personal ties enter into the chemistry of suicide bombing. But it's ridiculous to claim that such factors are the primary motivation. It's like claiming that the essential nature of a dog is that it has four legs.

May I, a recognized non-expert, offer a theory about the psychology of the producers in outfits like Discovery Channel and the Beeb? They are culturally dislocated, having cut themselves off more or less completely from the great majority of people in the United States and Britain, being in their own eyes an elite whose job it is to make sure that no politically incorrect thought ever travels through the air and cable into the homes of the rough masses, whose ineradicable prejudices against oppressed minorities can burst forth into murderous rage on the slightest excuse.

Moreover, TV producers' behavior must be understood in the light of group bonds that they form with one another. It's no secret that they represent an in-group that continually reinforces each others' adherence to the ideology of the Liberal Establishment. Their tightly knit set becomes like a substitute family to them, to the point that the cultural suicide of their respective countries is of no account compared with loyalty to their immediate group.

They can do absolutely dreadful things, and yet be completely normal, completely ordinary, completely unremarkable. In the right context.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

2046: The first great film of the millennium?

2046 no. 4

It sounds like the sort of movie I take pains to avoid.

A writer in Hong Kong, late 1960s, has a way with women but always seems to meet them at the wrong time, too early or too late. He's a penny-a-liner hack who scratches out a living writing soft pornography, but turns to science fiction and (like, I suppose, every fiction writer who has ever lived) starts to populate his stories with people from his own life, transformed. Even the number of a room -- 2046 -- in the down-at-the-heels hotel he lives in, and where one of his amours takes place, becomes the year in which his fantasy vision is set.

His real-life lovers become, in the fantasy, amalgams of humanity and technology, and he spends part of the movie on a train which carries him back to the '60s, the only person ever to make the return journey. The film cuts between a time that is both recent as history goes but far enough past as to look slightly strange, and an imagined future that is hallucinogenically portrayed.

Ugh -- a recipe for arty pretentiousness. And reading a description like the one above, that's probably what you would surmise.

But in this instance, you'd be mistaken. 2046, just released on DVD, is a work of transfigurational beauty, which saturates the eye yet inspires reflection.

Its most immediate appeal, certainly, is sensuous. The sets are richly painted and lit, compositions are continually striking and make artistic profit from the 2.35-to-1 aspect ratio. (One of the great blessings of DVD is that you almost always get the "letterboxed" view, i.e., see the film in its correct proportions.)

The writer-director, Wong Kar-Wai, and his camera director, Christopher Doyle, don't go in for conventional pretty shots (sunsets, light reflecting on water, etc. — what Stanley Kauffman called "arias for cinematographer"), but rather they appropriate hues and structure for psychological effect. I'm not sure I've seen anything like this since Antonioni and Fellini started shooting in color. Movie scenes set in a high-tech future usually bore me, because they seem like everyday life now only more so, but those in 2046 are as enthralling as the other, "retro" scenes.

The musical score is all over the place, everything from opera to Nat King Cole, and should be a disaster. But Wong's taste and sense of appropriateness make the sound track further enhance the moods.

The acting, by Hong Kong-based players, is remarkably powerful and subtle. Practically any actor with some technical training can convincingly portray a single emotion, but only deeper resources can project simultaneous, multiple feelings. The key actors here do that.

Tony Leung Chiu-wai, as the writer, gives us a character who is somewhat flippant and feckless, whose behavior is often callous, but you eventually understand the defenses he's built up against loss and loneliness. And I have never heard the Chinese language spoken so melodiously as he does here. There is a tiny class of actors whose voices, as such, command absorption -- John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson, or of more recent generations, Michael Gambon and Jeremy Brett. Leung is in their company.

The women who move in and out of his present life and in at least one case (maybe more) populate his daydream/fiction of the future — Ziyi Zhang, Faye Wong, Gong Li (the first two previously unknown to me) — also offer crisp, layered performances.

2046 no. 1

In other ways, 2046 doesn't give up its secrets easily. I didn't "get" some of the story line and psychological complexities on a first viewing: with so much to beguile the eye, and so much that is imaginative about the direction, only by watching the film again did I feel like I was beginning to comprehend its various dimensions.

What is this film "about"? You could say that its theme is trying to recapture lost time, à la Proust, and I think that would be true; or looking for escape from a broken world to be made whole in fantasy, only to find that even fantasy teases and withdraws its favors, and that might also be true. I suspect other discoveries lie in wait as well. But I don't want to give the impression that 2046 is a film you have to "work" at to "interpret." Part of its power and charm is that it unfolds like a flower if you leave yourself open to it.

I ended this posting's title with a question mark because I don't know if 2046 is the first great film of the new millennium — I haven't seen everything that's been released, obviously — but it's the first I'm aware of. "Great" doesn't mean perfect. There are a few scenes that don't especially come off, and one or two of the character-actor parts could have been better cast. None of that is bothersome for long.

Interesting, too, that the picture comes from China, and that it contains nothing folkish or technically primitive; if you have a totally legitimate fear of pinched, dreary "art house cinema," be assured that 2046 is no such thing. But unlike practically any current American, British, or European film, it feels authentically humane. Why can't we make movies this elegant and moving? It seems we, amid our freedom and wealth, must re-learn the art from practitioners working in a politically repressive society that has no voice but a cry from the mind and an intellect tuned in to the heart.

Monday, January 16, 2006

New styles in culturally sensitive policing

hip hop 3
Officer Frank Fergle of the 815th Precinct models the new uniform issued to police on the beat. Badges will be worn on gold neck chains. "We have a large and growing population of gang bangers in our area, and we are confident that the new uniform will enable them to relate to the police force better. Additionally, it will aid in our Outreach Drive to recruit young people who maintain a hip-hop lifestyle," said a police spokesperson.

The Eight-Fifteen is taking its cue from one of the more advanced police forces in the world, that of West Australia. This season, the culturally sensitively dressed police person in West Oz will step out in turban or hijab. (Tip of the hat: Dhimmi Watch.)

The Australian reports:

NAVY blue hijabs, loose-fitting shirts and turbans emblazoned with the police logo will be part of a new range of West Australian police uniforms. ...

Superintendent Duane Bell said under the initiative, officers would be allowed to keep their beards or wear shoes made of synthetic materials rather than leather in order to remain faithful to their customs.

"In essence, we recognise that the police uniform has been a barrier to people wishing to become police officers, from certain ethnic backgrounds," Mr Bell said.

Police constable of the West Australia force. She says, "I am proud of my uniform, which symbolises a new spirit of openness."

Those Aussies, though, what a pack of regressive know-nothing whingers they are. Can you believe one cop was so cheeky as to ask if officers would also be allowed to knock off during working hours so they could pray facing Mecca?

Fortunately, such old-fashioned attitudes are becoming rarer. For too long, police persons' working attire has created an artificial divide between them and their customers. Many officers also appreciate being able to wear their colors instead of a blue garment that radiates the oppressiveness of Western society. Just ask Officer Fergle.

hip hop 2
"Yo, check out my new dress uniform with street cred, it's phat, you know what I'm sayin'?" says Fergle of the Eight-Fifteen.

Flight into Armageddon

Karl Marx famously said that history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. In connection with Iran, the United States has the opportunity for a third option: tragic farce.

You will recall that, before the Iraq invasion, the U.S. spent a year or more begging for support from other interested parties, very little of which was forthcoming, and humbly petitioning the United Nations to bless action to enforce its own resolutions. As a result, the elements in Iraq that now make up the so-called insurgency had the luxury of being able to prepare their campaign long before the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime that they knew was inevitable. Hence, the dismal record of our now nearly three-year occupation, made all the worse by President Bush's infatuation with his advisers' schemes for hand-holding of the new Iraqi leaders until some unforeseeable date.

Instead of doing a necessary but limited job, we have now spent a huge portion of our human and military capital on installing democracy in a part of the world where the idea is meaningless to most people. As a result, we are in a weak position to encounter the next threat, a gold-plated loony named Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, president of Iran, who announced the other day that he has ordered Iran's nuclear development program to be renewed.

Ahmadinejad is some piece of work. The Independent reports:
The bearded 49-year-old's election as Iran's president last summer took millions of Iranians, as well as the rest of the world, by surprise. Since then he has caused outrage by demanding that Israel be "wiped off the map", questioning the historical authenticity of the Holocaust, and saying that if Europe and America wanted to atone by giving the Jews a homeland, it should be on their territory: "Why should the innocent nation of Palestine pay for this crime?"
But wait, there's more:
The most extreme zealots [among Shia Muslims in Iran], a group called the Hojjatieh, say total chaos should be created to hasten the coming of the Mahdi, and there have been claims that Ahmadinejad, if not a member, sympathises with them. This explains his reckless attitude, say his critics. If the final triumph of Islam can be brought closer by provoking a nuclear war with Israel or America, why hold back?

It might be possible to dismiss this as scaremongering if it were not for a DVD circulating in Iran which shows the president in conversation with a conservative ayatollah. Ahmadinejad is speaking about his defiant address to the UN General Assembly last autumn, in which he refused to back down on Iran's nuclear programme.

"One of our group told me that when I started to say 'Bismillah Muhammad', he saw a green light come from around me, and I was placed inside this aura," he says. "I felt it myself. I felt the atmosphere change, and for those 27 or 28 minutes, all the leaders of the world did not blink. When I say they didn't move an eyelid, I'm not exaggerating. They were looking as if a hand was holding them there."

I think Israel's prime minister Ariel Sharon -- now disabled by a stroke -- knew exactly what he was doing in setting up a defensive fence and pulling Israeli settlers and military forces out of Gaza. He knew that the last battle, Armageddon, was in the works, with the most psychopathic leader among a religion with quite a few psychopaths to its name looking forward to the Final Solution to the Israel problem. Sharon wanted to ensure that Israel would be in a defensible position.

Can there be any defense, though, against a nuclear-armed Iran? In a saner insane world, Israel's capability of launching its own nukes would be a Cold War-style deterrent; but for Muslim fanatics, the loss of 10 or 20 million of their fellow religionists would be a small price for taking down Israel. Undoubtedly the Mossad, Israel's secret security agency, is studying the situation or planning operations to sabotage Iranian nuclear capability. But Iranians are obviously aware of such a possibility, and taking extra security precautions against it. The Mossad is brilliant at what it does, but it can't work miracles.

It may be that there is nothing left to prevent Armageddon but a straight-out military attack against the Iranian regime by the United States. But after years of bungling in Iraq, that is exactly what the American people -- not to mention the rest of the world -- will have no part of. Tragic farce?

Niall Ferguson, in The Telegraph, puts himself in the place of an imaginary historian looking back at "the origins of the Great War of 2007" -- a tough, perceptive piece that I recommend you read in its entirety.

Under different circumstances, it would not have been difficult to thwart Ahmadinejad's ambitions. The Israelis had shown themselves capable of pre-emptive air strikes against Iraq's nuclear facilities in 1981. Similar strikes against Iran's were urged on President Bush by neo-conservative commentators throughout 2006. The United States, they argued, was perfectly placed to carry out such strikes. It had the bases in neighbouring Iraq and Afghanistan. It had the intelligence proving Iran's contravention of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

But the President was advised by his Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, to opt instead for diplomacy. Not just European opinion but American opinion was strongly opposed to an attack on Iran. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 had been discredited by the failure to find the weapons of mass destruction Saddam Hussein had supposedly possessed and by the failure of the US-led coalition to quell a bloody insurgency.

No one wanted to face the reality. Even if Iran had exploded a nuclear bomb and broadcast it on CNN, some people would have dismissed it as a CIA trick, says Ferguson's future "historian."
So history repeated itself. As in the 1930s, an anti-Semitic demagogue broke his country's treaty obligations and armed for war. Having first tried appeasement, offering the Iranians economic incentives to desist, the West appealed to international agencies - the International Atomic Energy Agency and the United Nations Security Council. Thanks to China's veto, however, the UN produced nothing but empty resolutions and ineffectual sanctions, like the exclusion of Iran from the 2006 World Cup finals. ...

As in the 1930s, too, the West fell back on wishful thinking. Perhaps, some said, Ahmadinejad was only sabre-rattling because his domestic position was so weak. Perhaps his political rivals in the Iranian clergy were on the point of getting rid of him. In that case, the last thing the West should do was to take a tough line; that would only bolster Ahmadinejad by inflaming Iranian popular feeling. So in Washington and in London people crossed their fingers, hoping for the deus ex machina of a home-grown regime change in Teheran.

This gave the Iranians all the time they needed to produce weapons-grade enriched uranium at Natanz.
This would be a Cuban Missile Crisis replay in which neither side blinked, even when they were eyeball-to-eyeball.
The devastating nuclear exchange of August 2007 represented not only the failure of diplomacy, it marked the end of the oil age. Some even said it marked the twilight of the West. Certainly, that was one way of interpreting the subsequent spread of the conflict as Iraq's Shi'ite population overran the remaining American bases in their country and the Chinese threatened to intervene on the side of Teheran.

Yet the historian is bound to ask whether or not the true significance of the 2007-2011 war was to vindicate the Bush administration's original principle of pre-emption. For, if that principle had been adhered to in 2006, Iran's nuclear bid might have been thwarted at minimal cost. And the Great Gulf War might never have happened.

Something to think about next time Bush bangs on about staying the course in Iraq and spreading democracy throughout the Middle East like applying butter to toast, and Condi Rice flies off for another round of diplomacy at the site of tomorrow's Armageddon.

Thursday, January 12, 2006


In the Olympic sport of America-bashing, French, British, Canadians, and citizens of almost every Muslim country regularly pick up Gold medals. All of their criticisms are completely false, of course. Well, except one: it's true that, as linguists, we are pretty much duds. Whereas Europe has legions of people who can make puns in five languages, not one native-born American in a hundred is fluent in any language but English. Shoot, lots of us don't even speak English very well.

One consequence of our traditional monolinguism is that quite a few singers who sell recordings by the millions and have huge followings in Europe aren't a blip on the radar in the United States. In some cases, that may be no great loss; in others, we're missing something. Here are three European popular vocalists you may not have heard and who in my opinion are worth checking out.

Liane Foly 2

This is Liane Foly. She — excuse me, what? Babe? Come on, guys, less of that. We're talking musical appreciation. Anyway, this shot's slightly old-fashioned night-clubby aura authentically captures something about her. She has a "big" voice, of the husky sort the French go for, but somewhat more rounded than (for instance) Patricia Kaas — you do know Patricia Kaas, don't you? — and her interpretations don't hold back on the emotions.

Her vocal quality and range, and theatrical sense, are tops in my book. On the other foot, I do have reservations about the arrangements she apparently prefers: on two of the three Liane Foly albums in my collection, she's nearly upstaged by strings, washes of synthesizer, and vocal choruses. Her disc titled Acoustique has relatively restrained production, letting her stand out more, and that's the one I'd recommend.


Next up, Alkistis (or in some transliterations, Alkisti) Protopsalti. Right off the mark, you know she's European. Who else would pose for a publicity shot these days holding a cigarette? There's still some corner of a foreign field where the Health Police haven't started kicking down doors — please, officer, there's no need to cuff my hand to the chair, that was just a joke, I'm clean, gave up smoking 20 years ago — where was I?

Oh, right, Alkistis. I was introduced to her about 1985 when I worked in radio — I mean, I was introduced to one of her albums; I'd probably have melted into a puddle if I'd been introduced to her — by a Greek radio station owner visiting my station. It was my first intimation that not all Greek music resembles the Zorba soundtrack. What I heard on that album, which I later transferred to audiocassette and still listen to while driving, was a voice of enchanting purity and soulfulness. Greeks may dance on table tops at weddings, but there is quite a bit in their history to be sad about, and the sad beauty of Alkistis Protopsalti's interpretations floored me.

I lost track of her for a long time, until one day, out of curiosity, I Googled her and found that she is still very much active on the concert circuit. On a recent visit to California I picked up one of her newer albums at The GreekShops, primarily a mail-order outfit but with a small walk-in store in Santa Monica. (If you visit the site just linked to, you can click on the little speaker icons and hear sound clips of Alkistis.) On this new disc her arrangements are more contemporary, but very good in their way, and the voice retains its allure of old.

And then there is Sezen Aksu, who I gather is one of the most popular singers in Turkey.

sezen aksu 4

She delivers ballads in what I assume is a traditional style and in a richly colored voice, spiced by exotic (to Westerners like me) instrumental backing. There's more than a touch of melancholy, but also a plainchant-like otherworldliness.

No getting around it, Sezen Aksu has compromised by including some commercial dance tracks on her discs (although I guess if you like that sort of thing, it's not a compromise). But what she does on the down-tempo, introverted numbers is so good that she can be forgiven for some waste of her talent on standard international pop grooves.

By the way, language is no barrier to enjoying these women's ways of song. Although I can more or less follow Liane Foly's French, I am Greekless and Turkishless in a pronounced (or should I say unpronounced?) way. The human voice is its own language.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Seeing Islam clearly


Persian tile, 15th century

How people in the West perceive Islam says a great deal about our ability, or lack of it, to stand outside the conditioning we've all undergone, to study the situation and analyze it for ourselves.

The Liberal Establishment talks about "moderate" Muslims and dithers in its resolve partly because, superficially, Muslims seem like exactly the kind of people we have been told all our lives that we have wronged. In fact, they possess many of the characteristics that liberals imply are signs of moral superiority.

You can go right down the checklist: with, obviously, some exceptions in each category, Muslims are poor; their homelands have been colonized; many are darker-skinned than Anglo Americans and at times in the past they were looked on with racial prejudice; they do not consume anywhere near as much as we do, albeit not through their own choice, so they are less of a burden on the environment (if you ignore their staggeringly high birth rates); they have a musical and artistic culture that is not much appreciated in the West; they are full of grievances.

In other words, they can be cast perfectly as the oppressed according to the liberal mythology!

Let's grant that there is some truth in all these characterizations. Let's even stipulate that many Muslims have been hard done by (not necessarily at the hands of infidels!) and deserve our empathy. Here's where the test comes in: can we acknowledge all this and still see through the Liberal Establishment's predisposition to understand them as nothing other than victims? In short, do we have the mental agility to admit that although there is in Islam much that we can respect and live with, we absolutely cannot accept -- must absolutely and proactively prevent -- the Islamic drive to expand the rule of the Prophet and the Quran until they are universal?

Islam as a politico-religious force scares me right down to the ground. That doesn't blind me to beauties of Islamic artistic culture and even -- are you ready for this? -- what remains of honest spirituality when you sluice off all the fanaticism, closed-mindedness, and aggression.

Hamid Al Amidi

Hamid Al Amidi, calligraphic art

Look, I admire Muslim architecture and calligraphy. (Most Islamic design is non-figurative because showing human figures is forbidden in Muslim religious art.) I enjoy rai music and a good deal of Middle Eastern music in general, some of which (like that performed by the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan) is rooted in Muslim religion. (An NPR-supporting fool could imagine, from my artistic interests, that I am a good liberal.)

It isn't clear what the state of traditional Sufism is today in the Muslim world, but the Sufis' goal is ecstasy and direct experience of Allah: not unlike the quest of Christian, Hindu, and Buddhist mystics, and right opposite to the "Quran is the absolute final word" thinking of mainstream Muslims.

Probably many among us infidels find the traditional practice among Muslims of facing toward Mecca and praying five times a day is laughable. I do not. Stopping our frenzied lives several times daily to connect, as best we can, to spiritual truth seems to me highly enlightened if done with sincerity and not as an empty ritual.

Muhammad Jalaluddin

Muhammad Jallaluddin, calligraphy

But, you know what? I hold all these admirable qualities (and any others) to be found in Islam as worthless as dust when weighed against freedom of thought, freedom to express ideas, equality under the law, and freedom to find God in our own individual ways. To live according to our own beliefs rather than dictates from authoritarian holy men whose rule is based on a single unchanging and unquestionable document from the 7th century is greater than anything Islam has ever produced.

If it were necessary to defend our civilization, I would reduce every mosque to rubble, I'd shut down every dervish's prayer hall, I'd make rai and qawwali music against the law. Fortunately, it shouldn't be necessary to do any of these things; that isn't how our heritage will be won or lost. But insofar as we're threatened by expansionist Islam's aggression and intolerance, we have no choice but to counter it with equal fierceness.

As the Duke of Wellington said to his officers at Waterloo, "Hard pounding, this, gentlemen. We shall see who pounds hardest."

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

"Soft totalitarianism" in Britain

Even in the United Kingdom, where speech is no longer free and you can be prosecuted for thought crimes, opposition to political correctness hasn't been totally suppressed. Journalist Melanie Phillips and blogs such as House of Dumb and The Daily Ablution show that The Resistance still has a pulse.

Civitas, a British organization that bills itself as The Institute for the Study of Civil Society, has recently published The Retreat of Reason: Political correctness and the corruption of public debate in modern Britain, by Anthony Browne,* which argues that "political correctness, which classifies certain groups of people as victims in need of protection from criticism and allows no dissent to be expressed, is poisoning the wells of debate in modern Britain."

The Civitas web site says:
Anthony Browne describes political correctness as a 'heresy of liberalism' under which 'a reliance on reason has been replaced with a reliance on the emotional appeal of an argument'. Adopting certain positions makes the politically correct feel virtuous, even more so when they are preventing the expression of an opinion that conflicts with their own: 'political correctness is the dictatorship of virtue'.
That seems to me, as the English say, "spot on." The politically correct mandarins who are so determined to smother any honest discussion of subjects such as race, intelligence, immigration, and Islam don't really give a toss about the supposed victim groups for which they're always preaching sensitivity. What they want is to believe themselves to be more morally refined than the rest of us, a subtle form of egotism.

In The Retreat of Reason, Browne writes:
In the early days, political correctness brought benefits as it helped spread decency and consideration to the more vulnerable members of society, from the handicapped to women to ethnic minorities.

But, as political correctness spread and deepened its influence, it became more dogmatic and intolerant of dissent, until it became a betrayal of the very liberalism that first fuelled it. It has lead to new political censorship laws being introduced to curb freedom of speech, and membership of legal democratic parties being curtailed.

Rather than opening minds, it is closing them down. The aim of political correctness is to redistribute power from the powerful to the powerless. It automatically and unquestioningly supports those it deems victims, irrespective of whether they merit it, and opposes the powerful, irrespective of whether they are malign or benign. For the politically correct, the West, the US and multinational corporations can do no good, and the developing world can do no wrong. ...

The Politically Correct are more intolerant of dissent than traditional liberals or even conservatives. Liberals of earlier generations accepted unorthodoxy as normal. Indeed the right to differ was a datum of classical liberalism. The Politically Correct do not give that right a high priority. It distresses their programmed minds. Those who do not conform should be ignored, silenced or vilified. There is a kind of soft totalitarianism about Political Correctness.
Browne argues that p.c. is much more than just a dispute about words, or not hurting anyone's feelings. It leads to mistaken analysis of real problems, and therefore to wrong attempted solutions:
Black communities are encouraged to blame racist teachers for the failure of their boys at school, rather than re-examine their own culture and attitudes to education that may be the prime reasons. The poor sick have ended up having worse healthcare in Britain than they would in mainland Europe because PC for long closed down debate on fundamental NHS reform. Women’s employment opportunities can be harmed by giving them ever more rights that are not given to men. The unemployed are encouraged to languish on benefits blaming others for
their fate. Poor Africans are condemned to live in poverty so long as they and their governments are encouraged to blame the West for all their problems, rather than confronting the real causes of poor governance, corruption and poor education.
The Political Correctness Establishment is the modern version of the Jacobins of the French Revolution, who believed than mankind could be perfected and a heaven on earth created if only enough aristocratic heads fell into the baskets and a new ideologically based language was enforced. They went so far as to restart history, with the clock reset to year 1 (corresponding to the first year of the Republic) and to rename all the months; playing cards with kings and queens were outlawed and replaced with ones showing good bourgeois in lieu of the court cards.

The ultimate result of the attempt to remake society into an image of perfection was what has since been known as the Reign of Terror. It's funny how that sort of thing seems to happen, like in Russia after 1917, when a bunch of laser-eyed fanatics corner the market in "virtue" and enforce a society based on it.

Today's p.c. enforcers are cleverer than their predecessors. They don't actually kill people for thought crimes, just try to excommunicate them from respectable society by calling them "racists," "homophobes," "xenophobes," "nativists," and all the rest of the insults that pack such a charge. It's an intellectual, not a physical, Reign of Terror. That makes it hard to convince many people, to whom ideas and open discussion are not especially important, of the danger of suppressing them.

The Resistance is mostly underground, especially in Britain, but like the Church under the Emperor Diocletian or in the Soviet Union, it survives until the day it will triumph. So, at least, we may hope.

* Earlier, the Civitas site had a link to a PDF of the complete The Retreat of Reason (I chose it as the subject of this posting in the belief you would be able to access it), but the link has waved bye-bye. I saved the PDF but don't wish to violate their copyright if Civitas has decided against offering it free on line to all and sundry.

Monday, January 02, 2006

U.S. sends military aid to Mafia to fight crime

Okay, I'm kidding, but we're doing something equally delusional. We're giving military aid to Mexico's military and police — among the most corrupt in the world — to help "secure the border." (Tip of the hat to The Dan Stein Report.)

Arizona Republic reports:
From X-ray scanners and helicopters to intelligence training, the United States has been quietly pouring millions of dollars into Mexico in the hopes of bolstering U.S. national security.

U.S. spending on military and police aid to Mexico has risen from $16.3 million in 2000 to $57.8 million in 2005, with the U.S. Department of Defense handling an ever-bigger share of the handouts. Adam Isaacson, an analyst at the Center for International Policy, a Washington think tank that tracks military aid, said, "The Mexicans are not going to devote a lot of their meager resources to the border when it's not really a priority for them."

It's unclear how much of the aid is being felt on the Arizona-Mexico border. Of the new helicopters given to Mexico since 2001, none has been stationed along the Arizona line. Most of the intelligence and counterterrorism training has gone to Mexican marines and naval officers, few of whom are stationed along the Arizona border.
U.S. Congressman Tom Tancredo's apt comment is buried by the Arizona Republic's slanted reporting very near the end of the article:
"The government of Mexico is a co-conspirator in the smuggling of immigrants," said Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., chairman of the House Immigration Reform Caucus. "This is how we reward them, with helicopters and ways to tap phones? . . . Somebody just has a lot more trust than they should have in Mexico's ability to be a good neighbor."

Sunday, January 01, 2006

A long December

A long December and there's reason to believe
Maybe this year will be better than the last ...

-- " A Long December"
Adam Duritz, Counting Crows
(from Recovering the Satellites)


It was painted on the inside door of the elevator of the hotel in Arcadia, California. Next to the door was a sign that said, "All public areas are under constant recorded surveillance and random monitoring." Just so there'll be evidence in case someone is accused of not smiling, I guess.

Californians are fiercely cheerful, their glasses always a little more than half full. (When I speak of California here, I mean the coastal areas, from the Bay Area south to the border; of course there are other "Californias," some of which resemble Oklahoma or Montana more than Santa Monica.) They love to say things like, "I'm a very positive person," and they mean it.

They are dedicated optimists because, in many cases, they or their families are the ones who had the self-confidence and drive to head out to the Coast to realize their ambitions, dreams, and fantasies. They are the self-selected young, rich, and beautiful, always and forever, at least in their own minds.

Californians smile more readily than they shake hands, but for a similar reason. Just as shaking hands originally symbolized that you weren't holding a weapon, the smile is a reassurance that the world is benign, there is nothing to fear, that whatever the temporary setbacks, ultimate success is assured.

The lack of a tragic sense of life eventually takes its toll, I think. It leaves Californians even less prepared than the rest of us to come to terms with loss, grief, aging, death. And it institutionalizes a kind of shallowness, where youth and fitness signify virtue, and character sells at a discount. Local publications in Los Angeles are overwhelmingly filled with ads for plastic surgeons, health clubs, cosmetic dentistry.

Rainbow bar

Still, on this most recent visit, I marveled at the unforced friendliness and easygoing attitudes I encountered when talking with the locals. True, most of my conversations occurred in commercial situations, but the geniality seemed "unforced" in the sense that usually no boss was around and there would have been no penalty for keeping to the pure businesslike minimum that you run into so often on the East Coast.

Despite what is undoubtedly a high-stress environment, with insane housing prices, legendary traffic density, ethnic tensions (although I personally noticed none as a visitor), and the omnipresent threat of earthquake, flood, and fire, Californians can still be forgiven for feeling specially blessed. They enjoy abundant sunshine, mild winters, year-round flowers, amazing views of and from mountains even in urban areas, and much more. That smile is for more than holding back the darkness.

Rainbow bar

Not surprising, then, that the Quake Coast is home to extremes. Amoeba Records in Hollywood, housed in a space the size of an aircraft-manufacturing facility, offers an amazing selection of new and used CDs, DVDs, LPs, and other entertainment media. A sales clerk who wore a black T-shirt with bold white lettering proclaiming TOO DRUNK TO FUCK looked like trouble on wheels, but he too was amiable as he rang up my order. Dressing up is, needless to say, de rigueur in LA, and I saw women with every kind of look from Beverly Hills glitz to teenage tart, but contrary to the image most of us carry around, the median was surprisingly restrained, although highly colorful. I saw fewer fashion victims than in New York. Like Parisian women, those in LA tend to be chic, with that seemingly instinctive sense of how to understatedly dramatize themselves.

Across the street from Amoeba Records is the Arclight Cinema. If public movie theaters have a future in the age of home theater and computer downloading, it will have to be something like the Arclight. The complex consists of a dozen or so screening rooms plus, as its centerpiece, the restored Cinerama Dome. All of the rooms have been designed to make watching a movie both comfortable and overwhelming. Screens are huge and projection razor-sharp, the sound is magnificent, and the seating is luxurious. Yes, all this comes at a price, but $11 tickets in the daytime and $14 at night are reasonable enough for what you get.

My lady Christine and I saw, in one of the smaller (but not small) rooms, Syriana. The movie is exciting but virtually incomprehensible except for its fraudulent "message." To experience the Cinerama Dome, we watched King Kong there, and it's exactly the kind of show that needs a quality venue -- I think it would lose a lot in a standard multiplex shoebox theater. The film tries to be everything: a super spectacle, a horror flick, a comedy, and an offbeat love story. As eye-popping spectacle, it succeeds too well, with segments of special effects wizardry that go on till you're ready to disconnect your head and place it on the seat beside you. To give credit where it's due, King Kong does have honestly touching moments. Otherwise, it reminded me of why I don't go to horror flicks or comedies. But oh, that theater! Just as a technical tour de force, I won't forget it.

Rainbow bar

And it's one more day up in the canyons
And it's one more night in Hollywood ...

-- "A Long December"

Actually, and I'm sorry to say it, our only time in the canyons was driving through them from the San Gabriel and San Fernando Valleys to the city. And there was only one night in Hollywood, the last one of our visit.

The TenTwenty Café in the Bel Age Hotel, near the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood, is a dandy place to hear live jazz. There's no cover charge, the food is tasty and not outrageously expensive, the decor is upmarket without being vulgar, the view of the city lights superlative. Also they have valet parking, which ordinarily I prefer to avoid, but in the Strip area it offers a distinct advantage: your car will still be there when you want it back.

We heard the 11 O'Clock News Band. You like jazz? You'll like them.

Rainbow bar

And it's been a long December and there's reason to believe
Maybe this year will be better than the last
I can't remember all the times I tried to tell myself
To hold on to these moments as they pass

Last year was actually a fine one for me, not least because I finally conquered my worries about being able to deal with blogging technology, so was able to start Reflecting Light. And while I'm not a real positive person, I do believe this year will be (even) better than the last.

And I wish the same for you in 2006. Thanks for stopping by.