Tuesday, February 28, 2006

The children's jihad


The Muslim world's version of Mardi Gras was celebrated yesterday in Karachi, Pakistan. Five thousand people were on hand to cheer the floats, which included burning U.S., Israeli, and Danish flags, and slogans expressing colorful local traditions. "So what else is new?"

Not much, except that these revelers were of tender years, if not very tender thoughts. Specifically, their ages ranged from 8 to 12.
The rally was organized by Jamaat-e-Islami, Pakistan's largest Islamic group. The children, some wearing school uniforms and headbands emblazoned with "God is great," were released from schools to take part.
Well, a day off school is a day off, and I can spare a little empathy with the kids. Who wouldn't rather be outdoors playing the hangman of an infidel cartoonist than reciting the Quran in a dusty madrassa? But since schoolchildren are among the few fully employed citizens in most Muslim countries, it does seem like Jamaat-e-Islami might have allowed the elders a few hours of recreation instead.

The youth festival in Karachi would hardly be worth noting aside from the age of its revelers, so closely did it run to form. But in the same web sweep that turned up the pictures of the pre-pubescent warriors of Allah, I also found an editorial by the Christian Science Monitor flopping in my net. The juxtaposition might serve as a dictionary example for term cognitive dissonance.

We keep reading how modern instantaneous worldwide communications has knitted the world so closely together that a butterfly scratching its antenna in Brazil can set off a price war between shoe stores in Beijing. That being so, I have to admire the Monitor refusing to lower its standards by taking aboard, well, anything since Martin Luther King's heyday. I expect soon to learn of a follow-up editorial explaining why no images of King should be published.

The Monitor's editorial belongs in a museum display case next to a guitar string from a hootenanny and a nouvelle plastique Pez dispenser. I'll wait here while you read it.

The answer to all these death threats, spoken in a thoughtless moment, is — are you ready? — "integration." "Affirmative action." The voice of the jihadist cries out from the depths. "We're marching for our civil riots!"

Can there possibly be any better example of the utter irrelevance of the mainstream media than this encyclical, which believes that Muslim lynch mobs are an oppressed minority? In Europe, where for the past 30 years they have been welcomed, given rent-free accommodations and welfare? Or that mobs are carrying signs in London promising a new Holocaust because they're angry about the lack of "common immigration parameters: family reunification standards, the right to work, and the amount of time it takes to become a citizen, for instance"?

Integration? On whose terms? The Muslims in Karachi would seem to be pretty well integrated, seeing as how they live in a country where you practice any other religion only at severe risk to your corpus. Still they bay for the blood of anyone who displays "insensitivity" to their creed. Is this what we should be encouraging Europe to "mainstream" into their societies?

I know how hard it is for the Liberal Establishment to wrap its petrified brains around the idea that an immigrant group can be more oppressive, intolerant, and aggressive than a host culture. All the evidence, however, suggests that it is so with Europe's Muslims. You can't integrate two cultures with radically different fundamental values. European countries should insist that the price of citizenship is a genuine willingness to accept traditional Western freedoms, including freedom of thought and speech, even when Muslims find it "offensive." If not, the Muslims' Prophet will be Europe's loss.


Sunday, February 26, 2006

O Silver Moon

rusalka 2

"These fragments I have shored against my ruins."

That oft-quoted line from T.S. Eliot pretty much describes the state of Europe today. As Europe continues sleepwalking toward dhimmitude, we must increasingly remind ourselves, through its remaining fragments, of what Europe used to be: vibrant, creative, confident in leading civilization. (Too confident, as 1914-18 was to prove, but that's another story.)

For hundreds of years, Europe's cultural richness was so great that the glow from the continent's many smaller stars was lost next to the radiance of its supernovas. Take, for one example, the operas of Dvořák. Unlike his great symphonies, cello concerto, and chamber music, the operas are rarely performed and even more rarely recorded. You'd imagine there was nothing there. Until recently, I'd never heard any.

Being a great admirer of Dvořák's music, I took the plunge and bought the London label's recording of Rusalka. This is one big league production, with Renée Fleming in the title role, Ben Heppner, and the Czech Philharmonic conducted by Charles Mackerras. Released only in 1998, the recording is already a reminder of a rapidly disappearing Europe.

About five years ago, PolyGram Records (which included the big three European labels -- London/Decca, Philips, and Deutsche Grammophon) sold itself to the U.S. media giant Universal, which confines its classical releases to reissues from the PolyGram vault and occasional "mostly Mozart" hits by superstar performers. This highly expensive, big-name Rusalka production would never be greenlighted today. ("Are you serious? You want to hire Renée Fleming to sing an opera nobody's heard of in Hungarian? What? Okay, okay, Czech, same difference. Get outta my face and don't come back till you learn what sells. And hey, we're a week behind schedule on James Galway and His 101 Flutes Play Pachelbel's Canon and Other Hits."

So what about Rusalka? Well, it's probably not a "great" opera, just a hugely enjoyable one, and sometimes more than that. Listen to Fleming sing the aria "O Silver Moon." For sensuous, heart-tugging beauty, you can set it on a pedestal next to anything by Verdi or Puccini. The lyrics are probably better in Czech, but even translated into Opera English, they conjure up a magical world that you can believe in while the music takes you there:

(Rusalka, singing to the moon,
whose beams now light up the whole landscape.
It is a beautiful summer's night.)

O moon in the velvet heavens,
your light shines far,
you roam throughout the whole world,
gazing into human dwellings.
O moon, stay a while,
tell me where my beloved is! ...
O tell him, silver moon,
that my arms enfold him,
in the hope that for at least a moment
he will dream of me. ...
Shine on him, wherever he may be,
and tell him of the one who awaits him here! ...
If a human soul should dream of me,
may he still remember me on awakening;
o moon, do not fade away!

"These fragments." O silver moon, do not fade away.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Generalissimo Bush-Gonzales reviews his troops

Generalissimo Jorge "El Tigre" Bush-Gonzales at a ceremony welcoming undocumented migrants.

El Presidente Generalissimo Jorge Bush-Gonzales is one "compassionate" conservative, all right. He is especially compassionate toward Latin Americans who are in the United States illegally or "temporarily." (I find it harder and harder to write about Generalissmo Bush-Gonzales without using lots of quotation marks to indicate irony.)

The Bush-Gonzales junta has just announced that it will extend special temporary U.S. residency for hundreds of thousands of Nicaraguans and Hondurans for another year. They were granted extra-legal "citizenship" following natural disasters in their homelands in 1998 and 2001. That is, some have been here temporarily for the past eight years while their countries were being patched up.
… Central American leaders and several members of Congress have been pushing for a renewal. Immigrants and their advocates say allowing the special status to expire would devastate not only these individuals but also their families — and the Central American nations — who count on the billions of dollars the immigrants earn in the United States and send home.
The beat goes on.

I sympathize with those who suffered losses from an earthquake and a hurricane, and would be surprised if the United States didn't dole out gazonga bucks to help make the stricken countries whole at the time. But this isn't about humanitarianism. It's about crass political opportunism by a loco presidente who is so infatuated with Latin America that he will undermine immigration control in any way he can, and use any pretext he can, to Hispanicize the country whose laws he swore, with a straight face, to uphold.

I wouldn't like it any better, but I'd feel like I was living in a somewhat rational world, if any discernible political benefit could accrue to the Generalissimo and his junta from the devolution of a rich and successful country into a Third World barrio. But I am at a loss to figure out what he imagines he is gaining. Does he really think that millions of Mexicans and other latinos will pledge their fealty to the Republican party? That those millions sending most of their paychecks to be spent in other countries are an economic benefit to the United States? That in the future a committee of reasoning-challenged pinkos in Stockholm will vote him a Nobel Prize?

The standard explanation, that the Generalissimo is currying favor with business interests who want lots of cheap immigrant labor, doesn't seem to make sense. The captains of industry surely realize that the Democrats would be equally happy to see that the vast peasant migration continues without let or hindrance — not because of overflowing compassion for the wretched of the earth, which might not be reliable in a pinch, but to buy votes.
[Representative] Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement that without a renewal of the special residency, the Central Americans would "face deportation back to a country where they may encounter violence, civil unrest or a homeland still recuperating from natural disasters."
As I say, I sympathize, living as I do in the United States, a country where I might encounter violence or civil unrest, and which is still recuperating from natural disasters. Let's see … where can I emigrate to so that I need never run any such risks again, and where they'd never dream of deporting me back to my homeland and exposure to the perils of living?

I'm having trouble figuring this one out. Help me, please.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Los Angeles mayor's New York state of mind

First, Los Angeles imported the Dodgers from Brooklyn. Now LA's mayor wants to bring the rest of the city along.

The mayor wants to remake Los Angeles into something like ... 700 square miles of housing projects.
Los Angeles' mayor wants to take the city from concrete and scattered small buildings to a planned community of high-rise buildings and plenty of parks.

Antonio Villaraigosa told the Los Angeles Times he has a vision for the city's future where neighborhoods are connected by an enlarged subway system, where the concrete channels that used to run storm water to the ocean will be torn up and replaced with park space.

He visions more museums, restaurants and shops, high-rise offices and apartments and what he calls 'stylish density' for the people living in the country's second most populated city.


Hizzoner has seen the future of LA, and it's ... this?

There's a terrific precedent: New York in the 1950s. The city's perennial Utopian socialist cranks were at the apex of their power, and in the name of slum clearance they developed a scheme of housing that would, er, take the city from concrete and scattered small buildings to a planned community of high-rise buildings and plenty of parks.

You can still see the results. Throughout the city are whole so-called neighborhoods of tower blocks, with "parks" scattered among them, like those in the period photo (1955) above. The planners' city of dreams.

A funny old thing happened, though. No one who could afford to live in one of the decent "scattered small buildings" or move to the 'burbs would let so much as their shadow fall in the new "planned" high rises. Doubtless, for the first few years, some of the poor inhabitants who gravitated to them did believe they had come up in the world. But the sociological causes dear to the heart of New York's Liberal Establishment -- unlimited immigration, welfare, soft-on-crime judges -- that were changing the city saw to it that the projects (once, believe it or not, the word had positive connotations) turned into grim, alienating freelance penitentiaries. The "parks" made possible by highrising the inmates were best avoided by those who preferred not to be mugged, raped, or murdered.

True, Mayor Villaraigosa doesn't say he favors New York style housing projects. But Los Angeles developers are already putting up high rise condominiums, wherever the zoning laws will allow it, for affluent residents. So the mayor's plan sounds like a pitch for massive subsidized housing. What he can't say -- in public -- is, "We need towers to where we can install the two or three million more Mexicans that will lock in Los Angeles for la reconquista."

What about those amenities, 'mmm?

Well, parks or their cousins, urban open space, are the sucker bait that every developer offers to get approval for their colossal schemes. But somehow open space and high rises don't work together, even in upscale areas. They tend to become rubbish-strewn wind tunnels unpopulated except by moping teenagers. I'm not sure why; maybe people who live on the 25th floor just stop thinking about the ground as a place to spend part of their leisure time. London has urban squares graced by green space, built by developers in the 17th and 18th centuries, such as Bedford Square, St. James's Square, Berkeley Square, and the terraces surrounding Regent's Park. Those are still considered highly desirable locations. But they are mostly centerpieces of low-rise architecture. There's a human relationship between the houses and the open space.

It's almost impossible to design urban parks that attract people when the parks are surrounded by modern, sterile ugliness. Jane Jacobs, the famous urban architecture writer, noted that people from the streets of the upper West Side in New York congregated in narrow traffic islands in the center of Broadway, where there are few sculptures, fancy paving, or other whims of park designers, and plenty of noise and exhaust smoke. But there is a sense of connection with the city and the neighborhood, which is missing in purpose-built recreational areas like those between high-density slabs.

An enlarged subway system? For Los Angeles? As the hyena said in a rare serious moment, don't make me laugh. Subways and buses make some sense in downtowns and old, relatively compact eastern cities, but even in those places they are becoming increasingly obsolete as much of the commuting and travel is neither within downtown or between suburbs and downtown, but between suburbs and between "edge" cities on the periphery. Los Angeles, and other western cities, are so decentralized that no public transportation system conceivable could get people from any point to any point efficiently.

Even if Mayor Villaraigosa's loony notion had anything to recommend it, how could it be accomplished except through a wholesale abolition of property rights and a government agency with the authority to ... well, to do anything it liked to the city? Not to mention moon-shot financial resources?

Oh, yes. "He's looking to state and federal coffers to fund the subway expansion too," says the article. What a delicious mantra for a city politician. State and federal funding. State and federal funding. State and federal funding. Pie-in-the-sky-scrapers for millions of new immigrants. Contracts of all sorts for the Anglo business interests to keep them from squawking about being annexed by Mexico. The future's so bright, Hizzoner's gotta wear shades.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

It's going down

Jacques Brel: Au revoir, vôtre Europe

The Associated Press reports:
A Pakistani cleric announced a $1 million bounty for killing a cartoonist who drew the Prophet Muhammad. In Libya, a demonstration against the caricatures left the Italian consulate on fire and at least nine people dead, according to an Italian diplomat. ...

Mohammed Yousaf Qureshi announced the bounty for killing a cartoonist to about 1,000 people outside the historic Mohabat Khan mosque in the northwestern city of Peshawar.

He said the mosque and the religious school he leads would give a $25,000 reward and a car for killing the cartoonist who drew the caricatures -- considered blasphemous by Muslims. He said a local jewelers' association would also give $1 million, but no representative of the association was available to confirm the offer.

"Whoever has done this despicable and shameful act, he has challenged the honor of Muslims. Whoever will kill this cursed man, he will get $1 million dollars from the association of the jewelers bazaar, one million rupees ($16,700) from Masjid Mohabat Khan and 500,000 rupees ($8,350) and a car from Jamia Ashrafia as a reward," Qureshi said.

"This is a unanimous decision of by all imams of Islam that whoever insults the prophets deserves to be killed and whoever will take this insulting man to his end, will get this prize," he said.

So that's the state of play for freedom of the press and of speech in Europe, and potentially in every country where Muslim leaders have eyes to raise the Crescent. Which is, everywhere. You fail to follow the rules of Islam, whether you're a Muslim or not, and there's a jolly good price on your head.

Europe. Now, this may seem off topic, but not really, I think.

I was just listening to a CD of Jacques Brel, the Belgian singer and songwriter who was immensely popular in the 1960s. He was a great artist who was also a bit of a show-off and inclined to go over the top: I don't have a lot of time for his often-used device of increasing the tempo of a song until, by the end, he sounded like an auctioneer. But when he let go of mannerisms, his lyrics and delivery could be honestly, almost transcendentally poignant and romantic.

And he seemed, in some way, to plumb the heart of old Europe, which two world wars and endless earlier conflicts had devastated time and again, but which always seemed to rise once more, its faith -- in love, if not God -- indestructible.

It's the Europe that Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstain II were thinking of when they wrote "The Last Time I Saw Paris," when the street signs had become bilingual, French-German, in 1941.

Europe recovered from that tyranny. Can it do the same again?

The signs aren't good. Years of prosperity and the nanny state have raised several generations of Europeans who imagine that global warming is the greatest calamity they could ever face, and that whatever the problem, government bureaux will take care of it.

There are very few things I'm sure of, but this is one of them: right at this minute, there are madmen who are working out meticulous details of a terrorist atrocity the likes of which we probably haven't seen before, in answer to a perceived insult to their warlord Prophet.

When -- if? -- their plans are fulfilled, I hope what remains of the spirit that organized the Resistance in World War II will awaken at last. Maybe even the European Left will finally stand up and say, enough.

Then again, maybe the Prophet's avengers have bigger game in their sights, such as the Great Satan itself.

This year? Next year? The year after? Someone knows; I don't. Be ready. It's going down.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Inspector Rebus fails to arrest on DVD

Rebus 1
John Hannah as Detective Inspector John Rebus

The first series of TV police dramas based on Ian Rankin's Inspector Rebus novels has been released on DVD. The episodes, made for British TV, have not appeared on American television as far as I know (they were made in 2000-2001). I'm sure many Rankin fans have been looking forward to seeing how the books would be adapted for the small screen.

From my perspective, the series has been worth a wait ... of about five minutes. Which is to say, it is a disappointment. Not a total loss, but not what it should have been, and with one particularly annoying element that I'll get to in due course.

Rebus, as most detective novel enthusiasts know, is one of the more striking characters created for the genre in recent years. His patch is Edinburgh, but the criminal side that tourists in the picturesque old part of town give a wide miss to. Rebus is a walking rain cloud — aging, cynical (about himself more than anything else), depressive, more than a bit fond of the beverage that Scotland's inhabitants gave their name to.

Engaging sourballs like Rebus are pretty standard in detective stories, but Ian Rankin is very talented at portraying his individuality, as well as the chill, both literal and figurative, of Edinburgh's underworld. He also does a terrific line in sharp dialogue. (If you haven't sampled Rankin and want to have a go, he is at the top of his game in Set in Darkness and Strip Jack. His more recent books that I've read, although still of a high caliber, seem a little diffuse and hastily written.)*

For the telly series, a lot obviously rides on the casting for Rebus. He's played by John Hannah, a Scottish actor whose production company was also behind the project. From what I can gather, Hannah wasn't a big hit in the role, nor did he (reportedly) much please Rankin. Some have suggested he wasn't old enough to play Rebus (who seems to be in his late 40s in the books) or that the character wasn't dissipated enough. Neither of those things bothered me. I thought Hannah does a creditable job of portraying a man whose soul is heavily weighted down, angry at himself first and the villains second. If there is a problem with the characterization — and I agree that there is — the scripts make good suspects. Among other lacks, they fail to fill in much of the background of Rebus's life, so that his angst seems little more than generalized moping.

And that's true in spades of the background of the drama as a whole. In the inevitable "Making of ... " featurette on one of the DVDs, the crew (as well as Rankin himself) do a great deal of huffing and puffing about the contrast between picture postcard Edinburgh and its dark side. In connection with the TV shows, it seems like special pleading. True, everybody knows the cliché images of Edinburgh as Scotland's refined and aristocratic city, the Athens of the north, where they sip organic fair trade tea from thimble-sized cups with their pinky fingers upraised, as compared with Glasgow, tough and demotic, where they'll slap you on the back such that your spine turns into Silly Putty. That's if they like you. But come on, did anyone really imagine that Edinburgh was the Emerald City? Human nature being what it is, of course it has its nasty side.

Part of Rankin's skill as a writer is that he particularizes the environment; the TV version, again, generalizes it. The atmosphere, when it's not bleached-out fluorescent lighting in the cop shop, is sold-by-the-yard nouveau film noir: lots of rain, peeling paint, Piranesi staircases.

The scripts for the four dramas in the series — Black and Blue, The Hanging Garden, Dead Souls, and Mortal Causes — just don't come near in quality to the books that they're based on. Mind you, I'm not complaining that they don't follow the story line of the books; filmed drama is a different medium from literature, and has its own ways of making its points. But these programs fall way too comfortably into the "edgy" cinema policier stereotype so familiar from Prime Suspect, NYPD Blue, CSI, etc. You got your nonconformist detective; you got your politically motivated, unsympathetic superior officers; you got your surly colleagues; you got your self-confident, smirking suspects across the interview table. As in most British dramas, the acting is efficient, but few of the characters are especially unusual or memorable.

The adaptation of Mortal Causes is particularly egregious, however. The scriptwriter made the plot turn on a contrivance of which there was no hint in the book. The bad guys aren't the IRA — they're a cabal of white supremicists, led by a racist moneybags from (where else?) the United States. Again, I'm not griping because the script doesn't follow the book's plot, but I am more than a fraction outraged that the hack — name of Mark Greig — who wrote it was so bereft of ideas that he had to scrape the barrel's bottom to come up with this cartoonish, stereotypical, and probably politically motivated nonsense.

The series foundered after the episodes included on the DVDs. It has been resurrected lately in the U.K. with a different cast. Oh, aye? Good luck to them.

* Rankin has visited my local Borders on a couple of occasions that I attended, during his book-promotion tours. In his public persona he is, like Rebus, thoughtful, quick-witted, and funny; unlike Rebus, quite cheerful.

Monday, February 13, 2006

The currency of the past

Anglo-Saxon coin
Coenwulf, King of Mercia, feeling spent

Everything that has survived more or less unchanged from the past is a time machine.

Sometimes the "time trip" can be quite spectacular. In Rome, in the Church of Santa Prassede, you can walk into a small room called the Chapel of St. Zeno. In the chapel you are surrounded on all sides, and the ceiling, by mosaics from the ninth century; other than some unobtrusive lighting, everything is as it was.

But the fascination of objects from the past doesn't depend on size. Pictured above are the front and back (or obverse and reverse, if you're of an academic mind) of a coin that was minted in 805-810 during the reign of Coenwulf, whom The Telegraph describes as "the King of Mercia, East Anglia and Kent, the most powerful ruler in Britain at the time and a significant figure in the gradual unification of England."

Besides the £357,832 that the British Museum shelled out to acquire the coin, it's impressive for being remarkably well preserved, which is possibly down to its high gold content. Here, too, is a tiny peep-hole into a long-ago age. The Western Roman empire had ended centuries previously, yet its memory or traditions lingered in wild-and-woolly Britain: King Coenwulf might not have been recognized names like Virgil or Plutarch, but he knew how to style himself like an emperor on the coin of his realm.

And how about that inscription on the back — DE VICO LVNDONIAE ("from the trading place of London"). Would anyone who handled the coin soon after it was made have imagined that 1,200 years later, it would be an object of wonder in a settlement still called London, and still quite the trading place, buying and selling commodities and equities from the entire world?

We have no idea, of course, by what mischance the coin was lost. The universe seems to run a mysterious lottery that determines if an object created for purposes practical or transcendental arrives at the far shores of time or vanishes without trace on the journey. More often than not, it re-emerges from lost time by accident, like the Venus de Milo, which was found in pieces by a farmer on the Aegean island of Melos, who hid it in his barn until the Turkish ruling authorities got ahold of it.

Every now and then, someone makes an effort to ensure the survival of an article that would otherwise return to the uncreated. The Egyptians of antiquity went to incredible trouble to see that the bodies of their royalty were proof against decay; they had occult knowledge or intuitions of immortality, but confused eternity with perpetual existence in time.

John Aubrey (remembered today as the author of Brief Lives) was walking through Newgate Street in 17th century London where he found the head of a statue that had recently been mostly destroyed in the Great Fire. Aubrey salvaged the what was left as a fragment of history. He wrote, "How these curiosities would be quite forgott, did not such idle fellowes as I am put them down!"

Archeologists excavate known ruins, but are unlikely to turn up artifacts outside of their "digs" whose existence is unsuspected. More likely these days than disinterested scholarship is the self-interested quest for profit. (It's not clear from the Telegraph story whether the man who found Coenwulf's coin using a metal detector was deliberately searching for valuables he could sell, but many amateur artifact hunters do just that.) Still, if the net result is that something of historical interest is brought to light rather than continuing to be unseen, we should hardly begrudge them the financial fruits of their labors.

Why does nature retain intact some goods from centuries or millennia past, while the personalities who lived in that time vanish, in most cases the very memory of their existence obliterated? Are mere material objects of more account in the great scheme of things than reasoning, feeling human beings? Or is it the other way around: Does everything material dissolve, quickly or slowly, but certainly eventually, while Spirit — incapable of being permanently imprisoned in matter — continue through countless forms and then beyond form?

Friday, February 10, 2006

Wink. Nod. Blind horse.

Franco Frattini, the EU Commissioner for Justice, Freedom, and Security — why didn't they toss in Dental Hygiene, Green Tourism, and Self-Esteem for good measure? — either did, or didn't, call for European news media to exercise voluntary censorship when reporting about religions, one religion in particular. Or, in a typical political shimmy, he both did and didn't. (Tip of the hat to The Belmont Club.)

The Telegraph reported that Commissioner Frattini planned "to bring together European newspapers and media groups, and draw up a voluntary code of conduct, committing editors to 'prudence' when reporting Islam and other religions." Frattini, perhaps feeling himself to be caught in the headlights, then issued a disclaimer, also quoted in The Telegraph:
"Since September 2005 I am in close contact with various representatives of the media, including the European federation of journalists, on issues linked to freedom of speech. I have offered to facilitate a dialogue between the media representatives and between them and faith leaders if that would be found useful by both parties. ...

"Such a dialogue would aim at discussing a number of pertinent questions which we are confronted with nowadays. One of them being 'How are we to reconcile freedom of expression and respect for each individual's deepest convictions?', a relevant question as formulated by many actors, including the International Federation of Journalists.

"It is a dialogue on such a question which I would be wiling to facilitate but I will not impose such a role on any party if such a need would not be felt. Finally, I have never suggested imposing a code of conduct on the press, it is up to the media themselves to self-regulate or not, and it is up to the media to formulate such a voluntary code of conduct if it is found necessary, appropriate and useful by them."

Taken at face value, that seems mild enough, provided you agree that there is a need for such a "dialogue" in the first place. Journalism has operated for centuries without the perceived need for any reconciliation between its freedom and any individual's "deepest convictions" — and no profession is more given to looking over its own shoulder than journalism, which endlessly sponsors seminars in which media pooh-bahs ruminate over Their Role. So you might suspect that this initiative is yet another off-the-books concession to Muslim tantrums over the Mohammed cartoons.

Why should the media have to reconcile themselves with anyone's convictions, whether they're shallow or plunge deep into the earth's core? This is just the old politically correct prohibition on "offending" anyone's sensibilities. The give-and-take of political and social debate, which is the fuel of democratic civil society, must from time to time deal with questions that involve people's deepest convictions, and about which they are highly emotional. If the media have to declare all such issues out of bounds, what is left? Publishing and broadcasting that are completely free to probe trivia.

That, in fact, is where many of our legacy news sources appear to be already. A journalist from 50 years ago, if suddenly transported to our time, would be shocked at the amount of coverage mainstream media now devote to celebrities, Grammy Awards, trends, gossip and other soft "news." The beauty of that sort of mush, from a craven publisher's standpoint, is that you can generate and cover lots of meaningless "controversy" that won't have any true believers wanting to be off with your head.

Anyway, although Frattini has found a soothing verbal formula to describe his supposedly non-coercive intervention into media practices, I distrust language such as, "it is up to the media themselves to self-regulate or not, and it is up to the media to formulate such a voluntary code of conduct if it is found necessary, appropriate and useful by them." If self-regulation and a code of conduct are actually up to the media and voluntary, what business is it of his to bang on about them?

Recently I asked a friend in London what the English mean by the saying, "A wink is as good as a nod to a blind horse." He replied:
Colloquial Britspeak goes out of date even faster than expensive computers, but I think this means that if you give the slightest indication that you approve of something it is assumed you are entirely in favour. Stalin was good at this — he would write something like "solve this problem" on Rick Darbievich's file and when poor old Rick got shot the next day Stalin wouldn't object. See Orlando Figes' splendid and important book A People's Tragedy for specific examples (and much more).
I can't help thinking that Frattini has just written to the European media, "Solve this problem." And if freedom to debate and question anyone's "deepest convictions" goes before the firing squad, he wouldn't object.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Multi-culturalism is dead; press declares, "Long live multi-culturalism!"

No one can say at this point if the adventures of Mohammed in Cartoonland will erupt into widespread violence, or if they will settle into just another source of Islamic grievance against the infidels, bubbling under until the next intifada. But the real significance of the flap is that the incompatibility between the most basic principles of Western freedom and the intellectual closed shop of Islam can no longer stay a dirty little secret. Even in "What, Me Worry?" Europe, the fantasy of peaceful assimilation of Muslim immigrants into one big happy multi-culti family is dead.

Muslim extremist, London demonstration, February 2006

be prepared
Muslim moderate, London demonstration, February 2006

The news has reached everywhere, except the editorial offices of the legacy press, still imagining that they are the gatekeepers of opinion they were when the dead-tree media were the only game in town.

The difference in coverage of the 'Toon That Name business between newspapers and the Web -- especially that portion of it known as the blogsophere -- is so great as to be almost laughable. Laughable, but not funny, considering the stakes involved.

Compare the sophisticated and clear-eyed analysis at, for one example, Belmont Club with what you can read in your newspaper ... assuming your newspaper has anything to say about a possibly developing civil war in Europe (so much less important than a National Security Agency "scandal," and such an unpleasant thing to talk about).

Danish embassy in Beirut during what the Washington Post called "unrest" created by Muslim "protesters."

If your gag reflex is in good working order, here are a few examples I ran across surfing the Web editions of print newspapers.

A former Bishop of Edinburgh has his say in the Glasgow Sunday Herald. After explaining how he had "immediately and sincerely apologised, and felt wretched about what I had done" for an idle remark that offended a Roman Catholic, he gets down to present business:
... a decent society needs more than free speech. It also needs to prize values that ease relations between people of opposing convictions, and the highest of these is courtesy. Courtesy is a form of restraint that sees no point in upsetting people just for the sake of it. The courteous prize the right of free speech – and might even be prepared to defend it to the death – but they also know that freedom may sometimes have to be exercised with restraint, especially towards those who have passed through a different cultural history.
Certain people who have passed through a different cultural history (one which regards the entire non-Muslim world as Dar Al-Harb, the House of War) might indeed wish that the right of free speech be defended to the death of all its defenders. I certainly take his point about courtesy, though. In fact, beheading captives and promising a new, improved Holocaust seem to me a breach of etiquette -- although it could all just be a misunderstanding on my part.

Meanwhile, in the largest city of our good neighbor to the north, The Toronto Star offers a "human interest" angle:
The international controversy over Danish caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad reverberated in Toronto yesterday — with hurt and sadness in the mosques and action in grocery stores. Muslim-owned groceries removed Danish products from their stores, joining a worldwide boycott stemming from publication of the cartoons. "Value is more important than business," said Hanif Kotwal, store manager at Iqbal's, a large supermarket in Toronto's Thorncliffe Park, home to the city's largest concentration of Muslims. "Even if it hurts our business, we have to show solidarity."
See, it's all just a matter of hurt feelings. Toronto's Muslims are so sensitive. They'll even forgo the profits on a few wedges of Danish cheese to express their feelings. The story goes on for about 20 paragraphs to help us understand why the Muslims are so offended, and calls on Ruth Mas, a lecturer in Islamic studies at Wilfrid Laurier University, to explain that "the blasphemy in this case stems not simply from the act of depicting Muhammad, but from the 'awful' depictions of Muhammad in the cartoons."

I know I'm a troublemaker, but I'd have thought that even in Toronto, there might be someone, somewhere, who might disagree with the boycott or put it in the larger context of Islam's refusal to accept any questioning of its absolute system. But I'm sure the paper, in its even-handedness, looked all over but couldn't find any other viewpoint.

Still, maybe those papers aren't representative examples, located as they are in the dhimmified U.K. and in North America's failed state, Canada, balkanized six ways from Sunday.

Let's take the temperature of a high-class paper in the United States, The Boston Globe, read by the brainy elite of Harvard and MIT.
FREEDOM OF expression is not the only value at issue in the conflict provoked by a Danish newspaper's publication of cartoons satirizing Islam's founding prophet, Mohammed. The billowing controversy is being swept along by intolerance, ignorance, and parochialism. The refusal of each camp to recognize and respect the otherness of the other brings closer a calamitous clash of cultures pitting Islam against the West. ...

This was a case of seeking a reason to exercise a freedom that had not been challenged. No government, political party, or corporate interest was trying to deny the paper its right to publish whatever it wanted. The original purpose of printing the cartoons -- some of which maliciously and stupidly identified Mohammed with terrorists, who could want nothing better than to be associated with the prophet -- was plainly to be provocative.
There you go, then. The whole tempest in a teacup is down to "ignorance, intolerance, and parochialism." No important values are at issue; it's just a cat fight. But while both sides may be exhibiting ignorance, intolerance, and parochialism, the implication is plain that the whole silly affair could have been avoided if one of them had been a little less ignorant, etc. Guess which? Here's a clue: the ignorant and stupid side that wanted to be -- oh, my God, no! -- provocative!
As with the current consensus against publishing racist or violence-inciting material, newspapers ought to refrain from publishing offensive caricatures of Mohammed in the name of the ultimate Enlightenment value: tolerance.
Gotcha! Offending Muslims is a form of racism and incitement to violence. (Well, incitement to violence clearly is correct, although not quite in the way the paper meant it.) Here is an affirmation of the one and only moral issue the Liberal Establishment recognizes: tolerance. The "ultimate" value, in the Globe's words. We must be tolerant of everything, including intolerance itself, as well as kidnapping, beheading, suicide bombing, hijacking airplanes full of innocent people and using them to bring down buildings to kill thousands of other innocent people. All that's standing in the way of world peace and brotherhood is ignorance and the unwillingness of a few "provocative" journalists to refrain from printing anything that might offend adherents of one ultra-thin-skinned religio-political system.

Although the offending cartoons are now all over the Web, where they have probably been viewed by half a billion or so people, the Globe is still so aware of its responsibility as the arbiter of what may and may not be seen by the public -- come to think of it, the paper has a lot in common with Muslim "protesters" -- that after due deliberation among the white shirts on the top floor, it has refused on principle to show the drawings.

You almost have to have some sympathy for these coelacanths of the publishing world, buried in the mud, not quite extinct, unlike the multi-cultural imperative that has blown up all around them.

La commedia è finita.


Thursday, February 02, 2006

Science studies déjà vu (Did I post this before?)


Note to self: calm down. To readers: Sorry about that last rant. Those moods come over me. I won't let it happen again for a while.

Let's return to another recurrent subject of this blog, psychical research.

Déjà vu is the feeling that what you are currently experiencing already happened before. Not routine things, mind you, like passing the same buildings during your commute or arguing with your spouse, but presumably unique events, or at least ones that you have no reason to think you actually lived previously. A poll conducted in 1986 by the National Opinion Research Council of the University of Chicago found that 67 percent of Americans reported having instances of déjà vu.

Descriptions of the phenomenon often claim that people with spells of déjà vu not only feel like "this has already happened," but that they also know what will happen next (and, reportedly, sometimes what is foreseen is true). The latter part of the description, though, is mistaken. Perceiving the future is called precognition in parapsychology.

I have never knowingly experienced precognition, but there were two periods in my life -- one lasting about a week (about 25 years ago), the other (fairly recently) for perhaps three days -- when I had constant déjà vu flashes. They were quite strong, especially in the first bout. Hardly an hour went by when I failed to encounter an experience -- a remark made by someone, a car passing by, the decor of a restaurant, etc., etc. -- that seemed to stir up a memory of that same exact thing.

Most of the events that gave rise to the déjà vu feeling were not notably unusual, and I could have undergone something quite similar in the past. But we all do hundreds of things every day that are like things we've done before, and they don't trigger an instantaneous "memory" of the past or sense that we are repeating what is happening now.

The Telegraph of London tells us:
Psychologists from Leeds University are being funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and will attempt to recreate déjà vu in laboratory conditions. ...

Dr Chris Moulin, who is leading the research, first encountered chronic cases of déjà vu five years ago.

He had a "peculiar referral" from a man who told him there was no point visiting his clinic because he had already been there, although this was impossible.

The man was so convinced he had met Dr Moulin before that he gave details of appointments, even though they had never met.

He believed he could hear the same bird singing in the same tree every time he went out and his déjà vu had developed to the extent that he stopped watching television, even news programmes, thinking they were repeats.
Dr. Moulin clearly does not see anything paranormal about déjà vu. Like most psychologists, he is a philosphical materialist, and believes that all mental experience can be reduced to physiological events in the brain and nervous system.
"So far we've completed the natural history side of this condition.

"We've found ways of testing for it and the right clinical questions to ask. The next step is obviously to find ways to reduce the problem."

Dr Moulin wants to develop a worldwide network of patients.

"Sufferers need the reassurance that they're not alone, and we need them to help us learn more about who has it, what causes it, and why."
There is no question that physical stimulation of various structures of the brain can cause mental experiences, and that injury to parts of the brain also affects consciousness. To psychical researchers, though, there is an alternative to the common theory that the brain produces consciousness; the alternative is that consciousness exists outside the brain -- outside the body -- and the brain acts as a receiver that mediates between consciousness and the nervous system.

An analogy would be a radio receiver. If you played a radio for a person from a remote tribe who had never encountered one before, it would be obvious to him that the radio was creating the sound from it. The analogy works on several levels. If you adjust the tone controls, the sound that appears to emanate from the receiver changes. If the receiver is damaged, the sound may not come out at all. Nevertheless, as we know, the radio receiver merely transforms electromagnetic waves into audible sound waves; it isn't their source.

Moreover, you can tune the receiver to different frequencies and hear different programs. Many parapsychologists (not to mention spiritual teachers) think you can "tune" your brain to receive various "frequencies" -- some of them with qualities very different from everyday, normal consciousness. What you get then are things like telepathy, psychokinesis, clairvoyance ... and precognition.

Being able to see events before they happen defies common sense, of course. Of all the phenomena studied by psychical research, it seems the most ridiculous for any rational person to believe in. I myself find life after death far easier to accept than precognition.

But damn it, if you study the evidence with an open mind, you are likely to conclude that precognition is a fact. Some scientific studies are listed here (it's a PDF that requires Adobe Acrobat to open). There have been many other studies as well, including books such as this.

If such extraordinary states of consciousness and other paranormal phenomena exist, how come science -- which can look at stars so far away their light has been traveling for billions of years to reach us, and can tell us all about our neurons -- hasn't confirmed and explained the paranormal? The short answer is, what science chooses to study and what it ignores determine the world picture it gives us. You can't discover or explain what you think is too ridiculous to study, and that's the attitude of orthodox science to the paranormal.

For well over a hundred years, though, a few highly qualified scientific researchers have thought it worthwhile to study "impossible" paranormal phenomena. Many have been involved with the Society for Psychical Research. Two very distinguished scientists active in the field are Dean Radin and Rupert Sheldrake.

So, how does déjà vu fit in? Maybe it is, as psychologists like Dr. Moulin assume, it is just a case of "crossed wires" in the brain. I can't prove otherwise. Intuitively -- and my own experiences have no doubt colored this view -- I think that déjà vu arises when the barrier that usually separates our higher consciousness, which can travel freely over space and time, and our normal consciousness temporarily slips for a bit. We then seem to be recalling something that happened before because we did exprience it already: while our minds were roving while we slept, or for all I know, while we were just going about our ordinary business.

Very strange, yes. Almost as strange as consciousness itself.