Rants and Raves

Opinion, commentary, reviews of books, movies, cultural trends, and raising kids in this day and age.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Intelligence, wisdom, ignorance and stupidity

“…the difference between ignorant and educated people is that the latter know more facts. But this has nothing to do with whether they are stupid or intelligent. The difference between stupid and intelligent people – and this is true whether or not they are well-educated – is that intelligent people can handle subtlety. They are not baffled by ambiguous or even contradictory situations – in fact, they expect them and are apt to become suspicious when things seem overly straightforward.”
Neal Stephenson “The Diamond Age”

Question: What is the stupidest thing that walks God's green earth?

Answer: An adolescent with above average intelligence.

Right now I'm wondering whether you, gentle reader, are nodding your head in recognition or frowning in puzzlement. If it's the first, you're probably a better than average bright person well past adolescence - or perhaps you have a bright adolescent at home. If it's the second, you might be a better than average bright adolescent, or perhaps an opinionated know-it-all of an adult. (No offense, some of my best friends are opinionated know-it-alls. Some have said that even moi partakes of that nature on occasion.)

Understand something, I am not being holier-than-thou. I was that opinionated twerp, and the fact that I've got an unusually detailed memory often brings painfully embarrassing recollections of exactly how conspicuously stupid I could be as an adolescent and young adult.

As I can recall, an adolescent with above-average IQ can see that he is more intelligent that most of the people around him. What he cannot believe, is that experience counts for anything. He can't believe it because he doesn't have any - it's like the fourth dimension to him.

Somebody once said, that in any conflict between logic and experience, experience is almost always a better guide to action. Logic is a way of dealing with the relationship of facts, or more accurately, propositions. (Statements alleged or assumed to be true representations of reality.) But complex situations can have a huge number of relevant facts, not all them obvious, not all of them known and the relationships between them are often far more complex than we can know. Experience is what leads us to believe that similar situations produce similar outcomes. Not a perfect match, like in a logical syllogism, but enough of a match to guide our actions most of the time.

Note in the above quote by Neil Stephenson. "...the difference between ignorant and educated people is that the latter know more facts." So what's the difference between ignorant and stupid people? Arthur C. Clarke once wrote that ignorance is forgivable - stupidity is not. Ignorance is a lack of facts, which may be in no way the fault of the ignorant. Stupidity is willful failure to face facts or learn from experience.

Stupidity is independent of intelligence, and in fact high intelligence often empowers stupidity and gives it greater scope to do harm. A not-too-bright guy may make stupid decisions about buying a new car, but is scarcely likely to do the kind of harm that's been done by academics and intellectuals addicted to theorizing about things they have no competence in.

Don't get me wrong, I think theory is necessary to create structure for the knowledge we have, and guide the further search for knowledge. But theory without experience drifts into fantasy. Experience without theory just drifts.

So if that's the difference between intelligence, ignorance and stupidity, what is the thing we call wisdom? It seems to have something to do with intelligence informed by experience, but that's a description of how it comes about rather than a definition. Someone suggested to me once that you are wise when you are no longer a significant contributor to your own pain. It seems to me that there ought to be more to it than that, but that'll do till something better comes along.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

The Pleasures of Anthropology

My first M.A. was in Anthropology, and while I didn't work in the field I have no regrets. It's a fascinating study and as a field of investigation, vitally important, though underappreciated. If knowledge in the physical and strictly biological science is lost, it can be rediscovered. But knowledge of a vanished human culture is gone - forever.

The four divisions of Anthropology are: Social/ Cultural (the common understanding of the Anthropologist (guys who go on extended camping trips with interesting primitives, learn the language fluently in a few months and are offered the chief's beautiful daughter), Physcial (guys who study prehuman bones and living apes and aren't offered the chief's beautiful daughter), Archeology (guys who dig up dead civilizations and realize that the chief's beautiful daughter died a long time ago), and Linguistics (guys who study the relationship of language to culture and might be equipped to chat up the chief's beautiful daughter).

Archeologists and Linguists are said to represent the opposite personality poles among Anthropologists. Archeologists are very, very careful about speculating from the data they have. Probably because they are always aware that the next spadeful of dirt might destroy their beautiful theory. Linguists however, are known for wildly extravagant theoretical speculation. Language doesn't leave fossils and in the absence of documentary evidence, which has only existed for a very short period of the history of humanity, who's to say you're wrong?

One nice thing about Anthropology is that, though like most so-called "social science" the practitioners are pretty solidly on the political Left, they generally aren't involved in creating or recommending any grand experiments in social engineering, like you find in Sociology.

One thing you get from a study of Anthropology is the realization that, 1) human nature is the same everywhere, and 2) within that shared human nature, there are a lot of different ways to be human.

This was a point of contention in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The existence of people living at the level of European prehistory was a challenge to Western intellectuals. Two competing theories arose to explain why the whole world hadn't advanced to the level of civilization (Eastern and Western) at about the same pace: the racialist and the environmentalist explanations.

The racialist explanation held that primitive peoples hadn't achieved civilization because they didn't have it in them. The environmentalists held that it was their environment that retarded their development. The most extreme racialist view was a cornerstone of Nazism, the environmentalist view was embodied in Marxism.

The racialists (I'm avoiding the hot-button term "racist" for now. I'm describing it as a theory rather than a hateful attitude) had a hard time explaining the existence of ancient civilizations in Central America and highland Peru and were forced to resort to diffussionist explanations - i.e. they got it from pre-Colombian Western explorers. This poisoned any rational investigation of possible pre-Colombian trans-Atlantic diffusion for a long time after.

Something Anthropologists really don't want to think about these day is that about half the participants in the Wantsee Conference (the one that decided on the "Final Solution" to the "Jewish Problem") had social science doctorates, mostly in Anthropology.

However the environmentalists, for the best of motives, unwittingly supported the efforts of the even more murderous Marxist regimes. In attempting to explain differences among peoples that might appear to result from innate ability, they attributed everything to the absolute plasticity of human nature. For example, it's now pretty well accepted that Margaret Mead went to Samoa and found what Franz Boaz told her to find - not from conscious fraud but from a deeply-held preconception of what human nature is, or more precisely, isn't.

This was an attempt to combat the racialist hypothesis, but the result was to lend support to the intellectuals in power who wanted to lay bloody hands on humanity and mold it into their concept of the ideal human.

The racialist hypothesis was discredited by the horrors of Nazism. Environmentalism was challenged when members of traditional societies under study became educated and started getting university degrees in, among other things, Anthropology. Their objection was basically, "Hey, you guys got it all wrong, we're not like that at all. If there is no human nature common to us all, and everything about being human comes from our environment, then you've denied our common humanity. Members of very different cultures might as well be members of different species."

What has emerged today is the realization that there is a human nature common to all mankind, that does not change over historical time, but that common nature can be expressed in a lot of different ways. And of course, because this is so common-sensical, they had to invent a very pompous term for it, the "psychic unity of mankind".

What they still shy away from like the plague, is any attempt to investigate what cultural choices lead to the relative degree of advancement, stasis or even retrogression of a culture. About that, more later.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

What's in a name?

Note: I have a column published at a site called, The Atlasphere, entitled, "The Attack on Language: Rights". Here http://www.theatlasphere.com/

Monika and I were watching the opening credits of a movie set in Spain when we noticed the name of the editor, Luis de la Madrid. Since we both understand Spanish on a basic level, we knew that this means of course, Luis of Madrid.

We started having some fun with the idea behind the name. "So who's the director, Benny de la Brooklyn?" We then switched the channel to StarZ where "Rent" was playing, starring the exotically beautiful Rosario Dawson. What a wonderfully American name! Rosario - Spanish, and Dawson - English.

My son's name, by the way, is Jerzy Waszyngton Browne, that's George Washington Browne in Polish. My daughter's name is Judyta Ilona Browne. Judyta is "Judith" in Polish, for Jerzy's English godmother Judith. Ilona is Lithuanian and is for our dear friend Ilona Daukene, who died in the mushroom poisoning epidemic in Northern and Eastern Europe three years ago. So our children have names that are a combination of Polish, Lithuanian and Anglo-Irish. That's a pretty American thing.

My wife's maiden name is Lukasiewicz. (That "L" should have a stroke through it, making it Polish letter "ewl", rather than "l" and pronounced "w".) "Luk" is "bow" in Polish. (Bow as in "bow and arrow".) So Lukasiewicz would mean something like the English "Bowyer". That's bow-yer, "bow maker" rather than "Archer".

SF author Poul Anderson, who had a deep knowledge of history, once set a story in the far future and referred to a rich and powerful family whose name was "fromCanada". He was making a subtle point about the evolution of language of course.

All family names appear to come from four sources, apparently in all cultures that use family names. (Family names, even in Europe are a fairly recent innovation for common folks. They have only become universal in countries like Norway in the 20th century and still aren't used at all in Iceland.) They are: place names, profession names, frozen patronymics and nicknames.

Place names include the aforementioned de la Madrid, London, Berlin etc. One of the most common profession names seems to be Smith, or Black(smith). A "smith" in Polish is "Kowal", as in Kowalski. In Arabic, "hadad" - also a common family name.

Frozen patronymics are created when people get tired of saying, "I am Sam John's son, this is my son John Sam's son. He's named for his grandfather." and just decide that all the kids are doing to be Johnson from now on. In the Irish and Scots' language, "children of" is "O" (Ui in the Irish) or "Mac".

Family names might also come from the nickname of a prominent ancestor. Presumably "brown" or "swarthy" has been a characteristic of the Browne family for a while now. On the Irish side we are also "descendants of Neil" (O'Neil) and on the Scottish, "children of the abbots" and "servants of St. Fillan" - the MacNab clan, sept Gilfillan.

A couple of legends about family names:

Jewish family names are usually German or Slavic, very few are actually of Hebrew origin, such as Cohen "priest" or Katz (from "cohen tzaddik", "rightious priest"). I've been told that in the German lands they once decided that everyone should have a family name, just like noble folks had. Unfortunately not due to any liberalizing urges, but to make taxation and record-keeping easier for bureaucrats. The story is that when Jews came in to get named, the anti-Semitic bureaucrats would deliberately give them rediculous-sounding names: Goldberg "mountain of gold", Rosenberg "mountain of roses", or Goldwasser (anglicized as Goldwater) "gold water" - urine.

I once read, but cannot now find verification, that the patronymic prefix "Fitz", as in FitzGibbon, FitzGerald, etc, originally meant "acknowledged bastard of...".

And by the way... the title of the essay is from one of the most-misquoted lines in Shakespear, which occurs near the most often misunderstood line. It's not "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet." but "That which we call a rose..."

And the line "Wherefore art thou Romeo?" is usually understood today as "Where are you Romeo?" but actually means "Why are you Romeo?"

Friday, September 22, 2006

The Hot Button issue

Religion. (I wonder if you guessed that one?)

Quite obviously there is a culture war going on between the believers and the committed secularists. Or to put it another way, the committed believers in something running the universe and the committed believers in nothing running the universe. The secularists tend to be politically liberal and dominate the culture of Hollywood and its satellite community of Washington, D.C. (I'm kidding - sort of.)

The Believers tend to be conservatives and predominate in the heartland, i.e. the red states. There are of course exceptions. National Review has a witty and acerbic devout Materialist (John Derbyshire) on its staff and there are many liberal church-goers, who probably aren't going just to spite Ann Coulter.

Libertarians tend to fall on the committed secularist side, perhaps due to the influence of Ayn Rand on the modern movement. This has been changing over the past few decades, but you still fined the odd phenomenon of libertarians who despise liberals and church-goers about equally. Must be lonely out there.

My opinion? From my observations, believing Christians, and increasingly Jews as well, are frequently gratuitously insulted in public life and academia. There is quite obviously a movement to erase displays of religious symbolism from public life to an extent I find absurd. The funny thing is that this is being done by "multiculturalists" who I suspect would fight to the death for the right of people to erect tribal fetishes on public property, just so long as they weren't Western/ Christian.

And for the record, I don't have an opinion on religious dogma I'd stick a finger in a match for, much less be burned at the stake.

I'm a lapsed Anglican/ Episcopalian, which is like saying a lapsed library member. I once came up with a definition of Anglican theology, "God is after all, a gentleman. And no gentleman would keep another gentleman out of heaven for anything but the most severe lapses of good taste."*

My mother's reaction to that was, "Stephen! That's not what being an Episcopalian is about." Thoughtful pause. "It does describe your father's theology rather well though." My son's English godmother was so taken by it that she made me write it down to give to her vicar.

The thing about being Episcopalian is that you don't exactly leave the church, you just kind of move and fail to register a forwarding address. It's part of the very old English High Church tradition of being very easygoing on matters of religion.

Point is, though I don't have any firm religious opinions (though I do have some cool speculations I fiddle with from time to time) I don't have any hostility towards religion either.

The way I like to put it is, if religion is a crutch, then what do you call someone who goes around kicking crutches out from under people? A fearless seeker of the Truth or a bloody sadist?

I call my position, Cheerful Agnostic. I used to be a Militant Agnostic, "I don't know the Truth and you don't either!" Now I'm a cheerful one, "I don't know the Truth but what the hell, you might." (No, I don't really believe you do, I'm just not interested in arguing about it.)

Two things I just can't swallow: 1) That a merciful God would send you to eternal torment for your opinions on matters you can't possibly be certain of, and which don't affect your behavior towards other people. I.e. for guessing wrong between all the alternative theologies offered to you. Put another way, I don't care what people believe, I care how they treat each other. How the former influences the latter is another question.

2) That an all-powerful, all-knowing God would require the most sickeningly sycophantic praise, and get murderously petulant when He doesn't get it.

If either of these two things are true, then we are living in Hell. But if it's what it takes to get you though life, by all means believe it. Bottom line is, we are self-aware beings and while that has its rewards, it has its price. That price is the foreknowledge that we are all going to die someday. Whatever you have to believe to deal with it, if it helps - more power to you. If it makes you a better person in your time on Earth, better still.

So what I can't fathom is why the hostility towards believers? More and more I suspect that Eric Hoffer (a professed atheist) was right when he said that a fanatical atheist** is really desperately seeking for belief. He further remarked that the opposite of the fanatical religious is not the fanatical atheist, but the gentle cynic who cares not whether there is a God or not.

* Thanks to Cyril Kornbluth for the inspiration of that one, in his delightful 1950s SF novel The Syndic.

** What's the loneliest thing about being an atheist? You have no one to talk to when you're having an orgasm.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Observations on being an older parent

My first child was born three months after I turned fifty, my second a month after my fifty-fifth birthday. I often wonder how much of a difference this makes in what kind of daddy I am. My children came into my life at precisely the time I had given up on the idea that this would ever happen for me. I've noticed that life is often like that.

One discovery I made right off is that changing diapers is no big deal. It seems awfully disgusting when you don't have kids, but when you do it's just part of the daily drill.

We did get lucky in that neither of our kids were colicy KNOCK WOOD HARD. When our boy was a baby he started sleeping through the night at about three months. We were told that people we didn't even know envied us. I think he had one of those all-night crying sessions maybe twice. Some parents have to live through these every night for months. Our baby girl is sometimes fussy and hard to put down at night, but then she sleeps a lot during the day leaving at least one of us free to nap in the afternoon. My wife is convinced this is because of breast feeding and I think she's right.

One thing about being an older dad is, I don't think I sweat the small stuff as much as I might have when younger. I do sometimes get mad as hell when that stubborn little Polack-Okie (a really stubborn combination, believe me) puts me on "ignore" or decides to be defiant, but then given the combined heredity of my wife and myself, I never really expected anything different. It's going to be really interesting to see that heredity expressed in a girl.

I really worry about all the dangers and bad influences that weren't around when I was a kid. Everybody argues about the effect of TV on kids of course. I had always been a skeptic about the alleged violent effects, but now I'm not so sure. Though I remain a libertarian on the subject of censorship, when the kid imitates little Stewie from Family Guy and says "I'm going to kill you mother!" it gives one pause. We restrict what he watches and we don't even turn on South Park when he's up, as much as we like it ourselves.

Fortunately, my wife takes the attitude of "What's wrong with saying NO?" She also has no problem deciding when he's had enough TV and and it's time to send him outside. I kind of suspect that she's a bit contemptuous of American mothers who can't bear to stand their ground against their kids whining and demanding.

A problem I've noticed with TV these days is not that there's not much good on (like in my day) but there's too much that's good on. With cable at any given time you can find something worthwhile to watch: cable news, classic movies, science and nature shows, history etc. Becoming a couch potato is easier than ever.

The weight of experience and the verdict of scientific study seem to be in. Children of broken families are astronomically more likely to be significantly screwed up in ways that affect their chances for success and happiness in life than children of intact families. The fact that we had to screw up a significant fraction of a generation of kids to confirm this common sensical observation makes one wonder about our notions of "social progress".

It's not like my generation was uniquely dumb about raising kids or my parents generation especially virtuous. Back in their time "child development experts" were divided into two opposite but equally insane theories of child rearing, Progressive and Behaviorism. And then there was the medical admonition to lay children to sleep on their stomachs, as opposed to traditional practice. Oops! Turns out kids laid on their tummies have higher rates of crib death. Sorry.

It took a shrink named Abraham Maslow to point out that while children need love, they also need discipline. And, here's the important part, if they do not get discipline they will perceive themselves as being unloved. Discipline is about setting limits and boundaries, and a universe without boundaries is terrifying for a child - and not too comfortable for an adult for that matter.

What my generation invented was "finding oneself", followed by "following your bliss". "Wow, like hey Man, this parenthood stuff isn't my thing after all. Like write me when the kids are grown. See ya." My father's generation were expected to stick around and pay for the groceries or face social opprobrium. A lot of them got married and had kids because it was expected of them, even though they might have been tempermentally unsuited for it. That wasn't regarded as an excuse for abandoning ones responsibilities to helpless children.

We do agonize more than a little bit about how to discipline. Whether to spank and for what for example. Or what to let the kids know about our own wild youth later on. Now that's a toughy! What about booze, smoking (whatever) etc? I dunno, haven't gotten there yet and won't for a while. Sex - I want to hide under the bed about that one and I suspect I'm going to want a double standard about it.

Recently I had a conversation with a colleague my age who has five pre-teen kids. At one point I remarked, "Sometimes all I think I can do for my kids is just to make sure they have two parents who love each other and love them." He replied, "Sometimes that's all you can do. But sometimes it's enough."

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Here's what I mean by "moral equivalence"

I found this September 16, in the Letters column of the Village Voice:

"Yeung's gut-wrenching article brought to mind a similar story I read about the parents of an Oklahoma City bombing victim who ended up having dinner with Timothy McVeigh's parents, realizing how each of them had lost a son, and how forgiveness could begin the healing. I recently saw the movie United 93, and couldn't help but feel pity for the hijackers as well, because they seemed as terrified as the passengers. Those young men were used as pawns in the bidding of Osama bin Laden, just like the young men and women being sent to Iraq are pawns for the Bush administration's war for oil."

(Name deleted.)
McGaheysville, Virginia

Now let's go through this point-by-point:

1) "realizing how each had lost a son"

I understand the anguish of Timothy McVeigh's parents. Every parent experiences the horrifying worry of "What if my little boy/ girl goes wrong in spite of all I can do?" But let's get this straight, the victim was murdered by McVeigh. McVeigh was executed for mass-murder. And why? Greed? Revenge? Anything understandable in terms of basic hard-wired human motivation? No, evidently it was to make an ideological point that remains obscure to this day. Gee, kind of like...

2) "how forgiveness could begin the healing."

Forgive who? The parents? Got news for you, they didn't do it. Little Timmy? He's not around any more - and he never asked for forgiveness, he was defiant and unrepentant to the end.

3) "I recently saw the movie United 93, and couldn't help but feel pity for the hijackers as well, because they seemed as terrified as the passengers."

Your authority for this was a MOVIE for God's sake! Repeat after me: Reality = real, what happened. Movie = representation of reality, what we think may have happened.

As scared as the passengers? So what? Are you going to tell me now that the hijackers were "as brave as the passengers" of that flight?

4)"Those young men were used as pawns in the bidding of Osama bin Laden, just like the young men and women being sent to Iraq are pawns for the Bush administration's war for oil."

This is patronizing and insulting, both to our men in uniform and to the hijackers - and I am not being facetious. In both cases the men were and are volunteers. The hijackers went to die for something they believed in - I'll give them that dignity if nothing else. They hated the West and the U.S. enough to die taking as many of us with them as they could. Whatever your opinion of the Iraq war, the men in our military who fight it have all made the decision to risk their lives for something they value, of their own free will, whatever you think of their decision.

Now you want to pat them on the head and call them "poor little pawns". The hijackers would be insulted enough to kill you for that. Our men in the military believe they are fighting for your right to say it, whatever they think of it. The hijackers were motivate by their hatred of us and all we stand for, our military by their love for us and all we stand for - and that includes you in both cases.


Friday, September 15, 2006

Oriana Fallaci R.I.P. - bummer.

Oriana Fallaci died today, to nobody's surprise. She was 77 and had been battling cancer for 15 years.

Battling is indeed the word to describe the way she approached her cancer, and life in general. Seventy-seven years is a pretty good run, and 15 years with cancer is an extraordinary survival time.

No need to go over the controversies that remarkable lady was forever in the middle of, that's been done and doubtless will be done at length in the media. I just wanted to note that I'm seriously bummed.

Rabbi Hillel said, "Where there are no men - be thou a man."

This frail woman eaten up by cancer carried the manhood of the West on her shoulders. Other men and women, learned, thoughtful and brave, have made the intellectual case for the West against its enemies and warned of the dangers we face from them. Oriana Fallaci however, expressed the sheer goddam OUTRAGE we need, are entitled, and can't seem to bring ourselves to feel.

Within the past year, guests in western countries, taken in and largely supported by the generosity of this extraordinary civilization of ours, have demanded apologies - and worse, for comparatively mild lampooning of their religion. (Very mild, compared to the lampooning of Christianity we routinely tolerate among ourselves.) Even if you don't care to take the death threats seriously, the mere fact that they come to our lands and demand a priviledged status we do not allow our own is outrageous.

Even as we speak, those savages from Hamas and their ilk are demanding an apology from the Pope for simply stating well-established historical truth.

What reaction do they get? In my classes and among my correspondents I hear temporizing and things like, "Well I don't think it was really necessary/ productive/ really nice etc... The Danes held firm, as anyone who knows the history of their conduct in World War II might have guessed. In Norway, an editor who reprinted the cartoons cracked, groveled and begged for forgiveness.

Damn it, why aren't we more pissed off? Where is the manhood of the West, the cojones, "The Rage and the Pride"?

I just hope it wasn't buried with her.

Hurrah for the Men of the West!

Western Civilization is demonstrably superior to all of its predecessors and all of its contemporaries.

Wow! Gotcha there didn't I?

When I was a budding young Social Scientist I used to pull that one out whenever I was feeling mean and wanted to jerk the chain of other Social Scientists around me. I loved to see the looks of outrage and indignation on their faces.

Now let me ask this: why would that statement outrage members of that very civilization, when the exact same statement made by a member of any other civilization about his own would be accepted by the same people as "just their point of view"? It's like everyone is allowed to be "ethnocentric" but us.

An intellectual party game some friends of mine and I used to play was suggest answers for the question, "When did Western Civilization begin?" Of course, the development of something like a culture or a civilization cannot have a "beginning" in a definite point in time. It obviously is something that developed over a length of time. However, we can note a discrete event which exemplifies something unique about our civilization.

One suggestion a friend made, was that it began when the Prophet Nathan told King David, "Thou art the man!" and King David was humbled and said he was right. (This was the matter of having murdered a subordinate in order to get his wife Bathseeba. This may not have been the first time something like this happened, but it was perhaps the first time the accuser survived the telling and lived to record it in history.) If it was wrong for a commoner, it was wrong for the king.

Wow, what a concept! The equality of all men before the law. Revolutionary stuff, which is probably why it took so long to catch on and be applied with anything like a reasonable degree of consistency.

Nonetheless, the principle was stated and upheld as the ideal, however short we fall from it. Point is, the idea hasn't even occurred to some other civilizations, or if it has it's been dismissed out of hand. If you read James Clavell's novel "Tai Pan" there is a scene when the delightful Lady T'chung Mai-mai, concubine of the Scottish Tai Pan, is reflecting on her love's weird Western quirks such as the "insane barbarian idea of one law for the rich and poor alike. What's the use of working to become rich if you have to obey the same law as poor people?"

Another suggestion (by writer Jerry Pournelle) was that the West began when the Romans placed the Twelve Tables of the law in the Forum for anyone to consult. "This is the Law, this is what it says, and you don't have to take anyone else's word for it."

Or how about in ancient Athens when, after the dictatorships of the Thirty and the Three Hundred, the Democratic party swore oaths not to seek vengeance on the Oligarchic party - even for the murder of their kinsmen. Throughout the rest of the world even to this day, revenge for the killing of family members is a sacred duty, whether they had it coming or not. And face it, deep down inside it feels like the right and natural thing to do. Those men decided that for the security of the state they had to break that cycle of violence. When they did this, they made it possible to have a state larger than a smallish collection of tribes.

Another example, it's interesting how many Westerners are not aware that the Western notion that a forced oath is not valid is not shared by everyone. In fact, it usually never occurs to us that there is another point of view on the subject. If someone puts a gun to your head and demands that you promise him something, what do you owe him once the gun is gone? By our lights, nothing.

Did you know, for example, that during the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya, the Mau Mau recruited by kidnapping men and forcing them to take the Mau Mau oath? And that according to their customs and religion they were bound by it? Even when it meant that they had to do things that horrified them?

This principle has a couple of exceptions though; parole and the court oath to tell "the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth." Parole is a promise extracted of a prisoner in exchange for being released not to engage in hostilities against the party administering the oath, until a prisoner on the other side has been released. (Later this came to be applied to criminal cases.) The court oath is essentially a contract; you tell the truth about anything we ask you and in return you don't have to say anything that you can be prosecuted for yourself. If we want to know something about what you've been involved in badly enough, we have to give you a pass on it in exchange for your testimony.

Note that the first exception makes it possible to avoid the killing of prisoners that one is not in a position to guard and feed. The function of the second is to try to do away with torture in interrogation.

Further note that these things work only when there is a general agreement in the whole society, and between the different societies that make up that complex we call our "civilization", to observe them - and sanctions against the individuals and societies that violate them.

Now comes the bottom line; given that there are alternatives, other cultures, other points of view - you have to have a general acceptance that your way is better. Not "just another point of view" - but a better one. This is anathema to the Multiculturalist crowd.

P.S. The title of the post is from an Irish revolutionary song, "Men of the West". It's a play on words, sort of.

"I give you the gallant old West boys,
Where rallied our bravest and best.
When Ireland was broken and beaten,
Hurrah for the Men of the West!"

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Poland in Iraq

Yesterday on FOX we say the president of Poland, Jaroslaw Kaczynski interviewed. The reporter kind of got egg on her face when she asked, "Why are you withdrawing your troops from Iraq?" The president replied (through an interpreter), "We have made no such decision." Oops.

Now today we hear on FOX that in fact, Poland is sending another 900 troops to Iraq.
(CORRECTION: I misheard, it's Afghanistan. Point remains though.)

The troops Poland has in Iraq are mostly GROM, Polish Special Forces. (GROM is an anagram, the word it spells means "Thunder" in Polish.) They're said to be very good. (I've trained in martial arts with ex-GROM vets, obviously not to the same level, and IMHO they do seem pretty good. One grizzled vet was also one of the nicest guys I've met - a not at all uncommon characteristic of the truely tough.)

So my wife and I were talking about why is Poland doing this, given that they don't care a flip about Iraq in general?

Monika says, though Poles doesn't care about Iraq, they certainly care about America. Two generations of occupation by the USSR while Europe never lifted a finger on their behalf mean that they really want to be tight with the US.

I think she's got a good point, but I also wonder if there isn't another reason. If not now, then soon, Poland will have a military with more combat experience than any other country in Europe - perhaps more than all of them together. Poland's economy is not the largest in Europe, nor is their military the best equipped and funded. But experience has to count for something, and in the future if Europe ever cares to stand together with military force, they'll have to listen to Poland.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

My Political Philosophy in a Nutshell

I guess it's about time I made my statement on personal political philosophy. As you see from the sidebar, I'm a libertarian. What kind? A sane one. ("Yeah, yeah, everybody says that." I've heard.)

By this I mean I'm a pretty non-dogmatic Classical Liberal. I used to delight in endless philosophical system building. Now basically what I've got is the notion that in Western Civilization in general, and in America more than any other place, we've got a Project going. A project to see how far we can push the envelope of liberty and still maintain a reasonably orderly society - and my standards of "reasonably orderly" are pretty loose.

So Comrade, don't come to me with your beautiful utopian plans of how the ideal society would work, could work or should work. Tell me how it works dammit! Find me an example, historical or contemporary. If you can't find an example, find me a close analogy.

I once wrote a short fable about my philosophy of government and how it differs from that of the moderate to Hard Left, called "The Magic Wand and the Club".

It goes like this: take a length of wood. What do you see? I see a club. Someone who loves the idea of social engineering sees a magic wand. I see something for hitting people. He sees something to cure the world's ills with. I say the moral question is, why and under what circumstances are you justified in hitting someone? He says that it's irresponsible NOT to use the "magic wand" if you can do good with it. I use it to threaten someone who might do me harm, and if necessary hit him in the most effective way I know how. He tends to tap someone with it to solve his problems, make him better, healthier etc.

Now comes the rub. Tapping someone for that purpose doesn't work. So the impulse is to do it again - and again, and harder. Hmmmm, still doesn't work. Perhaps we need a bigger magic wand.

OK, you get the analogy. The length of wood is government. Point is, we both see the same object, it's our interpretation of what it is that differs.

Now in this day and age, it's fashionable to say that these things are just matters of opinion. But this I do know for a fact; there are no magic wands but there certainly are such things as clubs.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Unsolicited Product Endorsement

In a word: Kleenex antiviral tissue.

Knock wood, but my wife and I remain sniffle-free so far. Our boy (almost 5) is over it. Our baby (7 weeks) still has a runny nose which we have to treat with saline drops and the aspirator (known as the "booger sucker" around our household) but seems to be getting over it. It seems like the Kleenex antivirals and conscientious hand washing have kept us safe. Good job too, it'd be the worst possible time at the beginning of the semester.

Years ago I worked my way through grad school at the local sewage treatment plant as a plant operator class B and lab tech class C. (Or a "turd herder" if you prefer, a job not nearly as unpleasant as you think.) I was told when I went to work that studies had shown that new workers typically experienced a rise in upper respiratory tract infections for the first six months, then back to normal. This isn't because our immune systems get strengthened but because workers develop the reflex of washing their hands every time they come inside, handle samples etc. Wastewater treatment operators and lab techs wash their hands an estimated 40 times per eight-hour shift.

It would be an interesting study to try and estimate how much the drop in mortality rates in the industrialized world is due just to soap.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Observations on Arabs

Journalist Jill Carroll is back home now, and detailing her experiences as a captive of the jihadists in Iraq in the Christian Science Monitor.
( http://www.csmonitor.com/2006/0814/p01s01-woiq.html ) I'm sure the details will prove fascinating, but the upshot of what she has learned is that the Islamists are - gasp! - different from us! Furthermore, I believe that she's beginning to suspect that they are really not very nice people. Oh whatever will this poor old world be FORCED to endure next?

Since the beginning of the Iraq phase of this conflict of civilizations, I've experienced the teeth-grinding frustration of watching both pro- and anti- Iraq sides make the exact same mistake - that of supposing that these people are bascially Americans in funny costumes. In this respect, George Bush and Michael Moore are equally clueless, as was Jill Carroll apparently.

I went to live and work in Saudi Arabia in 1998, and I "made my year" as expats there put it. That phrase means that I actually stuck out the whole year, instead of "running" from my contract, an occurrence so common that you only have to say "he did a runner" to explain why someone isn't showing up for work anymore. And while my experience wasn't nearly as unpleasant as Jill Carroll's, I could have told her a thing or two before she went to Iraq armed with her overflowing good will.

In Eastern Europe and the South Balkans, whenever I have gone to live in a place which I had formed opinions about, the actual experience of living there has always radically changed those opinions, sometimes into a completely contradictory one. Most often, my academic research led me to form a beautifully coherent model which experience turned into a semi-coherent collection of observations and tentative conclusions.

In the case of the Kingdom, I went there with a certain sympathy for Arab grievances, a belief that America had earned a lot of hostility from "blowback" from our ham-handed interventionist foreign policy and support for Israel etc.

I came back with the gloomy opinion that over the long run we are going to have to hammer these people hard to get them to quit messing with Western Civilization. And by the way, among "rational, fair-minded" non-interventionist libertarians, not a damn one of them has asked me, "What in your experience caused you to change your mind?" Instead what I get are gratuitous insults followed by insufferably condescending lectures about how wrong I am.

So, with the caveat that one of the first things I learned was that the term “Arab” covers a lot of territory, here are some observations and some tentative conclusions about Arabs, more specifically about Arabs from the oil states about why we have misunderstood each other to the point that we are fighting a war with some of them and are pissing off the rest of them. I suspect that many of these also apply to Iranian Islamists, but I have never been there and note that Iranians are not Arabs and have a different cultural history.

1) They don’t think the same way we do.

No, I mean THEY REALLY DON'T THINK THE SAME WAY WE DO. Yes, yes, I know we are all human and share the same human nature (perhaps the most disastrous mistake of Marxism was the denial of this elementary fact). But within the scope of that shared human nature, there are a lot of different ways to be human. We Americans have a basically open attitude to our fellow human beings and sometimes forget this. Combined with the fact that most Americans are linguistic idiots, we tend to assume that anyone who learns to speak English learns to think like us.

2) When you meet them in just the right circumstances, they are a very likable people.

Arabs are often easy to like, but difficult to respect - as opposed to Israelis, who are often difficult to like but impossible not to respect. From their nomadic heritage they have a tradition of generosity and hospitality to guests that warms the heart. Arab shopkeepers have a talent for making you feel guilty that you didn’t buy anything (once you get past a dislike of having them lay hands on you). Haggling is a social grace with them and when you ask the price, and agree to the first one quoted, they will often come down on the price just out of pity for your social ineptness. This does not in the least affect the fact that no friendship with you is ever going to remotely equal the obligations they have for their family, tribe or the community of the Believers.

3) Their values are fundamentally different from ours, their self-esteem is derived from a different source.

And you know what? Theirs is PHONY. Yes I know, I’m making a cultural value judgment, the cardinal sin when I was a grad student in Anthropology. With us, the most important sources of self-esteem are useful work and the love of a good woman. Being good at something that requires skill (even a hobby) and being of primary importance to somebody just because you are who you are. Work for them, is something to be avoided. The basic forms of work: making stuff, growing stuff and moving stuff around, is taken care of by a class of indentured servants, usually non-Arab Muslims from the Third World, and even today, by outright slaves. The Kingdom is a modern country, they abolished slavery in 1967, but old expats have reported seeing slave auctions as late as 1981.

On one occasion a student of mine asked me, “Teacher, what do you call a man who can be sold?” (Excellent use of the passive voice, I was proud of him.) I explained, “He is called a slave, the condition is called slavery, the verb is to enslave.” Later I had occasion to ask them about the headsman, the fellow who cuts heads and hands off in chop-chop square in front of the mosque on Fridays. The reason I asked was that from my studies I knew that in tribal societies converting from a tribal or feudal system into a system of common laws, a man condemned to death by a court of law must often be executed by a member of his own tribe, or a complete outsider so that the execution does not spark a blood feud. In the Kingdom the headsman is usually a Sudanese. My students explained, “Yes teacher, he’s a slave.” i.e. he’s a person of no importance and therefore outside the web of obligations of vengeance.

The point being, in a slave society, work is not honorable (as De Tocqueville pointed out) and cannot be a source of self-worth.

In Tunisia I saw a population doing their own work and I have worked with a fair number of Jordanians engaged in skilled labor and the professions. Note that neither is an oil state and I believe their contribution to the ranks of terrorists is far less than the oil-rich countries. It is difficult to argue that poverty is the driving cause of terrorism.

“Of conjugal love they know nothing.” (Thomas Jefferson on the French aristocracy.) In a land of arranged marriages, where the whole society is geared towards a strict segregation of the sexes and women are at least semi-chattels, romantic love is rare – and greatly desired. In the Kingdom I found a few students with a consuming interest in romantic poetry, whom I had to teach very discretely. Most of them were just obsessed with sex however. And interestingly, when visiting the West or the fleshpots of Bahrain, they are said to have a tendency to fall in love with the prostitutes they patronize.

Without honorable work, romantic love or any accomplishments not overshadowed by those the West, their sense of self-worth comes from being the possessors of the One True Religion. And Allah doesn’t seem to be delivering on his promises of being exalted above the unbelievers these days.

On the plus side, they are willing to spare you and absorb you into their community as a respected member if you convert to the One True Religion. The Brotherhood of Believers is a reality in the lands of Islam, and while it sometimes falls short of the ideal (as does our democratic ideal) it is a reality, and in its way admirable.

4) Not only can they not build the infrastructure of a modern society, they can’t maintain it either.

The very concept of "maintenance" is foreign to them. This is what drives the foreign instructors in the Gulf absolutely mad. The per capita richest countries in the world resemble Eastern Europe or Latin America in the tackiness and run-down appearance of the buildings and streets. An electronics technician new to the Kingdom once told me how his first job was to inspect a junction box in the desert. He had to pry it open with a crowbar as it had evidently not been opened since it had been installed several years earlier.

This is expressed in the inshallah philosophy, “If God wills it.” A Palestinian friend of mine explained to me that even the weather forecaster will qualify his prediction, “It will rain tomorrow. Inshallah.” Or, “I will meet you tomorrow, inshallah.” (But God understands that I am a very unreliable person.)

I remember giving a pep talk to my students before a crucial exam, “You are all going to pass the exam, right?” “Inshallah teacher.” “No, no!” I shouted, “No inshallah. Study!”

This was once also characteristic of the former communist countries. Work was indifferently performed and maintenance was a real problem. A factory owner in Poland told me that machines he bought from Sweden lasted only half as long in Poland as they did in Sweden because of poor maintenance. However as soon as people were assured that they could keep a reasonable amount of what they worked for, people reverted to their true cultural patterns, worked plenty hard and started to take care of their tools and the public spaces.

5) They do not think of obligations as running both ways.

With us, contractual and moral obligations tend to be equal and reciprocal. They don’t see it that way. The obligations of the superior to the inferior do not equal those of the inferior to the superior. Obligations within a family or clan outweigh all others. That is why we had to take care not to sit members of the same clan near each other during exams. If one asks another for help, he has to give it. In spite of promises to the school and even when the clansman is a total stranger. Obligations to other believers outweigh all obligations to unbelievers and especially when the believers are fellow-Arabs. And in contracts with unbelievers, the obligations of the Believer to the kaffir are not equal to the obligations of the kaffir to the Believer.

Consider that Muslims in England have quite un-selfconsciously demanded that a pub near a Mosque be shut down as offensive to their religion – in spite of the fact that the pub had precedence by six hundred years! Or that they demanded the right to broadcast the prayer call on loudspeakers in London while it is illegal to have a church at all in the Kingdom.

6) In warfare, we think they are sneaky cowards, they think we are hypocrites.

In our civilization, when two men get down, either seriously or just “woofing”, what do they say? Some variation of “I’m going to kick your ass.” Am I right? Here’s what I heard in the Kingdom, “Hey, don’t f**k with me, or someday you get a knife in the back.” I’m not saying that wouldn’t happen to you in the West, but most men would be ashamed to make a threat of that nature. We don’t understand that direct shock battle is not necessarily the law of nature. When overwhelming force is brought to bear on them, they become cringing and obsequious. To put it bluntly, they lie their heads off to get you to turn your back on them. Try to see it from their point of view – how else do you expect them to act when you have the overwhelming force? You expect them to meet you on equal terms when the situation is so unequal? What other tactics are available but prevarication and delay followed by a sneak attack?

Folks, what we call “terrorism” is quite close to the historically normal way of warfare among these people.

7) In rhetoric, they don’t mean to be taken seriously and they don’t understand when we do.

Thus an ultimatum is often not taken seriously and the reality comes as a surprise. Remember the “Mother of all Battles”? Like many other Mediterranean peoples, Arabs don’t seem to mind making a scene in public and have a high blown sense of drama. Paul Harvey once described how he had spent the Suez Crisis hiding under the bed in his hotel room because of the blood-curdling radio broadcasts, before he learned that Arabs talk like that when they’re arguing over a taxi. “This is my taxi and I will defend it to the death!” “You lie, it’s mine and rivers of blood will flow in the street before I give up my taxi!”

An Arab will scream at you, get into your personal space and sometimes kick dirt on your shoe – and they react with utter surprise when an American up and decks him. “What did I do?” To say the least, this makes negotiations difficult.

8) They don’t place the same value on an abstract conception of Truth as we do, they routinely believe things of breathtaking absurdity.

I cannot begin to tell you of some of the things I’ve heard from Gulf Arabs or read in the English language press in the Kingdom. “The Jews want Medina back.” (Medina was a Jewish city in the time of the Prophet.) The Protocols of the Elders of Zion has been turned into an immensely popular miniseries on Egyptian TV. The Blood Libel (the medieval myth that Jews need the blood of non-Jewish babies to celebrate Passover) is widely reported in the Arab press, and widely believed. Allah will replenish the oil beneath Arabia when it runs out.

I’ve been assured, by well-educated and otherwise sensible people that Winston Churchill was Jewish and that Anthony Quinn had been blacklisted and would never work again after making Lion of the Desert (just before he made that turkey with Kevin Costner).

9) They do not have the same notion of cause and effect as we do.

This involves some seriously weird stuff about other people being responsible for their misery because they ill-wished them. I’ve read in the English-language press of the Kingdom serious admonitions against using Black Magic to win an advantage in a dispute with a neighbor. The columnist did not deny the efficacy of Black Magic, he just said it’s forbidden to use it. On one occasion I was trying to explain the concept of "myth" to them and I used the example of the djinn. I wasn't getting through to them at all and was concerned that I had mangled the pronunciation of the word when it dawned on me that the reason they didn't understand what I was getting at, was that they had no doubt that the djinn were real.

10) We take for granted that we are a dominant civilization still on the way up. They are acutely aware that they are a civilization on the skids.

Anyone who looks at the surviving architecture of Moorish Spain can tell that Islamic civilization has seen better days. There was a time when cultural transmission between Islam and the West went overwhelmingly from them to us. (Note the recent discoveries of Sufi symbols engraved on the structural members of European cathedrals.) Now the situation is reversed, and it is humiliating for them.

11) We think that everybody has a right to their own point of view, they think that that idea is not only self-evidently absurd, but evil.

In the West, and America more than anyplace else, we have internalized the notion that everyone has a right to their own opinion, and that said opinion is perfectly valid for them. When we meet a people who think that that idea is insane and evil, we are sometimes left in the absurd position of defending their idea as “perfectly valid for them”. Doesn’t work that way for them, God’s Truth is laid out in some detail in the Koran, and not to believe it is a sin. I know I know, in America you can find lots of Christian Fundamentalists who believe that God will cast you into hell for holding the wrong opinions about Him, but even those who would make their religion into an established church seldom desire the level of enforcement in such detail as the Kingdom does or the Taliban did.

12) Our civilization is destroying theirs. We cannot share a world in peace. They understand this; we have yet to learn it.

Another culturally-imposed blindness we have is the notion that everybody can get along with enough good will. There is absolutely no evidence to support this and a great deal to oppose it. Can the subjugation of women coexist with Western Civilization with Western media ubiquitous throughout the world? Can a pluralistic and tolerant society be governed by Islamic law? Can a modern economy exist where interest is forbidden and many forms of business risk-taking are considered gambling, and thus forbidden? Can a society that educates its young men by a process of rote recitation produce critically thinking, technically educated men to build and operate a modern economy? Can you even teach elementary concepts of maintenance to a people who believe that anything that happens is inshalla (As God will it)? To compete, or even just survive in the world they must become more like us and less like themselves – and they know this.

Friday, September 08, 2006

I've got free will, don't I?

Probably all of us have wondered why we can't stop indulging in things which are bad for us and make us feel bad. Sure getting drunk feels good, but why the heck do we keep doing it when we KNOW how we're going to feel the next day? (And at my age, I don't have to get plastered to get a hangover, a couple of beers before bedtime sometimes gives me a mild headache in the morning.)

Deep fried food anyone? Steak with Bernaise sauce (otherwise known as "heart attack sauce") for the gourmets among us? We don't feel the damage they do to our arteries right away, but eventually...

But what occurs to me that's really puzzling is, why don't I eat more of the stuff that is good for me, and I like?

I like fruit, especially citrus fruits, and I genuinely like flavored yogurt. They're healthy, non-fattening, a convenient breakfast meal for someone like myself who doesn't eat breakfast - and when I buy them, they mostly sit around until they spoil.

It's weird, I take vitamins and willingly exercize regularly but can't seem to get in the habit of eating things I like and are good for me.


It's been noted that drug highs, from either mild and relatively harmless ones like pot, or stronger, more dangerous ones like heroin, are really pleasurable at the beginning but as the user becomes habituated lose a lot of the pleasure and become, a habit. So why keep on doing it? I dunno.

And by the way, one of the more astute comments about drinking and pot smoking was made by the late SF author Mack Reynolds. Without doubt pot is less harmful physically than alcohol. But the advantage of alcohol is, that it lets you know it's a poison. You can't get up morning after and not know what you're doing to yourself. But the most conspicuous symptom of pot abuse is a pronounced lack of ambition.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

How I became an expat writer

I’m a writer. That’s right, a writer. I write for publication and get paid for it. (Face it, without the money you’ll never really believe you’re a real writer.) God I love to introduce myself as a writer at parties. John Stakely (author of Armor and Vampire$) once told a group of us at the Norman Oklahoma Science-Fiction Association that the best thing about being a writer is that, (1) you get to be a writer, and (2) you get to write. Being a writer is major cool – even a minor writer who can’t quit his day job.

I started as an expat writer, meaning that the stuff I wrote that got paid for was published in the English-language press that serves the expatriate community in Poland. I also wrote for a (now sadly defunct) magazine for English teachers and students that had a circulation of about thirty thousand, which beat hell out of the libertarian journals I give my stuff away to. My essays for vocabulary building for non-native speakers have been published in book form in Belgrade, Yugoslavia and Novosibirsk, Russia and an English course I wrote has been used in places like Turkey and India.

Of course, I had always wanted to become a writer and from time to time made desultory attempts to set myself essay-writing assignments to practice and polish my technique. Yeah, I know, it doesn’t work for you either, does it? The fact is that for years, everything I wrote that got published was stuff I gave away to amateur publications such as the Oklahoma LP newsletter, read only by the faithful. I simply could not, without the discipline of a classroom assignment or a deadline, pick a subject, research and write something about it.

Stephen King, a writer I don’t read much, said that if you lift weights every day, you get big muscles, if you write every day, you get to be a good writer. Yes, it’s probably about that simple – but notice how many people can make themselves exercise regularly. For me, forcing myself to exercise has always been easier than forcing myself to write.

Then, in 1991, I moved to Poland. For two years I lived in a small town, Brwinow, which had a charmingly archaic phone system. The whole town was served by an operator exchange, the like of which I had never personally experienced in the States. The family I lived with had a party line, which I am just old enough to remember in America. All the phones in town were served by three-digit numbers, which you had to tell the operator – in Polish. For our house and the neighbors, we had a code of rings worked out with the operators so we’d know who had to pick up the phone.

To say the least, I felt a little isolated and as it became evident that I’d be in Eastern Europe for a while I realized that I’d have to start writing letters to keep in touch with my friends back home. In my first year in Poland I believe I wrote more letters that I had written in my whole life up to that point. And in my letters I, of course, told stories about what I had seen and done in Poland.

Now writing for publication is like losing your virginity. It’s not racking up scores that’s so difficult – it’s going from zero to one. (I’m counting only published and paid for. Unlike sex it doesn’t really count if it’s given away.)

For me it happened, appropriately enough, in a bar. I was drinking in Warsaw’s expat hangout in 1994 with a decayed Austrian baron who edited Okecie the Airport Magazine, one of the kinds of slick mags they give out at tourist agencies and put in the seat pockets of airplanes.

At one point this fellow turned to me and said, “Gee Steve, you sure can talk. Can you write?”

“Yes I can write.”

“Can you write funny?”

“Yes I can write funny.”

“Can you write me something funny about Polish health services?”

“Not even difficult.” I said.

So what I wrote was basically an article pointing out that the remnant of the socialized health service was not something you wanted to trust any major health problem to and illustrated with a few anecdotes of things that happened to people known to me, including a story of a friend who severed the tendons of his hand pounding his fist through a window at a party. (Where else?).

My friend went to an emergency room where he got sewed up, but was placed on a waiting list ten months long. Might as well not bother, after ten months he would never have gotten back full function of his hand due to tendon shrinkage. This was common in Poland and all the former Communist countries, which somehow never gets through to the admirers of socialized medicine

I also pointed out that many doctors were going private and providing excellent care. My friend eventually went to a private clinic in a converted apartment. The examining room was the kitchen and a bedroom had become the surgery – all spotlessly clean. He was in and out within a week of applying and his hand works just fine now. The price – you wouldn’t believe it for a fairly serious operation. It put a crimp in his beer budget for a while though. . (To give you a further idea, I have a Polish associate who is an MD. She doesn’t practice though because she makes more money providing English lessons.)

Bottom line was advice to expats to make arrangements now, rather than wait for an emergency when you’d be standing like a schmuck with a phone in one hand and a Polish phrase book in the other.

So, after the magazine hit the stands I met my editor at the pub. He was drinking as per usual and sporting a cast on his arm. He informed me that the very morning the magazine was issued the Minister of Health, not the secretary but the Honorable Minister himself had called the offices and demanded to know, “Who is this Stephen Browne guy and why is he saying these awful things about our wonderful Polish hospitals?”

“Jesus, are we going to get in trouble for this?” said I.

“No, no problem. By the way, you haven’t asked me what happened to my arm.”

“So what happened to your arm?” I asked. “A couple of friends of mine broke it.” he said.

(A fairly frequent occurrence. I eventually had occasion to damn near break his arm myself.)

“I got it taken care of in the hospital right away. Of course I had to give them two bottles of cognac to see to it!”

To say the least, he was not very sympathetic to the Honorable Minister’s complaint.

That’s how it started. My editor was delighted to have somebody who could write on any subject on short notice. I was given lots of assignments to write “adverticles”, advertisements thinly disguised as articles, and got to eat free with a date in some of the best restaurants in Warsaw. In return my editor published some of the stuff I was proud of, essays on the history and environs of Warsaw. I even got to write stuff considered a bit dangerous to publish, such as an article about taking taxis in the city. (Dangerous? More about this at another time.) For a while I was writing most of the magazine under my own byline and columns called variously; An American in Warsaw and Through the Eyes of a Foreigner.

My editor has since returned to his true profession of drinking himself to death but I’ll always have a warm spot in my heart for him and the great story he gave me about How I Became a Writer.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

I support Law and Order!

We watched a really cool and creepy episode of Law and Order the other night. Guest villain was Ellen Pompeo, now of Grey's Anatomy. We've been L & O fans since we lived in Warsaw and Saturday was Law and Order and CSI night. We also like the spinoff Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, but we never got into Criminal Intent.

God I miss Lenny (Jerry Orbach) but Dennis Farina is a great replacement for the streetwise, wise cracking elder cop. Sam Waterston is now I think, the longest running chief ADA with a succession of lovely assistants, of whom Angie Harmon and Annie Parisse stand out. I was devastated when they killed off Annie this season.

What I really like is the legal maneuvering they go through to get someone behind bars - or occasionally results in someone slipping through the cracks. I think it's engrossing and informative.

It occurred to me some years back that the realistic law shows (like L.A. law) may have resulted in a public that is increasingly sophisticated in American law. In the early nineties I had a friend who worked at a law office in Warsaw ask me to help with the English-language version of a legal contract to bring World on Ice to Poland. I drew up the contract using a bunch of legal buzzwords such as "party of the first part, hereafter refered to as ..." etc, and in the middle of it all the absurdity of it really struck me. Here I was, a layman with no legal training but what I got watching TV, writing a contract involving millions of dollars!

I've seen Law and Order criticized on the Right, because they show most villains as white and middle to upper class, rather than following the real demographics of crime, i.e. overwhelmingly minority - both perps and victims. Well, maybe so but this is a TV show after all. Most crime is sordid, predictable and boring (once you're past the disgust and revulsion). It's the odd, atypical crime that is interesting to the public, look at any tabloid. (I've known cops who held that "high-society murder is boring" though.) And it's the atypical crime that makes for the most interesting law.

The show has also been criticized as being anti-capital punishment propaganda. I don't see it. The characters are diverse in their opinions and there is a definite lock-'em-up slant to the show. You can't research crime for script ideas and not get that way.

But it occurs to me that it is Law and Order that moved me from a lukewarm opponent of the death penalty to a reluctant supporter.

Let me explain, I've been a lukewarm opponent of capital punishment because, though I don't think there is anything sacred about the lives of really heinous murderers, I'm really frightened by the possibility of mistakes - and evidently there have been quite a few. DNA evidence has freed an uncomfortable number of people doing hard time, and even from Death Row. I am also uncomfortable with the possibilty of it being used for judicial murder.

For those of you who think that life is sacred therefore we shouldn't take it, I'll ask for a definition of "sacred". I know what I mean by it - but I'm not sure I could tell you. The point is not to make fun of the concept of the sacred, quite the contrary, it's to point out that a concept which is this hard to reach a consensus definition of makes for bad law. And secondly, the sacredness of life is also the basis of arguments for capital punishment, that violating something sacred should incur the ultimate sanction.

For those of you who support the death penalty, consider that if you make a mistake, the parties to that mistake are guilty of, at the very least, manslaughter. Would you accept capital punishment if the prosecutor, sentencing judge and jury members were all liable for punishment if a mistake were made?

After watching a lot of Law and Order, I noticed that an awful lot of the resolutions involved plea bargains. I got curious and asked around about how many criminal cases are resolved this way in the real world. According to one D.A., it's about 90% (!!!!!).

That's when I realized what the point of a lot of episodes was. If we really want to keep someone in jail for the rest of his life, we have to have something on the table higher than life. Otherwise it's in the interest of the perp and his lawyer to fight it out in the courts, because they have nothing to lose. If the prosecution can put death on the table (and that very expression was used in the episode) they can let themselves be bargained down to life.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Labor Day

Rainy Labor Day and what a nice break from the heat. Years ago, before I became a teacher/ writer, I generally used to celebrate Labor Day by laboring.

A Labor anecdote about "the Workers". A bit over ten years ago I was working in downtown Warsaw, near the Polish parliament building. I was going out with a girl who worked at Solidarnosc just around the corner from my workplace and used to go by quite often. And quite often they'd find something for me to do, usually involving helping translate an English document into Polish or vice versa.

Solidarnosc at that time was suffering an identity crisis. The Revolution was over and they didn't really know if they were going to be a political party or a trade union, and they were trying to be both - badly.

So, at one time they hired a work crew to renovate the offices and, among other things, replace all the window casements. The regime had changed, but unfortunately communist-era work habits hadn't caught up. The laborers worked when they felt like it, drank on the job and sometimes just parked themselves in front of the new big screen TV and watched. At one point they knocked out a window casement, together with a substantial portion of the brick wall around it.

Solidarnosc was in crisis. As a labor union they really weren't supposed to do that, but finally they screwed up their indignation and said, "Get to work or you're fired!" - and it about killed them. The workers basically shrugged it off and said, "So who will you get?"

I've been a member of a couple of unions in my time, and participated in a couple of strike actions. I'd like to bask in the romanticism of the heroic labor struggle, but...

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Sunday morning coming down.

Sunday morning and thank God it's Labor Day tomorrow. I've got two, count 'em two, sick kids and I suppose my wife and I are about due to get this grunge pretty soon. Guess we won't be taking any road trips this holiday.

Well the nice thing about being a parent for the second time is that you can be a lot more laid back about it. When we brought our firstborn home and installed him in the crib at the foot of the bed, we used to sit bolt upright from the soundest sleep every time he coughed or grunted in his sleep. "Oh my God it's crib death I know it is!" And when he was quiet, I had to get up and check that he was still breathing.

What is it about TV shows and changing diapers? I recall that the impression I used to get from family shows was that changing diapers was like the end of the world. Women giving advice to young women contemplating motherhood for the first time, or older women thinking about having more kids always seemed to bring up, "Do you want to go through feeding and changing diapers (again)?"

I got news for those of you who aren't parents yet, changing diapers is no big deal. I suppose it's like mowing the lawn - if it's a rental house, it's a chore. If it's your house, there is something different about it. Maybe it's because I spent a lot of years as a garbageman and sewage treatment plant operator. (Yes, I'm the guy that coined the classic slogan, "Wastewater treatment. You excrete it, we treat it.") After that it takes a lot to gross me out. (That and being the child of medical professionals. To this day I have to remind myself that there are some things people really don't want to hear about when they're eating.) But my wife doesn't really mind it either.

Now mind you, I wouldn't care to have two kids in diapers at the same time. And it does get kind of funky when the kids start on solid food...


It's official, Carlos Mencia is my second favorite comedian, after Chris Rock. Last night after we got the kids put down way late, we saw Carlos riffing on, among other things, the war on Islamofascism and White Guilt. Some lines, as best as I remember:

"I am not White! I don't feel the need to apologize for what we did to make this country great!"

"This Middle Eastern guy told me, "My people are crazy, you'd better watch out."

"No, my people are crazy."

"Well we blew up two of your buildings."

"So we blew up two of your countries, you wanna play that game?"

"Well we're getting an atomic bomb and we might use it."

"Hey, we've got the bomb and we've already used it - twice. Go to Japan and go to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They can introduce you to a guy with two dicks and five testicles. We called the plane that dropped the bomb the Enola GAY so they'd know they were going to get f&*ked in the a#$!"

Years ago there was a Latino reviewer for the Dallas Morning News who did a piece on "In Living Color". He said, "Thank God a couple of Black guys did this show, because White guys would get crucified for it."

What is it with this country?

You want to know how you can keep a nice cushy job in academia when you're a third-rate hack? Loudly announce that the United States is the worst country on Earth, that White people are the worst people on Earth and that you're ashamed to be both. They'll treat you with kid gloves, because they're mortally afraid to look like they're repressing you.

Some of this comes from admirable motives, or at least can be sold to the public on that basis. We don't want to fire someone for publishing his opinions because we believe in free speech. But I've got to say, it's a little like a situation I've seen in some local government workplaces. If you're on the point of being fired - turn yourself in as an alcoholic. Then they're obligated to "treat" you, because alcoholism is a "sickness".

Saturday, September 02, 2006

How I got profiled.

I've been following the reactions to security measures at airports these days. Understandably, most people are upset about the delays, new regulations about liquids etc.

Well, two summers ago I got profiled and I'm going to have to admit - it wasn't so bad.

I was flying out of Richmond to Lithuania, and while I was going through the line the fellow told me to step aside for the full treatment. This consisted of taking my shoes off (now alas, standard for all passengers) and being patted down. The patter wore surgical gloves and explained what he was doing, reassured me that he was using the backs of his hands while running them down the inside of my legs (in case I might suspect that he was copping a cheap feel I guess), was polite, professional and apologized for the inconvenience.

"Why the heck did he profile me?" thought I. Was this another absurd example of people being harassed who least fit the obvious and well-known, but taboo profile of terrorists likely to hijack or destroy an airliner? (You know, the "A" word and "M" word, shhhh!)

Then it occurred to me that a black-haired, tanned fellow with a nose some people have been unkind enough to call large (and when an Arab tells you you have a big nose I guess you have to face it, you have a big nose) - and a bunch of Arabic customs stamps in his passport, it begins to make sense, even with a classic Anglo-Irish last name.

I told this story in class later, and a fellow grad student asked, "Yeah Steve, but how'd you like to get profiled all the time?" Well, like I told the security guy at the airport, I like it a hell of a lot better than I'd like getting blown out of the sky.

Yeah I know, as a libertarian I ought to be screaming "Police state!" every time anyone in a uniform asks to see my ID. But you know, since I got myself a family I've been a lot more concerned about how I'm going to see my kids grow up and what kind of world they'll inherit. I'll go into it more later, but this is a horror we're going to have to live with, probably forever. Rather than kvetching about how our rights are being trampled on by the jack-booted minions of the state (as enjoyable a passtime as that is) we might try contributing to the debate by discussing, oh say: realistic non-PC profiling, pre-cleared passenger status for frequent flyers, or (gasp!) continuous surveillance of people we reasonaly suspect have terrorist inclinations.

Think I'm caving in? Selling out? Now let me tell you one more story about that trip. On the way back I had a change of planes in O'Hare airport. First I was told my plane was delayed due to "mechanical difficulties". Then I was told that my flight had been cancelled and they'd have to put me up in a motel. They put me up in a motel 45 minutes across town because at least half a dozen other flights had been cancelled due to "mechanical difficulties". Probably more because all of the accomodations near the airport where they usually put up travellers who miss flights were full. I never saw a word about it on the news.

I dunno about you, but I think it was a security issue, and that it goes on a lot more than they are letting on.

Friday, September 01, 2006

My comments at BaB

I comment on two posting at Ilana Mercer's Barely a Blog http://www.ilanamercer.com/

"The Plight that Never Shuts Up"

and "Hamas Leader Hammers the Palestinians"

Sigh, I suppose it's about time I addressed my opinions on the Iraq war. Later.