Rants and Raves

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

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Whatever they're calling it these days - the KGB still has a long arm

Former KGB/FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko died in London a few days ago. Reportedly, some of his last words were, "The bastards got me."

He seems to have been poisoned with a radioactive isotope of Polonium, ironically enough. The element Polonium was named after the nation of Poland by its co-discoverer Maria Sklodowska, better known by her married name of Madame Curie. In 1897 when the element was discovered, Poland was still partitioned between Russia, Prussia and Austria-Hungary, and Madame Sklodowska-Curie hoped that naming the element for her country would bring world attention to their desire to be a free state again. This makes it the only element named to highlight a political cause and one of the few to be named after a country.*

Litvenko paid a high price attempting to reveal to the world that the heads of the Russian state are still killing people who talk too freely. And he was murdered in London, among cities the gem of the western world. And he wasn't the only one. Others have paid as high a price - or higher.

But we here in America can be complacent can't we? We know America is too far away for such things to happen here, don't we?

Whenever I run up against this attitude (frequently), I am reminded of the great re-make of "Goodbyb Mister Chips" with Peter O'Toole and Petula Clarke. Near the outbreak of the Second World War, Chips and his best friend, the German master at their prep school are walking across the lovely old campus. The German master tells him that the Fuhrer has ordered all German nationals home. Chips implores him, "Don't go." The German master tells him that his mother is still alive in Germany. "My dear old fellow, they wouldn't." The German master gives him such a look, and says, "My dear old fellow - they would." He looks around the place he loves and remarks, "You English. How much you have, and how little you appreciate it."

Poland regained independence and sovereignty at the end of the First World War. They got to keep it for twenty years. Poland was first dismembered in 1939 between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, and then incorporated as a satrapy of the Soviet empire until 1989.

In the last decades of communist rule in Poland, a rising young officer named Ryszard Kuklinski was promoted to positions that gave him frequent contact with Soviet military leaders and allowed him see much in the way of Soviet plans, and to infer more. What he found was that the Soviets intended to conquer Western Europe when they thought they were ready. He could reasonably infer from past Soviet behavior that they would drive the forces of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Romania before them to take the first bullet, and to make sure they knew which direction to attack. And he found that the Soviets planed that if the battlefield went nuclear, Poland was expendable. Meaning, no more Poland, just a glass self-lighting parking lot.

Kuklinski contacted the CIA and began passing secrets to them. He rose in rank to become a Colonel and chief of the planning division of the Polish army before suspicion began to fall on him. In 1981 he was extracted with his family.

Kuklinski's story has been documented by Benjamin Weiser in 'A Secret Life: the Polish officer, his covert mission and the price he paid to save his country'. Available from Amazon here: http://www.amazon.com/Secret-Life-Officer-Mission-Country/dp/1586483056/sr=1-1/qid=1164725493/ref=pd_bbs_1/105-5967188-7978867?ie=UTF8&s=books You can also read the generally favorable review from Publisher's Weekly.

I said "generally favorable" but it has this caveat: "At times Weiser goes overboard in establishing the point, reprinting at inordinate length Kuklinski's high-minded letters to his CIA handlers and their equally gushing tributes to his idealism and strength of character (the question of how much money the CIA paid Kuklinski is somewhat coyly skirted). " Which makes me want to shout at them, "You smug fools! Don't you know that you're talking about the hero who more than any other single man, prevented World War III?"

How much money was he paid? My wife, daughter of a Major in the Secret Chancellery of the Polish Military (who thinks Kuklinski was a hero who did what a lot of them would have liked to) remarked, "Whatever it was - it wasn't enough." Kuklinski's two sons were killed in America. One in a hit-and-run where the driver of the car was never found (surprise! surprise!), the other disappeared while on a diving trip with friends. His daughter is living in hiding. The KGB has a long arm. And never, never think that it can't reach into America.

Ion Mihai Pacepa, head of Romanian Securitate and the highest-ranking defector of the Cold War also confirms the Soviet plans - but then, he is more than just a bit of a self-promoter. Actually, Romanian dissidents I know tell me he's a cast-iron son of a bitch. And nobody gets to be head of Securitate with clean hands.

So did the Soviets really intend to invade western Europe? My son's godmother, widow of a Russian KGB defector (from SMERSH no less), says, of course. The planned date of the invasion was 1981. She says that family sources in NATO had it that actions such as the Falkland Islands war convinced the Soviet general staff that the West's technical superiority offset the Soviet superiority in numbers along the European frontier - and more importantly, that they still had the will to resist. And with Colonel Kuklinski's defection, the Soviets knew that the details of their plans were known to the West.

I still know Americans and Europeans who refuse to believe this. Well guess what? The Polish government is now publishing the Warsaw Pact documents that detail all of it. Russia is not happy with this (at the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact they coerced the member states to sign agreements not to do so). The Poles could care less what the Russians think.

Colonel Kuklinski died in 2004 and is buried in Powaski Military Cemetery in Warsaw. He was posthumously promoted to the rank of general.

* Chemical elements: There are other countries represented on the periodic table, such as Francium, Gallium (from Gaul, that's France twice) and Germanium. Two continents, Americium and Europium. One American state, Californium, one city in California, Berkelium and quite a few European cities, sometimes under their Latin names. But there is a diddly-squat little village in Sweden that has four chemical elements named for it. The town of Ytterby boasts: Terbium, Erbium, Ytrium and Ytterbium.

Sunday, November 26, 2006


I see that Charles Rangel (D-NY) has floated the idea of bringing back the draft. The Democrats, who may be suicidal but not that suicidal, immediately shot the idea down.

The Republicans must be terribly disappointed, they were probably hoping that the Democrats would immediately self-destruct by doing something massively unpopular right away.

It seems that the Republicans self-destruct by betraying their principles, the Democrats by following theirs.


The military doesn't want, and doesn't need a draft. Recruitment goals are being met by all services - and I really wonder what that means. It's supposed to be unpopular, nobody wants to go to Iraq. Troops are tired of being rotated back, for the third time in some cases etc. So what gives?

Teddy Kennedy has wanted a draft for some time, for "national service". Whatever that means. My wife tells me that when her mother was in school back in the communist days in Poland, they took kids out of school for days of "service to society". What she remembers is raking leaves in the park, while in another section other kids scatters the leaf piles around so someone else could rake them...

The Army is happy with their all-volunteer service. One good thing about it that occurs to me is that when you have to ask young men to join, you've got to be really careful about how you use your soldiers. Young men full of testosterone are often willing to risk death, but will usually balk at being treated like cannon fodder by officers who figure, "Oh well, I can always get more."

That's the attitude that the jihadists and even many armchair theorists have such contempt for. "The Americans can't take casualties." Maybe there's some truth to this, but I think it misses the point. Our soldiers are expensive. It's not that we lack volunteers, it's that by the time they're trained and equipped, a lot of money has been spent on them.

We're actually at the point where it's probably less expensive to use up the equipment than the men. I remember a student in Poland once told me that during WWII, the Soviets instucted their pilots not to bail out of their planes but to try and bring them in at all costs, because the plane was far more valuable than the pilot.

Lots of less than competent generals throughout history have wanted an army of men who would die if they were told to. Some have even been lucky enough to get them. History shows that in the long run, such armies lose.


Our four-month old baby has just discovered that by constricting those muscles in the glottis, she can make all kinds of interesting sounds. Now she's yelling a lot - not crying, just making noise for the sheer joy of it. I swear, we heard her trying to do something like singing the other day.

What I should do is start trying to record her babbling some time soon. I tried it with our boy, because I wanted an audio record of the linguistic development of a child in a bilingual environment, but he wouldn't cooperate. Clammed up every time I shoved a microphone in his face.


Just finished Mark Steyn's 'America Alone' and will be reviewing it shortly. I don't think I've ever read such a savagely witty book on such a depressing subject - demography.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Racism versus Culturism

Note: A shorter version of this is posted on the Atlasphere web site http://www.theatlasphere.com/myaccount/login.php?path=/members/index.php

After I published “Obsevations on Arabs” on the Atlasphere and on my blog, I got a lot of interesting feedback. Many people with experience in the Gulf chimed in with their own observations, mostly in at least qualified agreement. One person objected and pointed out that he had far more experience than I did and had learned Arabic. (I did in fact try to learn Arabic, but after a year in the Kingdom I had learned less Arabic than I had Polish after a month in Poland, for reasons I’ll go into later.) This is a fair objection, since I often stress the importance of experience. For now I’ll just point out that these observations were not only mine, but also distilled from the experience of a great many people working in the Gulf, many of them Sudanese and non-Saudi Arabs, and confirmed by many respondents with a lot of combined experience in the oil states.

I also got called a racist, but I knew that was going to happen.

Gee, how did I know that?

Because anybody who comments on the relative merits of different cultures versus Western Civilization gets called a racist. And any comment even vaguely alluding to differences in human populations gets called a racist. (“People of sub-Saharan African descent on average have darker complexions than people of Northern European descent.” “You’re a RACIST!”)

So, though I plainly stated that I was talking about differences in worldview inculcated by cultural beliefs, education and upbringing (and who said Arabs were a “race” anyway?), it appears I’m a “racist”? Although I don’t recall the commenter asked what my ancestry was.

(Anglo-Celt, with known American Indian and rumored African elements. That is to say, pretty typical for families who have been in America since colonial times. At an academic conference in Europe once, this subject came up in conversation with a European participant. When I ran this down for him, he then happily started referring to me as “multi-racial”. I told him, no, I’m a white American with a very slight but statistically common admixture of American Indian and African. He then accused me of “self-hatred”. You just can’t win with these guys. And by the way, if it makes you happy, though not Jewish myself, I have Jewish relatives and my children are half-Slav.)


When Europeans started venturing to the Americas and Africa, they came in contact with a great many peoples whose cultures had different levels of technological development. Two, or perhaps three explanations were advanced for this. The racialist, culturalist and climate explanations. The racialists held that foreign peoples were not as advanced because they didn’t have it in them to advance. The culturalists held that cultural values, beliefs, worldview etc, (usually subsumed under the heading of religion) had prevented, delayed or hampered the development of technological civilization. The climate explanation posited an enervating effect of the climate of the tropics.

This of course, is a very simplistic way of putting it. But simplistic explanations appealed to ethnocentric Europeans who had never been outside of Europe (and even many who had) and wanted an explanation that confirmed the superiority of their own tribe, nation, religion and climate.

There were cracks in the racialist view from the beginning. In Mesoamerica and highland Peru, civilizations were found that were the equal of the classical Greeks who were considered the ancestors of our own civilization (though most of us are not Greek). Africa had city-building civilizations scattered along the west coast and the remains of ancient high civilizations along the Nile in Egypt and Meroe. In Asia Europeans encountered high civilizations, which seemed more advanced than Europe in some ways - but not others.

The climate explanation held on for a while, with philosophers like de Gobineau claiming that even European colonists degenerated when they took up residence in the tropics or North America, but the spectacular success of the new American nation made that a bit hard to hold onto.

A more sophisticated modern variation of this might be called the “geography is destiny” model, which actually has a lot of merit. Scholars such as Jared Diamond and Thomas Sowell have done a tremendous job of describing the constraints that environment puts on peoples.

Africa has no rivers on which unobstructed navigation is possible year-round for more than very limited distances, and no natural deep-water harbors on most of its coastline. Civilization historically spreads along rivers and by sea. Huge areas are infested with mosquito-bourn diseases, which makes animal husbandry impractical. No domestic animals means that peoples lack a vital natural resource for settled agriculture – manure.

Both Africa and the American continents are oriented north-south, the Eurasian landmass runs east-west. This means that the spread of new food crops will tend to remain restricted to the narrow latitude band they are developed in. Even though fully half of the world’s food crops are of American Indian origin, they had little opportunity to spread until Europeans adopted and dispersed them. (Potatos were developed in the Peruvian high desert. They also grow very well in the similar environments of Idaho and Tibet but historically never made the trip for reasons a glance at a map will reveal.) And the Americas happen to be poor in animal species that can be domesticated, etc.

Other scholars, such as Victor Davis Hanson stress the choices made by different cultures and civilizations that affect their future development. A culture that hangs on to slavery is unlikely to shine in the development and production of labor saving technology. Why invent machines to make life easy when you have plenty of slaves to do the work? A religion that clings to the notion that charging interest on loans is a major sin is going to have a lot of trouble developing a banking system, with all the accounting and record keeping skill that goes with it. One that teaches that everything is in the hands of capricious gods or inexorable fate is not likely to discover the scientific method. An overly complicated writing system means that scholarship and the power that goes with it is likely to remain the monopoly of a small class, etc.

Of course, as will all great truths, the answer to the question of which is most important is likely to be, “yes”. Both factors appear to interact in various and complex ways. Both Europe and China founded technological civilizations – and China had a big head start. But China early established a unitary state, which was capable of regulating and often suppressing new technology that threatened the social order. Europe remained politically divided and diverse. Read the biographies of the important scholars and scientists in European history and it’s interesting to note how many of them changed countries frequently, either seeking patronage or escaping persecution. The political unity of China and the diversity of Europe may be a function of their respective geographies.

These factors in combination lead to different civilizations achieving different levels of technology, science – and law. These in turn, lead to different standards of living and quality of life. When technology made mass immigration around the world possible, huge numbers of people began to express their opinion of what the good life was by voting with their feet.

In doing so, they destroyed the racialist explanation forever, though of course, some continue to cling to it because their pitiful excuse for self-esteem is bound up in it.

Cultures which chose to adopt those features of Western Civilization necessary for scientific and technological development have advanced, often with startling success (see Japan). Those which have not, tend to remain far less competitive in the world economy. Immigrants to Europe and the Americas who most successfully adopt those cultural traits of the host country prosper, often in spite of local racism. Those who do not, tend to remain in enclaves with standards of income lower than the national norm, regardless of whether they are of the same race as their new country or not. (Look at the relative success of Jamaicans versus Irish Catholics, for example.)

Now here’s the point I’m getting to; the “multiculturalists” deny that any race or any culture is superior in any way to any other. They also refuse to address the question of whether different cultures could have different strengths and weaknesses, better (or more adaptive) in some ways, worse in others.

I most emphatically agree with them about race - but if this is true then only the culturalist explanation is left. They cannot both be false.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Great flicks that bombed

As a general rule, if something is really popular with the entertainment-consuming public, it's no guarantee that it's any good, but if it's unpopular then it probably is pretty bad. There are exception to the latter. Here are five movies I liked and would recommend that bombed at the box office for various reasons. Starting from earliest to latest, my picks are:

*****The Last Valley (1971). Starring Michael Caine and Omar Sharrif with a screenplay by James Clavel, years before he became famous for Tai Pan and Shogun.

This is a rare example of a good thinking man's movie. During the Thirty Years War a philosopher (Sharrif) wanders through the Germanies and finds himself in an isolated valley. He's woken up by a company of mercenary soldiers lead by a Captain (Michael Caine), who cursorily questions him then tells him to make his peace with God before they kill him.

Thinking quickly he points out that the valley is the richest he's ever seen, and that if they bring the army there, the army will eat for a week and starve during the winter nonetheless. He proposes that the soldiers occupy the village, lure the villagers out of hiding and make some sort of deal with them to stay and survive the winter. The Captain asks, "What about those who don't want to?" "Get rid of them" the philosopher says. The Captain then immediately turns and kills his second-in-command. "Good ideas are rare."

This sets the stage. Over the next year the soldiers occupy the village and a three-way power struggle between the soldiers, the church and the burgomeister emerges, with the philosopher in the middle. The Captain takes the burgomeister's mistress, who turns out to be a practicing witch. The philosopher falls for a peasant girl. There is mutiny in the ranks which forces the Captain to ally with villagers and so forth. The politics are messy and complicated, people are seldom either wholly admirable - or totally base. The Captain and the philosopher form an unlikely bond, and the philosopher and the burgomeister grope towards the idea of the citizen-soldier.

All this adds up to the most convincing period movie I've ever seen.

So why'd it bomb?

Well, aside from considerations of promotion, it's just not possible to make a movie about the Thirty Years War that isn't horribly depressing. The costumes, the action and the sheer visual beauty of the setting couldn't change that. And, there were a lot of references to historical events, such as the sack of Magdeburg that were really obscure. Perhaps the fact that the movie had nothing good to say about organized religion may have had something to do with it as well.

***Popeye (1980). Starring Robin Williams, Shelly Duval and Ray Walston. This movie was plagued with production problems and evidently the whole cast was ill with La Turista throughout filming on location in Sicily. After filming it was found that Williams' dialog mumbled around his pipe was unintelligible and had to be dubbed over. Nonetheless, this succeeded brilliantly at translating Popeye cartoons to the big screen. Williams and Duval were Popeye and Olive Oyl to the life.

So why'd it bomb?

I dunno. Translating a cartoon of that kind, where the physical figures are not realistically portrayed, is dicey at best. Maybe Popeye's time had passed. Post WWII Popeye cartoons were never as good as the earlier ones in my opinion. The squint-eyed sailorman may just have been too old - he does date back to the pre-WWI era. Nonetheless, it was a lovely trip to see the hero of my childhood again so I could say goodbye.

***The Razor's Edge (1984). This remake of the 1946 Tyrone Power version starred Bill Murray and Therese Russell. Murray had the juevos to reinterpret a Tyrone Power role, at a time when his movie exposure was entirely in comedies. And folks, in many ways he did a better job. Power's version took things very seriously, Murray employed the light touch pretty much throughout - but that's kind of the point. Enlightenment, wisdom, whatever you want to call it, is closely bound up with a sense of humor. Ask any Zen master or Sufi guide.


My favorite scene is when Murray is in an ashram in the Himalayas and the head guru sends him on a winter retreat to a remote hut in the mountains to meditate. Now in the Power version, our hero returns and describes his satori with a rapt face and stirring music playing in the background. With Murray you see the master send him off with enough food, fuel "Oh, and here are some of your favorite books to read" - except there isn't enough fuel. As the fire gutters down, Murray is reduced to burning his books page by page. And with no dialog or background music, just the look on his face, you see him achieving enlightenment page by page.

So why'd it bomb?

Tragicomedy is hard to pull off. Murray saves his best friend but fails to save his girlfriend who life has kicked just too damned hard. Maybe it was too soon for him to branch out of comedy and audiences couldn't take him seriously yet. Like Robin Williams he's done a great job at drama since then, but this was his first outing.

And maybe it's like the end of the movie, when the friend he's saved (among other ways by refusing to steal his wife) says, "You're the best friend I've got" he cracks up and replies "Well guy, that's just the luck of the draw." (Or something to that effect, I need to see this again.)


*****The Name of the Rose (1986). I think most everybody has seen this on TV since its theatrical release. This is a rare example of a Sean Connery vehicle that didn't do well. Connerey plays a monk who journeys with his student/ disciple (I forget the technical Catholic term) to a monastery to engage in a great debate. When he gets there he finds a series of bizarre murders that he must solve with the analytical skills derived from the teachings of Aristotle. And just so you don't miss the Great Detective parallels, his name is William of Baskerville.

This is a great period piece, and they probably saved a lot of money on costumes since most were just monk's robes. The identity of the treasure that prompts the murders, and the subject of the great debate I'll not reveal - I wouldn't deprive you of that pleasure if you haven't seen it. Suffice it to say, it involves fine points of medieval theology - and politics, and shows why other great debates, such as "How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?" are not so stupid in the context of the time.

So why'd it bomb?

Connery said it was promoted badly and that one poster gave the impression it was a cartoon! It could also be that period pieces are a risky business at best. Whatever the reason, SCA geeks will thank you forever Sean.

**The Last Action Hero (1993). This is probably the one bomb Arnold Schwartzenegger made. Pity, it's the one that had a point to it. And someday somebody is going to realize that Ah-nuld has really great comedic talent. This flick is actually a clever satire of the whole action movie genre. Throughout the fantasy/ action flick a young boy (Austin O'Brian) keeps pointing out how illogical everything around them is. And yet the boy is the one who sees deeper into the genre and tells "Slade" (Arnold) how we really need you, we need our action heroes to help us get through life and all the crap it throws at us.

There's a lot of stuff in here that makes you think. At one point Slade meets the "real" Arnold and his wife Maria. Did I detect a subtle satire on the way the glitterati treat upstart interlopers in the admonitions Maria gives Arnold on how to behave in public? And what a world of meaning there seems to be when "Slade" tells Arnold, "You know I never really liked you. You caused me a lot of pain."

Really fun scene I keep quoting: A trailer for Slade as Hamlet, "There's something rotten in the state of Denmark, and Slade is taking out the trash!" "To be, or not to be? Not to be" lights bomb off his cigar, throws it and machine-guns the place.

Is this a riff on Mel Gibson's Hamlet? Not to mention brilliant self-parody!

So why'd it bomb?

Nobody got it.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006


You want to know the difference between Libertarians and Conservatives? The Democrats now have control of congress. After assailing the Republican "culture of corruption" the new Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi (notorious for using "undocumented" Mexican labor on the vineyard she and her husband own) nominated John Murtha, unindicted co-conspirator in the ABSCAM sting operation, as House majority leader (voted down), and former Federal judge Alcee Hastings, who was removed from office (by Democrats to their credit) after being compromised in a solicitation of bribery case, as chair of the Intelligence Committee. Hey, if he could squeeze money out of defendants in criminal cases, imagine how much he'll be able to get from terrorists for intel!

Conservatives find this appalling, Libertarians find it side-splittingly funny.

Republicans responded by bringing Trent Lott, famous for making a racist gaff, back from exile as minority leader.

For anyone with a sense of humor, it just doesn't get any better than this.


My wife drew my attention to an article from the Polish press. The European Jewish Council has declared Poland to be the most pro-Israel country in Europe.

Polish-Jewish relations have always been more than a bit on the thorny side, very much so since the end of WWII. On the one hand, Poles are the most represented nationality on the roles of the Righteous Among Gentiles at Yad Vashem. On the other hand, since the rise of a democratic Germany made beating them up for the holocaust a matter of bad taste, some Jews responded by choosing to beat up their fellow victims - the Poles, who were a little further down on the list of peoples to be exterminated. Just below Gypsies. (By the way, Polish Jews I know object strenuously to this.)

Poles have been a bit ambiguous about Israel. On the one hand, they don't like being blamed for the Holocaust one bit, while Germany - and France, get away scot-free. On the other hand, during the Soviet occupation they got a big kick out of the Middle East wars when "our" Jews beat "their" Arabs. And I remember Poles proudly telling me that Israeli Air Force pilots used Polish in combat, because the Egyptian intelligence had Hebrew translators but not a whole lot of Polish speakers.

Now that anti-Semitism is again fashionable in Western Europe, it seems that the ancient Polish-Jewish connection is being revived.


You want to know what the neighborhood around our apartment in Warsaw looks like? Rent the DVD of The Pianist. The area in the first scenes, CGI'd to look like it did during the Nazi occupation, is about four blocks east. About the same distance north of our place was the edge of the ghetto and the site of the great Tlomatski Synagogue, destroyed by the Nazis at the end of the ghetto uprising as a symbol of the extinction of European Jewry.

Under our apartment window is a plaque where people still leave flowers and devotional candles. It marks the spot where 44 hostages were murdered by the Nazis. The plaque is a common form, fill-in-the-blank for date and number of the dead, common all around the city. Around the city center they average about one every three blocks.

So why am I bringing this up? It seems to me that part of the cultural blindness of Americans, and after 60 years of peace the West Europeans too, is that we have forgotten that bad times always return.

We don't have the education or monuments to remind us and teach our youth about this immutable truth. That's OK though, history has a way of calling this to our attention.


At my age I'm a grad student again - and we have a new baby. It's been hard to describe for anyone who doesn't have kids how tiring this is, but I think I've found a way. One new baby equals an extra grad-level class and a part-time job.


It's a lovely day outside, and the leaves on the trees finally look like autumn. My wife remarks, "Yes, and it's ONLY mid-November." That's Oklahoma.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Religions that never were - but might be

Hymn to Mithras, sung by the XXX Legion stationed at the Wall (Hadrian's) north of Eboracum (modern York).

Mithras, God of the Morning, our trumpets waken the wall!
Rome is above the Nations, but Thou art over all,
Now as the names are answered, and the guard is marched away,
Mithras, also a soldier, give us strength for the day!

Mithras, God of the Noontide, the heather swims in the heat,
Our helmets scorch our foreheads; our sandals burn our feet,
Now in the ungirt hour; now lest we blink and drowse,
Mithras, also a soldier, keep us true to our vows!

Mithras, God of the Sunset, low on the Western main,
Thou descending immortal, immortal to rise again!
Now as the watch is ended, now as the wine is drawn
Mithras also a soldier, keep us pure till the dawn!

Mithras, God of the Midnight, here where the Great Bull dies,
Look on thy children in darkness. Oh take our sacrifice!
Many roads Thou has fashioned: all of them lead to the Light,
Mithras, also a soldier, teach us to die aright!

I don't know about you, but that hymn to an extinct religion always sends chills down my spine. The worship of the solar deity Mithras, the "soldiers' god", was once the most serious rival to Christianity. The Christians ultimately co-opted several features from it, such as December 25 as the birth date of the Savior (originally the winter solstice before calendar reforms altered the relationship with the seasons) and Sunday as the Sabbath, rather than the original Jewish Sabbath of sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.

Mithraism lost out to Christianity, probably for a couple of reasons. One was that the Mithraic mysteries were reserved for men. This resulted in Roman households where the women were Christians and the men Mithraists. When the primary caregivers are of one faith, you can pretty much guess which is going to win out in the long run.

Another was that the Mithraism insisted on a high moral standard for candidates for admission - a Christian bishop once bitterly remarked that, "The Devil shames us with the quality of his adherents." The Christians would take you as you were and work on upgrading your morals. Nonetheless there is something very compelling in that vision of Roman legionaries singing to their god, asking for strength to fulfill their duty of guarding the civilized lands against the northern savages (i.e. my ancestors) and a poignancy that comes from the knowledge that eventually their strength failed and they were overwhelmed.

Now here's the rub, very little is known about Mithraism, that hymn was written by Rudyard Kipling as part of his 'History of England' series.

Mankind invents new religions, and variations on old ones all the time, and existing religions have schisms like cats have kittens. We are a religious animal, and there's no escaping that. Religion is at least as old as mankind and I don't see humans becoming indifferent to religion in the foreseeable future.

But what is it going to look like? That I wouldn't take any bets on.

As Kipling invented a hymn for a religion in the past, many science fiction writers have invented religions for the future. One, L. Ron Hubbard actually got serious about it and founded Scientology. Other SciFi writers have done far better in my opinion, but didn't go so far as to take their creations seriously enough to proselytize for them.

Robert Silverberg took the idea of a "religion of science" and in my humble opinion, did a more appealing job of it in his novel 'To Open the Sky'. He postulated a religion which worshipped the mysteries of "the quantum, and the holy angstrom" in the Litany of the Wavelengths and sought immortality through scientific research rather than life-after-death.

Poul Anderson created at least two religions. In novels such as 'The People of the Wind' he created a race of intelligent birds, the Ythrians (as if humans had descended from hawks rather than primates). The deity of their New Religion was called God the Hunter.

So what kind of religion would a race of flying hunters create? Their god is a hunter - and we, all living beings, are his prey. We exist to give honor to god. God loves us, the way a hunter would love the prey in his sights. Our obligation is to fight as hard as we can to live as long as we can, so that god has honor from us.

Sound chilling? Yet Anderson wrote a very moving eulogy for this religion, "High you flew on many winds, until at last God stooped on you in your pride. Long you fought Him and well, and from you He has honor. Go now. Be wind, be ash, be water. Be always remembered."

In the same future history series he invented, or adapted, the religion he called Cosmenosism (See: The Day of Their Return). Some variation of this actually seems to be emerging among people who can't buy into faith-based supernaturalism, but still feel the religious impulse strongly.

The premise here goes something like, rationalist attempts at a definition of God often look a lot like a self-aware universe. So without supernaturalism, how does a universe become self-aware? By evolving life and intelligence. Matter organizing itself until one day a living being looks around as says, "I exist!" Intelligent beings further evolve, naturally and by developing their science and technology until they are so powerful and wise that they are pretty much indistinguishable from what we'd call gods.

This is cool, because it gives the atheists a way to have God too. Many variations are possible. Have other races made the journey to transcendence before us? That is, is God waiting for us to join him, and maybe lending a helping hand? Or do we become God far in the future, but are able to reach back in time to help ourselves up? Are we in fact going to become immortal?

Scientist Frank Tipler posits a future where our supercomputers will give us immortality by recreating in emulations, not only all human being who ever lived, but all human being who ever could have lived. Others speculate that if the universe is an expanding and contracting one, at the point where it starts to contract, all information will become available to us, including the information that went into making each and every one of us.

It's interesting to note that something like a variation of Cosmenosism is the core theology of Mormonism. Other variations look something like the Hindu belief in cycles of creation.

What might be considered another variation is the crypto-Buddhist philosophy of Viriditas in Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy: Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars. The core principle here is that life and living worlds are so rare and precious, that our duty as sentient beings is to terraform and bring life to as much of the universe as we can, throughout our future existence as a race.

But what if it's all a sham? What if belief is something we invent to hide from ourselves the fact that the universe is indifferent to us and someday we're all going to die and be - nothing. George R. R. Martin invented the Liars, in his short story 'The Way of Cross and Dragon'.

In this story, an Inquisitor for a far-future Roman Catholic church charged with the duty of fighting heresy, meets a heretic who tells him, "I'm a Liar." "I know you're a liar" he replies. "No, you don't understand, I'm a Liar."

The heretic tells him that he is a member of an underground sect called the Liars. They believe that there is no God and no afterlife, but that the vast majority of humans can't live with that knowledge - so throughout the ages they invent comforting religions, creating mythologies tailored to the specific cultural needs of each time and place. The Inquisitor vanquishes the new heresy but is left with nagging doubts about his own faith. In the end he requests to be relieved of his duties because he has lost his faith. His superior coldly informs him that faith is not necessary for him to fulfill his duty...

John Maddox Roberts also saw the Roman Catholic church continuing into the far future, in his delightful novel 'Cestus Dei', which is Latin for "The brass knuckles of God". (The Cestus was a kind of boxing handwrap, often with shot or spikes attached, used by a class of gladiators called pugilists or cestiarii.)

Cestus Dei is an order of Jesuit martial artists. At one point a potential convert tells a member of the order that understanding is easier for him because he grew up in the Faith. "But I didn't" the Jesuit tells him. He informs the young man that he grew up on a planet settled by Hindus, and was a worshipper of the goddess Kali, of a sect that strangled men as an act of religious devotion - Thugee! (The cult of the stranglers in India, origin of the English word 'thug'.)

He tells the young man that he found the faith when he saw a Christian missionary on the street of his city and, thinking that the killing of an infidel would be pleasing to his goddess, followed him with his silk rumal (scarf) with the intention of strangling him. "I woke up in the hospital a week later. As my bones healed, the Jesuit visited me every day and explained to me the truth of the Faith."

It's a hoot!

Verily, many and marvelous are the ways of God and Man.

Friday, November 17, 2006

The Bilingualism scam and tips for langauge learning

My wife came home from a parent-teacher meeting the other day, mad as hell.

Why? Because the whole meeting was in Spanish. Both my wife and I can follow Spanish a bit, but she'd have been totally lost if she hadn't known what the agenda of the meeting was.

Our boy goes to Headstart preschool at a local church. We wanted him to have a social life, and admittedly to get him out of the house for a few hours during the day. He was born just two weeks shy of the limit that would get him into regular kindergarten so this was a good alternative for a poor grad student. He goes to preschool with a bunch of mostly Mexican kids and a very few Anglos. Each class has two teachers, one of them Spanish-speaking and all notices are in English and Spanish.

Well, how is it working?

In a word, it isn't. The Spanish-speaking kids aren't learning English - and our boy isn't learning Spanish beyond a few words. One committee is chaired by a woman who doesn't speak English at all, so the English-speaking parents just get left off the phone tree and don't hear about crucial events.

My wife is not a native speaker of English, but she speaks it better than a great many who are. My Polish is not up to the level of her English, but I did learn the language well enough to get around the country by myself and communicate for all practical purposes, and though I doubt I'll be invited to lecture at a university in Polish any time soon I have had compliments on my accent. Monika gets vexed that other people resident in the US don't learn English at least well enough to function in society without special help.

So what does work?

My wife's best friend is a Mexican woman who doesn't get out of the house a lot, so she's happy to have Monika over so she can practice her English. And I think it takes some of the stress off her to know that it's a second language for Monika too. With her mother in the house helping with the kids, naturally they didn't learn English. That is, until her eldest daughter went to elementary school. She picked it up in two months. There is no bilingual education at her school.

My boys playmates at home are from Kenya and Sri Lanka, respectively native speakers of Swahili and Sinhalese. They speak English perfectly.

It's called "total immersion" and that doesn't mean the thing Baptists do. Kids are like language sponges, throw them into the linguistic environment and "poof" they learn to speak it. My boy understood English from the beginning because he heard his mother and I speak it, but spoke Polish by preference (and his grandmother also had a lot to do with that). After a few months in America he finally got that nobody understood him and started speaking English - literally overnight. It was like flipping a light switch, one day he was an English speaker, just like that. Now we have to work at keeping his Polish up to speed.

So since we know what works, why are they trying to reinvent the wheel? Well, perhaps the fact that total immersion just happens, and doesn't require a paid specialist has something to do with it. And some folks just can't accept that good things happen without their help.

Funny thing, a while ago I had this conversation with a professor who mentioned that he or somebody in his family was involved in 'bilingual education' programs of some sort or other. I mentioned that I'd heard it was pretty much considered a disaster in California. He said, "No" and gave a longish explanation about how it either hadn't been done right or had been sabotaged. Now here's the funny (or tragicomic) part; he knew very well that I have a bilingual household and that we are raising our kids as English and Polish speakers. Did he think to ask how my wife and kid learned English? Did he think to ask even a single question about our experience that might be relevant to the issue? Do I even have to answer that question?


Tips on learning a language.

When I went to Poland, I found out that Polish has a really complicated grammar - and that's not just a point of view thing. I told one of my high school classes once, "Wow, Polish grammar is really complicated, but then I suppose you think the same thing about English." They looked blank for a moment, then one replied, "Oh no Steve, English grammar is much simpler than Polish."

I later found that it's a trade-off in some ways. English grammar is more complicated than Polish in the verb tenses, the conditionals and the negative prefixes. (To give you an idea, Polish has two: "nie" which answers for; no, not, un-, in-, im-, a-, ab- etc, and "bez" which is a prefix but covers the English suffix -less or "without".) Polish is more complicated in that it has a case structure, i.e. every noun and adjective has several different forms depending on gender and whether is is used as a subject, direct or indirect object, location, instrumentality etc.

So how to deal with this if you go to live in another country, or are just travelling? A Polish philosopher gave me this advice, "Steve, just ignore the case endings. Everybody will know what you mean anyway."

In language teaching (or "applied linguistics" we like to call it because it sounds more important) we call it the difference between 'fluency' and 'accuracy'. Fluency is the ability to understand and make yourself understood. Accuracy is getting it exactly right according to the local rules of grammar, syntax and usage. I speak Polish fluently but not accurately.

Unfortunately, formal language courses in America make people feel insecure because they concentrate on getting it just right for tests. Vocabulary is where it's at if you want to be understood folks. Learn a lot of words, worry about getting the grammar right later.

So what words? First words you should learn are: please, thank you and excuse me. These go far. Then learn the numbers - very useful in shops, and that's where you're going to be doing a lot of practicing. As Kipling said, there are few linguistic barriers between a willing buyer and a willing seller. So next you might learn, "Please can I see that?" (point).

Another tip, say it confidently. It's amazing how people just don't hear your mistakes if you speak with an air of confidence, just like you know what you're doing.

The rewards are great, most people really warm to someone who tries to learn their language even a little and are extravagant in their compliments. (Well, except the French. They insult you for the way you speak their langauge and now they wonder why French isn't the universal langauge any more.)

And the nice thing about teaching English in Poland was that unlike the French and Germans, Poles always knew that Polish wasn't going to be the universal language. Mostly they just thank God it isn't Russian.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006


Remember when we met PC at my son's preschool? When they asked us to tell him not to make guns out of leggo blocks? Well Monika asked her if he had done that lately. She said no, now he makes swords. But it's OK, that's not against the rules. My cousin asked, "I wonder where he gets that from?" (Heavy sarcasm.) Jerzy sees Daddy practice Filipino Kali with sticks and Tameshigiri with a Japanese sword.

That last is major cool. It's sword practice by cutting a target to pieces. Classically it's a straw mat, but in America we've found that heavy cardboard mailing tubes work just as well and are lots cheaper.

My cousin asked, "Don't the neighbors think you're weird?" "Hey, nobody's complained." "Gee, I wonder why?"

Hey, it's a guy thing...

Monika told me I have to say something to promote La Leche League. She joined a while ago, after the birth of our daughter. She'd had trouble starting nursing with our firstborn at the beginning which I won't describe, those of you who know about it don't need to be reminded and I don't want to discourage the rest of you from having kids, but at any rate this got her interested in lactation counceling.

Now, I could see a club of guys getting together to discuss breast matters, but couldn't for the life of me imagine what women would talk about. Apparantly lots. Monika has a great time and has made a lot of friends. Women bring their babies to meetings (of course!) and evidently discussion ranges over a lot of infant issues.

They also joke a lot - and some of those are pretty rough, like guys wouldn't dare make. "Monika, look at the size of that baby! You must be making pure cream."

Must be a woman thing...

And speaking of which, Monika took the kids to a birthday party for the daughter of her best friend, a Mexican woman. Of course, the baby was a big hit. She got passed around and cuddled by everyone. The expression these women used was, "Que gordita!" Which translates literally, "What a little fatty!" but it's a good thing in Spanish. What would we say in English? Maybe, "What a big baby!" Doesn't quite have the same air of love and affection. Spanish is a beautiful language and Mexican culture is very child-centered.

And of course, since the baby takes after her mom, a Polish-blue eyed Slav, they think she's exotically beautiful. We think the same of their raven-haired doe-eyed little girls.

Now if the boy will only pick up the language, he'll have English, Polish and Spanish - all three major European langauge groups covered. (That's if you put English in the Teutonic group. Yes, sort of - but it's easier for an English speaker to pick up Spanish than German I think.)

You know when I think of it, it's not so much that I didn't believe Hillary, "It takes a village to raise a child" - it's that I didn't believe it from her.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Libertarians emerge as "spoilers"

My friend Bob Bidinotto comments here http://bidinotto.journalspace.com/
about why the Democrats took over the House and Senate by a razor-thin margin, attributing it in part to Rush Limbaugh's disgraceful mocking of Michael J. Fox's Parkinson's symptoms and in part to the Libertarian Party siphoning off votes from the Republican candidate in Montana. Bob "congratulates" the Libertarians with a pen dripping in sarcastic vitriol, a style I mightily admire.

A couple of observations:

Rush: I didn't see it, but from what I've heard Rush certainly acted like a mean-spirited a**hole. Now here's the irony, the day before this happened we were watching a biography of Michael J. Fox on TV, and they showed how Fox testified before congress for funding Parkinson's research and allowing the embryo cell research which may or may not offer some promise. They pointed out, approvingly, how Fox, to dramatize his appeal, deliberately refrained from taking the medication that controls his tremors so that congresscriturs could see the effects of the disease.

Rush could have pointed out that, though brilliant from a PR point of view, this is a classic example of the logical fallacy called the Appeal to Pity. That is to say, he could have appealed to the intelligence of his listeners rather than their emotions. But no-o-o-o-o, he had to engage in a personal attack on a brave man dealing with a devastating disease with dignity and grace.

Hey Rush, you're a fat, deaf junkie - but I'll keep any disagreements I have with you to the issues involved, thank you very much.


Libertarians: Bob assumes that Libertarians would have voted for the Republican candidate in Montana if they weren't running one of their own. I don't know, maybe. That rests on the assumption that Libertarians feel closer to Conservatives than Liberals. But then on the other hand maybe they would have stayed home out of general disgust. And recently I've noticed that there are a fair number of Libertarians who share the Left's visceral hatred of George Bush and the Right that seems to have little to do with specific issues, like how he betrayed his Conservative base and took the government out for a shopping spree and maxed out the credit cards to an extent not seen since LBJ.

The Libertarian Party remains miniscule, but some surveys put the number of what I call "unaffiliated Libertarians" at about 13% of the electorate. I know a number of folks like this, people who are live-and-let-live, economically-Conservative-socially-Liberal types who won't join a Libertarian organization for a number of reasons. Some just aren't joiners. Some are embarrassed to be seen with the more far-out nutty types one runs into there. Some don't like the America-bashing elements you find there and some are just more interested in the practical nuts-and-bolts of how you're going to get from here to the kind of country you'd like to live in. Something Libertarians tend to ignore in favor of painting pretty pictures of what it'll be like once we're there.

Interestingly, Libertarians seem to have done pretty well - by Libertarian standards, in quite a few local races. Pretty well in this context means as well as 25% of the vote in some races. This is pretty poor by the standards of a professional pol, but would seem to indicate that if someone did that well in a race for city council, school board or state legislature, they must have had something worthwhile to say about practical, as opposed to utopian, politics.

More importantly, it means that a Libertarian candidate in a race can swing the election one way or the other. Now they have to be taken more seriously and the media are going to be hard pressed to justify ignoring them.

So I have a suggestion for the would-be pols among Libertarians - ask for something. You can't expect to be taken into a Parliamentary coalition, because that's not how we do politics in America. But you can ask the major parties to make some concessions on issues that might once been considered too risky.

There are a number of possibilities. One I suggest is, decriminalizing pot.

I can't believe that in the Year of Our Lord 2006 we are still throwing people in jail for smoking weed. And many people are made miserable or d-e-a-d dead because they can't smoke pot to alleviate the nausea caused by chemotherapy. If you'd asked me back in 1970 if we'd still be doing that in thirty-six years, I'd have thought you were nuts.

I am flat not interested in the alcohol-tobacco-and-tranquilizers-are-more-harmful argument*. I am only mildly interested in what kind of paper, cloth etc you can make from hemp. I'm not going to get involved in alleged "benefits" of pot smoking. And I'm going to defer the natural rights argument based on the ancient legal principle of "no victim, no crime".

It's just too damn costly to enforce this prohibition. A huge number of Americans smoke pot or have tried it. And you wouldn't believe how many Yellow-dog Republicans I've met who admitted to doing so. (I remember how shocked I was when the yellowist YDR pillar-of-the-community in town looked me in the eye and said, "I've tried everything. Heroin is wonderful.")

Up till now, all of the really gross invasions of privacy and violations of traditional due process (wire taps, no knock warrants etc) have been motivated by the drug war. Now we're in a war against people who are interested in killing us by stealth, not sneaking off to indulge a forbidden vice. We may need some of those extraordinary measures, but a lot of folks out there are rightly concerned that if we grant the government even limited powers in this regard, it's going to come around and bite us in the ass. If the FBI wanted to search your place for a bomb-making kit based on faulty intelligence or a crank tip it would be livable with if you weren't worried about what they'd find out about your secret life. (And yes, I realize that this applies to all illegal drug use, but 1) pot is commonly used, the other illegal chemical recreations are the passtime of a much smaller minority, and 2) the issue of decriminalizing more dangerous drugs is not going to fly at this point in time. Let's keep it real.)

This applies to a lot of other things, but there are a heck of a lot more people smoking pot than cheating on their wives, embezzling from their boss etc. And might I point out that at a time when patriotism must be more than a quaint anachronism, it doesn't help a thing when the Attorney-general calls you a supporter of terrorists.

* OK, just this once. My personal opinion is that yes, pot is less harmful than alcohol. But... the good thing about alcohol is that it lets you know what it's doing to you. When you wake up with a hangover, you can't avoid recognizing that you are abusing your body. The primary symptom of pot abuse is a complete lack of ambition. You get high and don't get the chores done, don't get that interesting book read and that dead-end job you're in doesn't suck so much when you're high.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

The great political discussion of our time

Well, the mid-term election is over and the pontificating has begun. It turned out about like expected, no surprises. The Democrats got control of the House and the Senate, though by one of the narrowest margins in the history of mid-term elections in our country. On the other hand, control changed during a war, something pretty unusual.

Bush fired Rumsfield, and did it in a pretty odd sort of way. Usually the fire-ee has a private meeting with the Pres and later resigns, "Entirely my idea, for the good of the country." The Pres then makes some sort of "Aw please stay, oh well if you must" gesture as he ushers him out. Rumsfield acted like he still had a job that very morning. I wonder what's going on?

Some of the results were... odd. Jim Webb, Democrat, former Reagan Republican and Hawk on the war against Jihadism, unseated a Republican. Ah-nuld "Conan the Republican" won reelection in California of all places.

But enough of this fol-de-rol, I want to talk about where the really important political discussion of our time is going on. A place where people on the Right and Left find common ground, applauded by both Rolling Stone Magazine and National Review alike.

Battlestar Galactica.

I'm old enough to remember the first version of it. God it was awful! It was such a promising concept, a basic idea from Von Daniken without pretensions of being serious, plus liberal doses of good old-fashioned Space Opera. It bombed, big time. By the time they finished fiddling with it; finding Earth, throwing in time travel, attempts at social consciousness and the kitchen sink, it was painful to watch. When they cancelled it, it was a mercy killing. When it died, it took the career of the lovely Maren Jensen with it.

So when I heard they were doing it again, I was puzzled. When I saw it starred Edward James Olmos, I began to be hopeful. When I saw the premier, I was astounded. They did it right this time!

My wife and I watch it every Friday. When the kids interrupt our viewing, we watch it again later in the evening.

Visually it's brilliant. They didn't attempt to create too much in the way of futuristic effects, which inevitably look cheap and tawdry within a generation. (Even Star Trek. Sorry.) The sets have a Steam Punk retro look to them. Adama sits on the bridge of a starship and communicates through an old bakelite phone receiver. Daring - it could have failed so badly, but it doesn't.

The Cylons, who have almost destroyed humanity at the beginning of the story, are not soulless mechanisms. They have created biological humanoid individuals, and evidently hybrid cyborgs as well. And some of them are beginning to have doubts about what they are doing. As of this season, one female Cylon has gone over to humanity, fallen in love with a human and been commissioned an officer in the colonial fleet.

The human characters have grown from the beginning of the series. The presidency was assumed by the last in the line of succession - an education bureaucrat. Adama, the military commander, attempted a coup (opposed by his own son) before realizing what the consequences of interrupting the democratic succession could be and became reconciled with Madam President. An imprisoned radical became vice-president in a contested election won by a secret traitor - or maybe a Cylon under very deep cover. And the incumbent had to face the choice of rigging the election or allowing the people their right to be wrong.

Contemporary issues are highlighted, such as reproductive choice versus the need to reproduce a population that may have fallen below the critical number necessary for a species to survive.

And not just American issues; after the survivors have escaped from a Cylon occupation (during which some humans became suicide bombers), they have to deal with the problem of what to do with people who collaborated to varying degrees with the occupying force. Some from a cold "look out for number one" attitude and some from a genuine belief that they would never be free in their lifetime and had to do something to cut the best deal they could for their people. My wife is from Eastern Europe and you'd better believe that issue is of more than academic importance to her.

Humans are polytheists, their religion seems to be something like the Olympian religion of the ancient Greeks. They Cylons are monotheists, and apparently engaged on a religious crusade/ jihad - and they are not afraid to die, since they ressurect. Literally, not figuratively . So the Left can see them as Right-wing Christian crazies, and the Right as something like Muslim Jihadists.

Battlestar Galactica takes political issues seriously, and discusses them in a place far removed from contemporary affairs, so we get some distance from the present meanness that afflicts our political debates these days.

And science-fiction is a wonderful forum for the discussion. Arthur C. Clarke was once asked why he liked science-fiction. "Because it's the only form of literature that deals with reality" he replied.

Sci-fi is inherently optimistic, because it assumes that, even if it's a horrible one, there will be a future. It takes a long view, something that we need now that religions have lost much of their power to engage the imagination. It is premised on the idea that the future will be the same - but different. The same because human nature does not change. Different because technology, and the problems and possibilities it brings, certainly does.

Are they going to find Earth? If so, will it be in our past, present or future? Will they defeat, exterminate or make some sort of accommodation with the Cylons? I haven' the foggiest idea where the series is going or what's coming next - and that's something rare. But I know that I'll be along for the ride.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

The demand for perfection

During the Second World War, boxer Joe Louis, the "Brown Bomber" served in the US Army as a spokesman, or "propagandist" we'd say today.

Contrary to popular belief today, the 60s generation did not discover racial injustice. Watch old movies on TCM and you'll see that plenty of people had been bothered by it for some time. Nor did the fact that America was fighting two viciously racist regimes while treating Black people as second class citizens escape everybody's notice.

The story goes that at some point in Joe Louis' army career, a journalist asked him how he felt about serving in a segregated army, fighting for a country that treated him as second class. He replied, "America ain't got no problems Hitler can solve."

So why is it that a pug with a high school education at best could see what a whole lot of highly educated and sophisticated intellectuals can't?

His contemporary, the superbly talented Black singer Paul Robeson, decided that America was irretrievably corrupt and racist, and threw his lot in with the Soviet Union. He paid a terrible price for this - and I don't mean from McCarthyism. While living there he became complicit in the murder of his friend Izchak Pfeffer, which tortured his conscience till the day he died. Robeson was a graduate of Columbia University.

While Joe Louis was in the army, a migrant worker who had never seen the inside of a schoolhouse in his life moved to California and took a steady job as a longshoreman to help the war effort. A few years after the war ended, he published a book that astonished the intellectual community and added a new expression to the Engish language, "The True Believer".

Eric Hoffer saw America from very close to the bottom, from the perspective of men who work at backbreaking seasonal labor or out of a hiring hall on a weekly or daily basis - and did not find it wanting.

“Free men are aware of the imperfections inherent in human affairs, and they are willing to fight and die for that which is not perfect. They know that basic human problems can have no final solutions, that our freedom, justice, equality, and so on are far from absolute, that the good life is compounded of half measures, compromises, lesser evils, and gropings toward the perfect. The refection of approximations and the insistence on absolutes are the manifestations of a nihilism that loathes freedom, tolerance and equity."

Hoffer sometimes spoke of "the childish demand for perfection" and once asked, almost despairingly, "Is there ANY social order which would satisfy the disaffected artist and intellectual?"

I have sometimes been accused of "seeing things in black and white". This is not true. I'm afraid that I see things in black and grey - and I do not except myself. There is no absolute good that I've ever seen, but there certainly exists what answers pretty closely for absolute evil.

What I find disturbing is that a lot of intellectual types in our country and Europe seem to be taking the position that since what we have is not perfect, it's not worth defending against that which would destroy it and replace it with something immeasurably worse. Or even that it deserves to be destroyed, no matter what replaces it - that nihilism that Hoffer spoke of.

Now I have a confession. I used to hold views very much like these, back when I was a young intellectual.

What changed my mind? I don't exactly know. Perhaps it had something to do with the experience of working a total of six years as a garbageman, and another half-dozen as a sewage treatment plant worker. That's close enough to the bottom of society (prestige-wise at least), and it's not so bad. Perhaps it was living in Eastern Europe for thirteen years and seeing how our last rival ideology made once-fourishing countries into something like Third-World slums.

And ultimately, having children drove home to me the importance of protecting and preserving (or conserving, as in "Conservative") what this civilization of ours did right, and leaving something our kids can build on and improve. This presumes that we can educate and prepare them for that task, and that job seems to be in the hands of those "intellectuals".

Is there anyone who wears that title who will speak for our country and our civilization? A Democrat Irish pol, who also happened to be an intellectual did once.

"Am I embarrassed to speak for a less than perfect democracy? Not one bit. Find me a better one. Do I suppose there are societies which are free of sin? No I don’t. Do I think that ours is, on balance, incomparably the most hopeful set of human relations the world has? Yes I do!"

Daniel Patrick Moynihan

Sunday, November 05, 2006

The lesson of Frank Capra

Last night I stayed up later than I should have. I've got studying to do and work due tomorrow, but I switched by FOX news and caught most of "Obsession: Radical Islam's War Against the West".

Finally! Someone has put together a "Why We Fight" for this war.

In the middle of the Second World War, Frank Capra was approached by the US government to put together a series of propaganda films for the American public and new army recruits. (I'm not afraid of the term propaganda, look it up in the dictionary. Though it has come to have the popular meaning of "political lies", its lexical definition is basically mass persuasion and morally neutral. Same root word as "propagate".)

Capra had seen Leni Riefenstahl's brilliant and disturbing piece of Nazi propaganda, "The Triumph of the Will" and his series was by way of a reply to it. What Capra suggested, to the consternation of some, was that he show our people their propaganda. In effect saying, "This is what they are saying to their people, this is the message of evil and hatred they proclaim to their own."

That's what this film was, jihadist speeches and demonstrations, plus commentary by Western experts and people like Noni Darweesh, daughter of a shaheed ("martyr") and Walid Shoebat, a former terrorist who claims to have killed upwards of four hundred people before having a "What have I done?" experience. He has since renounced jihad and converted to Christianity, for which his father has vowed to kill him. I have enormous respect for the courage of these people - but I wouldn't want to be their insurance agent.

I've got some quibbles with how this film was made, which I'll keep to myself at least until I've seen it again. But this has needed to be done for a long time. What we are shown are the leaders of jihad, telling us plainly that they hate everything about the West and intend to destroy it - by any means necessary.

There are those who say, it's our fault, we brought it on ourselves with our interference in their affairs and our support of Israel. This is a comforting belief for many, because it means that if it's our fault then it's within our control. Stop doing it, say you're sorry, and they'll say "OK, now we'll leave you alone."

Doesn't sound that likely when you put it that way, does it?

And listen to them, their stated grievances go back to the Crusades (which by the way, was not an example of American imperialism). And those who believe this can't seem to face the fact that part of the price the jihadists demand is for the West to become complicit in the extermination of the Jews. Not just the Israelis, the Jews. Worldwide. The fact that there are a fair number of Jews who have bought into this only proves that "Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it." Lots of intelligent and sophisticated Jews in Europe thought they'd ride out the last anti-Semitic binge too.

I believe there are a fair number of the lumpen intelligentsia of Western Europe who have tacitly concluded that this is an acceptable price to pay - give them the Jews and they'll be rid of them, while keeping their own hands clean. (Does anyone remember that the Vichy French collaborationist government in WWII passed racial purity laws that were actually stricter than the Germans demanded?)

I do not believe that this war, and that is what is is by any sane definition, is our fault. I believe it comes from a repressive culture that makes a certain percentage of its members literally psychotic. But even if it were our fault, what would it matter? We have enemies dedicated to our destruction, and that's the reality we have to deal with.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Iraq could be worse than Vietnam - and how it might be better

Whatever one thinks of the wisdom of invading Iraq in the first place, if the United States withdraws before achieving a state of affairs that both our people and our enemies regard as victory, the consequences will be disastrous. Our enemies will be emboldened to continue supporting terrorist attacks on Americans at home and abroad. Jihadists now engaged in Iraq will be able to turn to attacking American interests abroad and renew plans for attacking the homeland. The Europeans, whatever they say about us now, will have good reason to doubt our commitment to our mutual safety. (Though this might not be an entirely bad thing if it motivated them to start taking responsibility for their own defense.) At home, the Hard Left will have won a significant victory in their drive to discredit and demoralize American self-confidence.

However, even winning may have undesirable long-term consequences. The Afghanistan War against the Soviets raised, motivated and trained a legion of Jihadist volunteers for the Mujahaddin who afterwards went looking for a fight with the West full of confidence and experienced in underground warfare. The insurgent survivors of an allied victory in Iraq may well come looking for vengeance, but more wary of American power.

Since Vietnam the technology of insurgent warfare has advanced tremendously. The Vietcong used an ingenious array of homemade booby traps constructed from bamboo stakes, earthen pits, and sometimes from ordinance stolen or donated by their patrons, but often not far removed from traps that hunters had used since the Stone Age. Today the Islamist terrorists get explosives by the ton from their supporters and a thriving illegal market, and make detonators out of TV and car key remotes. Though they cannot produce the technology themselves, they can exploit it to produce weapons of terrible power. Advancing technology will only make the situation worse, to a degree we can only imagine.

Among those who believe that the West is engaged in a “clash of civilizations” with enemies bent on our destruction, there is honest disagreement about whether Iraq was the appropriate battlefield and whether it was wise to commit huge amounts of our resources in what may ultimately be a futile attempt at nation-building. That argument will be settled quite soon. Either way, what will remain is the growing realization among our people of what our enemies have always known and openly proclaimed; that Iraq is only one campaign in a long war. Nobody on either side of the argument over Iraq is going to like this, which does not make it any the less true.

As mentioned at the beginning of this essay, the question is not about whether one is “for” or “against” war, but whether there is a choice. It takes two sides to make peace, but only one to wage war. The question is whether to fight back or to yield, and if the choice is to fight, whether to choose the time and place of battle oneself or to let the enemy do so. For good or ill, the choice was made to fight the enemy in Iraq. Arguing about fighting in Iraq strikes me as similar to arguing whether Calais might have been a better choice to invade occupied Europe than Normandy. Either way, the di has been cast. For now we can only hope it will ultimately prove a strategically good decision, but we will know for sure soon enough.

However, recently a suggestion has been made that could offer a graceful exit - or a mandate to stay for at least a while longer. Since there have now been several successful elections held in Iraq, surely it's time for a referendum on the war for the Iraqi people themselves? Let them vote whether they want the US to stay or go.

I have a further suggestion. Rather than have the Iraqis vote on stay versus go - have them vote on go immediately versus stay for one year, renewable next year. And let it be clearly understood that there will be a limit to the times they can renew our presence.

If the voters decide "get out now", fine. Democracy is served and we've bowed to the will of the Iraqi people. It would certainly take the wind out of the sails of those claiming that the stated goal of spreading democracy is a farce, even if the result is more chaos. It's called "the people's right to be wrong".

If the vote is "stay for another year", the US could take the attitude of "OK, but you really have to get your act together and handle your own problems, we really need to get out of here."

Jihadists would be hard pressed to object to this - though they will of course. How are they going to justify their campaign, with all the attendant misery to ordinary Iraqis, if the people are free to tell the US to leave? Are they going to boycott the election? Attack the polls again? Good! They reveal their own despotic nature to the world and make it hard for the lumpen intelligentsia of the West to stay on board with them and maintain their own credibility.

And folks, whether you support the war or not, it's really important that we not stay for too much longer. Even if, perhaps especially if we win.

After the Second World War, America occupied a devastated Europe, spent huge amounts to rebuild it, and subsidized the defense of Western Europe against the Soviet threat for the next two generations.

Now we have an ally that constantly second-guesses the use of the military power of the US-lead alliance while contributing a miniscule amount to that power. Whose chattering classes complain incessantly about American hegemony while refusing to build a European counterbalance to it. Whose belated attempts to build a strong Union of their own flounder about in seas of red tape, creating immense unworkable federal structures that meet with narrow approval, if that, only because they are - not American.

And why? My guess is, by undertaking their defense on a permanent basis, we took their manhood from them. More accurately, they yielded it to us willingly, and they hate us for it. We don't want to make that mistake again with Eastern Europe and we certainly don't want to make it with Iraq.

I'll have more to say about this later, but in brief, we have to make sure we are making allies - not welfare clients.