Rants and Raves

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

Thursday, December 28, 2006


Until I came back from Eastern Europe I hadn’t often had to put up with a certain kind of person that infests the universities and intellectual circles of America and Western Europe. I refer to the kind of "progressive" intellectual I call the Achingly Earnest Young Radical, or AYERhead for short.

You know the kind I mean, the ignorant, arrogant know-it-all little twerps who revel in their superior insight at having discerned the true patterns of history, the ulterior designs and the true motives of the rapacious ruling class.

Since I have worn the label myself I should explain that by radical I mean someone who finds the state of affairs so horrible that it cannot be reformed, thoughtfully and gradually, but must be swept away and replaced RIGHT NOW. Someone who believes that this hideous state of affairs can be traced to a few root causes (radix (Latin) = root, the root word of radical - and radish for that matter) such as Capitalism, Imperialism, Sexism, Racism, etc.

Do I need to point out the obvious? That at this time, to be a member of Western Civilization of at least moderate means, identifies you as one of the luckiest members of the human race in its entire history? The challenge as I see it, is to protect those gains, extend them in the direction of more liberty and wealth, extend them to those who don’t enjoy them to the fullest and to keep from losing the ground we’ve gained so far.

I should also add that when I use radical in an approving rather than pejorative sense, as applied to myself for example, I mean someone who goes to the root of the problem to see the remedy more clearly. As a radical libertarian of many years standing, the knowledge that I was on the intellectual cutting edge and a member of a select group who had sole custody of the intellectual tools for understanding, explaining and fixing the current lamentable social order has always given me the greatest pleasure.

Well, age and distance gives you a sense of perspective sometimes and a fresh viewpoint can start you thinking about things that would have been too painful to consider before. In my case, it was sufficient distance from my own preferred brand of propaganda and years of living abroad.

What I have noticed is that there are a number of identifiable traits of the Achingly Earnest Young Radical, which I present below. These take the form of certain fixed assumptions held by "radicals" of all kinds.

But first understand one thing, I am not being holier-than-thou. I was that arrogant young twerp and the memory of it is PAINFUL. So, in no particular order...

1) The enemy of a Bad Guy is a Good Guy.

It would seem that a moment’s thought would dispose of this one. I venture to suggest that everyone, without exception, must have noticed that assholes have more enemies than nice guys. But apparently the desire to find the White Hats out there somewhere is so strong that if, for example, Somoza is a bastard then the Sandinistas must be heroic freedom fighters. Try casting your mind back as far as you can remember and think of what groups of heavily armed thugs have at one time or another been lionized by somebody as “heroic freedom fighters” just because they weren’t wearing the uniform of a state.

2) Oppression, discrimination and tyranny make you noble.

Bertrand Russell wrote about this one in an essay entitled The Superior Virtue of the Oppressed. Again, direct observation would seem to show that long-term oppression generally makes you a scumbag.

3) Xenophilia: it’s better somewhere else.

Remember when the Earthly Paradise of the Left was China? I still get a warm glow when I think about how they must have felt to see Richard Godawful Nixon and the Party luminaries of Beijing toasting each other with martinis.

Corollary: it’s worse here than elsewhere.

Are you kidding? And if you're serious, why aren't you there?

4) It is a betrayal of the Truth to fail to state it in any but the most offensive way possible.

“Would you rather have a nice thick, juicy steak - or a segment of muscle tissue from the immature corpse of a castrated bull?”
Robert Heinlein

A Young Radical of the anti-Viet-Nam war era (who bears an uncomfortable resemblance to myself) believed, and still believes that conscription is slavery. However at the time I believe that what I said was that little old grandmothers who work at the Selective Service office were on the same moral level as 19th century slave traders and would eventually hang from the lamp posts of their respective towns. It’s not that what I believe is so different nowadays, it’s just that I’ve discovered that while threats and insults may work to change behavior (usually for the worse) they are rarely effective at changing belief.

5) Custom, tradition and manners are just rules and regulations in disguise.

The countries of the post-communist world are discovering, painfully, that it is difficult to write a constitution for a free country without a long tradition of local institutions to base it on, and once written, the application of it is a long process of establishing a legal tradition. The saving grace of countries such as Poland is precisely that there is a continuous intact cultural tradition, going back to a time when there were free classes, among the aristocrats and the Jews, if not a totally free country. Those countries whose aristocratic/intellectual classes were destroyed are those that are having the most trouble establishing free societies.

There is a story that a British admiral was brought before a board of inquiry because he had endangered the fleet, their last line of defense, by bringing it too close to shore while covering the evacuation at Dunkirk. His defense was, “We could have built a new fleet in five years. It would have taken two hundred years to build a new tradition.”

I remember what a young lady in Bulgaria said in my class, “Sometimes I think we will have to create an aristocracy before we can have a democracy.” That remark has haunted me ever since.

6) Anything less than moral perfection is evil.

As previously mentioned, too often criticism of our own nation, culture and civilization is based on comparison with hypothetical perfection, not the world as it is.

Corollary: dealing with the above constitutes “compromising with evil”.

I’m not really sure what these people mean by “compromising with evil”. Does it mean that one is forced to acknowledge the existence of less than perfectly moral individuals and institutions that are too powerful to be overcome and must be negotiated with? Does it mean cooperating in organizations with people one does not fully agree with? What’s that again? The last time I looked, disagree is what free men do. There is a fine moral line to be walked between doing what must be done to survive in a morally imperfect world and surrendering one’s sense of morality. But that’s what lines are for, to mark boundaries one must not cross. As Lazarus Long said, “Cooperating with the inevitable does not mean stooling for the guards.”

When I hear the phrase “compromising with evil” tossed about carelessly, I hear either an excuse for perpetual inaction or “Nobody’s opinion but mine matters.”

7) Meliorism: all problems have solutions, all situations can be improved.

I once pointed out to a class of Asian women that the above principle probably does more to define the American national character than anything else. We really believe this deep in our bones, to the extent that we seldom realize that other people don’t think this way. I asked my class what the most obvious thing about this was in their opinion. They all looked blankly at me and answered, “That it’s not true.”

As a people, Americans have accomplished great things by refusing to believe that something was impossible. And indeed many people confuse “impossible” with “very difficult”. But we’ve also made some spectacular blunders, the wars on Vietnam and Poverty for example, by assuming that our power, wealth and goodwill could solve problems that are not amenable to the application of mere power, wealth and goodwill. Or by assuming the mutual reliance on reason and goodwill can solve all conflict between peoples.

Sorry, some problems have no solutions and must be lived with until they go away, or perhaps forever. Recognizing this is also called “compromising with evil”.

8) A heterodox theory of history or society is automatically better than an orthodox one.

Well damn it, sometimes it is - but how often? Many of my own opinions run directly contrary to more widely accepted ones. However, confess. Don’t you get a warm feeling inside when you think about how the peasants have always believed the propaganda about some widely accepted belief, when only you and a select few know the real truth?

9) Nihilism: the existing state of affairs is so corrupt that it must be destroyed so that a just one can be built de novo.

This is where Young Radicalism turns pathological. What Timothy McVeigh failed to realize was that while yes, Americans are almost universally exasperated by their government’s bureaucracy, we often rather like the bureaucrats that we actually come face to face with.

In Eastern Europe, after the first flush of enthusiasm for democracy, former communists have often been returned to power in honest elections. This is sometimes explained as nostalgia for the stability of the communist times. Absolute nonsense, except perhaps in Russia where little makes sense. What people have found is that whatever the system is, you must have experienced people to run the machinery of the state (as Edmund Burke pointed out about the French Revolution). In Poland where I lived, there haven’t been any really committed Marxist-Leninists for a long time. You can only sustain that disassociation from reality in American Universities, not in a country which has directly experienced the failure of those principles.

No complex social order can be built de novo overnight.

10) Disagreement comes from villainous and self-interested motives. Or in the case of the noble oppressed classes: disagreement comes from “false-consciousness” or “brainwashing”. The possibility that a reasonably intelligent person who is morally not much worse than oneself has looked at the same universe and reached different conclusions about it is evidently too uncomfortable to consider.

Even in the sixties and seventies when I myself partook of some of these attributes to some degree, I found them irritating. The scary thing about America today is that the AEYRheads seem to be the Establishment these days. Young radical intellectuals seem to be just as arogantly stupid as their predecessors were, and their predecessors don’t seem to have grown up.

Summation; criticism Q and A

A reader, who emphatically didn't like my post: 'Western Civilization and its discontents: Is it true?' sent this link


which details a number of American military interventions abroad. It's in German but shouldn't be too hard to follow.

I'm going to deal with the issues raised in several future posts, but for now I'll point out that they missed an important one, the US' first foreign war in 1804 against the Barbary pirate state of Tripoli. Note that example.

The sender charged that all these interventions were for the benefit of the US. One is tempted to answer with a witty, "Huh?" As in, why the hell else would you spend money and send troops in harms way if it didn't benefit your national interest in some way? Governments are not charitable institutions. They exist to serve the interests of, and meet threats to the lives and property of their citizens, by the use or threat of force. That's why they're so damn dangerous. (Hold that thought - it's important to the development of the series of arguments to follow in future posts.)

* Important point #1: All governments capable of projecting power beyond their borders, on occasion do so. Without exception. Note that France maintains the right to intervene in any country once under French rule, and nobody carps about it. (This has relevance to the Latin American cases cited.)

Since the US undertook the defense of Western Europe, they seemed to have evolved the idea that governments exists to make the lives of their citizens comfortable. Relieved of a huge part of the burden of their own defense during the Cold War*, they nonetheless feel free to 'backseat drive' about the way the US is meeting the new security threats to the West.

*Important point #2: A eunuch may not boast of his chastity. Europe has a long and bloody history of internal warfare and foreign conquest. The European powers did not discover the formula for love and harmony and create this unprecedented 60-year period of peace (the longest in European history). It was created and enforced by the Anglo-American alliance. When they've discovered how to make peace among themselves, by themselves, then I'll pay close attention to what they have to say about how to go about it.

*Important point #3: As the old Italian lady said about a previous pope's pronouncements on birth control, "He no play-a da game, he no make-a da rules."

One of the themes of future posts will be that Europe and America, the whole West in fact, is in the middle of a civilizational crisis amounting to a low-level, slow-motion war. The debate about how to deal with it starts with the alternatives, appeasement - or response. After that the question is, how? My contention is that appeasement is not possible, only capitulation. So if there is to be a response, the question is: What will work and how high is the price?

If any country or alliance of countries wants to have serious input into how to respond, they have to be contributing to the common purpose. Europe has to become a great power again, if they still have it in them.

So, let's have a little Q and A.

Q: Do you think the US is above criticism?

A: Not only no, but hell no! I can cite chapter and verse about horrible injustices by the US government that I bet you've never heard of. (How about the WWI example of two young Hutterite men tortured to death in Leavenworth and Alcatraz for refusing to serve in the military?)

Part of the whole point about free societies is that their incredible economic vitality - and the lethality of their armed forces, comes from the freedom and willingness to criticize possessed by their citizens.

My point is not that the US and the West is perfect - but that in comparison with the whole sorry history of the human race, it looks pretty good.

Q: So what's your problem with contemporary critics of the US?

A: Three things; context, accuracy and motivation.

Context: Too much of the criticism of America is based on a comparison with hypothetical perfection, not historical reality. The US allowed slavery in some states until the Civil War. Yes, and slavery was universal in human history until the West realized it was a great evil - and enforced that view on the rest of the world. The founding of the US was in many ways a tragedy to native peoples. Yes, and the 19th century was a bad time for indigenous peoples all over the world. But do you have any historical examples of a people who were so thoroughly defeated getting any measure of retroactive justice, as the First Nations of the US and Canada have?

Accuracy: Much of the revisionist history of the Western world and the US has been distorted to serve an agenda. The recent case of historian Michael Belisles, who cited nonexistent sources to 'prove' that gun ownership in America was historically not important, for example. Not to mention the tissue of fabrications, clever video editing, quotes taken out of context etc in the Michael Moore productions.

Motivation: Much of the criticism of Western Civ and the US in particular, is not criticism at all but part of a propaganda campaign to destroy it. This motivation exists on a continuum of course, from Europhiles who fear and distrust how the US took important elements of our European heritage farther than any country in Europe did, to those who hate everything about the West, European culture included. The difference is that criticism is intended to improve - not destroy.

Q: How do you tell the difference?

A: My suggestion is this - who else are they criticizing? If they criticise the US' actions in Vietnam, did they also criticise the Vietnamese communists' expulsion of the ethnic Chinese and the massacres by the Khmer Rouge? If they criticise America's support for Israel, what do they have to say about Islamofacism, Hamas, Al-Qaeda and middle eastern despotisms in general?

Even simpler, do they reserve their criticism for those whose principles require them to tolerate it - and say nothing about those who will kill you for it?

If so, I see two possible explanations: 1) Cowardice, 2) Admiration for brutality and tyranny. (Or both, I will deal with this at greater length in future posts.)

Q: What is your purpose in lining out this series of arguments?

A: Well to begin with, our principles require us to tolerate criticism. They do not require us to refrain from answering it. Dare I point out that the tone of the comment cited was a tad hysterical? I obviously touched a nerve in someone's belief system. One that involves the assumption that Americans are not supposed to respond to criticism or have criticism of their own. Where I come from we say, "You can dish it out - but can you take it?"

Secondly, the crisis of our civilization is not one of power, but of confidence. Europe seems almost devoid of it, (to the point that they are failing to breed at replacement levels, see previous post on 'America Alone') and America's is severly shaken. We need to remind outselves (both the US and Europe) that while we've made many mistakes and committed many wrongs, we still have much to be proud of and much to offer the world.

Q: You keep saying 'Western Civilization' but you talk almost exclusively about America. What is your point?

A: Like it or not - and believe me, a lot of Europeans, Brits and Canadians do not, America is the center of power of Western Civilization, which stands or falls as America does. If America does not maintain its power and confidence, the rest of the West will surely not.

It's interesting to note that America is geographically on the periphery of the original home of Western civilization, as are our closest allies: Australia, much of Eastern Europe and Israel.

My wife, as is often the case, had the final word on this discussion the other night. She said that American self-loathing reminds her very much of the tiresome martyrology common in Poland. "There is nothing productive about it and it keeps you from moving forward."

Note: Future posts will deal with my own criticisms of American culture.

*Note: West European intellectuals I know of have denied that there ever was a Soviet threat to the NATO countries. Too bad the Polish government has over the past year been releasing secret Warsaw Pact documents detailing the plans for the intended invasion of the West. Before the breakup of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact, they made all the satellite countries sign agreements not to do so. Poland did anyway. The Russians are furious. The Poles could give a crap.

Question for you: You didn't read about this in the MSM did you?

Monday, December 25, 2006

Multi-culti Christmas

We had a tradtional Christmas dinner on Sunday: salmon, Greek-style fish, and beet soup. Traditional Polish that is. We started by taking flat wafers (something like Communion wafers) exchanging pieces of them to eat and kisses. We had fewer than the traditional number of dishes, since it was just the three of us, but nonetheless it was very special since it's the baby's first Christmas.

Afterwards we went for a drive around town to check out the Christmas lights and fortuitiously found a U-shaped street where every single household on the street had cooperated in creating a festival of lights. My wife snapped lots of pictures and said this is one custom she'd love to bring back to Poland.

In Poland, Christmas dinner is held on Christmas Eve, "Wigilia", and consists of beet-root soup, "barst", and fish dishes in an odd number. (I think the numbers, 7,9, or 11 may once have had something to do with your social class.) Presents are opened after dinner.

Today is Christmas day, and now we'll do it American-style at our friends' house.

You know, I don't think I'd enjoyed Christmas for a long time before I moved to Poland and lived with a family in a small town for a couple of years. It was 1991 and I'd found myself a job teaching in a new private high school, which agreed to find me a place to stay. So I wound up boarding with a family: grandmother, mother and daughter. Only the daughter spoke any English at all and the grandmother soon lived to cook for me. So I started to pick up the language fairly soon - the way the cat learned to swim.

Christmas was a really nice no-stress occassion compared to American Christmas. Since the whole country had been so poor during the communist interregnum, gifts were likely to be something thoughtful like a wrapped-up can of my favorite beer. Christmas day itself is very relaxed with an early supper of leftovers and cold cuts.

I remember in an Anthropology class once, when the discussion turned to the festivals of various cultures, including ours, I said "Quick! Everybody who hates Christmas raise your hand." I think fully half the people in class' hands shot up.

I really hate to sound trite, especially since I'm a stauch pro-capitalist pig, but I think it's been, you know, that word - commercialized.

I mean, it's really gone too far when an occassion for shopping can stress women out.

(That's a joke honey! Really! I swear to God. Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhh!)

I wonder, how many of us can say our favorite Christmas was at a time when we were broke? Seems like I've heard a lot of stories about that. We're facing an uncertain future, but we've got choices, we've got opportunities and we've got each other.

The twelfth day of Christmas, January 6, is Three Kings Day, which Poles and Hispanics celebrate, and perhaps my wife will want to chalk, "K + M + B" on the door.

Merry Christmas everybody! I hope you're all as lucky as I am.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Musings on petty provincials and prideful sophisticates

A recent reader's comment got me thinking about the difference between European's knowledge of their neighbors and ours. It's true, Americans show a regretable lack of knowledge of even our closest neighbors' history and Europeans tend to scorn us for it.

For example, What was the metis uprising and who was Louis Real? What did the Treaty of Hildalgo establish? Important events in the respective histories of Canada and Mexico is what.

A Romanian professor of mine once commented on this in class with a question: What is the most significant thing that stands out about the history of Europe? The answer is of course - war. Europeans pay attention to their neighbors' histories because they have a vital interest in what goes on next door. It's where the next war may come from.

*And yet, is it their neighbors' history - or the history of their own interaction with their neighbors? There's a difference. Most Americans probably know something about Mexican history, at least that we've fought a war and took a lot of territory from them and they may be about to take it back demographically. But relations with Canada have been peaceful since the War of 1812, so we kind of ignore them, even though they are a major trading partner.

They however, do not ignore us. Pierre Trudeau once said that living next to America was like sleeping with an elephant. The elephant isn't aware of you, but you pay close attention to him when he turns over in its sleep. On a trip to Canada once, I was told that in Canadian high schools American history is compulsory but Canadian history is optional!

This has to be humiliating and infuriating - even if there are no recent great wrongs to resent.

*I saw a similar dynamic between Poles and Lithuanians. Once part of a confederated republic, Lithuanians grew to resent the domination of Polish language and culture and felt that their own was being slighted. (Their national poet Adam Mickiewicz chose to write in Polish for example.) This was in spite of the fact that the union was an entirely peaceful one under a Lithuanian dynasty. To this day they quite rightly resent the seizure of the majority Polish territory around their capitol in 1925 and are acutely aware that their capitol's population has more ethnic Poles and Russians than Lithuanians.

But what probably grates most is that while they often think about Poland, they know Poland hardly thinks of them at all.

*The English seem to know very little about the history of Ireland, right next door. I remember an English colleague who didn't know who Brian Boru was, for example. (The High King of Ireland who in 1014 defeated the Danes at the Battle of Clontarf and insured that Ireland remained in the hands of the Irish for a while longer. Also grandfather of one Lady MacBeth, whose given name Shakespear never mentioned. Possibly because it was "Gruoch.")

An Irish member of parliament once suggested that English-Irish relations would be immeasurably improved if Irish history were made compulsory in England - and banned altogether in Ireland!

*I suppose that Germans must be painfully aware that for most Americans, all of German history and culture is defined by twelve years of National Socialism. No matter how much they can point to German contributions to music, science, philosophy and yes, military organization (they invented the concept of staff command), an American or a Brit cannot think about "Germany" without at some time thinking "Hitler".

Nonetheless, they can be kind of clueless about the effect they have sometimes. When the Chancellor of Germany on a state visit to Russia said, "Russia is our most important neighbor" - Poland collectively freaked. That statement makes literal sense only if the German-Russian border runs through the middle of Poland. That's the kind of gaff that gets George Bush scornful laughs in the media for weeks.

*When I think of France and why anti-Americanism is so virulent there, I recall the movie 'Waterloo' when Rod Steiger as Napoleon, is agonizing that after his loss he will be imprisoned and "tortured with the memory of your glory."

Not so long ago, the ambition of the Western world, was to be French. Before the Second World War, the international languages were, French for culture and diplomacy and German for science and technology. Now it's English for both and most of that part of the world which votes with its feet wishes to be American. That's got to hurt.

*Germany and France have each had a respectable go at destroying European civilization in their time, in attempts to unite and rule it. Now Europe has had 60 years of peace under a Pax Americana, the longest peace ever in European history. I wonder how humiliating that is?

*I wonder what it's like to be Greek? Do you live with the feeling that in the eyes of the world, all your history after about the first century B.C. is an anticlimax?

*Spain once owned a chunk of the world about the size of the British Empire at its height, and for longer. The British Empire spawned America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand etc. Spain gave birth to... some very nice countries but few major players. And this after Spain started with lands that had massive amounts of gold and silver. What's worse, the remnant British Commonwealth still owns a piece of Spain!

*If I had to summarize what I thought I'd learned from extensive travel and study of history, it might be that periods of peace and amity between nations are fairly rare in history. Euro-America civilization has managed create 2-3 generations of peace over a fairly wide area. I fear our vacation from history may be drawing to a close though.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006


In 1996, after having lived in Poland for five years, I moved to Bulgaria and lived and worked there for more than half a year. I knew very little about Bulgaria but I wanted to see another post-communist country for purposes of comparison. There were also women involved in the decision.

At the time Bulgaria was in the middle of an inflation that (judging by the dollar exchange rates) ran at least 10% per day. I was getting paid in Bulgarian leva that amounted, at my last pay period to $40 for the month (10% less by that evening). They wanted $25 - American, for my room and government offices would not accept leva for fees!

I actually lived off my savings until they ran out. Food was expensive and bread almost nonexistent, though liquor (white and red wine, vodka and rakia) was good, cheap and plentiful, sold out of street kiosks from wooden barrels and decanted into your old pop bottles.

Nonetheless, though I ultimately had to leave when my money ran out*, I loved it. The country is beautiful - not to mention the women! My students were a joy to teach and it was always surprising how many people you met on the street, including little kids, who could speak excellent English. In Bulgaria they like Americans and mostly wish they could be Americans.

I lived in a student dormitory with Bulgarians and many Christian Sudanese trying to make ends meet and keep from being deported to Sudan - where they'd be drafted on arrival to kill and enslave their fellow-tribesmen.

My last day in Bulgaria, I marched with the demonstrators down the Yellow Brick Road (no fooling) past the presidential palace, cheered on by the newly-elected president to demand the expulsion of the communists from the last coalition government. Within 24 hours I was in the middle of the demonstrations in Belgrade. A colleague remarked, "You ought to head for Albania, you're on a roll."

All of this came back to me when I read that five Bulgarian nurses and one Palestinian have been sentenced to death by firing squad in Libya for deliberately spreading AIDS. The charge is bogus of course. Experts, including Nobel Prize winners, testified that the virus was present long before the nurses arrived. Apparantly someone has to be blamed - and they can't very well blame the filthy hospitals, incompetent staff and complete lack of accountability in the system can they? (http://www.victorhanson.com/articles/hanson110706.html)

No good deed goes unpunished.

Is the US going to do anything? Probably a pro forma protest at best. Massive demonstrations a la the kind usually staged for cop killers? Doubt it. Is it even going to register with the pro-Palesinian lobby that an innocent Palestinian is about to be murdered? It's not Israel or America doing the murdering so in a word, no.

Hey, what about NATO and the EU flexing their muscles and showing some solidarity with one of their newest members?


Pardon me, I had to collect myself for a moment, stop laughing hysterically and wipe the tears from my eyes.

Of the countries of Eastern Europe that suffered most during WWII and the communist aftermath, Bulgaria always struck me as the one that least deserved it. Now, after they've regained their independence and a little prosperity, they're being reminded of what it's like being citizens of a small country that cannot project power very far beyond it's borders and doesn't have friends that will stick up for them.

*And because a dissident friend in Serbia was being leaned on by the secret police. I moved to Belgrade on the theory that if I basically lived in his lap they wouldn't want to murder him in front of a foreign witness. But that's another story.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Review: America Alone

1.38 - keep that figure in mind while you bear with me a bit.

I tend to be skeptical about disaster scenarios based on statistical reasoning. Firstly, I'm old enough to remember when the fashionable disasters were the Next Ice Age, one-square-meter-per-person overpopulation, and famine deaths in the billions - the latter set to arrive without fail in 1980. Fashion disaster accessories included exhaustion of natural resources and the extinction of blondes by the year 2000.

Secondly, I've actually studied statistics and believe me there is nothing like it to give you a healthy appreciation of the old saw "Figures don't lie - but liars can figure."

So it takes a fairly simple and straightforward set of figures to impress me. Now try these on for size:

*The most popular boy's name in the cities of Amsterdam and Malmo (Sweden), Belgium, and the fifth most popular in the United Kingdom, is Mohammed.

*The Muslim population of Rotterdam is 40%.

* No European country is breeding at "replacement rate" - the rate at which a population stays stable (2.1 births per couple). The country with the highest fertility rate in Europe is Albania at 2.03.

(Check the CIA World Factbook https://cia.gov/cia//publications/factbook/rankorder/2127rank.html)

That figure I cited, 1.38, is the average fertility rate for Europe as a whole. Mediterranean Europe is worse off: Greece 1.34, Spain and Italy 1.28, below what demographers call the "lowest low" 1.3, below which no society has ever recovered.

However, the Muslim fertility rate in Europe is three times higher.

Mark Steyn has written a book around these figures, which are established facts you can ignore if you choose, but cannot deny. He has also given his interpretation of what they mean for the future, which you can argue with if you like, but you really ought to give him a hearing.

Fortunately for those of us whose eyes glaze over at statistical tables, he does this with immense wit and style. The guy's a punster! And for those who admire well-done sarcasm, he's your man.

What Steyn says the most important factors that affect the future of Western Civilization are:
1) Demographic decline
2) The unsustainability of the advanced Western social-democratic state
3) Civilizational exhaustion

1) is impossible to argue with, 2) is difficult to argue with, and 3) everybody argues about.

The demographics and economics are what they are. Reduced to the simplest model: Two couples each have one child. These two children marry and have one child. As the doting grandparents age and expect to be taken care of, you have two adults supporting one child - and four seniors. Writ large, this is the social welfare state in a condition of negative population growth.

Obviously, you need more taxpayers and caregivers and the only source is immigration. Europe has relied on immigration from Islamic countries for some time now, and they are out-breeding the native Europeans. A lot.

European countries have historically been not very good at assimilating foreign populations, and that's assuming that they want to be assimilated. As a great many incidents Steyn cites make clear, this assumption is problematic at best. The Muslim population of Europe is resisting assimilation, and the European countries don't have the will to insist on it. And why should they assimilate? In the fullness of time, Europe is going to be theirs. Then who is going to be doing the assimilating?

Civilizational exhaustion is a value judgement that a lot of people are going to argue about. "Responsible family planning" is how a friend described European birth rates. True - but irrelevant if you're the only ones being responsible.

What come through in Steyn's side-splittingly funny prose, is the conclusion that Europe is lost. Perhaps not entirely, the collapse of the first few countries may serve as a wake-up call to the rest to rally and preserve a somewhat diminished Europe. And Steyn, like myself, does not think that the Eastern Europeans have struggled to regain their independence and sovereignty just to lose it again.

Now if this doesn't alarm the Europhiles among you (it doesn't alarm Timothy Garton Ashe, he thinks it's a fine idea) and you're about to write me off as a xenophobic, racist American imperialist, then consider this. The US birth rate is quite healthy at just around replacement rate - but the Red States are far outbreeding the Blue States. There's going to be a Republican majority that'll be impossible to beat by and by. Now are you scared?

Steyn avoids facile explanations for the difference in birth rates. Conservatives would like to believe it has something to do with religion, but the religious Italians are being outbred by the secular Swedes.

He does think is has to do with the easy living in European welfare states causing self-absorbtion, immaturity and a crisis of confidence. Though I find this an attractive explanation, it doesn't explain why a country like Saudi Arabia, where virtually the entire native population is on some kind of welfare, has such a robust birth rate (4.0).

He also avoids the simplistic, bloodthirsty suggestions of the "rubble doesn't trouble" crowd. The choices he outlines are:
1) Submit to Islam
2) Destroy Islam
3) Reform Islam

The first two are our choice, the third is theirs - if they have the incentive.

If you think the first two look crappy and the third nearly impossible, I agree. Do you see a fourth? Many European and American intellectuals do. It amounts to "Blame the Jews" and "Blame America".

He makes some suggestions on how to go about encouraging Islam to reform which are worth a look at, but at bottom they amount to:

1) Recognize that our civilization is under attack - and that we could lose
2) Stop committing civilizational suicide by subsidizing our enemies and stand up for ourselves

And if you don't buy any of this, read the book anyway - it's funny.

Nota: I have used figures from the CIA Factbook which differ slightly in some cases from the ones Steyn cites, but not enough to affect the points made.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Great moments in mediocre movies

I wonder how many movies I've seen that I can't remember? We've all had that experience; turn on an old movie on TV and a few minutes into it, "Oh, I've seen this one before, but I can't remember how it ends."

You either have to sit through it again, if you have the itch that can't let you switch channels until you know how it ended, or maybe you remember just a little before the end. Face it, there are a lot of forgettable movies out there, and more every year.

Then there are the movies that disappoint or downright suck - and are partly redeemed by one really great moment that you wish the rest of the flick could have lived up to.

*My earliest recollection of one is the 1963 'Oro per i caesare', under it's English title of 'Gold for the Caesars'. It doesn't suck, it's just an ordinary, forgettable Grade B Italian sword-and-sandals epic of the kind that was popular in my youth. Oddly, they often had an American lead in an otherwise all-European cast. Remember Steve Reeves as Hercules? I think it had something to do with the savage/he-man image of Americans prevalent then.

Gold for the Caesars starred Jeffery Hunter, known for playing Jesus in King of Kings, and as Christopher Pike, the first captain of the Enterprise in the pilot that was later edited into a Star Trek two-part episode.

Hunter played Lacer, a slave engineer who at the beginning of the movie is supervising the building of a bridge in Hispania. At one point he brusquely shoves aside a centurion who's getting in the way. The centurion starts to draw his sword, Lacer looks at him and says, "Kill me Roman, and who'll build your bridges for you?"

The centurion hesitates a moment, then continues to draw. The tribune observing the construction from his pavilion calls out, "Centurion! You may kill him. But first - answer his question."

What a line! And what volumes it speaks.

*A few years ago I discovered that there was a sequel to the greatest Musketeers movies ever made, The Three Musketeers (1973) and The Four Musketeers (1974) with Michael York, Oliver Reed, Richard Chamberlin and Frank Finlay.

These movies were great. They were the most faithful to the book ever made, and for us hopology/military history/martial arts geeks, the most faithful reproduction of period rapier fighting in a movie to date. (Most previous films went with a theatrical version of modern foil play, as in the Gene Kelley version.)

So when I rented The Return of the Musketeers (1989) , I expected a lot from it. Same director (Richard Lester), same writer (George MacDonald Fraser - author of the glorious 'Flashman' series). I was disappointed. Again, it wasn't terrible - it just wasn't wonderful in some way I just can't put my finger on. Some have suggested that the death of actor Roy Kinnear (Planchette) during filming cast a pall over the mood of the cast. Or perhaps it was over-reliance on slapstick humor to show that physically, the musketeers weren't quite what they used to be.

But it was worth sitting through to the final scene when at the end, after the musketeers have split up and fought each other, they are finally reconciled. The Three are going back into comfortable retirement and D'Artagnan has finally gotten a commission to the wars, after having cooled his heels in a dead-end position in Paris for years. They bid each other a fond farewell and D'Artagnan rides off down the road. The Three look at him riding off for a moment. Then they look at each other, shrug, grin, and ride off after him!

The film ends with them riding off together to whatever new adventures await them. Men like that don't retire.

*I was really looking forward to Highlander II. After I saw it, I wished they could pretend it had never happened and start over - which is kind of what they did eventually.

The phenomenon of the immortals was best left a mystery, as expressed by Sean Connery in the first movie. "Why does the sun come up? Or are the stars just pin holes in the curtain of night, who knows?"

In Highlander II: the Quickening we learn that the immortals come from the planet of German binoculars. Bummer, now they're just another bunch of space aliens. They moved the story out of the realm of good fantasy and into bad science fiction.

The earth is covered by a shield that cuts off sunlight for a generation. Anybody notice that without photosynthesis the air is going to be getting kind of stuffy by and by? An evil corporation somehow has an interest in keeping things the way they are - like they enjoy living in a world of perpetual night? And isn't it about time Hollywood retired that cliche or admit that they are the evil corporations?

The interplay between Lambert and Connery is still there, and it's great, but it doesn't quite carry a lame script.

Yet, that moment when the aged Connor MacLeod manages to behead an immortal and walks out of the flames of an exploding gasoline truck, young and virile again - that's grand. He walks up to Virginia Madsen, presses her against a wall and says, "I am Connor MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod. I was banished from the Planet Zeist 500 years ago... and I cannot die." He then kisses her passionately, fulfilling all her dreams of the man she has admired from childhood.

*The Man in the Iron Mask (1998), unlike the Richard Lester Musketeer movies, seriously screwed with the book it was based on. It introduced plot complications like; D'Artagnan is the long-time lover of Queen Anne and the real father of Louis XIV and his secret twin brother - they just chose to ignore the hole it drives through the plot line about replacing the King with his secret twin.

The actors who play the musketeers are all great: Gabriel Byrne, John Malkovich, Gerard Depardieu, and Jeremy Irons play the musketeers, who are aging - but dangerous. Leonardo DiCaprio actually does well in the role of the superficial, amoral, sarcastic and thoroughly unlikable young king.

Nonetheless, I've got real problems with swiping the title of a classic and writing a whole new book around it.

But... in the end when the nasty little king gets enraged and stabs D'Artagnan with his dagger, the captain of the guards who was about to arrest the Musketeers and the king's twin looks down at D'Artagnan's body and says to the king, "All my life, all I ever wanted to be - was HIM!"

Wouldn't any man wish that for an epitaph?

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Western Civilization and It's Discontents, Part 4. Is it true?

Is it True?

“Nowhere at present is there such a measureless loathing of their country by educated people as in America.”
--Eric Hoffer

Since I am questioning the sincerity of the professed motives of the self-hating Americans and the sanity of their proposed plans, a decent respect for their opinions (a respect they do not habitually grant their opponents) demands that we take their contentions seriously enough to consider the truth or falsity of them. So, what are some of the common charges leveled against America and is there any basis for them?

· America is an imperialist power.

Webster’s revised unabridged dictionary (© 1996, 1998 MICRA Inc.) defines empire as:

n 1: the domain ruled by an emperor or empress 2: a group of countries under a single authority; "the British empire" 3: a monarchy with an emperor as head of state 4: a group of diverse companies under common ownership and run as a single organization
and imperialism:
n 1: a policy of extending your rule over foreign countries 2: a political orientation that advocates imperial interests 3: any instance of aggressive extension of authority.

By the standard definition, the US is not an empire. It is neither a monarchy nor is it a group of countries, but a single country with a recognized common culture whose legislators are chosen from every region of the country without any legal qualifications of ethnicity, religion or even native birth. By the second definition of empire (and ignoring the pejorative connotations of the word) there are only two countries of any size in the world today that match the definition: Russia and India.

As for creating an empire, after an initial period of expansion into almost empty territory[1], the US appears to have reached the limit of its territorial enlargement, the last being a few island possessions taken from the Empire of Japan at the end of WWII. And in these cases, the US grants a huge measure of local autonomy (for example the local laws of Guam are not subject to judicial review by the Supreme Court) and has made it plain that they can have complete independence any time they ask for it.

The US does indeed maintain military bases in a great many countries. However, unlike the bases maintained by the former Soviet empire in Eastern Europe, they are not used to intimidate the governments of their host countries by threat of force. When Charles Du Gaulle withdrew from NATO and demanded the removal of American bases in France, the US removed them without much protest or even economic reprisals. Similarly, US forces evacuated bases in the Philippines and in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia when local opinion turned against them.

The Saudi case is in fact an example of restraint in the use of power unprecedented in history. The local population found itself living over huge shallow oil deposits located between two deep-water harbors, making the oil the easiest to get to market in the world. Incapable of either exploiting or defending the resources themselves they looked to US corporations to develop the fields and to the US government to guarantee their security.

For three generations foreign workers have done all of the meaningful work in the country while attempting to prepare the local population to assume complete control of the oil industry – so far with a notable lack of success. The Kingdom first nationalized the oil industry and has subsequently manipulated production for their own advantage ever since – all of this while maintaining negligible military forces of their own. In the cruel logic of empire it would have been far easier to have driven the local population into the desert or the sea, imported the foreign workers and simply taken the oil. Any of the past European or Asian empires would have done so without apology.

These examples seem to give the lie to the charge of imperialism (according to the dictionary definition). However actions of the US often do appear to match the definition of hegemony, defined by Webster’s as:

n : the domination of one state over its allies.

One doesn’t often hear the US charged with “hegemony” though, because the word doesn’t carry the negative emotional freight of “imperialist”. You don’t get a lot of rhetorical mileage from accusing your opponent of being a “hegemonist”.

It must be pointed out that realistically, in any alliance, somebody has to lead. In an alliance of free states there should certainly be consultation, debate and disagreement freely expressed but ultimately there has to be a leader. But I do not think it marks one as a cynic to point out that the leadership is usually assumed by the strongest and largest contributor to the common purpose. When in history has it ever been any different and when has one power so overwhelmingly stronger than its allies, in fact militarily stronger than all of its allies combined, ever shown so much deference to their opinions?

· American corporations exploit people in third world countries.

In this charge, the definition is rigged. “Exploit”, in this context seems to mean “employ”. An extended definition amounts to, “employ at wages and conditions that American workers would not tolerate”. Well, yes. The reason for locating facilities overseas is to take advantage of lower labor costs. Nobody disputes that, the argument is whether this is moral or not.

The counter-argument is that in these countries, the choice is not between a bad job and a better job, but between a bad job and no job. If one finds this reprehensible, the choices of remedy are limited to:

1) employ local labor at wages and under conditions equivalent to American – in which case there is no advantage in locating overseas at all and the only alternative remaining is, 2) do not locate overseas – in which case the local populations are denied access to the capital (in the form of wages) that might help raise their personal standard of living and national GDP.

The rebuttal offered is that commercial penetration of the local economies destroys indigenous cultural patterns and economies and the environment itself, turning them into poor imitations of American capitalism that will never be competitive with the huge capitalist states of the West.

This view sees capitalism as a designed and imposed economic system, as opposed to a natural system that arises spontaneously whenever there is a sufficiently complex division of labor and relatively free exchange of labor goods and services. According to this point of view, corporate capitalism is imperialism by other means and is linked with the following claim…

· American government is the creature of corporate interests.

So do large concentrations of capital exercise great influence in a democratic system? Gee, give me a minute to think about that one. Yes. Corporations, labor unions, and guild associations such as the AMA and ABA, all exercise an influence I don't care for at all. Dealing with such is one of the perennial problems of democracy for which there has as yet been no completely satisfactory solution.

I will note that singling out any one of these influences as dominant is naive and flies in the face of observation and experience. And that suggestions for dealing with this influence often amount to creating one huge monopoly of power a la the Soviet system. Doesn't sound that good an idea when you put it that way...

· America is “the biggest terrorist nation on earth”.

"If [the War on Terror] is about terrorism, and terrorism is the killing of innocent civilians, then the United States is also a terrorist."
Gordie Fellman, Brandeis University Professor of Peace Studies

Again, consulting the dictionary definition, “terrorism” is defined as:

n : the calculated use of violence (or threat of violence) against civilians in order to attain goals that are political or religious or ideological in nature; this is done through intimidation or coercion or instilling fear (Worldnet 2.2 © Princeton University)

Any thoughtful person has to have questions about the difference between bombing a target from miles up and delivering the bomb in a car. Sometimes it seems that the difference between war and terrorism lies in the price of the delivery system. Terrorism has been described as the “war of the powerless”, but examination of the tactics and targets reveals some important differences:

o The US does not take, bargain with, or execute hostages in the manner of Jihadist or (formerly) IRA terrorists.

o The US does not try to inspire terror as a matter of policy.

o The US does not target civilians as a matter of policy and has spent huge amounts on military Research &Development to develop precision and non-lethal weaponry to avoid harming civilians to the greatest extent possible. The US military has put the lives of their soldiers at risk to avoid inflicting civilian casualties as much as possible when they manifestly have the power to “kill them all and let God sort them out”.

o Though the US has indeed conquered and occupied countries (imperial Japan, Nazi Germany and present day Iraq) there has been no attempt to incorporate them into the American state or install anything that answers to the definition of a “puppet state” in the same sense as the satellite countries of Eastern Europe were puppet states to the Soviet Union.

· Racism is institutionalized in American society.

“Publicly inconsolable about the fact that racism continues, these activists seem privately terrified that it has abated.”
--Dinesh D'Souza

I used to work with a Black guy who favored dating young White girls. Black men had been lynched within the memory of living men for less than that. Now it passes almost unnoticed. You really think racism is “as bad as ever” or even worse?

Or take the example of the Ku Klux Klan. Once an accepted and admired part of society, the Klan is now a disgusting and embarrassing memory, home only to marginalized misfits desperate for attention.

· America has no culture but a vulgar pop pseudo-culture.

“Ninety percent of everything is crap.”
Sturgeon’s Law

I’ve heard it argued that America is not a high culture, but a Roman-type culture destined to carry and preserve the legacy of European high culture. I don’t really know. Are movies high culture? We certainly produce most of the movies consumed abroad, and I think some of them are of lasting value and will be watched for some time to come. And it would be hard to top Mark Twain in English literature.

· “Cultural imperialism”, American culture is overwhelming higher, more traditional cultures.

Eric Hoffer observed that historically, powerful states and empires spread their culture by conquest, co-opting the local elites and with their help forcing their culture on the masses. American culture however, spreads from our masses to other countries over the vociferous objection of the local elites. [2]

A lot of this is truely dreadful pop culture, which is consumed avidly by the rest of the world. So what's your remedy? Ban the export of Britanny Spears? Tempting for sure...

· America has practiced genocide against the native peoples of this continent.

This is a serious charge with some substance to it. The story of the American Indian nations contact with Western civilization is a tragedy from which the surviving cultures are still suffering. The story has however, been distorted by misconception, myth and self-serving mendacity. Absurd claims of the deliberated massacre of as many as twenty million Indians have been made, the ultimate absurdity being that they have been made unchallenged when it is so easy to check them.[3]

At it’s founding, the White population of the United States is estimated at around three million. Best estimates of the Indian population of the entire North American continent north of the Rio Grande at that time vary widely but range from two to twenty million. There is strong evidence of a disastrous population drop due to diseases brought by Spanish explorers before English-speaking colonists ever arrived in North America.[4] And the 19th century was a bad time for indigenous peoples all over the world.

· America is “just as bad as…” (take your pick of awful nations the US has tangled with in the past).

“Just as bad as…” is a subjective evaluation unless you define in what way bad. My suggestion is – count the dead. As in, how many civilians not under arms, have been deliberately murdered as a matter of policy by the governments of: the USSR, the People’s Republic of China, Nazi Germany, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, North Korea, Cuba and the United States.

(America-hating Leftists usually answer defensively, “Well if you want to play a numbers game…” Yes. I want to play a numbers game. Among other reasons, because it directly affects my own personal chance of being murdered by a regime.)

Evidence shows that even tiny Cuba has tortured and killed more people for the crime of speaking their minds in the two generations of rule by the present regime, than the United States has in its entire history. Conceding that yes, people have been killed for their opinions in the US, such as the martyrs to the anti-slavery movement in the 19th century and the Civil Rights movement in the 20th. However, all such killing has been outright illegal, such as in lynchings (which reached a peak of 104 in one year over a hundred years ago), or by means of perversions of the trial system. Though it certainly doesn’t matter to the dead, it matters a whole lot to the living that murder of holders of out-of-favor opinions cannot be done easily or openly under cover of law.

Yes there are possible caveats: what about the killing of combatants resisting the invasion of their country, such as the Filipinos killed in the pacification of the country following the cession of the islands to the US by Spain? This is a legitimate question, but again I suggest, count the dead. Count the dead of small tribes and nations in the non-Russian Soviet republics, in Tibet or the death toll inflicted by the Spanish Empire in the conquest of Latin America.

And then you might ask, how are these people getting along with their former antagonists now? Compare relations between the Philippines and the US (rocky in spots but generally pretty good) with relations between Russia and their former republics and satellite states (dominated by fear of a resurgent Russian imperialism and unconcealed distrust).

The country America is usually claimed to be “just as bad as” is most often Nazi Germany, partly for rhetorical reasons, the Nazis being the paradigm of evil for the 20th century. One doesn’t hear “just as bad as the Soviet Union” nearly as often because the speakers are frequently apologists for the USSR. (And lately we have been hearing it from German intellectuals, perhaps because they are tired of being the home of that paradigm.)

Now we’ve run out of arguing room. Somebody who goes to that rhetorical length is simply a moral imbecile, has an agenda and cannot be reasoned with. However I will say that I have visited both US prisons and Auschwitz. Neither are places I’d take my family to for a vacation – but if you can do the same and claim to see no difference, then at least we’ve defined which sides we are on and I’ll see you on the field.

[1] Yes, I’m aware of the American Indians. Without deprecating the enormous wrongs done to the native population, compare the present-day population of the US to the best estimates of the numbers of Indians at the time, which range from two to twenty million. The notion that the conflict was over “living space” is absurd. There is some evidence of a disastrous population drop, due to diseases brought by the Spanish before English-speaking colonists even started to settle the Eastern seaboard.

I’m also aware of what no American ever remembers and no Mexican ever forgets; that the southwestern quarter of the continental US was once the northern half of Mexico. The point remains, Mexico’s claim rested largely on inheriting title from the Spanish Empire, which had conquered them with a brutality remarkable even by 20th century standards. Mexico could not settle the area and invited American and European colonists to immigrate. Eventually, largely due to the chronic instability of successive Mexican governments, the colonists preferred to live under their own institutions.

[2] And strictly speaking, not just American culture. A lot of world pop culture, particularly music, originates in the British isles.

[3] The US Army actually got interested in how many Indians they had killed over the history of their existence and set the historical department to work on cataloging the battle casualty reports from every engagement with Indians since the beginning of the United States as a nation. The results, between ten and twenty thousand total in the entire history of the US Army, surprised even them. And I might add that these figures are rough estimates from after-action reports and thus far more likely to have been exaggerated than minimized.

This of course, leaves open the question of how many Indians have been killed by civilians and state militias or how many Indians have died as a result of government action outside of battle, such as the forced removal of the Five Nations to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears.

[4] The De Soto expedition went up the Mississippi, fighting and slaughtering on their way through a well-populated area. On their return they report seeing only empty villages. Other sources give similar accounts. The French made contact with peoples such as the Mandan, and the rich city builders of the Natchez. Later explorers found either nothing or a few scattered survivors.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Meditations on graves

The day I landed in Poland in 1991, I was met at the airport and taken by car through Warsaw to the small town that would be my home for the next two years. On the way out of the city we passed a park with an obelisk and a small plaza facing the street. My Polish colleague told me, “That is one of the few monuments to the Red Army that we haven’t torn down.”

Over the next few years, I had many occasions to pass by the monument and had always wondered why it was still standing. Then one day my business took me to that part of town and I had occasion to walk through the park on my way to meet my clients. There I found the reason it is still standing, and indeed, is still being maintained at city expense.

It is a cemetery. It was impossible to see from the street because the gravestones are small irregular polygons, no more than a foot high, each with only a star on the top and a number. They are screened from view by the park’s trees. Each number represents a Russian soldier, whose names are evidently recorded somewhere because lately there have appeared small metal signs stuck in the graves with names on them, brought by relatives in Russia who are now free to travel to Poland to visit their dead.

Flanking the obelisk are two statues of heroic Russian soldiers standing guard over fallen comrades and towards the street are the predictable bas reliefs I have seen all over Eastern Europe, of soldiers of the Red Army being welcomed by the grateful population. The inscription on the obelisk reads, “Pamieci Zolnerzy Armii Radzieckiej Poleglych O Wyzwolenie Polski Spod Okupacji Niemieckeij w Latach 1944-1945”. (Memorial to the Soldiers of the Soviet Army Who Died in the Liberation of Poland from the German Occupation in the Years 1944-1945.)

That is why it is still standing, in spite of the cruel irony of the Soviet Union claiming to be the liberators of Poland, after having first conspired with the Nazis to invade and then to occupy the country for the next two generations. Poles will not tear down the monument because it is, after all and in spite of everything, the gravesite of brave men.

This brought to mind a conversation I had in Athens with two Objectivist friends, in which I defended the idea of non-rational values. Not irrational but non-rational. Values which we hold dearly but cannot explain rationaly. There may very well be rational reasons for these, in fact I strongly believe that they can be explained by evolutionary biology, but for most of the lifetime of the human race we have been totally unaware of evolution and even today most human being have scant inkling of its importance in shaping human nature. Decent people believe these things because we believe them, although we cannot articulate why. In fact, the presence or absence of these values goes a long way towards defining decency.

The example I used was the contrast with the behavior of the Poles in how the Soviets treated the tomb of the flyers of the Kosciusko Squadron in Lvov.

In 1920 Poland, newly re-formed after more than a hundred and thirty years of partition between Russia, Prussia and Austria-Hungary, went to war with the Soviet Union after being convinced that the new USSR intended to absorb the newly independent lands formerly occupied by the Russian Empire.

The Red Army invaded Poland with the intention of sweeping through Western Europe. Lenin confidently expected to be in Berlin by winter - not an unrealistic expectation given the state of Germany in 1921. Instead, Soviet forces were met by Polish cavalry, both sides fighting with mounted troops armed with rifles, sabers and lances, transported by trains which carried heavy cannon and machine guns. It was, in fact, the last cavalry war. (Since then horse soldiers have been used many times, but as mounted infantry.)

The Red wave broke on the shores of the Visla River and was repelled in a decisive battle outside of Warsaw by the citizens of the city and the Uhlans of Marshal Pilsudski.

Into this odd mix of modern and classical weaponry, they managed to put together an air force. Seven America pilots, all veterans of the First World War but none of them Polish, volunteered to fly for Poland and some planes were found for them. They named themselves the Kosciusko Squadron, after Taddeus Kosciusko, the Polish military engineer who fought for America in our Revolution, designing the fortifications of West Point and founding the Army Engineers.

Later, Washington and Jefferson managed to return the favor by pleading with the Empress Catherine the Great for Kosciusko’s life, after he was captured by Russian forces in an attempt to free Poland from the partitioning powers. He is entombed in Krakow, in the crypts under Wawel Castle with Polish kings and poets. He lies under Polish and American flags and the inscription “Za Wolnosc - Wasza I Nasza" (For Freedom – Yours and Ours).

The planes they found for the American flyers were evidently an amazing collection of rattletraps no totally sane man would trust his life to. But fly them they did – although there were instances when the plane and pilot returned from a mission mounted on a horse-drawn wagon. Of the seven flyers, three died in the war. The Polish nation built them a tomb in the then-Polish city of Lvov.

After the Second World War, parts of Eastern Poland were incorporated into the Soviet Republic of Ukraine, including the city of Lvov. The inhabitants were uprooted and moved to the strip of Eastern Germany that was seized and added to West Poland. The Soviets took posthumous revenge on the Kosciusko Squadron by burying their tomb under a garbage dump.

After the fall of the Soviet Union and the independence of Ukraine, they cleared away the garbage and re-consecrated the tomb. In spite of all the problems of Ukraine, I’ll always have a soft spot for them because of that.

This was the point of my relating that story; even though I don’t believe you can defend this conviction on purely rational grounds and in spite of the fact that I don’t personally care what happens to my body after death, something inside screams that it is wrong to desecrate the graves of brave men.

Something like this was my reaction on first visiting a Polish military base and seeing that their cemetery had gone to seed during the communist years and was only then being cleaned up and cared for. I was struck by the feeling that an army which does not honor its dead, is an army that will not fight.

Sometimes it seems that the dishonor of a foe so swinish as to desecrate the bodies of their enemies is a perverse sort of honor. One thinks of the treatment of the body of Leonidas of Sparta by the Persians or the defenders of the Alamo by Generalissimo Santa Ana.

Hardly anybody now remembers the heroes of the Kosciusko Squadron. I have been trying to find enough information to write at length about them without success. You now know almost as much as I do. I do not even know their names, except for their leader, Merrian C Cooper who survived the war and became a Hollywood producer. Though he never made what would have been the greatest movie of his career, the story of his adventures in Poland, you have almost certainly seen his magnum opus. So, remember him on behalf of his comrades the next time you see King Kong on the Late Show.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Cool National Anthems

"Let me write a country's songs, and I care not who writes its laws."

There is an experiment I'd really like to try sometime, if I could only establish the initial conditions. Trouble is, I don't know where I could find a group of people who had never heard of the American Civil War, or if they had, didn't know who won.

The experiment is this, listen to Dixie, Bonnie Blue Flag and The Battle Hymn of the Republic. Now tell me, if you didn't know who had won that war, could you have guessed from listening to their songs?

Dixie is, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, "a mighty fine tune". Bonnie Blue Flag is less well known but a very rousing song, the kind you can imagine riding jauntily down the road on a cavalry charger to. But The Battle Hymn of the Republic is a song for men marching steadily with terrible resolve.

Part of the thrust of my academic studies in Mass Communication is propaganda. (For those who've just flinched, look it up in the dictionary. I mean propaganda in the morally neutral sense of the word, as in to 'propagate' ideas.) One of the things I've noticed from my readings is that there doesn't seem to be any research on the effect of music, song and poetry beyond noting that these are effective tools of propaganda.

What is it about a song that moves men, that inspires them to risk losing their lives for something worth more than their lives? What kind of song makes people feel like a united people when they sing it together?

I can think of countries that have really rousing national anthems. The US does, especially when you consider the verses nobody knows anymore because they've been, if not suppressed, then definitely swept under the rug*.

And where is that band who so dauntingly swore,
That the havoc of war and the battle's confusion,
A home and a country should leave us no more?
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps pollution!
No refuge could save, the tyrant and slave
From the terror of flight, and the gloom of the grave.
And the Star Spangled Banner in triumph doth wave,
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

During the Vietnam War, I got a bad taste from our National Anthem that lasted for years. The anti-American Left who hijacked the peace movement were burning the flag and pro-administration scoundrels were wrapping themselves in it. Then some years later, I was helping a couple of Chinese students defect in the bloody aftermath of Tien An Min Square.

One day I stopped by campus to take in a demonstration by the Chinese Students Association which was topped off by them singing the Star Spangled Banner. They were, in a word, awful. It's a difficult song to sing at best**, and they were painfully off key - then in the middle of it I realized I was crying.

Poland has a pretty cool national anthem, the Mazurka Dombrowskiego (Dombrowski's Mazurka).

Jeszcze Polska nie zginęła
kiedy my żyjemy
co nam obca przemoc wzięła
szablą odbierzemy.

Marsz, marsz Dąbrowski
z ziemi włoskiej do Polski
Za Twoim przewodem
złączym się z narodem.

Poland is not dead yet,
While yet we live
What foreign force has taken
We will reclaim with the sword.

March, march Dombrowski!
From the Italian lands to Poland
Under your guide
We will unite with the nation

Sung by a massed male chorus it's very inspiring.

One is tempted to theorize that you could tell something about the martial valor of a nation from their national anthem. But then you have to consider that France has La Marseillaise and England has God Save the Queen. You'd like to think that you could tell something about a nation's love for freedom from their anthem, but the Hymn of the Soviet Union is a great tune too. Nonetheless, I'm glad we've got The Star Spangled Banner instead of say, Oh Canada!

* Isaac Asimov once wrote a hilarious short story about a man trying to catch out a German agent during WWII. He proposed a word association test as a game, and slipped in "terror of flight". The suspect immediately responded "gloom of the grave." He thus revealed himself as a carefully trained spy because no native American knows all the verses of The Star Spangled Banner!

** The Star Spangled Banner is of course, a poem that was set to music later. The tune was formerly an English drinking song called To Anacreon in Heaven. It has a range that almost no one can get through without their voice cracking, which probably doesn't matter for a drinking song. I've sometimes wondered if there isn't a point in that. It doesn't work unless we sing it together.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Man and Nature, what we've forgotten

If you've been following the news you know that yesterday the body of Mr. Kim was found, two days after his wife and two daughters were rescued from their car.

I knew this was going to happen - though I really hoped I'd be proven wrong. He took off lightly dressed, in cold and wet weather, trying to find help for his family.

His wife and daughters were found and survived. My wife (staunch member of La Leche League) is wryly amused that the news heads seemed fascinated that she breast fed both of her girls, one infant and one four-year-old. Like what else would she do?

"Speak no ill of the dead" and indeed I salute the man's devotion to his family - but he did the wrong thing and paid a high price for it. Survival experts tell you, if you are stuck in your car or survive a plane crash - stay with it. For searchers, a car or a plane is a hell of a lot more conspicuous than a person from the air.

They did the right thing when they burned their tires, but he should have had more patience. That's hard for a man, when your every instinct is screaming "do something!"

In this day and age, our fat, happy and secure people have forgotten what our fathers knew: that nature is the enemy, animals aren't from Disneyland and strangers should be viewed with suspicion until we know better.

I'll do the philosophical aspect of this later. For now, I'd like everyone to consider what they'd do if their car broke down in bad weather and they had to spend at least one night in it.

We've got an ancient Honda Accord. With one 5-year-old and one infant, it gets pretty crowded in there. But we have in the trunk at all times: an Army surplus entrenching tool, flashlights, a hand axe, knives, cans of sterno, lighters and candles.

We like to take long road trips and get off the interstates as much as possible. You see more of the real America and find the better burger joints that way. When we do, we take a few gallon jugs of water, packaged food such as jerky, trail mix and juice and sleeping bags/ blankets.

I've never taken formal survival training, but a lot of the information is freely available in books. I have the Air Force survival manual, which is the most comprehensive I've seen. And in this day and age a lot of stuff is available at Wal-Mart for cheap. I just bought a combination flashlight/ radio (with a weather channel setting) that runs off batteries and has a hand-cranked generator. Price - about $20. Flannel blankets and sleeping bags that can be zipped together cost next to nothing. And check out the sports/ hunting/ fishing section for cheap serviceable knives and tools. And have you seen those hand-cranked cell phone re-chargers?

I keep thinking of what I don't have. What do you think, did I miss something?

How about a length of rubber tubing to siphon gas out of the tank? Any suggestions folks?

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Things I'd like to know...

--I'd like to know why we only find out now that training the Iraqi army and police has been severely hampered by some obscure regulation against the Department of Defense doing that kind of thing and the fact that there isn't a specific budget for it?

--I'd like to know how Teddy Kennedy keeps getting elected term after term, after it was made known (among other things on a long list) that he got kicked out of Harvard for cheating, left a girl to die of asphyxiation in a car submerged under a few feet of water while he went about the business of covering his ass, and secretly negotiated with the Soviet Union to make Ronald Reagan look bad? And when he wins his next election I suppose I'll still be wondering.

-- I'd like to know just what the hell was going through George Bush's mind when he destroyed the budget surplus and maxed out the government credit card on more pork at a time when the country is at war? I'd like to know if he thought that he could make the Democrats like him by spending like mad on the kind of stuff that's their traditional pork? And all this after Clinton proved that he couldn't make the Republicans like him by balancing the budget and substantially reforming welfare.

--I'd like to know why nobody seems the least bit spooked by the fact that the Chinese secret service has tried to funnel money into attempts to elect Democrats (the Al Gore/ Buddhist temple scandal) and that Osama bin Ladin and Al Queda have essentially endorsed the Democratic Party?

--With Iran about to go nuclear, I'd like to know if the West Europeans are convinced that its a law of nature that the US will step in and save their sorry asses yet again, after heaping abuse upon us and the friends we've got in the East and doing nothing in the way of saving themselves?

--About both pro and anti-war congresscritturs, I'd like to know why not a one of them surveyed could name the difference between Sunni and Shiite?

--I'd like to know why, after the vivid historical lesson of Prohibition and the spectacular failure of the War on Drugs we are still putting people in jail for smoking reefer?

--I'd like to know why people who announce that they don't believe in evolution, or that the universe is very old and incredibly vast, are allowed to matriculate from high school, get college degrees, vote and sign contracts in their own name - much less get elected to office?

I don't really expect to get answers to any of these, just wondering is all.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Have some free relationship advice

Someday I'm going to do a post on why American bookstores are overrun with self-help books. I believe it has a lot to do with something fundamental in the American national character, going way back to the first self-help guru, Benjamn Franklin.

Hell, I might even write a book about it...

Problem is, what I'd have to say about getting your life together wouldn't fill a book, it'd durn near fit in the subtitle. 'Self-Improvement: you've gotten in touch with your inner child, found your erroneous zones, become your own best friend, NOW STOP JERKING OFF AND GET A LIFE!'

Oh, I suppose the specifics could go on at somewhat greater length.

Relationships, for example. I'm a survivor of two really bad long-term relationships. I won't go into the details because, 1) they're really not relevant, and 2) in spite of the Oprah-age, let-it-all-hang-out culture we live in, I think it's vulgar. Suffice it to say, together they consumed a total of ten years of my life and had repercussions that echo to this day.

It wasn't until the end of the second disaster (nice word that, it means "evil star"), that I realized I had made the same mistake as the first. The first was excusable, I was young and new to the serious relationship scene. The second time, I thought I'd hooked up with a partner who was different in every way from the first - physically, intellectually and personality-wise.

What I realized too late was that they had both had something in common that overrode all their basic differences - they were unhappy people.

That's often hard to see though. When you know somebody casually, they're generally wearing their public face. When you get into a deeper relationship, well everybody's happy when they're in love.

Ah love! That delirious feeling, when you glow so brightly that people can see you in the dark. That makes people want to gather around you two and warm themselves by the fire of your passion.

It lasts two years max.

It's not that love goes away, it's that the chemical rush you get from those self-manufactured drugs in your brain wears off. That's when you find out whether you two really like each other and are fit for the long haul together. And that's when people revert to their natural state.

If a person's normal state is unhappy, they revert to unhappy. And here's the rub, they were happy with you while they were first 'in love' - and now they're not. The reaction proceeds in this order: "I used to be happy and now I'm not. You used to make me happy and now you're not. Ah-ha, YOU'RE MAKING ME UNHAPPY!"

This is the period where the relationship proceeds from deliriously happy, to vaguely discontent, to living hell. (There are probably identifiable intermediate stages, but who cares? And it's interesting to note that two-year period. That's about what it takes to adequately detox from a serious alcoholism, drug addiction or broken heart.) And this explains a lot about 'relationship junkies', serial monogamists and people who just can't stop sleeping around on their partners.

I don't know if I'd care to state it as a general rule, but if someone said to me, "You make me happy" I'd want to know, "Do you mean, 'I'm happy with you' or 'You, and nothing else, make me happy'?" If it were the second - I'd consider running.

"So be warned by my lot (which I know you will not), and learn about women from me!"

--Rudyard Kipling "The Ladies"

P.S. My wife and I have been together for going on seven years now, and I'm still crazy about her - a new personal best for me. Good thing too, as we have a couple of kids now.