Tuesday, January 31

A Memphis pimp in a mid-life crisis

Here is one thing I'm looking forward to at this year's Oscars:

The performance of Best Original Song nominee "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp" from Hustle and Flow. The plot of Hustle and Flow, in case you missed it: "with help from his friends, a Memphis pimp in a mid-life crisis attempts to become a successful rapper."

Full list of nominees available here.

The Sorry State of the Sheehan


Congresswoman Lynn Woosley (D. CA, as though there was any doubt) has given Cindy Sheehan a gallery pass for the State of the Union Speech tonight. The same Cindy Sheehan who just this week flew down to Venezuala, where she called President Bush "the biggest terrorist in the world" and was feted by Hugo Chavez, who, without objection from Sheehan, said of American foreign policy "The imperialism we face now is the most perverse, murdering, genocidal and immoral," while a crowd chanted "Bush, Fascist! You are the terrorist!"

Unbelievable. Except it's not.

101 Senators



Interesting headline on the Alito vote (you might have to click on the image to read it properly). One of my colleagues suggested that perhaps Kerry voted for the nomination before he voted against it.

Oscar Predictions

British oddsmakers have handicapped the Best Picture race as follows:

Brokeback Mountain ($50.8m) : 1/6
Crash ($55.4m) : 9/1
Good Night, and Good Luck ($25.1m) : 12/1
Munich ($40.5m) : 20/1
Capote ($15.0m) : 50/1

(Box office grosses are through January 29, courtesy of rottentomatoes.com)

UPDATE: American oddsmakers see the race somewhat differently (and very differently from my prediction, below):

Brokeback Mountain: 1/10
Crash: 6/1
Munich: 15/1
Capote: 15/1
Good Night, and Good Luck: 2o/1

My first reaction was: Wow, those are some low-grossing movies. It appears that Hollywood is congratulating itself for its intellectual gravity and moral complexity in an age of reflexive conformity and “with us or against us” politics. It is also sticking its finger in the eye of popular critical successes like King Kong ($213.2m) and Walk the Line ($106.1m). None of the nominated films is even close to grossing $100 and they would all require a substantial post-nomination (or post-win) boost to hit that mark.

I did a little quick research. The last Best Picture not to gross $100m was the English Patient, in 1996 ($78m in 1996; $96.7 m in today’s dollars). The lowest grossing Best Pictures of all time are Annie Hall (1978) ($38m) and The Last Emperor (1987) ($43m). These pictures grossed $113.4m and $73.7m respectively, in today’s dollars. (Calculations courtesy of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis).

There is no inherent relationship between quality and popularity (and if there were, it would probably be an inverse one), but with its embrace of exclusively marginal movies this year, Hollywood insularity has reached a new low.

So, to my prediction for best picture: Good Night, and Good Luck. First, Hollywood loves George Clooney, and with good reason. He is a throwback to the handsome, urbane stars of Hollywood's golden era like Cary Grant, Tyrone Power, Montgomery Clift. He is also personally charming, a better than average actor, and a very good director. Second, Good Night, and Good Luck is the safe protest pick. In a year of nominees chosen, perhaps unconsciously, to stick it to Bush and red state America, Good Night does so without obviously alienating the greater public who are responsible for the industry’s bottom line. Of course, I’m never right about these things, so I will fall back on another prediction:

The Oscars’ ratings will be down this year. Without a box office smash to cheer for, and with a host who is unknown to most of America (nothing against Jon Stewart, but most of the country doesn’t watch the Comedy Network and about half of the country isn’t exactly in step with his take on our politics and culture), there is no hook to pull in the heartland viewers.

In lieu of further analysis, I will enable comments for this post. Not that anyone has shown any inclination to comment in the last week.

Sporting fallacy

Toronto Star columnist Damien cox has had an opinion piece on ESPN.com for several days, which I've been meaning to write about since I read it over the weekend. I don't follow the Leafs as closely as many of my good friends, some of whom are regular readers, so I would like to hear their take on Cox's diagnosis of the Leafs' ills. The reason I wanted to write about the article is that it exemplifies a bafflingly common error in sports writing: the fallacy of team continuity, for want of a better phrase.

The fallacy consists of the attribution of a team's historical results or actions to its current incarnation. Every fan knows that there is rarely a connection between today's teams and the teams that have gone before them. Who cares if, for example, the Seattle Seahawks had never played in a Superbowl before this year? Anyone who thought that that statistic was helpful in betting on the NFC Championship game deserved to be fleeced. Or take the old announcer's saw that "[insert team name] has never won a playoff series against [insert second team name]." So? How many of the players from those previous teams are on the field today? By this thinking, no team should ever win a championship for the first time. This lazy statistical anaylsis is particularly specious in college sports, in which an entire team turns over every four years or so.

Returning to Cox's article, he writes:

For the Leafs, however, it's possible this [failure to adapt to the new salary cap regime] was, at least to some degree, predictable. Historically speaking, working with change has not been this organization's strongest point.

Toronto didn't fare well in the years after the NHL's 1967 expansion, which doubled the number of teams to 12 from six. Indeed, when the WHA started up in the early 1970s, the Leafs were also one of the teams that misjudged the new league most, and ended up needlessly losing a series of quality players.

As bad as that was, the Leafs were even worse in their response to the merger with the WHA in 1979, and soon were the worst team in hockey after briefly becoming competitive in the latter part of the '70s under Roger Neilson.

When Europeans started pouring into the NHL in the late 1980s, meanwhile, the Leafs were among the teams that reacted least effectively.

Now, with the constant presence of a salary cap hovering over the operations of each and every NHL club for the first time in the league's history, the team that Conn Smythe built is once more struggling to adjust to the winds of change.

To say that a franchise's failure to thrive under a new rule change can be predicted by the actions of a different General Manager and different coaches in a different era, between twenty and forty years ago, is just silly. In 1967, the team was under the triumvirate control of Stafford Smythe, Harold Ballard, and John Basset. And during the WHA's founding and merger into the NHL, and during the European influx, Ballard remained firmly, and bizarrely, in control. Because Cox doesn't explain how those events and Ballard's responses are relevant to Ferguson's misjudgment of the current salary cap situation, his "argument" proves nothing. It is sloppy journalism and should have been caught by a perceptive editor. Most of you know this already; it is a marvel that so many professional journalists don't.

Anyway, I would be interested in hearing any opinions about the state of the Leafs, and their prospects for recovery in the short and long term, that don't make irrelevant reference to the Ballard era.

Monday, January 30

Border Wars

This article shows exactly why a secure fence and a tripling of border guards are needed on the southern border, pronto. If the political dominoes continue to fall left in Latin America, right up to the U.S. border, and the next government continues to abandon northern Mexico to drug cartels, this present necessity will become an urgent crisis. Reconsiderations of U.S. immigration and drug policy are long overdue, but shoring up the border should be the first security priority.

Some highlights from the article:

Members of a violent international gang working for drug cartels in Central and South America are planning coordinated attacks along the U.S. border with Mexico, according to a Department of Homeland Security document obtained by the Daily Bulletin.

Detailed inside a Jan. 20 officer safety alert, the plot's ultimate goal is to "begin gaining control of areas, cities and regions within the U.S."

The information comes from the interrogation of a captured member of Mara Savatrucha, or MS-13, a transnational criminal syndicate born from displaced El Salvadoran death squads from the 1980s. The MS-13 member, who claimed to have smuggled cocaine for the Gulf Cartel, explained a plan to amass MS-13 members in Mexican border towns such as Nuevo Laredo, Acuna, Ojinaga and Juarez. The Gulf Cartel runs its drug smuggling operations from Del Rio, Texas, to south of Matamoros, Mexico.

"After enough members have been pre-positioned along the border, a coordinated attack using firearms was to commence against all law enforcement, to include Border Patrol," the alert states.

Mikva on wiretapping

Democrat elder statesman Judge Mikva offers a robust criticism of Bush's wiretapping in today's Boston Globe. You can read it for yourself, but I would like to draw your attention to a crucial admission towards the end. After castigating the administration for claiming that "[a] president need not obey some laws because the president's 'inherent' powers trump the Congress" and that "Congress cannot encroach on a president's inherent constitutional authority in matters of national security," he writes:

When Congress has no constitutional authority, statutes limiting the president's inherent authority may have less or no force. If Congress enacted a law requiring the president to conduct military operations in a particular manner, a president might correctly disregard that law.

I'm no military expert, but enemy surveillance and intelligence gathering sound like an integral part of "conduct[ing] military operations" to me. For all the hullabaloo over the wiretapping issue, you would think that Bush was resorting to the presidential tactics of the '60s, when the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations routinely tapped the 'phones of Americans for no better reason than to keep tabs on political enemies or possible troublemakers. Attorney General Bobby Kennedy even tapped Martin Luther King, Jr.'s 'phone, for goodness sakes. The interception of communications between known or reasonably suspected foreign terrorists and telephones within the United States (which may be owned or used by U.S. or non-U.S. persons) couldn't be farther from these actions.

Not to mention the much more intrusive and sweeping executive authority claimed by and acted upon by Presidents Adams (Alien and Sedition Acts), Lincoln (suspension of habeas corpus), Wilson (actions during WWI, the Red Scare and Palmer Raids), Roosevelt (internment of Japanese-Americans), Kennedy (MLK bugging, among thousands of others), and Nixon (COINTELPRO). Considering that he has gone out of his way to obtain legal advice, to consult with officials within his administration, and to inform Congressional leaders of his exercise of the executive war-making power, in the context of presidential history, Bush's supposed lawlessness appears pretty tame. If this is an "imperial presidency," as many of Bush's critics like to say, one marvels at how the nation passed unscathed through what must be considered the far more vicious dictatorships of the 1920s, 1940s, 1960s, or 1970s. Just maybe, America will scrape by again.

Standing on guard

As a former border guard on the B.C./Washington State border (it's a popular student summer job in Canada), Steyn's take on this story hit close to home:

Like much of the European Union, we're so heavily invested in the idea that we've found a kinder, gentler way we can scarcely bear to contemplate the reality. At the Washington state/British Columbia border last week, two guys on the lam were hightailing it through Blaine heading for the 49th parallel with the cops in hot pursuit. Alerted to what was coming their way, Canada's (unarmed) border guards walked off the job. For a country whose national anthem lyrics are mostly endless reprises of the line "we stand on guard for thee," we could at least stand on guard.

In my day (1998), we did receive basic gun training (a day at the range and lessons in disarming most types of firearm), but we didn't actually carry guns. I don't think that it is necessary to arm all Canadian border guards, but having some armed guards at busy or high-risk crossings is just common sense.

Sunday, January 29

Confirmation Politics

The Senate vote on the nomination of Judge Alito looks likely to occur on Tuesday, Kerry and Kennedy's filibuster threats notwithstanding. Writing on National Review Online, Byron York predicts that few Democrats will vote for the nomination and opines that "[t]he bigger issue in the Alito nomination is the arrival of the party-line vote in the Supreme Court confirmation process."

Certainly, if one looks at recent Supreme Court confirmation history, this does appear to be a new development. (I know, developments are always new, but "this does appear to be a development" just doesn't sound right.) Of current Supreme Court justices, only Thomas's confirmation was the result of something like a straight party-line vote. The statistics are:

Stevens: 98-0
O'Connor: 99-0
Scalia: 98-0
Kennedy: 97-0
Souter: 90-9
Thomas: 52-48
Ginsburg: 96-3
Breyer: 87-9
Roberts: 78-22

During this time, Bork's nomination was rejected 58-42 and Rehnquist's elevation to Chief Justice was approved 65-33.

While the exceptions of Bork, Thomas, and Rehnquist counsel against sweeping judgment, in the last thirty years, the confirmation process has been broadly bi-partisan. That consensus, however, meant little when 22 Democrats chose to vote against then-Judge Roberts; if Alito receives even less Democrat support, the bi-partisan era may be officially over. Republicans, we can be sure, will not need much encouragement to follow the Democrats' new precedent next time a Democrat sits in the White House. As Senator Kyl has said,

It is simply unrealistic to think that one party will put itself at a disadvantage by eschewing political considerations while the other party almost unanimously applies such considerations. . . . So I say to my Democratic friends, think carefully about what is being done today. Its impact will be felt well beyond this particular nominee.

Senator Feinstein justified the new partisanship by saying that "It's a very different day and time than when Justice Ginsburg and Justice Breyer were before this [committee]. There was not the polarization within America that there is today and not the defined move to take this court in a singular direction." Overlooking the fact that "a direction" can only be "singular," is she serious? There was no comparable polarization in 1994, the year of the Contract with America and the Gingrich revolution, when Republicans swept into power on a swell of disenchantment with Clinton and the Democratic party? Clinton's average approval ratings that year were 45.8%, a smidgen below Bush's ratings last year (46%).

Anent the direction of the Court, O'Connor's replacement by Alito is hardly comparable to Clinton's replacement of White (a mixed bag, who dissented in Roe v. Wade--which, frustratingly, seems to be the only issue that most senators care about) withGinsburg (former A.C.L.U. counsel and champion of almost every position dear to the Democratic party). I couldn't care less about maintaining some mythical state of immutable "balance" on the Court, so I think that Ginsburg's nomination was every bit as legitimate as Alito's; I just wish Senator Feinstein would recognize that. She can vote against Alito for any reason she wants, but she shouldn't kid herself or the public that this nomination is qualitatively different from Ginsburg's.

Stepping back from recent history, more than two hundred years of Supreme Court nominations shows that consensus hasn't always been the rule.

Though most early confirmations were by voice vote and not roll call, so no numerical record of the vote is available, there are many examples of closely contested confirmations. Without consulting the Congressional Record, I can't say whether these close votes were partisan, but I would bet a field of green that they were. So, for example, Nathan Clifford went down to a narrow defeat in 1857 (23-26), as did Jeremiah Black in 1861 (25-26). Even earlier, John Rutledge's nomination in 1795 was scuttled by a vote of 10-14. But wait, I hear you say, is that the same John Rutledge who served on the original Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Jay? Very perceptive of you; yes it is. He also served as the Court's second Chief Justice in 1795, coming out of retirement to replace Jay as a recess appointment. The Senate subsequently declined to confirm him for a permanent seat, making him the first nominee to be so rejected.

Other close votes include Crittenden in 1828 (23-17), Taney in 1835 (24-21), Barbour in 1835 (30-11), Smith in 1835 (23-18), Catron in 1837 (28-15), King in 1845 (29-18), Walworth in 1845 (27-20), Spencer in 1845 (21-26 defeat), and Woodward in 1845 (20-29).

None of this should surprise. Senators are politicians, and politicians play politics. The real surprise is that Scalia was confirmed 98-0 and Ginsburg 96-3. In retrospect, those are truly shocking numbers. Even a cursory examination of the speeches and positions taken by either nominee would have revealed their approaches to constitutional interpretation; that the Senate either didn't know or didn't care is remarkable, particularly in Ginsburg's case, when Republicans were still smarting from the calumniation of the most qualified Supreme Court nominee in two hundred years.

For what it's worth, my opinion is that senators should adopt one of two honorable but very different approaches to Supreme Court nominations.

1. Engage in whatever amount of fact-based criticism they can while still managing to sleep the sleep of the blessed, but, once it comes to voting, go along with the majority. A unanimous Senate vote puts the permanent institution of the Court above its temporary members; it welcomes a new justice with dignity and signals to the American people that his tenure is legitimate and his opinions on the Court are to be respected as the voice of the law, backed up by the full authority of the judicial branch. This practice would be akin to the tradition in the election of certain institutional leaders by secret ballot of, after the deciding vote, holding one final vote so that the incoming leader can be welcomed by unanimous consent.

2. Vote their consciences, as they were elected to. If Senator Feinstein believes that Judge Alito will not discharge his duties as a Supreme Court Justice ought to, then she should vote "no," but she should expect Republicans to do the same the next time that a Democrat nominates an advocate of a "living Constitution." I have no problem with politics as usual.

"Another beverage for yourself at all, sir?"

In case I needed a reminder of how different the British press is from anything on this side of the Atlantic, I just came across this Jeremy Clarkson column from the Times. Now that's a first line you'll never see in the New York Times!

Friday, January 27

CNN's taxing video

How can CNN recommend the video entitled "Income Inequality" as a featured video on its website? (I don't know how to link directly to the video, but if you go to CNN it is in the box of videos on the right.)

The video is from that morning show with Soledad O'Brien (whose very presence on the air irks me even when I'm nowhere near a television set) and the smirky Miles O'Brien (no relation). Their guest (didn't catch his name) presents statistics from what he describes as two "liberal think-tanks" that purport to show that the income gap between the rich and the poor in this country is growing.

Fair enough. Except that he keeps talking about the gap between the top quintile of earners versus the bottom quintile, while the graphic he displays clearly says "Top 5%" and "Bottom 20%." Needless to say, the numbers aren't particularly believable the way he tells them. For example, he claims that the top fifth of earners in Arizona take home fourteen times as much as the bottom fifth--$223,081 to $15,719--which is self-evidently absurd. The O'Briens point out the discrepancy between his comments about the "top fifth" and the graphic depicting the "top 5%," but he claims that the graphic is incorrect. "Got it," says O'Brien (Miles). Unless Bill Gates has taken up resident in the Copper State, the idea that the top 20% of workers in Arizona earn $223,081 is one only someone making as much as the O'Briens could swallow.

I don't have time to go into greater detail, but the actual reports are described more accurately (I assume) here. Nationwide, apparently, the top quintile made 7.3 times as much as the bottom quintile. Slightly more plausible.

The reports themselves are here and here. I haven't read them, but I have a few off-the-cuff comments on the possible explanations for this allegedly increasing income gap on the CNN video.

1. The guest notes that Arizona (which has the biggest gap according to his graphic) has lots of retirees. Huh? Wouldn't retirees tend to have less income than in the years just before they retire? Again, I haven't looked into this, but I often read stories about how Americans don't save enough for retirement and how retirees are such a poor segment of our population (isn't this partly why we have Medicare?). Maybe all the rich retirees move to Arizona, but surely some of them head to California or Florida, neither of which cracks the top 5, and New Jersey and Kentucky are both in the top 10--not classic retirement destinations.

2. Tax cuts are also blamed, but the numbers are described on the video as covering the last 20 years. After Reagan signed the Tax Reform Act of 1986, the top income tax bracket fell from 50% to 28%. Since then, it has crept back up to 35% (it was at 39.6% before the first Bush fils tax cut, which also lowered the bottom tax bracket to 10% and took many poor families off the tax roll altogether). The biggest tax increases came under Bush père, who signed the Revenue Reconciliation Act of 1990. So, the income gap has been growing while the top income tax bracket has been increasing?

3. The fact that the minimum wage hasn't increased in some time is also cited. But many States listed on the video (and even communities within those States) have minimum wages higher than the national rate, and many of them have been increasing since the mid-1980s at a faster rate than the national wage. New York, and New Jersey both have minimum wages higher than the national rate, and both are in the top four for income disparity listed on the video.

Besides, it is far from clear to me that an increased minimum wage would increase the income of the lowest quintile (though it might bring down that of the highest earners as the companies they work for lose money or lay off workers). Which brings me to the final explanation given: globalization. If globalization (particularly increased competition from cheaper production abroad) is responsible for lowering the wages of America's poor (while increase their purchasing power by providing cheaper goods, of course), then the solution would hardly be to price American companies further out of the market by increasing the national minimum wage.

Each of these issues--taxes, minimum wages, and globalization--is both endlessly complex itself and notoriously difficult to isolate as a factor in light of the scores of other economic variables. To glibly suggest that one or the other "might be" responsible for an increase in the income gap is irresponsible journalism. Or whatever it is that morning shows think they practice. (Note, I reserve the right to glibly refute these arguments with equally disputable facts.)

Finally, the "income gap" is a distraction from the traditional issue of poverty. Real poverty, not the bogeyman of "relative poverty" dreamed up by the grievance industry when the problem of real poverty was largely solved in America decades ago. I don't know why I bothered typing this post. I should have just said this and left the rest well enough alone. Now I've wasted an hour criticizing a CNN morning show segment that won't even be accessible on the web in a day or so. Surely that's something to bewail on my deathbed.

Quodlibetal Question: Is Hamas's democratic victory a positive or negative development in the Palestinian Question?

After yesterday's careful explanation of why I no longer permit comments, I have reconsidered my position. To mix things up a little (and to spare myself some thinking and writing), I have decided to occasionally post something and invite comments. I don't expect that too many people will comment, at least not at first, but if anyone does, they have that option.

I've enabled the word-recognition feature to eliminate spam to my email account and I will delete or edit comments that I, in my sole discretion, consider unduly uncivil, use unnecessary profanity, or otherwise violate the Westminster code of conduct (i.e., no accusations of lying or of being drunk, however justified they may be).

The first such topic is the election of Hamas as the new leading party in the Palestinian Authority. The stimulus for the question is Oxford University (St. Antony's College) Professor Emanuele Ottolenghi's reaction to the election of Hamas as the new party of power in the Palestinian Authority. Specifically, his opinion that:

Contrary to initial responses, Hamas’s projected victory [Update: they won 76 of 132 seats and have been asked to form the new government] in the Palestinian parliamentary elections is a positive development. Not, as its apologists claim, because the proximity of power will favor a process of cooptation into parliamentary politics, and therefore strengthen the pragmatic wing of Hamas. There is no pragmatic wing in Hamas . . .

As the government of the Palestinian Authority, now they will have to say whether they accept the roadmap.

They will have to take control over security and decide whether they use it to uphold the roadmap or to wage war.

There will be no excuses or ambiguities when Hamas fires rockets on Israel and launches suicide attacks against civilian targets. Until Tuesday, the PA could hide behind the excuse that they were not directly responsible and they could not rein in the "militants." Now the "militants" are the militia of the ruling party. They are one and the same with the Palestinian Authority. If they bomb Israel from Gaza — not under occupation anymore, and is therefore, technically, part of the Palestinian state the PLO proclaimed in Algiers in 1988, but never bothered to take responsibility for — that is an act of war, which can be responded to in kind, under the full cover of the internationally recognized right of self-defense. No more excuses that the Palestinians live under occupation, that the PA is too weak to disarm Hamas, that violence is not the policy of the PA. Hamas and the PA will be the same: What Hamas does is what the PA will stand for. . . .

The issue is not whether Europe, the U.S., or Israel should talk to Hamas. The issue is whether there is anything to talk about with Hamas, and the burden of proof is on Hamas to demonstrate they are capable of becoming interlocutors. If Hamas meets the true test, namely accepting the road map, renouncing violence, disarming its own terror network, recognizing Israel and embracing the two-state solution, then no obstacle should remain for a dialogue with Hamas. Otherwise, they can taste Israeli steel, courtesy of the U.S. and the full backing of the EU of Israel’s right to defend itself.

Quodlibet: Is Hamas's democratic victory a positive or negative development in the Palestinian Question?

Two possible scenarios are described in this BBC piece today.

I will begin with the broad comment that Fatah's concession is itself remarkable. When was the last time that a political party in a Muslim Middle-Eastern state (I am tempted to say any Arab state) voluntarily relinquished power in response to a democratic election? I can't think of one. This could never have happened under Arafat's reign of terror. If the will of the people can be established as the new source of political legitimacy in the Palestinian Authority, then the move from Arafat's Fatah to Mazen's Fatah and now to Hamas (assuming they are now obligated to abide by the principles that brought them to power--a questionable assumption, I know) can be seen as a great leap forward on formal, if not substantive, grounds. Though this abstract development is likely to be overshadowed by the more immediate concerns of war and peace, it should be weighed in the balance as a positive development.

Second, this could, in the long run, mean the end of Gaza and the West Bank (it's a stretch, but a possibility). If bombings and rocket attacks escalate in the wake of the Hamas election, then, as Professor Ottolenghi points out, this could fairly be taken by Israel as an act of war. Under the aegis of the U.N. Charter and all the various, delphic sources of international "law" that academics and foreign diplomats appeal to in these circumstances, Israel could fight back in self defense, clearing out the West Bank and Gaza, and driving the Palestinian people into Egypt and Jordan (not that either would want to take them--the Jordanians in particular have massacred and expelled the Palestinians rather than offer them refuge in the past, and Egypt is already terrified of Hamas's sister organization the Muslim Brotherhood). Israel could then establish a broad demilitarized zone as a buffer around its new borders. It would be incumbent upon the nations bordering Israel to control those factions within their borders that would perpetuate a guerrilla war against Israel, on pain of military retribution. This is roughly what happened in 1967, when Israel seized the West Bank and Gaza in a defensive act in response to escalating attacks by terrorists operating with impunity (and active support) from within Egypt and Syria and in anticipation of an imminent invasions by its neighbors, Egypt, Jordan and Syria (aided by Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Algeria), who were bent on driving the young Israeli nation into the sea. This time, however, Israel might decide that it is wise not to let anyone remain within the buffer zone, and to let those Arab nations who profess to love the Palestinian people finally offer them real support, not just guns, and stop using them as pawns in their power games.

I don't believe that the consequences of such a response, however justified, can be imagined in advance. Deciding whether it would be a positive or negative development in the long term, therefore, is impossible. The effects on Iran, Iraq, and Pakistan, in particular, are incalculable, but it is hard to imagine them being good. So this second point is not particularly helpful in addressing the question, but perhaps someone with more time and insight can take it up and tease some helpful insight from it.

Thursday, January 26

Stimuli, Responses

Some readers, who happen to be old friends, have been kind enough to email me with a request that I revive the short-lived comments feature. I'm not sure if "kind" is the right term, because their intent seems to be to expose my flimsy arguments and reactionary grousing to rigorous analysis, to show me the error of my ways, and to lead me to the light. And much as I probably need such a corrective, I have to disappoint them. I simply don't have time to monitor comments, let alone respond to them. I will make an exception for some, however, and here they are.

[Your posts] all make me itch to respond, and it's killing me not to have the option . . . . it's a shame for you to be tossing out good, provocative material without allowing the opportunity for a response.

I feel your pain. Or at last your itching. It must be similar to my frustration watching BBC political talk shows, or Katie Couric and Matt Lauer on whatever show it is they burden with their latitudinarian inanities. (I can never keep the morning infotainment shows straight.) At least you have the option of emailing, though. Since Katie's restraining order, I don't even have that outlet.

Because really, aren't you dying to hear the argument FOR polygamy?

Not really. The point of an open mind, like an open mouth, is to close it on something solid. (I think Chesterton said this first.) Two person marriage is something solid.

Besides, I read Martha Bailey's original report, "Beyond Conjugality," from 2001. That document was the driving force behind legal push for gay marriage in Canada, and not primarily about polygamy, but the latter argument, which she expanded on in her most recent report, was there all along. Made me want to bring back scarlet letters.

[R]eally, someone's got to dissect your hockey posts - they're generally very good, but occasionally troubling. The suggestion that Staal could be taken over Nash, for example. Quickly, Nash spent the lockout winning the Swiss league championship with Davos (leading the league in goal-scoring), and leading all scorers at the World Championships (won by Canada). Most importantly, in both cases he played on a line with Thornton (and on the big ice). They'll surely play together again in Turin and will probably form Canada's top line.

Your point is well-taken, but I would like to make a few points in my defense.

First, I advocated replacing either Ryan Smyth or Rick Nash with Eric Staal. Of the two options, I would prefer the former, largely for the reason you mention—Nash's previous success as Thornton's linemate at the World Championships. But, as I said in my post, Eric Staal is playing at least as well as Smyth has ever played, and much better than Smyth is playing this year.

Second, at the time of my post, Nash had only been back for five or six games and, by his own admission, wasn’t playing well. ("I was relieved when I made it. I was worried having only played six games and not having good numbers either.") I had lingering doubts about his high-ankle sprain, which, frankly, aren’t fully alleviated despite Nash’s improved play (see the same link above). Serious sprains don’t improve while you are playing on them.

Third, I remember Nash’s (and Thornton’s) play in Davos—one of the few hockey-related advantages of living in London was that, during the lockout, I was able to get reasonable coverage of the European leagues. They didn't, however, play on the same line, though they played together on the power play. (For the record, I believe that the top two Davos lines were: (1) Rick Nash – Reto Von Arx – Michel Riesen, and (2) Joe Thornton – Jozef Mahra – Nicklas Hagman. Riesen was the first Swiss player selected in the first round of a draft, 14th overall by Edmonton in 1997. I remember him from the World Juniors, but don't recall him playing in the NHL.)

Finally, if by "leading all scorers," you mean that Nash led the World Championships in goals, then you are right (Thornton led in points), but he was second in goal-scoring in the Swiss League. (He had a slow start, and Davos didn't do so well in the first half of the regular season, but (I'm going from memory) ended up second in the league. Both he and Thornton absolutely dominated the playoffs, but, even so, Nash trailed team-mate Niklas Hagman in playoff goal scoring.) Not that first or second makes a difference, the point being that he has played well on the big ice.

Leading me to the conclusion that, with the benefit of a month's play under Nash's belt, you are absolutely correct: Thornton and Nash (and Gagne, was it?) should be Canada's top line in Turin. (By the way, what's up with all this "Torino" nonsense? Am I going to have to learn the nuanced phonetics and quadratonal system of native Mandarin speakers for Peking in 2008? Or constantly correct non-British Columbians who pronounce Vancouver 2012 "van-coover," instead of "vang-coover"? I don't recall Athena 2004.)

On an unrelated note, I remember seeing pictures of Team Canada at the Spengler Cup (held at Davos’s home rink, as you know) practicing on the outdoor rink at Davos. I wonder if the Davos team ever practiced on the outdoor rink as well. Or, better, played on it.

Benedict who?

I picked up the January issue of the R.C. publication First Things on Tuesday. I've been impressed with the monthly's quality and coverage since Joseph Bottum took over; it wasn't disappointing before--and I'm not sure that it has improved objectively--but it seems that more of its articles catch my eye these days.

Two articles in particular drew my attention this month. One was a piece entitled "The Spirit of Abstract Art," by Algis Valiunis, and the other was the lead article, "Europe and It's Discontents" by Benedict XVI. The first intrigued me because I spent a good part of last autumn learning about Western art post 1750 while helping my girlfriend study for her Ph.D oral examinations in December. Flipping through the article, I noticed that the author discusses (rather inexpertly and indirectly) the work of Professor Anna Chave, who happens to be my girlfriend's doctoral advisor. For that reason alone I was obligated to buy and read the issue.

I would, however, have bought the issue solely for something in the other article that struck me as profoundly amusing. Bearing in mind that First Things is about as papist an outfit as you are likely to find this side of the counter-reformation, the author bio for "Europe and It's Discontents" began: "Benedict XVI is pope of the Catholic Church."

Oh that Benedict XVI! Not the Benedict XVI who was under-secretary for trade and development during the Carter administration? Or the Benedict XVI who empties my office wastebasket in his red apron at 5:30 every day?

Maybe this really isn't all that funny, but it killed me. It made me laugh out loud in front of the newsstand. No, laugh is the wrong word. I guffawed. Actually guffawed. I think I scared an old lady.

Made me wonder what other laconic gems they could devise for future author bios. Perhaps, "Europe and It's Discontents," by The Devil. "The Devil is the embodiment of evil. When not entertaining the damned in Hell, he can be found lurking in the details." Or, "Europe and It's Discontents," by George W. Bush. "George W. Bush is President of the United States of America. George is a devoted husband to Laura and father of twins, on whom he dotes. He enjoys clearing brush, following his beloved Rangers, and dabbling in leading the free world." In case you were wondering.

"[T]he pages of the New York Times come to life"

One of the most underreported annual events each year is the World Economic Forum meeting held in the resort town of Davos, Switzerland. I don't recall ever seeing more than passing coverage of it while I was living in Canada (though that may be because it doesn't exactly merit coverage on TSN) and neither the New York Times nor the Washington Post mentions it on its front page today, despite yesterday being the opening of the four day confab.

The lack of coverage may be understandable given the fact that not much hard news is generated at the meeting--no great policies are announced (though Angela Merkel's speech yesterday caused a stir by "call[ing] for a massive reduction in bureaucracy in both Europe and Germany, and an increase in the retirement age, among other measures."), no treaties signed, and no sanctions leveled. It is a talking shop, a place for anyone who is anyone in world politics, business, or culture to see and be seen. But the mere fact of its obvious importance to the very important people who attend makes it newsworthy, so it would be nice to have some color commentary of the event from the national news desks--something like what E! and Bravo! do for the Sundance Film Festival (or at least what I suppose they do, not having watched their coverage).

One source of information is Jay Nordlinger, the editor of the National Review, who makes the annual trek and provides limited, informal coverage of the people, the panel discussions, and whatever strikes his fancy. He reports (with my bracketed amendments) that this year's cast includes:

Heads of state: Erdogan (Turkey), Kaczynski (Poland), Karzai (Afghanistan), Musharraf (Pakistan), Obasanjo (Nigeria), and Saakashvili (Georgia), [Olmert (Israel).]

Other figures milling about: Kofi Annan. Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission. Mohamed ElBaradei, the nukes guy . . . [o]ne of Qaddafi's sons, Saif. Amr Moussa, secretary general of the Arab League, and perfect representative of the Arab Old Guard. Speaking of the Arab Old Guard: Gamal H. Mubarak, son of you-know-who. Shimon Peres (Davos's favorite Israeli). Foreign Minister Shalom (not Davos's favorite Israeli) [actually the new Israeli foreign minister is Tzipi Livni] . . . Paul Wolfowitz, now head of the World Bank. . . . I'd also like to note that a few Iraqis are here. It gives me extreme pleasure to say so. One is Hajim Alhasani, president of the National Assembly, and another is Ayad Allawi, head of the Iraqi National Accord. Say what you will about them: They are symbols of a democratic Iraq. And that is decidedly non-Old Guard.


[U.S. politicians:] You have Senators Biden, Chambliss, Smith, and Sununu. You can't imagine Joe Biden wanting to participate in a talkfest, can you? Oh, I have left out a senator: John Kerry. He is Davos's president manque.

Among House reps: Frank, Kolbe, Markey, Shays. Oh, and I forgot a senator--another senator: John McCain. He may be--just may be --Davos's favorite Republican . . .

Some stray other politicians: Gavin Newsom, the mayor of San Francisco, and one of Davos's "Young Global Leaders." Bill Owens, the Republican governor of Colorado. And Mark Warner--the Democrat who just got through being governor of Virginia. I guess, if you're going to run for president--as Warner apparently is--you have to come to Davos.

The Bush administration has not neglected to send some officials (and not "traveling insults," either). I note Elaine Chao, the secretary of labor; Michael Chertoff, head of homeland security; Alberto Gonzales, attorney general; Robert Kimmitt, deputy secretary of the treasury; Michael Leavitt, secretary of health and human services; and Rob Portman, who started attending Davos as a House rep (Ohio) and is still attending, as U.S. trade rep.

[B]ig businessmen[:] Start with Bill Gates. Continue with Michael Dell. Then consider George Soros. (Should he really be under "Business"?) You also have Richard Branson Â? I mean, Sir Richard Branson Â? some Forbes brothers, and a million CEOs. I also must mention the splendid Phil Gramm Â? here not as a politico, but as an official of UBS Investment Bank. I wish he were talkin' politics.

The presidents of Harvard and Yale are here: Richard Levin and Larry Summers. Also the president of Georgetown, John DeGioia.

You want royalty? I offer Crown Prince Haakon of Norway, Prince Philippe of Belgium, Crown Prince Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands, and Queen Rania of Jordan. (In my "Davos" Impromptus from Jordan last spring, I referred to the queen as a "smokin' hottie," which brought in a lot of mail--all in agreement.)

I note three religious figures, too. One is Bartholomew, Ecumenical Patriarch of Turkey. And the other two are from the United States: Jim Wallis, the Sojourners guy. You'd expect that. But also Richard Land, of the Southern Baptist Convention. . . . Here's a quasi-religious figure: Rick Warren, the purpose-driven-life fellow. And another one: Elie Wiesel, the writer and Nobelist.

Mediacrats include James Murdoch (one of Rupert's sons), the ubiquitous Thomas L. Friedman, Charlie Rose, and Mort Zuckerman.

And how about some culturecrats? I give you Marin Alsop, the conductor. And Christo, the artist. (Don't forget his wife and partner Jeanne-Claude!) And Michael Douglas, the actor. And Peter Gabriel, the rocker (is he? I'm bad at these musical categories). And Gilberto Gil, who is not only a musician but culture minister of Brazil. And Angelina Jolie. And Peter Sellars, the director.

And how about Muhammad Ali? He's a category unto himself.

And how about Jane Goodall? She's a category unto herself, too--one of the great scientist-celebrities of modern times.

In short, "the pages of the New York Times come to life," as Nordlinger puts it. Which makes it odd that the New York Times (to pick on one news outlet) devotes so little coverage to it.

From Nodlinger's haphazard reporting this year, the item that caught my eye concerned Kofi Annan. Nordlinger writes:

I attend a lunch, whose theme is sports: This is an Olympic year, and Dr. Schwab and other WEF-ers are fairly sports-minded. When I get to the designated hotel, there's a big hold-up--lots of people waiting to go through security and get in. Why are we not being checked through? Oh, yes, now it comes clear: Because Kofi Annan and his entourage are arriving. It's a quite large entourage, too. Annan sweeps in like an emperor, preceded and trailed by many.

In all my years at Davos, I've never seen this: a big group held up by the arrival or departure of a VIP (I mean, a VVIP--a very, very important person). And lots of heads of state have been around.

This brings up an old theme of mine: Does the secretary general of the U.N. have all too much power, or all too high a profile? I mean, is he not the bureaucratic servant of an international organization--albeit a very large and important international organization? Were secretaries general this big in the past?

Annan has been dubbed "President of the World." It can seem that way, at Davos.

I remember when the bombs went off in London last July. All those Western leaders were up at Gleneagles, in Scotland. Tony Blair made a statement--these heads of state stood behind him (Bush, Chirac, and so on). And there was Kofi Annan.

Why?

Now Nordlinger has attended many of these Davos summits, and those summits, like this one, have featured many heads of state, including some who should legitimately fear assassination around every chalet corner (including Karzai and Musharraf this year). If he has never seen an entourage as presumptuous as Annan's, or security disrupted more by an individual, then it must have really stood out.

I think his question is well taken: why should the the Secretary General of the United Nations be held in such regard? He doesn't (or shouldn't) make policy for the General Assembly as a CEO or a head of state or first minister does. The "President of the World" analogy is especially inapt: he is more like a Speaker of the House than a President. Or, as Nordlinger has it, a bureaucratic servant of an international organization, albeit a very important organization. (How much more important than, say, NATO, is another question.) He certainly shouldn't outrank the head of state of even the most humble of the countries who, together, comprise the organization that signs his paycheck and underwrites his imperial lifestyle.

Power, initially conferred as a privilege and responsibility, can quickly feel like an entitlement. No better (or worse) illustration is needed than a glance at the United States Senate. But at least Senators operate in a relatively transparent, accountable environment under the constant scrutiny of the press, and subject to criminal laws. High level U.N. officials, by contrast, operate under diplomatic immunity and largely out of sight of the press. One could hardly design an organization more conducive to corruption of the sort exposed in the recent Oil for Food scandal. It is the same environment in which the sordid international sporting bodies operate, and it is not surprising that their leaders have included the most arrogant and corrupt men of influence this side of the Arab League. I'm thinking of Samaranch and Blatter in particular.

I don't know what the solution is, but I don't think that the status quo is inevitable. The IOC, for example, appears to have made significant improvements since Rogge took over. One common feature of these organizations and most corrupt states (and the Senate, for that matter), is the security and longevity of their members' tenures. The Secretary General serves for four year terms, which is fair enough, but, given the particular unaccounability of the position, perhaps the limit should be one term.

Much was made of Annan being the first U.N. official elected to the post. Maybe that too was a mistake. Annan has worked at the U.N. for virtually his whole adult litechnicallyd the UN (techinically the WHO) right out of university and has been there for more than forty years. The consummate company man cannot be trusted to reform the company. At a time when even Annan himself has recognized the need for change (he is introducing a panel entitled "A New Mindset for the U.N." at Davos this year), he is the last man who should be leading it.

Fortunately, his second term ends this year. It would be good for the United States to begin shaping expectations now: there should be no automatic second terms. Knowing the playground rules of international diplomacy, this wouldn't be an easy sell. The Asian-block believes that it is its turn to lead (or, as it should be, to serve) the U.N. And you can be sure that, because Annan received a second term, if its candidate does not also serve two terms, it will be taken as a regional, and probably racist, rebuff. All the more reason to influence expectations now, and not in four years.

For speculation about Annan's successor, please see here and here.

Monday, January 23

Angels, Brutes, and Hobgoblins

I just came across an old saying from Pascal (whose Pensees, by the way, must be one of the great neglected work of our age), which, had I remembered it, I would have used in my recent Che Guevara post. The saying is:

Man is neither angel nor brute, and the misfortune is that he who would act the angel acts the brute.

But this saying--not its substance, but my use of it--raises a pet peeve of mine. Few things spike my blood pressure higher or faster than the indiscriminate use of quotations--the argumentum ad verecundiam, as it was drilled into my soft grey matter as a schoolboy in England. What special insight into the human condition did Pascal possess to imbue this saying with authority deserving of deference? Well, nothing transcendent, though he was about as smart as they come in our humble species. But so was Einstein, and it is all I can do to keep my fists at my side when people quote his idiosyncratic pronouncements on pacifism as though they were sacred and unimpeachable writ.

The most abused quote, though, must be Emerson's ubiquitous "consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds," which is not, of course the whole quote, though it is often left dangling thus, incomplete and misleading. The full quote, "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds," is the consummate weasel quote, used as a "get out of jail free" card by debaters cornered by a logical, fair argument. No sympathy should redound to any debater who lets the quote pass unscathed; its intellectual emptiness must be seized upon and denounced. It stands, if anything, for the unremarkable proposition that "a foolish consistency" is a characteristic of "little minds." The phrase's rhetorical flaw is the word "foolish," which consigns the rest of the sense to the realm of platitude. Of course something foolish is, well, foolish (or "the hobgoblin of little minds," or any other creative rendering of small-mindedness or . . . uh, foolishness). Emerson's dictum is a finely wrought tautology.

Returning to Pascal, angels, and brutes, it would have been a fitting cap to my post, but it would have been pure ornament, devoid of persuasive import. I like it because it poetically illustrates the specific case I was discussing, but it is far from a universal truth. It would, for example, be a horribly inappropriate summary of the life of St. Francis of Assisi, who acted the angel as impressively as any man and was the furthest thing from a brute.

In case you stuck around this long and were wondering, I'm not going anywhere with this post; there will be no Joycean epiphany forthcoming. Just my thoughts, as usual, unalloyed and unremarkable. Thanks for humoring me.

Sunday, January 22

Time to find new retirement plans


I am genuinely disappointed to learn that Sark will soon become a democracy (or already is--I came to this story some months late). Until now, I was more than half-seriously planning to retire there sometime in the mid 2040s. But now I read that the "small, sweet world of wave-encompassed wonder," as Swinburne dubbed it, has drunk the European kool-aid and "undertaken to ensure that the island's electoral system complies with the European Convention on Human Rights." How sad! Being the only First World feudal state was something to trumpet. To abandon that 350-year history is a pity; to abandon it for a Eurocratic delusion is a tragedy. The R.C. 'blog in illo tempore has a suitably nostalgic account of the island's recent decision.

I first heard of Sark when I was practicing transactional law in London. Sark is disproportionately famous there as a tax shelter, and availing oneself of its tax protection is known as the Sark Lark.

For some idea of why I want(ed) to retire there, here are a few quick facts:

Sark is an independent state within the British Commonwealth, the smallest of the three major Channel Islands, located between France and England. It is not, however, under the control of the United Kingdom or of the other Channel Islands. As a result, it is not party to the reciprocal tax arrangements that Guernsey and Jersey have with the mother country.

As this website describes it:

. . . there is no Tax, Tax Man or Tax Office on the Island of Sark! The Island has no income, capital gains or inheritance taxes. It raises most of it’s revenue from a poll tax on visitors to the Island and the Impot, a tax on alcohol and tobacco purchased here. Neither does it have any reciprocal tax or disclosure of information agreements with anyone. Communications are excellent with some of the most sophisticated telephone systems and postal facilities in the world.

Sark is neither in the EU or out. There is no VAT and many businesses can be run without having to register for or charge it.


But, as I am not planning to run a business from Sark, all this is less important than the following information, courtesy of in illo tempore, the official Sark website, this personal and opinionated guide to the island, and the off-shore guide linked to above:

1. The island is 4.8 km by 2.4 km, at its widest points, with a population of 600 (increasing to 1000 in the summer).

2. Sark has no income tax. Motor vehicles, except tractors, are not allowed. Travel is by foot, bicycle, and horse and carriage.

3. It is a short flight (45 minutes) from London and Paris.

4. No land in Sark is held as a freehold. The Seigneur holds the Island in perpetual tenure from the Crown in return for certain obligations and annual dues (rente), and may not have that taken away from him unless he reneges on his commitment. Also he may not sell his Fief (the whole Island) without Crown permission.

5. Land may not be divided by inheritance. Until 1999, it could only pass to the eldest son

6. Simply, the Constitution is a mixture of feudal and popular government with its Chief Pleas (parliament), consisting of 40 tenants and 12 popularly elected deputies, presided over by the Seneschal (L. P. de Carteret). The head of the island is the Seigneur.

7. Tithing is currently in abeyance but the obligation to hold arms for defense is written into all contracts.

8. There is no restriction on immigration – anyone can move to the Island. In practice, only those with secured employment or income earned from elsewhere move to the Island, because there is no Welfare State to support those who cannot pay their own way. There is no National Health Service.

9. The only taxes are on liquor and a poll tax on perceived capital, sometimes referred to as a "Visible Wealth Tax". As a result "keeping up with the Jones’s" is not evident and people "show off" in non-materialistic ways, such as by having beautiful gardens.

10. Because most of the residents move around the Island day-to-day on foot or cycle there is "continuous" one-to-one contact and conversations, in a way that is physically impossible in a society dependent on motor cars.

11. The lack of motor cars has implications for the look of the island. Domestic garages and drives to them are not needed. Lanes are narrow and headroom low, with overhanging trees. Junctions between lanes do not need much space. Carriageway footpaths are not needed.

12. There is no VAT or any kind of tax on sales or business profits. This, together with the absence of income tax, enables people to undertake work for each other and receive payments for their work in a way that is impossible in a State that requires all business and personal earnings to be declared.

13. The interests of "the poor" are looked after day-to-day by the ‘Procureur of the Poor' (an official position undertaken by a volunteer). This concentrates resources on those in greatest need. Payments can include medical insurance premiums. The contrast between the simplicity of the Sark system and the cumbersome bureaucracy of the UK system is stark.

14. Medical care on the Island seems to work well compared with England. (If this comment refers to the NHS, then isn't much of an achievement, in my experience, though private health care in England is the best health care I've yet found.)

15. There is a tendency for Islanders who run profitable businesses to give generously, especially in their wills, to projects that benefit everyone on the Island. A charity that subsidizes the cost of medicines prescribed by the doctor is well supported, with numerous fund-raising events throughout the year.

16. The day-to-day positive motivation of people not "brought up" with a mind-set based on ready access to State dependency is quite different from the negative motivation of residents of a Welfare State.

In short, about as ideal a place for my retirement as I have yet found, and only a short trip from two of my favorite cities. But, as Barry Cooper observes on his idiosyncratic website about the island: Unfortunately, in the opinion of the author and of many others, the current notion of democratic human rights has gained credence on the Island and the constitution is about to be changed to fit the Western democratic mould. Sark, soon to be ruled by people motivated to do what their electorate wants now, will become a different place.

Saturday, January 21

The Basketball/Motorcycle Diaries

I've loved watching Adam Morrison play this year for Gonzaga. I even like his wispy mustache, of which Bill Simmons rightly noted:

it's not a porn mustache. Please stop calling it that. Jake Plummer had a porn mustache. Wade Boggs had a porn mustache. Morrison has one of those late-'70s ABC Afterschool Special mustaches -- the guys with those 'staches always took Charlene Tilton or Valerie Bertinelli into their brown van, tried to make out with them, gave them some shrooms and panicked when they started OD'ing, ultimately driving them down to an abandoned parking lot and dumping their convulsing bodies behind a picnic bench. That's the Adam Morrison mustache.

What I don't like is the press's wonder at how brilliant he is because he--gasp!--reads! You'd hardly know that he was at college (and a real college, not UNLV or Cornell), where reading and thinking aren't supposed to be rare habits. This gushing over athletes that also manifest some of the habits of educated adults isn't exclusive to Adam Morrison, but the "Morrison shoots and reads!" storyline seems to have been fed to every lazy media outlet this year. I don't doubt that Morrison is a very intelligent and well-read student, but the fact that a student displays these traits shouldn't rate a mention unless he is in contention for a Nobel Prize (and not just the frivolous Peace Prize, a real Nobel Prize).

Of the many articles parroting this easy line, on Morrison the introduction to this interview by USA Basketball stands out:

Describing Kevin Costner's character Crash Davis in the movie Bull Durham, Max Patkin, the Clown Prince of Baseball (of course playing himself) notes to Susan Sarandon's character Annie, "He's a different type of player, he reads books without pictures." That's exactly how I'd describe Adam Morrison if somebody asked me to sum up the 20 minutes I spent with him after a USA National Team Trials session on Saturday.

It's not a knock on other college sophomores to say Morrison is "different." It's to be expected to find most guys on a college campus playing XBOX, Play Station 2 or watching television when you walk into his dorm room. That's all I did. I certainly never read Jack Kerouac . . .

So, after twenty minutes of conversation, your impression is that "he reads books without pictures?" I take it, then, that your dialogue wasn't exactly Socrates and Simmias, the sequel. A thousand more snide comments present themselves, but I will refrain; I am more interested in something Morrison has to say than in the risible Pete Sousa. The passage that caught my eye was this:

USA Basketball: I've heard that you're a well-read guy, who is you favorite author?

Morrison: Probably, hmm, there's too many. But probably Che Guevara.

. . .

USA Basketball: What turns you on about Che?

Morrison: Just the adversity he dealt with in life, what he did for small countries of the world as a whole. Standing up for lower people, instead of the top tier. That takes a lot of guts on the world level to do that. So that's what's drawn me to him.

Oh dear. The myth of Che, doomed romantic revolutionary (no sarcasm intended--he was all those things). Those defiant eyes emblazoned on countless banners, posters, and coffee mugs--empty vessels that can accomodate any disaffection. A symbol of rebellion simpliciter, a passionate rejection of . . . well, as The Wild One sneered, "whatta you got?" A little duende goes a long way. If global revolution has a brand, it is Albert Korda's photograph of Che, frozen for ever on a Havana balcony in 1960, uncompromising, almost inhuman in his utopian zeal. Shelley by way of Pol Pot; Byron by way of Stalin. What's the appeal? I don't know, though I've certainly felt it. Ondaatje wrote, "Why do I love most among my heroes those who sail to that perfect edge where there is no social fuel?" I know the feeling. There is a vertigo induced by contemplating fanaticism; standing on the righteous heights it is easy to imagine stepping off the edge, defying the gravity of history, tradition, stability--those petty human concerns--and trusting fate and a supreme will to carry you still higher, to a new, transformed reality.

But Nietzsche's Superman can't fly: Che's single-minded passion and rhetoric alone could not transform Cuban society. Like all revolutionaries he needed muscle, and Che carried his in his holster. Alvaro Vargas Llosa's article in the New Republic describes but a few pathetic victims:

On the eve of victory, according to Costa, Che ordered the execution of a couple dozen people in Santa Clara, in central Cuba, where his column had gone as part of a final assault on the island. Some of them were shot in a hotel, as Marcelo Fernándes-Zayas, another former revolutionary who later became a journalist, has written—adding that among those executed, known as casquitos, were peasants who had joined the army simply to escape unemployment.

Truly, Guevara lived his instruction to would-be followers: "Hatred as an element of struggle; unbending hatred for the enemy, which pushes a human being beyond his natural limitations, making him into an effective, violent, selective, and cold-blooded killing machine."

In addition to the executions he ordered or carried out, Che was also the architect of the modern Cuban labor and prison camps, where "disloyal" journalists, democratic reformers, and homosexuals are caged. Thankfully, beyond the ongoing brutality of those camps, Che's destructive seeds bear little fruit today. His attempt to foment "two, three, many Vietnams" in Africa and South America was a failure, though the current rebel leader in the Congo was personally trained by him, and death came early, though not too soon. Dennis Boyd describes Che's sad end game in Bolivia, where he was finally run to ground, as more comedy than tragedy:

By the time of his execution by CIA-backed Bolivian forces, Guevara's attempt to incite revolution in Bolivia had been reduced to little more than pathetic raids on village pharmacies in search of asthma medication [Guevara was asthmatic]. Not one Bolivian peasant had flocked to his banner.

A fitting requiem for a bloody dream.

Returning to Mr. Morrison, I wonder what, exactly, was it that he thinks Che "did for small countries of the world as a whole"? Chee certainly talked enough about what he would do for them, but his ambition far exceeded his ability, or at least his means. And as for "standing up for the lower people," it is true that many peasants rallied to support Castro's small rebel army, but often because they quickly learned that it's not smart to cross a revolutionary who has tasted blood. According to Che's admirably honest and spine-chilling admission: "Denouncing us put [the Cuban people] in danger, since revolutionary justice was speedy." This reminds me of an old Simpsons line: "there's no justice like angry mob justice," to which Che might add "unless it's revolutionary justice."

Maybe I'm reading too much into the Morrison interview. He seems to enjoy playing the showman on the court, so perhaps his off-court radicalism contains a healthy dose of intellectual brummagem. His coach and at least one teammate seem to think so:

"He's open to all thoughts,'' [Coach] Few said on the phone. "He's well read. He's a great debater. He enjoys a healthy debate. When you cut to the core, some of the things he says, he doesn't believe. I find it entertaining most of the time.''

Teammate Sean Mallon put a slightly different twist on Morrison's locker-room rhetoric, telling the Oregonian, "Sometimes he doesn't know what he's talking about, but that doesn't stop him from having a strong opinion.''

He's also young. I remember pooh-poohing the campus Marxist-Leninists as insufficiently radical sell-outs in my day. Perhaps, if he stays as well-read as the press describe him, Mr. Morrison will eventually come across John Lee Anderson's dispassionate and definitive biography of Ernesto Guevara; or, if he has read it, maybe he will see past Che's bravado and impassioned rhetoric to see what happens when one loves humanity more than individual people and ideas more than life itself. It is a lesson often observed but never fully learned. Every time we think it can't happen again, a Lenin, a Trotsky, a Mao, a Pol Pot, or a Che Guevara appears with a seductive dream of universal equality and prosperity, and a tongue as quick as his trigger finger, and the only thing we can know for sure is that thousands, if not millions, of lives will fall before the dream fails.

I know that Morrison will never read this post, but anyone else who is curious should read Anderson's book, if only for its entertainment value--Che's story is remarkable. Or, for a tour of the lowlights of Che's life from respectable (i.e., not obviously ideological) sources, please consider Sean O'Hagan in The Guardian's Observer (one of the few times I've ever described the Observer as respectable, but there you go), Boyd in the Kennedy School of Government's newspaper, and Llosa in the New Republic.

The Return of the Marsh Arabs



I have been entranced by stories of the Marsh Arabs since I first read Wilfred Thesiger's "The Marsh Arabs" in high school. An easy people to romanticize--a direct link to the ancient Sumerian empire*, living in the cradle of civilization on the very floodplains described in the Epic of Gilgamesh, they can be considered all of our ancestors--the Marsh Arabs were almost unknown even to their neighbors in Iraq and Iran until Thesiger published his account of living among them for eight years in the 1950s. (Speaking of Thesiger--one of the great explorers of the 20th Century, raised in the court of Emperor Melenik in Abyssinia and Eton, capturer of 2,000 Italians in World War II, killer of 70 lions, world-class eccentric, enthralling author, and indispensable photographic chronicler of ancient peoples and ways of life that would be eclipsed in one generation--his Telegraph obituary from 2003 is here). But back to the Marsh Arabs.

Jay Nordlinger has written an article about the recent fall and rise of the Marsh Arabs that deserves to be read. As it is not available online, I hope that he won't mind if I poach a little from his narrative to describe the horrors that this fascinating people endured under Saddam Hussein, and how their rapid recovery since his fall.

The Mesopotamian Marshlands--home of the Marsh Arabs-exist at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Many have imagined this area the site of the Garden of Eden. Until the early 1990s, this "Eden" was the Middle East's largest wetland, covering about 7,500 square miles. The Marsh Arabs . . . are among the oldest peoples on earth, dating back 5,000 years. . . . For all these millennia, they have lived in their marshes, gliding in their skiffs, called "mashoofs," and dwelling in their reed huts. . . .

The marshes were always a mysterious place, a haven and hideout for rebels, bandits, dissenters. When the Shiites failed in their uprising against Saddam after the first Gulf War [thanks Bush 41 and Powell], many of them sought refuge in the marshes. And the local residents, hating the regime . . . sympathized with them. . . .

What happened next is a picture of pure evil; it can scarcely be absorbed. In a massive push called the Third River Project, the regime created dams, dikes, and canals--and dried up the marshes. . . . With amazing speed, this vast wetland became a desert. The plants died, the animals died, water was nowhere. . . . Saddam destroyed a full 90 percent of the Mesopotamian Marshlands, establishing a military zone in their place. . . .

The elimination of the marshes caused the people to starve, flee, or die--and Saddam did all he could to make sure they died. He poisoned the lagoons; he shelled villages; he set reedbeds ablaze; he imprisoned, tortured, and executed; and he attacked these Iraqis with . . . chemical weapons.

Saddam's attempted genocide (a word often carelessly applied, but perfectly accurate here--there were 250,000 Marsh Arabs in 1991 and only 75,000 in 2003) was closely observed by an impotent West. Mr. Nordlinger describes the moving reporting done by Time and the New York Times documenting the swift decline of Marsh Arabs and the destruction of their home in the early 1990s.

Thankfully, the story did not end there. Until Saddam's removal it was impossible to begin to reverse the human, cultural, and environmental destruction. Since his fall, however, the Marsh Arabs, with coalition support, have enthusiastically set about that task. Nordlinger quotes from the New York Times's James Glanz:

. . . When Mr. Hussein's government fell in April 2003, villagers went to [a particular dike] and gouged holes in it using shovels, their bare hands and at least one piece of heavy equipment, a floating backhoe. Since then, something miraculous has occurred: reeds and cattails have sprouted up again; fish, snails and shrimp have returned to the waters; egrets and storks perch on the jagged remains of the walls, coolly surveying the territory as if they had never left.

This inspiring story should not make us forget Saddam's wickedness, the effects of which will never be wholly overcome. Although 40% of the marshlands have been reflooded, only half of that--one fifth of the original area--has been revegetated. And "[t]here are problems with the water: very salty and not as life-giving as it was." Serious concerns, but the people themselves are optimistic--100,000 exiles have returned since Saddam's fall. Even the polarizing journalist and indefatigable critic of America Robert Fisk is optimistic. My heart bled at the thought of the Marsh Arabs' brutalization under Saddam and it soars to learn of their resilience. If you read Thesiger as a boy, then you'll understand.

* Compare the stone images of Sumerian reed houses with the photos by Gertrude Bell from the 1910s and Thesiger from the 1950s on this excellent page. The arial photo of a floating village is particularly extraordinary.

Friday, January 20

The problem with the French is that they have no word for cowboy

Let me be clear about one thing: this post is not intended as a criticism of France or the French people. Events I describe may deserve criticism, but I am not offering it here. I have great admiration for France, for French culture (though more historical than contemporary), and Paris is, unquestionably, the greatest city I've ever had the pleasure to visit. With that said, some free flowing thoughts on France and America.

France, including its press (Le Monde, predictably, but also Le Figaro) and its government, has been disdainful of President Bush and his administration since his election. Particularly bilious criticism has been directed at what is perceived to be the United States' unilateral hubris--its willingness to exercise military force without international (read French) approval--and at the cowboy president who conducts such blunt diplomacy.

And now a few rough situations to ponder:

1. America's ultimate success or failure in Iraq is as yet unknowable. The current situation is an ideological Rorschach test, with the left resigned to American humiliation and advocating withdrawal and the right touting the success of three elections and predicting modest but steady progress towards the democratization of the Middle East. France's role in the Ivory Coast, by contrast, seems far more starkly parlous.

The Ivorian civil war is more established and intractable than the "civil war" that many see in Iraq, and France is caught squarely in the crossfire. Ever since 2004, when "Ivorian jets killed nine French soldiers . . . and France responded by crippling Ivory Coast's tiny air force," France has been unable to impose order on its former colony and unwilling to abandon its traditional role as capo of West Africa. In 2004, supporters of president Gbagbo attacked and looted French businesses and homes in Abidjan, and France instructed 16,000 non-essential French nationals to absquatulate toute de suite. In an ironic twist, at the same time that coalition forces were entering Iraq, Gbagbo's supporters took to the streets to protest French intervention in their national affairs and to invite the United States to intervene! (Sample sign: U.S.A. we need your help. Chirac is another Ben Laden [sic]. He is killing democracy in Ivory Coast. He supports rebels.")

This BBC FAQ is a useful primer for those who have not been following the conflict closely. Since moving back from London, I have realized that the Ivorian situation barely registers in the North American media, but it is a big story in France and the BBC and other English media outlets have also covered the precipitous fall of Western Africa's richest country closely.

Some quick background, partly from the BBC and partly from my own recollection:

The conflict began when Muslim and "foreign" (a broad designation in the hyper-nationalist Ivory Coast) rebels (the "New Forces") took up arms against the government of Laurent Gbagbo in response to laws intended to preserve Ivorian control of land and politics. They seized the north half of the country, which they still hold. French forces prevented the rebels from marching on the main city and port of Abidjan and a tense stand off has persisted ever since.

Since the mass of French nationals left, 4,000 French troops--carrying out the controversial Operation Unicorn--have held the rebel line alongside 6,000 U.N. peacekeepers. This buffer area is known as the "confidence zone,"--a"huge misnomer" according to the BBC, which reports that "[n]ot a week goes by without [the UN] being told of pople being killed or of other serious human rights violations."

That's the general background, but the reality is endlessly more complicated. If you think that Iraqi politics is confusing, check out this comment on the Ivorian situation:

Analysts say by calling for the dissolution of parliament, international mediators intended to strengthen [Prime Minister] Banny's authority and ensure that hostile deputies did not block attempts to implement the peace process, as happened last year.

I've been following the Ivory Coast crisis on and off for several years and it took me two readings to make sense of this. But maybe that's the two glasses of Aussie-Rhone hitting the old cerebellum.

Either way, we have a country referred to by the relatively neutral (in this case) British press as a "quagmire" and "the Wild West," occupied by a Western power, accused of occupation and a "constitutional coup d'etat" by the natives. And this isn't Iraq.

One important--or at least superficially important--difference between the two situations is that, unlike the U.S. in Iraq, France is in the Ivory Coast with UN Security Counsel approval. But that approval was only obtained through a botched American attempt at horse-trading: a U.S. vote for France's Ivorian intervention in exchange for a French vote for the American invasion of Iraq . As the Washington Post reported at the time: "Chirac might well explain to President Bush that some foreign interventions are worth the risk, nevertheless. To which the American leader might respond: Cher ami, that’s what I’ve been trying to tell you about Iraq." As it turned out, France rode off into the sunset on their American mount, while the French horse failed to turn up and the American's had to walk into Iraq without it. But, the botched deal shouldn't automatically legitimate France's Ivorian foray or invalidate the Iraq war: self-serving diplomacy cannot confer or deny moral authority and the two affairs should stand or fall on their own merits. As of today, with Ivorians surrounding the UN and French buildings in Abidjan and the country facing a growing crisis, it is far from clear which attempt at nation-building is faring better.

2. The president recently announced that, if attacked by terrorists, he is prepared to retaliate with nuclear weapons. The French president, that is. If Bush had said something like that he would have been denounced by, among others, the French president, faster than Cindy Sheehan could say "world's biggest terrorist." According to this report, Chirac "said that France's nuclear forces had been configured for such an event." I don't know what that means--have their missiles been redirected at likely state sponsors of terrorism? If so, I wonder which. I assume leaders in Iran, Syria, and the Sudan do to.

3. This saber-rattling is hardly new to France. It was Chirac who defied broad condemnation to continue testing nuclear weapons in the South Pacific until 1996. And, lest we forget, France actually blew up a Greenpeace vessel in 1985, killing a photographer on board. If an American president had ordered a stunt like the Rainbow Warrior attack (as Mitterrand almost certainly did), or persisted in detonating nuclear bombs against the explicit wishes of American allies, the U.N. would still be issuing rebukes.

As I began, so will I end. France did what it believed was in its national interest in each of these cases. Some of them were less honorable than others, but each was calculated to advance national economic or security goals. A leader's first (and, one might add, only) allegiance should be to his country, if necessary at the expense of international opinion. French politicians have understood this since America was a rebellious itch on Britain's imperial corpus, but Chirac also understands the necessity of personal political survival (especially when the path from the Elysée Palace leads straight to court). So why can't France accept the same principle when it is pursued by an American cowboy? Not because it doesn't understand, but because it would not in France's or Chirac's best interest.

Thursday, January 19

Vowel Play

My favorite story of the day*: German "grumpiness" (a delicate euphamism, to be sure) blamed on the fact that frowning is required to pronounce German vowels. Fascinating stuff. Who knows if it's true, but it should be.

*The story is actually five years old, but I just came across it today. The BBC website really is a treasure trove of worthy articles. (Of course, it should be, given the £78 million ($137 million) of taxpayer money spent on it in 2004/5 alone-- see p. 14 of the BBC's annual report.)

Canada: Come Ski the Slippery Slope!

I enjoyed this piece by Hudson Institute Senior Fellow John O'Sullivan from the Chicago Sun-Times. It is about the upcoming Canadian election, but what I appreciated was its pithy chronicle of Canada's plummet in global influence over the last half century.

In 1945 Canada was the world's fourth-largest military power. Its soldiers, sailors and airmen had played a major part on D-Day and in finally defeating Nazi Germany. And its national image was that of a tough, self-reliant, stand-up guy whom you would like on your side in a barroom brawl.

From 1945 to the present the history and changing national image of Canada was brilliantly summed up in the Monty Python song that begins "I'm a lumberjack and I'm OK" and gradually develops into "I put on women's clothing and hang around in bars." In other words, not necessarily someone you would like on your side in a barroom brawl.

O'Sullivan blames (who else?) Trudeau and, more broadly, the Liberal Party. No surprises there, but I think he is too easy on the Canadian people themselves. The old adage has it that a country gets the government it deserves (though, if this is true, you have to wonder what unspeakable sins the people of North Korea committed in previous lives). Trudeaumania, and its lingering hangover, which Mark Steyn has dubbed Trudeaupia, were and are popular phenomena, not dictatorships. It wasn't too different in kind from what happened on the United States coasts, in California, New York, and Massachusetts, but, for some reason, it took deeper root in Canada. Maybe American federalism, which was designed to preventjust such regional contagions infecting unwilling States, worked. Under Canada's much more centralized federation, Western Canada, which never embraced Trudeau as breathlessly as the electoral kingmakers Ontario and Quebec did, was steamrolled by the Liberal Party's national agenda. And, once the rot set in, it may be that the dependency cycle of the welfare state took over, spurred by judges who believed that their job description included social engineering. Entitlements once granted, are almost impossible to rescind, and usually beget more entitlements under the pressure of what Keith Joseph and Margaret Thatcher called the socialist ratchet. Thus does the social safety net gradually becomes a social safety hammock.

What was the substance of that rot? O'Sullivan describes it as:

left-liberal in politics, tightly regulated in economics, welfarist in social policy, officially bilingual and multicultural as regards national identity, allied to the United Nations and the Third World in foreign policy, and therefore self-consciously different from (and sometimes even hostile to) the United States.

And now polygamy. Absolutely unthinkable to our grandparents, but now raised as a legitimate possibility by a Justice Department-commissioned report and not exactly loudly and roundly condemned by the people or the press. The Canadian people have pledged allegiance to the doctrine of tolerance at all costs--"let tolerance be done, though the heavens fall"--for so long that they have forgotten how to object, how to say "thus far and no further," how to say (Gaia forbid) "thou shalt not." This isn't a routine policy debate, this is polygamy. Does anyone remember, oh last year, when polygamy was the bogeyman raised by opponents of same-sex marriage--a tactic condemned by same-sex marriage advocates as scare-mongering? Well, now a government study has endorsed decriminalizing polygamy,* and the response? Oh, well, what can you do. (Actually, it's hard to find any response on the CBC website, at least by using its search function). Maybe the Vancouver Winter Olympics can capitalize on the news with a new motto: Canada: Come ski the slippery slope!

Where is the passion to resist the inexorable implementation of a--let's not mince words--revolutionary agenda utterly contemptuous of Canada's traditional culture, faith, and history? I don't see it. And I don't see Canada reversing its 60-year slide into irrelevance quickly. It will take several consecutive terms of Conservative Party power just to slow the descent and lay the foundation for a revival. One can hope, but the Canadian people certainly make it difficult.

Or, as O'Sullivan concludes: [I]s there still a lumberjack under all that mascara?


* Actually, as best as I can tell, there were four studies, one of which strongly recommends decriminalizing and normalizing polygamy, one of which appears to support decriminalization, and two of which oppose decriminalization. That there is even a live debate on this issue would have been, frankly, amazing to anyone ten years ago.

Wednesday, January 18

Conservative Contradictions

Fodder for a very long post, which I will spare you for now:

[My publication] stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.
William F. Buckley, Jr., in National Review's debut editorial, November 19, 1955

If you're afraid of the future, then get out of the way, stand aside. The people of this country are ready to move again.
Ronald Reagan, in a speech to the Nevada Republican Party, October 7, 1982.

For some homework on the issue, I recommend starting at the beginning, with Burke, Adams, and Randolph, and then flitting ahead to Newman and Kirk, before landing on Hayek (particularly, "Why I Am Not A Conservative"), and von Mises. A haphazard committee of the usual suspects, I know, but if there is a way of reconciling them all, then I've not read it. Or, you can just ponder the question of why so many conservatives bemoan President Bush's lack of conservative bona fides at the same time that he is lambasted as the most conservative president in modern history by Democrat voters. For the Cliff Notes version of the internal conservative debate, you can just read Jonah Goldberg's old piece, which notes that conservatives (fortunately for most of them) "are comfortable with contradictions." The article also usefully repeats, or refers the reader to, two classic attempts at a description of conservatism, by Kirk and Buckley, as well as a more recent definition by the quintessential Anglo-American, John Derbyshire.

Or, you can follow Burke's lead and dismiss such abstract philosophizing as a waste of time (and suspiciously continental), and get on with the business of governing.