Sidebar: Friday, 28 November 2003
A bit more on the gay marriage issue: shrugging at the moral
absolutes that become law.
I'm not a fan of George Will, the somewhat dyspeptic (ill-humored)
conservative (not neoconservative) columnist. But he speaks often of baseball and writes about the game, so he has at
least one other side to his soul. In this Sunday's Washington Post he has a column on the gay marriage stuff
that is quite good.
Will opens with this:
When Massachusetts' highest court asserted that same-sex marriage
is a right protected by the state's constitution and entailed by recent U.S. Supreme Court reasoning about the U.S. Constitution,
the president vowed to "do what is legally necessary to defend the sanctity of marriage." His vow implied two empirical premises
for which conclusive evidence is lacking.
One is that law can do what the culture - immensely powerful and
largely autonomous - has undone.
The other is that the social goods and individual virtues that marriage
is supposed to buttress are best served by excluding same-sex couples from the culture of marriage, lest that culture be even
more altered than it recently has been.
More than 40 percent of first marriages in the United States end
in divorce. Cohabitation by unmarried heterosexual couples has risen rapidly, from 523,000 in 1970 to 4.9 million today. Procreation
outside of marriage, although the seedbed of millions of individual tragedies and myriad social pathologies, has lost much
of its stigma now that 33 percent of births - including about 60 percent of births to women younger than 25 - occur to unmarried
So the "sanctity" of American marriage is problematic. ...
Well.... That got me thinking.
How many laws do we have that were developed to "do" what the culture
has, in fact, pretty much undone? I'll have to think about that. Certainly such laws are often proposed.
Some are enacted into statutes that are enforced. One might think of America's great experiment with prohibition in
the last century. People were drinking. Tell them they can't. See what happens. Didn't work out.
Much of the law regarding marijuana is, similarly, an attempt to
lock the barn door after the horse has run off - as the stuff is widely and generally used - and the efforts by
the Republican right, to use federal law and the full force of the federal government to trump state law in any
state anywhere that seeks to legalize the use of marijuana for medical purposes. strikes me as a type of the same foolishness.
And I am by no means a big "states rights" kind of guy. It just seems to me like spitting in the wind. People
know better - at least most people do. Yeah, you can make it illegal. Won't do much good. People will
use it. Marijuana is, under federal law, a Schedule One narcotic - just like heroin. Oxycontin, the "hillbilly
heroin" that got Rush Limbaugh in such trouble, is a Schedule Two. Go figure.
As for gay marriage, we can indeed pass a Constitutional Amendment
to overturn what happened in Massachusetts, and what might happen in other states, with a federal change that overrides such
"local decisions" - and thus make "gay marriage" entirely illegal. But I suspect gay couples will still commit
to each other, and form households, and make do with what they can arrange by way of fiddling with the system. It's
a pain to work around the tax and insurance and inheritance issues, but people manage. And many of us will still recognize
these two particular folks are together and wish them well, and treat them as one would any friends. A good number of
people will shrug at the "illegality" of the "committed relationship," just as they shrug at a number of other laws.
Consider that a mild form of "civil disobedience" - one just
simply refuses to take a blue-nose law about what is "moral" very seriously.
You do what you feel is right.
And you are careful to avoid notice - and keep out of confrontation and trouble.
And you work quietly to get the law changed, or let it implode from its on weight (its inherent mixture of profundity
George Will goes in another direction:
Amending the Constitution to define marriage as between a man and
a woman would be unwise for two reasons.
Constitutionalizing social policy is generally a misuse of fundamental
law. And it would be especially imprudent to end state responsibility for marriage law at a moment when we require evidence
of the sort that can be generated by allowing the states to be laboratories of social policy.
Opponents of same-sex marriages argue inter alia that such
marriages will weaken marriage and injure society's interest in stable family units. Proponents argue inter alia
that giving same-sex couples the choice of marriage, with its presumption of permanence expressed in a network of responsibilities
and privileges, will reform not only homosexual life but society as a whole by strengthening the virtues that marriage is
supposed to sustain.
Evidence is inadequate to confirm either proposition.
Yeah, yeah. We see this. So?
Others will fight it out. The business of day-to-day living
in the here-and-now is another matter.
Sidebars: November 21, 2003
Item 1: Back to the Israelis and the Palestinians, again.
Avraham Burg, a Labor Party member of Israel's Knesset who served
as speaker of the Knesset from 1999 to 2003, had an opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times last week, translated
to English by J.J. Goldberg. Burg, whom I assume Sharon
thinks is an evil coward, made an interesting argument. The US needs to work this issue? Yep.
I like his quick and dirty summary of matters. "When they
kill us, they are continuing the experience of the Holocaust in our eyes. We cannot free ourselves from this. In the
deepest consciousness of many Israelis, Yasser Arafat is an unshaven Hitler, the suicide bombers are Nazis and their supporters
are savages. And when we respond by killing them we are reviving the humiliation of colonialism, the wrong inflicted
by the First World, the Christian West in its arrogant encounter with the Third World. White skin versus dark, rich
versus poor, technology versus primalism." Yep. So it goes.
And Bush should jump in this mess again? Ah, there are conditions.
When President Bush comes back, he must come alone, without the
baggage of fundamentalist clerics and would-be world redeemers, Christian evangelists pushing the rest of us toward Armageddon.
It wasn't for this that my people returned to the stage of history.
Good luck. You want Bush? You have to take his Christian
evangelical fundamentalist base too.
But it was an interesting read. I hope Goldberg's translation
U.S. Must Return to the Table / Only the West can bring peace to the Mideast. Avraham Burg November 16, 2003
The Los Angeles Times
The bodies keep piling up in the Middle East. The cries of the victims,
the keening of the mourners and the wail of the sirens have turned the Middle Eastern symphony into a terrible, hopeless saber
dance. Once again despair has conquered hope. Once again the petty details have banished the great dream.
And there in the background, fading off into the horizon, is the president of the United States, carrying in his backpack
the road map that was supposed to bring us out of our hell into the light of peace. I don't blame him. I'm merely
begging him to come back. ...
Item 2: For the bilingual and "near bilingual" of
Well , one "Spengler" in the Asia Times explains
a lot this week. He wrote an examination of, among other things, how we here in the United States go out of our way
to avoid knowing a second language.
His main topic is this - "...an intelligence
war is the kind America is least capable of fighting, for reasons inherent in the country's character. That
is one more reason why Islamic radicalism yet may defeat the West."
Hey! We're going to lose the war on terrorism because none
of us signed up for enough elective credits in foreign languages back in high school!
He's writing about spies and spying, yes. But mostly this
about language. "The average Hungarian headwaiter had a greater command of languages than today's doctoral students
in comparative literature at American universities. In terms of linguistic and cultural capacity, the US today commands
what may be the lowest-quality clandestine service of any great power in history."
So? Perhaps the CIA should recruit Hungarian headwaiters?
That's a thought.
His reasoning? Well, it mirrors my experience growing up in
Pittsburgh, where my parents refused to teach us a word of Slovak or Czech. We were to be "real Americans." My
grandparents hauled their sorry asses out of central Europe because they were starving, the Austrian-Hungarian Empire had
collapsed and the new nations taking its place were a mess. Forgot that crap. English alone was just fine - American
English. Forget Europe.
Spengler says it better:
Folk came to America precisely in order to shed their culture. More
precisely, they fled the tragic destiny of their cultures. Immigrants to America were the poor or the rebels. Not the
Milanese but the Calabrians, not the Berliners but the Bavarians, not the assimilated Jews of Germany but the persecuted Jews
of Russia made their way westward. These had little stake in their own cultures and no connection to the high culture
of the countries they abandoned. There are a few exceptions, e.g., the German political exiles of 1848, but these are
few. What did the Irish immigrants care for Shakespeare, or Russian-Jewish immigrants for Leo Tolstoy? They shed
their old culture almost as fast as their traveling-clothes.
And he follows that with a clear explanation of the implications
of this culturally, and the resulting problems of getting spies to work for us, and of planting our spies in the Islamic world.
But near the end he mentions two of our generals - General John Abizaid, the commander of US Central Command, who earned
a master's degree in Middle Eastern Studies in 1981 under Professor Nadav Safran at Harvard, "one of the best academics in
the field." And he mentions General Boykin, that evangelical Christian guy with the big mouth and no couth. Of
that evangelical Christian crew he says, "The evangelicals represent an important force in American politics, but have
little to contribute to the intelligence effort. Born-again Christians in some respects seem as if they were born yesterday.
Their educational institutions, such as they are, lack the sophistication to produce the sort of training that General Abizaid
received at Harvard when it was still available."
He says also one possible consequence of America's intelligence
failures may be a far greater degree of dependency for human intelligence (spies and spying) on countries where folks know
a few languages. We'll have to lean on Israel and India for that? Curious. Their folks may have their own
Fascinating stuff. We are a stubbornly insular people here
in the States, and mighty proud of it. I think that why this fellow Spengler spends some paragraphs discussing John
Wayne and John Ford and the movie "Stagecoach." Well, he does! You could look it up.
Item 3: Bush in England but Bush is not America
George Bush went to London to see the Queen - and whether that
is Elizabeth or Charles, or both, I'll leave you. (That is a joke regarding the scandal about Prince Charles's behavior,
but since no one followed that we'll let it pass.) I came across an article in which a British politician had
a few things to say about the visit, and about Americans. (He means "United States" Americans - as everyone from the
nether end of Chili to Hudson Bay is actually "American" - geographically.) He likes Americans.
Even "United States" Americans. No one believes him. At least his "United States" American friends do not.
He does know anti-Americanism:
There is undeniably a strand of cultural anti-Americanism which
is as old as the United States itself - from Dr Johnson's view that "I am willing to love all mankind, except an
American", to Evelyn Waugh's arrogant dismissal of "that impersonal, insensitive friendliness that takes the place
of ceremony in that land of waifs and strays". Even Charlie Chaplin declared that he had "no further use for
America. I would not go back there if Jesus Christ was president."
Such long-standing and, at times, vitriolic views of America find some resonance among American writers, from William
Burroughs to Gore Vidal. No group has been more critical of the American way than the indigenous intellectuals of that
vast land; and no group has been more vilified for its pains.
Did those folks really say those things? Evelyn Waugh lived out here in Los Angeles for a time. Is
that what Waugh thought of this place? And Los Angeles now - impersonal, insensitive friendliness? Is Jay
Leno really like that? And Pamela Anderson too? And Kevin Costner? (Costner walked by the other night while
I was having dinner on Sunset Plaza with my brother and two of his friends from Cincinnati and they thought Costner was "awesome."
It made their day.)
But back to this follow not agreeing with Bush - and thus immediately being called a bigoted anti-American.
His problem is that he doesn't like the "repeated transposition of America for George Bush. By this means, reasoned,
responsible and targeted criticism of the president's policies is misrepresented, for political ends, as an emotional reaction
to America itself."
Well someone should tell this fellow that the same thing happens on this side of the pond every single
day. Ann Coulter's career is based on that - she's sold many, many copies of Treason.
That's what people think - treason - when you suggest Bush has done or said something else boned-headed dumb, again.
How does that all play out on the streets of London for those who live with Tony Blair at the top?
... [Tony Blair] clings to the myth of the "special relationship" as justification for his dogged loyalty to
Bush and his extremely rightwing administration. It suits him to claim "the national interest" in support of his stance.
At the same time, critics of his position are painted as disloyal, unpatriotic and anti-American. At every opportunity
opponents of Bush are labeled, explicitly or implicitly, as unthinking bigots.
What is striking is just how erroneous a claim it is to caricature opponents of the Bush way in this manner.
Many of the critics of the president and his idiosyncratic views are fiercely pro-American in many respects. Many of
us have American friends and relatives who are equally horrified by what is being done in the name of the United States.
We admire many of the qualities of American public life denied to us within our own polity. Just compare freedom of
information within the American system to our own diluted and restrictive Freedom of Information Act.
Indeed. Seems so. Our press is rather free, and often even competent, whist over there Prince
Charles was repeatedly denying what he was accused of doing, but the UK law (their "Freedom of Information Act") prevented
anyone in the media from explaining just what Prince Charles might have done. One simply doesn't print unproven allegations.
Bad form. And illegal.
Well, I'm sure whatever it was Prince Charles did was quite nasty and amazingly unnatural. But I don't
know if he did it. Whatever it was.
Anyway, this is a good read.
Sidebar, November 14, 2003 - "Cut and Run?"
last week's mail, Nico in Montreal, Phillip in Atlanta, and Steph in London (Canada) discussed our options in Iraq.
Do we "cut and run" - or anything like that? See November 9, 2003 Mail for that.
It seems here that Molly Ivins has a view a bit different than that
of Nico regarding the "cut and run" business.
Now one might argue that this assertion is flat-out untrue: "Here's
what I think is the real problem. It's not so much that the number of attacks on Americans per day in Iraq has been creeping
up. It's that after these successful attacks on convoys, choppers or patrols, hundreds of Iraqis gather around the smoking
results and cheer. Call me alarmist, but I think that's a bad sign. I suspect they do not like being occupied by a foreign
power. They do not seem to think our intentions are benevolent."
Well, yeah. But perhaps Molly
is a victim of the media filter Bush says is giving us all the wrong impression.
She argues that cut-and-run, which may actually now be underway
as Bremer returned to Baghdad this to tell the locals to hurry up and start running things on their own soon, is fine
by her: "If you think I am going to disagree or make fun of them for doing such a 180, you are sadly mistaken. We have
seen the 180 many times before with Bush, usually when reality intrudes on ideology. Bug out before the election
next year, that's fine by me. I don't like seeing Americans killed by people we thought we had gone to help. I suspect this
is the ultimate no-win situation - the sooner we're out, the better. I do hold a grudge against all those folks
in the administration who convinced most Americans that his war was a dandy idea. There was no nuclear weapons program.
There were no weapons of mass destruction. Saddam Hussein had no ties to Al Qaeda, and if anyone sees an outbreak of peace
and democracy in Middle East, let me know."
I suspect Nico would call this irresponsible.
Her comments on how we got here are clear:
"I don't think the Bush administration lied to us about Iraq.
I think it's worse than that. I think they fooled themselves. I think they were conned by Ahmad Chalabi. I think they indulged
in wishful thinking to a point of near criminality. I think they decided anyone who didn't agree with them was an enemy, anti-American,
disloyal. In other words, I think they're criminally stupid. Since I keep trying to find helpful suggestions from any
source, let's see if a fast political handover will help any...."
Sidebars, November 9, 2003
Item 1: On the uses of humiliation as a tool for foreign
policy, and a teaching method, and as a management tool...
Thomas Friedman had some interesting comments in the November 9th
New York Times. His topic was "humiliation" as a policy aim of our government, and an operating methodology,
in international affairs.
He says folks don't like being humiliated and do nasty things when
they are. No kidding, Tom.
I suspect our government, and most of the American people, see this
business with the Islamic radicals warring on us in the West as a zero-sum game - one side
or the other side is going to be humiliated, and, no matter what, it's not going to be our side that is humiliated, damn it!
Freidman seems to see the world the other way - as a place where you may not get everything you want, but where no one
has to walk away totally humiliated, where each side can get some of what it wants. Two ways of viewing things.
What I saw in the seventies when I was an English teacher?
This would describe two ways of teaching, and back then I worked for a guy who thought it was his job to humiliate his students
and to maintain his own dignity. This, he argued, at great length in the faculty room two or three times each week,
taught the students about the real world, and about "consequences" - whatever that meant. His favorite line had
something to do with reminding the kids that they were just kids and didn't know jack about much of anything, while reminding
them he was the adult who knew things, and they didn't, so they'd better listen. I don't remember the exact words.
But I do remember his favorite quotation from Ring Lardner - "Shut up," he explained.
What I saw in the eighties and nineties when I was managing systems
analysts and programmers and, finally, project managers? This would describe two ways of managing people in large business
organizations. Do you make them know their place and just what is their proper sphere, allowing nothing that hints of
insubordination, or do you try to tap their potential by assuming they're pretty smart with good ideas, and maybe even smarter
than you are, even if you are their manager? Do you keep things loose, open and flexible? This second alternative
can lead to a bit of chaos and some flaky efforts, but can return goodies that are obvious - new ideas, enthusiasm, loyalty
and commitment. The first alternative, while it results in a sort resentful order, also comes with diamond clear focus
on the task at hand, with meeting deadlines precisely, and precise and efficient division of labor. Good and bad each
way. Take your pick. Most managers leaned one way or the other, while some tried to find a middle ground.
But Freidman speaks of Iraq. Key comments:
- "Why have the U.S. forces never gotten the ovation they expected
for liberating Iraq from Saddam's tyranny? In part, it is because many Iraqis feel humiliated that they didn't liberate themselves,
and America's presence, even its aid, reminds them of that. Add the daily slights and miscommunications that come with any
occupation, and even the best-intended liberators will wear out their welcome over time."
- "Never, ever underestimate a people's pride, no matter how broken
they might be. It is very easy for Iraqis to hate Saddam and resent America for overstaying. Tap into people's dignity and
they will do anything for you. Ignore it, and they won't lift a finger. Which is why a Pakistani friend tells me that what
the U.S. needs most in Iraq is a strategy of "dehumiliation and re-dignification."
Freidman has some good stories to illustrate this. You could
check it out.
Item 2: A retired "hawk" has a problem with the current
Zbigniew Brzezinski, former National Security Adviser in the Carter
adminitration, gave a speech on the 28th to a conference for the group New American Strategies for Security and Peace
in Washington and wrote a condensed version for the Washington Post that appeared this weekend. Zbigniew may
have once been a big gun in international diplomacy but, some would argue, he's out of touch now.
He opens with a story about Charles de Gaulle and Dean Acheson that
one assumes Ann Coulter has already said is simply not true - because "everyone knows how the French are." I'd
like to believe it is true as told, but of course, who are you going to believe? She will say Zbigniew is a liar.
Case closed? Depends on who you believe.
Forty years ago, an important emissary was sent to France by a beleaguered
president of the United States. It was during the Cuban missile crisis and the emissary was a tough-minded former secretary
of state, Dean Acheson. His mission was to brief French President Charles de Gaulle and solicit his support in what could
become a nuclear war involving not just the United States and the Soviet Union but the entire NATO alliance and the Warsaw
At the end of the briefing, Acheson said to de Gaulle, "I would now like to show you the evidence, the photographs
that we have of Soviet missiles armed with nuclear weapons." The French president responded, "I do not wish to see
the photographs. The word of the president of the United States is good enough for me. Please tell him that France stands
Ah, those were the days....
And then Zbigniew compares the Bush line, "Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists," to Lenin's
approach to things. Yipes! "I suspect that officials who have adopted the 'with us or against us' formulation
don't know its historical origins. It was used by Lenin to attack the social democrats as anti-Bolshevik and to justify handling
them accordingly." Jesus, and Mary, Mother of Jesus does this Brzezinski guy want to die?
And then this Brzezinski fellow tries to undercut our brave soldiers
with this - "In Iraq we must succeed. Failure is not an option. But we have to ask ourselves what is the definition
of success. More killing, more repression, more effective counterinsurgency? The introduction of new technologies to crush
the resistance? Or is success an effort to promote, by using force, a political solution?" Surely he knows that's
the whole point. As Cheney said, these people only respect strength. Yeah, right.
And I suppose he shows he's soft on why all this is happening when he says "We need to ask who is the enemy.
They are not, to quote the president again, people who 'hate things,' whereas 'we love things.' Or people who simply hate
freedom. I think they do hate, but I don't think they sit there abstractly hating freedom. They hate some of us. They hate
some countries. They hate some particular targets. But it's a lot more concrete than these vague quasi-theological formulations."
Hey, General Jerry Boykin said we're fighting the great Satan, because our God is the real God and theirs is not. (Well,
a minor investigation of a small bit of theological history would show, actually, that it's the very same God - but no matter.)
Would you rather side with Boykin or this Brzezinski guy? Bush and Rumsfeld sided with Boykin. He kept his job.
This Brzezinski guy is unemployed, isn't he? And isn't he also Polish, for God's sake?
And this guy was the "hawk" in the Carter administration everyone hated because he was so dangerous and ready for
It's an interesting read.
Sidebar, November 1, 2003
THE AMERICAN STORY
Back in May and June - see below The BBC versus We Report, You Decide, or "Tell Me A Story." - I was saying that what gives a news story "legs," what makes important events into sustainable news stories, is
a sense of narrative. Is there a story - with a conflict, interesting characters, resolution and dénouement?
That is what creates the "reality" of what is happening in the world - not the facts, not
what is "news." It is "the story."
We ask the news folks to give us the "real story," not just the facts. And the news folks
respond. O'Reilly at Fox: "Here's the real story - behind the facts." Scarborough at MSNBC:
"Here's the real story - behind the facts." You hear it all the time.
William Pfaff in the International Herald Tribune - the dullest, most drab English-language
newspaper in Paris - extends that idea in an analysis dated November 1st. Pfaff contends that nations too have a "story"
that makes them important nations. He argues that the United States had worked up a fine narrative of what we were and
what we were doing in the world, a "story" that kept the world enthralled and pretty much with us.
Everyone likes a good story. I guess humans have a need for such "framing" to make sense
of the world.
Pfaff examines how since 1942 we had developed a coherent, heroic narrative "to explain our
place in the flow of history and to give meaning to our actions" as he puts it. And he goes on to argue that we have
now made it so that most of the world thinks our heroic narrative is pretty much bullshit.
He says this:
The American story since 1942 (and before) is well known, and is considered by Americans and
others a story reflecting responsibility and high-mindedness. Despite aberrations in Vietnam and Latin America,
the American story of responsible world leadership has been accepted among democracies as an essentially valid account of
the role modern America played during the years leading up to the collapse of the Soviet Union. The problem today is that,
in the view of many others, the story has changed. Another one has taken its place, even though most Americans deny that this
... the American story has always described a confrontation between the Elect and the Evil.
When the Soviet Union no longer fulfilled the latter role, Washington tried out several possible
successors, finally settling on "rogue nations" - those professing radically un-American ideas and that give evidence of wanting
to possess nuclear deterrents.
Their feebleness, however, tended to diminish their credibility when cast in the role of global
Evil. Then came Sept. 11, and the problem was solved. The rogue nations now became the Axis of Evil.
Well, we have spun that story. Many of us really do believe it, a tale told daily in
Washington with more and more insistent fervor.
The tale? There is no complexity in the world. There is no middle ground.
Now is the time, the historical moment, when people and nations must choose between the pretty much absolute good (us),
or what most certainly is absolute evil (them). Any disagreement with even minor points of policy or tactics, or timing,
and you are told you obviously have decided to align yourself with the forces of pure evil, that you worship Saddam Hussein,
and you probably molest children and push little old ladies into traffic, just for the evil fun of it.
The tale being told does not allow for "the evil other" to have any credible grievance against
the good guys. That cannot be part of the story. We are told they hate us because we are free. That's it.
Well, it could be a little more complex that that. Outside our borders folks suspect
things actually may be a little more complex than we tell in this tale.
Of course each of us decides about that, about complexity. Some folks are naturally more
skeptical than others. Each of us decides what to believe.
The most direct question I am asked by my conservative pro-war friends is just why I so oddly
persist in making things so complex when things just are not complex at all. I am told that considering complexity is
"evil" in and of itself. Perhaps so.
All this makes it hard to hold any kind of discussion about what to do, day to day, about what
needs to be done in the world.
The current position of the United States government is that, in this tale, this narrative,
the time for discussion has long passed. Pfaff quotes an Irish politician at that recent meeting in Portugal where the
United States had a sort of fund-raiser to get some backing for rebuilding Iraq. The fellow had thought of himself as
one of America's best friends abroad. And he said, "It's as if they can't hear." Wrong. We
can hear. We just know that in this particular story what we might hear is not relevant in the slightest way.
Pfaffs conclusion? "...what actually has happened during the past nine months is
something Americans have yet to grasp, and that others have yet to say out loud: People outside the United States have stopped
believing the American story. They don't think terrorism is an Evil force the United States is going to defeat. They
say instead that terrorism is a way people wage war when they don't have F-16's or armored divisions. They say that
Chechens, Moros, Taliban, Colombian insurgents, Palestinian bombers and Iraqi enemies of the U.S. occupation do not really
make up a single global phenomenon that the world must mobilize to defeat. They say that, actually, they had never really
believed the American story in the first place. They had listened to it because Washington said it, and they respected Washington.
Now they don't.
It seems we need a new myth, a new narrative. Or we need to redouble our current international
public relations effort, which seems to consist of us saying, in various ways, about our good versus evil story, "It's
true, it's true, it's really true!" - until folks believe us.
Yes, that is what Tweety-Bird keeps saying again and again in those old Warner Brothers cartoons.
The link should you care to read Pfaff, is here:
A fiction shattered by America's aggression...
The International Herald Tribune Saturday, November 1, 2003
Syndicated elsewhere by Tribune Media