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"It is better to be drunk with loss and to beat the ground, than to let the deeper things gradually escape."

- I. Compton-Burnett, letter to Francis King (1969)

"Cynical realism – it is the intelligent man’s best excuse for doing nothing in an intolerable situation."

- Aldous Huxley, "Time Must Have a Stop"

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Friday, 23 January 2004

Topic: Bush

There is such a thing as honor.

Something has been bothering me about President Bush's State of the Union speech a few days ago. I wasn't sure what it was. Here Colbert King hits on it.

This is the problem.

See Empty Words for the War-Torn
Colbert I. King, Saturday, January 24, 2004; The Washington Post, Page A19

The piece is long but here's the core:
Last Tuesday night was an opportunity for George W. Bush to eulogize the fallen, a chance for him to tell their families what their sacrifices mean to the nation - a time for the president to help heal broken hearts. That didn't happen.

Yes, in his long address to a joint session of Congress, Bush offered a few words of praise for the skill and courage of the men and women in the military. He delivered a line about "sorrow when one is lost," and shared a self-serving recollection of himself landing on the deck of a carrier in the Pacific Ocean and his Thanksgiving Day fly-in to Baghdad.

There was also a pledge to supply the troops with all the resources they need to fight and win. But victims of the Iraq war, as well as their moms, dads, spouses, children, neighbors and friends, deserved more than what they got from the president.

Instead of a moment of silence for those who have paid the ultimate price, they heard presidential pitches for prescription drugs and a new immigration law, and a denunciation of steroids and gay marriage. Instead of hearing the president recognize the preciousness of young lives expended far from home, they got a plea to put Social Security taxes in personal retirement accounts. Instead of telling the country why it should remember what the dead and dying stood for, Americans were given an earful on child tax credits, the death tax and cuts in taxes on capital gains.
That's it.

Perhaps I'm more sensitive to this as I do have a nephew in the Army, a major at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, out near Barstow. He trains the guys who go to Iraq and Afghanistan. And by the way, Wesley Clark used to be in command of the National Training Center at Fort Irwin. Anyway, my nephew deserves better from his Commander In Chief.

Yes, Tuesday was the time to tell U.S. families whose sons and daughters are losing their lives and limbs that their brave sacrifices still make sense. Tuesday was the time to explain why we are still getting hammered by a growing budget deficit, and why the military is stretched to nearly the breaking point. Yes, the families needed "an honest answer as to why young men and women in uniform are expected to fight and die in country dominated by clerics who want our protection as they vie for power and, once they get it, want us gone."

Instead, we got a Bush speech laying the groundwork for his quest for reelection.

King adds this:
This does not come from a Bush hater. He rallied the nation after Sept. 11, 2001, and set the right tone for a military response to al Qaeda. George W. Bush is not the ogre his critics make him out to be. But if ever the country needed a commander in chief who understands the horrors and wastes of war, it's now. That kind of president was not on display Tuesday night.
And that was the problem.

And maybe that does explain the appeal of people like Senators John Kerry and John McCain, retired general and Secretary of State Colin Powell, and retired General Wesley Clark.

King quotes a long passage from Kerry's book about his days in Vietnam. The writers at The Wall Street Journal always refer to Kerry as the "haughty French-looking senator who by the way served in Vietnam." Funny - like his three Purple Hearts for his wounds, and his Bronze Star and the Silver Star for gallantry in action. Real funny.

The passage, describing how a soldier dies, is graphic. Click on the link and read it, or buy the book. The account also appeared in "Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War," by Douglas Brinkley, in the December 2003 issue of Atlantic Monthly.

And yes, a president who has been down in the trenches and seen people die would never have gone up to Capitol Hill in the midst of war and delivered the kind of State of the Union speech that the nation heard Tuesday night.


Posted by Alan at 21:55 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Friday, 23 January 2004 22:02 PST home

Topic: World View

Thoughts on chucking it all and moving to France ...
I suppose if you get your news in a funny-sounding language you need to work hard to really understand, what any politician says become much more palatable. You expect nonsense, so to speak. And there are other things to consider.

My friends accuse me of being a bit of a Francophile. Yes. I am. All those visits to Paris would make it seem so, and right now I a smoking a pipe I picked up at Au Ca?d.

Au Ca?d? See Heather-Stimmler Hall, who doesn't smoke, in her Secrets of Paris Newsletter: "Just to show I'm not biased, here's a smoke shop you should visit. Au Ca?d is one of the oldest boutiques in St. Michel neighborhood, selling pipes, cigars and tobacco accessories for 120 years. Au Ca?d 24, bd Saint-Michel, 6th 01-43-26-04-01."

But Ric Erickson of MetropoleParis sent me an email a few months ago saying he thinks they've finally closed. Oh well.

Be that as it may, I finally got around to reviewing the British magazines, being, I hope, even-handed. And what do I find? This in The Spectator, the Cover Story of 3 January 2004.

See: Escape from Barbarity: Theodore Dalrymple says he is turning his back on the ugliness and emptiness of Britain and moving to France, which for all its faults he considers a more civilised country than his own...

Say what?

Here's the scoop:
This year is the centenary year of the Entente Cordiale, and I intend to celebrate it by buying a house in France (the acte authentique, the final signing, takes place later this month) and, in the not very distant future, by living there. Whether this will improve Anglo-French relations remains to be seen.
It seems Ted is about to turn is back on the Anglo-American culture.

So what's his reasoning? Is France such a fine place? No.
France is no terrestrial paradise, but I know from experience of living abroad that other country's blemishes do not affect you in the same way as your own country's blemishes, which weigh heavily on your soul. You can observe the failings of foreign politicians with amusement and the intractability of foreign social problems with detachment. It is only when living abroad that Dr Johnson's dictum that public affairs vex no man, comes true - at least for me.
So he's fed up with "public affairs." Aren't we all?

Well, I suppose if you get your news in a funny-sounding language you need to work hard to really understand, what any politician says become much more palatable. You expect nonsense, so to speak.

But there's more.
Is France in better shape than Britain? Its countryside is emptier, which for someone like me, who has had enough of crowds in general and people in particular to last him a lifetime, is good enough. I know it is a high-tax economy - bureaucratic and sclerotic in many respects - but at least the people seem to get something in return for their taxes. France's infrastructure, public transport and healthcare are far better than Britain's. It would be nice if we in Britain got something - anything - tolerably decent in return for our taxes, but with the increasing moral and intellectual corruption of our public services that I have seen over the years, and the unimpeded advance of willful administrative incompetence into every nook and cranny of public life, I do not think that there is any prospect of that.
Now that's interesting. Open space and high taxes, but good services are appealing. Not to Americans who think taxes and government are evil, but this Brit seems to be okay with that.

What about all the turmoil over there with the Muslim population and unemployment and anger and all that?
France has social problems that are nearly as great as ours. Although one looks in vain in the centre of Paris or other cities for the brutal and brutalised faces that one sees everywhere in Britain, and that are now the defining national characteristic of the British, France has a substantial underclass too. Whether by accident or design, France has opted for the South African solution to the problem: geographical isolation. It confines its underclass in satellite cities around major conurbations that can be sealed off by a single tank and by halting a few trains. If push ever came to shove, and there was a social explosion, I have little doubt that the Declaration of the Rights of Man would have little influence on the French official response. As the South Africans used to say before they discovered morality, `They will only foul their own nest.' And certainly such an explosion is not impossible: I recently visited the housing estates that ring Paris, and the alienation and hatred I found there exceeded by far anything I have ever encountered in this country. It was extremely frightening.
Wait! He just compared France to South Africa under Apartheid. And he said France was "frightening."

It seems to me there ought to be something to counterbalance the sort of fascism he implies.

Well, he argues for civilization and politeness.
But, for all that, France still seems to me a more civilised country than Britain. It is less dominated by mass distraction (known here as popular culture, but in Nineteen Eighty-Four as prolefeed) than Britain is.

France's mass distraction is amateurishly produced in comparison with the cynical slickness of its Anglo-American equivalent, and this really is a case of the worse the better. There are no tabloid newspapers in France to compare with ours, and while the word `Anglo-Saxon' in Le Monde, Lib?ration and Le Figaro carries a burden of ideological disapproval and even subtle insult (it means, among other things, savage economic liberalism), there is nothing to compare with the vulgar ignorant abuse of the French to be found in our red-top newspapers, produced for the masses by people who ought to (and in fact do) know better. French newspaper readership is the lowest in the Western world, and while I suppose it is possible to discuss whether this is a good or a bad thing, I personally find it a relief.

There is as yet among the young of France no cult of mass public drunkenness, as there is in Britain, no ideological triumph of vulgarity that subdues the political elite into insincere, but nevertheless damaging, acquiescence, as in Britain.

There is still a residue of respect for high culture in France. Not long ago, I went to an exhibition in Paris of Ecuadorean baroque religious sculpture, and discovered that the introduction to the catalogue was written by none other than Jacques Chirac (or at least he had appended his name thereto). Would Mr Blair dare do such a thing? In France, an association with Ecuadorean baroque sculpture would only improve - admittedly to a small extent - the President's political standing; in Britain, it would harm the Prime Minister's image, and cast damaging doubts upon his sexuality.
Perhaps this fellow idealizes the situation. Perhaps. One should read all the graffiti on all the walls in Paris. The "residue of respect for high culture" is thin... very thin.

Well, the author knows this high culture stuff is posing and posturing. But he prefers at least "phony cultivation" to Blair and Bush chomping on fried pork rinds in Texas at the ranch while discussing the Bush dogs.
Is it better to have phoney cultivation in charge than militant philistinism? (Does anyone really believe the disgraceful old cynic Mr Chirac, and could anyone not laugh when he writes of these admittedly beautiful works, `The marvellous sculptures gathered here, works of anonymous artists or artists with entries in the great book of History such as Bernardo de Legarda and Manuel Chili `Caspicara', move us by their humanity, their tenderness, the extreme softness of their expression'?) No doubt the philistinism of Mr Blair is entirely sincere, unlike his other shifting passions, but for myself I prefer phoney cultivation. If hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue, an insight we owe to that great dissector of the human soul, the French writer of maxims, La Rochefoucauld, then phoney cultivation is the tribute that barbarism pays to civilisation. But at least it knows what civilisation is, knowledge that has been lacking among British government ministers for quite a long time.
Well, quote La Rochefoucauld doesn't exactly make you friends. But he should know, we on this side of the pond, have a president who revels in his contempt for "cultivation." We honor cowboys who have read nothing, and know nothing, but are silent "doers" of honorable deeds. Bush is close enough, it seems, for most folks here.

Anyway, this Brit then turns to minor matter, like humor:
The English, so another Frenchman once observed, take their pleasures sadly. If only that were so: those were the good old days. It used to be the case that you realised the futility of life when you watched the English enjoying themselves, but now it is far worse and more depressing than that; they take their pleasures noisily, offensively, brutally, antisocially. They can't enjoy themselves without screaming, baring their teeth, hitting each other over the head with broken bottles, eructating and vomiting. You see none of this in France, at least on a mass scale, which is what counts in determining the quality of life.
Well, the question of the French sense of humor has been discussed on this site. See this from Sunday, 21 December 2003, Jerry Lewis, Monty Python and ? Le P?re No?l est une Ordure ? for a discussion of British, French and American humor. The jury is still out.

But yes, the French are, generally, polite and formal, and I have discussed with my friend LC, working now in Pairs, and Kevin, recently returned. It is different there.

And this Brit knows it.
... I doubt that many French patients address their doctor by the equivalent of `mate', as young British patients now do. The mere usage of Madame and Monsieur makes France a more polite country than Britain, despite its (in my experience undeserved) reputation for rudeness.
So how do you make a decision to chuck it all and move to France?

You try to be realistic.
Of course, everything is going to the dogs in France as well as in Britain - at my age, you can expect nothing else; such expectations are genetically hard-wired into the aging human brain - but more slowly and gracefully. The charm of France will see me out, but their education system is falling to bits, their educationists are making the same wicked mistakes as our own, young Frenchmen can't write or spell their own language properly, and crime is rising, so that the statistics, always doubtful, suggest that their crime rate is 80 per cent of ours - that is to say abominably high. Administrative incompetence, indifference and cruelty are not confined to this side of the Channel: for example, not long ago I read a book by a prison doctor in France which, if a true reflection of what goes on in Paris's largest prison, La Sante, puts all prison abuses in Britain in the shade.

And yet there is more to a civilisation than the sum of its problems - at least, if it has any charms. Try as I might, however, I can see little charm to life in Britain, even if its vaunted economic recovery were not, as it clearly is, a house of cards. The British strike me as frivolous without gaiety and earnest without seriousness, which is why Mr Blair is so apt a leader for them.

... I am not starry-eyed about France, and I know that it has many skeletons in its cupboard (the latest to emerge is the treatment of the Harkis, the Algerians who sided with the French during the war of independence and moved to France when it was over). But the fact is the French are a great nation, and they have contributed disproportionately to every field of higher human endeavour, from mathematics to literature, from art to physics and medicine. Much more than the British, they retain a respect for the civilisation they have wrought, and if at times their pride is irritating and absurd, and Paris is not the centre of the world because nowhere is the centre of the world, it is better than the loss of spirit one sees in Britain, whose self-doubt is an ideological pretext for mental laziness and excruciating bad taste.
Okay, now we see. This fellow is just an overeducated elitist! And a grumpy one at that!

Well he does admit it. But he adds that there are others are like him, but "fear of appearing elitist in this country is now greater than any desire to preserve civilization."

Maybe so. His conclusion?
The French are some years behind us in the race to cultural oblivion. No doubt they will catch up with us in the end, but I hope not to see it in my rural fastness. For the moment, they still order things better there.

Perhaps he will follow up with an article in a year's time recanting this all.

We shall see.

Since I am toying with the idea of doing what he is doing, I will watch for that.


Minor note:

The Spectator, where this appeared, is a publication of the Hollinger Group, owned now, but perhaps not by the time you read this, by the ex-Canadian conservative apologist Conrad Black. Check the business pages. For background see, from Monday, 22 December 2003 here, Follow-Up: Smelling a rat early... Lord Black and his pearl.

The Spectator this week?

See The Ballad of Connie and Babs
24 January 2004 Cover Story
Peter Oborne says that Conrad Black was a great newspaper proprietor, but he and his glamorous wife Barbara made a fatal mistake in trying to conquer America

Fascinating stuff.

Posted by Alan at 12:04 PST | Post Comment | Permalink

Topic: Bush

Today?s ironies, courtesy of CURSOR.COM

Knight Ridder reports that when President Bush claimed in his State of the Union address that "the people of Iraq are free," he was fresh from discussing the prospect, based on an oral report from CIA officers, that Iraq may be heading into civil war. Responding to a press briefing question from NBC's Jim Miklaszewski, the Commanding General of the 4th Infantry acknowledged that "we have to be aware of that potential.?

On the day after Bush called for extending the USA Patriot Act in his SOTU address, the Los Angeles City Council become the 237th - and largest - local government to adopt what the ACLU calls a "pro-civil liberties resolution," urging a narrowing of the act.

U.S. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld is considering plans to target Syria via Lebanon, reports Jane's Intelligence Digest. By sending special forces into Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, the U.S. would be deliberately risking a confrontation with Syrian forces, says Jane's.

Do you feel better now?

Oh yes, and this:

Halliburton has fired two employees of its Kellogg Brown & Root subsidiary, that allegedly demanded and received up to $6 million in kickbacks from a Kuwaiti company for awarding work supplying U.S. troops. The revelation comes less than a week after Halliburton was awarded a new $1.2 billion contract to boost oil production in southern Iraq.

Now you're all up to date.

Posted by Alan at 10:31 PST | Post Comment | Permalink

Thursday, 22 January 2004

Topic: Oddities

Department of Blog Corrections: Old Parrots

On Tuesday, 20 January 2004, I posted this: Living History ? The Past is Always With Us. This was an item reporting that British war leader Winston Churchill's 104-year old parrot had been found by reporters from a British newspaper, and was still alive.

On the MSNBC show Countdown I saw a feature on this. I saw the bird.

Now there is some dispute. This seems to be a hoax.

See Churchill's rude parrot seems to be a flight of fancy
The Star (South Africa), January 22, 2004
London - Winston Churchill did not own a macaw and certainly did not teach it to swear, according to his daughter and experts on the British wartime leader.

They have been at pains to debunk reports that the parrot is alive and still cursing Hitler.

"My father never owned a macaw or anything remotely resembling it," Mary Soames said, although she acknowledged he had owned an African Grey for about three years before the war.

"The idea that he spent time in the war teaching it swear words is too tiresome for words," 81-year-old Lady Soames said.

She was responding to reports on Monday that the macaw was still shouting "F*** Hitler, f*** the Nazis" with Churchillian intonations from its perch in a garden centre, at the age of 104.

Charlie, the blue and yellow macaw at the centre of the controversy, currently lives in Reigate, south of London. Its owner, Peter Oram, insists the bird used to live with Sir Winston, causing consternation to Churchill's guests and providing its owner with constant amusement.

Oram says his father-in-law, Percy Dabner, sold Charlie to Churchill in 1937 and then took the bird back after his death in 1965.

The story now appears to be a hoax. - Sapa-DPA
Oh well.

The bird in question lives in Reigate in Surrey? The Holmes story The Reigate Puzzle that Arthur Conan Doyle penned opens with this:
It was some time before the health of my friend Mr. Sherlock Holmes recovered from the strain caused by his immense exertions in the spring of '87. The whole question of the Netherland-Sumatra Company and of the colossal schemes of Baron Maupertuis are too recent in the minds of the public, and are too intimately concerned with politics and finance to be fitting subjects for this series of sketches. They led, however, in an indirect fashion to a singular and complex problem which gave my friend an opportunity of demonstrating the value of a fresh weapon among the many with which he waged his life-long battle against crime.
But when Watson and Holmes arrive at the home of Colonel Hayter in Reigate there is no parrot.

I should have known.

Posted by Alan at 16:11 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Thursday, 22 January 2004 16:19 PST home

Topic: The Culture

Breaking Movie News: I know we're supposed to be very, very afraid, because the evil, swarthy Muslim fanatics are trying to destroy our western civilization. That's the real war. Got it.

But now is the Christian right, led by Mel Gibson, telling us Jews are evil because they murdered Sweet Jesus?

This is getting downright confusing.

The Pope said what? The Anti-Defamation League said what?

In the parent magazine of this blog, Just Above Sunset, I posted a discussion of Mel Gibson's new film The Passion. You can find that at September 21, 2003 Reviews, typos and all, under the title of Collective guilt as a theological concept, and Hollywood marketing tool: Mel Gibson and the ADL.

A brief review:
The buzz out here, and in the entertainment pages in general, has been about Mel Gibson's new film The Passion, and it won't be released for another seven months. The film chronicles the last twelve hours of the life of Jesus. Gibson plans on Easter as the release date for the movie, but not everyone is okay with this film. After screening an early version of the film with Mel Gibson, the Anti-Defamation League's national headquarters began to voice concern.

The ADL, whose mission is to "stop the defamation of the Jewish people and secure justice and fair treatment to all people alike," argues that the film is theologically and historically irresponsible in regards to the crucifixion.

Many conservative Christians who have attended private screenings of The Passion have called it "the most powerful depiction" they have seen of Jesus' final hours. But [the ADL] has argued for months that the portrayal of Jews in the events leading to the crucifixion will promote anti-Semitism.

And of course Bill O'Reilly has had Gibson on his Fox News "The O'Reilly Factor" to counter Jewish criticism of the film. The "conservative Christian right" is rallying around Gibson.

Frank Rich, the media critic for the New York Times is ticked off about the film. And that provides and opportunity for the right to fulminate about the evil, liberal, Jewish New York press of course. You know, those guys who hate us harmless Christians and like Hilary Clinton.

... Gibson says Rich's comments made him quite angry, or as Gibson put it - "I want his intestines on a stick... I want to kill his dog."

The film isn't even out yet and the "whining" Jews and "self-righteous Christian" folks on the right are going at it.
And today this from Reuters.

Perhaps the Anti-Defamation League had a point, given information now available to the press.

See Gibson film heavy on blood, Satan
Broward Liston, Reuters, Thursday, January 22, 2004
ORLANDO, Fla. (Reuters) - In Mel Gibson's new movie about Jesus Christ, Satan assumes a physical form and stands with Jewish leaders after they condemn Christ, whose beating at the hands of Roman soldiers, barely mentioned in the Bible, becomes a bloody, sadistic centerpiece of the film.

If "The Passion of the Christ," about Jesus' last hours, has not attracted enough controversy already, there will likely be plenty of ammunition for its detractors once the movie is more widely seen.

Late Wednesday, a rough cut of the film got what may have been its widest screening yet, before 4,500 evangelical Christian pastors attending a conference in Orlando, and a few reporters who also managed to get in.

Gibson has weathered a storm of criticism so far, particularly from Jewish groups worried the film will incite anti-Semitism because of the depiction of Jews' role in Christ's death.

So far, the two-hour motion picture has been shown only to audiences hand-picked by Gibson and his production company. The film will open Feb. 25 - Ash Wednesday on the Christian calendar - on 2,000 screens in the United States. Pastors seeing the film had to sign a form agreeing not to say anything negative about it.
So what?s the problem?
? among elements likely to attract attention when the film reaches wider audiences is Gibson's decision to have Satan personified by a pale, human figure that appears periodically. The Satan figure appears alongside Jewish authorities but not by Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, who actually sentences Jesus to death.

At Jesus' trial portrayed in the film, the Jewish high priest not only strikes him but spits on him.
Well, Gibson and his father do belong to a break-away group of Catholics who think many a previous Pope got it all wrong. The Jews do bear a collective guilt for the death of Jesus that can never be forgiven.

Perhaps so. What do I know?

But Gibson?s production company has screened the film for the current Pope. They said he approved it. He loved it. Now different Vatican sources say no, he didn't. See USA Today for a summary of that, two days ago.

Everyone is lining up one way or the other. Peggy Noonan, Reagan?s former speechwriter, is on the air on various shows saying the Pope really did endorse the film and that the Vatican spokesmen are just evil, foolishly trying to placate the Jewish community.

You may catch a bit about this on the air here and there.

What to make of it all?

I know we?re supposed to be very, very afraid, because the evil, swarthy Muslim fanatics are trying to destroy our western civilization. That?s the real war. Got it.

But now is the Christian right, led by Mel Gibson, telling us Jews are evil because they murdered sweet Jesus?

But wait! That makes no sense!

The Christian right is always telling us Israel is wonderful because Israel stands up to those awful Palestinians. And that the people of Israel are all, anyway, incipient Christians who will soon accept Jesus. That will wash their sin away? That will expiate their collective guilt in murdering Jesus?

This is getting downright confusing.

These are all people of deep faith and conviction. Who is being truthful here?

As George Carlin said in Napalm & Silly Putty - "If this is the best God can do, I'm not impressed."

Posted by Alan at 15:33 PST | Post Comment | Permalink

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