June 30, 2005

Eavesdropping on Iraqis

Those of you familiar with the Friends of Democracy site already know what’s it about. Essays from the Iraqi Arabic-language blogosphere are translated and sent to me. I then edit and publish them.

We had a bit of a problem with our old translator, so the posting has been sporadic for quite a while. But we have a new translator now – I should say here that he’s doing a terrific job - and new posts are being published more regularly.

Iraqis who blog in English are aware that their audience is primarily Western. Iraqis who blog in Arabic are talking to each other in their own language. While editing the site I feel like I’m eavesdropping on them and helping you eavesdrop on them too.

Today I published a piece by an Iraqi named Shirko. He declares Syria an enemy state and demands regime-change in Damascus. He’s saying this to his fellow Iraqis. In Arabic. Soon they will be sovereign. And they will have their own Western-trained army. Read Shirko’s essay with those things in mind.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 8:01 PM

Euros for the "Resistance"

The far-left and far-right are playing in the same sandbox again. (Hat tip: Vodkapundit.)

Who's funding the insurgents in Iraq? The list of suspects is long: ex-Baathists, foreign jihadists, and angry Sunnis, to name a few. Now add to that roster hard-core Euroleftists.

Turns out that far-left groups in western Europe are carrying on a campaign dubbed Ten Euros for the Resistance, offering aid and comfort to the car bombers, kidnappers, and snipers trying to destabilize the fledgling Iraq government. In the words of one Italian website, Iraq Libero (Free Iraq), the funds are meant for those fighting the occupanti imperialisti. The groups are an odd collection, made up largely of Marxists and Maoists, sprinkled with an array of Arab emigres and aging, old-school fascists, according to Lorenzo Vidino, an analyst on European terrorism based at The Investigative Project in Washington, D.C. “It's the old anticapitalist, anti-U.S., anti-Israel crowd,” says Vidino, who has been to their gatherings, where he saw activists from Austria, Denmark, Germany, and Italy. “The glue that binds them together is anti-Americanism.”

This isn’t surprising. Far-left and far-right terrorist sympathizers have been mouthing off about this sort of thing for years. Consider for example how Billy Roper, head of the “White Revolution” in Arkansas, reacted to the attacks on September 11.
[T]he enemy of our enemy is, for now at least, our friends…We may not want them marrying our daughters…but anyone who is willing to drive a plane into a building to kill Jews is alright [sic] by me. I wish our members had half as much testicular fortitude.
Last year leftist writer and activist Arundhati Roy told Outlook India that she supports the Iraqi “resistance” as well.
[W]hen you look at the massive amount of violence that America is perpetrating in Iraq, I don’t know that I’m in a position to tell Iraqis that you must fight a pristine, feminist, democratic, secular, non-violent war. I can’t say. I just feel that that resistance in Iraq is our battle too and we have to support it.
It was only a matter of time before cretins like these started putting their money where their mouths are.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:11 AM

June 29, 2005

The Bush Speech

I neither saw nor heard President Bush’s speech last night. I wasn’t particularly interested in anybody’s reaction, either. The right cheered. The left booed. Big shocker, that. I could have written a typical liberal response to that speech on the day before the speech was given. I could have written a typical conservative response, too. How hard could it possibly be? Just fill in the utterly predictable blanks. Foreign policy speeches these days - by the president during a war - are treated as nothing more than political footballs. Boo to that. We’re incredibly immature for a superpower sometimes.

So far I’ve read exactly one response to that speech that is worth reading and linking. It was written by Callimachus.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 5:16 PM

June 28, 2005

Firefly and Serenity

Last week I groused about Hollywood’s appalling lack of imagination. Today I want to thank Hollywood for saving us from Fox’s appalling decision to cancel Joss Whedon’s Firefly series - arguably the best science-fiction show in television history - before it could even finish its first year run.

fireflydvd.jpg

Joss Whedon, as you may already know, is the man behind Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. I never saw a single episode of either of those series, but if they’re anywhere near as good as Firefly I am going to have to get the DVDs now.

Firefly takes place in the future. It is not the politically correct utopian future of Star Trek. If you act like an asshole in Joss Whedon’s future you’re liable to get a fist in your face, if not a wrench slammed into the side of your head. It’s what you would get if you crossed Star Wars with a Clint Eastwood Western. And I mean that in more ways than one. As in Star Wars, the universe – most of the populated part anyway – is ruled by the oppressive imperial Alliance regime. The “good guys” are rogue rebels, smugglers, and thieves operating on the fringes of known space on frontier planets. And when I say “frontier planets,” I mean frontier planets. They’re Wild West outposts with horses, saloons, and laser-toting outlaws. It sounds ridiculous, but somehow it works brilliantly.

outlaw-poster2-view.jpg

That’s the backdrop. Here’s the story: One group of smugglers who pilot and live on an outdated “Firefly” ship make a rogue’s living running errands (which often involve ripping worse people off) for big-shot criminals. They pick up a spooky young woman named River Tam, formerly a child prodigy who was abducted by the Alliance regime so they could conduct hideous, tortuous medical experiments on her. Her brother breaks his traumatized and brain-damaged sister out of the futuristic equivalent of Buchenwald and now they’re on the run from Alliance assassins. The Firefly crew is likewise hunted by the Alliance, now that they’re carrying fugitives, which only makes their little back-planet smuggling racket more complicated than it already was.

Fox cancelled the show before the first year was even up. They even brainlessly aired the two-hour pilot episode last. I have no idea why they pulled the plug, but Firefly’s fans pitched an epic-sized fit. They threw such a big fit that Hollywood decided to let Joss Whedon finish telling the story on the big screen. So Firefly will continue, in theaters this September, as Serenity.

ME-poster2-view.jpg

I had not even heard of this show until recently. (I pay precious little attention to what’s on TV.) I heard about it from Patrick Lasswell who came over to my house and all but forced the DVDs on me.

“The movie is coming out in September,” he said. “And it is going to be huge. You need to be ready.”

I think he’s right. Firefly has developed a fanatical cult following since Fox replaced it with whatever forgettable series they replaced it with. The fans love it so much they’re working overtime on their own to promote the movie themselves. They’re even lovingly creating – by hand – their own posters, some of which you’re seeing here. (Thanks to fellow Portland writer M.E. Russell for the tip off.)

rebel-poster2-view.jpg

I’ve watched almost the whole series now, and I don’t think there’s a single line of bad dialogue in there. George Lucas should be utterly shamed by the existence of Firefly. It may not be as well known, but oh my God does it beat the pants off the hackneyed dreck he’s been cranking out lately. It beats Star Trek, too, for its gritty realism and its refusal to pull its punches and tell overwrought morality tales. The characters are fully realized human beings who live, breathe, grow, suffer, and change in the crucible of wrenching experience. It’s hard not to have sneaking affection for even some of the least likable characters in this story.

The Firefly universe isn’t necessarily one I would want to live in. It’s dangerous, rude, and oppressive. Still, it’s one heck of a place to spend a dozen or so hours, which is what you get if you order the DVDs. (I strongly suggest you do that if you have any intention of watching the story’s finale, Serenity, on the big screen.)

But even a dangerous, rude, and oppressive ’verse like Firefly’s has its free spirits, its lovable bad guys who – when you get right down to it – are really the good guys.

wanna-poster-view.jpg

They certainly are the kind of people I’d like to hang out with if I lived in their world. I think I will cry if Joss Whedon kills off any of them in the finale.

A high-resolution trailer for Serenity is available here. Do go and watch it. I’ve seen it at least ten times by now, in breathless anticipation.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 8:25 PM

June 27, 2005

Life in the Bubble

The more time you spend in a rarefied office, be it an office at a university, a newspaper, a government bureau, or even a bank, the more likely you are to become like Andrew Jaspan.

Jaspan is the editor-in-chief at Melbourne’s The Age. Seems he was a bit offended when his fellow Australian Douglas Wood said the guys who kidnapped him in Iraq are “assholes.”
I was, I have to say, shocked by Douglas Wood's use of the a—-hole word, if I can put it like that, which I just thought was coarse and very ill-thought through and I think demeans the man and is one of the reasons why people are slightly sceptical of his motives and everything else.

The issue really is largely, speaking as I understand it, he was treated well there. He says he was fed every day, and as such to turn around and use that kind of language I think is just insensitive.

Apparently, people can succumb to the Stockholm Syndrome from half a world away these days. Wood’s kidnappers kicked him in the head, tied him up blindfolded for 47 days, and murdered two other captives in front of him.

There are concrete steps you can take to avoid becoming like Andrew Jaspan. Get out of the office. Visit a third-world country – Cancun in Mexico doesn’t count. Work on a shrimp boat. Join the military. Become a journalist embedded with the military in a war zone. Become a cop. Go on “ride alongs” with cops – if you’re a writer, as Jaspan is, they will let you. Work in construction for a couple of months. Next time you go to Europe, visit Bosnia instead of France. If you do spend your life in a rarefied office (and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that all by itself) read books written by people who don’t spend their lives in rarefied offices.

Those are just some suggestions. I’m sure there are plenty of other activities that might do the trick just as well. (Hat tip: Dr. Frank.)

UPDATE: Callimachus makes a similar point in a different way.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 7:01 PM

June 26, 2005

Unbelievable

I’ve been a news junkie of sorts ever since 1982 when I got my first paper route. I read the news every morning at 5:00 a.m. while rolling up papers with rubber bands so I could toss them on people’s doorsteps from the street.

I believed everything I read then. The newspaper was, to me, a precise, factual, and comprehensive record of Everything Important That Happened Yesterday. It didn’t even occur to me that anything in those pages might be inaccurate in any way or that anything important might be left out. I was twelve years old and the people who wrote for the paper were all-knowing grown-ups.

I don’t think newspapers have changed much in the meantime. Not really. Today’s media problems were yesterday’s media problems. I’m the one who changed.

Lots of people have changed since then. And not all of them changed from twelve-year olds to 34-year olds. They changed because their tools changed.

The Pew Research Center has been tracking how many people believe what they read in the press for at least the past 22 years. Here are the results. (Graphic stolen from Jeff Jarvis.)

Believability Graph.gif

The number of sources of information each person has at their disposal keeps going up. We can read newspapers in other countries now. We couldn’t before, at least not nearly so easily as we can today on the Internet. There are blogs, of course. And not just American blogs. Also Iraqi blogs and military blogs and Iranian blogs and politically iconoclastic blogs. I can “interview” people myself, people who live on the other side of the world, just by sending an email. There also is Google. How on Earth did I ever live and learn without Google?

I don’t even bother with my daily newspaper now. It’s not even valuable as one source of information among many unless I want to know what happened yesterday right down the street – which is usually not very interesting.

Daily newspapers have all sorts of problems that can and ought to be fixed. But even if every one of them were fixed I don’t think they would poll a lot better than they do now. They would still be only one source of information among many. With the explosion of information technologies, daily newspapers – along with every other possible source of information – will remain more easily fact-checked than they ever have been in history. That isn’t the fault of newspapers or journalists. That’s history’s “fault” and technology’s “fault.”

I would like to see newspapers strive to regain the 84 percent believability level they had when I was 14 years old. But I doubt they ever will. I will never be 14 again. And we will never again be in the fact-checking dark as we once were. 84 percent was artificially high. It was before The Times Online, before Instapundit and Atrios, before MEMRI, before Wikipedia, before Google. We can't go back.

UPDATE: Apparently, journalists themselves think journalists are less credible than they once were. Hilariously, though, only one percent - one percent - think blogs are credible. They probably aren't reading this guy.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:16 PM

June 25, 2005

Anti-Americanism

In about twenty minutes a friend of mine is going to board an airplane to Belgium. He lives there on-and-off part time, in Antwerp, and this morning he told me he’s dreading going back there. The anti-Americanism gets more hostile and deranged by the week. It’s grinding him down so much he can hardly stand being in Europe.

He isn’t a defensive right-winger who can’t take any criticism of George W. Bush and the war in Iraq. He is a leftist who voted for Dennis Kucinich in the Democratic primary election.

It’s not just Europe, either. Australia, staunch ally that it is, also looks like a rough place for Americans if you hang out in some circles. (Hat tip: Tim Blair.)
AMERICAN students are quitting Queensland universities in the face of hate attacks by Australians angry at US President George W. Bush and the war in Iraq.

One university has launched an investigation into claims an American student returned to the US after suffering six months of abuse at a residential college in Brisbane.

American students have told The Sunday Mail the verbal attacks are unbearable and threatening to escalate into physical violence.

Griffith University student Ian Wanner, 19, from Oregon, said abusive Australian students had repeatedly called him a “sepo” – short for septic tank. “It is so disrespectful. It's not exactly the most welcoming atmosphere here,” he said.

The Queensland Anti-Discrimination Commission has described the abuse as “horrible” and says it could be classed as racial vilification.

The abuse problem is so prevalent that US students are being given formal briefings before leaving home on how to cope with abusive Australians.

Mr Wanner said even female Australian students were verbally abusive. He warned the problem could “escalate into a very large brawl”.

“There has already been confrontations between people,” he said.

A female American student from Griffith, who wished to remain unnamed, said she had met some “exceptional” people in Australia – but was leaving this month in shock over her treatment.

She said she was desperate to go home after the slurs, which also spilled over at pubs in central Brisbane.

“They basically picked on me,” she said. “At first, I thought it was a joke. Then I just had it out with them and told them I came here to be treated respectfully.

“I have had a few incidents in bars. I had a guy and he heard my accent and he said: 'I hate your president. I hate your country.' “

Another Griffith student has already returned to the US after enduring six months of abuse at the university's residential college in Brisbane.

All the students received counselling before arriving and were warned of the backlash against the US.

They said they were advised not to carry any items that would identify their nationality.
What I find most odd about this phenomenon is that Arab countries (at least Libya, Tunisia, and Lebanon) are a lot more welcoming of Americans than other Western countries are. Arabs are the ones who supposedly hate us the most, but they are vastly vastly more polite and more pleasant to hang out with.

What’s up with that? Is the Arab code of hospitality the only explanation? Maybe it is, but I’m not so sure. Whatever the explanation, the difference in the way Americans are treated in different parts of the world certainly is counter-intuitive.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 4:34 PM

What Rove Wrought

Glenn Reynolds thinks Karl Rove is politically smart because liberals and Democrats, all of a sudden, are brandishing their hawkish credentials. Soft on terror? Us? It’s an interesting point, and it’s a point well taken, but that isn’t the only change that’s happening on the left all of a sudden.

Centrist Democrat Bull Moose has this to say:
Karl, you have performed a great service for the nation and for the party - the Democratic Party, that is. With your comments, you have brought together old Democrats, new Democrats, liberal Democrats, moderate Democrats, conservative Democrats, fat Democrats, thin Democrats, Christian Democrats, Jewish Democrats, Muslim Democrats, Pagan Democrats, Dennis Kucinich Democrats, Joe Lieberman Democrats, meat eating Democrats, vegetarian Democrats, Daily Kos Democrats, Bull Moose Democrats, New Donkey Democrats, Atrios Democrats, MoveOn Democrats and DLC Democrats.
Indeed. Bull Moose could also include many ex-Democrats in his list.

Joe Gandelman has more:

Many centrists and independents may soon conclude that the only solution to this is to not to vote if they feel inclined to vote GOP, or even hold their noses and cast protest votes in 2006 and 2008 for the Democrats.

Why? Because the GOP never could have won the last elections without garnering some votes from the center and from Democrats who felt their party had gotten too extreme.

Karl Rove is taking a sledghammer to the GOP's carefully-constructed past image.
I’m not going to vote Democratic as a protest vote against the GOP, not because of one outburst from Karl Rove. But Joe has a point. It certainly doesn't make me more likely to vote Republican next time. It's not going to make anybody more likely to vote for Republicans next time. It's not exactly news that conservatives are more hawkish than liberals. But Ann Coulter type rants are repellent to many people who prefer the foreign policy of Republicans to the foreign policy of Democrats.

I will probably vote for Democrats in 2006. My opinions on the two parties are divided. I can go either way, depending on what we're talking about. The Republicans dominate all three branches of government, and voting Democratic is a balance-restoring corrective. I have no idea which party I will vote for in the 2008 presidential election. No idea at all. It depends on way too many unpredictable variables.

If the Republican Party were less polarizing and obnoxious, though, I might consider actually joining it. Every former Democrat has to deal with this question. Do we join the right, or do we halt our rightward drift in the center? The reaction on the right to Karl Rove’s hatchet job tells me I’m right to stop in the center.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 1:50 PM

June 23, 2005

Extremists and Their Hallucinations

Sometimes I wonder if the more people think about politics and work in politics for a living the more likely they are to become deranged about politics.

Look at Karl Rove’s latest outburst.
Conservatives saw the savagery of 9/11 in the attacks and prepared for war; liberals saw the savagery of the 9/11 attacks and wanted to prepare indictments and offer therapy and understanding for our attackers.
I know several people who responded to 9/11 exactly as Rove described and continue reacting to the Terror War this way even today. But let’s not forget that regime-change in Afghanistan polled at 90 percent support levels at the time. Assuming every single person who opposed that war is on the left (which is probably close to the truth) somewhere in the ballpark of 80 percent of those who voted for Al Gore or Ralph Nader supported the violent overthrow of the Taliban.

The 10 percent who didn’t support it do not count as “the liberals.” They are the loudmouth activistas, Hollywood celebrities, campus intellectuals who live in unreality bubbles, and reactionary far-leftists. There was, however, so much wailing and gnashing of teeth from that ten percent that I can hardly blame conservatives for forgetting about the silent majority of hawkish Democrats at the time.

Rove painted with too broad a brush. But that’s not really the issue here. Conservatives who are defending Rove’s statements are ignoring what else he said:
Let me just put this in fairly simple terms: Al Jazeera now broadcasts the words of Senator Durbin to the Mideast, certainly putting our troops in greater danger. No more needs to be said about the motives of liberals.
So there it is. Liberals deliberately hope to put our troops in greater danger, according to Rove. In other words, Liberals=Traitors.

Anyone who has liberal friends and family members ought to know exactly how rotten and despicable and indefensible that statement is.

Al Jazeera did pick up Dick Durbin’s commentary, which only makes anti-American propaganda in the Middle East seem all the more plausible. That does (at least theoretically) put our troops and even civilians in greater danger. The Middle Eastern variety of anti-Americanism is a violent political force that topples skyscrapers and kills thousands. That’s one reason Dick Durbin deserved the shellacking he got.

But feeding anti-American pathologies was not Dick Durbin’s intention. He intended to get more humane treatment for prisoners at Gitmo – an honorable objective I happen to sympathize with. That couldn’t be any more obvious than it is.

“Conservatives are fascists.” “Liberals are traitors.” “America is the new Nazi Germany.” What the hell is the matter with some people? If even one of those political hallucinations really were true, if liberals really were traitors, if conservatives really were fascists, the United States would explode in a convulsion of civil war.

UPDATE: John Cole (yes, he's a conservative) isn't impressed either.
My party no longer is merely content selling our bullshit. We are now starting to believe it. I'd say Mr. Rove has an apology to issue.
SECOND UPDATE: Wagner James Au adds in the comments:
It's true that Moveon.org, Michael Moore, et. al. are a fetid film on the soul of FDR's party, but Karl Rove must be the absolute worse person in the world to make that point. It's like watching a leper challenge a hemophiliac to full contact karate.
Posted by Michael J. Totten at 6:28 PM

Third Wave Gentrification

My new Tech Central Station column is up. I departed a bit from my usual material and dabbled a bit in futurism instead, inspired – ironically – by a trip to one of the more backward places in the country.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:27 AM

June 22, 2005

Reactionaries

The House of Representatives – again – voted to add an amendment to the U.S. Constitution outlawing the burning of American flags.

You know what, guys? A vote on an anti-flag-burning amendment is not a poll asking whether or not you approve of people who burn the American flag. Some of us use it as a test to gauge how much respect and understanding you have for the First Amendment – not to mention the Constitution. Conservatives like to point out – correctly, I might add – that the U.S. Constitution is great in part because it limits the power of the state rather than the freedom of the people who live in this country. Is it really too much to ask that we keep it that way?

Unpatriotic self-loathing reactionaries have every right to burn their own property as long as they are not committing arson. I have yet to hear a compelling reason why we should take that right from them. So what if burning the flag is offensive? The U.S. Constitution is no place for Political Correctness, whether it’s left-wing or right-wing.

Some of these House Republicans are just unclear on the concept. Others, I have no doubt, are dirty political hacks. Ooh, let's see how many Democrats vote against this amendment so we can hang “unpatriotic” around their necks. If you ever wonder why “patriotism” and “flag-waver” are sneer words in some quarters, well, this is part of the reason. Some people make patriotism embarrassing.

Democrats who vote for amendments like this are gutless cowards. But if they wouldn’t promote people to party leadership positions who compare U.S. soldiers to Nazis, Stalinists, and Khmer Rouge thugs they might have a wee bit less to be defensive about. They might want to think about that sort of thing when votes like this one come up.

UPDATE: Sigh. Some people in the comments are sticking up for Dick Durbin and his comparison of Gitmo to the crimes of Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot. I don’t particularly feel like getting into an argument about this, which is the reason I never even mentioned the flap until now. But I will make one point since it fell right into my lap.

Someone who goes by the name of Scrapiron left the following comment, after which he was summarily banned from ever posting here again:
The amendment should include an automatic death penalty. Of course I also think that the educated idiots should receive the death penalty just for wasting oxygen when they breathe. [Emphasis added.]
Now that, my friends, makes me think of Pol Pot.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 6:18 PM

Poll Results

Here are the results of my two wildly unscientific polls where I asked if you could vote in the Democratic and Republican primaries for 2008 today, who would you vote for?

Dem Poll.JPG

GOP Poll.JPG

I did this out of simple curiosity and it would be a mistake to draw any firm conclusions from the results. The Democratic poll responses don’t surprise me at all. Barack Obama did well because he’s popular and he’s a good guy. Nancy Pelosi didn’t do well at all, but that’s mostly because this blog isn’t exactly a magnet for her fan club. Evan Bayh beat the others because he's a moderate - and moderates are the audience I try to write for here in this space.

I will say, though, that it would be a mistake to dismiss Condoleeza Rice as unable to win a primary. The conservatives who read this blog are surely more moderate than conservatives at large, but still, she is only two percentage points away from winning an absolute majority here. Right-wing Republicans very well may sink her in a real live actual primary - just as the Democrats would probably nix Evan Bayh - but you never know. She did do a lot better than Bayh did, for whatever that's worth.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 3:30 PM

Blogging Iraq

It's true that much of blogging is something other than journalism, but those who say “blogging isn't journalism” as if the two are mutually exclusive haven't seen what Michael Yon is up to in Iraq. He is posting some of the best reporting I've read in a long time out of that country, and I strongly recommend you bookmark him.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:14 AM

June 21, 2005

"Freedom Fries" and a Timetable

Christopher Hitchens unfavorably compares the so-called “Downing Street Memo” to Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code. I have not read The Da Vinci Code, but I did try to read Angels and Demons by the same author and found it so shot through with conspiracy-mongering to make it unreadable even while I was on vacation looking for an escape novel - and I'm not at all one of those people who demand stories be realistic, per se. The next book in line on my nightstand is a vampire novel by Todd Grimson (who often posts in the comments section below) named Stainless.

Anyway, Hitchens' conclusion is the best part of the piece.
The outrage about the nondisclosures in the Downing Street memos has led Congressman Walter Jones of North Carolina to demand that we tell the al-Qaida forces in Iraq exactly when we intend to give up. Jones is the right-wing bigmouth who once wanted to rename French fries “freedom fries.” He was a moral and political cretin when he did that and, not to my surprise, he has been unable to stop being a moral and political cretin since. He and his new friends are welcome to each other.
Posted by Michael J. Totten at 6:39 PM

Yet Another Syrian Assasination in Lebanon

Lebanon's regularly scheduled political assassination has been completed.

A veteran Lebanese politician has been killed in a bomb blast in Beirut.

George Hawi - former Communist Party leader and an opponent of Syria - died when his car blew up as he drove through the Wata Musaitbi district.

The attack follows the anti-Syrian bloc's victory in elections, the first since Syria ended a 29-year occupation.
It increasingly looks like Lebanon may not be able to become a normal democratic country until the Baath Party is out of power in Syria.

UPDATE: I did not know George Hawi. But I did meet his friend (at the same time I met Samir Kassir, who also was killed by the Syrians) while I was in Beirut. His friend is pictured below, grieving at the site of the bomb blast.

21cnd-hawi.2.450.jpg

I don't remember his friend's name, the one I did meet, the one in the picture. He doesn't speak English. I do remember him telling me - in Arabic with the help of a translator - that one of the reasons he left the Communist Party is because the party was too cozy with the Syrian Baath. So he left and joined the Movement of the Democratic Left. They are clearly at the top of the Syrian hit list right now. Samir was a member of the Democratic Left also.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:37 AM

Totally Unscientific Polls

I'm curious where you all stand. Help me out.


If you could vote right now in the Democratic primary for 2008, who would you vote for?
Barack Obama
John Edwards
Nancy Pelosi
Hillary Clinton
Evan Bayh
  

Free polls from Pollhost.com

If you could vote right now in the Republican primary for 2008, who would you vote for?
Rudy Giuliani
Condoleeza Rice
John McCain
Bill Frist
Jeb Bush
  

Free polls from Pollhost.com
Posted by Michael J. Totten at 1:15 AM

June 20, 2005

Raising the Level of Discourse

“The Commenter” says, with tongue planted firmly in cheek, that his blog is “feverishly committed to lowering the level of discourse.” So many blogs actually do this that’s nice to find one that doesn’t. His new post on religion and ethics is your latest required reading assignment.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 5:30 PM

June 19, 2005

Predatory Coffeeshop Capitalists!

David Adesnik fisks a perfectly silly front-page article in the Washington Post about how Starbucks supposedly ruins college students forever – yes, even into retirement – with their high-priced fancy-pants lattes.

That article is only about Starbucks on the surface. The complaints therein could apply to absolutely any coffeeshop, anywhere, owned by anyone – corporate, independent, or co-op. (No newspaper in the Pacific Northwest would dare publish such a ridiculous piece. That would be like bitching about wine and cheese in France or burritos in Mexico.)

I am not a starving college student who has to count his pennies, but I’m not rich either. I make my living writing and editing and I don’t have a day job. You figure out how much money I probably make. It ain’t six figures yet, let’s put it that way.

I don’t “waste” three dollars a day on gourmet coffee. I spend, on average, six dollars a day. That’s twice as much as college students who are supposedly wrecking their future are spending. So I’m being financially raped twice as badly by Starbucks and every other tin pot coffeehouse exploiter in Portland. Woe is me! Where do I sign up for the class-action lawsuit?

If coffeeshops left Portland I would have to leave Portland along with them. I can’t live anywhere that doesn’t have coffeeshops and, no, I’m not kidding. When I was in college I did my homework in coffeeshops and, yes, I’m still paying off my student loan that partially funded those lattes. Today – every day – I get at least half my work done in coffeeshops. I don’t have an office to report to. But I have to get out of the house and go somewhere during the day. Coffeeshops are my “office.” I’m not going to take my laptop and hang out at McDonald’s for four hours in the middle of the afternoon. Six dollars a day for “office space” rental that comes with lattes instead of cheap drip coffee is a pretty good deal, I have to say.

What this silly anti-Starbucks screed fails to take into account is that coffeeshops create a pleasant “third space” environment (meaning it’s neither work nor home) for people to spend quality time in. That’s something worth paying good money for. Feeding a caffeine habit at home can never replace that.

Complaining that Starbucks rips off college students and ruins their future financial livelihood, as though it were some nefarious predatory capitalist plot, strikes me as a product of the same reactionary impulse that drives fundamentalism: the fear that someone, somewhere, might be having fun.

If you think three bucks for a latte is a rip-off, fine, don’t buy lattes. But don’t think you can get some hard-hitting investigative journalism out of that little opinion of yours without being scoffed at.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:52 PM

June 18, 2005

Centrism and Irony

A while back I mentioned in the comments section on “The Commenter's” Uninformed Opinion blog that there are political ironies that conservatives miss, there are political ironies that liberals miss, and there are political ironies that centrists see that both liberals and conservatives miss.

Victor Davis Hanson zeroes in on one of the latter. It is - I think - the biggest irony of the post-911 world, one that does not cease to amaze me even today.
The more left-wing the Westerner, the more tolerant he is of right-wing Islamic extremism; the more liberal the Arab, the more likely he is to agree with conservative Westerners about the real source of Middle Eastern pathology.
There’s more to be said on this, though. I wish I could add another level of irony to it, but I can’t. Anyway: the more right-wing the Westerner, the more intolerant he is of Middle Easterners in general - not just the Islamists. And the more right-wing the Middle Easterner, the more intolerant he is of Westerners in general - not just the Bush and Blair administrations.

For those reasons (and plenty more reasons to boot), I’d advise everyone to gravitate toward the political center as much as your principles and opinions will let you. There are enemies to the left, and there are enemies to the right. Best to keep them far to your left and far to your right.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 8:30 PM

June 17, 2005

Hollywood Jumps the Shark

Yes, I know, “jumped the shark” jumped the shark a while ago, but sometimes nothing else says it.

Neal Stephenson in the New York Times nails exactly, precisely, what’s so horribly wrong with the new Star Wars movies.

He concludes that because Americans are not only willing to tolerate such dreck but actually flock to it that we’re in decline. Ann Althouse disagrees and says Hollywood is declining instead.

I agree with Ann about Hollywood and I agree with Neil about Star Wars.

Anyway, the intellectual and artistic bankruptcy of Hollywood really struck me last week when I went to see Cinderella Man. It’s an okay movie. Not great, but worth renting if you can’t think of anything else and don’t mind some average-quality filler.

That movie didn’t impress me much one way or the other. What struck me was what I saw as I walked down the hall toward the screen that was showing that movie. The wall was lined with posters for upcoming movies, as usual. And every single last movie advertised was either a re-make or a crappy dated TV show. The War of the Worlds. (Okay, I do want to see that one for the popcorn factor.) Bewitched. The Chronicles of Narnia. The Bad News Bears. The Longest Yard. The Dukes of Hazard. The Amityville Horror. Oh, and another Herbie movie is coming out, for God’s sake. What’s next? Day of the Triffids and Gilligan’s Island? They already did The Brady Bunch.

Not every movie coming out right now is a re-make, but eight out of eight advertised are. The only genuinely good movie I’ve seen since I got back from Lebanon was Downfall, and that was made in Germany. Even Ridley Scott, one of my favorite directors, couldn’t make a movie about the Crusades that was worth watching.

Most movies I see in Portland are at the Fox Tower downtown. It’s a ten-screen multiplex owned by the Regal chain that plays nothing but independent and foreign films. Not long ago corporate multiplexes of that sort didn’t even exist in this country – at least they didn’t exist in this city. The way Hollywood is going these days, we might see a whole lot more in the future. And I will be grateful.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 1:53 PM

Moving to Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan

In my last Tech Central Station column I said we should dump Uzbekistan's Islam Karimov as an “ally.” Nathan Hamm disagreed and said we should wait for him to dump us. Well, he dumped us.

That was quick.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 2:50 AM

June 16, 2005

Liberation - For the Record

I have never been to Iraq, and I can't act as a witness to anything there. Christopher Hitchens has been and can be, though, and I'd like to reproduce something he said for the record. History should not be rewritten as it has been.

Here he is talking to Peter Robinson on the Uncommon Knowledge program. This excerpt of the transcript has been revised by Norm Geras after he watched the video and corrected it.
Christopher Hitchens: The welcome that I've seen American and British forces get in parts of Iraq is something I want to start - I want to mention first because there are people who say that that never happened. It is commonly said by, umm, political philosophers like Maureen Dowd say that the - where were the sweets and where were the flowers? Well, I saw it happen with my own eyes and no one's going to tell me that I didn't. I saw it with - months after the invasion, people still lining the roads, especially in the south.

Peter Robinson: In the south?

Christopher Hitchens: Especially in the south - still lining the roads and waving and the children waving which is always the sign, because if the parents don't want them to, they don't. For miles, it was like going - it was like, this is the nearest I'll get to taking part in the liberation of the country, to ride in with the liberating army. I'll never forget, and I will not allow it not to be said that that did not happen. And in the marshes too - the marsh Arab area of the country which was drained and burned out and poisoned by Saddam Hussein. Again, almost hysterical welcome, and in Kurdistan in the north. So, extraordinary. But remember you said the population hated Saddam Hussein, that's true, really true. But more than anything, they feared him. They were terrified of him. These are people who were not just forced to obey under terrible and believable threat, but made to applaud, made to participate, made to come out and vote, made to come out and demonstrate that they loved him, made to applaud when their relatives were executed. If your kids were going to be shot, you had to attend and you had to applaud…
Posted by Michael J. Totten at 6:29 PM

Not Enough Troops

“We” have been arguing about whether we have enough troops in Iraq for several years now and I’ve never taken a position one way or the other. I’ve been inclined, instinctively, to think it’s probably true that we didn’t send enough troops. But people who know a lot more about this than I ever will have made at least half-way decent arguments to the contrary. So I stayed out of it. How am I supposed to know how many hundreds of thousands of troops are the right number? I haven't done the right homework to be able to argue about it intelligently.

Niall Ferguson, who has done his homework, makes a pretty damning case against Rumsfeld’s and Wolfowitz’s troop numbers in The Daily Star. He makes a better case than anyone I’ve seen so far. If there’s a counter-argument to this essay, I’d really like to know what it is.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:33 AM

June 15, 2005

Chernobyl is Open

If you’re tired of unsatisfying vacations to cookie-cutter resorts in Cancun and Hawaii, you can always visit the end-of-the-world radiation blast zone around Chernobyl in Ukraine. It is now “safe” enough that it’s open for tourism.

A 19-mile radius around the infamous power plant, the zone has largely been closed to the world since Chernobyl's Reactor No. 4 exploded on April 26, 1986, sending people to flight and exposing the Communist Party as an institution wormy with hypocrisy and lies.

For nearly 20 years it has been a dark symbol of Soviet rule. Its name conjures memories of incompetence, horror, contamination, escape and sickness, as well as the party elite's disdain for Soviet citizens, who were called to parade in fallout on May Day while the leaders' families secretly fled.

Now it is a destination, luring people in. “It is amazing,” said Ilkka Jahnukainen, 22, as he wandered the empty city here that housed the plant's workers and families, roughly 45,000 people in all. “So dreamlike and silent.”
The New York Times piece is accompanied by a slide show of the eerily modern ruins, of entire cities emptied in an instant, like something out of The Stand.

Pripyat.JPG

I have to go there. I’m pretty certain I will go there at some point. Any editors out there want to send me on an assignment? I’m serious, and I can go any time.

There’s nothing quite like marveling in person at the epic-sized wreckage wrought by totalitarian goverments. Fortunately, for those of us deranged enough to be drawn to this sort of thing, these places are opening up all over. Uzbekistan, until recently one of the most closed societies on Earth, is also now open for tourism.

If you ever want to see the Aral Sea, once the fourth largest inland body of water in the world, you had better go now. It loses dozens of feet of shoreline each day due to disastrous Soviet irrigation policies that permanently and dramatically altered the climate. Fishing towns along the old coastline, like the industrial cities around Chernobyl, already are modern ghost towns. Ships lay on their sides in the desert.

Aral_Sea_Ship.jpg

The Chernobyl area will, eventually, recover completely. But in a few short years, the Aral Sea will vanish forever.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 2:54 PM

June 14, 2005

Carrying Karimov’s Water - Again

Our relationship with Uzbekistan’s tyrant Islam Karimov gets slimier by the day. Here we are arguing on Karimov’s behalf (albeit for tactical, not ideological reasons) and siding with Russia’s Vladimir Putin - in the halls of NATO no less.

Defense officials from Russia and the United States last week helped block a new demand for an international probe into the Uzbekistan government's shooting of hundreds of protesters last month, according to U.S. and diplomatic officials.

British and other European officials had pushed to include language calling for an independent investigation in a communique issued by defense ministers of NATO countries and Russia after a daylong meeting in Brussels on Thursday. But the joint communique merely stated that “issues of security and stability in Central Asia, including Uzbekistan,” had been discussed.

The outcome obscured an internal U.S. dispute over whether NATO ministers should raise the May 13 shootings in Andijan at the risk of provoking Uzbekistan to cut off U.S. access to a military air base on its territory.
I understand Nathan Hamm’s objections to getting rid of Karimov now. I do. He makes some good points because there are good points to make. But every time something disgraceful like this happens more and more people are going to swing around to my point of view here.

I don’t want to be blasé about our need for military bases in Central Asia. The worst attack ever on American soil came out of Central Asia. We need bases. But I’m not convinced we absolutely have to have them in that particular country. The cost of doing “business” with Karimov keeps going up. And it keeps going up at a time when we need him less than we did.

Don’t agree with me? Okay. I won’t be blasé about our need for military bases in Central Asia if you won’t be blasé about our need to project a decent and honorable image of ourselves to the rest of the world. If you don’t think world opinion of the United States matters at a time like this, well, I don’t know what to tell ya.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 1:04 PM

June 13, 2005

Hell’s Canyon – and Snowy Mountains in June

Glenn Reynolds is beach blogging. Good for him! I went away this weekend, too, but I went inland. Unlike him, I didn’t blog while I was out. I took pictures instead. The Internet doesn’t exist where I went without a satellite modem. (Cell phone modems don’t work everywhere yet – and they may never.)

Half Dot Com.jpg

I stayed in a town called Half.com. Don’t let that fool you. There’s nothing dot-com about it, not really, not yet. The town’s old name is Halfway, which is still how it appears on every sign except this one. The name was kinda sorta changed because the Half.com company donated computers to the local school and offered to plug the town on its Web site as a tourist destination. It is a tourist destination of sorts because it’s just down the road from Hell’s Canyon, the deepest canyon in North America. Yes, Hell's Canyon is deeper than the Grand Canyon. But it’s a six-hour drive from the nearest international airports in Portland and Seattle, and it’s a bitch to get to even if you live in this state. That’s why you haven’t heard of it.


Empiness Near Halfway.jpg

This is what it looks like just outside Halfway – er Half.com. The town got its old name because it was halfway between two other places, two other places that effectively no longer exist. One is now underwater. The other one is a ghost town. Now it’s smack in the middle of a whole lot of nothing, as you can see. Hardly anybody lives anywhere near it.


Field in front of Wallowa Mountains.jpg

They do have a nice view in Half.com, though. The back side of the Wallowa Mountains form the skyline to the north.


Blair Witch House.jpg

If you drive up into those mountains on the gravel road that leads to the “town” of Cornucopia you’ll find the local Blair Witch house and see why that road is not paved.


Road Near Halfway.jpg

Drive on the paved road toward Hell’s Canyon, though, and you’ll see mountains that are utterly bare and yet are somehow green at the same time.


Greenscape Near Hells Canyon.jpg

There are miles and miles of beautifully, naturally sculpted landscape. And yet practically nobody lives there. You could build nations in the empty spaces of Oregon.


Carson.jpg

There are a handful of farms around, like this one, but that’s about it.


Rain Over Hells Canyon.jpg

And here is Hell’s Canyon plunging a depth of 8,000 feet. It’s narrow and it goes down in stages. So you can’t see the top from the bottom and you can’t see the bottom from the top. It’s less photogenic than the Grand Canyon, but it’s striking all the same and it’s worth all the hassle you have to put up with to get there if you’re ever anywhere near it.


Cabin in Snow.jpg

It’s weird that I can drive to Winter in the middle of June. But I can. Here in the Blue Mountains, just down the road from Half.com and Hell’s Canyon, more snow fell on June 11 than fell on Portland throughout all of last year. (That's because we didn't get any. Portland is almost always too warm for snow.)


Anthony Lake.jpg

It was 30 degrees Fahrenheit at Anthony Lake. 10 minutes by car down the road it was 80 degrees.


Snow Close Up.jpg

It’s hard to believe I took this picture yesterday. But I did.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 5:53 PM

Microsoft Bans “Democracy”

If you’re thinking about starting your own blog, I suggest you don’t use MSN Spaces. (Hat tip: Roger L. Simon.)

Microsoft's new Chinese internet portal has banned the words “democracy” and “freedom” from parts of its website in an apparent effort to avoid offending Beijing's political censors.

Users of the joint-venture portal, formally launched last month, have been blocked from using a range of potentially sensitive words to label personal websites they create using its free online blog service, MSN Spaces.

Attempts to input words in Chinese such as “democracy” prompted an error message from the site: “This item contains forbidden speech. Please delete the forbidden speech from this item.” Other phrases banned included the Chinese for “demonstration”, “democratic movement” and “Taiwan independence.
This isn’t the first time Microsoft sold out to the Beijing regime.

Several years ago, when I worked for Intel as a technical writer, I bought Microsoft’s Manual of Style for tech writers. (It was Intel’s company-wide standard and probably still is.) The book’s purpose is to make sure everyone uses, spells, punctuates, and capitalizes terms like “Web site,” “Internet,” “cd-rom,” and so on, the same way.

While flipping through the book I noticed Taiwan, of all things, had its own entry. Taiwan, according to Microsoft…wait for it… belongs to China. Totalitarian propaganda has actually made its way into a style guide for user manual and Help file writers.

There’s only one reason Microsoft would do this sort of thing: money. They want their products sold in China without hassle from the regime. So the way to make them stop collaborating with oppressive regimes is to dent in their profits in this country. Just boycott MSN Spaces. And tell Microsoft why.

Oh, and here's a free hint to Chinese MSN Spaces users: It's spelled “d3m0cr@cy.”

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 9:02 AM

June 10, 2005

The Brothers Hitchens

Christopher and Peter Hitchens (both brothers, and both political commentators) met on stage at the Hay literary festival in Britain to argue about politics and attempt a public reconciliation after not speaking to each other for four years.

Peter and Christopher are alternate-universe versions of the other. Christopher is left-wing and pro-war, for instance, while Peter is right-wing and anti-war. Peter is almost laughably opposite Christopher; he positively delights in calling himself a reactionary.

They both speak off the tops of their heads in fully formed paragraphs. And, both being Hitchens’, the event is a fun ride no matter which of the two you prefer. The Guardian has the transcript.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:16 PM

Nathan Hamm Responds

Nathan Hamm, who has lived and worked in Ukbekistan, responded to my column yesterday when I said it was time to dump Islam Karimov. He agrees with some of my points and disagrees with some others. In short, he thinks we should wait for Karimov to dump us.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 1:38 AM

June 8, 2005

Really, Dump Islam Karimov - Now

After the Andijon massacre in Uzbekistan, lots of people – including myself – said it was high time we ditched the tyrant Islam Karimov as an “ally.”

Nathan Hamm, who lived and worked there in the Peace Corps until shortly after 9/11, wasn’t entirely sure.
There’s nothing I’d like more than for Uzbekistan to be a democracy. Yesterday. But I’m hearing a lot of calls for what I must, at my most charitable, characterize as a shoot from the hip, emotionally satisfying response to the Andijon massacre. I can’t deny that a part of me doesn’t want to see that, but this situation is too serious to foul up. Believe you me, I want our policy to improve. But I want us to take fully into account the realities on the ground and be willing to swallow some of the realities that we don’t like for the sake of an effective long-term policy.
He has some questions for those like me who want a massive overhaul now. Since I respect Nathan and because he asked good questions I argued my case in my new Tech Central Station column on his exact terms. I hope he agrees. If he doesn’t, I will link his response if he writes one.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 9:49 PM

Interviewed

I just taped another interview with Rob Breakenridge, host of the Canada’s radio program The World Tonight. We talked about the ongoing elections in Lebanon, the return of Michel Aoun from exile in France, and the assasination of Samir Kassir in Beirut.

The program will be broadcast at 7:00 p.m. (PST) tonight, and you can listen to it streamed live on the Internet here. (The listen live link is on the left.)

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 4:28 PM

June 7, 2005

When Trolls Reform

Every now and again new trolls show up in my comments. Sometimes they’re left-wing. Other times they’re right-wing. (Funny how there are no politically moderate trolls.) Sometimes I have to chase them out with a baseball bat without warning. Other times they get warned first. The bat comes swinging at their little troll heads later, sometimes five minutes later.

I’ve never been sure why I bothered to warn trolls before banning them. It just seemed like the right thing to do. Now I know why. Some trolls are reformable.

A while back a guy showed up pretending to be a truly, deeply, laughably idiotic conservative. Called himself “Proud Conservative.” It was obvious he was a fake. And I don’t like fakes.

“Don’t be juvenile,” I said. “Either post your real opinions or post somewhere else.”

Amazingly, he complied. He started posting his real opinions. Thought-out liberal opinions are a lot more worth reading than purposely stupid conservative opinions. So when he changed his handle to “The Commenter Formerly Known as Proud Conservative,” I took him off my mental troll list and left him alone.

Later he shortened his handle to simply “The Commenter.” And I noticed that he was able to hold court in the comments in long-running threads and beat everyone else in argument. He can’t do it consistently. Sometimes times he’s as wrong-headed as you are. But he can do it sometimes, and he can also get my back when I need some backup. What kind of troll is that?

Then I created a monster. I told him if he got a blog I would read it. Now I have yet another blog that I’m obligated to read because he went and started one. It’s called Uninformed Opinion, perhaps a rather honest riff on Juan Cole’s arrogantly titled “Informed Comment.” He deserves a link for that one alone.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 8:23 PM

June 6, 2005

From Damascus to Beirut

During my month’s stay in Beirut I read Thomas Friedman’s brilliant, terrifying, blackly hilarious, and heart-wrenching From Beirut to Jerusalem for the second time. It wasn’t the same book anymore. I stayed in his part of the city – Hamra – and much of what he described happened right outside my own door. Even so, it was hard to believe he was describing the same place. So much has changed. The Beirut of Friedman’s time reads like a twisted inverse of the present, a dark twin of the modern Beirut, as though the scenes he described took place in an alternate history novel by Philip K. Dick.

Beirut was never just a city. It was an idea – an idea that meant something not only to the Lebanese but to the entire Arab world. While today just the word “Beirut” evokes images of hell on earth, for years Beirut represented – maybe dishonestly – something quite different, something almost gentle; the idea of coexistence and the spirit of tolerance, the idea that diverse religious communities – Shiites, Sunnis, Christians, and Druze – could live together, and even thrive, in one city and one country without having to abandon altogether their individual identities.

[…]

Many Lebanese were either too young to remember or too poor to have ever tasted the cosmopolitan life of the Beirut city center, so they never mourned its passing. But for those members of the Christian and Muslim bourgeoisie who really exploited the beautiful side of Beirut, life will never be quite the same again without it. True, they had never paid much attention to the Shiite, Palestinian, and even Christian underclasses upon whose backs Beirut’s joie de vivre rested, and they believed in the fantasy of Lebanese democracy much more than they ever should have, but they were my friends and I happened to be a witness when their world was murdered.

Long after the civil war began, many of these true Beirutis kept the addresses of their offices in the ravaged city center on their stationary as symbols of solidarity with the past and hope for the future. As the years went by, some of them emigrated, unable to tolerate a Beirut in which Christians and Muslims were being forced to live in separate, isolated ghettos. But many of them stayed, and today they form a whole new class of Beirut refugees. They are existential refugees, homeless souls, internal exiles. They are still sitting in their old apartments with bucolic paintings of the Lebanese countryside decorating the walls, in their favorite chairs with their favorite slippers – but they are no longer at home and never will be again.
It breaks my heart to read that. I have seen what they missed and what they held out so bravely and valiantly for.

I met a Lebanese refugee when I was there. He is a Maronite Christian named Charles. He left home for Australia, where he lived for many years. He’s back now, and he told me that never in his life has he felt so much at home. He’s too young to remember the glittering cosmopolitan Beirut as it once was. But the old Beirut is returning, and this time the center might hold. The scars of the civil war – the stupid pointless bloody sectarian conflict that all factions lost - are deeply etched in the memories and the hearts of everyone over the age of 20.

But the shadow authorities from the totalitarian city on the other side of the border have not gone away. They, along with Hezbollah, are the still-existing remnants of the dark Beirut that ripped the city and the country to pieces in the 1980s. It was so easy, at times, to think that they had gone – although of course I knew that they hadn’t. But they killed Samir Kassir, anti-Syrian journalist at An Nahar newspaper, and there’s no denying it any longer for even a minute. The liberal dream lived on in Beirut during the war. And now during the peace, fascism - however much the Cedar Revolution may have diluted it - lives on in Lebanon.

I only met Samir briefly three times, not really enough to call him a friend. But he was a good man, I liked him, and we had some things in common. It was those very things that we had in common that got him killed. It brings the war home to me in disturbing ways that are hard to describe. “Beirut,” to me, was always somebody else’s problem – even while I was there. That will never be true again.

Likewise, times 1000, “Damascus” is a problem for people who live outside Syria. A modern, tolerant Lebanon is screaming to get out from under its rule. It is still governed – violently – by people who lurk in the shadows like serial killers.

It is intolerable. The Baathists in Damascus have no right to export their vicious political system to any place that does not want to accept it – which is to say, no place at all. Yet they do. All the more insulting that the country they’ve chosen as their unwilling satrapy is the one Arab country where liberalism comes, in uneven fits and starts, somewhat naturally.

Thomas Friedman wasn’t quite right when he said the cosmopolitan internal exiles of Beirut would never feel at home again. They do again, now, to an extent. But they will never feel fully at home in their country until their country fully belongs to them.

My friend LP at the Lebanese Political Journal showed me a place in Ras Beirut, just down the street from my hotel, where (if I remember correctly) an opposition member of parliament was car-bombed shortly before I arrived. The bomb didn’t kill him, thankfully, and the site was just an ordinary-looking driveway in front of an ordinary-looking apartment building. Assassination attempts, as well as successes, are frightfully normal in that city even today.

Imagine if Syria unsuccessfully car-bombed Rudy Giuliani on his way to work in the morning. Then imagine Syria succeeded in using a 650 pound car bomb to murder Bill Clinton in Harlem, killing dozens more and blowing facades off buildings. Then imagine Syria assassinated Christopher Hitchens, also with a car bomb, in front of his Washington home.

What do you think the U.S. response would be?

It may not be wise under the circumstances, but the people of Lebanon are well within their rights to declare regime-change in Syria an official policy of the Lebanese government.

UPDATE: I should clarify. I don't want to see Lebanon invade Syria. It is neither possible nor desirable. But there are ways to influence events in somebody else's country - ways that do not include invasions or car bombs.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 3:32 PM

June 4, 2005

Remembering Samir Kassir

The bastards are still active in Beirut.

Samir Kassir - a founding member of Lebanon’s Democratic Left movement and a prominent anti-Syrian journalist for An-Nahar newspaper, was murdered – assasinated - by car-bomb in Beirut, almost certainly by Syrian security agents.

Samir_Kassir.jpg

Samir is the first person I have known personally who has been murdered by terrorists. I met him several times when I was in Beirut, twice in the Democratic Left’s headquarters, and once again at a rally. I sat right across from him at a table in that headquarters - as an observer, of course. I can’t say I was scared when I was in Lebanon. I wasn’t, and I wished my wife could have gone with me. But when I sat across from him at those meetings I did feel a bit like I was in the line of fire. I guess I was right.

I can’t say I knew him well, but I did know him. On the surface at any rate, he was a kind, gentle, warm, and welcoming person. Now that he’s dead I will not forget him. When I saw his face in the New York Times I felt like I had been punched in the stomach.

My friend LP at the Lebanese Political Journal (may he not be hit with a car bomb) is outraged at this atrocity.
We're not asking for bread on every plate. We're not asking for the oligarchs to give back their money. We just want the shadow authorities to take their boots off of our necks.
Samir dedicated his professional and his private life to ending tyranny in his country. He was an activist as well as a journalist – an honorable combination in an oppressed country like Lebanon – and he died for his efforts.

My condolences to his family and his country.

UPDATE: See Michael Young's obit for Samir in Reason. Michael, also, is a journalist in Beirut - he's the opinion page editor at The Daily Star. I met him while I was there, too, and he told me he can get away with criticizing Syria and its spooks because he writes in English rather than Arabic. I hope, for his sake under the circumstances, that he's right about that.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 3:35 PM

June 3, 2005

Bigots with Car Bombs

So-called Iraqi “insurgents” continue their campaign of terrorist rampages in Baghdad, this time targetting some of the least offensive people on Earth – Sufis.

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - A suicide bomber blew himself up at a gathering of Sufi Muslims north of Baghdad, killing 10 people in the latest attack by Iraqi insurgents on religious sects they disapprove of, officials said on Friday.
A person who deliberately mass-murders his fellow citizens because they belong to the “wrong” religious sect is not an insurgent. The “insurgents” are not oppressed by a Sufi regime in Iraq, nor can Iraq’s government be considered even remotely dominated by Sufis. Those killed weren’t part of the government or police force in the first place.

“Insurgent” is a morally and ethically neutral term. There are good insurgents and bad in this world, just as there are good guerillas and bad. There are not, however, good mass-murdering terrorists.

Professional writers should know this. Reuters’ so-called “insurgents” are bigots with car bombs. Mass-murdering Sufis solely because they are Sufis is a hate crime. It is distinguishable from genocide only in scale.

UPDATE: On that note, see the HateWatch briefing at Winds of Change.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:56 PM

June 2, 2005

The Gulag of Our Times, Revisited

The other day I wrote briefly about Amnesty International’s comparison of Gitmo to the Gulag. I didn’t bother to spell out the differences. They’re obvious to anyone who knows even a little about Stalin’s slave labor camps.

But it’s still nice to see the key differences cited by someone who does it as articulately as John Podhoretz does here.
Number of prisoners at Gitmo: approximately 600.

Number of prisoners in the Gulag: as many as 25 million, according to the peerless Gulag historian Anne Applebaum.

Number of camps at Gitmo: 1

Number of camps in the Gulag: At least 476, according to Applebaum.

Political purpose of Gulag: The suppression of internal dissent inside a totalitarian state.

Political purpose of Gitmo: The suppression of an international terrorist group that had attacked the United States, killing 3,000 people while attempting to decapitate the national government through the hijack of airplanes.

Financial purpose of Gulag: Providing totalitarian economy with millions of slave laborers.

Financial purpose of Gitmo: None.

Seizure of Gulag prisoners: From apartments, homes, street corners inside the Soviet Union.

Seizure of Gitmo prisoners: From battlefield sites in Afghanistan in the midst of war.
UPDATE: Don't miss this post at Beautiful Atrocities - In the Future, Everyone Will Be Hitler for 15 Minutes. (Hat tip: Instapundit.)

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 4:40 PM

Interviewed

I have been interviewed and profiled by George Roper, a man who is far too kind and too flattering. But that doesn't mean I shouldn't link it, so here you go.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:01 AM

June 1, 2005

Constitutional Flop

Dutch voters overwhelmingly rejected the proposed European Union constitution – by almost a two-to-one margin.

There are as many reasons why it flopped as there are opinions. Dutch liberals think it’s too right-wing. Dutch conservatives think it’s too left. But it can all be boiled down to one basic problem. It’s real simple: if the Eurocrats want a constitution that most Europeans can agree with, they need to make it real simple.

I can easily write three sentences that the vast majority of Westerners could agree with. Writing ten such sentences would be a lot harder. Writing 100 would be almost impossible. And writing 1,000 would be absolutely impossible.

The European Union needs a constitution. If they are to get one democratically it needs to be stripped down to basic principles that almost every European - minus the remnant communists and fascists on the margins - can accept. There are basic principles that the French, the Dutch, the Poles, etc. can rally around whether they’re left-wing or right-wing. Put ‘em in there. Leave everything else out and the constitution will pass.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 2:26 PM

The Most Harmful Books?

15 conservative intellectuals were polled by Human Events and asked what they thought were the 10 most harmful books of the 19th and 20th centuries. Here’s the list.

The Communist Manifesto
Mein Kampf
Quotations from Chairman Mao
The Kinsey Report
Democracy and Education
Das Kapital
The Feminine Mystique
The Course of Positive Philosophy
Beyond Good and Evil
General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money

Some of those I agree are among the most harmful books. Hardly anyone would quibble with the books in the top two slots.

But The Kinsey Report? The Feminine Mystique? Democracy and Education? Are they serious?

Here’s the complaint against Democracy and Education by John Dewey (a book I admittedly have not read).
John Dewey, who lived from 1859 until 1952, was a “progressive” philosopher and leading advocate for secular humanism in American life, who taught at the University of Chicago and at Columbia. He signed the Humanist Manifesto and rejected traditional religion and moral absolutes. In Democracy and Education, in pompous and opaque prose, he disparaged schooling that focused on traditional character development and endowing children with hard knowledge, and encouraged the teaching of thinking “skills” instead. His views had great influence on the direction of American education—particularly in public schools—and helped nurture the Clinton generation.
Well, Lord help us. Someone wrote a book that “nurtured the Clinton generation.” Better lump that in with Mein Kampf. Bush doesn’t = Hitler. But a Clinton influence apparently ranks with him.

Origin of the Species by Charles Darwin gets an honorable mention. Why? Because it overturns the Book of Genesis? I can’t imagine why else it would be on there.

Meanwhile, nothing by Sayyid Qutb is on the main list or the honorable mention list. Perhaps The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan could be replaced with In the Shade of the Koran. It is to the Terror War what Mein Kampf and The Communist Manifesto were to World War II and the Cold War. Islamofascism maybe, just maybe, is a tad more harmful than feminism and biology.

Anyway, if you're going to use an exercise like this to gun for your domestic political opponents (John Dewey, and by extension Bill Clinton; John Maynard Keynes, and by extension Franklin Delano Roosevelt) at least go after the likes of Noam Chomsky. Leave the mainstream liberals out of it.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:01 AM