July 31, 2005

Returned to Sender

Many years ago I wanted to move to Canada. It wasn’t because I wanted to flee the United States or become an expat per se. I just wanted to live in Vancouver, British Columbia. It’s one of my favorite cities in the world, and it has been ever since I first saw it. It’s also only a five hour drive from my home town of Portland. I liked the idea that I could live in another country without really leaving the “neighborhood.”

I looked into the requirements for getting a residency permit. Two things on the list I would need to be able prove:

1) I had no criminal record. (Check.)

2) My presence in Canada would benefit Canadian society, even if only by an iota, rather than harm it.

Seemed reasonable enough to me. Why should they want me if I was only going to cause trouble? They have enough problems of their own without needing to import any brand new ones.

I never did move to Canada. But if I had moved there and declared my own personal war against the country and its people I’d expect to be railroaded straight back to the U.S. “Whoops,” an immigration officer surely would tell me. “Looks like both of us made a mistake. You apparently don’t want to be here any more than we want you to be here.”

So color me unsurprised that France decided to deport 12 radical imams for inciting jihad.

France is well within its rights. Inciting holy war – and in this context we’re talking about civil war – isn’t something to shrug at after New York, London, and Madrid. This isn’t a free speech issue.

Clearly France made a mistake when they granted residency status to those who want to destroy them. And clearly those immigrant imams made a mistake when they decided to settle in France. If Canada demands that I, a law abiding American citizen, should have to prove I will help rather than harm their country if they let me in… then slapping “Return to Sender” on their butts is the very least France ought to do.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 9:38 PM

July 30, 2005

Is Hillary Clinton Electable?

I never cared much for Hillary Clinton, and I’m somewhat persuaded by Christopher Hitchens’ polemic against both Hill and Bill in No One Left To Lie To. At the same time I’ve always been both amused and put off by Hillary Derangement Syndrome. (I still remember the “Impeach Hillary” slogan on the right in the early 90s. If she is elected president, will “Re-Impeach Bill” be the new rallying cry?)

Very few politicians make the short list of those I actually admire and appreciate on some level. Hillary isn’t one of them. Those who do make the list: Barack Obama, Harold Ford Jr., Rudy Giuliani, and John McCain.

A huge fight has been raging inside the Democratic Party for many years about whether they should tack left and pump up the base or move to the center and win the hearts and minds of the swing voters. Moveon.org wants to go left. The Democratic Leadership Council wants to squat in the center. The fight gets truly nasty at times, and the Democrats lose voters to both the Republicans and the Green Party because of it.

It isn't necessarily an either/or proposition, though. What the Democrats need to do to be popular again is occupy both the left and the center at the same time. They need to find someone both Atrios and I will be willing to vote for. John Kerry tried to be that person, and it just wasn't possible. It hurt me watching him try.

Hillary is interesting, though. (You just know someone is a celebrity in our culture when we can refer to them by their first name only.) She does manage to occupy both the left and the center at the same time.

Here is Jacob Weisberg, editor of Slate.
An unhedged supporter of the war in Iraq, Sen. Clinton stands at the hawkish, interventionist extreme of her party on foreign policy. Despite her pandering vote against CAFTA, she's a confirmed free-trader and deficit hawk. On the cultural issues that often undermine Democrats, she seeks common ground, sometimes with flat-earth conservatives like Rick Santorum, and has been nattering about the “tragedy” of abortion. Even Hillary's notorious government takeover of health care was misconstrued as an ultra-lib stance. In opting for a mixed, private-public managed-competition plan, the then-first lady was repudiating the single-payer model long favored by paleo-liberals. Her plan was flawed in many ways, but it wasn't what Ted Kennedy wanted.

In fact, Sen. Clinton's political positioning couldn't be better for 2008. Despite being a shrewdly triangulating centrist on the model of her husband, she remains wildly popular with the party's liberal core: It seems to share the right's erroneous view of her as a closet lefty and draws closer to her with every inane conservative attack. There's no other possible candidate in either party so well poised to claim the center without losing the base.

She does have a serious problem, though, and it’s one I noticed from the very beginning.
Yet Hillary does face a genuine electability issue, one that has little to do with ideology, woman-hating, or her choice of life partner. Plainly put, it's her personality. In her four years in the Senate, Hillary has proven herself to be capable, diligent, formidable, effective, and shrewd. She can make Republican colleagues sound like star-struck teenagers. But she still lacks a key quality that a politician can't achieve through hard work: likability. As hard as she tries, Hillary has little facility for connecting with ordinary folk, for making them feel that she understands, identifies, and is at some level one of them. You may admire and respect her. But it's hard not to find Hillary a bit inhuman. Whatever she may be like in private, her public persona is calculating, clenched, relentless—and a little robotic.

With the American electorate so closely divided, it would be foolish to say that Hillary, or any other potential nominee, couldn't win. And a case can be made that the first woman who gets elected president will need to, as Hillary does, radiate more toughness than warmth. But in American elections, affection matters. Democrats lost in 2000 and 2004 with candidates Main Street regarded as elitist and aloof, to a candidate voters related to personally. Hillary isn't as obnoxious as Gore or as off-putting as Kerry. But she's got the same damn problem, and it can't be fixed.

Swing voters will never love Hillary Clinton. But swing voters don’t have to like who they vote for. They just need to dislike their candidate less than they dislike the other party’s candidate.

Last month I had beer with another local blogger who voted for Bush. He said he couldn’t think of a single Republican politician who stands a chance in the 2008 primary that he would be willing to vote for. “I think I may have to vote for Hillary Clinton,” he said.

“I’m surprised to hear you say that,” I said.

“Oh, I can’t stand the bitch,” he said. “But I might not have any choice.”

Spoken like a true swing voter.

The center will never go ga-ga over Hillary Clinton. She'll do, though, perhaps, if the Republicans also pick someone unlikable.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 1:29 PM

July 29, 2005

Technical Hell

Sorry about the site being down for the past 36 hours. The hard drive on the server crashed and I wasn't able to post even a “having technical difficulties” notice until now.

Looks like the last ten days worth of posts were lost. I was able to restore the most recent one, though, which you can see below.

Thanks for your patience.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:45 PM

War Against Tourism

When I first arrived in Beirut in April I wondered if I had made a terrible mistake. For the first time in my life I went to sleep wondering if my hotel would explode in the night. Obviously it did not. And I only worried about it once. After spending a day walking around the city I realized I was probably 1,000 times more likely to be struck by a moving car than a car bomb. (Lebanon is one of those places where stop signs are suggestions and urban speed limits are dictated by physics rather than laws.)

At first I was amazed at how rapidly I adjusted to new dangers in my environment. I was only consciously bothered by the vague new (to me) threat of car bombs for less than 24 hours. But thinking about it in hindsight I shouldn’t have been bothered at all, nor should I have been surprised that I was. I wasn’t afraid of car bombs per se. I was afraid of the Middle East. The fact is, though, that the Middle East looks a lot scarier from a distance than it does up close. The fear I felt during the first 24 hours was the baggage I brought with me from the United States. The reality of Lebanon (which is overwhelmingly friendly and peaceful) went to work on me and put me as ease very quickly.

Far more people were killed in London by terrorists on one single day (July 7) than were killed by terrorists in Lebanon every day for the past 15 years put together. When it comes to terrorist violence only Baghdad can compare to New York City. But I’m not at all afraid to go to New York as a tourist. It wouldn’t even occur to me that I shouldn’t go to London or Madrid. The reason I’m not afraid of those places is because they are Western, not because they are objectively safer. Lebanon is much safer than Britain right now.

Terrorism in the Middle East sure does have its effects, though. Because of the region’s reputation in the West, it takes precious little. My hotel in Beirut was almost completely empty. My four-star hotel room was discounted by 75 percent in a desperate attempt to lure tourists back to the country. I don’t know how much money Lebanon’s tourism industry has lost since Rafik Hariri was killed, but it must be incredible. Empty hotels that charge only 25 percent of their usual rate are just hemorrhaging money.

Targeting a Middle Eastern country’s tourism industry, then, really pays off. The bastards get one hell of a bang for their buck. (Pardon the expression.)

Austin Bay writes about the Islamist war against tourism in Egypt at Tech Central Station:
Call it the terrorists' War on Tourism — a war waged by jihadists that long predates 9-11, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Last week's terror attacks on Egypt's Sharm el-Sheikh resorts left nearly 90 dead. The attacks also sent an economic and political shockwave throughout the rest of Egypt.

Jihadist terrorists wage a war to create and maintain poverty. In Egypt, damaging the tourist industry does just that. Tourists climbing the Pyramids, sailing on the Nile and sipping coffee in Cairo are a source of very good jobs.

In 1992, the jihadists launched an “insurrection” against the Egyptian government, and the tourist industry was an immediate target. Since 1992, there have been at least 15 major attacks on tourists — an advertising campaign of high explosive and bullets designed to undermine the Egyptian economy.

For example, in 1993, jihadists targeted Cairo's Tahrir Square, killing a Swede, a Turk and an Egyptian. Eighteen were injured. In 1997, six terrorists massacred 58 foreign tourists (many of them Germans) and four Egyptians in an attack at Luxor's Temple of Hatshepsut. Islamist extremists argue that “pagan” temples desecrate Muslim lands, so if the jihadists ever take power in Egypt, Luxor might be razed. Don't laugh — the Taliban blew up the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan.

Here's a sketch of the terrorists' counter-tourism strategy: Attacks on foreign visitors guarantee instant international headlines, especially in the visitors' home nations. All terrorist attacks are designed to sow doubt in the local government's ability to protect lives, property and businesses, but the tourist industry is a very international industry and attacking it is an easy way to discourage international investment.

These attacks also isolate and impoverish individuals who work in tourist industries — people who tend to be multilingual and aware that “foreigners aren't devils.”
After 9/11 we all told ourselves over and over and over again that we’ll hand the terrorists a victory of we let them dictate our behavior. Hundreds of people in my city of Portland all traveled to New York City together to do what little they could to give New York’s economy a shot in the arm. They did it deliberately in defiance of the terrorists. The trip was planned for this reason and this reason only. They would not have gone to New York at all when they did if jets had not first been flown into the towers.

That’s the right way to handle it. I know many of you think will think I’m crazy if I suggest choosing the Middle East as a tourist destination in defiance of terrorism. But that’s exactly what I’m doing. It isn’t really any more dangerous there than it is here. (Well, Iraq is more dangerous, but I’m not suggesting Baghdad for your holiday.) Go to Cairo. Go to Beirut. Don’t go to Europe instead because you think you’ll be safer. You won’t be. You just won’t be. But Al Qaeda would like you to think that you would be.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:43 PM

July 18, 2005

Conservative Heretics

Yesterday I highlighted hysterical reactions to centrism on the left but didn't mention any on the right. That's because I was focusing on responses around the blogosphere to the new centrist blog Donklephant. I didn't see any hysterical reactions to that blog on the right so there was nothing there to highlight.

It seems to me that conservatives in general are more comfortable with centrists than are liberals in general. And I'm not just talking about myself here. I write far more about foreign policy (where my views are hawkish and “conservative”) than domestic policy (where my views are usually liberal) so I'm not an ideal test case. It’s not just me, though. I see a lot more denunciations of the center-left New Republic magazine on the left than I see on the right – and I don’t know what else could explain it except for a loathing of heretics.

Anyway, I don't want to give the impression that I naively believe conservatives take kindly to those who buck their own party line. They don't. John Cole - who blogs at Balloon Juice - has been having a rough time of things lately since he started taking on right-wing partisan hacks. He's a good object lesson for any disaffected former liberal who is tempted to move beyond the middle and actually join the conservatives. His experience with the right isn't much different than mine has been with the left. Formerly liberal centrists may be acceptable to conservatives. But formerly conservative centrists aren't so much.

Perhaps the reason conservatives in general are more tolerant of centrists in general is because - for right now anyway - there are more former liberals around than there are former conservatives. It might not be any more complicated than that.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 6:18 PM

Left, Right, and Center

It’s interesting to see some of the reactions around the blogosphere to the new centrist blog Donklephant I’m contributing to.

Tbogg says we’re all “yoostabee Democrats” even though some of us are, in fact, actual Democrats. Callimachus is the only Republican, and he calls himself a RINO (Republican in Name Only). Tbogg also says the site

lays claim to centrism but comes across more like a gay bar for guys who haven't come out yet (nervous glances, forced smiles, frantic lip licking…”It's my first time here since the party left me. Can I buy you a Zima?”)
Roy Edroso over at Alicublog takes things a step further:
[I]t is generally accepted on the site that liberals should be allowed to live. I'll try back in a few months when it goes totally right-wing.
Well, Justin Gardner – the site editor – is a Democrat. Not only did he vote for John Kerry, he originally supported Howard Dean. But whoops! Here’s his crime: He says he doesn’t “agree with either side on everything” and is “turned off by the unquestioning partisan nature of many leading blogs today.” How right-wing of him!

Roy’s comments thread is considerably worse. It’s a perfect example of how the liberal core or “base” has devolved into an exclusive bitchy little high school clique. As Andrew Sullivan put it, “today's right looks for converts whereas today's left looks for heretics.”

Here is what a centrist blog looks like to Roy’s readers:
- the same-old same-old rightwing fucknuttery

- Whoa, flashbacks. Anybody remember 2001, when the Perfesser (and many of his ilk) styled himself as a non-partisan “anti-idiotarian”? This seems like the same sort of “centrism” - 95% bashing the left/liberals/democrats, 5% tepid swipes at the least defensible components of the right (that Fred Phelps just goes too far!), all covered with a thick glaze of self-congratulation about how independent and free-thinking they all are.

- [W]e've seen your type pop up far, far too often in the past decade. You guys aren't actually centrist, and I give y'all three months (probably less) before you start publishing columns by David Horowitz, telling everyone that Rev. Moon ain't that bad, and offering to hold pizza parties for anyone who'll kill non-Bush-worshipping congressmen/columnists/private citizens.

- I suspect (and this probably isn't a new thought) that “centrists” are really just old school conservatives who are too embarrassed to accept they're in the same “big tent” as the neo-cons, evangelists and other post-Reagan freakazoids
Look, kids, the center by definition isn’t right-wing. That’s why it’s the center. How many times do we have to go over this? Do I need to draw you a picture?

Left_Center_Right.JPG

You’ll notice that the center isn’t left, either. There are, generally speaking, at least two kinds of people who argue with the left. Both right-wingers and centrists do it. Not only is that allowed, it’s part of the whole point of being in the middle instead of on the left.

You can’t even stick one little pinky toe outside the left-wing perimeter without being denounced as a right-wing death beast by some people. That exclusive bitchy little high school clique really does subscribe to the whole “you’re either with us or you're against us” mentality. How unnuanced and simplisme.

I will give Roy’s readers credit for unintentional humor.

Robert McClelland sez:
You really have to hand it to the right. They've almost got the entire political spectrum covered with people like Michael “the not-conservative but Libertarian” Totten and Jeff “I really, really, really, really am a liberal” Jarvis. All they need now is for one of them to start up a Marxist blog that spouts conservative rhetoric and they'll have it all sewn up.
Then Smelmoth (lovely name) comes along and breaks the bad news to Robert:
marxist blog that spouts conservative rhetoric anyone? uh, that would be drink soaked Trotskyite Popinjays for War. i wish i could say i was kidding… but i'm not. seriously. no, seriously.
It must really suck being a liberal these days. They’re surrounded by right-wing boogeymen on all sides.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:53 AM

July 15, 2005

Saddam and Osama in 1999

I haven’t written much at all – ever – about the links between Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. The linkage always seemed pretty limited or stretched, and it had little or nothing to do with why I supported Iraqi regime-change. Saddam’s links to other terrorists – Abu Nidal, Hamas – have never been in doubt, but again that didn’t factor in all that much for me. I would have been in favor of removing him even if he hated all terrorists. I've been in favor of removing him for at least ten years now already, since before Al Qaeda even existed.

But listen to this audio clip. (Hat tip: Roger L. Simon.)

ABC News reported in 1999 that Osama bin Laden had a “long relationship” with his “friend” Saddam Hussein, that he was “welcome in Baghdad,” that he tried to get enriched uranium from Saddam, and that he also asked for political asylum in Iraq. They even have a clip of Osama himself admitting he hoped to get enriched uranium from Saddam.

That was in 1999. So, what changed in the meantime? Why did this ABC News report go down the memory hole all of a sudden?

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:27 AM

July 14, 2005

New Blogging Gig

I joined a brand-new politically centrist group blog that just launched yesterday called Donklephant. A donklephant, you see, is a hybrid animal: half Democratic donkey and half Republican elephant. It has big teeth, a huge ass, and is surprisingly reasonable.

I won’t be contributing daily (at least not at first) but I do have a debut essay right out the starting gate called The West Has Never Been One. I’m not cross-posting, so you’ll have to go over there and read it.

Donklephant is the newest title in Duncan Riley’s Weblog Empire. My fellow contributers include Marcus Cicero, Callimachus, Justin Gardner, J. Thomas Duffy, and Montag.

I don't want anyone to miss this excellent essay by Callimachus called “Josey Wales and Me.” I have a feeling that a lot of people who aren't partisan hacks, but who still lean somewhat one way or the other, are going to read this and understand themselves a bit better than they did before they took a look at it.

Also see Marcus Cicero's first essay called Driving.

I was the one who asked the site editor, Justin Gardner, to bring Callimachus and Marcus Cicero on board. I'm glad I did, I'm glad Justin agreed that they're worth having, and I'm glad they both signed on. I think you'll see why when you read what they have to say. They are both among the very best the blogosphere has to offer, and it's an honor to work on a project with them. I’m looking forward to discovering the other new (to me) bloggers as well.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:21 AM

July 13, 2005

The Priceless Professor

Juan Cole doesn’t just poke around for facts to fit his opinions. (We all do that to an extent at least on occasion.) Instead he hallucinates - or simply invents – his own “facts” to suit his agenda which, in this case, is blaming the September 11 attacks on the US and Israel.

According to the September 11 Commission report, al-Qaeda conceived 9/11 in some large part as a punishment on the US for supporting Ariel Sharon's iron fist policies toward the Palestinians. Bin Laden had wanted to move the operation up in response to Sharon's threatening visit to the Temple Mount, and again in response to the Israeli attack on the Jenin refugee camp, which left 4,000 persons homeless. Khalid Shaikh Muhammad argued in each case that the operation just was not ready.
Anyone could have fact-checked this work of fiction, but Martin Kramer was the one who actually did it.
Did Cole read the same 9/11 report as the rest of us? There's not a single passage in the 9/11 report mentioning Sharon's (or Israel's) policies, and I challenge him to produce one. Cole just made it up. And in point of fact, the report's narrative definitively contradicts him.

[…]

The 9/11 operation could hardly have been “conceived” as a response to U.S. support for Sharon's “iron fist policies.” It was conceived, its operatives were selected, and it was put in motion, long before Sharon took the helm.

And what of Cole's claim that Bin Laden wanted to launch the attacks “in response to the Israeli attack on the Jenin refugee camp, which left 4,000 persons homeless”? The Jenin operation took place in April 2002, seven months after 9/11.
Cole just figures that must have been the reason for 911, in utter defiance of all widely available evidence. What kind of person picks one of his pet causes and just assumes Al Qaeda attacked us for that particular reason?

Not only does he get his chronology (and hence his cause and effect) completely and utterly backwards, he just makes up out of thin air some of the glue that holds it together. I mean, look at this sentence:

Khalid Shaikh Muhammad argued in each case that the operation just was not ready.
How on earth could Khalid Shaikh Muhammad argue after the Jenin battle that the 911 attacks were not ready if the attacks had already taken place? He couldn’t, obviously. Every single sentence in that paragraph is a hallucination or a lie, even the final most innocuous one.

And that’s just the beginning. You really must read Kramer’s entire post from beginning to end to get an idea of just exactly how shameless and dishonest Juan Cole really is, in general and not just in this one particular post. It frankly boggles the mind.

And don’t miss Tony Badran’s fisking of Cole’s response (here and here) to the London attacks. Naturally Cole completely botched his analysis. Tony has been impaling Cole’s “analysis” on actual facts every single day for a week now. That may seem a bit obsessive, but as Tony himself says: “I'm sorry but the Professor is just priceless.”

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 6:58 PM

July 12, 2005

Microwaved Marxism

After every act of terrorism in a Western country essays by “intellectuals” who are dumb as a sack of hammers predictably appear in the press. Here’s one by the now-infamous Sarah Boxer in the New York Times, about werenotafraid.com, where she pulls decades-old Marxist leftovers out of the refrigerator and zaps them in the microwave.

The site displays a range of defiant postures. Some people hold up their middle fingers, presumably for the terrorists to see. Some people posted pictures of American soldiers, presumably for Londoners and Americans to see.

But more and more, there's a brutish flaunting of wealth and leisure. Yesterday there were lots of pictures posted of smiling families at the beach and of people showing off their cars and vans. A picture from Italy shows a white sports car and comes with the caption: “Afraid? Why should we be afraid?”

A few days ago, We're Not Afraid might have been a comfort. Today, there's a hint of “What, me worry?” from Mad magazine days, but without the humor or the sarcasm. We're Not Afraid, set up to show solidarity with London, seems to be turning into a place where the haves of the world can show that they're not afraid of the have-nots.
Osama bin Laden is a friggin' billionaire. Islamist terrorism isn't a class war.

Saudi Arabia is one of the richest countries in the entire world. And it’s the mothership of Islamist terrorism and fanaticism. Meanwhile, Muslim-majority Mali is among the five poorest nations in the entire world. The number of terrorists exported by Mali: zero. (Mali is also, by the way, a stable multi-ethnic democracy. Even poor Muslims in non-homogenous countries are capable of liberalization, moderation, and democracy. Mali proves that definitively. But facts of this sort seem to have no effect whatever on ideological leftists or rightists.)

Sarah Boxer’s very existence ought to encourage would-be journalists everywhere. You can be dumb as a sack of hammers and still make it all the way to the New York Times.

UPDATE: Andrew Apostolou emails an article published last year by the BBC. Dr Andrew Silke interviewed 180 Al Qaeda detainees and learned, among other things, that every single one of them came from upper or middle-class backgrounds. Two thirds were college educated. One in ten held a post-graduate degree. Islamists terrorists are far wealthier and better educated than Westerners on average. We're not under assault by the have-nots, we're under assault by the haves.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 2:07 PM

July 11, 2005

Muslims Against Terror

Chan’ad Bahraini, blogging from Bahrain, posted a photo gallery of a demonstration against terrorism in front of the British Embassy. (Hat tip: Instapundit.)

A few photos jumped out at me:

100_5889.jpg

100_5893.jpg

100_5896.jpg

When I visited Rafik Hariri’s grave site in downtown Beirut a local man explained to me how moving it was to see candles placed in front of his coffin. The reason was because candles, at least in Lebanon, are explicitly Christian. They are not a part of the Muslim tradition. Rafik Hariri was a Sunni Muslim. And so it was shocking in a good way, or so I was told, for Muslims to see Christians lighting candles for him.

I don’t know if it means anything in particular that Muslims in Bahrain specifically used candles to show their solidarity with the people of Britain. Perhaps candles don’t mean the same thing in Bahrain as they do in Lebanon. I really don’t know. In any case, it obviously means a great deal that Bahraini Muslims feel a sense of solidarity with Christian victims of Islamic terrorism.

We owe it to them to take note and not shrug our shoulders. We are obligated for the same reason Muslims in the Middle East ought to note that the United States took the side of the Muslims – not the Christians – in the sectarian civil war that tore the former Yugoslavia to pieces. (We didn’t take their side because they are Muslims. We took their side because the Orthodox Christian regime of Slobodan Milosovic was unspeakably barbarous.)

Only 100 or so people attended the event in Bahrain. That isn’t very many, and I do wish the number were higher – a lot higher. It is worth pointing out, though, that Bahrain is a miniscule country and that only 453,237 people who live there are Bahraini nationals. That’s roughtly the size of the metro area of Des Moines, Iowa. If you want to see a million people march against terrorism, you aren’t going to see it in that little country.

This reminds me of something a military friend of mine told me a couple of years ago. He was briefly stationed in Bahrain. One day he went shopping in one of the downtown malls wearing his uniform. An elderly Arab man - a total stranger - wearing traditional flowing white clothing approached him unbidden, gave him a hug, and said “I am so so sorry about September 11.” It was all my friend could do not to break down in tears. He has only the kindest sweetest things to say about the people who live in that country.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 6:01 PM

The Void

This weekend I took a long road trip with fellow Portland blogger Asher Abrams into the heart of the West’s Empty Quarter – the Black Rock Desert in Northwestern Nevada. It is the hinterlands of the hinterlands, the desert of the desert. It is the nearest thing you will find on this Earth to a void.

Black Rock Desert Void.jpg

Native Americans steered clear of this place. White settlers feared and loathed the treacherous crossing. Today a certain kind of person (like me) feels drawn to it from even five hundred miles away.

I go to places like this for utterly contradictory reasons. (I’m human, what can I say?) It’s partly a yearning for danger that comes from spending so much time in a pampered, cushy, Pacific Northwest city. People vanish into the Black Rock every year. Their cars get stuck, they get lost, and they die. (You try walking out of there from the center. No, actually, don't.) Venturing out into the back of beyond, where there are absolutely no cell phones, police officers, fire departments, hotels, restaurants, bottled water, helping hands – civilization, in other words – adds a bit of frisson to a life spent mostly inside a bubble where The World is kept at bay.

Black Rock Desert Earth.jpg

I’m also drawn by a yearning for peace from the stress of the city. It takes energy to live in a city, even a comfy yuppified city like Portland. You don’t realize how much energy it actually takes until you go to a timeless place where nothing exists except earth and sky. Not even radio waves or cell phone signals exist in the Black Rock Desert. Money doesn’t exist there. Mortgage payments don’t exist there. Neither does the blogosphere, George W. Bush, Al Qaeda, or even the 21st Century.

The city is at once both stressful and luxurious. The Black Rock Desert is hostile, yet peaceful. The city is artificial and civilized. The desert is elemental and wild.

Anything that exists however temporarily in the desert – the tiniest pebble, a stray dime, a bottlecap, a book, a person, a car – suddenly becomes spectacularly significant. Everything is huge up close in a void.

Black Rock Desert Book.jpg

Black Rock Desert Dime.jpg

Yet from any kind of distance at all, everything becomes miniscule. Below is a picture of Asher. See if you can find him. He was only 500 feet from me when I snapped the picture. Yet he might as well have been in his own solar system. I was no larger.

Black Rock Desert Asher.jpg

When the two of us got out of the car we instinctively walked in separate directions. A place like the Black Rock Desert can only be faced alone. (Unless, that is, you’re at the Burning Man festival, but the desert is then transformed into something else.) Conversation disrupts the whole point of it. The void is a place to face your own thoughts and to ponder eternity in absolute silence.

Black Rock Desert Feet.jpg

We also visited Pyramid Lake. I first saw this lake from the air when I flew down to Los Angeles last September. I was looking for Lake Tahoe and I couldn’t find it. It must have been directly below me, and you can’t quite look straight down from an airplane. I saw Pyramid Lake instead, although I hadn’t yet heard of it and I did not yet know its name. There is was, a shimmering blue inland sea in the middle of the Nevada desert. How unlikely, I thought, since the “lakes” of Nevada tend to be alkaline hardpans. I decided I would figure out which lake I was looking at from the air, then go look at it later from the ground.

Pyramid Lake From Air.JPG
(Photo via Google Earth, viewed from 30 miles above the ground.)

It was every bit as surprising on the ground as it was from the air. It is enormous, like an inland sea. Amazingly blue (I foolishly neglected to photograph it at the right time, when the sun was shining brilliantly on it) and almost completely devoid of any obnoxious Nevada development whatsoever. It’s on a Paiute Indian Reservation. It looks like for once the Indians weren’t shunted onto the bad land. Nevada is full of bad land to live on (and great land to visit when you’re looking for solitude) but Pyramid Lake is a jewel.

Pyramid Lake 2.jpg

Pyramid Lake 1.jpg

Asher has lived in Portland for five years, but he doesn’t own a car. Until we set out he had seen almost nothing of Oregon. And he had never set foot in Nevada. See his blog for a terrific travel diary of our trip through virgin eyes.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 2:43 AM

July 8, 2005

Withdrawal Under Fire

Hardly anyone seems to have noticed, but last week both Donald Rumsfeld and George W. Bush rather strongly implied that they intend to withdraw American forces from Iraq under fire. It's not necessarily as bad as it sounds, though, and it's the subject of my new Tech Central Station column.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 4:59 AM

July 7, 2005

Portland Indymedia Speaks

I live in one of the staunchest left-wing neighborhoods in a staunch left-wing city. Needless to say, I have to listen to hysterical nonsense on a regular basis. I am fully aware that the radical left isn’t the Democratic Party, that the radical left thinks the Democratic Party is full of corporate right-wing fascists, that the radical left will never be in power, etc. They’re just incredibly annoying and it makes me feel better to expose them and kick them around once in a while.

Take a look at what gets said around here on a regular basis. All the following excerpts are from Portland’s Indymedia. Their office is right down the street from my house.

Here’s “Bubba”:
This is what will continue to happen IF YOU DO NOT SPEAK UP ABOUT THE HOAX KNOWN AS 9/11. BLAIR ordered these London bombings on behalf of his puppet masters - the international (mainly JEW) bankers in the City of London. THERE IS NO DOUBT ABOUT THIS. BLAIR is not only a lying, mass-murdering THUG; he is also a VERY, VERY SICK THUG - A PSYCHOPATH.
“Portlander” sez:
Isn't it wonderful? The timing of the bombs? Right after the G8 meeting? I won't be surprised if the crisis in Africa go untouched now, considering that America's eyes have shifted from poverty to terrorism.Anyone else have similar suspicions?
Here’s one from Brent Herbert.
Those of you who understand the significance of propaganda should be able to understand that the Live 8 event signified that people like the Bolivians and the Venezuelans are finally winnning their centuries long battle with those Capitalists, thus requiring Capitalists to start caring, or at least try to look like they care, these being capitalists you should remember. And wouldn't you know it, next thing you know that Osama Bin Laden would show up and start blowing up working class people so that politicians could then take away some more of their civil rights. I would like to take this opportunity to inject some common sense into what is obviously a panic stricken population of Capitalists, by reminding those Capitalists to show some common sense when they make their next move, and not blow themsevles up to many times, because its not good for business. Personally, I think this operation looks more like a classic Karl Rove operation
Here’s another from “mouse.”
Just watched Lou Dobbs on CNN. “Islamic Terrorists” bombed targets in London this morning, according to Dobbs. No mention of proof. They did it period. Dobbs has become the posterboy for racist, lying reporting that regularly demonizes immigrants, legal and otherwise. Any illusions that CNN is somehow 'better' than FOX News is totally disproved by the reality of Dobb's vicious nightly attacks.
See? Lou Dobbs is guilty of vicious attacks. Not the London bombers. Lou Dobbs.
But to actually declare within 7 hours of these bombings that 'Islamic Terrorists' were definitely responsible is nothing short of irresponsible propagandizing. CNN tries hard to come across as fair and balanced, but Dobb's ultra-primetime slot every single night betrays CNN's true philosophy. When the trials for 911 begin, there's going to be a lot of 'newspeople' defending themselves against conspiracy charges. Conspiracy to coverup the truth, and aiding and abetting MASS MURDER. Lou Dobbs will be at the very top of that list. Can't wait to see his smug mug behind bars in Leavenworth, right next to Bush and Cheneythesatan.
This clown wants to lock up journalists for reporting terrorist attacks? Way to go, bud. You’ll be in power any day now.

Here’s one from some fool named “why” who takes his cues from Ward Churchill:

Blood pours forth in rivers from the bodies of Arabs, so that Halliburton can make a killing putting the cities all back together in cheap-ass American fashion. So that Coke can put up vending machines along the streets from which this blood flowed. So that Bechtel can steal all the water and sell it back to the people who survived for vast sums of money. So that the oilmen of Texas can pat each other on their fat, greasy, hateful backs. That's the context. So I still can't excuse the killing of innocent Londoners, but I can understand the reasons why someone might be compelled to strike out against comfortable firstworlders. Firstworlders who might not agree with the wars, but who benefit from them just the same. Who might not actually be holding the guns in their own hands, but who have not done enough to take them out of the hands of others. Who might not believe in what their governments are doing, but who support those governments through their own consumption habits just the same.
Sigh. I can’t even get mad at these people any more. They’re just deluded and sad. And they make Dennis Kucinich look like Charles Krauthammer.

For reactions from the left that are actually intelligent see the new group blog by British leftists called Drink-Soaked Trotskyite Popinjays for War. Or, if you prefer an intelligent reaction from the anti-war left, read Marc Cooper.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 9:55 PM

An Open Letter to Terrorists

From the London News Review.

What the fuck do you think you're doing?

This is London. We've dealt with your sort before. You don't try and pull this on us.

Do you have any idea how many times our city has been attacked? Whatever you're trying to do, it's not going to work.

All you've done is end some of our lives, and ruin some more. How is that going to help you? You don't get rewarded for this kind of crap.

And if, as your MO indicates, you're an al-Qaeda group, then you're out of your tiny minds.

Because if this is a message to Tony Blair, we've got news for you. We don't much like our government ourselves, or what they do in our name. But, listen very clearly. We'll deal with that ourselves. We're London, and we've got our own way of doing things, and it doesn't involve tossing bombs around where innocent people are going about their lives.

And that's because we're better than you. Everyone is better than you. Our city works. We rather like it. And we're going to go about our lives. We're going to take care of the lives you ruined. And then we're going to work. And we're going down the pub.

So you can pack up your bombs, put them in your arseholes, and get the fuck out of our city.
Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:05 PM

Al Qaeda Hits London

What a horrible thing to wake up to.

LONDON, July 7 - London was struck by a series of four apparently coordinated terrorist explosions in subways and buses during the morning rush hour today, which killed at least 33 people and wounded as many as 1,000 others. The explosions ripped apart several subway trains and at least one double-decker bus and caused officials to close and evacuate the entire subway system.

Witnesses reported seeing dozens of people stumbling out of subway stations in a light rain, coughing, and black with soot. Dozens more were being loaded into ambulances on stretchers and taken to hospitals around the city.

I have never been to England, but it’s where my family and my name are from.

Somehow it's more shocking when it happens in London instead of Baghdad or Jerusalem, but I suppose after all that's happened it shouldn't be.

Regular updates here. (Thanks to Justin Gardner.)

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 8:39 AM

July 6, 2005

From the First Gulf War to the Second

I was 20 years old during the first Gulf War to eject Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. I knew precious little about history, war, the Middle East, or foreign policy. My views of the world at the time were almost entirely shaped by the stuck-in-the-60s college town of Eugene, Oregon where I lived and went to school. So I opposed the war for all the usual dumb reasons: no war for oil, war never solves any problems, etc. (Needless to say, I changed my mind retroactively.)

Considering that the first Gulf War had a broader base of support than the second, there can’t be too many people like me who opposed the first and supported the second. Most of those who did switch as I did are probably roughly my age and only opposed the first out of sheer youthful ignorance.

Not everyone who opposed the war was a naïve college student, though. (That’s obviously true today, too.) There were at least half-way intelligent arguments against the 1991 Gulf War, just as there were truly depraved arguments for it – the worst being James Baker’s infamous “jobs, jobs, jobs.”

Take Christopher Hitchens, for example. He opposed the first and supported the second. And the events that forged his change of mind are pretty compelling. Here he is in an interview with The Common Review:
Hitchens: I argue with people whom I suspect of being more keen on landing a blow against George W. Bush than caring about the realities of the Middle East. I know them when I see them. I know them when I hear them. I can smell them, actually. It's the idea that Bush is the main enemy, and the rest of it is all contingent. One reason I know how to tell them is I used to feel that way about his father. I thought it was disgraceful that George Bush Sr. got away with the Iran-Contra racket. He lied his way out of this extraordinary conspiracy to enrich both the ayatollahs and the contras, and to trade American hostages, to raise money for one bunch of theocratic thugs to give money to another bunch of clerical fascist thugs in Central America, and to bypass the U.S. Constitution with a secret government. I thought everyone involved in that should have gone straight to jail, particularly George Bush the elder, who was one of the originators. So I didn't believe a word he said about it. I did not believe a word he said. Also, I hated the way he won the 1988 elections—the Willie Horton business, Lee Atwater.

How the party of Lincoln could use this Klansman in this way is beyond me. So, you know, I really actually wanted to see the guy pummeled. And it was perfectly obvious to me that they had told Saddam Hussein he was entitled to at least a chunk of Kuwait. The whole thing had the look to me of a put-up job. I went on Air Force One with Bush to Saudi Arabia and that didn't change my mind. There was something phony about it. The truth was not being told. When the war was all nearly over, I ended up in northern Iraq, where Saddam had made a final attempt to exterminate the Kurds. Eventually Bush and the British had sent in forces to say we'll stop that happening. We'll patrol the air space. We'll draw a line beyond which the Baath Party can't come.

TCR: The no-fly zones.

Hitchens: Yes. And I knew that this was the result of public opinion. People said, we can't end the war against Saddam Hussein seeing him massacre these people and drive the survivors over the border. We can't. And clearly they couldn't. With great reluctance, this policy was imposed. I was bouncing around in a jeep with some Kurdish guerillas at that point. And on my side of the windshield, there was a big laminated picture of George H. W. Bush. And I said to them, “Look, comrades, do you have to do this? For one thing, I can't see out of my side of the windshield. But for another, I know quite a few reporters in this area and might run into one of them at any moment. And I don't want them seeing me in a jeep that has this guy's image on it. So do you have to?” And they said, quite soberly and solemnly to me, “No, we think we should have this picture because we think, without him, we would all be dead, and all our families would be dead, too.” And from what I'd seen by then in that region, I thought, that's basically morally true. I don't have a reply to that. I don't have a glib one and I don't have a sound one. It's true. So at that point my criticism of the war became this: that it had not been a regime-change war, that the slogans of liberty and justice that had been used to mobilize it had not been honored. But if they had been, I would have been in favor of it. It's a narrow but deep crevasse to cross, and once you've crossed it, I'll tell you this, you can't go back over it again. You can't find yourself on the other side of it. Some of you may be in transition across this crevasse yourselves or be thinking about it. I warn you: don't cross over if you have any intention of going back, because you can't. You're stuck with it then. You're a prisoner of the knowledge of genocide and fascism, and you'll never break free of it—of that awareness. You will have made friends you can't desert. And that, in simple terms, is what happened to me.
Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:14 AM

July 5, 2005

Drama Queens

I read somewhere (long ago) that domestic cats kept indoors all the time will hallucinate their natural environment. Their little cat brains just aren’t wired for couches, dining room tables, doorways, and drapes. When you see them running around chasing nothing in particular they are - supposedly - imagining mice. When you see them running in terror for no particular reason they are - supposedly - hallucinating their own predators. If mice don’t exist in their world, it’s up to cats to create them. Maybe this isn't quite right (I haven't really looked into it) but it makes sense to me. And it explains why my cats often act as though they see ghosts.

Sometimes I wonder if humans behave the same way.

I've long suspected that activistas (meaning those who protest everything for the sake of protesting) are simply bored. Civilization and a comfortable middle class life in a First World economy remove epic and dramatic struggle from our daily lives. We don’t have to hunt. We don’t have to hide from predators. We don’t have regular violent clashes with neighboring tribes. We have to work, but we’re comfy. Our basic survival needs are all easily met. There are more adult diversions, toys, and entertainment than we can possibly spend our lives consuming and enjoying. No foreign armies can conquer us. There are no oppressive overlords with their boots on our necks. Titanic life-or-death struggles have been abolished for the overwhelming majority of us.

But we’re wired for struggle and drama. (Just read history. It comes across loud and clear.) A few years ago - just before 9/11, in fact - a friend of mine in the high-tech industry said “I wish we lived in more interesting times.” I knew what he meant. I worked in a cubicle variously as a software tester and a technical writer. It was a pleasant stress-free job and it paid very well. But God was life ever boring. I think a lot of Americans feel that way, at least sometimes, which is why disaster movies like Independence Day, Deep Impact, and War of the Worlds make so much money. We don’t want our cities to be destroyed by asteroids and aliens, but watching it happen sure is perversely entertaining.

What else might explain people on the political lunatic fringes? I’m not talking about Dennis Kucinich and Tom DeLay here, I mean the fringe of the fringe, the real crazies. People on the far-right who spent the 1990s holed up in the mountains of Idaho and Montana preparing for an apocalyptic showdown with the federal government and the United Nations. People on the far left who think they live in a brutal police state and that they’re bravely defying a fascist regime when they take to the streets.

Human beings are wired for struggle. If we aren’t handed a struggle by real-world events, some of us may just have to invent one. I don’t know how many people are actually motivated by this sort of thing. Those who are most likely aren’t aware of it consciously. But it does seem to explain the woman in this AP photo (hat tip: Harry’s Place) who defies the police at least in part because, as the sticker says on her shoulder, “Capitalism is Boring.”

Capitalism_is_boring.JPG

A commenter named Richard over at Harry’s Place (he goes by Lymanlover on his blog) cited one of the anarchist slogans from 1968 France:

In a society that has abolished every kind of adventure the only adventure that remains is to abolish the society.
I can’t say this is a productive way to spend one’s time, but the honesty is refreshing.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 1:12 PM

July 4, 2005

Fireworks on the 4th

In case you haven't seen it yet, CNN has video of NASA's probe crashing into a comet on the Fourth of July.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 9:35 PM