Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Non-Binding Resolutions

The CNN website has a link to a video report titled, "Non-binding resolutions a cop-out?" ( I haven't seen the video clip (for whatever reason, it won't play on my PC), but I can comment just from reading the question.

Of course they're a cop-out!

A non-binding resolution gives lawmakers a no-threat opportunity to grandstand without having to record a specific vote on a specific issue. I accept that many lawmakers are opposed to the war in Iraq. So am I. But elected representatives are not elected to vote for safe, waffling resolutions, they're elected to take on and resolve the issues that concern their constituents. They are elected to form one-third of the system of checks and balances the Founders in their wisdom built into the Constitution, largely as a check on the power of the Executive Branch (having gotten rid of one king, the Founders didn't want to create the conditions to grow another). As far as I can see, there's been no effective check on the actions of the Bush administration, and we appear to be tottering rather than balancing. No member of Congress wants to commit political suicide by actually voting for something that will be used by their opponents to imply that they don't support our troops in combat.

Thus, the safe dodge of the non-binding resolution.

I have asked before: where are the statesmen in this government? Where are the elected officials who are willing to stand up for what they believe in, to point out that the emperor has no clothes?

If you are an elected representative of the people, you are responsible for taking on and attempting to solve the problems and issues that concern your constituents. The constant Republican drumbeat of outrage about judges who "legislate from the bench" fails to note that judges "legislate from the bench" because Congress frequently fails to legislate from the legislature. It's safer to vote for a sancimonious non-binding resolution than to take a principled stand on a difficult issue and defend that position clearly to the American people.

That's why we have politicians in this country, rather than statesmen.

Have a good day. Demand more of your elected officials. You are, after all, paying their salaries.


Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The Two-Letter Insult

There are a lot of disheartening things about the harsh political partisanship that has been the sand in the gears of our government, but one of the most disheartening is the level of childish insult to which some will descend. A prime example came in - of all places - President Bush's State of the Union address on January 23rd, in which he said, "Some in this Chamber are new to the House and Senate — and I congratulate the Democrat majority. "

As you may know from recent commentary, Republicans often use the term Democrat rather than Democratic as the adjective to describe the other party. It's a little thing, but it infuriates the Democrats and thus has become a childish and petty way for Republicans to dig at their ideological opponents. That the President chose to do it in the forum of a major address to a joint session of Congress is a sign of casual disrespect. When asked about it in an interview with National Public Radio yesterday, the President laughed and said that he hadn't been aware he'd said it, and didn't do so deliberately; indeed, the printed copies of the speech distributed by the White House used the correct term. But the fact that the Chief Executive would automatically, if unknowingly, use a term known to anger his political opponents sends a clear and unfortunate signal.

There are enough differences of principle to divide the conservative Republicans from the liberal Democrats without either side aggravating the situation by going out of its way to show petty disrespect. We ought to be able to expect better from those we elect to lead the nation.

Yesterday my daughter sent me this picture, said to be the 10,000 year-old fossilized remains of a politician recently unearthed in an archaeological dig in Washington, DC:

As a popular saying in my office goes, it's like a clown on fire...sort of funny, but sort of sad.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Monday, January 29, 2007

Yes, But Is It Literature?

I suppose it had to happen eventually: an author in Finland has published a 332-page novel written entirely in text message format. The book, titled The Last Messages, tells the story of a Finnish information-technology executive who quits his job to travel throughout Europe and India, keeping in touch with his friends and relatives only through text messages.

Readers of this blog know that I appreciate clear and persuasive writing, mainly because I see so little of it in my job. It seems as if schools these days are less interested in correcting mistakes of composition, grammar, spelling and punctuation, and more interested in making sure everyone gets a passing grade (or better, since some parents appear to take it as a personal insult if their child receives a grade as mundane as a "C"...which is, after all, supposed to be the average). One of the most precious gifts I received as I was growing up was a mother who was very literate and encouraged in all of us a love of reading and writing; another was a series of truly wonderful teachers of English who set and enforced high standards of performance.

I'm continually amazed by the quality of the writing churned out by people who should be able to do better: writing characterized by sentences and paragraphs that don't make sense, subjects and verbs that don't agree, and egregious spelling errors (often resulting from overreliance on the automated spell-checker which, after all, doesn't tell you that you've used the wrong word but spelled it correctly). My mother taught us that we would be judged by people who didn't know us on the basis of what we wrote and said, long before they knew anything else about us. It's true: when I read a business letter that's poorly composed or full of grammatical errors and spelling mistakes, it tells me that the writer didn't care enough to spend the time to make sure his message was clear. It insults me as the reader by telling me I'm not important enough to receive the writer's best effort.

Part of the problem is that e-mail and text messaging have driven down standards of writing in the interest of brevity. I understand "rotflol" and "ttfn" and "ygbkm," but it doesn't mean I have to like them, especially when they appear in formal correspondence. A little formality in writing - even in a breezy e-mail to a close friend - is not a bad thing, for it shows respect for the recipient of the message.

As for Mr Hannu Luntiala, the author of the Finnish text-message novel, I wish him all the best and hope his book sells well.

But I won't be buying it.

Have a good day. Write something worth reading. More thoughts tomorrow.


Sunday, January 28, 2007

The Belief Tank

This morning's "Doonesbury" cartoon took off on the plans for the proposed Bush Presidential Library in the forum of a daily White House press briefing. At one point, the off-panel Press Secretary says that the Library won't be "just a library," but that it will also include "a belief tank, to groom future legacy tenders." Asked what a "belief tank" is, the Press Secretary replies, "It's like a think tank, only without the doubt."

One of the recurring themes of this blog, as you know if you are a regular reader, is the danger of blind faith - religious or political. A little skepticism is a good thing, and it's always good to question those who are absolutely convinced of their righteousness...because you usually discover that they don't have any basis for this belief other than I know I'm right and you're wrong. Of course, you can take skepticism too far also, at which point it turns into cynicism - which is little more than belief in nothing.

There's an interesting series on National Public Radio called, "This I Believe," in which both famous and average people have about three minutes to talk about the beliefs that help shape their lives. Interestingly, I have yet to hear one talk about political or religious beliefs; most are deeply thoughtful pieces that look at friendship, outrage, and simple everyday concepts and activities that help ground us in our lives. I've often wondered how I would summarize all the random thoughts bumping around my head in intellectual Brownian Motion if I had to do it in the 300 or so words of a "This I Believe" essay. Perhaps I'll take a stab at it in a future blog entry.

But for now, let's return to the "Belief Tank" with which we started this discussion. Deeply held beliefs can provide a moral compass to guide our lives. But they can also be an intellectual crutch that allows one to comfortably ignore complex and often unpleasant reality. A cartoon hanging on my refrigerator door shows a man standing in front of two adjacent doors: one to the left labeled "Think Tank," and the other on the right labeled "Shout-Louder-Than-the-People-Who-Disagree-With-You Tank." I think that if you listen long enough to Fox News, any of the political punditry shows on network TV, or hysterical ranters like Glenn Beck and Nancy Grace on CNN, you will recognize that they reside mainly behind the right-hand door where, as one reviewer has noted, "(there is an) enormous ratio of words to substance."

The message today is simple: do your own thinking. Don't live in a comfortable "Belief Tank" in which you think you know all the answers. Listen to all sides, weigh the strength of their their evidence - not just the volume of their arguments - and make your own decisions.

That's the essence of democracy.

Have a good weekend. More thoughts later.


Saturday, January 27, 2007

Stumbling Around

In an opinion article published in the New York Times on January 14th, Nicholas Kristof asked this timely question about the United States: "Why are we so awful at foreign policy?"

After a brief historical review of some memorable foreign policy disasters - of which Iraq is only the most recent - Mr Kristof postulated two reasons for America's foreign policy ineptitude: first, that "...great powers always lumber about, stepping on toes, provoking resentments, and solving problems militarily simply because they have that capability..."; and second, that "We (the United States) don't understand the world."

I think the second reason deserves a little more attention, particularly since Mr Kristof writes that it is "particular to the U.S." It's very true that we as a nation and a people have a shockingly poor understanding of the world around us. This is true for many reasons, not the least of which is that Americans as a whole don't travel abroad very much, and when we do, the trips are most often on the order of ten-world-capitals-in-seven-days tours which provide little interaction with foreign citizens other than store clerks and restaurant and museum staffs. Most Americans, other than military personnel and their families posted overseas, will never live or work in a foreign country, and thereby gain a deeper understanding of how other peoples think and act, and of the social, cultural and political prism through which they view us.

Another reason is our general lack of interest in and ability to speak languages other than English. America is so big, and our need to travel abroad so small, that most Americans never need to learn anything other than English. This prohibits us from learning what people around the world are really saying, and contributes to the view of the Ugly American whose first words on entering a store in a foreign land are, "Does anyone here speak English?"

A third reason is our educational system which places insufficient emphasis on the study of history (among other things). Without a sound knowledge of where we've been and what we've done in the past, it's hard to understand how we got where we are today and what the issues are that surround us.

I could go on at great length, but I think these three ideas are a good start for understanding the answer to Mr Kristof's original question. We live in a vast, interconnected world in which everything we do as a nation has profound consequences both for today and for the future. And since we'll have to live in the future we make today, we owe it to ourselves and to our children and grandchildren to educate ourselves to make the right decisions.

Have a good weekend. More thoughts later.


Friday, January 26, 2007

Elephants, Jackasses, and Badgers

Yesterday I got into a three-way e-mail discussion with my friend Jake and John, one of my co-workers. It started when John sent out an e-mail that traced the historical development of liberals and conservatives beginning with the discovery of beer and the invention of the wheel (the wheel making it possible for men to easily get to beer). As this bizarre historical overview spun out of control, it eventually addressed the development of the symbols of Republican conservatism (the elephant - the largest and most powerful land animal) and Democratic liberalism (the jackass).

As so often happens when these disucssions get underway, I found myself once again insisting that I am neither liberal nor conservative, Democrat nor Republican, but a principled Independent who accepts the best parts of both conservative and liberal beliefs. In general, I think the jackass is an appropriate symbol for the Democrats, who are frequently loud, whiny, and stubborn, while the elephant is an appropriate symbol for the Republicans - a huge, lumbering animal which, when aroused, trumpets loudly and thunders blindly forward, crushing everything in its path. Well, all right, said John - if you want to be an independent, sitting on the fence and criticizing all sides, what's the appropriate symbol for you? He decided on the badger, and provided this delightful picture:

Well, I suppose I can live with that. After all, I've been called an idiot by a commenter to this blog, so I guess I can handle having the badger as a symbol. And I do, after all, intend to continue using this blog to badger hypocritical politicians and religious figures of all parties and labels. As the local curmudgeon-at-large, I can hardly do otherwise.

Let's hear it for the badgers!

Have a good day. More thoughts coming over the weekend.


Thursday, January 25, 2007

Where are the Voices?

Thomas Friedman, one of my favorite commentators on the Middle East, wrote a very perceptive article in yesterday's New York Times. It began this way: "It's hard to know what's more disturbing: the barbaric sectarian murders by Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq, or the deafening silence with which these mass murders are received in the Muslim world. How could it be that Danish cartoons of Muhammad led to mass violent protests, while unspeakable violence by Muslims against Muslims in Iraq every day evokes about as much reaction in the Arab-Muslim world as the weather report? ... Where is the "Million Muslim March" under the banner: 'No Shiites, No Sunnis: we are all children of the Prophet Muhammad.'"

How, indeed? Where, indeed?

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) is very vocal and very active in protesting any perceived bias against Muslims in this country. But a thorough read of its website ( reveals exhaustive reporting on alleged offenses against Muslims in America, yet not a single condemnation of Muslim on Muslim violence. There is a section of the website titled "National and Worldwide Muslim Condemnation of Terrorism" which provides nice words to convince Americans of the loyalty and essential peacefulness of Muslims, yet reveals no concerted effort to counter the worst excesses of the Muslim world in the Muslim world.

Mr Friedman goes on to ask, "If Arab Muslims can summon the will to protest only against the insults of 'the foreigner' but never the injuries inflicted on their own by their own, how can they ever generate a modern society or democracy - which is all about respecting and protecting minority voices and unorthodox views?"

I will begin to take Muslim complaints about insults to their religion seriously when the Muslims themselves show that they are ready to accept legitimate criticism, and to get their own house in order.

Until that time, every yawning repetition of the words "in the name of God, the merciful, the compassionate" which begin Muslim prayers is nothing more than an exercise in rank hypocrisy.

But you won't learn that from CAIR, and that's too bad.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The State of the Union

Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution requires that "He (the President) shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient..." Last night, President Bush presented his annual "State of the Union" speech; today, as you might expect, I have my own comments to add to those of the professional talking heads.

In general, I thought the President did a workmanlike job of putting the best face on a bad situation while presenting a meager laundry list of proposals for the future. I didn't find myself inspired by his rhetoric or stirred to action by any of his proposals. I thought the speech was more significant for what it didn't say than for what it did. Here are specific comments on a few of the topics he addressed:

Economics. Mr Bush said he will submit a budget that will eliminate the federal deficit within five years, balancing the budget without raising taxes. That will be a miraculous feat if he can pull it off...but as long as we keep paying for a high-intensity war with emergency appropriations and keep it off the federal books, he might just be able to pull it off.

Education. Mr Bush urged renewal of the No Child Left Behind Act, claiming it has been successful in improving our schools and helping minority students. That's a matter of opinion. If you've been reading this blog for any length of time, you know the importance I attach to education. I wanted to see more proposals for federally subsidized student loans and other aid to our education system at every level.

Health Care. If there is anything as important as education, it's quality, affordable health care. Mr Bush put forward some proposals which seek to make health care insurance more affordable through changes in tax policy. While that would help, it's not enough. Health care is not provided by tax attorneys and CPAs and insurance company adjusters - it's provided by well-educated doctors working in well-staffed, equipped and funded hospitals, and by programs that emphasize staying well rather than recovering from illness. I have ideas of my own, and we'll talk about them in future posts.

Iraq. The President acknowledged that the situation in Iraq is not good, and encouraged us to give his new plan a chance. I'm willing to give it that chance. But as I've written here before, I don't think we are capable of the utter ruthlessness that will be necessary to crush the insurgency and make the Iraqis take responsibility for their own future.

"The War on Terror." I still think this is a stupid concept. We are not at war with "terror" as an enemy that can be killed, captured, or otherwise eliminated. We are at war with focused, ruthless religious extremists and drug lords who use acts of "terrorism" as a tactic to achieve their ends. Mr Bush did, in fact, acknowledge that the danger we face is that of radical Islam, both Shia and Sunni. But to label our enemies "terrorists" as if that were a useful defining category ignores the complexity of the danger we face. I think the President understands this, but I also think he is conditioned to thinking in oversimplifications that define our enemies as "terrorists" who "hate freedom."

Okay, that's enough. I was not terribly impressed by the State of the Union speech, but I would probably have been disappointed in any case. Presidential leadership needs to be exercised every day, not once a year in a formal address to a joint session of Congress. I'm still waiting for the calm, focused, energetic leadership that will inspire Americans to work together for a better future.

And, as always, I'm not holding my breath.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Tuesday, January 23, 2007

News from Under a Rock in Pakistan

That sunny bluebird of happiness, Ayman al Zawahiri, has emerged from hiding to distribute yet another recorded fulmination against the United States in general and President Bush and the war in Iraq in particular. He lets us know that, "If you want to live in security, you must accept the facts of what is happening on the ground, and reject the fantasies with which Bush tries to deceive you."

Amazingly enough, I have finally found something on which I can tentatively agree with a bigoted, hectoring moron like Mr al Zawahiri - that we should reject the fantasies with which our government has tried to deceive us. Of course, Mr al Zawahiri has failed to note that the President has finally - however belatedly - accepted that all is not well in Iraq, that everyone knows it, and that a change in strategy and tactics is needed. But I think that Mr al Zawahiri's call for "(acceptance of) the facts of what is happening on the ground" works both ways.

The ghastly sectarian violence that is tearing Iraq apart really got underway when al Qaeda in Iraq (the local franchise of Mr al Zawahiri's peace-loving and God-fearing organization) bombed the Shiite shrine in Samarra. Thus, "the facts of what is happening on the ground" have been shaped as much by the religious hatreds inflamed by Mr al Zawahiri as by our own actions. While we have made serious mistakes in the invasion and occupation of Iraq, a dispassionate look at "the facts of what is happening on the ground" would show that the US and its meager handful of allies have tried to repair Iraq and return it to a functioning society...whereas the Mr al Zawahiri and his allies have done nothing to help the situation, and everything to fan the hatreds that have turned Iraq into hell on earth for its suffering people.

Sadly, most of the Muslim world will uncritically accept whatever someone like al Zawahiri or Muqtada al Sadr says, simply because he's one of their own. They'll accept the hatred and bigotry that flows in the guise of religious pronouncements, and they'll ignore the responsibility of Mr al Zawahiri and his fellow Islamists for bringing so much misery to the people of Iraq and the larger Middle East. Instead, they'll do what they've always done: place the blame for every wrong on those useful whipping boys, the US and Israel.

So, Mr al Zawahiri, please crawl back under your rock and let the people of Iraq solve their problems without your help. And stay there. No one needs a useless bigot like you.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Monday, January 22, 2007

Winter Arrives in Northern Virginia

After the first half of January, which felt more like the first half of April, winter has arrived in the Washington, DC area with a vengeance.

I have to qualify that, of course. I grew up in Western Pennsylvania, and I remember the fierce winters we used to have, the ones that carried snow measured in feet down from the Great Lakes and buried us in soft white. We thought nothing of hiking through knee-deep snow to the bus stop to catch the school bus, and my first driving lessons were in the enormous parking lot of our church, surrounded by giant heaps of snow pushed aside by fleets of plows (my Dad wasn't stupid). But here in the DC metro area, an inch of snow causes complete panic...and the bare two inches we had yesterday has resulted in closed schools and traffic chaos. Of course, the sleet and freezing rain we had on top of the snow didn't help, but nevertheless, it doesn't take much to tie this area in knots.

I'm glad for the snow. Agnes and I are four-seasons people, and in winter, you're supposed to have snow. But like everything else, you take the good with the bad. I've already spent an hour outside this morning, cleaning snow and ice off the cars and shovelling out the driveway and sidewalks. It felt good. Of course, it'll feel different later, when my aging muscles finally realize what I put them through this morning, but I'll manage.

In the meantime, I think I'm ready for one of my favorite winter things: listening to my recording of Dylan Thomas reading "A Child's Christmas in Wales." If you've never heard it, you're missing one of the great treats of the season and the language, and you can download it from iTunes.

So make yourself a cup of hot chocolate, sit in front of the fire, open up the morning paper, and listen to Dylan Thomas in the background.

Life's good.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Sunday, January 21, 2007

Some Thoughts on Being an Idiot

I always enjoy receiving comments on the topics I post in this blog, if for no other reason than it tells me someone is reading it. I invite comments in the hope that they are in the same tone of reasonable thought I try to put into the things about which I write. Yesterday afternoon, an anonymous reader left a comment on my post from January 18th, in which I suggested that if blacks want a formal apology for slavery, we ought to go ahead and do it and then move on. This particular reader's comment opened with the sage observation, "You're an idiot."

Well, I've been called that (and worse) before. But if I'm going to be called an idiot, I'd rather it be for a reason that makes sense. The anonymous commenter goes on to say, "President Bush didn't own slaves. I don't own slaves. There's nothing to apologize for. Get over it. Besides, you're a cracker."

With all due respect to someone who actually took the time to leave a comment, this individual completely missed the point. I actually did note that slavery was outlawed in America over 150 years ago, and that the last actual slaves and slave owners have been dead for a very long time. The point I was making was that we need to recognize those facts and move on. "Get over it" was the comment made by a Virginia legislator that started the entire brouhaha and inspired my commentary. "Get over it" is, to me, a poor choice of words for a valid idea; a better choice might be, "Let's move beyond it."

And that was my point. We need to move beyond a constant focus on the historical fact of slavery and work together to create a better future for all citizens, of whatever color. If it takes an apology to help make that happen, okay, let's do it. And then let's move on to tackle the real problems that still exist as part of the legacy of that era.

By the way, if we accept the definition of a "cracker" in my Websters New Collegiate Dictionary as being "a poor, usually Southern white - usually used disparagingly," my commenter called it wrong. I am white, but comfortably middle class, and originally from Pennsylvania.

Which brings me to my anonymous commenter's parting shot: "What puts you on a soapbox?" Well, as I wrote in my very first post back in March of 2006, I'm interested in a lot of things. I'm a pretty opinionated fellow with a lot of thoughts on a lot of topics, as regular readers of this blog know. What puts me on a soapbox? The fact that I have a way to share those thoughts with the millions of people who cruise through the blogosphere every day. I don't expect everyone to agree with what I write...the world would be a pretty boring place if we all agreed on everything all the time. But if you don't agree, and choose to comment, don't drop to the level of insult - say something better. Convince me I'm wrong. Opinionated though I am, I have been known to change my mind about some long as you can convince me your point of view is the better one.

So I'm going to keep writing about a lot of things. Some of the things I write will irritate or anger some readers. But if I've made you think, I've accomplished what I set out to do with this blog.

If not, in the words of my anonymous commenter, get over it.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Saturday, January 20, 2007

At the risk of being accused of beating the proverbial dead horse, I'd like to go back for a moment to the theme of beauty that we explored twice already this month (on the 2nd, and again on the 16th). My reason this time is a news report about a beautician who has been sentenced to 15 years in prison for involuntary manslaughter, fraud, and practicing medicine without a license. Her crime: she injected the ... um ... derriere of a client with Mazola corn oil, claiming it was a "French polymer treatment" for reducing wrinkles. The client later died of multiple organ failure brought on by the injection of the oil.

I find this very sad. Why was this poor lady so afraid of wrinkles on her backside that she paid $1400 for the bogus "French polymer treatment" that ended up costing her her life? The unfortunate answer is, probably, that she was afraid of looking older and less-than-perfect in a modern culture that puts a premium on physical attractiveness.

There's nothing wrong with wanting to look your best. There's only so much I can do with the looks I have, but I try to keep myself looking good by the time-honored methods of shaving, taking showers, brushing my teeth, combing my hair, and wearing clothes that don't get a disdainful glare from my wife. But I won't go so far as to dye my hair or get a face lift (I don't think there's a crane big enough to do the job, anyhow). I appreciate that ladies take the time to look beautiful...but I think that we've gone too far when looking beautiful requires things like laser hair removal, botox injections, and all the other forms of agony to which women subject themselves because they think they're necessary for looking good.

Someone once said we're lucky that truth-in-packaging laws don't apply to people. There's also the old joke about the man who tells his friends about the beautiful lady he met at a dance and ended up taking back to his apartment for the night..."She took off her dress and her padded bra...she took off her makeup and her false eyelashes and her wig...she took off her paste-on fingernails and her padded pantyhose...and then I turned around, and she was gone!"

A little exaggeration, maybe, but I think you get the point. We are what we are. A person born with some unfortunate deformity is probably justified in wanting to somehow compensate for it. But the average man or woman should probably be happy in his or her skin. Each of us is different, and I truly believe that each of us eventually finds the person who loves them for what they are and not just for how they look. After all, Agnes could have held out for a Brad Pitt or an Antonio Banderas, but she picked me!

And the fact that she wears glasses had nothing to do with it.

Enjoy your weekend. More thoughts tomorrow.


Friday, January 19, 2007

Nora Boustany, in an article in yesterday's Washington Post titled "Arab World Outraged Over Hangings in Iraq," wrote about Arab reactions to the executions of Saddam Hussein and two other in recent days. Most Arab commentators were indeed outraged; the word "barbaric" summarized the nature of most of the comments, while many observers conveniently forgot the details of Hussein's bloody reign and chose to recycle him as a dignified "martyr."

To me, the most interesting paragraph in Ms Boustany's article read: "In commenting on the beheading of Ibrahim (Saddam's half-brother), none of the Arab commentators mentioned the shock many around the world experienced when foreigners were being kidnapped in Baghdad and beheaded by insurgents, often with grisly videotapes appearing on the Internet."

To me, this says just about all that needs to be said about the nature of the conflict in Iraq and how the Islamic world looks at non-Muslims. While the actual number of insanely violent, ultra-radical Islamists may be relatively small, their activities are condoned, if not actively supported, by many mainstream Muslims. A CNN report on radical Islamists in Britain quoted a British extremist named Omar Brooks as saying that, "Prophet Mohammed's message to nonbelievers is: 'I come to slaughter all of you,'" and, "'We are the Muslims. We drink the blood of the enemy, and we can face them anywhere. That is Islam and that is jihad.'"

It amazes me that the so-called mainstream Muslim world allows this sort of wildly racist and violent rhetoric to go unchallenged. The voices of peace and moderation are muted, few, and far between. The killing of Muslims is a crime, while the grisly murder of Christians, Jews, and other non-Muslims is religiously sanctioned and leads to paradise.

The CNN report quotes an English Imam named Usama Hasan as saying it makes him 'furious' when radicals quote the Quran out of context to justify killing of innocents. "It's a 'very tiny' minority with such beliefs, he said, but 'it only takes a handful, of course, to create devastation...Many people are terrified of Muslims. They are terrified of a brother walking down the road with his eastern dress and his hat and his beard, because they have seen these images associated with suicide bombers,' he said. 'It is up to us to dispel that fear -- to smile at people to tell them that ... the message of Islam is not about bits of cloth. It is not about the beard or head scarf or the face veil or violence. It is about peace.'"

Imam Husan may represent the silent majority of Muslims. But unless he and others like him speak up as loudly as the radicals, unless they challenge the violent rhetoric and the twisted theological justifications for bloody religious bigotry, they are worse than useless - they are nothing more than silent supporters of the worst dregs of humanity. Muslims who rail against being singled out for additional security screening, who object to the view of themselves as wild-eyed radicals, have only themselves to blame until they step up to the challenge of facing down those who willingly and happily slaughter those who don't share their views.

Perhaps the so-called 'mainstream Muslims' will take on this challenge. But, as with so many other things, I'm not holding my breath.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Thursday, January 18, 2007

In a newspaper interview this past Monday, Mr Frank Hargrove, a member of the Virginia House of Delegates, was asked whether he would support a proposed state resolution apologizing for slavery. He responded that " citizens should get over it." Not content to hit rhetorical rock bottom, Delegate Hargrave continued to dig himself deeper into the hole by going on to ask "Are we going to force the Jews to apologize for killing Christ?"

For callous insensitivity, these comments are worthy of an award, and the response from both blacks and Jews (not to mention just about everyone else) has been harsh, entirely predictable, and fully justified. We expect a higher standard of behavior and expression of our elected officials, and should hold them to account when they don't deliver.

But having said that, I think it's important to acknowledge that Mr Hargrove, albeit in a graceless and insensitive way, gave voice to what some people in this country think about race relations. A muted undercurrent of opinon points out that slavery was eliminated in America nearly 150 years ago, that the last slave and the last slaveholder died more than 50 years ago, and that America does not get the credit it deserves for acknowledging the stain of slavery on our history and attempting to improve the social and economic position of black citizens. Why, some people quietly ask, are we still being beaten up and asked to atone for evils done by people long dead in an the course of an institution long since abandoned and repudiated?

There's an undeniable power in the words, "I'm sorry." Everyone who has ever been married learns that lesson right away. In some cultures, ritual apology is an important part of resolving issues and moving beyond them. Consider the apologies rendered by modern German leaders for the monstrous evils of the Holocaust. Consider also the incident in 2001 in which a Chinese fighter plane collided with an American surveillance aircraft over what the U.S. insisted was international waters, but the Chinese claimed as part of their 200-mile exclusive economic zone. The Chinese insisted on a formal apology before returning the interned aircrew and the damaged aircraft, while the U.S. government refused to apologize, holding that this would acknowledge that the Chinese were in the right. The incident was finally resolved in a delicate diplomatic dance in which the U.S. government acknowledged regret for the incident without actually apologizing.

So let's move on. If it's important for black citizens to know that the country has formally acknowledged and apologized for slavery, let's go ahead and do it. Let the President make a prime-time address to the nation, preferably on the Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday, expressing sorrow and apologizing for the evils done in the past. And then let's get on with making things right today.

If you have a few minutes, go back in the archives and read my post from December 17th of last year in which I pondered the rhetorical question asked by Lance Morrow: "What if no one ever forgets (evils done in the past)?" Memory is a good thing as far as it helps us to remember past evils and take action to ensure that they are never repeated. But, as Mr Morrow points out, "Obsessive memory mandates revenge."

Let's face the long-past evil of slavery without dwelling on it. Without attempting to minimize the evil, let's recognize that the nation ended it a century and a half ago and has since made great strides toward improving the economic and social position of its black citizens. Let's formally acknowledge the wrong, offer an apology from the national heart, and move forward in a spirit of cooperation to build a better future.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Wednesday, January 17, 2007

As a retired military person, I know that there are many advantages to a military career. Most of those are the ones the recruiters advertise, and include technical training, travel, discipline, educational opportunities, and the opportunity to meet and work with people of all races, religions, and backgrounds. But there's another advantage to a military career that I didn't fully appreciate until last night: the chance to move to a new job and home in a new location every few years. This can be hard on the family, particularly on spouses who may not have the opportunity to develop a career, and children who have to periodically give up the comfort of friends and familiar surroundings and start over again someplace new. But it does have an advantage: it forces you to limit the amount of stuff you accumulate.

When you have to move every few years, and pay out-of-pocket to ship everything that's over your weight allowance, you become pretty ruthless about cleaning house and getting rid of the things you really don't need. It streamlines your life. But Agnes and I have now lived in the same place for a record sixteen years - the longest time I've been in one location since I left home back in 1973 - and I learned the downside of homesteading last night.

We have hired a contractor to remodel our old, battered kitchen. This means, of course, that we have to move all the dishes, all the pots and pans, all the decorations, all the cleaning supplies, all the food - everything - out of the kitchen so the demolition can start. Agnes and I both love to cook, and I'm a hopeless sucker for kitchen gadgets of all kinds, and I can tell you that I had NO IDEA how much stuff was tucked away in that kitchen - in cupboards, pantries, and drawers, under the sink, in and behind the microwave cart, on the walls, etc, etc.

It made me nostalgic for the 'good old days' when, every few years, I would have gotten rid of the gadgets I didn't use regularly, the dish sets we replaced (but kept alongside the new dishes, just in case), and the expired things we bought in enormous quantities at Costco because it was cheaper that way. My aching back feels every one of the things I had to haul out of the kitchen last night and find a temporary storage space for.

But I'm not complaining. Much. The new kitchen will be wonderful and will give us many years of pleasure in cooking and entertaining. I can't wait for it to be done. In the meantime, though, I just hope everything fits back in once it's finished.

Have a good day. If you have a few minutes, get rid of some old stuff. You'll thank yourself later.

More thoughts tomorrow.


Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The Iraqi government appears to be using the Palestinians as its role model as it lurches from crisis to crisis. As I've often observed, the Palestinians, given a choice of courses of action, will always select the one which is most likely to be in their worst interests (ready, aim, shoot foot). The government of Nuri al-Maliki seems to be working the same way, carefully selecting policies and taking actions guaranteed to further infuriate the Sunni minority and ensure that the bitter insurgency continues.

Yesterday's botched hanging of Saddam Hussein's half-brother, in which his head was torn from his body by the noose, could have been the result of incorrect calculations of weight and drop distance by the hangman. But given the circus which surrounded the execution of Saddam Hussein, the obvious inference for the Sunnis was that the hanging was deliberately calculated to be an unnecessarily barbaric and disrespectful slap in their collective faces.

Consider the case of South Africa, where the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the wake of minority white rule led to a largely peaceful transition to majority black government. The ability of all South Africans, black and white, to air their grievances and look at their history in a formal and structured way under the moral leadership of Nelson Mandela, allowed the country to move forward with pride and dignity into an uncertain future.

In Iraq, by contrast, there is no Nelson Mandela to provide a calm and dignified voice of reason, and no apparent interest on the part of the long-oppressed Shia in peacefully working with the Sunni minority to build a new Iraq on the ashes of the Hussein era. A deliberate attempt to set Shia and Sunnis against each other, the destruction of the Golden Mosque in Samarra last February, might have served as a warning about the dangers of sectarian hatred and led Iraqis of goodwill to resolve to work together to take their country back from the extremists.

But, obviously, it didn't work out that way.

The order of the day is vengeance for the Shia, violent resistance for the Sunnis, and a death spiral with no visible end for a once-great nation. Just as radical Palestinians would rather lash out at Israel than work to improve the lot of the Palestinian people, so Iraqi extremists on both sides would rather murder each other - and any Americans conveniently within reach - than rebuild Iraq into the modern and progressive nation it might be.

It's just a shame we seem to be so short on Nelson Mandelas to provide the leadership that could make it happen.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Monday, January 15, 2007

Regular readers of this blog know that there are several themes which run through the posts and provide as much unity to my random thoughts as there's ever likely to be. One of them is a love of and appreciation for history, the back story of the events and people who shaped our world and brought us to the place we are today. Another is the importance of critical thinking. History is in the front of my mind today because of two things: the celebration of the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday here in the United States, and an article in this morning's Washington Post on the teaching of history in our schools.

That Martin Luther King, Jr. was a great man is beyond dispute. He was the public face of the civil rights movement of the 1960's that put the spotlight on racial injustice in this country and led directly to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The racial landscape of the United States today testifies to his courage and dynamic leadership, and if relations between the races are still not what they should be, the blame lies on both sides of the racial divide - but that's a topic for another day.

An article in today's Washington Post looks at what high school and college students today know about Martin Luther King, Jr., and it's sobering. According to the article, a recent survey of civic literacy in college students revealed that about 81% understood that King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech was "an expression of hope for racial justice and brotherhood." That's a pretty good percentage. But most of the remaining 19% thought he was advocating the abolition of slavery.

That such beliefs can exist reflects what our history courses teach, and how we teach them. As I still recall vividly after more than 30 years, my high school history lessons were less about the actual lessons of history than about the rote memorization of key names, dates, and occurances. The simple knowledge of historical facts, without context and interpretation, teaches us nothing. Even worse, the uncritical interpretation of historical facts and events can lead to bad decisions on policies and actions. The famous book Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers, by Richard Neustadt and Ernest May, presents more than 20 case studies in which government decision makers looked at the relevant historical context of choices they had to make and then, for various reasons, chose an interpretation of the historical lessons which led to poor (if not disastrous) policy choices. One wonders how a future edition of this book will look at President Bush's decision to go to war in Iraq in 2003.

The lesson here, of course, is that history is important. It's more than memorizing facts. Events that happened long before we were born were carried out by real people living in a real world with real hopes and fears. What they did, and why they did it, shaped the world in which we live and provides the context for the choices we make.

The Washington Post article (which starts on Page B1 of the print edition, and can be read online at contains an interesting observation by a 17-year old high school student who says, "...Martin Luther King Day means much more than Lincoln or Washington's Birthday." Of course, this young lady lives in a time much closer to King than to either Washington or Lincoln. But to believe that George Washington - the "indispensable man" without whom there would probably never have been an independent United States at all, or Abraham Lincoln - who led the nation through the horrific trauma of the Civil War and ensured that there would actually be a single American nation, are less important than Martin Luther King, Jr., seriously stretches credulity. It's important to honor Rev. King, and to recognize what his work meant to the future of the United States. But to imply that his life and achievements transcend those of Washington and Lincoln is historically irresponsible.

Study history, and think about how those long-ago events affect your own life. You'll find it richly rewarding and make yourself a more informed citizen.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Sunday, January 14, 2007

How about this crazy weather, eh?

The last few days here in Northern Virginia have been positively springlike, with trees budding, cherry blossoms coming out, and temperatures up to nearly 70. And it's January, for pete's sake! The midwest is reeling under a massive ice storm, Denver is still digging out from all the snow dropped by huge blizzards, and there's even snow in parts of sunny California that don't usually see it. What's going on?

Lately, how you interpret the crazy, changing weather seems to depend on your political persuasion. If you're a conservative Republican, it represents normal fluctuation in weather patterns over decades and centuries. If you're a liberal Democrat, it represents the beginning of the end of life as we know it. If you're a thoughtful Independent (like yours truly), you figure the answer more than likely lies somewhere in between.

Yes, I accept that weather patterns change naturally over time. But I think you have to have your head stuck pretty deeply in the sand to ignore the cumulative effects of human civilization on those patterns. The destruction of the rain forests, the burning of fossil fuels and consequent release of vast quantities of carbon dioxide into the air, the wholesale pollution of water supplies all clearly have an effect on the weather. My own opinion is that we are probably experiencing a normal cycle of weather change, but its effects are being greatly magnified by human activity. I'm not a climatologist and I can't prove it, but it looks pretty obvious to me.

Of course, climate change has its positive aspects: I never expected to enjoy the sight of lovely ladies wearing summer clothes in January. Nevertheless, I can't help the nagging suspicion that we're going to pay - steeply - for this nice weather later on.

Have a good evening. More thoughts later.


Saturday, January 13, 2007

In my post of January 2nd of this year, I commented on the subject of beauty and what makes a woman beautiful. That post was inspired by an article on the CNN website that discussed the concern of actors (mainly women) that the extreme fidelity of high-definition TV closeups magnifies whatever flaws they have.

Yesterday, CNN came through again with an article on how celebrities prepare for their walks down the red carpets during the Hollywood awards season. The article was titled, "Nipple Covers, Hair and Other Red Carpet Secrets," and documented the extreme concern of Hollywood luminaries for their appearance as they parade before the lights and cameras.

And that's too bad.

German entertainer Harald Juhnke sings a marvelous song titled "Keine Falte tut mir leid" (loosely translated, "The Wrinkles Don't Bother Me"). It's a very clever song that speaks to me more clearly every year. Here's the last verse, along with my nickel translation:

Ich sag dir keine Falte tut mir leid (I tell you, the wrinkles don't bother me)
Ich bin ein Mann mit viel Vergangenheit (I'm a man with quite a past)
Ich bin nicht wie die jungen Glatten (I'm not like those sleek youngsters)
die noch nichts zu Leben hatten (who haven't yet really lived)
jede Falte könnt 'ne Story sein (Each wrinkle tells a story)
suchst du 'nen Schönling sag ich "sorry!" - nein (If you're looking for a stud muffin, I'm sorry)
ein Buch zu schreiben bräucht ich nicht (I don't need to write a book)
mir steht mein Leben im Gesicht (you can read my life in my face)

Many commentators smarter and more erudite than I have commented on the culture of beauty and youth that we have created in America, and I'm certainly (as I admitted back on January 2nd) a happy observer of beautiful ladies. But the simple fact is that we all get older. The wrinkles form, the hair gets gray (or, worse, deserts us), gravity pulls on muscles lovingly crafted by hours at the gym, and we spend millions of dollars each year on cosmetics, wrinkle creams, botox, liposuction, and all the other magic remedies to try to recapture the beauty of our youth.

But why? As for me, I'm happy in my increasingly decrepit old carcass. I can still dance, I like to think I can still be an interesting social companion for ladies of all ages, and I believe ever more firmly in the old saying that God compensates men for getting older by ensuring that each year there are more women we find attractive.

With or without cosmetics and enhancements.

Have a good day. Be comfortable in your's the only one you'll ever have.


Friday, January 12, 2007

In my post this past Wednesday, I admitted my lack of knowledge of economics. I still don't understand much about the topic (and I'm sure our financial advisor hopes it stays that way), but I do understand the concept of spending money.

With that in mind, I would call your attention to an interesting website I found this morning - the National Priorities Project (, which is "...a 501(c)3 nonpartisan education and advocacy organization that makes its tools, resources, and data available to the general public. NPP does not support any candidate or political party" (quoted from the site). NPP attempts to present economic data in terms even an economic illiterate like myself can understand.

One part of the website calculates the running cost of the war in Iraq by "...analyzing the legislation appropriating money for the Iraq War and Congressional Research Service reports. The CRS reports were based not just on Congressional appropriations, but on the Department of Defense's (DOD) DFAS monthly obligations reports indicating funds transferred from other functions to the Iraq War" (quoted from the site). It also provides estimates of what this sum might fund were we not at war. As I write this (at about 4:50 AM), the running total is just passing through $357,647,660,000.00.

Yes, you read that correctly - more than three hundred fifty-seven billion dollars, much of which appears to have been spent to no purpose.

You can see this running total here:, and can also see it expressed in terms of various types of public programs, or as a function of your state or locality (if it has been calculated for your locality yet).

As the nation debates the President's new plan for salvaging something from the Iraq adventure, consider these numbers as you decide whether the war is worth it and how we should proceed. I've already decided where I stand, as you know if you've been reading this blog the issue, look at the numbers and make up your own mind.

By the way, the total is now just passing through $357,649,200,000.00. The time as I write this is 5:00 AM. It took ten minutes to grow by just over $1,500,000.00.

Think about it.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Thursday, January 11, 2007

President Bush has delivered his much-anticipated speech laying out his new plan for resolving the mess he has created in Iraq. My reaction to the speech began last night while he was speaking. I fell asleep.

On reading the full text of his speech this morning, these are my reactions:

"Where mistakes have been made, the responsibility rests with me." This is about as close as Mr Bush will ever come to admitting that he and his national security and military team botched the invasion and occupation. The passive voice is a wonderful thing. A simple, "I have made some serious mistakes in the planning and execution of this war, and I accept full responsibility for them" would have resonated far better with me.

Mr Bush continues to link the war in Iraq to the so-called "war on terror." In this, I can agree with him: the ill-considered invasion and occupation of Iraq have radicalized an already-radical Islamic world, offering a prime training ground for new generations of single-minded jihadists.

Mr Bush stated that, "Prime Minister Maliki has pledged that political or sectarian interference will not be tolerated." From which position of strength are we forcing him to make this promise, and why should we believe it now?

Mr Bush says that US and Iraqi forces will "... have a green light to enter these neighborhoods (where insurgents hide)." Fine. But I question whether our soldiers on the ground will be permitted to employ the utter ruthlessness that has been used by their enemies. They are fighting under legal and moral restrictions that their enemies ignore and use against them. The time has come to take the gloves off. If we are going to send more young men and women into harm's way, we should let them do what they must to get the job done. The Roman emperor Caligula supposedly once said of Rome's enemies, "Let them hate us as long as they fear us." Well, at the moment, our enemies hate us, but don't fear us because they know we won't fight them with all our ruthless might. If we're going to stay, it's time for the Caligula Option.

Mr Bush also said that he has "... made it clear to the prime minister and Iraq's other leaders that America's commitment is not open-ended. If the Iraqi government does not follow through on its promises, it will lose the support of the American people - and it will lose the support of the Iraqi people." The President appears not to have noticed that the Iraqi government - and his administration - have already lost the support of the American people.

I believe in my heart that America will, in the end, always do the right thing...after all other options have been exhausted. I believe we have exhausted those options. We gave the Iraqi people the gift of a future free of Saddam in a nation rich in oil resources. They used that gift instead to turn on each other and settle old scores. Granted, we have not given them much reason to view what we have done as a "gift," but that's no longer either here or there. The time has come to leave the Iraqis to their own devices. We must either go in with our full might, with the intention of utterly crushing the insurgency, or we should pull every US Soldier, Marine and Airman out of Iraq and return to the fundamental mission of tracking down and eliminating radical elements who have used or would employ the tactic of terror against us and our homeland.

Mr President, you have one last chance to earn my support. Use it.

Unfortunately, I don't think you will.

More thoughts later.


Wednesday, January 10, 2007

I like to think of myself as a pretty well-read and well-educated person, but like all realists I understand that there are some things about which I know little and understand less. Like economics.

I've always been puzzled by the way economic data can be tortured to force it to support any desired conclusion. It never ceases to amaze me that an accountant can use two different accounting systems on the same set of data and show a profit with one (for the benefit of the stockholders) and a loss with the other (for the tax collector). I often wonder which sort of accounting system our Federal government uses to come up with its budgetary policies.

My friend Jake and I long ago agreed to disagree on the efficacy of Republican trickle-down economic theories: Jake confidently cites various authoritative studies which purport to show that cutting taxes actually increases government revenue; in a recent Washington Post article, I read of three different and (evidently) equally authoritative studies which show that revenue declines in the long term after the initial modest gains. Who's right? Can my economist beat up your economist?

These are important questions, especially because the numbers our government is crunching include the money you and I pay in taxes. If we ran our personal finances and kept our books the way the government runs its own, we'd probably be in jail. The government is spending tens of billions of dollars on the war in Iraq, but that money doesn't show up in the Federal I've noted before, it's all being done on the basis of emergency appropriations, which don't get the level of Congressional scrutiny that the main budget does. This is a budgetary option the average citizen doesn't have.

I wish I knew more about economics, and I'm trying to learn...but it's tough getting my mind around the endlessly-flexible concepts. German and Russian grammar I can understand, economic theories are something else.

More thoughts on economic theory and practice later. For now, have a good day...however you choose to crunch your numbers.


Tuesday, January 09, 2007

In his classic 1993 essay titled "Clash of Civilizations?", Samuel Huntington postulated that future conflicts would less often be between nation states than between cultures and religions. With the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the former Soviet Union, many of the ethnic and religious conflicts that had been held in check by strong dictators and dueling superpowers boiled over around the world, seeming to prove Huntington's theory of the nature of future conflicts.

In the current (January-February 2007) issue of Foreign Affairs magazine, Dominique Moïsi takes Huntington's idea a step farther in an essay titled "The Clash of Emotions: Fear, Humiliation, Hope, and the New World Order." In this fascinating article, Moïsi postulates that current conflicts are fueled by emotions: fear in the US and Europe, humiliation in the Muslim world, and hope in Asia. He writes that fear - of an uncertain future and a loss of fundamental national identity - divides Europe and the US; humiliation unites the Islamic world around its most radical elements and leads to a culture of hatred; and hope drives the growing powers of Asia (notably China and India).

This is a very timely and thought-provoking article, and well worth your time in reading. Much has been written about the culture of humiliation as a driver of passions in the Islamic world, but this is the first time I've seen a cogent analysis of emotions as drivers of the international environment. Particularly interesting is Mr Moïsi's assessment of how it is not fear per se, but the response to it, which drives divisions between the United States and Europe: while Europe deals with its fears through escapism and appeasement, the US attacks perceived problems at their sources abroad (and often, as in Iraq, makes the root problems worse).

You can read a 500-word summary of this article on the Foreign Affairs website (, or purchase a .pdf of it (for $5.95) if you don't want to buy the whole magazine. You can also find an extensive collection of articles by Dominique Moïsi and others at Take the time to read and think about them, and then make up your own mind about the correct emotional lens through which to view the world.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Monday, January 08, 2007

If you spend much time following the links and comments from various blogs and websites, you can find some amazing things. Yesterday I followed a link from the Jihad Watch website ( to a blog called Muslim Unity (, which proved to be quite interesting.

The author of the Muslim Unity blog represents, I think, the prevailing attitude of much of the Islamic world. His entry of January 6th is titled Points Which Prove I Am Correct!. He writes: "Here are some points which will make you believe that what I say about the West (or White people of the West) is true:" (NOTE: I have not included the entire list, but these are some representative excerpts. I have reproduced them here as written.) -
  • They are mostly drunk in pubs
  • They don't value their own families and are usually at fights with their own families
  • They don't believe in long term relationships and love
  • They don’t respect the gift of their own body and use it like a tool which can be used by anybody
  • Children are neglected and end up as very rowdy kids
  • They commit lot of adultery and think it is a good thing
  • There music mostly has abnormal people in it. So do their movies and television
  • Their movies and media has plans to overthrow our culture by spreading their deadly tentacles into our culture
  • They don't know to behave and dress properly
  • They feel they are more superior then everybody else and practice a lot of racist activates.
  • Their police force is unfair and unjust to non-Whities
  • Whities can visit our countries easily but we can not visit their countries. Why should we allow them to visit our countries then?
  • Look at this statistic: All the whities who have committed crimes against the innocent: Bush, Blair, Hitler, Attila the Hun, Columbus, Marco Polo, The Queen of England; Most soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan are whities too.

The author goes on to write, "I am not at all racist and have also agreed that some whities are good people, but then here we are referring to the ideology which comes along most of them. Let us together wipe out racism and such superior and imperialist methods adopted by them to suppress us just because we are non-whities."

This is a good example of how many Muslims view the West. It's not easy reading, but it's worth your time to see what much of the rest of the world believes. It may be laughable to us, but it's what they tell each other and it's what they believe. It resonates with much of the Third World.

Do a little surfing through the blogs and websites you wouldn't ordinarily visit. You'd be surprised what you can learn, and what opinions need to be overcome if the misnamed "Global War on Terrorism" will ever have a hope of success.

Have a good day. Read more.

More thoughts coming.


Sunday, January 07, 2007

A fascinating article in yesterday's Washington Post looked at the topic of "shifting baselines," which I think is extremely important and worthy of further thought.

The concept of shifting baselines was developed, and the term coined, by a biology professor named Daniel Purdy. According to the website devoted to the subject (, "A baseline is a reference point from the past - how things used to be. If we allow these reference points to shift, we lose track of our standards, and eventually accept the degraded state as being 'natural.'"

Some shifting baselines are good, others are bad. On the positive side, we live longer, have access to safer and more varied and plentiful food supplies, and enjoy a range of recreational activities (and the time to enjoy them) that people a hundred years ago would never recognize. On the other hand, many baselines have fallen: pollution of all types has increased, inflation erodes the value of our earnings, commuting times have skyrocketed, and manners are much diminished even from the time of my childhood in the 1950's and 60's (the 60's not being remembered fondly by many of us who were there).

A baseline gives one a reference point from which to measure change. But if the baseline keeps being redefined downward, what does it say for the quality of life and the state of the planet? If we learn to accept steadily decreasing standards as the norm, where does it end? As the limbo dancer asks, how low can you go?

I've noted the concept of shifting baselines for years without having a name for it. I've noticed it in particular in the social skills arena - many people can't carry on an intelligent conversation on a topic not involving the latest TV shows or sports events, the good manners my parents trained into me and my siblings are harder to find, and the ability even of college-educated professional people to write clear and compelling prose is abysmal. But our baselines have shifted, and we recognize and accept this diminished state as the standard without even realizing that we've compromised an important part of our lives.

Baselines are important. They set the standard for what we accept, what we aspire to, and what we believe we should reject. If we accept that it's all right for baselines to shift downward...if we are willing to accept religious bigotry, crude manners, polluted air and water, mendacious politicians, constricted civil liberties, and poor writing, what else will we accept? How long will we redefine the lower limits of what's acceptable before we decide that enough is enough? Think about the idea of shifting baselines, and consider what diminished standards you yourself have come to accept as the norm. Maybe it's time to start taking a stand in small ways to move those baselines back up.

Which can only serve to make the world a better place for us. And, of course, for the grandchildren I love so much.

Have a good day. Expect more. More thoughts later.


Saturday, January 06, 2007

It's a good day - my son is coming home from the Middle East!

Courtesy of the US Air Force and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Jason has spent the last six months in Qatar, with side trips to various places in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other desirable locations. He missed the birth of his third child (see my post of September 23rd, 2006) and a goodly chunk of the lives of his other two children, but at least he's coming home safe and sound, which is more than is true for more than 3,000 other good young Americans.

I'm headed to the airport to greet him as he passes through en route to home and family, and I do so with a great sense of pride and love. In a nation full of self-absorbed young people who think they have better things to do than serve their country, it's good to know there are still people like my son (and unlike our Vice President, go figure) who are willing to stand up and be counted.

Welcome home, Jason!

Have a good day. More thoughts later.


Friday, January 05, 2007

It's been about a year and a half since the worldwide furor over the publication in a Danish newspaper of a dozen cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed. The reaction in the Islamic world to the cartoons was explosively violent, with many people killed, churches and diplomatic facilities attacked and burned, and a boycott of Danish products in Muslim countries. The violence eventually died down, but not before several Muslim clerics had issued fatwas calling for the murder of the cartoonists, and Osama bin Laden demanded that persons insulting the Prophet be turned over to Muslims to be tried under Sharia law.

With the passage of time, the development of the cartoon crisis has come into somewhat clearer focus, and the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) has just published an interesting study which traces the onset and growth of the crisis and shows how it was cynically used by many Arab governments to deflect Muslim anger from their shortcomings to the imagined Western onslaught against Islam, and by radical Muslim clerics to stoke popular anger against Christians and Jews. You can find the article, titled A Retrospective Study of the Unfolding of the Muhammand Cartoons Crisis and its Implications, on the MEMRI website - just click the link at the left and look for Report Number 313.

While you're there, look at MEMRI Special Dispatch Number 1412, titled 'Confronting the Death Arriving From the West' – Santa Claus in Algeria. It presents the translation of a Christmas Eve op-ed piece from an Algerian newspaper that depicts Santa Claus, that jolly, red-cheeked bringer of holiday cheer, as an example of the insidious Christian threat to Muslims.

It's very difficult for a person with a liberal Western education and values to understand the blindly passionate religious fervor of Muslims and their spring-loaded negative reaction to what we would perceive as innocent criticism, but it behooves each of us to make the effort. In a world that is growing increasingly polarized along religious lines, while we are mired in a war stoked in large part by religious fervor, the old adage know your enemy is more important than ever. Take the time to read the translations of Arabic publications offered at the MEMRI website, and pay attention to the better quality news reporting coming out of the Middle East. Our future is largely being shaped in this region which is largely opaque to most of us, so take every opportunity to learn more about it. It's enlightening, and it's scary.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Thursday, January 04, 2007

Regular readers of this blog know that I have opposed the Iraq war since it began. My problem was not that I oppose war in general (I am, after all, a retired military officer), nor was it that Saddam Hussein wasn't a bad fellow (he clearly was). I believed then, as I believe now, that the war was unnecessary and carried out on the basis of thin intelligence for reasons that were not essential to our national security.

More than 3000 young American men and women have been killed and tens of thousands more terribly wounded on behalf of a population that now hates us. We have radicalized the Arab world (not a difficult chore in any case) and have created the threat the war was supposed to erase (at least, according to one version) - we have provided a training and proving ground for a new generation of jihadists who marry religious fervor with mindless violence.

But more than the deaths and mutilations of so many American service members, more than the deaths of countless thousands of Iraqis and the utter destruction of the country, has been the mortgaging of our children's and grandchildren's futures.

War isn't cheap, and Iraq is no exception. According to an article by Gordon Adams in the January 2nd Chicago Tribune, we are spending about $2 billion per week, $8 billion per month, heading for a total cost which will eventually pass $1 trillion. But you won't find any of this in the President's budget, nor will you easily be able to tell what the operations in Iraq actually cost.

The Iraq war is being funded through "emergency" funding authorizations, which do not appear in the Federal budget. Further, money is not appropriated for the war in Iraq, it's appropriated for the "Global War on Terror," making it impossible to tell what's being spent in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Ponca City, Oklahoma for new surveillance cameras, or in Ocoee, Florida for police radios. Our government is not being honest with us.

What would you do with $2 billion per week, or $8 billion per month?

Our government could exercise its Constitutional responsibility to provide for the general welfare by spending that money on schools, health care, and critical infrastructure here at home, instead of spending it on a needless war conducted on behalf of a population which now despises us and has spun itself into a sewer of sectarian hatred.

It's too much to hope that the current administration will suddenly come clean with the American people. My grandchildren's future welfare is being squandered today on a war conducted for questionable reasons and paid for through dishonest fiscal sleight-of-hand. My biggest regret is that Mr Bush will not be able to run for President again, so that I could vote against him again.

It's time to cut our losses and leave Iraq. We've done all we can and more than we should on behalf of a population which has shown itself unwilling and unable to build a better life on the basis we gave them, and we should leave them to their own devices.

But we won't...which means that I'll go on seeing the terribly crippled young men and women being treated to VIP tours of the Pentagon, as if this would make up for the loss of their limbs in the service of a useless conflict. And I'll go on seeing my tax dollars being poured down the drain of a hopelessly mismanaged effort on the other side of the world, instead of being spent on the health and welfare of my grandchildren.

It's enough to make you cry.

More thoughts tomorrow.


Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Saddam Hussein has gone wherever dead psychopathic dictators go, but his baleful influence lives on.

During his execution last Saturday, a spectator using a smuggled cell phone took a clandestine video of the execution which revealed a hideous miscarriage of justice. Mr Hussein was taunted by the spectators, who turned the execution into a gruesome spectacle. In the end, what should have been a grave and solemn affair symbolizing the end of the dictator's life, punishment for his crimes, and the primacy of law in the new Iraq turned instead to an ugly demonstration of partisan vengeance that can only serve to rally support for Hussein's legacy and prolong the violence and misery that torture what's left of Iraq. And, naturally, the video almost immediately turned up on Al Jazeera and the Internet, ensuring that its influence would be felt across the Middle East in endless rotation.

While Mr Hussein certainly deserved his punishment (see my blog entry of December 28th for more thoughts on that), his shabby treatment in his final moments was inexcusable and bodes ill for the future of Iraq. What could have been an example of the rule of law was instead a further example of the insanely violent passions that were unleashed by the US invasion of Iraq. Instead of providing closure to an ugly era, the botched execution of Mr Hussein has only thrown more fuel on the fire of sectarian violence that has turned Iraq into a sewer of mindless religious and tribal hatreds.

And we're stuck in the middle, with no good way out.

Have a good day. More thoughts coming.


Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Let's talk for a few minutes about beauty.

There was an interesting article on the CNN website yesterday titled "Does this HDTV make me look fat?" The point of the article was that television personalities are now concerned about how they look in closeups shot in the unforgiving clarity of high-definition television. This is, in general, harder for women; after all, we tend to expect men to look a bit more...uh...worn, whereas the ladies try much harder to conceal blemishes, wrinkles, and other things they think detract from their appearance. They worry about staying beautiful.

I think about beauty a lot, being married to a beautiful lady and having a beautiful daughter, a beautiful daughter-in-law, and a beautiful granddaughter. I also enjoy being surrounded by beautiful ladies while enjoying ballroom dancing. I appreciate feminine beauty.

But what does it really mean to be beautiful?

A comedian once said he didn't understand why we say beauty is only skin deep. That's deep enough, he maintained - what do you want, an adorable pancreas? And then there was the scene in Thomas Harris's novel Hannibal, in which Hannibal Lecter compliments Clarice Starling on how beautiful she looks, and she gently rebukes him with the words, "Looks are an accident, Dr Lecter."

What makes a woman beautiful?

The old adage is right: beauty really is in the eye of the beholder. What makes a lady beautiful to one man may turn off another (and of course, the same is true as ladies look at men). I, for instance, think it's enormously sexy for a lady to have hairy arms; many other men find this a turn-off. Some men would like to see every lady have breasts the size of the Capitol dome; I think it's far more attractive for a lady to have a pleasantly proportioned shape.

So where are we going with this discussion? My point is that everyone has his (or her) own concept of physical beauty, and not everyone will find the same person beautiful. In the end, beauty really is only skin deep. Many years ago I briefly dated a young woman who had every single physical attribute I found attractive. But the poor girl was just as dumb as the proverbial post...I literally couldn't talk with her about anything that I found interesting or important, because nothing beyond television, trashy novels, and shopping interested her. She was the quintessential Valley Girl.

In time, beauty fades. Hair turns gray (boy, do I know!), breasts sag, and waistlines magically expand (I know about that, too!). A relationship based only on physical attraction is a house built on shifting sand. If you don't look for the inner beauty to complement the outer beauty, for the compatibility that allows two people to grow old happily together, you'll never be happy.

I hope you can be as lucky as I, and find a beautiful and superbly intelligent lady to share your life. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy the search.

Have a good day. We'll get back to deeper thoughts tomorrow.


Monday, January 01, 2007

Happy New Year!

I haven't posted for a few days, as we've been very busy with year-end activities and with participating in the annual Yuletide Ball Dance Championships, held at the J.W. Marriott Hotel in Washington, DC, just a few blocks from the White House.

Agnes and I competed as a Pro-Am couple, and enjoyed it very much. We danced in 15 heats over two days, and were very pleased with the outcome: two first-place finishes (American Gold Bolero and Fox Trot), 12 second-places (American Gold Swing, Rumba, Cha-Cha, Waltz, and Tango; International Bronze Rumba, Paso Doble, Cha-Cha, and Samba; and International Silver Viennese Waltz, Syllabus Quickstep and Open Quickstep); and one third-place (International Bronze Waltz). For those of you not familiar with competition ballroom dancing, those aren't bad results, particularly against very tough competition. In addition, the ability to watch ourselves on the video we had shot allows us to identify weak areas in our dancing and work on improving them.

We met lots of new and old friends, supported and cheered for each other, and welcomed the new year on a happy and crowded dance floor.

If you have never tried ballroom dancing for recreation or for sport, you should. It's fun, exciting, and a great way to spend time with great people. Check it out!

Tomorrow, I'll get back to the usual round of comments on events in the news. But for today, let's celebrate the end of the old year and the start of a - hopefully - better one.

Have a good day. More thoughts coming.