Monday, April 30, 2007

The Video Boogeyman

Last Friday, author, historian and former presidential speechwriter Peggy Noonan published an opinion article in the Wall Street Journal that I found both interesting and disturbing. Titled "We're Scaring Our Children to Death," the article discussed the proliferation of frightening images to which our children are continually exposed on television and the movies. The most recent example is the nearly constant airing, over several days, of frightening images of Cho Seung-Hui, the Virginia Tech murderer, glaring into the camera with his emotionless eyes, brandishing weapons, and ranting his litany of hatred. The aftermath of terrorist attacks, apocalyptic predictions about the effects of global warming, and televised dramas featuring unrelenting, graphic violence are all staples of modern news and entertainment programming.

It entertains and informs adults. But what does it do to our children?

I've written in this blog before about the role of the proliferation of violent imagery in desensitizing our children to violence, but Ms Noonan's article brings a fresh viewpoint to the discussion and is worth your time in reading - check it out at Ask yourself what type of adults we grow when we raise them on constant images of violent death, scientific disaster hype, and the newsworthy details of sexual predators. What happened to childhood?

The problem is, of course, worse in those countries where real violence, not just images, is a fact of life. Across the Middle East, and particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan, generations of children are growing up scarred by relentless and random violence, much of it encouraged by the very religious leaders who ought to be speaking out against it. What type of adults will rule these nations in the future, having been shaped in childhood by a culture of constant violence and hate?

Children at home and abroad are being robbed of childhood. We can't do much about the rest of the world, but I think we ought to be paying more attention to the problem at home. The news and entertainment industries will continue to broadcast violent images - the adage, "If it bleeds, it leads" is a cornerstone of news broadcasts, and action shows featuring explosions and other violence are easier and cheaper to film than a thoughtful "Masterpiece Theater" drama. But we need to think seriously about what we're doing.

You only get one chance to be a child. And it's the job of parents (and grandparents, now that I'm one) to make sure that opportunity is used to grow happy children into healthy, well-adjusted adults.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Sunday, April 29, 2007

cn u rite?

According to a recent CNN report, an Irish education commission claims that the popularity of text messaging on mobile phones is threatening writing standards of Irish schoolchildren. These are the same schoolchildren who were among the top 10 performers in an international survey of literacy standards compiled by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in 2003.

I guess we should have seen it coming.

I have written in this blog many times about the decline in writing standards among American children, as reflected in some of the ungrammatical, misspelled, and shoddily constructed stuff that crosses my desk - most of which was written by people who are college graduates. But I've seen it get worse over the years as, first, the looser and more free-wheeling spelling and grammar of e-mail worked their effect on writing standards, and, later, as text messaging reduced sentences to collections of letters and symbols.

How bad is it? Well, like so many things, it depends on who you ask and how you look at the issue. A quick Google search on this topic led me to a 2005 paper by graduate student Amanda O'Connor (http://www.newhorizons/strategies/literacy/oconnor.htm). The paper, titled "Instant Messaging: Friend of Foe of Student Writing?" offers an interesting look at the influence of evolving technologies on student writing and reaches somewhat more forgiving conclusions than I might have expected. Ms O'Connor concludes that "At this point in time, it is not possible to determine specifically the effects of instant messaging on formal writing." She does, however, also conclude that - for better or worse - instant messaging and related communications technologies are here to stay and are becoming an important part of childrens' literacy. She offers suggestions for how teachers can instruct their students in when various types of communciation are appropriate.

I'm not a nose-in-the-air linguistic purist by any means. I love puns (the worse, the better) and am not above sprinkling phonetic shortcuts and emoticons in my e-mail. But, as Ms O'Connor notes in her paper, there are times for which various types of communication and stylistics are appropriate. And to the extent that instant messaging and other shorthand forms of communication interfere with the ability to compile properly-spelled words into complete, grammatical sentences, and those sentences into formal letters, reports, or other official documents, I think they're a minor menace.

I can only hope that teachers of writing will do their best to ensure that their students graduate grade school, high school, and college understanding how to write for their intended audience. And to understand that this audience may not always consist of friends power-thumbing instant messages.

Have a good day. Write a comment and let me know what you think of this topic. Complete sentences will be appreciated!

More thoughts tomorrow.


Saturday, April 28, 2007

Kafka Lives!

I refer, of course, to the author Franz Kafka, who wrote unsettling stories of ordinary people caught up in bizarre and surreal events. The prime example is his novel "The Trial," which tells the story of a man named Joseph K who wakes up one morning and, for reasons never revealed, is arrested, investigated, and tried over a period of years for an unspecified crime, based on evidence he is not allowed to see.

No, it's not set in the Bush administration.

Franz Kafka's name has entered the language in the adjective kafkaesque, defined as "marked by surreal distortion and often a sense of impending danger; a 'kafkaesque' situation is usually bizarre and frustrating."

I am now in the third week of a bureaucratic knife fight with the managers of the self-storage facility where much of our accumulated junk resides when not needed. One day I received a dunning letter from the facility telling me that my access code to enter the facility had been disabled and a second lock placed on my storage unit because I was delinquent in my payments. Upon investigation, I discovered that they were claiming that I had not paid my rent for the month of March, 2007 (although I had a clear history of paying promptly and in advance, and had already paid the rent for April).

Well, I thought, this is silly. I spent some time on line and on the phone with my credit union and assembled a pile of documents proving that the payment had been made on time and my check had been cashed. You would think that would be sufficient to prove that I was innocent.

You would be wrong.

The manager of the storage facility says she has no record of receiving or depositing my check. Therefore, although I can prove the rent has been paid, she still insists it's my responsibility to prove that they actually received the money...and until I can do that, they're keeping me locked away from my property.

Is it just me, or am I being penalized for someone's inept bookkeeping?

I understand that mistakes sometimes happen. I think I may even have made one myself sometime. But when I can prove that I paid the bill in good faith, it seems to me that it's the storage company's responsibility to figure out what they did with the money. We're only talking about $133.95, so it's not likely that some shifty employee is partying in Rio on my March rent. It's more likely that my check somehow got diverted into some other renter's account...and I think I'll have a tough time figuring out how to prove that.

I have asked my credit union to send me - posthaste - a copy of the cancelled check, which the manager claims will let her see who cashed the check and where the money went. I don't mind doing this if it helps clear up this mess. I am bothered, though, by the guilty-until-proven-innocent attitude taken by the storage company.

I'll let you know how it comes out.

Kafka lives.

Have a good weekend. More thoughts tomorrow.


Friday, April 27, 2007

The Time Machine

One of the staples of science fiction stories and films is the idea of time travel. H. G. Wells wrote the classic novel The Time Machine, and many other writers and filmmakers have explored the fascinating possibilities of travelling back and forth in time. What few people realize, though, is that time travel is perfectly possible, at least in one need only look to the Middle East.

Welcome to the Arab/Muslim world. Set your watches back 1200 years.

Two things bring this thought to mind today. One is the news out of Iran that the authorities are cracking down severely on women guilty of the heinous crime of insufficiently modest, Islamic dress. Evidently the sight of an uncovered female arm, or a glimpse of a woman's hair, is such a danger to public morals that the religious authorities are making extra efforts to get such hardened criminals off the streets.

Oh, and they're detaining Western reporters who attempt to film the enforcement of Islamic morality. Evidently, they don't want the rest of the world to realize how backward they are.

The other thing that attracted my attention on the topic of time travel was a report on the MEMRI (Middle East Media Research Institute) website. MEMRI report number 1562, dated April 27th, provids translated excerpts from a debate which aired on Al-Arabiya television on January 28th of this year. The topic of the debate among several Islamic scholars was whether women may serve as heads of state, and it makes amazing and unsettling reading. Consider this statement by Said Farahat Al-Mungi, an Islamic scholar from Al-Azhar University:

"We sympathize with the woman because of [the emotions] that surge in her and lead her to desire everything. We treat women with the utmost honor and respect, but there is a limit to the positions she is allowed to fulfill. Even the things most specific to women are beyond her capabilities. For example, the dresses worn by women are made by men. The food that she eats is produced by men. One cannot find even a single successful female gynecologist. She is incapable of doing even the things most specific to women. Men do them. In no way to I mean to belittle women's capabilities. After all, women constitute half of society, and they are the ones who raise the other half."

Set that watch back another few hundred years while you think about this ridiculous drivel from a "scholar."

If you needed any proof that the Middle East is and will remain a religiously-stultified cultural backwater, important only because it sits on the oil the rest of the world needs, statements like this ought to give you something to think about.

I could write more on this topic, and I will in the future. For now, I recommend you just read the MEMRI report in its entirety (click the link in my recommended link list to get there fast) and think about what it will mean to all of us if rigid and inane social and religious opinions like these are allowed to spread without being held up to the ridicule they deserve.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Thursday, April 26, 2007

The Name of the War

Two recent articles, one by Max Boot in the Wall Street Journal and the other by Michael R. Gordon in the New York Times, look at the issue of what we call the interconnected wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the other, related, below-the-radar military actions elsewhere in the world.

In the beginning, we had the "Global War on Terrorism," or "GWOT" (pronounced "gee-watt"). Most thinking people realized that this was stupid, because the enemy in this war is not "terrorism," which is a tactic. Then former Defense Secretary Rumsfeld floated the name, "Global Struggle Against Violent Extremism," which was too long for the required media sound bites and took up too much column space in was quickly deep-sixed. Some conservative historians and commentators suggested "World War IV" (which assumed that the Cold War was "World War III")...this didn't get any legs and also died quickly. "The War Against International Islamist Terror Networks" was too long and - worse - politically incorrect, so it disappeared almost before anyone heard it. The latest stab at a name came from General John Abizaid, the former head of the US Central Command, who called it "The Long War" in recognition of the fact that it was both a political and a military contest that would probably last for many years.

And, as you might expect, "The Long War" had a short life, too - it was quietly retired by the new CENTCOM commander, Admiral William Fallon, who believed the name worked against his desired focus on achieving results as quickly as possible to recover political will to continue the fight. And a CENTCOM spokesman explained that the change was "...a product of our ongoing effort to use language that describes the conflict for our Western audiences while understanding the cultural implications of how that language is construed in the Middle East."

In other words, "The Long War" implied to the populations of the Middle East that we would be killing people and breaking things there for a long time.

Long-time readers of this blog will recall that my undergraduate academic background is in Linguistics, while my masters' degree is in International Relations. The "what do we call this war" debate is one of those rare areas in which I can connect the two in my thinking.

As I've noted many times here, words matter. Don Imus now knows that, and an understanding of the power of negative words may even finally be getting through the ossified brains of the rap and hip-hop music communities. But as disgusting as rap lyrics may be, they are a mere noxious nuisance when compared to the power of descriptive words to shape international opinions about US policies. We can't say "crusade," because some people in the Middle East don't understand that the crusades ended more than 700 years ago. We can't say "War on Islamist Terrorism" because it's insufficiently politically correct. We don't want to say "The Long War" because it implies that this will be a ... well ... long war.

So what do we call it? A thundering term on the order of "World War Two" doesn't quite work for a grinding and poorly-focused counterinsurgency and counterterrorism effort. The original "Operation IRAQI FREEDOM" is sort of a bad joke now, since we appear to have given the Iraqis the freedom only to unleash the murderous passions long suppressed by Saddam Hussein.

I suggest that we can't call this war anything until we understand a few things about it. We need to clearly define:

Who's the enemy?

What's our desired end state (how do we know when we've either won or lost)?

Do we have the political will to win?

Do we have the military power to win?

The only one of these questions I think we can answer is the last one: we clearly have the military power, if we can just learn how to wield it smartly as part of a larger, clearly thought- out strategy that combines it with the other political and economic elements of our national power reach a clear political goal.

So the question remains: what do we call it? I suggest we go for the simple and direct approach.

Let's just call it "The War" until the President and his advisors figure out what it really is.

But don't hold your breath waiting for the answer.

Have a good day. More thoughts coming.


Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Enforcing the Laws We Have

An anonymous reader posted a comment to my blog entry from last Saturday, in which I offered comments on America's gun culture and the changes in law and thinking I believed were necessary. I wrote that Cho Seung-Hui, the man who killed more than 30 people at Virginia Tech last week, had purchased his handguns legally. The commenter correctly pointed out an error in my discussion: Mr Cho, as a duly reported and registered mental patient, was in fact ineligible to purchase guns under Virginia law. Had his case been reported to the proper authorities as required by state law, he would have been prevented from buying the guns he used in his rampage, at least from any registered gun dealer in Virginia. The commenter goes on to make the perfectly valid point that "New laws are not necessary when effective laws are not enforced."

I stand corrected and thank the reader for pointing out my error. He also makes a point that I have long tried to make myself: that we seldom need new laws - we need to enforce the laws we already have on the books. If one person kills another because he's prejudiced against the victim because of race, we don't need a new law that makes it a "hate crime" - it's murder, which is already a crime (and has been for thousands of years). I do not advocate creating new laws to overly regulate gun ownership per se, but I do advocate enforcing laws which impose severe penalties for the use of a gun in any crime, whether felony or misdemeanor. I fail to see how even the most ardent pro-gun supporter could object to such laws, which criminalize the action and not the simple possession of the weapon.

I do, though, stand by my position that we need seriously to rethink the types of guns we ought to make available for purchase. There isn't much need for average persons to own semiautomatic weapons, for example: few hunters use a handgun to hunt elk in the mountains, and a hunter who blasts away at his quarry with shot after shot needs to pay more attention to his aim and less to the size of his magazine. The easy availability of powerful semiautomatic weapons with large capacity magazines certainly doesn't cause crime, but it does make it easier for a person to commit crimes. Worse, ready availability of a gun can make an already dangerous situation even worse: it's one thing for a husband and wife to argue, but quite another when one can go to the nightstand, pull out a gun, and shoot the other in the heat of passion. Yes, the same result can be had with a knife or a blunt instrument, but a gun allows immediate and deadly application of force from a distance in a way a club or knife cannot.

I've resigned myself to the belief that we will never have a rational discussion of the danger of unregulated gun ownership in this country - there are too many people who view their Second Amendment rights almost as a religion, and are unable to compromise in any way for fear that compromise will lead ultimately to the loss of their cherished guns. But I'd like to think that incidents like the Virginia Tech massacre would at least make everyone think about what the potential dangers of gun ownership are and, at the very least, support the strong enforcement of laws we already have which penalize the use of a gun in a crime.

I don't know how any rational person could argue with that.

But, sadly, the word "rational" doesn't often figure in the passionate discussion of gun ownership in America.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The Fate of the Infidel

On April 18th, five Turkish men stormed into a Christian publishing firm in the city of Malatya, tied up three employees of the store, tortured them, and finally cut their throats. They left a note at the scene which read, "This should serve as a lesson to the enemies of our religion. We did it for our country."

This heinous crime reminds us again of the dangers posed by radical, intolerant Islamists. These are people so sick of mind that they viewed three representatives of a company that sells bibles as a grave threat to Turkey - which is more than 99% Muslim. To the deeply radical Islamist, anyone not a Muslim is an infidel, not to be tolerated, not to be respected, not to be considered a friend or a neighbor. An infidel is beneath dignity. An infidel must be killed.

I am still looking, without success, for strong condemnation of acts like these from the "mainstream" Muslim community here in America or abroad. I didn't find any mention, much less condemnation, of this crime at the website of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), and I haven't found a single instance of a significant Islamic figure speaking out against this brutality and intolerance.

The reason, of course, is that Islam - particularly as practiced in the Middle East - is not a tolerant religion. It's all or nothing. You are a Muslim or you are an infidel. If you choose to convert from Islam to another religion, you are even worse - you are an apostate, and it's the duty of other Muslims to kill you for this hideous crime.

Muslims everywhere insist on rights and priviliges they absolutely forbid to other religions in majority Islamic countries. In their minds, there is nothing wrong with this. They don't recognize the validity of any other religion. You are a Muslim, or you are an infidel. You are nothing.

America was founded on a tradition of religious tolerance by people who left Europe in disgust at the lack of religious freedom there. Today, Muslims pour into America from the Middle East, seeking the freedom under Western law to recreate and force on infidels the intolerant religious and social practices that have made their homelands an economic and cultural backwater. They demand the rights and priviliges they routinely deny to everyone else.

Any Islamic reaction to these comments other than condemnation of my point of view is unlikely in the extreme. I am, after all, an infidel, guilty of the ghastly crime of choosing to worship God in a way not approved by those who consider themselves believers in the one, true religion.

I have a hard time picturing a God who could create the infinite grandeur of the universe and the glorious splendor of life on Earth worrying about what we eat, whether men wear beards, and whether women must be hidden away under yards of shapeless clothing.

Somewhere, the just and merciful God of Christian tradition is shaking his (her?) head at the horrific crimes committed in his (her?) name by radical Islamists. And sadly, the average Muslim doesn't find any need to speak out against the hideous crimes carried out in the name of their religion.

Because you and I are infidels, and deserve no better.

Have a good day. Enjoy, appreciate, and defend the freedom you have in America to worship God according to the dictates of your conscience.

More thoughts tomorrow.


Saturday, April 21, 2007

The Right to Bear (Necessary) Arms (of Appropriate Types)

The tragic massacre of innocent students at Virginia Tech this week reminds us once again of the dark side of one of Americans' most cherished freedoms: the right, enshrined in the Second Amendment to the Constitution, to "bear arms." There will be much study and agonizing over who might have prevented Cho Seung-Hui from murdering more than 30 people before killing himself. Indeed, reports now surface of a very angry young man who had already been identified as a potential threat to others...but because he had done nothing for which he could be arrested, he continued in freedom to fester and plan his hideous end. One thing, though, is certain. Mr Cho was able to kill so many people in such a short span of time because he was able to purchase - totally legally, as was his right - powerful semiautomatic pistols.

The statement on the website of the National Rifle Association, the ultra-powerful lobby which prevents even rational discussion of the dangers of unrestricted gun ownership, simply says, "Our thoughts and prayers are with the families. We will not have further comment until all the facts are known."

It seems to me, as it must to any rational human, that the salient facts are these:

1. The Constitution gives every American citizen the right to own weapons.
2. Mr Cho purchased his weapons over the counter at a licensed gun dealer in a perfectly legal fashion.
3. Mr Cho used his legally purchased and owned weapons to carry out the worst school massacre in American history.

It's time to step back and think about this for a minute.

At the time the Constitution and Bill of Rights were written, America was a wild and dangerous place. Americans were distrustful of over-powerful government, having just thrown off a distant king, and believed that a well-armed militia, rather than a standing army that might be abused by a ruler, was the best defender of their liberties. In addition, most Americans outside of major cities still depended for their daily meals on meat they shot themselves.

Guns were critically important.

But I submit to you that times have changed. Most Americans hunt their dinner at the local Safeway. External threats, while present, are few and remote. We are protected against those external threats by the world's most powerful Army, and against internal threats by professional police forces. Granted, the potential for abuse of power is always present, but compared to any third-world country, Americans are not threatened in a measurable way by their government and its coercive authorities.

Why, then, do we need unrestricted permission to own firearms of any type and power?

The NRA and other strong supporters of complete firearm freedom say that a person like Mr Cho, bent on massacre, will find a way to carry out his plan no matter what laws are in effect. This is true. Consider, however, the difference between 1789 and today. If Mr Cho had chosen to commit his massacre in 1789, he would have relied on cumbersome single shot weapons. He would certainly have killed one, or perhaps two or three people, but the need to reload his guns would have given potential victims the time and opportunity to fight back. Today, Mr Cho had semiautomatic weapons that fired devastating bullets as fast as he could pull the trigger, and which were fast and easy to reload. The result: he was able to kill a huge number of people in a short time, and his vicitims were unable to fight back.

Gun apologists argue that the best defense against such attacks is for everyone to own a gun so that they can fight back. But do you really feel safer knowing that everyone around you is packing heat? Do you want to contest a parking space with someone who may be willing to kill you for it if he gets mad enough? Will someone shoot the lady who ties up the 15-items-or-less lane at the supermarket with her huge cart and in-your-face attitude? It's possible.

It's time to get realistic about both the pros and the cons of the Right to Bear Arms. I have no problem with a properly trained hunter owning rifles or shotguns. I do have a problem when everyone with enough money can buy a powerful handgun that offers a fast and deadly way to settle arguments.

Let's have the debate. And let's stop worshipping at the festooned altar of the Second Amendment. Keep the right to bear arms. Reconsider the types of arms that can be borne, and by whom.

We just may be able to prevent the next Columbine or Virginia Tech.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.



Friday, April 20, 2007


Over the years, I've thought a lot about the subject of "compensation." Many people (including myself) think of it in terms of the paycheck and associated benefits that are the reason we go to work each day. But there are two other twists on "compensation" I thought I'd share with you today.

One is an unattributed quote I picked up many years ago: "Imagination was given to man to compensate him for what he is not; a sense of humor, to console him for what he is." I've always had a pretty vivid imagination, which could be either the cause or the effect of my love of reading and of old-time radio drama: the pictures I can conjure up in my head from either one tend to be more vivid and enjoyable than those on the TV or movie screen. I wrote about this in somewhat more detail on March 26th in a post titled, "What You Thought You Saw." And the quote is absolutely right: imagination allows us to escape from drudging everyday reality, and a sense of humor keeps us humble, and from taking ourselves too seriously (something I hope I will never be accused of).

The other twist on "compensation" is this thought: the only compensation for a man in growing older is that every year there are more women he thinks are attractive.

This is also true. As my hair turns gray, my body heads south, and I find myself needing to write everything down so I don't forget it, I have learned to appreciate the beauty of women of every age. The gold standard for beautiful ladies under 10 is, of course, my granddaughter Marcy. Young women in their teens and ladies in their 20's have the beauty of youth, and as they move into their 30's and 40's that beauty is enhanced (in most cases) by life experience and maturity. When a man is young, a woman over 50 may as well be on display under lights in a museum; but as I coast toward my 60's, I can vouch for the fact that there are a great many perfectly lovely ladies in the over-50 age group (the gold standard, of course, being my beloved wife).


No particular message today...just some rambling thoughts on the things that compensate us for the battering we take in everyday living. We can't negotiate the compensation package we get in life...all we can do is try to enjoy it.

Have a good day. More thoughts coming.


Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Things That Make Us What We Are

Sometimes I wonder how I ever survived to reach a normal and (more or less) well-adjusted adulthood.

As a child, I was not abused by my parents or relatives, my parish priest, or anyone else. I was called names and bounced around by schoolyard bullies. I drank water straight from the tap, the garden hose, and even the streams near our house. I was out of the house and out of parental sight during the summer from morning 'til after dark, often walking miles to visit friends, and was never abducted. I was occasionally humiliated by the cute girls in high school who tended to choose jocks over nerds, but still ended up with a beautiful wife and family.

It seems fashionable today to blame past abuses, real or imagined, as the shaper of our lives and the excuse for outrageous acts. The violent and bitter young man who murdered more than 30 people at Virginia Tech this week left videos and writings in which he accused everyone but himself for driving him to his killing spree, and the effects of a bad childhood are often cited in defense of even the most vicious criminals. And yet, many - if not most - people manage to overcome such adversity to become productive citizens, raise families, and contribute to society in ways large and small.

Thousands of events in the course of our lives shape us and make us what we are. Most are benign, some are terrible, and some are wonderful, and no two lives are the same. People will react to the same stimuli in different ways. I put up with the usual high school problems of bullies and competition for female attention and ended up a productive citizen. Another person may face the same problems and end up like a Cho Seung-Hui, plagued by inner demons that lead him to murder.

Psychologists and social scientists will continue to debate the reasons why we end up the way we do, but I believe one thing is sure: each of us contains, within himself, the capacity for good and for evil. How we react to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune (sorry, Mr Shakespeare) shapes what we will become. I had the good fortune to have caring and loving parents, a stable home environment, and good friends. Others aren't so lucky. But we all end up having to share the same imperfect world. We can take charge of our destiny, or we can retreat into ourselves and claim the priviliges of victimhood to excuse bad behavior.

I'd like to think that most of us will make the right choice.

Have a good day. Remember what I wrote yesterday about giving and getting respect.

More thoughts tomorrow.


Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Who Can Say What, When, and Why

The latest bad joke going around deals with the recent death of Hawaiian entertainer Don Ho - it seems most broadcasters are afraid to mention his death on the air because of what happened to Don Imus.

As one of my co-workers is fond of saying, that joke is like a clown on fire: it's kinda funny, but kinda sad. Let's talk for a minute about why it's sad.

If the Don Imus imbroglio has clearly demonstrated anything, it's that what you are allowed to say depends upon who you are. If you are not black, you are absolutely forbidden from using language of any kind that can be - however remotely - described as "racist." On the other hand, if you are black - and particularly if you are a rap "artist" - you have carte blanche to use the most foul and insulting language to refer to women and Caucasians while you hide behind the protective wall of artistic license and revenge for real and imagined past oppression.

But that may change.

Even an irresponsible and self-promoting racist like Al Sharpton is finally turning his righteous indignation against the entertainment industry (although he doesn't seem quite ready to specifically single out the thug and gangsta rap subculture): "We will not stop until we make it clear that no one should denigrate women," he fulminates. "We must deal with the fact that ho and the b-word are words that are wrong from anybody's lips."

You will note that he spoke of the denigration of women, and not of the denigration of people, of whatever color, on the basis of race.

There are those who defend the rap and hip-hop culture, describing rap lyrics as "reflections of the violent, drug-plagued, hopeless environments that many rappers come from." These people claim, according to a recent CNN report, that critics of the rap culture "should improve their reality."


Consider this scholarly, erudite comment by rapper Calvin Broadus (who goes by "Snoop Dogg") to "(Rappers) are not talking about no collegiate basketball girls who have made it to the next level in education and sports. We're talking about hos that's in the 'hood that ain't doing --- that's trying to get a n***** for his money."

It's very clear that some people are allowed to say things that others are not.

We won't get anywhere until we start working on an atmosphere of mutual respect. Respect, of course, can't be demanded - it has to be earned. And I have yet to hear any rap "artist" I think is worthy of the respect he's unwilling to give.

When the message is that it's more important to rub everyone's faces in past injustice than to work hard to improve the present, you can be sure that you are listening to either a rap "artist" or a radical Muslim cleric.

And the world would be much better off without both.

Have a good day. Earn respect by giving it. You may find it enjoyable.

More thoughts tomorrow.


Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Murder in Virginia

On most days I watch the ongoing carnage in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East and wonder to myself, what are these morons thinking? And then I look at the news from here in America and wonder to myself, what are we thinking, and what must the rest of the world think of us?

Yesterday, what appears at the moment to have been a lone killer methodically murdered more than 30 people at Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg, a few hours drive from here. The details are still fuzzy, but the initial reports indicate that a man armed with at least two handguns and a vest full of ammunition killed two people in a dormitory and then, several hours later, chained the doors of an academic building shut and murdered more than 30 more before killing himself. At least a dozen persons are in hospitals, some of whom may yet die.

When the shock wears off, the finger-pointing will begin and the lawyers will circle like clouds of vultures around the tasty carrion of lucrative litigation. Why did no one see this coming? Why was the campus not locked down after the first shootings, several hours before the major part of the massacre? Why did the police not respond more quickly and effectively? Who was the killer and why did he do what he did?

There are several obvious contributing factors to the tragedy. One is obvious, and yet considered off the table for rational discussion in America - the easy availability of powerful firearms. Another is, perhaps, not so obvious.

Back in the mid-70's, a New York fireman named Dennis Smith wrote an entertaining, gritty, tragic, at times funny book about his experiences called "Report from Engine Company 82" (still available from At one point in the book, Smith describes being pelted with rocks by angry bystanders as his crew tried to fight a fire. He described the crazy scene of trying to save lives and property while being attacked, and wrote: "I used to believe that people who threw rocks at firemen were motivated by conditions - the lower depths of American society. I used to believe that the fundamental problems were housing and education ... but I don't believe that anymore. ... The disease is more seriously latent, more pernicious than uncaring landlords or bureaucratic, apathetic school officials. The malignancy lies in the guts of humankind at all levels. We have unlearned the value of a human life."

We have unlearned the value of a human life.

I think these nine words sum up much of the reason that we have insane levels of violence in the Middle East and school shootings in America. In the Middle East, stupid clerics more interested in land, perceived grievance, and the literal interpretation of religious texts encourage the murder not only of Jews and Christians, but even of other sects of their own religion. In the United States, television cop shows and action movies celebrate graphic violence. A study done in 1999 for the Senate Judiciary Committee estimated that the average child in the United States will see 200,000 violent acts and 16,000 murders on television by the time he or she reaches age 18 (, and that most of these violent acts go unpunished, and are often accompanied by humor. The consequences of human suffering and loss are rarely depicted.

We have unlearned the value of a human life.

I have three wonderful grandchildren, with a fourth on the way. They will grow up in a world in which life is cheap and violent images abound. Watching the Roadrunner drop an anvil on Wile E. Coyote's head in the cartoons, or blow him up with his Acme Time Bomb, may be fun, but I have to believe it has contributed as much to the desensitization of our children to death and injury as the over-the-top violence of action films.

When I was in grade school in the late 50's and early 60's, we had 'duck and cover' exercises for the nuclear war our parents believed was likely. Today, schools have lockdown exercises to prepare for random violence born here at home.

The NRA is doubtless already mobilizing to make sure people know that firearms are utterly blameless in the shooting deaths of more than 30 people. Lawyers and psychologists will clash in court. The President and other national leaders will pontificate. Congressional hearings will be scheduled. But the real problem will remain unmentioned.

We have unlearned the value of a human life.

Have a good day. Pray, in whatever fashion you choose, for the innocent victims at Blacksburg and around the world, and be thankful if you were not touched by the violence.

More thoughts tomorrow.


Monday, April 16, 2007

Nice Guys

I like to think of myself as a nice guy. I try to be pleasant to everyone, respect others' points of view (even when I think they're complete and utter morons), treat women properly, and generally live the Golden Rule (do unto others as you would have them do unto you). I've found that this results in two things: most people tend to like me; and many people try to take advantage of me.

Today in the blog "It Is a Numeric Life" (see the link at the left) the post was titled "Why girls go out with hot jerks?" According to the statistic on which the post was based, a University of Michigan study showed that about 60% of the 291 women surveyed said they would prefer to have sex with hot jerks (or "cads") when considering a brief affair, but preferred nice guys ("dads") when looking for a long-term investment in raising children. The authors of the study noted that "These preferences were expected, as they benefit the women's reproductive success."

The study paper ( is only 12 pages long and is fascinating reading. It offers insights into why some otherwise intelligent women seem to seek out men who treat them badly, as opposed to ones who would seem to be more desirable from a social and long-term stability standpoint. The conclusion (broadly stated) is that in seeking short-term sexual partners, women are drawn to men who are competitive, dominant, and brave (even if they're "cads" who treat them poorly) - in short, men they believe would provide genes which would be more advantageous to their children. In seeking long-term mates, though, the same women preferred the nice guys (the "dads") - those they believe would be more reliable providers and more likely to devote themselves to the care of a family.

Other books and studies reach similar conclusions. For instance, Howard Bloom's thought-provoking book The Lucifer Principle looks in part at the genetic basis of behavior and makes many of the same points about sexual selection and investment by women (in particular, the chapter titled The Expendability of Males makes many of the same points as the Michigan study).

So what does this mean for us "nice guys?"

On a very simple level, it explains why we stood along the walls of the gym at the high school dances while the desirable girls fawned over the athletes. But looking at it another way, it means that in the long run, those same girls will eventually find us to be the more desirable choice of partner. We just have to wait for them to figure it out.

Or, as my mother was fond of saying, "nice guys may finish last, but they do finish."

I've long since passed the time when I was worried about attracting potential mates. I've found my partner and I love her, and now I can just relate to women as friends without thought of competing with other men for their sexual attentions. There's something to be said, in short, for being a passably good-looking 55 year-old nice guy who's a competent ballroom dancer...and not a cad who treats women badly.

Have a good day. Don't forget that your taxes are due by midnight's tough to read my blog from jail.

More thoughts tomorrow.


Sunday, April 15, 2007

April 15th

If you are reading this in the United States, you almost certainly knew the topic of this post just from reading the title. For those of you in other countries, April 15th is the date each year on which we Americans must pay our income taxes to the Federal government and most state governments as well.

The United States had no permanent tax on individual income for most of its existence. The federal income tax has only been around since the ratification of the 16th Amendment to the Constitution in 1913: "The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several States, and without regard to any census or enumeration."

As tax systems go, ours is probably about as fair as it's likely to be, considering the irresistable urge of politicians to tinker with it for political advantage. The only real problem with it, from my perspective, is that it's drifted far from its original purpose: to raise money for the operation of the government. We expect the federal government to provide certain essential services, and somehow those services must be paid for - thus, the need for taxes. Unfortunately, our tax system has been bastardized over the years as a vehicle for rewarding political support, conducting social engineering experiments, and stimulating businesses. Each dollar of tax revenue lost because a business gets a tax break or a particular social group gets a special benefit must be made up somewhere, and that somewhere is generally the checkbooks of the working middle class.

I see nothing wrong with paying taxes. I don't like it any more than anyone else, but I recognize that they're a necessary evil. The real problem is that, as the system has moved from its original purpose, the tax code has become progressively less fair and more complex, leading to the creation of an entire industry dedicated to helping people cope with the calculation of their taxes. High taxes and the perception of unfairness create an atmosphere in which we spend more time and effort hiding or underreporting income than in just writing the check to Uncle Sam.

This year, I paid nearly $300.00 to a nice lady at H&R Block to calculate our federal and state income taxes for us. I could probably have done it myself, but the complexity of the tax code and my fear of the draconian powers of the IRS make it worth it for my peace of mind to pay someone else to navigate the twisted and murky legal and fiscal landscape on my behalf.

And that $300 is tax deductable, by the way.

So, if you are one of those who has taken advantage of April 15th falling on a Sunday this year to put off doing your taxes for one more day, it's time to get off your fannies and get cracking. It's just short of 11 o'clock in the morning have about 37 more hours to go.

Good luck.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Saturday, April 14, 2007

I'm Dreaming of a White Fourth of July...Not!

Okay, enough's enough! Who forgot to pay the spring bill? Here I sit in my study, anxious to get outside and work in my garden, and the weatherman is talking about snow tomorrow here in Northern Virginia. Today is April 14th, for Pete's sake...not February 14th! How about a little sunshine and some balmy temperatures for a change?

I spent a few days in Colorado Springs on business last week, and woke up Friday morning to about five inches of snow, with another five or six inches predicted by the end of the day. Fortunately, my flight home made it out before flights started being cancelled (although we were delayed an hour for de-icing of the airplane and removal of luggage to make sure the airplane would fly). Unfortunately, my suitcase is still somewhere in luggage hell...but the nice people at American Airlines have given me a very attractive we're-sorry-and-we'll-get-your-bag-back-to-you-when-we-find-it letter to take its place. I need to be able to work in the yard to get my mind off my poor missing bag...and it's going to snow!

I'm ready for spring. I'm ready to work in the garden, take long walks with my wife, watch beautiful ladies in skimpy summer clothes, and relax out on the deck, swatting mosquitoes. Well, maybe not the swatting mosquitoes part. But let's save some of this snow for next Christmas, okay?

"White Christmas" just sounds so much better than "White Fourth of July."

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Thursday, April 12, 2007

Miscarriage of Justice in North Carolina

The North Carolina state Attorney General has dropped all charges against three Duke University students falsely accused of first-degree kidnapping and first-degree sexual assualt. Despite a lack of evidence, despite DNA tests that showed none of the accused had had sexual relations with the alleged victim, and despite the alleged victim's continually-changing story, Durham County District Attorney Michael Nifong pursued the young men relentlessly, making outrageous and improper statements to the media which recklessly robbed them of the rest of their lives. He is now facing ethics charges which could lead to his disbarment at a trial in June. It is no less than he deserves, and far less a punishment than he has earned.

But beyond punishing Mr Nifong's gross abuse of power, censure must also be heaped upon the media and upon the members of the civil rights community who immediately assumed the young men were guilty because they were white and well-to-do and their victim was black and disadvantaged. The men were tried and convicted in the press and on the street with utter disregard for the rules of evidence and of common decency.

These men were innocent! Where now are the Al Sharptons and the Jesse Jacksons and the print, television, and radio reporters who happily used the story to gain publicity and sell advertising? I have yet to hear any apologies from any of them. Mr Sharpton has moved on to take advantage of a new opportunity to get his face in the news, lecturing us about the racist comments of Don Imus. He's much too busy to waste any time lamenting his role in the railroading of three innocent men.

If you respect the rule of law, if you believe someone is innocent until proven guilty, and if you believe in honesty, integrity, and fairness in the legal system, you have to be disgusted. If you had any lingering shreds of respect for the so-called leaders of the civil rights movement, you should shed them now. A hideous miscarriage of justice has been abetted by a grandstanding district attorney, spotlight-hungry civil rights leaders, and a media more intent on selling papers and air time than on discovering the truth. Franz Kafka couldn't have written this terrible and terrifying story any better.

In most ways, the American system of justice is the envy of the world. Trial by a jury of our peers, laws of evidence, and the presumption of innocence are very rare in the rest of the world.

They are also, evidently, rare in Durham County, North Carolina.

Have a good day. And remember that this could just as easily happen to you.

More thoughts tomorrow.


Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Eye of the Beholder

One of the blogs I read every day without fail is called "It Is a Numeric Life" (you can find it on my recommended link list). It's kept by a medical school librarian who is fascinated by numbers and statistics, and he finds some really amazing figures that can make you sit back and think.

A few days ago, his post was titled, "Breast enlargement enlarge self-esteem, sexuality." According to the statistics on which this post was based, a survey of 84 women before and after breast augmentation surgery showed that their self-esteem increased by 13%, and sexual function by 11% as a result of the surgery.

In my comment on that post (and I just had to comment you understand), I noted that I think this is kind of sad. It's sad to think that a woman would feel so unhappy with her body that she'd feel the need to resort to surgery to try and improve it. We live, of course, in a society obsessed with youth and beauty, and because men generally seem to prefer women with large breasts, breast augmentation has become the most common form of cosmetic surgery.

As I've written in this space before, the old adage is still true: beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And the comment made by a comedian years ago is equally true: yes, beauty is only skin deep, but that's deep enough - what do you want, an adorable pancreas?

More than 25 years ago I was living the newly-single life in Germany, and dated my way thorough the female population of (then) West Berlin. My friends got used to seeing me with a certain type of lady - dark-haired, dark-eyed Latina or Mediterranean types. They were then understandably astounded when I ended up marrying a pale German redhead, the exact opposite of the physical type they'd grown used to expecting.

The reason, of course, is that you don't marry at the skin level - you marry the entire person, and I was fortunate enough to find an extraordinarily beautiful, lively, and intelligent lady I could relate to on every level. If specific physical attributes were all that was important, I could have held out for a dark-complected Italian or Mexican girl with gentle curves and hairy arms, but what's the point? In time, our hair turns gray and our once-firm bodies gradually go south...and if all you married for was the physical part, you'll spend a large part of your life being mighty unhappy.

I guess I'm wandering a little bit here, but my point is that we need to be able to be happy in our own bodies. It's one thing to have an unfortunate physical disfigurement that needs to be corrected by cosmetic surgery, but quite another to feel the need for larger breasts because of the perceived preferences of others. I'm just one guy, but I appreciate a lady like my wife who is beautiful on every level - one who is well-educated and a good conversationalist, loves to dance, and makes the most of what she has by dressing well and looking good. I don't think any lady is unattractive unless she chooses to matter how large or small her breasts are.

And let's not talk about us 55-year old guys with gray hair and middle aged guts, thank you very much...

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Sticks and Stones

Radio personality Don Imus has been suspended from his radio program for two weeks as he becomes the latest in a string of high-profile persons who have fallen into the linguistic trap of using racially inappropriate language. In case you are one of the two or three people who hasn't heard of this affair, Mr Imus's offense was that he referred to the Rutgers University women's basketball team as "nappy-headed ho's."

Leaving aside for a moment the fact that Mr Imus behaved stupidly and should have known better, let's look at the predictable reaction to his comment: media hound Al Sharpton, smelling the chum of publicity in the water, immediately began santimoniously thundering for Imus's head on a platter, while other black commentators decried the racial insensitivity shown by a white man as an example of how The Man still holds down the nonwhite population. White commentators also immediately joined in denouncing Mr Imus.

Yes, Mr Imus was stupid and insensitive. But I'd find the protestations of Mr Sharpton and his ilk a lot easier to accept if they would turn the light of their denunciation on the black community as well. You don't have to spend much time on city streets or in shopping malls anywhere in the country to hear young black men loudly referring to women as "bitches" and "hos." A whole disgusting tide of misogynistic "gangsta" rap and an in-your-face "thug" culture allows blacks to refer to each other with the very negative terms - up to and certainly including the dreaded "n-word" - they blast whites for using. Sauce for the black linguistic goose is evidently not sauce for the white gander.

Where are the elder statesmen and leaders of the black community when their own people treat each other with such shabby and inappropriate language? A few years ago, the black community turned on comedian Bill Cosby when he made comments severely critical of modern black culture. Granted, Mr Cosby may have been a bit over the top with the range of his comments, but not by much. By using objectionable racial epiphets freely and loudy itself, the black community has fostered an atmosphere in which others can rightly infer that the use of such terms is okay. Where are the community leaders to set the example and get young blacks to clean up their act?

I read an article some time back in which a linguistic scholar defended blacks' use of inappropriate racial language by theorizing that the appropriation of these negative terms served to reduce their sting when used. I personally think this is asinine. Inappropriate, bad language is inappropriate and bad no matter who uses it. There's no excuse.

My mother was fond of telling us that "sticks and stones will break your bones, but names will never hurt you." She was right, of course, but only to a point. Names can hurt you by creating an atmosphere in which worse things than name-calling become possible. Bad language is often used to dehumanize one's enemies (think of the "Japs" and "Krauts" of World War II, or the modern-day Islamist denunciation of Jews and Christians as "apes" and "pigs"), but it's even worse when it's used lightly to dehumanize one's friends. If you think of women as "hos" and "bitches," it's easier to make the leap from inappropriate talk to inappropriate action - it's probably easier to think of raping a "ho" or a "bitch" than a lady.

Don Imus is paying the price for his stupidity. Unfortunately, sanctimonious denouncers of white misbehavior like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson who refuse to call the black community to account for the same stupidity do their community a grave disservice.

The sticks and stones of foul language hurt those who throw them as much as those who are their targets. It's long past time for responsible leaders on all sides to denounce racist and misogynistic language - no matter who's using it.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Monday, April 09, 2007

The Death of Johnny Hart

You may not know who Johnny Hart is, but you almost certainly know some of his creations.

Mr Hart was the creator of the long-running comic strip "B.C.", about the adventures of a group of cavemen and the creatures around them, and he was also the co-creator (with Brant Parker) of another of my favorite comic strips, "The Wizard of Id." His creativity and boundless sense of humor managed to bring a smile to the worst of days, and in a time when too much comedy relies on vulgar shock, he consistently delivered genuinely funny, family-friendly humor without being saccharine. Many of his cartoons reflected his deep Christian faith and led to controversy with Jewish and Islamic groups, but at no time could his cartoons ever have been reasonably interpreted as insulting or disrespectful.

I enjoyed both of Mr Hart's comic strips, although my personal preference was for the Wizard of Id, which I read and enjoy every day. One of my all-time favorite strips showed a life insurance salesman being introduced to the King, who skeptically asked, "What's life insurance?" The salesman replied, "Well, your majesty, think of it as a wagering game...we bet that you will live long enough to pay us more money in premiums than you will ever get back in benefits." The king thinks a moment, then asks, "Well, what if I die young?" The salesman replies, "You win!"

Who doesn't enjoy a joke about an insurance salesman?

I'll miss Johnny Hart's marvelous sense of humor and the lift he brought to each day with the characters of his insanely twisted cartoon universe. But I have to think that he's still sitting at his drawing board somewhere, bringing a smile to the faces of his legions of fans long gone.

Good bye, Mr Hart. I'll miss you.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Sunday, April 08, 2007

Happy Easter!

If you are a Christian, today is the holiest day of your religious calendar: Easter Sunday, the day that commemorates Christ's rising from the dead following the crucifixion. If you are Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Shinto, or any other religion, it's just another Sunday.

Easter is more than a religious celebration, though. One factor which allowed Christianity to spread around the world over the centuries was its skill at converting existing pagan festivals into Christian celebrations as a way of accommodating new believers. The celebration of Easter was fixed on a date in the Spring as a way to absorb pagan rituals of rebirth celebrating the beginning of a new growing season, and Christmas was celebrated in the depths of winter to accommodate pagan celebration of the winter solstice.

Easter was traditionally, and still officially is, the major holiday of the Christian calendar, celebrating as it does the resurrection of Christ. But, as one of my co-workers pointed out in a discussion yesterday, Christmas has far eclipsed Easter as a popular and gaily celebrated holiday. The Christmas tree with gifts piled beneath it tends to appeal more to children than an Easter basket filled with colored eggs and candy...not to mention that celebrating the birth of a child is easier for young children to understand than celebrating abstract concepts like death and resurrection.

Nowadays, Easter is an excuse for Spring sales events, Easter egg hunts, and dressing up in new Spring hats and dresses to go to church. If it reminds most people of anything in particular, it's the beginning of the gardening and baseball seasons.

Whatever you celebrate today, and for whatever reason you celebrate it, I hope your day is a happy and restful one. As we get ready to face the start of a new work week and more barrages of bad news, it's always good to have an excuse to celebrate something.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Saturday, April 07, 2007

Thinking About Laptops

Georgetown University law professor David Cole wrote an interesting op-ed piece in today's Washington Post titled "Laptops - vs - Learning" in which he discussed why he has banned the use of laptop computers in his classes. In essence, Professor Cole writes that the use of laptops for note-taking encourages verbatim transcription of notes while hindering interaction with the professor and the other students in class discussions...not to mention allowing students to shop, play games, check sports scores, and send & receive e-mails instead of concentrating on their lessons.

I think Professor Cole has a good point. When I was a student in college (back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, according to my co-workers), we took notes the old-fashioned way, with pen and paper. When you have to write everything down, it tends to make you selective about what you write, and forces you to concentrate on what's important. The ability to transcribe notes on a laptop (or record them on a cassette recorder, for that matter) relieves one of the need to think about what one is hearing and sift the incoming chaff of words for the wheat of important knowledge.

This made me think back to the year 1973, when I was a brand new second lieutenant attending the Air Force's Imagery Interpretation course, then at Lowry Air Force Base in Denver, Colorado. We were each issued a "photo interpreter's slide rule" which enabled us to calculate all sorts of photometric and reconnaissance mission planning data quickly and easily. Early in the course, a salesman came to the base and offered us the latest in technology: a hand-held calculator that would do all that the PI slide rule would do. This technological marvel would add, subtract, multiply, divide, and calculate squares and square roots out to eight decimal places. It had no memory function. It cost $98 - a specially discounted price for we students. Wanting to be equipped with the latest hardware, we all bought the calculators...and soon found out that, compared to the old PI slide rule - the very stone-knives-and-bearskins level of technology - they were cumbersome, awkward to use, and provided a level of accuracy far in excess of what we really needed.

The lesson I learned was this: that new technology isn't always a panacea. Sometimes, older is better. The students in Professor Cole's law classes will, I believe, learn more and retain more of what they learn because they are forced to listen, debate, and distill what they hear into real knowledge. Their notes may occasionally be illegible, but they will represent the essence of what transpired in the class...the points that mean the most to them.

I have a laptop computer and I love it, but I wouldn't want to take it to class with me. I still have a love and respect for paper, pens, and the written word. New, fresh notebooks are probably the only things I buy more often than kitchen gadgets. I like to think of ideas germinating in my brain and flowing down through my arm and hand, out my pen, and into narrow blue lines on a blank white page. Advanced technology has its place, but that place is different for each person and situation.

Call me old fashioned, but for taking notes and collecting thoughts, paper and ink are where it's at. All things considered, I'd rather have my grandchildren on my lap than a laptop.

Have a good weekend. More thoughts tomorrow.


Friday, April 06, 2007

Recognizing the Bad Guy

The German magazine Spiegel Online posted a wonderful article back on March 29th that offers an interesting German view of America's image in the world vis-a-vis that of Iran. The article by Spiegel 's Berlin bureau chief Claus Christian Malzahn, titled "Evil Americans, Poor Mullahs," notes that 48% of Germans think the United States is more dangerous than Iran...and among young Germans (those between 18 and 29), that figure jumps to a staggering 57%!

Think about that for a minute.

Nearly half of Germans believe a theocratic regime that is striving for a nuclear capability, has vowed to erase Israel from the map, and has a history of seizing hostages in clear contravention of international law and common sense, is more dangerous that the United States of America. What's wrong here?

Mr Malzahn lays much of the blame for the situation on the German political establishment and its coddling of the Iranian regime, along with its anti-Americanism-for-political-advantage attitude. But he also looks at the larger picture of America formed in European minds by authors and philosophers. He writes that:

"For us Germans, the Americans are either too fat or too obsessed with exercise, too prudish or too pornographic, too religious or too nihilistic. They simply go ahead and invade foreign countries (something we Germans, of course, would never do) and then abandon them, the way they did in Vietnam and will soon do in Iraq...Worst of all, the Americans won the war in 1945...There are some Germans who will never forgive the Americans for VE Day, when they defeated Hitler. After all, Nazism was just an accident, whereas Americans are inherently evil."

You can read this article online at,1518,druck-474636,00.html, and you should. It's tongue in cheek, but dead on in its depiction of the bizarre European attitudes toward America and its policies. Mr Malzahn notes that "Anti-Americanism is the wonder drug of German politics. If no one believes what you're saying, take a swing at the Yanks and you'll be shooting your way back up to the top of the opinion polls in no time." He goes on later: "Anti-Americanism is hypocrisy at its finest...Not a day passes when someone isn't making the wildest claims, hurling the vilest insults or spreading the most outlandish conspiracy theories about the United States. But there's no risk involved, and it all serves mainly to boost the German feeling of self-righteousness."

There's no risk involved. That's a key point to remember. Mr Malzahn goes on to discuss the Iranian reaction to a TV sketch by entertainer Rudi Carell 20 years ago, in which he poked fun at the Ayatollah Khomeini: Carell received death threats, flights to and from Iran were cancelled, and German diplomats were expelled from Teheran. He notes that, "Carell apologized. Jokes about fat Americans are safer."

Granted, we have done a great job of making ourselves mistrusted, if not hated, in many parts of the world. But when 48% of the population of a well-educated European nation - one you might think shares at least some of our values - believes the United States is more of a threat than the mullahs of Iran and their relentless attempts to recreate the imagined purity of a time many hundreds of years gone, something is very wrong.

As I wrote in this space yesterday, it's important to know your enemy. Unfortunately, much of the rest of the world is a poor judge of who the enemy really is. And sometimes the famous Walt Kelly comment in the comic strip Pogo is right: "We have met the enemy, and he is us."

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Thursday, April 05, 2007

Knowing the Enemy

To really understand what your enemy intends and how he thinks, you need to listen to what he says. This is the reason I read the translations published every day by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI). You can read them, too - and you should - by clicking the link on the left side of the screen.

MEMRI report number 1529, published on March 30th, provides the translation of a 'debate' among several Islamists and Islamic intellectuals on the meaning of jihad. Since the rise of militant radical Islam, the word jihad has been used, abused, and misunderstood on all sides. 'Moderate' Muslims claim it refers to a personal, internal struggle for goodness and religious purity, while radical Islamists use it to refer to violence commanded by God to be employed against any non-Muslim. The MEMRI translation chronicles a chilling exchange, and puts to rest any doubts one might have over what an Islamist means when he uses the word.

Sheikh Omar Bakri, a Syrian-British Islamist, states that "The 9/11 operations were a response to great acts of aggression by America - its attacks on Afghanistan, on Iraq, on Sudan, not to mention the historic Crusades from long ago, and so on." The interviewer asks, "How do you explain...", and Bakri responds, "They were magnificent, even though they were terrorists. The fact that they carried out a terrorist act does not prevent us from calling them 'magnificent,' because this is what religious scholars call 'commendable terrorism.'"

Think about that for a minute. Asserting that the murder of more than 3,000 people on 9/11 was 'commendable terrorism,' and including the Crusades (which, you will recall, ended more than 700 years ago) among America's 'acts of aggression' (ignoring the fact that there has only been an America for less than 300 years) is shocking and reflects the utter single-minded bigotry and ignorance of the Islamist.

But it gets better...

Bakri goes on to say, "I am not trying to justify the events of 9/11," and the interviewer responds, "But, to a certain extent, you are justifying the killing of innocent people." Bakri responds that "Killing innocent people is forbidden in Islam. But who is innocent - that is another question." The interviewer goes on: "There were women, children, and people who had nothing to do with it. They had nothing to do with U.S. policies." Bakri's answer: "In any war, women and children might be killed unintentionally."

If you think there's a rational mind behind such an Islamist position, this exchange ought to disabuse you of that opinion. No one - man, woman or child, Christian, Jew, or Muslim, American or not - was unintentionally killed on 9/11. They were murdered by religious bigots whose ruthless and single-minded hatred of those who don't believe as they do led them to believe that God would reward them for a brutal and reprehensible act.

George Orwell would have been proud of the twisted language Islamists use to justify their ghastly crimes. A young man deliberately blowing himself up in a crowded market is carrying out a 'martyrdom operation', not committing murder. Twisting the definition of innocent so that every man, woman and child can be considered a legitimate enemy is disgusting.

If you need any reminding of the type of mind we are dealing with, read a few of the MEMRI translations. If you are an apologist who thinks that the West is reaping only that which it has sown, you should enlighten yourself by reading the words of the Omar Bakris of the world and their kind. Make no mistake: these are people whose minds are utterly closed, who believe God not only permits them to kill you, but will reward them for doing so. They are like the science fiction character of The Terminator: they can't be reasoned with; they don't feel remorse or pity; and they absolutely will not stop until we are dead and they have brought their vision of religious bliss to the world.

This is what we are up against. Think about it before you blindy assume the West is evil and deserves what it gets. If this is what you think, you deserve what you'll eventually get.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Wednesday, April 04, 2007

If There Were a Stupidity Olympics...

Hardly a day goes by that I don't find something that makes me shake my head in amazement at its sheer stupidity. Each time I find something dumb I think to myself, no one can be that stupid - and then the next day someone will outdo it. Nevertheless, if there were a stupidity olympics, I think I've found the gold medalist.

An article in yesterday's Los Angeles Times was titled "Judge Orders Marine Reservist's Discharge," and it reported that a federal judge in San Jose had ordered the Marine Corps to grant a reservist's request for a discharge as a conscientious objector. So far, so good. But read this quote from the article:

"Lance Cpl. Robert Zabala, 23, said he joined the Marines as part of a family tradition of military service. But he said he was shocked during boot camp here (San Diego) to find such a strong emphasis on killing."

Think about that for a minute.

Can there be a person on the face of the earth who doesn't know that the United States Marines are respected and feared as some of the most proficient and deadly military forces in the world? Is there anyone in America who doesn't know about Belleau Wood, Saipan, Iwo Jima, and a hundred other places where this country's enemies met its most fearsome warriors? And yet this individual - who joined the Marine Corps Reserve in 2002 - has suddenly decided he's a conscientious objector who somehow didn't realize that the job of the Marines is to kill America's enemies, and to do it quickly and well.

Good riddance, one might say. If I were a Marine, I wouldn't want to depend on this schmuck to watch my back in battle. But he's getting a free ride. Better men than he are going into harm's way, and a federal judge has given him a pass. In years past, a conscientious objector would still have been held to his service commitment in a role that would not involve killing - as a medic or hospital orderly or in some other non-combat role...but evidently, not even that is required any more.

No rational human enjoys killing. Despite all the rhetoric of those who oppose war in general or Iraq in particular, it is very hard to find a military man or woman who has enlisted because of a desire to kill people. Military people tend to be far more wary of brute force than their civilian counterparts, usually because they are the ones at risk.

In a perfect world, we wouldn't need the Marines. But we don't live in a perfect world. We live in a world of evil dictators with designs on their neighbors, and religious bigots who believe God commands them to kill us because we believe differently. We live in a tough neighborhood, and because of that, we rely on the bravery and fidelity of tough people to do what we cannot do for ourselves.

George Orwell once said, "People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf." Those rough men - and women - are the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines who have decided to stand up and be counted. They are the ones who take the ultimate risks so that we can sleep peaceably in our beds.

The former Lance Corporal Zabala has dishonored himself and, worse, has let down men and women who would have depended on him as part of their team. He will be released from his obligations without penalty, and will spend the rest of his life being protected by men and women better than himself.

And that's just wrong.

Have a good day. And always remember that one of the reasons you can have that good day in a land of peace and freedom is that rough men stand ready to do violence on your behalf.

More thoughts tomorrow.


Tuesday, April 03, 2007

535 Commanders-in-Chief

It's not every day that I find myself agreeing with Vice President Dick Cheney on anything, but he did make a very cogent and important point in an address yesterday. Speaking critically of Congressional attempts to drive the course of the war in Iraq, he noted that "The military answers to one commander in chief in the White House, not 535 commanders in chief on Capitol Hill."

This is true. Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution clearly states that "The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States."

And the Constitution also states, in Article I, Section 8, that "The Congress shall have the power...To declare war."

And this is where Congress and the Executive have both fallen down. In my opinion (and I am, admittedly, no scholar of Constitutional law), Congress has been ducking its responsibilities ever since the beginning of the war in Iraq; first by not formally declaring war, and then by failing to hold routine hearings on the conduct of the war so that the President and uniformed military leaders could be held to account for their actions. During World War II, generals were frequently relieved when they didn't produce results. In Iraq, no general officer has ever been fired despite five years of grinding misery and a generally worsening situation on the ground.

The Vice President is right...the President is the Commander-in-Chief. But this does not relieve him of the requirement to answer to the legislature for his conduct of the war. And the legislature, on the other hand, has a responsibility to oversee and, when necessary, criticize the actions of the executive. This doesn't mean sitting on the sidelines and churning out useless sound bites. It means taking constitutional responsibility seriously, standing up as a co-equal branch of government, and providing the oversight that has been sadly lacking so far.

The situation in Iraq has degenerated far beyond the ability to resolve it with simplistic actions. Author and Washington Post military reporter Thomas Ricks has pointed out that there are no good options left in Iraq - all we can do is pick the best of an array of bad options. And this is what Congress needs to do - stop carping and work with the President to select the best dig us out of the Iraqi hole with concern not only for the US military, but also for the Iraqis who have suffered so much - first under Saddam, and now under a vicious insurgency that kills more of its own citizens than it does US soldiers.

In short, we don't need 535 commanders-in-chief. We need 535 men and women with the spine and the moral courage to stand up and do what's right. We need 535 men and women who think it's more important to work with the President to solve the problem he has recklessly created than to sit on the sidelines and whine.

We need senators and representatives who take their constitutional responsibilities seriously.

But I'm not holding my breath.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Monday, April 02, 2007

Divided By Language

In the last two posts, I discussed bilingual education in America, pointing out that in my opinion, it reinforces the linguistic separation of immigrant communities from the mainstream by putting off the need to learn English, which serves as a key unifying factor for the disparate American population.

But the problem of populations divided by language isn't just an American one. In a very interesting article in yesterday's Washington Post, reporter Scott Wilson discussed a growing problem in the Middle East: the declining number of Israelis studying Arabic, and the similarly declining number of Arabs learning Hebrew. You can read the article online at In a place and at a time when so much hatred and political tension drives events, you would think that people on both sides would want to be able to speak each other's languages, if for no other reason than to better understand the enemy. Unfortunately, the declining interest in language on both sides only contributes to the growing divide between Israelis and Arabs.

Linguistic chauvinism (if I can coin such a term) appears in many places around the world. The French population of Quebec has gone to ridiculous lengths to force the use of French in that Canadian province, in some ways appearing to outdo even the notoriously linguistically snobbish European French. A major contributing factor to the image of the "Ugly American" is the insistence of many travelers that everyone speak English wherever they go. China's forced assimilation of Tibet has included an effort to replace the Tibetan language with Chinese. Turkey tries to limit the use of Kurdish in the provinces where many Kurds live. Many immigrants to the United States expect to be delivered education and services in their own languages. And so it goes.

I believe it is critically important for everyone to learn a second, and even a third language. I myself speak German and a smattering of Russian. The ability to converse with people of other cultures is essential to developing international understanding. It's only common courtesy that one tries to speak the local language when traveling in or resettling into a new land.

Walls of language are every bit as divisive as walls of concrete and barbed wire. If we are to reduce tensions in the world, if we are to promote understanding and mutual tolerance, we need to begin with more emphasis on language.

Ich wuensche Ihnen einen guten Tag. Noch mehr Gedanken werden Morgen folgen.


Sunday, April 01, 2007

The Bilingual Education Fantasy, Part 2

A reader named Bartholomew has commented on yesterday's post (The Bilingual Education Fantasy), and I found his comments interesting and insightful.

Bartholomew comes from the Arizona/California region of the country, and notes that "Spanish if anything 'is' the native tongue of communication here," and has been for centuries (Arizona, New Mexico, and parts of Texas and California having once been part of Mexico). He also points out that many Hispanics tend to have a "conservative core," with social, economic, and religious values that parallel those of most "conservative" Americans (to use a very generic label).

He's right, of course, and equally correct when he notes that "people will speak the language they want to speak, and in the Southwest, Spanish is permanent." But I think my basic point still remains valid: that language serves as one of the unifying elements of a national identity, and that the unifying language of the United States has traditionally been English. Bartholomew believes that "making an issue out of language - the way the pathetic French do - is tilting at windmills, and it invites disaster." Again, I agree with him in part: I wouldn't want to be accused of being a linguistic snob like most French, but on the other hand, I do think there's a legitimate case to be made for standing up for English as a way of helping assimilate the vast array of races, nationalities, and religions that have poured into this country in search of a better life.

I yield to Bartholomew's irresistable logic in his summary: "We have to prioritize, and fretting about language the way the French do is just dumb." At a time when we are faced with war, drug abuse, skyrocketing crime, iffy race relations, and a score of other problems, fussing about who speaks what probably isn't the best use of our time and effort. But language is important in very many ways, and the language we speak shapes us in ways we often don't realize or appreciate.

Tomorrow, I'll pursue this line of thought with some discussion of an interesting article from today's Washington Post about language study in the Middle East. For now, though, it's time to start fixing dinner and looking forward - sadly - to the end of the weekend and the start of a new work week.

Thanks for your interesting and thoughtful comments, Bartholomew. I wish you, and all my other readers, a good remainder of the weekend and a safe and successful week.

More thoughts tomorrow.