Roundup: Historian's Take
This is where we place excerpts by historians writing about the news. On occasion this page also includes political scientists, economists, and law professors who write about history. We may from time to time even include English profs.
[Mr. Cole is Professor of Modern Middle Eastern and South Asian History at the University of Michigan. His website is http://www.juancole.com/.]
Credit for the horrific bombings of the London Underground and a double-decker bus on Thursday morning was immediately taken on a radical Muslim Web site by a "secret group" of Qaida al-Jihad in Europe. By Thursday afternoon, as the casualty toll rose above 40 dead and 700 wounded, British Foreign Minister Jack Straw was saying, "It has the hallmarks of an al-Qaida-related attack." Although U.S. President George W. Bush maintains that al-Qaida strikes out at the industrialized democracies because of hatred for Western values, the statement said nothing of the sort. The attack, the terrorists proclaimed, was an act of sacred revenge for British "massacres" in "Afghanistan and Iraq," and a punishment of the United Kingdom for its "Zionism" (i.e., support of Israel). If they really are responsible, who is this group and what do they want?
The phrase "Qaida al-Jihad" refers to the 2001 decision made by Ayman al-Zawahiri, a leader of the Egyptian terrorist group al-Jihad al-Islami, to merge his organization into bin Laden's al-Qaida ("the Base"). The joint organization was thus renamed Qaida al-Jihad, the "Base for Holy War." (Zawahiri and bin Laden had allied in 1998.) The group claiming responsibility for the London bombings represents itself as a secret, organized grouping or cell of "Qaida al-Jihad in Europe."...
The terrorists refer to the bombings, which they say they carefully planned over a long period, as a "blessed raid." They are recalling the struggle between the wealthy, pagan trading entrepot, Mecca, and the beleaguered, persecuted Muslim community in Medina in early seventh century west Arabia. The Muslims around the Prophet Mohammed responded to the Meccan determination to wipe them out by raiding the caravans of their wealthy rivals, depriving them of their profits and gradually strangling them. The victorious Muslims, having cut the idol-worshipping Meccan merchants off, marched into the city in 630. Al-Qaida teaches its acolytes that great Western metropolises such as New York and London are the Meccas of this age, centers of paganism, immorality and massive wealth, from which plundering expeditions are launched against hapless, pious Muslims. This symbology helps explain why the City of London subway stops were especially targeted, since it is the economic center of London. A "raid" such as the Muslim bombings is considered not just a military action but also a religious ritual.
If the communiqué of Qaida al-Jihad in Europe proves authentic, the London bombings are the second major instance of terrorism in Europe directly related to the Iraq war. In March of 2004, the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group (French acronym: GICM) launched a massive attack on trains in Madrid in order to punish Spain for its participation in the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq, following on their bombing of Casablanca the previous year.
From the point of view of a serious counterinsurgency campaign against al-Qaida, Bush has made exactly the wrong decisions all along the line. He decided to "unleash" Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon rather than pressing for Israeli-Palestinian peace and an end to Israeli occupation of the territories it captured in 1967. Rather than extinguishing this most incendiary issue for Arabs and Muslims, he poured gasoline on it. His strategy in response to Sept. 11 was to fight the Afghanistan War on the cheap. By failing to commit American ground troops in Tora Bora, he allowed bin Laden and al-Zawahiri to escape. He reneged on promises to rebuild Afghanistan and prevent the reemergence of the Taliban and al-Qaida there, thus prolonging the U.S. and NATO military presence indefinitely. He then diverted most American military and reconstruction resources into an illegal war on Iraq. That war may have been doomed from the beginning, but Bush's refusal to line up international support, and his administration's criminal lack of planning for the postwar period, made failure inevitable.
Conservative commentators argue that Iraq is a "fly trap" for Muslim terrorists. It makes much more sense to think of it as bin Laden's fly trap for Western troops. There, jihadis can kill them (making the point that they are not invulnerable), and can provoke reprisals against Iraqi civilians that defame the West in the Muslim world. After Abu Ghraib and Fallujah, many Muslims felt that Bin Laden's dire warnings to them that the United States wanted to occupy their countries, rape their women, humiliate their men, and steal their assets had been vindicated.
These claims were not credited by most of the world's Muslims before the Iraq war. Opinion polls show that most of the world's Muslims have great admiration for democracy and many other Western values. They object to the U.S. and the U.K. because of their policies, not their values. Before Bush, for instance, the vast majority of Indonesians felt favorably toward the United States. Even after a recent bounce from U.S. help with tsunami relief, only about a third now do....
Chicago political scientist Robert Pape argues in his new book, "Dying to Win," that the vast majority of suicide bombers are protesting foreign military occupation undertaken by democratic societies where public opinion matters. He points out that there is no recorded instance of a suicide attack in Iraq in all of history until the Anglo-American conquest of that country in 2003. He might have added that neither had any bombings been undertaken elsewhere in the name of Iraq.
George Bush is sure to try to use the London bombings to rally the American people to support his policies. If Americans look closer, however, they will realize that Bush's incompetent crusade has made the world more dangerous, not less.
Posted on: Friday, July 8, 2005 - 13:02
Terrorism usually comes like a bolt from the blue, but not so the four explosions yesterday in London, killing at least 37. Some British Islamist leaders have been warning for months that such violence was imminent.
An Islamist British group called Al-Muhajiroun -"the immigrants" in Arabic - for some time publicly stated that Britain was immune from Islamist violence because of its acceptable behavior toward Muslims within the country's borders. In an April 2004 conversation, the 24-year-old Sayful Islam, who heads Al-Muhajiroun's Luton branch, announced that he supported Osama Bin Laden"100%" in the quest to achieve"the worldwide domination of Islam," but went on to voice an aversion to himself performing terrorist acts in Britain.
Yet, Mr. Islam endorsed terrorism in Britain in a broader sense"When a bomb attack happens here, I won't be against it, even if it kills my own children. … But it is against Islam for me to engage personally in acts of terrorism in the UK because I live here. According to Islam, I have a covenant of security with the UK, as long as they allow us Muslims to live here in peace." He further explained."If we want to engage in terrorism, we would have to leave the country. It is against Islam to do otherwise."
Covenant of security? What is that? In an August 2004 story in the New Statesman,"Why terrorists love Britain," Jamie Campbell cited the author of Inside Al Qaeda, Mohamed Sifaoui, as saying,"it has long been recognized by the British Islamists, by the British government and by UK intelligence agencies, that as long as Britain guarantees a degree of freedom to the likes of Hassan Butt [an overtly pro-terrorist Islamist], the terrorist strikes will continue to be planned within the borders of the UK but will not occur here."
The New Statesman story drew from this the perversely ironic conclusion that"the presence of vocal and active Islamist terrorist sympathizers in the U.K. actually makes British people safer, while the full brunt of British-based terrorist plotting is suffered by people in other countries."
A Syrian immigrant to Britain who headed Al-Muhajiroun, Omar Bakri Mohammed, confirmed the covenant of security, describing companions of the Prophet Muhammad who were given protection by the king of Ethiopia. That experience, he told the magazine, led to the Koranic notion of covenant of security: Muslims may not attack the inhabitants of a country where they live in safety. This"makes it unlikely that British-based Muslims will carry out operations in the U.K. itself," Mr. Mohammed said.
But in January 2005, Mr. Mohammed determined that the covenant of security had ended for British Muslims because of post-September 11, 2001, anti-terrorist legislation that meant"the whole of Britain has become Dar ul-Harb," or territory open for Muslim conquest. Therefore, in a reference to unbelievers,"the kuffar has no sanctity for their own life or property."
The country had gone from safe haven to enemy camp. To renew the covenant of security would require British authorities to undo that legislation and release those detained without trial. If they fail to do so, British Muslims must"join the global Islamic camp against the global crusade camp."
Mr. Mohammed went on overtly to threaten the British people:"The response from the Muslims will be horrendous if the British government continues in the way it treats Muslims," explicitly raising the possibility of suicide bombings under the leadership of Al-Qaeda. Western governments must know that if they do not change course, Muslims will"give them a 9/11 day after day after day!"
When Sean O'Neil and Yaakov Lappin of the London Times asked Mr. Mohammed about his statements on the covenant, he said his definition of Britain as Dar ul-Harb was"theoretical" and he provided a non-bellicose re-interpretation:
It means that Muslims can no longer be considered to have sanctity and security here, therefore they should consider leaving this country and going back to their homelands. Otherwise they are under siege and obviously we do not want to see that we are living under siege.
In a less guarded moment, however, Mr. Mohammed acknowledged that for him,"the life of an unbeliever has no value."
Yesterday's explosions mark the end of the" covenant of security." Let's hope they also mark the end of an era of innocence, and that British authorities now begin to preempt terrorism rather than wait to become its victims.
This article is reprinted with permission by Daniel Pipes. This article first appeared in the New York Sun.
Posted on: Friday, July 8, 2005 - 12:23
Anyone who has visited a shantytown in Africa can applaud the impulse behind Live 8 and the Make Poverty History campaign. It would be swell if, as we are repeatedly told, "for the price of a Big Mac" we could save 20,000 people a day who die from extreme poverty. But there is little reason to think that aging pop stars have figured out how to achieve a goal that has eluded generations of policymakers.
The solution being promoted by Live 8 is simple: Send beaucoup bucks. The anti-poverty campaigners are grouchy because the wealthy world spends only 0.25% of its gross national income on aid — a mere $76.8 billion last year. They want to nearly triple that, to 0.7% of GNI.
The United States, in particular, is castigated for its stingy development budget — only 0.16% of GNI. This obscures the fact that, in absolute terms, the U.S. government spends far more on foreign aid ($19 billion last year) than any other nation. And that's only a small part of our total contribution. Thanks in part to our lower tax rates, Americans give far more to charity than do Europeans. If you include private-sector donations, the Hudson Institute finds, U.S. foreign aid totals $81 billion, or 0.68% of GNI — close to the U.N. Millennium Development Goals. And that's not counting the billions the U.S. spends to subsidize global security or the billions more it sends abroad as investment capital.
By any measure, the U.S. is extraordinarily generous, and President Bush is making us more generous still. He has already tripled development aid to Africa and plans to double it again. But for the anti-poverty campaigners it's not enough. It never is. Their animating idea is the same one that was behind Lyndon Johnson's Great Society: Massive transfers of wealth can eradicate poverty. It didn't work in the U.S., and it has even less chance of working abroad.
In the last 50 years, $2.3 trillion has been spent to help poor countries. Yet Africans' income and life expectancy have gone down, not up, during that period, while South Korea, Singapore and other Asian nations that received little if any assistance have moved from African-level poverty to European-level prosperity thanks to their superior economic policies.
Economists who have studied aid projects have found numerous reasons for the failures. In many instances, money was siphoned off by corrupt officials. Even when funds did reach the intended beneficiaries, the money often distorted local markets for goods and labor, creating inflation that drove local businesses out of business.
Only one major research paper in recent years has found any positive correlation between foreign aid and economic growth, and that only in countries "with good fiscal, monetary and trade policies," which excludes much of Africa. Most experts think even that conclusion is too optimistic.
The International Monetary Fund recently issued two reports that find "little evidence of a robust positive impact of aid on growth." Jeffrey Sachs, economist-in-residence at Rock 'n' Roll U., airily waves away such objections. Yes, aid hasn't worked in the past, he concedes, but he's come up with some boffo (or is that Bono?) ideas that really, truly will break a half-century of futility. Maybe he's identified the key barriers to growth; maybe Africa really does need more leguminous trees. Or maybe not. But his impassioned assurances offer scant cause to throw good money after bad.
Oddly enough, Sachs ignores the most obvious obstacle to Africa's escape from the "poverty trap," what his pal Bob Geldof has accurately described as "corruption and thuggery." (This was also Sachs' blind spot when he tried to reform the Russian economy in the 1990s.) Yet not even Sir Bob has offered any plausible ideas for addressing these deep-rooted woes.
Africans continue to be tormented not by the G-8, as anti-poverty campaigners imply, but by their own politicos, including Sudanese President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir, who is abetting genocide in Darfur, and Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, who is turning his once-prosperous country into a famine-plagued basket case. Unless it's linked to specific "good governance" benchmarks (as with the new U.S. Millennium Challenge Account), more aid risks subsidizing dysfunctional regimes.
Any real solution to Africa's problems must focus on the root causes of poverty — mainly misgovernment. Instead of pouring billions more down the same old rat holes, maybe the Live 8 crew should promote a more innovative approach: Use the G-8's jillions 2 hire mercenaries 4 the overthrow of the 6 most thuggish regimes in Africa. That would do more to help ordinary Africans than any number of musical extravaganzas.
Posted on: Thursday, July 7, 2005 - 15:55
I once edited and wrote the introduction to William Graham Sumner’s sadly forgotten book, The Conquest of the United States by Spain and Other Essays (Regnery/Gateway). Sumner was an irascible and biting Social Darwinist and classical nineteenth century supporter of laissez faire. What attracted me to him was not his economics but his utter contempt for American imperialism during the Spanish American War and its subsequent invasion of the Philippines, which left 4,000 American volunteers and perhaps 250,000 Filipinos dead. Despite the backing of a jingoist and cowed press, politicians who believed they had God’s ear, and a large majority of Americans, Sumner the eternal skeptic wasn’t convinced. Unlike the cheerleaders for war, he recognized what lay ahead. The rest of the century, he accurately predicted, would bring a "frightful effusion of blood in revolution and war."
Since then, the world’s addiction to war and violence has never abated. Nor has America’s. Big and small and proxy wars, attacks on militarily powerful states such as the Dominican Republic, Grenada and Panama, plus interventions in the Caribbean and Central America, to name but a few, have occurred in nearly every decade. All of which seems to reflect Randolph Bourne’s famous, all-too prescient remark that, "War is the health of the state." (Of course you can always pacify the population with patriotic and reverent ceremonies honoring the heroic troops who died in battle – always, the rationale goes – in the cause of "freedom.")
During Vietnam –and later, before the Iraq War – we antiwar dissidents finally began mass protesting, marching, contacting politicians, writing, constructing placards and posters, praying, carrying out acts of civil disobedience and marching but to no avail. At least not yet.
My own humble proposal to put an end to war and terrorism everywhere is somewhat different, namely that the International Criminal Court in The Hague be empowered to investigate, indict and try every high-level – and only high-level – governmental leaders whose policies have led to the murder of civilians. The court should be granted the muscle to deal with all those unaccountable politicians including those whose nations have not joined the ICC. In that event, the guilty leaders will never again be allowed to travel to a signatory nation without risk of arrest.
Had such a court had the power, scores of notorious African, Central and Latin American presidents and generals would now be behind bars, as would past, present and future caudillos, generalissimos, presidentes, commissars, führers, duces, Great Leaders, presidents, vice-presidents and assorted zealots. Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon would have been hauled into court and tried for their responsibility in causing millions of deaths in Southeast Asia. The court would have had the power to call to the dock Saddam Hussein and any American and British leader who lied so Iraq might be invaded. ...
Posted on: Wednesday, July 6, 2005 - 21:09
Israel's interior minister recently declared that after their release from long jail sentences, four Palestinian Arabs convicted of helping with suicide bombings in 2002, killing 35, will be expelled from Israel. They would, the Associated Press reported,"lose the privileges of permanent residents, such as social security and health insurance."
The minister's decision raises a question: Why would Palestinians engaged in destroying the state of Israel feel punished by losing the right to live in Israel? One would expect that anti-Israel terrorists would prefer to live in the Palestinian Authority (PA).
One would be wrong. Palestinian Arabs - even terrorists - generally prefer life in what they call the"Zionist entity." On two occasions, this pattern became especially clear: when eastern Jerusalem in 2000 and part of the Galilee Triangle in 2004 were slated for transfer to PA control. In both cases, the Palestinians involved clung to Israel.
When Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak's diplomacy raised the prospect, in mid-2000, of some Arab-majority parts of Jerusalem being transferred to the PA, a Palestinian Arab social worker found that"an overwhelming majority" of Jerusalem's 200,000 Arabs chose to remain under Israeli control. A member of the Palestinian National Council, Fadal Tahabub, specified that 70% preferred Israeli sovereignty. Another politician, Husam Watad, described people as"in a panic" at the prospect of finding themselves under PA rule.
Israel's Interior Ministry duly reported a large increase in applications for citizenship and one city councilor, Roni Aloni, reported what he was hearing from Jerusalem Arabs:"we are not like Gaza or the West Bank. We hold Israeli IDs. We are used to a higher standard of living. Even if Israeli rule is not so good, it is still better than that of the PA." A doctor applying for Israeli papers explained,"we want to stay in Israel. At least here I can speak my mind freely without being dumped in prison, as well as having a chance to earn an honest day's wage."
To stop this Palestinian Arab rush for Israeli citizenship, the ranking Islamic official in Jerusalem issued an edict prohibiting it, and the Palestine Liberation Organization's agent in Jerusalem, Faisal al-Husseini, went further, calling this step"treason." This proved ineffective, so al-Husseini threatened that taking out Israeli citizenship would result in the confiscation of one's home.
In the Galilee Triangle, a Palestinian-majority area in the north of the country, just 30% of the Arab population agreed to some of the Galilee Triangle being annexed to a future Palestinian state, according to a May 2001 survey, meaning that a large majority preferred it to remain in Israel. By February 2004, when the Sharon government released a trial balloon about giving the PA control over the Galilee Triangle, the Haifa-based Arab Center for Applied Social Research found the number had jumped to 90%. And 73% of Triangle Arabs said they would use violence to prevent changes in the border.
Local politicians fiercely denounced Israel ceding any part of the Galilee. An Arab member of Israel's parliament who once served as adviser to Yasser Arafat, Ahmed Tibi, called the idea"a dangerous, antidemocratic suggestion." Intense Arab opposition prompted quick abandonment of the transfer idea.
Also in 2004, when Israel's security fence went up, some Palestinian Arabs had to choose on which side of the fence to live. Most, along with Ahmed Jabrin of Umm al-Fahm, had no doubts."We fought [the Israeli authorities so as] to be inside of the fence, and they moved it so we are still in Israel."
That Palestinian Arabs in large numbers prefer to live under Israeli control appears to result more from practical considerations than from an intent to submerge the Jewish state demographically. They see the PA as impoverished, autocratic, and anarchic. As one Palestinian explained, it is"an unknown state that doesn't have a parliament, or a democracy, or even decent universities."
Palestinian Arabs are not so committed ideologically as to disdain the good life that residence in Israel offers. Two long-term conclusions follow. First, were Palestinian Arab demands for a"right of return" to Israel ever met, a massive population influx into Israel would result. Second, any final-status agreement that requires turning Israeli-ruled land to the Palestinians will be very hard to implement.
This article is reprinted with permission by Daniel Pipes. This article first appeared in the New York Sun.
Posted on: Wednesday, July 6, 2005 - 21:05
[Stephanie Coontz, the director of public education for the Council on Contemporary Families, is the author of "Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage."]
THE last week has been tough for opponents of same-sex marriage. First Canadian and then Spanish legislators voted to legalize the practice, prompting American social conservatives to renew their call for a constitutional amendment banning such marriages here. James Dobson of the evangelical group Focus on the Family has warned that without that ban, marriage as we have known it for 5,000 years will be overturned.
My research on marriage and family life seldom leads me to agree with Dr. Dobson, much less to accuse him of understatement. But in this case, Dr. Dobson's warnings come 30 years too late. Traditional marriage, with its 5,000-year history, has already been upended. Gays and lesbians, however, didn't spearhead that revolution: heterosexuals did.
Heterosexuals were the upstarts who turned marriage into a voluntary love relationship rather than a mandatory economic and political institution. Heterosexuals were the ones who made procreation voluntary, so that some couples could choose childlessness, and who adopted assisted reproduction so that even couples who could not conceive could become parents. And heterosexuals subverted the long-standing rule that every marriage had to have a husband who played one role in the family and a wife who played a completely different one. Gays and lesbians simply looked at the revolution heterosexuals had wrought and noticed that with its new norms, marriage could work for them, too.
The first step down the road to gay and lesbian marriage took place 200 years ago, when Enlightenment thinkers raised the radical idea that parents and the state should not dictate who married whom, and when the American Revolution encouraged people to engage in "the pursuit of happiness," including marrying for love. Almost immediately, some thinkers, including Jeremy Bentham and the Marquis de Condorcet, began to argue that same-sex love should not be a crime.
Same-sex marriage, however, remained unimaginable because marriage had two traditional functions that were inapplicable to gays and lesbians. First, marriage allowed families to increase their household labor force by having children. Throughout much of history, upper-class men divorced their wives if their marriage did not produce children, while peasants often wouldn't marry until a premarital pregnancy confirmed the woman's fertility. But the advent of birth control in the 19th century permitted married couples to decide not to have children, while assisted reproduction in the 20th century allowed infertile couples to have them. This eroded the traditional argument that marriage must be between a man and a woman who were able to procreate....
I am old enough to remember the howls of protest with which some defenders of traditional marriage greeted the gradual dismantling of these traditions [giving the husband control of the marriage]. At the time, I thought that the far-right opponents of marital equality were wrong to predict that this would lead to the unraveling of marriage. As it turned out, they had a point....
Marriage has been in a constant state of evolution since the dawn of the Stone Age. In the process it has become more flexible, but also more optional. Many people may not like the direction these changes have taken in recent years. But it is simply magical thinking to believe that by banning gay and lesbian marriage, we will turn back the clock.
Posted on: Tuesday, July 5, 2005 - 17:45
As we mark the happy coincidence of the close proximity of Canada Day on July 1 and American Independence Day today, headlines are more likely to emphasize tensions dividing the two sister democracies than the many ties that bind.
Parliament's decision legalizing same-sex marriage triggered predictable warnings about Canada and the United States heading down opposing paths. The headlines feed Canadian stereotypes of the United States as Ramboland, a nation rushing backward toward a hyper-aggressive, red-meat-munching conservative theocracy, while perpetuating Canada's reputation - among the few Americans who bother to notice - as Quicheville, the biggest and bluest of the "blue states," a land of simpering, politically correct wimps so fearful of offending any group of whiners they ignore real threats such as terrorism.
Unfortunately - for the hysterics among us - reality is calmer and more complicated. The good news is that both countries fundamentally work. Both countries are among the marvels of the post-Second World War world, wherein North America has become the model for the mass, middle-class, democratic civilization.
In the 1920s, even before the Great Depression, most Americans and Canadians were poor, and far too many felt silenced or marginalized. That both countries offer their citizens a high standard of living and a dazzling bouquet of freedoms is far too often taken for granted.
In The Case for Democracy, former Soviet Jewish dissident Natan Sharansky says a country is free if you can denounce the government loudly downtown, without suffering consequences. Both the United States and Canada pass the town square test - with a chaser: Not only can every citizen denounce the country freely, but most can then afford a three-course meal (or more likely, grab a fast-food nibble).
The less happy news has to do with the fact that Canadians and Americans often are united in a narcotized daze, a smothering superficiality, wherein the reality show of the moment upstages a more constructive engagement with reality. Too many of us are seduced by the culture of American or Canadian Idol - more aptly spelled I-D-L-E. A couch-potato consumerism which shuttles us by car between the diversions of our television sets and computer screens to the cornucopia of the mall mocks all the dire warnings about Americans and Canadians becoming so different.
Overall, our daily lives, at work or play, are more similar than different. Just as the technological, economic and media revolutions of the last few decades have minimized regional differences between the U.S. north and the U.S. south, or the Canadian east and the Canadian west, so, too, have these revolutions blurred Canadian-American differences.
This disconnect between the partisan shouting and clear battle lines of the media wars vs. the quieter, homogenized realities of everyday North American life reflects how the culture wars and the political games play out in both countries. Politics often take an unnecessarily nasty turn, as activists and reporters overstate differences to seek the sharpest soundbite and the most hysterical headline.
The zealots, their voices amplified and over-simplified by journalists, set the overly polarized template and the unreasonable tone.
Yet both societies remain consensus-oriented, with Americans and Canadians frequently miffed by the relentless cascade of difficult dilemmas distorted by simplistic sloganeering.
"Culture Wars" broke out in both countries in the 1980s. Liberals sought to expand their gains from the 1960s and 1970s. Conservatives felt confident enough to counterattack. Yet even as the debate became polarized in newspapers and on campuses, especially in the United States, most North Americans embraced a contradictory consensus in the centre. Many conservatives balanced their traditionalist rhetoric with a laissez- faire, non-judgmental approach in practice. Many liberals advocated more unconventional lifestyles than they actually lead.
This is an age of conservative libertinism. Even in the more conservative, "redder" United States, most Americans report they dislike abortion but want the option in an emergency.
Studies over the years have found, say, 56 per cent consider abortion "murder," and 68 per cent believe it defied "God's will," yet 67 per cent support a woman's right to choose. Similarly, most Americans and Canadians condemn divorce, drug use, and promiscuity in principle, but many often succumb to temptation in practice.
As the forces of consumerism, technology and individuation have transformed the Western world, individualism has trumped moralism. Most Westerners are more willing to indulge impulses than submit to authority, to live for the moment rather than be constrained by tradition.
This is not an age of neo-Victorianism, however, with everyone hypocritically indulging behind closed doors while parading around in tuxedos and puffy dresses. North Americans wear their libertinism on their sleeves, even as many agree with the conservative critique. It is libertinism, meaning indulgent behaviours, rather than libertarianism, because many who indulge nevertheless believe in the value of standards.
By at least accepting standards, this "constructive hypocrisy," as Ronald Reagan's Secretary of Education William Bennett called it, is better than the more consistent nihilism that many media leaders and celebrities champion. Many Americans and Canadians want to believe in traditional values - and in the existence of a moral framework - even while living their lives more freely.
The result has been a culture of confusion, a culture of moral crusading and vulgar displays, a culture that places sex and violence increasingly in the public square, then occasionally bristles when a Michael Jackson goes too far or when powerful men in Quebec City exploit young girls. The culture wars, while they look like civil wars, frequently reflect internal wars, personal struggles most modern Westerners endure as they try to balance the allure of new freedoms, new technologies, new indulgences, with the appeal of old ideas, enduring traditions, anchoring values.
We should not minimize important differences between the two countries. Americans justifiably worry that Canadians are not vigilant enough about fighting terrorism. Canadians should challenge their neighbours to maintain the civil libertarian tradition uniting the two countries even during difficult times.
But this week, perhaps we can put aside the partisan shouting and the nationalist bickering. Let Canadians reach for a Coca-Cola, Americans reach for a Canada Dry, and let us all salute the great success story of North America, the extraordinary liberties and prosperity we should not take for granted - and should use as building blocks to a meaningful, engaged, idealistic and productive life.
Posted on: Tuesday, July 5, 2005 - 15:10
Richard Labunski, in the Lexington Herald-Leader (7-4-05):
[Mr. Labunski, a journalism professor at the University of Kentucky, is the author of The Second Constitutional Convention (2000).]
If the U.S. Senate follows the House and approves a constitutional amendment to allow laws punishing the burning of the American flag, it would be the first time in the nation’s history that Congress has proposed an amendment to curtail First Amendment rights.
Freedom of speech is a bedrock principle of our constitutional system and should be limited only after careful deliberation. That is why Congress should do something it has done only one time before: Choose the convention method of ratification.
Article V of the Constitution requires that amendments proposed by Congress be ratified by 38 states. Congress must decide whether amendments will be approved by state legislatures or by conventions whose delegates are elected by the people.
Congress has chosen conventions for only one amendment. In 1933, Congress worried that state legislators, who disproportionately represented rural and often dry counties, would not approve the 21st Amendment to repeal prohibition of alcohol.
With no precedent and little guidance from Article V, states were not sure how to proceed. But eventually, 43 states provided for conventions, with 39 of those states approving convention laws within four months of the amendment’s submission by Congress.
In almost every state, candidates ran on a slate in favor of or opposed to the amendment. That placed the focus on whether alcohol should be legal and not on the candidates seeking election to the conventions.
It took only about nine months from submission of the amendment to approval by a sufficient number of states, one of the fastest ratifications in the nation’s history. Twenty-one million voters participated in the elections to choose delegates to the conventions, with 73 percent showing their support for the amendment by electing candidates favoring repeal.
If Congress goes with the usual practice and gives ratification of the flag amendment to state legislatures, the debate would be largely confined to legislative chambers. People would be able to write or call their legislators, but citizens would not be directly involved in the decision.
If, on the other hand, a slate of delegates were on a ballot seeking election to a state convention, the public would have the chance for a robust discussion of freedom of speech and whether it should be modified by the flag amendment.
States would have substantial discretion over how delegates are chosen. If candidates run on slates committed to a position on the flag amendment, the discussion would be confined to the campaigns. The delegates would simply show up and vote.
If, however, states allowed at least some delegates to run on unpledged slates, as eight states did in 1933, then the debate would continue at the convention itself. If enough uncommitted delegates were elected, the conventions could become deliberative bodies that consider what freedom of speech means to this country.
The elections would probably have some of the worst elements of our modern electoral system. Substantial sums of money would be raised and spent by both sides, and TV and radio ads would exaggerate and distort the consequences of approving or rejecting the flag amendment.
But for something as important as modifying the First Amendment, the American people should be directly consulted. That can be done only through ratification by conventions.
The Constitution would be in no danger from these conventions. The only issue before the delegates would be to approve or reject the flag amendment. The conventions could not propose other changes.
In an era in which Internet technology allows ordinary citizens to communicate with a potentially large audience, and with TV networks providing coverage of the elections and conventions, the country would have a chance to talk about whether the Constitution should, for the first time, be changed to limit the rights protected by the First Amendment.
Such a national discussion would, ironically, honor the First Amendment at the very time the American people consider whether to curb the freedoms it protects. An amendment that has done so much to protect personal liberty and that occupies such a special place in our constitutional system deserves no less.
Note: The information about the 21st Amendment is drawn from David E. Kyvig, Explicit and Authentic Acts: Amending the U.S. Constitution, 1776-1995 (University Press of Kansas, 1996), pp. 282-287.
Posted on: Tuesday, July 5, 2005 - 14:27
BushThe terrorists who attacked us and the terrorists we face murder in the name of a totalitarian ideology that hates freedom, rejects tolerance and despises all dissent.
"Terrorists" are not a cohesive ideological category like"Communists" as Bush suggests. Lots of groups use terror as a tactic. The Irgun Zionists in 1946 and 1947 did, as well. Also ETA in Spain, about the terrorist acts of which Americans seldom hear in their newspapers (they are ongoing). The Baath regime in Iraq engaged in so little international terrorism in the late 1990s and early zeroes that it was not even on the US State Department list of sponsors of terrorism. Bush could take the above rationale and use it to invade most countries in the world.
Bush To achieve these aims, they have continued to kill: in Madrid, Istanbul, Jakarta, Casablanca, Riyadh, Bali and elsewhere.
Yes, and these were al-Qaeda operations, and you haven't caught Bin Laden or al-Zawahiri.
Bush The commander in charge of coalition operations in Iraq, who is also senior commander at this base, General John Vines, put it well the other day. He said, We either deal with terrorism and this extremism abroad, or we deal with it when it comes to us.
This is monstrous and ridiculous at once. The people in Fallujah and Ramadi were not sitting around plotting terrorism three years ago. They had no plans to hit the United States. Terrorism isn't a fixed quantity. By unilaterally invading Iraq and then bollixing it up, Bush and Vines have created enormous amounts of terrorism, which they are now having trouble putting back in the bottle.
Bush Our military reports that we have killed or captured hundreds of foreign fighters in Iraq who have come from Saudi Arabia and Syria, Iran, Egypt, Sudan, Yemen, Libya and others."
Moreover, many of those jihadis fighting in Iraq wouldn't even be jihadis if they weren't outraged by Bush's invasion and occupation of a Muslim country.
The fact is that the US went in and convinced the Sunni Arabs of Iraq that we were going to screw them over royally, driving them into violent opposition. They aren't inherently terrorists and could have been won over.
There are no Iraqi military units that can and will fight independently against the Sunni guerrillas, so all those statistics he quoted are meaningless.
Almost all the coalition allies of the US have a short timetable for getting out of the quagmire before it goes really bad. Bush's quotation of all that international support sounds more hollow each time he voices it.
An interesting Flash presentation on Coalition casualties can be found here, demnstrating their geographical extent throughout the country.
The political process in Iraq has not helped end the guerrilla war. It has excluded Sunnis or alienated them so that they excluded themselves. It offers no hope in and of itself.
There was nothing new in Bush's speech, and most of what he said was inaccurate.
Posted on: Friday, July 1, 2005 - 20:29
Chris Bray, at Histori-blogography (6-28-05):
In the National Review this week, Victor Davis Hanson dismisses claims that the U.S. Army is facing a critical personnel shortage."Our current debate," he writes,"is not properly a military one, since the American armed forces are performing exceptionally well in Iraq and probably have enough aggregate strength to re-deploy to meet foreseeable crises elsewhere. Given our size, material wealth, and underutilized resources, we could easily expand or contract our military as we see fit."
Note from the real world: At the age of 37, I am currently inprocessing as an infantry soldier called back from the Individual Ready Reserve, the first line of the military's inactive reserve force. Joining me here are a captain who has been out of the Army for nine years, a retired lieutenant colonel who looks to be in his late fifties, and a large group of enlisted soldiers who have been living as civilians for several years and are in many instances significantly overweight and out-of-shape. Most of the enlisted, and all of the officers, are in the combat arms. We are being housed alongside a set of barracks being used as a holding facility for soldiers injured in Iraq who are convalescing, limping around the day room and the dining hall with titanium rods where tibias and fibulas used to be.
Note, as you read Hanson's essay (and it's worth reading the whole elusive thing), that he never mentions how"we could easily expand or contract our military as we see fit." Note also that he seems not to have ever figured out that military expansion has a significant lead time due to training and infrastructure build-up.
So here we have a war hawk who insists that we can march on unproblematically, with plenty of bodies in uniform to do whatever job needs doing. But his diagnosis is obtuse, and his prescription somehow never makes it to the page. Shockingly, we yet again have an empty piece of chest-thumping vagueness from Victor Davis Hanson, who purports to be a historian of war but appears to know nothing at all about the military.
Posted on: Friday, July 1, 2005 - 20:14
The Vietnam analogy, like all historical analogies, has its limits as a source of insight on the Iraq war. There are significant differences between the struggles, not least of which is that with the passage of 30 years military technology and advanced military medicine have reduced significantly the US death toll and therefore the war's political toll. But it still holds value as a window on the limits of presidential leadership. Then as now it was almost impossible for a president to admit any error of judgment in wartime, especially when this could call the entire enterprise into question. The cost to personal reputation, to party and to national morale was potentially staggering. What do you say to the wives, mothers and fathers of the men and women who lost their lives due to a policy failure?
On February 1, 1966, while publicly defending the war, Lyndon Johnson privately told Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy that the war in Vietnam was a mistake, but that he was stuck. He taped this conversation and it should forever be an antidote to the fallacy that staying the course is always wise in international affairs. Staying the course makes sense, after all, when the course makes sense:
President Johnson: Well I know we oughtn't to be there, but I can't get out. I just can't be the architect of surrender.... I'm willing to do damn near anything. If I told you what I was willing to do, I wouldn't have any program. [Republican Senate Minority Leader Everett] Dirksen wouldn't give me a dollar to operate the war. I just can't operate in a glass bowl with all these things. But I'm willing to do nearly anything a human can do, if I can do it with any honor at all.
[You can listen to this conversation in its entirety on whitehousetapes.org, the website of the Miller Center of Public Affairs's Presidential Recordings Program]
At the time the President of the United States was admitting that he had sent young men to war for the wrong reason, the comparatively small number of 2,460 had died in Vietnam. This was before a young John McCain and most of the other POWs were taken hostage; indeed before the vast majority of the horrors we now associate with Vietnam had taken place. It is staggering to reflect on the fact that another 55,733 would have to die before the US military could extricate itself from a war that its Commander-in-Chief already knew was a mistake. Put differently, when LBJ was privately admitting error, 95% of the young men who would ultimately die in Vietnam were still alive and well.
Posted on: Friday, July 1, 2005 - 20:11
[ Mr. Engelhardt is the author of The End of Victory Culture and co-editor of History Wars, the Enola Gay and Other Battles for the American Past.]
"At a breakfast meeting with reporters, Wolfowitz said he hasn't read the [Downing Street] memos because he doesn't want to be ‘distracted' by ‘history' from his new job as head of the world's leading development bank. He returned this weekend from a tour of four African nations.
"'There's a lot I could say about what you're asking about, if I were willing to get distracted from the main subject,' Wolfowitz said. ‘But I really think there's a price paid with the people I've just spent time with, people who are struggling with very real problems, to keep going back in history.'" (Jon Sawyer, Wolfowitz won't talk about war planning, St. Louis Post-Dispatch.)
For at least 30 years now, the right has fought against, the Republican Party has run against, and more recently, the Bush administration has claimed victory over the"moral relativism" of liberals, the permissive parenting of the let-them-do-anything-they-please era, and the self-indulgent, self-absorbed, make-your-own-world attitude of the Sixties. Since September 11th, we have been told again and again, we are in a different world... finally. In this new world, things are black and white, good and evil, right and wrong. You are for or you are against. The murky relativism of the recent past, of an America in a mood of defeat, is long gone. In the White House, we have a stand-up guy so unlike the last president, that draft dodger who was ready to parse the meaning of"is" and twist the world to his unnatural desires.
In his speeches, George Bush regularly calls for a return to or the reinforcement of traditional, even eternal, family values and emphasizes the importance of personal"accountability" for our children as well as ourselves. ("The culture of America is changing from one that has said, if it feels good, do it, and if you've got a problem, blame somebody else, to a new culture in which each of us understands we are responsible for the decisions we make in life.") And yet when it comes to acts that are clearly wrong in this world -- aggressive war, the looting of resources, torture, personal gain at the expense of others, lying, and manipulation among other matters -- Bush and his top officials never hesitate to redefine reality to suit their needs. When faced with matters long defined in everyday life in terms of right and wrong, they simply reach for their dictionaries.
You want to invade a country not about to attack you. No problem, just pick up that Webster's and rename the act"preventive war." Now, you want an excuse for such a war that might actually panic the public into backing it. So you begin to place mushroom clouds from nonexistent enemy atomic warheads over American cities (Condoleezza Rice:"[W]e don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud."); you begin to claim, as our President and other top officials did, that nonexistent enemy UAVs (Unmanned Airborne Vehicles) launched from nonexistent ships off our perfectly real East coast, might spray nonexistent biological or chemical weapons hundreds of miles inland, and -- Voila! -- you're ready to strike back.
You sweep opponents up on a battlefield, but you don't want to call them prisoners of war or deal with them by the established rules of warfare. No problem, just grab that dictionary and label them"unlawful combatants," then you can do anything you want. So you get those prisoners into your jail complex (carefully located on an American base in Cuba, which you have redefined as being legally under"Cuban sovereignty," so that no American court can touch them); and then you declare that, not being prisoners of war, they do not fall under the Geneva Conventions, though you will treat them (sort of) as if they did and, whatever happens, you will not actually torture them, though you plan to take those"gloves" off. Then your lawyers and attorneys retire to some White House or Justice Department office and, under the guidance of White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales (now Attorney General), they grab those dictionaries again and redefine torture to be whatever we're not doing to the prisoners. (In a 50-page memo written in August 2002 for the CIA and addressed to Alberto Gonzales, Assistant Attorney General Jay S. Bybee, now an Appeals Court judge, hauled out many dictionaries and redefined torture this way:"must be equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death.") And if questioned on the subject, after emails from FBI observers at the prison lay out the various acts of abuse and torture committed in grisly detail, the Vice President simply insists, as he did the other day, that those prisoners are living the good life in the balmy"tropics." ("They're well fed. They've got everything they could possibly want. There isn't any other nation in the world that would treat people who were determined to kill Americans the way we're treating these people.")
Women and Children Last
What the Bush administration has proved is that, if you have a mind to do so, there's no end to the ways you can define"is." No administration has reached not just for its guns but for its dictionaries more often, when brought up against commonly accepted definitions of what is.
Why just the other day, faced with a downward spiraling situation in Iraq and plummeting public-opinion polls, Vice President Cheney went on Larry King Live and declared that the Iraqi insurgency was actually in its"last throes." In this case, he had perhaps reached for his dictionary a little too fast. The phrase was taken up and widely questioned. So Cheney who, as Juan Cole reminds us, claimed he"'knew where exactly' Saddam's alleged weapons of mass destruction were and who was sure Iraqis would deliriously greet the U.S. military as liberators," simply returned to the administration's definitional stockpile. When asked by CNN's Wolf Blitzer whether General John Abizaid's description of the Iraqi situation -- that the insurgency was"undiminished" (with ever more foreign fighters entering Iraq) -- didn't contradict his, he responded:
"No, I would disagree. If you look at what the dictionary says about throes, it can still be a violent period -- the throes of a revolution. The point would be that the conflict will be intense, but it's intense because the terrorists understand if we're successful at accomplishing our objective, standing up a democracy in Iraq, that that's a huge defeat for them. They'll do everything they can to stop it."
Actually, according to my own patriotically correctly named and so indisputable reference book, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, a"throe" is"a severe pang or spasm of pain, as in childbirth," and the"throes" of a country in, say, revolution or economic collapse would also be brief spasms. Of course, just the other day, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, looking into his murky crystal ball, claimed that this"spasm" could last up to another 12 years. I suppose from now on we should all speak of that period from birth to death as the"throes of life." As it happens, the American people seem uncomfortable with our Vice President's latest definitional forays. (For more on defining"throes," I turn you over to the indefatigable Juan Cole.)
Here's the strange thing, then: No one in our lifetime has found the nature of reality to be more definitionally supple, more malleable, more… let's say it… postmodern and relative (to their needs and desires) than the top officials of the Bush administration.
Their watchwords might be defined, if you don't mind my reaching for my dictionary of sayings, as -- batten down the definitional hatches, full speed ahead, and if you hit a mine, women and children last. In that way, they have redefined"accountability" as never having to say you're sorry; or, as then-Governor of Texas evidently put it to the man ghostwriting his campaign autobiography in 1999,"...as a leader, you can never admit to a mistake"; or as former Undersecretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz put it when telling reporters he hadn't bothered to read the Downing Street Memos, you shouldn't let yourself be"distracted" by messy old"history." In the Bush administration, accountability has largely meant promotion.
Let's throw in just a few other moments of high Bush postmodernism: No administration in memory has been quicker to lie in its own interests and never stop doing so, no matter what. (For instance, to this day the President never ceases to push the absurd link between the war in Iraq and the September 11th attacks). None in recent memory has been quicker to lie about or smear its opponents, or had, in political hand-to-hand combat, a nastier, sometimes filthier mouth, publicly (as Karl Rove proved in recent statements) or privately. None has, in fact, seemed to care less about any of the moral categories of behavior it was ostensibly promoting, when those happened to run aground on the shoals of its own political desires and fantasies.
A Five-Star Rendition and Other Acts of Relativity
Every administration sets a mood. You can see the one this administration has established reflected way down the line -- in, for example, the depths of Abu Ghraib's interrogation chambers. As it happens, you can also catch a glimpse of it in five-star Italian hotels. The other day, Stephen Grey and Don Van Natta of the New York Times reported (Thirteen With the C.I.A. Sought by Italy in a Kidnapping) that an Italian judge had ordered the arrest of 13 American agents, assumedly working for the CIA, for performing an"extraordinary rendition" in Italy. They kidnapped an Egyptian cleric named Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, who may or may not have been linked al-Qaeda, and flew him to Egypt to be tortured. Now, you may imagine that our"shadow warriors," operating in the dark zone of international illegality in the name of our President's Global War on Terror, are Spartan men and women, stripped down for action, ready to sacrifice everything for missions they believe in. You undoubtedly assume that, while in Italy, they laid low, bunking in safe houses, while organizing their covert kidnapping. But wait, these are representatives of the Bush administration, so think again. Here was a paragraph buried deep in the Times piece that caught my eye:
"The [CIA] suspects stayed in five-star Milan hotels, including the Hilton, the Sheraton, the Galia and Principe di Savoia, in the week before the operation, at a cost of $144,984, the [Italian] warrant says, adding that after Mr. Nasr was flown to Egypt, two of the officers took a few days' holiday at five-star hotels in Venice, Tuscany and South Tyrol."
A Washington Post report added this little detail:"The Americans stayed at some of the finest hotels in Milan, sometimes for as long as six weeks, ringing up tabs of as much as $500 a day on Diners Club accounts created to match their recently forged identities." The Los Angeles Times contributed the fact that the $145,000 tab actually only covered accommodations. As it happens, our luxury warriors were gourmets as well. They ran up tabs at Milan's best restaurants.
All of this fits so well with general attitudes at the upper reaches of this self-indulgent administration. Ours is, after all, a war to satisfy our own desires, to make the world the way we wish it -- and who wouldn't wish for luxury surroundings and a nice five-star, post-kidnapping vacation in Venice or Florence, all at the taxpayer's expense? (I guarantee, by the way, that our agents also ate all the macadamia nuts and drank all the liquor and downed all the $10 cokes in their mini-fridges.) And yet you can rest assured that no one in this administration is going to demand repayment. In fact, no one has even whispered a word about these expenses so far, no less promised taxpayers our money back, but you wouldn't expect that from an administration that stonewalls for a corporation, Halliburton, which seems to have taken both the American taxpayer and the Iraqis to the five-star cleaners. And while we're at it, let's just note that our rendition teams circle the world not on some scruffy cargo plane, but on a Gulfstream V turbojet, the sort"favored by CEOs and celebrities," as Dana Priest of the Washington Post puts it. This is the mentality not of warriors, of course, but of looters who never saw a payoff or an opening they didn't exploit.
From top to bottom, Bush's people are, in this sense, a caricature of their own caricature of the 1960s. In fact, given their fixation on the Sixties, it's worth revisiting their record in that long-ago era when they were already the most morally relative of beings. On the central issue of those years, the Vietnam War, they were essentially missing in action; or, as our Vice President so famously commented,"I had other priorities in the '60s than military service." The striking thing about the record of most of the Bush administration's key players (and almost all of the neocons) was that they used privilege, legalistic tricks, and every bit of slyness they could muster to avoid any entanglement with Vietnam (on any side of the issue) and later on, coming to power, they had not the slightest compunction about wrapping themselves in the flag and the uniform, acting like the warriors they never were, and attacking those who had engaged in some fashion with the Vietnam War.
It is perhaps not an irony but a kind of inevitability that, having worked so hard to avoid Vietnam (and its"mistakes") all those years, they now find themselves tightly gripped by a situation of their own making that has a remarkably Vietnam-like look to it; and, worse yet, they find themselves acting as if they were now, after all these years, back in the 1960s fighting the War in Vietnam rather than the one in Iraq. In his testimony before the Senate last week, Donald Rumsfeld even managed to get the classic Vietnam word"quagmire" and the equivalent of"light at the end of the tunnel" into a single sentence:"There isn't a person at this table who agrees with you [Senator Ted Kennedy] that we're in a quagmire and there's no end in sight."
As a group, the top figures in this administration have often seemed like so many aggressive children let loose in the neighborhood sandbox by deadbeat dads and moms. Does nobody wonder where those mommies and daddies, the people who should have taught them right from wrong, actually went? Certainly, their children are, in the best Sixties manner, all libido. Let me, in fact, suggest a label for them that, I hope, catches their truest political nature: They are immoral relativists.
Yet, even for the most self-absorbed among them, the ones most ready to twist reality (and the names we give it) into whatever shape best suits their needs of the moment, reality does have a way of biting back. Count on it.
This article first appeared on www.tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, a long time editor in publishing, the author of The End of Victory Culture, and a fellow of the Nation Institute.
Posted on: Friday, July 1, 2005 - 19:04