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.
SOURCE: NYT (5-22-08)
IN his inaugural address, President John F. Kennedy expressed in two eloquent sentences, often invoked by Barack Obama, a policy that turned out to be one of his presidency’s — indeed one of the cold war’s — most consequential: “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.” Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Kennedy’s special assistant, called those sentences “the distinctive note” of the inaugural.
They have also been a distinctive note in Senator Obama’s campaign, and were made even more prominent last week when President Bush, in a speech to Israel’s Parliament, disparaged a willingness to negotiate with America’s adversaries as appeasement. Senator Obama defended his position by again enlisting Kennedy’s legacy: “If George Bush and John McCain have a problem with direct diplomacy led by the president of the United States, then they can explain why they have a problem with John F. Kennedy, because that’s what he did with Khrushchev.”
But Kennedy’s one presidential meeting with Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet premier, suggests that there are legitimate reasons to fear negotiating with one’s adversaries. Although Kennedy was keenly aware of some of the risks of such meetings — his Harvard thesis was titled “Appeasement at Munich” — he embarked on a summit meeting with Khrushchev in Vienna in June 1961, a move that would be recorded as one of the more self-destructive American actions of the cold war, and one that contributed to the most dangerous crisis of the nuclear age.
Senior American statesmen like George Kennan advised Kennedy not to rush into a high-level meeting, arguing that Khrushchev had engaged in anti-American propaganda and that the issues at hand could as well be addressed by lower-level diplomats. Kennedy’s own secretary of state, Dean Rusk, had argued much the same in a Foreign Affairs article the previous year: “Is it wise to gamble so heavily? Are not these two men who should be kept apart until others have found a sure meeting ground of accommodation between them?”
But Kennedy went ahead, and for two days he was pummeled by the Soviet leader. Despite his eloquence, Kennedy was no match as a sparring partner, and offered only token resistance as Khrushchev lectured him on the hypocrisy of American foreign policy, cautioned America against supporting “old, moribund, reactionary regimes” and asserted that the United States, which had valiantly risen against the British, now stood “against other peoples following its suit.” Khrushchev used the opportunity of a face-to-face meeting to warn Kennedy that his country could not be intimidated and that it was “very unwise” for the United States to surround the Soviet Union with military bases....
Posted on: Thursday, May 22, 2008 - 17:30
SOURCE: http://www.prwatch.org (5-21-08)
"I tell my students that policy-making is 90 percent blocking and tackling and 10 percent intellectual."--Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, cited in Mary Beth Brown, Condi: The Life of a Steel Magnolia (Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, Inc, 2007), p. 180.
"When you never accomplish anything, your weekly summary of what you've done all week is just a bunch of 'accondishments' -- how you've filled the days."--Noah, a reader of"Princess Sparkle Pony's Photo Blog: I keep track of Condoleezza's hairdo so you don't have to" (May 5, 2008).
Notwithstanding the low poll numbers of the president she serves, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is one of the few people within the Bush administration who has managed to remain relatively unscathed by the public and by pundits. Unlike some in the president's entourage who have left Washington due to criticisms of their performance or ethics, Rice's current standing at home is sufficiently adequate from a PR perspective to allow her (up to now) to stay on in her job without too many embarrassments. True, there have been calls to remove her from her current position because of her recently disclosed role in the administration's use of torture. And doubts about Rice's qualifications as Bush's foreign-policy guru have existed for years, with, for example, her former National Security Council boss in the administration of George H.W. Bush, Brent Scowcroft, stating in 2005 that her"expertise is in the former Soviet Union and Europe. Less on the Middle East." More recently, an article by Patrick Seale, a British writer on the Middle East, talks about"The Tragic Futility of Condoleezza Rice."
But Condi, rising as she has from her solidly middle-class origins in Birmingham, Alabama to the highest echelons of the US government, remains a subject of admiration. Earlier this year the Harris Poll reported that Rice was"still the 'shining star' of the administration." A 2006 profile by BBC News gushed that"Rice's intellectual brilliance is undisputed," and she"has consistently been one of the most popular members of the Bush administration." Pundits have repeatedly floated her name as a possible Republican vice presidential running mate for John McCain."For a party that up to now has been clueless about how to run against either a woman or a person of color, Condoleezza Rice is pure political gold," explained Nicholas Von Hoffman in a commentary for CBS News.
In fact, Rice's genius and foreign-policy expertise are more image than substance, as recent biographies by Elisabeth Bumiller and Marcus Mabry suggest. In her ascendance to power, Rice's main instrument has not been ground-breaking thinking about important international issues, but rather what Mabry characterizes as"her phenomenal skill at spinning."
A minor but telling example of Rice's self-promotion is the"Travels with the Secretary" section on the State Department website, which suggests that what she accomplishes equates with how many hours she spends in her"reconfigured U.S. Air Force Boeing 757 that is outfitted with a cabin for the Secretary, seats for the staff, and security and a communications section for continuous information anywhere in the world":
Travel Time: 1830.09 hours (76.25 days)
Total Countries Visited: 72
Total Trips Taken: 70
Rice -- as if she were a football player gaining rushing yards -- traveled 154,347 miles in 2008, the site goes on to say.
No human mind, of course, can ever be adequately evaluated (least of all by miles traveled), but does Dr. Rice actually possess the intellectual capacity needed to handle her all-important positions in the US government? Sadly, the answer is no. Despite her vaunted academic credentials, Rice has been the willing servant of an administration where intellect has little importance.
Born in the USA
The insulated setting of Rice's deep-South youth, a home-based environment controlled by her doting parents, was an important factor in making it difficult for her, even as an adult, to think creatively beyond the frontiers (or mindset) of the United States. Her upbringing did not include much domestic travel, let alone visits to foreign countries. (She did, however, make it to Coney Island on one occasion with her parents.) Sequestered Titusville, her native neighborhood, was her sheltered bubble for the early years of her life. In the words of Mabry, Rice spent"the most formative years of her life willing away realities she did not want to see."
When Condo, as her pastor father called her, was in her mid-teens, the Rices moved to Denver, Colorado, far away from the"Bombingham," of Theophilus Eugene"Bull" Connor, the Ku Klux Klan 1960s Public Safety Commissioner who was responsible for so much of the violence there. (Rice would later say that Connor"fascinated" her"because he was kind of the personification of evil.") In the mile-high city, Rice went to a then-minor heartland learnery, the University of Denver. ("Very few people go from a doctorate at the University of Denver to a first class research university ," said Donald Kennedy, Stanford president from 1980 to 1992.) It was not until her late years in college that her intellectual interests, until then limited to ice skating and piano playing, were expanded to the field of foreign affairs. As she mentioned recently at the State Department:
I was in college at the University of Denver trying to figure out my way in life and coming to the realization that if I stayed a music major I would end up playing at Nordstrom or perhaps at a piano bar -- (laughter) -- and I tried courses in English literature, and State and local government. And I hated them all. And then one day, I walked into a course in international politics taught by a Soviet specialist, a Czech émigré, a man named Josef Korbel, Secretary Albright's father.
"Before Korbel's class," Mabry points out,"Condoleezza had only glimpsed the world of international power and intrigue while sitting with her father watching the nightly news, worrying about Castro's missiles." Korbel was a defender, according to Mabry, of the Stalin-Hitler pact, which the Central European-born professor saw"as another example of Stalin's strategic genius and his success in building the Soviet state." According to Elizabeth Bumiller, when Rice heard him lecture, she
"fell in love" -- the phrase she has used in virtually every interview she has given about this moment in her life. ...
The lecture that so transfixed Rice was about the ruthless maneuvering and consolidation of power that allowed Stalin to propel himself from general secretary of the Communist Party to effective dictator of the Soviet Union. ... Terry Karl, a Stanford political science professor who later taught with Rice, [said] ..."Like some political scientists of the time, she was impressed with the efficiency and effectiveness of how the Communist parties exercised power."
A Stanford faculty member quoted by Mabry noticed that when Rice became the university's provost in the 1990s, communicating with her"was like talking to a brick wall. You'd try to say something, and she would say [banging on the table], 'No, no, no!' All I could think of was Khrushchev banging the shoe at the UN ... She was a Sovietologist; she learned her lesson well from her subjects."
Compare Rice's Soviet-centered"enlightenment" about the outside world -- focused on how the Communist parties exercised power -- with the foreign experiences of J. William Fulbright, who left his native Arkansas to be a Rhodes Scholar in England in the late 1920s. Elected Senator in 1944, he almost single-handedly established the prestigious educational exchange program that bears his name."The essence of intercultural education," he wrote,"is the acquisition of empathy -- the ability to see the world as others see it, and to allow for the possibility that others may see something we have failed to see, or may see it more accurately." (Of course, Fulbright left much to be desired with respect to the issue of civil rights in the United States.)
Regarding Fulbright's observation about the need for empathy with the rest of humanity, Mabry's important conclusion about Rice and the outside world is of relevance:
One of the morals of [Rice's] own biography had been that what mattered was what you and your self-defined society believed, because the world beyond was often wrong in its most critical judgments. ... And that history had instilled in Rice a conviction in the veracity of her own judgments and of those closest to her, even when -- perhaps especially when -- those judgments conflicted with the"objective" reality of outsiders.
Speaking in Tongues
An important insight into how well Dr. Rice is able to understand societies distant from American shores is her putative knowledge of foreign languages, which has been hyped no end by her political supporters."In addition to English, she speaks Russian, French, German, and Spanish," gushes the Race 4 2008 website, which calls her the"uncontested frontrunner for the Vice-Presidential slot on the 2008 GOP ticket." Yet, as a student of Russia, she never seized the considerable opportunities offered by exchange programs to learn its language in the country itself. Her lack of proficiency with Russian was ridiculed in April 2005 by Pravda (admittedly an anti-U.S. publication):
How did Condi get appointed as Secretary of State and labelled a Russian expert? Could it be that she told President Bush that she was an expert in rushin' around and he made her his"Rushin' expert"?
Asked whether she would run for President at the next election on Ekho Moskvy Radio programme, Condoleezza Rice answered Da! Nyet! Nyet! Nyet! Nyet! Nyet! Nyet! Nyet! Not bad for someone who is quoted frequently by the Western press as being a fluent Russian speaker and a Russian expert, although she has never lived in the country.
As for Rice's knowledge of French, which she studied at an early age, she herself admitted in 2006 that while she could understand a conversation with President Jacques Chirac of France in his native tongue,"I can't speak it, because I was never very good at French." As for Spanish, she was tutored in the language as a child, but while a graduate student in 1975, she said that"it was not a great time to get a job, particularly if the language you spoke was Russian, not Spanish." In all fairness to the conscientious Rice, she apparently did make an effort to learn some Portuguese on the way to her christening of the Chevron oil tanker, the M/T Condoleezza Rice, named in her honor during her tenure as a Chevron Director from 1991 until January 15, 2001.
The Doctor's Scholarship
No matter how much Rice"fell in love" with Korbel and his lecture on Stalin, an examination of her academic record suggests that she has limited ability to grasp complex issues in international affairs. Though her schoolteacher mother considered the future Secretary of State a genius (based on psychological tests Condi took at Southern University in Baton Rouge in her youth), the reactions of professors and fellow students to her intellectual accomplishments in graduate school were mixed at best. True, she had a great fan in Joseph Korbel. (Was he, as is common in turf-conscious academia, recruiting students to justify his"international" graduate program at a" city" university so that school administrators would continue his program?) At Notre Dame, however, her academic papers were assessed as follows by her adviser, George A. Brinkley, a Soviet scholar and chairman of the Government and International Studies Department:
they lacked depth and attention to different interpretations and points of view ... her evident skills and potential were not developed into more mature scholarship.
At Notre Dame, Rice received a"terminal M.A." (a degree not leading to a Ph.D.). She then returned to the University of Denver, where she wrote another M.A. thesis, titled"Music and Politics in the Soviet Union." Her adviser, Alan Gilbert, a recipient of a doctorate in political science from Harvard, remarked that her study was"not a fantastic piece" in terms of its scholarship. One of her fellow doctoral students, Wayne Glass, who went on to teach at the University of Southern California, had this to say about her:
It was just that her nature was such that she wasn't the one to throw out ideas for everyone else to grapple with.
In 1981, Rice received her Ph.D. Her dissertation was published in 1984 by Princeton University Press under the title, Uncertain Allegiance: The Soviet Union and the Czechoslovak Army, 1948-1963. While the book saw the light of day thanks to a prestigious institution of higher learning, it is rather striking for the current irrelevance of its subject matter. (Neither the Soviet Union nor Czechoslovak army exists today, although nothing in Rice's study anticipated that this would be the case.) It is also full of hollow"poli-sci" prose, as illustrated by this passage from its conclusion:
Examination of the impact of power asymmetries on the development of the nature of domestic institutions may ultimately help us to understand the concepts of power and influence themselves.
The examination of Czechoslovak party-military relations along both dimensions shows quite clearly why models developed in the study of other communist states are inadequate to explain this case. The Czechoslovak party-military apparatus, which closely resembles that of the Soviet Union, does not produce the same pattern of interaction.
The study did receive some favorable reviews from specialized journals. In the American Political Science Review, Dale R. Herspring called it a"first-rate book," noting however that it" could have been improved by a more critical use of certain concepts." But the American Historical Review -- the premier publication of the US historical profession -- panned the volume in a now well-known piece by Joseph Kalvoda, a teacher at Saint Joseph College in West Hartford, Connecticut. Kaldova mistook the author for a man, suggesting that Rice was largely unknown in the academic world (doubtless because she had published so little). Kaldova's harsh review states,
To write a scholarly study on the relationship of the Soviet Union and the Czechoslovak army without access to relevant Czechoslovak and Soviet documents is difficult. Therefore, much of this book by Condoleezza Rice is based on secondary works. His thesis is that the Soviets directly influence military elites in the satellite countries, in addition to the Soviet Communist party interacting with the domestic party. Rice selects Czechoslovakia as a case study and attempts to show the role of the military as instrument of both national defense and the Soviet-controlled military alliance.
Rice's selection of sources raises questions, since he frequently does not sift facts from propaganda and valid information from disinformation or misinformation. He passes judgments and expresses opinions without adequate knowledge of facts. ...
Rice's generalizations reflect his lack of knowledge about history and the nationality problem in Czechoslovakia. ...
The writing abounds with meaningless phrases, such as is its"last word":"Thirty-five years after its creation, the Czechoslovak People's Army stands suspended between the Czechoslovak nation and the socialist world order" (p. 245).
Rice complained to the American Historical Review in 1985 about Kalvoda's merciless critique, adding,"I apologize for the imprecise language in reporting some of the details of Czechoslovak history." In his response, Kalvoda did not surrender to Rice's sloppy scholarship:
How can one take seriously opinions and/or interpretations of someone who does not have the facts straight? In scholarly works on the Soviet bloc countries contemporary sources can be used effectively if one knows the relevant historical facts, is familiar with the political theory and practice of the Marxist-Leninists, and is able to separate facts from allegations, propaganda and outright falsehoods. Political analyses, interpretations and opinions have to be based on facts and not on misinformation.
Rice's second book, The Gorbachev Era, was coauthored with the respected scholar Alexander Dallin. It appeared in 1986, when she had already been teaching at Stanford University for several years. This 184-page collection of short essays was published by"The Portable Stanford,""a series publication of the Stanford Alumni Association. ... The PS series is designed to bring the widest possible sampling of Stanford's intellectual resources into the homes of alumni." Rice's own contribution to this slim volume without footnotes was a 12-page piece titled,"The Soviet Alliance System." Written just a few years before the fall of the Berlin wall, it stated,
In spite of all its problems, the Soviet-East European alliance has been remarkably resilient. It has survived three interventions, a Polish military takeover, and countless other less traumatic problems. The alliance is well institutionalized through CMEA [Council of Mutual Economic Assistance], which seeks, with limited success, to coordinate the economies of Eastern Europe and the Warsaw pact -- which has enjoyed greater success in mobilizing the armed forces of the region. ...
Eastern Europe, and to a lesser degree Cuba, will likely remain the center of Moscow's alliance structure for many years to come.
The article that supposedly helped Rice get tenure at Stanford, titled"The Party, the Military, and Decision Authority in the Soviet Union," was published in World Politics in 1987. Mabry quotes this assessment of the article from Lieutenant General William E. Odom, a widely admired expert on the former Soviet Union who has criticized Bush's Iraq policies:
I couldn't even figure out what she meant. [As a scholar] she just wasn't significant. It would be very hard for me to figure out why Stanford gave her tenure on [the basis of] her publication.
The abstract of Rice's article, written in academic gobbledygook, leaves little doubt -- even to a non-expert -- as to the study's lack of intellectual depth and precision:
Soviet military decision making is characterized by a division of labor between the party, which issues broad policy guidance, and the professional military, which oversees the development of the armed forces based on that guidance. There is to date no civilian institution whose functions parallel those of the General Staff. The party is now, and has historically been, dependent on the professional military for the formation of options on strategy, organization, and force composition. The Soviets have never equated civilian control and authority with civilian management. Absolute party authority over defense policy has been maintained through control of personnel and resource allocation.
Zelikow to the Rescue
Given the intellectual limitations of Rice's scholarly output, it is fair to ask what her exact role was in the drafting of the well-received volume of nearly 500 pages, Germany Unified and Europe Transformed (Harvard University Press, 1995), which she co-authored with Philip Zelikow, a lawyer, diplomat and historian. Germany Unified and Europe Transformed was a serious study that showed an in-depth analysis not found in Rice's previous two books."A foreign affairs expert very close to Rice," Mabry notes, said that"[s]he's a conventional mind. Except for the book she did with Zelikow on Germany, the stuff she [wrote] by herself is mediocre."
The Rice-Zelikow relationship, if one is allowed to speculate, sheds light on the kind of"learned professor" Dr. Rice really is. Speaking at a Stanford symposium on the Soviet Union in May 1991, Rice herself (cited by Bumiller) said that Zelikow"has a deep knowledge of international affairs. More often than not, when something was written for him, he'd improve it, and you'd sit there thinking to yourself, 'I wish I'd thought of saying that.'"
This passage brings to mind the famous anecdote of the exchange between James McNeill Whistler and Oscar Wilde after Whistler had said something memorable."I wish I had said that!" Wilde exclaimed, to which Whistler replied,"Don't worry, Oscar. You will, you will."
Which is what, in some ways, Dr. Rice's role in Germany Unified and Europe Transformed appears to be. Zelikow's name, despite its first letter being the last one of the alphabet, appears before Rice's on the title page of their book, making it clear that he was its main contributor. The preface of the 1995 edition notes:
This book originated in an internal historical study which a senior State Department official, Robert Zoellick, invited Zelikow to write as he was leaving the government to accept an appointment at Harvard University.
After noting that"the book is a joint effort," the preface goes on to say that"Zelikow drafted the original manuscript." Interestingly, these words (and the entire paragraph that contains them) do not appear in the"Preface to the 1995 Edition" that is included in the 1997 edition of the book. Did Rice, no doubt concerned about her lack of publications which are necessary for academic success, have something to do with this omission?
Wikipedia has this to say about the subsequent Zelikow-Rice relationship:
In Rise of the Vulcans (Viking, 2004), James Mann reports that when Richard Haass, a senior aide to Secretary of State Colin Powell and the director of policy planning at the State Department, drafted for the administration an overview of America's national security strategy following the September 11, 2001 attacks, Dr. Rice, the national security advisor,"ordered that the document be completely rewritten. She thought the Bush administration needed something bolder, something that would represent a more dramatic break with the ideas of the past. Rice turned the writing over to her old colleague, University of Virginia Professor Philip Zelikow." This document, issued on September 17, 2002, is generally recognized as a significant document in the War on Terrorism.
Don't Know Much about History
For Rice, history is not a guide, but essentially another propaganda tool in advancing immediate political interests. Her knowledge of actual historical events can be surprisingly spotty. In 2005, for example, she spoke to an audience at the Institute of Political Studies in Paris. In answer to a question from the audience, she said that in 1947, Greece and Turkey had endured civil wars. In fact, only Greece had. Guillaume Parmentier, director of the French Center on the United States, called Rice's response"a glaring mistake," adding"She's smart, yes, but I don't think she is as knowledgeable as one would expect with a career like hers."
More important than this fairly trivial error is Rice's lack of respect for historical details when the facts get in the way of her generalizations (if not fabrications) about the past. This tendency to rewrite reality was what drew the scathing Kalvoda review cited above. For another example, here are her remarks to the Veterans of Foreign Wars in San Antonio, Texas, on Aug. 25, 2003:
There is an understandable tendency to look back on America's experience in postwar Germany and see only the successes. But as some of you here today surely remember, the road we traveled was very difficult. 1945 through 1947 was an especially challenging period. Germany was not immediately stable or prosperous. SS officers -- called 'werewolves' -- engaged in sabotage and attacked both coalition forces and those locals cooperating with them -- much like today's Baathist and Fedayeen remnants.
Rice made these comments in an attempt to draw parallels between postwar Germany and the chaos that surrounded the U.S. military occupation of Iraq. By comparison to Germany, she suggested, things weren't actually going all that badly in Iraq. This drew a sharp retort from Daniel Benjamin in an essay titled"Condi's Phony History: Sorry, Dr. Rice, postwar Germany was nothing like Iraq." Benjamin pointed out that Rice's"depiction of the Allied occupation of Germany is a farrago of fiction and a few meager facts. Werwolf tales have been a favorite of schlock novels, but the reality bore no resemblance to Iraq today. ... In practice, Werwolf amounted to next to nothing."
Neil King reached similar conclusions in a January 19, 2007 Wall Street Journal article, titled"How Rice Uses History Lessons." He stated,
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice often calls herself"a student of history." And increasingly, she is using history -- or her chosen slice of it -- both to explain and justify the Bush administration's Middle East policy.
When Ms. Rice talks about the challenges the U.S. faces across the Mideast, she points, somewhat surprisingly, to Europe after World War II and to the West's decades-long face-off against the Soviet Union, which happens to be her area of expertise. It is a penchant that has scholars scratching their heads.
In 2005, I pointed out that"the current administration and its cheerleaders cannot abandon their favorite metaphor, aimed at praising Bush's 'successes' in the Muslim world: Events in the Middle East are like the downfall of the Berlin Wall in Eastern Europe." But such a view fails as explanation or vindication of the administration's actions overseas, for two main reasons:
- Eastern Europe in the Cold War and the Middle East today simply aren't the same; it's like comparing apples and oranges, and it leads to an intellectual dead-end that elucidates little -- least of all about Bush's so-called triumphs abroad.
- Bush's foreign policy so differs from that of his Cold War predecessors that the downfall of the Berlin Wall and the current situation in the Middle East -- if indeed affected by American foreign policy in the first place -- can't be considered the outcome of similar policies that led to identical results.
As for the mistaken historical assumptions of Rice's"transformational diplomacy," her guide for what she sees as American diplomacy in our new century, please see my"Spreading Bush's Gospel" (TomPaine.com, January 30, 2006).
Rice's versions of history also appear to be an excuse for her to avoid facing problems of the present, perhaps because they are not subject to quick"spinning" solutions. This is suggested by Bret Stephens' account of her interview with the Wall Street Journal editorial board, titled"Secretary of Turbulence Condoleezza Rice takes the long view--maybe too long" (September 30, 2006):
The conversation begins with her describing herself as an academic and ends by saying how glad she'll be to return to Stanford"and do something else." She observes that her stint in the administration of George H.W. Bush took place at the end of one"great historic transformation," and that her current stint takes place at the beginning of another. Her goal for the next two years is to put"some fundamentals in place":"I don't think that this is a battle, if you will, or a struggle that's going to be won on George W. Bush's watch," she says of the war on terror. Maybe this accounts for her sang-froid -- at times seeming to border on emotional detachment -- in the face of all the reversals in Baghdad, Beirut, Cairo and Ramallah: She chooses to read the present as if it were already the past. [my italics]
In June 2003, President Bush told a group of business leaders that"This nation acted to a threat from the dictator of Iraq" [sic], but"now there are some who would like to rewrite history -- revisionist historians is what I like to call them." Here Bush, doubtless under the influence of Rice, is speaking Sovietese, for the accusation of"revisionism" was a tool frequently used by communist hacks to condemn those who dared to stray from the proclaimed ideology and its hold on the past. ("We never know," went the old Soviet joke,"what will happen yesterday.") Here is what the president of the American Historical Association, James McPherson, had to say about the Bush/Rice"revisionism":
This summer the Bush administration thought it had discovered a surefire tactic to discredit critics of its Iraq adventure. President Bush followed the lead of his national security adviser Condoleeza [sic] Rice to accuse such critics of practicing"revisionist history." Neither Bush nor Rice offered a definition of this phrase, but their body language and tone of voice appeared to suggest that they wanted listeners to understand"revisionist history" to be a consciously falsified or distorted interpretation of the past to serve partisan or ideological purposes in the present. ...
Whatever Bush and Rice meant by"revisionist historians," it is safe to say that they did not mean it favorably. The 14,000 members of this Association, however, know that revision is the lifeblood of historical scholarship. History is a continuing dialogue between the present and the past. Interpretations of the past are subject to change in response to new evidence, new questions asked of the evidence, new perspectives gained by the passage of time. There is no single, eternal, and immutable"truth" about past events and their meaning. The unending quest of historians for understanding the past -- that is,"revisionism" -- is what makes history vital and meaningful.
10 Percent Intellectual
Rice's intellectual limitations illustrate a tragic fact about the Bush administration: its conviction that ideas -- ideas stemming from observing, and learning from, the outside world; ideas resulting from scholarly research in international affairs; ideas brought about by an understanding and appreciation of the past -- have no relevance to the conduct of policy. Instead, the Bush administration uses ideas as propaganda, or simply ignores them lest they get in the way of"kicking-ass" action. Blind will to power, not in-depth thinking leading to careful planning, is what has guided the Bush administration's dealings with our small planet for the past seven-plus years."God and exercise," Mabry quotes James Baker as saying, are the “core principles" of George W. Bush. No wonder Condi hypes her own daily workouts and proclaims her religiosity:
I've been totally unflappable in my religious faith, and believe that it is the principal reason for all that I've been able to do. My faith in God is the most important thing. I never shied from telling people that I am a Christian, and I believe that's why I've been optimistic in my life.
"[P]olicy-making is 90 percent blocking and tackling and 10 percent intellectual," Rice once stated to her students at Stanford. Perhaps more than any official White House or State Department pronouncements, this observation tells us why the Bush team has been such an utter failure on the world stage, with its mindless"blocking and tackling" leading to torture, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and thousands of innocent victims of US military actions spread across the Middle East and Central Asia. The simple and sad lesson we have learned from Condoleezza Rice, Ph.D., and the 43rd President of the United States, a Yale and Harvard grad, is that action, without thought, leads to chaos and needless human suffering.
Posted on: Thursday, May 22, 2008 - 17:11
SOURCE: Dissent (Spring) (5-1-08)
... J.W.: Since 1959 the Tibetan exile community has been based in Dharamsala, India.
P.I.: Yes. A thriving Tibetan culture exists in exile, especially in India, where the Dalai Lama has done a good job of sustaining everything that is essential about Tibetan tradition and culture and religion, while getting rid of everything that is feudal or outdated. In exile, he’s set up a living, modern version of Tibet—you could call it “Tibet 2.0.”
J.W.: Let’s talk a little bit about the history of Tibet in exile: Shortly after Mao’s Red Army triumphed in China, China invaded Tibet in 1949-50. What happened when Tibet appealed to the UN in 1950 about the Chinese invasion?
P.I.: Tibet’s apparent sponsors at the UN were Britain and India. And both Britain and India asked the UN not to listen. Tibet never received an answer. Tibet suddenly realized it was completely friendless, and that no country in the world would rise to its defense. Ten years later, the US realized Tibet could be a pawn in its ongoing struggle against China. But the Dalai Lama told me many years ago that Tibet’s greatest mistake was to be too isolated. That’s why now he speaks out against isolationists and in favor of dialogue. Even with China. He says let’s not boycott the Olympics, because isolating any country is only going to bring problems.
J.W.: A guerilla resistance in Tibet was aided by the CIA starting in the 1950s.
P.I.: Yes. The CIA really moved in during the 1960s, when they trained Tibetans in Colorado, of all places, and set them up in Nepal. The CIA wasn’t concerned about Tibet; they were only concerned about trying to foil their great communist enemy China. It was a fitful resistance but the CIA was more than ready to help—until Nixon and Kissinger went to Beijing. At that point, the Dalai Lama realized that violent resistance would only bring more suffering to his people, so he sent a taped message to the guerillas in Nepal and told them to lay down their arms. They did, but some of them were so heartbroken that they took their own lives.
J.W.: The Chinese Cultural Revolution in the mid-1960s was a turning point for Tibet.
P.I.: They tried to destroy Tibetan culture—much as they tried to destroy their own culture, but even more brutally. According to Tibetan estimates, 1.2 million Tibetans died—that’s 20 percent of the population. All but 13 of the 6,000 monasteries were destroyed. Little kids were asked to shoot their parents. Most violently, the Chinese sought to tear apart every last shred of Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Monks were asked to use sacred texts as toilet paper. It was a brutal thing, which the Chinese government has since repudiated. ...
Posted on: Wednesday, May 21, 2008 - 17:44
SOURCE: Frontpagemag.com (5-20-08)
Accounts from Turkey suggest that the government is attempting a bold re-interpretation of Islam.
Its unusually named ministry of religion, the "Presidency of Religious Affairs and the Religious Charitable Foundation," has undertaken a three-year "Hadith Project" systematically to review 162,000 hadith reports and winnow them down to some 10,000, with the goal of separating original Islam from the accretions of fourteen centuries.
The hadith reports contain information about the sayings and actions of Muhammad, the prophet of Islam. They augment the Koran and have had a major role in shaping the Shari‘a (Islamic law), thereby deeply influencing Muslim life. Despite their importance, Muslim reformers have devoted little scrutiny to them, due to their vast size, unwieldy nature, and the challenge of discerning "sound" from "weak" hadiths.
One of the project's 85 theology professors, Ismail Hakki Unal of Ankara University, explains its goal: "The Koran is our basic guide. Anything that conflicts with that, we are trying to eliminate." The project website explained that its work is "an important step for carrying the universal message of the Prophet of Islam to the twenty-first century."
Its director, Mehmet Görmez, adds that the purpose is a scholarly one, to understand the hadith better: "We will make a new compilation of the hadith and re-interpret them if necessary." More broadly, Görmez explains, "The project takes its inspiration from the interpretations of the modernist vein of Islam. … We want to bring out the positive side of Islam that promotes personal honor, human rights, justice, morality, women's rights, respect for the other."
This means, for example, reinterpreting hadiths that "present women as inferior beings," such as those that encourage female genital mutilation, honor killings, and the prohibition of women traveling without their husbands. One participant, Hidayet Sevkatli Tuksal, goes so far as to declare some hadiths as bogus because they intend "to ensure male domination over women." However, despite the intense current debate in Turkey over the headscarf, the project avoids that particular issue. Another sensitive topic concerns the right of Muslims to convert out of their faith; the project permits such conversions.
Some Turks have great hopes for the Hadith Project, which aims to produce a multi-volume book in Turkish, Arabic, and Russian by year's end. Taha Akyol, a political commentator, sees a revolution taking place. "In other countries you have reform of Islam pushed through by despotic or modernist regimes but in Turkey you are seeing the reform taking place in the middle classes. And that is real reform." Another commentator, Mustafa Akyol, believes that the revised hadiths "will be a step to change mindsets."
Fadi Hakura of Chatham House goes further, calling the project "somewhat akin to the Christian Reformation." He applauds the project being sponsored by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. AKP involvement means that "this reform movement is not being implemented by a secular group, but by the ruling [party, which] is very religious and conservative. So this is an authentic internal process of change."
Other observers are more skeptical. Hashim Hashimi, a former MP, for example, states that "There are established views on Islam and how it should be practiced that have been in place for 1400 years. And they aren't going to change any time soon." Even the head of the ministry, Ali Bardakoglu, acknowledges that "we are not reforming Islam; we are reforming ourselves."
What to make of this initiative? Serious efforts to modernize Islam, which this appears to be, are most welcome. At the same time, one has to wonder about agendas when government intercedes in the subtle and even subversive domain of religious reform. Specifically, the AKP's Islamist nature arouses mistrust that the Hadith Project will limit itself to the relatively easy social issues and avoid the tougher political ones in order to fashion an ideologically more defensible Islam even while maintaining some of its more problematic aspects. Does the project's avoidance of the headscarf topic also imply its not taking up female legal rights, women marrying non-Muslim men, ribba (interest on money), jihad, the rights of non-Muslims, and the creation of an Islamic order?
By limiting its subject matter, the project might forward Islamism more than modernize Islam. True reform awaits true reformers – not Islamist functionaries but independent, modern individuals intent on aligning Islam with the best of modern mores.
Posted on: Tuesday, May 20, 2008 - 19:42
SOURCE: Frontpagemag.com (5-19-08)
The war in Iraq is in its sixth year — and we, the public, are in our sixth year of reading warring accounts about it.
The most recent is Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez's "Wiser in Battle: A Soldier's Story." Gen. Sanchez, a senior ground commander in Iraq from June 2003 to June 2004, faults L. Paul Bremer, the top civilian in Iraq from mid-2003-04, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld for the errors and mishaps of the occupation.
The new Sanchez book follows Douglas Feith's new book "War and Decision." The former defense undersecretary, who oversaw many original plans for postwar reconstruction of Iraq, makes the case that the State Department and Mr. Bremer thwarted Defense Department efforts to hasten Iraqi autonomy and form a new Iraqi army. But Mr. Bremer himself, in "My Year in Iraq," complained about lack of support from both military and civilian officials like Gen. Sanchez and Mr. Feith.
And don't forget "At the Center of the Storm" by former CIA Director George Tenet or "American Soldier" by Tommy Franks, the commander who oversaw the 2003 invasion. Both offered their own versions of where others went wrong.
Memoirs by those involved in some way in the Iraq war (or the broader war on terror) have grown into an entire industry. Former counterterrorism director Richard Clark's "Against All Enemies," former CIA analyst Michael Scheuer's "Imperial Hubris" and former Ambassador Joe Wilson's "The Politics of Truth" all tell stories of how someone else did them in.
What are we to make of all these contradictory accounts?
First, they come in cycles and follow the pulse of the war. In 2003-04, most of our information came from administration and Pentagon press conferences. The brilliant three-week overthrow of Saddam and the relative quiet for a few months afterward resulted in favorable public opinion and few questions about the conduct of the war or the official version of it. But once arsenals of weapons of mass destruction did not show up and an insurgency broke out, published tales of American incompetence proliferated.
Now, as the violence has decreased and former officials write their own responses, a new defense of the war is being made. Mr. Feith's "War and Decision" will no doubt be followed by accounts from Mr. Rumsfeld, the president himself and perhaps other principals like Paul Wolfowitz and Vice President Dick Cheney. These men will give another account of what happened — and spawn yet another counterreaction.
Second, there is a lot of money to be made in writing firsthand accounts about the war — the more sensational, accusatory and quicker the story gets out, the better. (A few, like Mr. Feith, have magnanimously contributed their earnings to charity.)
Third, there is a "not me" theme in many of the tell-alls. Officials who once praised each other in televised press conferences and assured Americans things were going well apparently now turn out to have not liked each other.
Gen. Sanchez argues he was not to blame for Abu Ghraib, but rather Pentagon higher-ups. Mr. Tenet swears he was not the only one who fouled up the prewar intelligence. Tommy Franks concentrates on his successful war, not someone else's plagued occupation — since he retired right after the three-week victory. Richard Clark argues he couldn't stop Sept. 11, 2001, because of others' mistakes. Likewise Michael Scheuer's special group failed in its mission to catch bin Laden due to the blunders of rival agencies.
Is any of this finger-pointing new? Hardly.
The battle of Shiloh (April 1862) was refought for nearly a half-century, and we still don't know whether Gen. Ulysses S. Grant was drinking before the battle, or why Gen. Lew Wallace took the wrong road and came late to the battle with reinforcements. You can read various versions of who was to blame in the memoirs of Gens. Grant and Wallace and William Tecumseh Sherman.
After World War II, British Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery and U.S. Gens. Dwight D Eisenhower, Omar Bradley and George Patton (posthumously) all bickered in print over the strategy after D-Day, the disastrous Arnhem campaign and the complete surprise at the Battle of the Bulge — issues still not resolved more than 60 years later.
Was Vietnam a necessary war, always a hopeless fiasco or a squandered victory? You can read all those versions and more in the books of Sec. Henry Kissinger, Sec. Robert McNamara, Lt. (now Sen.) Jim Webb and Gen. William Westmoreland.
The only difference with the Iraq war is that in the modern age of instantaneous global communications, those involved right in the middle of it, at least on the American side, scramble to get their "true" story out first — and get even — well before the war is won or lost. In such an ongoing conflict, these memoirs are often out-of-date even before they hit the bookstores.
Posted on: Monday, May 19, 2008 - 22:26
SOURCE: Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center (5-18-08)
Exaggerations of Israel's demise are greatly exaggerated, to paraphrase Mark Twain.
The question is: why is this suddenly happening now and--even more important--what is the impact of this fad going to be? The answer to the second question is very surprising so keep reading.
The suddenness of this trend is illustrated by a telling anecdote. Two years ago, a young senator named Barrack Obama went on a trip to Israel with a group. In his reactions at the time, Obama said that Israel was so strong that it could easily make big concessions for peace.
Now, in his recent interview with Atlantic magazine doomsayer-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg, Obama said the exact opposite: Israel may disappear unless it makes big concessions for peace.
First, one common thread is this: it is the latest trick for pretending that Israel should take big risks and make large concessions without getting much in return. Remember, there was the Oslo peace process which included the return of Fatah to the West Bank and Gaza Strip, its arming and supply with hundreds of millions of dollars plus Israel's offer to return the Golan Heights to Syria; the Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon, the pullout from the Gaza Strip.
Given this experience, someone might conclude that concessions didn't work and that the Palestinians and Syria were not ready for peace. But such a conclusion is not permissible for those wedded to certain notions. Instead, they say: ignore all that because no matter how high the price you must make concessions and take risks in order to survive. Is this obvious nonsense? Yes. But obvious nonsense backed by the New York Times and Maclean's in Canada, etc., drowns out the point that it is obvious nonsense.
Second, of course, this expresses wishful thinking. A lot of people want Israel to disappear and thus feel good in asserting it is going to happen. The line in "pro-Palestinian" circles in the West seems to be that it doesn't matter that they lose all the confrontations, that their state-building effort has collapsed, and that the movement is more split than at any time in the last forty years. More important, they say, they now have control of the narrative. That and a few bucks will get you a cup of coffee.
There are also some ideological reasons on the left, or what passes for it nowadays, that have invested heavily in the idea of Israel disappearing. One is that nationalism is obsolete.
This is clearly absurd. It might be disappearing in Western Europe--I mean European nationalism, not that of the new immigrants--yet it is not a generalized global phenomenon. Quite the opposite. But the people who think this way want nationalism to die in their own countries very badly and detest those who have pride in their heritage.
Unfortunately, a disproportionate number of such intellectuals are Jews. To have Israel as daily disproof of their thesis is particularly humiliating to them. Who cares about the lives of millions of Israelis, for them it is like a teetotaler with an alcoholic cousin, or a racist with an African-American one.
There is also something here involving their own definition of Jewishness. Many have nothing to do with their background except when using it to denounce Israel (or exalt past Jewish suffering or great revolutionary "heroes" to magnify themselves). They have never understood Zionism and, despite their self-proclaimed humanitarian credentials, could not care less about the fate of Israelis.
Finally, there is the most interesting and new aspect of the Israel-is-dead movement, what it tells about the politics of the new-new left and the many people its ideas have influenced. It is also closely related to the let's-kill-Western-civilization movement, too.
Here are its mantras:
If anyone is your enemy you have failed and cannot win. This is because all conflicts are bad and nothing can be gained from war.
If people are fighting against you, especially if they are "Third World," non-Christian, and have an ideology, you cannot win. This is because nothing is worth fighting or dying for and no one would be carrying a gun if they could be drinking a latté instead. These people are the living embodiment of the negative radical Islamist stereotype of the West, effete cowards. It is, however, worth noting that the Nazis and Communists thought the same thing and were shown to be dead wrong.
As a result of this thinking, though, the crowning argument is: If the other side won't give in, you must surrender.
Maybe that's another reason why Israel irritates them so much, just as ideologues in past centuries hated the Jews: it defies their ideological system.
Briefly, let me suggest that on the list of countries and societies unlikely to survive, Israel is at the bottom, not top, of the ratings. Take any Middle Eastern state and it is riven with problems: inept governments, stalled development, massive population growth, bitter rivalries. You want to put your money on the future of Iran, Iraq, Syria, or Egypt?
Israel is the state and society in the region most likely to survive over the next century.
And what about Europe? Aside from the EU's project of dissolving away those countries, plummeting birth rates, loss of self-confidence, and rapidly rising immigrant populations do not make their futures look bright. Sweden, Norway, and Holland are all well on the way to the cliff edge. One after another, European countries will be passing Israel in their proportion of Muslim population. If we speak of urban areas, those with the greatest cultural and political influence, they are already doing so.
Even if you attribute nothing but good and moderate intentions to the immigrants, if they don't integrate into the existing society then they are going to transform it to the extent that countries like Britain, France, or the Netherlands as we have always known them could be said to have disappeared.
Remember also that Israel's enemies are overwhelmingly outside its borders; the opposite is true for the Middle Eastern and European states. And it's easier for a coherent society to survive an external threat than a disintegrating one to weather an internal challenge.
The bookies better set Israel's odds as better than the rest or they are going to lose a lot of money.
You might remember that I promised at the start of this article to surprise you with the conclusion. So here it is?
What effect does all this talk about Israel disappearing have? Simple. It assures radical Islamists and radical Arab nationalists that they will win. Thus it encourages Arabs, and especially Palestinians, to keep fighting rather than to make peace and act moderately or constructively.
It promotes terrorism, recruitment to terrorist groups, violence against moderates, and dictatorships. After all, if victory is in sight why stop fighting? If triumph is possible than it follows logically that anyone who wants to make peace is a traitor who should be killed.
While the authors of the Israel-is-dead movement enjoy career benefits and feel good, thousands of Arabs, Muslims, and Palestinians will die as a result of what they are writing. Israelis will die, too, but not enough to make their predictions come true. Any possibility for peace will be set back for many years; any hope of a better life for the Arabs themselves will be postponed until after the predicted apocalypse.
As William Shakespeare had Mark Anthony say of other men who brought disaster to the cause they supposedly revered: "O, pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth,/"That I am meek and gentle with these butchers!..../"Woe to the hand that shed this costly blood!"
 For a devastating analysis on this issue, see Jerry Z. Muller, "Us and Them," in Foreign Affairs, http://www.foreignaffairs.org/20080301faessay87203-p0/jerry-z-muller/us-and-them.html
Posted on: Monday, May 19, 2008 - 21:27
SOURCE: New Statesman (5-15-08)
... The general picture that emerges of Israeli statecraft in the first 60 years of statehood is one of routine, often unthinking reliance on military force and a reluctance to engage in meaningful diplomacy to resolve the conflict with its neighbours. Another trait, common to Labour and Likud leaders alike, is a blind spot when it comes to the Palestinian people and a desire to bypass them by concluding bilateral deals with the rulers of the neighbouring Arab states.
Of all Israel's bilateral relationships, the most far-reaching in its consequences and the most endlessly fascinating is the one with the Hashemite rulers of Jordan. Jordan and Israel have been aptly described as "the best of enemies". Twenty years ago I published a book that established my credentials as a "new" or revisionist Israeli historian: Collusion Across the Jordan. I challenged many of the myths that have come to surround the birth of the State of Israel and the First Arab- Israeli War, most notably that Arab intransigence was alone responsible for the political deadlock that persisted for three decades. In contrast to the conventional view of the Arab- Israeli conflict as a simple bipolar affair, I dwelt on the special relationship between King Abdullah I of Jordan (grandfather of King Hussein and great-grandfather of King Abdullah II) and the Zionist movement, and on the interest that the Hashemites and the Zionists shared in containing Palestinian nationalism. The central thesis is that, in November 1947, the Hashemite ruler of Transjordan and the Jewish Agency reached a tacit agreement to divide up mandatory Palestine between themselves and that this agreement laid the foundations not only for mutual restraint during the war but for continuing collaboration in its aftermath - until Abdullah I's assassination by a Palestinian nationalist in 1951.
Abdullah left behind a legacy of moderation and realism that continues to inform Jordanian foreign policy down to the present day. Hussein bin Talal, like his grandfather, was the king of realism. Israel, for its part, sought lines of communication to the "plucky little king", who was at odds with the radical Palestinians and with the Arab nationalists led by Gamal Abdel Nasser. In September 1963, the young king took the initiative in starting his own secret dialogue across the battle lines. He had a realistic assessment of the military balance, he knew that the Arabs had no chance of defeating Israel on the battlefield, and he wanted to meet the enemy face-to-face to find a path to peaceful coexistence. His secret contacts with the enemy continued right up until the conclusion of the peace treaty between Jordan and Israel in October 1994.
The June 1967 war marked the lowest ever point in Jordanian-Israeli relations. Hussein made the mistake of his life by jumping on Nasser's bandwagon and the price he paid was the loss of half of his kingdom, including the jewel in the crown - the Old City of Jerusalem. He spent the rest of his life in a tireless effort to recover the occupied Arab territories. Secret diplomacy was resumed and intensified after the war. The list of prominent Israeli politicians who met secretly with Hussein included Golda Meir, Yigal Allon, Moshe Dayan, Abba Eban, Shimon Peres, Yitzhak Rabin and Yitzhak Shamir.
While researching my biography of Hussein, and with the help of official Israeli documents and interviews with some of the principal participants, including the king himself, I tried to reconstruct the parleys that were held behind a thick veil of secrecy. The list of the secret meetings, with dates, names of participants and venues, reveals that most took place in St John's Wood in London at the home of Dr Emanuel Herbert, the king's Jewish physician. But there were also meetings in Paris, Strasbourg, Eilat, Coral Island, the royal yacht in the Gulf of Aqaba, an air-conditioned caravan in Wadi Araba, and one meeting at the Mossad headquarters north of Tel Aviv. My list is probably incomplete but it conveys the scope and intensity of the covert relationship between the ostensible enemies.
Jordan accepted UN Resolution 242 of November 1967 and the principle of land for peace. This resolution became the cornerstone of Jordan's postwar diplomacy. At a deeper level, however, Hussein understood the importance of giving Israel the sense of security needed to make concessions for the sake of peace. Hussein's terms never changed. From the beginning he offered his Israeli interlocutors full, contractual peace in exchange for the occupied territories, with only minor border modifications. His aim was not a separate peace with Israel, but a comprehensive peace in the Middle East. Nor was he alone in striving for peace on the Arab side. Nasser knew and approved of Hussein's secret talks provided they did not lead to a separate peace. Despite Nasser's tacit support, it took great courage on Hussein's part to pursue this solo diplomacy, as it violated the greatest Arab taboo.
The quest for a land-for-peace deal was frustrated more by Israeli than by Arab intransigence. By its actions, the victor showed that it preferred land to peace with its neighbours. Soon after the end of the war Israel began to build settlements in the occupied territories. Building civilian settlements on occupied territory was not just illegal under international law, but a major obstacle to peace. There were some early signs of flexibility on the part of the Israeli cabinet in relation to the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights but none towards the West Bank. All the major parties in the 1967-70 national unity government were united in their determination to keep at least a substantial part of the West Bank, permanently....
Posted on: Monday, May 19, 2008 - 21:21
SOURCE: China Beat (5-19-08)
Media reports of this week’s devastating earthquake in Sichuan highlight trends seen as impressive and new in terms of PRC responses to disaster. The quick response of state leaders symbolized by Premier Wen Jiabao’s much-heralded arrival in the disaster area only five hours after the earthquake hit on Monday, for instance, stands in stark contrast to the PRC’s handling of major catastrophes during the Mao-era, when Chairman Mao and other top leaders failed to act on reports that people were starving to death by the thousands during the Great Leap Famine of 1959-61. An estimated 30 million people died as a result of that famine, making it the most lethal famine in world history.
The willingness of the Chinese government to accept international aid, and most recently even rescue teams from Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, and Singapore, provides an equally sharp contrast to the Mao-era government’s determination to keep news of the Great Leap Famine a secret, even if that required increasing grain exports to neighboring countries during the disaster rather than requesting foreign aid. The rapidity of the response and the massive scale of the government-led relief effort—100 rescue helicopters dropping soldiers into remote areas and 130,000 soldiers and medics mobilized for relief work within three days of the earthquake—may be new for Americans as well, particularly for those who recall how victims of Hurricane Katrina waited for a full week before 50,000 members of the U.S. National Guard were finally dispatched to the disaster area.
While helicopter drops and the acceptance of Japanese rescue teams are new for China, other facets of this week’s earthquake relief effort display interesting similarities to relief campaigns carried out in late imperial China. As a historian of famines in nineteenth-century China, I was intrigued to read that just as the rulers of China’s last dynasty, the Qing (1644-1911), sought to shore up social stability during disasters by seeking to regulate grain prices in famine areas, on Thursday (5/15) China’s current government imposed temporary controls on food prices and transportation fares in the quake-hit areas of Sichuan, Gansu, and Shaanxi in an attempt to stop hoarding and speculation. Officials even punished seventeen people for profiteering.
Some American media reports (most recently a front-page LA Times article from May 17th) take the PRC’s proactive response as evidence that the government is at last beginning to govern “in a manner befitting a modern 21st century state.” A broader historical perspective, however, suggests that in fact the current PRC government is acting in the tradition of imperial China’s Confucian rulers, who often acted with alacrity during natural disasters, both out of a sense of responsibility to nourish the people and a mindfulness that failing to do so might cost them Heaven’s mandate and popular sanction for their rule.
This week China’s state-run media also reported that quake victims can depend on the government to pay their medical expenses. In late imperial China, officials and local literati argued that disasters were a result of the interaction of natural and human forces. While Heaven might send the original drought that led to a crop failure, for instance, it was believed to be a combination of people’s failure to prepare for disaster beforehand and the selfish and greedy behavior of low-level officials and underlings that allowed a drought to escalate into a major famine. The earthquake in Sichuan is obviously a natural rather than man-made catastrophe. Nevertheless, PRC officials seem as anxious as their late-Qing counterparts to ensure that what starts as a natural disaster is not transformed into something even worse on their watch. As Deputy Health Minister Gao Qiang explained when taking responsibility for preventing the outbreak of large-scale epidemics in quake areas, “We should not add to the losses caused by natural disasters and let people suffer more just because we have not done our job well.” (China Daily, 5/16).
The involvement of large numbers of private citizens provides another parallel between late-Qing famine relief efforts and the current relief campaign. During the North China Famine that killed roughly 13 million people during the late 1870s, wealthy philanthropists from cities throughout the Jiangnan region (the lower Yangzi) worked together to raise relief money for their starving compatriots in North China. Some enterprising southern literati even traveled to the northern provinces themselves to distribute grain, bury bodies, build schools for famine orphanages, and redeem women who had been sold by their starving families. While some of these men later received state recognition for their relief work, their relief activities were separate from the Qing state’s official relief campaign.
Media coverage of the current disaster has highlighted the Chinese government’s response and the PLA’s crucial role in relief work. A few reports, however, show that private citizens are responding to the disaster in impressive numbers as well. The People’s Daily reported that by Wednesday Beijingers had filled the city’s blood bank, so hundreds of additional would-be donors were asked to leave their cell phone numbers and wait until more blood was needed. The Guardian observed that wads of cash and piles of donated food and water are being driven into Sichuan not only by army vehicles, but by private or company-owned cars “adorned with red banners proclaiming the names of the donor company or work unit.” The LA Times reported that although the government “has at times warned do-gooders to stay clear and let the army and police do their jobs,” Chinese individuals and businesses have continued to play an active role in relief efforts. “The outpouring of help from the people and the speed with which many groups became involved underscored a fundamental shift in recent years as more individuals and companies take the initiative, eroding the traditional government-led approach,” comments the Times (5/15). In a particularly vivid example of citizen activism, this Wednesday a group of eighteen mountaineers from Beijing, among them doctors and business owners, flew to a quake-stricken country to rescue victims by putting their survival skills into practice, thus following in the footsteps of the late-Qing literati who traveled to northern provinces to distribute relief (China Daily, 5/15).
Chinese philanthropists leapt into action in the 1870s because by that point the beleaguered late-Qing government no longer had the resources to carry out the type of massive relief campaign that Confucian rhetoric and eighteenth-century precedent demanded. The current PRC state, in contrast, is a strong state that thus far has proved to be quite capable of conducting a highly effective relief effort. The degree of initiative displayed by non-state actors during this crisis, however, demonstrates that the state no longer fully controls—and perhaps no longer feels a need to fully control—individual and company-sponsored relief efforts. The late-Qing government reluctantly allowed foreign relief workers—many of them Anglo-American missionaries—and Jiangnan philanthropists to distribute relief in famine areas because by the 1870s it was simply too weak to deal with a major crisis by itself. The present Chinese government, on the contrary, appears to be accepting foreign rescue teams and private initiative from a position of relative strength. The assistance of Japanese relief workers or Chinese citizens is no longer viewed primarily as a threat to an insecure state, but as a way to improve ties with neighbors and further unify the nation.
Further Reading On the Great Leap Famine:
Carl Riskin, “Seven Questions about the Chinese Famine of 1959-61,” China Economic Review 9.2 (1998).
Thomas Bernstein, “Mao Zedong and the Famine of 1959-60: A Study in Willfulness,” China Quarterly 186 (2006).
Posted on: Monday, May 19, 2008 - 21:20
SOURCE: Dissent (Spring) (5-19-08)
... While 70 percent of voters say Clinton is tough enough to make the choices confronting a president and 71 percent say John McCain is, only 58 percent say that about Obama, according to a recent New York Times-CBS News Poll.
Clinton’s challenge is sure to get the attention of Democratic party loyalists. This time around, they want a tough guy running for the presidency. They remember that in 1988 the furloughed, black convict Willie Horton and the Pledge of Allegiance issue undid Michael Dukakis, and that in 2004, John Kerry never recovered from the charge by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth that he was not an authentic Vietnam War hero.
Obama’s reluctance to employ what he disdainfully calls “negative attacks” could help make him Republican victim number three in 2008. But the Dukakis and Kerry precedents are not the only ones that Democrats should keep in mind. They need to look further back in history than ten years ago. The classic lesson in how to deal with a political smear is the one that President Franklin Roosevelt, the greatest Democratic vote getter of all time, delivered in 1944.
In that election FDR found that even after leading the country through the great Depression and to the brink of victory in Second World War, he could not afford to remain aloof when criticized. In America’s first wartime election since 1864, FDR’s Republican opponent Thomas Dewey was able to make gains by criticizing the “tired old men” running the country. The most potentially damaging smear that Roosevelt was subjected to in 1944 was that on a trip to visit American troops on the Aleutian Islands he had left Fala, his beloved Scottie, behind. At tax-payer expense, the Republican story went, Roosevelt had ordered a destroyer to go back and pick up Fala. The charge reinforced the Republicans’ assertion that in running for a fourth term FDR had come to think of himself as a president for life who did not have to play by the same rules as everyone else.
FDR knew that he could not afford to ignore the Fala accusation. Aloofness on his part only gave the charge more credibility. So early in the fall of 1944 he went on the offensive. At a September 23 Teamsters dinner in Washington, FDR struck back at his Republican accusers, but he did so with a counterattack that was the opposite of the take-no-prisoners approach that Barack Obama is now being encouraged to adopt in his presidential campaign.
FDR’s weapon of choice in 1944 was mockery. “I don’t resent, and my family doesn’t resent attacks,” he assured the Teamsters. But Fala was a different story, the president then went on to say. “Fala is Scotch, and being a Scottie, as soon as he learned that the Republican fiction writers in Congress and out had concocted a story that I had left him behind on the Aleutian Island s and had sent a destroyer back to find him--at a cost to the taxpayers of two or three, or eight or twenty million dollars--his Scotch soul was furious,” FDR observed. “He has not been the same dog since.”
The Teamsters howled with laughter. Here was the president saying that the Republicans’ phony charge was too preposterous to hurt him, but insisting that such a charge could affect his dog’s feelings. The president would not stoop to defend himself, but he would stand up to defend his dog’s honor. Laughter was what FDR was after and having won it, he turned it into political gold.
“I am accustomed to hearing malicious falsehoods about myself--such as that old, worm-eaten chestnut that I have represented myself as indispensable,” FDR told the Teamsters. “But I think I have a right to resent, to object to libelous statements about my dog.”
The Fala smear was over as quickly as it had begun....
Posted on: Monday, May 19, 2008 - 21:12
SOURCE: Politico.com (5-5-08)
... The American society is one of dynamic capitalism, cultural rejuvenation and technological change. Because the young are best at adapting to change and learning how to translate it into our daily lives, ours has become the first country in history to transfer cultural authority from its elders to its youth.
So this youthful cohort of voters wants a president who represents the future and not the past, and Obama — not only because his very appearance symbolizes change but also because he vows to challenge an encrusted Washington, suggesting, for example, the use of C-SPAN to cover policy deliberations — has become their candidate. When he describes “the urgency of now,” he speaks directly to these voters.
Fair or not, by defining Clinton as the candidate of the status quo, Obama was able to frame this campaign as part of the narrative these younger voters use to understand America. And Clinton, by attaching herself to the older generation’s version of America, played right into Obama’s strategy.
If, as expected, Obama is nominated to run against the aging Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who has his own personal story of honor and redemption, expect this fault line to be the real subtext of the 2008 election. And if Clinton somehow prevails, the election may well hinge on whether she can pivot back and recapture this new generation of change voters that she once, years ago, so powerfully seemed to represent.
Posted on: Sunday, May 18, 2008 - 19:53
SOURCE: TPM Cafe (5-16-08)
Four years ago, when Mayor Gavin Newsom began issuing marriage licenses for same sex marriages, I was still a political columnist at the San Francisco Chronicle. I rushed down to City Hall to bear witness to the historic events of those days. At the time, I thought Gavin Newsom would be remembered for his bold and courageous initiative. Some said to me, "But it's not a good time." I responded, "It's never a good time to deny others the rights you already have."
Already, there are those who are preparing for a referendum for the November ballot that would ban same sex marriages in the California Constitution. But before we lose the joyous celebration of an expanded democracy, I'd like to recall what happened four years ago. Here, from 2004, is what I witnessed--one of the most joyous historic events in my life.
WHO ARE all the gay and lesbian couples streaming into San Francisco's City Hall to get married? What hopes and dreams did they bring to these sudden and unexpected marriage ceremonies?
Last Friday, I talked with some of the these couples who, in defiance of state law, married in San Francisco. Even though their marriage licenses may be judged invalid by the courts, they came because they wanted to participate in this historic event and to have, even temporarily, the same rights enjoyed by heterosexual couples.
Some of the women, dressed in stunning white gowns, juggled babies and bouquets. Some of the men, dressed in elegant tuxedos, sported a carnation in their lapels and cradled babies, while friends held their paperwork. One man pushed his partner in a wheelchair, a broad smile spreading across his face.
Beaming faces spread an intoxicating sense of joy throughout the building. As couples looked into each other's eyes, arms wrapped around each other, their friends took snapshots and the national media documented the occasion for the evening news. I chatted with one veteran cameraman who was overwhelmed by the scene and, much to his surprise, found himself blinking back tears.
Jennifer Shifflet, 31, and Kati Keyser, 29, both graduate students, live in Berkeley and have been together for eight years. The day before, Jennifer had telephoned Kati at work and said, "Let's do it tomorrow; it's such a historic event." Neither one had a chance to tell their parents of their plan.
But their parents wouldn't be surprised. With pride, they showed me pictures of the family members and friends who gathered around them at their commitment ceremony. During that event, they had expressed their gratitude to all the earlier activists who had struggled for gay rights. Kati said they had come "to support this historic event."
What do they imagine might change, now that they are married? "I won't have to call her my partner or girlfriend at a doctor's office or a hospital," said Jennifer. "She's now my spouse."
"We want to have children,'' said Kati. "Someday I can call a child-care center or a school and say that my spouse will be picking up our child. We'll be viewed as a valid family."
"It's an honor to be part of this. I'm thrilled," said Jennifer. "But the truth is, we had already made this commitment and felt married."
Randa Johnson and Adreanna Riles, both social workers in their late 30s, jointly own a house in Felton. They also felt that they had already married. Still, the day before they traveled to the steps of San Francisco's City Hall, they had asked each other: "Should we wait? No! We've got to be a part of it."
They too, have been together for eight years, but, as Adreanna put it, "I never imagined that we'd be able to marry in my lifetime." Draped in the white dresses they had worn at their commitment ceremony four years ago, they both felt they were "renewing" vows.
Why, then did they want to wed? Aside from the possibility of getting health and retirement benefits reserved for spouses, they said that their religious friends would regard their relationship as more legitimate now that they are married. They also want to have children and feel that they and their children will be viewed as a more legitimate family by teachers and others in their community.
Glowing with happiness, the two women looked like -- and spoke like -- any other married couple who deeply love and respect each other.
There may have been couples who had just met, were swept up in the heady passion of a new romance, and decided to rush down to City Hall to get married.
But that's not what I saw. I met couples who already had made a spiritual commitment to each other and whose love had been tested by time and travail. For them, a marriage license meant greater social legitimacy and fewer logical and legal hassles.
That's how Andy Anderson, 42, and Marcus Wonacott, 49, viewed it. Longtime residents of San Francisco, the men had already shared 16 years of their lives. They, too, already felt they had wed.
As they approached the steps to City Hall, a friend greeted them and pinned roses on their suit jackets. Their faces beamed as they held hands. "We're really very grateful to Mayor Gavin Newsom," said Andy. This really makes a statement. He deserves so much credit for being so bold and daring."
"It a historic milestone," said Marcus. "We're part of history and we know it."
Then, with joyful smiles, they eagerly entered City Hall to renew vows they had made eight years ago, at their commitment ceremony.
Posted on: Friday, May 16, 2008 - 17:54
SOURCE: Real Clear Politics (5-16-08)
... In February 1867, the Kansas legislature passed two amendments. One gave African-American men the vote, the other granted suffrage to all women. Both amendments needed a majority vote from the white male electorate to become law. The election was set for November.
At first, prospects were bright for the passage of both acts, which would make Kansas the first state with "universal suffrage." Women's rights leaders flocked here to join Clarina Nichols, who had laid the groundwork for suffrage a decade earlier.
As the campaign rolled into summer, however, underlying tensions bubbled up. Republican Party leaders, who supported black male suffrage, claimed that the women's suffrage campaign was hurting their cause. This was the "Negro's hour," they declared -- time to enfranchise those men who fought bravely for the Union Army during the Civil War.
The white middle-class supporters of women's suffrage felt betrayed. They had supported antislavery politics even longer than they had agitated for their own rights. They set aside their own agendas during the Civil War with the understanding that afterward, the Republicans would champion their cause. Instead, party leaders told them to wait; worse, they now claimed women's suffrage would undermine the African American cause.
By the time Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton arrived in Kansas in the fall of 1867, both campaigns were in disarray. Newspaper writers furnished voters with reasons why neither group should win suffrage:
If black men gained the vote, large numbers of African-Americans would swarm Kansas. Women's suffrage would increase support for temperance and dry up the liquor supply. It was too soon to usher either group into full political citizenship. Such an "experiment" should be tried in more established states.
Anthony and Stanton made a fateful decision. Short on cash and desperate to win, they teamed with a wealthy racist copperhead named Francis Train, who bankrolled their campaign and engaged in vicious verbal assaults on black people. Anthony and Stanton rationalized this misalliance, saying that supporters of black male suffrage denigrated female suffragists. While true, this did not justify a racist response.
In November, the white male electorate soundly turned back both amendments.
Posted on: Friday, May 16, 2008 - 16:53
SOURCE: Britannica Blog (5-16-08)
We are just about 19 weeks into one of the wildest nomination seasons in several generations and things just keep getting wilder. Senator Barack Obama, the presumptive nominee of the Democratic Party, who has all of the advantages of the inevitability bandwagon in his favor and a much bigger bankroll for his campaign than his opponent loses the West Virginia primary contest to Senator Hillary Clinton.
Wild enough that he lost a big primary this late in the game. Worse yet, he was trounced. Obama lost the primary among Democratic Party voters in a swing state by worse than 2.5 to 1. For those unaccustomed to dealing with odds, for every TWO Obama voters in the West Virginia Democratic Party, there were FIVE Clinton voters. As the old Batman show would put it: ka-pow.
What is worse for Democrats is that the exit polls indicate that nearly a majority of these Clinton voters, and you have to figure these are the among the most committed Democrats, say they will not vote for Senator Obama. Now many of these voters will relent in the end and vote for Obama, should he hold on to secure the Democratic Party’s nomination, but the question is will enough make the trek back.
This is very bad news for the Democrats, but should it give Democrats pause or should they continue their march to an Obama nomination? Under the party’s rules, Obama is almost certain to end the nomination season with a majority of pledged delegates, but he will be short of a full majority. The nomination will be decided by the superdelegates. It is in their hands. They will call the shots. Superdelegates have been moving to Obama as his pledged delegates totals edged toward a majority, but there may be good reason for them to step back and reassess this decision.
Superdelegates ought to be deciding their votes based on which candidate stands the better chance of winning in November. The problem is that it is pretty hard to determine who would run the stronger race against McCain (though I think both are far too liberal to beat the moderate-conservative McCain). Obama supporters point to the number of pledged delegates as an indicator of his general election strength. Clinton supporters in recent weeks have raised the total popular vote as an indicator, though it is not so clear how this pans out and how one should count the contested states of Florida and Michigan and the caucus states.
Another metric, however, has been neglected: the Electoral Vote division, the way we actually elect presidents. Using the statewide winner-take-all rules in awarding electoral votes instead of the Democrats’ various proportional rules in awarding delegates allocated in often peculiar ways (West Virginia, a state with five electoral votes, has 28 delegates; while Puerto Rico, lacking any electoral votes, has 55 delegates), Clinton actually leads Obama by a wide margin. Obama has won 27 states having a total of 210 electoral votes. Even without counting Florida or Michigan, states that Clinton probably would have won, Clinton has won 18 states with 263 electoral votes, 53 more than Obama.
Would Clinton in the general election win all the states she defeated Obama in or would Obama carry the states that he defeated Clinton in? No, but winning pledged delegates or the popular primary vote does not mean you’ll do well in the general election either. However, if the nomination contest reveals anything about candidate general election strength, it might not be a bad idea to take the electoral vote system into account. If we learned anything from the 2000 and 2004 elections it should be that the Electoral College matters.
Posted on: Friday, May 16, 2008 - 16:35
SOURCE: Special to HNN (5-15-08)
In the May 13 New York Times, former Senator George S. McGovern outlined a plan for the Democratic candidates to implement to restore party unity before the convention meets in Denver this coming August. McGovern, of course, is speaking from experience as a presidential contender in not one, but three presidential campaigns (1968, 1972, and 1984). He cites the Democrats’ defeat in each election as a direct result of the lack of unity among Democrats.
Certainly, the issues that divided Democrats in 1968—principally and foremost America’s ongoing commitment to the war in Vietnam—were formidible, and, in the end, insurmountable. As high pitched as the rhetoric has been in this current campaign, Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama agree on most issues. While their path to reconciliation could be rocky, the differences that separate the two camps can be bridged.
In the early months of this campaign, when Clinton held a double digit lead over Obama, she was the presumptive nominee of the party. Analysts speculated what political plum might be rewarded to the newcomer Obama if he was able to stay in the race long enough to distract Clinton march to the nomination. One commentator suggested that an appointment to the Supreme Court was the perfect remedy. Obama, the former law professor, would be allowed to make an impact on the nation’s jurisprudence and he would be out of President (Hillary) Clinton’s way. A win-win scenerio.
Several months later, with only four primary election contests remaining, Obama finds himself the odds on favorite for the nomination. Obama now has options at his disposal to lure Clinton into standing down as an active candidate and uniting behind him. Recent speculation has centered on Clinton’s enormous campaign debts and the likelihood that Obama might offer to help pay it down. This is not a likely scenario. Hillary Clinton entered this historical contest “to win.” Money was just a means to that end. Once the Clintons make their exit from public service, they will have no trouble generating revenue to vanquish old campaign debts.
So what inducement is left? The Vice Presidency? Again, given Clinton’s desire to become the first woman president, it is doubtful she would ever be content with second place. Besides, Obama needs to save some of the drama for the convention and the general election.
The one symbolic jesture that Obama could make at this point is a rapprochement on the issue of health care. One need only watch video clips of the Clinton-Obama debate in Cleveland to be reminded that the one issue that has driven and defined much of Senator Clinton's campaign for the nomination is her earnest desire to implement universal health care in the United States. To make peace before the convention, Senator Obama could and should offer Clinton a substantive role, perhaps at the cabinet level, to direct or coordinate such an effort in a prospective Obama administration. This would go a long way in mending fences between the the camps and work toward a positive good at the same time.
Posted on: Thursday, May 15, 2008 - 21:49
SOURCE: TomDispatch.com (5-15-08)
Once upon a time, I studied the Chinese martial art of Tai Chi -- until, that is, I realized I would never locate my" chi." At that point, I threw in the towel and took up Western exercise. Still, the principle behind Tai Chi stayed with me -- that you could multiply the force of an act by giving way before the force of others; that a smaller person could use the strength of a bigger one against him.
Now, jump to September 11, 2001 and its aftermath -- and you know the Tai Chi version of history from there. Think of it as a grim cosmic joke -- that the 9/11 attacks, as apocalyptic as they looked, were anything but. The true disasters followed and the wounds were largely self-inflicted, as the most militarily powerful nation on the planet used its own force to disable itself.
Before that fateful day, the Bush administration had considered terrorism, Osama bin Laden, and al-Qaeda subjects for suckers and wusses. What they were intent on was pouring money into developing an elaborate boondoggle of a missile defense system against future nuclear attacks by rogue states. Those Cold War high frontiersmen (and women) couldn't get enough of the idea of missiling up. That, after all, was where the money and the fun seemed to be. Nuclear was where the big boys -- the nation states -- played."Bin Laden determined to strike in U.S.…," the CIA told the President that August. Yawn.
After 9/11, of course, George W. Bush and his top advisors almost instantly launched their crusade against Islam and then their various wars, all under the rubric of the Global War on Terror. (As Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld pungently put the matter that September,"We have a choice -- either to change the way we live, which is unacceptable, or to change the way that they live; and we chose the latter.") By then, they were already heading out to "drain the swamp" of evil doers, 60 countries worth of them, if necessary. Meanwhile, they moved quickly to fight the last battle at home, the one just over, by squandering vast sums on an American Maginot Line of security. The porous new Department of Homeland Security, the NSA, the FBI, and other acronymic agencies were to lock down, surveil, and listen in on America. All this to prevent"the next 9/11."
In the process, they would treat bin Laden's scattered al-Qaeda network as if it were the Nazi or Soviet war machine (even comically dubbing his followers"Islamofascists"). In the blinking of an eye, and in the rubble of two enormous buildings in downtown Manhattan, bin Laden and his cronies had morphed from nobodies into supermen, a veritable Legion of Doom. (There was a curious parallel to this transformation in World War II. Before Pearl Harbor, American experts had considered the Japanese -- as historian John Dower so vividly documented in his book War Without Mercy -- bucktoothed, near-sighted military incompetents whose war planes were barely capable of flight. On December 8, 1941, they suddenly became a race of invincible supermen without, in the American imagination, ever passing through a human incarnation.)
When, in October 2001, Congress passed the Patriot Act, and an Office of Homeland Security (which, in 2002, became a"department") was established, it was welcome to the era of homeland insecurity. From then on, every major building, landmark, amusement park, petting zoo, flea market, popcorn stand, and toll booth anywhere in the country would be touted as a potential target for terrorists and in need of protection. Every police department from Arkansas to Ohio would be in desperate need of anti-terror funding. And why not, when the terrorists loomed so monstrously large, were so apocalyptically capable, and wanted so very badly to destroy our way of life? No wonder that, in the 2006 National Asset Database, compiled by the Department of Homeland Security, the state of Indiana,"with 8,591 potential terrorist targets, had 50 percent more listed sites than New York (5,687) and more than twice as many as California (3,212), ranking the state the most target-rich place in the nation."
In the administration's imagination (and the American one), they were now capable of anything. From their camps in the backlands of Afghanistan (or was it the suburbs of Hamburg?), as well as in the murky global underworld of the arms black market, al-Qaeda's minions were toiling feverishly to lay their hands on the most fiendish of plagues and pestilences -- smallpox, botulism, anthrax, you name it. They were preparing to fill suitcases with nuclear weapons for deposit in downtown Manhattan. They were gathering nuclear refuse for dirty bombs. Nothing was too mad or destructive for them. Every faint but strange odor -- the sweet smell of maple syrup floating across a city -- was a potential bio-attack. And everywhere, even in rural areas, politicians were strapping on their armor and preparing to run imminent-danger, anti-terror campaigns, while urging their constituents to run for cover. Meanwhile, that former Sodom of the New World, New York City, had somehow been transformed into an I-heart-NY T-shirt-and-cap combo.
So, thank you, Osama bin Laden for expediting the Department of Homeland Security, glutting an already bloated Pentagon with even more money, ensuring that all those"expeditionary forces" would sally forth to cause havoc and not find victory in two hopeless wars, enabling the establishment of a vast offshore prison network (and the torture techniques to go with it), and creating a whole new global"security" industry to"thwart terrorists" that was, by 2006, generating $60 billion a year in business and whose domestic wing was devoted to locking down America.
When the history of this era is finally written, based on the Tai Chi Principle, Osama bin Laden and his scattering of followers may be credited for goading the fundamentalist leaders of the United States into using the power in their grasp so -- not to put a fine point on it -- stupidly and profligately as to send the planet's"sole superpower" into decline. Above all, bin Laden and his crew of fanatics will have ensured one thing: that the real security problems of our age were ignored in Washington until far too late in favor of mad dreams and dark phantoms. In this lies a bleak but epic tale of folly worthy of a great American novelist (wherever she is).
In the meantime, consider the following little list -- 15 numbers that offer an indication of just what the Tai Chi Principle meant in action these last years; just where American energies did and did not flow; and, in the end, just how much less safe we are now than we were in January 2001, when George W. Bush entered the Oval Office:
536,000,000,000: the number of dollars the Pentagon is requesting for the 2009 military budget. This represents an increase of almost 70% over the Pentagon's 2001 budget of $316 billion -- and that's without factoring in"supplementary" requests to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the President's Global War on Terror. Add in those soaring sums and military spending has more than doubled in the Bush era. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, since 2001, funding for"defense and related programs... has jumped at an annual average rate of 8%... -- four times faster than the average rate of growth for Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid (2%), and 27 times faster than the average rate for growth for domestic discretionary programs (0.3%)."
1,390,000: the number of subprime foreclosures over the next two years, as estimated by Credit Suisse analysts. They also predict that, by the end of 2012, 12.7% of all residential borrowers may be out of their homes as part of a housing crisis that caught the Bush administration totally off-guard.
1,000,000: the number of"missions" or"sorties" the U.S. Air Force proudly claims to have flown in the Global War on Terror since 9/11, more than one-third of them (about 353,000) in what it still likes to call Operation Iraqi Freedom. This is a good measure of where American energies (and oil purchases) have gone these last years.
509,000: the number of names found in 2007 on a"terrorist watch list" compiled by the FBI. No longer, in George Bush's America, is a 10 Most Wanted list adequate. According to ABC News,"U.S. lawmakers and their spouses have been detained because their names were on the watch list" and Saddam Hussein was on the list even when in U.S. custody. By February 2008, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, the names on the same FBI list had ballooned to 900,000.
300,000: the number of American troops who now suffer from major depression or post-traumatic stress, according to a recent RAND study. This represents almost one out of every five soldiers who served in Iraq or Afghanistan. Even more -- approximately 320,000 --"report possible brain injuries from explosions or other head wounds." This, RAND reports, represents a barely dealt with"major health crisis." The depression and PTSD alone will, the study reported," cost the nation as much as $6.2 billion in the two years following deployment."
51,000: the number of post-surge Iraqi prisoners held in American and Iraqi jails at the end of 2007. In that country, the U.S. now runs"perhaps the world's largest extrajudicial internment camp," Camp Bucca, whose holding capacity is, even now, being expanded from 20,000 to 30,000 prisoners. Then there's Camp Cropper, with at least 4,000 prisoners, including"hundreds of juveniles." Many of these prisoners were simply swept up in surge raids and have been held without charges or access to lawyers or courts ever since. Add in prisoners (in unknown numbers) in our sizeable network of prisons in Afghanistan, at Guantanamo, and in our various offshore and borrowed prisons; add in, as well, the widespread mistreatment of prisoners at American hands; and you have the machinery for the manufacture of vast numbers of angry potential enemies, some undoubtedly willing to commit almost any act of revenge. Though there is no way to tabulate the numbers, hundreds of thousands of prisoners have certainly cycled through the Bush administration's various prisons in these last seven years, many emerging embittered. (And don't forget their embittered families.) Think of all this as an enormous dystopian experiment in"social networking," the Facebook from Hell without the Internet.
5,700: the number of trailers in New Orleans -- issued by the Federal Emergency Management Agency as temporary housing after Hurricane Katrina -- still occupied by people who lost their homes in the storm almost three years ago. Such trailers have also been found to contain toxic levels of formaldehyde fumes. Katrina ("Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job") was but one of many security disasters for the Bush administration.
658: the number of suicide bombings worldwide last year, including 542 in Afghanistan and Iraq,"more than double the number in any of the past 25 years." Of all the suicide bombings in the past quarter century, more than 86% have occurred since 2001, according to U.S. government experts. At least one of those bombers -- who died in a recent coordinated wave of suicide bombings in the Iraqi city of Mosul -- was a Kuwaiti, Abdallah Salih al-Ajmi, who had spent years locked up in Guantanamo.
511: the number of applicants convicted of felony crimes, including burglary, grand larceny, and aggravated assault, who were accepted into the U.S. Army in 2007, more than double the 249 accepted in 2006. According to the New York Times, between 2006 and 2007, those enrolled with convictions for wrongful possession of drugs (not including marijuana) almost doubled, for burglaries almost tripled, for grand larceny/larceny more than doubled, for robbery more than tripled, for aggravated assault went up by 30%, and for"terroristic threats including bomb threats" doubled (from one to two). Feel more secure yet?
126: the number of dollars it took to buy a barrel of crude oil on the international market this week. Meanwhile, the average price of a gallon of regular gas at the pump in the U.S. hit $3.72, while the price of gas jumped almost 20 cents in Michigan in a week, 36 cents in Utah in a month, and busted the $4 ceiling in Westchester, New York, a rise of 65 cents in the last year. Just after the 9/11 attacks, a barrel of crude oil was still in the $20 range; at the time of the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, it was at about $30. In other words, since 9/11, a barrel of crude has risen more than $100 without the Bush administration taking any serious steps to promote energy conservation, cut down on the U.S. oil"addiction," or develop alternative energy strategies (beyond a dubious program to produce more ethanol).
82: the percentage of Americans who think"things in this country… have gotten pretty seriously off on the wrong track," according to the most recent Washington Post-ABC News poll. This is the gloomiest Americans have been about the"direction" of the country in the last 15 years of such polling.
40: the percentage loss ("on a trade-weighted basis") in the value of the dollar since 2001. The dollar's share of total world foreign exchange reserves has also dropped from 73% to 64% in that same period. According to the Center for American Progress,"By early May 2008, a dollar bought 42.9% fewer euros, 35.7% fewer Canadian dollars, 37.7% fewer British pounds, and 17.3% fewer Japanese yen than in March 2001."
37: the number of countries that have experienced food protests or riots in recent months due to soaring food prices, a global crisis of insecurity that caught the Bush administration completely unprepared. In the last year, the price of wheat has risen by 130%, of rice by 74%, of soya by 87%, and of corn by 31%.
0: the number of terrorist attacks by al-Qaeda or similar groups inside the United States since September 11, 2001.
So consider"the homeland" secure. Mission accomplished.
And if you doubt that, here's one last figure, representative of the ultimate insecurity that, by conscious omission as well as commission, the Bush administration has left a harried future to deal with: That number is 387: Scientists at the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii just released new information on carbon dioxide -- the major greenhouse gas -- in the atmosphere, and it's at a record high of 387 parts per million,"up almost 40% since the industrial revolution and the highest for at least the last 650,000 years." Its rate of increase is on the rise as well. Behind all these figures lurks a potential world of insecurity with which this country has not yet come to grips.
Posted on: Thursday, May 15, 2008 - 21:19
SOURCE: TPM Cafe (5-15-08)
They certainly sound egalitarian. For example, as I noted the other day, more than 85% of Americans say they agree that "Our society should do whatever is necessary to make sure that everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed." That sentiment, if taken seriously, implies a quite radical policy agenda with respect to education, health care, and other forms of social support. It also seems very hard to square with tax-free inheritances for the children of multi-millionaires.
Perhaps survey respondents answering very general questions of this sort are simply paying lip service to egalitarian values. However, it is easy enough to find much less abstract expressions of egalitarian sympathies. For example, Americans asked to rate various social groups on a 100-point "feeling thermometer" report warmer feelings toward working class people than toward middle class people, warmer feelings toward poor people than toward rich people, and warmer feelings toward labor unions than toward big business. If these feelings were translated into policies, those policies would be quite egalitarian. But the connection between sympathies and policies is remarkably loose. In some cases - perhaps most strikingly, with respect to the minimum wage - public opinion is strongly and consistently egalitarian, but consistently ignored by policy-makers. (Thus, the real value of the federal minimum wage has eroded by more than 40% over the past 40 years.) More commonly, however, the public's own policy views fail to reflect their egalitarian-sounding impulses.
One problem is that most ordinary citizens pay only modest attention to politics and public affairs; as a result, they are often too uninformed to translate their broad political values into specific policy preferences. The 2001 Bush tax cut is a dramatic case in point. In opinion surveys conducted in 2002 and 2004, about 40% of the public said they hadn't thought about whether they favored or opposed this multi-trillion dollar policy innovation. Among those who did express a view one way or the other, opinions were most strongly shaped by what I refer to as "unenlightened self-interest." People who thought their own taxes were too high were very likely to support the tax cut, regardless of what they thought about the tax burdens of rich people, who were overwhelmingly the main beneficiaries from the tax cut. How much people wanted to spend on a wide variety of government programs, their views about the efficiency or wastefulness of government, and other plausibly relevant considerations had no effects, or seemingly illogical effects, on support for the tax cut. Democrats and strong egalitarians were most likely to oppose the tax cut, but only if they were unusually well-informed. Indeed, much of the sizable plurality of public opinion in support of the tax cut came from uninformed egalitarians, liberals, and Democrats
Another problem is that people's perceptions of problems and policies are often warped by their partisan and ideological commitments. For example, even most conservatives recognize that income differences between rich people and poor people have increased over the past 20 years; but conservatives who are generally well-informed about politics and public affairs are actually less likely than those who are less informed about politics and public affairs to admit that fact. In this instance, paying greater attention to politics mostly seems to be helping people learn how congenial political elites would like the world to be, not how the world actually is. (Lest anyone be tempted to suppose that this sort of motivated misperception is peculiar to conservatives, I'll note that a majority of strong Democrats in 1988 thought that inflation had worsened under Ronald Reagan; in fact, the inflation rate had fallen from 13.5% to 4.1%.)
Political elites often take for granted complex interconnections among facts, values, and policy implications. However, for ordinary citizens these connections are often fuzzy, warped, or entirely absent. Thus, while public opinion provides some fertile ground for an egalitarian policy agenda, the hard work of translating egalitarian values and sympathies into effective policy demands mostly remains to be done.
Posted on: Thursday, May 15, 2008 - 21:05
SOURCE: Huffington Post (Blog) (5-15-08)
Yesterday John Edwards announced his support for Barack Obama. The endorsement arrived at a good time for Obama since the inevitable nominee was badly defeated in West Virginia. The defeat did not alter the delegate count or his chances for victory. It did once again raise the underlying concerns that have followed him the past two months. The West Virginia results demonstrated that many working and middle class Democrats are not willing to commit to Obama. There are many reasons behind their resistance. These range from genuine enthusiasm about Hillary Clinton to ugly racial biases to concerns that Obama represents the Starbucks wing of the party.
There are some observers who think that Edwards offers a way out. With Edwards on the ticket, they say, John McCain would not be able to pick off the votes of "Reagan Democrats." His campaign focused on economic inequality. He comes from the kind of social background--which he never hesitates to remind voters of while on the campaign trail--that Obama needs to attract. Most important, he is southern.
Yet Edwards has shown several vulnerabilities as a running mate that Obama should consider before making his choice. The most obvious is that Edwards didn't do well for John Kerry in 2004. Kerry's loss was certainly not Edwards's fault. But Edwards certainly did not help. The worst moment came in his debate with Dick Cheney. The veteran Washington insider generally outflanked his more telegenic opponent. This time around, even when the economy got bad, his poverty-based campaign never got going.
The second vulnerability revolves around authenticity, a big issue in this campaign, as Clinton has discovered. Voters want someone who is straight with them. Despite his history, Edwards does not always come across as authentic. The media loves to point to his current wealthy lifestyle--from his $4 million + home to his $400 haircuts--which contradict his claims to be in touch with those suffering from economic insecurity. Even his record in the Senate was much more of a centrist Democrat, like Bill Clinton's, rather than Ted Kennedy. Indeed, his decision to offer the endorsement only after Obama's victory seemed inevitable offers just one more example for his critics.
While Mitt Romney's greatest asset was that he looked like a president, Edwards' greatest problem is that he looks like a senator. When the Democrats face a candidate who has a powerful life story as a prisoner of war, they need compelling narratives of their own--they need someone voters can believe in.
The authenticity issue is not just a problem for Edwards, but could be a problem for Obama. One of the big questions is what does Obama really stand for? There are questions about his beliefs and his alliances as seen with his "bitter" remark and his ties to Reverend Wright. To have someone on the ticket who could easily be painted as an "elite" liberal (and trial lawyer) would be a problem.
Finally, there is the issue of experience. Obama dodged this issue in the campaign, turning Clinton's experience against her. But the issue is still out there and it will be more salient in the fall when he faces a veteran senator. To choose another young senator with relatively modest political experience would not give the Democratic ticket what it needs.
Edwards has a lot of virtues, but serving as a running mate is not one of them. Democrats have seen that show before and they might want to think twice before asking for a rerun.
Posted on: Thursday, May 15, 2008 - 20:32
SOURCE: NYT (5-15-08)
IT is a cruel and poignant certainty that the children who died in the wreckage of their school during the earthquake this week in Dujiangyan, China, knew all too well that their country once led the world in the knowledge of the planet’s seismicity.
They would have been taught, and proudly, that almost 2,000 years ago an astronomer named Chang Heng invented the world’s first seismoscope. It was a bizarrely imagined creation, with its centerpiece a large bronze vessel surrounded by eight dragons, each holding a sphere in its mouth.
A complex system of internal levers ensured that if an earthquake ever disturbed the vessel, a ball would drop from a dragon’s care into the mouth of a bronze frog positioned underneath. By observing which dragon had dropped its ball, Chang Heng could ascertain the location of the quake. And always, as the emperor for whom Chang Heng fashioned the device noted, the earthquakes came from the mountains in the west, where Dujiangyan lies.
As we watch with mounting melancholy the devastation from Sichuan, a question lingers, and troublingly. Why, if the Chinese had come to know so much about earthquakes so early on in their immensely long history, were they never able to minimize the effects of the world’s contortions — to at least the degree that America has? Why did they leave the West to become leaders in the field, and leave themselves to become mired, time and again, in the kind of tragic events that we are witnessing this week?
The question applies to very much more than the science of earthquakes. In almost every area of technology the Chinese were once supreme, without competition. The stirrup, so hugely important in peace and war, was invented by the Chinese. Printing, gunpowder, the use of the compass — the three inventions that Francis Bacon once said defined the modern world — are all thought to have been first made in China. So too, many think, were vaccination, toilet paper, segmental arch bridges, iron chains and perhaps chess — the list seems endless.
And yet, in the 16th century China’s innovative energies inexplicably withered away, and modern science became the virtual monopoly of the West....
If the country does not occasionally stand back and pause for breath, then its future — at least so far as nature’s occasional moments of seismic madness are concerned — will continue to be marked by calamity. Until this week Dujiangyan was a place of which China could be proud; today its wreckage stands as a tragic monument to a culture that turned its back on its remarkable and glittering history.
Posted on: Thursday, May 15, 2008 - 19:28
SOURCE: Informed Comment (Blog run by Juan Cole) (5-15-08)
I've been traveling again and so only just saw Edward Luttwak's ridiculous column about Barack Obama being considered an"apostate" in the Muslim world.
It is just so discouraging that such an ignorant and illogical comment was made by a prominent American pundit, and that the New York Times leant its pages to this complete drivel.
Of course, this column is a stealth way of bringing back up the myth of Obama being a Muslim, and it is profoundly dishonest.
The argument is that Obama's father was a Muslim and therefore Obama would be considered a Muslim apostate by fundamentalists, even though Obama's mother was a Christian; even though his father abandoned them and Obama did not really know him; even though Obama never practiced Islam; and even though his father was himself a secularist who was known to like a stiff drink. Luttwak even alleges that the law of apostasy is in the Qur'an (Wael Hallaq has argued convincingly that it is not).
So here is what the academic literature has to say about Islamic law on this issue (Rudolph Peters and Gert J. J. De Vries
Die Welt des Islams, New Series, Vol. 17, Issue 1/4 (1976 - 1977), pp. 1-25 ):
"Not only the act of apostasy is subject to certain conditions in order to be legally valid, but also with regard to the perpetrator (murtadd) specific qualifications have been laid down. He can perform a legally effective act of riddah [apostasy] only out of free will (ikhtiyar) at an adult age (bulugh), being compos mentis (`aqil [of sound mind]), and, as emphasized by the Malikite school, after his unambiguous and explicit adoption of Islam." [- p. 3][P. 2, n. 3:"It is equally stated that this Islam needs to be evident in both qawl [speech] and `amal [deed]; a person who embraced the faith by merely pronouncing the shahadah [profession of faith] would not be considered qulified to perform a legally valid act of apostasy-- Cf. Mawwaq in the margin of Hattab, Mawahib al-Jalil, VI, pp. 279-80]"
Barack Obama never accepted or practiced Islam as an adult (which would be age 15 in Islamic law) and therefore according to classical Islamic jurisprudence cannot be an apostate. Peters and DeVries are Arabists and are among the foremost scholars on Islamic law, unlike Luttwak, who does not have the slightest idea what he is talking about.
Luttwak has no doubt been misled by some Salafi, modernist-fundamentalist fatwa, which departs from the great Islamic legal traditions, and he has mistakenly taken it to be representative of Islamic law. Or, I don't know, maybe some minor jurist in the minority Hanbali tradition dissents. But to characterize these minority traditions or idiosyncratic views as representative of Islam as a whole would be like declaring Pat Robertson's interpretation of Christianity more legitimate than that of Saint Thomas Aquinas.
The authoritative Encyclopedia of Islam, after noting some of the extremist modern positions of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad of Ayman al-Zawahiri and others goes on to say,
' The view that the law of apostasy applies only to those [adult Muslims] who have deliberately and unambiguously broken with Islam is, for instance, still held by the majority of Hanafi jurists. Some jurists have proposed the abolition of all penalties for apostasy from Islam (Shaltut, M., Islam. `Aqida wa-shari`a (Cairo 1966), 287f.; Saeed, A., and H. Saeed, Freedom of religion. Apostasy and Islam, Aldershot 2004).' (S.v."Apostasy.")
Luttwak even goes so far as to speculate, on the basis of no evidence whatsoever, that some Muslims might want to kill Obama for"apostasy" and suggests his life would be in danger on state visits to Muslim countries. But as we have seen, classical Islamic law would not lead to this conclusion at all.
Another error is to see persons of Muslim heritage as necessarily religious. Frankly, most Muslims nowadays don't pay any attention to those kinds of minutiae. Indonesia's Muslims elected relatively secular parties when they were allowed to vote. Hundreds of millions of Muslims in Muslim-majority states lives under secular governance and laws-- Turkey, Indonesia, Tunisia, Algeria, Jordan, Syria, etc.
Moreover, Luttwak's column is ahistorical. There have been lots of"apostasies" in modern Middle Eastern history. The Shihab dynasty in the 19th century Levant had been Sunni Muslims but converted to Christianity. They were recognized as the rulers of what is now Lebanon by the Ottoman Empire and by other Ottoman principalities. Nothing bad happened to them because of their conversion even though it did meet the classical definition of apostasy. People don't always act the way the obscure law books suggest.
Or for a contemporary example, let us take Turkish Chief of Staff Yasar Buyukanit, a pillar of the Kemalist, anti-Islam establishment in Ankara. He visited Egypt quite safely even though he certainly would be considered an apostate by Muslim fundamentalists. He called activist Islam a " center of evil" that threatens Turkey's secular and democratic traditions. Fundamentalist Muslim Turks consider Buyukanit not only an apostate from Islam but also a secret convert to Judaism.
Yet Buyukanit is arguably among the more powerful persons in the Middle East and travels freely in the region.
Or there is Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who obviously apostatized from Islam to Communism and then from Communism to some other form of secularism. And yet Nazarbayev freely visits the Middle East.
Former Cairo University Professor Hamid Nasr Abu Zaid was accused of apostasy (not heresy, apostasy) in the Egyptian court system, on the grounds that his academic writings on the Qur'an denied its status as divine revelation. He was actually found guilty by a Cairo court, though the ruling was later suspended and an embarrassed Egyptian government said it would work to prevent it happening again. Was Abu Zaid sentenced to death by the official court? No. The punishment? He was ordered divorced from his Muslim wife, since a non-Muslim male may not be legitimately married to a believing Muslim woman. The couple fled to Holland. This incident was a horrible miscarriage of justice and an affront to human liberty, but it directly refutes Luttwak's silly argument that a finding of apostasy would necessarily lead state institutions to impose a death penalty. Many Middle Eastern states do not even have hisba or sharia benches that could make such rulings. Iran is among the few places where it could happen, and there are other reasons for one to be fearful for an American president's safety in Iran. Likewise, those radicals who brandished death threats at Abu Zaid would kill an American president even if they didn't think him an apostate, as Ali Eteraz pointed out.
A lot of observers think Obama is a 'natural' candidate for Muslims abroad to support. But why? They see him as just another American, and they haven't had a good experience with American policies. In Pakistan, 50% of a sample said that they would like to vote in the upcoming American election. Of that group, 30% said they would vote for Hillary Clinton, 14% said they would vote for Obama, and 8% said they would vote for John McCain. So Luttwak's assumptions are incorrect in every way. Pakistanis don't care about Obama's background, they care that he threatened to bomb their country. American reporters are always asking if Hillary Clinton can get respect in the patriarchal Muslim world; but she is is the one the Pakistani public would vote for! Pakistani Muslims elected a female head of state, after all, something the patriarchal Americans haven't yet managed.
An American president might be in danger in the Middle East. But it would be because of the hatred for the United States provoked by the brutal military tactics of the Bush administration and by its blithe unconcern for the welfare of Palestinians and other local people.
It would be because Bush is the apostate, since he was born under the US constitution but he left it for a faith in torture, killing innocents, neo-colonialism, and mass murder (as at Fallujah).
That's the apostasy that Middle Easterners most mind.
Posted on: Thursday, May 15, 2008 - 18:46
SOURCE: Open Democracy (5-14-08)
A dramatic but largely unacknowledged shift has recently taken place in how the past is understood in China. One way to think about this Chinese transformation is to see it as a sort of "colour revolution" - albeit one very different from the associations this term has with the popular upheavals in Georgia or Ukraine.
Within a few years of Mao Zedong taking power after the communist victory of October 1949, a colour-scheme took shape in which the only parts of the past which could be celebrated were those considered to be completely “red” - that is, tied to the revolution and useful in adding to its lustre. But more than three decades after Mao’s death, China is making room for parts of its past that fall into two other colour-coded categories. It is no longer off-limits to praise things associated with the colour “blue” - which in China has sometimes been linked to the sea, and by extension objects and fashions coming from the west. The fall of another taboo is reflected in favourable comment about historical artefacts or figures regarded as “yellow” - which, in addition to certain sexual and pornographic connotations, conjures up traditional modes of thought and imperial rule.
The crowds that have attended this very Chinese “colour revolution” are gazing at tourist sites, not protesting in city-centre squares. True, even in the newest of new China, it remains acceptable to visit and take pride in the classic “red” locales, such as places where Mao himself fought battles or held meetings. Indeed, 2005 was even declared a year of “red tourism”, marked by the publication of books about specific cities and provinces where sites with sacred revolutionary significance could be found.
But it has also become acceptable to revel in aspects of China’s past that are “blue”, in the sense of symbolising the country’s ties to international currents that have more to do with consumption and capitalism than to radical action. The refurbished neo-classical structures that line Shanghai’s waterfront Bund are an example. In a sign of just how far things have moved on from the days when these buildings were disparaged as symbols of “bourgeois decadent” lifestyles, some Shanghai residents clamour to see them become China’s latest addition to the United Nations list of world heritage sites.
Perhaps even more strikingly, it is now routine for citizens of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to trek to “yellow” sites linked to the Confucian and dynastic past in a spirit of reverence. Some of these places were indeed seen as appropriate destinations in Mao’s day, but to be reminded of the injustices of “feudal” times rather than to take pride in their splendour. Even Beijing’s “forbidden city”, which Mao considered tearing down completely to make way for buildings more representative of the new China, has been recast as a symbol of the nation.
The forbidden city's renewed sacredness became clear when a popular television personality spearheaded a campaign for the removal of a Starbucks outlet at the edge of the old palace complex. If the network of imperial buildings had still been seen as a polluted and degenerate space, such a protest would not have made any sense (nor been successful, as it ultimately was). It is equally notable that, three decades after Confucianism was being denounced in virulent campaigns that derided it for elevating men above women and intellectuals above workers, a visit to Confucius’s birthplace in Qufu is seen as a natural way to pay homage to one of the “great thinkers” of world history. The citizens of the PRC are encouraged to take pride in the fact that China produced such a sage.
This new eclecticism influences much more than tourism. It has also given rise to a mix-and-match approach in official propaganda. Hu Jintao and other leaders now move easily from appeals to "social harmony" ("yellow") to reminders that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) saved the nation from Japanese imperialists ("red") to references to the importance - evident in the (albeit so far limited) acceptance of aid following the Sichuan earthquake - of opening up to the west ("blue").
Such eclecticism is not unprecedented. Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925), the architect of modern China and leader of the republican revolution of 1911, was a very “blue” figure: he studied abroad, sometimes quoted Abraham Lincoln, and just before his death lived a cosmopolitan lifestyle in Shanghai’s French concession; there, he and his American-educated wife, Soong Qingling, entertained dignitaries such as the American philosopher John Dewey and sometimes played croquet to relax.
Yet Sun Yat-sen also had a very “red” side, which showed through in his championing of radical land reform and temporary alliance with Moscow. He also made occasional “yellow” gestures - most notably, the western-style (‘blue”) inauguration of his short-lived tenure as the first president of the Republic of China was followed by a filial visit to the tombs of members of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), the last Han Chinese family to rule the country. This framed the 1911 revolution as also in part an act of restoration, an effort to return the land to its traditional owners after a period of control by the Manchu usurpers of the Qing (1644-1911).
The kind of eclecticism Sun represented became increasingly rare, however, in the course of China’s turbulent 20th century. One reason was the ideological divide between the Guomintang (Chinese Nationalist Party) and the Chinese Communist Party that opened up after Sun - who had briefly drawn them together - died. Mary C Wright, near the end of her classic study The Last Stand of Chinese Conservatism, uses a poster from 1926 to illustrate how quickly after his death Sun became the object of competing efforts to transform him into either a thoroughly “red” or an “anything but red” figure (although she uses different terms, the colour-scheme does capture the sense of her argument).
Wright describes the poster, used by a Peasants' Association, as follows: "On one side was a Confucian temple, on the other a ‘world park,' featuring Marx, Lenin, and a vacant third position. In the center a man in Chinese Nationalist uniform was carrying the portrait of Sun Yat-sen toward the Confucian temple. The legend read: ‘Sun ought to be in the world park but [Guomintang conservative Dai Jitao] wants him in the Confucian temple".
This fight over where Sun "belonged" was matched, Wright argues, by a general slicing of the Chinese past, with the ever-more virulently anti-red nationalist followers of Chiang Kai-shek coming to treat as villains any groups that the communists claimed as patriotic heroes (such as the leaders of the millenarian Taiping uprising [1850-64] or the Boxer insurgents ). Each side's embrace of "its" Chinese past was then reinforced in propaganda, assimilation, identification and emotion, until the polarised versions took on their own - homogeneous and monochrome - reality.
The palette's politics
Is there anything wrong with the new multihued eclecticism, in which Sun Yat-sen, who remains a venerated figure in China, might find his portrait placed in a pantheon that included Karl Marx and Confucius? Should it be troubling to visit Shanghai's main library and gaze at a statue of Confucius in the courtyard (a fittingly scholarly symbol for a structure devoted to books), from beside an exhibit commemorating a proletarian revolutionary struggle? Isn't the ability to recognise and value the "blue" and "yellow" as well as the "red" parts of the past a good thing?
In the sense that anything which breaks from the overly rigid Maoist colour-scheme is welcome, then yes. In China no less than in other settings, being able to find value in multiple strands of the past can open up possibilities for creatively thinking through current dilemmas. It is also unreserved progress that Chinese citizens no longer fear ruin if official scrutiny of their lives found them insufficiently "red" - perhaps simply because of having a relative who had migrated to a "blue" land like America or because they possessed a "yellow" book like Confucius's Analects.
There are darker sides, however, to the new eclecticism. It is a great loss, for example, that in mixing "red" with other colours some of the most admirable elements of the revolutionary vision - such as the concern with female equality that resulted in a revised marriage law being the first major piece of national legislation introduced by the communists - have largely disappeared from view. The "blue" current that has swept through China to take its place has been the sort of objectification of women in the interests of selling products that has long been familiar in the west.
Another disturbing - and, in light of the reaction of Chinese media and people to the Tibetan and Olympic-torch protests, topical - side-effect of China's recent colour shift has been the way that "red" and "yellow" themes have been blended in official history textbooks in a manner that fuels a vehement nationalism. It is important to note that - some western media commentary notwithstanding - there are multiple forms of Chinese patriotism and nationalism in play just now, not a single ferocious kind. But it is unarguable that one rising variety - fuelled partly by the internet - combines an obsession with past imperialist humiliations and a chauvinistic vision of the Han Chinese as an ethnic group with a uniquely glorious tradition of accomplishment.
This intertwining of "red" and "yellow" themes, alas, can create a palette just as rigid and distorting in its own way as was the all-red-all-the-time Maoist paint-bucket that China has left behind. The implication is that the selection of "colours" used to portray Chinese history matters less than the attitude that informs the attempt to understand this history. If that is got right, then the colours will take their own shape rather than the past being bent to suit them.
Posted on: Thursday, May 15, 2008 - 18:36