19 February 2008

A Miscellany - 19-Feb-2008

Just a few things on my mind, in no particular order:

1. I urge everyone who may come across this blog to go to the Discovery Channel's web site and register your disgust that they have refused to air the documentary Taxi to the Darkside, which recounts the murder of an innocent Afghani taxi driver in the custody of the U.S. Army.

This is the same outfit that has the Military Channel, which glorifies all things deadly.

2. To get another perspective on just what war/violence costs, go to this latest (Feb 17) dispatch on Tom Engelhardt's page about what's been happening to the women and children of Sierra Leone, Liberia & Cote d'Ivoire -- all countries suspiciously absent from Bush's African itinerary.

[Erratum: I was slightly off in Monsieur Bush's travel agenda - he did go to Liberia, afterall.]

3. And, while I'm thinking about it -- please make Bill Moyer's Journal's homepage one of your favorites, and make a point of watching it on your local PBS station (or get them to carry it, if they don't).

4. Book Recommendations (from the last 6 months or so of my reading schedule):

  • Cultural Amnesia, Clive James. The book is a series of essays about various people James considers important. Not all of the essays were interesting to me, but I did learn things about people I hadn't known before and James introduced me to several interesting figures that my education had neglected.
  • The Blood Knight, Gregory Keyes. Book three in his Kingdoms of Bone and Thorn series.
  • Reapers' Gale, Steven Erikson. Book seven in his Malazan Book of the Fallen series. I cannot praise this author enough. He's reminiscent of Glen Cook's Black Company and Dread Empire series, but he's a better writer (though it pains me, somewhat to say that since Croaker of the Black Company is my all-time favorite fantasy character; Signy Mallory of CJ Cherryh's Downbelow Station is my SF fave).
  • Legacy of Ashes, Tim Weiner. The sad, sad history of the CIA and its "successes."
  • Ella Minnow Pea, Mark Dunn.
  • Soon I Will Be Invincible, Austin Grossman. A novel in the tradition of The Watchmen but less grim.
  • House of War, James Carroll. The sad, sad history of the Pentagon and the erosion of America's democracy.
  • Kushiel's Justice, Jacqueline Carey. The second book in her second series set in the alternate Earth of Terre d'Ange. I was disappointed in Carey's second foray into fantasy (Banewreaker, Godslayer); they're decent enough novels but they didn't grab me the way Terre d'Ange has.
  • Takeover, Charlie Savage. Another in those sad, sad chronicles of American decline.
  • Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi, and Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi. Two incredible chronicles of life in a theocratic dictatorship. On the one hand, they were windows into a world that would be utterly alien to most Americans; on the other hand, they showed just how much every human being has in common with their fellows.
  • The Basic 8, Daniel Handler. This is Handler's first novel (as Handler, he's also the guy who writes the Lemony Snicket books) and his best in my opinion (though the others, Shut Your Mouth and Adverbs are pretty good, too). I identified a lot with the main character Flannery Culp.
  • Gentlemen of the Road, Michael Chabon. I chose to read this one because it dealt with my favorite, unknown medieval kingdom -- Khazaria -- not because I'm a fan of Chabon. I still have no great desire to read Chabon but I did enjoy this novel, reminiscent of Fritz Leiber's Fahfrd & the Grey Mouser (in fact, it prompted me to reread Leiber).

I just finished Barbara Mertz's popular history of Egypt, Temples, Tombs and Hieroglyphs. It was written a little too "folksy" for my taste but it gives the reader a taste of just how fascinating history is, and it's sobering in just how little we really know about what's gone on in our pasts. Right now, I'm in the middle of Orville Burton's The Age of Lincoln. I was hoping the author would spend more time on the 1840s and '50s because that's a period of U.S. history I'm woefully unfamiliar with. What he did cover, was interesting because it showed that America has never been "united" in the sense the Republicans (and many Dems) would want us to believe. It was only after the Civil War, in fact, that our modern concept of the federal government and its relationship to the states emerged (for better or for worse).

14 February 2008

Happy Valentine's Day, Hailey and Claire



The Clan loved your Valentine's Day card.

12 February 2008

Stanch vs. Staunch

I work as an editor. I am an amateur (very amateur) linguist. I think that people should care about how they use words.

Thus, I get upset when authors and editors can't tell the difference between "stanch" and "staunch."

to stanch -- to stop or check the flow of. The doctor was unable to stanch the blood, and his patient died.

staunch -- firm and steadfast. The Brits were staunch allies of the US during the Second World War.

I know that I'm fighting a losing battle. Languages change, usage changes but I like the distinction and think it should be maintained (even if my American Heritage dictionary gives "staunch" as an alternative to "stanch" -- ugh!).

[The same goes for the distinction between compose and comprise. A whole is composed of its parts; a whole comprises its parts -- sigh :-(]

And what's up with the serial comma? I thought the comma replaced the "and" in a list; it doesn't reinforce it.

[Added later that same day] And then there's obscene neologisms like "incentivize"; or using "pressurize" when you really want to use "pressure."

I Do Not Support the Troops

Yesterday (Feb 11), I heard and read about the Berkeley, Calif., city council's principled stand against the presence of a Marine recruiting office in their city. (Here's hoping they don't back down despite pressure from both state and federal governments to do so.) Like neurasthenic women of the Victorian Era, the Republicans have reacted hysterically. U.S. Senator Jim DeMint, R-S.C., is sponsoring legislation that would cut off federal funds for Berkeley (including school lunches) if they don't apologize for their effrontery. Good job, Jim, passing a law that lets kids go hungry because a city council passes a largely symbolic resolution reflecting its disgust and opposition to the Iraq Occupation and the militarization of our country.

Which is as nice as any segue into the topic of this latest post. This is a hard essay to compose because I want to make it clear that I don't hate nor disrespect people who choose to join our military; my brother was a Marine and served in the elder Bush's Gulf foray. I recognize that, unfortunately, some military capacity must be maintained. I even recognize that, on occasion, wars must be fought because there's no alternative (though, to be honest, I'm hard pressed to find any outside of the Civil War and the Second World War that qualify in American history).

That said: I do not support the troops.

Why should I? They persecuted an unjust, unnecessary, immoral and illegal war and are persecuting an equally untenable occupation. Their duty as citizens of a democracy (which they are before they are soldiers) is to refuse to participate in this atrocity, which has (so far) claimed upwards of 1 million Iraqi lives and displaced several million more (the equivalent, in raw numbers, of 50 million Americans forced to flee their homes).

Which troops do I support? The brave handful who refuse to go or refuse to go back.

We have willfully destroyed an entire country (two, if you count Afghanistan, that ugly stepsister or our criminally incompetent "war on terror"). There's nothing that can justify what we have done (and that includes the decade of bombing that preceded the war under Clinton's watch) and damn all we can do to atone for it.

We are become a nation of self-righteous, arrogant bastards so blinded by the "justice" of our cause that we will tear down anyone, anything that dares to oppose us. (A tendency we've been all too prone to since our founding; cf., the "city on the hill," Manifest Destiny, "destroy the village to save it," etc.)

Like Athens in the 5th century BC and Rome in the 1st, the choice of "empire" or "democracy" confronts us. Both Athens and Rome chose "empire" and lost their democracies. Administrations since FDR's day have consistently chosen the burdens of empire and we see its fruits today in the death of democracy: warrantless wiretaps, mercenary armies, loss of habeas corpus, illegal covert ops, the unitary executive, a bloated military, military tribunals, denial of due process, torture, corruption, stifling free speech, preemptive war, signing statements and Executive Orders...and it goes on.

George Bush may just be this republic's Sulla. Before, all the forms of democracy were observed even if the substance advanced the cause of empire. Now, however, the sacred boundaries of the city are breached and troops march on the Capitol. All done, of course, only to restore the republic and protect it from its enemies. If the last century has taught us anything (apparently, alas, it hasn't) it's that the greater enemy to "our way of life" is the oppression of our own government against its own citizens.

I do not support the troops. I oppose any bill that continues to fund the Occupation. I am disgusted at the Congress that supinely bows to the demands of those two sociopaths who stole the election in 2000 (and probably did so again in 2004). I do not "hate America" -- in fact, I kind of like it. At least, I like the America envisioned by the Founders [see Addenda below] and described by Lincoln as the "best hope" to all the nations of the world, which is why I am so troubled and saddened to see us sink so low.


[Yes, I know the Founders had their issues. "Slavery" probably being the worst. But the ideals expressed in the Declaration and their concrete expression in the Constitution are two examples of the best that human beings are capable of.]

[Republicans are vile! No, no -- they aren't. At least not as individuals. I know Republicans, some of them are my best friends, but their party has slipped so far into the Darkside that I find it unfathomable why they cling to it (except, of course, for the fact that we're more or less locked into a permanent two-party system without electoral reform and/or Constitutional amendment -- a problem I face all the time when I try to support the Democrats).

This is the party that, after all, cuts VA funding and demands that soldiers who can't serve out their enlistments because of combat wounds return their signing bonuses. This is the party that, after all, refuses to adequately equip its troops despite having chosen to go to war. This is the party that, after all, cares so little about human life that a prominent member was heard to remark that Hurricane Katrina was actually a "good thing" for the poor and displaced of New Orleans. This is the party, after all, whose Administration drove a man insane (Jose Padilla) with torture and isolation, and continues to do so to I don't know how many others at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, Bagram and who knows how many other dungeons.

And I'm stuck with a party whose leadership is so spineless that they can't even assert themselves when they're in the majority.]

09 February 2008

Jan. 20, 2009: 10+ Things for the New President to Do

Here's a list of 10 things (among many) that the next president should do to help bring this country back to its founding principles (in no particular order):

1. Place a 15-year (at most) limit on the classification of anything.
2. Open up all meetings concerning public policy to (gasp) the public.
3. Annul all signing statements since Jan. 20, 2001; and confine their provenance to explaining how the executive will enforce a law.
4. Review and annul (where necessary) all Executive Orders since Jan. 20, 2001 (and it would probably be a good thing to review all EOs going back at least to the Reagan era).
5. Disavow recess appointments and urge Congress to pass a law making them illegal.
6. Urge Congress to pull out of NAFTA, CAFTA, and other so-called "free trade" agreements.
7. Evacuate all overseas bases.
8. Slash the military budget by a factor or 10.
9. Dismantle the covert ops arms of all the intelligence agencies, and assert that the president does not have the power to authorize such activities outside of a declared war.
10. Begin dismantling all nuclear weapons.

A few more have occurred to me [Feb 11]:
11. Urge Congress to repeal the PATRIOT and Military Commission Acts.
12. Restore habeas corpus.
13. Stop interfering in the internal politics of other countries (this last is prompted by the story I'm listening to now on Democracy Now about the US funneling money to anti-Morales parties in Bolivia and asking Peace Corp volunteers to spy on Venezuelans).

[Added Feb 14]:
14. Urge Congress to repeal its granting of immunity to the telcoms that broke the law in allowing the Bush Administration to wiretap their customers without wiretaps.

07 February 2008

The Quiet American

One of the libraries I frequent has a liberal check-out policy re DVDs -- one week, no charge. The downside is that they have an even more limited selection than the typical Blockbuster, alas. While browsing the shelves one day, I saw the 1950s version of Graham Greene's The Quiet American and, on a whim, decided to check it out. I checked out Greene's novel, as well, so I could compare/contrast. I had never read a Greene novel before, though I knew the name.

A week later, I rented the Michael Caine/Brendan Fraser version of the novel.

To begin then: I (usually) prefer the printed version of any work of literature. I find that movie versions, no matter how well done, never quite do justice to the author's intent. Particularly in modern cinema, I feel directors "dumb down" their subjects and assume American audiences are just too stupid to understand subtlety. Which is my chief complaint with the Caine/Fraser film.

I enjoyed Greene's novel, and enjoyed both film versions. They're good films and I would recommend them to anyone who was interested. The first version (Movie 1) stars Michael Redgrave and Audie Murphy, and hewed very closely to the novel. The second film (Movie 2) stars Michael Caine and Brendan Fraser, and took more liberties with the novel than Movie 1, except at the end, which remained truer to the novel's. (Short plot outline [skip this if you're already familiar with it]: The story revolves around three main characters -- Thomas Fowler, a Brit journalist, cynical, depressed with his advancing age, and determined to have "no opinion" about the events he's reporting; Alden Pyle, the "quiet American", an idealist who believes he can make Vietnam a model democracy if he can just find that "third force" to oppose both the French and the Communists (sound familiar?); Phuong, a Vietnamese woman who's Fowler's mistress but who falls for Pyle (and vice versa). The setting is 1952 Vietnam, when the French were beginning to extricate themselves from the Vietnam quagmire and the Americans were just getting their toes wet. I'm not going to get any deeper into the plot since it's a "serious" novel and I could write a several blogs about all of its levels -- just wanted to give you an idea of what's going on -- back to my meditation.)

On the whole, I found the novel and Movie 1 more satisfying because they expected the reader/viewer to make inferences and conclusions that were not explicit, unlike Movie 2, which felt the need to spell out everything.

For example: Neither the novel nor Movie 1 ever bluntly reveals just what role Pyle plays at the Economic Aid Mission. It's a near certainty that he's a CIA agent. One of those idealistic, gung-ho, college grads lured into saving the world from the "Red Menace" regardless of the cost. But maybe he isn't (I don't subscribe to that interpretation, but it's arguable). The Caine/Fraser version goes out of its way to make it clear that Pyle is CIA -- he can speak Vietnamese, though he said he couldn't; he claims to have arranged affairs when he and Fowler are driving back from the Holy Mountain so that he could protect him from General The's murderous intentions; and he's able to cross enemy & French lines to visit Fowler when the latter is covering a campaign near Hanoi.

Worse, Pyle's murder is filmed rather than happening off-stage. Why? This is like seeing Caesar's assassination or the murder of the Princes in the Tower or that of Malcolm's wife and children. And we see that the murderer is Fowler's Vietnamese contact. Has our society become so debased and just plain stupid that we have to see the violence, we have to have all things spelled out for us as if we were children? For me, the strength of book and Movie 1 was just that ambiguity that made me think about what was happening and who was doing what.

[This consideration of violence also bothers me inordinately about the scene in The Lord of the Rings when Aragorn lops off the Mouth of Sauron's head. One, the Mouth was a human, not some freakish mutant with a bad dentist; and, two, he was intimidated into backing down at their confrontation and not dealt with violently (like an orc would). It was a cheap appeal to the base nature of the audience, and I can't imagine that Tolkien would have been happy with that change. But my review of Peter Jackson's otherwise quite good Lord of the Rings awaits another day.]

Returning to The Quiet American and one more example: Vigot realizes Fowler has lied to him about Pyle's presence at his flat the night of his (Pyle's) murder when he discovers cement on Pyle's dog's toes and canine footprints in the wet cement in front of Fowler's apartment. Now, since the novel & Movie 1 are not whodunits, this little detail comes up only when Vigot confronts Fowler and plays no significant role. Yet Movie 2's first scene (or practically the first scene) gives us an extreme close up of this paw print, as if it were important. It isn't. It explains why Vigot knew Fowler lied but that's it.

What I got out of Greene's work is this: On the one hand, it's a consideration of love as revealed in the relationships of three fundamentally decent people and how its consequences play out. On the other hand, it's a meditation on the political/social implications of nations holding pretensions to empire and how best to order the world in their image. I think, ultimately, the human story is more important but neither should suffer from a lack of attention; it all depends upon the reader's focus.

Reflecting further, I think there's a third consideration related to Fowler setting up Pyle for murder. Was it because of Phuong or because Pyle was incapable of seeing past his righteous certitude to understand Vietnam and see the human costs of his crusade? Of course, it was both. Without the impetus of his desire for Phuong, Fowler would have had no motivation to teach Pyle such a lethal lesson but was able to justify it because of Pyle's indifference. For me, it's a salutary lesson in the idea that history is made by humans acting in response to particular events and fellow humans, and you should take historians' grand narratives of events with a grain of salt. History is a confused mass of both overt and hidden causes -- it's what makes it so fascinating and it's what makes it necessary to constantly rewrite it.

05 February 2008


[Finally got around to uploading the promised photos: From the top -- Photo 1 is Meggie; Photo 2 is Calvin; Photo 3 is Reenie Bean; and Photo 4 is (from the top, going clockwise) The Monkey, Emma, Malcolm, Oberon, Puck & Miss Gray.]

Considering the "heavy" nature of my first post, I thought it only appropriate that I leaven it with a "lighter" subject -- my cats.

In the course of my misspent life, I've managed to acquire 9 beautiful friends who make my life interesting. In 1995/6 (I forget exactly), a co-worker of mine convinced me to adopt 2 girls from a litter she had (don't worry, the cat was pregnant when my friend found her and she was subsequently fixed). They became The Girls -- Cassandra (aka Cassie, The Monkey) and Emma (aka Emslee). Soon after, she convinced me to rescued a grey, long-hair male from the shelter who became Calvin (those of you who know what "Calvin" means will understand the irony of the name).

Life puttered along for a few more years -- I got married, got divorced, changed jobs, moved -- always keeping my three faithful friends. Then I settled in to the apartment I currently occupy and I became a "cat magnet." There's a feral population of wild and abandoned cats around here. A few years ago, I managed to trap and fix about half of them and the population seems to have stabilized but in the course of events, I managed to fall for 6 more hard-luck cases.

The first to join the family was Megaera (aka Meggie), who waltzed into the apartment from the patio one night and never left. At the time, she couldn't have been more than a few months old and was just a bundle of fur (she looked remarkably like a tribble); and she's grown up to be (IMHO) the "supermodel beauty" of the group.

Malcolm was my next adoption. He came into my life one night when I came home from work (I work a night shift so don't get home till c. midnight) and found him under a bush. I went inside, assuming (hoping, really) that his mother had been scared off by my approach and she would come back for him. I looked back about a half-hour later and he was still under the bush and still crying. What could I do? "Welcome to the family, Malcolm."

Irene (aka The Reen-Bean, Reenie-Bean) has cerebellar hypoplasia (just search for it on YouTube and you'll get a very effecting video of Charley, who has the same problem). It's not lethal but it means that her rear legs don't work very well (cf. the video). She's also half-wild, which means she doesn't trust me much. In the 3+ years I've had her, we've progressed to the point where we can be in the same room together and she won't immediately run away (sometimes, she doesn't even wake up from her nap). I've been heartened by her recent actions -- she's allowed me to rub her back and scratch her chin for limited amounts of time (though the approach has always been initiated by her). I figure I'll be able to hold her in my lap around 2020, or so.

The last 3 were sort of a "package deal." The Boys -- Oberon (aka Obi-ron Kenobi, Jedi Cat) and Puck (aka Mr. Puck, the Puckman, Puckmeister) (heads up Shakespeare fans) are stray brothers (their other brother, Manchester, was adopted into the good home of another co-worker). Both are incredibly friendly, very handsome young men. Miss Grey (aka Miss Greybee) is the surviving cat of another sibling pair. Her brother, Lewis & Clark, was diagnosed with Feline AIDS and I had him put to sleep (not the happiest day in my life; though I had only known him for a few months, his departure left a hole in my life; I don't like to contemplate what I'll be feeling when my "old timers" begin to pass away). Back to Miss Grey, though; she's Calvin's special "friend" -- dare I say "girl friend"? Whatever the case may be, she likes to cuddle up with him whenever possible. Unlike the Boys, she's a very quiet, shy, prim & proper young lady.

I tried uploading some images to the post but I'm writing from my home and I only have a phone modem so it was taking a looooong time. At the risk of angering the e-mail police at work, I'll try uploading some from there later on.

My First Post -- Super Tuesday

This is very exciting -- my first blog post. What should I write about? Something safe and family friendly. Say, my mom's recipe for hush puppies (very good and certainly worthy of greater exposure) or something a bit more risque?

Well, since I couldn't find my mom's recipe and it is Super Tuesday, I decided to go for the "risque." (Though not too risque, yet; I'm still working on the "I don't support the troops" essay.)

As you may have inferred, I live in a Super Tuesday state and one where an otherwise unaffiliated voter can vote in the Democratic primary. I took advantage of that today to cast my vote for Barack Obama. I began life as a Kucinich man, became an Edwardian when Dennis bailed out, and wound up in Obama's tent when Edwards elected to allow "history to blaze forward," or words to that effect (I'm not sure what he meant by that but I guess his speechwriters thought it sounded good).

Even if Kucinich had remained in the race, I don't believe I would have voted for him despite the fact that he's right on every issue (and I mean "right" in the sense of "correct," obviously). I probably would have opted for Edwards and hoped that he accumulated enough delegates to influence the Dem's convention (in August?). The problem with Kucinich is that even if elected he just doesn't have the charisma to carry Congress to enact his programs -- he's no Roosevelt or Lincoln (or Reagan, for that matter). Edwards wasn't as "right" but he had charisma and passion and would have stood a better chance to enact an agenda that would have helped this country recover from 30 years now of neoliberal economic and political insanity.

A neoliberal insanity that Hillary Clinton (and Bill during his reign) faithfully represent, and which is why I hope that Clinton doesn't get the nomination. Make no mistake, I'll vote for Clinton because even with all her negatives she's 10 times less paranoid and 10 times less lethal to our Constitution than anyone on the Republican side but it would be with heavy heart. Hillary can be swayed to vote progressive but it takes an enormous amount of pressure from the grassroots; a pressure that would be difficult to sustain long enough to counteract the "good old boy" network that lurks in the Beltway.

Unfortunately, Obama is an unknown quantity. He talks a good game but he hasn't done much of the walking that would make me trust him. (A lot like Bill Clinton in 1992 -- he lulled the progressive wing into thinking that the Reagan nightmare was over and it turned out to have only just begun [NAFTA, anyone? Telecommunications Act? Welfare "reform"?, etc.].) On the other hand, as Tom Hartmann likes to keep pointing out on his radio show, Roosevelt didn't run as a progressive, he promised not much more than Hoover and he wound up giving us Social Security and the other New Deal programs that saved this country from last century's neoliberal illness. If Obama is swept into the White House on a wave of people demanding "change," he may feel confident enough to reverse what Reagan began in 1980.

NOTE: I'm also working on a "Constitution" essay and how this country has been lurching towards a corporate police state for the last 60 years; and why no Democratic nominee wants Congress to look at the resurrection of the Imperial Presidency and attempt to limit its powers.