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Slacker Friday

Slacker Friday

| 12:24 PM ET |

Today’s Police State Update is .

And by the way, .

Bad news for all of us, . ($)

“Sizeable minorities of Americans still believe Saddam Hussein had "strong links to al Qaeda," a Harris Interactive poll shows, though the number has fallen substantially this year.About 22% of U.S. adults believe Mr. Hussein helped plan 9/11, the poll shows, and 26% believe Iraq had weapons of mass destruction when the U.S. invaded. Another 24% believe several of the 9/11 hijackers were Iraqis, according to the online poll of 1,961 adults.However, all of these beliefs have declined since February of this year, when 64% of those polled believed Mr. Hussein had strong links to al Qaeda and 46% said Mr. Hussein helped plan 9/11. At that time, more than a third said Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and 44% said several of the 9/11 hijackers were Iraqis.”

Edward J. Epstein is my hero.  He wrote first as part of his (excellent) book, last week in Slate and this week in the WSJ.

Slacker Friday

Name: Blue Nomad
Hometown: California
Mr. Alterman,
You and Mr. Galbraith may ultimately turn out to be correct about the dissolution of Iraq into multiple nation-states, whether that prospect comes about in the near term (which looks increasingly possible) or a generation from now (when the oil begins to run dry; the only good reason Iraq has to exist is the division of oil revenues).  The trouble of course with a near-term break-up of the country (and the best reason to oppose the war in the first place) was that it might become Iraqoslavia before breaking apart.  The process of national consolidation was never complete in either country, and there are far more mixed, pluralistic enclaves (where the worst bloodletting took place in Yugoslavia) in Iraq.  Tito, who was half-Croat, half-Slovenian ruled a Yugoslavia where Serbians were the largest ethnic group.  Saddam Hussein - a Sunni - ruled an Iraq where Shiites were/are the largest religious group.  As Yugoslavia began to unravel the Serbs - who Tito considered "the cancer in the hills" (Tito had murdered more than 200,000 people [most of them Serbs] during the second world war, not to mention inviting into Kosovo [a traditionally Serbian territory] more than a million ethnic Albanians to displace the Serbian majority, and repeatedly lying to the Serbs) - were in many ways guilty of the worst ethnic cleansing and retribution, and it sure looks as though some Shiites (who were similarly mistreated under Hussein) want to follow in their path.  It is not so difficult to imagine a scenario where Shiite on Sunni violence outpaces indiscriminate and targeted killings of Shiites by Sunni insurgents.

Liberal hawk Thomas Friedman suggested in an op-ed not so long ago that if the Sunnis do not accept "democracy" (my quotes) in Iraq we should arm the Shiites and leave the country. Well, as a matter of fact we are arming the Shiites. They are the Iraqi army today. They have the keys to Saddam's helicopters and heavy munitions depots, as well as millions in new light arms provided by America. He with the bigger guns, and the bigger numbers, and the bigger grudges, can do considerable damage, especially with the backing of the world's last remaining superpower. The biggest difference perhaps between Iraq and Yugoslavia (apart of course from culture, history, and everything else) is that it was the Serbian plurality who wanted to see the survival of the country (or at least a Serbian nation-state that included all the areas of the former Yugoslavia with Serbian populations), and the ethnic and religious minorities who wanted to see a loose confederation of republics.  In Iraq, it is the Sunni minority who wants to preserve a strong central government, while the Shiite plurality appears to prefer a loose federation and the Kurds want to secede altogether.  But these differences may not be enough to ensure that widespread ethnic cleansing doesn't take place, and that Iraq can even survive as a loose federation.  On the bright side, the dissolution of the country could - under the right leadership - actually be the biggest boon to the Sunnis.  They would lose their oil wealth (the bulk of which is in the north and south), but oil and mineral wealth has tended to be more of a curse than a blessing in many places. 

Oil-rich countries have tended to be less free, less developed, and more corrupt than their resource-poor counterparts.  In this outcome, if they managed to put aside their sense of grievance, and avoid becoming a theocracy or some other kind of authoritarian republic, the lack of resources could compel them to get their act together, tapping reserves of their own ingenuity (as successful resource-poor states have done), and cleaning up their government and economy to reach out for foreign aid and investment. If Iraq does dissolve in the near term, it will speak not only to the folly of the neoconservatives but to the dated mindset of the Washington elite more generally.  Since the end of the cold war, we have entered an age of weakening central governments, and eroding national borders, where the sub-national forces of fragmentation, and the trans-national forces of globalization will play an increasing role.  Maps, like the nationalist politicians, will lie, and geographers, more than international relationists, will be better able to interpret and manage the new world disorder. Washington will need to clean house, and replace a good part of its state-centric fleet of analysts with nimble-minded postmodernists. We failed to understand Yugoslavia. We may fail to understand Iraq. We can't fail a third time.

Name: Jim Van Norman
Hometown: Austin, Texas
I'm about 3/4 through "When Presidents Lie" and had a disturbing thought.  We know that FDR was somewhat deceptive in drawing the USA into the European theater of WWII.  I'm not familiar enough with the lead up to the Korean War to comment.  I have vague memories that our entry into WWI was perhaps tainted with some shading of the whole truth.  Clearly, Viet Nam involved a deal of deception to draw us in (as you chronicle).  Gulf War I accounts tend to gloss over the poor communication from Bush I to Saddam prior to that conflict which may have precipitated the Iraqi invasion and drew us in.  Now we have Iraq.  So, my question/hypothesis: perhaps in democracies, the internal conflicts and competing needs are such that the only way to go to war is for leaders to practice some level of deception of the sort you wrote about in "When Presidents Lie."  If that's true, then could the question be not, should Presidents lie, but rather how does a democratic leadership evaluate a potential conflict to decide whether or not it's a "good war", i.e. furthers national interests or prevents some horrific outcome like genocide.

Name: John S. Ransom
Hometown: Carlisle, PA
Hello Eric,
I agree that if there is no God, not everything is permitted to man just because God is dead, as you quote Czeslaw Milosz pointing out.  The death or non-existence of God does not lead, of itself, to nihilism or relativism.  He is not the sole conceivable insurance against those supposed evils.  But the following line . . . He (that is, the human being) is still his brother's keeper... leaves me cold.  I don't know if a new morality can be constructed by slicing away at and rearranging the principal ideas of the old one.  I am my brother's keeper?  Well, why?  I'm also a bit less enthusiastic than Habermas is concerning the 'direct line' that is supposed to exist from Judeo-Christian worldviews and our modern conception of human rights.  Does religion guarantee human rights?  This is an argument that has been recently made directly by the new Pope, Benedict XVI, and his spokesmen in the Vatican.  But just a glance at history shows religion and the Church opposing equality and human freedom for a few dozens of centuries; they are late-comers to the view that humans -- whether women, men, foreigners, etc. -- are equal relative to each other.  It was rather the secular Enlightenment and the French Revolution (not to mention economic and agricultural revolutions) that took the side of equality and human dignity -- the Church was never much of a friend of that.  Perhaps a small detail will remind us of this historical truth: in 1858 -- not so many decades ago! -- Papal police raided a home in Bologna and kidnapped a Jewish child that had been surreptitiously 'baptized' by a family servant.  His name was Edgardo Mortara and David Kertzer has written a book about it, available at all major on-line bookstores.  The Church refused to return this child to its Jewish parents, resulting in decades of desperate pleas and unending emotional pain for his family. The Church's reasoning: a baptized child could not be allowed to live among Jews. Only with the end of the Church's 'terrestrial' rule in Europe (and this date being much more recent than is assumed; around 1860) did it begin to speak in the vague generalities that Habermas so generously appeals to.  But before that time, when it was an *actor* on the world stage, the Church was a determined enemy of the values that we affirm today.

Name: Steve McGady
Hometown: Philadelphia, PA
Regarding Todd from Philadelphia's inquiry about tapping the Kerry campaign, I think it is unlikely.  Not that the Bush campaign would adhere to any principles, I just think the downside of discovery would be unmanageable.  I think the campaign managers were confident enough when adding up the individual states electoral totals that they could handle things on their own.  Further, I don't remember any instances where Kerry's campaign had any strategic moves pre-empted by the Bush campaign, which is precisely the type of thing that could expose the spying program.  The campaign was pretty much a sleazefest, with little strategic maneuvering other than changing sledgehammers.

Name: Michael Breland, MD, PhD
Hometown: Walla Walla, WA
Dear Eric:
Yesterday (12-28-05) you pointed out the interview in Der Spiegel featuring Daniel Dennett.  It is because of the opinions of people like Daniel Dennett that I have come out in support of a modified Intelligent Design theory.  While I agree that it's not that good of a theory presently, in the flatland of the present debate about these issues, it's the best of the bad.  I find it ironic that Dr. Dennett implies that the religious right is socially irresponsible and then goes on to be socially irresponsible himself.  Recognizing that most of these interviews are designed to be controversial, I particularly had an issue with his statement that intelligent design was the best argument for the existence of God and that Darwin's theory of evolution "pulls the rug out from under that."  First, if intelligent design is the best argument for God, we're in trouble.  Second, I don't agree that evolution disproves the existence of God.  My own personal conclusion is that one of the "reasons" we are here is to develop and evolve.  But that's another story.  Getting back to Der Spiegel, I understand that dividing a controversy into one black piece and one white piece and claiming "That is all there is, pick only one," has been a strategy used for centuries to divide, and to conquer.  And perhaps even to sell books.  Dr. Dennett calls himself a scientist and yet makes claims that exceed reasonable scientifically supported conclusions, even assuming that all of Darwin's theories are correct.  In the interview it appears they end up drawing the conclusion that "God is Dead."  In truth, I believe that much of what Dr. Dennett says is correct.  It's some of his overreaching conclusions I have disagreements with.  He's a really clever person.  However, I've had earlier contact with Dr. Dennett through a previous book, "Consciousness Explained" and my conclusion at that time was that Dr. Dennett is basically a reductionist.  To support this argument, in Der Spiegel Dr. Dennett says that we have a soul, but it is made of little robots.  While being a reductionist is not something I see as being intrinsically wrong, it does say a lot about a person's basic philosophy.  It reveals their basic assumptions about life.  At this time, however, those assumptions cannot be proven scientifically.  Thus, while there has been much gnashing of teeth and pulling of hair about intelligent design and how it's not "scientifically provable", I believe that people should at least be logically consistent and admit that disproving the existence of God is also something that cannot be done scientifically.  To do otherwise is more than merely hypocritical, it is also socially and scientifically irresponsible.

Name:  Barry L. Ritholtz

Hey Doc,
We've broadly discussed the recording industry this year. How'd they do in terms of numbers?

See chart .

After a slight blip up in 2004, CD sales resumed their prior slide.  Sales were off 7% (CD albums only) or 8% (CDs and singles).  The decrease is comparable to the decline in Movie theater attendance, which fell about 7%.

Reported album sales (January through the week ending December 25) were 602.2 million in 2005; weaker than last year's 650.8 million.  Digital singles sales more than doubled to 332 million -- a 148% increase.

Some blamed the album CD sales slump on the cherry-picking of singles by a fickle public.  But the broader analysis reveals that CDs are a format in decline.  While 95% of music sales are still in the CD format, there are plenty of signs this is changing.  In addition to the different fortunes of the two formats -- CDs are slumping while digital downloads skyrocket -- the industry itself is changing.  A new breed of music label is distributing their product strictly in digital format, thereby bypassing CDs entirely.  See Cordless Recordings as an example of this.

This year's biggest sellers, according to Nielsen SoundScan, were Mariah Carey's Emancipation of Mimi at 4.866 million; In second place was 50 Cent's The Massacre, which sold 4.834 million. "American Idol" winner Kelly Clarkson's Breakaway finished 3rd, selling 3.4 million copies.  The top sales position has not been occupied by a female solo artist since Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill in 1996. In 2005, female solo artists captured the gold and the bronze.

Although the major labels lament the Internet, P2P, and file sharing, it turns out that the Net has been a boon for Indie Labels. Much of the industry's complaints are actually about disintermediation -- the Web forces them out of the relationship between the artists and their fans. The indies understand this, and have been using the net to promote their unknown artists.

In the UK sales continue to do better than in the U.S. -- despite Great Britain's widespread adoption of broadband. Credit likely goes to the wider playlists in UK radio, and a payola-free radio industry. Britain does not have the same concentrated private ownership of Radio Stations which have become so prevalent in the U.S. since the 1996 Telecommunications Reform Act, which enabled firms like Clearchannel and Infinity to scoop up 1,000s of stations.

Its no coincidence that music sales problems can be traced to what occurred following that legislation's enactment.

While legal Music downloads more than doubled this year, so too has the recording industry's misconduct.  After settling price fixing charges in 2002, it appears that the recording industry brain trust is at it again: An industrywide probe into how much record companies charge for digital music was started by NYAG Eliot Spitzer; subpoenas have gone out to several labels.

One last astonishing piece of music trivia: Mariah Carey's CD spawned her 17th #1 single, "Don't Forget About Us."  This places her in second place on the all time #1 hit list -- behind the Beatles' total 20 #1 hits.  If Carey manages to pass the Fab Four, I will interpret this as incontrovertible proof that life is meaningless or God is dead . . . I haven't decided which.

Finally, you can see my Anti-"Best of 2005" .


Holiday Buyers Spurn Tunes As Industry Picture Worsens; 'Cesspool of Really Bad Bands'
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, December 16, 2005; Page B1

An extensive source list is in this posting can be found .

December 29, 2005 | 11:01 AM ET |

I have always shared Peter Galbraith’s analysis that the only post-invasion solution to Iraq’s political problems is to split it up in three parts.  So, too, apparently, do Iraq’s voters, .  Congratulations to Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and all the liberal hawks on the strengthening of Iran’s fundamentalist, terror-exporting regime by giving it a third of Iraq as well, (and at the cost of only tens of thousands killed, hundreds of billions wasted, and who knows how many terrorists created).

Once again, .

Perhaps the .

An extremely rare work of fiction by .

Altercation Special Holiday Religious Edition

Czeslaw Milosz on God and Unbelief

If there is no God,Not everything is permitted to man.He is still his brother’s keeperAnd he is not permitted to sadden his brother,By saying that there is no God.”

Jurgen Habermas on same:

"For the normative self-understanding of modernity, Christianity has functioned as more than just a precursor or a catalyst.  Universalistic egalitarianism, from which sprang the ideals of freedom and a collective life in solidarity, the autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, the individual morality of conscience, human rights, and democracy, is the direct legacy of the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love…” 

But also this:  "Every citizen must know that only secular reasons count beyond the institutional threshold that divides the informal public sphere from parliaments, courts, ministries, and administrations."

And Here’s last year’s editorial on Hannukkah from , which won an award, though I forget which, and is pretty great.

EditorialHanukkah, Forever NewDecember 10, 2004In trying, as we do every year on this page, to understand Hanukkah's magical hold on the American Jewish imagination, it's worth examining the holiday's marvelous malleability, its Zelig-like capacity for embodying the very values that each generation needs it to uphold.Yes, drowning out Bing Crosby is part of the holiday's appeal, but only part. There is so much more to celebrate: national independence, religious freedom, rebellion against tyranny and — fast gaining in popularity — the battle of piety against assimilation. But which to teach first?It wasn't always so complicated. When the festival was first proclaimed by the victorious Maccabee warriors in the year 165 before the current era, it was a straightforward celebration of a military victory over a foreign occupier, a sort of early-model ticker-tape parade. That was coupled, of course, with a religious message: the rededication of the ruined Temple in Jerusalem, marking the restoration of the Jews' freedom to practice their religion after a decade of Syrian-Greek oppression under the mad king Antiochus IV. In a combined display of triumphalism and pragmatism, the victors extended the festivities for eight days in order, so the contemporary narratives say, to make up for the eight-day Temple pilgrimage of Sukkot that should have been held two months earlier but was canceled that year by the war.By the time the rabbinic oral law was codified in the Talmud 500 years later, Hanukkah had become something else. Having again lost their sovereignty, and plainly fearing that their new masters might take a celebration of guerrilla warfare the wrong way, the rabbis recast Hanukkah as a pacific festival of light-giving spirituality. They even discovered a miracle that the Maccabees' contemporary accounts somehow hadn't noticed: that little jar of oil that lasted eight days. Thus they prudently emphasized that God, not man, is the author of historical upheavals.During the long night of oppression in medieval Christian Europe, Hanukkah effectively went underground. With no freedom to celebrate, Judah Maccabee became a children's myth. The message of liberation was transcribed in code onto the dreidel, a gambling toy that subversively mocked the pious Christmas season all around.In modern times, Jews living in freedom in Israel and America have managed, almost miraculously, to recapture much of Hanukkah's original spirit. For Israelis, it celebrates the Maccabees' military victory over foreign occupation. For Americans, it celebrates the eternal battle for freedom of conscience. As we do so often, each of our two great Jewish communities manages to capture the very half of the tradition that the other one misses.It's a sign of the times that the holiday has taken on yet another meaning in the last few years, every bit as creative as the earlier ones but unique in its insistence that it represents the exclusive truth. In this telling, heard more and more stridently each December, Hanukkah recalls not the Maccabees' triumph over the Syrian-Greek occupiers but rather their defeat of the local Jew who had adopted the majority Hellenic culture of the Mediterranean region: theater, sculpture, philosophy, nude wrestling. By these lights, it wasn't Syrian soldiers banning Torah study, raping Jewish women or slaughtering pigs on the holy altar that sparked the rebellion, but Jews working out at the gym.To be sure, there's nothing wrong with new generations creating new myths.  But a little historical context is in order here. The Judean encounter with Hellenic culture began not in Judah Maccabee's time but 150 years earlier, and by all accounts it was love at first sight. When Alexander the Great conquered Judea from the Persians in 333, he was welcomed by all the local parties with open arms. Both sides quickly learned that the Hellenic spirit of tolerance, pluralism and intellectual inquiry coexisted well with the passionate, argumentative culture of the Jews. Over the years masses of Jews in Judea and throughout the empire began adopting aspects of Hellenic culture while keeping the essentials of their religion, creating a syncretic Judaism that we would recognize today. Over time a two-way traffic developed; by the time of the Caesars, 150 years after the Maccabees, Jewish practices like Sabbath and kashruth had become all the rage among fashionistas in Rome and its provinces. Shades of Madonna.No, it was not Hellenism that sparked the Maccabean rebellion. It was the increasingly ham-fisted reign of Alexander's successors, the Ptolemies and Seleucids, that turned Jewish-Greek coexistence into a Judean political crisis. The Seleucid kings Antiochus I, II and III were decent enough fellows. It was Antiochus IV, "the Mad," who tried so hard to throw his weight around in Judea that the countryside took up arms. Yes, there were corrupt, Hellenizing Jewish aristocrats who aped the oppressors and fomented intrigue. Yes, they made the Medicis look like the Cleavers. But they had been around for a century and a half. It took Antiochus IV to push the Maccabees' buttons.What, then, are the latest lessons of Hanukkah for our new times?Well, first of all, there's the danger of dynastic succession. It breeds arrogance, incompetence and intellectual laziness. The founder of the line is usually someone who earned the job. The trouble comes once you get to Henry VIII, Louis XVI or — well, enough said on that score.Secondly, there's this: Remember Alexander. The world's greatest empire-builder, the living embodiment of the aesthetic, relativistic, body-loving, homoerotic culture that was Greece, is remembered to this day as one of the great benefactors of Jewish history. His very name is honored, almost alone among gentile monikers, as part of the canon of rabbinically approved names for Jewish boys, along with the likes of David, Moshe and Jacob. Remember that the next time someone tries to tell you that classical Judaism cannot coexist with a culture of homoeroticism, body-worship or show tunes. It's bunk — ignorant, bigoted bunk.Third, and perhaps most important, Hanukkah should remind us of the urgency of humility in the conduct of a superpower. Regional hegemons that decide to send off their armies to teach the lessons of enlightenment and tolerance to a band of bearded religious fanatics nearly always come to grief. The guys with beards always win.Lastly, the final victory need not belong to Bing Crosby. Jews are free to create their own traditions, and America is ready to accept them. Irving Berlin gave us "White Christmas." Adam Sandler gave us "The Chanukah Song."  A host of new acts from the Klezmatics to Arlo Guthrie are creating an entire new tradition of holiday music. We have the Hanukkah bush, Chrismukkah and the elegant tradition of Jews volunteering to feed the needy on Christmas Day so that Christian volunteers can stay home with their families. If all this is still too much, buy an iPod.It's a wonderful country, and a wonderful holiday. We hope yours has been all that and more.

Correspondence Corner:

Name: Rob Turbovsky
Hey, Eric, on the Deconstructing Harry/Phillip Roth connection, have you seen ?  It will confirm what I guess you already know.  I've seen Match Point and, while I do not agree with what seems to be the general consensus that this last decade has been a mediocre one for Allen movies (Everyone Says I Love You, Sweet and Lowdown, and Melinda & Melinda were minor Allen, for sure, but still fine films), I do think that Match Point is one of Woody's very best, and I never enjoyed his dramas.  He says he might make only dramas from now on, which would be a's like he watched Sullivan's Travels and took the reverse lesson.  Another Woody movie you might enjoy is the relatively unknown Picking Up The Pieces, which he starred in (and probably ghost wrote as the film is credited to the unknown "Bill Wilson") and Alfonso Arau (Like Water For Chocolate) directed.  It's a very different Allen movie, very dark and set in the Midwest (he plays a butcher who dismembers his wife, played by Sharon Stone!) but worth checking out. …

Eric replies:  Smart kid, but I saw “Match Point” yesterday and when it was over I felt as if I had been the victim of a “let’s bring Woody back regardless” critical conspiracy.  It’s an extremely well-made movie about… nothing.  Well, nothing that wasn’t done with a great deal more complexity and subtlety in “Crimes and Misdemeanors.”  Well acted, well-lit, well-shot, (only) decently written, but again, empty.  And not remotely believable, though I don’t think that’s an important qualification.

Name: Steve Elworth
Hometown: Brooklyn, NY
You are right about Deconstructing Harry being an attack or Phil Roth.  I don't know what it is you can't say but I know it is not just Bloom.  When Bloom left Roth and she wrote the angry book, which we must assume that Allen read.  Who became Roth's new girl friend for a while?  None other than Mia Farrow.  I assume that was the added impetus for Deconstructing Harry.  Happy Chanukah to you, yours, readers and of course, Roth and Allen.

Name: Todd
Hometown: Philadelphia
I wonder why I have not heard (or maybe I just missed it) anyone wonder aloud whether Bush and Rove in their illegal wiretapping and eavesdropping might have tapped the communications of the Kerry campaign during the last election.  Would anyone really believe that Rove and Bush would not cross that line as well?

Name: Stephen Hirsch
Hometown: Passaic, NJ
Boychik, Mr. Avishai wrote a good article, but with a fundamental flaw: you can't separate the Jewish people from the Torah.  By Torah, I mean the Written Torah with its companion guide, the Oral Tradition (i.e., Talmud).  This was the fundamental mistake of the early Zionists, because it simply can't be done.

December 28, 2005 | 12:31 PM ET |

Name: Major Bob Bateman
Dateline: Baghdad, Iraq

Baghdad Holidays III

Monday: 19 December, approximately 09:30

“Boab, ah, um, would you mind telling me what’s going on here?”


“The lava-tor-y” (My Colonel, in other words my boss, is British. Very British. This is how he speaks.)

“Oh, uhhhh, yessir. Well see, I write a little….(pause)…did Colonel Lovelock* tell you about the coffee creamer episode?”

Bemused look.  Short reminder.  “Ahhh, yes, but what’s that got to do with this?”

“Well sir, I sort of did it again.”

“Say again?”

“Well, see sir, there are these schools…and I kinda thought that if one inadvertent e-mail could generate 130 pounds of creamer for us, well then a deliberate e-mail might get enough supplies to get a school off on the right foot.”

“And this is why I can’t use the lav-a-tory?”

“Uh, yessir.”

“Right then, get rid of it.”

“Wilco sir.”

* Colonel Lovelock was the British officer who was my boss from January through September of this year.

Tuesday, 20 December (10:30 hrs Local)

Chaos, barely contained, reigns.  Roughly 1,000 lbs of your donations pack our latrine, to a height of six feet.  Three officers and one NCO are cutting the labels off (to protect your identity), I am collecting the shipping labels (for thank you letters), and twelve more shuttle the boxes out to the parking lot.

Just on sheer cubic volume we are initially overwhelmed.  Four Ford Explorers will not be enough.

Get a fifth.

Not enough.  A sixth then…

In the end there are six SUVs, packed to the gills, more than twenty officers and NCOs, and a near host of other commissioned and non-commissioned helpers for whom there is no room in the vehicles.  I give the most bizarre verbal operations order of my life, and we set off.  Ranger School is a useful training experience, but it does not train you for this.  It is now 11:45.  We will arrive at the schools just as the morning sessions let out, and the afternoon session begins.  In other words, the timing guarantees maximum chaos.

I cannot speak for all columns of our education offensive.  I was leading a single element, and trusting to the developing experience of the others to bring their supplies to the ‘objective.’  What I can assert is that, once again, this was a learning experience for all.

As you know, we have been supplying a boy’s and a girl’s Elementary School, as well as a Boy’s High School.  After the delivery last week we found the High School for the girls.  I faced a decision at that point:  Expand the program and initiate supply delivery to the girls’ High School… or face rebellion and possible execution at the hands of the female officers and NCOs from this command.

These women are armed, and appeared quite serious.  Discretion, as they say, is oft the better part of valor.

So five of the vehicles went to the schools with which he already had relations, and I led the sixth, filled with heavily armed American women and roughly 200 lbs of supplies, to the girls High School.

At first they did not know what to make of us.  We had a new translator with us, Mohammed, a physician who makes only a little more than $100/mo as a doctor, so he is translating instead.  First I had to help him understand what we were doing, then he could make it clear to the Administrators and teachers of this new school.  After a few moments the way was cleared and we started setting up a line to distribute materials to the girls.  I stepped back and out of the way at this point, because there were two things we were delivering this morning.  The first, and obvious, was the supplies. The less obvious was an example.

For all that you read about how Iraq is, or was, secular (and it is in many substantive ways), one should not mistake it for Paris, or Beruit for that matter.  Women occupy particular roles here, partly defined by religion, but also by culture.  One role which Iraqi girls are not used to seeing women occupy is that of professional military officers.  Two of our officers, one an Army Second Lieutenant, the other a newly made Marine Captain, look like they could have been attending the school themselves.  After a few moments, when I and the other male officer had cleared ourselves to the edge of the room, they became the centers of attention.  Each was surrounded by a pack of teenage girls, who, with little confidence in their English, asked questions in a tentative way.

We’ve made several trips to these schools now, and depending upon the school, and the gender of the students, our female officers have had quite a range of questions thrown at them.  A typical trip has multiple variations of these (combined here for simplicity) questions thrown at our female officers and NCOs:

“This is your gun?  Yours?  And it has bullets?  You are allowed to shoot?”

“You give orders to women soldiers only?  No?  Men too?!  No!...(really?)”

“Does your husband approve and work with you?”  (This, by the way, annoys the hell out of our single female officers and NCOs.  They answer this one very directly.)

The answers today, delivered directly but accompanied with laughs and smiles by two of America’s newest and best qualified diplomats, amazed and delighted the girls.  Yes, we delivered more than just one form of educational support here today.

All in all the whole delivery run took about two hours out of the day, but the smiles, both on the faces of the kids, and on our own, lasted far longer.

Thank you for your support.

Baghdad within Earshot:

Sunday, 25 December (13:39 hrs Local)

Today is Christmas.  Thus far there have only been a few mortar rounds lobbed into the perimeter, one earlier this morning and one just a few minutes ago.  Of those, one missed us entirely.  The other sounds like it landed back towards the direction of my trailer/home, or perhaps on the far side of the river.  It is tough to tell by sound alone, but as I am at work, this does not affect me for now.  Here at our headquarters I opened my “local” presents:  A long handwritten letter from my fiancée, a new notebook for my thoughts, and a copy of “How Soccer Explains the World” by Foer.

Contrary to expectations, I have heard not only from my fiancée (with a long, lovely letter, as well as photos of the presents I will receive when I come home), but from my daughters as well.  Seeing the names, “Morgan”, “Ryann” and “Connor” in my in-box on this day is enough.

It has to be.

You can write to Major Bob at .

Good news for humankind, .

I watched “Deconstructing Harry” the other day on cable.  You know, it’s about Philip Roth.  He’s the evil model for the writer.  Woody hates, hates, hates Philip Roth.  I don’t know why, but I know he does.  Perhaps he’s pissed that Phillip no longer gets attacked by Jews the way he still does, and thinks he’s a sellout.  Perhaps he is genuinely morally outraged by the way Philip integrates his life into his novels.  (I did notice a small Claire Bloom role in “Crimes & Misdemeanors, which came before it.)  The giveaway is the casting of Richard Benjamin, star of “Goodbye Columbus,” but there are others which I am not at liberty to reveal which make it unarguable.  Watch it again.  It’s a lot more interesting that way.  (It’s a pretty great movie, by the way, even without knowing that, though I suppose I’m a self-hating Jew for saying so….)

Speaking of self-hating Jews, if Mary and Joseph did the same journey today they would pass through . (

And speaking of Israel, I just came across .

Daniel Dennett has some pretty smart and bold things to say about why we need to make up God and religion and the like. The cable morons will have a good time with his new book.

is a near exact duplicate of one that appeared, oh, twenty years ago in the New York Times Book Review, by I think, the irreplaceable and much-missed Anatole Broyard, but maybe it was someone else.

Quote of the Day:

Q: Very few people wake up in the morning and say, "I'm going to do some evil today."Clooney: Yeah, I think they believe in what they're doing and that they're going to get seventy virgins after they die -- but, really, who wants seventy virgins?  I want eight pros.


Miles Davis, "The Cellar Door Sessions, 1970" (Sony Legacy) six CDs

The musicians here are, along with Davis on trumpet, Gary Bartz (saxes), Keith Jarrett (keyboards), Michael Henderson (bass guitar), Jack DeJohnette (drums) and Airto Moreira (percussion) with Mahavishnu John McLaughlin showing up for the final two CDs on guitar.  Some of these performances were released in 1971 as “Live-Evil.”  So you probably know if this Miles is for you and how much might be too much.  Personally, I got off the boat shortly after “Bitches Brew,” though these immaculately and elaborately packaged Columbia re-releases have brought out some previously misunderstood gems.  (I’m thinking in particular of the Jack Johnson sessions.)  Anyway, these CDs take work to recognize the melody or even the continuity of the music.  I don’t doubt that there is genuine genius buried somewhere here.  I’m just not up to finding it.  If your taste is more open-minded than mine—or you’re a more thoughtful and musically educated listener, then perhaps this is for you.  The excellent liner notes will certainly help.  So will knowing that Miles, who was playing frequent gigs at the Fillmore East at the time, was obsessed with Jimi Hendrix—as he later became obsessed with Prince.  There’s a set list .

The Norton Anthology of Children's Literature: The Traditions in English.  This handsome, slip-cased paper volume is more than 2500 pages and covers nearly 400 years of children’s literature.  It’s a scholarly effort rather than a child-oriented one, and I can’t imagine anyone in the field can possibly be without it.  For the rest of us, well, it depends.  It’s got 170 different contributions 80 of which are complete.  Don’t buy it for your kids.  Buy it for yourselves.  More .

Correspondence Corner:

Name:  Eric Rauchway
Davis, CA
Since you mentioned it, here's a selection of what the WSJ had to say on Nixon in 1974.  They weren't any too pleased with him, from the State of the Union address (2/1/1974) onward:

"we sometimes wish, and Wednesday was one such time, that a President's confidence could be strong enough to permit a bit more candor.... in discussing the true state of the nation.  Here the salient point is that despite a general prosperity we face serious economic problems, problems that may well get worse before they get better.... The President offered a flat promise that there would be no recession and was cheered as if wishing could make it true.  He projected a budget deficit for fiscal 1975 ... which, as with most such projections, is probably extremely optimistic.... As to specific budget programs, there was the same 'something for nothing' flavor that has become so tiresome.... the profligacy of the past has ensured that there will be no room in this or any foreseeable future budgets for bold new programs -- or even for such vital needs as restoring the nation's military strength -- without paying for them through either:  (1) new taxes, or (2) further inflation or (3) 'politically unacceptable' spending reductions.... Maybe we are asking too much, but we can see no reason why politicians should try to sugarcoat simple and fundamental economic and political truths."

After the first White House tape transcripts had come out, the WSJ would not recommend impeachment, but it also had this to say ("The Impeachment Dilemma", 5/21/74): 

"We are in no mood to defend Richard Nixon as the man who ought to be President of the United States.... after a year of Watergate speeches that were perhaps accurate in detail but were smotheringly sanctimonious in tone.  It is the contrast between the public and the private, between the seamy conversations and the sanctimonious postures, that have robbed Mr. Nixon of both his moral leadership and his remaining defenders."

And after later transcripts appeared ("The Nation United", 8/7/74), the WSJ wrote that they provided "ample evidence for President Nixon's impeachment, conviction, and removal from office."

So, to sum up:  the 1974 Journal's editorial board called out the President for issuing a fantasy budget, and for making happy talk in the midst of a global crisis.  It supported the use of the courts to investigate the White House's attempts to obstruct justice.

Assuming for the sake of argument that the Presidential misdeeds were about the same then and now (lying related to war; obstruction of justice; illegal surveillance) it's nevertheless true that evidence for them has not today been published and publicized to the extent that it was in 1974, and maybe doesn't exist.  So it's not too easy to compare the WSJ's attitude toward the President now and then.  But it is interesting to note that the Journal was pretty clear about its unhappiness with Nixon as a leader, irrespective of Watergate, particularly for his refusal to talk hard truths.  It's also interesting to note that at the time it frankly expressed its disquietude with Nixon, maybe "about a third of the Republican voters still believe in Mr. Nixon and would be relentless in their demand for vengeance against any Republican Representative or Senator who turned against him" (Arthur Schlesinger's op-ed of 2/27/74; this was also a WSJ that let Schlesinger on its pages).  Today it's maybe about a third of voters, irrespective of affiliation, right?  Which came first, the different conservative press or the different conservative voters?  Will more evidence -- if more evidence surfaces -- change the WSJ or their target audience?

Name: Dave Van Grunsven
Hometown: Newberg, Oregon
I find it interesting that GM has had a dismal year being about $5 billion in losses while the oil industry had $10 billion gains (in one quarter).  Does Bush understand that in economics widgets are good only when they can be used?  If cars have been the backbone of American economics, how can Detroit be cast aside in favor of Houston when Houston really needs Detroit to better the entire economy?  Bush is a cart-before-the-horse president, a short-term opportunist who couldn't see the entire picture if he had to.  I am sure that part of Bush's plans concerns lowering labor costs in the production curve but going over a cliff isn't the appropriate thing to do!

Name: John Farmer
"You know, the U.S. economy has consistently performed far better under Democratic presidents than under Republican ones. That's just an economic fact."  I was thinking the same thing last night as I watched Milton Friedman explain to the ever-obsequious Charlie Rose that credit for the longest economic expansion on record shouldn't go to Bill Clinton, but rather his Republican Congress.  Funny that the mixed government and gridlock arguments, whatever their merits, were not mentioned in Friedman's undiluted praise of Reagan.  Republican spin has once again obscured the simple truth.  In case anyone says "prove it," here's an .  More than a dozen metrics, and Dem presidents outperform GOP presidents in every one.

Name: Bryan
Hometown: Washington, D.C.
Dear Dr. Alterman:
Thank you so much for using your precious space to bring some recognition to the gem that is Dresden.  I attended university there for a year, that I still consider to be one of the top two years of my life.  When I was in Dresden, I saw the ruins of the Frauenkirche and its partially rebuilt knave on a weekly basis.  When I saw the Frauenkirche rebuilt (on DW), I literally cried.  It is an unimaginably beautiful sight to see the city finally restored all its precious gems.  Dresden is literally one of the most beautiful and culturally extravagant cities on the face of the earth.  I hope everyone has a chance to see Dresden now it is whole again, and come to love the city as I do. Thank you.

| 12:00 PM ET |

Unpopular, but unimpeachable, alas

It won’t happen purely for political reasons, but Barron’s, yes Barron’s, calls for Bush’s impeachment, .  And hey look at , the economists at the extremely conservative University of Chicago think he stinks too.  You know, the U.S. economy has consistently performed far better under Democratic presidents than under Republican ones.  That’s just an economic fact.  How the Republicans have managed to spin it however, is one of the great stories of our day, and one about which someone ought to write a book.

I don’t know if most MSM reporters are aware of the above or not, but if not, it’s because they choose not to be.  I mean really, it ought not to come as a surprise to anyone, save perhaps , that “President George W. Bush ranks as the least popular and most bellicose of the last ten U.S. presidents, according to a new survey,” .

It continues: “Only nine percent of the 662 people polled picked Bush as their favorite among the last 10 presidents.  John F. Kennedy topped that part of the survey, with 26 percent, closely followed by Bill Clinton (25 percent) and Ronald Reagan (23 percent).  Bush was also viewed as the most warlike president (43 percent), the worst for the economy (42 percent) and the least effective (33 percent).”  I wonder what they think of our (Scroll down to #5).

Which brings us to our “Daniel Henninger Lie of the Week” possibly a regular feature:   He complains of a truly "feckless year-long media hunt to identify who 'outed' Valerie Plame, a story with virtually no resonance beyond the Beltway."  In fact, as is noted in the first item of the current Harper’s Index, the percentage of Americans who said in November that the Valerie Plame leak scandal was of “great importance” is 51.  This is compared with the percentage who said, two months before President Nixon resigned that Watergate was “very serious” was just 49.  And the percentage who said the Plame leak was “just politics,” 42.  (The source is the Gallup Organization.)  It also notes that it has been 130 years since the last time a White House official has been indicted while still in his job.  Again, the interesting question here is does the WSJ editorial board seek to misinform its readership deliberately or are they so ideologically certain of their made up “facts” that nobody there even imagines the need to check them?  (Another interesting question is what the hell kind of society takes people like this seriously—and even gives them $4 million worth of taxpayer funds to spout the same nonsense on TV, but that is for another day…)  Meanwhile, if consistency counts for anything, I’m sure they pretended Nixon was doing great as well.

While we’re at the Journal, Lawrence Kaplan uses it to try to scare the Jews into getting back in line with the Neocons’ Grand Plan, .  If they hadn’t put a bunch of dishonest, incompetent, ideological extremists in charge of it, methinks he’d have a better shot.

Speaking of which, nobody else in the world would remember the essay published by an otherwise unknown neocon at Georgetown named Robert Leiber in the Chronicle of Higher Education in which that distinguished journal’s editors allowed him to accuse me of subscribing to an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory merely because I described how one would look.  Anyway, written in the semi-hysterical tones of the time when the neocons thought they were on top of the world, in retrospect, it’s so stupid, it’s funny. Some highlights:

A small band of neoconservative (read, Jewish) defense intellectuals, led by the "mastermind," Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz (according to Michael Lind, writing in the New Statesman), has taken advantage of 9/11 to put their ideas over on an ignorant, inexperienced, and "easily manipulated" president (Eric Alterman in The Nation)...Authors disparaged the notion that the Iraqi people could ever welcome coalition forces as liberators.  In words dripping with sarcasm, Eric Alterman asked readers of The Nation, "Is Wolfowitz really so ignorant of history as to believe the Iraqis would welcome us as 'their hoped-for liberators'?"..."...Many of these same Jews joined Secretary Rumsfeld and Vice President Richard B. Cheney in underselling the difficulty of the war, in what may have been a deliberate ruse designed to embroil America in a broad military conflagration that would help smite Israel's enemies."

Here’s my fave:

More to the point, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell, and Rice are among the most experienced, tough-minded, and strong-willed foreign-policy makers in at least a generation…Whether one favors or opposes the Bush policies, the former Texas governor has proved himself to be an effective wartime leader… Partisanship aside, the president has shown himself to be independent and decisive, able to weigh competing advice from his top officials before deciding how to act.

The piece is .  And is the original.

What these neocon fantasists need more than anything for Hannukah is a reminder from the world of realism.  Andrew J. Bacevich quotes Reinhold Niebuhr to remind us of the important tradition of liberal realism, .  We are a lonely bunch, these days.  (So, too, I guess, religious Christian realists.) 

For realists, the notion that globalization (according to Bill Clinton, channeling the neoliberal New York Times columnist Tom Friedman) will produce global harmony or that American assertiveness (according to George W. Bush, channeling Bill Kristol, editor of the neoconservative Weekly Standard) will ''transform'' the Greater Middle East is pure folly.  Americans, wrote Niebuhr in his book ''The Irony of American History'' (1952), fancy themselves to be ''tutors of mankind in its pilgrimage to perfection.''  But the human condition does not admit perfection.  ''We could bring calamity upon ourselves and the world,'' he warned, ''by forgetting that even the most powerful nations...remain themselves creatures as well as creators of the historical process.'' Realists likewise refuse to don rose-colored glasses when considering the United States itself. As a consequence, they understand that ''American exceptionalism'' is a snare. Realists reject claims of American innocence-the conviction, as Niebuhr wrote in the same book, that ''our society is so essentially virtuous that only malice could prompt criticism of our actions.''

And Francis Fukuyama offers a useful conservative critique and examination of the costs to the nation of Neocon foreign policy fantasists .

And reminds me of  Jeff Jarvis accusing  me of having “blood on my hands” because I made reference to a New York Times article raising the issue of whether American forces might be responsible for some of the blogs for which he was so enthusiastically cheerleading.  So let me get this straight.  The marines have hired their own blogger.  The Pentagon is secretly paying Iraqi newspapers and television stations to run pro-American propaganda.  We are paying money under the table to influence their elections.  But it is literally the equivalent of murder to make reference to a Times article —still unproven and un-disproved— that raises the possibility that U.S. forces might be interested in making up a phony blog.  Reels the mind…

Meanwhile, if you do have a WSJ sub, read my cute friend Katie’s touching essay , and wish you had a daughter, much less a step-daughter like Katie.

I thought was a pretty good delineation of the various complications and conundrums facing upper-middle class New York City parents regarding the schooling of their kids, until after finishing it, I realized that it completely left out the fact that the Republican governor is refusing to comply with a court order to fund these schools properly and the Republican mayor is refusing to make an issue of this crucial fact, much to the consternation of his own Chancellor.  I note also, though I don’t think it entirely relevant, that the Times editorial page crazily endorsed George Pataki —part of the successful working of the refs by the right forcing the paper to look for some Republican it could endorse— as well as Bloomberg.  I think the problem here is more about reporters and editors thinking they can avoid politics even when politics determines the entire shape and scope of the story.  How in the world did the Times team think that Pataki’s fighting against a court-order to fund the public schools is not relevant to their underperformance for both poor and middle-class families when that is exactly what the court ruled?

I carried the hoax, unknowingly, so is the correction.

My new friend Gregory Rodriquez went to Dresden for Christmas, .

Speaking of Christmas, “If O'Reilly doesn't like it here, why doesn't he go back to where he came from?”  You’re welcome for Irving, by the way, , George, Ira, Yip, and the rest of them, too. (Nice piece, Harold.)

The holiday season is a good moment to take time to think about and do what we can about it.


There will be no alter-review today, in honor of Sal, Tony and the late NYCD.  Read all about it (and I talked to this guy, for a like an hour, for nothing.  Sheesh, reporters.)  I guess I’ll have to take my walks in the park, from now on, dammit.

Correspondence Corner

Name:  Don G.
Hometown:  Semi-enfranchised Washingtonian
Really enjoyed your paean to blue New York City today.  One thing I noticed, though.  You wrote:

Future historians will muse on the fact that we were the city (or "decadent fifth column coastal enclave" as Andrew Sullivan would put it), that suffered the attack for which George Bush pretended to be retaliating—or protecting us from another such one—and yet we saw through him better than anyone. 

True -- if you just changed it to read "better than almost anyone."

Those of us who live in the District of Columbia jealously guard our one true franchise outside of municipal government -- our three measly electoral votes.  We are extremely proud that we cast 90% of our votes last year for Kerry (against 9% for Bush, an eleven-to-one margin), in the largest turnout in our history since being admitted to the electoral college in '61.  Of course, we too were attacked on 9/11, or at any rate the attack fell in sight of us (and the gods only know where the fourth plane was headed).  I'm pleased to say it didn't fool us any more than it did you street-smart Gothamites.  We knew where our best interests lay.