Wednesday, March 31, 2004

There's nothing I can say about yesterday's atrocities in Iraq that the indispensible Wretchard couldn't say better. Here he talks about how any retaliation we could take against the monsters of Fallujah is tempered by our fear of becoming like them:

Our hand is stayed by fear that the Thing is waiting to transfer its malevolence to us. It has lost the field, but still hungers after our souls. 'Smite us', it says, 'and come to prayer; come to Islam'. Militarily impotent, it has retreated within its herd and built around itself a wall of unconquerable hate, daring us to enter its cave. Here it lurks safe from bullets, for in the end a culture can be displaced only by another culture. The West cannot win the Global War on Terror until it rediscovers the wellsprings of its own belief, until it sends out teachers alongside soldiers, until it finds the courage to judge Islam, or certain Islamic sects, by a higher standard.

Sunday, March 28, 2004

Culture and the Who-Whom

The concept is from Lenin (there are times when you have no choice but to quote Lenin, and I'm not happy about it) and it recalls his brutal directness: The idea that all that matters in human relations is the question of "who-whom?" (kto-kogo in Russian). That is, who is doing what to whom? In Lenin's view, all interactions between human beings are exploitive in either one direction or the other, and the only question that matters is: Who is exploiting whom? Them or us?

I've started collecting stories of Muslims demanding accomodations from the Western societies they live in. I started with the one a couple of years ago where they demanded that the government of Italy destroy a 15th-century fresco because it offended them. And then there was the recent one about British Muslims' protest against a statue of a boar. Typically, the aggrieved Muslims frame it as a matter of an oppressed minority seeking relief. But in practice there is an implied, or more than implied, threat, as in the "boar" story:

'If the statue is put back in the Arboretum, I have been told it will not be there the next day, or at least it won't be in the same condition." [emphasis added]

In fact--if we look at this phenomenon through the lens of the Who-Whom dynamic--it's very simple: The Muslims are demanding that Europe facilitate its colonization.

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Being the 9/11 junkie that I am, I have of course been watching the public hearings that the official 9/11 Commision has been holding. Yesterday I was off the whole day because of car problems, so I was able to watch Colin Powell and Madeleine Albright live on C-Span; Today I watched the evening C-Span reruns with George Tenet, Sandy Berger, and, with special interest, drama queen Richard Clarke on his taxpayer-funded book tour appearance. I must give the guy credit for what might be the single best line I've ever heard from someone who has just been caught in an enormous lie. The reference is to the 2002 briefing in which he specifically reported that the Clinton administration had given no special warnings about Al Qaeda terrorism, something he insists they did in his charming new book. His response?

"No, I don't think what I said was inconsistent with what I said in my book. It's really just a matter of tone."

I have to remember that one. "Ed, I thought you told me were picking up the check?"

"Oh no, not at all," Ed laughs drolly, "you mistook my tone."

My bigger problem with the whole 9/11 Commission business is that the process has degenerated into the usual Washington rock-em sock-em robot politics, with Democrats (especially that loathsome Richard Ben-Veniste) attempting to "pin" 9/11 on the Bush administration, while Republicans do the reverse with the Clinton administration. It's really, really unpleasant to watch, especially for someone like me who is--if you will--a 9/11 purist who only wants to learn more about how it happened. Instead we get tortured, mangled circumlocutions from Albright and Berger to the effect that the U.S.S. Cole bombing meant that action against al Qaeda was immediately necessary...right after they left office.

But I digress. The thing that is most vile about this whole business is the idea that there is "blame" being debated at all. The question of "blame" really doesn't seem very mysterious: I blame the people who did it. The idea of "blaming" a presidential administration, or even the intelligence agencies who admittedly screwed up horribly, is distasteful in the sense that it diminishes the responsibility of the killers. Those, I don't let off the hook.

What this--the need to "blame" someone local for "allowing" something "on his watch"--comes from is a particularly modern delusion. It's the idea that the purpose of government is to keep everyone in a protective cocoon, a playpen. Anything bad that happens is the fault of the government's protective mechanism, as if it were a natural disaster.

Monday, March 22, 2004


The best line about the highly timely passing of Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin was from Mark Levin on his WABC show, when he said "Now Yassin is a real spiritual leader." I won't apologize for finding that line funny. People are going to die because of this assassination, but people have been dying--horribly--in Israel for years. Any Israeli calculation of a cost/benefit ratio for the Yassin hit could only conclude that the Palestinian hate-meter was already stuck at 11. The Palis long ago exhausted the vocabulary of Jew-hatred, and now there are no more superlatives:

"Words cannot describe the emotion of anger and hate inside our hearts," said Hamas official Ismail Haniyeh, a close associate of Yassin.

So, thought the Israelis, why not wipe out the bastard who sends 12-year-olds out to kill three-year-olds? The official Israeli press release on the assassination called Yassin "the mastermind of all evil," and I didn't find the title all that hyperbolic. R.N.I.P.

Sunday, March 21, 2004


So two weeks ago I'm talking to the manager of one of the closing WOTC retail stores. I have a retail store, I tell him, and I would be interested in buying a certain amount of things from the store at the 40% off price they are offering; but I need to not pay sales tax on it. He says, sure, just bring your tax number with you.

Saturday I go there, intent on buying, and a copy of the tax form I have displayed in the store is with me. The 18-year-old kid behind the counter looks at the form like it's written in Tagalog, and mumbles something about having to call the manager.

He comes back and tells me that this is not the right form. It says that I am entitled to *collect* sales tax, but not that I'm allowed to buy without *paying* sales tax. I tried, as gently as I could, to explain that there is no "right form." There is only a tax number, that's all the taxing authorities need. I tell him that I need to talk to the manager.

The kid tells me that the manager will be there in an hour, and I agree to come back.

An hour later the manager is not there, but the assistant manager is. He tells me that the manager thought I represented a charitable or nonprofit organization--where he got that idea I don't know--but that he couldn't waive the tax for a business.

At that point I gave up and bought nothing. I understand that there is no legal requirement for them to sell to me without sales tax, but they wouldn't admit that it was even permissible.

It was one of those moments where you are dealing with people who have no idea what they're talking about, but all they know is that they won't let you win. What's the old saying? "Against stupidity the gods themselves strive in vain."

Tuesday, March 16, 2004

Picture this: I am stranded at the store by an ice storm. Literally stranded, pulling-out-the-cot-and-sleeping-in-the-office-in-the-back stranded.

I gave up when I went to do the shipping and on my way back from the post office (only a few blocks away), my car almost ended up as part of the superstructure of Excitement XXX Video, an event which I would never have heard the end of from my business partners. Luckily I stopped in time, but that was my final attempt of the day at driving. The problem for me this week is that Bob is away at the GAMA trade show in Las Vegas, so I am left to run the store. On a day like today I would normally have stayed home to begin with.

Monday, March 15, 2004

The events in Spain in the last few days reminded me of Monty Python's "Army Protection Racket" sketch:

Sergeant Two civilian gentlemen to see you ... sir!
Colonel Show them in please, sergeant.
Sergeant Mr Dino Vercotti and Mr Luigi Vercotti.
The Vercotti brothers enter. They wear Mafia suits and dark glasses.

Dino Good morning, colonel.
Colonel Good morning gentlemen. Now what can I do for you.
Luigi (looking round office casually)You've ... you've got a nice army base here, colonel.
Colonel Yes.
Luigi We wouldn't want anything to happen to it.
Colonel What?
Dino No, what my brother means is it would be a shame if... (he knocks something off mantel)
Colonel Oh.
Dino Oh sorry, colonel.

The basic joke of an entire nation's military being hit up for protection money by Mafia thugs was so absurd, even to the Pythons, that they ended the sketch by having the colonel declare, " No, the whole premise is silly and it's very badly written. I'm the senior officer here and I haven't had a funny line yet. So I'm stopping it."

But today, as we see the spectacle of an entire national electorate falling for what is essentially a thuggish protection racket on a grand scale, it's not so absurd an idea.

Sunday, March 14, 2004

Went to Moira's christening today, and it was the best day I've had in a long time. Christenings are the best occasions in the universe. Funerals are awful, weddings are invariably such tense things that I find them pretty awful too. But at a christening the worst thing that you realistically expect to happen is that the kid will scream. But Moira was calm and sweet as she typically is, and she smelled like cloves the rest of the day ("Like Pier One" as her mother said). My family is usually very difficult to explain (though not as difficult to explain as I am), but today everyone was uncomplicated.

Friday, March 12, 2004


In the current Weekly Standard, Thomas Powers reviews Thomas L. Prangle's Political Philosophy and the God of Abraham, and he asks, not quite rhetorically,

Is it possible that we moderns can rise to the level of seriousness of the Bible? We live in a world that teaches the importance of things only here on earth and, for the soul, the satisfaction of cruder, more readily met needs. Can the image of Abraham be anything more than a display at our cultural amusement park?

I thought of Andrew Greeley's poisonous review of The Passion of the Christ when I read this. Greeley, a Catholic priest himself, seems so steeped in the modern cultural idiom that he cannot imagine a sacrifice greater than, say, donating your time to a good cause. Reading the following quote in light of the story of Abraham and his son makes it almost laughable:

One may wonder what kind of God it would be that would demand such a price from his beloved son. Is this the same kind of implacably forgiving God whom Jesus preached in his life?

Reading this, one can only conclude that Greeley has suffered some sort of physical trauma to the head that has destroyed all memory of the Old Testament in general and the Abraham/Isaac story in particular. Metaphorically, the Abraham story is about (to use Powers's word) seriousness, and seriousness is one of the primary virtues that informs the Gibson film. In the context of the recent history of cinema, Gibson's Jesus is simply more serious than Hippie Jesus of Godspell, and Horn-Dog Jesus of Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ.

Contemporary culture reserves what it considers seriousness for only the most important subjects, like Racism or The Environment. To imply that there are matters of transcending seriousness of which all of our greatest concerns are the most minor manifestations is to offend the culture grievously, and wound it, and those too deeply attached to it like Greeley, to the point of fury.

Tuesday, March 09, 2004

There was a fascinating, underreported 9/11 story in, of all places, yesterday's New York Daily News. We are finding out that there may have been a second passenger uprising on the 9/11 airliners, specifically United Airlines Flight 175 out of Logan airport in Boston, which struck Tower # 2 of the World Trade Center at 9:02 AM that morning.

The Daily News story reports that passenger Brian Sweeney was ready to fight the hijackers, apparently along with others ("We're going to try to do something about this," his widow quotes him).

So why did this passenger uprising fail, where the well-known one on UA Flight 93 at least partially succeeded? The Daily News story points out that there were only 4 minutes between Sweeney's cellphone call and the impact with Tower 2, which is only a partial explanation.

Though Flight 175 didn't have the shortest flight of the four 9/11 planes, it had the shortest period when the hijackers were in control--because of its particular flight plan.

That day's other fiight from Logan, American Airlines Flight 11, travelled due west and crossed the Hudson valley (which was probably the point in the flight when the hijacking occurred); the hijacker pilot on that flight, Atta, almost certainly followed the Hudson on a straight line south to Manhattan.

But Flight 175's scheduled route was different. It followed a southwesterly direction, taking it diagonally across Connecticut and through northern New Jersey, and almost certainly taking the plane in visual range of the twin towers. Most likely the sighting of the WTC was the visual cue for the hijacker team to seize the plane.

What this meant, among other things, was that there were no more than 10-15 minutes between the hijacking of 175 and the impact with the WTC south tower. Consequently there was much less time available for the passengers to organize a revolt. By contrast, Flight 93 wasn't hijacked until it was over Ohio, and the passengers had over twenty minutes to plan their uprising.

The Flight 175 passengers, unlike those on 93, were also faced by a full five-man hijacking crew. That, and the lack of time, made it impossible for them to stop the hijackers.

What a sad, touching story, made even more so by our almost never knowing about it.

Why is it that "world opinion" is all-important when it comes to the Bush presidency, and yet, when an overwhelming majority of people around the world oppose same-sex marriage, their opinion seems to matter not at all?

Monday, March 08, 2004

Identifying a political position shouldn't be this difficult, should it?

TIME: Obviously it's good that Saddam is out of power. Was bringing him down worth the cost?

KERRY: If there are no weapons of mass destruction— and we may yet find some—then this is a war that was fought on false pretenses, because that was the justification to the American people, to the Congress, to the world, and that was clearly the frame of my vote of consent. I said it as clearly as you can in my speech. I suggested that all the evils of Saddam Hussein alone were not a cause to go to war.

TIME: So, if we don't find WMD, the war wasn't worth the costs? That's a yes?

KERRY: No, I think you can still—wait, no. You can't—that's not a fair question, and I'll tell you why. You can wind up successful in transforming Iraq and changing the dynamics, and that may make it worth it, but that doesn't mean [transforming Iraq] was the cause [that provided the] legitimacy to go. You have to have that distinction.

I need an aspirin after reading that.

Following up on the "9/11 Families Outraged by Bush Ad" business from last week, it seems that the families were sought out and supplied with talking points by the Kerry campaign, which explains the remarkable similarities in many of their statements.

This is already the ugliest Presidential campaign in history, and it's going to get worse.

Sunday, March 07, 2004

Enjoyed the new Sopranos tonight--this year's cast additions (Steve Buscemi, Robert Loggia) are great. The series is as popular as ever with people, as always mostly for the wrong reasons. Lots of people, bizarrely, find Tony and his crew heroic in an odd, pistol-whipping kind of way; I find them reptilian (though tonight's episode very obviously compared Tony to a bear). I like the show because it depicts an amoral creature's self-induced destruction; the corruption and violence that rule Tony's life are slowly destroying everything he holds dear, and the process is fascinating to watch.

Saturday, March 06, 2004

I spent much of today examining the twitching corpse of the Wizards of the Coast store at the Moorestown Mall in New Jersey, picking up whatever interesting inventory I could find (not that there was much) at 60% off, and asking when they'd be going to 70.

The closing of Wizards' retail chain was inevitable ever since Hasbro bought Wizards a couple of years ago, and the Hasbro purchase itself was the final act in the company's rapid decline. Hasbro is a big multinational corporation that couldn't be bothered with a piddling hundred-store retail chain. So now they're speedily dumping the stores.

The store is full of the junk typical of mid-tier retail: stuff designed to appeal to a mass audience, but priced way above what you'd find at Wal-Mart. And that's the problem. To be a boutique retailer selling at boutique prices, you'd better have stuff that you can't find in a Wal-Mart. The only way to survive in Wally World is to overwhelm the customer with things that that the huge discount stores turn up their noses at. It requires a lot of work, very good knowledge of the market, and, occasionally, shopping trips to the mall.

Friday, March 05, 2004

I am indebted to Stormy for this:

Thursday, March 04, 2004

The Reuters story about the 9/11 families and the Bush campaign ad is, among other things, a revealing example of political advocacy in the guise of journalism.

First, the title, "Sept. 11 Families Outraged by Bush Campaign Ad." (It was originally titled "Sept. 11 Families Disgusted by Bush Campaign Ad," but I guess someone at Reuters eventually thought that was a bit over the top, so the title was changed at 6:48 PM tonight.) The original story also lacks the additional pro-Bush quotes from Mayor Giuliani and Bush campaign aide Terry Holt, which were inserted later.

The story itself begins, "Families who lost relatives in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks..." Not some families, or several families, but "families" alone, implying a consensus of opinion, an impression maintained until the final two lines of the story, where, finally, we find a 9/11 family that isn't "outraged" or "disgusted" by the Bush ads.

Tuesday, March 02, 2004

Handicapping the Kerry VP candidates....

Hillary Clinton. This would entail Her Highness waiting until 2012 to become Empress, I mean President. There is no way Hillary would want to make her subjects, I mean supporters, wait an extra four years to be ruled, I mean represented, by her. 25-1.

Bill Bradley. I like Bradley, but it's hard to imagine more soporific ticket than Kerry/Bradley. 20-1.

Wesley Clark: An empty resume and a terrible campaigner. Republicans would love to follow him around with his former commanding officer Hugh Shelton to remind everyone of those "character issues" that Shelton has been talking about the last six months. 10-1.

Dick Gephardt: The voting public doesn't respond to him at all. 10-1.

Bob Graham. He makes the ticket much tougher to beat in Florida, but he's slightly loopy. I can't see Kerry taking the risk that Graham will say something bizarre on the campaign trail. 7-1.

John Edwards: I don't think so. A number of "Kerry cool to Edwards" pieces have been leaked to the press lately, so that's not a good sign for this ticket. Edwards is likeable but shallow ("A male flight attendant" says Craig Kilborn). In a debate with Dick Cheney he would look like a little kid wearing his father's clothes. 5-1.

Max Cleland: Makes it an "all-Vietnam" ticket that can trash Bush on the war 24-7 if it wanted to, which seems to be attractive to Kerry. I'm pretty sure that constant living in the past would spell doom, and I think the Democrats would have to know this. 4-1.

Gov. Bill Richardson, New Mexico: A safe candidate who would balance Kerry's patrician snobbiness. But he was humiliated by his friends the Clintons in that Monica Lewinsky UN debacle. 3-1.

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