Writing on the Double Yellow Line

Militant moderate, unwilling to concede any longer the terms of debate to the strident ideologues on the fringe. If you are a Democrat or a Republican, you're an ideologue. If you're a "moderate" who votes a nearly straight party-ticket, you're still an ideologue, but you at least have the decency to be ashamed of your ideology. ...and you're lying in the meantime.

Location: Illinois, United States

Friday, July 28, 2006

Swimming Against the Riptide

Swimming Against the Riptide
© 2006 Ross Williams

I am an essayist. I see something in the news, or in the real world, that irks me, I look it up and down to find out why it is irksome, I research the matter, and I write essays that describes the irksome item in unflattering detail. My talent lies in unflattering the nonflatterworthy. Then I slap these essays into a free, public, electronic notebook called a "blog".

"Blog" is internet shorthand for "web log", and it is not typically used by essayists to collect their essays. It is typically used by subject-area hobbyists and other neophytes to collect quotes, internet links, a phrase or two of their own and plagiarize endlessly into that good night. A blog is typically little more than a public scrapbook containing bits of semi-thought. An electronic button box. The internet's junk drawer and penny jar.

A penny for your thoughts?

Why spend that much? The internet’s free, and there’s blogs everywhere.

There are blogs relating to every subject imaginable. I’ve run across people who wax digital on the random self-importance of being a single cat-owner in Boston. Hourly updates on Mister Mitten’s activities, complete with 75 uploaded photographs of the beast mauling a ball of yarn. Unfortunately, there is an audience for such tedium.

I’ve seen blogs describing in suicide-inspiring detail how Mary, Mary, quite contrary gets her garden to grow. And there is an audience for that as well. Two or three lines of such insight as “Well, the predicted overnight rains didn’t come after all, so it looks like I’ll have to water the lemon basil *YET AGAIN*!!! :(” Twenty minutes later we read “Watered my basil; found what looks like scaly fungus on the radicchio. Another trip to the garden center is in my plans now, it looks like. Seems I live there lately!!!

And aren’t we all the richer for knowing this.

Note the three exclamation points!!! Their world is triple-important.

Other people read these entries and add their own helpful hints – which is how we can tell there’s an audience for such scintillating reports – and always the comment sections are chock full of reaffirming pablum as “Thank you for the information you post, Mary Mary. You are an inspiration to us weekend gardeners! :)”

Not once have I read an entry in these world-revolves-around-me diaries saying “If you spent half the time in your garden as you do writing about it, you could brush the scaly fungus off the radicchio with a toothbrush while blindfolded. Try buying a life at the garden center next time you go. You’re bo-o-o-oring” I would suspect that we won’t see such comments, honest though they are, because it would be an admission that the commentator is so life-bereft himself that he is reduced to pinging lifeless dweebs on the internet for their lack of a life. The bland denouncing the bland.

Then, of course, there are the political blogs. These turn political punditry – the art of watching politics and analyzing its ramifications – into the scaly fungus of a garden blog. “Well, the predicted voter revolt didn’t happen after all, so it looks like I’ll have to check my civil rights at the door for another four years *YET AGAIN*!!! :(”

The inevitable responses to this self-pitying swill typically range between jet black and pure white, and consist of, at most, bumper-sticker slogans. “Yeah! me too!!” or “Nuh-UH!!!” This passes for political discourse among our nation’s computer-savvy voters.

“Yuh huh!!” “Nuh uh!!” “Yuh huh!!” “Nuh uh!!” “Yuh huh!!” “Nuh uh!!” It’s like watching Meet the Press for Kindergarteners. Today’s issue: Did little Bobby Brown take the blue crayon from Susie Jones. “Yuh huh!!” “Nuh uh!!” “Yuh huh!!” “Nuh uh!!” “Yuh huh!!” “Nuh uh!!” Any parent worth a damn wants to throttle anyone involved. Everyone goes to bed without supper and if there’s even a peep, out comes the belt.

Among the saddest aspects of this is: the people engaging in such superficial twaddle are usually high school, and commonly college, graduates. Yet they can’t very often form sentences, let alone collect those sentences into meaningful paragraphs, let alone assemble meaningful paragraphs into a coherent theme the purpose of which is to lay out facts, pertinently connect those facts, and thus demonstrate the validity of their conclusion.

They skip merrily past the research needed to assemble facts; they eschew the drudgery of analyzing facts – at most, they select one or two out of literally thousands and construct vivid and magical worlds upon these few data points; and they finally come skidding to a halt at their opinion, which they assert is authoritative, and announce that all is solved.

“I think so, therefore it is.”

The fact that they have an opinion does not make their opinion fact.

But the saddest part is, though, to me, … blogs are supposed to be the next wave of the information age. Gone are the days when a few media outlets – now pejoratively called “mainstream media” – control what information the people have in order to form their opinions. We now have blogs!

And this helps … how?

Blogs aren’t journalism; many aren’t even literate. Most that are [more or less] literate don’t do any investigation beyond what is contained in a handful of other blogs which, coincidentally, agree with the one doing the investigation. Only a few do any actual analysis of anything bordering on factual information, and a scant handful are anything but cheerleader collection points for their own political -ism. …and which thereupon serve to announce where drive-by denunciations might be tossed out by internetters of differing ideology.

Most political blogs I’ve seen – on the left, on the right, and in the center – spend their days quoting and denouncing each other[1]. Occasionally they’ll issue the peremptory “…and this shows we’re better than the mainstream media…” self-delusion, and then go back to checking each other’s navels for lint. “Trackback”, they call it.

Any given piece of information found on a typical blog can be traced through trackbacks in a full circle never leaving the cozy confines of the blogosphere. On the rare occasion that actual fact enters their dizzying universe, it’s either ignored as pedestrian, or it’s denounced as heretical. My essays are for the most part, seemingly, ignored. Although the few which have drawn non-spamvertising response – which I uniformly delete – have been denounced.

As much as criticism of the mainstream media is warranted, and for all the reasons that blogs and bloggers cite, blogs are themselves no better. In many ways, they are arguably worse. It was blogs that somehow toppled the Mighty Dan Rather, with their no-holds-barred “honesty”.

In all actuality, what happened was that several bloggers who [justifiably] detested the smug and self-righteous Rather asked questions that the smug and self-righteous Rather, and his smug and self-righteous producer, refused to ask. Rather and Mapes would rather have built their vivid and magical reality upon one data point than to concede that, maybe, perhaps, the old “AWOL” story was just over-played out on a disinterested public.

Many blogs asked “…and just where did this new information come from all of a sudden…?” Well, somebody heard from someone that such-and-so, and a thousand different conspiracy theories were born overnight on the internet. One of those conspiracy theories was that the letter was typed in Microsoft Word™, and printed in a font not available on the standard Texas Air National Guard IBM Selectric™ circa 1970. This is an angle into which any responsible investigative journalist would have looked – which necessarily excludes Rather in his dotage, and Mapes in her ideological imperiousness.

The entire nation of journalists, though, was too busy constructing their vivid and magical realities instead of committing journalism[2]. But that doesn’t mean that the blog which theorized this conspiracy did anything more than get lucky. It didn’t break the story. The team that gets one hit in a thousand at-bats – even if it’s a home run – is still hitting .001.

UFOlogists who circle Groom Lake like vagrant vultures can’t say “Ah HA! Area 51 does exist and they design and experiment with next-generation aircraft – so we were right all along!

No, Mr Salinger, TWA-800 was not shot down by the US Navy.

Stopped clocks are guaranteed to be correct twice a day – which is about as often as Rush Limbaugh, MoveOn.org and the rest of the political blogosphere.

And instant punditry in bumper-sticker slogans does not substitute for analysis or rational discourse.

To be the next wave of the information age, try these tricks: collect facts, even ones you don’t like; assemble those facts into pertinent collections, drawing connections between them; and draw conclusions which draw on all the facts – even, and especially, the ones you don’t like. And I know it sound bizarre, but try actually writing out your answers in full sentences, paragraphs and themes.

Essays: not just for grade-school nerds anymore.

[1] A head-shaking blog-war erupted a few weeks ago between “Protein Wisdom” operated by Jeff Goldstein – a blog I have occasionally run across – and the one run by a Deborah Frisch, a PhD in psychology, ex-adjunct professor at the University of Arizona. Her blog is called Southwest Media [?? I’m going by memory here; I’m too ambivalent to look it up right now], in which the differences of political opinion devolved rather more quickly into its kindergartenish components, and even became quasi-criminal in nature. It was as if the gossip columnist for the Los Angeles Times and the advice columnist for the New York Daily News met in Des Moines Iowa to have a purse-fight.
[2] One blog commentator I’ve had the displeasure of running across more than once continually asserts that the job of a free press in a free country is to be “adversarial” to the government. Which is grossly and sanctimoniously incorrect. The job of a free press in a free country is to be skeptical of the government. Skeptical means: “Prove to me you’re right”; adversarial means: “No matter what you do you’re wrong.”

Suddenly Sudan

Suddenly Sudan
© 2006 Ross Williams

It reads like the plot of a Tom Clancy novel. Old intrigues resurfacing to inflict new intrigue upon another generation long since intrigued-out. Or possibly Tom Clancy-meets-Three Stooges, where old intrigues are slapsticked into a farce.

No matter; as always, "somebody" must do "something" about it. If only "someone" knew what that "something" might be... Someone apart from Mia Farrow, that is.[1]

International law is fairly clear: what happens within a nation's borders is nobody else's business. It doesn't matter what it is. If Slobodan Milosevic wants to wage war on his ethnic Kosov minority and he does so completely within the borders of Serbia, international law says he can do it. Even if he, or his army, rapes women, kills children and executes all the men without trial. Territorial sovereignty and all.[2]

The rest of the world can look on in horror – or in admiration, depending upon one's tastes in such matters – or it can look away. The rest of the world can even squawk with moral indignation and call the vile Milosevic every vile name it can think of. But the rest of the world is not allowed to do anything about it. It is an internal matter.

When NATO bombs Serbia into darkness and rubble because they don't like Slobo turning his ethnic minorities into Kosov-kabobs, NATO has just violated international law. Europe and the US has no more authority to intercede in internal Serbian policies when those policies wage war on the part of its population called Kosovs than Bolivia, e.g., has to intercede in internal US policies which wage war on that portion of the US population called cocaine dealers.

“But... but... but... killing innocent Kosovs is a crime against humanity…” Well, it’s rude, certainly, but find for me this law which spells out what “crime against humanity” consists of and the authority by which other nations have to come barging across borders to impose it by force of arms. I’ll wait … but not for very long.

"But... but... but... a simmering civil war on Europe's back doorstep isn't in Europe's collective economic interest..." Granted, but so what? Impeding the cocaine distribution network isn't in Bolivia's economic interest, either; the answer doesn't change because you shift from moral outrage to gross national product: you aren’t allowed to interfere in another nation's internal policies.

That said: it happens all the time. Not exactly every day, but often enough that we teach our kids the results of such interference in others' internal business. We call it history class. International law – much like US law – is written such that both sides are covered. No matter how it turns out, a violation of international law is cited. It violates international law for NATO to intercede in an internal Serbian matter, yet Milosevic was the one brought up on charges in The Hague. History is written by the winners as much today as ever.

If Serbia had beaten the US-led NATO – a long-shot, certainly, but anything is possible – then NATO would have been hit with sanctions and Clinton and Chirac would be answering the embarrassing questions instead.

I bring this up only to point out this little bit of salience: those who are indignant because the cultural beauty and worth of, for example, the human-sacrificing Maya and Aztec empires were steamrolled by the Spanish are themselves guilty of steamrolling the ethnocentric sensibilities of, in this instance, Serbia. In both cases morality is cited in marginalizing the loser.

I love the smell of hypocrisy first thing in the millennium. Don’t you? The moral equivalence is so ... new age-y.

And then we have Darfur.

Darfur is the western region of Sudan. In Arabic, the name means "land of the Fur". The Fur are – or were – come to think of it, maybe still are – slave traders whose forays into central Africa netted black African tribesman and -women and -children who were sold to Arab muslims for the thriving Arab slave market. The Fur are black Africans converted to islam in the middle ages, and who were ruled for hundreds of years by a succession of Arab, Egypti-Arab or British sovereigns. As long as they were still allowed to farm and sell slaves, they were content to be ruled by those who wanted to rule them.

Which brings us to today. By way of a few decades ago. Enter Tom Clancy.

Back when Moammar Gadhafi was being his Berber bad-ass self, he started up a revolution in neighboring Chad. Well, naturally, you can't do that. Not only does international law frown on one nation interfering in another nation's internal workings by fomenting revolution, but so do people who count. International law does not have an army or carry weapons. France and the US does. And, as everyone knows, central and western Africa is for France, not Libya, to play foreign puppetmaster. And the US didn't like Gadhafi, so no matter what he did it was wrong.

France and the US backed the Chadian government and defeated the pro-Libyan revolution. But the revolutionaries had to slink away somewhere. Couldn't go to Libya, since that would be a dead giveaway that Colonel Gadhafi was behind it. So they slunk next door to Sudan, to the Land of the Fur. These Libyan-backed revolutionaries were black muslims just like the Fur, but they claimed to be Arab. They spoke Arabic, anyway, and they are probably somewhat more ethnically-mixed with actual Arabs than the Fur are.

The stage is now set for the Three Stooges.

Sudan is ruled by Arab muslims. The Fur tribes didn’t like their territory being squatted on, even by other black muslims. These other black muslims don’t raise camels, they raise cattle. And they don’t deal in slaves, they fight in revolutions. And eww!! The squatters have one more Arab living in the family tree.

The Fur asked the government[3] to do something about the squatters – Baggara tribe. The Sudanese government, like all governments, is saddled with glacial inertia and did nothing, and very slowly, so the Fur got up a few revolutionary groups to do something about it themselves. …but not against the ex-revolutionary squatters, for they were still well-armed. There were tribal insurrections going on all over this part of the world – radiating from the horn of Africa, from Eritrea to Ethiopia to Somalia to Chad to Congo – so why not Sudan as well? The Fur started shooting at the government who did nothing about evicting the ex-revolutionary squatters.

The Arab government of Sudan didn’t like being revolted against, naturally, so it hired the black muslim squatters who call themselves Arabs to put down the Darfurian rebels.

Moe hits Larry; Larry complains to Curly; Curly ignores Larry so Larry hits Curly because Larry was originally hit by Moe. So then Curly hires Moe to hit Larry because Larry is hitting Curly because Moe hit Larry in the first place. Nyuck, nyuck, nyuck.

By all accounts, the Baggara squatters are quite good at putting down revolutions, whereas the Fur revolutionaries are not so good at revolting. A few hundred thousand camel-raising, slave-trading Fur have been killed by what amounts to the Sudanese National Guard-for-hire.

Except for a handful of actual got-totin’ Fur rebels, the Fur are, to a man, woman and child, essentially claiming that their revolution was all a misunderstanding, a joke as it were. They really only meant to sign a petition politely requesting that the Baggara squatters – now hired by the government to kill the Fur – be moved to the other side of Sudan. Or something.

African nations have banded together trying to put a stop to the Darfur “crisis” because Darfur is so unlike the identical crises in Somalia and Eritrea and Rwanda and Nigeria and Ethiopia and, and, and. There’s something about conducting wars that pinches the pocketbook, though, and the largely impoverished nations of Africa don’t have the funds to pay for an army large enough to force the fighting to stop. They can’t even afford the very small army they sent to sit in the desert like a rock, while the Baggara run around them to kill the Fur down the road. And it suddenly becomes unfair that the Fur revolutionaries are being killed by the government.

Once the word “unfair” gets uttered it means, of course, the “crisis in Darfur” has reached the ears of America’s perennially tear-stained professional sympathizers. These people’s first, and seemingly only, response is to beg for UN involvement.

The Fur need the UN for protection. And the UN needs the US for muscle. …because the UN, like international law, doesn’t have an army or carry weapons. The US does.

All the normal tear-stained activists, long on sympathy, short on circumspection, are lining up to agitate on behalf of a group of pseudo-revolutionary slave-traders who – in a spate of cosmic karma – are now getting what they’ve dished out for hundreds of years.

Even so, it’s rude to wipe out whole villages of Fur-Arab people, women and children included, even if they are a major conduit in the Arab slave trade. Yes. Mia Farrow is right about that.

As I continually nag, though: you don’t get points for being right, just pertinent. It is downright horrifying what is happening in Darfur. But it’s an internal Sudanese matter and none of anyone else’s business.

…which is not to say that it won’t be made someone else’s business – even our own here in America. That’s the way things go sometimes, though I’d predict that with everything else going on[4], the Fur are on their own here. I merely point this all out to describe, yet again, the fickle morality of our effete elite who agitate for quasi-war for “humanitarian” reasons and don’t understand the issue beyond their own Save The Children soundbite.

They are demanding that international law be violated on behalf of an abstract “humanitarian law” that no one can point to. This law they cite is apparently written on the blank faces and sunken eyes of the men, women and children who are not good at fighting the wars they start. They deserve a do-over, apparently, like any Hollywood movie star gets. Take two, Ms Farrow; try to hit your mark this time.

Let’s recap the last decade of Hollywood foreign policy, just for laughs:

Serbia, 1996-9, Kosov ethnic minority starts a revolution, gets wiped out by government forces, up to 10,000 Kosovs are killed, but estimates in 1998 started in the low six-figures; it’s a purely internal Serb matter, but the perennially tear-stained weep for war. A war to stop the festering European street fight serves Europe’s collective national interests – not America’s – and so America’s tear-stained give the raging self-interest a pass. We have a war that violates every shred of international law in existence. No US casualties, though, so it’s a “good war”.

Iraq, 1991-2002, Kurd ethnic minority and Shi’a religious majority are being systematically purged by Hussein in violation of 1991 cease-fire terms; estimates of the humanitarian NGOs range up to half a million killed by government forces. Iraq further violates 1991 cease-fire terms by flouting UN inspections and firing on US/UK aircraft thus justifying, under international law, military action being taken. The perennially tear-stained ignore Hussein’s humanitarian outrages because doing anything forceful would be a “war for oil” and otherwise serve America’s national interests, which is bad. Foreign policy is only good when it serves an abstract, theoretical purpose. Hussein gets trivialized[5], and the civilian deaths under Hussein are blamed on “US sanctions” – which were created by the UN. We have a war that is supported by international law; once the war is all over but the shouting, we find that “only” around 200,000 Kurds and Shi’a were killed by Hussein’s government. But the tear-stained don’t want to hear it; Bush “lied”, so the war supported by international law is “illegal”.

Sudan: 2003-6, Fur ethnic minority starts a mini-revolution, government hires a force to wipe them out; estimated 200,000 Fur are killed. Purely internal Sudanese matter, but the perennially tear-stained weep for war yet again.

And war would be what it requires. You can’t simply plop an army down in the middle of two squabbling parties and tell them to look fierce. That’s a recipe for another Blackhawk Down. Or Bosnia. Or Lebanon 1982-3. The army you send must be ready and willing to shoot anyone who looks cross-eyed. Which means war for peace and killing so that people might live.

In the grand scheme of superficial Hollywood foreign policy, isn’t that one of the concepts they criticize? Mia? It’s your line, sweetie…

[1] http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/chi-0607250114jul25,1,1899217.story?coll=chi-opinionfront-hed
[2] …which includes “self-determiniation”. We self-righteous westerners are all hot for democratic self-determination, except when the majority doesn’t appreciate things like gay marriage or the candidate from the Democratic Party.
[3] Let us not forget that this is the same Sudanese government which sponsored al Qaida in the mid-90s and imposed Sharia on its southern pagan tribes and its less-than-enthusiastic muslim population
[4] Afghanistan, Iraq, North Korea, Iran, Hezbollah-Israel…
[5] “yes, he’s an evil dictator, but we don’t start wars just to topple evil dictators…”