The week (September 29th): Nobody asked me, but…

As New York’s legendary “man about town” columnist Jimmy Cannon used to say, Nobody asked me, but…

THE PERFECT LATE SEPTEMBER weather in New York City over the past two days brought to mind Childe Hassam’s paintings of a sun-drenched Fifth Avenue, canvasses dominated by rows of hanging American flags and the colorful blur of pedestrians and traffic. Is there any better time of the year to be in Manhattan?

PERHAPS THERE IS SOME GOOD TO BE elicited from the revelations that Senator George Allen (R-VA) may have used the “N-word” in college and challenger James Webb’s admission that anyone living in the South in the 1960s and 70s may also have used the racial slur (Webb included), although Webb denies ever using the word as an epithet. The potential good? It serves to remind us of the casual acceptance of racism in the United States—and, perhaps, will provoke some consideration of the powerful legacy of prejudice against African-Americans.

Meanwhile the Senate race in Virginia has tightened; Allen has lost his initial 16 percentage point lead and polls are showing the candidates in a dead heat.

PETER BAKER of the Washington Post, in his recent front-page story “For Bush, War Anguish Expressed Privately” demonstrates how in-depth, balanced reporting and sensitivity to the complexity of life can offer journalistic insights of a near-literary quality. Baker reports that Bush’s contact with the families of killed service members is greater than generally known.

For those who have suffered losses in the wars he initiated, Bush prefers to offer comfort in private. He writes letters to families of those killed, visits soldiers at military hospitals and meets with relatives of the dead. Altogether, according to the White House, Bush has met with 1,149 relatives of 336 dead service members. These sessions generate little attention because the White House bars journalists, but some relatives have described them.

Baker’s news feature offers a different, more somber, portrait of George Bush—one light years removed from the smirking, frat boy image the President oftens projects. That Bush is meeting with the families of American soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan counters the conventional wisdom that he has been buffered from the considerable suffering produced by the war; that some of the families are confronting him over the deaths of their loved ones is remarkable.

INFORMATION MAY LONG TO BE FREE, as the early Internet (Web 1.0) mantra went, but unless traditional media companies—especially newspapers—can figure out a way to make money with their reportage (“content” in the new lexicon), they will face a no-win future of decimated newsrooms, shrinking coverage and dramatically reduced influence.

The recent conflict between Tribune Company executives and Los Angeles Times editor Dean Baquet and publisher Jeffrey Johnson—where Johnson and Baquet have refused to make personnel cuts mandated by the parent company—highlights the considerable challenges of balancing return-on-investment concerns with journalistic mission.

While Johnson and Baquet are right in arguing that cutting news staff will be counterproductive, and that the short-term solution may be for the Tribune Company to accept lower margins at the Times, what about the long-term? Is this just a postponement of an inevitable down-sizing of the traditional metro newspaper? Even if Tribune settles for a short-term profit margin of say, 5%, and relents on cuts, what happens if Times advertising and circulation revenue continues to erode? No one in the newspaper industry has yet figured out what to do about the continuing loss of readers and advertisers—and the Internet doesn’t yet offer comparable returns.

FILE UNDER HOLLYWOOD ENDINGS Notre Dame’s improbable comeback win against Michigan State last Saturday, where the Fighting Irish scored 19 points in the fourth quarter to prevail 40-37. Quarterback Brady Quinn threw for five touchdowns, showing why professional scouts rate him so highly, and the Irish defense toughened in the second half, pressuring the Spartans into turnovers. The win kept Notre Dame’s slim hopes for a national title alive.

SOME ARRESTING PASSAGES FROM AN E-MAIL of a Marine serving in Iraq recently caught my eye. According to DefenseTech.org, the e-mail came from a Marine in Fallujah and is “making the rounds.” The absurdity of war and its moments of dark humor are perfectly captured in this entry:

Most Surreal Moment – Watching Marines arrive at my detention facility and unload a truck load of flex-cuffed midgets. 26 to be exact. I had put the word out earlier in the day to the Marines in Fallujah that we were looking for Bad Guy X, who was described as a midget. Little did I know that Fallujah was home to a small community of midgets, who banded together for support since they were considered as social outcasts. The Marines were anxious to get back to the midget colony to bring in the rest of the midget suspects, but I called off the search, figuring Bad Guy X was long gone on his short legs after seeing his companions rounded up by the giant infidels.

The unnamed Marine closed his email with the universal longing expressed by warriors throughout the ages:

Most Common Thought – Home. Always thinking of home, of Kathleen and the kids. Wondering how everyone else is getting along. Regretting that I don’t write more. Yep, always thinking of home.

PERHAPS SOME DAY SOMEONE WILL EXPLAIN the draw of NASCAR to me. I just don’t get it. What is it about watching cars drive around in a big circle that attracts viewers and spectators? Morbid curiosity? Even stranger: one of the Boston sports radio stations broadcasts play-by-play of NASCAR races. Listeners are treated to the sound of engines in the background as the announcer follows the “action.”

SOMETIMES I THINK GEORGE BERNARD SHAW had it right: “Everything happens to everybody sooner or later if there is time enough.”


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Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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Summer reading: Joseph Conrad and “The Secret Sharer”

Joseph Conrad’s “The Secret Sharer” is usually grouped with his other sea stories for critical consideration, but the nautical setting is incidental—it is the “conflict within” that fascinated the Polish-English writer, a reflection, we can conjecture, of Conrad’s own identification as a homo duplex—a “double man.”

English was Conrad’s second language, and he acknowledged his own dual loyalties when he told a British friend in 1903: “Both at sea and on land, my point of view is English, from which the conclusion should not be drawn that I have become an Englishman. That is not the case. Homo duplex has in my case more than one meaning.”

The immigrant Conrad struggled with this dual national identity, balancing two cultures and allegiances, knowing that he would always be considered somewhat less than truly English. Conrad understood full well the potential for alienation and conflict that such a straddling act could produce.

“The Secret Sharer,” published in 1911 in Harper’s Magazine, was, according to Conrad, based on both his own experiences as a young captain and on the highly publicized murder of a sailor on the clipper ship Cutty Sark in 1880 by the first mate (who subsequently killed himself).

Not much occurs in the “The Secret Sharer”per se: there are no shipwrecks or mutinies, no sea battles or feats of
seamanship. The drama, for the most part, takes place in the mind (and heart) of the unnamed young English captain—the narrator—who has recently assumed command, his first, of an unnamed ship off the coast of Cambodia in the Gulf of Siam (Thailand).

As the story opens, another young Englishman, Lassatt, swims to the ship, a fugitive from justice. An officer aboard the ship Sephora, Lassatt has killed a sailor during a crisis in bad weather; he openly explains his situation and acknowledges his guilt in the matter to the captain. Like the story’s narrator, Lassatt has been schooled on the Conway—the training vessel for the Royal Navy and British Merchant Marine—and the young captain immediately identifies with him.

He decides to shelter Lassatt, hiding him in his cabin, concealing his presence from the crew. It’s never made clear why he identifies with the fugitive so deeply: is it the bond between two sensitive men of the same social class? Is there an element of sexual attraction? Is Lassatt his doppelganger, his double?

Conrad’s unnamed narrator struggles with this, drawn to the fugitive, and yet aware of the twisted aspects to the relationship.

He was not a bit like me, really; yet, as we stood leaning over my bed place, whispering side by side, with our dark heads together and our backs to the door, anybody bold enough to open it stealthily would have been treated to the uncanny sight of a double captain busy talking in whispers with his other self.

“The Secret Sharer” is about duality (the text is crammed with references to “my other self,” “my double, “the secret sharer of my life,” “my intelligent double”), a common theme in 19th century literature: think of Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Poe’s William Wilson, Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener.” In fact, Conrad revised the title of the story from “The Secret-Sharer” to “The Secret Sharer” so that dualism was recognized from the start.

The question of command

While the Other Self fascinates Conrad, the story is also about command—command in the sense of commanding a ship, but also of commanding one’s destiny. One critical interpretation of the story sees the episode with Leggatt as the mechanism by which the young captain faces down his self-doubts and assumes his responsibilities as the authority figure on his own ship. Certainly the resolution of the story suggests that Conrad introduced the fugitive as a way to force his young narrator to confront the very question of command. It is an unabashedly male question for Conrad: does the captain have the strength and resolve to deserve command? Can he gain the respect of his crew—who wait to see that his titular authority is matched by competence and judgment?

Where Conrad’s work rises above the conventional sea story is in his portrait of his hesitant, conflicted captain. The narrator confesses: “But what I felt most was my being a stranger to the ship; and if all the truth must be told, I was somewhat of a stranger to myself.” He doubts himself: “…I wondered how far I should turn out faithful to that ideal conception of one’s own personality every man sets up for himself secretly.”

In contrast to this hesitancy, C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower or Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey—perhaps the two best-known protagonists in 20th century nautical fiction—rarely if ever suffer from self-doubt or second thoughts: they are “men of action”
and natural leaders, cool and collected in times of crisis.

It is now clear that neither Forester (the penname of Cecil Louis Troughton Smith) nor O’Brian (named Richard Patrick Russ at birth) were the naval experts they made themselves out to be; both fashioned public biographies that veered sharply from the truth. Indeed, Patrick O’Brian, who was neither Irish nor a retired naval officer as assumed by many readers, apparently had limited hands-on sailing skills! It is a testament to his skills as a researcher, and his imaginative powers, that he could produce the Aubrey–Maturin series. Perhaps Conrad’s stint as a sea captain freed him to explore the ambiguity of command in ways that Forester and O’Brian—concerned about “authenticity”— could not.

By the close of “The Secret Sharer,” Conrad’s young captain embraces his command, just as he bids farewell to “the secret sharer of my life.” He confronts this alone, having faced down his prior doubts (made human in the form of Lassatt?), and he now turns eagerly to this new responsibility. “Nothing! no one in the world should stand now between us, throwing a shadow on the way of silent knowledge and mute affection, the perfect communion of a seaman with his first command.”


This is the sixth and final in a series of Summer Reading: Short Fictions essays for Summer 2006.

The Amazon.com link for the reviewed story:

Joseph Conrad: “The Secret Sharer” and Other Stories


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The week (September 22): Nobody asked me, but…

Echoing the late, great Jimmy Cannon: Nobody asked me, but…

IF RICHARD ARMITAGE, former Undersecretary of State, did threaten Pakistan’s president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf in 2001 that the U.S. would bomb Pakistan “back to the Stone Age” if it didn’t cooperate in the war against terrorism after 9/11, was he consciously drawing on Gen. Curtis E. LeMay’s infamous proposed solution to the Vietnam War (“‘bomb them back into the Stone Age.”)? Not surprisingly, Armitage denies he made the threat.

For his part, LeMay later claimed that the Stone Age suggestion—which appeared in his 1965 autobiography ”Mission With LeMay”—had been inserted by his collaborator, historian MacKinlay Kantor, without LeMay’sknowledge (but never offered any proof of his own innocence). LeMay also ran for Vice President on George Wallace’s American Independent Party ticket in 1968 (where he suggested that nuclear weapons should remain an option in Vietnam). No wonder that the character of General Buck Turgidson of “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” was thought to be based on “Bombs Away” LeMay.

BRENDAN NYHAN WORE OUT his welcome at The American Prospect‘s media criticism blog, he says, because he “slammed two liberal blogs for using an airline employee’s suicide after 9/11 to take a cheap shot at President Bush.” Nyhan adds in a post on Time‘s PoliticalBite that he quit after “Sam Rosenfeld, the magazine’s online editor, asked that I focus my blogging on conservative targets.”

Nyhan asks plaintively: “…isn’t open and honest debate a value that liberals prize?” He quotes from an emailed defense offered by TAP editor Michael Tomasky: “The Prospect has always opposed a ‘pox on both houses’ posture, and that’s what we came to believe you were doing.”

Nyhan suggests that The American Prospect may have been swayed by another consideration—one perhaps more commercial in nature:

One important factor shaping TAP’s decision may have been the popularity of Democratic bloggers like Atrios, who pump out a stream of pre-filtered news and commentary. Before the rise of online competition, opinion magazines had some freedom to be idiosyncratic and less partisan than their readers. The initial incarnation of the Prospect, for example, had a thoughtful, academic tone. But the availability of more points of view online (while laudable in many ways) has paradoxically increased the pressure on ideological publications to pander to readers, who have the option of seeking out exclusively partisan blogs instead.

Right-of-center publications—on or off the Web—aren’t any more welcoming to independent or ideologically suspect views, from what I can see. Many partisans don’t want the facts to get in the way of their deeply held opinions.

Nyhan continues to blog—independently—at www.brendan-nyhan.com.

ANDY GARCIA’S DEEPLY PERSONAL film, “The Lost City,” about the trials and tribulations of a Cuban family after the Revolution is now available on DVD and is definitely worth the rental fee (for the wonderful soundtrack music alone!) The movie also features the luminous Inés Sastre as Garcia’s love interest, and two strange performances by Bill Murray and Dustin Hoffman. It took Garcia nearly two decades to bring his vision to the screen.

Let’s hope that after Castro’s death and the inevitable return of freedom to Cuba, Gracia follows with a sequel capturing the experience of exiled Cubans returning to their beloved island (and confronting the gap between memory and reality).

IF PETE ROSE AND JOSE CANSECO disappeared from the public eye, they would make an awful lot of baseball fans quite happy. They violate soul singer Bobby Womack’s sage advice: “Leave them wanting more and you know they’ll call you back.”

VOLKSWAGEN CONTINUES TO RUN those television commercials where a peaceful drive in a Jetta or Passat is shockingly interrupted by a violent air-bag-popping accident. Sorry, but the ads are creepy. The shock value wears off, I’m afraid, on second viewing, just as the high school Driver Education class crash videos do—and you wonder whether Volkswagen realizes that lots of viewers (like me) dislike have their emotions manipulated.

PROVING THAT ELECTORAL INCOMPETENCE is bipartisan, the latest reports of uncounted votes, polling machine breakdowns and Election Day chaos come from heavily Democratic Maryland and Massachusetts.

THINK CURRENT DISDAIN FOR CONGRESS is widespread (as the latest opinion surveys show)? Mark Twain once sneered: “Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.”


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Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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Considering the limits of loyalty

What are the limits to family loyalty?

Should blood be thicker than any other allegiance—that is, are family ties more important than any responsibility we may feel to society?

What does a parent do when her or she discovers illegal wrongdoing by a child? Or a brother who realizes one of his siblings is involved in criminality?

What is the right course of action?

James Cavallo, acting police chief in Moore Township, Pennsylvania, had to face that choice directly last week when he realized, studying the photos of a bank robbery, that he recognized the suspect….his son. The Associated Press reported that Cavallo made the hard choice—to turn his 28-year-old son in to the authorities.

“I knew I had to do it,” Chief Cavallo said Friday. “There was no question about it.”

James Cavallo Jr., 28, was arrested Wednesday and charged with robbery, theft and receiving stolen property. After making what the police said was a videotaped confession, he was jailed on $500,000 bail.

Chief Cavallo said his son had told him that he was high on cocaine on Tuesday when he went into a local bank, handed the teller a note claiming he had a gun and left with $6,000.

Cavallo had become concerned that his son was slipping back into a cocaine habit that had plagued him in the past. He told the AP, “being arrested is the first step of intervention for a lot of people.”

And Cavallo further told the reporter Kurt Bresswein of the Express-Times that in his experience those who committed crimes had their own choices to make:

“Some of them get into jail and they get rehabilitated, they learn stuff. And the other half, they go in there and they learn how to be a better criminal. I just hope he takes the path of learning what he did and kicking his habit. The most important lesson he can learn is that he has to be responsible for what he did.”

Turning a family member is easier in theory than in practice. Most of us are raised to believe that “family comes first.” Our instinctual protectiveness for “kith and kin” surfaces when faced with deciding what course to take. The law, for instance, will not compell a husband to testify against a wife, and vice versa.

Silence was certainly an option for Chief Cavallo; he could have rationalized that his son was going to be caught sooner or later and that he didn’t need to intervene.

It is not always certain that societal responsibility will necessarily prevail over family loyalty. Others faced with similar moral choices have not always helped the authorities. The brothers of the infamous Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger, a serial murderer, failed to help the FBI locate their fugitive sibling—even though one of them had become a state senator and the other a clerk-magistrate.

“Political” fugitives from justice ranging from the radical Weather Underground of the 1970s to the anti-abortion bombers and White Supremacists of the 1990s have relied on friends and family to cover up for them. Those aiding and abetting may act out of political sympathy or family loyalty—but, in the end, they let personal feelings trump the demands of justice.

Even when there seems no alternative but to contact the authorities, there can be hesitation. David Kaczynski has written about two nightmares he faced—the first, realizing that his older brother Ted, who he had admired and respected, was the Unabomber, and the second, trying to figure out his own response: “…what should we do? Say nothing and run the risk that my brother might attack others? Or alert the FBI knowing that the Unabomber would likely face execution?”

David Kaczynski fought to keep his brother from being executed for his crimes. Ted Kaczynski’s lawyers were successful in blocking the death penality for the Unabomber. David Kaczynski adds:

Would I do it again, knowing what I know now? The answer is yes. I believe that we probably saved lives. I trust the values and ethics that moved us to do what we did. I know that it would be a mistake to use others’ failures as an excuse to avoid personal responsibility. The truth is a very powerful thing. I believe there’s no possibility of overcoming evil with evil, falsehood with silence, violence with indifference. If we want to change the world for the better, we must put ourselves on the line.

That David Kaczynski and his family struggled with meeting that responsibility is all the more proof of how deeply loyalty runs, and how flawed it can be.



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Exposing the 9/11 conspiracy fantasies

According to the Washington Post’s story of September 8, “The Disbelievers,” the 9/11 conspiracy theory world is currently split between LIHOP and MIHOP factions.

The Let It Happen On Purpose (LIHOP) faction believes that the Bush administration knew that Al Qaeda was about to strike at U.S. targets but allowed the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 in order to justify military intervention in the Middle East.

The Made It Happen On Purpose (MIHOP) camp sees the situation in even more sinister terms (if that is possible) and believes that the U.S. government orchestrated 9/11 in a “false flag operation,” with the most prevalent theory being that the World Trade Center buildings and Pentagon were destroyed through controlled demolition.

It would be easy to dismiss the conspiracy theorists as loony paranoids (and many of them may indeed be), but the “9/11 Truth Movement” has had an impact on the views Americans hold about 9/11, as noted by the Post:

A recent Scripps Howard/Ohio University poll of 1,010 Americans found that 36 percent suspect the U.S. government promoted the attacks or intentionally sat on its hands. Sixteen percent believe explosives brought down the towers. Twelve percent believe a cruise missile hit the Pentagon.

Distrust percolates more strongly near Ground Zero. A Zogby International poll of New York City residents two years ago found 49.3 percent believed the government “consciously failed to act.”

These numbers are disturbing (although Zogby polls must always be taken with a grain of salt) considering these attitudes persist after the 9/11 Commission report and volumnious amounts of evidence showing that the conspiracy theories are bunkum.

The MIHOP fantasy

Consider the more serious MIHOP accusations. The scenarios that MIHOP 9/11 deniers construct are so involved and complicated that they collapse immediately upon close inspection; they rely upon pseudo-science, upon drawing broad conclusions from the most minor of details, and willfully ignore any evidence to the contrary. (For example, the false assertion that many of men identified as the 9/11 hijackers were actually alive in the Middle East and elsewhere—a story reported by the BBC and later retracted when it became clear that they had found men with similar names but not the hijackers—is still repeated by many 9/11 conspiracy theorists. You can find Der Spiegel‘s debunking of this “hijackers still alive” story here and here; the Saudi government acknowledged in 2002 that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens and had been killed in the attack).

The hard scientific evidence debunking the conspiracy claims of controlled demolition and phantom jetliners is easily accessible for those interested in the facts. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has offered a detailed scientific explanation for the collapse of the Twin Towers; the recently released video of Flight 77 hitting the Pentagon, and the numerous eyewitness accounts, prove that it was a commercial airliner that smashed into the Pentagon, not a cruise missile or military aircraft. (You can find the NIST reports here and a NIST factsheet on the collapse of the Twin Towers here; a Popular Mechanics article debunking common 9/11 myths resides here; a refutation by researcher Mark Roberts of the pseudo-documentary “Loose Change” is here; and an omnibus 9/11 site, which is quite thorough, is ww.911myths.com, backed by the independent research of Englishman Mike Williams.)

Further, Osama bin Laden is hurting the MIHOP school—the more he openly accepts authorship of the 9/11 attacks, the more video Al Qaeda releases of the 9/11 attackers meeting with bin Laden prior to embarking on their twisted mission, the harder it becomes to portray 9/11 as a “false flag operation,” (or the more Byzantine and divorced from reality the explanations have to become).

There will always be those whose hatred of George Bush is so deep, or whose paranoia is so great, or whose ideology demands they think the worst of the U.S. government, that they will never be convinced that 9/11 was what it was: stateless terrorism engineered by a small group of fanatics.

Look for the popularity of the MIHOP version of 9/11 to fade in the next year or so. Already some on the Left are beginning to realize that as the evidence mounts and the conspiracy theories are debunked (NIST will release another definitive report—this one on the collapse of WTC 7 in early 2007) it hurts “progressive causes,” such as the antiwar movement, to be linked to such irrationality. It is all too easy for conservative bloggers to tag the 9/11 deniers as “moonbats” and “tin foil hat wearers,” and some of this will stick to politicians who (like Howard Dean) flirt with the notion of Bush Administration complicity with 9/11.

The LIHOP fantasy

The LIHOP argument will then be advanced with more vigor, as it fits in neatly with the “Bush lied about WMD” meme that is, unfortunately, popular with many in the Democratic Party. After all, the reasoning may go, if Bush was capable of lying in order to go to war against Iraq, why wouldn’t he invite a terrorist attack on American soil to give him popular support for adventures in the Middle East or to suppress civil liberties at home?

This would not be the first time an American president has been accused of turning a blind eye to the potential of a sneak attack on Americans. While most mainstream historians reject the idea, a vocal group argues that Franklin D. Roosevelt knew the Japanese were about to attack Pearl Harbor and prevented the military from countering the attack in order to pull the U.S. into World War II.

The problem that the LIHOP believers face is that there is no credible evidence supporting their theory, and it isn’t particularly logical. To accept the argument, you have to buy into a string of very shaky assumptions.

First, you have to accept the premise that George Bush and his other alleged conspirators (usually the “neo-conservatives”) desperately needed 9/11 in order to advance their interventionist foreign policy. Then you have to believe that Bush and co-conspirators would risk being exposed at some point in the future as having betrayed their country and been complicit in mass murder. Further, most variations of the LIHOP scenario has an all-knowing and all-powerful U.S. government pulling strings to enable the 9/11 terrorists to attack their targets.

It should be noted that Bush Administration did not argue for the invasion of Iraq by citing 9/11, but rather for a number of reasons, including the now-disputed presence of Weapons of Mass Destruction. This echoed the position of the Clinton Administration, and we should not forget that the U.S. had fought the first Gulf War in response to Saddam Hussein’s aggression towards Kuwait. Military action, if not a war, against Saddam could have proceeded without the events of September 11, 2001.

The hardest assumption to swallow is that Bush and his colleagues would have traded the deaths of thousands of Americans to advance their designs—knowing that if such a conspiracy was ever exposed that they would enter the annals of history as the most evil and treacherous figures in American history (to say nothing of possible impeachment, prosecution, and imprisonment for the perpetrators). Why take such a risk? Even if you believe in the theory that the Bush Administration was looking for a pretext for intervention, wouldn’t it be easier, and safer, to stage a foreign provocation by Iraq (a Gulf of Tonkin scenario) where you can better control the variables?

As to the masterminding of such a plot, counterterrorism expert Roger Cressey has it right when he says that such ideas give the government too much credit for competence. The official bungling at all levels of government unearthed by the 9/11 Commission and other investigations debunks this LIHOP fantasy. We know now that serial mistakes by the FBI, CIA, NORAD, and the Defense Department reflected a government bureaucracy consumed by turf protection, career advancement and incompetence—hardly the stuff of a vast conspiracy.

The reason that the Al Qaeda cell succeeded was that our safeguards against domestic terrorism were inadequate. Few in Congress or the Clinton or Bush Administration had any desire to disrupt the lives of Americans with tightened airline security in the name of anti-terrorism. The reality is that the threat was underestimated—as comes through clearly in counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke’s account of events in 2000 and 2001.

In short, prior to 9/11 bin Laden was not seen as the major threat he is now, and U.S. efforts against Al Qaeda were scattered and ineffectual. We were unprepared for terrorist attacks. Some LIHOP advocates will cite this lack of preparedness as proof that George Bush wanted an attack on American soil; all of the testimony and evidence I have seen suggests that the government’s negligence—if that is what it was—stemmed from either embracing foreign policy priorities that didn’t include counterterrorism at the top of the list, or from outright incompetence.

Beyond fantasy

One appeal of the conspiracy theory in general is that it provides order to the world

That life is messy, that “stuff happens,” that chance, chaos and luck play a large part in how things happen is very threatening to some; conspiracies offer the comfort of an explanation and, usually, someone “evil” to blame.

And, as Richard Hofstadter pointed out in his essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” those with extreme political views—true believers—often embrace conspiracy theories as a way to explain why others have failed to support their extremism.

The danger for those on the Left who are tempted to support 9/11 conspiracy theories out of their deep anger towards President Bush is that, in the end, they are not based in reality.

Some, like David Corn of the Nation and Alexander Cockburn of CounterPunch have noted this and warned that “progressives” shouldn’t be distracted by the 9/11 “Truth Movement,” and should acknowledge that there is no truth to be found in these fantasies.

In the real world, the threat of terrorism by Al Qaeda remains; it is time to move beyond fantasy when considering how the U.S. (and the West) can best respond.


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The week (September 15th): Nobody asked me, but…

With my customary nod to Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

JEFF GREENFIELD, CNN Senior Analyst (and onetime speechwriter for Robert F. Kennedy and John V. Lindsey), is asking the right questions about the upcoming 2006 election, one of which (the key in my view) is: “Will Democrats catchup on turnout?” The key to the 2004 election, Greenfield notes, became the GOP’s get-out-the-vote (GOTV) efforts masterminded by Karl Rove.

Greenfield writes:

This year, the Democrats appear late off the mark in tapping the wealthy supporters who underwrote the formally independent vote-getting operations. Will they show up again this year, or will Republicans have a significant money advantage? And even if they don’t, how well have Democrats and their allies built their turnout machine?

What Greenfield doesn’t mention is the qualitative difference between Republican and Democratic GOTV in 2004. Rove had the Republicans focused on using the social networks of Christian churches in Florida and Ohio—where a fellow church member would offer to accompany the prospective voter to the polls. Democrats relied more on traditional turnout methods, including labor unions, phone banks and volunteers (often out-of-state college students). As Matt Bai pointed out in a brilliant piece of reporting from Ohio in the Sunday New York Times Magazine, the GOP tactics proved superior.

BOB DYLAN doesn’t deserve the soft treatment he’s getting over “borrowing” phrases from Civil War-era poet Henry Timrod for the lyrics on his critically acclaimed album “Modern Times.” His defenders claim that it isn’t somehow quite plagiarism because appropriating is part of the “folk process.” Sorry, but couldn’t Dylan mention his use of Timrod’s words in his liner notes? There shouldn’t be double standards on plagiarism for the famous (Dylan, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Stephen Ambrose, etc.) and the relatively unknown (would-be “chick-lit” novelist Kaavya Viswanathan). Yes, T.S. Eliot made the argument that “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal” but doesn’t the truly secure artist acknowledge (whether slyly or openly) his or her literary or musical inspiration?

SENATOR GEORGE ALLEN of Virginia, stung by questions about his racial sensitivities, held what his campaign called an “Ethnic Community Campaign Rally.” A bit awkward…to say the least.(Stephen Colbert pounced on this contrived event with glee, his eviseration of Allen can be found here). Allen’s frantic damage control over his “macaca comment” is an attempt to stop his slide in the polls as Democrat James Webb closes on him (within three percentage points of the incumbent, according to the latest SurveyUSA poll).

Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post opines in his blog that Allen’s Senate seat can now be considered “in play.”

WHEN HISTORIANS TURN TO THE IRAQ CONFLICT, I do not think they will be kind in their assessment of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s stewardship of the U.S. military. Rumsfeld’s decision to proceed with dramatically lower troop levels than recommended by senior military commanders for the occupation of Iraq, and to demand multiple tours by active duty troops has had significant negative consquences—a destabilized Iraq and a U.S. Army under great strain.

Neoconservatives William Kristol and Rich Lowry belatedly called for more troops to be sent to Baghdad this week in a Washington Post op-ed piece:

The bottom line is this: More U.S. troops in Iraq would improve our chances of winning a decisive battle at a decisive moment. This means the ability to succeed in Iraq is, to some significant degree, within our control. The president should therefore order a substantial surge in overall troop levels in Iraq, with the additional forces focused on securing Baghdad.

The question, however, may not be whether President Bush should agree to more troops, but whether he can.

Daniel Benjamin and Michèle A. Flournoy, both from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, argue in Slate that “We can’t send more troops to Iraq.” Their assessment is grim:

That is the unmistakable message of an Army briefing making the rounds in Washington. According to in-house assessments, fully two-thirds of the Army’s operating force, both active and reserve, is now reporting in as “unready”—that is, they lack the equipment, people, or training they need to execute their assigned missions. Not a single one of the Army’s Brigade Combat Teams—its core fighting units—currently in the United States is ready to deploy. In short, the Army has no strategic reserve to speak of. The other key U.S. fighting force in Iraq, the Marine Corps, is also hurting, with much of its equipment badly in need of repair or replacement.

If Benjamin and Flournoy are correct—and the available evidence supports their contention— then Rumsfeld’s decision to fight the Iraq war on the cheap has to be regarded as a colossal miscalculation.

FIVE YEARS AFTER 9/11, more filmmakers, novelists and poets are beginning to address the sudden terrorist attack against America. British poet Simon Armitage has written “Out of the Blue,” an arresting poem about 9/11 which traces the experiences of “a fictional British trader trapped in one of the twin towers as the planes strike.” Armitage told The Times of London, “I wanted to do something which was both commemorative and elegiac, but not political.”

The poem’s opening lines are striking in their evocative simplicity:

All lost.
All lost in the dust.
Lost in the fall and the crush and the dark.
Now all coming back.

I found the poem both moving and disturbing; along with Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising,” Armitage’s verses rise to the artistic challenge without trivializing or sentimentalizing. (You can download “Out of the Blue” here.)


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Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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The week (September 8th): Nobody asked me, but…

To borrow once again from newspaperman extraordinaire Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

DON’T BLAME THOSE FORMER CLINTON ADMINISTRATION officials who, along with Bill Clinton, remain highly exercised over the scheduled ABC 9/11 docudrama (“The Path to 9/11”) which includes fabricated scenes suggesting that they approached the threat of Osama bin-Laden and al-Queda with less than proper zeal. They are right to pressure Disney, parent company of ABC, for changes in the program prior to its televising, and if Disney/ABC does the right thing, they’ll remove the made-up scenes (the Washington Post reports that ABC plans “minor changes” in reaction to the criticism.)

Inventing dialogue and placing it in the mouth of real people—like former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and National Security Advisor Sandy Berger—distorts history and misleads viewers (who may think that it’s a reenactment of real events). Veracity matters. Whether or not the “higher truth” is that Clinton and his top aides took a too narrowly legalistic approach to terrorism during his two terms in office, fabricating scenes in an entertainment program is not the way to prove your point.

Disney/ABC can’t have it both ways—advertising the series as being “based on the 9/11 Commission” but then defending the fabrications as needed for dramatic purposes. The last I checked, ABC had a news division: how do news managers there feel about the blurring of fact and fiction in this “alternative universe”? An example of truthiness (to use Stephen Colbert’s phrase)?

One irony: ABC’s flirtation with fabulism comes just as director Oliver Stone has curbed his paranoic fantasies. Stone’s “artistic license” in the movie JFK introduced millions of young moviegoers to multiple bogus Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories. But in his new film, World Trade Center, Stone has dealt with the September 11 attack on the Twin Towers without straying too far from the established historical reality of that horrific day.

The shame is that ABC News could have developed a documentary on 9/11 that could have explored unanswered 9/11-related questions? One puzzle involves Sandy Berger. Berger has never given a plausible explanation for why he furtively removed classified documents from the National Archives about the Clinton Administration’s response to terrorism, documents being reviewed by the 9/11 Commission. What was his motive? What was he thinking?

Other questions: what is the real story on Able Danger, the Defense Department team using data mining to track terrorists? Did the team truly identify terrorist ringleader Mohamed Atta prior to 9/11, as Congressman Curt Weldon claims? Why did some government officials tell New Yorkers that the air quality around the World Trade Center in the aftermath of 9/11 was safe to breathe? Who is responsible for those public assurances—now shown to have been wrong?

NEVER UNDERESTIMATE THE POWER of pop culture: the bronze statute of the fictional boxer Rocky Balboa will be placed on a spot near the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum after a 6-2 vote by the city’s art commission. The statue had been donated by Sylvester Stallone, who played the underdog fighter in a series of films (one more on the way!), in 1982—it had been rejected by the museum and found a home for several decades outside the Spectrum sports arena. Rocky always was persistent.

For traditionalists the best way to swallow this: think of the bronze Rocky Balboa as the Little Mermaid of the City of Brotherly Love—after all a statue of Hans Christian Anderson’s character is a famous tourist attraction in Copenhagen.

WILL ANTI-SEMITES get the point that they are being mocked in British comedian Sasha Baron Cohen’s new movie “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan”? Or will they revel in the broadcasting of slurs and stereotypes, figuring that airing them is a victory even if they are ridiculed? The New York Times describes it as a “raucous comedy that makes its points by seeming to embrace sexism, racism, homophobia and that most risky of social toxins: anti-Semitism.”

As a First Amendment advocate, I can’t quarrel with Baron Cohen’s right to make the movie, and I haven’t seen the “mockumentary” so I’ll reserve final judgment—after all, the Producers and Bulworth mine some of the same comedic territory without, from what I can tell, encouraging bigotry—yet having the buffoonish protagonist of the movie worry that “the Jews (will) repeat their attack of 9/11” (a line from the movie, according to the New York Times) may be appreciated for its irony by American multiplex cinema audiences but taken literally by some in the Middle East.

The Washington Post‘s bland headline is “Frey and Publisher Settle Lawsuit” but the details of the story are weird. As a disgruntled reader your refund for “A Million Little Pieces” (in hardcover), the memoir by James Frey tainted by falsehoods, will apparently require the following: proof of purchase of the book on or before January 26, 2006; page 163 of the memoir/novel; and a sworn statement that you would not have bought the book if you knew certain facts had been fabricated or embroidered. That will bring you the $23.95 hardcover refund from Random House, not that anyone is copping to anything.

This has to be one of the more bizarre stories of the year: it is the Culture of Litigation writ large, another example of how some lawyers bring discredit upon themselves and their profession. The crowning legalistic touch is the provision that refund seekers have to return page 163 (chosen at random, we are told). While Frey and Random House haven’t covered themselves in glory, is this really a matter for litigation? Are consumer protection statutes meant to include memoirs?

I’m sure some will argue that it’s the principle, blah, blah, blah–—if that is the case, then the lawyers on both sides should have worked pro bono, or for a token amount (how about the minimum wage?)

THREE CHEERS FOR ALLEN WEINSTEIN, head of the National Archives, who now says thousands of government historical documents, withdrawn because of security concerns, will be made accessible to the public again. Weinstein’s announcement proves that he is independent and not the partisan some on the Left have made him out to be.

DON’T EXPECT KATIE COURIC to work wonders with the ratings for the CBS Evening News. And the trends for one-time Big Three—CBS, NBC and ABC—are dismal. The numbers released this summer by the Pew Media Survey tell a grim tale for the nightly network news; American viewership has dropped from 60% in 1993 to 28% in 2006. That decline reflects a more fragmented media world—and that, along with partisan viewing patterns (conservatives trust Fox News; liberals gravitate to PBS and CNN)—makes agreeing on shared facts harder and harder. The civic implications aren’t pretty.


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