The week (March 30th, 2007): Nobody asked me, but…

With a tip of the fedora to Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

JOURNALIST DANIEL PEARL’S MURDER in Pakistan will be the focus of an investigative journalism seminar being planned by Georgetown University’s School of Continuing Studies, which the school says in a press release “will search for clues to what really happened” when Pearl was kidnapped and beheaded in Karachi in 2002.

The seminar, dubbed The Pearl Project, will be led by Barbara Feinman Todd, associate dean of journalism, and former Wall Street Journal reporter Asra Q. Nomani, a one-time colleague of Pearl’s. Nomani is quoted as saying: “For the five years since Danny was killed, I have wanted to find out the full truth behind Danny’s kidnapping and murder.”

Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, (also known as Sheikh Omar), a British-born Islamic militant, was convicted of Pearl’s murder and sentenced to death in 2002. Three other men were sentenced to life sentences. Sheikh Omar is now appealing his conviction, pointing to the confession of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), the self-proclaimed mastermind of the 9/11 attacks on the United States, that he had beheaded Pearl.

One the unanswered questions about the Pearl murder includes what links there might be between elements in the Pakistani intelligence agency (Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI) and Omar Sheikh, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and Al Qaeda.

How far will The Pearl Project get towards answering any of the unresolved questions? A key will be the level of cooperation and access offered by Pakistan’s government.

OPRAH WINFREY’s CHOICE OF Cormac McCarthy’s novel ”The Road” as her latest book club selection has come as a bit of a surprise, because the TV celebrity usually chooses less weighty fare. Winfrey said McCarthy’s novel, the story of father and son and their journey in a post-apocalyptic America, was “haunting and inspiring.”

A better choice to expose Oprah’s millions to McCarthy’s considerable talents would have been his novel “All the Pretty Horses”; I found “The Road” to be a somewhat derivative and predictable foray into science fiction.

I’LL BE ROOTING FOR GEORGETOWN’S basketball team in the NCAA’s Final Four tournament chiefly because of the Hoyas’ brilliant young coach, John Thompson III, who is looking to follow in the footsteps of his father, John Thompson, and lead the Jesuit school to a national championship. John Thompson III calls his squad the “son of” team because it includes the sons of former NBA players Patrick Ewing (Patrick Ewing Jr) and Doc Rivers (Jeremiah Rivers).

IT IS WELCOME NEWS FOR ADVOCATES OF JOURNALISTIC TRANSPARENCY THAT the New York Times has decided to continue the newspaper’s practice of employing a public editor (an ombudsman meant to act as the paper’s “readers’ representative.”) Editor Bill Keller will replace Byron Calame, whose tenure as public editor is ending in May.

The ombudsman role, resisted by the Times for decades but then adopted after the Jayson Blair scandal, does allow for some public scrutiny of editorial decision-making. The public editor, by design, looks into journalistic controversies after the fact.

More important to the practice of objective-means journalism at the Times is whether the standards editor, Craig Whitney, can effectively address any breakdowns in the daily practices of the newsroom. Is there proper oversight of reporters? Are there adequate checks-and-balances in the editing process? Are conflicts-of-interest, or problems with bias (vide Linda Greenhouse’s lapse into partisanship) surfaced and dealt with?

OBAMA AND BLUE COLLARS: DO THEY FIT?” is the title of Ronald Brownstein’s piece in the Los Angeles Times where the veteran national affairs columnist focuses on whether Presidential hopeful Barack Obama can move beyond his appeal to the college-educated (the “wine track”).

Brownstein characterises Obama as a “brainy liberal” with a “cool, detached persona,” like Eugene McCarthy, Gary Hart, Paul Tsongas and Bill Bradley. He sees Hillary Clinton as having more appeal to working class Democrats. Brownstein notes:

Since the 1960s, Democratic nominating contests regularly have come down to a struggle between a candidate who draws support primarily from upscale, economically comfortable voters liberal on social and foreign policy issues, and a rival who relies mostly on downscale, financially strained voters drawn to populist economics and somewhat more conservative views on cultural and national security issues.

Those Democratic candidates—like Bill Clinton or, to a certain extent, Robert F. Kennedy—who can reach out to both groups, Brownstein argues, can fashion a winning coalition. Can Obama achieve this? That will be the deciding factor in the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination race.

THE WORDS FOR THE WEEK FROM PATRICK HENRY, the fiery Virginia patriot of the 18th century: “The liberties of a people never were, nor ever will be, secure, when the transactions of their rulers may be concealed from them.”

Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders
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An under-appreciated “300”

The critics who have lambasted 300, the new movie retelling the story of the heroic Spartan stand against the Persians at the battle of Thermopylae, have it all wrong—they just haven’t appreciated the movie for its distinctive cinematic virtues.

Some are offended by what they see as the film’s political incorrectness (Dana Stevens of Slate, for one); others by its historical liberties, comic book sensibility and non-stop video-game violence. The Iranians, we learn, object to the movie’s portrayal of their legendary Persian emperor, Xerxes, and his invading army as populated by mutant sexual deviants, some muttering that the whole thing is meant to prepare the U.S. for war with Iran.

But 300 has virtues which its critics would be well-served to reconsider. Here are just five!

First, director Zack Snyder made the inspired decision not to cast bodybuilders in the leading female roles. Since the Spartan men all look like steroid-enhanced extras from Pumping Iron, (the 1977 movie about body builders that introduced Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno to American audiences), Snyder must have been tempted to extend the hyper-muscularity to the women in the movie. He resisted, thankfully. Since there is nothing less aesthetically pleasing than a female bodybuilder (except perhaps a fully oiled and pumped-up male bodybuilder), Snyder did viewers a favor by showing this restraint.

By the way, Snyder apparently did not realize that cut 12-pack abs and bulging pecs were not de rigueur in Sparta or Athens, even if they are highly prized in L.A.’s gyms.

The second under-appreciated virtue of 300? The lead actors read their lines—and the dialogue is far superior to that in either Conan the Barbarian or Conan the Conquerer, despite what you may have heard—in plummy English accents, as is the unwritten convention for “sword and sandal” movies.

Why is this, you may wonder? Perhaps because what might sound like a clunky howler in a New York accent rises to almost Shakespearean dignity when delivered in an Oxbridge voice. In 300 this holds true except for the character of King Leonidas, Gerard Butler, whose accent is pure Edinburgh burr—which left me wondering how a Scot snuck into the Greco-Roman Actors Guild.

Again, this isn’t appreciated by the critics. Imagine if it had been, say, Kevin Costner, as one of the key Spartans. Remember his memorable performance in Robin Hood where he played Sherwood Forest’s favorite outlaw with an uninflected Southern California blandness? (On the other hand, English actor Stephen Fry recently observed that Americans wrongly assume acting talent whenever they hear a clipped Brit accent.)

Third, why hasn’t the homage to other manly films been properly appreciated by critics? 300 openly lifts Gladiator’s sun-dappled golden field of wheat, patiently-waiting wife in clinging white robes, and the high female voice (Azam Ali) warbling plaintive faux-classical world music lyrics (it’s a language singer Lisa Gerrard invented which sounds like GreekLatinWhatever) to background flutes and violins. And 300’s Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) could be a ringer for Gladiator’s Princess Lucilla (Connie Nielsen). Don’t forget 300’s last battle scene—taken almost directly from Braveheart. Or the creepy AC/DC Living God affect for Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) borrowed from Jaye Davidson’s Egyptian/alien Ra in Stargate. Or the hunchback Gollum-like character, Ephialtes, courtesy of Lord of the Rings.

Look at it another way: why bother inventing new scenes when you can liberate tried-and-true ones from other testosterone-laden movies? And 300 does throw in some high culture references—like the final image of King Leonidas pierced with arrows, mirroring Christian iconography of Saint Sebastian, as a way of signalling to high brows that, like the Wachowski brothers, Snyder reads more than just comic books.

Fourth, the clever leverage of computer-generated imagery (CGI) to give 300 that proper epic feel (with clashing armies of thousands) has not received the praise it deserves for its efficiency and economy—employing this technique meant that director Snyder saved billions of lei that otherwise would have been spent on renting the Romanian army (or some similarly impoverished former Iron Curtain military) to act as extras, or abusing animals (like the rhino and elephants and horses), an outrage that would have angered PETA, et. al.

Finally, shouldn’t Snyder be admired for his inventiveness in lovingly showing stabbings, slashings, appendage amputations, beheadings, and spear impalings in all their slow motion bloodiness? This lets us ponder the horror of war. I think. Or perhaps appeal to the video gamers. Whatever, as they say in Orange County. And isn’t it important to prove to Al Qaeda and other amateur cinéastes that any horrors they can video, Hollywood can top? American innovation and all that.

Considering all this, Zack Snyder shouldn’t be blamed for any bitterness when 300 is shut out at the Academy Awards next year. But shouldn’t the film at least be a contender for best comedy of the year?

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Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders
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The week (March 23rd, 2007): Nobody asked me, but…

With a doffed cap to Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

SHOULD TRANSPORTATION SAFETY ADMINISTRATION airport screeners be allowed to unionize? Congress thinks so, but author Becky Akers says in a Christian Science Monitor op-ed piece that the legislation “could add about 50,000 dues-paying members to union rolls while breathing new life into TSA’s unofficial slogan: Thousands Standing Around.” President Bush is likely to veto the bill if it reaches his desk.

Akers makes a broader point in her piece, “A better way than the TSA,” arguing that TSA, funded by $5 billion in tax money, is incompetent and that privatizing security is the solution:

Privatized protection isn’t a panacea, but it’s better than the TSA. Without that federal straitjacket, security wouldn’t be uniform and easy to game: each airline would adapt its policies to its own routes, destinations, and customers. Meanwhile, experts could design security systems without mandates from bureaucrats who understand paperwork and politics but not planes and passengers. Jets worth billions and the repeat business that comes only from satisfied, living customers will compel the airlines to provide potent protection.

Would a more market-based solution work? I’d argue that it would, but only if airlines’ screeners were subjected to security spot checks (the same tests that TSA screeners have repeatedly failed) with huge fines for failure.

THE NATIONAL LABOR RELATIONS BOARD HAS DEALT A SERIES OF STINGING DEFEATS to Wendy McCaw, owner of the Santa Barbara News-Press, upholding a newsroom vote to unionize in the fall of 2006, and finding against the newspaper on “a string of unfair labor charges, including the unlawful firing of seven staffers engaged in union activities.”

The NLRB rulings are the latest development in the long-running battle between McCaw and her newsroom which began in July 2006 with the resignation of several editors who said McCaw was improperly interfering in editorial decisions. Since then, some 38 employees have quit or been fired. McCaw has also faced criticism from many civic leaders in Santa Barbara for her handling of the dispute.

McCaw singlehandedly is reviving the colorful old image of the newpaper publisher as narcissist, meglomaniac and tryant—in the tradition of Colonel Robert R. McCormick, William Loeb, and Frank Munsey, about whom William Allen White once wrote: “He had the talent of a meatpacker, the morals of a money-changer and the manners of an undertaker.”

”TRIUMPH OF THE FEMBOTS,” MEGHAN COX GURDON’s commentary in the Wall Street Journal mocks the notion that “getting pretty, young, scantily clad women to writhe for the camera is a way of empowering them,“ the rationale for television shows like “Pussycat Dolls Present: The Search for the Next Doll.”

Gurdon writes: “Depravity dressed up as empowerment is fast becoming the cultural trope of our times.” She is right to question why feminists haven’t spoken up publicly about the trend.

THE COUNTRY GROUP LITTLE TEXAS, reunited after a six-year hiatus, has released a single, “Missing Years,” a great road song about coming home and appreciating the virtues of small town life, with lead vocals from Porter Howell and an Eagles-like harmony on the refrain. Watch for it to move up the country charts.

THREE CHEERS FOR A FRENCH COURT RULING IN FAVOR of Charlie-Hebdo, a satirical weekly, (and its director), rejecting charges that its reprinting of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed incited hatred of Moslems.

According to the Associated Press, the court ruled that the weekly showed no intention of insulting Moslems with the caricatures, several of which had first appeared in a Danish newspaper and triggered violent protests throughout the Muslim world.

The verdict should also be seen as a victory for France’s Interior Minister and presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy, who sent a letter to the court backing Charlie-Hebdo, saying he preferred “an excess of caricatures to an absence of caricatures.”

As George Orwell once wrote (in the preface to “Animal Farm”): “If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

THE WORD FOR THE WEEK is from Yogi Berra, former Yankee catcher and noted American philosopher: “The future ain’t what it used to be.”

Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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The week (March 16th, 2007): Nobody asked me, but…

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

ARE BLOGGERS JOURNALISTS? Terry McDermott of the Los Angeles Times offers evidence that some bloggers are in his piece on Joshua Micah Marshall and TPM Media. Marshall and two of his blogs, Talking Points Memo and TPM Muckraker, “pieced together” the story behind the Bush Administration’s firing of the eight U.S. attorneys.

McDermott writes:

The bloggers used the usual tools of good journalists everywhere — determination, insight, ingenuity — plus a powerful new force that was not available to reporters until blogging came along: the ability to communicate almost instantaneously with readers via the Internet and to deputize those readers as editorial researchers, in effect multiplying the reporting power by an order of magnitude.

McDermott overstates the case a bit. When you read the story closely, it turns out that the tips that flowed into Talking Points Memo and TPM Muckracker largely came from local newspapers—electronic clips that were sent in by readers.

Bloggers do act as journalists when they “piece together” a story, but we have yet to see much original reporting in the blogosphere. Blogs remain derivative in nature, dependent primarily on newspaper and wire service reporting. The unanswered question is: what business model will allow newspapers to sustain that vital, on-the-scene journalism?

BOSTON’S ONE-TIME DEMOCRATIC BOSS, MARTIN LOMASNEY, became famous for saying: “Never write if you can speak; never speak if you can nod; never nod if you can wink.”

It’s advice that—surprisingly—few follow in today’s world of e-mail, instant messaging and cell-phone video. The uproar over the firing of eight U.S. attorneys has been driven by the disclosure of Justice Department e-mails outlining the unsavory political basis of the terminations.

In the past if you were worried about privacy or secrecy, you could burn letters, notes, and photos and be fairly sure you had destroyed the “evidence.” Not so today—the digital leave-behinds float around the web or on your hard-drive or on a server somewhere “out there,” ready to surface at an inopportune time.

Today, fortunately for investigative reporters and government prosecutors, the “long-tail” of e-mail corruption remains very, very hard to eradicate.

ROBERT SAMUELSON ASKS WHETHER PRIVATE EQUITY FIRMS are “good for the country” in his Newsweek magazine piece “The Enigma of Private Equity.” The answer? Maybe. Or maybe not. Samuelson writes:

To its champions, private equity forces companies to cut costs and improve efficiency, and profits are deserved. To critics, profits flow mainly from loading companies up with debt, and private equity is a sophisticated swindle that often cheats ordinary shareholders.

Samuelson punts on the question. I won’t: if we could harness the energy that goes into the financial manipulations practiced by private equity firms and focus it, instead, on generating true wealth (new products, services, and industries), intead of paper profits, the country would be better off. So as currently directed with their emphasis on financial engineering, private equity firms aren’t a positive force in the economy.

IS ARCADE FIRE THE NEXT U2? Slate magazine’s Jody Rosen would have you think so, hyping Arcade Fire’s latest album Neon Bible, and suggesting the Canadian group is ready to “grab the baton” from Bruce Springsteen and U2. Decide for yourself, but they sound to me more like a cross between Meat Loaf and a Springsteen cover band than the next “world’s greatest band.”

DO NEW YORK TIMES EDITORS QUESTION VALERIE PLAME WILSON’S SIGNIFICANCE? The Times’ account of Plame’s congressional testimony appears on page A11 of Saturday’s Gray Lady with a reefer from the front page carrying the teaser headline “Ex-C.I.A Agent Testifies.” The Times apparently felt stories on middle school teachers battling difficult students, a company selling Irish sod to nostalgic Americans, and the troubles some home buyers are having with foreclosures topped Plame’s account—because these stories all received front-page treatment. In contrast, the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times carried the Plame story on their front pages.

THE WORDS FOR THE WEEK COME FROM GRETA GARBO, the Swedish actress who practiced Scandinavian restraint throughout her life: ““Your joys and sorrows, you can never tell them. You cheapen the inside of yourself if you do tell them.”

Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders
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Considering 9/11 and 3/11: why the conspiracy theories persist

Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that we—Americans—are not the only ones who must now confront conspiracy theories about terrorist attacks.

About a third of the Spanish public disbelieves the “official version” of the March 11, 2004 train bombings in Madrid, just as a dismayingly sizeable number of Americans think that they haven’t been told the truth about the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

In Spain, the 3/11 conspiracy theories are produced by the Right: the claim is that the Spanish Socialist government is covering up evidence that ETA, the Basque separatist movement, colluded with radical Muslims in the bombings. (The right-of-center Popular Party government had initially, and wrongly, blamed ETA in the first hours after the event.) The evidence strongly points to a small-scale conspiracy by a radical Islamic cell, largely North African in composition, seeking to both emulate Al Qaeda and punish the Popular Party prime minister Jose Maria Aznar for his support of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

The Associated Press reports that the ETA theories “are kept alive by Popular Party leaders and the country’s most influential right-wing newspaper, El Mundo, which has run a series of articles casting doubt on the government’s case” and notes that they have proven resilient:

“It’s extraordinary how these conspiracy theories have survived, and if anything have expanded and contaminated people’s minds,” said Charles Powell, a political scientist at San Pablo-CEU University in Madrid. “One has to remember that the March 11 attacks were the first time a Spanish government has been brought down as a result of a terror attack … and that has proved extremely disconcerting, particularly to conservative voters.”

In the United States it is predominately the Left providing the foot soldiers for the 9/11 Denial Movement, although there are a few fringe Right proponents (such as talk-radio host Alex Jones). This despite ample evidence that 9/11 was an Al Qaeda operation (I’ve previously explored the fantasies of the 9/11 Truth Movement).

Why conspiracy theories persist

So why do these grand conspiracy theories persist? There are several possible explanations.

Richard Hofstadter pointed out in his essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” that those with extreme political views—true believers—often embrace conspiracy theories as a way to explain why others have failed to support their extremism. They cannot accept that their political marginalization might be due to their own unappealing ideology; only a powerful conspiracy can explain why they are not in power.

I think there may be a global conspiracy meme at work as well. Years of movies and television programs that suggest hidden elites, secret societies and intelligence agencies control our destiny, from the X Files to Bourne Conspiracy to the DaVinci Code to Syriana, must have had some impact. This made-in-the-USA fiction has been widely exported and we can only guess at whether it has pre-conditioned global audiences to assume governments always lie (particularly the U.S. government) and that conspiracies underlie any significant political event.

It is true that government officials lie—they often do—but state-sanctioned conspiracies involving large numbers of people have proven exceedingly difficult to pull off. Conspiracy theorists must assume that thousands of government conspirators will stay silent over long periods of time about monstrous acts—a dubious proposition in democratic societies like Spain and the U.S.

Yet, there is something perversely reassuring about a grand government conspiracy: it suggests that the world is a rational place, that there is a reason for the disappointments and evils encountered in life. If only the conspiracists can be exposed and routed, a New Age of peace and harmony can be inaugurated, this thinking goes.

The world, however, is messy, confusing, unpredictable and contradictory. The events on 9/11 were triggered by a small-scale conspiracy—the Al Qaeda cells involved in the planning and execution of the attacks—but the U.S, government’s pre- and post-attack response was marked by over-confidence, incompetence, sloppiness, and in some aspects, negligence. What 9/11 conspiracy advocates see as signs of collusion or conspiracy, looks more like the FUBAR fumbling familiar to those who have experienced the “fog of war.”

The impact of the “Bush Lied” campaign

There is another factor in play, at least in the United States. Relentless attacks on George W. Bush, suggesting that he and his Administration “lied” the U.S. into the war in Iraq, has deepened the paranoia and increased suspicion of the government.

Some leftists, such as David Corn, Alexander Cockburn and Christopher Hayes, have decried the looniness of the 9/11 Deniers and have publicly worried that these evidence-free conspiracy theories would sidetrack the Left from more central concerns.

Hayes further argues in The Nation (December 2006) that a credulous media—too eager to swallow and parrot the Bush Administration line—is responsible for the growth of the paranoid theories, because mainstream journalists “posit a world of good intentions and face-value pronouncements, one in which the suggestion that a government would mislead or abuse its citizens for its own gains or the gains of its benefactors is on its face absurd.” The consequence, Hayes argues, is that people gravitate to conspiracy theories as they abandon the government-approved pablum they believe they are being fed by the media. Hayes believes a skeptical, and aggressive, press is the antidote.

Yet I think we already have seen that press skepticism in action. As the situation in Iraq has deteriorated, the focus has been on why the U.S. invaded in the first place. No question has consumed the media more over the past three years. When the Democrats ran their 2006 congressional campaign asserting that Bush had misled the country into war, they found the theme resonated with voters.

If anything, the idea that Bush deliberately lied about Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) has become conventional wisdom in much of the mainstream media. Frank Rich’s recent New York Times column, in which he mused about the “secret machinations” of the White House Iraq Group, and “covert administration schemes” and “its lies in fomenting the war” is an example of the full-throttle questioning of the Bush Administration’s integrity and motives.

It requires no great leap of logic to jump from “Bush conspired to lie and mislead to justify a war in Iraq, indifferent to the potential loss of life,” to “Bush conspired to stage (or allow) the 9/11 attacks as a pretext to justify war in Afghanistan and later Iraq, indifferent to the potential loss of life.” Once you postulate that Bush is a cynical manipulator, willing to lie and fabricate, and to callously sacrifice American soldiers for his own ends, it is easier to believe the 9/11 theories, which require accepting a level of monstrous complicity on the part of the President, and all around him.

A quick glance at public opinon polls over the past several years supports this connection. As more Americans began to believe that Bush deliberately misled the country about WMDs in Iraq (from 31% in June 2003 to 53% in January 2006), more Americans also began to believe that the U.S. government either assisted or took no action to prevent the 9/11 attacks.

There are alternative explanations for the mess in Iraq—that a Bush Administration bent on deposing Saddam Hussein made a series of ill-considered and short-sighted decisions, accepting sketchy WMD intelligence, slighting any option short of war, and ignoring the advice of top military officials, diplomats, and allies. Many argue (and I am in this camp) that these decisions were simply wrong-headed from the start—but did not involve sinister manipulation or deliberate lying. Those who maintain otherwise, who argue “Bush lied us into Iraq,” should not be surprised at the unintended consequences of these assertions—and the grassroots paranoia and extremism that have followed.

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Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders
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The week (March 9th, 2007): Nobody asked me, but…

To borrow, once again, from newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon: nobody asked me, but…

YOU COULDN’T BLAME JOE WILSON AND VALERIE PLAME WILSON for wanting to move to Santa Fe after the Washington Post editorial on the I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby verdict. The Post dismissed the Wilson-Plame case as “a Washington scandal remarkable for its lack of substance,” arguing that it was “propelled not by actual wrongdoing but by inflated and frequently false claims, and by the aggressive and occasionally reckless response of senior Bush administration officials — culminating in Mr. Libby’s perjury.”

As for Joseph C. Wilson IV, the newspaper opined that “{t}he former ambassador will be remembered as a blowhard…” responsible for sensational, but false, charges.

DAVID BROOKS CLOSED a recent column in the New York Times entitled “Yes, Those Were the Days,” with a graceful classical allusion: “But that’s the perpetual tragedy of life: the owl of Minvera flies at dusk. Wisdom comes from suffering and error, and when the passions dies down and observation begins.”

Minerva, as every schoolboy used to know, was the Roman goddess of wisdom and war, and her owl was seen as a symbol of wisdom. Brooks borrowed his conceit from the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel who wrote in “Philosophy of Right” in 1820: “The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk.”

Columbia University graduates should recognize that the Daniel Chester French statute of Alma Mater in front of Low Library as Minvera; an owl is hidden in the folds of the goddess’s cloak.

THE RELENTLESS SLIDE IN COMPUTER STORAGE COSTS helps drive the global high technology economy; quoting NPD, a market research firm, the New York Times reports that the retail price of a gigbyte of hard drive storage was $2.04 in 2003 and that last year it had dropped to 77 cents.

The Times further notes: “The average price for an external hard drive fell $141 last year, from $197 in 2003, while the amount of storage space on the drives doubled.” Proof positive of Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns?

SEEN: AD HEADLINE ON THE NEW YORK SUBWAY touting Manhattan MiniStorage: “Your closet is so narrow it makes Cheney look like a liberal.”

A LONG-TIME FRIEND WHO RECENTLY attended a gathering for King Abdullah II of Jordan mentioned that, in talking with the American-educated monarch, he had addressed him as “Your Highness.”

Chalk it up to a doggedly democratic world view, but I could only shake my head and give my friend a hard time; he defended himself by saying he was simply using an honorific, much as people address the president of the United States as “Mr. President.” The difference, I argued, is that “Mr. President” is descriptive, while “Your Highness,” “Your Holiness,” or “Your Most Excellency” suggest a worshipful Old World deference that kings and religious leaders don’t deserve. I’m not wild about judges being called “Your Honor,” either. My friend did say he wouldn’t kiss the ring of the Pope.

The Mohawk chief Joseph Brant, who fought for the British against the American revolutionaries, is said to have refused to kiss the hand of King George III at his audience in 1785, telling the monarch: “I bow to no man for I am considered a prince among my own people. But I will gladly shake your hand.”

THE NATURAL TENSION BETWEEN CEO AND CFO was highlighted in an amusing Wall Street Journal article entitled “Sunny CEO, Gloomy CFO A Smart Mix.” The Journal piece, by Justin Lahart, quoted several recent surveys in which American chief executive officers expressed optimism about the economic outlook and chief financial officers were, true to form, more cautious. A Duke School of Business quarterly CFO survey had this gem, volunteered by a dour CFO skeptical of his boss’s upbeat prognosis: “CEO is a moron.”

ANN COULTER IS VERY HARD TO WATCH ON TV; what psychologists would call her affect is so jittery and edgy (just under her surface hostility) that she appears primed for a nervous breakdown. Or so it seems to me—or perhaps it is all an act to sell books and the “Ann Coulter” brand?

”THE WOOD” IS JARGON FOR A TABLOID FRONT PAGE HEADLINE; so far in 2007 the Boston Herald has featured some clever and arresting examples of these upper-case heds. Take, for instance, the Herald’s sly main headline of February 19:


Followed by this kicker subhead: “Bridget’s pregnant and Tom’s Pals say he’ll do the right thing…he just won’t marry her.”

Or take the more recent headline (March 8) about the ethical travails of Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick, a liberal:


And this subhead: “Deval begs ‘don’t give up on me’ as devotees weep in their lattes.”

In this case, the wood was promoting an amusing column by Margery Egan about Patrick’s disappointed so-called “moonbat” followers (for those who need the translation, a “moonbat” is an epithet for left-wing extremists.)

THE WORDS FOR THE WEEK COME FROM AUTHOR JESSAMYN WEST (a second cousin of Richard Nixon!): “It is very easy to forgive others their mistakes; it takes more grit and gumption to forgive them for having witnessed your own.”

Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders
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The week (March 2nd, 2007): Nobody asked me, but…

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

“THE PAST IS NEVER DEAD,” argued Gavin Stevens, a character in William Faulkner’s 1951 novel Requiem for a Nun, “It’s not even past.”

Two stories about America’s dark, complicated legacy of slavery that surfaced this past week made me think of that observation. First, there was the revelation that the former presidential candidate and civil rights activist Rev. Al Sharpton was descended from a slave owned by relatives of the late senator Strom Thurmond, a one-time leader of the segregationist movement in the South.

Then, on Friday, came a Baltimore Sun story that a genealogical researcher had uncovered white slaveholding ancestors of presidential candidate Barack Obama, who is of mixed American and African origin.

The genealogist who broke the Obama story, William Addams Reitwiesner, also claimed that two other presidential candidates were descended from slave owners: Democrat John Edwards and Senator John McCain.

These newly revealed links highlight how the historic connections between whites and blacks in this country are more intimate and tangled than often recognized. There are famous families—in New England as well as the South—whose fortunes were made through slavery. And, as Fortune magazine writer John Simons has noted “many slave women bore white men’s children, either the result of rape (a common occurrence) or more complicated relationships, such as that of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson.” Some estimate that a third of black Americans have white DNA.

A spokesman for Senator Obama, Bill Burton, had the following to say: “While a relative owned slaves, another fought for the Union in the Civil War. And it is a true measure of progress that the descendant of a slave owner would come to marry a student from Kenya and produce a son who would grow up to be a candidate for president of the United States.”

A highly-emotional Sharpton called the link to Thurmond “probably the most shocking thing in my life,” and lamented that his family had to “endure the particular agony of being slaves to the Thurmonds, the symbol of everything about America that I have fought to change.” That brought a rebuke of sorts from Thurmond’s 81-year-old biracial daughter, Essie Mae Washington-Williams, who argued that Sharpton had overreacted and defended her father as having “done many wonderful things for black people.”

All of this came as the New York Times reported that researchers studying Thomas Jefferson’s Y chromosome “have found it belongs to a lineage that is rare in Europe but common in the Middle East, raising the possibility that the third president of the United States had a Jewish ancestor many generations ago.”

THE POLITICO’S JOHN F. HARRIS COPPED TO being the “author of the Democratic Party’s slow-bleed strategy for ending the war in Iraq.” Actually, as Harris explained in his piece “An Editor’s Confession: I’m the Source of ‘Slow Bleed’”, he had coined the term in editing a piece on John Murtha, the House Democrats and the anti-war movement. The establishment media picked up the term and Republicans pounced on it to suggest that this new strategy meant letting American troops “slowly bleed.”

Harris says he would have done it differently if given another chance.

As happens all the time in journalism, this was a decision—made on the fly and under deadline—that I would have taken back in the morning. It is Murtha’s job to defend his own policies. But I’d prefer not to hand his opponents ammunition in the form of evocative but loaded language.

Harris is right that his colorful labelling was journalistically over the line, albeit a minor sin (not a major one). The Democrats did not use the term “slow-bleed.” Yet confronted by the thrashing about by the Democrats in both the House and Senate on the Iraq war, the Republicans could have come up with “evocative but loaded” language of their own (remember “cut and run”), and tagged the Democrats with it, with or without The Politico‘s help.

POET FRANK BIDART HAS WON THE BOLLINGEN PRIZE in American Poetry, chosen by Yale, a prize which includes a $100,000 award. Bidart teaches at Wellesley College and has published four books of poetry. While I don’t care for Bidart’s less accessible modernist verse and his E.E. cummings-like adventures in typography, it’s always great when poetry awards include financial rewards, since it’s not a field of endeavor anyone pursues with thoughts of making a fortune.

FRENCH DISDAIN OVER ALLEGED AMERICAN INDIFFERENCE to human rights in the war on terror should be placed in proper perspective. As detailed in a Wall Street Journal piece, the French pay little attention to the Anglo-Saxon niceties of civil and legal rights when they deal with terrorism on French soil; their anti-terror czar, Jean-Louis Bruguiere, has unchecked powers that American Homeland Security chiefs only dream of. As Bret Stephens notes, these powers are considerable:

…Warrantless wiretaps? Not a problem under French law, as long as the Interior Ministry approves. Court-issued search warrants based on probable cause? Not needed to conduct a search. Hearsay evidence? Admissible in court. Habeas corpus? Suspects can be held and questioned by authorities for up to 96 hours without judicial supervision or the notification of third parties. Profiling? French officials commonly boast of having a “spy in every mosque.” A wall of separation between intelligence and law enforcement agencies? France’s domestic and foreign intelligence bureaus work hand-in-glove. Bail? Authorities can detain suspects in “investigative” detentions for up to a year….

Stephens notes that the First, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth and Eighth Amendments to the Constitution precludes (thankfully) these strong-arm tactics, but think of the French model the next time you hear wailing about the Patriot Act.

THE WORDS FOR THE WEEK come from the later, great humorist Will Rogers: “If the world comes to an end, I want to be in Cincinnati. Everything comes there ten years later.”

Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders
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