Thursday, January 23, 2003

No blogging until Sunday. My sister's getting married on Saturday and it's a real zoo around here. I'll save y'all some wedding cake!

Wednesday, January 22, 2003

And After We Beat Saddam, What?
The January/February issue of Foreign Affairs (sorry, the online version is subscription only) has an article by Michael Scott Doran, a professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton and Senior Fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations. Mr. Doran seems an unabashed hawk, and presents the first good reason I have encountered why the United States must take out Saddam Hussein as well as continue to pursue bin Laden*. However, for me, the real interest lies in the last paragraph:

Once the near enemies have been bested, however, the moment will arrive to launch a vigorous and sustained effort to address the far enemies, as the crucial second stage in strenghtening the Pax Americana. Unless the suppression of Saddam is seen to lead to a better life for the Iraqi population, and unless American strength and resolve is used on behalf of all the region's people, not simply the governments of American allies [italics mine--ec] then a new set of near enemies will certainly arise and have to be dealt with in their turn. In the long run, the strength and passion of Palestine-as-symbol will be sapped only by the creation of a new, more persuasive historican narrative that allows the people of the Middle East to see the United States, and the West more generally, as their partner in the quest for a better life.

This implies the creation of a kind of Marshall Plan for the Middle East. However, if Afghanistan is any sort of measuring stick, the administration is poorly prepared to undertake what will basically be a massive civilian improvement program. According to David Isenberg in the Asia Times, although the United States has spent $13 billion on the war effort, it has only spent $10 million in humanitarian aid and civil works.

Isenberg, an economics professor at Yale University, estimates that a conservative assistance plan, aiming at raising per capita GNP in Iraq to that of Iran or Egypt would cost about $20 billion. In addition, $1 to $10 billion would be required for humanitarian aid, and $17-45 billion per year to maintain a peacekeeping force. He believes that it is unlikely that Iraqi oil revenues would be sufficient, as maximum output could only produce about $25 billion annually, which would mostly go to food and medicine. Also, existing war claims against Iraq, totalling $300 billion, would have nominal priority over other debts. Isenberg doubts our allies would be willing to foot the bill for this. Is the administration ready to shoulder the financial burden?

Even if the money could be found--which with the disappearance of the federal budget surplus and the imminent tax cut can be considered at best doubtful--we still have the question of whether the United States is willing to take on our allies in the area, primarily the Saudis. Resentment of the royal family is high among the younger Saudis, who have come of age with a stagnating economy and no political voice, and view the United States as directly responsible for the maintenance of the regime. The House of Saud, however, seems remarkably close to the House of Bush, and the House of Saud is all about absolute power. Is the administration ready to force the House of Saud to give up some of that power and institute a kind of constitutional monarchy?

Most importantly, to truly institute democracy in the Middle East we would have to accept the results of free elections. To do otherwise would be to undermine the message we are trying to send. The conservative and religious parties have a lot of power and could conceivably win elections or at least garner enough votes to participate in a coalition government. Even if we were able to establish an American-style constitution that includes separation of Church and State, as we have seen in our own political life, religion can have a great deal of influence. Are we --the American people, with our memories still full of 9/11-- ready to deal with conservative Islamists as legitimately elected officials?


*Essentially, Doran claims that the the Middle Eastern governments and organizations such as alQaeda use the Palestinians as a bargaining chip among themselves and with the United States, and that the United States has to deal with them before it can solve the Palestinian problem. I'd like to follow up on this, but, since I don't have a good grasp of the intricacies of Middle Eastern politics (does anyone, really?) I would need to do more research.

Tuesday, January 21, 2003

Yiddish
Everyone in America with a TV set has heard a few yiddish words. Some have passed into the general language: cockamamy, mishmash, gonif, dreck, chutzpah, gelt, bagel, yenta, klutz, bubkes, tochis. We use yiddish-influenced phrases: Who needs it? You should live so long. I need it like a hole in the head. Alright already.

I fell in love with yiddish at nineteen. I had finished my BS coursework in December, and graduate school did not start until the following September. Figuring I would earn some money before being vanished to the wilds of Virginia, I went to work for a clipping agency. (Get your mind out of the gutter; a clipping agency was a place where you clipped articles out of newspapers and magazines for folk who wanted to keep track of something. You know, like search engines without computers).

In this place, they assigned trainees to clip the most obscure newspapers in the United States. I ended up with the North Dakota papers (This I needed yet?). You scanned each and every article looking for key phrases, which you would check against a huge three-ring binder that was propped against the back of the carrel. If it was present, you would circle it in red. You finished the paper, you set it aside, you got a new one. Once in a while someone would come by and pick up the completed work. It was supposed to be done in silence and at high speed.

The middle-aged woman in the carrel next to mine had charge of the more cosmopolitan Wisconsin newspapers. She worked fast, her red pen making brave slashes on the newsprint. Once in a while a stream of what sounded like German but wasn't poured out in a whispery sing-song that rose and rose to end, at the last syllable, with a fast downward turn and a stab of the pen. I listened for weeks, fascinated, until I could not resist any longer, and asked her what she was saying. Oh that? she said. It's yiddish. I learned it from my bubbe.

She taught me when and how to use "mazel tov." She taught me the differences between a schmuck, a schnook, and a schnorrer. She taught me that you do not call God by His first name; she preferred Shaddai, "the one who said enough". And she gave me a copy of Leo Rosten's The Joys of Yiddish.

From Rosten I learned that yiddish was actually a very old language, over a thousand years old. Although classified as judeo-german, it has leavenings of polish, roumanian, ukrainian, every slovene dialect you can think of, old french, and, more recently, english. It's called the mother-language, to distinguish it from Hebrew, the sacred language. Women, you see, were not taught Hebrew so they spoke to their children in yiddish. It was the language of the borscht belt, the resort hotels in the Catskills mountains. It's the language of Sholem Alecheim, Isaac Peretz, and the magnificent Isaac Bashevis Singer.

I love yiddish because it is a language centered on the human condition. It has an incredible of collection of curses, praises, and characterizations. It is an onomatopoetic language--if I call you a schmuck, you would know I was being offensive even if you had never heard of yiddish. It laughs at wealth. It skewers arrogance. It deflates pomposity.

Most of all, it's a survivor's language. It has survived disdain and neglect, pogroms and concentration camps, with laughter and tears, and mostly, defiance.

Message to the Kinderlach
To all the lovely people who have e-mailed me and haven't received a reply, Bellsouth e-mail is totally farpotshket. I'll get bak to you as soon as I can.

A primer on Propaganda
If there's one thing I know about, it's propaganda.

I seem to have been born with a bloodhound's nose for the fine scent of obsfuscation. According to my father, it became apparent the first day of catechism class, when I was returned to him by our parish priest, with a resigned "she's just like you are, God help you both." To this day I don't remember what I said (and the priest would not tell Dad); all I knew was that I was out of that tiny smelly room and back to climbing trees and working my way through my dad's bookcases.

My talents were fine-tuned growing up in Castro's paradise. Reality was shaped and twisted until it took on a kind of worm-hole quality--information went in one end and political cant came out the other. Every bad event in the world was attributable to "los imperialistas yanquis". Everything good came from "nuestros amigos en la gloriosa Union Sovietica." World War II had been won by Soviet troops. Small independent farmers were criminals who hoarded resources. Kennedy was killed by the CIA because he was going to establish diplomatic relations. Americans didn't go to the Moon; it was all a hoax because the Soviets were getting there first. And so on. And on. And on.

So, based on my experience, let me give you a few pointers about recognizing propaganda:

1. It appears out of nowhere as a full-blown argument and becomes the only explanation . Until late yesterday, the majority of the pro-war argument about the anti-war demonstrations had centered on the numbers (too few people to matter). Suddenly, after the pictures appeared on the Web and the numbers could not be denied, the taint by association screed appeared, and every major right-wing blogger adopted it immediately. Please note that the adopters are not the creators; they just simply latch on to an argument that reinforces their own beliefs.

2.Code words are used to discredit the opposition. "Taint" implies uncleanliness, both physical and moral. "Dupe" turns the opponent into a feeble-minded nonentity whose opinion need not be taken seriously. "Communist lover" is especially good, since it raises the hackles of past-middle-age Americans who remember Stalin, and especially that of folks who actually fled communist regimes.

3. It accuses the opponent of ulterior motives. You just want to get "your fifteen minutes of fame". You "hate America". Add your favorites here, they are easily recognizable. They all begin by creating an artificial class of being which can then be characterized negatively.

4. When confronted it diverges into tangential channels. This is important. If you answer the argument and the reply is yet another argument only distantly related to the first one, you are in the presence of propaganda. Because propaganda is actually a distortion of reality, it cannot engage in real dialogue. Once the talking point is delivered, it cannot go further except to another talking point.

Now you know.

Monday, January 20, 2003

A Government for Special Interests
Corrupt influence, which is itself the prerennial spring of all prodigality, and of all disorder; which loads us, more than millions of debt; which takes away vigour from our arms, wisdom from our councils, and every shadow of authority and credit from the most venerable part of our constitution.
Edmund Burke

The current administration is going all out to reward its supporters, isn't it? For some, its a symbolic thing: a wreath at the grave of Jefferson Davis, a National Sanctity of Human Life Day proclamation. For others, it's more substantial: a cap on malpractice payments, protection from vaccine lawsuits, a nice tax cut.

I am soooooo glad the moral, religious adults are in charge.

Sunday, January 19, 2003

On Being a Cuban-American Liberal
Sometimes it feels so hopeless that I just want to give up and become a Republican.

It is so disheartening to visit some blogs and read idiot comments about how Cubans will always be in the pocket of the Republican party. Or that the "rich" Cubans in Miami will do anything to get rid of Fidel, even if we have to crucify the Cubans in the island. Or every other stupid comment I've had to tolerate because I couldn't possibly be a liberal. After all, I'm a Cuban. A tool of the CIA.

For a group that spends a great deal of time screaming about being stereotyped, leftists are really quick to stereotype when it suits their holy shibboleths.