Saturday, February 01, 2003

No blogging today. I can't bring myself to care about mundane concerns. Seven people I admired and envied very much died this morning. They represented what I admire most about the human race: our need to see what lies beyond the horizon, our desire to reach past our limitations, our bravery on behalf of an ideal.

Good night, sweet friends.

Friday, January 31, 2003

I'm Entitled To My Opinion But You Should Shut Up!
I noticed a number of right-wing bloggers sneering at Susan Sarandon and Barbra Streisand for expressing opposition to the war in public. The general take seems to be that because Ms. Sarandon and Ms. Streisand are "merely" actors, they should not have an opinion. Some of the rants have an almost royalist feel: these folks are trying to get above themselves and speak against their betters. Others try for a curious variation of the old class warfare argument: these rich bitches are using their popularity and their money unfairly to promote their opinions.

I got news for you, sweetpeas: in a democracy (yeah, yeah, a Republic, whatever), everybody's opinion counts. Even yours. So get past it. If Dennis Miller can support the war, Arnold Schwarzenegger can make appearances at the Republican convention, and Charlton Heston represent the NRA, Sarandon and Streisand can speak their liberal minds publicly.

One of the great gifts of the Founding Fathers is this little thing called the First Amendment. It guarantees free speech to every citizen of this nation. Not "those I like"; not "the right sort of folk"; not "the experts". You, me, and my aunt Sally. The most ignorant jackass in the most backwards town can stand up and preach to anyone who will listen. You can ignore them; you can rebut them; but you cannot shut them up. You don't have the right.

By the way, there's a silver lining to this: if you ever find yourself in the minority again--and you will--your rights are protected too.

Terrorism Watch
From The New York Times, family members of those killed on September 11 testified at the trial of Mounir Motassadeq, taking place in Hamburg, Germany.

Mr. Motassadeq was attentive and expressionless throughout. During the the testimony of Joan Molinaro, whose son Carl, another firefighter who died, the court-appointed interpreter broke down while translating her account of watching the destruction of the towers.
"I have watched my son die 100 times, every time I see the videotape of the towers falling," Mrs. Molinaro said. "I look at the faces of the people coming out. But his face is never there."

From The Times Online , either Al-Qaeda or a renegade warlord seeking to wage a holy war against American forces in Afghanistan killed eighteen people when a bomb destroyed a bridge in Kandahar.

Also from The Times Online, Italian police have arrested 28 Pakistani men in Naples. The men in possession of huge amounts of explosives and detailed maps of bases in the Naples area, including Nato's Southern Command headquarters at Bagnoli.

Thursday, January 30, 2003

Is Journalism Hurting Democracy?
In the most recent Political Quarterly (sorry, subscription only), Steven Barnett asserts that it is possible to make a case for the negative impact of political journalism in two respects: first, that print and broadcast journalists are becoming more actively complicit in a process which is degrading democracy's institutions and undermining political representatives; and second, by connecting these arguments about the debasement of journalism to the very current arguments about a crisis in parliamentary legitimacy, in political engagement and political trust.

Barnett, a professor of communications at the University of Westminster, uses a model similar to Larry Sabato's three-phase model of American journalism to describe British journalism. To summarize, from the 1940s to the present, the press of both countries has progressed from deference to to contempt of political figures. Barnett says that he believes that there is growing evidence that in Britain, as in the US, we have now entered an age when journalists are intent on going beyond the bounds of informed scepticism to unthinking ridicule--a coarsening of political reporting which is in danger of undermining respect for democratic institutions and actors and therefore for democracy itself. When coupled with negative political campaigning, the result is a decline of political participation by the electorate, and a growing culture of cynicism and disengagement among nonpartisan voters.

What fascinates me about these arguments is that we seem to have arrived at the same place from two different directions. British newspapers are openly partisan, and its journalists fiercely combative. Barnett says that the resistance of British journalists to attempts by the media arms of the political parties to manipulate the news is partly rooted in professional journalistic pride, since no self-respecting journalist is prepared any longer to be treated as an uncritical mouthpiece for political parties. It is party rooted in an ideological commitment to one of the fourth estate functions: to act as a critical check on governments and the political classes, protecting citizens from the abuse of political power and ensuring that decisions of the executive are subjected to public interrogation. And it is partly a reaction to history, to a time when political journalism--particularly in broadcasting--was servile and supine.

The American press, on the other hand, cloaks itself in impartiality, but travels in a pack, choosing its heroes and its villains with nary a dissent. The admission by some journalists recently in Rolling Stone and other journals that they just did not like Al Gore and preferred to print lies and exaggerations dished out by the GOP spinmeisters signaled the end of the era of the self-respecting committed journalist. There is no longer any attempt at the kind of investigative journalism pioneered in the Watergate era; hell, even Bob Woodward can't remember how to do it. The vast majority of the White House Press Room chair-warmers seem more interested in belonging to than in challenging the established order. If, as Sabato says, the first stage was lapdog journalism, the second watchdog journalism, and the third junkyard dog journalism, the American press has returned to the first stage. The American press has again become the lapdogs of power.

UPDATE: I found a shorter version of Barnett's article in the Guardian

Wednesday, January 29, 2003

One Hundred Dreams
A few years ago, work, relationships, and just life in general had turned me into an ambulatory nervous breakdown. On my best days, the pressure felt like a two thousand pound rock crushing my chest; at night I kept waking up screaming, soaked in sweat, from dreams I could not remember. Work was a hideous experience. I dragged myself through meetings where the hostility was a physical miasma and rage the common currency. I would go back to my office and collapse in tears behind closed doors. Evenings would be spent in a lonely apartment in the company of too many pints of Ben and Jerry's ice cream. The only thing that kept me from the rubber room and the jackets that tie in the back was the love, patience, and unfailing support of a few people (you know who you are; thank you, dear friends).

One of those people was a wise woman, a learned woman, the embodiment of the mythological crone. She gave me conversation, the joy of words. We would spend lunch hours talking about anything and everything under the sun, with me mostly listening in awe and fishing in the vast seas of her knowledge. She gave me music and sometimes some peace of mind. And she gave me a great gift: one hundred dreams.

After a particularly difficult day that had yet again left me in tears, she marched into my office, and slapped down a yellow pad and a pencil.

"Write," she said. "Write down one hundred dreams."

"Huh?" I answered cleverly.

"Somewhere inside of you there are one hundred dreams trying to get out. Things that have nothing to do with work, or daily life. Things you would do if you had the time, the money, or the balls. Write them down."

"I don't think there's a hundred anything..."

"Shut up and start writing."

I picked up the pencil and started. And you know what? There were dreams inside me. Beautiful flights of fancy, polychrome balloons of imagination. I went back to my childhood, to the days of make believe, and wrote it all down, everything I had dreamed of before adulthood had brought those two thieves, reality and limitations, into my life. I didn't get to one hundred, but I came close.

"Now what?" I said.

"Pick one and do it. And when you finish that one, pick another one. Add to the list and remove from it as the spirits move you."

I thought she had lost her mind, but she nagged and nagged until I picked one thing and promised to work towards it. The next year, I spent three weeks traveling in the highlands of Scotland, alone, armed only with a map, a camera, and a list of bed and breakfasts. And each year since then I have brought one of my one hundred dreams to life. Some years they are small things: last year I started a garden, just a couple of flower beds where I can dig my hands into the dirt and feel the beat of the earth. Some years they are much larger, and require planning and luck. Some dreams have been dropped; some have been addded. Here are five of my ( as yet) unrealized dreams:

1. Kayak the Sea of Cortez
2. Live in Italy for a year
3. Study at the Royal School of Needlework
4. Relearn to play the piano
5. Spend a summer at an archeological dig

Try it. What would you do if you had no limits?

Monday, January 27, 2003

Am I the Only One Spooked by China?
While we fight our ideological battles over Iraq and North Korea, someone else is grabbing all the cookies. China has become the workshop of the world. The other Asian economies are scrambling to protect themselves from "the big dragon". Western companies are pouring billions of investment dollars into the Chinese economy. Japanese car makers are signing deals with Chinese manufacturers; in fact, these days Japan does more business with China than with the United States. According to Emerging Markets Economy, foreign investments in China reached record levels this year.

Why does this bother me? Because China remains one of the most repressive regimes in history. Former BBC Beijing correspondent Tim Luard traveled to China at the end of 2002 to cover the Communist Party Congress. Luard found that although officially hailed as the most open Congress yet, this one has been even more secretive and orchestrated than ever. As for security, well, if they want to give the impression of a police state they could hardly have done better.

Many newspaper and magazine reports equate the booming Chinese economy with a loosening of political structures and the introduction of western capitalism. However, if Chinese history gives any clue, it is that China absorbs the alien into itself, not accomodate to it. Luard comments that private entrepreneurs still have a free rein--they are the engine of economic growth after all--but even they are now being co-opted into the party. What we might end up with is a fascist economic superpower wielding a great deal of influence over American policy through its control of the Asian economies.

It's enough to give anyone the heebie-jeebies.

Sunday, January 26, 2003

While Bush Gets Ready for Saddam, in Europe They are Fighting Al-Qaeda
Remember them? The folks who blew up the World Trade Center? It seems they are alive and well, and up to their old tricks, this time in Europe.

A couple of articles in the Times of London (here and here) report that intelligence agencies across Europe have cooperated to smash a terrorist network working out of mosques in London, Barcelona, and Rome. The network was planning a wave of chemical attacks across Europe. Targets may have included NATO bases and the London Underground. One of the arrestees, a London-based cleric named Abu Qatada, has been described by investigators as al-Qaeda's spiritual ambassador in Europe.

In Barcelona the police seized a large amount of explosive and chemical materials, detonators, timing devices and documents including false passports. In Paris, they found vials of liquid chemicals, a suit for biological and chemical warfare and documents that pointed to a British connection. These documents led to a raid in London where Special Branch officers found a kitchen laboratory manufacturing ricin. More documents have revealed that at least some of the terrorists are being trained in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan. You know, the place where we were so successful at breaking up Al Qaeda.