...Views from mid-Atlantic
23 September 2006

I first came across Lee Harris at Tech Central Station, a misleadingly-named publisher of some very fine political comment. Harris is the author of Civilization and Its Enemies, and will publish a new book, The Suicide of Reason, next year. A new article of his in the Weekly Standard, an analysis of the Pope's controversial speech at the Univeresity of Regensburg, ought to convince you of his quality as a thinker and writer. (to saying nothing of convincing you of the quality of the Pope's intellect).

Harris says the Pope's speech was "a critique of modern reason from within", which is normally a sign that the speaker is going to list the failures of modern reason. Instead, the Pope is acknowledging the positive aspects of modernity, but "asking those in the West who 'share the responsibility for the right use of reason' to return to the kind of self-critical examination of their own beliefs that was the hallmark of ancient Greek thought at its best. The spirit that animates Benedict's address is not the spirit of Pius IX; it is the spirit of Socrates. Benedict is inviting all of us to ask ourselves, Do we really know what we are talking about when we talk about faith, reason, God, and community?

"In the second century A.D., the eminent Christian theologian Tertullian, who had been trained as a Roman lawyer, asked contemptuously: 'What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?'...St. Clement argued that Greek philosophy had been given by God to mankind as a second source of truth, comparable to the Hebrew revelation. For St. Clement, Socrates and Plato were not pagan thinkers; they prefigured Christianity. Contrary to what Tertullian believed, Christianity needed more than just Jerusalem: It needed Athens too.

"Pope Benedict in his address makes a strikingly similar claim: 'The encounter between the Biblical message and Greek thought did not happen by chance.' This encounter, for Benedict, was providential, just as it had been for St. Clement. Furthermore, Benedict argues that the 'inner rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek philosophical inquiry was an event of decisive importance not only from the standpoint of the history of religions, but also from that of world history.' For Benedict, however, this event is not mere ancient history. It is a legacy that we in the West are all duty-bound to keep alive - yet it is a legacy that is under attack, both from those who do not share it, namely Islam, and from those who are its beneficiaries and do not understand it, namely, Western intellectuals.

"Let us begin by taking seriously Benedict's claim that in his address he is attempting to sketch, in a rough outline, 'a critique of modern reason from within.' He is not using his authority as the Roman pontiff to attack modern reason from the point of view of the Church. His approach is not dogmatic; it is dialectical. He stands before his learned audience not as the pope, but simply as Joseph Ratzinger, an intelligent and thoughtful man, who makes no claims to any privileged cognitive authority. He has come, like Socrates, not to preach or sermonize, but to challenge with questions...

"In his moving and heroic speech, Joseph Ratzinger has chosen to play the part of Socrates, not giving us dogmatic answers, but stinging us with provocative questions. Shall we abandon the lofty and noble conception of reason for which Socrates gave his life? Shall we delude ourselves into thinking that the life of reason can survive without courage and character? Shall we be content with lives we refuse to examine, because such examination requires us to ask questions for which science can give no definite answer? The destiny of reason will be determined by how we in the modern West answer these questions."

It's interesting to think of that lofty purpose as background to the way the Pope has dealt with Muslim protests over his quotation of remarks made by the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II on the subject of Islam and jihad in 1391.

The Saudis seems to think bin Laden's died...again. This time it was typhoid, apparently. The New York Times has the story, and deals with the common journalistic problem of having two leads for one story badly, by emphasising the wrong one. Who gives a damn if it was a leak from France's intelligence services and the French Government's pissed off about it? This is the way the Times led: "France's Defense Ministry said on Saturday a secret service report saying al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden had died could not be confirmed but said it would launch an inquiry into the leak of secret documents.

"The Defense Ministry issued the statement after a French regional newspaper, L'Est Republicain, published a report quoting a French secret service report as saying Saudi Arabia is convinced al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden died of typhoid in Pakistan last month.

"'The information published this morning in the L'Est Republicain newspaper relating to the supposed death of Osama bin Laden cannot be confirmed,' the Defense Ministry said.

"The Defense Minister (Michele Alliot-Marie) has asked that an inquiry be carried out to determine the origin of the leak that can be punished by criminal charges.

"The newspaper printed what it said was a copy of the report dated September 21 and said it was shown to President Jacques Chirac, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin and France's interior and defense ministers on the same day."

It's like watching a really bad strip tease.

The Wall Street Journal continues its Saturday feature, 'the best of, by...', with the five best travel books Simon Winchester has read. Pretty traditional fare, but he reminds us very nicely of just how good traditional fare is. It was good to be reminded of the charms of Modestine, RLS's travelling companion.

22 September 2006

For the first time, yesterday, I thought George Bush might actually be as stupid as his detractors say he is. His comment about going after Osama bin Laden in Pakistan if he was spotted there was a diplomatic mistake so fundamental and egregious that it is hard to think of another world leader silly enough to make it. I can't think of anything that could excuse his behaviour, and he thoroughly deserved the 'US threatens to bomb Pakistan back to the Stone Age' riposte from Pakistan, a country which, for all its problems, has actually had more success fighting terrorism than any other, including the US.

This Los Angeles Times columnist has a point: "The outpouring of anti-American rhetoric at the United Nations this week is demonstrating how anger at the United States is uniting the developing world in a way not seen since the 1980s, U.S. officials and analysts say.

"Leaders such as Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, Sudan's Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir and Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are divided by background and political philosophies, but they spoke as one at the General Assembly regarding perceived U.S. bullying and misdeeds." Those who watched any of the General Assembly proceedings must also have been struck by the applause Chavez's comments provoked, even if he was transparently playing the fool.

Peggy Noonan, writing in the Wall Street Journal, also thinks, albeit for slightly different reasons, that it is a mistake not to pay attention to what happened in the General Assembly, which is the way many commentators are trying to play it. She writes: "Chavez's speech achieved a great deal, and it is foolish to pretend otherwise.

"He raised his own standing. He got the world to look at him. He emerged in the speech as heir to the dying Fidel Castro, who he was careful to note is still alive and kicking. Chavez doesn't want to be the current Fidel, the old man in soft fatigues, but the Fidel of 1960, who when he went to the UN pointedly camped in a hotel in Harlem, and electrified the masses. Chavez even followed his speech with the announcement he was giving heating oil to the needy of the Bronx. You know what they said in the Bronx? Thanks! It went over big on local TV.

"He broke through the clutter. Everyone this weekend will be discussing what he said - exactly what he said, and how he said it.

"He shook things up. His speech was, essentially if implicitly, a call to resistance, by any means, to the government of the United States."

All this just goes to show the wisdom of that proverb Theodore Roosevelt used to describe his own approach to foreign policy, which could be paraphrased this way - If you're carrying a big stick, for goodness sake have the sense to speak softly.

These two stories are joined at the hip. In the Times, US editor Gerard Baker fulminates about European cowardice in the face of angry Islamists: "I...heard a senior member of the British Government chide the Pope this week for what he described as his unhelpful comments. This minister went on to say that the Pope should keep quiet about Islamic violence because of the Crusades.

"It was a jaw-dropping observation. If it was meant seriously its import is that, because of violence perpetrated in the name of Christ 900 years ago, today's Church, and presumably today's European governments (who, after all, were eager participants in the Crusades) should forever hold their peace on the subject of religious fanaticism. In this view the Church's repeated apologies for the sins committed in its name apparently are not enough. The Pope has no right, even in a lengthy disquisition on the complexities of faith and reason, to say anything about the religious role in Islamic terrorism."

And Richard Rahn, director general of the Center for Global Economic Growth, a project of the FreedomWorks Foundation, writes in the Washington Times about European cowardice of a slightly different kind: "The headquarters of the EU in Brussels seem intent upon destroying the remaining vibrant parts of the European economy. They are about to place onerous regulations on the chemical industry (without doing sensible cost-benefit analysis) that will destroy much of it and the workers it employs. The European attempt to stop tax induced capital flight through its 'Savings Tax Directive' has predictably failed. It has caused even more capital to flee to places, such as Hong Kong and Singapore where the European governments cannot touch it.

"We will know the Europeans have finally become serious about stopping the killing of jobs when the European Court of Justice recognizes the restrictive work rules in France, Germany and elsewhere are a denial of the fundamental human right to earn a decent living and work as much as one wishes. But, as the ruling against the British shows, their European neighbors still seem more intent upon killing success than emulating it."

This is a rare treat. New York Times music critic Ben Ratliff got Ornette Coleman to talk about other musicians, something he's famous for not wanting to do. Coleman's got a really complicated head, but Ratcliff is right there with him, which is a blessing. Some of it is going to take me a week to figure out, but here's a taste that ought to appeal:

"Mr. Coleman talks about 'music' with care and accuracy, but about 'sound' with love. He doesn't understand, he says, how listeners will ever properly understand the power of notes when they are bossed around by the common Western system of harmony and tuning.

"He's not endorsing cacophony: he says making music is a matter of finding euphonious resolutions between different players. (And much of his music keeps referring to, if not actually staying in, a major key.) But the reason he appreciates Louis Armstrong, for example, is that he sees Armstrong as someone who improvised in a realm beyond his own knowledge. 'I never heard him play a straight chord in root position for his idea,' he said. 'And when he played a high note, it was the finale. It wasn't just because it was high. In some way, he was telling stories more than improvising.'

"Mr. Coleman's first request was something by Josef Rosenblatt, the Ukrainian-born cantor who moved to New York in 1911 and became one of the city's most popular entertainers - as well as a symbol for not selling out your convictions. (He turned down a position with a Chicago opera company, but was persuaded to take a small role in Al Jolson's film The Jazz Singer.) I brought some recordings from 1916 and we listened to Tikanto Shabbos, a song from Sabbath services. Rosenblatt's voice came booming out, strong and clear at the bottom, with miraculous coloratura runs at the top.

"'I was once in Chicago, about 20-some years ago,' Mr. Coleman said. 'A young man said, 'I'd like you to come by so I can play something for you. I went down to his basement and he put on Josef Rosenblatt, and I started crying like a baby. The record he had was crying, singing and praying, all in the same breath. I said, wait a minute. You can't find those notes. Those are not 'notes'. They don't exist.'

"He listened some more. Rosenblatt was working with text, singing brilliant figures with it, then coming down on a resolving note, which was confirmed and stabilized by a pianist's chord. 'I want to ask something,' he said. 'Is the language he's singing making the resolution? Not the melody. I mean, he's resolving. He's not singing a 'melody'.'

"It could be that he's at least singing each little section in relation to a mode, I said.

"'I think he's singing pure spiritual,' he said. 'He's making the sound of what he's experiencing as a human being, turning it into the quality of his voice, and what he's singing to is what he's singing about. We hear it as 'how he's singing'. But he's singing about something. I don't know what it is, but it's bad.'

"I wonder how much of it is really improvised, I said. Which up-and-down melodic shapes, and in which orders, were well practiced, and which weren't.

"'Mm-hmm,' he said. 'I understand what you're saying. But it doesn't sound like it's going up and down; it sounds like it's going out. Which means it's coming from his soul.'"

21 September 2006

John McWhorter is a much-respected black American educator and newspaper columnist who often deplores the way black society is apt to sabotage itself. I don't often disagree with him, but I think that in this article in the the New York Sun, he's guilty of doing just what he deplores. At issue is whether Senator Barack Obama is qualified to be president. McWhorter writes: "The key factor that galvanizes people around the idea of Obama for president is, quite simply, that he is black. Other things about him don't hurt, but that's all - they are not the deciding factor. Take away Mr. Obama's race and he's some relatively anonymous rookie. Barrett O'Leary, even if as cute and articulate as Mr. Obama, would have to wait at least another four years, and possibly six or seven, before being considered as a possible commander in chief.

"What gives people a jolt in their gut about the idea of President Obama is the idea that it would be a ringing symbol that racism no longer rules our land. President Obama might be, for instance, a substitute for that national apology for slavery that some consider so urgent. Surely a nation with a black president would be one no longer hung up on race."

Where we part company is McWhorter's notion that being black, as Obama's edge in the game of politics, is somehow not according to Hoyle. That's not correct - the way politics works is that if Obama can win a presidential campaign in part on the strength of his colour, then he's simply being a smart politician, turning his advantages to best use.

The second paragraph I've lifted from his column and quoted above isn't meant to be an expression of McWhorter's own views, of course. But it's worth saying that the obsession with race won't disappear overnight simply because there's an African American in the White House - it's much too deep seated for that. Goalposts will simply shift a little, as goalposts do! Much water - generations' worth - is going to flow under the bridge before race is not a sore subject.

"New findings in a study of the process of skin tanning reveal a promising way of protecting fair-skinned people from skin cancer caused by exposure to sunlight, according to an article in China Daily. "In a new research done on mice scientists have developed a cream that switched on the tanning machinery in the skin cells without exposing them to sun. This new understanding of the process of skin tanning enabled them to develop a promising way of protecting fair-skinned people from skin cancer caused by exposure to sunlight.

"People who tan easily, or have naturally dark skin, are far less likely to develop skin cancer than fair-skinned individuals - who tend to get sunburns rather than tans - the findings suggest that medicinally-induced tans can protect at-risk individuals from the disease."

This is an all-too-short interview by George F. Will in the Washington Post of Hirsi Ali, the Muslim woman who wrote the script of the film Theo van Gogh was killed for, and who the Dutch Immigration Minister tried to deport this year. She's in the United States at the American Enterprise Institute, where Will says "she is writing a book that imagines Muhammad meeting, in the New York Public Library, three thinkers - John Stuart Mill, Friedrich Hayek and Karl Popper, each a hero of the unending struggle between (to take the title of Popper's 1945 masterpiece) The Open Society and Its Enemies. Islamic extremists - the sort who were unhinged by some Danish cartoons - will be enraged."

Will quotes her as having told him that "Europeans 'have no idea what an enemy is.' And they think, she says, that leadership is an antiquated notion because they believe that caring governments can socialize everyone to behave well, thereby erasing personal accountability and responsibility. 'I can't even tell it without laughing,' she says, laughing softly. Clearly she is where she belongs, at last."

Was Amanda McKittrick Ros the worst novelist of all time? It sounds as if she was so bad, she was good, in the way the Scottish poet, William McGonagal, is good. I think he's worth quoting under almost any circumstance, so I make no apology for what might seem to some an unnecessary diversion from the point. He wrote, among other things, these lines:

Beautiful Moon, with thy silvery light,
Thou seemest most charming to my sight;
As I gaze upon thee in the sky so high,
A tear of joy does moisten mine eye.

Stirring stuff, you must admit.

It sounds as if Ros has a more intellectual approach. The Daily Telegraph quotes this sample of her writing: "The trials of a tortured throng are naught when weighed in the balance of future anticipations...The living sometimes learn the touchy tricks of the traitor, the tardy and the tempted; the dead have evaded the flighty earthy future, and form to swell the retinue of retired rights, the righteous school of the invisible and the rebellious roar of the raging nothing."

The Telegraph says "The heaving bosoms, trembling lips, quivering voices and clammy hands that inhabit the world created by Amanda McKittrick Ros won her many admirers among the literary elite...Her novels provided the entertainment at gatherings of the Inklings, a group of Oxford dons including Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien who met from the 1930s to 1950s. They competed to see who could read her work aloud for longest before starting to laugh."

Her penchant for alliteration was obviously part of it, but then there were the names of her characters - who could resist the likes of Irene Iddesleigh, Delina Delany and Helen Huddleston?

20 September 2006

Washington Times columnist Halle Dale is correct when she says this morning: "...The impending exit of British Prime Minister Tony Blair is an event that could have major implications for U.S. foreign policy. And equally so, actually, could the election of a new French president next spring. Presidential contender and Interior Minister Nicholas Sarkozy was in Washington last week, and judging by his remarks, France could replace Britain as a major European ally in the future, which would be a surpassingly strange turn of events."

But she is barking up the wrong tree when she says the reason for Blair's unpopularity is the effectiveness of Conservative leader David Cameron. Blair is, with some reason, taking the blame for what seems to be a sudden realisation on the part of the British public of the huge gap between what Labour promised in the realm of reform and what it has managed to deliver. Despite some pretty massive expenditure, Health Services and Education, particularly, are in the same kind of poor shape they have been for years. Blair's support for American policies is also part of the reason - he may be doing it for all the right reasons, but he is persistently out of step with British public opinion, which isn't politically smart.

David Cameron's success in the Conservative Party is, so far, largely separate and distinct from Labour's failure.

Support by other religious leaders for the Pope in his difficulty with Islam hasn't exactly been thick on the ground. The insipid Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, didn't bother to issue an official statement from the Church of England, he made a comment on a television programme - "The Pope has already issued an apology and I think his views on this need to be judged against his entire record, where he has spoken very positively about dialogue," he said, which is about effective as peeing on the leg of a man who's freezing to death.

So it was refreshing to read in the London Times this morning that "The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey of Clifton, has issued his own challenge to 'violent' Islam in a lecture in which he defends the Pope's 'extraordinarily effective and lucid' speech.

"Lord Carey said that Muslims must address 'with great urgency' their religion's association with violence. He made it clear that he believed the 'clash of civilisations' endangering the world was not between Islamist extremists and the West, but with Islam as a whole." He quoted Samuel Huntington, who said the world is witnessing a clash of civilisations.

"Arguing that Huntington's thesis has some 'validity', Lord Carey quoted him as saying: 'Islam's borders are bloody and so are its innards. The fundamental problem for the West is not Islamic fundamentalism. It is Islam, a different civilisation whose people are convinced of the superiority of their culture and are obsessed with the inferiority of their power."

It is standard political operating procedure to lie about lying, so why the Hungarian Prime Minister should have spoken in an interview of lying morning, noon and night about the country's economy is a mystery. He seems to be held in high regard in Europe, where people suggest that if he took calls for his resignation to heart, Hungary's economy would suffer.

In a sense, Hungary should be proud to have a politician who is prepared to tell the truth, even if only occasionally. In Britain, one of the reasons the Labour government has lost popularity is its predilection for manipulating public opinion through statistics. Another Cabinet Minister was outed yesterday for, as the Telegraph puts it, "allegedly playing fast and loose with the only measure that we have of both the Government's veracity and its competence: official statistics. This time it was Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, in the dock for releasing disappointing figures about primary school tests on the same day as GCSE results showed another increase in the pass rate."

It isn't only politicians who are fond of blurring the picture with statistics. On this side of the Atlantic, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman has a reputation for doing the same thing. It has had such an effect on his believability that the normally disdainful Times announced this morning that he will henceforth "post sources for the numbers he uses in his column."

19 September 2006

The Pope must die, says a prominent London Muslim taking part in protests in that city over the use His Holiness made of the words of a Byzantine emperor who, more than 600 years ago, called Islam a faith "spread by the sword." This is London elaborates.

There are a lot of things wrong with the West - embarrassingly stupid religious beliefs being among them. But most of them affect only pockets of the people of the West. As a whole, our team has driven the development of civilisation on the earth. And the way that works is that anyone is free to express any idea he or she chooses. Then the rest criticise it, until the idea is either accepted as universally true, or exiled to the pockets. So development is an adversarial process.

The idea postulated by protesting Muslims, that the Pope should die for insulting their religion (proving the point of that Byzantine emperor, it should be noted), is nuts - the product of a civilisation stuck in the dark ages. What is dangerous about the situation is that the politically-correct West is being too deferential to criticise as vigorously as it should.

Even normally robust critics like the Wall Street Journal are criticising sotto voce: "The pope isn't condemning Islam; he is inviting it to join rather than reject the modern world.

"By their reaction to the pope's speech, some Muslim leaders showed again that Islam has a problem with modernity that is going to have to be solved by a debate within Islam."

Anne Applebaum of the Washington Post senses what's gong on: "...If stray comments by Western leaders - not to mention Western films, books, cartoons, traditions and values - are going to inspire regular violence, I don't feel that it's asking too much for the West to quit saying sorry and unite, occasionally, in its own defense. The fanatics attacking the pope already limit the right to free speech among their own followers. I don't see why we should allow them to limit our right to free speech, too."

I'm perhaps a little out of time, but I feel I must pay tribute to the life and extraordinary abilities of Oriana Fallaci, chief among which was her clarity about men and events. This London Times obituary has the basics. The New York Times elaborates, and Daniel Pipes, who is himself in the Fallaci business, after all, offers up a perceptive little coronach (look it up - it's a word from the most excellent place in which I've spent the last few days).

Feminists, says a Washington Times columnist, should celebrate: "Finally someone is taking women's health seriously and has done a thorough study of the female brain.

"In The Female Brain, Louann Brizendine, a San Francisco-based neuropsychiatrist who founded the Women's and Teen Girls' Mood and Hormone Clinic, details the powerful influence that a woman's brain structure and chemistry have on her behavior and outlook from birth to old age.

"Dr. Brizendine begins by describing the historical failure of scientists to consider women's unique make up, instead assuming that 'women were essentially small men, neurologically and in every other sense except for their reproductive functions.' The truth is quite different: 99 percent of male and female genetic coding is the same, but the differences that exist have profound effects:

"'What we've found is that the female brain is so deeply affected by hormones that their influence can be said to create a woman's reality. They can shape a woman's values and desires, and tell her, day to day, what's important. Their presence is felt at every stage of life, right from birth.'"

This Belgian court order was handed down after hearing only one side of the argument, evidently, so perhaps it's a little thin (it does seem to contradict one of the most basic copyright laws of all, one's right to quote at reasonable length provided there is proper attribution). But if, despite that, it grows legs, it will affect the blogosphere in a big way. The New York Times explains: "A court ordered Google to remove on Monday all links to French- and German-language newspaper reports published in Belgium after an association of local publishers won a case that accused the company of violating the country's copyright laws.

"The legal action is the most recent example of the news media's challenging the growing power of Internet news portals run by the large search engines. Increasingly, people are obtaining their news in bite-size nuggets on search engines, and advertising revenue for newspapers is diminishing as a result."


Art in Bermuda
Bermuda's Cuban Connection
Death of the Nation State
Helen Lives!
Joe Wilson and Michael Moore
Linton Kwesi Johnson's Dub Poetry
Me and Evergreen Review
Michael Howard's Vision
Miss Lou and Jamaican Patois
More Doomsday Nonsense
Mullah Nasrudin's Lessons
New York Dogs
OECD's Unfair to Competition
On Catullus
On Charles Ives
On Colin MacInnes
On Collecting Books
On Collecting Books - Part Two
On Gambling in Bermuda
On Napoleon
On Patrick Leigh Fermor
Race and Bermuda's Election
The Epic of Gilgamesh
The Gift of Slang
The Limits of Knowledge
The Nature of Intelligence
The Shared European Dream
The US Supreme Court's First Terrorism Decisions
Useful Yiddish
Yukio Mishima's Death

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