Friday, December 30, 2005


It will break my heart if I don´t get to write about today in at least some detail. I have only a few minutes on a rickety computer in Moputo, and I need to get down some first impressions. I have travelled reasonably extensively through southern Africa. I have lived, worked, or at least spent time in South Africa, Lesotho, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia and even the Cape Verde Islands far to the northwest. So I am accustomed to the ebb and flow, the rhythms of southern Africa. I am accustomed to service that is slow to nonexistent. I am used to bizarre circumstances, the threat of violence, and the imminent onset of chaos. Hell, these are reasons why I love Africa. That said, today is pretty hard to capture.

Some snapshots:

Driving across Mpumalanga, the eastern province of South Africa (where Kruger Park is located), and seeing the veld turn into something more lush and more spectacular. And then running into the Afrikaner Charlie Manson. And then helping some poor bastard figure out his debit card, only to see him realize that he was 3 rands short of being able to get out money and thus get home. I figured that he was not the criminal type, since he did not rob me blind after I helped him at the atm, so I gave him the money for the bus he needed to get home for a few hours before he´d have to be back at work the next day.

We spent the night at the Croc Lodge in Komaniesport, on the SA-Moz border. I had Mozambiquan Giant Prawns (that´s shrimp top most of you uitlanders) that were as big as my head. They may rank as one of the top five food items I have ever eaten. I am reaching early stages of arousal just thinking about them, so let´s just move on.

Today was the border crossing. You´ve more than likely read about African border crossings. In all honesty, beyond minor hassles, a bit of power tripping, and some long lines, I had never had a really bad experience. Today came pretty close. Imagine, if you can, utter chaos; a melange of stenches, some powerful enough to bring tears to the eyes (I will never forget the old man in the blue suit jacket over the motley colored shirt as long as I live); unbelievable heat; inscrutable series of barely-defined lines; hucksters and thieves; the vague menace of violence; the real menace of violence; rude and poorly defined go-betweens who have no official capacity, but who are your best hope of getting into the country, and who take your passport, expedite you through the line, get you a visa, take fistfuls of money, get your documents back, ask for more money, and get pissed when your "Christmas Tip" is not, well, Christmassy enough (Dude, you got my last 40 Rand, seriously).

Then imagine getting across the border, hauling toward Maputo, the capital of this beautiful but tortured country (among the worst ruled during the colonial era, an assertion I do not make lightly, followed by decades of atrocious civil war -- keep in mind that throughout Mozambique going off the beaten path is highly discouraged because of the long-ago planted, nearly forgotten, but still abundant land mines, and the dismembered make their way through the streets to prove it. The Portuguese were fuckers during and after the colonial era -- the French and English at least left an infrastructure. In the most literal sense, the Portuguese hauled out of Africa and took everything that was not bolted down, left zero infrastructure, and told the Mozambiquans and Angolans to fend for themselves; no wonder these two countries have been disasters. But I digress.) In any case, we had crossed the border, and conveniently enough, the first toll, when we hit a police road block. Of course Marcus is missing one of his vital documents for the car. And so the officer (a flirtacious woman) starts talking about impounding the car. And the dance begins -- it becomes not a matter of what we will do, but how much we will pay. We are pretty cash short at this point, and in any case, are somewhat inclined to call her bluff -- "Before we pay you, let us just call the embassy." At the same time, we really want to get to Maputo, and a Mozambiquan jail does not sound like the best time. So 100 Rand later (the local currency, the Metical, numbers in the hundreds of thousands and even millions -- a million Maloti is just under 300 rand which is something over $40), we are on our way.

Maputo has seen better days. It is tight on the Indian Ocean and shows flashes of its former splendour. Once "Lourenco Marks," Maputo is a potential gem on the eastern coast of Africa. Today it is largely a seedy African capital. Many of the buildings are decrepit even if they never had a prime. Street urchins abound. But it is hard to hide what lies beneath -- a ramshackle but rambunctuous city that whispers "come hither." You half heartedly want to say no, but of course you dive in to its pleasures.

Our hotel is some distance from the beach. The city sprawls, as cities do, but the ocean provides a frame for the area, indeed for the country as a whole. The water in Maputo is a grimy brown, a mottled shore for a mottled city. We saw no one swimming in the several hours we were down at the beach. We only went in to the water as an accident of kindness, as a result of a misguided sense of volunteerism on my part. I saw a group of local people pulling at a long fishing line into the sea. An old women, a wizened man, a matron in a colorful smock, a teenaged boy. I decided to help them hoist in their catch. Marcus and Siobonya were not so thrilled. And of course what looked like a simple immersion into local work patterns became a two-hour long arduous job. I am certain that we pulled the fishing nets from India. We engaged in an organized, highly orchestrated tug-o-war with the sea that involved thousands of feet of rope. By the end, as we pulled in the catch, I was both self-congratulatory over a job well done (I worked my ass off, I´ll tell you) but also trepidatious over our catch. After all, for me this was like an impromptu moment of adventure tourism. For the locals, this was dinner, and probably the hope was that it was a lot more. Our group only made up half the work force -- about a hundred meters away, parallel to us, was another group, tugging and sweating as we had been. Eventually the two groups came together to bring our haul in from the dusky ocean. My little part had given me an investment. I wanted to see abundance. Instead I ended up a bit heartbroken -- a few dozen fish, some perplexed and scurrying sand crabs, an eel, apparently of no use, a few dozen jellyfish, certainly of no use, a couple of other sea-denizens I´ve only seen in Natural Geographic. Our cohort probably had dinner, but this was not a joyous haul. Our coworkers, our bosses, seemed resigned. It was a tough way to spend an afternoon. Even tougher, I would surmise, if the haul meant life and livelihood. I went home with an empathetic sense of disappointment and hands approaching blisters. I can only imagine what it meant for the dozens of people who surely saw in that catch hope and dinner.

The rest of the night was about walking on the beach and sipping Mozambiquan beer (2M) and eating more divine seafood and cursing my roommate who, for the second time in six months, bounced a rent check and then mysteriously lost phone and email access while costing me precious money at the end of a month of travels. In any case, pardon the typoes. I do not have the wherewithal to edit, but I hope this gives at least some sense of this subtropical outpost on the Indian Ocean. Tomorrow is New Year´s Eve. I will be spending it on the Indian Ocean. I hope yours will be wonderful as well.

Oh -- and I really wish I spoke Portuguese. Thankfully my brother is fluent in Spanish and can get by pretty well here. As for me, I know the Spanish words for "boogers" and "ponytails" and a few others that come from having a Mexican-American girlfriend with little Godchildren. But I have learned that "mochos" and "chongitos," while fun to say, are of little use at a sweltering, fetid border crossing or during a bribery staredown with a southern African traffic cop.

In a malarial country, I am getting eaten by Mozzies now. In a country, a region, where prophylaxis is a must, I find myself without. So I must scurry to my room and hope for the best, in its way a metaphor for this region I love so much.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Erdmann on Iraq

I've kept away from non-Africa stuff these last few weeks, but this is important: One of my good friends and one of the bigger influences on my life, Drew Erdmann, (I'd say he is 90% of the reason that I went to Williams) has published an op-ed piece on Iraq and disengagement in the Times. This is a pretty good example of why Drew is one of the 2-3 smartest people I have ever known.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005


The Lesotho leg of my adventures in southern Africa is done. Tonight we are staying in very posh surroundings in Jo'burg's trendy, vibrant Melville neighborhood before puttering off to Swazi tomorrow. The plan had been to get to Swaziland and Mbabane tonight, but those plans shifted as we decided to bring Marcus' friend back here before heading east.

I have not been back to Melville since 1999, when I came for several days to work at Wits and see my good friend, David Pottie, a Canadian academic who at the time was working at the Electoral Institute of South Africa (EISA) and who is now based at the Carter Center working on their African election monitoring. The neighborhood is chock-a-block with bars and cafes, restaurants and galleries, bookstores and antique shops. Not far removed from the city center, Melville is nonetheless worlds removed from the Central Business District from which it so clearly wants to distance itself metaphorically. The police cruise along, keeping enough of a presence to allow the privileged denizens and visitors here a respite from their fears of Johannesburg crime and hassles. Melville is in some ways cosmopolitan and multicultural. But by southern African standards it is also shockingly white. Apartheid is over, but the correlation between skin color and privilege is still a close one, as one walk down the streets of this affluent neighborhood attests. Whites are demographically dominant, at least on the side of the counters that I experience. The labor force is decidedly mixed, however, thopugh it ios difficult to glean how many people from previosuly disadvantaged groups have climbed into the ranks of management and ownership.

The ride from Lesotho was relatively uneventful, though the border crossing at the Maseru Bridge was packed. The queue extended for more than a hundred meters, and I was only able to slip through relatively easily because of three factors -- Marcus' friend had a South African passport, we played dumb and I went with him (Sio) to the shorter of the lines, and then my American passport probably saved me from too many hassles. It was a well-played combination of feigned ignorance and subtle leveraging of influence, a pairing that will actually carry someone a long way throughout much of this continent.

We covered the Free State in pretty good time, with a long stop at an Engen ultrashop in Kroonstad where we stretched our legs, had some lunch (I had a tomato, ham and cheese toastie and the peppersteak pie), and watched a collection of humanity that appeared at times to be teetering on natural selection's doorstep, unsure of which way they would fall. Let's just say that we saw exhibits A through Zed for why small ethnic communities really ought not to limit their breeding habits to within. Of course when one of that same community's hallmarks is racial purity, a conflict emerges. I bet there are lots of atavistic freaks, hare-lipped albinos and the like, in parts of the Free State.

In any case, I am about to go walking in Melville on this comfortable summer evening, stopping for a drink here or there, later retiring to the luxury of my B&B to rest before our big border crossing into Swaziland tomorrow.


Sunday, December 25, 2005

Merry Christmas From Lesotho!

Just stopped into Marcus' office to call the parents -- I want to wish you all the Merriest of Christmases and happiest of holidays from the Mountain Kingdom.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Into the Mountain Kingdom

I'm writing this from an office in Catholic Relief Services' Lesotho branch in the capital city of Maseru. Maseru is a bustling town, wedged in between smallish mountains (they get bigger quickly -- Lesotho's nickname is "The Mountain Kingdom" for good reason;) that feels absolutely nothing like a capital city. With the holiday approaching (most Lesothoans, indeed, most South Africans, regard the period from December 15 to January 15 or so as a de facto holiday time) there is a lot of activity on the streets. Africans wander to and fro, some with a great deal of purpose, others somewhat aimlessly loitering about the shops, cars clog the thoroughfares, drivers honking their horns constantly for reasons sometimes impossible to divine.

The summer weather is fantastic -- it is pretty warm, but for most of the summer, the climate will be mild, at least relative to that in, say, the surrounding South African veld. Winters here get damned cold (I was here for a little while in July 1999, the heart of winter, and conditions were bitter -- all the more so with each 500 meter rise in elevation).

My brother, Marcus, works in development. His heart, and the vast bulk of his experience, lies in Latin America, but he has an endless capacity to adapt, a desire to learn, and as generous a heart as one can imagine in a rational human being (in other words, he is well aware of and can articulate and in some cases agrees with some of the criticisms of international development while at the same time he can articulate the many strengths of the world he inhabits -- he's a guy who has a village in Nicaragua named after him, so he knows of what he speaks). Catholic Relief Services offered him a chance to come to Lesotho and be second in charge of a food development program. He has taken to it with grace and aplomb and while at first he was not especially happy, he is adjusting well and is thriving. However long he is here, they will be lucky to have him. And I'll have a place to stay in Maseru, as he lives in a gorgeous hillside house looking into South Africa.

The bus ride from Pretoria to Bloemfontein, a 7-or-so-hour journey by Intercape bus lines, was relatively uneventful. The air conditioning was not in great shape, so it was a bit toasty, and in Murphy's law fashion, just when I moved to an empty seat a crash of new arivals desscended upon the bus and I had a new seatmate. She weighed 120 kilos (264 lbs., give or take) if she weighed one. Maybe it was glandular. But the fact that the first thing that she did upon sitting down was open up a bag of marshmallows indicates to me that the salivary glands were the ones working overtime.

There is a wonderful way to get across the Free State, but the quickest and most common one, and the route that we took, is not that way. The Free State, formerly "Orange Free State," was one of the two Boer/Afrikaner republics and it still stands as the heart of rural Afrikanerdom. The Free State is South Africa's Deep South, both for good and for ill. Even now, every so often there will be a story on the news about a white farmer beating one of his black workers, or calls for an Afrikaner homeland deep in die Vrye Staat. It is rugged land, and reminded me of west Texas. The drive from Johannesburg to Bloemfontein more than passingly resembles that from Dallas to El Paso. The Free State offers vast, flat expanses with lots of scrub brush, although there is more hospitable farming land in the Free State than much of west Texas offers. In the distance one could see rock outcroppings that, with a squint and a little imagination, looked a lot like mesas.

It was great to see Marcus at the station and soon we were off, heading toward the border after a stop at one of South Africa's fast food hamburger joints, Wimpy's, for a quick bite. The border crossing an hour and a half later was painless -- at one point yesterday Marcus said there were long lines (that has been a problem at all border crossings this whole holiday season, especially up at the Beit Bridge crossing between South Africa and Zimbabwe) but by the time we got there, I got through easily, and before too long was at Marcus's house, then after that I had a glass of South African red wine in my hands at one of his friends' homes where there was a little party underway (mmmmmmm, braii . . .).

We'll be going on a pony trek tomorrow, a common way to see parts of Lesotho, and then we will spend the holiday in and about Maseru. Next week we are going off on a still-unplanned holiday that will take us into eastern South Africa and to either or both Swaziland and Mozambique.

Again, as communication will be unlikely, have a wonderful holiday. I'll check in as I can.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

The National Archives and Record Administration (of South Africa)

Today was another research day for me. Last week I immersed myself in several paper collections at the University of the Witwatersrand, most significantly the South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR) Papers and some seriously fruitful clippings files. After a few days in Pretoria, I went in today to the NARA-SA. It bears a similar name to our National Archives, but it is dramatically different.

Not different bad," but just different. It certainly is not as highly organized, it certainly is not as technologicaly advanced, and it is not as ornate or secure or affluent or well staffed. It also is a whole lot friendlier and intimate. The service was outstanding. I should have gone in yesterday, because they take care of the photocopies and I asked a lot for them to do some work for me at short notice, but even though they had to close early today, a couple of staffers stuck around to make sure I received my copies.

The facility on the outside looks impressive, and workers are tending to the building, the landscaping, and the surrounding areas -- the archives are adjacent to the Department of Agriculture and another administrative building. On the inside, South Africa's National Archives look a whole lot like an old school, perhaps a middle school that has been reconfigured.

The reading room is certainly more humble than what you would find in Washington. It is basically a cinderblock walled room with long tables set up for readers. The first thing anyone notices, and it shows the staffing issues that the archives (and archivists) face, is a table against the wall for all returned boxes, folders, and other research. It was stacked four or five feet high and as deep with returns. As a matter of fact, the archives actually closed an hour early because there was an avalanche of files and boxes and books. I did my damndest to help was only partially swept under, and the powers that be decided that they needed to wrap things up early today. The parts of the piles that did not develop a fearsome momentum stood precariously and could have toppled at any moment.

There was not as much here in Pretoria as I might have hoped, but I found a few useful documents on the 1944-45 Alexandra bus boycott (I am looking at both the 1940s protests and the ones in the 1950s, especially 1957) as well as a little background material.

An example of a telling document was a letter that a South African man wrote to government ministers and media regarding the boycotts, which emerged as the result of rising bus fairs (but which in fact were the result of the politics of segregation that forced masses of Africans to work so far from where the state forced them to live). He argued that the best solution was simply to remove everyone in Alexandra (northeast of Joburg) to Orlando, part of Soweto (which stands for South West Township). In other words, forced removal. He argued that Alexandra was a wretched place (in some respects he may have had a point, though most of the sources of that wretchedness were no fault of the Africans themselves) and that everyone would be well served if Alexandra was simply uplifted to Orlando. The author noted that a benefit of this forced removal (the concept he was elucidating even if this was not the term he used) would be that it would open up the Alexandra area to European settlement, thus expanding Joburg's already booming affluent northern suburbs.

Tomorrow I am off to Bloemfontein where, if all goes well, I will meet up with my brother Marcus. Marcus works for Catholic Relief services, and though his ambit is Latin America, where he has worked successfully for several years, for career advanceent reasons he chose to accept a position in Lesotho. He is stationed in Maseru, where if all goes well, we will end up tomorrow night. I have only been to Lesotho once before (in 1999) and I have never been to Maseru, so it should be an interesting place to spend Christmas.

I will try to post in the next few days if I can, but if I find myself unable to post, I wish you all a Merry Christmas, happy holidays, and joyful New Year.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Pretoria is Tshwane

One time when I was staying at a hostel in Cape Town in 1999 I overheard a young woman pretentiously dismissing South African cities as not being African at all, but rather too European. It was a pretentious thing to say from someone who, come to find out, had spent all of three total weeks in Africa, but felt fully comfortable pontificating at length about the fundamental nature of Africanness, urbanness, and African urbanness.

That said, I guess I get a sense of what she was saying without saying it -- she had some sense of what is and is not African, and Cape Town did not seem to be it -- too white, too cosmopolitan, not tribal enough. In sum, she revealed her own stereotypes about Africa, but couched them in dismissive platitudes. She had her images of what African cities should be, some exotic idea fixe, and when Cape Town fell short of her Heart of Darkness view of Africa, it was Cape Town's failure, not hers. And of course what better way to solidify one's credentials as a fan of all things Africa than to blithely dismiss one of the world's truly great cities by referring to it as "too European"? Then again, I'm the sort of retrograde anachronist who LIKES London, so I am contemptible to begin with.

I could not help but think of that vexing conversation when I spent all day wandering Pretoria, or Tshwane ("We are all one"), as it is also known now. Pretoria was the bastion of Afrikanerdom. It was the heart of Paul Kruger's Zuid Afrikansche Republiek, later the Transvaal, and Pretoria was the administrative capital of the country, and still is. So it is shocking to wander Pretoria's streets and look around and think, much like that young woman who so fetishized Africanness, "this is an African city." I don't think I meant it in the same way that she did, and a little part of me lamented that white South Africans seem to have forsaken the city that still is in many ways the emotional heart of Afrikanerdom. It is here in Pretoria that the Vortrekker monument Still draws crowds and evokes tears, as it did on Friday when, sadly, too many white South Africans chose to honor the covenant of the past rather than reconciliation with it. Maybe Pretoria is now a "more African" city than it must have been in 1965 if one adheres to a color by numbers view of African cities. And if this transformation is so, it is, on balance, a good thing. But it says a good deal about too many South African whites that it has become this sort of city not because of the demographics, but rather because of white abandonment. To be sure, whites still work in the city, but they come in during the day, park in protected environments, work during the day, and drive to their posh homes in the suburbs at night.

That said, it is nice to see the bombastic statue of Paul Kruger serving largely as a place on which pigeons shit and African children play, blithely unaware of its symbolic past, save perhaps when bothered, verkrampte Afrikaners wait for these cildren to move when they make the pilgrimage into the city to get their photo of their great founder of the Boer republic. I took a picture today of two young black children playing on one of the four Boers that serve as part of the foundation for the sturdy base. I hope it comes out. The picture, that is, not the pigeon shit.

I walked many miles today. One of my goals was to see C-Max, the notorious Central Pretoria prison, which hosts some of the most dangerous, violent prisoners in the country. But I did not walk an extra three miles or so through heavy traffic and otherwise dull areas in order to see just any other prison. I went because Eugene De Kock, whose nickname, "Prime Evil," came FROM HIS PEERS in the 1980s South African security forces, is also in C-Max. I have written extensively about De Kock and have another journal article under consideration in which he features extensively. I just wanted to see the place. For while De Kock was given amnesty for every application he made save one, he is likely to spend the rest of his life there, barring some sort of presidential intervention. De Kock was a notorious apartheid killer. He also was one of the few members of the security forces who went before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and fully revealed his secrets. It would barely be an overdramatization to say that I have spent a lot of sleepless nights dealing with my ambivalence about De Kock, whose colleagues and foes alike gave him another nickname: "Fok Fok De Kock" (in this case "fok" is not a false cognate).

On the way to C-Max one passes the headquarters of the South African National Defense Force's (formerly just the SADF) military police and the headquarters of the South African Air Force. Today these might be good and essential places, but knowing that these were also in place during the apartheid years raised some goosebumps of loathing because of the role that the military played in buttresing apartheid.

But those chills were just the beginning. C-Max is imposing. Interestingly enough, it is not daunting because it seems like the most formidable ediface on the outside. Given its proximity to center city, and given the nature of the crimes the C-Max inmates have committed, I was surprised that there were not higher outside walls, more menacing guard towers, electric fences, barbed wire, and so forth. But at the same time, I tried to imagine what a night in C-Max might be like. I did not like what I imagined.

Not far from C-Max is a museum devoted to South Africa's Correctional Facilities, but its hours and days are limited, and it will not be open when I am here. I also would have loved to have tried to arrange an interview with De Kock, who is legendarily camera friendly, but the bureaucracy would have been nightmarish, and I would have needed to have made the arrangements ages ago. Plus, these guys get limited visits. I tend to doubt that De Kock would grant one of those to me in a post-TRC era.p
In the meantime, I am staying at a lovely bed and breakfast on the hills 3 or so kilometers from the city center. My room is built so that it is almost a sun room in the trees, part of a leafy canopy, perhaps a tree house sleepily looking out over Pretoria. The room is windowed on two sides and is positioned to look out at transcedent sunsets. The swimming pool uses the surrounding materials, plus made made ingenuity, so well that being down there (I can look through leaves to see it three floors down, though there are but two guest rooms here) is a bit like being in a private lagoon. The next time you are in Pretoria, I strongly suggest that you stay at the Sunnyside B and B. The Steynbergs will treat you better than you deserve(Hey, I know some of you people and can surmise about the rest).

Friday, December 16, 2005

Happy Day of Reconciliation

December 16 is an idologically loaded day in South African history. During the apartheid years, today's national holiday marked the "Day of the Covenant," "Day of the Vow," or "Dingane's Day," to celebrate the Boer victory over Dingane's Zulu forces at the Battle of Blood River in 1838. Boer history being what it is, that epic battle, in which Andries Pretorius' 464 men defeated more than 10,000 Zulu warriors on the banks of the Ncome River, which ran red with Zulu blood (thus "Blood River"), came to be seen not simply as the overpowering of an overmatched (even if numerically superior) foe, but rather as God's will. The Boers thus believed that they had stricken a covenant with their God. The Zulus at the banks of the Ncome would not be the only ones to lose their lives as a consequence.

Fast forward to 1995. In an act fraught with the symbolism of purification, the Government of National Unity, with the ANC at its head, established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which met for the first time on December 16, ten years ago today. Under the new democracy, the Day of the Vow gave way to the Day of Reconciliation. The TRC has been and continues to be widely debated, and indeed I have writen a good deal about the TRC, but one thing seems to me to be certain -- the Day of Reconciliation is a whole lot better to celebrate than a Day of the Vow. Whatever we think about the final outcome of the TRC, it is a shining grail when compared with the Afrikaner covenant with their God.

A scene unfurled outside of my fourth floor window last night that could have occurred on the streets of any city anywhere. My floor overlooks a three-lane, one- way street at the side of my hotel. On that side of the building are two bars, one a sports pub, the other attached to a Portuguese restaurant. I heard the familiar sound of a fight brewing outside my window, which I had open to let in the night sounds of the city and the summer air. Voyeur that I am, I decided to have a look- see. Two guys were in the pose, getting ready to throw down. Except they both had sticks and were shouting at one another in Zulu. Given the prevalence of stickfighting in Zulu culture, one could be forgiven for thinking that the two young men, one with lghter skin than the other and closely cropped hair, the other darker skinned and dredlocked, were play acting or perhaps ritualizing combat in some sort of duel (I will have satisfaction! But in Zulu.). This was not the case. The antagonist from my view was the drunker, and to his mind somehow clearly wronged, (I have no idea what happened in the bar(s) below, of course) close cropped fellow, who had initiated the stickfighting, but broke his stick in two, leading to my confusion. For reasons only he knows, he tore his shirt off (damn those restrictive short-sleeved button up shirts!) and found a bottle. It was unclear if he was going to try to bash his opponent, cut him, or throw the bottle at him. He aimed for the latter. Apparently the young man was never a cricket bowler, as he missed by a long way. Which was unfortunate for him, as his foe had managed to find two bricks, which he mashed togeher menacingly, and the use for which had bad intent. In any case, some local authorities -- sort of like an organized neighborhood watch, with para-military looking uniforms, tried to keep the peace. Or at least to contain it -- they seemed content to let them rage and periodically rush one another. The police eventually arrived from Hillbrow, one of JoBurg's famous nearby neighborhoods, and quelled things, though without even bothering to get out of the car.

As I said -- this could have happened in any city anywhere. I've seen much more brutal fights spll out of bars in Washington, New York, Boston and Athens, Ohio. I've seen worse fights in South Africa. Hell, I've been in worse fights in South Africa. Well, minus the bricks and stickfighting. But this is Joburg, with its legandary violence. So even though people are murdered all the time in Boston and New York and Washington, the expectation level for violence here is greater. And as I have written before, Joburg is tremendously violent. But at the same time, it's not like the odds are 50/50 of surviving a stay in Egoli, the City of Gold. The odds of encountering violence are still incredibly small. The so-called townships certainly have the worst violent crime, with the CBD ranking right up there, but with crime here being more along the lines of property crime run amok -- in other words, a hijacking in which the victim resists or a mugging gone wrong.

It's easy to categorize a city like Joburg as akin to the law of the jungle, in itself a more than subtly racist jab. Such a depiction certainly validates the apartheid apologists (despite the fact that the roots of the bulk of South African crime are directly traceable to decades of white supremacist social engineering) but it rings false. On the whole, Joburg is vibrant and exciting. It is beset with a host of issues that are the consequence of the country's tortured past but that still must be addressed by the present authorities.

Finally, my research this week at Wits went incredibly well. I hit the motherlode with three rich newspaper clippings files, and I was able to dive into a number of collections that will prove to be vital. I a juggling two, possibly three topics. I am just embarking on a comparative study on bus boycotts in the 1950s, and researching that is my main focus. I am really getting a feel for the nature of the boycotts and am excited about this work. I am also doing some last second touch-up work on my ongoing project on anti-apartheid resistance and state responses in the Eastern Cape in the 1980s. I've done work here on that project in the past, and I have published a handful or articles from this topic, and now am deciding whether to go with two big-time journal articles, a manuscript, or both. The final project is that I want to look at South African responses to the Civil Rights Movement, and more particularly, I want to look at newspapers and their coverage of the Freedom Rides. But I just got my last reader's report on my Freedom Ride manuscript (a book may yet be forthcoming!), and it calls for some paring, so any new research would have to go into a separate article.

The Cullen Library at Wits has a wonderful Historical papers archive, with a comitted, friendly staff. It is not a huge archive, but it possesses a wealth of resources. Wits itself is historic, graceful and beautiful. It has grown more insular, walled off and protected by guards, even in the last decade, but it is a first-rate, dynamic university. Tree lined, well manicured, evoking decades of history, but also certainly an urban campus (the M1 passes beneath campus)Wits is one of the elite nstitutions of higher learning on the entire continent; It may be the finest university in all of Africa. It has been a pleasure to work here this week. I'm sure I'll be back many times.

Tomorrow I am off to Pretoria, a city that bears more than a little of the Afrikaner heritage inherent in Pretorius'1838 victory. I plan to hit the National Archives in addition to my travels.


December 16 was also the birthday of my grandfather, George Catsam. Some of you might remember him from my most personal Red Sox Diary entry. (It's in the book, of course.) Rest in Peace, Papa.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

New for Christmas: The CK Boxer

It's not been a great week to be a Liberal Democrat here in the UK.

While we have long enjoyed the Conservative Party's perennial bouts of fratricide and civil war, it's now time to admit there's a bit of egg on our face, as Charles Kennedy is surrounded by a media storm over his future. The press appear to be feeding off negative briefings from senior MPs, who regardless won't speak of their concerns to Kennedy's face.

While we can console ourselves that these days our party is one worth fighting over, it comes as little encouragement. At the end of the day, this is not good news and discredits us seriously. Our members of parliament should grow up and realise that this is not the way to register their concerns about the leader. I am ready to cast off all my pre-existing opinions of our front benchers, and will judge them- especially in any future leadership race -by the sole criterion of whether they were self-serving disloyalists during this last week. One day, I'm sure we'll find out who did these dark deeds, and I sincerely hope their future in the party will be over.

For now? I think Charles Kennedy is well on the way to being made an excellent Prime Minister-in-waiting. He does need to stamp his authority on the party more, and I would positively encourage him to start picking fights on matters of principle, with either the Shadow Cabinet, or the party membership. We need direction, and I think Kennedy's resilience in the last few days shows that he can be the one to begin knocking us into shape.

For a long time Kennedy claimed he was a chairman, by nature, not a leader. That's fine- but now I hope we're going to see the chairman bring the discussion to a conclusion and impose a consensus on the different opinions in the room. And certain individuals need to learn to respect the public dignity of the chair- our leader -regardless of their personal and internal concerns. If Kennedy's critics won't honestly confront him in the ring, then they should stop taking potshots from the over of their cowardice.

How many roads must a youth walk down...?

I recently posted this over at my own blog. Given the disparity between the ages of responsibility to drink and drive (independently! Not at the same tiem!) in the US and UK, I thought it would be interested to see what folks here thought.

One of the favourite topics of discussion by my party, and particularly its youth wing, is reducing the legal age for various activities. Most prominently, there has been a campaign to lower the voting age to 16, about which one of my favourite blogs has recently written.

I think voting at 16 is an excellent idea.I certainly think my own political opinions have changed since I was 16, but I don't see that as any real reason to prohibit voting. Many people change their views at other points in life, or never do, and I don't think there's much credibility in arguing that simply because you're inexperienced means you shouldn't be able to vote. This isn't a question of experience, but competence. If we ask ourselves who deserves a stake in deciding the future of our society, then it seems difficult to reject the case for enfranchising 16-year-olds on the grounds of inexperience. Any argument based on the wisdom of the electorate must surely take us towards a view that many mature electors are unwise and undeserving of the vote.

No, if we concede that anyone with a responsible stake in society is entitled to the franchise, then sixteen year olds must surely be brought within the pale of the constitution. Crucially, they are released at 16 from full-time education, and hence become potential taxpayers. The liberal shibboleth about no taxation without representation must hold true.

And yet, I find myself very much at odds with the philosophical underpinning through which many other Liberal Democrats champion the lowering of the voting age. Many seem to justify it as part of an imagined 'universal age of adulthood'. The view is expressed by Lembit Opik:

He added: 'I actually think the age of 'adulthood' should be 16.'

While I am sold on the idea of votes at 16, I don't see the logic or liberality of supporting a universal age of adulthood for the sake of it. Distinct rights and responsibilities will always interact. Just as I felt that taxation without representation was wrong, so it is a long-running complaint that 17-year-olds were old enough to join the army but not watch sex scenes in movies. However, there are distinctions between different activities, and I see no real reason why there must be a common age for all of them. The current law on drinking, with a limit at 18, but provision for under-age drinking under responsible supervision, seems perfectly sensible. Doubtless, I would be told that I should not enfranchise people who can vote based on issues such as licensing laws, but I think there is sufficient difference between the two acts that one would over-simplify the problem to claim a single age.

Like many things in life, a single age of adulthood is a neat and attractive idea, but like many such ideas, things are actually far more complicated than that. While we should do everything we can to protect the rights of young people, and to extend them, we must also guard against a worrying erosion of a concept of childhood. While some aspects of traditional attitudes to childhood could leave children dis-empowered and helpess to the arbitrary authority of the adult, the suspension of rights was based on a suspension of responsibilities. While we must ensure that young people are taken serious, respected and protected by the law, a growing trend in society to erode the basic permissiveness of childhood as a time of exploration and education is being lost.

Young people are necessarily in a strange state of transition between that age of childhood when- I think we would all accept -there is some permitted level of arbitrary authority, from parents, over human agents without the competence to take full responsibility for their actions. Deciding on ages of adulthood is, of course, a slightly bizarre concept, when young people mature physically, emotionally and mentally at very different ages. Ages of responsibility can only ever be broad and unsatisfyingly generalised. But they are necessarily within a society operating the rules of law, so we may as well have a reasonable consideration of when we think someone is typically capable of assuming particular rights and responsibilities, and in what order those rights and responsibilities should be bestowed, by society, on an individual.

Sixteen-year-olds are not children, and they should be allowed to vote, as they should be permitted to slowly commit suicide with nicotine. It is not inconsistent, however, to wait until 17 for them to take up the responsibility of driving, or 18 to deal with a mind-altering drug (i.e. alcohol). Just as tobacco and alcohol are very different drugs, deserving of different ages of responsibility, so are other ages of adulthood different, depending on their own merits and their inter-relationship with other rights.

A universal age of adulthood is an essentially illiberal concept, even if its assumed langauge of rights, responsibilities and individualism is. Just as small is beautiful in government, so small is beautiful on ages of adulthood. There is no need to stamp a one-size-fits-all age on different behaviours, even if the very nature of a legal age limit must stamp a one-size-fits-all age on an individual activity. Votes at 16 make sense on their own terms, and I'll continue to campaign for them, while preserving some responsibilities for those who are 18+.

Scenes From the Devon Arms Bar and Piano Lounge

I'm pretty certain that in hell's anteroom the loudspeakers will be playing a shuffle loop of Bette Midler, Phil Collins, Billy Joel and Bryan Adams. And yet last night, when the pianist at the Devon Arms Bar and Piano Lounge in my hotel tickled the ivories with a succession of songs by the grating members on that list, interspersing them with Christmas songs, it was not only tolerable, it was enjoyable. The pianist was a youngish African guy who was enthusiastic about his music. he played it well, and seemed utterly unphased when a woman went up to the piano and started atonally massacring the lyrics to some of the songs.

In fact that is one thing I have discovered in South Africa -- people will just sing. They will sing for joy. Or to party. Or out of devotion. They will sing to hail Mandela. they will sing to praise God. And in this case, they will sing some semblance of "Another day in Paradise" just because they can.

The hotel staff at the Devonshire is honoring the Christmas holiday by wearing santa hats with matching vests, except the hats are blue and the trim yellow. They look like Santa's elves. Except today it is supposed to be 82 in Joburg.

While some folks protest globalization by attacking police, I should point out that South Africa is a testament to a quirkily global world. How else to explain sitting in the bar and hearing as an African man's mobile ring tone the "Mexican Hat Dance" (or, for Tom's edification, the King's Cup song)? Global capitalism also leads to some bizarre and interesting knockoffs. One of my favorite examples of this phenomenon came in 1997 in Grahamstown when I saw a Michael Jordan jersey. It was a Bulls jersey with the familiar #23. But it was Carolina blue. Someone in the knockoff design department did not quite get it right. I wish I had a copy of that jersey now. I saw a similar example of bootlegging last night. A man was wearing a blue hat with the Major League Baseball Logo on the back. It was the same shade of blue that the Red Sox use, so of course I wanted to see if it was a Sox hat. Peculiarly enough, the front said "50 Cent." I'm not certain if MLB, or Fitty, for that matter, authorized this hybrid. I suspect not.

Not surprisingly one of the issues I am trying to observe is the nature of race relations in South Africa right now. Perhaps apropos of nothing, but it struck me as interesting to see the an enormously corpulent African man squeezed into a Springbok jersey. Obviously the prime example of this phenomenon came in 1995 when South Africa won the rugby World Cup and Mandela donned a Springbok jersey, as ripe a sign of apartheid and Afrikaner racism as any, during the celebrations at Ellis Park. Most Africans still have a tenuous relationship with die Springbokke (or, in Zulu "amabokko bokko," "our Springboks.")

But more telling than African man boobs in a Springbok jersey was the composition of the bar last night. I sat in a comfy chair in a lounge area for three or so hours. During that time I was the only white person in the bar. This seemed of little interest to anyone. People were friendly, of course, but most simply paid me no heed. I cannot help but think that the Devon Arms in, say, 1985, was not going to look anything like it did last night. despite all of the Afro-pessimism that is popular among academics and journalists, it seems telling that under the new dispensation the transition could have happened as it did. i reject the idea of the South African "Miracle," and I am well aware that race is still a problem in South Africa, and that the situation last night shows a small slice of South African life -- and a largely upper-middle class one at that. Still, the bar last night was a marvelous example of what South Africa perhaps always should have been, and what it could yet be.

On the issue of race, I'll never forget the time at a bar in Grahamstown in early 1997 when I ordered a Castle Milk Stout, an underappreciated stout made by South African breweries, which in the past few years joined with Miller to become the world's second largest brewery. Someone at the bar next to me sneered "Milk Stout -- ag, that's a kaffir beer." Of course a stout bears little resemblance to sorghum beer or any of the other traditional beers Africans brew. But it was telling that the very fact of ordering milk stout was somehow seen as a political and racial act. South Africans love lager, and castle is the beer of choice. But i maintain that of the mass produced beers, castle Milk Stout is a fine beer -- it is heavy, with a chocolate-y finish.

South African politics is as vibrant as can be right now. The Deputy President, Jacob Zuma, has been forced to step aside (for the time being anyway) because he has been accused of raping a young woman. he claims they did have sex but it was consensual. This has, of course, fueled the succession debate, because Zuma was the presumptive inheritor of Mbeki's position. Meanwhile Zimbabwe continues its descent, and the vantage point from here is far more immediate than from my perch in texas. Zim is, after all, right over the border.

I always enjoy the strength of the dollar vis a vis the rand, but I make note of inflation over the last 9 years or so. each time I come back prices have climbed a bit more. The Mail and Guardian now costs R12.50 (it was something like R5 when I first came). My beer last night cost R9.80. then again, that is still well less than $2, and I had a passable piece of steak last night, with mushroms, salad, and chips (fries, with vinegar -- sublime) for R30, or about $5.

I also hit the ground running with work yesterday, and within minutes had hit the motherlode. Not only does the University of the Witwatersrand have several relevant paper collections -- it also has clippings files that will prove invaluable as I reconstruct the Alexandra Bus Boycott of 1957.

In any case, my time is running out, and I need to get back to Wits. I hope all is well back in the US.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Experts no smarter than anyone else, what else is new?

Very interesting book-review in The New-Yorker that I would highly recommend:

"It is the somewhat gratifying lesson of Philip Tetlock’s new book, “Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know?” (Princeton; $35), that people who make prediction their business—people who appear as experts on television, get quoted in newspaper articles, advise governments and businesses, and participate in punditry roundtables—are no better than the rest of us. When they’re wrong, they’re rarely held accountable, and they rarely admit it, either. They insist that they were just off on timing, or blindsided by an improbable event, or almost right, or wrong for the right reasons. They have the same repertoire of self-justifications that everyone has, and are no more inclined than anyone else to revise their beliefs about the way the world works, or ought to work, just because they made a mistake."


Holocaust a myth, says Iran president

Back in Africa

It did not take long to be reintroduced to that phenomenon known as "African Time" when I arrived back in South Africa. It happened at passport control, to be precise. The line moved at a crawl for an hour as it seemed that the scanning mechanism of the computer was down and so everything was done by hand. They finally opened up three more lines, but it worked out so that I remained in my line. It was after 10 at night, and I was exhausted, but it served as a good reminder of one of the attributes one has to develop when travelling in Africa, even in its most developed and westernized nation -- patience.

The trip was uneventful. And long. Midland/Odessa to Houston to Amsterdam to Joburg. Thirty-plus hours of travelling, more than twenty of those hours spent on the planes. And let's just say that KLM-Dutch did not roll out their most spacious and advanced fleet. Then again the service was pretty good and I got a LOT of work done.

I'd never been to Amsterdam before. In fact, for all of the travel I have done, continental Europe is a void. I guess I tend to gravitate toward places where I might get shot, or at least blown to smithereens. I cannot really say that I have been yet -- we touched down, I had two hours, I wandered the sealed off international terminal, I tried to see how well Dutch and Afrikaans compared, and noted again that one of the key differences between Americans and the rest of the world is that apparently in the rest of the world it is ok for men to tuck one's sweater into one's pants. Technically I have been to the Netherlands now. It's lovely his time of year.

I am staying at the Orion Devonshire in Braamfontein, in the shadow of Johannesburg's Central Business District (CBD). Now most of the time, a major city's CBD (and by any stretch, Joburg is major -- it is comparale in scale to Manhattan, or maybe more evocatively, Los Angeles) is the place to be -- midtown Manhattan, the Miracle Mile in Chicago, Copley Center in Boston. But here it is a bit different. During the day the CBD is vibrant, and with each passing year this once most- European feeling of African cities is more African in composition. But then the sun goes down. I am hardly the squeamish sort, and indeed if my past record is any indication, I tend to seek risk. I like being where there might be action. But adventure and foolishness are two different things. It would be unwise for me to spend a whole lot of time exploring this particular neighborhood after dark. Although its reputation is probably overstated, and things have improved in the last decade or so, Joburg still is one of the most violent cities in the world. So I won't be wandering much at night.

And that is actually ok with me. I managed to avoid the biggest pitfall of jet lag -- I did not sleep much, if any, on the trip,and while I was so exhausted and jazzed to be back that I stayed up until 4 watching Casino on M-Net last night, I was up before 10 this morning. But this Joburg time will be good for decompression. I will work at Wits for the rest of today (there is a 7 hiour gap between South Africa and the eastern US) and all of tomorrow. I have three projects on which I am working that will require serious archive time, and I will put that time in at Wits and he National Archives in Pretoria before things shut down for the holidays, and then at Rhodes and at UCT after the New Year. On the National Holiday on Friday I will go into Alexandra Township, as one of the big projects I am beginning involves protest there in the 1940s an 1950s. or all of the time that I have spent in South frica, I have actually logged relatively little time in Gauteng, Joburg and Pretoria's province. I will be here for eight days at the beginning and 2-3 at the end of this trip, still not enough, but it's a start.

I am writing this from an i-cafe around the crner from my hotel. I have no idea how much access I will have to the internet, but I will update as much as possible. Cheers.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Nkosi Sikilel iAfrika!

In three hours I head to the airport for a long trip to South Africa. It has been a long time (too long) since I have been back, and I am very much looking forward to the next six weeks. Though I must admit, I am not looking forward to the fact that I'll spend most of the next 36 hours on planes -- Midland to Houston, Houston to Amsterdam, Amsterdam to Joburg.

The plan is to blend research with play. I plan to work at the archives at the University of the Witwatersrand in Joburg, the National Archives in Pretoria, the Cory Library at my old stomping grounds at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, and the centre for African Studies at the University of Cape Town. I am working on several projects and am very much looking forward to rolling up my sleeves.

At the same time, it is summer (and the holidays) in South Africa, so in addition to these stops, I also plan to hit Durban's beaches, Lesotho (where my brother currently is based) and possibly Maputo. Internet may be intermittent, but I will blog the experience as much as I can. In the meantime, have a wonderful holiday and a a happy New Year. When next you hear from me I'll be back in South Africa (unless I find somewhere to write in Amsterdam).


Since I too often criticize those who rebel against so-called “political correctness” by overacting to the point of absurdity (see my war on Christmas post), it is only fair to also point out genuine instances of PC gone amok.

The Washington Post had an article with the following headline: “Psychiatry Ponders Whether Extreme Bias Can Be an Illness.”

From the article:

“Mental health practitioners say they regularly confront extreme forms of racism, homophobia and other prejudice in the course of therapy, and that some patients are disabled by these beliefs. As doctors increasingly weigh the effects of race and culture on mental illness, some are asking whether pathological bias ought to be an official psychiatric diagnosis.”

That’s right, “perpetrators of hate crimes could become candidates for treatment, and physicians would become arbiters of how to distinguish "ordinary prejudice" from pathological bias.”

Friend, I am not a psychiatrist, and have no real medical training, but come on! Hatred isn’t a disorder anymore than under-tipping at restaurants.

Friday, December 09, 2005

TNR Takes on Munich

In this week's New Republic, Leon Wieseltier kicks the shit out of Steven Spielberg's Munich, a movie that I have been both looking forward to very much and dreading at the same time. The part of me that writes about terrorism, sports, and the intersection of sports and society cannot wait for the film and hopes that it will be available in theaters in South Africa while I am there for the next six weeks. But the part of me that loathes moral equivalence in the guise of evenhandedness is filled with trepidation. Since the movie is supposed to follow the paths of those Israelis who tracked down eleven of the terrorists responsible for the Munich atrocities, I worry that it will too easily slide into a sort of mushy relativism in which the Israelis are somehow the same as the Palestinian terrorists who carried out the Olympic massacre. Wieseltier confirms the possibility that my fears will be realized:
The real surprise of Munich is how tedious it is. For long stretches it feels like The Untouchables with eleven Capones. But its tedium is finally owed to the fact that, for all its vanity about its own courage, the film is afraid of itself. It is soaked in the sweat of its idea of evenhandedness. Palestinians murder, Israelis murder. Palestinians show evidence of a conscience, Israelis show evidence of a conscience. Palestinians suppress their scruples, Israelis suppress their scruples. Palestinians make little speeches about home and blood and soil, Israelis make little speeches about home and blood and soil. Palestinians kill innocents, Israelis kill innocents. All these analogies begin to look ominously like the sin of equivalence, and so it is worth pointing out that the death of innocents was an Israeli mistake but a Palestinian objective. (I am referring only to the war between the terrorists and the counterterrorists. The larger picture is darker. Over the years more civilians were killed in Israeli air strikes than in the Palestinian atrocities that provoked those air strikes. The justice of Israel's defense of itself should not be confused with the rightness of everything that it does in self-defense.) No doubt Munich will be admired for its mechanical symmetries, which will be called complexity. But this is not complexity, it is strategy. I mean of the marketing kind: I note that the filmmakers have nervously retained the distinguished services of Dennis Ross to guide the film through the excitable community of people who know about its subject. Munich is desperate not to be charged with a point of view. It is animated by a sense of tragedy and a dream of peace, which all good people share, but which in Hollywood is regarded as a dissent, and also as a point of view. Its glossy caution almost made me think a kind thought about Oliver Stone. For the only side that Steven Spielberg ever takes is the side of the movies. 

But perhaps worse yet, it may not even be a good movie qua moviemaking (after all, I can appreciate a movie's quality even if I do not agree with its politics; this is not insignificant, as we anticipate conservative fulmination over Syriana, a politicized movie that nonetheless by all acoounts is damned good moviemaking.):
The film is powerful, in the hollow way that many of Spielberg's films are powerful. He is a master of vacant intensities, of slick searings. Whatever the theme, he must ravish the viewer. Munich is aesthetically no different from War of the Worlds, and never mind that one treats questions of ethical and historical consequence and the other is stupid. Spielberg knows how to overwhelm. But I am tired of being overwhelmed. Why should I admire somebody for his ability to manipulate me? In other realms of life, this talent is known as demagoguery. There are better reasons to turn to art, better reasons to go to the movies, than to be blown away. 


I still want to see Munich, but Wieseltier's essay sure makes me think that my anticipation has been misplaced.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

In Defense of Howard Dean, Sort Of

Given that this space has been pretty consistently critical of Howard Dean, it only seems fair to give full play to a reasonable argument from a reasonable source, in this case John Judis of The New Republic. In this article Judis argues that politics aside, dean has been consistently correct in his assessments of the war.

The key excerpt:

There are, however, two very different questions to ask about Dean's statements on Iraq. The first is whether they are politic--whether they have advanced his own or his party's electoral chances. Probably not--I am no fan of Dean as a national politician or party chair; and I would certainly concede that a Democrat in Georgia, Florida, or Nebraska might not want to run on what he says.

The second question, though, is whether his judgment on Iraq has been sound. And there I would say that it certainly has been. During the months leading up to the invasion of Iraq, and during the invasion and occupation, Dean has been almost consistently correct in his statements. He has been the Democrats' and the nation's Cassandra--willing to reveal bitter truths about which Republicans and his fellow Democrats would prefer that he remain silent.

Dean's statements perfectly fit Michael Kinsley's definition of a "gaffe"--an assertion that is impolitic but true.

Now I am not certain I agree with Judis on every point here. But one thing I do find interesting is that Dean tends to receive grief, for example, for comparing Iraq with Vietnam. This despite the fact that proponents of the war (usually conservatives) are absolutely willing to make the Vietnam comparison if it bolsters their cause. So, for example, Vietnam seems to be unacceptable unless it is being used as a framework for death tolls, in which case Vietnam is fair game, because that particular Vietnam analogy dovetails with their point. As someone who has supported elements of this war and who certainly made an ardent case for support of A war against Iraq, albeit a different one than that waged by this adinistration, it is frustrating to see this debate become wholly politicized. But that is where we stand. And if that is the case, then at least it seems fair to say that there might be more to Dean than meets the eye, even if, ironically, Dean is proving to be a terrible leader in an inherently politicized position.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Onward Christian Soldiers

In my continuing story on the non-attack on Christmas that has conservative Christians in an uproar, the latest soldier in the imaginary war against Christmas is none other than... George W. Bush! That's right friends, that ACLU-lover long known for his liberal beliefs and sectarian anti-religiosity George Bush has joined the anti-Christmas non-frenzy, or so the critics claim.

Apparently, as he does every year, the president send out his yearly Christmas cards. Only one problem: the cards commit the same atrocity that retail stores are being slammed for, and that is wishing people a happy holiday (rather than a Merry Christmas). If this all seems ridiculous to you, than it means you risk being an intelligent human being.

From the Washington Post:

"This clearly demonstrates that the Bush administration has suffered a loss of will and that they have capitulated to the worst elements in our culture," said William A. Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights.

Bush "claims to be a born-again, evangelical Christian. But he sure doesn't act like one," said Joseph Farah, editor of the conservative Web site "I threw out my White House card as soon as I got it."

Religious conservatives are miffed because they have been pressuring stores to advertise Christmas sales rather than "holiday specials" and urging schools to let students out for Christmas vacation rather than for "winter break." They celebrated when House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) insisted that the sparkling spectacle on the Capitol lawn should be called the Capitol Christmas Tree, not a holiday spruce."

The so-called war on Christmas is big news these days, particularly for Fox News. According to Media Matters, From November 28 to December 2, Fox News carried 58 segments about the so-called "war" on Christmas, more than four times as many as appeared on CNN or MSNBC.

Speaking of Fox News, before the reactionary paranoia sunk its teeth into its own president, it should be noted that Fox news own on line store sold a wide variety of... (wait for it)... HOLIDAY decorations! That's right, the same station calling for the burning of witches over how one wishes someone else well this season was committing the same "sin."

Despite Bill O'Reilly's specific criticism of those who use the term "holiday tree" instead of "Christmas tree," an O'Reilly Factor ornament for sale at the Fox News store features this tagline: "Put your holiday tree in 'The No Spin Zone' with this silver glass 'O'Reilly Factor' ornament." HA!

FUN CHRISTMAS FACTOID: Many of the most beloved Christmas songs sung during the holiday's were not written by Christians at all, but Jews. The classic, and some consider, number one song of the seasons is “White Christmas,” one of thousands of songs Irving Berlin wrote in his career. Remember the original animated movie, "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" with the great line, “He’s a mean one, Mr. Grinch”? Contrary to what some might think, the grinch was not Jewish — but the songwriter, Albert Hague, was, as so was Jerry Herman, who wrote "We Need a Little Christmas." Those of you who have never heard of the Jewish composer Johnny Marks are probably familiar with his songs "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" (first recorded by Bing Crosby), "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree," and "A Holly Jolly Christmas." Other Christmas songs written by Jews include "Let it Snow" (although co-composer Jule Styne was Christian), "Silver Bells" (Ray Evans wrote the lyrics while partner Jay Livingston wrote the music), and many more! Jewish authort Chris Van Allsburg wrote the Caldecott-winning children's Christmas book, "The Polar Express," and it was the Jewish composer, Adolphe Charles Adam that wrote the music to "Cantique de Noël" around 1847, often known by its English title "O Holy Night."

As actor and commentator Ben Stein recently wrote, "I have always felt that no one loved Christmas like the Jews." Think about that the next time someone complains about the lack of Christian themes during Christmas.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Jim Ed Rice and the Hall of Fame

Dan Shaughnessy has a piece in today's Boston Globe in which he argues that this might be Jim Rice's best, last chance to make the Hall of Fame.

I worshipped Jim Rice growing up. He was my favorite player during the years when one's life as a fan is defined, those years between 7 and 12, when professional athletes are larger than life and when the games are everything. I may well have been part of the last generation of American kids whose lives revolved around going outside and playing sports. During the summer four or five kids managed to create entire baseball leagues. We would play everything under the sun all year around. Tackle football with snow on the ground? Basketball on a gravel driveway? Hockey on an icy incline? Boxing with old mittens?No problem. As a result, sports were immediate, and during that time in my life Jim Rice was the central figure in my Red Sox dramas. He was not alone, of course, but he was first among equals.

Shaughnessy argues that Rice might be the first beneficiary of the backlash of the steroids era. Say whatever else you want, but Rice's seemingly deflated numbers look a whole lot better in light of what we now know, and there is little doubt that he was the dominant power hitter in his era, from 1975 until about 1986, when his skills began to decline precipitously. He is not a lock, and his vote totals have climbed slowly, from 30% his first year of eligibility to just under 60% last year. But maybe, in a relatively weak class, this will be his year. I hope so. We will know in a little more than a month if events of the past year will help Rice to get the 80 extra votes he needs to get into the Hall with the required 75%. I imagine if he does, I'll be twelve years old again, if only for a little while and I may well go to my first Cooperstown induction next summer.

The Dean-ocratic wing of the Democratic party

Howard Dean said on Monday that "The idea that the United States is going to win the war in Iraq is just plain wrong." He doesn't say that he is pessimistic, or doubtful, or even that building a stable democracy in Iraq might not be able to work, he said flatly that we will not win in Iraq, which to me is no better than Republicans asserting as a fact that we cannot lose. Perhaps the war in Iraq is unwinnable. If so, let that be said by a Congressman or other government official who can speak for themselves alone, NOT the Democratic chairman who technically speaks for the Democratic party!

Do Democrats not have enough to worry about than having to constantly use their airtime to answer questions about whether or not they agree with their party chairman?

Say what you will about Dean's Republican counterpart, Ken Mehlman, Mehlman keeps his head down, does his job, and does not constantly force his fellow Republicans into a difficult position of having to either split ranks with their party chairman and send a message of disunity to supporters, or support a politically unpopular statement. He also raises more money than Dean, probably because he is more concerned with helping the party than getting his name in the news. Sigh.

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas

All over my neighborhood, houses are lit with Christmas lights, the malls are packed with holiday ornaments, dancing Santa dolls, and special sales on Christmas movies, CD’s, clothing, decorations, cards, etc. Certain radio stations are playing NOTHING but Christmas tunes, television is saturated with specials new and old, and suddenly the colors of red and green are in fashion once more. However, there is something else that goes on this time of year, and that is the conservative uproar over the continuing “war” against Christmas.

That’s right, if you are one of the 96% of Americans who celebrate the holiday, someone is waging a war against you, and I’ll bet you didn’t even know it. The ACLU troops are advancing, and last month alone "they" took Czechoslovakia and Poland!

According to Bill O’Reilly, “they” will “go after anybody who stands up for Christmas… There's a very secret plan,” you see according to O'Reilly. “And it's a plan that nobody's going to tell you, 'Well, we want to diminish Christian philosophy in the U.S.A. because we want X, Y, and Z.' They'll never ever say that. But I'm kind of surprised they went after Christmas because it's such an emotional issue.” O’Reilly went on to note how “In every secular progressive country, they've wiped out religion ... Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Mao Zedong, Fidel Castro, all of them. That's the first step. Get the religion out of there, so that we can impose our big-government, progressive agenda.” (bet you didn't know that Stalin and Hitler were such "progressive" thinkers).

And what do "these" anti-Christmas/anti-Christian warriors want? You see, says O’Reilly, “it's all part of the secular progressive agenda… to get Christianity and spirituality and Judaism out of the public square. Because if you look at what happened in Western Europe and Canada, if you can get religion out, then you can pass secular progressive programs like legalization of narcotics, euthanasia, abortion at will, gay marriage, because the objection to those things is religious- based, usually.” This is what was said in an interview with Fox News anchor John Gibson, the author of the new book The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought.

So there you have it friends, "they" want to abolish Christmas as a first step towards abolishing relligion, all so that "they" can use drugs, have abortions, marry people of the same sex, and then seek help killing themselves... those bastards! But fear not friends.

Luckily for America, the following actions have been taken to help (courtesy of Beth Joyner Waldron from the Christian Science Monitor):

  • More than 800 lawyers are enrolled for the third year of The Alliance Defense Fund's Christmas Project initiative, which supplies legal aid to towns and schools nationwide that face challenges to their traditional Christmas celebrations.
  • During a Nov. 9 broadcast, FOX news commentator Bill O'Reilly launched the first volley in an all-out television-based offensive against retailers which shun "Merry Christmas" for "Happy Holidays," going so far as to list specific offending merchants that should be boycotted.
  • After threatening a boycott of Wal-Mart stores in early November, the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights successfully won concessions from the retail chain after an employee offered up his own explanation to a customer via e-mail for the store's policy of wishing customers "Happy Holidays" in lieu of "Merry Christmas." Wal-Mart stood by its all-inclusive "Happy Holidays" greeting, but did publicly apologize and promptly fired the offending employee.
  • The Rev. Jerry Falwell and the conservative Liberty Counsel have launched a "Friend or Foe Christmas Campaign." Armed with 750 lawyers, the group promises to "reclaim Christmas" by filing suit against anyone who, in their view, limits the public celebration of Christmas.
  • The conservative 150,000 member American Family Association has called for a boycott of Target stores for not utilizing the specific phrase "Merry Christmas" in their holiday advertising.
  • A California organization called "The Committee to Save Merry Christmas" has garnered national media coverage with a grass-roots campaign to boycott Sears and Federated Department Stores Inc. for changing their advertising from "Merry Christmas" to "Season's Greetings."

See, you probably thought that the decision on whether to say “Merry Christmas” versus “Happy Holidays” was a personal preference, like saying “how do you do?,” versus “how the hell are ya?” Now you know that that, in fact, saying “Happy Holidays,” or “Seasons Greetings” is exactly what “they” want and that by doing so you have joined the forces of evil. Why just look at the ACLU executive board:

  • The Grinch
  • Darth Vader
  • Lord Voldemort
  • Lex Luther
  • The Heat and Snow Miser
  • Satan
  • Gollum
  • Gargamel
  • Agent Smith
  • Those jerks who clog up my e-mail with promises of lower mortgages or a bigger penis, and of course,
  • The Clintons!

Don't let "them" get you like "they" have gotten so many others! Board up your house, refuse to purchase ANY item from Wal-Mart or shopping malls that continue to spread hateful messages like Happy Holidays. Their goal is to take America back to the days of its hethenistic past prior to 1870 when Christmas was made a national holiday. First "they" force the Founding Fathers to meet on the first Christmas after the ratification of the Constitution, December 25, 1789, and now "they" have returned. Protect yourselves!

In the meantime everyone, have a wonderful holiday season :)

Monday, December 05, 2005

Reaction to Rumsfeld’s speech

Earlier today, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld delivered a speech at The Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies. He starts off by citing the following Pew research center poll regarding the prospects for building democracy in Iraq:

  • 63% of people in the news media thought the enterprise would fail;
  • So did 71% of people in the foreign affairs establishment; and
  • 71% in academic settings or think tanks.

“Interestingly,” he goes on to say, “opinion leaders from the U.S. military are optimistic about Iraq by a margin of 64 to 32 percent. And so is the American public, by a margin of 56 to 37 percent. And the Iraqi people are also optimistic. I’ve seen this demonstrated repeatedly -- in public opinion polls, in the turnout for the elections, and that tips to authorities from ordinary Iraqis have grown from 483 to 4,700 tips in a month.”

  • He continues: “First, should we be optimistic or pessimistic about Iraq’s future?
    The answer may depend on one’s perspective. Indeed, one of the reasons that views of Iraq are so divergent is that we may be looking at Iraq through different prisms of experience and expectation.”

This is probably the single most intelligent and honest thing I have ever heard Rumsfeld utter. Indeed, this statement is extremely accurate. It is perhaps no surprise that polls indicate that almost everything about the conflict in Iraq boils down to partisan affiliation. I believe that this is because Bush and the Republican leadership has chosen to conduct the conflict in a partisan manner, all the while aggressively pushing through a far-right platform in Congress. Then again, this opinion is undoubtedly shaped by my own political and ideological perspective. If more members of the administration were to “sell” this conflict with the above statement in mind, I believe they would be far more persuasive than simply dismissing all other viewpoints as either ignorant or treasonous.

  • “By contrast, the Iraqi people see things somewhat differently: they can compare as it is Iraq today, to what it was three years ago -- a brutal dictatorship where the Secret Police would murder or mutilate a family member sometimes in front of their children, and where hundreds of thousands disappeared into Saddam’s mass graves. From that perspective, Iraq today is on a vastly different, and a greatly improved path.”

I do not disagree with Rumsfeld on this point but it should be noted that based on the polling that I have seen, there is really not enough evidence to support this conclusively. Any polling done in Iraq is almost guaranteed to lack scientific or methodological rigor and accuracy due to the security situation, and there were certainly none during the Saddam regime that can be relied on. Of course I want the Iraqi people to be hopefull because that hope is vitally necessary to maintain public confidence in the years ahead, but thus far I have not seen any evidence that this is the case, particularly when the people most likely to respond to a poll are almost by definition the least concerned about danger to themselves and their families.

  • Rumsfeld then goes on to note that a full understanding of the conflict requires “an understanding of both the good and the bad, and the context for each,” and he then lists some problems (such as the violence, casualties, and lack of help from Iran and Syria) and some positive developments (such as an emerging media in Iraq, and a developing political process).

    “To be responsible, one needs to stop defining success in Iraq as the absence of terrorist attacks.”

There are really two points to be made about this statement:
1- It is a straw man argument: no one that I am familiar with has ever claimed that success means no more terrorist attacks. Nevertheless, that being said, last month witnessed over 23 successful suicide attacks and that was the LOWEST in 7 months. That the number of attacks declined is great news, of course, but the situation in the country is still precarious and when terrorist attack continue to slaughter dozens of people (mostly civilians) every day, that is not reason to celebrate. Indeed, according to Kevin Sites and his mini-documentaries, "Iraq remains one of the most violent and dangerous places in the world."

2- I find it interesting that the Secretary of Defense should make this claim while so many of his fellow conservatives argue the exact same point as he laments: that success SHOULD be defined as an absence of terrorist attacks, at least in America. This, after all, is the argument many have made about the fact that we have not been attacked since 9/11, is it not? Bush is doing a great job protecting this country and as proof, we have not been hit again, right? I don’t buy it, and for the same reasons Rumsfeld apparently doesn’t.

  • “The terrorists’ method of attack, simply put, is slaughter. They behead. They bomb children. They attack funerals and wedding receptions.
    This is the kind of brutality and mayhem the terrorists are working to bring to our shores. And if we do not succeed in our efforts to arm and train Iraqis to help defeat these terrorists in Iraq, this is the kind of mayhem that a terrorist, emboldened by a victory, will bring to our cities again -- let there be no doubt… But, simply put, defeating extremist aspirations in Iraq is essential to protect the lives of Americans here at home.”

Although the argument here is limited, I do agree with the main point Rumsfeld is trying to make here, which is why I support continued American involvement in the rebuilding of Iraq.

From this point, the Defense Secretary starts launching into that oh-so-popular conservative pastime, media-bashing.

  • “We have arrived at a strange time in this country where the worst about America and our military seems to be so quickly taken as truth by the press and reported and spread around the world -- with little or no context or scrutiny -- let alone correction or accountability -- even after the fact. Speed it appears is often the first goal, not accuracy, not context.”

I don’t disagree with anything he says here and except the idea the implication that the media are somehow against the troops or assume the worst. Remember that accusations of torture, abuse, and humiliation at Abu Ghraib were being made by human rights groups long before the media ever finally picked it up and only then because they got photographs. Similarly, if one compares what the red-cross and other organizations accuse our troops of compared to what the media report on, I think the US media has been extremely generous in what it reports.

Nevertheless, the last sentense is undoubtedly true. In fact, if the media are held in such contempt by most Americans, it is a reputation well-deserved. However, several caveats should be made here that neither Rumsfeld nor other conservatives want to address:

1- There is no such thing as “the media” in today’s technological age and to lump all news services together is tremendously useless. When I use the phrase here, I must specify exactly what I mean: When I say “media,” I am referring to my own observations of national cable news networks such as CNN and MSNBC. I refer to them only because since I get the vast majority of my news on-line from on-line newspapers and magazines and I do not watch FoxNews or other news programs at all, this is pretty much the only thing I can intelligently talk about.

2- The above being said, I find the print media to be tremendously balanced and accurate, highly detailed, and extremely fair. In the Washington Post, to offer just one small and random example (which, by the way published a full transcript of Rumsfeld’s remarks for people like me to scrutinize), a random story on Iraq, such as one I read recently, discussed how 10 Marines were recently killed in Fallujah. The following excerpt comes from the same article:

“A little more than a year ago, thousands of U.S. and Iraqi troops leveled much of Fallujah -- which had become Iraq's main insurgent stronghold -- in the largest offensive since the 2003 invasion. During two weeks of fighting, they established a strict cordon around the city, 35 miles west of Baghdad, establishing four heavily guarded entry points equipped with metal detectors and bomb-sniffing dogs.

Following the assault, according to local politicians and military commanders, Fallujah had gradually become one of the safest and most stable cities in Anbar province, which spans the vast desert west of Baghdad to the Syrian border and is considered the heartland of the country's Sunni Arab-led insurgency. In August, 14 Marines were killed by a roadside bomb that tore apart their armored personnel carrier in the Anbar city of Haditha, but Fallujah has experienced little heavy fighting and few large-scale attacks in recent months.”

3- No one in the administration seemed to object when these same outlets that currently call into question our success in Iraq were staunchly and (in my opinion) unquestionably PRO-war in virtually every way prior to the conflict. MSNBC even created a show called “Countdown Iraq” months before the start of the conflict just, it seemed, to drum up support for a war it assumed was inevitable, and justified. Reports of self-censorship and studies of pro-war bias have comfirmed this.

4- The media has always been attracted to the motto: if it bleeds, it leads. In a classic scene from the Michael Moore film Bowling for Columbine (yes, THAT Michael Moore), Moore goes to a street on LA that is frequently reported as a war zone only to find a relatively peaceful street block. How can this be, he wonders? He uses this to ponder why the media have created a culture of fear in our country with their continuing barrage of negative and frightening stories about child kidnappings (even when the actual rate of such things has continued to go down), the threat of African killer bees, shark attacks, etc., etc. This is bias and unfair but not in any way one could call "partisan." That conservatives believe actual warfare would be any different than domestic media coverage is a mystery to me.

  • “Recently there were claims by two Iraqis on a speaking tour that U.S. soldiers threw them in a cage with lions. Their charges were widely reported -- still without substantiation.”

Maybe it’s me but as an avid reader of the news from many different sources, I am totally unaware of this story, and thus it could not have been too “widely reported.”

  • “Not too long ago, there was a false and damaging story about a Koran supposedly flushed down a toilet, and in the riots that followed people were killed.”

It is true that the story Newsweek ran about the Koran being desecrated was wrong, and retracted, and this is unfortunate. However, much like the famous forged documents that ruined Dan Rahter’s career, Newsweek may have done nothing more than frame a guilty man. As many media outlets have since reported, “American and international media have widely reported similar allegations from detainees and others of desecration of the Muslim holy book for more than two years.” Indeed, back in May, according to CNN, “The International Committee of the Red Cross gathered "credible" reports about U.S. personnel at the Guantanamo Bay naval base disrespecting the Quran and raised the issue with the Pentagon several times, a group spokesman said Thursday.”

So please, Mr. Rumsfeld, do not hold a single article as proof of bias when the article may only have been wrong in its authentication rather than its substance.

  • “And a recent New York Times editorial implied America’s armed forces -- your armed forces -- use tactics reminiscent of Saddam Hussein.”

Although I cannot speak to an editorial I have not read, I do not find it impossible to believe that there have been certain instances of abuse comparable to what was experienced under Saddam. Now, I do not allege that any American officer would utilize torture and wanton brutality the way Saddam did, but “tactics reminiscent” of the former regime? Not impossible, given all of the evidence I have seen. In fact, according to Allawi, the first Prime Minister of Iraq, "'People are doing the same as [in] Saddam's time and worse. It is an appropriate comparison. People are remembering the days of Saddam. These were the precise reasons that we fought Saddam and now we are seeing the same things." He added that he now had so little faith in the rule of law that he had instructed his own bodyguards to fire on any police car that attempted to approach his headquarters without prior notice, following the implication of police units in many of the abuses. He comments were not directly aimed at US troops, but against the Ministry of Interior and also against Iraq militias, Sharia law courts, etc., but nevertheless, the charges are pretty damning.

  • “Consider this: You couldn’t tell the full story of Iwo Jima simply by listing the nearly 26,000 American casualties over about 40 days; or explain the importance of Grant’s push to Virginia just by noting the savagery of the battles. So too, in Iraq, it is appropriate to note not only how many Americans have been killed -- and may God bless them and their families -- but what they died for -- or more accurately, what they lived for.”

The problem, as I see it, is that they died for a cause that was fundamentally mistaken and perhaps futile (although only time will tell us that). Consequently, there is no need to explain why the soldiers of WWII and the Civil War died: their cause was unquestionably just. In Iraq, even the best that can be said is that our intelligence was grossly incorrect and we went to war with the wrong premises. This does not, in my opinion, diminish the heroism and dedication of those brave troops who risk their lives doing their duty and serving their country, but the liberation of Western Europe from Nazi occupation and ending slavery they simply ain’t. Thus any attempt to actually take Rumsfeld's advise and give context for the conflict will only bring up questions that the administration believes are treasonous.

  • “Further it is worth noting that there are 158,000 Americans in uniform who are sending e-mails back to friends and families, telling them the truth as they see it. And much of it is different than what those in the United States are seeing and reading about every day.”

I do not doubt that this is true, but if it is, then why doesn’t the government do more to publicize those accounts, good and bad? Why not create a web-site designed solely for troops on the field to publish their thoughts and observations anonymously for the world to see? I for one would be curious to read them and I am sure so would many others. However, somehow I suspect that they would not all be as glowing as the administration wants us to believe. After all, there is no shortage of military or ex-military personnel who have come out against this conflict and say the exact opposite.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

The old college try

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, "The University of Pennsylvania has charged at least one student with sexual harassment and misuse of electronic resources after he posted pictures on the Internet that show students apparently having sex while standing beside a large window in one of the university's high-rise dormitories."

Although the Chronicle took no direct stand on the issue, I think it sides with the student who took the picture. Why do I think this? Because (no joke) IT POSTED A LINK TO PHOTOGRAPH RIGHT IN THE ARTICLE!! HA!

For those of you who want to see a bad pic of college students having sex but don't feel like visiting the Chronicle of Higher Education, just click here.

Holy Crap

I have just finished watching the ABC movie, “Have No Fear: The Life of Pope John Paul II.” Perhaps a more fitting title would have been “Have No Fear: It’s Almost Over.” Dry and quick, the movie is essentially a slide-show of the late Pontiff’s life, with small clips of his childhood quickly and arbitrarily jumping to his years under Nazi rule (take your eyes off the screen for more than a moment and you’ll miss it), then under Communist rule, than serving as Pope for the last hour. This rapidity make the closing montage of the film look silly.

Unlike such arguably good biopic films like NBC’s “Hitler,” (or the more recent German film, Der Untergang) HBO’s “Warm Springs” (about how a younger FDR deals with polio), or A&E’s “The Crossing” (about the famous battle of Trenton by Washington) which chose specific moments in the protagonists life in order to provide some perspective and humanity to its famous subjects, “Have No Fear” offer little in the way of perspective and thus suffers from the same problem A&E’s film about "Napoleon" suffered from: trying to do too much in too little time.

The problem is not Thomas Kretschmann, the German actor who played the title character, or even some of the sanctimonious inaccuracies (I don’t belief there is any evidence to suggest that the Pope threatened to resign his office if the Soviet Union invades Poland and if he truly reacted to the sex scandal the way the film portrays, it would have behooved him to be more public about it), but the fact that film lacked all of the depth and feel of a good film. In the end, you learn little about the character of this remarkable man and this is a tremendous pity. The life of the late Pope is so full of drama and danger, it is hard to imagine a movie making it boring and yet it does precisely that. Indeed, this is perhaps the only movie I have ever seen in which the film character actually seems more distant and impersonal than the real person whom he is portraying.

John Paul II was a great man who did great things and led an extraordinary life. On Sunday, Jon Voight will star in "Pope John Paul II" on NBC. I will probably see it if I have time but allow me to posit an early review: it was better than this one.