The Weekend Review
Iraq's Coming Air War, Madrasas' Open Books, Bush's Comeback Illusions, Jesus without Miracles, Woody Allen without scandals
Pierre Tristam/Candide's Notebooks, December 3-4, 2005
Up in the Air: Where is the Iraq war headed Next?”
by Seymour Hersh, the New Yorker, December 5, 2005.
Iraqization entails handing over the terrain to Iraqi forces while lending them U.S. air support. Besides a repeat of the Vietnamization strategy, it’s also an invitation to disaster, according to Hersh’s sources. Iraqis will take advantage of air support to call in strikes that may not be militarily legitimate, and help fuel a civil war not enough people concede is already happening. No need to wait for Americans to withdraw for that war to be unfolding, although the longer Americans stay, the more they’ll be forced to take sides. It’s Vietnam . It’s Lebanon . It’s Iraq . Bush meanwhile “remains convinced that it is his personal mission to bring democracy to Iraq , and […] he is impervious to political pressure, even from fellow Republicans [as] he disparages any information that conflicts with his view of how the war is proceeding.” “Johnson knew he was a prisoner in the White House,” one former official tells Hersh, “but Bush has no idea.” Hersh reports that a massive air war has been going on, with lethal but not necessarily productive results, and that where the Iraqi army has “done its job,” it has also tended to plow through Sunni strongholds, vendetta-like. The final paragraph refers to a “composite American Special Forces team, known as an S.M.U., for ‘special mission unit,’” that has been ordered to target insurgent supporters in Syria . No word on whether the air war will extend across the border.
“Inside the Madrasas,” by William Dalrymple
New York Review of Books, December 1, 2005
It’s not that radical Islam isn’t sweeping over the Islamic world. It is. But it’s a sweepingly bad generalization to blame the “madrasas” (the Arabic ford for “school”) for manufacturing the foot soldiers—the militants and “terrorists”—of radical Islam. That’s essentially the thesis of William Dalrymple’s excellent latest essay on Islamophobia. (A previous piece on the subject appeared in Britain ’s New Statesman last year.) Don’t forget, for instance, that the US “played an important part in this harnessing of madrasas for holy war as part of the Afghan jihad, with the CIA financing the production by the US Agency for International Development of some notably bloodthirsty madrasa textbooks ‘filled,’ according to a Washington Post report, ‘with violent images and militant Islamic teachings.’
Dalrymple is a writer, historian and resident of Delhi . His ears are in tune with surroundings about which Americans prefer to keep distant and virtually unexamined, Madrasas chief among those. To Americans, the only good madrasa is a shuttered madrasa. Not so fast, Dalrymple says. That would worsen the problem of radicalism, not improve it. Those places are a symptom of the Islamic world’s general indifference to education, itself a reflection of those governments’ indifference to social inequalities and economic dead ends. The madrasas operate because governments refuse to fund public schools adequately enough to be a viable alternative to madrasas ( Pakistan spends less than 2 percent of its GDP on public education (compared with 3.8 percent in the United States and a 3.5 percent average in OECD countries). “And although they tend to be ultra-conservative, only a small portion of them are militant.”
Those have their drawbacks. “Just as there are some yeshivas in settlements on the West Bank that have a reputation for violence against Palestinians, and Serbian monasteries that sheltered war criminals following the truce in Bosnia, so it is estimated that as many as 15 percent of Pakistan's madrasas preach violent jihad, while a few have been said to provide covert military training,” Dalrymple writes. “Madrasa students took part in the Afghan and Kashmir jihads, and have been repeatedly implicated in acts of sectarian violence, especially against the Shia minority in Karachi . It is now becoming very clear, however, that producing cannon fodder for the Taliban and educating local sectarian thugs is not at all the same as producing the kind of technically literate al-Qaeda terrorist who carried out the horrifyingly sophisticated attacks on the USS Cole, the US embassies in East Africa, the World Trade Center, and the London Underground.” Those are likelier to be highly educated, often by western universities, bourgeois, cosmopolitan: “The men who planned and carried out the September 11 attacks have often been depicted in the press as being ‘medieval fanatics.’ In fact it would be more accurate to describe them as confused but highly educated middle-class professionals. Mohamed Atta was an architect; Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden's chief of staff, was a pediatric surgeon; Ziad Jarrah, one of the founders of the Hamburg cell, was a dental student who later turned to aircraft engineering; Omar Sheikh, the kidnapper of Daniel Pearl, was a product of the London School of Economics. As the French scholar Gilles Kepel puts it [in The War for Muslim Minds, p. 112], the new breed of global jihadis are not the urban poor of the third world so much as ‘the privileged children of an unlikely marriage between Wahhabism and Silicon Valley, which al-Zawahiri visited in the 1990s. They were heirs not only to jihad and the umma but also to the electronic revolution and American-style globalization.’”
Madrasas in sum are a symptom, not a cause, of radicalism. Shuttering them would further inflame radicals while shutting off, for hundreds of thousands of young students, one more avenue of escape from poverty. The better way is to use the madrasas as means of moderating Islam’s more radical tendcencies—the way those madrasas are used in India, for example: “You don't have to look far from Pakistan to find a madrasa system that has effectively engaged with the problems of both militancy and educational backwardness. For although India was originally the home of the Deobandi madrasas, such colleges in India have no record of producing violent Islamists, and are strictly apolitical and quietist. Indeed several of modern India 's greatest scholars—such as the Mughal historian Muzaffar Alam of the University of Chicago —are madrasa graduates.” Reforming the more violence-minded mardrasas would be nice. But that takes will by governments like Pakistan ’s Musharraf, who is more interested in splurging on F-16s than on reform.
“While We Were Sleeping: Where was the media between Invasion and Murtha?” by Rebecca Dana and Lizzy Ratner
and “Times Confronted by Ms. Rice in 2002 but Held Ground,” by Gabriel Sherman, the New York Observer, November 28, 2005.
Obvious to some, not so obvious to most: The scandal of the war in Iraq is only partly due to faulty intelligence gathering and criminal intelligence peddling by the Bush administration. It is also due to faulty reporting and ethically indefensible editing by the American press. The Observer explores One such example, reported by Gabriel Sherman: “[O]ne senior [New York Times] Washington bureau staffer said that as the Bush administration edged closer to invasion, The Times shifted from questioning the rationale for military action to putting the paper on a proper war footing.” So it wasn’t just the administration that wanted its war. The press just as surely did, which inevitably colored its judgments, where it played what stories (with a couple of exceptions, doubt inside, WMD hype up front).
The Dana/Ratner piece reveals that average monthly coverage of the Iraq war on ABC, NBC and CBS went from 388 minutes in 2003, to 274 in 2004, to 166 in 2005, compared with 91 minutes per month in 1972 just on CBS. (The article relies on a lot of numbers tallied by media analyst Andrew Tyndall on his Web site.) Newspapers have also cut their staffs drastically, replacing American reporters with Iraqis. But what reporters they do have are often confined to their hotels or compounds. The problem is two-fold: security makes it difficult to travel, mingle with locals, get a close look at the facts behind military propaganda. Insurgents have no qualms about killing reporters, a radical difference with Vietnam , where the Vietcong cultivated coverage. (“In Vietnam, only 66 reporters were killed in 20 years of warfare,” the Observer reports,” compared with “58 reporters and 22 media-support workers (such as translators and drivers)” in the Iraq war so far. (The Committee to Protect Journalists tallies the counts.) Just as problematic is the military’s barriers. The Pentagon now liberally invokes American privacy health care laws (HIPAA) to keep reporters from interviewing wounded soldiers or roaming about in military hospitals. The Pentagon also isn’t going to be inviting of reporters on embedded missions when those reporters don’t project to their readers or viewers the image the Pentagon wants to see. The risks are subtle. David Schlesinger, Reuters’ global managing editor, says: “Certainly there’s a huge risk from insurgents, either to be hurt or killed accidentally… but unfortunately, there’s also been an issue with U.S. troops.”
In brief, here’s the most technologically advanced war in history, in military and information technology, but the reporting is far more scant than it was in Vietnam , in quality, context and understanding, and in most respects, even in quantity.
“George W. Bush, Comeback Kid? Some suggestions for how to do it”
by David Frum, National Review, November 21, 2005.
The right is conceding that Bush is falling, if not fallen, but David Frum sees opportunity all over the place. One of his suggestions sounds credibly doable. The rest contradict the nature and facts of this presidency. “Get hiring” is frum’s first suggestion, as in hire more Sam Alito-like men to turn the administration’s image around. The Alito hire has brightened up many a gloomy conservative. More such picks, to replace, for example, the vacuous Snow at the Treasury Department, could do more wonders, Frum claims. Maybe so. But he doesn’t suggest other places where the hiring could make a difference. Alito is not a done deal (but close to one despite the abortion sideshow). What happens at Treasury matters to Wall Street but doesn’t ring close to middle Americans’ bedsides and kitchen tables. What Frum hopes above all is that Bush doesn’t get rid of Karl Rove, whom he considers his best performer.
His second suggestion is to “Rediscover moral clarity.” Frum is worried about North Korea and Iran ’s slow but unwavering march toward nuclear capabilities ( North Korea is already there). “[I]f this administration leaves office with Iran and North Korea still trundling toward nuclear-power status, the administration will have failed—no matter how many negotiating rounds it worked through. It’s time to recollect what the Bush administration went to Washington to do.” Third: “Re-energize” by promising more nuclear power plants, because more oil-drilling in Alaska is too distant to make a dent in consumers’ energy spending now. Odd logic. True, the Arctic refuge, should it be drilled into, will not begin producing oil for about ten years. But it’s not as if the administration could launch a nuclear-power-plant building frenzy tomorrow. The timeline on getting a new power plant going is not much shorter than oil drilling in the refuge. And to suggest that [p]romoting nuclear power offers the president a way to identify himself with both national-security and consumer concern” is a faith-based view of what consumers are really concerned about. Nuclear power may be safer than it was in its 1979, Three-Mile-Island days. But it’s a long way before the public will embrace it as the alternative.
Frum’s last two suggestions “Look over the horizon” and “Return to Iraq ”) should be anybody’s suggestions, but they’re mostly wishful thinking about doing something to counter long-ago warnings: The Medicare drug-plan costs are about to hit the fan, without a plan on how to pay them. “As far as I can tell,” Frum writes, “nobody in the administration is preparing now to cope with this problem—which means that when it arrives it will jolt the administration as abruptly and unexpectedly as this summer’s hurricanes.” And in Iraq ? “The president has to defend, champion, and explain the war—or else be destroyed by it.” Bush tried last week. His explanation failed. Incidentally, Frum notes that the military should “find ways to highlight the positive news” that it collects every day. He was presumably not aware that the military’s propaganda machine was not only doing so, but was planting the news in the Iraqi press and using taxpayer money to do it.
“The great enduring mystery about the Bush administration,” Frum concludes, “has been the strange disparity between the boldness of the president’s strategies and the extreme caution of his tactics; between the strength of his goals and the weakness of his methods; between the stirring eloquence of his major statements and the feeble uncertainty of the administration’s day-to-day communications. It’s the magnificent asset side of the ledger that sustains the administration’s friends; it’s the troubling debits that embolden its enemies. If this presidency is to live up to the nation’s best hopes, it must find some way—and fast—to balance its political bookkeeping.” The paragraph speaks to the explanation of the mystery even as it wonders about it: There’s always been boldness, goals, mission-from-god rhetoric. There’s never been method to go with it. There’s no there there. This has been the Oz presidency from day one, borrowed on American patience and expectation and, of course, a world of credit.
“Jesus Without the Miracles,” by Erik Reece, Harper’s, December 2005
[The magazine isn’t posting the article, but thanks to New York City blogger and apparently supersonic typist Lindsay, the article is accessible, in full, at her site, by clicking here.]
In a recent issue of Harper’s, Erik Reece, a writing teacher at the University of Kentucky, reported on one of the largely ignored environmental crimes being committed every day in the United States—the lopping off of Appalachian mountaintops and the burial of streams and endless little hollows’ ecosystems in the name of coal-mining. (“Death of a Mountain,” April 2005). Reece’s latest piece is more provocative than heartbreaking. He analyzes the parallels between the Gospels according to Thomas Jefferson and the Gospel according to Thomas—one of those gospels deemed heretical by the Nicene Creed of 325 C.E. Jefferson’s Gospel? He took a pair of scissors to the traditional Gospels, cut out the miracles, the magic, the overtly mystical PR, leaving only the actual teachings of Christ in a sort of gospellish How-To. “By stripping away the gospelers’ claim that Jesus was the divine son of God,” Reece writes, “and by stripping away the subsequent miracles they invented to prove it, Jefferson boasted that he had extracted the ‘diamonds from the dunghill’ to reveal the true teaching of Jesus for what it was: ‘The most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.’” ( Jefferson ’s version of the gospels is published by Beacon Press as The Jefferson Bible.)
The Gospel of Thomas is similarly earthy. No reliance on miracles. No patience for ceremony, prayer, fasting, no obsessing about sins of the flesh (in a gospel where the word “sin” appears just once). Thomas’ gospel “is trying to convince ‘whoever has ears’ to shake off all the world’s distractions and encumbrances so they might finally see something real.” No dualism here, no division of the world between good and evil (because we all carry both), no dividing the world into abstract categories. Thomas’ Jesus says you can save yourself: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you have will save you. If you do not have that within you, what you do not have within you [will] kill you.” Of course the established church banned that gospel. It essentially said that a church was an interference, not a necessity. But Reece considers Thomas’ version of Christ closer to the true Christ than the other gospels, then takes an interesting leap: “This teacher of reconciliation was the same Jesus whom Thomas Jefferson hoped to recover through his own gospel project. And whereas Jefferson found in Jesus’ teaching an ethic for how we should treat others, Emerson found in it an alchemical light that transforms flesh into spirit. In some uncanny trick of history and geography, the ancient Gospel of Thomas combines these two visions of Jesus to give us what I would call a truly American gospel.”
Reece personalizes the last few paragraphs of the piece, blaming the church for the suicide of his father and forcing him to abandon his own faith as a self-saving measure—until the Gospel of Thomas gave him a way back. The personal segment doesn’t seem necessary to make the point. But it doesn’t divert from an enlightening and necessary piece in the current climate: Not only is the world not black and white; neither, by any means, are Christ’s teachings, once you get away from the church-imposed duality of the admissible versus the inadmissible gospels. We don’t remember often enough that the distinction, made by men for institutional and political rather than spiritual reasons, is no less arbitrary, or useful, or legitimate, than saying (for example) that students of American literature should read more Faulkner and no Steinbeck.
“Reconstructing Woody,” by Peter Biskin [the article is not available online]
Vanity Fair, December 2005.
The profile, with pictures by Annie Leibovitz, is dubbed by the magazine as Woody Allen’s “first exhaustive interview in years.” It has the feel instead of so many of Allen’s movies of the last ten years — never dull but thin and shruggable. We find out that “Aging is a terrible thing,” in Allen’s words (he turns 70 on Thursday), but that and what follows has nothing of the revealing about it: “The diminution of options and opportunities. It’s all just bad news. You deteriorate physically and die! I was an extremely good athlete as a child. I can’t maintain that. I mean, my eyesight is not anywhere near as good. I’ve lost some of my hearing.” This is the sort of thing you expect to hear on a middling talk show on the WB channel at 3 p.m. , not from the man Vincent Canby (the late New York Times film critic) once called “our premier filmmaker” and ranked alongside Luis Buñuel and Buster Keaton. But like some of those Allen films that seem to drag a bit, the Allen quote gets better: “All the crap that they tell you about—you know, dandling your grandchildren on your knee, and getting joy, and having a kind of wisdom in your golden years — it’s all tripe. I’ve gained no wisdom, no insight, no mellowing. I would make all the same mistakes again, today.” Christopher Lasch once noted that “to think of wisdom purely as a consolation divests it of any larger meaning or value. The real value of accumulated wisdom of a lifetime is that it can be handed to future generations.” Allen doesn’t seem to find either necessity or joy in passing on that sort of wisdom, though his movies once did, until the scandal with Mia Farrow. He left nude pictures of Soon-Yi Previn, Farrow's daughter (with Andre Previn) on the living room mantle, where, lucky for him, Mia Farrow found them. He calls it “one of the fortuitous events, one of the greatest pieces of luck in my life.” Lurid scandal, divorce, lost custody of children, all of it culminating, besides his marriage to Soon-Yi Previn, in the June 5, 2002 article in the New York Times (“Curse of the Jaded Audience: Woody Allen, in Art and Life”) essentially burying his career.
Despite the divorce we find out that Allen’s first choice for one of the leads in Mighty Aphrodite in 1994 was Mia Farrow, because he doesn’t care who gets the parts as long as it’s the right person for the job: “I wouldn’t put, you know, Herman Göring in a part, but short of Nuremberg crimes…” Celebrity profiles are by nature more gruel than substance, so the article’s quality inevitably dovetails Allen’s thinness with pat observations from the Celebrity Profile slush pile (“Even those who have worked with him closely don’t pretend to understand him,” “He is still claustrophobic and agoraphobic,” “he can’t help but pierce the darkness of advancing age with a frail ray of light”), leaving to the end a couple of curious bits of information: the biggest box-office grosser in Allen’s career was Hannah and Her Sisters, at $40 million in domestic ticket sales, while his more recent movies’ tackes have been around $5 million. Woody Allen himself has supposedly never made it very big, money-wise, though big enough to buy a $17.9 million Manhattan townhouse in 1999 and sell it five years later for $24 million: “I’ve made more money in real estate than I’ve ever made from movies.” Peter Biskind, article’s author, is cheerleading for Allen’s next movie, Match Point, despite the movie’s pessimism. It reflects, Allen says, “the enormous unfairness of the world, the enormous injustice of the world, the sense that every day people get away with the worst kind of crimes.” As for himself, Allen expects, or hopes, that family heredity will keep him “able to make films for another 17 years.” Given the dearth of interesting film-makers out there, the prospect isn’t a terribly bad one. But keep the private life where it belongs: out of our way, and back into that obscurity Woody Allen intuitively seeks out, for good reason.
[Note: We don't claim to have nailed down the best or the most important or the most brilliantly written (we should be so lucky) in periodical literature out there. We can't possibly make those claims as long as we haven't read what's in New Zealand's Daily Aardvark or nailed down that time-stopping trick of Arno Strine's in Nicholson Baker's Fermata. This baker's half-dozen is itself a pitiful abridgement of the typically modern, typically abridged reading schedule. But it's a start. Your contributions and suggestions are welcome.]