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Daily Journal: Wednesday, January 31, 2007

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West Virginia, Rolling Heartbreak
An Explosion in Ghent

Another scar for West Virginia

Ghent is not quite a town in southern West Virginia. It’s one of those unincorporated sprawls of hills and scraggles interrupted from mile to mile by clusters of houses or odd-looking hillsides that, while covered by vegetation, still bear the memories of having once been ripped and mined for all the coal they were worth: Tree-lines suddenly stop or look markedly younger, grasses grow like the tufty hair on cancer patients’ scalps, though in winter it’s hard to tell the difference between the earth’s natural browns and its revolted ones. Ghent, pronounced Gent, like the beginning of “gentleman,” has two things to keep it on the map. Maybe three. Flat Top Lake. Winterplace Ski Resort, a place that, as I remember it back in the 1990s, was already feeling the effects of global warming enough to weave in and out of business. And Ghent Elementary School, Home of the Lions, which once produced the county’s (Raleigh County) teacher of the year, a wonderful and pretty woman, Patti Lamb, on whom I may have indulged a crush for the few hours I spent with her the morning I went to her school, some seventeen or eighteen years ago, to profile her for the obligatory newspaper feature: she may very well have been my first Teacher of the Year profile. It was a sunny, cold day. She kept, I think, a little garden with and for her students. I vaguely remember that years later, in those brief catch-up conversations with old friends from the place, I was told that some great misfortune may have claimed her. Cancer? Death? Worse: She lost a son. She left the school and a few years ago returned, re-married and re-named (she's now Patti Morum). I was subsequently able to scrounge up the clip and put facts to memory, from October 1990: “Patti Jo Lamb's first students many years ago were stuffed animals, dolls, her little brother and her little sister...” She'd been teaching seventeen years by then: Exactly the half-way mark of her career until now. No mention of a garden in the story, though I can't shake the sun from my eyes whenever I think back to her classroom. That was Ghent then for me: a calm, sunny, happy place. All this came to mind Tuesday afternoon when I noticed a brief link on the front page of the Times’ web site: “Explosion destroys gas station in West Virginia.” I went off to my old paper’s web site for the story: “Four people were confirmed dead and at least four others reportedly suffered serious or critical injuries as a result of an explosion at the Little General Store on U.S.19 in Ghent […] the original 911 call came in at 10:43 a.m. and reported a propane leak at the gas station, which is across the street from the Flat Top Lake entrance. When firefighters arrived on the scene less than 10 minutes later […], the tank exploded, completely leveling the store and blowing a large fire truck from the Ghent Volunteer Fire Department onto its side. Among those killed […] were one firefighter and one EMS worker.” I’d stopped at that Ghent general store once or twice, the kind of store that sold Coke in the old glass bottles and where lingering seemed like the least dangerous thing in the world. I-77 slashed by at the intersection with U.S. 19, dumping the occasional traveler to keep the service station in business. Ghent alone never could. And now: gone, and with it four lives, including a fireman and paramedic who’d answered a call about the fatal gas leak that blew in their face. There’s no point to this story anymore than there’s point to the explosion. On thing triggers another. S stupid gas leak. A distant trickle of memories. A gaping crater from an explosion no one could have possibly imagined in a somnolent place like Ghent, not because explosions like that are foreign to southern West Virginians. Not at all. They’re too common. But they happen underground, where methane is the eternal terrorist. I once hated West Virginia, those first couple of years when I felt like an exile twice over in the thick of its hills, hills that stand in so many ways in proud counterpoint to the rest of the nation. Then I fell in love with the state as I’ve not loved any state as deeply, as personally, though like Lebanon it’s a heartbreak of a place, every little while reminding you why.


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Hezbollah Wears Prada
Nasrallah, Coy Warrior

This is rich. Lebanon’s Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah is saying that he won’t let his flock be dragged into a civil war, then he accused Israel and the United States for provoking one. This from the man who, like Arafat before him, has no reason to exist without a state of war justifying his existence. This from a man who has been badgering us about Hezbollah being a “resistance” movement even though since 2000 there’s hardly been much of an Israeli presence in south Lebanon (given Israel’s methods, there always are Israeli operatives along its borders, and Israel is still occupying that Shebaa Farms area of Lebanon). A man who, all the while painting Hezbollah as a resistance movement against occupiers, has been sucking at two massive tits since Hezbollah was born in the early 1980s—the left tit representing Syria, whose weaponry and occupying army Hezbollah never “resisted” against, and the right tit representing Iran, whose millions of dollars have been propping up the economy of south Lebanon the way the PLO’s Saudi dollars propped up the Beirut economy in the 1980s. And now he’s blaming Israel and the United States for fomenting a civil war in Lebanon. But how else explain Nasrallah’s brilliant propagandistic skills? This is a man who can make the shag on a horse’s ass look like duvet on a virgin’s mons, a man who—and this should sound cozily familiar to Southern Baptists—can make enmity, violence and spitting hatred sound like the edicts of God the savior. From the Daily Star in Beirut:

A heavily guarded Nasrallah made his comments from a balcony of a building that had been barricaded by several layers of Hizbullah security men, overlooking a massive sea of black-clothed mourners who had arrived from various corners of Beirut’s southern suburbs. “Your presence in Lebanon is a threat to the enemies of Lebanon,” Nasrallah said during the holiest Shiite rite, which commemorates the killing of Imam Hussein in 680 by armies of the Sunni caliph Yazid in Iraq. The commemoration turned political as Hizbullah’s leader launched into a speech attacking the US and Israel. “They are the ones plotting a new conspiracy for a civil war in Lebanon ... but we will not be dragged into internal strife and fighting,” he vowed, as echoes of boos reverberated through the crowd at the mention of “Bush” and “ Israel.” [The full story]

I’m all for booing Bush and Israel, but in context and in fairness. Bush screwed up Iraq. Israel irrigated Hezbollah’s rise. Neither has lifted a finger since the last days of the Clinton administration to address the Palestinian crisis (although let’s not forget how, during those last days of Clinton, it was Arafat’s great ability never to miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity that demolished the last best chance at peace and a Palestinian state; but Arafat is dead, Abbas was the hopeful replacement, and what happened? Nothing). And Israel’s policy of turning the occupied territories into de-facto prison camps did its share to make of the prison camps’ populations what happens in every prison camp: foster gangs that fight it out between themselves. Hamas and Fatah. That said, let’s not exaggerate Israel’s role in fomenting civil wars, as opposed to Israel’s and America’s great gift for strategic incompetence—incompetence that the likes of Hezbollah, to say nothing of al-Qaeda and Iraq’s insurgents, have been more than happy to take advantage of. And profit from. But an American plot to throw Lebanon into civol war? Please. That’s the job of the Lebanese, beginning with the one and only, who does protest too much, his eminence Nasrallah.

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Think Tank Gossip
Things Fall Apart in Iraq

Body parts

The Brookings Institution’s Daniel L. Byman and Kenneth M. Pollack release a new comprehensive report on the disintegration of Iraq. Their summary: “With each passing day, Iraq sinks deeper into the abyss of civil war. President George W. Bush has staked everything on one last-chance effort to quell the fighting and jumpstart a process of political reconciliation and economic reconstruction. Should this last effort fail, the United States is likely to very quickly have to determine how best to handle an Iraq that will be erupting into Bosnia- or Lebanon-style all-out civil war. The history of such wars is that they are disastrous for all parties, but the United States will have little choice but to try to stave off disaster as best it can. To begin to help provide a solution to that dilemma, Daniel L. Byman and Kenneth M. Pollack of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution have written Things Fall Apart: Containing the Spillover from an Iraqi Civil War. This Saban Center Analysis Paper examines the history of some dozen recent civil wars to reveal the general patterns by which such conflicts can “spill over” into neighboring states, causing further civil wars or regional conflicts. Historically, six patterns of spillover have been the most harmful in other cases of all-out civil war: refugees; terrorism; radicalization of neighboring populations; secession that breeds secessionism; economic losses; and, neighborly interventions. From this history, the authors propose a set of policy options that the United States could employ to try to contain the spillover effects of a full-scale Iraqi civil war. The “baker’s dozen” of policy options for the United States are:

  • Don’t try to pick winners;
  • Avoid active support for partition (for now);
  • Don’t dump the problem on the United Nations;
  • Pull back from Iraqi population centers;
  • Provide support to Iraq’s neighbors;
  • Bolster regional stability;
  • Dissuade foreign intervention;
  • Lay down “red lines” to Iran;
  • Establish a Contact Group;
  • Prepare for oil supply disruptions;
  • Manage the Kurds;
  • Strike at terrorist facilities;
  • Consider establishing safe havens or “catch basins” along Iraq’s borders.

The full report in pdf 

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Purchasing Power
How Rich People Control Politics

It’s about time this sort of analysis is getting some attention, but not nearly the kind of attention it should—by which I mean front-page stories in the Times and the Journal and hour-long exposés on 60 Minutes and Dateline. The newspapers are too busy catering to their audience, which is mostly made up of the richest 1 percent in the nation, and the networks are too busy chasing after prurient ratings by chasing after two dozen pedophiles every three weeks. Bradford Plumer in the New Republic:

Over the last few years, political scientists have been converging on the view that massive disparities in wealth and income really do distort the democratic process—by allowing a tiny segment of the population to wield outsized influence in the political realm. The idea isn’t terribly groundbreaking—even casual observers of American politics know that money can buy power—but recent research is slowly nailing down exactly how this process works. The statistics on inequality are well known and […] present a clear picture. Between 1979 and 2004, the richest 1 percent of Americans saw their after-tax incomes triple, while those of the middle fifth grew by only 21 percent and those of the poorest fifth barely budged, according to Congressional Budget Office data. By the late ‘90s, the richest 1 percent of American households held one-third of all wealth in the U.S. economy, and took in 14 percent of the national income—a greater share than at just about any point since the Great Depression. In politics, this all matters a great deal. Larry Bartels of Princetonhas recently studied the voting record of the Senate between 1989 and 1994--a time, note, when Democrats controlled Congress. He found that senators were very responsive to the preferences of the upper third of the income spectrum, somewhat less attentive to the middle third, and completely dismissive of the policy preferences of the poorest third. In one striking example, Bartels discovered that senators were likely to vote for a minimum wage increase only when their wealthier constituents favored it—the views of those directly affected by the hike had “no discernible impact.” Nor is this pattern limited to domestic policy. Lawrence Jacobs of the University of Minnesota and Benjamin Page of Northwestern have found that the foreign policy views of the executive and legislative branches are primarily influenced by business leaders, policy experts—whose think tanks are often funded by businesses—and, to a lesser extent, organized labor. Jacobs and Page found that the views of the broader public have essentially zero impact on the government when it comes to tariffs, treaties, diplomacy, or military action. […] While high-income donors don’t usually bribe politicians to do their bidding, they do get more face time with their representatives, during which they can frame issues and concerns in ways amenable to their interests. […]On the other side of the Atlantic, European nations have managed to reduce inequality, partly by redistributing wealth through the welfare state. Unless the United States figures out how to do something analogous—or, failing that, find some way to bolster civic participation—the very idea of “equal citizenship” will continue its long erosion. See the full piece…

Plumer is being too tentative, as if the subject itself requires presumed deference to the skeptics and qualifiers every other sentence. Better than nothing.

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L’Infâme: Iraq
Shiitism’s Fanatics

It’s not as if Catholics and Protestants don’t have their own history of bloody and stupid rituals, many of which went beyond the ritual stage to involve the happy and enthusiastic slaughter of those who prayed the wrong way or held their fork in the wrong hand. But relativism alone is no excuse for fanaticism. Iraq has been in the middle of its most important Shiite commemoration, Ashura (see al-Jazeera’s explanation here), which involves various rituals, some of them as debased as religious rituals love to get. Ahmad al-Rubaye of AFP caught this shot of Iraqi Shiite children cutting their scalps as part of the ritual in Baghdad’s Shiite neighbourhood of Kadhimiyah.


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Holy Trinity
Eddie Murphy, Dick Cavett, David Letterman. Together.


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Crumbs & Quickies

In the Blogosphere

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