Tuesday, June 23, 2009

I don't want to seem like I care about material things

Like a social status...

But seriously. Animal Collective aside, last night I had a really sort of bizarre social experience.

The Old City is really varied: there are women going around in tight jeans and low-cut tops with their hair uncovered, women in the abaya, even women in full chador or niqab. There are men in traditional dress, men in shiny button-down shirts, men with beards, men who are clean-shaven. But there are a few constants. All women that I've seen, even if their clothes are tight, keep most of their skin covered; all men have short hair (nearly all women have long hair). Genders don't really interact on the street. You avoid eye contact; or if men or boys are staring at you (as a chick and all), you look away to avoid giving the appearance of being forward or "loose," as it were. If I need directions, I ask a woman unless a man offers, and even then I use my judgement.

I've gotten mostly used to this (obviously it's different if you're sitting at a cafe with a friend of yours), so last night was really odd. We went out to this small hotel in the New City, near the Cham Palace (biiiig hotel in the middle of town), where every night they have open mic poetry. Poetry, as I think most people know, is a huge deal in Arab culture. The experience was fascinating just on that level, but what was specifically weird about it was how gender was suddenly no longer an issue.

We were a large, almost entirely female group of foreigners, and rather than just staring from afar a good ten Arab young men came over and started chatting up a storm. The two older guys sitting near me were really nice, helped me understand some poetry a little better, and shared their bar snacks. The woman who brought us there--one of my friend Ben's housemates--was sitting there in a tank top (which already looks weird and overly naked to me) and just chatting with her male friends that she knows from going there every week. And for the first time I think an Arab guy was flirting with me. That has not happened at all--flirting is different from catcalling--and I just had no idea what to do with it. It was fine, he's a nice guy and he wasn't pushy or anything, but it was just so strange after the last week to have some guy in a smoky lounge setting just get up and buy me a beer because he wanted to.

Plus, for the first time I saw men--lots of them--with long hair, and women smoking cigarettes and wearing shorter sleeves. Obviously this was partly due to the fact that we were in the basement bar of a hotel in the New City. Some of the people there were pretty clearly higher class. But not all of them were, and I'm certain not all of them (or even most of them) were guests of the hotel. You could find a similar scene in the Old City, probably, but it would be composed of almost exclusively expats, not Arabs.

So I think what I'm trying to say is that clearly I need to explore the New City some more. It was interesting by contrast.

Syria on Iran

I think this is something people have been curious about: how is the conflict in Iran playing in Syria? How is it presented? What are people saying? The answer is not as exciting as one might hope. Here are a couple paragraphs I just wrote to a friend, lightly edited in retrospect:

As for coverage: not really sure, frankly. I haven't heard much about it. I got one guy to talk about it, and he sort of talked generally about what he thinks of Ahmedinejad but not the situation. I haven't seen anything on the Syrian blog I read (I need moooooore) or even the Lebanese ones. It seems like it's mostly American intellectuals and journalists who are feverishly covering this; Arabs, I think, are sticking to their own issues and waiting to see what happens. Every Arab in America or Britain I've talked to is highly skeptical that anything will come of it, and it seems quite possible that that's the prevailing attitude around here. Nobody wants to be left high and dry with dicey political statements.

In fact, Syria was one of the first political entities to congratulate Ahmedinejad on his victory (along with the Muslim Brotherhood and Hizballah, among others). Politics is a subject that most people avoid here or speak of in generalities; if the official position is "Congrats, Ahmadi Najad," I'd be surprised if people were running around with green armbands, you know?

I will add that at least on the TV in the hostel where I used to stay you can get Al Jazeera and Al Jazeera English as well as the BBC. Al Jazeera English has been covering it in a fashion that seems mostly neutral but occasionally seems to fall ever so subtly one way or the other. Sometimes they make prognoses for the revolutionaries that are perhaps a little more negative than they should be; sometimes, like when they were doing a history segment on the 1979 Iranian revolution, they show really unflattering pictures of Ayatollah Khomeini (not Khameini). My Arabic isn't good enough (YET) to understand straight up Al Jazeera.

That's all I got, really. Further bulletins as events warrant and all that.

ETA: Check out Citizen Tube for the latest videos coming out of Iran.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Travel notes

Two days ago, I came back to the hostel at a reasonable hour for once and then got caught up in a conversation with two people staying there and Nora, my sometime roommate, for a really long time. Everyone had eventually gone to bed except for me and my friend Muhammad (or Mohammed, or any number of spellings--I don't know) when we heard the call to prayer (at about 3:45 am). We ended up going to the mosque, because he wanted to pray and I wanted to go.

We spent a long time being lost, and then we figured out where we were and got lost again, and then we found it. It was really...peaceful. I sat in the women's section, with mostly Iranian women swathed in black, and just watched and listened. There were birds flying in the rafters and they kept dropping small down feathers around me. I understood small parts of the sermon, but not most of it.

Eventually we walked back, got lost again, and finally made it home around 4:30 or 5.

The next day I moved into an apartment; the only housemates I've really met are two very studious but nice guys who are great about telling me words in Arabic and speaking slowly when I ask them to. They actually both speak good English but I've only really heard one of them speak: he says he has to speak English at work all day (he works at UNHCR) and doesn't like speaking it at home.

Yesterday was the first day I really got to use Arabic and by the end of it I felt like my brain had been stretched two sizes. I went to visit Nora at her apartment and made friends with several of her housemates--three Syrians, two with great English and one with almost none (though he does have a hookah, or arghileh as it's called here, named Shakira)--a Brit, who may be organizing some sort of local wine tasting for an article he wants to write, and a Belgian guy who's been here for two and a half years and is doing his Ph.D. in Arabic poetry. They all spoke lots of Arabic to me and got me to speak it. Then I spoke it at the cafe. Then I spoke it at Nora's house again. Then I spoke it when I got home.

I was doing pretty well by the end. I got told four times that my Arabic was good (granted, three of those by the same person) and once that my accent was good. It was a good feeling. I hardly remember any of the new words I was told, though. Oh, well. Progress by slow inches. I think I may have agreed to do a language exchange with Ahmed, one of Nora's housemates who's an Arabic teacher and is learning English.

Finally: I have gotten sick at last. Nora went first, with the typical traveler's sickness; then Merritt got some sort of horrible bug that made her throw up every 20 minutes for like two days; Ben got travel belly too; and finally, today, it's me. Woooo. I feel awful. At least I've been through this before.

I have pictures of my house and will post them as soon as I get around to putting them on my computer. EVERYONE STAY CALM.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Journalism in action

Roger Cohen has an amazing piece up at the NYT. Even if, as is likely, the revolutionary sentiment isn't as widespread as some of us would like to believe, this is amazing stuff:

I also know that Iran’s women stand in the vanguard. For days now, I’ve seen them urging less courageous men on. I’ve seen them get beaten and return to the fray. “Why are you sitting there?” one shouted at a couple of men perched on the sidewalk on Saturday. “Get up! Get up!”

Another green-eyed woman, Mahin, aged 52, staggered into an alley clutching her face and in tears. Then, against the urging of those around her, she limped back into the crowd moving west toward Freedom Square. Cries of “Death to the dictator!” and “We want liberty!” accompanied her.

That part made me tear up. This part was something else:

Just off Revolution Street, I walked into a pall of tear gas. I’d lit a cigarette minutes before — not a habit but a need — and a young man collapsed into me shouting, “Blow smoke in my face.” Smoke dispels the effects of the gas to some degree.

I did what I could and he said, “We are with you” in English and with my colleague we tumbled into a dead end — Tehran is full of them — running from the searing gas and police. I gasped and fell through a door into an apartment building where somebody had lit a small fire in a dish to relieve the stinging. [...]

I looked up through the smoke and saw a poster of the stern visage of Khomeini above the words, “Islam is the religion of freedom.”

Friday, June 19, 2009

Also links

Connectivity ftw:

Some people are crazy:

Though the Obama media have been ballyhooing her brilliance -- No. 1 in high school, No. 1 at Princeton, editor of Yale Law Review -- her academic career appears to have been a fraud from beginning to end, a testament to Ivy League corruption.

One of them is Pat Buchanan.

Really cool interactive word cloud of Iranian opposition on Twitter.

Sullivan on why Iran matters

Gotta go!


Colonialism is complicated. It was a pretty unequivocally bad thing. Even if it had economic and technological ramifications without which I could not be sitting here in Damascus using the Internet, from a justice-oriented point of view it just sucked all around.

But lots of bad things have romantic trappings in hindsight. So as unequivocally opposed as I am to colonialism in the past and to soft colonization in the present, I can still find myself playing a drunken game of croquet in someone's backyard at four in the morning, smoking a cigarette and yelling about quinine because those two things seem to fit with the situation and I find that enjoyable.

Similar experiences can happen sometimes when, as an economically privileged traveler, one goes to a historically colonized (or Mandated) country. Sometimes, you find yourself eating a delicious French-inspired lunch with your family in Phnom Penh in the wood-paneled room where European journalists used to hang out. (Still do.) Sometimes, like yesterday, you find yourself and your new acquaintances being lunched at a very fancy restaurant in a gorgeous courtyard by a charming Brit, receiving rather obsequious service from people whose skin is darker than yours and who were born here.

And what's difficult is that while that experience is problematic and a little uncomfortable, there's also something romantic about it. Maybe it's because I'm a somewhat lapsed Anglophile. Certainly privilege is at work--the enormous and lavish lunch cost maybe $10 per person, and that's an unusually large expense--but there's something else, too. It's something I think I'll be wrestling with a lot over the next couple of months.

It does help that many of the other customers were Arab, and that the restaurant is owned by a Damascene family that lives just next door. But all the trappings were more or less in place and I don't know what to think about it yet. Maybe I've already thought too much.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Well, I'm here.

I have nothing particularly interesting to say yet. I'm in Damascus, which is beautiful, an odd mix of dirty and spotless, and very hot. As happens in this sort of environment, I've already made "oh wow we're here" friends with five other Anglophone students in the last two days, eaten a lot of hummus and mhammara, and smoked a decent amount of shisha. Our hostel is a sort of hippie enclave of foreign students, run by a Palestinian and Australian couple and full of animals (a rabbit and some tortoises) and characters. They're super helpful and the location (somewhere in the Jewish or Christian quarters of the Old City--not sure where the boundary is) is lovely.

Speaking of borders, we visited a friend's apartment today and happened to be out on the roof when the adhan went up from the many, many mosques nearby (he's right near the Ummayad Mosque, for one thing). It occurred to us that we'd never heard this in the area where we live. That, in turn, occurred to me, at least, as odd. It's not odd, of course, it makes perfect sense; it just surprised me that in the Old City, a small area, it was possible to that separated in terms of simple sounds.

At any rate, the multiple calls all going up together were beautiful. They were actually in harmony for a while until the last guy started and ruined it.

On a much less poetic note, the amount of paperwork required to do just about anything is surprising. Getting a cellphone requires your passport and your fingerprint. The most efficient thing that happened today was getting some passport-size photos taken (for the AIDS test we have to take before enrolling in the University and for when we have to reapply for residency) and getting photocopies of our passports.

Tea is a constant, which I expected. I'm surprised at how not-smokey the environment seems to be so far--I expected a sort of smog of shisha and cigarettes, which I really haven't encountered. Also unexpected was the sheer heterogeneity of the way people dress here. The men seem more uniform; the women range from full niqab to tight jeans with sleeveless tops. I was told as much before I got here but somehow was not prepared for the visual experience and the total uncertainty it would cause me in terms of how to present myself. One moment I feel extremely overexposed and the next I'm wishing I'd brought more of my "normal" clothes.

I don't have much of a concluding note. Facebook appears in Arabic, which makes you type backwards. It's bizarre. I've since figured out how to switch it to English but I almost miss the weirdness.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Public Service Announcement

This space has generally been fairly non-personal. The thoughts are personal, but the data and the material has generally been garnered from other people.

Well, my summer studying in Damascus starts tomorrow; I'm leaving tonight. I've decided not to make a separate travel blog or journal because 1) it strikes me as a slightly wanker move when I've already got a blog, 2) it's not like the material is irrelevant, and 3) this is my nefarious plan to make more people who know me read the blog.

Plus, frankly, I hope to be spending less time surfing the blogosphere and more time, you know, experiencing the place I'll be in. I'd rather this particular field not lie fallow all summer.

So just a heads up: I don't know how often I'll get internet (frequently, no doubt, but not continuously as it has been), and the nature of the content is about to change.

You have been warned.

Sunday, June 14, 2009


As I've already mentioned, Twitter has been the go-to place for news and updates about what's happening in Iran. American media has been pretty quiet, although some outlets seem to be getting into gear now. This has been criticized by American bloggers, but at this point the Twitterverse has definitely noticed and people arepissed at cnn for its pathetic non-coverage. There's a new hashtag going around: #CNNFail. (By contrast, NPR has done enough to get the tag #NPRWin. Good job, guys.)

This raises, to me, the interesting question of who gets to determine what news is and whether people have the right to see "their" events represented on the news. Not whether they're correct to desire it--I think they are--but whether they have a right. Probably in the strictest sense they don't, but it depends somewhat on how important you think discourse, language, and media are in the real world rather than in the abstract world, and on what your opinion of news as private vs. public enterprise is. I happen to think these things are extremely important, and I would rather news be either publicly run or public in the diffuse sense (i.e. Twitter, blogs, etc.) than that it be private corporations, but the fact is that CNN is a private corporation and therefore does not technically owe anything to anybody. I think they have responsibilities and they should uphold them, but if they don't I can't sue them for it.

In this case it's largely inapplicable, since I can't imagine by what logic the current upheavals in Iran don't count as newsworthy. Still. One of the effects of the social media/citizen journalist universe's breaking down of the centralized information systems of the 20th century is that everyone is a media critic at some point. This is related to the point I made yesterday about the role of communication technology in circumventing centralized power--knowledge is power, after all--but it's not always the same. Or at least, it's not always the same kind of power.

Gender exists everywhere, remember?

The Boston Globe has a gorgeous set of photographs (The Globe is always incredible for pictures) about the Iranian elections (pre-protests). This one really stood out to me:

A wheelchair-bound supporter of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is lifted above the crowd at his final election campaign rally, on Azadi street in western Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, June 10, 2009. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)

I mean, wow.

But something that struck me was the fact that several of the pictures of Mousavi supporters show crowds that are entirely or overwhelmingly composed of women. Look:

There are more. (Really, check the whole thing out, it's gorgeous.) Especially in the context of Anna's discussion of gender in the Lebanese elections at Feministing, I find this interesting. It may be that conservative women are simply less likely to attend rallies (where are all the male reformists, though? Are they not as pretty or something?) Anna:

I would like to think that the FPM’s nauseating “Sois Belle et Vote” (“Be beautiful and vote”) posters had something to do with [the opposition's loss].


Because of its sectarian political system (and corruption, and personality cults, and nepotism, and foreign interference, and its electoral law, and and and), Lebanese politics are at the extreme end of “unresponsive,” and very few politicians or parties boast nuanced, concrete platforms. But it’s one thing to not respond to female voters; it’s another to insult them.

This is in sharp contrast to what appears to be happening in Iran, if we are to believe NPR, the BBC, the WSJ, Reuters, The Times, and a number of other news outlets who are focusing on the power of politicians’ wives and the preferences of women voters in tomorrow’s elections. People here in Lebanon whose political leanings tend away from the Hizballah/Aoun opposition often refer to Hizballah’s Iranian sponsorship and express fear that Lebanon’s free, liberated (read: tank tops, bikinis, bank loans available for plastic surgery) women will find themselves swathed in chadors should the other side ever claim a political victory.

In both countries, whatever they are wearing and whatever they look like, women are highly educated (in Iran they are majority of university students) and have brains of their own in perfect working order. The way these consecutive election campaigns were/are being conducted – with Lebanese politicians ignoring women’s demands in favor of appealing to their presumed vanity, and Iranian politicians at least making an effort to promise things like cabinet posts to women – says a lot more about how women are viewed as citizens than their dress codes.

First of all, speaking of chadors, from the Globe again:

An Iranian women recites the holy Quran as she stands in line to cast her vote at the Masoumeh shrine in Qom, Iran on Friday, June 12, 2009. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)

What an incredible image. I wonder why there are only women there; are polling stations gender-segregated? Do conservatives self-segregate? Just (unlikely) chance?

Regardless of the actual explanation, I'm quite sure it will never be explained or even examined by the Western press. I'm ashamed to admit that I had committed the pathetic fallacy that Anna implicitly pointed out of viewing Arab electoral politics only one way (in Lebanon by sect, in Iran by class/political orientation) and viewing Arab gender politics entirely separately. No one here is interested in the gender dynamics of these elections, because we're only concerned with the elections as they relate to us.

The dirty secret of Lebanese sectarianism is that it was revolutionized, fostered and empowered by the Western Great Powers (primarily Britain and France) starting in the mid-nineteenth century. (See Usama Makdisi's fabulous book The Culture of Sectarianism, which everyone should read before talking about Lebanon.) Various Western interests took religious communities as their own special protegés, partly as a way to get an economic foothold and partly as civilizing projects. The legacy of this dynamic is that we view shifts in the power distributions among various sects as signs of our own power and of the public's opinion of us. This is part of why we're so interested in Lebanese politics (that and all the civil war, and the wars with Israel).

Similarly, in Iran, we are not truly interested in the status of women--we occasionally make concerned noises, but usually it's a prop for a larger dislike of our regional enemy, a way of othering Iranians. I'm not saying women have it peachy keen; they don't. I'm saying that most American political concern for them is disingenuous, at best half-hearted. We're interested in elections and reformers for our own benefit.

And to an extent, that makes perfect sense: nations are self-interested. But the downfall of that view is that it really limits our ability to analyze events like these because we only have one lens. It didn't occur to me to wonder what the gender breakdowns in either election were, or to consider gender as a factor. (And I don't have a self-interest excuse: I'm a person, not a nation, and I study the Middle East.) Now that Anna--and these pictures--have forced me to think about it, it makes lots of sense that young women would be inclined toward the reformers' camp. They're educated, they have few prospects (Iran has a very educated and very unemployed population), and they want more options than Iranian women have had since 1979.

Ultimately, I don't have a lot to say about women in Iran, because I don't know much. I try not to speculate too much about subjects close to my specialty--coming out a doofus close to home is much worse than considering subjects that aren't important to me. But I'm glad that this blind spot has become visible to me. Now I can fix it.

In closing, may I say that Iran is walloping us when it comes to attractive polling places.

An woman arrives at a polling station during the Iranian presidential election in Tehran June 12, 2009. (REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah)

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Another theory

It seems the coup may have originated with military interests.

God is great

Never in my life did I think I would see Andrew Sullivan write Allahu Akbar.

Snark aside, the post itself is a good thought (if delivered in typically epic language), and one I had as well--see the title of my previous one. Twitter and other new media have been essential to the opposition in Iran and to the publication of their efforts. Sullivan's comment that "you cannot stop people any longer" because they can get around the roadblocks with such technologies reminded me, oddly enough, of Russian History class back in high school. We discussed the roles of new transportation and communication technologies in making the October revolution possible.

I wonder if most revolutions depend on some kind of similar communication or transportation asymmetry. The 1979 Iranian Revolution was hugely dependent on cassette tapes: these were used to illicitly distribute Khameini's sermons to the public. The moment of triumph was the moment that the revolutionaries got control of the state television station and broadcast Khameini's arrival in Tehran, something the Shah had blacked out.

I mean actual revolutions, mind you, not coups: for a good coup all you need is some well-placed friends, an authoritarian system, and a little luck. Communications hardly matter. In actual revolutions, though, people need to be able to talk to each other. They need to feel that they're not alone, they need to plan and organize. Whoever's in power will always try to stop this, and usually an authoritarian state is pretty good at that. So most of the time, you need an asymmetry for this to happen at all, no? You need places where the government can't reach. Like illegal cassete tapes, or Twitter, or tunnels.

The revolution will be socially networked

The Iranian election and subsequent protests have been fascinating and heartwrenching. I wish I knew more about Iran, but I really only know the basics--my focus has been on Levantine Arab countries.

At any rate, what's going on right now is history in the making. (I wonder how many theses will be written on these clashes--even if the protesters are unsuccessful--a few years from now. Get me out of academia.) Basically, it seemed like the reformist challenger, Mousavi, was probably going to win. Supporters had been in the streets for days. Then the initial election results were confusing, muddied, and then started to just look funny with a ridiculous margin for Ahmedinejad. At this point, it's pretty clear the election was stolen. It seems the regime has abandoned appearances altogether and is just going for broke. Mousavi is under house arrest, people are screaming and marching and bleeding in the streets. I don't know where this is going to go.

A "victory for the Iranian people," Ahmedinejad has called it. In a sense, he's right: the regime would have been far better off allowing Mousavi to win and curry favor with the U.S. and others while the nuclear project plugged away and the theocracy got some street cred. The ridiculously ham-handed way they've done this has made the fiction impossible. If they crack down hard enough and people give up, then they will have won a huge authoritarian victory, as Digby describes here. If they fail to do so...who knows? The whole thing would be cracked wide open. So whether Ahmedinejad's coronation is a victory for the people or not, it's definitely not good for Ayatollah Khameini. (This begs the question of what on earth Khameini thinks he's doing at the moment, other than panicking--this is in large part his doing--but this is the sort of thing those theses I mentioned will be dealing with. The data's not there now and may not be for years.)

So far he has been congratulated by the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Hizbullah (if I remember correctly), and...Syria. I don't know if Syria anticipated being out in front alone like that; I wonder if they'll regret it. I have no idea how this will affect Iran's regional clout or the way Arabs view the country. I simply don't know enough about this topic to speculate in any remotely worthwhile manner.

The regime seems to have blocked cellphones and many websites, but Twitter and Youtube keep updating with reports and footage of protests, police brutality, statements by both sides, and so on. Here are some resources:

The NYTimes Lede Blog

Andrew Sullivan


Nico Pitney at HuffPo

Juan Cole with Top Pieces of Evidence the election was stolen.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Moar music

I really really really like this song a lot. And I love the video concept. It's rare that a video makes me want to see a band live as much as this one did, which I think was owed to the fact that a) the singer's dancing reminds me of one of my roommates and b) the way the video concept illustrated and emphasized movement.

Friendly Fires 'Skeleton Boy' by Clemens Habicht from Nexus Productions on Vimeo.

I'm getting the record right now.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009


I will here reproduce Mark Blumenthal's post on the Holocaust Museum shooting in full. I can think of no better meditation.

This is Personal

By Mark Blumenthal

Regular readers will probably remember my that my father-in-law Frank Burstin, who passed away about a week before last fall's elections, was a survivor of the Auschwitz death camp. For that reason, as you may imagine, the news this afternoon about a shooting at Washington's Holocaust Museum hits pretty close to home for me and for my family.

But you don't know the half of it.

I have a special memory of Pop (as we knew him) from last summer. It was a few weeks before he received his cancer diagnosis, during what turned out to be his last visit to the Holocaust Museum. Because he lost his parents and all of his siblings to the Nazis, and because no grave site exists for any of his family, Pop made it a habit to visit the Museum at least once a year. It fulfilled for him the custom that many Jews practice of visiting the cemetery of loved ones once a year. I only got to accompany him on one of these visits, that one last year, along with my wife's nephew Jake.

I described him last year as "kind and optimistic soul," and he certainly was. But when he entered that museum, something changed. He was not unkind, but in that place, as I soon learned, he suffered no fools (nor anyone else).

We wandered into the museum, through the same doors and into the same foyer where shots rang out this afternoon. My wife had given us visitor passes that she receives as a member of the Museum. The lines were long, and it was not obvious which line we needed to stand in.

Pop was having none of it. He walked away from me and wandered up to the museum staffer standing at the head of the long line leading to the elevators that takes all visitors to the museum exhibits. I thought for a moment that Pop was going to ask directions. I was wrong.

He thrust out his arm in the direction of the staffer, displaying the number the Nazis tattooed on his arm at Auschwitz just a few inches from her face. Without making eye-contact and barely breaking stride, Pop kept walking. Understandably, the staffer barely blinked. She didn't make a move to stop him.

Pop kept walking right into the elevator that had just filled with the visitors that had been waiting in that long line. And even though the elevator was already quite crowded, he walked right in. Jake and I had to run past the guard to catch up. "Pop, Pop," I said, feeling a little embarrassed, hoping to talk him into at least waiting for the next elevator.

The staffer inside the elevator must have heard me, because he smiled, held the door and said with smile, "We have room for Pop. You guys too. C'mon in."

And up we went. I have been to the Holocaust Museum many times, but none as memorable as that visit.

About a month ago, in a conscious effort to carry on her father's tradition and to commemorate his birthday, my wife Helen paid her own solo visit to the Museum. She arrived at the end of a busy work day, in a rush, just a few minutes before closing time. Unfortunately, given the late hour, they had run out of the candles usually provided in the Hall of Remembrance for visitors to light and leave in the niches of the outer walls.

Already feeling emotional -- her dad had passed away just six months before -- she broke down sobbing.

A staffer nearby immediately came to her assistance, asking if she needed help. She explained, and the gentleman asked her to wait. He soon returned with a candle, explaining with a conspiratorial wink that he kept his own special supply for such emergencies.

The guards and staff at the Holocaust Museum have a special duty. The do more than just protect and operate one of Washington's many heavily trafficked museums. On a daily basis, they help open the doors to the elderly survivors of the atrocities of World War II. As my stories attest, they do it with a remarkable degree of kindness and professionalism.

As far as I know, the Holocaust Museum personnel that we encountered were not armed guards, though it is possible they were. But when I heard about the shooting this afternoon, and more specifically that at least one of the victims is a security guard now apparently in critical condition, it struck very close to home.

This is personal.

As far as I am concerned, the staff members of the Holocaust Museum are part of our family and the Museum itself is hallowed ground, and we pray for the recovery of the wounded guard. "Never take your guard force and security people for granted," William Parsons, the museum's chief of staff said on television a few minutes ago. Our family never will.

May Stephen Tyrone Johns rest in peace. And may his family find some soon.


Vampire Weekend + Ra Ra Riot = not what I would have expected. (It also equals broken embed code, apparently.)

H/t Alan Jacobs at The American Scene

Capitalizing on the closing

To invoke a blogly cliché: what Digby said.

How Tiller's Death and Office Closing can Help Propel Pro-Life Movement, Derail Sotomayor and Overturn Roe. Four Key Senators will be Targeted to Vote Against Sotomayor; Catholic Bishops will Play a Role to Defeat Sotomayor

Press conference 1 PM, Thursday, to announce details how Pro-life groups can derail Sotomayor, and root out hypocrisy in pro-life ranks.

Also: Emergency Pro-life leadership training to be held in DC, June 12-14, with Randall Terry, Dr. Alan Keyes, Norma McCorvey, and Fr. Norman Weslin. Pro-abortion activists threaten to disrupt meeting.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Oh, no.

Oh my god.

Dr. George R. Tiller’s clinic was one of the few in the country to provide abortions to women late in their pregnancies, and for decades, women had traveled there from all over the nation and from overseas. It was also the only remaining abortion clinic, even for first trimester abortions, in the Wichita region.

“The family of Dr. George Tiller announces that effective immediately, Women’s Health Care Services, Inc., will be permanently closed,” according to a statement issued on Tuesday morning by the family’s lawyers.

And, as if one needed more reasons to worry:

Even some abortion opponents, who had long devoted their efforts to closing down Dr. Tiller’s clinic, said they did not wish to see it happen under these circumstances. Last week, Troy Newman, the leader of Operation Rescue, had said that closing the clinic now would send a worrisome message. “Good God, do not close this abortion clinic for this reason,” he said in an interview with The New York Times. “Every kook in the world will get some notion.”

H/t Balloon Juice

Monday, June 8, 2009

I have a new crush

Guess which of them it is. No, I have no shame.

Obama's speech

The reactions I've seen so far:

Jihadi reactions

Israeli public opinion

Noah Millman: East-West vs. North-South dynamics in Obama's characterization of America's role

Larison: Obama failed to reach the one audience that really matters

Arab students: many versions of "Deeds, not words"

Some signs of undercutting extremists

Daniel Levy: Still Accumulating, Not Expending, Capital

Michael Keating: Obama's speech an end, not a beginning

Abu Muqawama: Speech a bigger deal in the Western world than in the Middle East

This is a fairly diverse range of opinion, the main point of consensus being that none of this will matter down the road if it's not followed up with credible action. Disagreement centers on whether the speech itself was successful or not as rhetoric and as a tactic to buy time and the benefit of the doubt.

I have read many many more reax than this; these are linked because I consider them valuable and thought-provoking. If you only read one, I would say read Marc Lynch:

This was a challenging, thoughtful speech which will be picked at and discussed for a long time. It wasn't as revolutionary as some might have hoped, but that's not surprising -- the ground is so well-trodden that it would have been astonishing to see something genuinely new. Instead, it struck me as a thoughtful reflection and invitation to conversation, with some important nuance which might easily be missed. It was neither "just like Bush" nor a total departure from past American rhetoric.

After that, too many to make sorting worthwhile, really. Daniel Levy, Michael Keating, Larison, and the Arab students. All linked above.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

I Am Dr. Tiller

An incredible project full of defiance, determination, dedication, and love.


Update: More blub inducement by Cara at GlobalComment.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Bah humbug

All I can say is that the American media can really be a bunch of downers when it comes to peace and reconciliation efforts. It's just not as fun for them as war cheerleading, I guess.

It should not be possible to put together a video montage where the two least crazy and least stupid people involved are Valerie Jarrett and...Pat Buchanan.

Also, why is Liz Cheney on TV so much lately?

Link dump: Obama in the Middle East edition

Obama invited the Muslim Brotherhood to his speech.

God forbid the president have manners. Those make you look weak.

The trip is getting overwhelmingly positive coverage in the Arab--and Iranian--media.

But Osama bin Laden's not a fan. The Saudis push back.

Also, I am rather pissed off that the option to receive text messages updating you on the President's speech in real time is available everywhere in the world but the U.S. Not all of us own televisions and some of us will be busy today. It would have been a nice thing.

Congratulations, New Hampshire!

Welcome to the club.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009


Ezra Klein reports that a consensus goal for healthcare reform seems to be emerging: "to slow the annual growth rate of spending by 1.5 percentage points." There's lots of very Reassuring and Serious chatter about how 1.5 percentage points may sound small, but it's going to be very difficult to achieve and would represent a great accomplishment.

Ezra is generous, to my mind:

What you can say about an annual slowdown of 1.5 percentage points is that it would be a magnificent achievement given the political difficulties of health reform, but it's quite a bit lower than could be achieved absent those constraints. [...] But though it's true that this new definition of success is ambitious given what we're likely to achieve amid a broken political system and a powerful health-care industry, it's probably quite modest given what could be achieved in more straightforward circumstances. And that's worth keeping in mind.

The kicker, though, is that 1.5 percentage points happens to be exactly the goal that the healthcare industry voluntarily offered for itself.

This puts me very much in mind of Susan Greenhalgh's Just One Child, which examines the conception, development, and implementation of China's one-child policy from the framework of an anthropology of policymaking. It's a fascinating read and I highly recommend it. In it, she notes that a particular goal--constraining the population at 1.1 billion--was arrived at by a particular set of policymakers based on computer models designed for missile control that were not equipped to consider concerns that social scientists would have thought paramount: demographics, the varying economic needs of rural vs. urban families, etc. This goal, enshrined in a highly technical report that won definitive status almost immediately due to very impressive and impenetrable math, political connections, and the privileging of "hard" science over social science under Mao, quickly became the unquestioned aim of population control policy in the Deng government, despite protest from social scientists that the goal was too ambitious and would harm rural families as well as women. (1.1 billion advocates retorted that it was better to aim too high, in case of falling short.) The result was the often punishing policy we know today.

I should hope the analogy is fairly obvious. In both cases a numerical policy goal was nominated based not on the most rigorous, inclusive, and pragmatic analysis possible, but rather based on other considerations and due to disproportionate political influence. It seems the target of 1.5 percentage points is well on its way to becoming an authorless, Reasonable number that everyone will endorse. The healthcare industry will be pleased, healthcare reformers farther from the centers of power--but often with better information about the effects of policy on the ground--will protest to little avail, and soon we shall have the healthcare policy that became inevitable when this number became The Number.

Policymaking is tricky business, and it has a tendency to turn into a sort of Rube Goldberg Machine (see below) where the final effect seems to have almost nothing to do with the original force even though the chain of cause and effect is there; it's just wended its way through a dizzying array of objects, people, offices, departments, obstacles and pathways.

Best Rube Goldberg Ever - Watch more Funny Videos

The final policy outcome of lowering costs by 1.5 percentage points (assuming policy is effective) will probably seem to have nothing to do with the industry by the time it is realized, or if it does this will be only because they, as Knowledgeable Businessmen with Experience, were wise.

However, that the number came from the healthcare industry is, as Ezra says, worth remembering.

Update: Also see DDay on the way healthcare can die.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

I AM always late

I don't know how I missed Designing Women for my entire life, but thanks to Dorothy Snarker I have seen the light. SO GOOD:

Still life

Tortoise - Prepare Your Coffin from Thrill Jockey Records on Vimeo.

The lovely conceit here is that we follow a photographer around a city, and the whole video is itself a series of gorgeous black and white photographs--even the shots that have motion in them. They remind you of this with frequent cuts and by keeping the camera very still most of the time. It's very beautiful.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Tiller links

George Tiller needs more than candlelight vigils

Why Clinic Violence is Obama's Problem

The Murder of Dr. Tiller, a Foreshadowing

Voices of Choice: Dr. Tiller

From the last, in Tiller's own words:

It is my fundamental philosophy that patients are emotionally, mentally, morally, spiritually and physically competent to struggle with complex health issues and come to decisions that are appropriate for them.

This should not be a radical idea.

Free speech

I'm sure yesterday was a wonderful day filled with the scent of victory and napalm in the morning for Bill O'Reilly:

I don't believe for a second that O'Reilly cares about abortion as much as he pretends to; he's in it for the ratings and the attention. But he must currently be feeling some bizarre combination of disavowal ("I'm just a journalist, man") a la Limbaugh and total power trip.

I'm not saying that Tiller was killed because of O'Reilly. I do think this kind of intense, emotionally provocative, and hateful rhetoric does encourage crazy people to do crazy things, but it's certainly not just Billo who produces it and it's not just abortion that attracts it. By many standards, Billo here is a model of restraint. But that doesn't change the fact that words do have power and guys like Limbaugh, Beck, and Billo will never accept that when it might require them to back down and learn a little humility.


"Prenatal testing without prenatal choices is medical fraud," Tiller once said.

Some beautiful posts

Go. Read them in their entirety. To excerpt them would be to mangle their integrity.

Hilzoy on Dr. George Tiller

One of Sullivan's readers on torture.

Peaceful, legal means

Hilzoy has an eye-opening post on what exactly Operation Rescue got up to through "appropriate channels." Why nobody has ever sued them for stalking and harassment is beyond me.

Newman and his small staff of zealous pro-lifers are buzzing with the news that the clinic's office manager has quit -- a result, they believe, of their name-and-shame campaign. The manager had been accosted by a neighbor in a grocery store who recognized her from an Operation Rescue flier that featured her photo. "You're that baby killer!" the neighbor screamed at her. Then Newman, through investigative methods he'd rather not reveal, discovered where the woman's husband works. "We think that's what clinched it," he says. "He probably realized we were going to picket his workplace. I imagine he's the major breadwinner in the family, and he didn't want to risk his job."

It gets worse. We're talking cruising people's houses at night, stealing and going through their trash, paying others to spy on them. Tiller drove an armored car.

Furthermore, the disregard for the lives--yes, lives--of the patients involved is staggering. From the Rolling Stone article Hilzoy quoted:

Newman and his staff have spent months compiling a list of more than 200 "abortion collaborators" -- companies that do business with Women's Health Care Services and its employees. They plan to approach every firm on the list -- from the guy who mows the clinic's lawn to the cafe that sells Tiller his morning latte -- and lobby them to stop doing business with the facility. At the top of the collaborator list is Wesley Medical Center. Wesley is vital to Tiller's clinic: It's where his patients are taken if there is a medical emergency. Newman has written to Wesley's board of physicians to request that they retract hospital privileges for Tiller's patients. If they refuse, Newman plans to expose them as Tiller's accomplices: "We're thinking of taking out an ad in the local newspaper, naming Wesley's physicians and accusing them of supporting a baby killer."

And then what will happen to those women--and fetuses--who are in the midst of medical emergencies? Not to mention the utter lack of respect for the Hippocratic Oath. Whether abortions of the type performed at Tiller's clinic are freely chosen is debatable, but no medical professional worth the title can turn away a patient in crisis from emergency care. What did they think they were playing at?