Sunday, August 27, 2006

Guitarist / Composer / Lyricist David LaMotte

Thanks to friends Carol Fuller, John Fuller, and their colleague Zach, I attended a private concert in a backwoods venue behind a home north of Kennesaw, Georgia. We drove up a gravel lane, parked in grass, walked up past the mud and the railroad ties to a pot luck buffet, paid ten dollars to the host, and picnicked on the lawn where a long-haired guitarist sang in a little gazebo built for singers. Crickets, kids playing, and a frog were all part of the ambience.

The singer/songwriter was David LaMotte (, fifteen years into his recording career, based in North Carolina but reaching worldwide into Europe and to a school named for him in Guatemala.

Early on, he sang an earnest and amusing song that played with a "conceit" in the old John Donne - 17th century style, taking a metaphor (my friend's brain is like a home) to a ridiculous extreme, yet taking it seriously:

Gonna crawl inside your soul
Gonna cook you up a little meal
You've been feeding yourself this garbage
Makes you feel the way you feel
I mean you got junk in your refrigerator
That's way, way overdue. . .

Another song describes a Friday night high school basketball team. With meaningful triple-rhyme (slant, but consistent) and economy of expression, LaMotte pictures the scene. . .

Do you see 23? That whole row is his relatives
His Mom looks sad, sitting over there next to his
Red faced Dad, trying to hold back the expletives
The grandfather "almost went pro" and the Dad had his own dreams, unrealized, "And it looks like the roots will take hold." La Motte plays by association, ""So it's root, root, root for the home team, / 'Cause if they don't win he'll be shamed. . . ."

Good as the lyrics were, and his witty patter, everyone with me was especially impressed by an instrumental number that he used to end his first set. Using his sound equipment's delay, he set up patterns of melody, chords, and rhythm (beating his guitar) that unfolded in canon over each other.

Long hair, casual clothes, Sixties persona -- but a serious musician and lyricist in the vein of Joni Mitchell, playing with different tunings and sounds, thick chords, and counterpoint. He's wise enough to know that not all poetry makes good lyrics, and not all good lyrics are poetry.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

When W. Ruled the World

(Reflections on George W. Bush occasioned by an article, "The View from the Top" by Michael Gerson in Newsweek 8/21/2006 News and History )

For me and George W. Bush, it was disdain at first sight. Then he opened his mouth, and it was worse. During his debate with Al Gore, he did a clumsy job of expressing points that Reagan had made so elegantly and persuasively. He did say one thing I liked: That our "nation building" of late had been "arrogant." I didn't vote for him in 2000, but for the Libertarian candidate.

After 2001, it didn't get any better. Even when the media were approving his impromptu speech on the rubble of the twin towers and his strong speech before Congress, I was shuddering at the huge mistake of declaring a "war" on an abstraction, "terrorism," and the threat to go after nations that harbor terrorists. He was opening up a new cold war before our eyes.

Then, all of a sudden, Bush ruled the world. Saddam fell in about three weeks. Then the statue was pulled down, as Iraqis celebrated and said "Thank you, America." Within two weeks of that, as I recall, Libya's Khaddafi gave up nuclear weapons and became our pussy cat; North Korea's flakey dictator reopened talks; Egypt's autocratic "President" announced democratic reforms and new elections; Saudi Arabia's king announced a baby step towards giving some of his citizens a say in the choices of local officials; Israel made progress in negotiations with the Palestinians; Afghanistan's newly elected President seemed strong.

For that brief time, I had to admit that Bush's vision was possible, and he had deftly managed to make it happen, withstanding pressures and advice from people like me.

All this was brought to mind by Michael Gerson's short reflection on those days in the White House.

President Bush drew a fixed conclusion: as long as the Middle East remains a bitter and backward mess, America will not be secure. Dictators in that region survive by finding scapegoats for their failures -- feeding conspiracy theories about Americans and Jews, -- and use religious groups to destroy reformers and democrats. Oil money strengthens elites, buys rockets, funds research into weapons of mass destruction, builds radical schools across Africa and Asia and finds its way to terrorist organizations [that] exploit the humiliated and hopeless. . .

That things have gone wrong since then tells us about the management skills of the White House. But let's give credit where it's due to a President who had something we've lacked since Reagan and Thatcher: boldness of vision how things can be different, not just "managed."

Gerson finishes his article reminding us that "peace is not a natural state; it is achieved by a struggle of uncertain duration." He adds, "In that struggle, the cynical, the world-weary, the risk-averse will not inherit the earth."

Friday, August 18, 2006

Short Comment on War from Thoughtful Blogger

( News and History )

The author of the "Scientia est Potentia" web site (see links at side bar) wrote this on July 29:

Our War really isn't against terrorism. It's not a war against China, Iran, North Korea, Palestine, Syria, or Cuba and it has little to do with the "Axis of Evil". It's not a war against Kim Jong Il, Osama Bin Laden, George Bush, or even the would-be criminal who might live next door.

Our War is against ourselves. The War we face everyday is the struggle that is hidden behind the small choices that each of us make - the little things that slowly add up. Our War is about whether or not we'll defend the rights of those with whom we cannot seem to find common ground. It is about whether or not each day will find us having improved the community in which we live, or letting it slide. Will we improve ourselves, forcing our bodies and minds into that which is worthy of the opportunities that we have been given, or will we allow leisure and experience to soften us up for the inevitable end?

I asked my own seventh grade students to question the Pledge of Allegiance. Does "liberty and justice for all" apply to everyone, or just to people living in the US, or just to US citizens? They opted for the third choice. Then I asked, "Why were we in France and Germany and Italy and Japan during World War II?" They changed their minds. We mentioned Guantanamo Bay. They changed their minds again. From the perspective of (1) someone familiar with the great rhetoric of our nation's shapers from Thomas Jefferson to Lincoln to FDR to Reagan and (2) a Christian, I'd say rights are innate and the US is the first society to recognize human rights as its cornerstone. Americans are privileged to live here, but rights are not our privilege alone.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Detective Novel "Skinwalker" Shifts Focus for Suspense

The plot of a murder mystery is scaffolding; the real fascination lies in the characters, the atmospherics, the dialogue, and, often, in what we may learn as we read. (See my earlier reflections on detective fiction.) Tony Hillerman's series featuring Navajo detective Joe Leaphorn is strong on what we learn about life on the Rez and on the tension between Navajo traditions and modern life. The novel SKINWALKER (a word meaning "witch") from 1986, earliest book in the series that I've read, introduces Leaphorn to a more traditional-minded detective named Jim Chee. Their complementary characters are interesting.

More interesting for me is the rhythm that Hillerman keeps up by shifting focus from one man to the other in alternating chapters. Each is picking up pieces of the puzzle, and sometimes not sharing what they learn -- so that we may know more than the characters do when they're heading into danger. In one chapter only, Hillerman also lets us see a killer planning to do Chee in. Hillerman discloses appearance, motivation, and the thought process that leads to strategy -- then drops the character until the trap is sprung. While it gets a bit tedious to read in chapter after chapter some variation of the idea, "Hmmm, this 'skinwalker' superstition is doing a lot of damage to our Navajo community," we can't help but feel suspense once we know about the killer. It stops being "whodunnit," and becomes "uh-oh, is this part of the trap?"

A foreword by novelist Sarah Paretsky mentions Hillerman's method. He does not write an outline for the whole book, but only "four or five moves ahead." It seems like a good idea, allowing for spontaneity.

Detective Novel Skinwalker Shifts Focus for Suspense | Fiction

Sunday, August 06, 2006

"Fiasco" in Iraq: Plans without Point

( Reflections on Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq by Thomas E. Ricks, longtime Pentagon correspondent of the Washington Post. News and History )

It's not so much that Donald Rumsfeld and Gen. Tommy Franks and team didn't plan for Iraq and its aftermath, because we read about plans galore, days of war games to test consequences, and reports and critiques -- all the things that you'd guess military planners would do.

The main problem, according to Ricks, is the scant thought given to "strategy." How could this be? There are a couple of answers suggested in Ricks.

The first one is that the theorists who pushed for this war long before Mr. Bush did were, in Ricks' formulation, like 60s radicals. To them, what mattered was to put on notice all middle east dictators and nominal democracies that the USA could and would take out an unfriendly middle east dictator. If Saddam's fall brought in another dictator, or a theocracy, fine; if democracy could arise, so much the better; just so long as we break up the status quo in a region that has been a stagnant breeding ground for terrorists. So, strategy, shmategy.

The second one has to do with the personalities of the leaders who pushed for this war and carried through its first year. The planners, including Rumsfeld and Franks and Paul Wolfowitz, are said to be "smart" and "educated" but not "wise." We are led to believe that their planning for "Phase IV" (what would follow Saddam's surrender) was summarized in a power-point slide (supplied by Ricks) that outlines how "divisions of the people" along ethnic, tribal and religious lines will gradually be resolved by the military's "aimed pressure to achieve end state over time" until we reach little eggs labeled "ethnic, tribal, religious" safely ensconced together in one big egg called "strategic success." In between, there are stars listed labeled "mayors' meetings," "Joint meetings," "elections," and, listed first, "stability."

But officers are quoted again and again saying that "tactically" we're winning every battle, but "strategically" we're a mess. Our plans carried assumptions that contradicted what we actually did -- that Saddam's army and Baath officials would be converted to help our efforts within days of his defeat, for example. Yet almost immediately we disbanded the army and shortly afterward "de-Baathified" civil leadership. We bypassed large Saddam-loyal communities in the "Sunni Triangle" en route to Baghdad, where armed forces were waiting for battle, and declared victory when Saddam fell -- leaving dangerous forces all around the city. We assumed civilians' welcome of the US and then did much to ensure their enmity (outlined in chapters called "How to Create an Insurgency." It's Abu Ghraib, of course (a marine is quoted at the moment he sees the story on CNN: "Some a------ just lost the war for us"), but much more.

[Detour, here: Painful as is the section on soldiers' abuse of detainees and indignities inflicted on the people we're supposed to be helping, it wasn't the first time. Cruelty against Philippinos created a public uproar for awhile when we fought an insurgency there following our War with Spain in 1899. Just today, a news article reports on the recent release of classified data showing widespread cruelty, casual murders, and recreational mistreatment of suspects in Vietnam - including baseball bats and electric shocks that were news to us at Abu Gharib in Iraq. But George Washington's orders demanding dignified treatment of prisoners during our Revolution purposefully to differentiate us from our enemies establishes a baseline. Some have laughed at liberals for wringing their hands over prisoners in Gitmo who've been chained into uncomfortable positions - "That's not torture," scoffed an evangelical friend of mine, "and they don't have the rights of American citizens." Well, sure it is, and I believe our whole society is based on certain "self-evident" truths that "all men are created equal," a phrase explicitly made to cover citizens of the world.]

After the new wave of leaders come in, the story changes (Chapter 18). In Ricks' telling, General Casey (Chief in DC), Abizaid (Commander in Iraq), Mattis (Marine units, Fallujah), McMaster (Tall Afar), Petraeus (takes over training Iraqis from private contractors), and ambassador Negroponte all have made us proud. They all have in common a mastery of history and our language, plus an openness to discussion and change of their own views. Casey has a group of officers with PhD's prepare a plan for putting down the insurgency. They call themselves "Doctors without Orders" and produce a paper culling lessons learned from insurgencies of the past century. They start doing the right things and stop doing the wrong things, totally reversing practice in Iraq up to then.

A favorite example: McMaster works with Sunni leaders before his attack on Tall Afar, saying humbly, "When the Americans first came, we were in a dark room, stumbling around, breaking china. But now Iraqi leaders are turning on the lights." Then he adds: the time for resistance is therefore over. "This in fact was a threat, stated as politely as possible," comments Ricks. Then McMaster takes his officers and Iraqi officers out to tour the battlefield where Alexander the Great met the Persian Army, to give his American colleagues more perspective on the ancient pride of their Iraqi colleagues. (p. 422) In Tall Afar, the humvees that were driven pell-mell through streets to avoid attacks -- scaring citizens and looking out of control -- were replaced by 15 m.p.h. drives that gave Americans time to see where they were going, respond to developments, look calm. Instead of one big army base at Tall Afar, the Americans and Iraqis embedded themselves in 29 spread out bases to maximize flexibility and awareness.

But events within Iraq seem to have spiraled out of control. US presence is less an issue now that Sunni - Shiite rivalry and revenge have become, by Abizaid's admission, "civil war."

Almost absent from the book is George W. Bush. The caricature of him as a dumb puppet of Republican neo-conservatives got a big blow when Bob Woodward published Bush at War in 2004. From September 11 on, Bush appears to have been skeptical, determined to act decisively, and demanding of clear information. In this book, he appears to be willing to take time with Iraq, agreeing with Sec. of State Colin Powell that "Iraq isn't going anywhere." It seems in this account that Cheney got way ahead, saying that Weapons of Mass Destruction were known to exist in Iraq, etc. etc. etc. Bush is reported to have been surprised by that. He and Powell are both convinced, and Powell convinces others. Ricks allows us to think that the ones pushing for war (including Judith Miller of the NY Times) filtered the info that Bush saw, and showed him info that just wasn't true -- he was misled, and then he made the tough decisions and helped to sell the policy.

Late in the book, (p. 407) Bush is reportedly shocked to hear that the war isn't going well. This is following his reelection in 2004. He sharply questions the Pentagon briefer, while other Pentagon officials present try to downplay the critique. Bush keeps the information to himself a few more weeks before letting on of a change in public, and then starts to work the more realistic assessments into his speeches.

Ricks lays out scenarios for what could happen, finally. The best one is the Philippines model - we stay for years, but with cooperation and mutual respect and eventual independence. The worst ones look like World War I with Iran and Shiites v. Syrian Sunnis, with Kurds seizing oil fields and getting help from Iran when Turkey attacks them -- and everyone attacks Israel, I guess.

One interesting aside: Besides Ricks' interviews with Pentagon and DoD sources, he had access to the Internet, where he read thousands of pages of postings by soldiers in the field, reporters in the Green Zone, Iraqi civilians... their advice, their complaints, their observations. Has any war historian ever had such a range and multitude of sources available instantaneously?

News & History

Thursday, August 03, 2006

"Crazy Busy" and the Gift of Attention Deficit

Response to Crazy Busy by Edward M. Hallowell, MD

"We all have ADD now." I've said that for years, whenever a student or parent was worried about the disorder. Now a specialist in the field confirms it. His recommendation: Learn how ADD can be a gift.

Self-help books that I've read have all spent roughly one third of the book telling stories to convince the readers that they need the book, one third or less with practical answers, and one third more of examples. Hallowell's earlier books Connect and Worry were excellent, even moving examples of the genre.

This one is short on moving examples, but certainly hits with slices of life that anyone reading or writing a blog will identify with, such as some modern maladies he calls "leeches" of our precious time and attention. One is "screen sucking," the addiction to screens that afflicts us, so that we are checking email, news, what's on TV every chance we get. He advises a 12 step program, seriously. Another is "frazzing," the illusion of multitasking, when all you're really doing is three things ineffectively at once for the power rush you get doing it.

The essential image of the book was his own experience as short order cook alone on the late-night shift, how he got into a rhythm - work food on the grill, look back for customers' signals at the counter, look up on the board for orders, repeat. When this was going well, he was in his "C-state" (connected, confident...) and his mind was free to work on other issues. This was effective multitasking. When the orders came in too fast, he went into "F-state" (frazzled, frantic, other f words) and made mistakes. Since we can't avoid some of this multi-tasking, he suggests that we learn to recognize when we're transitioning from C to F.

The cure for "F state" is "play," creative engagement in some off-task task -- a "gift" of truly ADD people like himself. He suggests that work is activity exerted for something that is of value to others, while play is the same thing -- when it is of value to the self. Play is thinking on tangents. He suggests exercises aroundp. 219 for encouraging "play" - such as going out in the car and intentionally getting lost. He swears that our thoughts while we find our way home will end up being creative ways to deal with problems.

It reminds me of my mother's experience. She told me that housecleaning was her problem-solving time: She'd start in one corner of the house with a problem relating to one of us kids; by the time she'd worked her way down stairs to the laundry room, the problem was solved.


Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Back Words to “Forward” on Hispanic Immigration

E-mail makes it easy for anyone to forward messages to dozens of strangers via friends of friends. About one in every ten is genuinely uplifting and one more is genuinely clever. Others are just sentimental or standard talk-radio generalizations. But two recent messages stand out for ugliness. It took one minute of thought and two minutes on Google to de-bunk it. I’m going to deal with one of them here, now, and save the other for later.

One email began (in HYSTERICAL CAPITAL LETTERS) “IF YOU THINK HISPANICS ARE HERE FOR WORK..... YOU'RE NUTS!!” and cited the LA Times for statistics that are supposed to alarm us. For example, “ 95% of warrants for murder in Los Angeles are for illegal aliens.” Granted, murder warrants are alarming, but we can relax, because there’s a healthy murder rate among non-Hispanic whites and African Americans, too. My search of the LA Times web archives, which go back to 1985, did not confirm this guy’s 95%, and he lost all credibility.

Besides, he has no historical memory. The author of the email tells us that “21 radio stations in L. A. are Spanish speaking,” and goes on to scream “WAKE UP AMERICA!” I suggest a little review of history. We’ve had this kind of hysteria every twenty years since the “Alien and Sedition Act” of the John Adams administration. News media in other national languages have had a large audience in American cities since the mid-1800s and have always been part of the system that eases new generations into the USA. I suppose this is someone who failed high school Spanish and is affronted by people who don’t just speak good ol’ English. I, for one, am excited to hear more than one language when I walk through a public place, and enjoy the ingenuity that it takes for me and, say, a waiter, to communicate.

I thought I’d check out Google for more balanced reporting, and found refutations for the rest of the ugly email in an article by Larry Kudlow, National Review’s Online Economics Editor, host of CNBC’s Kudlow & Company and author of the daily web blog, Kudlow’s Money Politic$. I’m reprinting pieces of his article, with my comments in italics:

Until Mexico’s economic malaise is cured, millions will continue to seek economic opportunity in the United States. Can you blame them?

Once these immigrants get here they work hard. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Hispanic unemployment is only 5.5 percent, compared to 4.8 percent overall.

...As Center for Equal Opportunity chairman Linda Chavez [George W. Bush's first choice for labor secretary] has been pointing out, Hispanics are great entrepreneurs, small-business owners, and job creators. According to 2002 Census Bureau data, Hispanics are opening new businesses at a rate that’s three-times faster than the national average.

People who take risks, endure privation, work hard and long, and keep for themselves little of what they earn to benefit their families – aren’t these the ideal Americans, paragons of “family values?”

Kudlow shoots down some other accusations:

As for the claim that illegal workers don’t pay taxes, Princeton professor Douglas Massey estimates that roughly two-thirds of undocumented immigrants pay the FICA payroll tax. Overall, illegals have fed $7 billion to Social Security and $1.5 billion to Medicare. They are contributing to our wealth, not reducing it.

And what do they take from the system? According to Forbes magazine, only 10 percent of illegal Mexicans have sent a child to an American public school and just 5 percent have received food stamps or unemployment benefits. A U-Cal Davis study also shows that more immigrant workers leads to more economic growth. This is standard economics. Multiply an enlarged workforce times existing productivity and you get more economic growth.

He points out the shameful mismanagement of wealth in the corrupt Mexican government, a sad old story; and he points out the way the USA has opened our borders when it was convenient, and then closed our borders when alarmists like this emailer get the upper hand.

The only way to reduce illegal immigration, therefore, is to raise the unskilled H-2B visa level and bring it in line with job openings in the United States. This is the only feasible economic solution to the chronic problem of illegal immigration. The idea worked forty years ago with the successful Bracero program for farm workers. It can work again.

Today’s low visa limit of only 140,000 has caused illegal flows to skyrocket. This must be changed. Tamar Jacoby of the Manhattan Institute estimates that U.S. labor-market conditions can absorb about 400,000 Mexican immigrants per year. This would balance labor supply-and-demand conditions and illegal immigration would plummet.

He concludes:

Proper reform should combine stronger border security with higher visa levels and a path to citizenship. Yes, illegals should pay fines and go to the back of the citizenship line. Yes, employers must aggressively cooperate with the new rules. But compassion must coexist with free-economy principles and the rule of law.

Before he passed away, Pope John Paul II quoted Matthew 25:35: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” That is precisely the spirit America should seek when it comes to immigration reform.

Next time you feel like forwarding ANYTHING in CAPITAL LETTERS that purports to uphold good old American values by ripping into someone else – just delete my name from your list.

Find Kudlow’s essay and more recent articles with other thoughtful opinions at

News and History

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Fiction: Updike's "Terrorist" Plot has Character

Perhaps John Updike's critics would like the master novelist NOT to try to understand how a teenaged Muslim is manipulated into becoming a suicide bomber?
[Aside: In a response on another's blog (, I wrote this succinct statement:
Yes, “Updike dared to be sincere about his underlying humanism.” Ahmad is only more intense than the others in the book, but they’re all wrestling one way or another with how our American world makes it tough to believe in God or anything. Even that isn’t a slam on America, just an observation of the way it’s turned out in a country where everyone’s doing a pretty good job of being pretty good.] 
Updike, whose earliest fiction has always focused on a love of life - and fear of losing it - "gets into" the mind of a teenager who could throw life away. Bigots blame Islam, but we've had suicide bombers in the West for over a century (read Henry James's novel about a suicide bomber, Princess Cassamassima, ca. 1895). We have in America numerous examples of terrorist-suicide teens in the last twenty years (Columbine ... Pearl, Mississippi...) Some bloggers derided Updike after he told an interviewer that the first draft focused on a Catholic priest -- and a blogger asked rhetorically, "He thinks a CHRISTIAN would do that?" Well, sure -- we've got examples of preachers and priests gone bad in this country, misguided followers who smuggled weapons, shot government officials, and / or poisoned themselves. So it's not a stretch to say that Updike's terrorist is no alien, and understanding him would be understanding something about ourselves.

Understand what, exactly? Updike's real subject here isn't terrorism, politics, jihad, or Islam: it's feeling the absence of God. A line from the Koran (Qu'ran) about God's being closer to a believer "than the vein in his neck" keeps recurring, as the young jihadist, who has no father or siblings -- thinks of God as a kind of brother whose presence he feels intensely. But much else of what the boy sees, feels, and learns makes him question that presence -- in a public high school, in a convenience store, in Islamic study with a cynical teacher, in the truck that he delivers furniture in, not to mention on public media and advertisements.

The teen Ahmad is the focus, but all the other characters are dealing with the same feelings, and their faith (or lost faith) is equally challenged. These include Ahmad's 60-something atheist Jewish "college counselor," the boy's lapsed Catholic Irish mom, the advisor's voracious and fat wife, her work-obsessed sister, and the sister's boss -- Secretary of Homeland Security.

At the moment of the story when Ahmad becomes aware that he is involved with a terrorist cell, he remembers the old school's motto, "Knowledge is freedom," and thinks, "Knowledge can also be a prison, with no way out once you're in." A couple of pages later, his mother is discussing Ahmad with Jack, the counselor, who suggests the same thing from another angle:

"There's a certain hunger for, I don't know, the absolute, when everything is so relative, and all the economic forces are pushing instant gratification and credit-card debt at [kids today]. ...People want to go back to simple -- black and white, right and wrong, when things aren't simple."
"So my son is simple-minded."
"In a way. But so is most of mankind. Otherwise, being human is too tough. Unlike the other animals, we know too much. They, the other animals, know just enough to get the job done and die."

A few pages later, Ahmad admits that he fears how education might weaken his faith.

I won't spoil the ending. Suffice it to say, it's both a surprise and perfectly fitting, leading to a final sentence that feels exactly right.

08/01/2006 | Fiction, Religion