ashthomas//blog: February 2004


Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Mr X turns 100. The NY Times has a piece on the celebrations for George F. Kennan's one hundreth birthday at Princeton this week. Kennan, of course, is the diplomat and historian who is credited with the formulation of the policy of containment that shaped the Cold War period. Kennan career is one that many diplomats and foreign policy intellectual surely covet.

In his remarks at the event, Secretary of State Colin Powell, had this to say of Kennan:
Some men achieve fame as witnesses to great events. Some men are renowned because they have participated in seminal events. And some men are venerated for their talent to interpret such events. But George Kennan has been all three: witness to history, shaper of history, and interpreter of history.

As the charge d'affaire at the U.S. embassy in Moscow (under Ambassador Averill Harriman), Kennan wrote in February 1946 what is probably the most significant diplomatic cable of the twentieth century. The Long Telegram, as it has come to be known, was a eight thousand word essay that described the Soviet style of rule and how the U.S. should respond to Soviet foreign policy. A few years later, Kennan penned the famous "Mr X" article -- probably, along with Huntington's "The Clash of Civilizations" and Fukuyama's "The End of History", one of the most important essays ever published by Foreign Affairs. "The Sources of Soviet Conduct", as the article is actually titled, caused quite a stir when it was discoved that the author was the new head of the Policy Planning Board, which to some minds gave it the air of official government policy. The history of the article is worth repeating. The following is from the introductory essay to the special of Foreign Affairs titled Containment: 40 Years Later, published in Spring 1987:

It was only a series of chance circumstances that led to publication of the article under a pseudonym. A career diplomat, George Kennan had been writing and speaking for over a decade on broad questions of the Soviet Union, its foreign policy and the American response. Within the government he was famous for his "Long Telegram" written from his embassy post in Moscow in early 1946, which set forth his analysis of the prospects for postwar Russia. He spent an academic sabbatical at the National War College in 1946-47, continuing with his lectures. At the request of Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal in December 1946, Kennan prepared for him an informal paper entitled "Psychological Background of Soviet Foreign Policy"; this was the original title of what would become the X article. In early January Kennan spoke at a small study group of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York; the topic was "The Soviet Way of Thought and Its Effect on Soviet Foreign Policy." Although Kennan spoke only from notes, the confidential record of the meeting contains the following passage:
"Turning to the connotation of those features of the Soviet way of thought, Mr. Kennan found no cause for despair. He thought that other Russian traits of character made it perfectly possible for the U.S. and other countries to contain Russian power, if it were done courteously and in a non-provocative way, long enough so that there might come about internal changes in Russia."

Hamilton Fish Armstrong, the editor of Foreign Affairs, was a participant in the study group. A few days later Armstrong wrote to Kennan soliciting an article along the lines of his presentation to the Council. Kennan replied that the paper he had just written for Forrestal might be suitable, but in light of his new State Department position he could not be identified as the author. Armstrong expressed some hesitation about publishing an anonymous article but wrote a memo to his assistant editor, Byron Dexter, that Kennan's view was "exceptionally interesting and though painful to the Soviets is not crude or unfair in spirit." Dexter replied: "I think that Kennan's ideas on Russia are so good that our readers should be given a chance to share them and this overbalances the undesirable factor" of the author's anonymity. In a letter to Kennan, Dexter suggested that the byline simply be "X." Over the course of the next weeks the manuscript was cleared in the State Department, received by Foreign Affairs, lightly edited and published in the issue of July 1947.

It should be remembered, therefore, that Kennan's article was originally intended as a response to a specific question posed to him by the Secretary of the Navy. It is perhaps because what was intended to be read narrowly was interpreted by the public as a broad restatement of the Truman Doctrine's application with respect to the Soviet Union, that Kennan's original idea of containment has been distorted. Kennan's concept of containment was quite limited, and required the United States to identify its primary security interests. Kennan saw these as the Western Hemisphere, non-communist Europe, Japan and the Middle East, and thus the U.S. needed to contain any Soviet encroachment or threat upon those interests, preferably through economic coercion and the use of local anti-communist movements. That the doctrine was broadened to include active military measures upset Kennan. He has said, "If, then, I was the author in 1947 of a 'doctrine' of containment, it was a doctrine that lost much of its rationale with teh death of Stalin and with the development of the Soviet-Chinese conflict. I emphatically deny the paternity of any efforts to invoke that doctrine today in situations to which it has, and can have, no proper relevance."

The vagueness of the X article is a flaw that John Lewis Gaddis returns to repeatedly in his discussions of the policy of containment. Gaddis is a professor of history at Yale University, and the authorised biographer of Kennan, although the volume will not appear until after Kennan's death. Gaddis will come out with a book about United States foreign policy in March, Surprise, Security and the American Experience, in which he describes what he sees as the three biggest shifts in foreign policy thinking in US history. In interviews with the Council on Foreign Relations and the Boston Globe, Kennan describes how he believes that President Bush has brought about the most recent shift, following the shifts that occurred under the presidencies of Monroe and FDR. The guys over at OxBlog over a good discussion of where Gaddis fits in in the neoconservative circle.

Where's the compassion? President Bush has announced that he is in favour of a constitution amendment that bans gay marriage. As the AP report says, this is a majority priority for the fundamentalist Christian groups that Bush is so tightly linked to. The announcement could be seen as a ploy to create a major division between Bush and the likely Democratic candidate, Senator John Kerry, in the upcoming elections. But putting aside the cynical idea of this being a political manuever, it also represents one of the biggest set backs in civil rights ever. As Andrew Sullivan writes,
The president launched a war today against the civil rights of gay citizens and their families. And just as importantly, he launched a war to defile the most sacred document in the land.... [T]his president wants to drag the very founding document into his re-election campaign. He is proposing to remove civil rights from one group of American citizens - and do so in the Constitution itself.

Check out a small sampling of the many, many letters that Sullivan has received at his page.
Nick Confessore over the American Prospect's Tapped blog, looks at the polling numbers and why Bush needs to push this issue, as it is very obvious that public opinion is moving to the more progressive side. Soon, Confessore argues, the religious right will not be able to argue that they are the ones saving families and respecting the sanctity of marriage:
The opponents of this amendment will be pleading for tolerance, dignity, love, and compassion; for keeping existing families together and bringing new ones into being. It will be hard to look at these ordinary men and women and see them as a threat to marriage and family. Indeed, as this progresses, I think it will become increasingly hard to look at those who favor a federal marriage amendment and not see them as a threat to marriage and family.

A shift is occuring in the America, a change in the publicly understood definitions of "family" and "marriage", and Bush and his followers want to put a halt on that. They can't, and this amendment will not succeed -- the left will vote against, libertarians on the right will vote against it, and constitutional purists will vote against it. And Bush will find that the harder he pushes on this, the more he will lose support from the liberal hawks and the neocons, who may have supported his foreign policy, but will be disgusted by this show of bigotry and backward thinking.

Saturday, February 21, 2004

That's you, that is... In the early 90s, the British sketch show The Mary Whitehouse Experience featured a pair of elderly academics whose historical debates degenerated into inspired insults. Performed by Rob Newman and David Baddiel (who recently served as a Booker Prize judge), the History Today segments were the highlight of the show for me. Listen to or watch them here. You won't regret it.

Friday, February 20, 2004

Top spy is accidental source. The Defence Minister here in Australia has come out saying that the practice of high ranking intelligence officers giving lectures at universities is "too risky". The comment followed senate testimony by the head of the Defence Intelligence Organisation, Frank Lewincamp, in which he admitted that he may have inadvertently been the unnamed source of claims in a newspaper article. Lewincamp gave an "off-the-record" lecture at the Australian National University at which a reporter was present. Not long after, a piece in The Age claimed that the Australian defence community warned the Australian government about the unreliability of certain pieces of US intelligence regarding Saddam Hussein's capabilities. Lewincamp admitted that he had discussed the issue at the lecture, but that he denied that he was the source for the more incendiary assertions in the article:
"I have never said that the Bush administration's claims justifying an invasion were exaggerated," he said. "Nor have I said that the government was told that the Iraq WMD did not pose an immediate threat."
However, Lewincamp did not dispute the story's claim that he said Iraq's WMD capacity was "latent" and did not justify an invasion.

While both sides of the Parliament accept Lewincamp's statement that no classified material was released at this particular lecture, the incident has resulted in calls for the practice to be curtailed or at least regulated in order to prevent the possibility from happening in the future.

Wolf, Bloom and bluff. An article in the New York Observer is reporting that in a forthcoming New York magazine piece, Naomi Wolf, feminist icon, is accusing highly respected Shakespearian scholar Harold Bloom of sexually harassing her at Yale more than twenty years ago.

Rachel Donadio of the Observer writes:
According to Yale University, Ms. Wolf approached the university last month with various requests. For one thing, she wished to explore filing a complaint of sexual harassment against Mr. Bloom. Helaine Klasky, a spokeswoman for Yale, said Ms. Wolf was told that "you are not permitted under Yale statutes to file sexual-harassment complaints 20 years after an alleged event occurred. There were policies and procedures in place when Ms. Wolf attended Yale and the alleged harassment took place, yet she did not avail herself of them." (Yale has a two-year statute of limitations on such complaints.) Ms. Klasky said that last month Ms. Wolf also contacted the offices of Yale president Richard Levin and the dean of Yale College, Richard Brodhead, as well as the public-relations office, in the context of writing her article. Furthermore, according to Ms. Klasky, Ms. Wolf "requested an apology from the university, and was told that an apology could only be issued if wrongdoing was found—and unless one’s filed a formal complaint, there cannot be any apology."

Ms. Wolf made her name as the author of the 1991 best-seller The Beauty Myth, and more recently has written books on motherhood and adolescent sexuality. Her notoriety seemed to have peaked when she famously advised Al Gore during the 2000 campaign, suggesting that he wear more "earth tones" in order to appeal to the women’s vote, and reportedly collected a monthly fee of $15,000 for her advice.

Sources close to Mr. Bloom said that Ms. Wolf never tried reaching the professor at home—his number is listed—but rather left specific, and potentially incendiary, phone messages with administrative assistants at his two Yale offices.

In her 1997 book Promiscuities, Ms. Wolf wrote about an unnamed college professor who placed his hand between her legs after showing up at her apartment to discuss her poetry. Other classmates, she claimed, had had similar experiences, but she thought she could resist.

Camille Paglia jumped to Bloom's defence, first noting the indecency of bringing such a charge after so much time has passed, before moving onto anad hominen attack: "At the beginning of the 90’s, people said, ‘Oh, Naomi Wolf, this great thinker,’" said Ms. Paglia. "But what she’s managed to do in 10 years is marginalize herself as a chronicler of teenage angst. She doesn’t want to leave that magic island when she was the ripening teenager. How many times do we have to relive Naomi Wolf’s growing up? How many books, how many articles, Naomi, are you going to impose on us so we have to be dragged back to your teenage-heartbreak years? This is regressive! It’s childish! Move on! Move on! Get on to menopause next!"

For a more light-hearted story of ivory tower misconduct, check out this story in the Telegraph. Twenty-three year old Oxford engineering student Matthew Richardson was mistakenly asked to deliver a three day seminar to a group of Chinese economic PhD candidates. Bluffing his way through the lectures by reading verbatim from a high school textbook, Richardson only lost his nerve on the second day when he finally ran out of chapters. "I have no idea who they were expecting. Being Chinese, they were inscrutable and if they were expecting someone else they didn't show it. Perhaps they thought I was a prodigy. They all called me professor," Richardson said. "It was only on my return to Britain that I discovered that there is a professor with the same name in New York. To this day I do not know if that is who the Chinese were expecting."

I hope they weren't expecting this guy.

Thursday, February 19, 2004

Not that I am jealous or anything... Wired has an article about the role of blogs in political campaigns. Ben Chandler, the new Democratic congressman from Kentucky, used blogs extremely effectively in his recent campaign, turning "a $2,000 investment in blog advertising into over $80,000 in donations in only two weeks". Popular polibloggers like Atrios, Josh Marshall, Daily Kos and Calpundit, who provide the drug of choice for those around America and the world who are addicted to political news, commentary and gossip, can create a buzz around a candidate, providing not only media coverage leading to name recognition, but also access to readers' wallets. Such is the effectiveness of this advertising that these top tier blogs are able to charge in excess of a thousand dollars a month to place ads in prominent positions on their pages. Considering the expense of advertising in traditional media outlets, investments of this kind is very cost effective. We will certainly see more and more candidates take notice of the net in the future.

Browning on the Final Solution. Benjamin Schwartz, literary editor of the Atlantic, writes in his New & Noteworthy column about Christopher Browning's new book, The Origins of the Final Solution: The Evolution of Nazi jewish Policy, September 1939-March 1942, which if anyone feels generous, they can send to me via my Amazon wishlist. Browning, professor of history at the University of North Carolina, is, in my opinion, one of the best scholars of the Holocaust, and this book, the first in a series initiated by Israel's Yad Vashem museum, will no doubt be the culmination of a long career. As Schwartz notes in his column, holocaust studies is a controversial area of history, which has "engendered a highly publicized, sometimes contrived, and increasingly arcane argument between historians in the "intentionalist" camp, who hold that from the 1920s onward Hitler intended to kill the Jews, and those in the "functionalist" camp, who argue that the Holocaust evolved piecemeal, as one set of opportunities and policies led to another."

In the accompanying web-only interview for the Atlantic, Browning emphasises a point that is, but shouldn't be, a problem amongst professional historians, that of dealing with historical events in context and trying to avoid using the benefit of hindsight to make highly contingent and unpredictable events appear as inevitable. Browning says:
The initial or easy tendency in looking at history is to see it through hindsight. We know ultimately what happened, and therefore we go back and look at all the steps that led to it happening but remove all the contingencies. We're very well aware at this moment that we can't predict the future. But we go back and somehow assume that we can impose a deterministic interpretation on the past because of what we know from hindsight. In doing that, we remove the fact that living historical actors at that time, certainly in 1939 to 1941, didn't yet know what was going to happen.

The interview goes on to discuss specifics of the book, the most interesting discussion being about how the Nazis were able to simultaneously characterise Jews as both communist subversives and capitalist exploiters:
The Jew can't be both the capitalist and the communist at one and the same time. But to square that circle, one can resort to conspiracy theory. This is, of course, what the Nazis did—they said that behind these two different assaults on Germany, by the capitalist Jews on the one hand and the communist Jews on the other, was an insidious Jewish conspiracy that was coming to attack in all forms.

It certainly makes sense, from a propaganda point of view, to vary your message depending on the audience. To the poor and unemployed, make the Jews appear to be capitalist money-makers exploiting their suffering, while to the middle class and big business, portray the Jews as Bolsheviks tryingn to undermine communism. To anyone who notices the contradiction, refer them to a (fictional, but like any negative, hard to disprove) massive world-wide Jewish conspiracy to destroy Germany. In other words, make the Jews the enemy of whomever is listening.

Browning's final comments are interesting, and reinforce the need to continually study and discuss the Holocaust:
We may, in the end, conclude that the Holocaust has very unique characteristics among genocides. But to be unique in some ways is not to be unique in all ways. The various perpetrators who became involved in the Final Solution and their decision-making processes were not unique. In fact, I would argue that many of the elements in this were a coming together of quite common factors and ordinary people. That, I think, is very important to recognize if we don't want to place the Holocaust apart as some kind of suprahistorical, mystical event that we cannot fathom and shouldn't even try to understand.

Scott McClellan, White House Stand-Up. From The Press Gaggle via Wonkette:

Q. Two questions, please. The Democratic candidates for the nomination have stopped attacking themselves and have been attacking --
MR. McCLELLAN: People are attacking themselves? (Laughter.)
Q. It's a jungle out there --
MR. McCLELLAN: I wish you would attack yourselves instead of me. (Laughter.)
Q. We love ourselves.

Now please excuse me while I go love myself too for a while.

Dean calls it quits. Associated Press is reporting that Howard Dean has announced his withdrawl from the Democratic primaries. Dean, who has won none of the seventeen races that he contested, despite being the man to beat less than three months ago. The Dean campaign will be remembered for its grass roots appeal, and the innovative use of the internet, especially blogs. Check out Dean's former web maestro's interview in the American Prospect, and the weblog organised by Joe Trippi, Dean's former campaign manager.

Do the Hustle. From Atrios: If this is true, then it has the potential to be one of the biggest Presidential scandals of all time. Larry Flynt (yes, publisher of Hustler) claims that he has evidence that President George W. Bush was involved in an illegal abortion thirty years ago, and he plans to publish the evidence in a book to come out before the elections in November.

"There's a lot of hypocrisy in the White House about this whole abortion issue.... I've talked to the woman's friends. I've tracked down the doctor who did the abortion, I tracked down the Bush people who arranged for the abortion," Flynt told the NY Daily News. "I got the story nailed."

If the allegations prove to be true, Bush could find himself in a lot of trouble -- the abortion, performed in pre-Ros vs Wade Texas, would open Bush up to a murder investigation.

Tuesday, February 17, 2004

Dirty tricks, old school. BBC News has an interesting article that places the current Presidential campaigns and the attendant dirty tricks in historical perspective. My favourites come from one of the earlier of the contests that they write about, John Quincy Adams vs Andrew Jackson. From a pamphlet by Adams' supporters:

General Jackson's mother was a common prostitute brought to this country by British solders! She afterwards married a mulatto man with whom she had several children of which number General Jackson is one!!

Much more mean spirited than sending pizzas and limos to your opponent (Mitchell vs Muskie, Democratic primaries, 1968) or going on about someone not turning up for National Guard duty. (It's the National Guard for crissakes. It's not like he refused to go over the top at the Somme or something. The issue shouldn't be what he didn't do back then, but the lies he is telling now.)

I'll be there for you. CNN is claiming that Friends is the most overrated comedy ever. Comedies are rarely to everyone's taste -- senses of humour are as individual as fingerprints. But to claim that Friends is not one of the all-time great sitcoms is ludicrous. Along with Seinfeld, Friends rejuveninated television comedy. Although NBC may not have been justified in calling it the best comedy of all time, a claim it was making in promotions for the final season of the show (and that it withdrew after complaints from other NBC's shows such as Frasier), it is certainly one of the best.

CNN goes on to claim that contemporaries of Friends such as Frasier and Everybody Loves Raymond are "current classics" that Friends "can not hold a candle to". Despite the perennial approbation of the Emmys, Frasier's pseudo-intellectualising (making references to foreign films and merlot do not qualify it as highbrow) and Raymond's repetitiveness (it should be retitled Nobody Dislikes Raymond since it only seems to win by being so unoffensive compared to edgier and thus potentially alienating comedies like Curb Your Enthusiasm that it is the easy choice) do not qualify them as comedy greats.

Friends captured a generation (X) and a time (the 90s), and its long story arcs, comparable to the well-planned out season-long developments of, say, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, make it stand out as one of the best comedies of all time. Sure, people will still watch Frasier and Raymond in reruns for decades, but Friends is a cut above them and most over television series.

Race riots in Sydney. The riots over the weekend in Redfern, a suburb of Sydney, have hightlighted the often hidden problems of race relations in Australia. For the majority of Australians, race plays little part in their day to day life. Certainly there are neighbourhoods in the big cities where immigrants from a certain nation or region (Italy, Viet Nam, China) seem to congregate. But this is nothing new nor a surprise. It is a common human impulse to seek out those like ourselves, and when moving to a new country, especially one with a different language, it is only common sense to move to an area where people have the same language, religion and culture as yourself. Racial violence is unusual however. Australia has a reputation (despite the "White Australia" policy of two generations ago) for being "multicultural", a term that has various meanings depending on whom one is talking to. Multiculturalism has been used to mean anything from a completely open embrace and tolerance of all cultures, to calls for a common "Australian" culture that incorporates elements of all. It is a question of "multi-" meaning "many" or "varied".

The incident in Redfern demostrates that there is a gap, or at the least a perceived gap by at least one of the parties involved, between Aboriginal society and society at large. The violence was triggered by the death of a young boy. Depending on the source (the police or the Aboriginal community) the boy died after being chased by police or believing he was being chased by police, which led to him losing control of his bicycle and impaling himself on a fence. This led a demonstration by Aboriginal members of the Redfern community that culminated in violence against the police in which 40 officers were taken to hospital. Of the more than 150 members of the crowd, only 4 were arrested. Certainly there are issues about the treatment of Australian Aborigines, and social problems (drugs, alcohol, unemployment) that will take many measures over a long period of time to address, but in the short term, there is the problem of what to do when these sorts of incidents occur. Forty officers injured and only four arrests seems to me an unacceptable ratio. The laws to deal with street violence, vandalism, and assaults against the police are in place -- they should be enforced to the letter. The riot was recorded by many television cameramen and media photographers. There should be few problems with identifying the rioters, and these people should be arrested and prosecuted. Violence against police should never be tolerated. The first order of business, before dealing with the problems that will stop an event like this from occurring again, should be to deal with the crimes that were committed at the time.

Monday, February 16, 2004

Rear Guard. Larry David, one of the few comedic geniuses working in the world today, responsible for Seinfeld and the best comedy on television, Curb Your Enthusiasm, writes about his time in the Army Reserve in a NYTimes op-ed piece. An amusing parody of self-justification for taking the safe route of joining the Reserve or the Guard during the Vietnam War era. Other recent pieces about David are in the New Yorker, Salon and the Weekly Standard.

Thursday, February 12, 2004

At ease, soldier. Clark has dropped out and the obituaries are appearing: Weekly Standard, Salon, SF Gate, NY Times, WaPo...

Wednesday, February 11, 2004

The General Standing Down? Wonkette is reporting that General Wesley Clark may be dropping out of the Democratic Primaries in the very near future. Clark has apparently cancelled a fundraiser in Houston, and his schedule has been cleared. Wonkette, in her characteristically caustic tone wonders if, when announcing his withdrawl, Clark's "sophisticated emotion-simulation programming may fail him. Do androids cry electric tears?" The General, of course, is known for his poise and steely military stare -- Salon did a story not long ago about Clark's infrequent need for blinking. One wonders if the departure from the stage of Wes Sr will diminish her current near-obession with Wes Jr.

Wonkette also mentions the results of the pop culture trivia test VH1 gave to the candidates. Clark scored a 4 out of 12 on the pop-quiz (Mrs Clark remarked of the former Rhodes Scholar and number one in his class at West Point, "Well, I think it's the only test he's ever failed in his life.") Glad to see that the General and I share in our admiration of the verisimilitude of the masterful HBO miniseries Band of Brothers.

Finally. The original Star Wars trilogy (A New Hope, Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi) is set to be released on DVD later this year. On Spetember 21, fans will be able to purchase the 4-disc box set, featuring the three films and a disc of extras, including what LucasFilms is calling "the most comprehensive feature-length documentary ever produced about the Star Wars saga."
About frigging time.

If only US presidential races were like this. Reuters reports that Ivan Rybkin, Liberal Party candidate in the Russian presidential race, has turned up after being missing for almost a week. Reuters implies that Rybkin may have been held against his will, although he claims that he simply left Moscow spontaneously to have a short vacation in the Ukraine. Neglecting to tell his political associates and even his wife, his absence sparked a missing persons report and even a preliminary murder investigation. Rybkin claims that he merely chose to get away from the hassles of the campaign for a few days, although his demeanour and appearance suggested that the time was less than restful. The Liberal Party in Russia has a history of political dirty tricks -- another high-ranking party member was assassinated last year, reportedly because of intra-party rivalries.