Archive for October, 2007

World War Who?

October 30, 2007

Here’s a topic that at least a couple of people here’bouts know way, waaaay more about than I do: World War II.

I bring it up because, over the weekend, I saw Norman Davies do a presentation about his new history of WWII in Europe, No Simple Victory, and I found it both fascinating and radically mind-altering. I think I felt a bit like the King of Siam must have in The King and I, when Anna shows him a world map and he sees for the first time how small Siam really is: the world suddenly gets much larger, and one’s own country’s importance in it shrinks precipitously.

Davies, a slightly frumpy and very careful British historian who studies primarily the history of Eastern Europe, makes the argument that we in the West — that is, the U.S. and Britain, primarily — have seriously misread the facts of WWII in Europe. We all tend to see it as “the good war”; the war in which we, the forces of democracy and good, defeated the forces of totalitarianism and evil.

That view is, he says, fundamentally at odds with the historical data.

He argues that WWII was primarily, even overwhelmingly, a war between 2 forces of totalitarianism and evil: the German Nazis under Hitler and the Soviet Communists under Stalin. The war in Western Europe — the one in which the good guys triumphed over the bad guys — was a sideshow to the main war, which took place in Eastern Europe. In short, we didn’t win WWII in Europe; the Soviet Union did, condemning all of Eastern Europe to 45 years of murderous totalitarianism. This was their intention from the beginning. The western democracies, therefore, did not defeat totalitarianism. By any rational measure, totalitarianism won (just not German totalitarianism). It had to, because the war was primarily between 2 totalitarian powers.

To support his argument about how historically cockeyed our view of the war is, Davies pointed out, among other things, that the battle we in the West think of as overwhelmingly the largest battle of the war — the D-Day invasion — actually isn’t even in the top 10. The 10 largest battles of the war all took place in Eastern Europe, between the 2 totalitarian forces. The “good guys” weren’t even in those fights. He also pointed out the sheer numbers of forces involved in the fight on the Eastern Front. For example, there was one eastern battle in which the Germans committed more forces than they committed to the entire Western Front over the entire war. For another, Stalin had more of his own soldiers shot (to motivate the rest) than the number of dead among the combined western allies for the entire war. All in all (and it wasn’t clear exactly what he was measuring with these numbers, though I’m sure it is in his book), he said 80% of WWII in Europe was fought between Germany and the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe. The Soviet Union won 80% of the war.

The western allies may have won the rest of the European war, but “the rest” constituted only 20% of the whole. It was little more than holding our own. We left the rest of Europe to a power fully as evil and totalitarian as Nazi Germany.

If you’re wondering about the Pacific Theater, Davies did address how that factored into all of this, though I don’t recall the details. Basically, he said the Americans, in particular, couldn’t push back against the Soviets because we were fighting the Pacific war basically alone, and all the military forecasts predicted that we would lose 1 million men taking the main islands of Japan. We needed the Soviets to commit their huge army to that fight once the war in Europe was over. That was the agreement we came to in Yalta: they kept all of Eastern Europe in exchange for agreeing to help us with Japan. As it turned out, of course, we didn’t invade the main islands of Japan and didn’t need the Soviets. But we didn’t know that at Yalta.

I didn’t get the impression that Davies felt it would be more accurate for us to think we lost the war in Europe, per se. I think he just feels that some of our grandiosity about it — both historical and moral — is unsupportable on the facts. We won a small piece of the war. We kept totalitarianism from taking over the whole of Europe. We held our own. But the war in Europe was not a case of “the forces of democracy defeating the forces of totalitarianism.” That just didn’t happen, and we shouldn’t be patting ourselves on the back as if it did.

Anyway, I thought it was an interesting and very mind-opening argument, so I figured I’d post it here and see if it stirred any dissent and/or discussion. Like I said, I know very little about WWII, aside from the baseball-card kinds of things an American boy learns growing up. I’m interested in the social and cultural effects of wars, but not so much in military history itself.

Those of you who know more military history, what do you think of Davies’ argument?

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It’s Halloween!

October 29, 2007

Well, after surviving the fires last week, things are beginning to get back to normal. Very, very creepy driving through the canyon on my way to work — the mountains are black and it smells like, ummm…, burned things. I’ll try to post some observations at some point, but you all know not to hold your breath waiting on me to actually do that. Because I’m unreliable.

It is Halloween week! Hooray! Lots of people tossing dignity aside and dressing in ways which are not normally accepted by society. This is one of the few times I actually agree with society. We have norms for a reason, people. But I do like candy. And I’m ready to watch a scarey movie.

Here are some pictures of Halloween costumes for pets. I don’t approve of this — dressing pets up. They don’t deserve it. But some people do, so here are dogs dressed in Star Wars costumes.

Yes. I got this link from Good Housekeeping. Don’t ask.

Enjoy!

The Carolingian Renaissance, Rhetorically Speaking

October 24, 2007

There’s a very old and tired joke among historians that goes: There were only 3 things wrong with the Holy Roman Empire — it wasn’t holy, it wasn’t Roman, and it wasn’t an empire. ba-DUM-ching

The point of the joke, of course, is that the name of the thing had nothing to do with the nature of the thing. Charlemagne, who came up with the name, wanted to aggrandize himself and reinforce in people’s minds the power of his kingdom. The best way to do that was to identify it with the biggest, baddest empire Europe had ever known — the Roman — and with the biggest, baddest, only true religion — Catholicism.

The point of the name “Holy Roman Empire,” thus, wasn’t to describe Charlemagne’s rule. It was to strengthen Charlemagne’s rule; by making it seem bigger, older and more powerful than it was.

Lately there’s been a renaissance in Carolingian rhetorical sleight-of-hand. If pink is the new black, fifty is the new forty, and awake is the new asleep, then “Islamofascism” is the new “Holy Roman Empire.” It’s a name designed not to describe the thing named, but to strengthen it in the hearer’s mind; to make it seem bigger, badder, and more threatening than it is.

See, there are only 2 things wrong with Islamofascism: it isn’t Islamic, and it isn’t fascism.

The latest defense of the term comes from that crusty contrarian, Christopher Hitchens. Quoth Hitch:

The most obvious points of comparison would be these: Both movements are based on a cult of murderous violence that exalts death and destruction and despises the life of the mind. (“Death to the intellect! Long live death!” as Gen. Francisco Franco’s sidekick Gonzalo Queipo de Llano so pithily phrased it.) Both are hostile to modernity (except when it comes to the pursuit of weapons), and both are bitterly nostalgic for past empires and lost glories. Both are obsessed with real and imagined “humiliations” and thirsty for revenge. Both are chronically infected with the toxin of anti-Jewish paranoia (interestingly, also, with its milder cousin, anti-Freemason paranoia). Both are inclined to leader worship and to the exclusive stress on the power of one great book. Both have a strong commitment to sexual repression—especially to the repression of any sexual “deviance”—and to its counterparts the subordination of the female and contempt for the feminine. Both despise art and literature as symptoms of degeneracy and decadence; both burn books and destroy museums and treasures.

Here’s the problem with all that: there’s nothing specifically Islamic about it. One could say exactly the same things of the brand of Fundamentalist/Evangelical Christianity we see today in America, and be equally correct:

  • It is a cult of murderous violence, in that it revolves entirely around the crucifixion of Christ (witness reaction to Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” for an understanding of just how central the violence qua violence is), to the almost complete exclusion of the life of Christ.
  • It exalts death — Christ’s, the believer’s, and the world’s.
  • It despises the life of the mind, except as it is devoted to religious subjects (the same exception is true of radical Islam).
  • It hates modernity, except when it comes to the pursuit of weapons.
  • It is bitterly nostalgic for the past glories of Christendom, where Christianity reigned over both the sacred and the profane.
  • It is obsessed with the humiliations of “secularism,” especially in the Supreme Court, and thirsty for revenge.
  • Okay, here’s a difference. It is schizoid on the Jews. However, it makes up for it by being paranoid about absolutely everyone else — everyone outside the “Judeo-Christian” tradition, Freemasons included.
  • It could not be any more inclined to leader worship, nor could it lay greater stress on the power of one great book.
  • It is all about sexual repression.
  • It enforces the subjugation of women wherever it can.
  • It regards art and literature as decadent and degenerate (often encoded as “elitist”).
  • It would absolutely burn books and destroy museums if it could get away with it.

Thus, there’s nothing Hitch says of “Islamofascism” that couldn’t also be said of the American Christians who have held sway over one of our two major parties for the past fifteen years. Thus, nothing he describes is in any way particular to Islam.

Perhaps his point in the quoted paragraph is to justify the “fascism” part of “Islamofascism.” That would explain why there’s nothing specifically Islamic about what he describes. That would make the meaning of the word something like “fascism when practiced by Muslims”; and, by logical extension, it would make “Christofascism” the proper word for “fascism when practiced by Christians.” He hints at this elsewhere in his article, in reference to various World War II-era European political movements. Neither he nor anyone else on the Anglo-American right ever uses the word “Christofascism,” however. They certainly never call the Religious Right by that term. (It’s possible Hitchens would. To my knowledge, however, he never has.)

Regardless, the quoted paragraph (which is the heart of his defense of the term “Islamofascism”) doesn’t even accurately describe fascism. Under a more accurate definition of “fascism,” neither the practices of radical Muslims nor those of radical Christians qualify as fascism, except in quite rare instances. I can lay out my argument on that, if anybody’s interested. For now, though, since this post is already way long, I’ll skip it.

Besides, as others have noted, I don’t think Hitchens or anyone else promoting the use of this term is particularly interested in whether it’s precisely accurate as a description of the multifarious phenomena they apply it to. Accurate description is not their goal. Fear is.

Like “Holy Roman Empire,” “Islamofascism” is a term calculated for psychological effect, not semantic precision. It’s calculated to scare you. That is its only purpose. It uses the word “fascism” to draw up all those instantaneous, pre-rational, negative reactions we have to that word because we associate it with Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco, and prefixes it with “Islamo-” to tell us who to dump all those negative connotations on.

Are those associations appropriate? No. They’re not. But they’re politically useful.

Politically radical Islam and the people and entities pushing it represent no threat comparable to that presented by Hitler’s Germany. By comparison, politically radical Islam is tiny in number of soldiers, tiny in amount of weaponry, tiny in manufacturing capacity, tiny in technological capacity, tiny in material resources, tiny in intellectual resources, and tiny in economic output. It’s also absolutely plagued by murderous infighting. America, meanwhile, is many orders of magnitude larger in all those categories (except manufacturing capacity) than we were at the start of WWII.

Politically radical Islam represents in no way a threat comparable to that of the German fascists.

It’s hard to scare people by saying that, though. Saying that gins up no support for military actions in the Middle East. Saying “Islamofascism” does. “Islamofascism” scares people. That’s why the term is being pushed so hard by many on the American and British right. Not because it’s an accurate description of reality.

The accurate, descriptive term for language used in this way is “propaganda.”

Quick Update on Me

October 22, 2007

In case anyone’s wondering why I haven’t been around as much, here’s the bullet-point version of my life this year. (The first part I posted about a while back, but just to recap).-> January through March — work sucked

-> April and May — “sucked” is now an understatement, things got seriously unpleasant the more pregnant I got; was forced onto maternity leave early

-> June — blissfully free of the evil place I worked, I laid around like third base for three weeks, and then had a baby!

-> July — our house got broken into when Casey was a mere two weeks old (and we were there!); also had mastitis (breast infection) and got fired

-> August — my friend Amelia’s mother becomes suddenly sick. They learn she has lung cancer that has spread to the liver. Amelia hurriedly reschedules her wedding from October to early September so that her mother can be there. Unfortunately, Janet passes away a mere week before the wedding, and the night before I get on a plane to travel to Jackson.

-> September — I attend Ms. Janet’s funeral and am maid of honor in Amelia’s wedding within the same week. Then when I get home, I have to start thinking about looking for a job.

-> October — I apply for some jobs, and spend a week in Louisiana with Amelia. Since the jerk (nicest way to put it) who owns the original venue she had booked for her reception wouldn’t give her even a partial refund despite her crying and begging, she had a second reception. It was fun, but traveling without David was hard. I don’t know how single parents do it.

I feel strange talking about my actual life since no one else here does that. But all of this is why I haven’t been posting nearly as much. I’ve been thinking of writing something about Ms. Janet’s death, but I don’t know what I want to say or even what I think about it. I can’t imagine being 32 and having lost both my parents to cancer.

My other ideas for posts are all about babies and children, which I figure reading about is pretty much like watching paint dry for people who don’t have young ones. They definitely have a political dimension to them, since childrearing in some sense is the ultimate political issue. But I’ve been hesitant to go in such a different direction from most of what’s discussed here.

They say that parenthood changes you. For me, that has been both true and false. I don’t feel that changed in the sense that I was well prepared for this, and feel like I have always been a mother, I just didn’t always have a baby. On the other hand, I do feel like I have lost a large part of myself or at least the persona that others saw. My passion for politics and social justice issues has declined precipitously in the past few years, and even more since having Casey. It’s such a sad stereotype that I hate to even acknowledge it, but there it is. Not in the sense that my views have changed much, but more that I no longer feel like there’s anything I can do to make things better and so the fieriness I once possessed is long gone. So that’s why I don’t have as much to say about torture and presidential candidates as I once would have.

The question is, given all this, where do I fit in to this blog now? I don’t mean that in a self-deprecating way, just an honest question.

P.S.  I just spent like an hour trying to post a picture of Casey and could not for the life of me figure out how to get it done.

Protecting the Homeland

October 20, 2007

There’s a question that seems to come up a lot at GOP debates and other campaign events. “Would you torture an enemy combatant to prevent an imminent terrorist attack on the homeland?” The right answer, if crowd reaction is any guide, is “yes.”

The appeal seems to be that somebody who would torture to prevent a terrorist attack is demonstrating the necessary grit to defend the country no matter what, even when it means doing something difficult and distasteful. The thing is, though, torturing an enemy combatant wouldn’t be difficult for a GOP president.

I don’t mean on a personal level. I mean torturing an enemy combatant wouldn’t be politically difficult; it wouldn’t require or demonstrate any grit or toughness. The GOP base supports such a policy, and would be angry with a president who didn’t adopt it. (See, for instance, candidate John McCain.) In that sense, not torturing would demonstrate more grit.

I find myself wondering: would the GOP candidates do something that’s distasteful to their base to prevent a terrorist attack? For example:

  • If that enemy combatant were a woman, would you torture her?
    • What if she were pregnant?
    • Would you be willing, as part of the torture, to target her fetus? Actually harm it? Destroy it?
  • If an intelligence officer could obtain information to prevent a terrorist attack on the homeland, but only by violating his or her marriage vow, would you order that officer to commit adultery?
    • What if the other person was the same sex as the officer?
    • What if the other person was a minor?
  • Would you arrange for an enemy prisoner to have sex with one or more virgins in exchange for information that would prevent an imminent terrorist attack?
    • American virgin(s)?
    • Same sex?
    • Minor(s)?
    • Would you be willing to return the prisoner to his country and force the other person to go with him?
  • If a Middle Eastern or African Christian had information on the location of a terrorist cell, the destruction of which would prevent an imminent attack on the homeland, but the Christian refused to cooperate, would you torture him?
    • What if he refused because he belonged to a pacifist denomination?
    • What if he refused because he believed an attack on America would hasten Armageddon and the Second Coming?
    • What if he refused because his pregnant wife was with the cell?
    • What if the Christian were American?
  • If a terrorist group obtained a crude nuclear weapon and was about to deliver it on either Israel, rendering much of Israel/Palestine uninhabitable, or the American “Green Zone” in Baghdad, and you could prevent one or the other, which would you prevent?
  • Would you use air power to impose a no-settlements policy on Israel to prevent a terrorist attack on the homeland?
  • Would you invade Israel and impose regime change to prevent a terrorist attack on the homeland?
  • Would you raise taxes for a new program that would prevent a terrorist attack on the homeland?
  • Would you implement a military draft to prevent a terrorist attack on the homeland?

The World Turned Upside Down

October 19, 2007

Disclaimer:

I don’t mean to kill off the current thread or hijack the subject with another post so soon. There is probably a lot more that folks would like to say about the subject of torture and whether Bush and his administration are weak and/or stupid, so please feel free to continue there as well. It’s just that today is a very historically significant day and it only comes around once a year, so I didn’t want to let it pass without mentioning it.

_______

Two hundred and twenty-six years ago today, Charles O’Hara, the illegitimate son of an Anglo-Irish nobleman, and Benjamin Lincoln, a small time Massachusetts politician, met in a field outside a small tobacco port in Virginia and formalized one of the most important events in American history. If you don’t recognize these men, you’re not alone. I wouldn’t have either before I recently began reading a book by Thomas Fleming titled The Perils of Peace.

Brigadier General Charles O’Hara was the second in command of a 7,700 man British army led by General Lord Charles Cornwallis who were, at the time, trapped in a small village on the Virginia peninsula called Yorktown by the combined forces of the Continental Army under George Washington, , French troops under Lt. General Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, Comte de Rochambeau, and a French Fleet under Admiral Francois Joseph Paul de Grasse – a little over 29,000 Frenchmen and about 9,000 Americans.

After agreeing to the surrender terms, Cornwallis was unwilling to appear in person, and so sent out his subordinate to do the humiliating deed. On arriving at the appointed place, O’Hara ask for Comte Rochambeau – an act recognized by everyone present as an attempt to snub the Americans, even in defeat. The Frenchman, to his credit, immediately pointed to Washington – who was difficult to miss since at 6’2″, he towered over most of the Europeans, especially on his large white horse – as the overall commander. O’Hara rode over and explained that Lord Cornwallis was “indisposed.” Washington, neatly sidestepping the insult, replied that, in that case, it would be only proper for O’Hara to surrender to Washington’s own 2nd in command, General Lincoln. So it came about that one of the most import victory in the history of American arms was officially presided over by two valiant but essentially unknown soldiers, while the more famous ones watched.

In many history books, this event is presented as the end of the war, and they then go on to other things like the Constitution and such, assuming that, after Yorktown, American independence was a foregone conclusion. The fact is that Yorktown, as important as it was, settled nothing. The British still had 16,000 men and a fleet in New York, also occupied the ports of Charleston and Savannah, and King George III who controlled the British Parliament through his political cronies and appointees, was still adamantly opposed to any suggestion of independence for his North American “Colonies.”

As for those “Colonies,” they were almost at the end of their tether, and the victory at Yorktown came just in time. The individual “States” were at odds over all sorts of things; the Continental Army hadn’t been paid since anyone could remember, and was marching in rags; the Congress under the new Articles of Confederation was virtually powerless and often even lacked a quorum to conduct business; it’s money was more valuable as toilet paper; and the Treasury was deeply in debt and essentially bankrupt.

The following story illustrates the fiscal situation in the country:

The courier General Washington sent to Congress in Philadelphia with the official news of Cornwallis’ surrender arrived at the capitol at 3:00am on October 24th, after traveling almost constantly for four days. After hearing his report, the President of Congress and several delegates found him a room nearby, since he was worn out, sick, and almost asleep on his feet. Unfortunately, the courier, Lt. Col. Tench Tilghman, one of Washington’s military aides, had no money, having not been paid like the rest of the army. Since he was on official business, the government should have picked up the bill, but there was – literally – not enough money in the National Treasury to cover a night or two in a Philadelphia boarding house. In the end, several of the delegates covered the expense out of their own pockets.

After Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown, it actually took several months of diplomatic and political intrigue on both sides of the Atlantic, and finally, the fall of King George’s party from power in Parliament and the rise of a government actually willing to talk about American independence before anything like peace talks began. Meanwhile, the New American nation held on by it’s political, financial, and military fingernails.

The more I read about those times, the more miraculous I find it that we aren’t all today still speaking British and driving on the wrong side of the road.

Gay? Conservative? My Hero!

October 16, 2007

Andrew Sullivan says in 12 words or less what I’ve been thinking for over a year, but haven’t been able to verbalize: “President Bush has a weak person’s idea of what strength is.”

Yes.  That.  Thank you.

Midterms!

October 15, 2007

I love midterm week. You can just feel people getting smarter! Everywhere you look, books are open. There are panicked looks on faces. No one has slept in days. Feels like home.

In honor of all the students here in Malibu who are getting smarter this week, here’s an article about an actual hand-on-a-stack-of-Bibles invisibility cloak. If you have a couple of minutes, it’s an interesting article, and you don’t have to understand physics to understand the article.

Here’s a video that is apparently pretty well-known in psychology circles (any truth to that Whitney?). If it’s not, it should be. I’m sure the creator of the video is pulling a quick one on me. Anyway. It takes like a minute to watch the video. Follow the instructions. And no cheating.

And finally, in honor of all those who are studying linguistics. Here’s an edited version of the movie Fargo. It’s about a minute and a half long. This is the Yeah Remix of Fargo. If you enjoy laughing at Northerners saying the word Yeah, this video is for you.

…To see ourselves as others see us

October 10, 2007

Having just spent a little time in Ireland, I found it very interesting to come across an article in last Sunday’s Washington Post about Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign written by a British journalist. Unlike most of the pundits here, on both sides, who analyze every nuance of the current primary candidates’ campaigns in terms of everything from policy positions to campaign style to finances, and who knows what else, this British guy suggests that many in what he terms “other advanced democracies” see her candidacy more in terms of qualifications (or lack of them) nepotism, and dynasty building. He also wonders out loud why the American public seems to have little or no concern about these things. I’m not a Hillary fan, but this isn’t really intended as a political post. I just thought it was interesting to get a view from somebody outside the current American political madhouse.

Hillary is certainly singled out for this guy’s scrutiny because of her unique situation – the 1st First Lady to run for president as well as the first serious female candidate – and he does discuss several female politicians who have had impressive careers like Margret Thacher and Goldia Meir, probably to show that he’s not just a male chauvinist pig. I Just wondered what the group might think about this Brit’s view of our election process.

Since I’m not sure I can link to the article, I’ve included some selected bits below. There is at least a page more. If you can get to the Washington Post web site, it was in last Sunday’s (October 7th) edition. Sorry in advance that it made for such a long post.

Who Made Hillary Queen?By Geoffrey Wheatcroft Sunday, October 7, 2007; Page B01

Among so much about American politics that can impress or depress a friendly transatlantic observer, there’s nothing more astonishing than this: Why on Earth should Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton be the front-runner for the presidency?

She has now pulled well ahead of Sen. Barack Obama, both in polls and in fundraising. If the Democrats can’t win next year, they should give up for good, so she must be considered the clear favorite for the White House. But in all seriousness: What has she ever done to deserve this eminence? How could a country that prides itself on its spirit of equality and opportunity possibly be led by someone whose ascent owes more to her marriage than to her merits?

We all, nations as well as individuals, have difficulty seeing ourselves as others see us. In this case, I doubt that Americans realize how extraordinary their country appears from the outside. In Europe, the supposed home of class privilege and heritable status, we have abandoned the hereditary principle (apart from the rather useful institution of constitutional monarchy), and the days are gone when Pitt the Elder was prime minister and then Pitt the Younger. But Americans find nothing untoward in Bush the Elder being followed by Bush the Younger.

At a time when Americans seem to contemplate with equanimity up to 28 solid years of uninterrupted Bush-Clinton rule, please note that there are almost no political dynasties left in British politics, at least on the Tory side. Admittedly, Hilary Benn, the environmental secretary, is the fourth generation of his family to sit in Parliament and the third to serve in a Labor party cabinet. But England otherwise has nothing now to match the noble houses of Kennedy, Gore and Bush.

… And in no other advanced democracy today could someone with Clinton’s resume even be considered a candidate for national leadership.

What a contrast Hillary Clinton presents! Everyone recognizes the nepotism or favoritism she has enjoyed: New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd has written that without her marriage, Clinton might be a candidate for president of Vassar, but not of the United States. And yet the truly astonishing nature of her career still doesn’t seem to have impinged on Americans.

All in all, “Democracy in America,” not to mention equality or feminism in America, can sometimes look very odd from the outside. We’ve seen Jean Kennedy Smith made ambassador to to Dublin (and a disastrous one) because she was famous for being a sister, then Pamela Digby Harriman made ambassador to Paris (and rather a good one) because she was famous for being a socialite. Now Hillary Rodham Clinton has become a potential president because she is famous for being a wife (and a wronged wife at that). Europe has long since accepted the great 19th-century liberal principle of “the career open to the talents.” In the 21st century, isn’t it time that the republic founded on the proposition that all men are created equal — and women, too, one hopes — also caught up with it?

________________________

And finally, a trivia question:

If Hillary wins the nomination and the 2008 election, she will, of course, be the first woman and the first former First Lady to do so, but she will also be only the third sitting Senator to be elected president. Who were the other two?

Naughty Norman & The Innocent Criminals

October 8, 2007

Here’s an interesting piece from the Boston Globe.  Actually, symbolic of the entire modern information age, it’s a post about a post, containing an email about a symposium about a book about some paintings.  But that’s neither here nor there.

 I’ve got no view on whether Norman Rockwell’s art contains subtle sexual elements, nor do I much care whether it does or doesn’t.  What I find interesting is the conversation about America’s (and Americans’) obsession with innocence.

I’ve argued — possibly even around here somewhere — that, for instance, the pro-life movement isn’t really pro-life; it’s pro-innocence.  That is, what it values isn’t life, or even human life, but innocence.  The difference can be seen in its adherents’ positions on everything from capital punishment to war to the welfare state.    (The Catholic Church, on the other hand, is genuinely pro-life.  And pro-innocence.)

The same thing can be seen in much of so-called “family values” activism, which isn’t so much about the value of the family unit as it is about parents’ desire to extend their children’s “innocence” — or, more realistically, their own counterfactual perception of their children’s innocence. 

America as a nation-state is also obsessed with its own innocence, or, again, the myth thereof.  No matter what we’ve done or what we’ve gone through as a nation, the story we tell ourselves is always the story of an innocent nation.  We cling to that innocence tenaciously.  The dew is always just freshly off the rose. 

In some ways, I suppose that’s useful.  It seems to me those ways are extremely few, though; especially in comparison to the number of problems our innocence fixation causes.  Given that innocence is just ignorance with a nostalgic name, I frankly don’t know what it is we so value about it in the first place.  Why not happily be rid of it?

 Anyway, I thought the linked article was interesting.  (And apologies to anyone who googled their way here, expecting to find something about Ben Harper’s band.)