Saturday, July 29, 2006

Were Martin Amis and John Updike taken in by blowback from an anti-Muslim disinformation campaign?

You’re planning a major “war of civilizations” to remake the entire Middle East in the wake of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. It’s going to take some doing to convince people that Saddam Hussein is a ticking timebomb who needs to be overthrown in an invasion by something you’ll call “the coalition of the willing,” but you’ve got somebody forging some documents on stolen Niger embassy letterhead that might do the trick. However, you still need something more, something to sap the morale of enemy combatants by convincing them their religion is a joke and their sacred text is so screwed up it can’t even distinguish between virgins and raisins. Can you just make it up?

You can. Yeah, that’s the ticket! You can invent a fictional, pseudonymous scholar and publish his work as a book in German, and then you can quote the hell out of it on the internet, where few people will be able to check the primary sources. You’ll attribute the work to one “Christoph Luxenberg,” a brave German scholar forced to publish his controversial study anonymously for fear that angry, bloodthirsty Muslims will kill him. The New York Times, Newsweek, the Guardian and other normally skeptical publications will gleefully pick up the canard, because 9/11 was so recent and it's the kind of stuff people want to hear. Eventually public opinion will turn against the war and charges of document fraud will appear in the headlines. At that point it will seem prudent to “retire” special agent Luxenberg, and you will stop feeding the information pipeline. But tens of thousands of references to Luxenberg’s work will remain on the Web.


Could it have happened that way? Could both Martin Amis and John Updike have been sucked in by the blowback from an old disinformation campaign? There's some strange stuff out there that makes me wonder.

I first blogged about Luxenberg in passing a few months ago, when I wrote about “The Last Days of Muhammad Atta,” a Martin Amis short story in the The New Yorker. (Update: Published online by the Observer Sept. 3.) I didn’t much like the story, which is from his new book to be published in the UK in September as “The House of Meetings.” (3/16/08 Update: I was misinformed about "The House of Meetings." The story about Muhammad Atta is in his new collection of essays and fiction, "The Second Plane," recently published in the UK, and to be published in the U.S. this April.)

My post attracted quite a few Google hits over the months, but they really peaked last night, after Bill Moyers interviewed Amis on his “Faith & Reason” series and they mentioned the story. So I decided to take another look.

Martin Amis writes about the raisins of paradise
In the story, Atta is getting ready to commit one of the greatest crimes in history when he interrupts his preparations for this little epiphany about the raisins of paradise.
Ah, yes, the virgins: six dozen of them -- half a gross. He had read in a news magazine that “virgins,” in the holy book, was a mistranslation from the Aramaic. It should be “raisins.” He idly wondered whether the quibble might have something to do with “sultana,” which meant (a) a small seedless raisin, and (b) the wife or a concubine of a sultan. Abdul-aziz, Marwan, Ziad, and the others: they would not be best pleased, on their arrival in the Garden, to find a little red packet of Sun-Maid Sultanas (Average Contents 72).
What the hell is going on here? The passage intrudes by adding an incongruous note to the narrative. This sounds less like something a Muslim terrorist might think than something a British writer might think about a Muslim terrorist. And the whole idea of this absurd mistranslation at the heart of the sacred texts diminishes the religion of Islam, virtually reducing it to a bad joke. Even if Muhammad Atta were as secular as Amis makes him out to be and if he actually did think about this during his last days, wouldn't he have tended to see the substitution of raisins for virgins as one more Western slander of his culture?

John Updike writes about the raisins of paradise
I wondered about those raisins. Where did they come from? Back in May, I wasted the better part of an afternoon on the internet trying to track them down. Now, in updating the research I did back then, I was amazed to find out that the same raisin nonsense appears in John Updike’s new novel, “Terrorist.” From Mark Steyn’s review in Macleans:
The author certainly did his research, jamming it in at every opportunity. Ahmad's imam, for example, draws the lad's attention to a "rather amusing controversy over the scholarly dicta of a German specialist in ancient Middle Eastern tongues, one Christoph Luxenberg." A couple of years back, if you recall, professor Luxenberg suggested that the 72 black-eyed virgins business was a mistranslation and that it was actually 72 "white raisins" of "crystal clarity." "I fear," says Shaikh Rashid, "this particular revision would make Paradise significantly less attractive for many young men."

I'll wager there's not a mosque in North America where the imams rouse their young charges to destroy the enemies of Allah by engaging in wry disquisitions on metaphor, symbolism and literary interpretation.
Clearly, Martin Amis isn't the only novelist using a cursory examination of Google to compile his background research. Updike also seems to have been cutting-and-pasting the search engine findings rather liberally -- how else could he dream up an imam who would find the Luxenberg thing "a rather amusing controversy"?

Christoph Luxenberg writes about the raisins of paradise
“Die syro-aramäische Lesart des Koran: Ein Beitrag zur Entschlüsselung der Koransprache” was published in Germany in 2000 by Christoph Luxenberg, a pseudonym for a scholar who -- as we noted -- supposedly did not dare reveal his name. The book still has not been published in English, though there were plenty of announcements on the web over the last few years saying English publication was imminent. Luxenberg’s theory of mistranslation, which went way beyond raisins and challenged the entire foundation of Islam’s sacred texts, hit the English-speaking mainstream media with a January, 2002 article in the UK’s Guardian, by one Ibn Warraq, also a pseudonym. In March of 2003, during the run-up to the Iraq war, the New York Times published an article about Luxenberg. And in July of 2003, the issue of International Newsweek carrying the story was banned and burned in Pakistan. That’s about it for mainstream media, but Google currently shows 20,400 hits for “Christoph Luxenberg.” Interestingly enough, there were 31,200 back in May, so the number seems to be shrinking rapidly.

It’s when I started to follow some of these links that I began to feel I was lost inside an echo chamber inside a hall of mirrors. The sources all echoed each other, and didn't seem to lead anywhere else. This post from the Daniel Pipes blog is typical. Most of this stuff was written during the triumphalist period leading up to and immediately after the invasion of Iraq, when the U.S. was going to remake the entire Middle East. After that, it all seemed to go away. Luxenberg’s book still hasn’t been published in English, and the only current references to it just cite the old sources.

Although they tend to get lost amid all the pro-Lundberg reference son the internet, there are some skeptics. For example, François de Blois in Islamic Awareness dismisses Christoph Luxenberg’s scholarship and questions his identity.
It is necessary, in conclusion to say a little about the authorship, or rather the non-authorship, the pseudonymity of this book. An article published in the New York Times on 2nd March 2002 (and subsequently broadly disseminated in the internet) referred to this book as the work of 'Christoph Luxenberg, a scholar of ancient Semitic languages in Germany'. It is, I think, sufficiently clear from this review that the person in question is not 'a scholar of ancient Semitic languages'. He is someone who evidently speaks some Arabic dialect, has a passable, but not flawless command of classical Arabic, knows enough Syriac so as to be able to consult a dictionary, but is innocent of any real understanding of the methodology of comparative Semitic linguistics. His book is not a work of scholarship but of dilettantism.

The NYT article goes on to state that 'Christoph Luxeuberg is a pseudonym', to compare him with Salman Rushdie, Naguib Mahfouz and Suliman Bashear and to talk about 'threatened violence as well as the widespread reluctance on United States college campuses to criticize other cultures'. I am not sure what precisely the author means with 'in Germany'. According to my information, 'Christoph Luxenberg' is not a German but a Lebanese Christian. It is thus not a question of some intrepid philologist, pouring over dusty books in obscure languages somewhere in the provinces of Germany and then having to publish his results under a pseudonym so as to avoid the death threats of rabid Muslim extremists, in short an ivory-tower Rushdie.
So, was all this part of one of those disinformation campaigns that swirled around the world, like news of the infamous Niger documents, before and during the Iraq invasion? With sufficient resources, you can turn the internet into an amplifier for almost anything. Did Christoph Luxenberg ever really exist? Who knows? But the contempt for Islam implicit in his work (though he always was careful to deny that he was attacking Islam) was echoed in the mockery of the prisoners’ religion at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. Once they were no longer useful -- or because there were starting to be too many loose threads -- both Luxenberg and his book seem to have quietly faded away.

Why does it matter?
In the wake of -- and sometimes preceding -- every war -- you’ll find intelligence agency PsyOps campaigns. Not a lot of permanent harm, aside from the matter of planting crap in the historical record and permanently stinking up the whole place. Sometimes it’s necessary, and sometimes it’s just “boys being boys.” Thinking up weird new ways of humiliating your opponent is just one of the things these guys do.

But there’s a more serious side to this. In order to fight a protracted war against one of the world’s great religions, you need to dehumanize the enemy for your own troops and the folks at home. Making the enemy’s religion look ridiculous is a start. Making it seem like a corrupted version of your own, true religion stirs the pot. By the time you’ve finished cooking your stew, your enemy, who obviously adheres to a primitive, uniquely violent religion, is no longer fully human.

Dehumanize them enough, and some people start to think it’s OK to call them not soldiers, who would have rights under the Geneva Convention, but illegal enemy combatants, who don’t -- and imprison them in places where they can be tortured and their religion mocked, like Abu Ghraib.

And if I happen to be wrong…
… and Christoph Luxenberg really exists and turns out to actually be a respected scholar and student of Islamic sacred texts, he is more than welcome to step forward and tell his side of the story. We’d love to hear his rebuttal, either as a comment or a full-fledged interview for this blog. Perhaps he could explain how the American edition of his book is coming along. And what he’s been up to since he disappeared from view.

9/15/06 UPDATE: I don't know. Maybe it's not the blowback, but just his beverages. Martin Amis: Drinking too much neocon Kool-Aid?

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Challenging students to think about challenging art

I was interested the NYT story today about whether learning about paintings and sculpture helps children become better students in other areas.
A study to be released today by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum suggests that it does, citing improvements in a range of literacy skills among students who took part in a program in which the Guggenheim sends artists into schools. The study, now in its second year, interviewed hundreds of New York City third graders, some of whom had participated in the Guggenheim program, called Learning Through Art, and others who did not.

The study found that students in the program performed better in six categories of literacy and critical thinking skills — including thorough description, hypothesizing and reasoning — than did students who were not in the program. The children were assessed as they discussed a passage in a children’s book, Cynthia Kadohata’s “Kira-Kira,” and a painting by Arshile Gorky, “The Artist and His Mother.”
While I found the study interesting and suggestive -- especially in an era of declining arts budgets for the schools -- what really caught my eye was the title of the painting the students discussed. “The Artist and His Mother” by Arshile Gorky is one of the most powerful, haunting paintings of the 20th Century and refers to one of the great historical tragedies of that violent century. Its use in the study supports my feeling that we don't need to talk down to children to talk about art, and that the discussion needn't be limited to safe, cute, or pretty pictures. Treat kids as if they're stupid, they'll usually live down to your expectations. Challenge them, and the sky's the limit.

Arshile Gorky's mother died of starvation in 1918 as a result of Turkey's persecution of its Armenian minority. Arshile and his sister had managed to scavenge some food, but she made them eat it. Throughout much of his life Gorky obsessively reworked this image -- based on an old family photo -- in a variety of media, both paintings and drawings. This version, the best known, is at New York's Whitney Museum. Jonathan Jones, writing in The Guardian, gives some more background. The Artnet review by Jerry Saltz a couple years ago of the Whitney's retrospective of Gorky drawings shows one of the pencil studies for the painting. Atom Egoyan's 2002 feature film "Ararat" is about the Armenian genocide and includes references to Gorky and “The Artist and His Mother." The blog A Personal Miscellany includes reflections on the film and why the author thinks it didn't get the respect from critics it deserved -- as well as a haunting copy of the photograph of the young Arshile and his mother that became the basis for the portrait.

There’s lot there for the kids to talk about, and they’re clearly up to it. It’s a good example of why art in the schools matters, and why it’s so sad when it gets pushed aside by budget cuts or a short-sighted emphasis on state-mandated tests that ignore art.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Bush to planet Earth: Drop dead!


This photo showed us how precious and vulnerable life on this planet is.

Shot by Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders on Christmas Eve, 1968, it wasn't the first view of "the whole earth" from space, but it was by far the most powerful. The reason had to do with a trendy word these days -- "framing." By showing the Earth, lonely and fragile against the all too lifeless expanse of the moon, the picture memorably portrayed the vulnerability of "Spaceship Earth." It was a profoundly moving and spiritual moment.
NEIL de GRASSE TYSON, Hayden Planetarium, NYC: It was the first real occasion where people saw earth, not as you see it on the globe you buy in the map store, with political boundaries color coded. All it was, was oceans and continents and clouds. And it was at that moment that people started calling our planet, "Space Ship Earth", because we're all in together, moving through space.

STEWART BRAND
, Founder, Whole Earth Catalogue: The planet seeing itself from the outside was a major self-realization of its existence as a planet, as a beautiful thing, as a kind of fragile appearing thing. It is clearly alive. Photographs with the moon in the foreground emotionally dramatize the difference between a dead planet and a living planet. It's not hard to imagine, well, you know, a living planet can become a dead planet unless steps are taken.
Apparently not everyone got the message.
NASA has reportedly eliminated the promise "to understand and protect our home planet" from its mission statement. That statement was repeatedly cited last winter by NASA climate scientist James Hansen, who said he was being threatened by political appointees for speaking about the dangers posed by greenhouse gas emissions.
...
One observer noted results from NASA's increasing involvement in monitoring the Earth's environment have sparked political disputes concerning the Bush administration's environmental policies. Hansen said the elimination of the phrase involving protecting the planet might reflect a White House desire to shift the spotlight away from global warming. He told The Times: "They're making it clear that they ... prefer that NASA work on something that's not causing them a problem."
That figures. Why would George Bush want to "understand and protect our home planet"? After all, as governor of Texas he waged war on that state's environment while pretending to protect it. As president he rejected the Kyoto Treaty on global warming -- along with the concept itself. And in global crises, his reckless taste for grand, violent gestures rather than diplomatic solutions risks the ultimate disaster.

"A living planet can become a dead planet unless steps are taken." Exactly. Let's take the steps.

What’s up with John McCain?

Yesterday, in a press conference with President Bush, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki criticized the "damage and destruction" caused by Israeli attacks but said nothing about Hezbollah’s role. Now Think Progress reports that McCain appeared on Fox News and claimed that Maliki has “condemned Hezbollah,” when he has done no such thing. McCain said that, as a result, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and others who have criticized Malaki for his position on Hezbollah are “not qualified to lead.” From the transcript:
Well, we’ve got a conflict going on in Iraq where the United States is fighting and doing everything that they can to help democracy evolve there. The Prime Minister of Iraq and others have condemned Hezbollah and say they do not support them. So, if you want to have our effort in Iraq impaired by this situation, go ahead, but I think the Democrats are proving again why they’re not qualified to lead.
Um, who is not qualified to lead? Hard to see what once seemed so appealing about the guy. His turned the other cheek when Bush’s surrogates ruthlessly slandered his wife in South Carolina in 2000. That was completely beyond the pale. And now he’s been stumbling from one bizarro statement to another. He may think he’s on the fast track to the presidency, but it’s hard to see him even making it out of the starting gate in 2008. He’s history.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Your tax dollars at work?


"Birth pangs of the new Middle East"? Some of those precision munitions the U.S. recently rushed to Israel?
REUTERS -- U.N. officials said four military observers were killed when an Israeli bomb hit their base in southern Lebanon.

Annan asked Israel to conduct an investigation into the "apparently deliberate targeting" of the post.

Milos Strugar, spokesman for the UNIFIL peacekeeping force in Lebanon, said: "There were 14 other incidents of firing close to this position in the afternoon from the Israeli side and the firing continued during the rescue operation," he said.
Who would know better than Condoleezza Rice about "birth pangs" and how awful but necessary they can be? Rami G. Khouri comments from Beirut.
Just before U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice started her short trip to the Middle East on Sunday, she described the massive destruction, dislocation and human suffering in Lebanon as an inevitable part of the "birth pangs of a new Middle East."

From my perspective here in Beirut, where she landed on Monday, as I watch American-supplied Israeli jets smash this country to smithereens, her "birth pangs" look much more like a wicked hangover from a decades-old American orgy of diplomatic intoxication with the enticements of pro-Israeli politics.
First Iraq. Now Lebanon. What's next for the neocon geniuses who are determined to create a "new Middle East," labor pains and all?

Be an expert on anything, the Stephen Colbert way

A couple of my favorites, from the pointers Colbert gave to John Hockenberry in his Wired 14.08 interview:
CHOOSE A SUBJECT THAT'S ACTUALLY SECRET. Dan Brown invented a secret subject for The Da Vinci Code, so now he is forever an expert on this secret subject that no one can challenge. Anybody who attacks the secret subject is, by definition, part of the cabal.

DON'T LIMIT YOURSELF TO CURRENT KNOWLEDGE. If you worry too much about being up-to-date, you miss out on vast territories of obsolete knowledge just waiting to be reclaimed. Think of leech-craft and all the lonely experts in the use of the little creatures, which are now experiencing a renaissance in health care.
He's not talking about blogging, is he?

Stems cells as wedge issue -- don't count on it to deliver all that many votes to Democrats

TNR Online is not a place I hang out, but hey, they can't be wrong all the time. I bumped into this article by Noam Scheiber on why stem cells aren't necessarily a great wedge issue for Democrats -- despite the fact that most of the public disagrees with Bush on the merits.
Why not? The reason has to do with the nature of wedge issues, which are rarely about the narrow debate that brings them into public view (such as stem-cell research in this case). Instead, they tend to be proxies for much deeper-seated emotions or anxieties, which the wedge issue inflames. For an issue to work as a wedge, it's the emotional subtext that has to cut your way.
Scheiber illustrates how Republicans often benefit from this, and Democrats less so -- because of the way the underlying emotional issues play.
For example, how is it that Bush used the Iraq war to his advantage in 2004 even though more than half the country had serious reservations about it? The answer is that the debate wasn't about the Iraq war per se. It was about Bush's toughness and resolve on the one hand, and Kerry's weakness and indecisiveness on the other. By running on the war's metaphorical meaning rather than the war itself, Bush managed to unite his own side and split Democrats--a textbook wedge maneuver. (According to exit polls in 2004, 53 percent of voters viewed Bush favorably, about the same number that thought the war was going badly and had made the United States less safe.)

I suspect there's a similar dynamic at work when it comes to stem-cell research. Here the substantive merits pretty clearly point in one direction (it's a good idea), but the metaphorical value to Democrats may be limited at best. That's because underlying the stem-cell issue is a deeper debate about the way science is changing our lives. On one side of this debate are those who believe biotechnology is mostly a force for good, and that reining it in is basically reactionary. On the other side are those more troubled by the moral and ethical questions raised by advances in biotechnology. The problem for Democrats is that the American public splits a lot more evenly on these questions than it does on the narrower question of whether to extract stem cells from discarded embryos.
Check it out. It's a good article to read before we hypnotize ourselves into thinking that because we're aligned with a good cause -- one the public agrees with -- the voters will all necessarily vote our way on this.

Politics is not that rational, for better or worse.

Iraq: With friends like this ...

It seems the Speaker of the Iraqi parliament has been saying (not so) nice things about us.
Last weekend, the speaker of the Iraqi parliament, Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, described the U.S. occupation of Iraq as “butcher’s work.” Confronted with those remarks on Sunday, White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten said he had met with al-Mashhadani privately and believes he has an “appreciation for the sacrifice so many Americans have made.”

If al-Mashhandi appreciates the sacrifices of Americans, he has a funny way of showing it. At a news conference, he said “I personally think whoever kills an American soldier in defense of his country would have a statue built for him in that country.”
Thanks to Think Progress. Just more feathers for the duck.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Only read this if you’re prepared to face TEOTWAWKI* in eight short steps

(* The End Of The World As We Know It)

In a provocative NYT Op-Ed piece titled “He Who Cast the First Stone Probably Didn’t,” Harvard psychology prof Daniel Gilbert writes about recent psychological research demonstrating that human beings seem to be hard-wired to overreact to provocation. It seems to be built into our neurological circuits.

On first thought, that seems innocuous enough -- just plain common sense, really. But combine it with the scenario sketched by a physics prof at UC-San Diego, and you get to The End Of The World As We Know It in eight short steps.

According to the psychology professor

Gilbert begins by discussing the nature of provocation and retaliation, ranging from siblings fighting in the backseat of a car to the latest Mideast violence, and looks for some general principles.
What seems like a grossly self-serving pattern of remembering is actually the product of two innocent facts. First, because our senses point outward, we can observe other people’s actions but not our own. Second, because mental life is a private affair, we can observe our own thoughts but not the thoughts of others. Together, these facts suggest that our reasons for punching will always be more salient to us than the punches themselves — but that the opposite will be true of other people’s reasons and other people’s punches.

If the first principle of legitimate punching is that punches must be even-numbered, the second principle is that an even-numbered punch may be no more forceful than the odd-numbered punch that preceded it. Legitimate retribution is meant to restore balance, and thus an eye for an eye is fair, but an eye for an eyelash is not. When the European Union condemned Israel for bombing Lebanon in retaliation for the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers, it did not question Israel’s right to respond, but rather, its “disproportionate use of force.” It is O.K. to hit back, just not too hard.
But it turns out that arriving at a truly proportionate use of force is difficult, if not impossible, for most people. Gilbert describes an experiment in which volunteers are set up with a device to put pressure on another volunteer’s finger. Then they switch roles, and each is asked to deliver the same amount of pressure to the other subject.
The results were striking. Although volunteers tried to respond to each other’s touches with equal force, they typically responded with about 40 percent more force than they had just experienced. Each time a volunteer was touched, he touched back harder, which led the other volunteer to touch back even harder. What began as a game of soft touches quickly became a game of moderate pokes and then hard prods, even though both volunteers were doing their level best to respond in kind.

Each volunteer was convinced that he was responding with equal force and that for some reason the other volunteer was escalating. Neither realized that the escalation was the natural byproduct of a neurological quirk that causes the pain we receive to seem more painful than the pain we produce, so we usually give more pain than we have received.
In other words, escalation seems to follow provocation as night follows day.

According to the physics professor
Jorge Hirsch is the physics prof, a fellow of the American Physical Society, and the organizer of a recent petition, circulated among leading physicists, opposing the new, more aggressive nuclear weapons policies adopted by the US in the past 5 years. He’s really worried, and he explains why in a Common Dreams post filled with links to more information and titled "Nuke Iran, Blame the Jews: Who Benefits from the Israel-Lebanon Flare-Up?"

He’s worried about the U.S. getting involved in the current conflict and going nuclear against Iran, as Seymour Hersh warned could happen more easily than most people are aware. And as the title of his post suggests, Prof. Hirsch worries that the world will unfairly blame Israel. But that’s the least of his worries.
In the end of course we will all lose. Because the nuclear genie, unleashed from its bottle in the war against Iran, will never retreat. And just like the US could develop nuclear weapons in only 4 years with completely new technology 60 years ago, many more countries and groups will be highly motivated to do it in the coming years.

Think about the current disproportionate response of Israel, applied in a conflict where the contenders have nuclear weapons. 10 to 1 retaliation, starting with a mere 600 casualties, wipes out the entire Earth's population in eight easy steps. Who will be willing to stop the escalation? The country that lost 60,000 citizens in the last hit? The one that lost 600,000? 6 million?

As the nuclear holocaust unfolds, some will remember the Lebanon conflict and subsequent Iran war and blame it all on the Jews. Others will properly blame Americans, for having allowed their Executive to erase the 60-year old taboo against the use of nuclear weapons, first in doctrine and then in practice, despite having the most powerful conventional military force in the world. Others of course will blame "Muslim extremism".

And then the blaming will wither away as a three-billion-year old experiment, life on planet Earth, comes to an end.
Spooky to think that the only thing standing between us and this possible future is George Bush, and that he has more than 2 years left in office.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

The Prince of Darkness, like his neocon minions, has a heart of darkness

On the NYT Op-Ed page recently, the Prince of Darkness outlined what he considered "An Appropriate Response" for Israel to Hezbollah's provocation.
Israel must now deal a blow of such magnitude to those who would destroy it as to leave no doubt that its earlier policy of acquiescence is over. This means precise military action against Hezbollah and its infrastructure in Lebanon and Syria, for as long as it takes and without regard to mindless diplomatic blather about proportionality. For what appears to some to be a disproportionate response to small incursions and kidnappings is, in fact, an entirely appropriate response to the existential struggle in which Israel is now engaged. -- RICHARD PERLE
He's not the only one. All the other neocon princelings seem to be, if anything, even more completely in the grip of war fever. And as Glenn Greenwald suggests in his overview, there's every reason to think the White House is listening to them. But what are they saying, really?

They see the current chaos, not as a disaster, but as an opportunity to finally remake the Middle East once and for all. Forget about Iraq. The problem there was, we were simply thinking too small, the solution was not far-reaching enough.

These are intelligent people who think they know the Middle East and its problems. They use their educations, their experience in government, and above all, the language of reason to create far-reaching utopian visions for the future of the Middle East. It sounds fantastic, until you start to really listen -- especially between the lines.

That's when, hidden behind the reasonable tone, the assured, worldly voice, and the self-confident air of pragmatic realism, you find an older, uglier voice, the Mr. Hyde to the Dr. Jekyll of European colonialism. Joseph Conrad wrote a book about the impulses contained in that voice, a book that brilliantly evoked another Prince of Darkness.
'By the simple exercise of our will we can exert a power for good practically unbounded,' etc., etc. From that point he soared and took me with him. The peroration was magnificent, though difficult to remember, you know. It gave me the notion of an exotic Immensity ruled by an august Benevolence. It made me tingle with enthusiasm. This was the unbounded power of eloquence -- of words -- of burning noble words. There were no practical hints to interrupt the magic current of phrases, unless a kind of note at the foot of the last page, scrawled evidently much later, in an unsteady hand, may be regarded as the exposition of a method. It was very simple, and at the end of that moving appeal to every altruistic sentiment it blazed at you, luminous and terrifying, like a flash of lightning in a serene sky: 'Exterminate all the brutes!'
Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" was fiction. We can only hope that, likewise, the neocon vision for the Middle East never gets beyond the realm of fiction. They've already hopelessly screwed up Iraq. We can't afford for them to do the same thing to the whole world.

(Cross-posted at Daily Kos.)

Sunday butterfly blogging

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