Today we have the pleasure of hosting Siva Vaidhyanathan at Altercation. We also have a new Think Again column, “The Quest to Save Red Lion,” here. Also, we'd like to direct your attention to this new report, “Quickly, Carefully, and Generously: The Necessary Steps for a Responsible Withdrawal from Iraq.” It was just done by the Task Force for a Responsible Withdrawal from Iraq, and outlines 25 initiatives the United States can take to reduce the potential of violence and instability upon withdrawal. It's a useful antidote to claims that we're damned if we stay in Iraq, but damned if we withdraw. Check it out.
Hi. It's Siva Vaidhyanathan here. I am subbing for Eric today, and following the great LTC Bateman. That's a pretty tough role, like Jason Giambi coming up after the second-greatest baseball player in history (who was the greatest? Do you have to ask?) But I will try to do my best for y'all.
I have not done a full Altercation since last summer. I miss it. So it's good to be back among friends. I stand amused by the banter of the past few days between those who cheer for Ohio and dismiss Michigan, and vice versa. Please. Both Michigan and Ohio are fine places filled with excellent people (but Pierce -- Nugent? Come on, man). On this most patriotic of weekends, let's not turn on our fellow citizens for their choice of states.
Well, except for Oklahoma. There is really nothing worth celebrating in Oklahoma since the Gap Band broke up. Whenever I say the pledge of allegiance, I say, “One nation, indivisible (except for Oklahoma), with liberty and justice for all (except for Oklahoma).” Hook 'em Horns, y'all!
About year ago my family and I moved from New York City (home of the greatest sports franchise in the world) to lovely Charlottesville, Virginia. It's been a pretty radical change of lifestyle. But it's been almost all good. I miss the bustling streets, the dozens of languages, the energy and the greatest baseball stadium in the country (see, Eric never should have left me the keys to this place).
But here in Virginia, we can actually afford to raise our daughter. The cost of NYC was killing us. This place is pretty amazing in its own way. Our jobs are much better, of course. NYU, where I used to work, is a harsh and nasty place that does not respect its students or faculty. The University of Virginia, in contrast, could not hold the interests of its students any higher. And that creates a mood of respect that permeates everything we do. So it's been a really great year and promises to be a great life.
Yesterday afternoon my two-and-a-half-year-old daughter came home from day care and she proudly showed me the flag she had colored that day. “It's for America's birthday!” she said proudly.
I was actually deeply moved, not only because it was so darn cute. But I immediately began wondering if she would ever really be able to grasp what this country means to her and her family.
I am the child of one immigrant and another Navy brat who had seen her father go off to fight in three wars. So patriotism could not have been a stronger part of my moral orientation.
Growing up in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate, I worked to find a reason to believe. And I did. My family needed this place. We chose to live here. We took risks. We made sacrifices. We paid the cost of separation and solitude. But we ended up about as fortunate as a family can be.
My daughter, in contrast, is far removed from the sacrifices and risks that her grandfather and other relatives made to get here and build lives. She might hear me wax on about them. But she will never see anything but an old, fat, happy, over-educated, comfortable family living safely in big American houses.
So some day I hope to tell her these stories that solidify my patriotism every day.
I remember the day my father became a citizen. I must have been six years old. My mother baked a cake decorated like the Stars and Stripes. I stared at it for hours before the party. I am not sure I had seen many American flags before that. I am sure some neighbors flew them from their houses. But I don't remember thinking much about them. That day, however, was special for all of us.
So the symbol etched itself in my consciousness. It's always stood for the choice my father made, one that made my life possible.
My father had to take a test to naturalize. And he shared the test-prep books with me. They had all sorts of information about basic U.S. history and the Constitution. So my father's naturalization was the beginning of my indoctrination -- or, as I would rather see it, my education. That same year, I got in a fight with the kid across the street because we were the only house on the street with a McGovern sign in our front yard. In Jack Kemp's congressional district, that was a rare sight. But, in that great American tradition, I stood my ground. In the great tradition of McGovernite liberals, I lost the fight badly. But I did not back down. And, of course, I got to say I told him so soon enough.
The next few years saw our vice president resign and then our president resign in disgrace. Then my country lost a war for the first time since 1814. Patriotism for me was not about glory or victory. It was about hard, harsh lessons and striving to make our nation better and more just. Through most of my life, right up until the stolen election of 2000, that remained the case.
Back at the end of the last century, all of my father's eight siblings had come over from Southern India to various parts of the United States. And most of them had stood for citizenship so they could sponsor their children for immigration as well. My grandfather had also immigrated in the late 1970s after my grandmother died. He came to live with us. By 1990 all nine of his children and all 21 of his grandchildren lived in the United States. None lived in India.
One July, my uncle invited me to come up from Austin to Dallas for his naturalization ceremony. One of my friends had clerked in the federal court in which my uncle was to be sworn in. So my friend snuck me into the jury box during the ceremony, while most of the other family members of the 200 or so new citizens had to watch from a remote television in another courtroom. As soon as I took my seat, one of the INS employees approached me with a boom box. “Are you the one who is going to sing the anthem?,” she asked me. To my deep regret for the rest of my life, I told her no. Fortunately for everyone, the real singer arrived soon and stood next to me in the jury box. During the oath, each new citizen must relinquish allegiance to any and all other states. For most of the new citizens, this was just another promise to be mouthed along the way. But to my uncle, this was not so easy.
My uncle had been a helicopter pilot and officer in the Indian Air Force for more than 20 years. He had seen friends killed in service to his country. He had put his own life on the line in two wars on behalf of the world's largest democracy. He has a scar on his forehead from a helicopter crash during the 1971 liberation of Bangladesh from Pakistan. As the judge reached this point in the oath, I looked deeply at my uncle's face. He winced. He hesitated. I thought I could see a tear in his eye.
Then he said it. He renounced another oath he had taken years ago. In India, as in the United States, military personnel are among the few citizens who have to swear allegiance as adults, with full knowledge of the gravity of such an oath. I could see him shudder. His love for his children and the promise of this country superceded his deepest public commitment. I could understand why he did it. I appreciated it deeply. But I also think I understood how hard it was for him to do it.
A couple of Julys before my uncle's naturalization, his father had died. The summer of 1993 was supposed to be a time of great fun. After all, the Beach Boys' box set, Good Vibrations, came out that year. I was going to spend an alarming amount of time with headphones on, immersing myself in Brian Wilson's genius. But instead, I ended up driving an Econoline van full of uncles, aunts, and cousins from Texas to Maryland to attend to my grandfather's funeral.
Hindus don't embalm bodies. Corpses are supposed to be anointed, prayed over, then cremated very quickly. Of course, state and county health laws don't always afford such ancient niceties. But somehow one of my uncles had convinced county officials to look the other way as family drove in from around the country.
So one hot July afternoon I stood draped in a white cotton dhoti with my uncles and cousins in the gravel parking lot behind a funeral home on the banks of the Potomac River. As we did our prayers, my father, the eldest son, gently sprinkled flowers over his father's body. Then he pushed the body, which rested in a cardboard box, along a the sort of conveyor belt that one would use to slide cases of beer from the back room of a Canadian liquor store, into a gas oven. This was not exactly as our Brahmin forefathers had designed the ceremony. But we had learned long ago to make severe concessions to modernity in exchange for the privileges of America.
As soon as my father began pushing my grandfather's body toward the oven, we heard the distinct blare of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” I looked up, confused and -- I admit -- a bit amused. The song came from the loudspeakers above a Little League Baseball diamond across the street from the funeral home. So my grandfather, born under British tyranny, a young political leader in the years of Gandhi and Nehru, the father of nine new Americans, was cremated to the sound of the national anthem of the United States of America.
After the cremation, it was our duty to spread my grandfather's ashes in rivers. The most important destination is the Ganges in Northern India, of course. So one of my uncles flew over a month later to perform that rite. He also places some in the Cauvery River in South India, where my grandfather was born and grew up.
As I drove my uncles and aunts and cousins back to Texas, we made a series of stops at rivers along the way: starting with the Potomac and ending at the Colorado River that runs through Austin.
When, in Baton Rouge, I stepped out of the van and climbed a levee to sprinkle ashes into the Mississippi, I could not help thinking how much my grandfather had enjoyed reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer with me when I was a child. I thought about how my grandfather would wake up at 5 a.m. on any morning on which there was a rocket launch that would send Americans into space. Born into a world without electricity or internal combustion engines, he never got over the wonder of powerful American machines. I remembered how he used to come to the curb to see me get on the school bus, and all the kids on the bus would laugh and tease me because he wore his dhoti. And I thought about how, in 1984, he argued with my then-6-year-old sister over the election. As an old man, he thought we should re-elect the old man then running the country. My sister, as precocious as I was at that age, was a Mondale-Ferraro supporter, of course.
I don't think you can get any more American than that, my friends.
We have long, funny names. We conduct strange religious rituals in a dead language that even we don't always understand. We dress funny. We put dots on our heads.
But we hope, dream, cry, laugh, work, buy, invest, study, play, and vote as if it all might disappear tomorrow.
That's because, like all who are Americans by choice, we can never forget how special this place is. We can never take it for granted. We can never forget those who gave their lives to make this place possible. We can never forgive those who try to destroy it. We can never let go of the basic, clear, strong beliefs that were so succinctly expressed in those study guides that my father used to study for his citizenship test.
Even through these dark days, when my country seems to have lost its bearings, lost its mind, lost its soul, lost its values, and lost its sense of decency, I still believe. And I always will. As long as there are new Americans, whether by choice or by birth, there can be a new America.
So I hope I can do my duty to convince my daughter not to be too cynical about her country. After all, it did not have to turn out this way. Anything is possible. She could even be its president someday. Or she could grow up to play baseball for a living. Or she could just be a decent, responsible, honest citizen who treats her country with respect and her neighbors with kindness. I would be happy with that.
I hope everyone has a wonderful holiday and takes the time to reflect on all we have been through together.
Capitol Hill lost yet another congressman -- Al Wynn -- to K Street recently. He's just one more elected official who has rolled down the hill to join a lobbying firm. Through the story of this latest defector, the American News Project examines the burgeoning trend, known in DC as the revolving door.
Also: teen pregnancy is on the rise in America for the first time since 1991. One in three teenage girls in the U.S. becomes pregnant. ANP went to one health center in the Northeast of Washington, DC to explore kids having babies.
And here's a cute dog.
The New York Times recently tried to rewrite its Swift Boat past, suggesting the media did their due diligence during the dog days of August 2004 and quickly highlighted the holes in the Swift Boat allegations. With the Swifties hovering over the 2008 campaign, let's not forget what really happened in 2004. Read more here.
So here we are heading toward another July 4th, that glorious day when American independence was declared and the Liberty Bell rang out to the world -- the first of which didn't happen on July 4th, the second of which was made up “out of whole cloth” in the 19th century in a book for children (but you knew that!). Think of today's post as a bit of counter-programming to our yearly summer celebration of history, a way to ponder what exactly, in the eighth year of the reign of our latest King George, any of us have to celebrate.
Consider instead, with the help of Rick Shenkman, award-winning investigative journalist and founder of the always provocative website History News Network, the state of our national brain -- and ask the question: If we're a democracy and, in November, many of us will be heading in remarkable numbers for the polling booths, just how ignorant are we? On the basis of what knowledge will we be voting?
Shenkman's new book, Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the Truth about the American Voter, has caused a small sensation. (You can watch his encounter with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show at the TomDispatch site.) Today's post is an adaptation of the second chapter of his book, “Gross Ignorance,” and believe me, you'll find it startling to read.
After all, as Shenkman writes, “On the basis of their comprehensive approach, [two political scientists] Delli Carpini and Keeter concluded that only 5% of Americans could correctly answer three-fourths of the questions asked about economics, only 11% of the questions about domestic issues, 14% of the questions about foreign affairs, and 10% of the questions about geography.” And these weren't complicated questions, mind you. Even on the largest matters, the figures can be startling: More than 30% of Americans didn't know what the Holocaust was. Almost 20% couldn't identify Martin Luther King, Jr. And history's our “best” subject!
When it comes to politics and political matters ... well, duck ... or plunge into the subject with Shenkman and be edified. As he concludes: “How much ignorance can a country stand? There have to be terrible consequences when it reaches a certain level. But what level? And with what consequences, exactly? The answers to these questions are unknowable. But can we doubt that if we persist on the path we are on that we shall, one day, perhaps not too far into the distant future, find out the answers?”
Name: Bob Thena
Hometown: Easton, PA
As you say, “flags do matter” and when it comes to the Soviet flag, to some of us it really, really matters. To anyone who had family there, like my wife, it is a symbol of evil that still affects them today. She was born in a DP camp in Germany at the end of WWII and visited the rest of her family in Ukraine for the first time in '81. It was just awful for her to see her family living in the conditions the Soviets forced on them. One of the things she said when she came home was that she wished every half-baked commie in the US could do the same week she just did. Maybe this group of old hippies (as I am also) could have used a bit of that education as well.
Another flag moment was at a protest against Spiro Agnew in my hometown of Westfield, NJ, in the early 70's. He was coming for a Republican fundraiser and we all turned out to protest it including my best friend's father, a WWII vet, and blue collar Democrat. We were having a grand old time yelling obscenities (we weren't very sophisticated protesters) at the black tie crowd when a bunch of yahoos (yes they truly exist) from out of town show up and start waving a Vietcong flag and doing their best to make sure they got the TV news coverage. Right in front of the cameras my dear old friend and father figure steps up to the guy with the flag, snatches it out of his hand, throws it on the ground, unzips his pants and proceeds to piss on it in front of the TV news crew and these idiots. When he is done, he calmly says to the yahoos, “OK, it's all yours now.” (Needless to say, this piece of American heroism didn't make it onto the 11 PM news.) The yahoos started to make rather menacing moves towards him and they are instantly surrounded by about 20 of us hippies ready for a fight. They backed down and split. Frankly, I still feel pride when I think about it. We may have hated the war and those who pushed it, but no one in our town was going to put up with that flag representing us, and our protest. So yes, flags do matter.
LTC Bob Replies: Bob, I like your flavor of passionate hippie. Although because of my position, and perhaps because of defects in my character, I could not do the same ... your friend's father is now my own new personal hero. I'll stick with my Socratic method for now, though, as this peaceful method seems most appropriate given who/what I am. (You cannot imagine how really freaking nervous people get when a 6-foot-tall, 220-pound, shaved-skull combat infantryman displays any strong emotions. So I find that falling back upon my academic foundations is wisest.)
I am not sure symbols are as important as the LTC thinks they are. If they are, then I suggest it is salient to consider what the symbols actually on the flags do in fact represent.
1) What do each of the stars of the flag of the United States of America represent? States, right? States taken at what expense from whom?
2) What does the hammer and sickle historically symbolize? Hammer: organized labor. Sickle: organized farmers.
Of course, at some level symbols work. The LTC's revulsion is a perfect example of symbols working, in this instance to instigate misplaced anger. There have been, and are, a great deal of nationalisms in this world, with their attendant flags and symbolisms, which will inspire reverence or revulsion depending on context.
My anger is directed toward much greater crimes than the LTC's hippie friends' faux pas.
LTC Bob Replies: Friend Hugh, I believe we will have to agree to disagree. In no small part this is because I witnessed the effects of the Hammer and Sickle. At 13, while visiting Berlin with my father, I took a trip alone into East Berlin. Little idealist that I was, that sealed the deal for me. I would commit, when I could, to directly opposing that vision for humanity which I witnessed in East Germany. I do not dispute, and I thought I made it clear, that our system has flaws. We are not without guilt. We are not pure. No honest historian, and certainly no veteran of the 7th Cavalry, could contend that. But what I saw in East Berlin in 1980 was obscene.
In Basic Combat Training (Ft. Gordon, 1969) we had a Drill Sgt. who told us he'd left the Army after his first tour in Vietnam but couldn't stand civilian life and re-enlisted. His explanation: As a civilian, there are all these people “running around out there -- and no one's in charge!” Don't know if someone who makes it all the way to the rank of Col. would share that sentiment, but it might explain to a degree how retirement after 20-30 years or more, some of them while being “in charge,” might be a bit wrenching, as well as emotional.
LTC Bob Replies: I feel no shame in admitting that I feel pure fear myself when contemplating the chaos of retirement. It is a part of why I find my wife so amazing. She is a tad younger than me. But at the time we started dating she had been: A trail guide/hut master on the Appalachian Trail, worked at a Progressive magazine in Seattle, worked at Co-Op America in DC, taught school at a commune in Colorado, taught school in DC, and was at that time a legislative aide to a US Congressman. She was 24. Me, I've had lots of “jobs” in the Army, but the salient point is that they were all IN the Army. The courage all of you have in this regard astounds me. All the more so because you think it is “normal.” Seriously.
I appreciate Secretary Gates' desire to make the Pentagon realize that they are involved in two wars but the military cannot long operate in a vacuum. We have had repeated tax cuts since 9/11 and little willingness from the civilian leadership to treat the American people as mature enough to accept the kind of material sacrifice and personal inconvenience necessary in a time of “real” war (being spied on is not inconvenient if you stay out of Gitmo).
I sometimes wonder what conditions would be like in Afghanistan or Iraq if we were actually on a war-time, or even a Cold War-time, footing. OTOH, are Americans suited for the kind of colonial-lite commitment the situation seems to call for?
LTC Bob Replies: Scott, you ask good and deep questions. I suggest that you should write an article to explore these issues. I know that doing so helps me organize my own thoughts on various issues.
Not to disregard Jim Celer's drollery about being shot down in an airplane as a qualification for the presidency, but that wasn't what General Clark was getting at.
Instead, he was pointing out that in 23 years as a naval officer, McCain was somehow never given command of a combat-ready unit of any size; the squadron he commanded briefly after Vietnam was a training unit. Putting it mildly, that's an unusual career path for someone who served so long, and mostly as a pilot.
Presidents don't have to withstand torture; they have to command. How did the Navy view McCain's temperament and judgment as a leader? Not very highly, perhaps.
A look at his performance evaluations might clear things up; don't be shocked if Clark suggests one soon. And don't be surprised if McCain then shows his “character” by pushing back against that suggestion as stubbornly as he resisted his captors in Vietnam -- and the disclosure of his wealthy wife's tax returns.
All too often the MSM plead that some important event or another didn't make the newscast because it just wasn't dramatic enough to get the public's attention. That's well and good until something puts the lie to that claim, as happened recently. Somehow no one but Bill Moyers seems to have picked up on events at the Senate Energy Committee that were in no way lacking drama.
Al Gore was being lectured by Republican Senator James Inhofe that if Gore couldn't answer any question with extreme brevity he would be cut off and instructed to answer in writing. Clearly the goal was to deny a stage to one of the most convincing speakers on the subject of Global Warming. After all, written answers submitted long after the meeting have virtually no hope of making the news. Committee Chair Senator Barbara Boxer attempted repeatedly to remind Inhofe that his instructions were not within the rules of the committee but he would not be interrupted while verbally beating a man of integrity. Finally Boxer had enough. Holding the handle of her gavel between the tips of her fingers, she held it in the air and informed Senator Inhofe, “You don't do this anymore. I do this now.” I had never given Senator Boxer much thought before. Now she's on my list of heroes for shepherding the Climate Security Act to the floor of the Senate, even though it died in filibuster.
So it's clear that people like James Inhofe need to be stopped but it goes farther. Conservatives clearly believe they still deserve to run the show and continue to behave as if they do. They try to call the shots on committees they don't chair. They represent passage of every bill over a filibuster, something they ABHORRED in the last Congress, as normal now. They're shocked when the new majority passes legislation desired by a majority of Americans. They claim American citizens have no right to debate a war being waged with their tax dollars and military units. Certainly no one has the right to disagree with such a war, only to lead cheers for it. Conservatives know they can't beat Liberals in a fair fight. So be prepared for them to not fight fair.
LTC Bob Replies: Although beyond my purview (being politics) I would note that in my profession the idea of a “fair fight” is a synonym for “stupid.” This, of course, is why I avoid most fights, and those I engage in usually start with a beer bottle to the head, from behind, when my opponent is not looking, usually without witnesses, in an alley. I lose few fights. In fact, none. Apply as you see fit.
I've always enjoyed your postings and your thought provoking insight into military matters and history. Not being a professional in either field, I don't know if your reference to the “only” two states to go to war against each other is tongue-in-cheek; or was the conflict, between Kansas and Missouri, that was pounded into my head by Mrs. Wilson in elementary school just considered to be just part of the greater Civil War by historians.
Thanks for the military blog references. Have a great 4th.
LTC Bob Replies: Joe, a few days ago I cited a column in the UK's Guardian. What I did not mention was that it was written by my best friend, and former office-mate (from West Point faculty days), LTC (now retired) Bob Mackey. Bob's book, The Uncivil War, is one you probably should read. Indeed, I highly commend it to all.
As for JoAnn Schwartz's post, claiming that Canada has "[b]etter beer and better hockey" -- I must object. I don't have an opinion on the hockey part of her assertion, but I disagree on the beer part of it.
A great site for beer geeks and casual beer drinkers alike is www.beeradvocate.com. Among other things, members post numerical reviews of beers they've tasted. Those reviews have been tallied and the site lists the top 100 beers here.
Seven of the top ten beers are American, with the remaining 3 coming from Belgium. In fact, the first appearance of a Canadian beer is at #14 -- Peche Mortel, an Imperial Stout from Quebec -- and an admittedly quick scan of the Top 100 yields only one other Canadian beer (another from Quebec, this one a Belgian-style Tripel from Unibroue, La Fin du Monde, coming in at #71).
Sure, the list is heavy on “big” beers (stouts, imperial-style india pale ales and Belgian-style ales); the reviewers clearly prefer them to “smaller” styles like lagers. But my point is this: if you're thinking American beer is all about Bud, Miller & Coors (and the light versions thereof) while Canada is all about Molson & Labatts, think again.
The biggest growth in the beer industry in recent years is in the so-called “craft” beers. While they don't compete in scale with Bud, Miller and Coors, many outperform in taste and variety of offerings (if you think “beer” means only Bud or even Labatt-styled lager, there's a whole world of beer out there to explore, ranging from lagers and pilsners to a wide variety of ales, including porters, stouts and barleywines, with flavor profiles ranging from over-the-top hop bitterness to mild and sweet malty brews and everything in between). There are plenty of excellent and interesting beers being brewed here in the good ole U.S. of A., including at Founders Brewing in Grand Rapids, in your home state of Michigan. Don't sell American beer short, especially compared to Canada; we're doing just fine here. . . .
LTC Bob Replies: Scotland, people, SCOTLAND. They make, like, Scotch there. Hell, maybe we could make a trade. Michigan FOR Scotland. Running mate, would THAT not be a fair trade?
I think it is only prudent to put the Bateman/Pierce candidates on notice, that if we have many more weeks like this one, with cave-ins by Obama to the Right on FISA and the Supreme Court, you gentlemen are in very serious jeopardy of winning.
LTC Bob Replies: Gentlepeople, the Bateman/Pierce 2008 ticket is in grave danger. In light of my running-mate's recent commentary disparaging the Great State of Ohio (aka “flyover country” to Eric), I am sadly compelled to remind him that it has been a scant 208 years since Burr-Hamilton, and I would assure my VP-to-be that unlike the former Lieutenant Colonel Hamilton (whose heroic nighttime charge at the head of his light infantry troops to secure the British Redoubt #10 at Yorktown sealed the deal), I am adept with small arms. Hamilton carried a sword into battle, but dueled with a pistol. I carried a pistol ... and a rifle ... and 210 rounds ... and two knives ... and whateverthehellelse I thought might be needed. Thus, while I have fenced, and would doubtless lose to my VP with Epee or Foil (the Veep is a fencer, folks), I am not dull enough to propose edged weapons. Moreover, I have a long history of not fighting “fair.” (See above.) Sniper rifles at 400 meters. That, or M-1s (the tank, not the rifle) at 2 kilometers. Salvation of the ticket will require intercession.
Hey, Pierce, about this Michigan thing, I pretty much agree with you, but take it easy on the Ohio music scene, because, as we all know, in the late sixties, Youngstown was the Music Capital of the World, what with Joe Walsh and Wally Bryson and the Raspberries, not to mention the much lamented Choir. You're right about Woody Hayes, but don't forget, Bo learned to coach at Miami. And of course, Yost was from West Virginia.
Dear Eric and/or LTC Bob:
One good reason for not honoring Josh Gibson for hitting a home run out of Yankee Stadium is that there is no credible evidence that he actually did it. There is no dispute that Gibson did in fact hit two prodigious home runs at the Stadium, but did he really hit one out? No historian would accept it as fact, based upon the lack of any contemporaneous evidence. Gibson himself never made such a claim. More here.