OxBlog

Monday, May 09, 2005

# Posted 1:15 PM by Patrick Belton  

JOURNALISM DEEP THOUGHT OF THE DAY: If an article is what results from a pitch, does that make it a son of a pitch?
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# Posted 7:03 AM by Patrick Belton  

IF YOU LIKE JAZZ, DON'T READ THIS: The rest of you can go listen to the long-undiscovered Louis Armstrong original of Brittney Spears' 'Oops, I Did it Again', unearthed by the same enterprising people who brought you 'the world's worst Jewish rap.'
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# Posted 6:53 AM by Patrick Belton  

IRSHAD MANJI AT OXFORD: Author Irshad Manji, a fairly prolific and broadly known feminist Muslim, will be speaking on Tuesday at Somerville at 5:30pm, for our Oxford readership - the title of her talk will be "Confessions of a Muslim Dissident: Why I Fight for Women, Jews, Gays...and Allah." This is part of her book tour for this book, which if you read Arabic or Urdu you can read for free on her website rather than buying. Now whoever said languages never paid?
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# Posted 12:36 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

WHOA! Eugene Volokh also has some harsh words for the new sex-ed curriculum in Maryland's Montgomery county. When I suggested that the WaPo underplayed just how overtly theological the curriculum is, I didn't know the half of it.

On a related note, take a look at Gene's defense of allowing open homosexuals to serve in the military. It demonstrates that you can argue for tolerance on rational grounds without smearing your opponents as bigots.
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Sunday, May 08, 2005

# Posted 11:23 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

WHEN IT ISN'T HE SAID/SHE SAID JOURNALISM: As you may have noticed, OxBlog enjoys every salvo fired in the debate about he said/she said journalism, i.e. mechanically reporting on the arguments made by both sides in any given debate without giving any sense of which side is telling the truth.

The purpose of this post is to put of a bit of a twist in the he said/she said hypothesis by pointing out that journalists often discard the norm of balance almost entirely. This is not necessarily a bad thing. I am not going to argue that journalists dispense with the norm of balance by ignoring the conservative side of the debate (an approach that is not unknown).

Rather, I want to point out that journalists consider it entirely appropriate to write articles that focus almost entirely on one side of the debate provided that the articles leave a balanced impression about the merits of that side of the case. In fact, journalists are even willing to focus almost entirely on the conservative side of a debate.

Take for example, the front page article in today's WaPo about Baptist minister Rick Scarborough, architect of some of the most visible opposition to the Democratic filibuster threat. At the very end of this relatively long article, there are two brief quotations provided by Scarboroughs critics. But that's not balance. Rather, it's the way that the WaPo correspondent describes Scarborough that provides balance. The first two sentences of the article run as follows:
In his home town of Pearland, Tex., Baptist minister Rick Scarborough was tireless in promoting his conservative Christian way of thinking.

He attacked high school sex education courses, experimental medical treatments and transsexuals trying to change their gender identification.
"Tireless" is better than lazy, but it's a pretty neutral description. "Attack" suggests that Scarborough tries to win arguments by volume rather than reason, but it's pretty reasonable to describe a staunch partisan as a attacking his opponents.

Shortly thereafter, the WaPo tells us that the filibuster debate
Provides a fiery new front in the culture war. And Scarborough is emblematic of the Christian right leaders who have been drawn to the fray.
This is an interesting pair of sentences. I'd suggest that "fiery fronts" and "culture wars" carry some strong negative connotations. Almost everyone, and especially newspapers, idealize cool, rational debate about substantive policy proposals. References to fire and war suggest that Scarborough deviates from that norm. Nonetheles, he was "drawn" to this debate rather than igniting it.

The first time we hear directly from Scarborough, this is how it goes:
"One of my goals in life is to give the Republican Party courage," Scarborough said in a recent interview. "We have a lot of gutless wonders who wear the tag conservative Republican. Anytime there's any amount of fire, they crater."
Here we have a Republican criticizing other Republicans, so you can't say the article is unfair to Democrats. Yet forgive me for suggesting that this quote made it into the article in order to demonstrate how radical Scarborough is, since journalists almost never describe the GOP as the more timid of the two parties.

The next time we hear directly from Scarborough, it is when the WaPo says of the leadership of the Christian right that
Their real power rests in their unique access to millions of voters "who happen to go to church," as Scarborough puts it. "It's straight to the heart of people from men and women they trust," he said.
In this instance, Scarborough is analyzing politics rather than making the case for his point of view. Thus, the exclusion of his opponents from the narrative makes little difference. I would suggest, however, that this passage hints at the danger of dictating politics from the pulpit. Along with idealizing cool and rational debate, we tend to condemn theological interventions in politics, since they divide audiences according to faith. Thus one might say that what's really happening here is that the Post is giving Scarborough just enough rope to hang himself.

The third time we hear from Scarborough, the minister comes off looking good. In the second half of the article, we learn that
Scarborough, 55, started preaching while a student at Stephen F. Austin State University. His other preoccupation was football; one teammate was future Redskins star kicker Mark Moseley. "I hiked every ball he kicked in college," Scarborough says.
Go Skins! There's always next year! Anyhow, this bit of puff coverage just sets the Post up for his finisher:
[Scarborough's] first foray into politics came two years later, when he attended a local high school assembly on AIDS awareness, and was appalled at the frank talk about condoms and "various sex acts." He read the transcript from the pulpit one Sunday morning and took his complaints -- and at least 400 parishioners -- to the school board. Eventually, the high-school principal was replaced by a supporter of abstinence-based sex education.
So is this an instance of positive grassroots action, or the unforgiving purge of a principal who refused to toe the party line? The Post's description only consists of facts. But the selection of facts is just as important as whether or not they are true. And even the truest facts have connotations.

Now perhaps the situation with regard to that principal was exactly what the Post suggests: an ideological purge. I have no reason to think otherwise except that I am generally suspicious of whatever the Post says about Christian activists. If it was an ideological purge, than readers should have that information available when forming their opinions about Scarborough.

But remember what this post is trying to show: that even by focusing exclusively on one half of the debate, one does not necessarily disadvantage the other side. In subtle ways, a purely factual focus on just one side can be even more effective than splitting the column inches between both.

Since this post is getting long, let's just consider one final quotation from Scarborough. According to the next-to-last paragraph of the article,
Scarborough insists that his broad goal is simply to put in place "constitutionally minded judges."
'Insists' is a fascinating word. One doesn't have to 'insist' about facts. No one insists that the capital of Virginia is Richmond. (Although I guess if someone told you that the capital of Kentucky is Lexington, you might have to insist that it is Frankfurt.)

The use of 'insists' in this article is expecially intersting, since we find Scarborough insisting that his stated opinion is his actual opinion. From that, one should infer that the good minister is not to be fully trusted, even on the subject of his own motives.

Strangely, the article never tells exactly what sort of opinion that Scarborough might be hiding. The answer is obvious, of course: the opinion that the real litmus test for judges is not whether they are "consitutionally minded" but whether their theology resembles that of Scarborough.

So what we have here is a case in which only Scarborough is quoted and he is defending own his opinion, but the article still isn't unfair to the missing side of the debate.

Now, if you're still reading this post, either because you hate it or because you are procrastinating, let me predict that the biggest criticism of this post will be that it reads far too much into the language of correspondents who are constantly trying to meet deadlines and don't have the time to think about the subtle connotations of every one of their words.

As a pre-emptive response to that objection, let me remind you of an observation made by Mike Allen, one of the Post's top political correspondents. Allen told an audience at a public discussion of the US media that
News writers are trying to present both sides' points-of-view, hence the "he said, she said" quality to [their work], but that they're trying to present these points-of-view in such a way so that a discerning reader can tell who's right based on reading the story. [NB: This is a paraphrase, not a direct quote, provided by one of Allen's fellow panelists.]
I certainly have enough confidence in the WaPo to believe that its correspondents are fully capable of filling their work with interpretive hints, even when they are under deadline pressue. I just wish they would be a little more forthright about their opinions.
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# Posted 11:11 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

COMPROMISE ON THE FILIBUSTER? That's what David Broder and the editors of the WaPo are recommending. It seems like such an obvious and reasonable solution. On procedural matters, it makes no sense for ideology to come into play, especially since the Senate is so closely divided that the beneficiaries of any rule change may quickly become its victims.
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# Posted 10:14 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

THE POLITICAL AD YOU WILL NEVER, EVER SEE ON AMERICAN TELEVISION: How delightfully British.
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# Posted 7:35 AM by Patrick Belton  

OVERHEARD: 'Being a social scientist - is that like being a social drinker?'
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# Posted 3:09 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

A PRELIMINARY MEA CULPA: How ironic. I criticize a journalist for seeking mea culpas from supporters of the invasion of Iraq, only to find myself compelled to offer a mea culpa of my own as a result of my premature and poorly-informed criticism.

I intentionally suggested that Jeffrey Goldberg was a liberal journalist with an axe to grind. But according to a well-informed reader, Goldberg was an avid supporter of the invasion of Iraq and a darling of the neo-cons. For example, Goldberg wrote (and the New Yorker published) this in-depth account of Saddam's mass murder of the Iraqi Kurds. In that same article, Goldberg tantalized his readers with hearsay evidence to the effect that Saddam and Al Qaeda enjoyed (what we might now call) a collaborative relationship.

So, the only preliminary thing about my mea culpa is that it may not entail sufficient recognition of how extremely wrong I was. In the next few days, I intend to read more of Goldberg's writing in order to gain a little more perspective on my own folly.

In the meantime, you may savor the irony of how this inveterate critic of liberal media bias exposed his own bias in such an extraordinary manner.
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# Posted 1:46 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

MORE IGNORANT CHRISTIAN FUNDAMENTALISTS? Read this front page article about the new sex-ed curriculum in Maryland's Montgomery County and tell me if you think that the conservative activists opposed to the curriculum are ignorant or well, uh, ignorant. Because that certainly is the impression left by the WaPo's correspondents. Here's the lede:
Maryland's largest school system has become a battleground over what students should be taught about sex and a symbol, some supporters of the new curriculum said, of the increasing influence the conservative movement is hoping to play in public school classrooms.
Interesting how the lede focuses on the opinion of the curriculum's supporters. But you'll see that that's no accident. Here's the first opinion we hear about what's going on in Montgomery County:
"It looks like we're in Kansas after all. I'm appalled. I'm appalled," said Charlotte Fremaux, a parent leader at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, one of six campuses that was to be a pilot site for the sex-ed lessons. "Next, they'll be challenging evolution."
Next we hear from a sociology professor who says that
"It's not an anomaly to have these conflicts break out in liberal, well-to-do school districts,"...

"In those districts, folks are often shocked, but really it only takes a handful of parents to start what can become a bitter and quite divisive campaign."
In other words, a "handful" of conservatives can prevent an overwhelming liberal majority from educating their children the way they want to. So what are those conservative parents' objections to the new curriculum?
They said that though the "Protect Yourself" video discussed condoms, it did not note the dangers associated with anal and oral sex.
Later on in the article, we hear once again from the sociologist. She says:
We've had a growing political Christian right movement that since the 1960s has used sex-ed as an important battleground.
I see. This issue is being "used". There's no substance to it.

How do the conservative activists respond to that accusation?
"We really feel we represent the mainstream,'' said John Garza, the [conservative parents'] group's attorney and vice president.
Wait, but didn't we already learn that liberalism is the real mainstream in Montogomery Country? Even so, one parent who opposes the new curriculum says that,
"All we hear is how liberal Montgomery County is. There's actually quite a few conservatives in the county."
And that's how the article ends. With a conservative seemingly oblivious to how she lives in a majority liberal neighborhood.

Now, if you read this WaPo article online, you wouldn't be in much of a position to comment about the substance of this debate, because the article says almost nothing about the actual contents of the new curriculum. But the print edition of the Post provides some excerpts in an illustration on page A9. Here's my favorite part:
Myth: Homosexuality is a sin.

Facts: Religion has often been misused to justify hatred and oppression. Less than a half a century ago, Baptist churches (among others) in this country defended racial segregation on the basis that it was condoned by the Bible. Early Christians were not hostile to homosexuals.
Wow. Talk about fair and balanced. I'm adamantly pro-gay rights, but should public school teachers be taking an official position on what is or isn't a sin? Will we promote understanding by teaching children that those who oppose gay rights are just as bad as racists?

But what's really crazy about all of this is the way the WaPo's front page article leaves the impression that irrational conservatives are objecting to the new curriculum for no good reason. To be fair, the article briefly mentions the opinion of a judge who dismissed most of the conservatives' arguments as unfounded but
Said he was disturbed by references to specific religious denominations in the teachers' guide and what he characterized as a one-sided portrayal of homosexuality.
Hmm. That's a pretty vague way to desribe a sex-ed curriculum with a clear-cut theological agenda. Interestingly enough, a masthead editorial in Saturday's post also mentions that
School officials need to remove some of the inappropriate "teacher resource" material accompanying the curriculum, particularly documents that praise some religious denominations and criticize others; it's no wonder some parents were upset about that.
Yeah, no wonder. That kind of preaching in the schoolroom is offensive enough that it might even belong on the front page.
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# Posted 1:20 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

WHEN NO NEWS ISN'T GOOD NEWS: This week, Darth Vader was on the cover of Time Magazine. Graphically, it's an extremely clever piece of work. The cover has a simple head shot of Vader, as if he were an actual world leader who was on the cover of Time because of some important thing he did recently.

Journalistically, the cover package is trash -- trash that will probably give Time's circulation figures a considerable boost. I guess the magazine has a right to make money and increase its readership. But even the story about Episode III is little more than a puff piece.

Star Wars is such a pervasive cultural phenomenon across the globe that it wouldn't be hard to come up with some very interesting stories about its social significance. Instead, we get a dull movie review spiced up with some quotes from the cast and a crew.

There is also an interview with George Lucas in which Lucas gets thrown more softballs than John Kerry did when he was on The Daily Show. Yeah, yeah, I know Lucas isn't a politician. But after fans around the world spent hundreds of millions of dollars on tickets to see Episodes I & II, Time should at least put this simple question to Lucas: "How come the first two prequels sucked so bad?"

Alternately, "Do you even understand how bad Episodes I & II sucked?"

Or, "Do you live in some sort of fantasy land where no one tells you what they actually think?" Damn it, why can't Sy Hersh infiltrate the Skywalker Ranch and let us know about the real Dark Side?

Anyhow, there is one illuminating quote in the Lucas interview. In response to the question of why he took sixteen years off between Return of the Jedi and Phantom Menace, Lucas says:
Star Wars was written very carefully around the limits of technology. I had one big technological leap that I had to make, and that was to be able to pan the spaceships. I thought I knew enough about animation that I could make that happen. Everything else was written for what I knew I could get away with, given the fact that I had a limited budget, limited resources...

But then Jurassic Park inspired me. I didn't have to use rubber masks. I could build digital characters that can act and perform and walk around and interact with actors. I can use digital sets. I can paint reality.
In other words, one the computers started doing the work, Lucas stopped trying. On a similar note, according to the WaPo,
Lucas confesses that the early "Star Wars" movies (released in 1977, 1980, 1983) were "painful experiences" because "what I wanted to do, I couldn't do." He means with the existing computer graphics and special-effects technology.
I try not to think of myself as a sadist, but thank God for Lucas' pain. Maybe it is true that all great art is the byproduct of suffering.
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Friday, May 06, 2005

# Posted 2:46 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

A TONY VICTORY FOR BLAIR: I'm glad Blair won. He risked his entire political career in order to support the war in Iraq simply because he believed it was the right thing to do. If I opposed the war in Iraq I probably wouldn't feel that way, but then again, I just might. It isn't often that a world leader makes such a momentous decision with so little consideration of his own self-interest.
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# Posted 1:46 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

IN SEARCH OF A NEO-CON MEA CULPA: This week, the New Yorker brings us a profile of Douglas Feith by staff writer Jeffrey Goldberg. Or to be more precise, the New Yorker brings us Goldberg's summary of his extended effort to get Feith to admit that the Bush administration had no justification for invading Iraq and that it massively screwed up the occupation. Apparently, Feith understood from the very beginning what Goldberg wanted to get out of him:
"I’m not going to be making some Oprah-like confessions,” he told me at the start.
Goldberg is kind enough to let Feith get a few good shots in, even if he uses the prerogatives of the author to ensure that Feith doesn't come out looking like the winner. For example:
One afternoon, I asked Feith what had gone wrong in Iraq. “Your assumption is that everything went wrong,” he replied.
Naturally, Goldberg never asks Feith what went right in Iraq. He never asks why the Bush administration had so much faith that Iraq's first elections would be a success even though the media and the experts had such great expectations of failure. Nor does Goldberg ask why the Shi'ites -- once portrayed by the American media as fanatical and vindictive -- have demonstrated such remarkable tolerance and such remarkable commitment to the democratic process in spite of the Sunni insurgents' vicious attacks on Shi'ite civilians and religious sites.

Of course, there is much that went very wrong in Iraq. After recounting Feith's barb about his assumption that everything has gone wrong, Goldberg writes that
I hadn’t said that, but I spoke of the loss of American lives—more than fifteen hundred soldiers, most of whom died after the declared end of major combat operations. This number, I said, strikes many people as a large and terrible loss.
And so it is. Feith expresses sympathy for the families of the fallen soldiers, but then offers up one of his weaker arguments in defense of the war: "This was an operation to prevent the next, as it were, 9/11." This sets up Goldberg for his mea culpa request:
I asked Feith if he would have recommended the invasion of Iraq if he knew then what he knows now.
I found Feith's response to that question to be thoroughly unpersuasive although not outlandish:
“Given the ease, as everybody knows, with which one can reconstitute stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons if you have the capabilities which he had, I don’t think the rationale for the war hinged on the existence of stockpiles.”
Let me put it this way: Would George Bush ever have been able to get majority support for the war in either Congress or the polls if he said that Saddam Hussein doesn't have chemical weapons? Would Bush even have tried to persuade the American public to go to war against weapons that didn't yet exist? (That was a rhetorical question.)

When it comes to the occupation, Feith fares considerably better. Better than he should, perhaps. Goldberg lets him blame almost everything that went wrong on Tommy Franks and Paul Bremer. Nor does Goldberg challenge the following assertion:
Feith said that the Pentagon carefully considered the possibility that the invasion and its aftermath could be disastrous. He mentioned what he called the “parade of horribles” memo, drafted by Rumsfeld in October, 2002, which listed all the things that could go wrong in the invasion. “Instead of saying, ‘How can we conceal from the President those things that would make him reluctant?,’ we decided we had to go to him before he makes such an important decision with a list of all those things that could possibly go wrong,” Feith said.
I fully believe that there was a "parade of horribles" memo and that Feith and Rumsfeld conveyed its substance to the President. But writing a memo is not the same as planning serioiusly for an occupation.

Why does Goldberg let Feith get off relatively easy on this point if he is so determined to shred apart his arguments for going to war? Well, first of all, Feith blames other members of the administration for what went wrong, so Bush doesn't get off the hook. But perhaps more importantly, I think that Goldberg -- along with many, many others, who spent eighteen months believing that the occupation of Iraq was a quagmire -- have been completely thrown off balance by the democratic surge in the Middle East. Goldberg starts off the closing paragraph of his essay by writing that
History may one day judge the removal of Saddam Hussein as the spark that set off a democratic revolution across the Muslim world. But if Iraq disintegrates historians will deal harshly with the President and his tacticians, the men most directly responsible for taking a noble idea—the defeat of a tyrant and the introduction of liberty—and letting it fail.
Naturally, Goldberg isn't about to celebrate the invasion of Iraq as the midwife of democracy in the Middle East. But ironically enough, the first of those two sentences represents at least as much of a mea culpa as anything Feith stated for the record. While one can have an extended debate about whether the invasion of Iraq had any impact on Lebanon, Egypt, etc., the fact that writers such as Goldberg can even imagine how history will vindicate George W. Bush illustrates how much the terms of debate have changed in just a few short months.
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Wednesday, May 04, 2005

# Posted 9:08 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

TOUCHE! The Washington Monthly is hosting a debate about whether or not Bush and the invasion of Iraq deserve any credit for the democratic surge in the Middle East. Blogging in the affirmative is Dan Drezner. Blogging in the negative is Marc Lynch, with occasional commentary from host-man Kevin Drum.

Marc's initial post makes the valid, perhaps even self-evident point that progress in Lebanon and Egypt depended intimately on local conditions and local actors. Of course, Marc says, the invasion of Iraq slightly altered those conditions and encouraged those actors.

But if football is a game of inches, then democracy promotion is a game of slightlies. If the protesters in Lebanon were a little less confident of American support or if the Syrians were a little less concerned about all those GI's next door, might the outcome have been different? Of course, but we have absolutely no way of knowing that for sure.

So what to think in the face of uncertainty? Marc's basic argument is that without definitive evidence on Bush's behalf, there's no reason to give him any credit. In response, Dan makes the very sensisble observation that the stunning success of the Iraqi election in spite of an extremely violent effort to prevent it from taking place fundamentally changed the way that Arabs think about the prospects for democratic reform in the Middle East.

OK, but how does that kind of broad-gauge perception contribute to specific instances of reform, as in Lebanon and Egypt? Frankly, it's quite hard to say. And when I say "quite hard" I mean basically impossible. I'm writing a doctoral dissertation on democracy promotion and I can't think of any substantive research that looks at how political outcomes in one country relate to its citizens' perceptions of events in another. (Not that I really trust political scientists' opinions about anything, but you get my drift.)

Now, in contrast to our relative ignorance about "democratic dominoes" and "demonstration effects", I think we know a reasonable amount about who gets to take credit when good things happen. Throughout his campaign, Bush kept insisting that there could be a democratic revolution in the Middle East. Then he devoted his entire inaugural address to that subject.

In contrast, John Kerry kept talking about how we shouldn't be closing firehouses in Ohio while opening them in Baghdad. For their part, the center-left punditocracy kept projecting a deeper quagmire in Iraq while dismissing the democratic domino theory as a neo-con fantasy.

In other words, the differences between Bush and his critics were anything but subtle. Both sides had placed their bets on very different sets of outcomes. Moreover, Bush placed his bets on a set of outcomes with very, very long odds. And because Bush gambled his reputation on something so uncertain and so unusual, he will get to take credit for it, regardless of whether or not he got lucky.
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# Posted 1:57 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

A SEGREGATED BAND OF BROTHERS? In response to my observation that Band of Brothers gave short shrift to racial tensions in the United States Army, George Junior has put up an excellent post showing how Stephen Ambrose, the historian on whose work BoB is based, has directly addressed the tragic fact that "The world's greatest democracy fought the world's greatest racist with a segregated Army."
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# Posted 1:47 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

ASK AND THOU SHALT (IMPLICITLY) RECEIVE: On Sunday night at 11:30 PM, I tweaked Matt Yglesias for devoting all of his guest-blogging at TPM to the subject of Social Security. What I said was "Now that promoting democracy in Iraq doesn't seem like such a ridiculous notion, the President's critics need a softer target."

Magically enough, at 9:40 AM on Monday, Matt starts of one of his posts by writing that
There is more to life -- and to politics -- than Social Security. Perhaps most crucially -- as this bloody week in Iraq reminds us -- there's national security, the issue that metaphorically killed the Democrats in 2004 and literally kills people each and every day.
If I were Mr. Chafetz, I would lambaste Mr. Yglesias for saying that national security "literally" kills people since "national security" can't literally do anything.

In contrast, Sunni terrorists are quite good at killing at people, especially Shi'ite civilians. In fact, if you click on that link provided by Mr. Yglesias, you can see a picture of a little boy wounded by one of the insurgents' car bombs. (The caption doesn't say whether or not he is Sunni, but then again the terrorists have never been too precise with regard to whom they kill.)

Anyhow, enough of the veiled barbs. Matt's post goes on to say something very important that a lot more Democrats should be listening to:
As the author of an article criticizing the Democratic Party's tendency to try and avoid these issues [i.e. national security] and head for the high ground of domestic economic policy, I must admit to some fears that the party -- and liberalism more broadly -- may be falling into just that trap at the moment...

You can bet that national security will be back with a vengeance in the election cycles to come. And rightly so since there's no government responsibility more fundamental than national defense. To succeed -- and, frankly, to be worthy of success -- Democrats need to get better at tackling this stuff.
Hear, hear.
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# Posted 1:29 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

NOW THAT'S MY KIND OF LIBERALISM: Tom Malinowski, the advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, says it's time to stop pretending that anything other than armed force will stop the killing in Darfur. He writes that Clinton hid behind a multilateral strategy in Bosnia and so the killing continued. Now Bush is doing the same in Darfur. As the French might say, that's tres ironique.
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# Posted 12:59 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

SCHWARZENEGGER SLEEPS WITH THREE DIFFERENT WOMEN IN TWO HOURS: That's a pretty good summary of Conan the Barbarian, which I saw for the first time a couple of nights ago. I rented it primarily for its kitsch value, but it turned out to be a pretty damn good adventure story.

But let's get back to what's important: sex. Recently, I've been watching a lot of vintage action movies, such Black Caesar and Get Carter (the original, with Michael Caine). What constantly surprises me is just how much sex/nudity there is in these films and how tangential it is to the plot.

Which isn't to say that the sex is gratuitous. Sometimes, it plays an important role in character development. Nonetheless, I don't think it would've been hard to alter the cinematography just a little in order to bring the film down from an 'R' rating to a 'PG-13'.

[UPDATE: Eminent scholar Jacob T. Levy observes (via e-mail):
Ah, youth.

There warn't no such thing as a PG-13 back in 1982, sonny.

I think the advent of PG-13 is actually part of your story-- it created a box-office-friendly category that allowed more violence than a traditional PG, at the price of less nudity than a traditional R. So movies that would once have been made gore-and-nudity fests were now made just a touch less gory and a lot less nudity-filled, in order to bring in pre-17 teenagers.
Yup. I'd say the good professor has a point.]

So what's going on here? Have we simply grown less tolerant of buttocks and breasts? That seems unlikely, given the proliferation of porn on the internet. But on the silver screen, we seem to have become more judicious. On television, however, the edgier programs are beginning to show the kind of things that used to be rated 'R'.

Frankly, it's quite hard to reconcile all of these trend lines running in opposite directions. But let me take a stab at it: We have become less tolerant of sexuality in public forums, such as movie theaters, but more tolerant of it in the private settings where we watch TV and surf the net.

What account for this semi-contradiction? My sense is that concern about the degradation of American culture has led to greater restrictions on what is said and done in public. Yet in private, Americans are taking advantage of the opportunities presented by fiber optic technology.

Clearly, the story is more complex than that. Technology has nothing do with the emergence of the explicit lyrics of gangsta rap. Yet whereas millions of Americans buy such albums and listen to them in private, you won't hear those songs on the radio. Something strange is going on here, and it bears thinking about.
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Tuesday, May 03, 2005

# Posted 12:40 PM by Patrick Belton  

BRITISH ELECTIONS PARTY PACK: How often can you celebrate on the same day both the continuance of democracy in Britain and the fact that Mexico isn't French? (Um, every day, if you really wanted?) So, to help our readers plan for all of your Cinco de Mayo/election night fests, here is a wonderful resource for those ever obligatory necessities such as party leader masks and party-appropriate cocktail recipes ('warning: masks will need to be removed before swigging', it helpfully notes).
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# Posted 10:21 AM by Patrick Belton  

YOU DON’T SAY AWARD: Currently in the ‘wire reports’ column on the New York Times’s website: ‘Study: Africa Worst Place For Moms, Kids’
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Monday, May 02, 2005

# Posted 9:55 AM by Patrick Belton  

BRIT BLOGGING: The Church of the Militant Elvis Party, which is contesting a constituency in Erewash in the British general elections, plans to place giant photos of celebrities such as Johnny Vegas, Graham Norton and Chris Evans in Heathrow and Gatwick, 'to discourage undesirable foreigners from entering Britain.'
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Sunday, May 01, 2005

# Posted 11:28 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

YGLESIAS SCORES BIG TIME: This week, Matt is guest-blogging on TPM. So young and already so successful. He's practically the Jonathan Safran Foer of his generation. Anyhow, Matt says he will continue the proud TPM tradition of obsessively blogging about Social Security. I guess now that promoting democracy in Iraq doesn't seem like such a ridiculous notion, the President's critics need a softer target. En garde!
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# Posted 11:04 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

IT ISN'T HYPE IF IT'S REAL: I'm one of those skeptics who twitches every time someone talks about how the internet -- or even morseo, the blogosphere -- is about to transform some major field of human endeavor. However, the very sober Dan Drezner points out (drawing on The Economist) the ad revenue for Google and Yahoo! is expected to rival the combined prime-time ad revenue of the three major networks.

In the same post, Dan describes the strategy of Roger Simon and Marc Danziger to finally pull in some major advertising accounts for the blogosphere. Roger and Marc want to bring an end to the era of hawking T-shirts and bumper stickers via BlogAds. They want Amex and Lexus to fund the blogosphere. Wow. I hope they succeed.

Another currency in which the blogosphere seems ready to trade is prestige. Dan mentions in passing that TPM will be adding a foreign policy/national security blog in addition to its main site. When I clicked through to find out more, I was blown away to find out whom Josh Marshall had recruited to post on the site: Anne-Marie Slaugher, Dean of the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton, and Ivo Daalder, a senior fellow at Brookings and former National Security Council official.

Slaughter and Daalder are precisely the kind of people who could ignore the blogosphere and continue to be incredibly successful. They have all of Democratic Washington (and then some) knocking on their doors. CNN, Foreign Affairs and the New York Times all want to know what they think about American foreign policy.

So, if scholars like Slaughter and Daalder think the blogosphere is worth their time and effort, that says a helluva lot about how far we've come.
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# Posted 3:36 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

BAND OF (POLITICALLY CORRECT) BROTHERS: Band of Brothers was a superb cinematic acheivement. But it wasn't perfect. Even though I loved it, I noticed a few unusual things about its politics. First and foremost, in ten hours of action and dialogue, there isn't a single negative remark made about blacks or homosexuals.

In the first couple of episodes, BoB makes a big deal about the tensions caused by a very specific set of ethnic and religious differences. Instead of Irish and Italians, we hear about micks and wops. On the boat over to England, a vaguely anti-Semitic remark gets one Jewish soldier mad enough to throw a punch.

But after that, everything is just peachy. This Band of Brothers has to learned to transcend the petty differences that divide our nation. The US army has become not just the liberator of Europe, but yet another great American melting pot. It almost makes you forget that the army was still segregated at the end of WWII.
So what's going on here? Aren't Hollywood liberals like Spielberg and Hanks supposed to be reminding us of the dark side of American history, of our betrayal of our own democratic ideals? In general, yes. But not when the subject of discussion is The Greatest Generation. Because they are perfect. Because they live in a timeless land that has never heard of partisan politics.

World War II was the good war, so even Hollywood liberals tend to forget all of things they don't like about America circa 1945. Moreover, liberals need a good war to praise in order to demonstrate that their opposition to all those other wars reflects a nuanced political philosophy rather than just dovish naivete.

When liberals want to remind us of all the bad things America has done, they make films about Vietnam. Thus, if Hollywood history is to be trusted, one might infer that Americans were far more racist in 1968 than they were in 1945.

Now some of you may be thinking, "So what? Why should anyone care if Hollywood occasionally forgets to be hypercritical about American history?" Well, I can think of three reasons. The first is simply that precise thinking about history is always better than mythologizing the past. That principle applies even more to a film like BoB, which is based on a work of non-fiction by a professional scholar and has been widely praised for its "realistic" portrayal of the past.

The second reason has to do with anti-Semitism. BoB may simply ignore racism and homophobia, but it deliriously pretends that if Jews and gentiles go to war together, suddenly there's no more prejudice. Since BoB devotes almost an entire episode to Easy Company's liberation of a concentration camp, you'd hope it could deal with American anti-Semitism in a more forthright manner.

Now, it should go without saying that American anti-Semitism was the palest shadow not just of the vicious Nazi faith, but of the anti-Semitism that prevailed throughout Europe during the first half of the 20th century. Nonetheless, American anti-Semitism was part and parcel of the same Western tradition from which European anti-Semitism derived. When that point is forgotten, it becomes too easy to pretend that anti-Semitism is a thing of a past.

Third of all, I've had it up to here with The Greatest Generation. Not because it wasn't great or didn't make tremendous sacrifices on behalf of our nation. But because it represents a sort of unthinking nostalgia that makes it very hard to think about the present in a realistic manner. In the same way that our glorification of the Founding Fathers makes us lament the intense partisanship of today, our glorification of The Greatest Generation does the same. Yet like the Founding Fathers, The Greatest Generation often found itself riven by partisan and ideological conflicts.

I don't know if the early 21st century will some day be considered a landmark period of triumph in American history, but I am fairly confident that even bitter deliberations are vital to the success of our democracy today, no less than they were in 1776 or 1945.
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# Posted 1:42 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

REFIGHTING WORLD WAR II: The time for watching cinematic epics is while you're still in grad school. Once you have a job and a family and all of that other good stuff...fuggedaboudit. So, with that in mind, I recently embarked on a ten-hour journey through that Spielberg/Hanks production, Band of Brothers.

If you look up Band of Brothers in the Internet Movie Data Base (IMDb), you may notice that the series received a 9.6 (out of 10) average rating from the 14,768 site visitors who registered their opinions about it. I think you'd have to call that a pretty strong consensus, even allowing for the self-selection of IMDb site vistors. And I agree: Band of Brothers (BoB for short) is a very impressive acheivement.

I think one of the great challenges that BoB's directors had to confront was how to tell a story in ten hours, rather than the usual two hours for your average film. Ten hours is both an opportunity and a burden. It is very rare for a director to be given so broad a canvas on which to present his vision. But it is also very hard to keep a viewer's interest for that long.

One of the most important decisions to make is about the basic structure of the narrative. Most films in this genre (think Saving Private Ryan) tell a single story with a limited cast of characters and a straightforward set of plot developments. But that might not be enough to sustain a ten-hour epic. On the other hand, in the absence of a controlling narrative, how can the audience make sense of a film?

Wisely, BoB seems to recognize that history itself provides the film with its basic narrative structure. The uncertain march from Normandy to the heart of the Third Reich provides a well-understood framework that holds the series together. Thus, individual episodes within the series are able to break away from the constraints of traditional storytelling.

Whereas most war and action films are wedded to events, BoB places an emphasis on character. The series recognizes that war provides enough drama and tension in and of itself, so there is no need to create the suspense associated with an improbable rescue mission, a la Saving Private Ryan. The results are tremendous.

Perhaps the finest moment in a very fine series is the sixth installment, entitled Bastogne. Told entirely from the perspective of Easy Company medic Eugene "Doc" Roe, the episode describes the efforts of tired, under-armed and under-supplied soldiers to hold on to a few square miles of Belgian forest land.

Truth be told, the figure of the heroic medic is something of a cliche in films about the Second World War. The combat medic is healer who enables other to inflict violence. The medic never leads the charge, but is consigned to the even more dangerous mission of attending to soldiers lying injured and prone on the battlefield.

In contrast to many others, this cliche has a lot of substance. Combat medics were, and continue to be, unique sorts of heroes. When I was in high school, there was one chemistry teacher who had served as a combat medic in World War II. His accomplishments inspired a quiet reverence.

The great success of Band of Brothers is that it goes so far beyond this sort of cliche. In most films, the medic gets one heroic cameo. Here, we investigate the intellectual and emotional struggle of a man who must constantly engage in dangerous and paradoxical behavior. We Doc Roe struggling to locate a few more shots of morphine so that he can afford to ease the pain of the next man wounded without using up his emergency supply. We see Doc Roe struggling to accept his own helplessness in the face of pervasive carnage that is beyond his control. His is a portrait that goes far beyond the standard cliches.

Over the course of ten hours, BoB provides a series of compelling portraits, like that of Doc Roe, which add up to one of the most sophisticated accounts of war and its psychological impact ever produced by Hollywood.

Sometimes, it is hard to follow exactly what is happening and to remember all of the different characters who may have a bit part in one episode and then become a critical figure in the next. But in the end, that doesn't matter, because Band of Brothers is a not single narrative or an evidence-based argument. It is a collage of perspectives and emotions that is more important than any single detail.

UPDATE: Eminent jurist and military officer Phil Carter points out [via e-mail] that the structure of BoB follows very closely the structure of the book on which it is based. Thus, the filmmakers only deserve credit for preserving the sturcture of the book and not for envisioning the structure I praise so highly above.

Also, as you may have guessed, I have not read the book, but am now motivated to do so thanks to the series. Phil also points out (apropo of the post above this one) that the book mostly avoids the issues of racial and religious prejudice, so the demerits given to the filmmakers above belong partly to the author of the book, Stephen Ambrose.
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Thursday, April 28, 2005

# Posted 10:31 AM by Patrick Belton  

UNINTENTIONALLY SCARY SENTENCE OF THE DAY: ‘My thoughts on these matters shall be yours’ – David Hajdu in TNR, reflecting an ordinarily unspoken premise of political opinion journalism.
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# Posted 2:11 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

GOD BLESS THE BRITISH SENSE OF HUMOR: Wednesday's WaPo ran a brief profile of Tory candidate Michael Howard and his party's sagging hopes for a victory in the UK's upcoming general election. Let me just say that I absolutely adore the Tories' campaign slogan: "Are You Thinking What We're Thinking?"

That kind of thing would never fly in the United States. Our campaign consultants would insist that a question without an answer would just confuse the average voter. Instead, we get stupid cliches like "Stronger at Home, Respected Abroad."

But maybe we should have a little more faith in the American voter. Maybe a slogan that's a question would actually make people want to think. Or maybe not. Maybe us cowboys need to have candidates just tell it like is (or isn't).

So let's just be thankful that there is one country whose Monty Python-esque sensibilities have created a welcoming environment for impishly clever campaign slogans.
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# Posted 2:01 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

CATCHY TUNES: Like Mr. Yglesias, I am rather fond of "Mr. Brightside" by The Killers. (Those are the names of a song and a band, oddly enough.) But as for Matt's complaint that the deceny police have bowdlerized the song's lyrics, allow me to suggest that the lyricist may have intentionally hinted at a certain anatomically-correct couplet in order to tantalize little boys from Harvard, then purposefully disappointed their hopes of hearing a dirty word on the radio. Caramba!
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# Posted 1:24 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

MONEYBALL OR FUNNYBALL? I found Michael Lewis' argument persuasive, but then again, I don't know that much about either baseball or statistics.

According to economist-slash-blogger Steven D. Levitt, Lewis has no idea what's he talking about. (Click here and here for more details from Levitt.)
Naturally, I'm not equipped to say which side is getting the better of this argument. But if Levitt's data is as solid as he makes it out to be, he should be able to get a cover story in a major magazine.

(Major League Hat Tip: Bo Cowgill)
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# Posted 1:14 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

50 CENT + 50 CENT = ONE DOLLAR? It's hard to beat Seda' Club, but some liberal folks have also decided to combine flash animation, humorous lyrics and a chart-topping beat courtesy of 50 Cent.

I figure that opinions of this one will be pretty much divided along partisan lines. But if you be representin' the GOP, I think there's plenty of room for schadenfreude.

By the way, you may be interested in knowing that I discovered this bit of left-wing agit-prop thanks to an e-mail sent my way by a bona fide member of the mainstream media. Really.
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Wednesday, April 27, 2005

# Posted 10:46 AM by Patrick Belton  

MAIL BAG: i.e., that being the corner of OxBlog in which we're always happy to run bad jokes of a certain level of irredemptibility from our readers:
Heaven is where the police are British, the chefs Italian, the mechanics German, the lovers French and it's all organized by the Swiss. Hell is where ... the police are German, chefs British, mechanics French, lovers Swiss and Italians organize it.
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# Posted 1:25 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

AT LEAST HE'S GOOD FOR SOMETHING: Thabo Mbeki may pretend that HIV doesn't cause AIDS and that Robert Mugabe isn't a brutal dictator, but at least he is good at reminding delusional French presidents of their nation's post-colonial impotence:
French President Jacques Chirac discovered the extent of Mbeki's mojo last February when rival parties in the troubled former French colony Ivory Coast told him that they trust the South African more than any Western leader. So incensed was Chirac that Mbeki was muscling in on former French territory that he publicly advised Mbeki that he should "understand the soul of West Africa" before setting out to broker peace deals there.
Chirac a theologian? I never would've guessed. By the way, that profile of Mbeki is from Time Magazine's annual 100-most-influential-people-in-the-world issue. Talk about a gimmick. Somehow, Michael Moore, Ann Coulter and Jon Stewart all made the list. Apparently, Time confused "the world" with "the northeastern United States and parts of California".
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# Posted 1:02 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

AN EMBARASSMENT: Phil Carter (himself a former officer, in case any of you have forgotten) denounces the decision of the Army's inspector general to clear the senior leadership of the US military in Iraq of any responsibility for what happened at Abu Ghraib.

Glenn suggests that the Democrats' politicization of Abu Ghraib is responsible for the Army's circle-the-wagons mentality, but I disagree. Politicians on both sides of the aisle make stupid remarks about miltiary affairs all the time. That is no excuse for closing one's eyes to human rights violations.
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# Posted 12:37 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

PLAGIARIZING MYSELF: After two weeks offline, it's hard to get back into the fast-paced, up-to-the-minute rhythm of blogging. Therefore, instead of opining about current events, I shall regale you with an excerpt from that timeless cure for insomnia known as "My Dissertation".

The passage below is about Reagan's trip to South Korea in 1983, but you will probably find it more interesting for what it says about the state of political journalism. Apparently, if blogs had existed twenty years ago, they would've had plenty to criticize about the MSM:
Air Force One touched down in Seoul on November 12, 1983, at a time of great international sympathy for the people of South Korea. In September, the Soviet air force shot down a South Korean passenger jet after it strayed into Soviet air space. Hundreds of travelers perished, almost all of them citizens of the US and ROK. In October, North Korean military operatives sought to assassinate Chun Do Hwan during a state visit to Burma. Chun survived because the North Koreans detonated their bomb prematurely. Nonetheless, four members of Chun’s cabinet died, along with numerous other senior officials.[1] If the realist hypothesis is correct, then these powerful demonstrations of the Communist threat to South Korea should have led the United States to further compromise its democratic principles and embrace the South Korean dictatorship even more tightly. Instead, Reagan did the opposite.

Speaking before the National Assembly, Reagan withheld direct criticism of the regime but firmly insisted that democracy was the goal toward which South Korea must strive in spite of the ever-present threat from the North. The president declared that:
The development of democratic political institutions is the surest means to build the national consensus that is the foundation of true security…We welcome President Chun's farsighted plans for a constitutional transfer of power in 1988…Now, this will not be a simple process because of the ever-present threat from the North. But I wish to assure you once again of America's unwavering support and the high regard of democratic peoples everywhere as you take the bold and necessary steps toward political development.[2]
Reagan reinforced this public message by confronting Chun in private about the state of political liberty in South Korea. In a prepatory memo for the president, National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane informed Reagan that “your second meeting with President Chun should focus on political liberalization and economic issues. Although Chun will not welcome a discussion of the Korean domestic political situation, he will expect you to refer to it and to express support for further liberalization.”[3] Chun did not resist as strongly as McFarlane expected, however. Instead, the Korean president told Reagan that the ROK’s turbulent postwar history had led “the people [to] believe that a change of presidents is only possible through violence. This is a very dangerous way of thinking…My term is scheduled to end in 1988 and it will.”[4] Although Chun had often promised, in public, to step down at the end of his term, few believed that he would become the first South Korean president to leave office without being killed or overthrown. Since Chun himself had supervised the drafting of the 1980 constitution that limited the ROK president to a single term of office, few believed that Chun would let the constitution get in his way if he wanted to stay in power. However, by making a private commitment to Reagan – his most powerful and sympathetic ally – to step down in 1988, Chun indicated just how serious he was.[5]

Unaware of the private commitment Reagan had secured from Chun, American journalists found themselves unsure of whether Reagan’s public call for reform represented a sincere attempt to promote liberalization or a cynical apologia for an intransigent military dictatorship. In a front page story about Reagan’s address to the National Assembly, the Washington Post recounted Reagan’s remark that “You are not alone, people of Korea. America is your friend, and we are with you.” Its correspondents then reported dispassionately that “Reagan and top U.S. officials made it plain that they identify the ‘people of Korea’ with Chun's authoritarian government.” The Post also emphasized that Reagan had not scheduled any meetings with prominent South Korean dissidents, whereas Jimmy Carter had done so during his visit to Seoul in 1979. In an editorial three days later, the Post savaged the president’s diplomacy on the grounds that Reagan
Did not simply stay publicly mute about South Korea's [human right] violations. He strongly praised its "continued progress." It was no routine speechwriter who had him welcoming President Chun's "farsighted plans for a constitutional transfer of power in 1988"--yes, 1988. It was a satirist.[6]

The New York Times was far kinder to the president. The top headline in its November 12th edition read “Reagan Bids Seoul Seek Democracy; Denounces North”. The first sentence of the article below the headline quoted Reagan to the effect that democratic change is “the foundation of true security.” Three days later, a headline in the Times observed that “Reagan Trip Buoys Seoul Leadership”. The Times’ correspondent took care to note, however, that while “Mr. Reagan repeatedly gave his commitment to South Korea's security, he did not match those words with a ringing endorsement of President Chun himself. It seemed to reflect a widely held judgment that Mr. Chun, while holding uncontestable power, does not enjoy unflagging popularity.”[7] This confusion was never resolved, since South Korea disappeared from the front page soon after Reagan returned home.

[NB: I've included my footnotes below even though the notation is somewhat confusing for laypersons. FYI, "Oberdorfer 1997" refers to Don Oberdorfer's excellent book The Two Koreas.]


[1] For a more detailed account of the downing of the jet and the bombing in Rangoon, see Lee 1984 and Oberdorfer 1997:139-144.
[2] PP-RR, 12 Nov 1984, “Address”.
[3] Memo – McFarlane to Reagan, 5 Nov 1983, DDRS Doc. CK3100497051.
[4] Memo – Wolfowitz to Shultz, 19 Nov 1983, NSA/Korea.
[5] Chun’s family had been pushing hard since his inauguration for a legitimate succession that would prevent Chun from sharing his predecessor’s fate. (See Oberdorfer 1997:162) Thus, Chun’s commitment to Reagan represented the acknowledgment of a decision that had already been made, rather than a concession to American pressure for liberalization. Moreover, Chun’s commitment to step down from office did not entail a parallel commitment to allow the democratic election of his successor.
[6] WP, 12 Nov 1983:A1; 15 Nov 1983:A14. Because of the time difference between Seoul and Washington, the November 12th edition of the Post reported in full on Reagan’s November 12th address to the National Assembly.
[7] NYT, 12 Nov 1983:A1; 15 Nov 1983:A5.

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Tuesday, April 26, 2005

# Posted 7:01 AM by Patrick Belton  

TO TAKE BETTER CARE OF OUR READERS, and after cursory reading of our e-mail, OxBlog has opened up a mental health hotline. Click here for detailed instructions on how to call.
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# Posted 4:37 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

BUSINESS WEEK: Not a publication I usually read, but this week's cover story is about blogs. And there isn't even a photo on the cover page. Just the word "Blogs" in huge red letters followed by the words "...will change your business" and a sentence or two about the story.

It's a pretty good report, although it doesn't come close to living up to the hype created by the cover. I wasn't really persuaded that blogs have, or will, change that many businesses. There are a couple of examples of businesses who make good use of the technology, but it's not as if every Fortune 500 company is about to rush out looking for a Chief Execublogging Officer.

Still, there are 9 million blogs out there. Now, more than a quarter of internet users read blogs. Two years ago, there were only 100,000 blogs. And OxBlog is three years old. Too weird.
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# Posted 4:32 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

POPE VS. EMPEROR: Is Benedict XVI actually the Dark Lord of the Sith? You decide. (No indignant responses please. This is just meant to be funny.)
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# Posted 4:27 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

TERRORIST ON THE LOOSE: If Charles Taylor is friends with Al Qaeda and Hezbollah and has a well-deserved reputation for committing unspeakable atrocities, why isn't our government trying to stop him?
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# Posted 3:57 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

TV IS GOOD FOR YOU! Still more good stuff in this week's NYT Magazine. According to a forthcoming book by Steven Johnson, the growing complexity of what we watch on television means that sitting on the couch should count as an educational activity. As Johnson incisively writes,

For decades, we've worked under the assumption that mass culture follows a path declining steadily toward lowest-common-denominator standards, presumably because the ''masses'' want dumb, simple pleasures and big media companies try to give the masses what they want.

As always, OxBlog is on the lookout for evidence that the average American is far more sophisticated than the experts want to admit. (Note to social scientists: OxBlog is also on the lookout for evidence that contradicts its hypothesis.)

Anyhow, although Johnson makes lots of good points, I'm going to reserve judgment about his overall hypothesis until I see the book. But here's an anecdote that may spark your interest. According to Johnson, the 1980s cop drama "Hill Street Blues" ushered in the modern age of television:
Before ''Hill Street,'' the conventional wisdom among television execs was that audiences wouldn't be comfortable following more than three plots in a single episode, and indeed, the ''Hill Street'' pilot, which was shown in January 1981, brought complaints from viewers that the show was too complicated. Fast-forward two decades, and shows like ''The Sopranos'' engage their audiences with narratives that make ''Hill Street'' look like ''Three's Company.'' Audiences happily embrace that complexity because they've been trained by two decades of multi-threaded dramas.
"Hill Street" rung a bell because I have vague childhood memories of my parents getting very excited about that show. Since I happened to be sitting on my parents' couch while reading Johnson's article, I rushed into their room to ask them what they remembered about "Hill Street Blues". From under the covers, my groggy father issued an animated denunication of "Hill Street" for having too many sub-plots that made its storylinesimpossible to follow.

I was dumbstruck. I assumed my father was pulling my leg. I asked him three times if he had already read the article by Steven Johnson in the NYT Magazine. He adamantly denied it.

So, you may be thinking, is Adesnik trying to tell us that his father is some sort of paleolithic neanderthal who can't appreciate good television? (After all, the man is from the Bronx and puts ketchup on his steak, sometimes even in restaurants.) The answer: No, of course not. Complexity is never something that has prevented my father from taking an interest. After all, it's pretty hard to get a Ph.D. in biophysics from MIT if you don't deal well with complexity.

So what's going on here? I think the answer is conditioning. My father grew up in the days of simpler television. That's the kind of entertainment he's used to. I grew up in the age of The Simpsons and therefore revel in the contorted plot twists and obscure cultural references of such shows.

In closing, I'll leave with you one more sharp observation from Johnson's article:
There's money to be made by making culture smarter. The economics of television syndication and DVD sales mean that there's a tremendous financial pressure to make programs that can be watched multiple times, revealing new nuances and shadings on the third viewing.
That's so true. I can watch the same episode of The Simpsons again and again and again. I even own a book that summarizes the plots and pulls out the best laugh lines from every episode in Seasons One through Eight. I figure, TV must be getting smarter if you can enjoy reading books about it.
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# Posted 3:45 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

IF YOU LOVED MONEYBALL, then don't miss Michael Lewis' cover story in this week's NYT Magazine. Once again, Lewis shows how our national pasttime has become the prisoner of irrational obsessions that ruin the careers of talented young players.
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Sunday, April 24, 2005

# Posted 10:35 PM by Patrick Belton  

GEEK CORNER:* The internet telephony company Skype has announced a new service, SkypeIn, whereby customers can have a telephone number assigned to their computer at which to receive calls, for €10 / $13 for three months and for €30 / $39 for a year. There's also a voice mail feature. Telephone numbers are available for the United States and Britain and for Hong Kong, France, and Scandinavia as well. So wow, now there's never any reason to put your computer down.

* If by mistake you were looking for 'Greek corner', we kindly redirect you either to Greek Philosophy at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy or to www.EligibleGreeks.com. If on the other hand you look up EligibleGeeks.com, you'll be promised that it's coming soon. Which will come as a welcome relief to all those beautiful geekophilic women who haven't yet discovered bloggers.
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# Posted 10:06 PM by Patrick Belton  

AS PART OF HUGH HEWITT'S READER GEOGRAPHICAL EDUCATION PROGRAMME, he's posted up a list of state mottos as they should read.
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# Posted 8:49 AM by Patrick Belton  

CHAG SAMEACH to all of our Jewish readers and friends! Here at OxBlog central studios (where as the Irish Catholic OxBlogger I've been pigging out on all the OxChametz - it's like the reverse Atkins...), we've been chuckling all week over rapper Fifty Cents's rendition of the plagues, courtesy of the fine latter day Yiddish humour factory that is ShaBot6000. And nowadays you don't even have to leave the city for the Catskills!
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Saturday, April 23, 2005

# Posted 8:43 PM by Patrick Belton  

GOODNESS GRACIOUS, IT'S OUR BLOGIVERSARY! HOW'D THAT HAPPEN? Thanks galore to all of our readers and friends who keep us, er, in business. Three more years! Three more years!
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# Posted 8:18 PM by Patrick Belton  

SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER, MANDARIN STYLE: OxBlog's neat site of the day today is the Internet Chinese music archive, a portion of the free internet library iBiblio, which features hours of classical, folk, and pop music from China, and together with several hundred of the disposable chopsticks and bagged fortune cookies (some suggested starters: 'the special sauce come from floor,' 'everyone meal today on you' and 'your dog no longer missing') is really all you need to start up your own Chinese takeout restaurant. Enjoy!
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Friday, April 22, 2005

# Posted 10:14 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

A PILGRIMAGE TO BOROUGH PARK: Is it appropriate to deliver a eulogy in the blogosphere? When my uncle -- my mother's elder brother -- passed away two weeks ago, I wanted thousands and thousands of people, as many as humanly possible, to know what a wonderful human being he was. My uncle had shown so much kindness to me and to so many others for so many years. This much I owed him.

But I decided that delivering a eulogy online was not the right thing to do. Although I have written back and forth to hundreds of you during my time on OxBlog, the blogosphere is still too much of an anonymous place for emotional intimacy and vulenerability.

I do not believe that bloggers, like foreign correspondents, should separate their personal lives from their writing with a thick red line. But some things must remain private, and this was one of them.

I did speak about my uncle at his funeral. Even then, it was uncomfortable talking about so personal a relationship before an audience of many hundreds. Many of those in attendance I did not know. But everyone there was someone whose life had been touched by my uncle. That much we shared.

Instead of recounting what I said at the funeral, I would like to tell a brief story about my uncle. This story is not so much a memorial as it is a source of consolation, primarily for myself.

For more than twenty years, my father and my uncle had made a special trip to Borough Park, in Brooklyn, during the final days before Passover. Borough Park is where my uncle and my mother grew up. Although kosher-for-Passover foods are now more widely avaiable, they used to be much harder to find except in places like Borough Park. So every year, my uncle would drive my father (a non-driver) out to Borough Park in order to shop for the holiday. And every year they would visit Semel's, the same small grocery store at which my grandfather shopped for Passover while he was still alive.

This year, I drove my father to Borough Park in my uncle's car. When I was in high school, my uncle taught me how to drive. When I was growing up, I always knew that he would be the one to teach me how to drive. And now, in this small way, I began to emulate my uncle, whose life of kindness is an example by which I will always be inspired.
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# Posted 6:06 AM by Patrick Belton  

PHOTOBLOGGING AFGHANISTAN: So this morning we have several snapshots of daily life from our illustrious and famed Afghan correspondent, who remains anonymous as a way of avoiding the large number of teenage girls who would otherwise be emailing him their underwear. (Note I, however, as a young bachelor writer can generally use clean underwear. Please email it to me instead at underwear_appeal@patrickbelton.com.)

Rocket propelled grenades. And, um, chai.



Poppies, the reason we're here. I mean, not that way.



Which isn't to say they aren't often quite photogenic. (Even more so if you're on heroin.)



One of the district governor’s imposing security guys. Don't mess with him or he might just kick your tuckuss at backgammon.

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Thursday, April 21, 2005

# Posted 1:30 PM by Patrick Belton  

BUT WILL HE BLOG? Our network of far-flung observers (see, we're flinging them even as we speak) report that Benedict XVI now has an email address, benedettoxvi@vatican.va, or if you're like the BBC's conclave team and can't speak a word of Italian, benedictxvi@vatican.va. Can we assume the Popemoblog is next?
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Wednesday, April 20, 2005

# Posted 8:10 PM by Patrick Belton  

COOL INTERNATIONAL-THEMED WEBSITE OF THE DAY: Both for writing and for prank calling Josh and David, I frequently need to think about time zones before I pick up the phone. No more (now I just prank call them all hours of the night!) - now there's a worldtimezone.com website with a map of the world and the current times within each time zone displayed. All with a certain Tron aesthetic unlikely to be otherwise familiar to, say, our undergraduate readers.
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# Posted 1:36 PM by Patrick Belton  

EASE ON DOWN THE ROAD: In the department of funny road trips, in summer of 2006 I’m planning to celebrate long-overdue completion of my D.Phil. and a numerologically significant birthday by driving the Silk Road together with a dear friend, and we’ll be writing a book together about the people (and changing polities) we meet along the way. Our good friend, Crescat’s Amanda Butler, heard about this and immediately sent me to Mongol Rally, one of the world's zanier road races which I think promptly needs to be shared with our readers:
The mother of all adventures, the Mongol Rally is an 8000 mile dash across 1/4 of the earth's surface in cars that most people consider underpowered for doing the shopping. We have no entourage of support vehicles, there is no carefully marked course, there are no professional drivers, fast cars, or even good cars. It's just you, your shite-mobile and thousands of miles of adventure. … The Mongol rally is a charity event that raises money for an awesome charity with a slightly ridiculous name 'Send a Cow'. (warning: page makes unexpected agricultural noises at you occasionally if you go to it)

Any car that has more than 1000cl of go is strictly forbidden as over-powered, and considered a risk to your ability to have fun. (See their Hall of Crapness for more on the 'Crap Car Rule')
And then from the FAQ section:
Is it safe?
No, not completely

What lovely tropical diseases can I collect?
This is NOT a comprehensive list so for real information contact your local travel clinic who can also tell what to do about minimising the risk, but here's a guide:

Hepititis
Cholera
Diptheria
Meningacoccal meningitis
The plague
Rabies
Typhoid


Do I need to be able to speak Russian?
What is very useful is if you have some idea of the Cyrillic alphabet. The road signs, if there are any, will not correspond very well with your maps if you don't.
There are also photographs and diaries of last year's Mongol Rally.
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# Posted 6:02 AM by Patrick Belton  

BLEGGING FOR BOOK RECOMMENDATIONS ON PALESTINIAN POLITICS: Our frequent readers know of our interest in Palestinian democracy, and in Mahmoud Abbas's prime ministership in particular. So, I'm currently open to the idea of spending part of this summer in Ramallah to write a series of articles on Palestinian politics in the era of Abu Mazen. As a result I've been looking to read, and review here, some of the better journalistic and academic works that have been written on Palestinian politics. And so I thought I might ask for suggestions from our readers with backgrounds in that direction, as well as list the books and articles currently topping my list to read and review on OxBlog. I'll very happily share results here.

Here's what I've amassed so far, and I'll cheerfully add to this list as our readers make suggestions:

Baruch Kimmerling and Joel S. Migdal, The Palestinian People: A History (Harvard University Press, 2003).

Mushtaq Khan (ed.), State Formation in Palestine: Establishing Good Governance and Democracy Through Social Transformation  (RoutledgeCurzon, 2004).

Nathan J. Brown, Palestinian Politics After the Oslo Accords: Resuming Arab Palestine (University of California Press, 2003).

Barry Rubin, Revolution Until Victory?: Politics and History of the PLO (Harvard University Press, 1994).

Yezid Sayigh, Armed Struggle and the Search for State: The Palestinian National Movement, 1949-1993 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997).

Yezid Sayigh and Khalil Shikaki, Strengthening Palestinian Public Institutions (Council on Foreign Relations, June 28, 1999).
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Tuesday, April 19, 2005

# Posted 12:21 PM by Patrick Belton  

HABEMUS PAPAM: The smoke billowed white. BBC's website has free online live coverage from the Vatican.

UPDATE: Joe Gandelman has a review of the coverage of Benedict XVI. Personally I was hoping for a cuddly Italian liberal. But a conservative German with the nickname 'the enforcer' was probably my second choice.
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# Posted 10:16 AM by Patrick Belton  

VIRTUAL POPE BLOGGING: The BBC, rising to the high level of Sistine Chapel aesthetics in the finest tradition of the Elizabethan Settlement, establishes a Vaticam. Meanwhile, closer to home and in a bonafide Catholic country, Paddy Power has set up www.popebetting.com. The latest odds?
Francis Arinze (Nigeria) 7/2
Joseph Ratzinger (Germany) 11/2
Cláudio Hummes (Brazil) 7/1
Dionigi Tettamanzi (Italy) 7/1
Jean-Marie Lustiger (France) 8/1
Cardinal Óscar Rodríguez Maradiaga (Honduras) 9/1
Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini (Italy) who sounds like he would give great parties at the Vatican... 10/1
Yer man also has bios and assessments of the most papabili of the papabili. Personally, I like the former archbishop of Milan and the current archbishop of Venice.
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# Posted 9:12 AM by Patrick Belton  

VIRTUAL PARIS BLOGGING: A few of this blog’s dear friends were headed to Paris several days ago. So, as part of a day's work in OxBlog's world-renowned reader services department, we made up for them an itinerary around some of our favourite bistros, cafes, and creperies on the Left Bank. In the interests of equanimity, our other readers are now most welcome to use it to daydream, preferably to the accompaniment of Ella Fitzgerald singing April in Paris.
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Tuesday, April 12, 2005

# Posted 3:50 AM by Patrick Belton  

FROM OUR DASHING, LONG-LOST AFGHANISTAN CORRESPONDENT: 'We love you, Afghan correspondent' - a reader and real live teenage girl. I've been back in Afghanistan for the last five months -- deep in southern Afghanistan, actually, administering a mass employment program to keep the bottom from dropping out of the local farm economy when the poppy eradicators arrive. Due to the sensitivities of my job, I haven't been able to send regular updates, and I'm not going to enter into any great detail now. But here are some comments to accompany the few photos that I'm sending to Patrick. (and that he'll post up soon, he promises - ed.)

These months have introduced me to the Pashtun heartland of the country -- the irrigated desert and mountain areas that initially welcomed the Taliban with open arms, and are now divided on whether to welcome the new government of Karzai. It's a country where young women flinch from your eyes and young men swear they would die for you; where old men roll out their prayer rugs in a field of (religiously prohibited) opium poppy; where the warlords and local drug barons fence cautiously with the new powers of the Afghan National Army and the international occupying forces; where some farmers thrive on grand irrigation systems built by America in the fifties, and others lower themselves fifty meters into the earth, carving two-foot-wide tunnels by candlelight in order to get enough water for bare subsistence agriculture many kilometers away. Working here has been intense, and inspiring, and thought-provoking.

It's hard at times to pierce the superficial hospitality and get to what people really believe and feel about the new order. I've been working in districts that neighbor on Mullah Omar's hometown. During the mujahidin era, they produced fratricidal, drug-trafficking, arch-conservative commanders (one of whose sons is now a major provincial governor). During the Taliban era, they produced conscripts and recruits for the new movement -- first for the campaign to restore order to the Pashtun south, then to conquer the corrupt and fractious north (as it's seen down here). But now war-weariness and the desire for calm seems as prevalent here as anywhere. When I talk to villagers, they mention how glad they are that pseudo-official bands of armed men are no longer able to stop cars on the road or roam the countryside, extorting at will. The UN-led disarmament program has had a noticeable impact even in these areas. Guns still abound, crime is common, and the police in most places are barely-domesticated militias who (in the memorably awful words of a colleague) "haven't quite lost their habit of sitting around, smoking lots of hashish and raping little boys." But for all that, the power of the gunmen and the chaos of the war years have diminished greatly, and people believe they will continue to diminish.

This bears emphasis, in contrast to the unwarranted hysteria of some of the commentary I read on Afghanistan ("an electoral-narco-gulag-permanent-base dependency," passim). Many people still don't understand just how bad things were in Afghanistan, or how hard it is to find the traction to begin rebuilding a country from such a low base. Look at the stats on
where Afghanistan is now (poverty, infant mortality, kidnappings, repression of women, impunity for murderers), and of course it's appalling, of course it's a dependency -- four years ago it was a textbook failed state. Look at the trajectory of the place, and there's reason for much hope.

News reports claiming that the US has set up a network of secret and lawless prisons in Afghanistan are dreadful, if accurate. But these prisons do not impinge on the average Afghan, and my firm impression is that (as with the initial arrival of the Taliban) the great majority of people in this country would bear with considerably more human rights violations if they thought peace would result. The Bush administration's contempt for the Geneva Conventions should be a source of shame to Americans everywhere, but it does not endanger the reconstruction of Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the prospect of permanent US bases in the country is greeted with tremendous relief by most Afghans I talk to, whose primary fear at the moment is that America "will abandon us again as they did in the 1990s." And the international military presence throughout the country is becoming ever more international, as US Provincial Reconstruction Teams retire and are replaced by Canadians, Italians, Brits. The securing and rebuilding of Afghanistan is not the simple act of American empire perceived by many critics.

The canard that Hamid Karzai is "only the mayor of Kabul" also grows less supportable by the month. The great majority of provincial governors, including many warlords and clients of warlords, have been replaced this year by Karzai's order. I have personally seen the anxiety in the eyes of governors and district heads at the prospect of the "mayor of Kabul" finding out that their poppy eradication efforts have been inadequate. I've seen the impact when the governor and two of his major local rivals are "DDRed" (the UN's disarmament program has become a common Afghan verb), losing power vis-a-vis the center. The most notorious major commanders, Ismael Khan, Mohammad Fahim, and Abdul Rashid Dostum, remain powerful men, but all are clearly following Karzai's lead, not vice versa. A mere year ago this outcome would have been considered wildly improbable.

Karzai's main electoral opponent from last year, Yunus Qanuni, has formed a "loyal opposition" party to contest the parliamentary elections. These will doubtless be messy and noisy, and probably attended by serious Taliban attempts at disruption -- the insurgents know how much credibility they lost when the presidential elections went off without a hitch. But given the continuing marginalization of the Pushtun insurgents, the steady trickle of Taliban commanders "coming in from the cold," and the non-violent tenor of political competition between factions over the last few months, I think the parliamentary elections are likely to be, on the whole, another small success.

Finally, on the issue of the narco-economy: it's cause for concern, but not panic. In five years, if the best efforts of the international donor community haven't provided real alternatives (crops and credit) to the opium economy, then it'll be time to make comparisons between Afghanistan and Colombia. For now, of course the farmers are planting poppy -- their land has been degraded, their roads and other infrastructure devastated. They need a crop that gets maximum profit per acre and doesn't perish en route from farm to market. They also need credit; a loan up front from poppy traders is a major incentive to get into the cultivation business. We can provide these things. I've found farmers to be generally interested if skeptical when presented with alternative crops, and very interested in alternative sources of income and credit to keep them out of the traffickers' debt in the first place.

Poppy cultivation is going to drop this year, though after last year's bumper crop, that's not saying much. The US and Afghan government eradication efforts have targeted the provinces that cultivated the most opium last year. In the two most populous of these provinces (southern Helmand and eastern Nangarhar) this has had a major impact. The governors and local authorities in Helmand and Nangarhar have reduced overt opium cultivation by at least 60% (though in remote valleys and inside walled compounds, large poppy fields persist). This will likely mean an increase in districts with weaker government control (Orozgan and Ghor in central-southern Afghanistan, Paktika, Khost, and Kunar in the east), but overall there will be less poppy cultivation this year. Can this be sustained next year without social unrest? That'll depend on the state of the Afghan economy, and whether people believe there are alternatives.

None of this is victory, and it's far too early for triumphalism. But enthusiasm, continued commitment, and some degree of optimism -- these are I think proper attitudes when considering the situation in Afghanistan.
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Monday, April 11, 2005

# Posted 3:57 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

NOTICE: There has recently been a death in our family. I will be spending the coming week in New York in order to observe the traditional period of mourning with my parents and relatives.

At the moments when I need a distraction from the weight of mourning, I may find myself online and blogging, because it is something that I enjoy and that takes me away from my surroundings.

For the moment, I would simply like to observe just how enervating it is to travel a long distance for a funeral. I have always experienced travel as a moment of excitement, of looking forward to a different and better future. It is that expectation of discovery which makes the effort of travel often seem effortless.

But last night and tonight, I have invested so much effort in order to come home and confront a great loss that came long before its time. Instead of discovery, there is emptiness.
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