Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Good writing - as writing

Arthur Silber, who I have mentioned before, has started a new blog, Once Upon a Time. He commented in a recent post on his personal situation,

Moreover, and an aspect of this that deeply disheartens me, there is almost no appreciation for decent writing as writing anywhere among blogs or among blog readers. (I'm obviously referring to blogs that focus on culture and politics. I'm aware there is another subset of blogs, which deals with literature and literary concerns. Unfortunately, that subset does not regularly address the other issues that so interest me.) A few well-known bloggers write exceptionally well, Billmon for example. But many of the most prominent bloggers seem to have given up even the most basic rules of grammar and punctuation, and correct spelling has become a memory.

It is true. A lot of the writing in the blogosphere is similar to the writing in the mass media; glib, careless, and often ungrammatical. In the political sphere this may be particularly true, although I find good writing at several websites that are not purely political but have a political element (e.g., Making Light, or The Corpuscle), that furnish me with incredibly good writing that is a pleasure to read.

I am myself more of a reader than a writer. I appreciate good writing with a lot more ease than I can produce it. So, I propose to devote a small series, dedicated to Arthur Silber and his ongoing efforts to state, in elegant and correct English, exactly what's wrong with our current political messes and what we should do about it, on "Good Nonfiction Writers that Changed My Worldview."

(If I did a similar series on fiction, I doubt it would ever end. Fiction is mostly what I read.)

This series includes the following 4 names:

Arthur Silber, himself (I will do him last)
Noam Chomsky (his political books, not his linguistic ones, which I sadly did not have occasion to delve into yet)
Richard Mitchell, "The Underground Grammarian"
Idries Shah

I hope I can get it together to start the series in the next couple of days. My full time job and family make my blogging very inconsistent, though. This post is mostly to say that I am very glad to be reading Arthur's blog on a regular basis once again. I missed it.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

The Homework Issue - In Egypt

What a wonderful morning - checking one of my favorite news blogs, Steve Gilliard's News Blog, and finding this article about homework in the US. The mother is really upset that her 7 year old has an hour of homework a night - and that it is homework in which parents are supposed to "help" (she listed a project in which you could tell the parent was going to do everything).

I laughed at the thought of 1 hour of homework being considered a bad thing for a 7 year old, because in Egypt a kid is VERY lucky at that age if he/she does not have a lot more than that. But I agree that homework should be designed so that the kid can do it with a minimum of parental supervision and difficult projects should probably wait until kids are old enough to handle them without the parents basically doing the work for them.

In Egypt, the system is very heavy on rote learning, so that young kids are routinely given dictation tests (and therefore have to do dictation exercises with their parents every night). The system also teaches math a lot faster than the system I was raised in and gives a lot of homework. Most parents who can afford it (and actually, many parents that really can't) get private tutors to help kids in math and often in Arabic language, English as a second language, and any other subjects kids may have trouble in.

The system is also heavily based on regular testing, meaning that if kids are not doing actual homework (assignments that are written down and handed in) they are studying for a test. My two kids, who are now in the final year of middle school and the first year of secondary school, put away their novels, their computer games, their chess sets, and their sports equipment for the school year, and buckle down to studying until bedtime every night. They have a math tutor and an Arabic tutor (and this is after I spent years fighting this trend - and they are the only kids in the extended family who only have tutors in 2 subjects), who come twice a week each (meaning that there are lessons 4 nights out of 5). Their only studying-free time is their weekly visit to their grandmother's house, to which they do not take any school books. There, they are able to read their novels, watch TV, play soccer in the street, or go to an Internet cafe and play games.

I wish that the structure would allow kids more time to devote to out of school activities. I also wish that there were not so many tests and that there was less pressure on the kids to get high grades and more encouragement for them to learn interesting and useful things even if they weren't in the curriculum. Yet, given that some of their teachers are all too eager to introduce things I don't want them to learn (see my past post on the Arabic teacher's religious enthusiasm), I see that incremental changes in this system would simply not work.

It is sad to see that systems in the US, a country with infinitely more resources than Egypt to devote to education, are not all that much better than what kids face here. I wonder if the next generation will be able to confront the challenges past generations have created for them, given the abysmal, rote-based education foisted upon them.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Yom Kippur/10 Ramadan Commemoration

This year, I notice that the 10th of Ramadan (today) is also Yom Kippur (according to an announcement from Michael Lerner that I received yesterday).

This apparently happens every 32 years or so. The last time it happened was at the very beginning of the 1973 war in the Middle East. The war of 1973 is still known to Israelis as the Yom Kippur war, while to Arabs it is remembered by the date of 10 Ramadan, as well as the date of 6 October. (In Egypt, many places are named after these two dates in commemoration of a war against Israel in which the Arabs fought well and won some battles. I live in one of these places: 6 October City in the Giza desert.)

In spite of the instability, violence, war, occupation, economic problems, and overall pain and suffering that continue to affect the Middle East today, herein lies something to be grateful for: at least this time, the confluence of the 10th of Ramadan and the Yom Kippur is not marked by the opening of a full-scale war between Arabs and Jews.

Happy Yom Kippur and continuing wishes for a happy Ramadan, to all.

Monday, October 03, 2005

The Teacher and his Captive Audience

I am a firm believer in the separation of religion and state and in secular education. However, I live in a country (Egypt) with a national religion (Islam, with Christianity recognized as the religion of some citizens), which does not have such a separation as a core value. Therefore, religion is a subject taught officially in all schools here. Muslim kids are taught Islam and Christian kids are taught Christianity.

My son is in the first year of high school and came home two days ago telling me that the religion books had not been issued (the textbooks are government-written and are very noncontroversial and innocuous - I check them every year and monitor what they teach). The teacher has picked up the slack by preaching very extreme ideas to the kids that are in no way part of the official curriculum:

* A kid with longish curly hair who was wearing athletic wrist bands was told that his "long hair" was "haraam" (forbidden) because it made him look like a girl and the wrist bands were also forbidden because they were like girls' bracelets.
* The 5 girls in the class, 4 of whom do not wear a head scarf (they are 14 year olds) were told that if women don't wear the headscarf throughout the month of Ramadan their prayers will not be accepted even though they put the scarf on to pray.
* A kid who told this teacher that the scarf idea was wrong was told to stand outside the class for the entire period as a punishment for saying the teacher was wrong. When he came in and asked for water and my son asked the teacher if he could give him a drink from his water bottle the teacher said no.
* The teacher did not back any of his weird ideas up with any "Islamic proofs" (verses of the Quran or sayings of the Pprophet Muhammad, upon him be peace) but just stated them as facts.

I called the school the next morning and talked to the principal, telling her what had happened in the classroom and making the following points:
* The religion class should be completely restricted to what is in the government approved curriculum.
* The teacher is an Arabic language teacher and has absolutely no credentials to teach religion other than to cover the material in the book.
* The school's job is not to take over from parents and students on personal issues like dress/hairstyle.

The principal was horrified at what I told her and promised that the issue would be dealt with. Yesterday when my son came home I asked him what had happened in Arabic class. He said the girls in the class had tried to raise the discussion of the scarf issue again and the teacher had refused to discuss it. I hope he was warned sufficiently strongly to mind his own business and keep his extreme and weird attitudes to himself.

Happy Happy Ramadan

It's Ramadan 1426! Blessings and easy fasting to all who observe it. Here in Egypt - as usual - everyone is happy about starting Ramadan observances and many are not only fasting but doing extra prayers and visiting the mosque more often and other "extra" religious observances.

As for me, I'm just trying to maintain the religious observances that are required, and to not be grumpy while going without food or drink - I hope this is OK with the man upstairs.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Hurricane Katrina

I am completely numb about the horror of the hurricane and its aftermath. I am not very good at articulating my feelings when they are very overpowering, so I prefer to read and hear others rather than share my impressions, which are very similar to other people's (anger, horror, tears). Please donate to the Red Cross if you have not already.

I hope that as a result of this, FEMA gets its funding back and gets some new, competent management. That is all I am going to say about that. There is no reason for me to waste time putting into my own words what has been said much better by that poor parish president, Mr. Broussard, who was on the Meet the Press show.

An Article about US Public Diplomacy

Often on lists that I belong to, I comment on articles that were sent to the list. Recently one was sent regarding the new Bush Administration "Public Diplomacy initiatives" supposedly undertaken by their relatively new appointee to the Undersecretary of State Department for Public Diplomacy position, famed campaign person and writer of Bush biographies, Karen Hughes. The article really irritated me, so I have written a dialogue back at it. This puts me right in the same league with crazy people who yell at their TV sets, but that's OK. I never claimed to be normal.

The article is from the New York Times, and was by a reporter named Laurie Goldstein who was at the recent Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) convention.

I care about this issue because actually, during the mid-90s, I used to work in "public diplomacy" for the US government (at the time, I worked for USIA which is now an arm of the State Department).

Rosemont, Ill. -- American Muslims met with Undersecretary of State Karen Hughes on Friday at an Islamic convention here to offer advice and assistance as she began an initiative to improve the flagging image of the United States among Muslims overseas.

Public diplomacy was never intended to "improve flagging image" but was intended to use long-term, proven exchange type mass-oriented programs to build the US's image overseas over decades. This long-term effort began after WWII and ended in the Reagan Administration, when the decision was made to focus on "improving relations" with the elites only and to take away funding for broad-based programs (English language teaching programs and public libraries and film nights and other things that cultural centers do).

Hughes began overseeing "public diplomacy" for the Bush administration last month. She said she and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would hold a public forum and announce a new "public diplomacy" strategy next week. She gave few details but said the initiative would involve exchange programs, debates and interfaith dialogues.

What in the heck is the "initiative" in doing exchange programs and interfaith dialogues? These things have existed before. They were cut to the bone. They are long-term, they don't deliver instant results in terms of changing of attitude. What is their hope in doing these things?

Also: Whose attitudes do they aim to "improve" - society at large or elites? If society at large, the attitudes are based on observation of US policy and improvements in that attitude might happen if US policy actually shifted.

We have a common interest in confronting terror and violence and hate and crime that is committed in the name of any religion, and we want to isolate and marginalize those who would seek to kill innocents," Hughes said at a news conference. "And frankly, who better to do that than many of our American Muslims themselves, who have friends and family and groups in countries across our world?

As usual, they are using this so-called "public diplomacy" initiative as a further bully pulpit to demonize those in the Middle East opposed to US interventionism and imperialism, labeling them all as terrorists, criminals, and haters.

Polls have shown that the image of the United States among Muslims abroad has plummeted since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the start of the Iraq conflict.

Gee, and this must be because there are not enough exchange programs and interfaith dialogues - or government funded boondoggle radio and TV stations blasting US music and fashion advice to the Middle East. There can't possibly be any CAUSAL relationship between the Patriot Act, the invasion of Iraq, the invasion of Afghanistan, the whole Israel-Palestine long-term issue, and the "plummeting" of the US "image."

Hughes met separately with leaders of Muslim organizations, young people and a delegation from England that was among an estimated 40,000 here for the annual convention of the Islamic Society of North America. The society is an umbrella group of mosques and Islamic centers in the United States and Canada.

What did she meet with the delegation from England for? And, more importantly: What exactly do these people hope to accomplish by trying to help the US design its PR to fool the people of the Middle East into thinking it is benign, when facts on the ground so clearly state the opposite?

"It's all talk right now and unclear what the concrete steps are," Rubina Khan, treasurer of the Muslim Students Association, said. "But if we can form a relationship with anybody in the administration who has that power, then obviously we should try."

What do you hope to do with this relationship, Ms. Khan? Why are you helping them design advertising to convince Muslims in the Middle East that "we're here to help!"???

Some Muslim leaders who met Hughes said they were gratified to be consulted and impressed with her willingness to listen. A few said she appeared to lack knowledge about the Middle East and seemed unaware of how fearful many American Muslims had become of government surveillance and intrusions on their civil liberties.

But she is not in CHARGE of those issues, so the fact she is a good listener and acts sympathetic is completely IRRELEVANT. Her task is to market the US to Muslims, not to fix the real problems causing the bad attitudes. Why do they think it's great she can listen to them, when her brief has nothing to do with solving their real problems? She is not going to repeal the blasted Patriot Act.

Hughes said at the news conference that when some Muslim students told her that they were afraid to speak on cell phones to family members overseas, "that broke my heart."

Well, at least she is a bit more diplomatic than Barbara Bush was about the NOLA refugees, but I don't see what her sympathy has to offer in terms of concrete solutions. She's a PR flak. That is her job. She is supposed to act sympathetic. Emphasis on the word 'act'.

Several Muslims said Hughes should denounce hate speech against Islam from non-Muslim Americans in the American news media, because those comments are amplified overseas as representative of America. "I think that would probably be the most effective thing she could be doing, is confronting the bias, prejudice and racist views of Islam that are perpetrated in the U.S.," said Ibrahim Abdul-Matin, an organizational consultant from Oakland.

I like how Muslims buy into this 'denounce' thing and figure that if they can get the Bush Administration to denounce things it somehow evens out that we are supposed to denounce every negative thing any co-religionist ever does, like there is shared responsibility for it. The Bush Administration is already too good at mouthing words that are totally at odds with their damned actions, you clueless people. Sure, they will happily make silly statements about how great Islam is and how it is a religion of peace, and then go bomb Fallujah again and cause "collateral damage." What planet are all these people on, where words are so crucial and deeds don't mean a
damned thing?????

American Muslim leaders are also trying to repair the flagging image of Islam. There is a growing sense of urgency among Muslim leaders since the bombings in London in July that they have to do more to counter Muslim extremists who are citing Islam to justify violence and terrorism.

Yeah, that is the main issue here. Don't let anyone forget that it is the Muslims who are the villains here, not the poor Bush Administration.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Plato's Cave

I was cruising around on the Internet today and spent some time looking at science-oriented sites that I enjoy reading. My grasp of science is not high, because I did not take very many science classes in high school and did not *have* to take any hard science courses in college, and therefore chose to take courses that would give me credits in my double major and minor fields (French Language/Lit, Spanish Language/Lit, and American Government). This is something I later regretted, as was my decision at about age 16 to stop at Algebra II and never take higher math.

Because of this lack, I often struggle to understand scientific concepts and I am trying to encourage my kids not to go for what's easy for them (verbal oriented stuff, just like me) and keep on with their interests in science and math.

This is all an explanation of why I enjoy science blogs; I usually learn something new from them, given there is such a wealth of information in that area, a lot of it pretty basic, that I did not learn in school.

However, I did take two years of basic biology and am deeply interested in the U.S. "culture wars" between scientists and Creationists regarding the theory of Evolution. I happen to be a religious believer and practitioner. Yet, to me, the spiritual belief in some sort of organizing principle/force (God) does not contradict the theories that have developed in scientific query through the system of experimentation, analysis of results, and analysis of available evidence. There obviously has been a lot of evolution between the past and the present, and evolution continues today, and the principles developed by evolutionary theorists are used to design new medicines and to understand genetics and to do many other things that contribute to our current civilization. Being against it is unbelievable to me.

By clicking on some links, I found an article by a scientist mocking a guy named Vox, who happens to be anti-evolution as well as apparently believing that U.S. society, economy and culture went South when women started entering the urban workforce in the 1970s. The scientist had a lot of response from this guy Vox's fans who read his website. One in particular started into the evolution argument.

Now at first it seemed this guy was just your regular silly Internet troll. He used bad spelling and grammar and used terminology wrong (calling a regular insult an "ad hominem" for example) and kept the discussion veering off in weird directions. Then he admitted to being 14 years old, and the scientist and his buddies, probably feeling bad for being harsh on him near the top of the thread, began carefully and soberly responding to his arguments against evolution. They were really trying to get him to understand, feeling wrong for merely mocking a young person like this, I imagine (they did not actually say this, though - the tone of their posts just changed).

At the very end of the thread, the kid said he had to go play a baseball game, at which point his younger sister got on and angrily told the people on the website to stop making fun of him because he was a very smart 14 year old and she was 13 and they were home schooled and evolution was evil and they were good Christians.

I felt like crying. Why is it legal for parents to keep their kids this ignorant? Not only the fact the kids don't understand science and what it is, and think that to understand it is bad, but that they can't write, spell, use grammar correctly, or use terminology correctly. What are their parents teaching them? As far as I could tell, very little. It also seemed they had done very little reading and considered the idea of reading articles that they were told about to be beyond the pale. I started that post thinking it was kind of funny, but ended up feeling so sorry for the kids I was close to tears.

Here is the link at Dispatches from the Culture Wars if anyone is interested in the story.

The only thing that is keeping me from total depression is the hope that these people are making up their identity and are not really young, impressionable teens locked in their house by their religious fanatic parents and not allowed to learn basic science (or spelling or anything else).

Update! Yay! Yes, it was just an internet troll who is not really 14 1/2. Thank Goodness. Also, which is not so good, he apparently posts from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

The Holy Grail Quiz

Too many serious posts these days so I was very happy to get the idea to take this and jazz up this site a little.

No surprises there. Mark of Witnit was, of course, God. I was, of course, Dennis the Peasant. This was predictable if you are one of the so-small-as-to-be-nonexistant group of readers who reads both of us regularly.

The test was fun, but totally easy to fix if you have seen the movie as many times as I have (I have two teenagers who love to recite the dialogue to it).

Take the quiz: "Which Holy Grail Character Are You?"

Dennis the Peasant
Oh, King, eh, very nice. And how d'you get that, eh? By exploiting the workers! By 'anging on to outdated imperialist dogma which perpetuates the economic and social differences in our society. If there's ever going to be any progress with the...

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Why is Honesty Brutal?

I got a very kind note from Arthur Silber after writing the previous post. In it, he wondered why we see honesty as being "brutal." He mentioned that he, too, uses this phrase, but isn't there something strange about seeing truth as being violent?

I agree with him that it goes back to the Alice Miller theories he discusses (go to his blog to read up on these and come back here when you are done!). In fact, we are socialized from a very young age to carry certain core values and assumptions. I have Western values and assumptions, but unlike most Westerners, I know what these are and am sensitive to differences, having lived in non-Western society for many years and made a daily effort to observe myself as well as others.

Sometimes we find that our core assumptions and values turn out to be either morally wrong, or not factual, or both. When that happens, just stating that they are wrong/not factual seems like an act of violence.

For example, the core assumption that Alice Miller attacks is that parents always do what is best for their children, and if they don't, it does not matter because they 'mean' well. Thus children are made to feel guilty if their parents are cruel to them - and often internalize the cruelty. Arthur has a great article on the strength of this cultural assumption, examining the actor Mel Gibson's relationship to his father. Alice Miller was strongly attacked in her native country of Germany by psychiatrists for bringing up this issue.

I have taught management workshops in which people discuss how to challenge assumptions. It is really difficult to do directly. People have a lot invested in their assumptions - and they have internalized them from a very early age. I think this is why there are often surprisingly hysterical reactions in US and other societies to people who attack those core assumptions.

For example, a feminist writer who points out that some widespread cultural conventions, such as telling upset-looking women you don't know to "smile," is sexist, gets really outraged reactions. People of color and women who write about white or male privilege get this all the time from white/male people whose assumptions are being challenged.

People who challenge homophobia also tend to receive outraged responses that don't seem to have at all comprehended what they actually said. I think the action of "speaking truth to power" often brings out people's defensive reactions. Anything that provokes such strong reactions could thus be categorized as violent.

Those of us who do try to speak the truth in uncomfortable circumstances really feel that we are being brutal at times. Sometimes, I feel when I confront people in the US on their faulty assumptions regarding the Middle East, that I am truly attacking them, though I am trying to approach it rationally. Part of this is because I often provoke an outraged and often completely disconnected angry response. Then I feel as if I really don't know where to start with this person.

Thus, "brutal" honesty.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Arthur Silber, Great Writer on the Internet

I plan to start a regular feature on this blog highlighting other, better, blogs in case there is anyone who, by some weird stroke of luck/lightning, happens by here and has not heard of them.

For the past year or so I have been in the habit of checking The Light of Reason blog religiously every day. Its owner, Arthur Silber, is a tremendously articulate and brutally honest writer. He has written a series that I expect will someday be compiled in college texts on the history of blogging - "The Roots of Horror," about Alice Miller's theories on child-rearing and their relevance to geo-political events. If that's not enough, he is also a classical music buff who writes about opera and orchestral news.

Arthur is ill and jobless, yet continues to write thought-provoking, timely and important articles every day in spite of all of the problems in his personal life. Because of the strain of maintaining his great blog, he needs and deserves financial contributions from readers.

(I think he feels even greater need to post regularly, as his well-written articles are more and more often mentioned by big and popular blogs such as Atrios and Digby, and thus attracting an ever greater readership.)

I highly recommend that you check him out - and that if you find his writing as valuable as I do, you should pay for his inestimable service.

Back in Cairo from the US

I only have scattered impressions at this point:

1. The stores are so big it is scary. There is so much stuff yet it is so alike. I do not like the size because I do not like having to take so much time locating the right aisle to find what I want and get out of the store. I had never gone to a Target before and found the one in Cleveland Heights, Ohio particularly intimidating. I visited no Walmarts.

2. My kids and I bought Harry Potter the morning of the 16th of July and had all read it, in turn (though I cheated by sneaking it while the kid whose turn it was was doing something else) by the 22nd. The coverage of the Harry Potter release in the papers was very amusing. I am torn between recognizing slick marketing and being happy that kids are still so into reading a book - any book.

3. The Pacific Northwest is still the most beautiful place I have ever seen, and if you have never been there before I highly recommend Klamath, Oregon and the surrounding countryside (comprising the Redwoods national park (?) forest (?) monument (?)) and visit the tacky-outside, very-wonderful-inside "Trees of Mystery" with the huge statue of Paul Bunyan visible from the highway. It has an amazing collection of American Indian artifacts.

(EDIT: Oh God, I can't believe I said Klamath is in OR. I spent most of my time in OR (in the Kalmiopsis and in Portland) but Klamath is in Northern California. Apologies.)

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Visiting my Country of Origin (The US)

For the first time in several years, I am taking my two teenagers to the US for a visit. I have not been back since 2001, while they have not been back since 1998. It should be very interesting, to say the least. I hope to post while back there to give some idea of differences and insights I have, but on the other hand, it's a vacation and I am not all that insightful except on rare occasions. In any case, I am looking forward to it and will be returning to Cairo in 3 weeks.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

The 18th Century Liberals

On the 4th of July, you usually have a spate of articles discussing the Founders of the US, people that Americans all learned about as children. Most of us admire them and believe that we take them as role models.

I have to admit I find their writings stirring and powerful. I love the Declaration of Independence just for its rhetorical strength. It's more like a religious document to me than a political one.

However, I am starting to get seriously annoyed by modern people trying to claim the Founders as soul mates. Yesterday I read on some of my favorite liberal websites several of these "rant-counter-rant" things mocking Conservative screeds against Liberals, such as this insane Marine's thing that veers back and forth between ranting against Liberals and ranting against Muslims in the strongest possible terms of intolerant misanthropy. Yet the riposte, although it lacked the element of disgusting racism of the original, seemed to me to be equally lacking in truth.

In truth, the Founders were "18th Century Liberals". They were not anything like today's liberals or conservatives as the terms are usually understood in the US. They lived in a time before corporate personhood, government-sponsored research bodies, and many other things we absolutely take for granted now. They were interested in the landed, propertied, male class having full citizenship rights against the monarch, and they were interested in the view that monarchs had no divine right to rule but that all governors should have some sort of legitimacy through the consent of the governed, by whom they meant the landed, propertied, male (and white) elite class.

If they can truly be said to have a counterpart in modern political thought, it would be the more extreme forms of libertarianism - but again, I don't believe they were as ideologically rigid as the modern form is. They did not insist on their beliefs in the face of facts like overwhelming corporate power or government ability to contribute to scientific and intellectual progress. Those facts did not exist yet. Libertarians today seem to have their heads in the sand, wanting to believe that the supreme individual remains the same as he was back when Jefferson wrote the Declaration.

Their writings were inspirational. They bravely fought the greatest military and imperial power of the time, and they won. But they certainly were no closer to being like modern Liberals than they were like modern Conservatives. And such silly claims that are supposed to appeal to our emotions are starting to seriously annoy me. I am particularly annoyed when liberals get all teary eyed and start declaiming how they are wearing the mantle of Franklin or Jefferson.

I believe that you should be honest about people of the past and their political beliefs and how they are relevant or not relevant to the modern day. And I think this sort of posturing is really, really a big waste of time.

Sunday, June 12, 2005


A metaphor is the use of something to represent something else. Metaphors are powerful in language and in visual representation, and therefore quite popular. In Arabic poetry, the use of metaphor is very high "so and so was a lion" and that sort of thing.

Sometimes metaphors are not only used because they are powerful but because there is a social convention against discussing something or other on its own terms. In this case, you have to be pretty creative to make sure that the association is clear enough. I saw a whopper of a visual metaphor yesterday that illustrates this quite brilliantly and ties in with my earlier posts with a sort of theme. (No, just wait for this.)

I was watching 10 minutes or so of a Bond movie on the Saudi movie channel, MBC 2 (it shows American movies pretty much non-stop). It has been doing a Bond kick lately on Saturday nights (we caught Dr. No a few weeks ago which was really funny to watch). I thought I had identified this one as "From Russia with Love" so I watched through the commercials to see from the little announcement of the movie name if I was right.

The commercial showed a fast food cup with a cover on it and a hand trying to insert a straw. The straw was pink and thin, and kept bending. The hand eventually gave up on the attempt and bent the straw a couple of times experimentally before disappearing and re-appearing with a big, thick, blue straw which it jammed into the cup successfully. Then the picture disappeared and a male voice said "Viagra!" while the word and a picture of the pill appeared on the screen.

I sat there for at least a minute trying to figure out whether I was shocked, amused, horrified or what. That is a pretty effective metaphor. More so the first time you see the ad, as (at least in my case - maybe I am just too naive) you really are not psychologically prepared for the punch line.

I plan to provide more neat, salacious Saudi advertising gimmicks illustrating synechdoche or something as they come up. It will make a very amusing series, won't it?

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Public Shame for Sex Offenders

Below, I posted on the issue of Medicaid coverage of prescription drugs in the US, because I had not been aware that sexual dysfunction drugs like Viagra were covered by this very limited and minimal governmental insurance program for poor people. It just seemed to me to be a very weird priority to use such a limited program to cover something that was not, by any stretch of the imagination, life-threatening.

In the course of the post I referred to the fact that this entire issue came to light because people found that sex offenders were among the Medicaid beneficiaries getting subsidized Viagra. I said that I did not see the point of generally offering it but restricting these people who presumably served their time. (I was arguing that I did not think it should be generally covered at all.) A commenter reacted to this by saying,

"Are you against the public shame programs? Also they haven't served their time, part of their time is public shame for the rest of thier lives. And sexual predator can't be cured from thier problem... it's a mental condition that is incurable. Most psyhcologist would tell you this. So it's not just about publicly shaming them, but about protecting other people from their disease."

Forgive me, but I see a contradiction here. If they are victims of an incurable mental problem, I don't see why sex offenders should be shamed at all. If they are supposed to live in shame for the rest of their lives because of the particular nature of their crime, I don't see how you reconcile it with being a disease.

I still feel that if a person's found guilty of a crime, whatever it is, and that crime has a sentence associated with it, and the person serves his sentence, he's done. I don't really feel that exceptions should be made, because if they are really bad crimes, then the person should have had an indeterminate sentence to begin with.

And I think if a person is found to have a mental disorder that causes him or her to commit violent crimes against others and there is no hope of a cure, the answer would be institutionalization, not public shame.

I am a bit of a civil libertarian, perhaps, and I have been fortunate not to have been a victim of such a crime, so I lack that perspective, but it seems to me that the public shame programs of which I have heard for certain kinds of crimes don't do anything positive.

Sorry for the political interlude - now I will return to the regularly scheduled, very intermittent, posting on educational and language issues.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Help, I have been tagged by a meme. What a first.

I can't believe this, but that's what you get for commenting on other people's sites! Thanks a lot Corpy.

Apparently, this one is about books. That's good. I am all about books. Usually they seem to be about things that are out of my league like IPod preferences or something like that.

Total number of books owned:

I have absolutely no idea - about 500 or 600 I guess. In one of my many moves, I lost a box of books so I keep discovering that a book is no longer "with me" (as they say in Arabic to differentiate actual physical possession from theoretical possession). And, I keep passing on paperbacks to other people and acquiring more. Also, I buy books for my kids and read them as voraciously as they do, so do they count as mine? That would bring it up to about 700, I suppose.

Last book bought:

For myself alone, not my kids: The Golden One by Elizabeth Peters. I have a very limited budget for books and even paperbacks in Cairo are expensive, but this mystery series about an Egyptologist family around the turn of the century is one of the few I actually am sufficiently invested in to keep buying the books. (For my kids: White Fang.)

I borrow books a lot more than I buy them because I speed read and go through them very fast. I recently borrowed The Feminine Mystique and The Second Sex. I am reading the De Beauvoir now having finished the Friedan and returned it.

Last book read:

Well, I read fiction the way other people drink coffee, and read nonfiction sort of simultaneously, so the last book I read was some fiction page-turner or other. I really am very addicted to reading. I am also not very discriminating. I can read bad fiction as well as good. I do recognize the difference though. Oh, I remember now! The last actual really well-written book I read was David Lodge's Nice Work, which was the third book in a trilogy of fun novels about academia (they make it sound like one long party, actually - he must be a secret recruiter for some university or other). My boss is loaning me his entire oeuvre little by little - so far I have read two trilogies and she just left another single novel on my desk this a.m.

Five books that mean a lot to you:

Hm. I hate these things, trying to isolate 5 books from the literally thousands I have read that mean more to me than others!




Oh damn it.

OK, this is not in order of priority. I could not prioritize these. And I know I will think of 5 others in a minute that were just as, or more, important to me as/than these, but let's fish or cut bait here.

1. Adam Bede by George Eliot.

2. The Lord of the Rings (I know, Patrick Nielsen Hayden said this first, but I did read this at the age of 9 or so and still can outquote my kids on arcane Tolkiana)

3. 100 Years of Solitude. Labyrinthine. Beautiful. Scary. Lyrical and full of word play.

4. Collected Poems by e.e. cummings.

5. The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis. (A dark horse, isn't it. Read it and you will agree with me that it stays with you for a long time and gives you a profound appreciation for church bells.)


Tag five people to continue this meme:

I have no idea of how to "tag" someone but will try Jon at A Tiny Revolution, Leila at Sister Scorpion, Mark at WitNit who has probably already been tagged by a bunch of people, hmmm that's 3 - Wow, I really don't know that many people well, do I. Hmm, how about an Egyptian blogger, The Dumb North African. He seems fairly erudite.

Update June 9: And here is #5: Yakoub.

Update 2: The Dumb North African and Mark Alexander have responded so far!

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Medicaid and Viagra - I am Confused in Cairo Again...

Recently many blogs have referred to a study done in the state of New York showing that many convicted sex offenders were able to get Medicaid reimbursements to buy Viagra. People thought this was really shocking. Both liberals, especially feminist ones, and conservatives, quoted it.

I guess this is one single issue where I (normally the most liberal person I know) really have a conservative type of reaction - I am not so much exercised about sex offenders specifically getting government benefits to buy Viagra, as I am about anyone at all getting government benefits to buy such a frivolous medication that treats a non-medically threatening condition (impotence).

In fact, if we decide that Viagra or other erectile dysfunction drugs are, in principle, a Medicaid-reimbursable thing, how would we be able to differentiate between sex offenders and the general public without getting our society that much closer towards 1984? They already have these public shame programs towards sex offenders who have served their time, which don't seem to do much good in any practical sense, but satisfy our need for revenge - they would need a very complicated track-keeping system to make sure that Medicaid does not reimburse only a certain group for a certain drug, and I am not really in favor of all this monitoring.

But back to the idea of government funding for such a treatment on its face. Men won’t die if they aren’t able to perform, will they? Are other frivolous medications also covered by Medicaid - such as Retin-A or cosmetic surgery? How about Rogaine? If so, why? What is the possible argument for this?

It occurs to me that I know very little about how Medicaid works. I thought it probably was geared towards medical procedures and drugs that are needed because a person has an illness. I did not think it covered non-threatening things like men's inability to perform sexually, which may be too bad and annoying for them, but is not going to lead to death or even poor health.

I am actually in favor of socialized health care and I like the European model (I lived in France for a year, and while I saw some abuses of the system -- people getting out of work for weeks complaining of headaches, for example - nothing there compared to our heartless system where people without money could be refused treatment or go bankrupt when they have a medical emergency).

However, I simply don't think that taxpayer money should go to purely elective health treatments or medicines.

I also have heard, anecdotally, that some anti-depressants are not covered by Medicaid and therefore many mentally ill poor people end up on the street or suicidal because they cannot afford them. To me, this is a travesty and wrong. But I am hoping my informant was wrong, as many Americans don't seem to really know what government programs target and what they don't.

So if anyone feels like enlightening me on what is really going on with Medicaid in these areas, I would be most grateful. (I would particularly appreciate someone telling me that my informant is wrong - please, please help me think our system makes any sort of sense at all.)

I remain Confused in Cairo (one of my regular nicknames on the Internet).

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Star Wars - What Character are You?

I found this quiz funnier than most. I tried consciously to be a Jedi - as they are kind of like Sufis and I would love to be one. When you answer questions purposely to get to a certain result, it usually ends up turning out. (I should create a test called "what kind of test taker are you?" I am Qui-Gon Jinn. (I was actually hoping for Obi-Wan.)

Thursday, May 19, 2005

A Sound Drubbing

I just noticed something that should have been obvious to me long ago - the Arabic word for "beat or hit" is "d-r-b" (that's the root) and when it is conjugated it sounds a lot like the word "drub" in English, an archaic word meaning.... "to beat or hit." Weird. I wonder if there is any linguistic connection besides mere coincidence? However, I note that the archaic English "drub" was used also to denote "beat as in win" - "He drubbed him soundly at tennis" - and in Arabic I have always heard people use a completely different word for that context.

I also note that the verb "drub" is very associated with the adjective "sound" - in most of the contexts I have seen it they are used phrasally. Whereas the word "d-r-b" in Arabic is often used as a stand-alone. Hmmm.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Honor Killings of Women- Lying about them in order to save them

I am a member of several discussion lists, one of which is concerned with women and Islam. Recently someone there posted a review of a book about "honor" crimes committed against women in the West Bank. For those interested in the review, it skewers the book, marketed as a true story by a woman who underwent horrible torture and mistreatment, as being basically completely made up. The evidence the reviewer marshalled to prove her point was pretty damning. The book was riddled with inconsistencies and falsehoods that anyone who had lived in the West Bank or even had a very basic knowledge of Arab culture would recognize.

Now, this discussion list is pretty progressive, and people on there are very feminist and all of them are horrified by "honor" crimes and loudly denounce them and try to fight them in various ways, such as doing Amnesty letter-writing campaigns and similar things to fight the medieval practice. I have been a member of the list for several years.

A new person to the list, however, seemed to think that a critical review of the book was a whitewash for the practice of honor killing, and stated the following amazing idea:

"I did say that it does not matter whether it is true or not and I
am not going to take that back. The point and the main aspect of
the story was the matter of "honor killing" and the treatment of
women. So, what if she glaring mistakes in reference to important
matters of area and the Palestinian people, for all you know the
story could have been written by someone here in the U.S. who has
never set foot in the Middle East, but to dwell solely on her
mistakes and ignore the plot and meaning of the story then "honor
killing" will remain an hidden secret."

I read this statement over and over again. She really is saying that a book full of lies is supposed to be read without noticing the lies and instead merely focusing on its polemics, or else "honor" killing has no solution.

Are there a lot of people out there that think lying is OK in order to get people involved in an issue? Why is the truth not just as OK, or more OK? I want to say more about this but it will take some thought. There is just so much wrong with the idea that I am unsure of where to start.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

I Am Quitting the Mind Games with Rush Series (for now)

I have thought a lot about this exercise I started, analyzing the transcript of a Rush show from an outside perspective. I decided that Mark was right. As I am critiquing Rush for oversimplifying a person, yet I am evaluating his views based on this single transcript, and according to Mark, Rush himself thinks you should not judge him until you have listened to 30 hours of him. I have no time (or inclination, to be really blunt) to do that, even if I lived in a place where he was on the radio (which I don't), and I am not going to spend the time to read that number of transcripts. So I will jump to no conclusions about him as a person. I will say that I still think the small portion of a radio show that was represented here by the transcript, which may not even be a complete show, apparently, sounds pretty much like he is jumping to the same conclusions that he asks others to avoid about him, about Ward Churchill. But I may be wrong; there is a possibility that Rush treated the issue in depth and fairly at some earlier or later point, and made a crystal-clear logical argument for why Ward's metaphor represents all that is wrong with the "left" and what is "being taught" in our universities.

Seismology Thriller Writing

I love the thriller as a genre. I think it is very instructive to see the technique good thriller writers use to keep your suspense mounting and keep you from closing the book.

Right now, I am reading an older thriller,The Fourth Deadly Sin by Lawrence Sanders, which is quite entertaining, though the male/female interplay sounds very stilted to me. I have very high standards for thrillers and have read many, so I think I am a pretty good judge. And I have a great thriller beginning for you.

Not only is it a great thriller - it's non-fiction! That is really the best kind of thriller, because you feel the extra "frisson" of knowing it really happened.

It is over at WitNit. Anyone who knows a good literary agent, please tell them about Mark Alexander, the writer of the one and only conservative blog I ever bother to spend the time to read.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Silly Quiz of the Week

I thought it sounded funny and bet I could beat all the liberal bloggers for "liberalness" and non-republicanness, and I have, I think. (I bet this will really disqualify me from commenting on Rush Limbaugh according to most. It clearly shows I am pretty darned one-sided.)

I am:
"You're a damn Commie! Where's Tailgunner Joe when we need him?"

Are You A Republican?

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Mind Games with Rush, Part 3

After yesterday's post, I thought a lot about how I can evaluate the rest of this transcript fairly without going back and reading original articles about the Churchill thing. Also, the original Churchill article itself. So I spent quite a bit of time doing that.

Then I read this transcript again. And I had some general thoughts on this experience and what it is turning into.

It strikes me, at least twenty times a day, that my long residence outside the US has made me very unaware of how the discourse is progressing there. Most of the things Rush says seem to be code phrases that he and his listeners have internalized that I don't share. At times it seems that he is speaking a different language, the language of oversimplification.

Many times I get upset by American pundits who try to write about things I have some knowledge of; for example, Middle Eastern culture, history, religion, whatever. They simplify everything to the point that I feel it is not only too simplified, it becomes incorrect.

The last time I was in the US and I tried to watch network news I had this reaction to everything they said. I wanted more detail. I wanted to know upon what they were basing all the glib phrases, all the catchwords. It seemed that the entire process was in a shorthand code and that there was an active avoidance of giving people too much information. It seems Americans would rather be told things that are wrong than to be told too much and get confused.

But the real world is confusing and very, very complicated. And I think Americans need to realize this.

When Rush reads a sentence about this Churchill professor and then says to his listeners, "That's the Left for you!" he is drastically simplifying everything to the point that it is no longer even coherent.

First of all, he is defining the guy himself (Churchill) by a single sentence taken out of context.

Second, he is defining the metaphor that Churhill used (comparing World Trade Center financial analysts and other employees to "little Eichmanns") as outrageous, presumably because Eichmann was a Nazi. There's no attempt to even understand why Churchill chose Eichmann as a metaphor (if he were just trying to call the financial people in the World Trade Center Nazis, surely he would have picked someone less obscure? Does it not matter to Rush what he actually meant or was trying to say?).

Third, having identified Churchill's term as outrageous and Churchill as equatable with the term, he identifies a group called the "left" as being completely equatable with Churchill just as he has already simplified him.

I have an idea that it would be fairly unfair for me to equate a huge group of people with Rush - even if they listen to his radio show and like it, I would still accept the fact that they are complicated human beings, and so is he, and he is not an emblem of them or vice versa.

I also can't dismiss Rush based on a single dumb thing he said. I have heard that Rush created the term "Feminazi". I could feign outrage with that term and categorize Rush Limbaugh as 100% outrageous because of that term, but I think this is kind of intellectually dishonest, in spite of the fact that the term is very annoying to me - because Rush is more than the sum of some silly things he may or may not have said - as is Churchill, I would assume.

But Rush himself practices this type of supercompression throughout this particular transcript. I have to admit it does not leave me breathless to read more of them. Perhaps I will try to listen to his show once or twice while I am back there this summer so that I can be positive that I am not being unfair or biased here.

I'll continue with the transcript next week. I feel very tired, for some reason.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Mind Games with Rush, Part 2

OK, I am now ready to go through the first part of this transcript.

"A University of Colorado professor..." How about this? How about this story on the heels of Senator Kennedy's speech yesterday at Johns Hopkins? The American left is just something!"

It is too bad i have no idea of the context. I think the first point to be gained here is that a liberal person who does not listen to this guy every day may miss a lot of context because he refers to (presumably) what he had talked about the day before.

In this instance, Rush recently had obviously discussed some speech given by Ted Kennedy, that he probably disliked (I infer this from the generally accepted view of Ted K as a liberal and Rush L as a conservative). I guess he sees whatever Ted said as somehow emblematic of "the left" as he is going to contend about Churchill as well.

This strikes me as Rush using the very "Pygmalian effect" that Mark thinks we liberals use against him. Of course, one would have to define "the left" and who it includes and on what topics these people agree and on what topics they differ from Rush, but he assumes that his shorthand reference is perfectly clear.

Let's move on. The next paragraph seems to consist of just reading a newspaper article aloud.

"A University of Colorado professor has sparked controversy in New York over an essay he wrote that maintains that people killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks were not innocent victims. Students and faculty members at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., have been protesting a speaking appearance on Feb. 3 by Ward L. Churchill, chairman of the CU Ethnic Studies Department. They are upset over an essay Churchill wrote titled, 'Some People Push Back: On the Justice of Roosting Chickens.' The essay takes its title from a remark that black activist Malcolm X made in the wake of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Malcolm X created controversy when he said Kennedy's murder was a case of 'chickens coming home to roost.' Churchill's essay argues that the Sept. 11 attacks were in retaliation for the Iraqi children killed in a 1991 U.S. bombing raid and by economic sanctions imposed on Iraq by the United Nations following the Persian Gulf War."

OK, that was the article. Now back to Rush.

"So here you have a Colorado University professor, the chairman of the ethnic studies department, asserting something that nobody in the US government has, and that is that Iraq was behind 9/11. Not bin Laden, not Al-Qaeda, not Mullah Omar, not the Taliban. It was Iraq, because of the Iraqi children killed in a 1991 US bombing -- and do you know how many children this man says we killed? Five hundred thousand. He says we killed 500,000 Iraqi children in a bombing raid, plus the economic sanctions imposed on Iraq by the UN following the Persian Gulf War."

Oh boy. It could not be possible that a non-Iraqi group could see the number of Iraqis that died under economic sanctions as a problem worthy of punishment? That might be a possibility, but Rush pushes the listener towards the assumption that Churchill's listing of the US-catalyzed fatalities in Iraq as a factor in the anger of the 9/11 perpetrators means that the Iraqi government was the perpetrator. I don't think this is really an honest argument.

He also is angry that Churchill used the 500,000 figure, which is a pretty acceptable figure used by many, many people. I am very unclear on why he thinks it is an exaggeration. It is also very dishonest for him to tie it to the 1991 conflict first and the sanctions second. People who have followed the conflict and its aftermath know this figure is regularly used to describe the effect of the economic sanctions, not the conflict itself. And this is something that should not discompose Rush. This mostly took place on Clinton's watch, after all. Albright was the one who was asked on national TV if half a million children was too high of a death toll for the economic sanctions and she responded, "well, we think the price is worth it." Even she did not question the figure itself.

Moving on.

He seems to go back to reading the article at this point. (Question to those who listen to Rush on the radio: As he's on the radio, how does he differentiate his own opinions from the stuff he reads out loud? Does it ever confuse you?)

"The essay, written by Ward Churchill, contends the hijackers who crashed airplanes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were "combat teams," not terrorists. His essay says, "'The most that can honestly be said of those involved on Sept. 11 is that they finally responded in kind to some of what this country has dispensed to their people as a matter of course.' The essay maintains that the people killed inside the Pentagon were 'military targets.' 'As for those in the World Trade Center,' the essay said, 'well, really, let's get a grip here, shall we? True enough, they were civilians of a sort. But innocent? Gimme a break.' The essay goes on to describe the victims as 'little Eichmanns,' referring to Adolph Eichmann, who executed Adolph Hitler's plan to exterminate Jews during World War II."

Again, I am not clear as to whether this is the article he is reading, written by someone else, or if it is him talking. Also, whether whoever it is directly quotes the Churchill article about the chickens, or paraphrases it.

So far, the information provided by Rush to me has by no means been particularly clear or helpful.

One of the reasons I chose this particular transcript was because i have actually recently read a book on Eichmann and have studied other books on Nazi tactics, propaganda, and politics in the distant past, so it interests me to explore Churchill's analogy and the outrage it has engendered from Rush, and probably many other people.

I will continue this later - perhaps tomorrow, perhaps next week.

What gender is your brain?

OK, I have to preface this with saying that I must be the only person who always gets irritated by quizzes like this. Because often they give you two choices that are by no means mutually exclusive but you must treat them as so. This maddens me. How can I make a "either or" statement on whether I discuss family and personal stuff with friends, or politics? Ever heard of "both about equally" or "impossible to gauge with any real validity" or just "what a stupid question and what the hell does it say about me in either case anyhow"?

That said, I took this quiz recommended by Mark Alexander of Witnit
and my results were almost exactly mirrors of his. We must have answered that question about a friend gaining weight differently.

Your Brain is 53.33% Female, 46.67% Male

Your brain is a healthy mix of male and female

You are both sensitive and savvy

Rational and reasonable, you tend to keep level headed

But you also tend to wear your heart on your sleeve

Monday, April 18, 2005

Teaching Science and Sex Ed in Egypt, Part 2

So back to my son's science textbook. My son is in "Third Preparatory" which is the Egyptian equivalent of 8th grade.

The section on "The Reproductive System" in the science textbook includes diagrams of the internal body parts of the male and female human reproductive systems, as well as the reproductive system of some sort of plant (I am writing this from memory).

Then, there is an abrupt segue into various sexually transmitted diseases, which are described very briefly. They include syphilis, AIDS and herpes (I am not sure about herpes, actually, but there was a third one). The treatments are given very briefly for each disease. Then there is a list of bullet points for prevention. They include (drum roll):

* Listen to your elders, such as your teachers, parents, and imams
* Follow moral values
* Observe hygienic practices (this is how it is stated, in English - there is no clearer injunction such as "take baths" or "wash your hands" or "use a condom" so it is entirely unclear to what they are referring)
* Attend prayers

The Egyptian approach to sex education seems to be that if you pretend sex just does not happen and don't use the word in your science text on the reproductive system, it will not occur to kids to have it. This approach seems to me to be overly based on wishful thinking.

There is no information in the Egyptian curriculum about birth control or actual protection against sexually transmitted diseases, nor is there an explanation of how sex occurs, except the description of reproduction on a cellular level.

What seemed to me, however, to be most misleading, was not the information that they chose not to give to the kids (understandable for 13 year olds in a conservative society, after all) but the information they gave on disease prevention. I felt that listing prayer and hygiene as ways to prevent AIDS and syphilis was downright dishonest. These diseases are spread through sex alone, basically. If you have sex with someone with AIDS, it is doubtful that taking a bath and going to the mosque will help you.

Even if you think that faith can help you prevent diseases, this is a belief, not a scientifically proven fact, and therefore there is no place for it in a science textbook.

I have had a series of long conversations with my son about the facts of life, so that he does not get himself into a mess through a lack of information. I do not think I am encouraging him to be sexually active, particularly as I don't think he's ready at all. But I don't think that lying to kids this age is going to do anything positive at all.

Mind Games with Rush, Part 1

I am following, with great interest, WitNit Mark Alexander's series on the mind and how it works. The latest edition of it, called "The Pygmalian Effect" is exhorting people to realize that we often evaluate what other people say based on preexisting biases we have towards those people. Mark's example is Rush Limbaugh, the radio personality. He says that liberals can't listen to him properly as they have already decided against him just because he's Rush. Now I have never heard good ol' Rush because i have lived outside of the US for so long. So it struck me that I was the ideal liberal American to test this bias by reading a transcript. I guess reading is not the same as listening, but it is the best I can do.

Here is a transcript of a January 8, 2005 radio address by Rush Limbaugh regarding Ward Churchill, a professor from the University of Colorado. Read through it and see what you think. Remember, don't think to yourself "This is Rush." Just read it for content as if it were written by an anonymous person. (I found this transcript from the Free Republic website using Google.) After you read it, and I think about it for a day or two, I will try to post reflections on what he said, hopefully avoiding any preconceived notions I may have about him as a person. Can I do it?


"A University of Colorado professor..." How about this? How about this story on the heels of Senator Kennedy's speech yesterday at Johns Hopkins? The American left is just something! "A University of Colorado professor has sparked controversy in New York over an essay he wrote that maintains that people killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks were not innocent victims. Students and faculty members at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., have been protesting a speaking appearance on Feb. 3 by Ward L. Churchill, chairman of the CU Ethnic Studies Department. They are upset over an essay Churchill wrote titled, 'Some People Push Back: On the Justice of Roosting Chickens.' The essay takes its title from a remark that black activist Malcolm X made in the wake of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Malcolm X created controversy when he said Kennedy's murder was a case of 'chickens coming home to roost.' Churchill's essay argues that the Sept. 11 attacks were in retaliation for the Iraqi children killed in a 1991 U.S. bombing raid and by economic sanctions imposed on Iraq by the United Nations following the Persian Gulf War."

So here you have a Colorado University professor, the chairman of the ethnic studies department, asserting something that nobody in the US government has, and that is that Iraq was behind 9/11. Not bin Laden, not Al-Qaeda, not Mullah Omar, not the Taliban. It was Iraq, because of the Iraqi children killed in a 1991 US bombing -- and do you know how many children this man says we killed? Five hundred thousand. He says we killed 500,000 Iraqi children in a bombing raid, plus the economic sanctions imposed on Iraq by the UN following the Persian Gulf War. The essay, written by Ward Churchill, contends the hijackers who crashed airplanes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were "combat teams," not terrorists. His essay says, "'The most that can honestly be said of those involved on Sept. 11 is that they finally responded in kind to some of what this country has dispensed to their people as a matter of course.' The essay maintains that the people killed inside the Pentagon were 'military targets.' 'As for those in the World Trade Center,' the essay said, 'well, really, let's get a grip here, shall we? True enough, they were civilians of a sort. But innocent? Gimme a break.' The essay goes on to describe the victims as 'little Eichmanns,' referring to Adolph Eichmann, who executed Adolph Hitler's plan to exterminate Jews during World War II. Churchill said he was not especially surprised at the controversy at Hamilton, but he also defended the opinions contained in his essay. 'When you kill 500,000 children in order to impose your will on other countries, then you shouldn't be surprised when somebody responds in kind,' Churchill said. 'If it's not comfortable, that's the point. It's not comfortable for the people on the other side, either.' The attacks on Sept. 11, he said, were 'a natural and inevitable consequence of what happens as a result of business as usual in the United States. Wake up.' A longtime activist with the American Indian Movement, Churchill was one of eight defendants acquitted last week in Denver County Court on charges of disrupting Denver's Columbus Day parade. His pending speech at Hamilton has drawn criticism from professors and students, including Matt Coppo, a sophomore whose father died in the World Trade Center attacks. 'His views are completely hurtful to the families of 3,000 people,' Coppo said. A spokesman for Hamilton College released a statement noting that Hamilton is committed to 'the free exchange of ideas. We expect that many of those who strongly disagree with Mr. Churchill's comments will attend his talk and make their views known.'"

Now, Jeanne Kirkpatrick has been suspended from making speeches. Thomas Sowell has been shouted down on stage at liberal universities. You know the drill. No conservatives are ever invited to give a commencement speech anywhere -- and here this guy, who claims we've killed 500,000 Iraqi children, that Iraq sought revenge by blowing up the World Trade Center, that the victims of the World Trade Center bombing are just a bunch of little Eichmanns and, "What do we expect? We brought this on ourselves," this is the American left today. This man -- you may think this is kooky and it is -- but I'm going to tell you, something, folks. If you go to a bunch of Democratic websites, these little -- you know, they've got their own new media out there and the Democratic Party had better figure this out real fast.

These Moveon.orgs and Americans Coming Together and all these other little web sites, these people think they're running the Democratic Party now. If you go to those websites, you'll find sentiment not that far removed from what you just heard me quote from Ward Churchill, who is the chairman of the ethnic studies department at University of Colorado. This is not a minor institution, not a minor department, and he's the chairman of it, and he's running around making these statements. Now, don't misunderstand me. I'm not saying we should squelch things. I want these people to keep talking. I want these people to keep saying what they really believe. I want the spokespeople of the left to keep identifying their own beliefs. It may be hurtful, and it may be outrageous and it may be a pack of lies, folks, but it's about time people found out who the American left in this country is. It's about time we found out what is being taught on college campuses. It's about time. You may disagree, you may think this is over the top, over the line, that this guy's insane and he's a wacko, and he shouldn't be given a voice, that they ought to cancel his speech and so forth. It's only going to make him a martyr. It's only what he wants. Let him speak. Let him be heard. Let the American left continue to properly identify itself and themselves to all in America who can hear it.


Thursday, April 14, 2005

Favorite Poem for National Poetry Month

For National Poetry Month I want to post my all-time favorite poem, which is by e. e. cummings. I love cummings' poetry because of the way he plays with punctuation and spacing. I also love his metaphors and images. Also his irreverence for the conventional and corresponding deep reverence for real life and love and all that good stuff.

somewhere i have never traveled,gladly beyond
any experience,your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near
your slightest look easily will unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skillfully,mysteriously)her first rose
or if your wish be to close me,i and
my life will shut very beautifully,suddenly,
as when the heart of this flower imagines
the snow carefully everywhere descending;
nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fragility:whose texture
compels me with this colour of its countries,
rendering death and forever with each breathing
(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens;only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody,not even the rain,has such small hands

You can read more e. e. cummings here. Enjoy National Poetry Month. Yes, I don't live in the US. But I am an American, so I can still celebrate American national events here.

Also, go read a very beautiful poem at Feministe by Nikki Giovanni.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Teaching Science and Sex Ed in Egypt, Part 1

Although I wanted to confine this website to language oriented posts, I think I'll cast the net a bit broader to include education issues - like my beloved guru the Underground Grammarian (Yes, she CAN be taught how to do god-damned links) who is online thanks to Mark Alexander of WitNit, and describe to all the religious people in the US what an education looks like in a country with a national religion. Let me preface this by saying I myself am a practitioner of this particular national religion, so that people don't think I am out to get it as a religion. What I am out to get is the infiltration of education with religion.

Not everyone agrees on why we send our kids to school. I had well-educated middle-class parents who taught me that I was there to learn stuff and become a mature, responsible grown-up capable of thinking, and therefore open to learning more and more on my own once I left school and started to work, have a family, etc. But the people who run the education system seem not to share that view. I (like the UG, god bless him, if that's what he wants) believe that they would like to mold kids to have certain opinions, rather than to think for themselves. Unfortunately, the main debates in the US are not so much what is the point of education, but which cookie cutter we want to use on the poor kids. Thinking is not in the equation. Either we want them to believe X, or Y. But religion is about belief and I think education should not be; it should be about thinking.

Now I hear that people in the US are demanding to bring religious beliefs into science masquerading as theory. They also want to teach kids about avoiding sexual diseases simply by telling them not to have sex. I wonder if they still teach sex ed at all in the US (they did, in embarrassing detail, when I was in public school in the 80s).

Well, I advise those people to come here and look at the textbooks my kids have. They go to a school in Egypt. There's a national religion here, Islam. There are other religions here too. There are hardly any non-believers.

There are several different subjects that use religious material as a source, mostly Quranic verses and "Hadith" (reports on stuff the Prophet of Islam, Mohamed, peace be upon him, supposedly said). I must mention that these are all government issued and approved textbooks. The Egyptian educational system is completely centralized and all kids in the nation have the same textbooks for the basic courses. Among those subjects:

* Arabic (the verses and hadith are used as texts, which must be memorized and deconstructed according to their use of metaphor, simile, other rhetorical forms in Arabic, grammar, and everything else)
* Social studies (particularly the section of Egyptian history having to do with the Islamic period, also it is the use of verses and hadith)
* Religion class (yes, religion is a separate course of its own in spite of already being inside of all the other courses)
* Science (more on this below)
* Math (the ratio sections in 5th and 4th grades use Islamic inheritence laws to teach kids how to use the ratio concepts)

The only subjects where I have not noticed religion being used as an example are the English and French language government issued textbooks. And I have probably just not looked closely enough.

If you are Western and reading this, you may wonder "Science? How?" And well may you ask.

The first time I noticed the religious stuff in the science text was when my older kid was in 5th grade. There was a section in the book about the Earth and the solar system. It mentioned a verse from the Quran "and we brought forth from the water everything". It was highlighted in a little blue box.

Well, I thought that was relatively innocuous. And as the years went by I saw other relatively harmless insertions like that. It seemed to me that Muslims tend to take the reverse approach of Christians to the challenge posed by science. They tend to go back and radically re-interpret their verses to match scientific discoveries, rather than contradict those discoveries. They are quite good at it, actually. To Muslims, it seems quite natural that science should have been foreseen in the Quran, given that it is the Word of God, so you can always find a verse that says something that might have connotations of some recent discovery. There is an entire book on this called "The Quran and Science" for people interested in how they do this.

But yesterday, I was talking to my son about his studying for a science exam, and he mentioned he was taking the reproductive system and what passes for sex ed in Egypt, which made me kind of interested to see how they handle the topic. And boy was I shocked.

Check this space tomorrow for the rest of the story.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Another silly quiz from Leila

This is supposed to be a blog about language, dammit! But I broke down and took the silly quiz that Leila told me about in the "sapphire" comments below. I guess i missed the Sufi bar by a question or two (the one I was hoping for) and I was a "Progressive Muslim."

You are a Progressive
You are a PROGRESSIVE Muslim. You could be from
any sect, religious or not, and may have
leftist/activist tendencies. Anything goes
with you. Everyone else is some sort of

Sigh...I have started hating the very word "progressive," as it has recently been used by so many different kidns of people to mean so many different things, and has now become one of those emotional type cue-words devoid of meaning like "freedom," "democracy," and "terrorism." Well, it was a cute quiz, thanks, Leila. The issue of the word "progressive" is for another, more serious, post.

Torture- is it ever OK? What about for white collar crime?

So I note that this guy named Volokh, who I hardly ever read, except when he is linked to by someone else, came out in favor of torture carried out by victims of some heinous murderer (which apparently is actually a form of punishment employed in Iran - who knew?).

Now I sort of know what he means; there is a sort of visceral "Yesssss!" in the deepest parts of the lizard-brain ID section of the psyche when you hear this sort of idea. The same feeling you have when the lead character in one of those revenge action movies kills or hurts someone who killed or hurt his wife or daughter.

In fact I had a conversation about torture with my husband yesterday, in which we both thought of a good example of a person we'd like to see tortured - without having heard anything about this particular article:

Husband who is watching TV: (He is Egyptian by the way, in case anyone finds that relevant): They gave the guy only 15 years. The Enron guy.
Me: (Who has not been following the story and who is in the kitchen not near the TV): What Enron guy? Ken Lay?
Husband: No, he got life. (short conversation on how nice the prisons are that these guys get to stay in) This other accountant who was responsible who only got 15 years.
Me: (linking to lizard portion of brain) Never mind all those guys who lost their life savings. Boy, you know, I am usually against torture, but...
Husband: Yeah! And let the employees who lost all their retirement, inflict it!
Me: Starting with the fingernails....
Husband: You are not nearly creative enough.
(pause, in which we remember that we are humans, not lizards)
Me: Well, if we believe in God's eventual justice, I suppose they'll be bad off enough when they eventually die.
Husband: What about the guys who, because of them, and because they lost everything, committed suicide?
Me: Are you saying God would punish those people or something? (I sometimes don't understand the point he leapt to)
Husband: No, I was being sarcastic. (Me to myself: Whatever...) I do think that a deep part of Hell is reserved for those Enron accountants. (Conversation veers off into how they deceived people and other details)

What I notice about the whole torture debate, which started actually before the Abu Ghraib thing but has become more and more normal to bring up, is the same point I brought up in an article I wrote after the looting of the Baghdad Museum. It's not original (few well-said points are - you'll always find that someone else said it better, earlier). The gist is that the veneer of civilization is very, very thin. And underneath is that animal base.

Even those of us who do, really, truly, believe torture is a *bad* thing and not to be carried out under any circumstances, can have a half-joking, half-ashamed discussion with our significant others about people who really outrage us and how nice it would be to do unspeakable things to them.

The key, for me, is that the "half-ashamed" should be the half that always stays on top.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005


I spent the last couple of days studying the Wannsee meeting. Why on earth does one do these things? Periodically, living in the Middle East and getting a lot of weirdness about Jews and their ills, I go and do some study on Nazism to get myself some clarity. Now I have a wonderful new supervisor who, finding that I was a Kenneth Branagh fan, got out her copy of the HBO dramatization of Wannsee, "Conspiracy," starring him as Heydrich. I watched the movie first, and then read Mark Roseman's book (also from my supervisor), The Villa, The Lake, The Meeting, which described Wannsee and its import to the Nazi genocide decisions and ended with the text of the Wannsee Protocol.

One of the things that interested me about this well-known document is its use of euphemism even though its language made it absolutely clear that the euphemism was, in fact, a euphemism. What was the point? The document referred to the "final solution" for the "Jewish Question" as "evacuation to the East." But it also mentioned such things as that Jews were expected to prefer sterilization to "evacuation," and used "evacuation" in contexts where it made very little sense, so that it was chillingly clear that you could read "killing" or "murder" for "evacuation." When they seemed to get bored with the "evacuation" euphemism, they used the "final solution" euphemism in its place.

In the dramatization, all members of the meeting were very clear on what they were talking about and Eichmann even described the gassing methodologies - with "figures" on how many had been gassed in trucks and what he thought would be the capacity of ovens. There is nothing in the document to back this up and the parties minimized Wannsee's importance (not surprising, since they were testifying at their own trials). Eichmann himself gave contradictory testimony and said he could not remember a lot of specifics. But it did seem to me that in order to issue this document, they had to have discussed the issue with a bit more clarity than the document's murky terminology.

I can imagine such a meeting taking place today, being recorded for posterity, and the people using hand gestures to denote "scare quotes" around the word "evacuation" as they discuss the issue, winking at each other.

I've always been bothered by euphemisms - they seem to draw a curtain across things we would rather not know about ourselves. If people were always forced to use the clearest possible words for what they in fact mean, might some perpetrators of crimes against humanity drawn back? Did the euphemism help them to commit the crime? Or was it merely an automatic impulse to avoid being too clear about such an action?

Silly quizzes and their appeal

Sometimes I think that procrastinators like myself should not be allowed any access to the Internet and its infinite products for wasting yet more time. Like, for example, the silly quizzes at Quizilla and other sites asking such irrelevant yet fascinating questions as "Which LOTR character are you?" Today I did one called "Which Precious Gem are You?" and the answer was:

(Now let's see if this coding works)

! You are most Like A Sapphire !Dark, mysterious - but unforgettable. You have a
deepbeauty. Delicate, and shy you try to stay away from
thelimelight but often your intelligence puts you in
at thedeep end. You're like a Sapphire, because, your
beauty is priceless.You're intelligent, full of opinions, and not
big-headed about it all.Sometimes you need to put yourself out there, as
you can be a bit shy.Congratulations ... You're the mysterious gem
everybody wants to have and learn more about.

?? Which Precious Gem Are You ??
brought to you by

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Caught in a Lie

In Mary Renault's The Last of the Wine, the main character discusses a friend, saying of him that if he were caught in a lie, this person would be low on his list of people he'd rather have been caught by. It struck me that this was a more honest statement than many I have seen, as implicit in his statement is the idea that he does, indeed, lie at times. If we are truly honest we know that we have -- at one time or another, and probably countless times -- lied. Yet we are eager to catch others in lies or to show others up, particularly if we already disagree with them in other areas than that of truth.

I started thinking about the many people I know and respect and who I would rather be caught out by in a lie. I can't think of anyone who I would like to be caught by - but by and large I think that the person I'd least like to be caught by would be the person who, through long experience, I have learned to respect for honesty in particular, apart from other virtues.

One of the reasons I lie to people is that these are people who themselves lie to me. Most of my lies are about things like how I spend my time or who I talk to and what about. They are hardly ever about matters of belief or thought. Therefore I don't often lie to the most honest people I know. In fact I don't think I can remember an instance. Perhaps this is because I know to be true, what this person in the book said, deep inside me; even though I can't remember having thought about it consciously until now. Associating with honest people keeps us honest - it makes us strive to be honest, in fact.

An associated truth is that honesty is bound up very closely with use of language. This is one of the reasons I so love the writings of Richard Mitchell, the Underground Grammarian. He made this point over and over, and attacked bad academic and bureaucratic writing, not for its mistakes (like spelling), but the intentional lack of clarity that made it, at its core, deeply dishonest.

Of the many people I have known only through their own writing, or the writings about them, I could probably say that he and Socrates are the two people who I would least like to catch me out in a lie.

Who would you shrink the most from lying to? Tell me in the comments.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

A name with a (well, mostly) rich heritage....

So you know if you have discovered this website from my posting name that I probably live in the Middle East (assuming I am not talking about Cairo, Illinois). I do indeed live here in Cairo, Egypt. And judging from my post on Locke I am probably American. Right again. Well, I also am the proud mother of two sons. One is 14 and one is turning 13 in April. They are tall, strong, healthy (thank God) and reasonably intelligent (however did that happen) and of course they are a main focus of my life. This summer, for the first time in seven years (financial constraints) they are accompanying me to the U.S. to visit our relatives.

What has this to do with anything? Well, the fact of the matter is, my sons are Egyptian as well as American, and they happen to have Arabic, Muslim names. The 14 year old is named Omar Yasser. The 13-year-old-to-be is named Osama.

My youngest son was born in 1992 in Fairfax Hospital in Virginia. As you can tell from the ages, my kids were very close. Given that I have this illogical habit of listening to old wives' tales, I had assumed he'd be a girl because my pregnant form was so different than it had been with my older child. While I was in labor the doctor told me that based on the heartbeat pattern, he was a boy. Oh dear. We had no name prepared.

My husband started suggesting a bunch of names that all happened to rhyme with our last name, so I ruled them all out. We spent a good half hour brainstorming. So many Arabic/Muslim names are hard for English speakers to pronounce or spell. So many others are, sadly, associated with negative stereotypes in the minds of Westerners and we knew enough to avoid them (which is why my first son had a double name instead of being just plain Yasser, actually).

Then my husband came up with the name Osama. This name is one of the seven Arabic words for "lion". (Two others are "Asad" and "Leith" - trust me there are four more.) It is easy to spell, easy to say, and could be shortened to "Sam" among friends. In 1992, it was not associated with anything or anyone with any sort of negative connotation.

Some other fun facts abuot the name Osama: It is also the name of a famous youth who fought in the early Muslim army, who wished to fight under the Prophet but was told he was too young, Osama Bin Zaid.

A modern Osama that had been in the news was the savvy and clever foreign policy advisor to President Mubarak, Osama El Baz, whose relative Farouk El Baz was a scientist at NASA.

Apropos of really nothing at all, but just to see how normal this name is: At the same time my son was born, Osama was a fad name in Egypt (you know how in certain time periods people all name their kids certain names -- when I was a kid, e.g., everyone in my class was named Sean or Michelle - well, Osama seems to have been one of the 5 top boys' names of the early 90s here in Egypt). In KG, he had 3 other Osamas in his class. His best friend from KG until now is named Osama Amr.

All in all, we felt that this was a beautiful, lyrical and perfect name for our son, who was born with a shock of mane-like hair and a very lion-like roar.

Our son has lived most of his life outside of his country of birth. He has lived in Tunisia, Saudi Arabia (VERY briefly) and Nigeria, and for the past eight years he has lived in his other country of citizenship, Egypt. He does not remember the US, as we left with the Foreign Service when he was two and made one short visit when he was seven. But he sure wants to visit. After all, it is his country as much as Egypt is. He plans to go to college there and wants to major in biology or astronomy. He speaks English with no accent, he loves to read, is a huge Harry Potter fan, and loves Mozart. His favorite movie is "Braveheart."

I don't know what to do about the fact that his name may cause people to look at him funny while in the US. In fact, I don't know what to do about the fact that I am worried about this at all. Should I go there on the assumption that people will be polite and not put ideas into his head that this may be a problem? Or should I raise the issue with him before we go? Are many Americans stupid enough to think that a kid his age could have been named after OBL (who no one heard of until his Fatwa against foreigners in 1996)? Will people actually be rude enough to bring the association up with him?

What really bothers me about this whole issue, is that we love this name so much. It is a beautiful name. He is personally quite proud of it, as he loves to identify with lions and what they represent (bravery, etc.). He also had to read a book about Osama Bin Zaid for school and is proud of that namesake, too. He does not know much about Osama Bin Laden nor does he really connect this strange, foreign person to himself.

It still, at the end, seems odd to me that a name could be the cause of such a painful inner debate. After all, it is just a name.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Simplification - of Locke?

I recently heard about a project to modernize classical political philosophers (Hume and Locke were two of the names on the list). The reason given was that the "archaic" language usage in the originals, as well as the fact that they referred to other philosophers that the student "may not have heard of" created "obstacles" for students. It was funny to me, because I do not frankly remember reading Hume, but I know that I read the specific Locke text mentioned, the 2nd Treatise on Government. I had no problem understanding it. In fact, I thought that although Locke was English, the American student should, in particular, find his thought rather familiar, given his influence on the Founding Fathers who authored our source texts (the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, e.g.).

I mentioned this on the Crooked Timber blog, where the subject was being discussed, and got the response from another poster, "well, not everyone has high verbal abilities" - and that got me to thinking. Why, indeed, do I HAVE high verbal abilities? Because I am a natural genius? Or because I was exposed to writing that was truly too hard for me and had to work to understand it? And it occurred to me that although genetics may have played a minor role (both of my parents having been college English teachers), the main reason that I am "good at" reading comprehension is that, from the age I started reading (3 - my mother used Montessori methods on me) I have always been reading things above my ability or grade level, that I did NOT totally understand, had to work at, or that required the use of a dictionary.

The difficulty of a given text, in fact, I do not see as a burden to the student. Rather, it is a valuable opportunity for the student to gain reading comprehension skills. In fact, the more difficult stuff the student has to read, the more chance the student will become a good reader capable of understanding complex ideas expressed in no-longer-standard (but still beautiful and eloquent) English (such as the writings of Locke).

However, I do understand that philosophy or political theory teachers are less interested in their students' overall reading skills than in their ability to grasp the teachings of Locke or Hume by whatever means necessary (Sorry, Malcolm). I believe this is really shortsighted. Perhaps English faculties should cooperate with the other disciplines in bringing students' reading comprehension up, if it is really that pervasive a problem in universities today.

I realize the last sentence is probably not much of a solution. I am better at defining problems than solving them, and I don't work in academia so don't have an idea of how these disciplines get along. Probably, knowing what little I do about the hallowed halls of learning, expecting the faculties to work together would create more problems than it would solve.

Next: (God Willing...) I will learn how to do links and do a separate post pointing to the sources for this - both the original website describing the "modernization" project and the discussion I took part in.