Friday, December 01, 2006

Petition on Muslim Women's Dress

I am very pleased to report an initiative started by some Muslim women I am acquainted with over the Internet - a petition stating that we would like other people to basically leave us alone to dress how we choose. As the three or four readers of this blog know, this is already my position, so I was happy to sign (I was the third person!) and if anyone happens to hear of it first here, please add your signature (men are welcome as well).

Muslim Women's Freedom of Dress

Thanks to Leila at Sister Scorpion for the information. Please check her blog for other important initiatives and statements on Muslim American activism of various sorts.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Is there a quiz on how unserious you are because of the number of quizzes you post?

OK, I promise the next post is going to actually be a piece of writing by me.


I just could not resist this one (via Eerie at Aqoul):

....Loveable, yes, yes, cuddly... Oh, that's me to a T! /Peter Ustinov's Prince John

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

I am a Neurotic Reader too....

What Kind of Reader Are You?
Your Result: Dedicated Reader

You are always trying to find the time to get back to your book. You are convinced that the world would be a much better place if only everyone read more.

Obsessive-Compulsive Bookworm
Book Snob
Literate Good Citizen
Fad Reader
What Kind of Reader Are You?
Create Your Own Quiz

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

An E-mail from a Muslim Man

Periodically, I get involved in the everlasting discussions about what Muslim women wear or don't wear or should wear or should not wear. My position is very simple. We are adults. Leave us alone. That message is for everyone. Liberals who hate the "veil." Muslims who hate to see women showing their hair. Non-Muslim women who want us to look and act more like them. Non-Muslim men who make us the symbol of why Islam is an evil religion and Mecca should be nuked. Farhat Hashemi and other weird Muslim women who mind each others' business. Everyone else in between. But especially, Muslim men. Leave us alone. What is wrong with you? Go agonize about the contents of your own closets. We are grownups.

Today I received an e-mail from the Canadian pundit Tarek Fatah. I used to be an acquaintance of Mr. Fatah via Muslim e-mail discussion groups. I stay on his article-mailing list mostly because one time out of twenty the article may be something interesting I didn't already see somewhere else. But today he has pushed all of my buttons on the everlasting burning issue of what Muslim women wear.

Here is the article, with my thoughts added in italics.

November 21, 2006

An appeal to Muslim women:
Reject the niqab

The Globe and Mail, Toronto

Recently, there has been controversy around the veil worn by some Muslim women to conceal their faces. Many have viewed this as a conflict between Muslims on one side and the "Islamophobic" west on the other. Not so. The debate is being waged primarily within Muslim society and is part of the battle for the heart and soul of Muslim communities from Tunisia to Turkey, Indonesia to India, and right here in Canada.

This ignores the fact that all the recent news articles that reference this are about Western, non-Muslim countries trying to regulate what Muslim women can wear. Why would a Muslim columnist want us to ignore what is right in front of our faces?

Item: scarf-wearing Muslim woman shot in front of her kids - in the US.

Item - Dutch government bans the burka.

Item - British minister advises British Muslim women to take off the veil.

– who are we going to believe, Tarek Fatah or our lying eyes?

To begin with, the veil is not required by Islam.

None other than Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Qatar-based Islamic scholar, stated in a Friday sermon that "it is not obligatory for Muslim women to wear the niqab [full face veil]." He added, "The majority of Muslim scholars and I do not support the niqab in which women cover their faces."

Great argument. I, a male Muslim, am quoting another male Muslim on what women should or should not wear. Female Muslims, listen, goddamit!

Yet the practice of covering one's face as an expression of Islamic religiosity is growing.

It is? Says who?

Mohammad Qadeer, professor emeritus at Queen's University, recently cautioned Muslim communities to "reappraise this custom, before a scare about terrorists or a bank holdup raises a public uproar against the niqab."

Indeed, just last week a jewel robbery in Toronto was carried out by a man dressed in a burka.

Wow. I bet you write articles to skiers to stop wearing their ski masks because bank robbers use them too. Why don’t you send these articles to me? This is such an awesome argument. I can’t believe no one ever thought of it before.

Women have the right to dress as they please -- but the rights of the individual have to be balanced with the rights of society.

Wearing veils -- whether as an expression of religious identity, or as a means of political defiance -- is not in the best interest of Canada's Muslim communities.

Exactly who died and made you the arbiter of what Canadian Muslim women’s best interest is? More to the point, why are you assuming that Muslim women cannot decide for themselves what their best interest is?

Why are Muslim women in Canada choosing to wear the Niqab and why is this choice growing (if indeed it is – you have given absolutely no proof other than your assertion that this is so)? Have you actually asked one?

Historically, the Muslim world has seen many women in power -- the Fatimide Queen Sitt al-Mulk in 11th-century Egypt, Razia Sultana in 13th century India, for example -- who governed from their thrones, presided over meetings with their advisers, with their faces uncovered, as shown in paintings from those times.

Huh. Many women are ambitious for other career paths than queen. Many women probably feel that they can do something really useful and good in their lives while wearing the face veil because the line of work they chose is not one that involves communicating with your constituency. Or is your argument that all Muslim women should desire to go into politics?

From the times of the early Arab Umayyads and Abbasids to the Turkish Ottomans, the Indian Moghuls and the Persian Safavids, never have Muslim women been forced by decree to cover their faces as an act of religiosity and piety.

Tying religiosity and piety to face coverings is a 19th- and 20th-century phenomenon started by the Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia. Due to Saudi Arabia's oil wealth, and the funding of Islamic schools around the world, the Wahhabis are managing to impose their irrational cult on Muslims in the Western world. The Wahhabis want everyone to believe that women should accept a second-class status. And they want women to believe that this segregationist ideology is something they've chosen for themselves.

This is why Egyptian women in the late 19th and early 20th century used to wear a veil over the lower half of their faces? Because of Wahhabi influence?

Have you ever actually asked a Niqabi woman what her rationale for veiling is? Do you think they are incapable of speech or something?

Choices can only be made if the individual is, realistically, in a position to exercise a free choice. But there's pressure within any minority community to conform. And so Canadian Muslim women are told they must not stand up to their organized disenfranchisement.

I only see Canadian women being told, by you, to ditch the Niqab. I will take your word for it that the opposite message is also happening. Why is no one telling Canadian women to do whatever the hell they want, because they are ADULTS?

In the late 1990s, the city of Toronto commissioned Michael Ornstein of York University to study the growing levels of poverty among the city's racial minorities. His report, Ethno-Racial Inequality in the City of Toronto, was a bombshell.

Prof. Ornstein laid bare the simmering poverty among minorities in Toronto. He wrote: "Combining all the non-European groups, the family poverty rate is 34.3 per cent, more than twice the figure for the Europeans and Canadians.

"Non-European families make up 36.9 per cent of all families in Toronto, but account for 58.9 per cent of all poor families."

The statistics for Muslim communities ranged from 40 per cent to 80 per cent living in poverty.

If women in marginalized families are made to cover their faces, Muslim communities facing the poverty trap will find it increasingly difficult to get out of it. A veil over the face will close the doors to employment in professions where face-to-face human interaction is absolutely essential -- a police officer, a physician, a nurse, a school teacher, an airline pilot, a submarine commander, a judge, a lawyer, a bank clerk, an office receptionist or even a store clerk.

Your connection between the fact that the poor are often minorities and the fact that a tiny percentage of Canadian Muslim women wear a face veil is ludicrous. Lots of things contribute to why minority and immigrant communities are poor. You are making this up because you think it must be true. You need to have a study proving this. I know of many women in the Middle East who do various sorts of jobs and cover their faces. I don’t know what the situation is in Canada. I do know that these connections you are making are only in your own mind. They may or may not be true, but you have presented zero proof.

How many of the non-European people mentioned in the study by Ornstein are Muslim? How do you explain the poverty of those other groups who don’t have the face veiling issue and yet are poor?

In short, the veil creates another obstacle to the economic empowerment of a community that already faces discrimination based on skin colour and accent.

But you can solve that too, can’t you? Next: An article by Tarek Fatah telling Muslim women to use “Fair & Lovely” whitening cream so they can get jobs and not have to deal with discrimination. And an article by Tarek Fatah calling mosques to ditch the Quran classes and start offering Berlitz English lessons so that people can lose their accents.

The Islamists who are pushing the veil are not fighting discrimination or solving problems. They're making it more difficult for us to progress.

Which Islamists are actually pushing the FACE veil? I have never ever heard this in any Western Muslim’s speech or khutba. Again I have to take your word for it that this is actually happening, but I still don’t understand why your opposite pushing of women to make choices you want is any better than theirs.

A bright and prosperous future for Muslims in Canada can best be ensured when we are seen as fully integrated into the fabric of Canadian society. That doesn't mean giving up any part of our faith, which is constitutionally guaranteed by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

But it does mean that Islam must not be used as a tool to score political points for the Islamist agenda.

So women who dress a certain way are tools for someone else’s agenda. Do you think women are grownup human beings? Apparently not. We are infants who are manipulated by either your enemies or by you. Remind me why they should prefer to be a tool for your agenda as opposed to the “Islamists/Wahhabis/Extremists” you keep mentioning (who may or may not exist). Because I see no difference.
Tarek Fatah is host of The Muslim Chronicle on CTS-TV and founder of the Muslim Canadian Congress.

And he knows what is best for Canadian Muslim women!

Say "No" to the Burka in Canada!

The Burka and the Niqab are not the same thing. But whatever.

"The religion of one age is the literary entertainment of the next"
- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Some day, we will look back on this article by Tarek Fatah and laugh hysterically until we weep at the patronizing tone and ask ourselves "how did men back then arrogate to themselves the right to tell women what to do?" Hey, we can dream with Ralph, can't we?

Friday, November 10, 2006

I Am A Neurotic Assumption Questioner; Is There a 12-Step Program for This?

For several years, I taught management training workshops in Egypt for AMIDEAST. I had a favorite workshop, Creative Problem Solving.

The Creative Problem Solving workshop introduces involving various problem-solving techniques and tools to participants. One of them is the very interesting and eye-opening exercise of "questioning assumptions". I always spent a lot of time on it because trainees responded very well to it, finding it to be a useful tool to diagnose their own blind spots as well as those of others. (I thought of it as an enlightening tool as well.)

But now, I tend to question premises or at least try to define them when I hear anything, and it has made me extremely sensitive to things that I probably would have had a let-live attitude about otherwise.

Here is a case in point. If anyone who reads this has a thought on whether I am becoming neurotic or dangerous to myself and others through this sort of over-analysis, please let me know. (Perhaps SOMA or something is available over-the-counter.)

I was at a meeting of a group my mother is involved in called "Initiatives of Change". They were hearing a presentation from a bunch of young people from the US and other countries, who had been taking an exchange program sponsored by the group, and were traveling around the country meeting groups in various cities. The speakers were extremely interesting and the evening was fun.

I was sitting at a table with my mother and her husband, two Democratic Party activists, and one of the participants (who was from Vietnam). One of the two Democratic activists immediately asked me why I was "not on the Bus" (it's this program for young Democrats who travel around Oregon and try to get people to vote, and it is a pretty cool program, and this guy is on their Board). I wondered to Mom when we were in line for the food "does this guy think I am really super young? Do I really look that young?" She said "Hmm, I don't know."

So when we returned to the table they asked, so why did you move from Cairo to Portland, and I immediately mentioned that I have kids in high school and want them to get used to the US system before college. I figured this would be a nice indirect way of signalling to the guy that I am not super young without raising the issue directly because I have this weird privacy thing about discussing age with total strangers.

The guy, however, jovially gave me an open-mouthed expression and said "You have kids in high school?" I said "Yes, one is a freshman and one is a sophomore." He said, "Did they arrest the guy?"

So there were a couple of beats and my mom and I sort of laughed in that polite way you do when you are at a dinner table with strangers and they say something weird, and the conversation moved on.

Later I was sitting at home thinking about this and it was bothering me. Here is a guy who apparently thinks that telling a woman she looks young is SUCH a compliment that implying she was a victim of statutory rape is not insulting. Or else, he would not have made this joke as if he were saying something I would think of as a compliment.

This guy is a well-known Democratic liberal activist, too. Are they not supposed to be sort of aware of feminist precepts that women don't need stupid compliments about how young they look? (Especially if the compliment involves raising innuendos about their sexual practices when they were young? Or is my sexual past now considered regular conversation fare at a table with utter strangers, and I am just an out-of-touch prude?)

Then I decided that perhaps I overanalyze these things. And perhaps, this "question assumptions" thing is more of a curse than a blessing, when I can get myself upset about a stupid conversation with a stranger I will most likely never see again, all because of the premises I am ascribing to his comments. The problem is, once I get used to using the "problem solving tool" of questioning assumptions, how can I stop doing it? Maybe I should join a cult or something to get myself out of the habit of analyzing every damned thing I hear. Otherwise I may end up in a rubber room.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

No Architects Were Killed or Maimed in the Making of this Masterpiece

I did a long post about the Taj Mahal earlier today but Blogger went down and it got lost. This is the first time that ever happened to me. Anyhow, it's hard to get the energy to type the whole thing again. In a nutshell, I had heard from my kids, who had learned it in their Islamic history classes, that the guy who had the Taj Mahaj built, Shah Jahan, a Moghul emperor, killed the architect after the building was completed so that he could not make anything more beautiful afterwards.

This story always bothered me. It did not seem to match the rest of the story, which is about how much Shah Jahan loved his wife and how he had the Taj Mahal built as her mausoleum because of this love and his abiding grief over her death. I suppose it is possible that a person can be capable of both great love and great cruelty/inhumanity, but it still jarred with me.

After a bit of searching on the internet for information on the building, I found that there are a fair number of legends about the Taj Mahal that seem to be false.

* The Taj Mahal was actually a Hindu temple! (Propagated by some Hindu Indians who are sort of upset about Muslims getting any credit for anything good about India, apparently)
* There was going to be another black building built opposite to the white Taj Mahal! (No, apparently not; there's a preexisting garden in the spot they refer to and there seems to be no evidence that Shah Jahan wanted to do this.)
* An Italian goldsmith actually was the chief architect for the Taj Mahal! (This rumor was started by an Italian priest who apparently went to the trouble of finding a real Italian goldsmith who really did live in India at the time in question - but of course would not have been capable of doing this, since he was not an architect, and since there is absolutely no evidence he was involved at all.)
* Shah Jahan killed/blinded/cut the hands off of the architect(s) who built the Taj Mahal! (All apparently completely false.)

The real story is interesting enough: Shah Jahan did in fact build this mausoleum to house the remains of his late second wife who he had loved very much. His son deposed him shortly after the building was completed. The son had him buried next to his wife, the only detail in the entire shrine that is asymmetrical. The shrine is absolutely gorgeous and there's a fascinating site that allows you to navigate it and see various panoramic views of its interior and grounds (here).

Why did someone invent the story of the punishment of the architect(s)? I wonder who started that legend and how. Unfortunately, it appears to be a complete mystery. (Someone is very welcome, however, to come here and teach me something about it, much like the Air Force in Cyberspace discussion the other day, which was completely fascinating.)

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Air Force Mission Statement

One of the first things I did when moving to Portland was to get a PO box (as I moved here without a job and assumed I would be moving around a fair amount for the next couple of years). The box is in a "Post Net" store in a mall. Next to it is the local recruiting office for the military.

As I was walking by the recruiting office I noticed a sign in the window entitled "Air Force Mission Statement" and read it.

It said, "The mission of the United States Air Force is to deliver sovereign options for the defense of the United States of America and its global interests - to fly and fight in Air, Space, and Cyberspace."

This sign struck me as very funny, particularly because of the following:
* It seems to be modeled on corporate mission statements that use "key words" in sentences in which they don't really make sense but just sound good
* Along the same lines, it reminded me of the "Dilbert Mission Statement Generator"
* The idea of flying and fighting in cyberspace in the defense of the USA struck me as very sci-fi - but not in a good way, rather in a completely laughable way

So today I decided to blog a bit about what makes this statement sound so inane. I decided to research the issue first, and found this press release about the mission statement, which is less than a year old, apparently: Air Force releases new mission statement

The article offered "definitions" for the "two new concepts" of:
* sovereign options
* cyberspace

In their discussion of what they mean about cyberspace, they seem to mean that they have some air force members working to make sure their websites cannot be hacked.

So, everyone who works on network security is flying and fighting in cyberspace?

Look. The problem with mission statements like this (or like the ones created at the Dilbert Generator, which are really quite representative of the genre) is that the SENTENCES don't have any meaning. It is not enough to put a few nouns/adjectives with cool associations together using random verbs that also have cool associations.

Making websites hackproof is a laudable thing (although if I were a military leader, I would hesitate to admit that it is of such overwhelming importance to the Air Force that this pretty normal function needs to be mentioned in the mission statement - unless they mention other equally important functions, such as radar communicator, or payroll accountant, as well). But it is not flying, nor is it fighting (except in a really, really metaphorical sense). (I have to admit that the first thing I thought of is a bunch of Air Force people sitting at their computers playing on-line role-playing games.)

However, the press release made me realize that not only was the mission statement silly, but disturbing as well.

The "sovereign options" phrase was not only meaningless in context (delivering? To whom?) but the definition the article gave for it was creepily imperalistic sounding:

"They said having sovereign options is the essence of being a superpower."

OK, this is pretty damned honest - almost refreshingly so. It brings up a few other questions, though. e.g., why, then, call the entire shebang the "Department of Defense"? It seems to me you should be the Air Force within the "Department of Imperial Offense" if this is truly your aim.

The article also said that the "leaders" [of the Air Force] said that America's "adversaries" would use "any method or venue necessary to contest America".

Contest America? As what? A nation? A concept? A city on a hill? What about America is being contested? What is America anyhow? Don't you have to define that, first?

I realize that the various entities in the Armed Forces have differing purposes in that they use specific methods of "defense" (the Air Force using planes, the Army using ground forces, the Navy using the sea, etc. etc.). However, it seems to me that they have a single goal, which is the goal that all their new members take an oath about:

"I, _____, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same."
(source: Oaths of Enlistment)

I took that oath once, upon joining the U.S. Foreign Service.

It strikes me as pretty pithy and does not contain any nonsense about flying in cyberspace, yet somehow it gives enough information to help me remember what my job is supposed to be. As an oathtaker, when in doubt, I am supposed to refer to the Constitution for help. For example, if I were ordered to torture someone, I would probably find that this is directly in opposition to the Constitution's eighth amendment and thus I would have to disobey that order to obey my oath.

It is U.S.-centric to argue that the U.S. constitution is the pinnacle of right or justice. And I am not arguing that.

But the U.S. Constitution, however imperfect, is a heck of a lot closer to truth and justice than a mission statement that defines the US project as the essence of being a superpower ("delivering sovereign options"), and that refers to flying through the Internet ("fly and fight in cyberspace") in all seriousness.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Middle East imperial history

I have moved to the US and have been offline for the past several months. I will try to start blogging again.

I found this map program to be really interesting (and educational).

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

A Poem By Yasser

Yesterday was Egyptian Mother's Day. My son, who is in the first year of high school and is 15 years old, wrote me a poem. I asked him if I could post it at the blog and he said this was OK. As you can see, although it may not be Shakespeare, from the rhythm and scanning and all that stuff point of view, it has the advantage of being a pretty honest view of his relationship with me. Although actually, I have never spit in his face. :)

But I don't mind at all, you know?

When you often shout at me,
I don't always laugh with glee.
Sometimes I even be quite sad,
But on the whole you're not bad.

But I don't mind at all, you know?

When you're always on my case,
Bellowing, spitting in my face.
Grounding me for the things I did,
But you don't know half the things I hid.

But I don't mind at all, you know?

All I want you to know is that,
I love you much more than my hat.
When you're cross and we've had a row,
You make me wash, rinse, clean, and sew.

But I don't mind at all, you know?

You try to make me think about good and bad,
Until the point where I just think that you're mad
Sometimes you even drive me to the brink of a scream,
And I think about conspiracies and of your scheme

But I don't mind at all, you know?

In the end, is there love as wild,
as the bonds between mother and child?
Is there anything more worthwhile,
Than to just see your dearest mom smile?

So we do perhaps, sometimes laugh with glee
because in the very end... It's just you and me

Sunday, March 12, 2006

A Mea Culpa

Well, I am re-reading some Idries Shah books in order to do a really super good essay on him. It's daunting. I also have a lot of thoughts on the "Danish Cartoon Controversy" that, now that it has quieted down, I wanted to put down in this space and elicit some discussion on. But, I am going crazy at work and home, so all of these promised goodies are currently still figments of my imagination. If anyone who has said kind things about this blog is still listening, you are a trooper! And by now if I were you I would have given up in disgust! However, be a better person than me, and I promise some reward (Heavenly, at this rate).

Chomsky and Mistakes

Mark Alexander asked me in the last post about Chomsky whether he had ever admitted to a mistake, and raised the bar extremely high on what he considered a legitimate example: It had to be when he was grown, it had to be something he had advocated passionately, and a bunch of other qualifiers.

So I decided that given that I don't know Chomsky personally and most of what I have read by him are political books about states, not things about himself, I would have to go looking for something like this.

One of the first interviews I read on the Chomsky official site, which has tons of writings by him, mentioned in passing that Mark's question is, in fact, a common critique of him, which got me to wondering why. I mean, the guy just does not write a lot about himself, and gives extremely self-effacing answers whenever he is asked direct questions about his personal background, so when exactly would he have the platform to raise a mistake he had made and apologize for it? Also, the examples I did find did not meet the level set by Mark, but....

Mark contrasts him with Richard Mitchell. Yes, Richard Mitchell admits he is often wrong. Like in the "I am not OK" quote I gave. However: Did he give a concrete example? Not that I remember.

In fact, I don't see this level of "Oh God, How Wrong I Was!" much, generally, in writers from the pre-blog era. It mostly seems to be a recent phenomenon - bloggers write something too fast without checking up on it, and publish on the Internet and later discover they were factually wrong and have to do a mea culpa.

As for people completely changing their entire life view, Mark mentions Hitchens, who I do not think is a deep thinker and whose later work (post 9/11) seems to me to not be thought provoking at all, and I could also mention people like David Horowitz, who seemed to have discovered that their team was not the winning one and switched to what they thought was the more likely-to-win worldview. These people's writing does not make one feel uncomfortable because it challenges assumptions. On the contrary, the writing seems to me to be extremely shallow and have an undertone of mere meanness - in brief, they seem to be angry and lash out at other people who have deeply held convictions precisely because they have none.

(And, my husband knew Hitchens personally, but that's another long story!)

Anyhow, not that these will satisfy Mark, but I found a few instances of Chomsky remarking that he is fallible (and again they did not meet Mark's very high bar of what he considered acceptable):

Example 1: Not Feminist Enough

Q. A former student of yours was quoted in Mother Jones a couple of years ago as follows: "Chomsky thinks he is a feminist, but at heart he's an old-fashioned patriarch. Of course, he's a very good person. He has just never really understood what the feminist movement is about." What do you make of that? How do you evaluate the feminist critique? Has it affected you or your work personally?

A. Well, I'm in no position to evaluate it. That's for others to do. But yeah, I think the feminist movement is probably the most important development to come out of the Sixties, in terms of its actual impact on values and perceptions. How has it affected me? I don't know. Hard to say. It probably has, but probably not as much as it should have.

Q. Is that a criticism you hear fairly often?

A. Yeah, in fact it's a criticism I've been hearing for years, from friends and others. And I think there's probably some validity to it.

(source: )

Example Two: Sports Fan

And here is one more, discussing something he changed his mind about in high school, which admittedly is not very earthshattering - hopefully we all changed our minds about what we thought that long ago.

CHOMSKY: Oh, I don't think competition is a good thing... Take sports, which doesn't lead to much in the way of hierarchy and domination -- some, but not much. But I think especially professional sports brings out just the worst instincts in people. I mean it brings out gladiatorial instincts. First of all, it enhances blind and foolish loyalty. Why should you be loyal to your home team? What do you know about those guys? Do I ever meet anybody out of the [New England] Patriots? I remember when I was in high school, and I was all excited, passionate, about the high school football team. And I remember asking myself, Why do I care? I couldn't say one word to any of these guys. And I don't want to sit at the same table with them, and they don't want to sit at the same table with me, and they're no different than the guys at the other school, and what do I care whether they win a game or they lose a game? All that this does is enhance blind and foolish loyalties, which is extremely dangerous, because that carries over into chauvinism for the state and others; it's extremely dangerous. And in things like, say, professional football and professional boxing, it's really horrifying. It's like gladiatorial contests. You know, you're watching people kill each other -- and cheering. So that kind of stuff is extrememly dangerous.

(Source : )

Example Three: A Mistake in First Grade Causing Entire Life to be Different

Finally, there's the following paragraph from a short bio introducing an article by him:

Seventy-seven-year-old linguist and political writer Noam Chomsky has been a vocal opponent of injustice since the Vietnam War era, but his opposition to the abuse of power goes back even farther, to a schoolyard encounter in the first grade: Seeing a boy being taunted because of his weight, young Chomsky started to intervene. Then he got scared and ran away. The shame and regret he felt following the incident stayed with him and developed into a lifelong commitment to champion the underdog.

(Source: )

So Mark, I didn't answer this satisfactorily. But I have a challenge for you! (Post the answer to WitNit!) Find another person who writes as thoughtfully as the people in my series, (no ,Hitchens does not count) and find an example of him/her being devastatingly wrong as per your own criteria (and not just talking about being wrong, but providing an example). And you can start with Richard Mitchell.

Browse more Chomsky info here (including articles by other people both for and against him):

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Good Writers 2: Noam Chomsky

Now, Noam is, in a lot of ways, like Richard Mitchell. I think this may be because he is a linguist.

Everyone who knows of Noam Chomsky as a public figure is vaguely aware that he is a linguist. I actually have a linguistics degree – in foreign language literature. Don’t ask me how that can be. Ask the university. I really do have a Bachelor of Science in Language Arts and my major was French and Spanish. However, the “science” part of the very funny and contradictory-sounding degree name came as a result of having to take a certain number of courses in linguistics.

As my knowledge of linguistics never went beyond the superficial, having taken four introductory courses in the subject, I did not really read Noam Chomsky in his specialty domain. I know that he is the author of a theory that language is somehow partly innate as well as being taught, which is called the theory of universal grammar. I know that he wrote the sentence “colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” But that is about the extent of my knowledge of his career as a linguist, sad to say.

However, I do believe that his preoccupation with language has forced him to have a more general preoccupation with truth. Richard Mitchell pointed out, in one of his essays, that the point of writing is Truth, and that good writing is that which shows truth, and that this can only be done through the correct use of language - and everything else is, as he put it, “whoring” or “communicating” (writing instruction manuals, for instance, or self-help books). He also pointed out that seeking for the truth is the opposite of fun; that it is hard and discouraging to keep finding out that you don’t know things you thought you were certain about or that you have been dishonest with yourself or deluded into believing or propagating a falsehood.

Well, that is sort of what ties Noam Chomsky to Richard Mitchell in my mind. He confronts things that are not fun to think about, in the realm of politics. And as he is trying to point them out to people in his own country and from his own background, and he is an upper-middle-class highly educated American, he writes about American doings and how they come up short if you are searching for that Truth with a capital T. For this, he sure gets a lot of grief.

I always wonder at the people who attack Chomsky for his criticism of US policies, or for his discussions of some political topic or other, or for his adherence to principle even when it means that he will take some unpopular stance. For example, he has repeatedly defended the freedom of expression of people who say really horrible and false and nasty things. It is amazing to me the number of people who are able to look at this defense and say he is actually defending the nasty ideas themselves, rather than freedom of expression. After all, if we only like freedom of expression when we agree with the ideas being expressed, it’s not really freedom of expression at all. This is self-evident, yet everyone seems to miss the point.

Chomsky wrote a very powerful essay when he was a quite young professor, during the Vietnam War, in which he argued that people who were educated and who used their minds had a greater responsibility than others to stand up against things that were wrong. The essay was, of course, “The Responsibility of Intellectuals,” written one year before I was born. I think about it a lot when I see modern political discourse and hear strange defenses coming from what he would have considered intellectuals, newspaper opinion columnists, or political theorists, or whatever, of what would be in any moral system at all, indefensible behavior or decisions. I thought about it again today as I was re-reading one of my favorite Richard Mitchell essays, “Writing Against Your Life,” when he said that “I’m OK, You’re OK” was a lie and said, “I am NOT OK. I have lied, I have misstated, I have …”

Chomsky told a story in an interview that I read, about the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He said that when he heard of it, and he was a youth or teenager at the time, he felt that there was not a person on earth that he could talk to about how he was feeling, and went off for a walk because he could not face people.

Chomsky’s confrontation of painful things about our country (I say, as an American, albeit an expat) that so many of us would so much rather not know of, means that he has had to take a lot of abuse over the years. But he has also made a lot of friends of people who have some sort of masochistic need to search for the truth with a capital T the way he does. And now he is not alone, unlike when he was young and isolated; and this is because he confronts the demons through his writing, and others read it.

I think writers who make us uncomfortable are far greater than those who make us feel good – they give us a lot more potential for growth. This is why this series is actually focusing on writers who are not much for happy endings or comfortable morals that we can all nod and agree with. So, Chomsky is in good company.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Good Writers: Richard Mitchell

Shortly after I wrote the “good writing as writing” post, Arthur disappeared from the Internet again. After that, I tried to get up the willpower to write the promised series, and kept coming up short.

Every day I would think about posting and decide against it. I’d read other sites that I love and tell myself that I really don’t have anything important enough to add, and then I got very busy with work, and then I finally contacted the people at Crooks and Liars who had helped me find Arthur’s new site when he had shut down his original “Light of Reason” blog asking them if he were all right.

I came back from the weekend to find no reply, but then when I re-tried Arthur’s new site, “Once Upon a Time,” I found that he had come back. Not only that, but he had posted my favorite group of his posts, the series on the power of denial, called ‘The Roots of Horror,’ on a second website he had just started up.

It seemed a day for posting once again.

So, let’s start this series with a short post on the Underground Grammarian, a crusty college professor whose real name was Richard Mitchell.

Richard Mitchell started a newsletter making fun of the academic bureaucracy in his college in the 1970s, which began by making fun of their language, and as time went on, became more philosophical and much wider-ranging than simply a mocking correction of other people's grammar. This was at the height of a sort of post-60s movement to make teaching sound more scientific by using scientific-sounding terminology. As I went to primary school in the 70s and felt the effects of this to some extent in my own schooling, I found his writing very funny and apt. He had a brilliant way of stripping the verbose silliness of its pretentions and showing it to be, in fact, empty of content. I remember vividly how he mocked hapless Ph.D students – and faculty – in the field of education, for using references to “circles” and “spheres” and talking about nonsensical role plays and other classroom activities designed to basically force kids to accept certain premises rather than making them think (usually using the term “the affective domain” which somehow sounds better than “well-meant brainwashing”). He continually reminded people of some unpleasant truths – first, that learning is not supposed to be either entertaining or prescriptive; second, that schooling as dictated by government standards cound not possibly ever produce truly educated citizenry; and third, that learning takes place in an individual mind, not in “group activities.” These truths should not really be all that unpleasant, but it appears that they are.

What was kind of amusing about him was that he collected a large following of iconoclasts. Some, like George Will (who would do well to go back and re-read the entire Underground Grammarian oeuvre now and get back to good serious writing), were conservative, others were merely grammar purists, others were homeschoolers who agreed with his attacks on government schooling but wished to carry out their own version of it using religious prescriptives rather than social ones (who were often chastised in the pages of the newsletter for their own version of sloppy thinking), still others were people like me, who love reading and love clear writing and love to think of things in new ways and learn new things.

I am not as good a writer as Richard Mitchell was (he passed away in 2002). I often catch myself writing bureaucratese (I work for a USAID-funded project, and it is hard to avoid falling into the trap of jargon and using long words to say nothing and to hedge). But, because of Richard Mitchell, I cannot avoid recognizing my own bad writing when I re-read it, and thanks to him (although actually it is sometimes rather a curse in my line of work), I see it and point it out in other written materials that I am supposed to edit, proofread or “give feedback on”.

Richard Mitchell’s ability to see through empty writing and his very witty takedowns of it made me a much more critical reader. This has helped me to learn more from, and to get more good out of, the things I read.

Mitchell also inspired me to read some classic works I would not have sought out before reading him, such as Boswell’s entire Life of Johnson (which was a much more enjoyable experience than I had imagined).

For all of Mitchell’s Underground Grammarian newsletters as well as longer essays and selections of classic texts that he compiled, go to Mark Alexander’s site where he has collected all of it on line. I don’t agree with Mark Alexander on very many political issues, but he and I sure do agree that Mitchell was an inspiring and amazing writer.