Orwell's Handkerchief

"George Orwell could not blow his nose without moralising on conditions in the handkerchief industry." – Cyril Connolly

Month: January, 2012

Review: ‘The Enemy’, by Christopher Hitchens

The Enemy (Kindle Single)The Enemy by Christopher Hitchens
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Christopher Hitchens’ well-honed and well-worn blade has been put to many individuals throughout his extensive (though, now we must realize, always too short) career, and now one can say it has been put to no one more justified, at least in the popular mindset. While facing controversy that was his homestead in scorching, well-researched books against Mother Teresa among others, little of such would understandably be expected here. It cannot be an understatement to say that few individuals have shaped American culture and politics in the last fifty years, at least, as Osama bin Laden.

This compact e-book ‘single’, something we might call a long essay, does concise yet thorough work of grasping the presence of bin Laden both in his vile, formative work before September 11th as well as in the American zeitgeist after. While there was neither room nor need to delve into anything that might terribly surprise the average reader in this piece, I do think Hitchens succeeds in his usual brilliant way on two very key issues that Americans (and the rest of the world) should carefully bear in mind int he wake of bin Laden’s death, woven through as it is with cliches about chapters and eras coming to a close.

First, Hitchens quickly but surgically dismantles any notions, arguably fringe as they may be, that percolate (I’m tempted to say ‘infest) the left in particular from thinkers that like to make either clumsily imply or recklessly, thoughtlessly proclaim outright that bin Laden, in so many words, isn’t such a bad guy and is merely acting in justified, even admirable retaliation against the imperialistic bullying of the United States. One can hear the same disjointed harmonies at work in the words of Ron Paul and others, even within the last week, in regards to Iran in particular. Hitchens offers more of the few pages here than these notions deserve, and promptly reminds the reader of the reasoning behind bin Laden’s body of work–9/11 included–that show the ultimate desire of returning the region to an Islamic caliphate that then grows to encompass the world. No imperialism here, right? While he only very passingly gives nod to the very morally robust position of humanitarian intervention against accusations of imperialism, he’s written on it extensively elsewhere and anyone needing to guess at his thoughts on this facet of the argument would be insulting him.

The other key point, larger and more important, I would argue, is the overarching reminder that the war against terrorism–against totalarian rule, theocratic or otherwise–is quite genuinely and endless one, which might be something of a defeatist were it not so eminently (and imminently) true as well as being the most justified war there is, the one most worth fighting and so necessary (and available) to fight at every turn. This idea permeates this short text–that while perhaps we can agree a specific chapter has ended, one spectre of many put to dust, the book won’t ever end we cannot become complacent in fighting it. It feels too tempting to not let Hitchens speak for this point himself; he ends ‘The Enemy’ with the following:

“But it is in this struggle that we develop the muscles and sinews that enable us to defend civilization, and the moral courage to name it as something worth fighting for. As the cleansing ocean washes over bin Laden’s carcass, may the earth lie lightly on the countless graves of this he sentenced without compunction to be burned alive or dismembered in the street.”

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Debate Double-Header Aftermath

It’s par for the course after the bigger political debates to open along the lines of, “As the dust settles…”, but what remains of the current GOP field mostly chose not to kick up much dust in the two debates this past weekend in New Hampshire–at least not much dust in the direction of Mitt Romney’s continued march toward the nomination. Aside from the first 15 minutes of Sunday morning’s debate, when moderater David Gregory of NBC’s Meet the Press gift-wrapped an opening salvo to the non-Romneys by asking everyone why he should not be the nominee, the in-fighting seemed to entirely be among those looking for second-place prominence. An observer might have inched a bit toward the edge of their seat watching the swings beginning to rain in from one podium to the next, but the excitement and higher expectations after a rather dull debate Saturday night was short lived.

While the other candidates muddied up the waters around one another, Romney walked out of the weekend’s rhetorical blitzkrieg almost entirely unscathed, having deflected most attacks with his usual if unadorned calm, and absorbing a couple of others that will continue to plague him (his actual efficacy at Bain as a ‘job creator’, his tin ear for the concerns of the middle or lower classes) but only enough to keep him from ever becoming the GOP darling–the party’s nomination continues to be his to lose.

The real bombshell in my view came from this astonishing remark by Newt Gingrich from Saturday night’s debate, in which he literally proclaims that the ‘secular bigotry’ (gone, as everything else Newt cares about, with zero coverage by the liberal media) in this country amounts to there being more anti-Christian bigotry than ‘what concerns the other side’, in reference to what seems to be both the secular and LGBT communities. While we can always count on Newt to be Newt, the linked clip cuts out directly before Romney states he’s in categorical agreement with Newt’s sentiments. Mitt might have just been a little confused of course, as he continues to oppose gay marriage even though Sunday morning he stated that the LGBT community should have ‘full rights in this country’.

This is a proclamation of criminally privileged and ignorant proportions–one would think that Newt, fond of citing his being a historian (as well, apparently, as an ‘amateur paleontologist‘) would have a more informed and nuanced grasp of the contemporary landscape of bigotry in this country. One cannot help but passingly see more truth in the corollary Gingrich gets giddy about implicitly drawing between himself and Stephen Douglas, who argued against the abolishment of slavery in the famed debates.

While I never waste an opportunity to point out the way those in power time and time again show their insecurity in untoward, unwarranted, overly-telling defensiveness, this example might be the most mind-numbing in the campaign thus far. One wishes the moderators had pressed this point, and I’m sad to see that the media (as biased as it is in favor of this ‘bigotry’) has let it mostly fly without any of the scathing scrutiny it absolutely deserves. One wants to know about how, say, Christians cannot get married in this country. Or perhaps Newt could cite us examples of Christian children bullied into suicide because of their beliefs? Much like statements by Perry, Bachmann, and others that they are unashamed and unapologetic Christians (ashamed at whose discretion? who demands of them an apology, in this country?) it goes to show the continued stance that by granting basic equality in this country, Christians are indeed without a shred of shame in declaring such moves trample on their rights. Which rights, precisely? The only answer can be the right to continue their faith-based, bigoted oppression of anyone to whom their backwards, iron-age magic books give them license.

New Hampshire Debate Blitz Last Real Chance to Derail Romney

Saturday night’s GOP debate in New Hampshire is looking increasingly like the most important so far and will go a long way in etching the positions of the remaining contenders into stone. While the New Hampshire race itself is all but decided, with Mitt Romney continuing his frontrunner status with a  20-point lead over Ron Paul, who finished third in Iowa–but the two debates this weekend, a mere ten hours apart, will offer a crucial opportunity not only in the looming contest in the social-conservative stronghold of South Carolina, but the rest of the primary season. That opportunity is to throw a boulder onto the tracks of the Romney campaign, which may lack much luster but persists on towards the candidacy with an unflappable calm that may be Romney’s largest asset at this point.

With the debates falling only two days before the New Hampshire contest, and South Carolina eleven days later, there will be little to no chance to mitigate any damage should  scathing rhetorical attacks or gaffes pop up on the center stage.

Mitt Romney’s primary goal will be to keep the ship steady. His persistence rests in both the moderate conservatism that the other candidates continue to attack, and his presidential demeanor. While he doesn’t flash in the debates, he’s managed to deflect or absorb most attacks without stumbling over his own feet, and that’s all he needs to do tonight and tomorrow. Romney can even afford to take a few shots across the bow–his lead is large enough that all he needs to do is avoid any critical hits, probably coming from the direction of Newt Gingrich, and he’ll waltz through the upcoming contests, probably wrapping up the GOP season by February.

Rick Santorum is enjoying a bit of a surge out of his narrow second-place showing in Iowa, though one should consider how impressive it really is for a hard-line social conservative to do so. While Santorum is finally receiving his turn at the not-Romney slot in the field and the accompanying increase in exposure, he’s also suffering from it–his support for extreme Catholic moral positions, such as the idea that contraception is destroying the country and that gay marriage will utterly rend the fabric of the family unit, will continue to isolate him not only in the larger GOP climate but will forever bode ill for his appeal in the general election that he’ll never see. His appeal will see a bit more cheering in South Carolina, but other than that his moment in the limelight appears that it’ll be as short as the other flavor-of-the month surges.

Much has been made about what we might see out of Newt Gingrich, whose debate performances have all but defined his various surges up to this point. There’s no questioning his political experience and rhetorical shrewdness will pay some dividends yet again coming out these debates, but he more than anyone needs to walk a fine line in targeting Romney. If Newt comes out swinging too hard, he’ll score the appropriate blows, but risks sacrificing a similar Romney-esque appeal of a sort of relaxed confidence; if he comes across as desperate or rabid he’ll net a loss and will have missed his last real chance to return to the elite tier of the current GOP spread.

Ron Paul looks to continue in his usual role of what I’ve termed ‘distant prominence’–it allows him the luxury of some time in the spotlight and his share of applause, but he doesn’t look to have much opportunity in these debates or the near future to gain much more support. While much is being said about Romney’s apparent ceiling among GOP voters, Ron Paul has essentially made a career out of campaigning from an even lower one. This offers him a bit of luxury–he’s more safely positioned than anyone to really target Romney and Santorum with every scathing bit of the arsenal he has at hand. It’d be interesting to see him pull ammunition from his libertarian stances and take apart Santorum’s dogmatic treatment  of certain personal liberties, though I doubt we’ll see much of this, as Paul knows this would detrimental, to some extent, to his own base. He’s wise to consolidate discourse around his main applause-points and take what swipes he can along different lines.

Rick Perry  faces a daunting situation–after a confusing (confused?) turn-around after Iowa, where he stated he was returning to Texas to ‘reassess’ his campaign, he came out less than 12 hours later to say the fight was back on. He shows no more than the most minimal support in any of the upcoming primaries and with two rapid-fire debates standing as the last real opportunity to recharge the various campaigns, Perry faces a spotlight that has been very unkind to him, with several poor performances and gaffes dissolving his previous surging support almost literally overnight.

Jon Huntsman has staked nearly everything in New Hampshire, and last I read he’s going to be lucky to break into double-digit results. While at times awkward and baffling, Huntsman has also offered some of the most reasoned and coherent thoughts on both the economy and foreign policy. One sort of feels that this is simply too young in his political career to be attempting a serious run at the candidacy–he simply isn’t known. His assured, relatively poor showing in New Hampshire would seem to all but end his campaign, which I think will be to the detriment of the rest of the season and the remaining debates, as I think he offers a certain freshness and balance. I would expect we’ll see Huntsman again in 2016 and with a much more prominent showing.

Does Anyone Believe An Already Hobbled Iran Won’t Blink?

A rather strange article here that, among other things, feels the need in its headline to articulate that there would be ‘downsides’ to sanctions against Iran’s oil exports and  doesn’t seem to make the connection that such sanctions targeted specifically at Iran’s oil market wouldn’t fall into the realm of ‘economic sanctions’, which is apparently what ‘some analysts’ (oh convenient, lazy ambiguity) cite as preferable.

More importantly it evinces further sweat on the brow of many that seem to be erring toward superfluous caution towards Iran based explicitly on the inevitable effects on the price of gasoline at home. Implied here is a sort of hostage situation where those urging continued caution–a code word, it seems here, for appeasement–where Iran stands ready with a gun that only shoots rubber bullets. That is all to say, they can’t kill us, they can only make us uncomfortable with the only thing they have to bargain with, and they’re trying to keep us uncomfortable enough that we leave them alone while they work towards a real gun with real bullets. Their logic seems to be that we will be in a dangerous situation when the world’s leading madman gets the most destructive force ever known at his fingertips, but golly at least gas will stay under four dollars a gallon.

I have some empathy here–this logic appeals to what we know of the general American temperament, which certainly reinforces the notion that Iran is quite far away and they haven’t got The Bomb -yet-, so the capricious lethality that awaits a nuclear Iran doesn’t feel nearly as concrete or pressing as soaring gas prices during economic turmoil.

The problem is that if we wait for the former to become concrete, thus causing the latter to shrink in scale by comparison, it’ll most likely already be too late to do anything about it. We have to operate with a longer-term landscape in mind or we’ll very surely be facing a world where  long-term existence itself becomes questionable–when one cannot assume a future awaits while standing in such a destabilized global community with nuclear arsenals becoming more common rather than less so.

Meanwhile, the United States naval presence in the region that Iran continues to decry with growing desperation and empty threats has been generous enough to rescue 13 Iranian sailors and their vessel from pirates in the Arabian Sea. Apparently while Iran continues to say they could easily shut down shipping lanes through the Strait of Hormuz, one can only assume that they could even more easily protect their own sailors from some high-sea miscreants but for some reason have chosen not to.

Abandon All Hope Ye Who Attempt to Flee

 

Grisly and apt comparisons between North Korea and a prison or hostage situation were needlessly, grimly reinforced yet again this week as sources in both China as well as from activist groups in South Korea report that three middle-aged North Korean men were shot dead by border guards as they attempted to defect into the Chinese border county of Changbai across the frozen Yalu river.

It seems worth noting that it’s telling of the situation inside North Korea that a country with China’s track record on human rights and freedom is a shining oasis of hope, worthy of risking nearly certain death to reach. Defections from North Korea are obviously nothing new, and the grave accounts given by those who’ve survived to say as much are always sobering against the recent backdrop of outpourings of sadness shown by  North Korean state-controlled media–the only media around, of course.

What is new is the blatant disregard shown now by these border guards, operating under ever-tightening orders from not only the new Dear Leader but the new Supreme Commander, Kim Jong-Un. As the AFP article elaborates, the violent denial of escape by these guards has been communicated freely to those in the border city they had fled, ensuring that no doubt remains in the minds of a starved, stunted, and desperate people as to what awaits any further attempts.

This news deflates any hope for change in North Korea’s interaction with the rest of the world as South Korea has rather absurdly sent a mourning delegation to the north while expressing optimism for better relations in the wake of Kim Jong-Il’s death. His well-groomed (and insultingly well-fed) heir couldn’t be less interested in relaxed relations or borders–like any tyrant worth his salt, he knows his pudgy, iron grip on power only continues by keeping his hostages at bay.