29 September 2006 - Friday

There's a new edition coming out

You scored as A college textbook. You're an authority on something, you just know it. Everyone else does, too, but that doesn't mean they like you. Since you think very highly of everything you say, you charge a pretty penny to entertain your listeners. Those forced to pay do so grudgingly and try to defray the costs of learning from you by selling portions of their access to your charms to others. As a result of this speedy dissemination of your knowledge, you constantly add to your repertoire--and then hike your price. Despite your usefullness, which is rarely in doubt, nobody likes you. They find you didactic, boring and irrelevant--but still necessary.

A college textbook


A coloring book


A paperback romance novel


The back of a froot loops box


A classic novel


An electronics user's manual




Your Literary Personality
created with QuizFarm.com

Via Jared, who is (appropriately enough) a classic novel.

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Photos from a museum.

In Cambodia.

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28 September 2006 - Thursday

Tony Snow, stultified

Tony Snow, the White House press secretary, held a press briefing yesterday. The declassified key judgments of the National Intelligence Estimate, naturally, figured prominently in the briefing. Once again, the White House badly mischaracterized the document.

Q Why does the President continue to say that we're winning the war on terror and we are more safe, when the overall picture painted by these key judgments is actually quite bleak and points to several areas where that is not a conclusion you could reach by reading it?

MR. SNOW: I'm not sure I agree. I'm not sure I agree. For instance, I know it's been characterized as being bleak. What it is, is it's a snapshot, as of February 28th, of what was going on in the region.

This is false. The NIE is not a "snapshot" showing us what was happening on a particular day. It is, according to the Central Intelligence Agency, "the most authoritative written judgment concerning a national security issue prepared by the Director of Central Intelligence. Unlike 'current intelligence' products, which describe the present, most NIEs forecast future developments and many address their implications for the United States."* This one certainly does that.

Back to Mr. Snow:

Let me explain why the President thinks we're winning the war on terror, and also give a little bit of context to some of the statements that are made -- I've got the NIE text here, because I think I know the areas that -- well, good -- and I think I know the areas that you might want some responses to.

The first thing is, let's start with the obvious. Since September 11, 2001, we have not been attacked. And, furthermore, the United States, since September 11, 2001, has taken a much more aggressive approach toward terror than it had taken previously. Before September 11, 2001, the United States -- many people in the United States did not realize the nature of the enemy we were facing. In the previous administration, we had an attack on the World Trade Center, on Khobar Towers, we had attacks on both embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and an attack on the USS Cole.

In fact, according to the US State Department, acts of international terrorism were lower under President Clinton than under President Reagan.* More US citizens were killed by international terrorism in 2000, 2002 and 2003 than in 1998 and 1999.* (Both graphs are found in this report.) And even more private US citizens were killed by terrorism in 2005.*

Meanwhile, everyone seems to agree that an even bigger attack than September 11 is possible at any time. Remember, 9/11 took about three years to plan, and the initial idea came to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed as early as 1995.*

Back to Snow:

Also, Osama bin Laden, in February of 1998, made it clear that he not only intended to wage war on the United States, but he wanted to use Iraq as a central battleground. From his fatwa, on February 23, 1998, he complained that "for over seven years the United States has been occupying the lands of Islam and the holiest of places, the Arabian Peninsula, plundering its riches, dictating to its rulers, humiliating its people, terrorizing its neighbors, and turning bases in the peninsula into a spearhead through which to fight the neighboring Muslim peoples."
I can't tell for sure, but it looks as if Snow thinks that Iraq is part of the Arabian Peninsula. It is not. In any case, he has this Bin Laden quotation backwards; it shows not that Bin Laden intended to make Iraq a battleground, but that he thought we did. (Apparently he was right.)
The reason I read that is that it reflects part of the strategy of building jihadism, which is to foment hatred and to try to get people worked up in such a way that they may feel inclined to "join the jihad."
Aha. This is a very important point. I recommend rereading what Snow just said about the strategy for "building jihad," then skipping down in the briefing transcript to this exchange:
MR. SNOW: The report does not say that Iraq is -- it says that Iraq jihad is a contributing factor to trying to recruit people to jihad. It doesn't say that Iraq has made terrorism worse. And that is the shorthand that was employed in a number of cases.

Q I'm sorry -- spell out the difference for me?

MR. SNOW: Real simple, number one --

Q -- read it.

MR. SNOW: Yes, here it is. No, I'd be happy to read the sentence, I'll do it for everybody, because there are two parts to it -- and only the first half was leaked.

"The Iraq conflict has become a cause célèbre for jihadists breeding a deep resentment of U.S. involvement in the Muslim world and cultivating supporters for the global jihadist movement," correct? "Supporters." That's right. People say they -- this is what we're talking about, we're talking about supporters of a global jihadist movement. What it doesn't say is we now have tens of thousands more people armed and ready to hit the United States. It doesn't say that. It says that they're "creating an atmosphere where people are identifying themselves as jihadists."

Now, here's the second part: "Should jihadists leaving Iraq perceive themselves and be perceived to have failed, we judge fewer fighters will be inspired to carry on the fight."

So in the world of Tony Snow, "part of the strategy of building jihadism" is to "foment hatred and to try to get people worked up in such a way that they may feel inclined to 'join the jihad.'" That is one of the key goals of Osama bin Laden. However, when the NIE says that the Iraq war has done precisely that, it does not mean that jihadism is actually gaining strength -- although the NIE also says that has been happening. Snow wants us to believe that jihadism is only gaining supporters, which means nothing even though it is one of Bin Laden's main goals, and that the NIE's prediction of increasing attacks is just a coincidence!

Of course, Snow is technically correct about one thing. The NIE does say that if we win in Iraq, then "fewer fighters will be inspired to carry on the fight." However, the NIE balances this positive outcome against the negative consequences of failure: "perceived jihadist success [in Iraq] would inspire more fighters to continue the struggle elsewhere." Snow doesn't quote that part, for some reason. He also doesn't quote the part where the NIE compares such advantages and weaknesses and concludes that "the underlying factors fueling the spread of the [jihadist] movement outweigh its vulnerabilities and are likely to do so for the duration of the timeframe of this Estimate." But since Snow thinks the NIE was a "snapshot" taken on February 28, he obviously doesn't think this prediction exists, so he can ignore it.

Now, the intrepid reporters called Snow on some of this, so he made an effort to explain how "supporters" are not valuable at all to the terrorists:

Q So you're suggesting we've created more people who dislike us, but not more people who want to harm us.

MR. SNOW: Well, they may even want to harm us. The question is operationally, do they have the capability, and are they going to move forward to do so?

Here I can only quote yet again the words of the National Intelligence Estimate:

Although we cannot measure the extent of the spread with precision, a large body of all-source reporting indicates that activists identifying themselves as jihadists, although a small percentage of Muslims, are increasing in both number and geographic dispersion.

If this trend continues, threats to US interests at home and abroad will become more diverse, leading to increasing attacks worldwide.

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26 September 2006 - Tuesday

Spinning the National Intelligence Estimate

Recently, a New York Times story alleged that the current National Intelligence Estimate -- the most important document produced by the American intelligence community -- shows that the American invasion of Iraq has exacerbated the threat of terrorism worldwide.

In response, President Bush ordered the declassification of a small part of the NIE. This declassified report is called "Declassified Key Judgments of the National Intelligence Estimate." It is available from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence as a PDF download. Apparently the declassified document contains most of the NIE's section of key judgments, with "probably just a handful, maybe two or three paragraphs that have been redacted in the interest of national security," according to homeland security advisor Frances Fragos Townsend.

The White House is characterizing the document as a confirmation, not a refutation, of the president's wisdom. "This really underscores the President's point about the importance of our winning in Iraq," Townsend told reporters.

However, the text contains several statements that Townsend failed to address well (if at all) in her press conference. And these statements entirely confirm the NYT article: they clearly state that our intelligence community believes that jihadism is growing numerically, becoming harder to fight, and growing in strength -- in significant part because of the invasion of Iraq.

Although we cannot measure the extent of the spread with precision, a large body of all-source reporting indicates that activists identifying themselves as jihadists, although a small percentage of Muslims, are increasing in both number and geographic dispersion.

If this trend continues, threats to US interests at home and abroad will become more diverse, leading to increasing attacks worldwide.


The confluence of shared purpose and dispersed actors will make it harder to find and undermine jihadist groups.


We assess that the Iraq jihad is shaping a new generation of terrorist leaders and operatives; perceived jihadist success there would inspire more fighters to continue the struggle elsewhere.

The Iraq conflict has become the "cause celebre" for jihadists, breeding a deep resentment of US involvement in the Muslim world and cultivating supporters for the global jihadist movement. Should jihadists leaving Iraq perceive themselves, and be perceived, to have failed, we judge fewer fighters will be inspired to carry on the fight.

We assess that the underlying factors fueling the spread of the movement outweigh its vulnerabilities and are likely to do so for the duration of the timeframe of this Estimate.

Four underlying factors are fueling the spread of the jihadist movement: (1) Entrenched grievances, such as corruption, injustice, and fear of Western domination, leading to anger, humiliation, and a sense of powerlessness; (2) the Iraq "jihad"; (3) the slow pace of real and sustained economic, social, and political reforms in many Muslim majority nations; and (4) pervasive anti-US sentiment among most Muslims -- all of which jihadists exploit.

So, to recap:

* The numerical strength of jihadists is growing, and this trend is expected to lead to increased attacks on the US.

* The jihadist movement is dispersing geographically; geographic dispersion will make the movement harder to fight.

* The Iraq invasion "is breeding a deep resentment of US involvement in the Muslim world and cultivating supporters for the global jihadist movement." Such Muslim anger at the United States, especially in response to the Iraq invasion, is "fueling the spread of the jihadist movement."

* The advantages reaped from this situation by the jihadist movement "outweigh its vulnerabilities."

True, the NIE does support a couple of Bush administration positions. It does suggest that withdrawing American troops from Iraq could make the problem even worse, while political reform in the Middle East would eventually reduce the threat. On both of these positions, I have always agreed with the president in broad outline -- and even the Democrats generally agree with the president on the second point, despite disagreeing over methods.

But this does not change the fact that the National Intelligence Estimate says that the invasion of Iraq has given strength to global jihad. And it says that should our nation-building project in Iraq fail -- which almost everyone admits is a very real possibility -- we will be in an even more dangerous situation.

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23 September 2006 - Saturday

"This is the destiny of a democracy"

In 1999, the Supreme Court of Israel took up the question of counterterrorism interrogation methods. The Israeli General Security Service (GSS) had been using "moderate physical pressure" in interrogations of suspected terrorists. Several prisoners petitioned the court to declare some of these interrogation methods illegal.

The summary of the judgment is here. The court held unanimously that "to shake a suspect, to hold him in painful positions for a lengthy period, or to deprive him of sleep" was illegal in Israel. The full opinion of the court is an eloquent exposition of the limitations of humane society:

This decision opened with a description of the difficult reality in which Israel finds herself. We conclude this judgment by revisiting that harsh reality. We are aware that this decision does make it easier to deal with that reality. This is the destiny of a democracy -- it does not see all means as acceptable, and the ways of its enemies are not always open before it. A democracy must sometimes fight with one hand tied behind its back. Even so, a democracy has the upper hand. The rule of law and the liberty of an individual constitute important components in its understanding of security. At the end of the day, they strengthen its spirit and this strength allows it to overcome its difficulties.

This having been said, there are those who argue that Israel's security problems are too numerous, and require the authorization of physical means [of interrogation]. Whether it is appropriate for Israel, in light of its security difficulties, to sanction physical means is an issue that must be decided by the legislative branch, which represents the people. We do not take any stand on this matter at this time. It is there that various considerations must be weighed. The debate must occur there. It is there that the required legislation may be passed, provided, of course, that the law "befit(s) the values of the State of Israel, is enacted for a proper purpose, and (infringes the suspect's liberty) to an extent no greater than required." See article 8 of the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty.

Deciding these petitions weighed heavily on this Court. True, from the legal perspective, the road before us is smooth. We are, however, part of Israeli society. Its problems are known to us and we live its history. We are not isolated in an ivory tower. We live the life of this country. We are aware of the harsh reality of terrorism in which we are, at times, immersed. The possibility that this decision will hamper the ability to properly deal with terrorists and terrorism disturbs us. We are, however, judges. We must decide according to the law. This is the standard that we set for ourselves. When we sit to judge, we ourselves are judged. Therefore, in deciding the law, we must act according to our purest conscience. [...]

The Commission of Inquiry [Regarding the Interrogation Practices of the GSS with Respect to Hostile Terrorist Activities] pointed to the "difficult dilemma between the imperative to safeguard the very existence of the State of Israel and the lives of its citizens, and between the need to preserve its character -- a country subject to the rule of law and basic moral values." The commission rejected an approach that would consign our fight against terrorism to the twilight shadows of the law. The commission also rejected the "ways of the hypocrites, who remind us of their adherence to the rule of law, even as they remain willfully blind to reality." Instead, the Commission chose to follow "the way of truth and the rule of law." In so doing, the Commission of Inquiry outlined the dilemma faced by Israel in a manner open to examination to all of Israeli society.

Consequently, it is decided that the order nisi [prohibiting these interrogation methods] be made absolute. The GSS does not have the authority to "shake" a man, hold him in the "Shabach" position (which includes the combination of various methods, as mentioned in paragraph 30), force him into a "frog crouch" position and deprive him of sleep in a manner other than that which is inherently required by the interrogation. Likewise, we declare that the "necessity defense," found in the Penal Law, cannot serve as a basis of authority for interrogation practices, or for directives to GSS investigators, allowing them to employ interrogation practices of this kind.

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22 September 2006 - Friday

Reading list, legal edition

Chicago law professor Geoffrey Stone notes that the Bush administration is undermining a legal right that, according to Justice Scalia, "dates back to Roman times."

Speaking of, Jacob T. Levy has posted a roundup of Balkinization entries on "executive power, torture, and the Bush administration's extravagant constitutional claims."

Radley Balko has a good article at Reason on the case of Cory Maye. He is still on was sent to death row for self-defense, in what appears to qualify as a judicial lynching.

In December 2005, as Evans was preparing Maye's appeal, he received a phone call from Prentiss Mayor Charlie Dumas, who is close to Officer Ron Jones' family. Dumas told Evans that several of the town's aldermen had expressed concern about his decision to handle Maye's appeal. Although representing an indigent defendant on appeal was Evans' job as the town's public defender, Dumas told Evans he could lose that job if he continued to act as Maye's attorney. Evans ignored the threat.

Six weeks later, in January 2006, Dumas called Evans with the news that Prentiss had fired him as its public defender. Evans says Dumas explicitly cited his representation of Maye as the reason for his termination.

Update: An appeals judge has ruled that Maye will receive at least a new sentencing trial, so for the moment Maye is no longer sentenced to death. Also, we now know who the confidential informant responsible for all of this is -- and it would be hard to imagine more racism oozing from one person.

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Candidate attacked for religious beliefs

Yesterday, I received the following message in an email from the Republican Party of Texas (the text is also available here):

"...So Help Me God."

Candidate for the Sixth Court of Appeals, Ben Franks, is reported to be a professed atheist and apparently believes the Bible is a "collection of myths."

During debate over a plank in the State Democrat Platform, members of the Platform Committee debated dropping "God" from a sentence on the first page of the document. The plank stated: "we want a Texas where all people can fulfill their dreams and achieve their God-given potential."

According to an article published in the El Paso Times, Ben Franks states: "I'm an atheist..."

All elected or appointed officials in Texas must take the oath prescribed by Art. XVI, Section 1(a) of the Texas Constitution:

"I, _____ , do solemnly swear (or affirm), that I will faithfully execute the duties of the office of _____ of the State of Texas, and will to the best of my ability preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States and of this State, so help me God."

Should Franks be elected in November, one would have to conclude that he will hold true to his out of touch "atheist" belief system and ignore the laws and Constitution of Texas. Mr. Franks is a personal injury trial lawyer practicing in Texarkana, Texas and is the Democrat nominee for the 6th Court of Appeals.

I'm not sure where to begin. I don't know what to say about this.

Actually ... yes, I do.

First of all, putting the word atheist in scare quotes is a particularly strange touch. Does the author doubt that atheism is real? Does the author suspect that Franks is only pretending to be an "out of touch" (sic) atheist? Maybe the author simply had never heard of atheism before; he or she was apparently shocked to discover that atheists don't believe that the Bible is God's word.

Next, the second paragraph of the article is irrelevant to the rest. Shoddy work.

Third, article 6 of the United States Constitution strongly suggests that excluding atheists from the bench is unlawful:

[...] all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.
Given the common conservative insistence that atheism is a religious position just as much as Christianity is, it would be difficult to avoid concluding that the Texas GOP is advocating an illegal "religious test" for office.

Obviously, this email isn't about upholding "the laws and Constitution of Texas." It is instead a display of naked prejudice. It is an attempt to turn the public against a candidate because of his religious convictions, which the Republican Party of Texas feels free to ridicule. And that displeases me.

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19 September 2006 - Tuesday

Fixing Tolkien

A week ago, Peter Chattaway spread the word that not only does MGM still exist after all; it is hoping to make "one or two installments of The Hobbit" within a few years, probably with Peter Jackson.

Two days ago, Chattaway found proof of his suspicion that this is a very bad idea.

Jackson hadn't actually been approached with the idea by the studio, apparently, when he did this interview. And he claimed to be too busy to do The Hobbit anytime soon, if anyone did ask him. But here's what he would do if he were asked to direct the film:

If I was doing The Hobbit I'd try to get as many of the guys back as I could. I mean, there's actually a role for Legolas in The Hobbit, his father features in it, obviously Gandalf and Saruman should be part of it. There's things that you can do with The Hobbit to bring in some old friends, for sure. I have thought about it from time to time ... Elrond, Galadriel and Arwen could all feature. Elves have lived for centuries. Part of the attraction would be working with old friends. I wouldn't want to do it unless we could keep a continuity of cast. [...]

Yeah, we're supposed to be writing The Lovely Bones, but of course Phil, Fran and I read the thing on the net and spent most of this morning talking about The Hobbit. We think the two film idea is really smart. One of the problems with The Hobbit is that it is a fairly simple kids story, and doesn't really feel like The Lord of the Rings. Tonally I mean. It's always may be a little worried, but with two films that kinda gets easier. It allows for more complexity. At that implied stuff with Gandalf and the White Council and the return of Sauron could be fully explored.

That's what we talked about this morning. Taking The Hobbit and combining it with all that intigue about Sauron's rise, and the problems that has for Gandalf. It could be cool. That way, it starts feeling more like The Lord of the Rings and less like this kids book. You could even get into Gollum's sneaking into Mordor and Aragorn protecting The Shire. That's what we'd do. Love to work with Viggo again.

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17 September 2006 - Sunday

"God is not pleased," addendum

I suppose my previous entry failed to address, at least directly, the charge actually aimed at Benedict XVI by most Western critics. That charge seems to be simply that the inflammatory Manuel II Paleologus quotation was unnecessary, whether or not Benedict personally agrees with the Byzantine emperor.

Now, unless the pope is a liar, he does not agree with Manuel in thinking that Mohammed brought into the world only "things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached." But since I cannot prove that the pope is not a liar, I will content myself with asking myself whether the quotation was necessary.

And I conclude that yes, it was necessary. Or rather, it was much more responsible of the pope to include it, in some form or another, than it would have been to exclude it.

In any kind of intellectual history, it is essential to understand what a thinker was arguing against in order to understand what he was arguing for. In this case, as long as Benedict wanted to highlight Manuel's argument for rationality and toleration at all (and I happen to think it was a cool thing to highlight), he had to place it in an historical context.

If he had not mentioned that Manuel II Paleologus was making a Greek and Christian argument against the ideas of a Persian Muslim, the pope would have done little justice to Manuel's thought. So I find it astounding that some otherwise historically-minded people are claiming that Benedict should have censored the upsetting bits out of his intellectual history.

Are there any other topics that a religious leader should shy away from when talking about the worldviews of past thinkers? Should we be making a list?

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16 September 2006 - Saturday

"God is not pleased by blood"

Benedict XVI seems to have outraged people again. And once again, some people who were not personally offended are getting offended on behalf of other people.

I find this situation very strange. The pope is now being criticized for saying that Christianity is more peaceful and reasonable than Islam, an allegation that seems to offend many Muslims. Many secular observers seem to think it was bad form for Benedict to say this. Perhaps I am missing something, but isn't it generally a good thing to have religions arguing over which is more peaceful and reasonable?

Here's how the pope's remarks, delivered at a university in Bavaria, unfolded [please see the update at the bottom of the post for a significant qualification]:

That even in the face of such radical scepticism it is still necessary and reasonable to raise the question of God through the use of reason, and to do so in the context of the tradition of the Christian faith: this, within the university as a whole, was accepted without question.

I was reminded of all this recently, when I read the edition by Professor Theodore Khoury (Münster) of part of the dialogue carried on - perhaps in 1391 in the winter barracks near Ankara - by the erudite Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an educated Persian on the subject of Christianity and Islam, and the truth of both. It was presumably the emperor himself who set down this dialogue, during the siege of Constantinople between 1394 and 1402; and this would explain why his arguments are given in greater detail than those of his Persian interlocutor. The dialogue ranges widely over the structures of faith contained in the Bible and in the Qur'an, and deals especially with the image of God and of man, while necessarily returning repeatedly to the relationship between - as they were called - three "Laws" or "rules of life": the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Qur'an. It is not my intention to discuss this question in the present lecture; here I would like to discuss only one point - itself rather marginal to the dialogue as a whole - which, in the context of the issue of "faith and reason", I found interesting and which can serve as the starting-point for my reflections on this issue.

In the seventh conversation edited by Professor Khoury, the emperor touches on the theme of the holy war. The emperor must have known that surah 2, 256 reads: "There is no compulsion in religion". According to the experts, this is one of the suras of the early period, when Mohammed was still powerless and under threat. But naturally the emperor also knew the instructions, developed later and recorded in the Qur'an, concerning holy war. Without descending to details, such as the difference in treatment accorded to those who have the "Book" and the "infidels", he addresses his interlocutor with a startling brusqueness on the central question about the relationship between religion and violence in general, saying: "Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached". The emperor, after having expressed himself so forcefully, goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable. Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul. "God", he says, "is not pleased by blood - and not acting reasonably is contrary to God's nature. Faith is born of the soul, not the body. Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats... To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person with death...".

The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God's nature. The editor, Theodore Khoury, observes: For the emperor, as a Byzantine shaped by Greek philosophy, this statement is self-evident. But for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality. Here Khoury quotes a work of the noted French Islamist R. Arnaldez, who points out that Ibn Hazn went so far as to state that God is not bound even by his own word, and that nothing would oblige him to reveal the truth to us. Were it God's will, we would even have to practise idolatry.

At this point, as far as understanding of God and thus the concrete practice of religion is concerned, we are faced with an unavoidable dilemma. Is the conviction that acting unreasonably contradicts God's nature merely a Greek idea, or is it always and intrinsically true? I believe that here we can see the profound harmony between what is Greek in the best sense of the word and the biblical understanding of faith in God.

Now, I agree that Benedict, citing Khoury, is oversimplifying Muslim beliefs. Islam is not monolithic; it has multiple rich traditions of Quranic interpretation. As Juan Cole points out, some of these traditions actually played a central part in the development of Catholic scholasticism. And surah 2:256 cannot be explained away as easily as Benedict's "experts" tried to do.

However, we should also remember that European Christian impressions of Islam have always been shaped by memories of Muslim wars of conquest, just as the Crusades have tended to shape Muslim impressions of Christianity. Benedict is highlighting one medieval Christian's philosophical response to that context. That response was a rejection of violence as a means of conversion.

The fact is, Benedict was describing a book he read recently. He was using it as "the starting-point" to discuss faith and reason, tracing (however imperfectly) developments in the relationship between Christianity and philosophy across the centuries. And in a world where both Muslims and Christians have frequently been guilty of religious coercion, is it not encouraging to hear the pope denounce religious violence as "contrary to God's nature?" And is it not encouraging that Muslim spokesmen around the world are implicitly agreeing with him?

If the pope's speech is significant for its characterization of Islam as violent, then this controversy is silly because the characterization is nothing new. (Kuwaiti politician Haken al-Mutairi is particularly mistaken in calling Benedict's remarks "unaccustomed and unprecedented." Nothing could be less true; in fact, the question is only in Benedict's speech because it was an important part of a debate in the 14th century!) On the other hand, if the address is significant because it stresses that tolerance and reason are mandated by the law of God, then the controversy is a very healthy sign. I could get used to having religions try to outdo each other on tolerance and rationality, I really could.

All that is left is to criticize the pope for oversimplifying Islamic philosophy -- just as he necessarily oversimplified every other perspective that shows up in the speech. The Vatican has admitted as much, and Benedict seems to have been genuinely displeased to find his address interpreted as an attack on Islam. In fact, here's how his speech ended:

Only thus do we become capable of that genuine dialogue of cultures and religions so urgently needed today. In the Western world it is widely held that only positivistic reason and the forms of philosophy based on it are universally valid. Yet the world's profoundly religious cultures see this exclusion of the divine from the universality of reason as an attack on their most profound convictions. [...] It is to this great logos, to this breadth of reason, that we invite our partners in the dialogue of cultures. To rediscover it constantly is the great task of the university.
How many other "profoundly religious cultures" do you think Benedict had in mind, if he was somehow excluding Islam from his "genuine dialogue of cultures and religions"?

Update: According to Horace Jeffery Hodges, the Vatican's preliminary English translation of the pope's remarks tends to obscure the extent to which Benedict tried to distance himself from the words he was quoting. In the original speech, Benedict emphasized that Manuel II spoke "with an astonishing brusqueness, for us an astounding brusqueness, bluntly" and that he "expressed himself so very forcefully."

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15 September 2006 - Friday

"The world is beginning to doubt"

Gen. Colin Powell, via the LA Times:

President Bush's response, full of his usual moral clarity:

If there's any comparison between the compassion and decency of the American people and the terrorist tactics of extremists, it's flawed logic. I simply can't accept that. It's unacceptable to think that there's any kind of comparison between the behavior of the United States of America and the action of Islamic extremists who kill innocent women and children to achieve an objective.

[...]And that Common Article III says that there will be no outrages upon human dignity. It's very vague. What does that mean, "outrages upon human dignity"? That's a statement that is wide open to interpretation. And what I'm proposing is that there be clarity in the law so that our professionals will have no doubt that that which they are doing is legal.

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History Carnival 39

The thirty-ninth History Carnival is up at Cliopatria. It has lots of good stuff; look for the entry from my little brother.

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14 September 2006 - Thursday

The wisdom of the ancients

One of the more obvious tendencies of the American revolutionary generation was a penchant for classical references. Of course, the republican vibe worked well with allusions to Greece and Rome, and American writers resorted frequently to ancient history for evidence in favor of their positions.

Every once in a while, I find myself sympathizing with one Martin Howard, Jr., a loyalist who in 1765 chastised another American pamphleteer:

But there is something extremely weak and inconclusive in recurring to the Grecian and Roman history for examples to illustrate any particular favorite opinion: If a deference to the ancients should direct the practice of the moderns, we might sell our children to pay our debts, and justify it by the practice of the Athenians. We might lend our wives to our friends, and justify it from the Example of Cato, among the Romans. In a word, my dear Sir, the belly of a sow, pickled, was a high dish in ancient Rome; and I imagine, as you advance in the refinements of luxury, this will become a capital part of a Rhode Island feast, so fond you seem of ancient customs and laws.

Instead of wandering in the labyrinth of ancient colonies, I would advise his honour to read the debates in parliament in the year one thousand seven hundred and thirty-three, when Mr. Partridge, your agent, petitioned the commons against the then sugar-bill; he will there find more satisfaction upon the subject of colonies, than in Thucydides's history of the Pelopennesian war.

"A Letter from a Gentleman at Halifax," in Tracts of the American Revolution 1763-1776, ed. Merrill Jensen (Bobbs-Merrill, 1966; reprint by Hackett Publishing, 2003)

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Bush Doctrine Corollary #1

The best way to deal with "unlawful combatants"? Simple. Give them unlawful trials.

The logic is undeniable.

Next week: A sermon on the text "Do unto others as you suspect others have done unto you."

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10 September 2006 - Sunday

Carried away

Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) is by turns fascinating, amusing, irritating, and utterly boring.

Particularly in its first 50 pages or so, the book articulates vividly the general principles of Burke's conservatism: "A spirit of innovation is generally the result of a selfish temper and confined views. People will not look forward to posterity, who never look backward to their ancestors. Besides, the people of England well know, that the idea of inheritance furnishes a sure principle of conservation, and a sure principle of transmission; without at all excluding a principle of improvement." These pages make for good reading, even as Burke attacks his English opponents rather more forcefully than one might think necessary.

However, in his passion, Burke keeps writing much longer than necessary. And in his enthusiasm for the old order, he occasionally seems to lose his wits entirely. When he suddenly turns to the topic of the Queen of France (about 75 pages into my copy of the book), all good sense gives way:

It is now sixteen or seventeen years since I saw the queen of France, then the dauphiness, at Versailles; and surely never lighted on this orb, which she hardly seemed to touch, a more delightful vision. I saw her just above the horizon, decorating and cheering the elevated sphere she just began to move in, -- glittering like the morning-star, full of life, and splendour, and joy. Oh! what a revolution! and what a heart must I have to contemplate without emotion that elevation and that fall! Little did I dream when she added titles of veneration to those of enthusiastic, distant, respectful love, that she should ever be obliged to carry the sharp antidote against disgrace concealed in that bosom; little did I dream that I should have lived to see such disasters fallen upon her in a nation of gallant men, in a nation of men of honour, and of cavaliers. I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult. But the age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators, has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished for ever.
Were Louis still in a position to do such a thing, one suspects he might have wanted to keep an eye on Mr. Burke.

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8 September 2006 - Friday



I get a student ID card with "Grad" written on it, and all of a sudden I get to keep library books for 16 weeks.

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4 September 2006 - Monday

Spoken word

Just this evening, I ran across a podcast series from the University of Sydney. The list of speakers is promising; I've been listening to a lecture by Quentin Skinner (MP3), who is presenting a "genealogy" of British and German concepts of individual freedom. I recommend it.

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"Obesity pandemic engulfing world: experts"

SYDNEY (AFP) - Obesity has reached pandemic proportions throughout the world and is now the greatest single contributor to chronic disease, an international conference was told here.

"This insidious, creeping pandemic of obesity is now engulfing the entire world," Australia's Monash University professor Paul Zimmet, chair of the 10th International Congress on Obesity, said on the opening day of the conference.

The spread of the problem was "led by affluent western nations, whose physical activity and dietary habits are regrettably being adopted by developing nations," Zimmet told more than 2,000 delegates. [...]

Hmm. On second thought, maybe we shouldn't be making light of the problem.

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3 September 2006 - Sunday

Reading list

The good quit young: Caleb McDaniel is boarding up Mode for Caleb in order to concentrate on real life for a while.

Richard Wolin, reviewing Eric Paras' Foucault 2.0: Beyond Power and Knowledge, notes evidence that Foucault turned over a new leaf later in life. (HT: several people)

The new issue of Foreign Affairs includes Walter Russell Mead's "God's Country?", a survey of contemporary American Protestantism. It is a much more careful and constructive treatment of the subject than the recent "theocracy" alarmism has offered.

Simplicius shows us a fun set of marginal notes left by the former owner of a textbook.

Target.com is selling a Franklin Roosevelt action figure. I particularly wonder where they found the promised photos and audio clips of, er, President Franklin. (HT: WN)

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1 September 2006 - Friday

History Carnival 38

The thirty-eighth History Carnival is up at Frog in a Well: Japan. The reading in this one looks excellent.

Jim Davila talks about excavations at Vindolanda, a Roman fortress in Britain. He provides photos of the fort and Hadrian's Wall, for good measure. >>

Brett Holman David Tiley tells the story of Dina Gottliebova, an artist and Auschwitz survivor who wants her paintings back. The Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum wants to keep them. >>

Amanda McCloskey provides an etymology of biliary atresia. >>

Ralph Luker describes the sudden delivery of a footnote after a very long gestation. >>

Jennie W. gives us a peek at a Civil War letter from Lucy Hayes to her "dearest Ruddy." >>

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