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Overheard At the Coffeeshop

Yesterday I went to a coffeeshop in my neighborhood to do a little homework in Totalitarian Studies. I’ve traveled to unfree countries before, but never to a full-bore totalitarian police state. And since I’ll be doing just that in five weeks I’m reading about the experiences of other writers in these kinds of places to get an idea of what I should expect and how I ought to behave.

I ordered my coffee and sat in a chair at a small row of outdoor tables. There were four of us sitting there, all strangers. An older black man sat next to me reading a book about the Buddha. Another guy, about my age with long hair and a goatee, stared at nothing in particular while chain-smoking Camels. A rumpled-looking third fellow, a few years younger than me, quietly read the paper.

I brought with me The Pillars of Hercules: A Grand Tour of the Mediterranean by Paul Theroux, a travel book I’ve been reading on-and-off for a couple of months. I opened to the chapter on Syria. He’s at the Turkey/Syria border and chatting with a young Turk named Yusof who had been sitting next to him on the bus.

“Best thing, mister, is be very careful,” he said. And he pointed cautiously and became conspiratorial. “Over there is Syria. That is another country. You hear what I’m saying? Another country.”

The young man reading the paper decided to share the news. He mumbled something about the election. I ignored him because I was reading.

A small number of people jostled for attention at a desk, where a bored and rather indifferent soldier ignored them. I thrust my passport over their heads and, as though amused by my insolence, he snatched it and said, “American!” and laughed. I did not see my passport again for over an hour.

The chain-smoker piped up. Something about the Patriot Act. I kept reading.

In the meantime, I found Yusof lurking. He said he wanted to buy me a drink. We had coffee, while he held a chattering conversation with some Syrians. I noticed that there were large portraits of President Assad all over the frontier. He was a man with an odd profile — beaky nose, big chin, surmounted by the squarest head I had ever seen. His portrait at its most accurate was like a cartoon parody: misshapen and villainous, his combed-over hairdo varied from portrait to portrait. His suit was too tight, his neck too thin, his tie ridiculous, his smile insipid. As for his politics (to quote 1 Kings 11), “He was an adversary to Israel…and he abhorred Israel, and reigned over Syria.”

I took a sip of my coffee, which was beginning to cool down. So far this was the most interesting part of the book. I’ve already been to Spain, France, and Italy, so reading about those places is less educational. I won’t be going to Syria soon – at least not in the immediate future – but I’ll be going someplace a lot like it.

But there was another portrait — a younger man, with a slim stubbly face and sunglasses and army fatigues.

“Who’s that, Yusof?”

“No,” he said, meaning, Don’t ask. He paddled with one hand in a cautioning gesture.

The delay at the border today was caused by a group of Syrians smuggling shirts and pants in large suitcases. The absurdity of it was that while these smugglers opened their cases, revealing stacks of shirts in plastic bags, huge trucks rumbled past. They were German, and they were loaded with crates of German machinery, from a firm called Mannesmann. The crates were stamped For the Ministry of Technology, Baghdad, Iraq. Six of these vast flatbed trucks. They were headed toward Iraq, though Syria — and they were waved through by Syrian soldiers. It seemed to make little difference to anyone that Iraq was subject to U.N. sanctions and such a shipment of German machine parts was illegal. In the meantime the shirt smugglers were bullied and denounced.

Yusof took me aside. He put his hand over his mouth and muttered, “That is Assad’s son. He died. Don’t talk.”

We were summoned to the office and handed our passports. And then we were on our way. Those men wearing dark glasses and sipping tea, Yusof said. They were not travelers. They were members of the mukhabarat — Syria’s secret police. All this in a whisper, Yusof’s hand over his mouth.

“Here I like,” Yusof said. We were in a rocky landscape, with wide strips of green. “Aleppo is good. I drink. I eat. I disco. I fuck. But – ” He leaned over. “I don’t talk.”

“It’s a police state,” the young man with the newspaper said. He had my attention now. And he had the attention of others. “Ashcroft and Bush have turned it into a police state.”

“Man, this is a real scary time,” said the old Buddhist.

“Hey,” said the chain-smoker. (None of these guys seemed to know each other.) “Do you think America has too many freedoms? Think the government should take all our rights away? Then vote for George W. Bush!”

I sighed and considered telling them who I am voting for and what I am reading. Why not? I wouldn’t be intruding on a private conversation. This one was public, among strangers who assumed everyone in the neighborhood agreed with them. And why wouldn’t they? There are no Bush/Cheney lawn signs around. Right across the street was the local Impeach Bush headquarters. A poster hung in the window that showed a portrait of the president. Underneath his photo, in big blocky letters, the word “Terrorist.”

But I didn’t want to get into it. I would rather read about Syria than argue with people who know nothing of places like Syria, Libya, Iraq, and North Korea. They wouldn’t listen to me anyway.

I had been anxious about my trip to the coast until I walked to the railway station — a funny little Frenchified station with the usual Assad hagiography in any number of ridiculous murals — and saw that there were three trains a day to Latakia. At the station I engaged three young men — medical students — in a conversation about the murals. They immediately clammed up and made eye signals and hand gestures and all sorts of nonverbal suggestions to change the subject. This was what Albania had been like under “Friend” Hoxha.

It was not fidgeting caution but real fear — of, I supposed, the mukhabarat.

“Criticize the government and you get silenced,” said the kid with the newspaper as he folded it in disgust. And he said it quite loudly. “It’s only gonna get worse.”

You guys are lucky, I thought. You’re so lucky this isn’t Syria. You’re lucky there is no Portland mukhabarat. Because I could be a member for all you would know.

I leave for Libya in five weeks. I doubt I’ll have this experience there.

The Price of Politicization

I don’t want to suggest that the opposition party ought to shut up about foreign policy. But the opposition, whether Democrat or Republican, ought to be careful. We used to say partisanship stopped at the water’s edge. There were reasons for that. Here’s one of them.

The commander of the UN peacekeepers in Haiti has linked a recent upsurge in violence there to comments made by the US presidential candidate, John Kerry.

Earlier this year Mr Kerry said that as president he would have sent American troops to protect Jean-Bertrand Aristide who was ousted from power in February.

The Brazilian UN general, Augusto Heleno, said Mr Kerry’s comments had offered “hope” to Aristide supporters. Much of the recent unrest has centred on areas loyal to Mr Aristide.

More than 50 people have died over the past fortnight.

The Brazilian UN general could be full of it. I don’t see any evidence that what he says is true. In any case, John Kerry ought to say he won’t send US troops now to help out Aristide or his supporters.

I’m willing to bet the only reason he said what he did in the first place was because he felt he had to be “different” from George W. Bush. Even if I’m wrong about that, what harm can come from one more flip-flop? Just be yourself, John. Do it for Haiti.

Pro Labor, Pro Bush

The liberal case for Bush, again. This time by Britain’s Oliver Kamm.

Deconstructing Deconstructionism

Chomsky is right! Hey, it happens once in a while.

Way Outside the Box

I love outside-the-box political thinking whether I agree with it or not. It’s interesting at the very least. Listening to James Carville and Sean Hannity doesn’t exactly broaden my thinking or sharpen my mind.

In that spirit I just have to link to this post on Winds of Change by Cicero. He’s quoting Gonzalo Rodriguez from the comments section. Gonzalo hopes John Kerry wins the election. And yet he’s voting for George W. Bush. Read the whole piece to find out why. It is not even remotely related to anything I wrote in my hawkish case for John Kerry.

Zotting the Moderator

Mary at Exit Zero has a great idea. Let’s see if we can get something like this in place for the presidential debates in 2008.

[W]hat was with that stupid ‘strong woman’ question? As Dr. Frank said, the only proper response would be “what are you, high?”

I think there should be new rules for the debates — if a both candidates agree that a question is too dumb for words, they should have the right to strike it. Three strikes and the moderator is out.

Libertarian Socialism

Yeah, I know. That title contradicts itself. But what else can I say when a libertarian magazine like Tech Central Station advocates something like this?

As vicious as the struggle for power in Iraq is, the new government has a war-winning weapon that could, at a stroke, undercut the insurgency, enrich the Iraqi people and create a powerful, long-term force for democracy, national unity and economic development. That weapon is oil.

To deploy it, Prime Minister Ayad Allawi’s government should announce that as of a date certain, a new national investment fund — call it The Iraqi People’s Freedom Trust — will be credited with a major share of all future Iraqi oil earnings. Revenues directed to the Trust would be invested in government bonds, with a small cash reserve to cover withdrawals by individual Iraqis.

All 27 million Iraqis — men, women and children — would to eligible to claim an equal, personal investment account in the Freedom Trust. All they need do is prove Iraqi birth and pledge allegiance to the government. Registration for shares in the Trust could go hand in hand with voter registration for the upcoming national elections. Adult citizens should be free, at any time, to ask for a calculation of their account’s value and withdraw up to their full balance — no questions asked.

The mere announcement would be electric. For starters, it would dispel the fantasy that this war was waged by the U.S. to somehow steal Iraqi oil. What’s more, the Trust’s financial — and political — power would compound over time. For the first time in the history of Iraq, indeed, of oil nations generally — the new government would be offering every citizen an ownership stake in Iraq’s vast oil wealth. This is an asset long-since nationalized — allegedly on behalf of the people — but routinely looted in practice by the former dictator and his cronies. Creation of the Freedom Trust would instantly redefine the current war as a struggle between a young democracy seeking to share wealth with its people — and an old elite fighting to get back the power to steal from the people.

Brilliant, I say. And right, too. I recall Glenn Reynolds, also a small-l libertarian, floating something similar a while back.

Come on, lefties. This is right up your alley. Let’s see if we all can agree on what might be good for Iraq for a change.

The Third Debate

Stephen Green:

This thing is, mercifully, two-thirds over. Kerry is doing what Bush did in the first debate. He’s smirking “off” camera, he’s droning, he’s dull. Bush, no matter how boring I find the material, at least sounds passionate. Problem is, other than intoxicated political junkies like me, who the hell is still watching?

Not me. Not anymore. I watched the first few minutes and was instantly put off by John Kerry once again accusing George Bush of “pushing our allies away” in the very first question. And I find Bush excruciating to listen to, whether I agree with him or not, unless he’s giving a prepared speech written by somebody else. I couldn’t handle yet another hour and a half of sitting there and listening to Bush mangle his English and Kerry drone on about whatever it is he droned on about tonight.

I’m not the target audience for these things. I learn nothing by watching them. If I actually liked either of these mooks or found even one of them a compelling speaker that might make up for it. It also might matter if I were still undecided.

As it is, I would rather watch a re-run of The X-Files. So that’s what I did. I may be a political junkie, but tonight Mulder and Scully beat Kerry and Bush.

Feel free to argue amongst yourselves in the comments about who “won” (ie, who sucked less).

Meeting in the Middle (Updated)

I enjoy reading Andrew Sullivan in part because he teaches me new things, and also because I have something in common with him. He and I, at least for a while, were both undecided voters.

James Lileks thinks we’re strange creatures.

…the undecided voter, a creature whose existence I accept on condition that I am provided with photographic evidence, spoor from the wild and plaster casts of their footprints. But how can you be undecided? It’s not as if we’re dealing with two mysterious figures who suddenly burst onto the national stage with no preamble. Whoa, who’s this Bush guy? What’s he all about?

Ah, Lileks. Funny even when he’s making fun of moi.

Yeah, I felt pretty silly being an undecided voter and I’m happy to have moved on. (Doesn’t mean I’m happy with my options all of a sudden.)

Lileks gets it, though. At least he gets me and Sullivan.

Sorry; don’t mean to insult the undecideds. But really. Please. There cannot be more than 3,482 voters in this country who will stroll into the voting booth and flip a coin. Some of the undecideds are no doubt people who don’t like the guy who should be their guy, or like the guy who shouldn’t be their guy, and they’re really arm wrestling with themselves.

Yep. That’s pretty much it. Kerry should have been my guy, at least if the fact that I’ve never voted for a Republican president means anything.

Sullivan has always been a little more flexible and independent. But he was one of Bush’s biggest fans until recently when he decided (for reasons that make sense to me, if not to others) that he just couldn’t do it anymore.

I was alienated from my side. He was alienated from his. We have different backgrounds, but we meet in the middle. And because (at least partly because) we meet in the middle we see some of the same ironies.

Yesterday he wrote the following:

Kerry’s is clearly the more conservative position here. Conservatives have traditionally been doubters with regard to the transmission of Western values easily onto non-Western societies. They certainly don’t believe it can happen overnight. Bush is therefore running as a Gladstonian liberal in foreign affairs, which is why it’s strange to hear some conservatives writing as if Kerry’s candidacy is the equivalent of Armageddon.

He even used a similar title for his post that I used for mine when I made exactly the same point two days before he did.

The only difference here is that Sullivan thinks conservatives shouldn’t get bent out of shape by John Kerry’s conservatism while I think liberals should be happy with George W. Bush’s liberalism.

Left, right, liberal, conservative, Democrat, Republican. None of these labels mean the same things to me anymore. It’s no wonder I’m homeless. It’s no wonder the number of Independents keeps growing.

UPDATE: Via Sullivan (naturally) I found this interesting post by Cicero at Winds of Change. He says he’s voting for Bush and rooting for Kerry. Why might he root for Kerry?

If there’s solace to be taken from a Kerry victory, it will be the possibility that liberalism will be truly taken to task by historical forces, like conservativism has been.

Yes! So very few on the left have noticed or can even understand when I point this out. Conservatism has really been hammered by history – and it came out the other side better than it was. That’s what my hawkish case for Kerry was really about – hoping the same would happen to liberalism if he wins.

I wonder how many conservatives have noticed their own sea change between Bosnia and Iraq since their president shifted along with them? Well, Pat Buchanan has certainly noticed. And boy is he unhappy about it. I disagree with Pat Buchanan about practically everything, but I will give him credit for being alert.

Cicero has more, and you should read the whole thing.

President Bush, who ran on a near-isolationist platform in 2000, redefined conservatism in 2001 because the world changed. That’s why he’s got my vote. Mr. Kerry, so far, seems reluctant to redefine liberalism in the context of the modern world. His heels are firmly planted on a mountain floating on magma. As president, liberalism, as we know it, will either be redefined or it will perish.

UPDATE: Patrick Lasswell argues with me without quite realizing that I agree with him. Yes, Patrick. That’s why I’m voting for Bush and not for Kerry.

To the Shores of Tripoli

I finally got my visa. I’m going to Libya at the end of next month.

While you are at home eating Thanksgiving turkey, I will be here eating couscous and being led around by one of Ghaddafi’s official government babysitters:

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(Photos from Michael Palin, Africatravelling.net, Komm.at, Safari Tourism Services, and Rediscover.co.uk.)

Yard Signs and Vandalism

My wife asked if it would be okay with me if she put up a John Kerry For President sign in front of our house. Of course, I said. Why should I have a problem with that? She lives here and she’s voting for Kerry.

I told her we ought to put up two yard signs, one for Bush and one for Kerry. It would have been the only way to reflect my position on the presidential race, let alone hers. (This was when I was still undecided.) It’s still kinda sorta true even now that I’ve settled on Bush. I plan to vote a split ticket this year. The Republicans get my White House vote and the Democrats get the rest.

Then she said something that didn’t surprise me one bit: “Whatever we do, we should not put a Bush/Cheney sign out there by itself.”

I didn’t have to ask her why she thought that. We both live in the same neighborhood and we both have eyes. There are no Bush/Cheney signs on anyone’s lawn. Every single last sign is for Kerry. And there is plenty of vandalism and graffitti around. Our corner grocery store had an American flag spray-painted on it. The 50 stars were replaced with a Nazi swastika. The New York Times newspaper box on the corner has “Lies” spray-painted across the front of it. Handbills from the neo-Stalinist International ANSWER have been stapled to telephone polls for years. I saw a poster a few hours ago accusing the United States of genocide. Someone set up an “Impeach Bush” headquarters just down the street. They hung a poster in the window that declares the president is a terrorist. Someone threw a molotov cocktail at a Starbucks.

Don’t get the wrong idea. There is only one neighborhood in the entire city where I would rather live. (That would be NW 23rd, for those of you who know Portland.) My own neighborhood is great. It has everything I want: new and used bookstores, coffeehouses, nice restaurants, microbrew pubs, movie theaters, corner groceries, the whole urban works. Our neighbors are friendly decent people. The staff at the local hangouts know my name and what my “usual” is. But there are just enough jerks around (anarchists, mostly) who think this is Berkeley.

We made the right call when we decided putting a Bush/Cheney sign in the yard would only be asking for trouble. Just now I turned on the local news and saw that the more-conservative neighborhood next to mine (we’re talking a distance of six blocks away) was vandalized last night. Those who put a Bush/Cheney sign in their yard woke up and saw “Fuck Bush” spray-painted in huge white letters on the sides of their cars.

Portland isn’t the only place where this sort of thing is happening. Someone in Madison, Wisconsin had an 8-foot by 8-foot swastika burned into his lawn next to his Bush/Cheney sign. Someone fired shots at a Bush campaign office in Tennessee.

Roger L. Simon has been writing recently about “secret” Bush supporters. Moxie wrote about her experience coming out of the conservative “closet” in Los Angeles.

What a contemptible election season this is. People who live in a democracy aren’t supposed to be afraid of announcing who they will vote for. Radical leftists aren’t the only jerks in the country. Maybe the same sort of thing happens to liberals in conservative cities like Dallas. I don’t know. If so, I haven’t heard about it.

UPDATE: I figured this was going on somewhere. A Democratic Party office in Louisiana was vandalized and torched – twice. Also, an anti-Bush protestor was kicked by a delegate at the Republican National Convention. Nice election we got here.

John Kerry’s Conservatism

I’m not the only one who thinks George W. Bush is the real liberal in this election and that John Kerry is the real conservative. And when I say Kerry is a conservative I do not mean that as a compliment. Neither does Roger L. Simon.

Where I Stand

I’d like to clarify something for regular readers since there has been a bit of a misunderstanding.

I have decided to vote for Bush (and a Democratic Congress) in the election. A few days ago I said I’m 51 percent for Bush and 49 percent for Kerry. I didn’t mean to suggest I’m still undecided. What I meant was that I slightly prefer Bush to Kerry. It’s not a slam dunk. My hawkish case for Kerry wasn’t enough to convince me to vote for him, but it was enough to convince me that a Kerry presidency, though ultimately not what I prefer, will be okay and have real advantages. There will be other advantages that I didn’t mention in the article, but that’s because the scope of the piece was limited only to foreign policy.

I went undecided for a while. Probably for too long, but I did it on purpose. I wanted to make really sure I wasn’t overreacting to John Kerry and conflating him with Dennis Kucinich. So I tried to talk myself into voting for him as best I could. And I tried to talk myself into it on my terms and my terms only. This is the first election where I have done this. If I’m going to declare myself Independent, I need to think like one instead of just hopping onto a different bandwagon because I no longer care for my old one.

Because I am only a moderate Bush-supporter, I can understand very well why someone who isn’t me might prefer John Kerry instead. I can argue with myself about this, so I’m perfectly comfortable disagreeing with others and understanding how they might see things differently. It also helps that more than half my friends are voting for Kerry, and so is my wife. It is not possible for me to believe that a vote for Kerry is a vote for terrorism. None of my friends or family are voting for terrorism.

This leads me to something else, something I really wish I did not have to address.

Yesterday I got into an argument with some people on a blog (which shall remain unnamed) that is centrist on the surface but has a monolithically right-wing readership in the comments. I used to contribute to that comments section regularly, but I now mostly abstain. Anyone with opinions contrary to the pack has been driven out, not by the gracious blog host but by the readers. I am too “left-wing” for them to handle. My own wife was insulted in lurid terms. (No one will ever get away with that here.)

The reason I mention this is because I want to say right now that I will not permit my comments section to degenerate that way. Contrary opinions are both welcome and encouraged here. Just because I’ve come “out” for Bush does not mean I am uninterested in conversation and dialogue or that I’m willing to let my comments section become an intolerant right-wing echo chamber. I will shut down the comments if it happens because I can’t take it.

UPDATE: Please, no one ask me to identify the blog I mentioned above. I am not going to do it. It makes no difference at all. I’m sorry I was even as “specific” as I was. This phenomenon affects the entire blogosphere and has been an ongoing problem for some time now. I am not going to pick on anyone in particular because of an anecdote, especially since it is not in any way whatsoever the fault of the person who owns the blog. Babysitting the comments isn’t easy, and it becomes exponentially more difficult as the readership grows and the threads get longer. That’s just the way it is. It is no one’s fault.

The Second Debate

I only watched part of the debate tonight. I taped the whole thing and may sit down to absorb it this weekend. (Then again, I may not.) I found this one far more irritating than the first.

I did see a few small pieces. And instead of reacting to the debate as a whole (I can’t, sorry) let me react to two things I did see.

George W. Bush still can’t explain who we are fighting and why even after all this time. Yes, weapons of mass destruction are a problem. But, you know what? England has weapons of mass destruction and we aren’t worried about those. I don’t lose any sleep over the French Force de Frappe. Bush continues to reduce our enemies in the Terror War down to abstract nouns; terrorism and weapons. Wrong answer. Paul Berman, an anti-Bush leftist, knows who and what the enemy is better than the president does. Berman more or less agrees with the neoconservatives here. Yet not one of those in his administration is willing to talk about this or explain it to anybody who doesn’t read the same geeky magazines I read. That needs to change. And it probably never will.

As for John Kerry, I am tired of his alternate universe where Bush “pushed our allies away.” I can’t stand to listen to it anymore. One of two things is happening here. He is unseriously playing “politics” and hoping to fool everyone to score points. (If so, he is not fooling me and I don’t care to have my intelligence insulted on a regular basis.) Or he desperately needs to catch up — fast – on what has changed in the trans-Atlantic alliance since the end of the Cold War. Robert Kagan, one of the smartest thinkers around, can fill him in on the details. This ought to be old news by now, senator. Do your homework. If you are elected president, there will be a test.

Kerry-Haters for Kerry

These guys need a link.

Are you going to vote for John Kerry even though you find him unpleasant, annoying, arrogant, waffling, misguided, or just generally unappealing in some profound way? Then you’ve come to the right place! We’re Kerry Haters for Kerry — perhaps his largest constituency! No need to hide in the Kerryhating closet anymore while you pretend to everyone that he’ll be a great president. Here you are among friends.

I’m almost a Kerry-hater for Kerry. I tried talking myself into being a Kerry-hater for Kerry. But I couldn’t quite do it.

They have some great bumper stickers over there for those of you who understand where I’m coming from but plan to vote for him anyway.

(Hat tip: Instapundit.)

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