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Boom!

Here’s what happened to Mt. St. Helens last night, an hour’s drive from my house.

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It looks like someone detonated a nuclear weapon just sixty or so miles away. The photo you see here was taken from suburban Portland. Amazing that I had no idea this happened until this morning. If I had looked to the northeast I would have seen it myself.

Trackback Disabled

Due to the ridiculous amount of spam I have been getting in the trackback box and the fact that I don’t know of a single reasonable countermeasure, the trackback feature has been disabled. Lately I’ve been getting at least ten times more spam than real pings from other Web logs, and it just isn’t worth it. Get stuffed, spammers. Then get a life, for God’s sake.

Winds of Change at Home and Abroad

This image of today’s left-wing Independent is just too much fun not to steal from LGF.

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These headlines are becoming more and more common these days.

Rupert Cornell, who wrote the cover story, says “As Syria pulls out of Lebanon, and the winds of change blow through the Middle East, this is the difficult question that opponents of the Iraq war are having to face.”

Sorry, I don’t mean to gloat, and I shouldn’t. It’s still possible that the whole thing will blow up in our faces and I’ll be the one who has to eat crow. I don’t think it will turn out that way, but I don’t know that it won’t. Nobody does.

What I find interesting here is that this shows the foresight of historians like Victor Davis Hanson. He has long argued that we should stop worrying about anti-American and anti-war jackassery and just win the damn war. If things work out in Iraq and the Middle East, he’s been saying, opposition to the U.S. and the war will largely evaporate. I have had my doubts about that since the opposition is often so reactionary and toxic. But this definitely belongs in his evidence column.

Syria Shudders

I have high hopes for post-occupation Lebanon, despite — and certainly not because of — Lebanon’s history of violent ethnic conflict. Lebanon’s politics are notoriously ruthless, but there also exists a dynamic, sophisticated, and partially liberalized civil society in that country that counters some of the darker strains in the system.

Things are different in Syria. Unlike the relatively freewheeling Lebanon (in some ways akin to Hong Kong under Chinese authoritarian rule) Syria’s political system is full-bore totalitarian. If the Baath regime were to crack or disintegrate all of a sudden, I wouldn’t be as optimistic about the prospects for a quick transition into democracy without a bit of luck or help from people outside the country. Syria isn’t Iran in 2005 or Poland in 1989, in other words. It’s more like Albania in 1989. Syria might do just fine on its own in an immediate post-Baathist environment, but the people there have been severely traumatized and damaged by the regime. It is impossible to say how things would turn out, and that goes for everyone inside and outside the country.

Marc Cooper found an outstanding blog by Ammar Abdulamid, a Syrian liberal who says the upheaval in Lebanon is reverberating inside Syria in powerful and terrifying ways. Reading his blog is like asking for an emotional punch in the stomach. But Ammar is so intelligent, so knowledgeable of his country, and such a painfully honest writer I can’t turn away.

The City’s air is rife with all sorts of untoward rumors, everything is now possible: there is talk of arrests, purges, coup d’états, assassinations, sanctions, invasions, anything and everything, except, of course, freedom. Everything is possible except freedom. Freedom is never mentioned. Freedom never comes to mind. Freedom remains a distant dream.

The world is changing around us, but we, Damascenes, Syrians, Sunnis, ‘Alawis, Muslims, Christians, Arabs, Kurds, Circassians, or however we define ourselves these days, including perhaps heretics, can’t feel any hope in that. Nothing has touched us so far. Nothing seems to loom in the air, except for rumors and hearsays, none of which particularly inspired or inspiring. The face of an ugly and malevolent god still stares down upon any possibility of hope within us.

A reported wave of arrests has already swept a variety of “low-key” dissidents, that is, those whose arrest is not likely to generate much notice abroad, or even here, no matter how terrible this may sound. But then, everything sounds terrible these days. Despairingly terrible. There is hope all around us, but somehow there always needs to be some pit of despair somewhere meant to serve as a continuous reminder of how things were or could again be. But those whose fate is to live in such a pit have themselves to blame as well. If history teaches anything it’s that such punishment is always earned somehow. We earned it with our long and studious silence.

Being a potentially high-profile case, not to mention, of course, a heretic, my punishment is doubled, tripled and quadrupled: I have to watch others arrested while I am spared, I have to live in the anticipation of a potentially worse fate when the “right” time finally comes, I have to face the look of sickly blame on my sullen wife’s face, and I have to come back home at the end of another long day feeling numb and defeated, regardless of any achievements made.

Khawla and I have indeed reconciled ourselves to the fact that things seem to be like a race against time now: our decision is not simply about leaving the country, but about leaving it before it’s too late, that is, before events catch up with us and prevent us from traveling, together, or at all…

All these years I spent abroad without ever trying to obtain if not another citizenship then simply another residency seem increasingly wasted to me now. All this misplaced love for and belonging to the homeland is coming back to haunt me.

But then, idealists never prosper, do they? Do they?

On the positive side though, I feel like I have enough materials for a quite a few bestselling novels. One day this should make us all rich. One day.

I want to say something encouraging, but it’s hard. These are dangerous days in Syria. Nothing good will happen there while the Baath regime is in charge. It’s an obstacle that absolutely must be cleared out of the way. So the fact that Ammar detects the odor of fear coming off the regime is at least some reason to hope. There are always reasons to hope. And there are some that Ammar seems to forget about.

Totalitarian regimes almost always disintegrate rapidly and seemingly out of the blue. I’m a bit surprised to find myself writing about the possible implosion of the Middle East’s other Baath Party state at all. I knew it would happen at some point, but in early February there was no way to say it would happen in early March.

If it really is the beginning of the end of the Assad regime (do keep in mind that it might not be) events on the ground one month from now will be just as astonishing and hard to predict. Ammar Abdulamid may have little hope at this moment, but history is swinging on its hinges again. In a few weeks he may find that he lives in a different and barely recognizable country.

The reason people in Syria aren’t talking about freedom may be because they don’t quite yet feel like they can. That is so often the story in these kinds of places. But a tipping point may be coming. It is too soon to tell, but soon Ammar and millions of others may find themselves – all of a sudden – saying in genuine astonishment to the people who live all around them: Gosh, it isn’t just me? You feel the same way that I do?

I hate to say it, but this also is true: The implosion of the Baath regime could turn Syria into an emergency-room case. The US, the EU, the UN, and NATO damn well better start thinking about what they will do if that happens.

UPDATE: I just had a thought. If no one in Syria is brave enough to talk about freedom just yet, maybe the U.S. and the E.U. should give it a shot. Give the the people of Syria an excuse to start talking about it.

UPDATE: As it turns out, Bill Clinton has his own blog. In his latest post he floats the idea of regime-change in Syria. (Hat tip: Marc Cantor in the comments.)

Does anyone know if the Clinton blog is a hoax? I poked around Technorati and only found one blogger who thinks it’s not real. But it’s hard to say for sure one way or the other.

YET ANOTHER UPDATE: Okay. Andrew Apostolou found some pretty convincing evidence that the Clinton blog is a fake. Funny! Check it out.

Sink McCain/Feingold

All right then. At last I am convinced. John McCain and Russ Feingold’s “campaign finance reform” is a threat to free speech. At the very least, the way some people interpret it is a threat to free speech.

Matt Welch put the seed of doubt in my mind in an interview with Norman Geras.

I used to think that enacting campaign finance reform legislation was the most important political issue in the United States, and that most people who worried about its effects on free speech were disingenuous. I no longer do.

Hmm, I thought when I saw that. Matt is a smart guy. Whether I agree with him or not (and very often I do) he knows how to make me think. I knew he must have a good point, that he must have learned something important, even though he didn’t hint at what it might be. I filed the thought and knew some day I would see or read or hear about something and it would click whether I changed my mind about it or not.

That day has arrived. The FEC may soon regulate blogging.

It’s shady when gigantic corporations cut fat checks to political parties and candidates. It’s even shadier when gigantic corporations cut fat checks to both parties at once. (This is otherwise known as “covering your bases.”) Don’t tell me it’s charity. Ted Kennedy and Trent Lott really don’t need anyone’s charity money.

But what on earth could possibly be shady about little old me linking to Barack Obama’s or Rudy Giuliani’s Web site? Not a damn thing, unless they pay me to do it and I don’t disclose that payment. But then we’re talking about ethics, not law.

Not according to McCain/Feingold as it’s being interpreted now by the feds. They seem to think if I link to a politician’s Web site it’s the equivalent of giving them money. I could be fined if I go over my limit. (Sigh.)

So Matt Welch (along with plenty of others) was right. It really is a threat to free speech, whether it was intended that way or not.

This has united the blogosphere. Everyone from Atrios and Daily Kos to Charles Johnson and Ace of Spades is rightly bitching about it.

Say what you will. Oh, now you’re against it when it threatens you personally. Well, yeah. I don’t give tens of thousands of dollars to senators so I can buy access and the expectation of getting my phone calls returned. I’m just a guy with a modem and an opinion.

I suppose the CEOs of multinational corporations are just guys (and gals) with opinions (and interests) as well. And I suppose they’re more “important” than me because they make stuff we want and provide jobs in the community. Maybe they should get their phone calls returned before I do. But I’ll bet ten to one that those who donate scads of money get more access and returned calls than those who don’t. I mean, come on, why be naïve about this?

So I don’t know. I still kinda like the idea of campaign finance reform. But that doesn’t change the fact that McCain/Feingold needs to be sunk. It goes way too far, and I’ll be damned if the federal government tells me what I can and can’t write on this blog. This is not Iran, and this is not Syria.

Catastrophe Theory and War

Those who claim the invasion and election in Iraq didn’t cause the upheaval in Lebanon are absolutely correct. One did not cause the other. Those of us who have been advocating the destabilization of tyrannical order in the Middle East mustn’t mistake cause for correlation.

When you press your foot on a car’s accelerator you cause the car to speed up. The proof is that it’s predictable. If the car is in good working order, if the engine is running and it’s in gear, you know well in advance that pressing the accelerator will make it move forward — or backward if it’s in reverse. You can conduct this experiment over and over again and always get the same predictable result as long as the car is working correctly and has gas in the tank.

No one was able to predict the Arab street revolution in Beirut at the time of the invasion or the election in Iraq. The events are related, but their relationship is not a cause-and-effect one.

It’s more nuanced and slippery and unpredictable than that. The fact that some upheaval would erupt somewhere in the Middle East was predicted by lots of people. This wasn’t like predicting “it is going to be warm somewhere in the world at some point in the future.” Any idiot can do that. Rather, it was like predicting a general warming trend in the face of skepticism. There hasn’t been any successful new revolutionary turmoil in the Middle East since the 1970s, and that was in Iran. The Arab Middle East has been revolution-free for longer than that. Yet all of a sudden — bang – right after the Iraqi election, almost on schedule, revolutionary street-level fury toppled a government.

Fellow blogger TmjUtah succinctly summed up the indirect connection between these events in my comments section.

The weapon that will kill the mentality that has generated transnational terrorists/jihadis is not one that we can use. We can carve out a bloody breathing space, but the final act of victory will not be by our hand. I have never doubted this. The ultimate weapon is hope. In the end, victory will be bought ONLY with the sacrifices and efforts of the people who live in those countries.

I’m not saying we don’t deserve some of the credit. We do. The demolition of Saddam Hussein’s Baath regime and the free election that followed sent a powerful shock wave through the region that changed the emotions, the politics, and the psychology of its people. But we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking we control the chaos that we have unleashed. (Remember that the Sunni Baathist insurgency is also something that wasn’t caused, but was made possible, by our actions.)

In the Washington Post David Ignatius explains the dynamic.

There’s an obscure branch of mathematics known as “catastrophe theory,” which looks at how a small perturbation in a previously stable system can suddenly produce dramatic change. A classic example of the theory is the way a bridge, after bearing immense weight for many years, can suddenly collapse because of a new stress.

We are now watching a glorious catastrophe take place in the Middle East. The old system that had looked so stable is ripping apart, with each beam pulling another down as it falls. The sudden stress that produced the catastrophe was the American invasion of Iraq two years ago. But this Arab power structure has been rotting at the joints for a generation. The real force that’s bringing it down is public anger.

Glenn Reynolds made a different but related point three years ago in Tech Central Station.

This illustrates, in a mild way, the reason why totalitarian regimes collapse so suddenly…Such regimes have little legitimacy, but they spend a lot of effort making sure that citizens don’t realize the extent to which their fellow-citizens dislike the regime. If the secret police and the censors are doing their job, 99% of the populace can hate the regime and be ready to revolt against it – but no revolt will occur because no one realizes that everyone else feels the same way.

This works until something breaks the spell, and the discontented realize that their feelings are widely shared, at which point the collapse of the regime may seem very sudden to outside observers – or even to the citizens themselves. Claims after the fact that many people who seemed like loyal apparatchiks really loathed the regime are often self-serving, of course. But they’re also often true: Even if one loathes the regime, few people have the force of will to stage one-man revolutions, and when preferences are sufficiently falsified, each dissident may feel that he or she is the only one, or at least part of a minority too small to make any difference.

One interesting question is whether a lot of the hardline Arab states are like this. Places like Iraq, Syria, or Saudi Arabia spend a lot of time telling their citizens that everyone feels a particular way, and punishing those who dare to differ, which has the effect of encouraging people to falsify their preferences. But who knows? Given the right trigger, those brittle authoritarian regimes might collapse overnight, with most of the population swearing – with all apparent sincerity – that it had never supported them, or their anti-Western policies, at all.

A blogger who calls herself Neo-neocon is a professional therapist who addresses this phenomenon from yet another angle.

If you happen to have read my earlier post on intrapersonal change and how it occurs, I want to add that this knowledge about the desire for liberty has comes to us through images that affect us on both the cognitive and the emotional level, through observation. We view the photos and are moved; at the same time, we are processing them cognitively for what they mean, and we (even the NY Times) are changed as a result.

I believe that one of the reasons this “purple finger revolution” has been able to move with such rapidity is that the worldwide media are able to spread those images quickly and effectively to people who in years past would never have had access to them. These people see those images, do the same sort of processing, and come to their own changed conclusions: it’s possible; we can do this, too. And, for those people who actually participate in the demonstrations or the elections, and directly experience their own newfound power, further personal change occurs not just through observation but through action. The whole thing is a feedback loop in which the observations and the attendent feelings and cognitions lead to action, and that action leads to other feelings and cognitions, which can in turn lead to changed beliefs and even further action.

Interesting times ahead. Fasten your seat belts.

While I Was Out

It looks like while I was out of town and bumming around the Caribbean all sorts of big stuff went down.

When Shelly and I first arrived in San Juan I turned on the news for the first and only time. (Like I said a few days ago, it takes me a while to get out of my habits and feel like I’m on vacation.) Because this is the age of the Terror War, sure enough someone had blown something up somewhere in the world. But this wasn’t just another terrorist bomb. The former prime minister of Lebanon was assassinated. “Ten to one Syria did it,” I said to Shelly.

Then we went out and explored the fine old Spanish colonial city and I forgot all about it. The only other event I was aware of was the sad news that Hunter S. Thompson – who once lived in San Juan – had killed himself.

Now that I’m home and have had time to get back into the news cycle all I can say is wow. It looks like some Arabs had their own 911.

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I’ve been wanting to say something about this for the past couple of days, but I’ve been playing catch-up at the same time and haven’t come up with anything particularly original. So instead I’ll link to Mark Steyn who does a fine job explaining what’s going on in the new Middle East.

Consider just the past couple of days’ news: not the ever more desperate depravity of the floundering “insurgency”, but the real popular Arab resistance the car-bombers and the head-hackers are flailing against: the Saudi foreign minister, who by remarkable coincidence goes by the name of Prince Saud, told Newsweek that women would be voting in the next Saudi election. “That is going to be good for the election,” he said, “because I think women are more sensible voters than men.”

Four-time Egyptian election winner – and with 90 per cent of the vote! – President Mubarak announced that next polling day he wouldn’t mind an opponent. Ordering his stenographer to change the constitution to permit the first multi-choice presidential elections in Egyptian history, His Excellency said the country would benefit from “more freedom and democracy”. The state-run TV network hailed the president’s speech as a “historical decision in the nation’s 7,000-year-old march toward democracy”. After 7,000 years on the march, they’re barely out of the parking lot, so Mubarak’s move is, as they say, a step in the right direction.

Meanwhile in Damascus, Boy Assad, having badly overplayed his hand in Lebanon and after months of denying that he was harbouring any refugee Saddamites, suddenly discovered that – wouldja believe it? – Saddam’s brother and 29 other bigshot Baghdad Baathists were holed up in north-eastern Syria, and promptly handed them over to the Iraqi government.

And, for perhaps the most remarkable development, consider this report from Mohammed Ballas of Associated Press: “Palestinians expressed anger on Saturday at an overnight suicide bombing in Tel Aviv that killed four Israelis and threatened a fragile truce, a departure from former times when they welcomed attacks on their Israeli foes.”

No disrespect to Associated Press, but I was disinclined to take their word for it. However, Charles Johnson, whose Little Green Footballs website has done an invaluable job these past three years presenting the ugly truth about Palestinian death-cultism, reported that he went hunting around the internet for the usual photographs of deliriously happy Gazans dancing in the street and handing out sweets to celebrate the latest addition to the pile of Jew corpses – and, to his surprise, couldn’t find any.

Why is all this happening? Answer: January 30. Don’t take my word for it, listen to Walid Jumblatt, big-time Lebanese Druze leader and a man of impeccable anti-American credentials: “I was cynical about Iraq. But when I saw the Iraqi people voting three weeks ago, eight million of them, it was the start of a new Arab world. The Berlin Wall has fallen.”

I wouldn’t say the Berlin Wall has fallen. I won’t say that until it looks like the Terror War has come to an end. But perhaps this is the end of the beginning. At least it’s the beginning of a new and interesting chapter. The Brett Scowcrofts and Henry Kissingers of the world think it’s a lousy idea to destabilize tyrannical parts of the globe. This week reminds me — in spades — why I just can’t subscribe to their worldview.

The Murderous Reign of Saddam Hussein

The Iraqi Truth Project has released a DVD documentary called Weapon of Mass Destruction: The Murderous Reign of Saddam Hussein. One of my favorite historians, Victor Davis Hanson, and one of the best up-and-coming documentary film-makers, Evan Coyne Maloney, both had a hand in this film. It will be shown at the war crimes trials of both “Chemical” Ali and Saddam Hussein.

I haven’t seen the movie yet, but I did watch the trailer. It damn near knocked me out of my chair. I knew right away I had to order this movie at once. I’ve been back to watch the trailer several times already. It’s an incredibly powerful minute-and-a-half of footage and music.

(I fell in love with Arab music when I went to Tunisia and heard it constantly for two weeks. The problem is I usually didn’t know which musicians were playing. If anyone knows who recorded the piece of music used in this trailer, please let me know. I want to own it.)

I already own the movie. I’m just waiting for it to show up in my mailbox. It looks like something that should not be missed, so go take a look. The link to the trailer is at the top of the page.

Bumming Around Puerto Rico

I’m back from Puerto Rico and apologize for being lazy before I started blogging again. When I go on vacation it takes a while to decompress. But after spending several days in a row bumming around Old San Juan and sitting barefoot on the beach it takes yet another few days to ease back into my work routine.

I don’t have a travel essay for you, mostly because I don’t have a travel narrative to wrap one around. That was on purpose. I didn’t want this trip to be an adventure. I wanted to do very little of anything. So I that’s all I did.

I do, however, have some photos and nuggets of commentary.

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When I first went to Quebec City a few years ago I was envious at what Canada had. Ooh, I thought. Why can’t we have a 400-year old European-looking American city? But we do. We have Old San Juan. Since Puerto Rico isn’t a state – even though it’s part of America – I often forget all about it. You’re looking at it, though. There it is: a 400-year old European-style American city. It’s not French, though, it’s Spanish, which is even better.

A cab driver told me about an executive from Intel he had just picked up from the airport. “This guy told me he had no trouble with immigration after he landed.”

“He flew here from the states?” I said.

“He flew here from the states,” he said and laughed. “It gets worse, though. I told him Puerto Rico is part of the United States so of course there was no immigration. I don’t think he understood. Next he asked me what kind of currency we use on the island.”

I’ll say this in a meager defense of the ignorant man from Intel. Puerto Rico doesn’t look or feel like the U.S. at all. It really is culturally Latin American. Except for the American-style shopping malls in the suburbs and the Miami-style hotels on the beach, it reminded more of Costa Rica than anywhere else.

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Costa Rica does not, however, have much in the way of Spanish colonial architecture. The buildings and houses are mostly modern and block-like, just as they are in San Juan. But the walled city of Old San Juan is a jewel of narrow cobble-stoned streets, plazas, outdoor cafes, and wrought-iron balconies. If I ever decide to move to Puerto Rico, this is definitely where I will live.

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Every single meal I had on the island was excellent. Not only are Puerto Ricans masters of their own Caribean-style cuisine, they invent ingenious experimental concoctions that don’t exist anywhere else. One restaurant in Old San Juan billed itself as Indo-Latino. But it was much more even than that. Dishes weren’t merely a fusion of Carribean and Indian food. They threw Middle Eastern and East Asian ingredients into the mix, too.

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Shelly and I stayed at the Hotel Milano in Old San Juan. I don’t recommend it. Their Web site makes it look like it’s an okay place, but it’s as charmless as a hospital or a cruise ship. We should have stayed at El Convento. Now that’s a fine Spanish hotel. As you can guess, it was a convent back in the day. Unlike the Hotel Milano, the inside is as charming and warm as the outside.

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Several outdoor cafes ring the plaza around the statue of Christopher Columbus.

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But look closer. Not everyone is a fan of Columbus these days.

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La Perla is said to be the most colorful slum in the world. That may be. But it looks to me like “slum” is a bit of an overstatement. I’ve seen some horrific Latin American slums in my day. The worst are in Guatemala and Mexico. Just looking at pictures of Brazilian favelas is enough to depress me. But La Perla is nothing like that. I wouldn’t say it’s a nice place. It’s basically a pile of houses wedged between the north wall of the old city, an old Spanish cemetary, and the Atlantic. It doesn’t appear on a single tourism map. But still. You’re looking at it right now. It doesn’t look any worse up close in real life. If this is still considered a slum, life is definitely better than it once was in Puerto Rico. There are many many worse places in the world than this.

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Not only do I frequently forget that we have a 400-year old European-style city inside our borders, I also forget we have a tropical rain forest, too. This is El Yunque, known in English as the Carribean National Forest. It’s the only tropical rain forest in the U.S. (We do have a temperate rain forest, however – the only one in the world – on Washington state’s Olympic Penninsula.)

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I’ve tromped around the rain forests and jungles of three Central American countries. Each is its own place. They’re dramaticaly different even though they’re all so close together. But they do have one thing in common: I swore that I would never camp overnight in a tent in any of them. I’m used to the temperate forests of the Pacific Northwest. Tropical forests are different; they are manifestly hostile. Razor-toothed crocodiles, malarial mosquitoes, flesh-ripping jaguars, poisonous snakes, and the vicious little biting insect bastards can have the place to themselves when I’m not on a day trip. El Yunque, though, isn’t like that at all. There are no crocodiles, no jaguars, no poisonous snakes, and no insects that I was aware of. There was enough shade from the sun that it was not even hot in midafternoon. I’d love to camp in that tropical paradise. I wished when I was there that I had a tent. It’s truly benign, and if Earth has an Eden it must be El Yunque.

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The forest begins at sea level and rises to the top of a mountain. If you drive or walk all the way up you’ll pass through four distinct ecosystems as you rise in elevation. The top is so windy, so high, and so cool that the jungle aspect entirely vanishes and the trees are reduced to dwarfs.

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Northwestern Puerto Rico is karst country. Karst is a rare land formation found only in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and the former Yugoslavia. The would-be flat landscape is violently scoured with gigantic sinkholes created by centuries of rain water dissolving the limestone.

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Arecibo, the world’s largest radio telescope, was built at the bottom of one of those pits. It looks smallish in pictures, but it’s way too big to fit in a photograph. I’ve seen pictures of it before and had absolutely no idea how big it really is. I took one look at it and said “holy shit!” — a common reaction, I’m sure. The receiver alone is almost the size of a cruise ship.

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The island of Culebra off the east coast of Puerto Rico is, in geologic terms, a part of the Virgin Islands. It is not what I would have expected in the Carribean. It doesn’t look or feel like the tropics. It looks and feels Mediterranean. El Yunque is only twenty miles away across the water. Somehow, apparently, it steals most of the rain that would otherwise fall on Culebra.

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There’s only one town on Culebra. Officially its name is Dewey, named after Admiral George Dewey in the Spanish-American war. The locals defiantly call the town Puebla. But don’t take that the wrong way. They’re sweet and hospitable people. If they harbor a grudge against gringos and yanks they sure do know how to hide it.

The “mainland” island is unbelievably crowded. If you want to get away from it all, go to Vieques. And if Vieques is too much for you, to go Culebra. The island is small. You can walk across it the long way in an afternoon. You can walk across it the short way in only an hour. The one town of Dewey/Puebla is miniscule. There are no large hotels and no corporate chain restaurants or stores of any kind. It’s more laid back and lethargic than even Belize.

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The most popular bar is Mamacita’s. Everyone who works there is an “expat.” (I’m putting “expat” in quotes because Culebra is a part of the United States. But it’s culture is so distinctly Latin American it feels as foreign as anywhere in South or Central America.)

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The Travel Channel recently named Flamenco Beach the second most beautiful in the world. (The single most beautiful supposedly is in Hawaii.) Well, they ought to know. They’ve been to plenty more beaches than I have. Flamenco Beach is certainly the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. The waves are gentle, the water is turquoise, the shape is a perfect horseshoe. The sand is soft and white. Best of all, it’s a Carribean beach with almost no people on it at all. It almost didn’t even seem real. How could such a beautiful place be so empty of people? I felt like a lucky bastard to be there, and I doubt its seclusion will last. (I realize I am not helping by posting about it.)

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If Flamenco Beach ever does get too crowded you can always go to Isla Culebrita’s Playa Tortuga. That’s where you go when you’re sick of “the crush” on Culebra and really want to get away from it all. It’s an island off the coast of an island off the coast of an island. It is totally uninhabited and will likely remain so for a very long time. The Carribean may be crowded, but it isn’t yet full.

Thanks to Mary and Jeremy for filling in for me while I lazily bumming around far from my laptop.

(All images copyright Michael J. Totten)

Are you thinking what I’m thinking?

Posted by Mary Madigan

I thought Michael was supposed to be back by now. Has he wandered off somewhere new? He keeps doing that.

I hope he comes back soon because I’m running out of stuff to say. All I have for you today is some pictures of orange curtains flapping in Central Park.

It’s not much, and Jeremy and Eric have done better coverage of the Gates issue. But, as you know I like to avoid expressing strong or offensive opinions.

If Michael ever does return, I’d just like to say, many thanks to everyone for listening to and making such great comments about my blather; many thanks to Jeremy for sharing the responsibility of guest-blogging and tons of thanks to Michael for the opportunity to speak to the very large audience that he has done a lot of hard work and excellent writing to attract.

Now, I’ll get back to my curtains. Oh, and don’t forget, I’m still blogging at Exit Zero and with the crew at Dean’s World. (that’s another reason why women have a hard time in the blogosphere. We’re so humble).

I Think He’s Around the Corner

Posted by Jeremy Brown (Am I not in your blogroll? Mary either? You will? Thanks!)

Yes, I’m pretty sure Michael is coming back soon, so we should really straighten up a little around here, spit out our gum, open our notebooks, look busy, straighten some hangers, re-stack the kiwis, rebuild the canned peach pyramid, switch the presets back to Michael’s favorite stations, get the fig Newton crumbs off of the Berkline rocker-recliner, top off the tank with 93 octane, erase the word ‘vacation’ from next to Michael’s name on the whiteboard, clean out the litter box one last time, leave the Movable Type password under that fake rock next to the front stoop…

And let me once again thank Michael for this opportunity. And my thanks to Mary whose first rate posts (and strong opinions) have made me look good by association, and to all you Totten readers and commenters who made us both feel so welcome and who added depth, breadth, and weight to the discussions on this blog. It was, once again, great fun.

Now, for the love of God, read my blog, or at least blogroll it…please? (if I meet you on the street I promise not to quiz you to test whether you’ve been reading). Now that my stint here is over, I will stop neglecting my own blog. And In just an hour or so you will find the latest installment of my weekly satire feature; it will be a guaranteed socially pertinent yuk-fest for the whole family.

Catch you all later…

Update: one more link before Michael takes back the microphone: I have an exclusive lead on yet another 20 year old private conversation with George W. Bush that is now being revealed. My source tells me this is ‘not serious but true.’

The Kurds’ War for Oil?

Posted by Jeremy Brown

Did you read that long article in the New York Times Magazine last Sunday? The one about the Kurds? My title for this post should tip you off to the fact that I read it and did not much like what I read.

What I normally do, when I’ve tiptoed into the mudroom of a long article and taken an immediate dislike to the smells drifting in from the kitchen (if you know what I mean), is that I will read the first paragraph and then read the last paragraph. A good and rigorously objective journalist ought to work both sides of the street — if there are two sides — at least to some extent, within a long news piece on an important subject. So I’m not one to skim for outrageous ideas and make easy assumptions about reportorial or editorial bias (or I often am one to do that, but in any case I not this time.)

But you can generally go by the first and last paragraphs (and if you’re trying that trick on this post it may already be too late, but let me assure you that I did this time read the paragraphs in between).

Here, then, is the bulk of the introductory paragraph to Nir Rosen’s piece on the Kurds:

Nir Rosen, a freelance journalist, spent the days before the election among Kirkuk’s bitterly contentious political parties. He says the election was not about ideas, or even politics, but was a blatant grab for power. “The people you saw dancing in the streets were Kurds, dancing to Kurdish national music, and waving the flag of Kurdistan,” Rosen says. Now, with their all-but-assured control over Kirkuk, the Kurds will be emboldened in their ambition to establish an independent Kurdish state, which includes Kirkuk and its oil.”

Welcome to the mental streetcorner at which I was pausing when I came up with this post’s title.

Now here’s the last paragraph:

It appears that Kirkuk has become a place where an oil field has to have a ”commander” and where that commander thinks of himself not as an Iraqi, but as a Kurd.

Was it fair of me to conclude that this Nir Rosen — whose name was naggingly thought only distantly familiar — was trying to tell Sunday readers of the New York Times that it was all going to turn to shit in Iraq, and that those American allies, the Kurds, were just in it for the oil?

I’ll share some of the stuff that came between the first and last paragraph.

I should point out that Rosen does remind readers that the Kurds suffered horribly under Saddam, citing a Human Rights Watch figure of 100,000 Kurds killed during Saddam’s Anfal campaign of 1987 which, he owns, was “widely considered a genocidal offensive.” It was; that’s true. But in the previous paragraph Rosen had introduced the topic of Saddam’s treatment of the Kurds this way:

Turkmens and Kurds alike were suppressed by the aggressive Arabism of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party. Official ”Arabization” began in the 1960′s and accelerated significantly in 1975, when the Iraqi regime began forcibly removing tens of thousands of Kurds, Turkmens and Assyrian Christians from Kirkuk and bringing in Arabs to take their place. This Arabization was chiefly motivated by the government’s wish to consolidate its grip on the oil-rich and fertile region — and to pre-empt a gradual demographic takeover of the city by the Kurds.

And again, I don’t mean to nitpick. The Kurds were suppressed by aggressive Arabism. True enough. I don’t need Rosen to get elegiac or emotional about this stuff. The facts will suffice. The trouble is that just a few paragraphs down you almost — if you didn’t know any better — would get the feeling that the Kurds were a bit scarier, a bit more ‘aggressive’ than Saddam’s Baathists:

During the war to oust Saddam Hussein that began in March 2003, United States Special Forces soldiers fought alongside Kurdish guerrilla fighters. Together they descended on Kirkuk on April 10, and the vengeful Kurds — with Mam Rostam as their commander — looted many of the city’s government buildings and shops, and convoys of Kurdish vehicles could be seen carrying the booty back to the north. Thousands of Arabs fled in advance of the Kurdish and American-led coalition forces; those who remained were subject to a campaign of intimidation. Many were warned to abandon their homes, which the Kurdish militias were seizing for themselves or awarding to the families of peshmerga casualties.

Did you notice the language-use as compared with the way he chose to describe the Baathist (some would say) genocide against the Kurds? Let’s recap: ‘guerilla fighters’, descended on Kirkuk’, ‘the vengeful Kurds’, ‘looted’, ‘carrying the booty back to the north’, ‘Thousands of Arabs fled’, ‘campaign of intimidation’, ‘warned to abandon their homes.’

Almost makes you nostalgic for that aggressive Arabism (which, anyway, was ancient history as compared with this Kurdish and American onslaught that happened just this past year).

Am I saying that Nir Rosen is anti-Kurd? Upon reflection…no. Not exactly. Let me cut to the chase: Rosen is trying to induce in you, the reader, the idea (and you are to think it was your own) that as bad a man as Saddam was, things are going to get much worse than ever in Iraq. And very soon. Why focus on the Kurds? Because they are the most closely allied with the U.S. And because people have a tendency to, well, like them, or at least to fear them less than the Shia and, certainly, less than the Sunnis.

For Rosen there are only scary factions in Iraq. Thus the walls of the Shiite mosque Rosen visits…

“…were lined with posters featuring a who’s who of radical Shiism:

Ayatollah Khomeini, Moktada al-Sadr and his revered martyred uncle, Muhammad Bakr al-Sadr, the father of political Shiism in Iraq. One poster, showing Moktada al-Sadr beside a masked man wielding a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, announced, ”The Mahdi army supports Muslims and protects the religious sites for Iraqis.” Another declared that al-Sadr was on the battlefield against the Americans…

And the Sunni sheik Rosen chooses to tell us about explains to Rosen why he named his son ‘Osama’: “‘I named him after Osama bin Laden,’ the sheik said, smiling. ‘Bin Laden is a good man.”’

Right. I get it. Iraq was far better off before the war, before the election.

But I would be remiss in not sharing the Israeli connection, especially since it will make a nice segue, as you’ll soon see (if you would indulge me a little further):

…the rotund and eternally tired chief of the traffic police, settled into a chair, removing his Israeli automatic pistol, which he said was a special gift from a benefactor he refused to name. The chief of security for this neighborhood, a handsome man, freshly shaved and with a permanent smile, refused to give his name or have his picture taken. Asked about reports that Israeli intelligence agents were training the Kurds, he said Iraqi Jews have the right to return to Kurdistan.

”Better to have Israelis than Arabs!”

So it all comes together nicely. While refraining from telling anyone what to think — but does he have to, since the facts speak for themselves? — Rosen finds himself in the midst of what one can only reasonably conclude is a nightmare about to be visited upon Iraq by Kurds and Americans wielding Israeli weapons acquired God only knows how, from some sinister Mossad deepthroat (Our Man in Halabja?)

But who in the hell am I, a lowly blogger, to criticize the work of a journalist who has risked his life to report this story and others? Let me say that I do respect his willingness to put his neck on the line to report this stuff. And I am grateful for any firsthand descriptions of the people, the cultures, the dangers in Iraq, however uneven or misleadingly applied any given account of these things may be.

I don’t, however, respect how this man and others like him have used his unique access to pass his smugly subjective opinions off as if they were courageously dispassionate journalism. It’s selfish and dangerous.

But my final paragraph approaches. I’ll let Nir Rosen, a native of Israel, have the last word. What follows is from a piece he published last year in Counterpunch and on a website called “Dissident Voice” (and this was why his name was so familiar to me):

The sanctions that cripple Iraq and starve its people do nothing to the dictator whom they did not choose and cannot remove. Israelis on the other hand chose the war criminal that leads them, voted for the bloody policies of their government, and half of them support the “transfer” (the Israeli euphemism for ethnic cleansing) of Palestinians from the occupied territories. So I find myself in the unique and painful position of calling for international sanctions against Israel and wondering if a punitive bombing of Tel Aviv, the city I love, until it complies with international law, might be a good (albeit quixotic) idea.

Free Mojtaba and Arash

Posted by Mary Madigan

From the Committee to Protect Bloggers

Today is Free Mojtaba and Arash Day in honor of the two Iranian bloggers currently incarcerated by the Iranian government.

Read about Arash and Mojtaba.

Here is what you can do. With additional contact information.

Let’s make a difference today. Freedom of speech is not a partisan issue, not an issue of culture or ethnicity, it is a bloggers’ issue and a human issue.

More about the dangers of blogging in Iran.

[Links thanks to Kesher Talk]

UPDATE – Via Buzzmachine: This issue is getting attention.

An online protest Tuesday of Iran’s crackdown against bloggers made an impact–even on Iranian officials.

So says a leader of the Committee to Protect Bloggers, the group that organized the effort to decry the jailings of Iranian bloggers Arash Sigarchi and Mojtaba Saminejad.

Reuters on Tuesday reported that Sigarchi was jailed for 14 years on charges ranging from espionage to insulting the country’s leaders, a move probably linked in part to the timing of the protest, said Curt Hopkins, the committee’s director. “I think there’s got to be some connection,” Hopkins said.

A message left with the Iranian mission to the United Nations was not immediately returned…

According to Reuters, Sigarchi is a newspaper editor and blogger who was arrested last month. A member of the Center for Defense of Human Rights in Tehran told Reuters that the charges against him are political and journalistic.

According to the group Reporters Without Borders, Sigarchi was arrested for keeping a banned blog called Panhjareh Eltehab (The Window of Anxiety), in which he reported the arrests of cyber-journalists and bloggers….

…Blogging has emerged in the past year or so as a powerful tool to make a difference in society. Hopkins said his group’s next step may go beyond simply raising awareness about free-speech issues. The organization may seek to set up special server computers that would make it harder for a government to crack down on those speaking through blogs.

Rethinking

MJT’s new Tech Central Station column is up: Second Thoughts in Both Directions: Iraq has made morons out of a lot of people, as perhaps it should..

Get Well, Helen!

Posted by Jeremy Brown

Congratulations to Helen and Glenn on the news of Helen’s successful heart surgery. We all wish you a speedy recovery and the much needed peace of mind we hope this amazing medical technology will bring.

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