Friday, March 28, 2003

Holy moly. Czech woman facing jail over kiss. Kiss?! She bit the guy's tongue off! This story says more about sex/gender relations amongst the Czechs than I can possibly put into words.
The Iraq war is obscuring news of an ongoing sweep-up of anybody and everybody connected with organized crime and the killing of Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic in Serbia. A friend who just moved back from Belgrade told me his feeling is that overall, the fall-out from the assassination might in fact be positive, since the government seems to be using all legal (and many illegal) means to crack down on the mob and accelerate reform. Among the items posted by the Institute for War and Peace reporting:
- Two of the most wanted mob leaders, and the man thought to have ordered the Djindjic's assassination, were killed in a gun battle last night. This isn't quite "a Jack Ruby" since they were killed by police resisting arrest, not while in custody and not by their own associates. Daily Telegraph also reports on this. (Thanks to Dan for the heads-up on this.)
- The remains of Serbia's ex-president -- thought to have been eliminated by Milosevic henchmen three years ago, executed and dumped into a pit -- have been found in Vojvodina, the part of northern Serbia bordering Hungary.
- Milica Gajic-Milosevic, wife of Slobodan Milosevic's son Marko, arrested yesterday.

This excellent UPI feature reports, "Many among the under-30 group say they are contemplating following in the steps of their predecessors during the barren decade under Milosevic and settle abroad for good." Great! Just what Serbia needs -- another brain-drain exodus. The feature also reports on the government's clean up of the judiciary. "Nearly 80 other judges have been suspended and a district judge was arrested last week on charges of corruption and connections with the criminals." (For background on the need to purge the Serbia judiciary, see below.)

But the greatest stir, by far, occasioned the March 17 arrest of "turbo-folk" phenomenon Svetlana "Ceca" Raznatovic, widow of the notorious warlord "Arkan." I once had dinner with a Croatian guy who claimed, in all earnestness, that turbo-folk (imagine the nastiest Euro-trash with an over-the-top, mocking Muslim/Albanian touch) essentially caused the break-up of Yugoslavia. Here is a fascinating article about Ceca from the NY Times in January. She's still in custody.

Dime punditry: People have been searching for months for an historical comparison to post-war Iraq (Japan, Germany), but oddly enough, the parallel is right in front of our noses: Serbia, times 100. Most people (not everybody) will be glad Saddam's gone, but they'll despise the US for the invasion and sneer at our blinkered sanctimoniousness for a long time to come.
Armchair media critics might appreciate this short Reason article ostensibly about Connie Chung getting fired from CNN, although it's really about the "age of radical decentralization of news sources and feeds." I find it interesting that CNN's market share is being eaten away at both ends, so to speak -- by Al Jazeera and Fox News. Some of the left like might tag Reason as "crypto-conservative," but whatever you call it, they write some pretty good stuff. Via Matt Welch.

Like the article called "Pax Man Fever" on why we need to believe in Salam Pax. In the end, author Sara Rimensnyder strikes a somewhat fatalistic note: "If our bullshit detectors can't help us judge the truth of one voice, how can we hope to get an accurate reading about the state of an entire nation, or indeed a region, forecasted twenty years into the future?"
Today I'm reviewing Mexican restaurants in Prague. Are there any good ones?
I've been exchanging emails with Michael Young of Beirut Calling, who today posts his view on the Al Jazeera flap, mentioned below. Michael Young is a resident of Beirut and a columnist for Lebanon's Daily Star. It's worth reading.

Meanwhile, looks like the Washington Post has picked up the story of the Al Jazeera hack by the so-called "Freedom Cyber Force Militia."

Still "cannot find server" at Al Jazeera's English site.

Thursday, March 27, 2003

Flummoxed is the word, when I read Antonin Scalia asking: "What about rape laws that only apply to male-female rape? Do you think they're unconstitutional?" This is part of what the Washington Post calls "a lively discussion of state sodomy laws" at the Supreme Court yesterday.

Turning aside the outrage that lawmakers are even discussing this seriously, I believe it's worth pointing out that the actual crime of the Sodomites, as described in chapter 19 of Genesis, was not homosexuality per se, but threatening Lot's guests with homosexual gang rape. Big difference. That Lot's guests just happened to be angels of God (not that they could have known that) does not really help their case, although Lot himself doesn't get off too well, either, considering he offered his own virgin daughters to the mob instead.

Vladan, the Czech version of "Bring them out, so that we might know them" is here. Vyveï nám je, abychom je poznali!

Al Jazeera's new English-language web service, launched just a few days ago, has been put offline by a massive denial-of-service attack, says this article, quoting station reps. Then again, this article also quotes station reps saying it's not true -- you just can't get to the site because it's overloaded with traffic. Probably both versions are correct. In recent days, I've had trouble reaching both Al Jazeera's regular Arabic site and the English version.

For news about Al Jazeera, go here.

UPDATE: I still can't open the link, but my friend reports that she got to a big Amercian flag draped over the shape of the USA with the words "Brought to you by Freedom Cyber Force Militia." Jesus, what morons. There are reasons not to like Al Jazeera -- I have my own problems with a news service that refers to Palestinian suicide bombers as "martyrs" -- but understand this: Al Jazeera is the closest thing that now exists to what "Free Iraq" will look like. So suck it up and get used to it.
Bryn Perkins of Prague's best bookshop Shakespeare & Sons recommends "War and Its Consequences" by Thomas Powers in the last-but-one New York Review of Books. Don't read it online -- get your sorry bum down to Shakes (Krymská 12) and buy a copy.

The article (OK, so I read it online) doesn't do any original reporting, but then again, it's a book review. It's quite forward-looking, addressing the question of how long will we be in Iraq, which seems pretty important given the welcome that U.S. troops have received thus far. It also goes into how the U.S. has increasingly relied on its military to carry out foreign affairs, whether stopping ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, cracking down on drugs, or distributing food in Somalia. Hence the regional CinC's (Commanders in Chief) have often become more powerful than ambassadors.

One of the sources cited in this article is Nicholas Lehmann's excellent recent New Yorker piece called "After Iraq," which does have plenty of original reporting. This is available online, too -- click here -- although you can't seem to find it anywhere on the New Yorker's web site. The best magazine in the world, probably the best magazine that ever was, has no search function for its archive. Bizarre.
There are some nice-looking articles available on the New Yorker web site right now. If any of my friends would care to read some of them and recommend the good ones, that would be nice.

UPDATE: Alex writes: "I have to say that, as good as New Yorker's news coverage and commentary is, I still find myself being the most impressed with the film review. David Denby writing about a crappy Steven King movie is way more enjoyable than it should be."
Today's recommended war reading: First, read this post from Tacitus, commenting on yesterday's Washington Post article on why the war could "last months" and "will require considerably more combat power than is now on hand there and in Kuwait." Then read the Post article itself. The final graph is just about the only part that offers some reason for optimism:

One senior general at the Pentagon, listening to both sides of the argument, said he thinks that in short term the pessimists will look right, but will be proved wrong by mid-April. "There are some tough days ahead," he said. "I think this whole thing is at the culminating point. Within the next week to 10 days, we will find out about the mettle of the Republican Guard." But he concluded, "Once we smash the Medina and Baghdad divisions, it's game over, and I think Baghdad will fall."
Great expat blog: Uzbekistan Diary, "a year in the life of a North American Journalist working in Uzbekistan." Loads of slice-of-life tidbits you won't get from any news site. Just a sampling from yesterday's entry: An anecdote about how Westerners vs. Central Asians view nepotism, or as they prefer to call it, "strong family values." Plus, we learn from a "be-still-my-heart" gorgeous seminar director from Afghanistan that "the amount of alcoholism that runs through the ex-pat community in Afghanistan is nuts."

Wednesday, March 26, 2003

Welcome to the quagmire... Revolt in the south of Iraq is an ill omen, says The Age of Australia. The report does not mention that the only other source besides British troops to report on an uprising in Basra has been the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, based in and backed by Iran. If that's true (today, a different source with the same group downgraded it to "disturbance") somehow I'm not so sure they're going to welcome the Western "liberation."
Via Steve Hercher's Pragueblog via Glenn Reynolds's Instapundit, Al Barger of the Culpepper Log says "Salam's a big boy" and can take of himself. This was sparked by a debate over whether CNN and BBC should have mentioned the Baghdad blogger on-air, which they did. I agree it's a big patronizing and dumb to think that Big Media shouldn't cite Salam Pax's now famous web log, while everybody on the Internet can plug him all we want. Still, I'm not sure Salam had any idea he would get this big (although he certainly should have). I really hope he knows what he's doing, hope he's safe and, from a purely selfish perspective, wish he would post more. He's posted only once since Friday, and I get really anxious about it.

NOTE: If you can't reach Salam Pax with the above link, try omitting the underscore in "dear_raed" or clicking here. As of Thursday (3/27) he still hasn't posted.
Don't look now (nobody else is) but it looks like they really caught the guy who killed Zoran Djindjic.

While doing research for this story for Slate on Zoran Djindjic's assassination, I found some excellent English-language resources for Balkan news. Local Belgrade sources include Blic, independent radio station B92, and shortwave Radio Jugoslavija.

But far and away the best coverage of the Balkans comes from the Institute for War and Peace reporting. They have a daily update on Serbia developments here. Sifting through recent archives, I found some fascinating (and shocking, even for Serbia) stuff, such as the fact that the guy who tried to kill Djindjic in February prior to his actual assassination had in fact been arrested and then let go by the judges. Djindjic, who had only just taken hold of real power from ex-Yugo Pres. Kosturica, was understandably outraged, calling the Milosevic-era judiciary corrupt and promising reform. The judges accused him of trying to curtail their independence and blamed the police for providing insufficient evidence to keep the accused in jail. The police complained that new a law giving them only 48 hours to provide evidence on an arrested suspect doesn't give them enough time. Apparently, this was not a one-off mistake, but part of a larger pattern. This article, written just over a week before Djindjic's murder probably gives the best backgrounder on the unholy mess that allowed this to happen.

Word on the street in Belgade is that the killing of Djindjic, though recognized almost universally as a tragedy, may actually help the country, since it gives the government an excuse to use all legal and many illegal means to crack down on the nexus of organized crime/ex-war criminals/Milosevic-era state security apparatus. That's anecdotal, but it's backed up by this report saying " the assassination of Zoran Djindjic could presage the end of organised crime in Serbia."

As a resident of a small country, relatively nearby, filled with liberal, educated people, but so often plagued by insularism, provicialism and cronyism, where so many unprincipled politicians and local power players seem not even to acknowledge the existence of a larger world beyond their borders, I was particularly saddened and outraged by Djindjic's assassination. Really, it's amazing: Did they actually think they could just rub out the prime minister as though he were a nuisance impeding on their turf, without there being hell to pay? Imagine if Vaclav Klaus or Vladimir Zelezny had no compunction about eliminating a political opponent with two sniper's bullets: That's Serbia for you.

Tuesday, March 25, 2003

Some useful chatter on Slate about Michael Moore:

...It would have been different, I think, if a non-blowhard had gotten up there and bellowed, "Shame on you!"—had put his or her career on the line to say that Bush was a liar. But that kind of boorish grandstanding comes too naturally to Moore, a man who didn't have the intellectual honesty to add that Saddam Hussein is a "fictitious president," too—and one who has killed a lot more people than George W. Bush and his father combined. Nothing has ever shaken my faith in my own politics like having Michael Moore in the same camp....
Here is some information about the Turkmen language, the state language of Turkmenistan. It's related to Turkish, but it's not Turkish.
US Air Force spokesman Victor E. Renuart: "The battlefield is a very hazardous location." No way.

Interesting and informative posts on Beirut Calling, including this one:

Now is a good time to reflect on the fate of the Iraqi opposition, in light of the visible resistance by Iraqis to the coalition invasion. Given this, how seriously can one consider (a) a postwar opposition-based government that will have any measure of popularity? And (b) if the U.S. recognizes this, how would its presumed alternative, a military government, fare?

Will the U.S., in order to cut this Gordian Knot do what several opposition figures dread: establish a military government, but use Baath Party administrators to run it?

Media criticism is almost always is a waste of time, whether it comes from the right or the left. Some particularly dumb quotes from this article:

Ed Offley, editor of the online Defense Watch Magazine, said that the presence of young, inexperienced reporters led to "shrill and nervous coverage."

Um, no.... Actually, most front line troops themselves haven't seen battle before -- not that there's anything wrong with that. But many of the embedded reporters are, on the other hand, "veteran war correspondents" who have covered conflicts all over the world. Just not alongside the US military.

Fred Barnes, the executive editor of The Weekly Standard and a commentator for the Fox News Channel, said the news media was overstating how easy the war would be and then panicking as fighting got rough. "The American people," he said, "are not as casualty-sensitive as the weenies in the American press are."

Who's panicking? I suppose he thinks every news report should lead with "The US is still winning the war, but...." and end with "... but the US is still winning the war." True, there's plenty of dumb hype on TV right now. Nothing new there. But if we'd seen celebrations in the Iraqi streets, the hawks would have congratulated themselves and said, "I told you so." Now that there are no celebrations in the streets, they blame the media for building the expectation and say, "This is WAR, motherfucker!" Ah, the anguish of dogma.
In answer to a question I asked myself below, here are the rules for journalists covering the war. Excellent coverage on CNN this morning of the "tip of the spear" of the US Army advancing up the highway from Nasiriya to Baghdad, through a sand storm, passing civilian cars and trucks -- ! -- heading the opposite direction. Crossing the Euphrates was a major development, and they should be on the outskirts of Baghdad later today. Hopefully as that progresses there will be less resistance in Basra and the British troops can move in to distribute food and water.

Monday, March 24, 2003

Ever wonder why the majority of blogs lean toward the conservative side of the political spectrum? I think the answer is frighteningly simple: Blogging is generally a medium for arrogant blowhards who love to hear themselves speak. In America especially, conservatives -- even the intelligent ones -- are generally arrogant blowhards who love to hear themselves speak. And that's really all there is to it. (By the way, anybody who does a blog, left or right, even if only three people are reading it -- like this one, hi Liz, hi David -- is indulging their arrogant blowhard side.)

On that note, introducing the blog of Tom Tomorrow, author of the brilliant and hiliarious comic "This Modern World" (whose best recent toon was the "Crazy Moon Lover" sequence). Even though he gives a thumbs up to Michael Moore today, his is probably the most intelligent blog on the hard left.
David, I supposed you're goading me with your SMS about the excellent Oscar "performance" of Michael Moore. Read A.O. Scott's review in The NY Times: "The slippery logic, tendentious grandstanding and outright demagoguery on display in 'Bowling for Columbine' should be enough to give pause to its most ardent partisans, while its disquieting insights into the culture of violence in America should occasion sober reflection from those who would prefer to stop their ears." That review pretty much says it all, but A.O. Scott should have twisted the knife in much deeper. To be sure, there are some excellent moments in that "documentary," both aesthetically and politically, but anybody who praises Moore for being a useful "counterweight" to conservative voices prove themselves more interested in striking an intellectual pose than in presenting anything approximating the truth. Shame on you, Mr. Moore, you sorry excuse for a thinking person.

CORRECTION: I misinterpreted David's SMS, which called Moore's performance "spectactular," a knowing reference to Guy Debord's The Society of the Spectacle, one of my formative texts, in which that word means something close to "hype based on illusion." OK, yes, I agree: Here you have Michael Moore calling his own work "non-fiction" while dissing the work of George Bush as "fiction" when in fact both are mere performances, profoundly disconnected from reality. Words, words, words. Yadda, yadda, yadda.
Guess who's back, guess who's back, guess who's back, guess who's back.... We've created a monster, and his name is Salam Pax. All hail Salam, the Baghdad blogger. Note: In the chaos, Salam seems to be adding to previous posts. If you've been checking regularly, it's difficult to notice that he's added a lot of stuff since Friday's bombing. He was imcommunicado over the weekend and I'm very glad he's safe.

Woah. Since I began writing this post about a minute ago, he's posted a bunch of stuff. Must read.
Thoughts on an ugly war weekend: US has not in fact taken Al Nasiriya, though they've secured several bridges across the Euphrates, so no more tongue-in-cheek Bible references. (Though I read most of Genesis over the weekend -- more on that later.) Turns out US/UK hasn't even secured Umm Qasr, the port on the Kuwaiti border which had supposedly fallen last week. No mass surrenders (initial reports of an entire division surrendering turned out to be false when the Iraqi general appeared on Al Jazeera and said he was still defending Basra -- DUH) and almost zero celebrations in the streets. This might be largely because the cities haven't been secured, and Saddam has (surprisingly) deployed Fedayeen amongst the regular troops and civilian population to prevent mass surrenders and maintain pockets of resistance in the south, rather than saving them for the defense of Baghdad. Whether this means the attack on Baghdad will be any easier remains to be seen -- probably wishful thinking.

Once again, must recommend Agonist web site -- far better than any Big Media in its coverage of the war. For background on how to gauge progress, read Fred Kaplan's (outdated yet prescient) Slate piece cited below. But those standards, the war is definitely going badly. For visuals, see Nick Denton's map. For gruesome pictures of the the captured (and dead) American GI's, click here. Geneva code violation? Just over the line, I think. If these were Al Qaeda guys, it would be much, much worse. (PS to the Beeb anchor whose name escapes me: There is abolutely no link between this and the treatment of Qaeda suspects at Guantanamo Bay. Asshole. Grrr.) Notable that Al Jazeera's web site (can't dig up the exact link, because I can't read Arabic) did not run the picture of the black American woman in its original web post; their pictures of the bodies were far more gruesome, too.

Despite the unexpected casualties, the most disturbing news (for me, anyway) was in fact posted and commented on by the blogger Tacitus, who comments on ABC News reports about hostility and suspicion among the locals of Safwan (here's the transcript of the report). This is a southern town -- you know, where they're supposed to be throwing candy at the liberating troops, or vice versa. Tacitus posts some excellent suggestions for urgent countermeasures, but I'm skeptical the Bush Administration will follow through, now or in the long run. I hope I'm wrong, but this is a president who ran his campaign against the idea of nation-building. His base constituency (minus the interventionist hawks at the Pentagon) is essentially isolationist, and would rather pull out of Iraq as soon as the war is over and simply drain the swamp (more likely, bomb the swamp) when it gets ugly again; and unlike Clinton, Bush has no history of appropriating the opposing camp's shibboleths and touting them as his own. After coming around to the necessity of war, this is the main reason I turned against it when Bush and Blair made clear they were no longer interested in a UN compromise. (Lack of interest in a compromise was the second reason: If you don't believe it was still possible for the UN to approve the war, note that Chirac proposed a 30-day deadline at the last minute -- ignored as too little, too late. Sorry, but I really don't think an additional 30 days would have been so horrible for the sake of a more united international front. But let bygones be bygones. PS My newest wacky theory is that Blair is looking ahead to the 2004 US elections, which he'll theoretically be in a position to influence, though in reality I doubt he'd be so impolite.)

Tacitus also cites a NYTimes piece quoting a surrendered Iraqi colonel saying Saddam is an American agent. This is not an aberration. CNBC did a report from Dearborn, Michican (or was it Detroit) talking to a gathered group of Iraqi exiles living in the US celebrating the onset of war. The general consensus was that the West put him there, and the West should take him out, and one exile concluding by saying, "Saddam Hussein is a agent of the West." This was on TV; I can't find a link.

Bottom line: Iraq will be far better off after the war than it was before, but don't expect a wave of pro-American feeling.