Monday, September 15, 2014

In re Rice v. Rice

Or rather -- not that spat in and around the elevator, but in re the personal affairs of those who, subsequent to those unfortunate events, became Mr. and Mrs. Rice (may Providence smile upon their union).    Far be it from me to barge into the marital matters of those who would rather be left alone;  but near is it to every other Net-head and Senator and her cousin, to sound off about it, to demand action, to propose this, to demand that.

There are wheels within -- layers beneath -- spirals around,  that case.  It is -- a noumenon, unknowable -- a Ding-an-sich (as Kant put it so nicely -- really, Flaubert could not have phrased it better).  Accordingly, I would not comment -- save that, by merest chance, just a moment ago  I read a vignette by the extraordinarily deft and perceptive writer Langston Hughes, “Who’s Passing for Who?” (apparently written during the entre-deux-guerres; first collected in Laughing to Keep from Crying, 1952; reprinted in the Langston Hughes Reader), which shoots like a shaft through the case.   And enchases it in a much more curious setting than you will readily find online.  Check it out.

It's a-a-l-l-ll good ...

[For a review of the original collection, by another fine writer of the time, try this: ]

[Bescheidene Randbemerkung:  The proposal to fix the matter, by adding yet a third Rice to the mix, as some have proposed, would be perhaps to overseason the ragoût.]

Francophonic footnote to "What to call the ISIL"

[An update to our essay on How to talk about the ISIL, in particular the final section on how to badmouth it.]

In his entertainingly satirical French-language commentary,

Fouad Laroui (our favorite Franco-Morocco-Dutch radio feuilletoniste) comes up with a hit-parade (pronounced EET-pah-RAHD) of dysphemisms:  for the ISIL,  the “IS-no-good” (pronounced EEZ-no-GOOOD); for Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi (the Caliph Ibrahim, to those who acknowledge him as such), “EEZ-no-GOOOD sa-barbe-à-poux”; for the faux-caliphate, the “califarfelu”, for which the adjective is “califarfelutique”.
Additionally, he makes the same allusion to the HRE epigram that I did;  les beaux esprits se rencontrent.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

On the Psycho-theatrics of Beheadings

NPR just now broadcast an interview with a “media ethicist”, re whether the media should display (any, or all of) an ISIL video depicting the beheading of a Western hostage:  Since it is intended as propaganda, propagating it further might be playing their game.
We should instantly note that that kind of reasoning is ‘too powerful’, hitting the bull’s-eye only at the expense of a vast scattering of collateral damage.  For it applies to anything an adversary says:   If he says it, it is because he calculates that his saying it, and our hearing it, is to his benefit;  that doesn’t mean we would be wise to stop our ears up with wax.
The broadcast naturally did not pause to notice that logical nicety, but still we may ask:  What is their game here?  The answer is not obvious.

Our media ethicist opined that it was to spread “fear and terror” (or words to that effect;  the NPR Web-site doesn’t make it easy to find the story to double-check).  But actually … I don’t think so.

We must distinguish between the Western, non-Muslim audience, and the indigenous Muslim audience.
When ISIL mounts severed heads on metal spikes in the center of the town of Raqqah, or when AQAP (and ISIL) choose public crucifixion (of all things) to punish their enemies, then the cowing of the local population is indeed the intent (though there may be other, murkier undercurrents as well)[** vide infra].  But Americans and Britons, comfortably ensconsced in their Lay-Z-Boyz, washing down the popcorn with Diet Sprite ™, are unlikely to be personally terrified -- horrified, perhaps, but not terrified -- :  not because of any stalwart composition, but simply because the scenario is so remote.  The three recently slain hostages were Western men who had ventured professionally into denied territory, knowing the risks.   That particular drama is unlikely to happen to your average Kansan unless you go looking for it.   Thus, disasters abroad with much higher death-tolls -- from tsunamis, mining accidents, or Bhopal-style devastation -- garner little lasting media coverage and less public memory;  we only sit up and take notice if we can imagine it happening to us -- as, most prominently, plane crashes.  That prospect has a quite visceral grip upon the Western middle class, even when (more narrowly examined) the circumstances are rather atypical (memo to holiday-makers:  Don’t go flying over Ukrainian war-zones).  Ferry accidents in Asia, by contrast, which sometimes have even higher death-tolls than your average place-crash, are not a hot item.
The most telling recent example of this  was the Shabaab attack on the Nairobi mall.   That one got a lot of airplay;  but, as though to justify paying any attention to it, our media continually emphasized that it was an “upscale mall” -- the sort we ourselves might frequent (next time we’re in Kenya).

That point is so basic, it seems unlikely that the media-savvy ISIL could be unaware of it.  So what was really going on, with this Theatre of Cruelty?

A key point is that, unlike any of the other ISIL propaganda videos, these feature a Briton, speaking English.   Accordingly, the whole set-up has a scent of the Oedipal.
That surmise is strengthened somewhat by the sordid deathbed epiplexis by both the Israeli-American hostage and the British hostage, respectively blaming President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron for their plight. 
And that in turn does serve a propaganda purpose:  but it is not aimed at terrifying ISIL’s enemies safely far abroad.  Rather, it reaches out to their potential foreign friends, for recruitment purposes.   See?  Back in Briton, I was just a pimply nobody who couldn’t get a girlfriend;  whereas now, as Jihadi John, I bid spectacular defiance to the whole Western world!

[** Footnote] Similarly, the ancient Romans used to decorate the Appian Way with tasteful arrangements of crucified rebel slaves, to widespread audience applause.

(By rights that should be caricature;  yet a perverse aesthetic element is plainly visible in several of the ISIL’s displays:  cf.  Jihadi ikebana. It is the polar inverse of the Western taboo upon the parading of military corpses or prisoners.)


One of the oddest scenes in the Vice News video of ISIL rule in Raqqah ( was of a town square in which people were milling about, going about their business, while propped up against a public fountain  was a crucified man.   It recalled that eerie scene in the movie “Sid and Nancy”, where a woman (a dominatrix) is calmly chatting with a visitor, while a bound man dangles behind her.   Like New Yorkers stepping over the recumbent forms of winos to proceed to the boutique;  guess you can get used to anything.

Beheading has always featured a theatrical quality.   That is why America, having gone week at the knees over the death penalty, and having adopted lethal injection as the most anticeptic no-drama method of dispatching an unpleasant task, though tying itself in knots every time something is botched and the condemned temporarily suffers -- has never considered the swift and foolproof method of the guillotine.   As a symbol it rises unique in horror against a reddish evening sky -- though in historical fact the contraption was invented as a kindness relative to other less certain, messier methods.

The latest from Doctor K

In the Book Review of this morning’s New York Times,  John Micklethwaite has a punchy, perceptive review of Henry Kissinger’s new book, World Order.    Both reviewer and author  champion Realpolitik (which we ourselves have advocated here):

Might a little realism have been useful in Iraq, rather than the “stuff happens” amateurism of the Bush years? Would a statesman who read Winston Churchill on Afghanistan (“except at harvest time . . . the Pathan [Pashtun] tribes are always engaged in private or public war”) have committed America to establishing a “gender sensitive . . . and fully representative” government in Kabul?

Reckon I’ll read it.   I was none too fond of Kissinger during Vietnam (having myself  at the time  been one of the scruffy ones screaming in the streets, of whom Dr Kissinger was presumably not fond),

The enigmatic Doktor, back in the day

but now I have breasted the tape of what, back in those days, was known as “retirement age” (back when it was economically feasible, actually to retire), and can only admire his Sitzfleisch and continued industry:  I may be a senior, but that guy’s (I say admiringly) a geezer!  (“Nonagenarian” is the polite word.)

Another favorable review, from someone in a position to know -- like Henry the K., a former Secretary of State:

Philological footnote to the President's address to the nation concerning ISIL

[We examined the speech in extenso here.   And now, an afterthought.]

The proposition that no true religion advocates the killing of innocents, is open to two logico-linguistic escape-hatches.

(1)  The classic “No True Scotsman” maneuvre.  (Thus, any religion that does advocate this, is no true religion.  -- The chief mufti of KSA has taken the same tack as Obama on this.)
(2)  One must pose the ever-relevant Clintonian Question:  in this case, “It depends upon what the meaning of 'innocent' is."   If the label is refused to those who profess a doctrine other than the received one (as has happened throughout history), the proposition becomes vacuous.
And though the fires of Lichfield have died down for a time, the matter is of more than archival interest:
And with slightly different emphases:


Additionally, a nuancing update to this essay:

A very perceptive article in today’s Neue  Zürcher Zeitung, pointing out some overlooked similarities between goose and gander:

Allzu oft wird weggehört, denn gross ist das Bedürfnis, im Kampf gegen Putins rabiates Expansionsbedürfnis nur noch Gut und Böse gelten zu lassen. Kriege vernichten intellektuelle Grauzonen. Das ist ein fataler Fehler. Nicht alles, was auf ukrainischer Seite kämpft, ist gesättigt mit europäischen Werten und demokratisch. Sogar in der Selbsteinschätzung Odnoroschenkos ist das Asowsche Bataillon eine «rechtsextreme, nationalistische» Organisation. Dies zu bemänteln, ist schädlich, denn es diskreditiert die solide, westliche Argumentation gegen Putin.


Saturday, September 13, 2014


We earlier  examined a celebrated case in France, of proscription of an item of non-verbal speech:  La quenelle.    Here, now, is another, this time from Germany:

Künftig ist es verboten, Kennzeichen oder Symbole der Miliz in Deutschland zu verwenden - hier liegt ein Problem des Verbots. Die Fahne des IS zeigt kein abstraktes Symbol, das nur Dschihadisten verwenden, sondern sie besteht aus dem islamischen Glaubensbekenntnis: "Es gibt keinen Gott außer Gott, und Mohammed ist der Gesandte Gottes." Dieses Glaubensbekenntnis ist eine der fünf Säulen des Islam und hat mit Terrorismus ebenso viel zu tun wie das Glaubensbekenntnis der Christen: nichts.

For reader reference, we reproduce an image of the forbidden object (German nationals are required to avert their gaze):

Now, that one really is an Islamic State flag, for beneath the shahâdah (“There is no god but God, and Muhammad is His prophet”) stands the legend Dawlatu l-Khilâfati l-Islâmiyyah ‘State of the Islamic Caliphate’ (yet another designation for the group!) .
But what of this plain-vanilla version, showing nothing but the bare profession of faith?  Is this banned too?


Apparently so:

Gerade dieses IS-Symbol-Verbot trug dem Vernehmen nach dazu bei, dass das Innenministerium mehr Zeit brauchte als erwartet: Der IS präsentiert auf seiner schwarzen Flagge nämlich eine Kombination aus Kalifatsbezeichnungen, Prophetensiegel und der ersten Sure des Koran. Intensiv prüften die Juristen deshalb, ob durch ein Verbot die religiösen Gefühle der Muslime verletzt werden. Ergebnis: Diese Symbolik wird seit zehn Jahren nur von der Isis, dem jetzigen IS, verwendet.

Radio Free Sweden

Remember Radio Free Europe?   Now there’s a sort of “Radio Free Sweden”, based in Denmark, safely outside the Swedish Politicalcorrectness-Zone.

Voice of Denmark is a daily debate programme for Swedes, dealing with all the things people can’t or won’t talk about in the Swedish media.
Inspired by Voice of America, which broadcast on the other side of the iron curtain during the Cold War, Radio24syv created a radio programme for neighbouring Sweden, so that Swedish listeners could debate subjects considered taboo in their own media.

For some of the things Swedish politicians would rather you not talk about, try this:

When a center-right politician wrote an opinion piece last month on the need to discuss a limit on refugee numbers, her party leadership said they felt “sick” and “ashamed” of her “pitiful” article.

and, with greater snark, this:

Schweden vor der Parlamentswahl:  Der Lack ist ab in Bullerbü

Tomorrow’s parliamentary elections could prove interesting.  They might be hearing from these guys:

The Return of the Repressed

Zum Thema:

[Update 14 September 2014] Alright, okay, the results are in.
Regarding the minority parties, the MSM pre-election hype  was all about the Feminist Party;  in the event, it did not win a single seat.
As for the Sverigedemokraterna, the pre-election coverage consistenly minimized their figures, evidently in hopes that wavering voters would not vote for them.  In the event, they more than doubled their total from last time.  They are still very much a minority party (in distant third-place), but compare the trajectory of the French FN.