Random Walks: Heart of Darkness

Jackchick_1 “No man can be said to know anything, until he learns that every day is doomsday,” Ralph Waldo Emerson once famously observed. By that standard, there is no one more knowledgeable than Jack Chick, the controversial founder of Chick Publications, purveyor of fine evangelical propaganda since the 1960s. For decades, Chick has been a one-man prophet of doom and gloom, seeing Satanic conspiracies  and signs of the pending Apocalypse lurking in every corner.

It’s a safe bet that anyone reading this has encountered at least one example of Chick’s work. He has both rabid fans, and equally rabid detractors, inspiring both the Jack Chick Museum of Fine Art, and an archive devoted to parodies of his signature style. Yet very little is known about the man himself, who is notoriously reclusive (partly from natural shyness, and partly out of paranoia, convinced — like any true conspiracy theorist — that his enemies are trying to assassinate him). He hasn’t granted an interview since, oh, about 1975. But here’s what little we do know.

Jack Thomas Chick was born April 13, 1924 in Los Angeles, California. A sickly child, he was fond of drawing cartoons growing up. He was also a member of his high school drama club, which sparked a long-standing interest in the theater. In fact, he attended the Pasadena Playhouse School of Theater on a scholarship in the early 1940s, whose former students also include Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman. After a stint in the army, Chick returned to the Pasadena Playhouse, where he met his future wife, Lola Lynn. She was the daughter of fundamentalist Christians, yet apparently agreed to marry him anyway, even though he was, by his own admission, a foul-mouthed heathen. Thanks to his in-laws’ influence, he eventually converted. 

Chick took the biblical exhortation to spread the Gospel very much to heart. He dreamed of being a missionary, or a preacher, but was purportedly too shy for public speaking. That’s when he hit upon the idea of evangelical tracts, inspired by their use as mass-market propaganda by Chinese communists. He worked days as a technical illustrator at Astro Science Corporation, and drew his comics at night. His first, and most popular, tract, This Was Your Life, appeared in 1964, in which a drunken, lustful, godless protagonist dies suddenly and is forced by an angel to view scenes from his “wasted life” before being condemned to the fires of hell. It is still in print today.Chickend1jpg_2   

The huge success of that first little tract spawned an entire industry: Chick Publications now has tracts  devoted to every conceivable threat to evangelical Christianity (real or imagined), denouncing premarital sex, abortion, evolution, homosexuality and AIDS (God’s judgment, of course), astrology, Freemasons, Halloween, witchcraft, rock music, and just about every other facet of modern American life. By the 1970s, Chick had conceived of a more elaborate, full-color, full-sized comic series. He teamed up with an African-American painter and illustrator named Fred Carter to produce The Crusaders, detailing the adventures of two men, fighting evil and spreading the Gospel wherever they went. I was addicted to the series as a child: they had all the elements of good horror, and didn’t skimp on the gory details. Carter’s illustrations are so vivid in their depictions of sex and violence that some critics have described the series as “spiritual porn.”Chickend2jpg_2

But then Chick made a serious miscalculation. He published a new adventure featuring the Crusaders, this time based on the “testimony” of a supposed former Jesuit priest named Alberto Rivera. Rivera claimed to have left the Catholic Church after uncovering the Vatican’s plans for world domination, beginning with its systematic discrediting of mainstream Protestant churches (usually through sexual temptation of spiritually weak ministers). The first tale, simply titled Alberto, was followed by six others, each more paranoid than the last, accusing the Catholic Church of (among other things) participating in the Holocaust, the Jonestown massacre, and the rise of Communism.

The Alberto series proved too crazed and paranoid even for diehard evangelical Christians accustomed to fire and brimstone. They could accept that record companies and rock bands worshiped Satan, that demon possession was real, and that Halloween was evil, but not that the Pope was out to get them. It didn’t help Chick’s waning credibility that another tale in the Crusader series, Spellbound, turned out to be based on fraudulent allegations by a supposed “former Grand Druid” named Johnny Todd, who claimed there were Satanists in the US performing human sacrifice. And on July 15th, a longtime Chick collaborator, Ken “Dr. Dino” Hovind, was arrested for tax evasion — specifically, for refusing to pay taxes on his religious theme park, Dinosaur Adventureland. (Hovind helped Chick revise the classic anti-evolution tract, Big Daddy, among others.)

In response to the growing outcry, many Christian bookstores stopped carrying Chick’s comics entirely. (When I tried to buy the Crusader series as an adult — in a misguided fit of nostalgia — the salesclerk confessed they usually kept them in a special “restricted” section in the back, and were currently “out of stock.” I ended up ordering them online.) Even Christianity Today, a popular magazine with mainstream evangelicals, denounced Chick Publications for its overly zealous anti-Catholicism. The dislike was mutual: Chick eventually resigned from the Christian Booksellers Association, claiming they had been “infiltrated” by Catholic operatives. Rivera himself apparently died in 1997 of colon cancer, although no self-respecting conspiracy theorist would ever accept an official death certificate as proof of anything other than a massive cover-up. Chick and his followers claim Rivera was assassinated by the Jesuits via a special poison designed to give victims terminal cancer.

Chick has a few scattered fans outside the wingnut evangelical enclave, most notably underground comic artists R. Crumb (whose work Chick would frankly find appalling) and Daniel Clowes, whose screenplay for the film Ghost World received an Oscar nomination. Art Spiegelman, the Pulitzer-Prize-winning creator of Maus, is far less complimentary, telling The Independent in 2003, “It makes me despair about America that there are so many people who read these things.”

Spiegelman has it right, in my opinion. Chick comics are nothing more than propaganda masquerading as harmless entertainment. Their only purpose — overtly stated by Chick himself — is to quite literally scare the hell out of us. It’s a tried-and-true method of manipulation, used to great effect by evangelical groups in their zeal to “win souls for Christ.”  It certainly worked on my childhood self; even adults find them disquieting. I once loaned my collection of Crusader comics to PUNK co-founder Legs McNeil, whose tastes ran to the extreme, to say the least. They gave him nightmares. Clowes reported that one night in college he read 80 Chick tracts in a single sitting, and admitted, “I had never been so terrified by a comic.”

When I was around 10, I saw a Christian film called A Thief in the Night, about the supposed “end times.” (The title derives from a Biblical verse pertaining to the Second Coming, which says that Jesus will return “like a thief in the night,” when we least expect it.) Chick had nothing to do with the film, yet it followed the same simplistic formula: a skeptical, unbelieving woman is warned repeatedly that the Rapture is imminent, yet even when her husband converts, she puts off making a decision — until one morning she wakes up to find he has been raptured, along with all the other born-again Christians, and she has been Left Behind. The sequel was even more grim: we witness the rise of the Antichrist, who turns America into a police state where everyone is required to receive the Mark of the Beast (a bar code on the forehead or back of the hand). Anyone who resists is rounded up, imprisoned, and summarily executed. The final scene depicts our unfortunate heroine being forced to watch as a close friend is guillotined for refusing the Mark — her final chance to be “saved.” (The implication: accept Christ now, so you can be raptured and not have to go through that whole guillotine bit to get to heaven — or otherwise burn in hell.)

Evangelicals milked the effect on audiences for all it was worth, following every screening with an “altar call” — in which those now scared out of their wits were invited to come forward and accept Jesus Christ as their lord and savior. Needlesss to say, my ten-year-old self was terrified. Even though I had technically already been “saved” at the age of 8, largely to please my recently born-again mother, I figured I’d better head up for the altar call again — you know, just in case. Nor was I the only one. Practically every single person in the church did the exact same thing. A former college roommate of mine saw the same films as a child and confessed to being equally traumatized.

Are fear-induced religious conversions sincere or genuine? I doubt it. It certainly didn’t “take” in my case. These days I’m a diehard agnostic, and far happier for it. I prefer cheeky biblical irreverence to evangelical horror, eschewing Chick comics for the far more entertaining Web comic, Holy Bibble.  But like Spiegelman, I am dismayed by the seemingly unquenchable American thirst for the kind of Apocalyptic, fear-mongering garbage being disseminated by Chick and his ilk. There are more than 500 million of Jack Chick’s comic books and tracts in print, and they have been translated into over 100 languages, making him the world’s most published living author. (Technically, he’s self-published, but still…) Then there’s the bestselling Left Behind series of end-of-days novels penned by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, using the book of Revelations in the bible to weave a story of apocalyptic events — again, little more than thinly disguised Christian propaganda, yet hugely popular among the Christian community.

So what? You might be thinking. People like a good scare now and then, and besides, it’s only fiction. But it’s far more subversive than one might realize, especially since the line between fact and fiction is so easily blurred when it comes to things like Bibical prophecies and religious beliefs. For instance, the tragic outbreak of violence in the Middle East  over the last week or so seems to have fanned the flames of Apocalyptic conspiracy theorists. LaHaye has been featured in Newsweek (with the heading “Are These the End Times?”). His co-author, Jenkins, and another Christian author, Joel Rosenberg, were interviewed by Kyra Phillips on CNN in a segment specifically citing the current conflict as a sign of the coming Apocalypse. That’s right: CNN interviewed two writers of fiction as if they were expert scholars on the Middle East. (You can read portions of the transcript here.) That’s right up there with Congress asking Michael Crichton to give expert testimony on climate change.

I confess to puzzlement as to why the mainstream media would give so much prominent space and air time to this kind of unfounded conjecture. It’s probably all about ratings, but that’s no excuse. My objection has nothing to do with sincere personal faith, with which I have no quibble. But this is exploitation of tragic events at its most despicable. Yet once again, people are lapping it up unquestioningly. Perhaps it is more comforting to take refuge in wild religious scenarios and conspiracy theories, rather than face up to the truth: sometimes the worst, most fearsome “monsters” are to be found in the darkest hearts of men.

When not taking random walks on 3 Quarks Daily, Jennifer Ouellette muses on science and culture at her own blog, Cocktail Party Physics.

Open Letter from American Jews


On July 6, in a full-page ad in The Times of London, 300 British Jews cried out against the collective punishment of the people of Gaza with the anguished question, “What Is Israel Doing?” Several weeks later, as the Middle East sinks deeper into chaos, that question is ever more urgent.

Hezbollah’s attack on an IDF outpost was a violation of international law. And after Israel attacked Lebanon, Hezbollah fired missiles at Israeli cities, killing and injuring civilians. This is not morally acceptable, whatever the provocation.

But Israel’s response — an explosion of violence and collective punishment directed against airports, bridges and populated neighborhoods of Lebanon — is an even greater crime. And now Lebanon, like Gaza, is on the brink of a humanitarian disaster.

In the face of so much violence and suffering, the United States’ vetoes of UN Security Council resolutions calling for a cease fire are immoral and irresponsible.

We call upon U.S. Jews and others to join us in support of Israeli peace groups who write: “The only way to guarantee a different future of peace and security is by ending the occupation and establishing a relationship of equality and respect between Israelis and Palestinians and between Israelis and the neighboring nations.”

We call upon the U.S. government to use its influence with Israel to stop the collective punishment of the people of Gaza and Lebanon; to work with the international community to impose a cease-fire and prevent any further loss of civilian life; and to work for the immediate start of direct, good-faith negotiations.

Israel’s ongoing occupation of Palestinian territories and massive human rights abuses against the Palestinian and Lebanese peoples are opposed by many Jews in Israel, the U.S., and throughout the world.

Attacks on civilians will not bring peace, security or justice to Palestinians, Israelis, or Jews anywhere.

Click here to sign the petition.  [Thanks to Jonathan Kramnick, and also Alan Sokal.]

Below the Fold: Deep States and the American Coup

Michael Blim

In Turkey, they call it “the deep state.” Inside their state, Turks believe, is another state composed of key people spread throughout its military and civil administrations that conspire to move Turkish society in directions they prefer, regardless of what the nation or its politicians want. If the deep state considers that Kurds once more pose a threat to Turkish sovereignty, a Kurdish independence sympathizer is killed and his bookstore blown up, as happened in November, 2005. Though persons attached to the state police intelligence division are discovered involved and likely responsible for the attack, the indictment is quashed and prosecutor is sacked. On May 18, a judge against state employment or university enrollment for Muslim women wearing headscarves is shot down in his courtroom. His murderer, though portrayed as a right wing Islamist crazy, is also shown to have had cell phone contacts at the time of the assassination with a low level military official. The military orders a “spontaneous” demonstration of tens of thousands that reaffirms the secular nature of the Turkish state before the Ankara grave of Kemal Attaturk. Provocations, it seems, make for great marches, and for well-aimed warning shots across the bow of the current Islamist government that very much wants women to be able to wear headscarves.

The deep state, then, is not exactly a complete second state. It does not collect taxes, control borders, educate children, and so on. It is a network of well connected persons whose organization acts as a parasite on the official state. The deep state borrows its host’s powers from time to time to redirect both the official state and nation toward courses of action the deep state favors. Precisely because it is not the surface state of post offices and public works, its workings are only partially visible. This murkiness provides it with plausible deniability both as an organization and with respect to its actions. Sometimes a deep state gets lucky when one of its own takes over the official state by election or by coup. Other times, the deep state so batters or usurps state power that it succeeds in what Andrew Bacevich calls a “creeping” coup.

With September 11, the American deep state took over, and the coup galloped rather than creeped. Bacevich writes about the post-September 11 Congressional resolution: “The notorious Tonkin Gulf Resolution of 1964 was a straitjacket compared to this spacious grant of authority.” (London Review of Books, June 8, 2006, 3) The American deep state, that is the organizational network created inside the state among cold warriors located in successive Republican White Houses and the Defense Department since Nixon’s reign, and whose most visible present figures are Cheney and Rumsfeld, received its mandate. State violence in all its forms was their weapon, and they could now use it with impunity. The virtually unlimited war-making powers of an American president were their cover, much as European tyrants long ago used the doctrine of the divine right of kings. Congress and the Judiciary supinely gave up what little of the Magna Charta remained the American constitution.

Still, there were things that a deep state, even in charge and legitimate, chose to hide. Wholesale wiretapping, torture of combatants and suspects, secret torture camps, domestic spying are (thus far) among them. Like war crimes, our deep states apparently realize that it is best to keep one’s plausible deniability in some sensitive areas.

What of other deep state shadow worlds? Is Pakistan’s deep state responsible for the Mumbai bombings, just as it has been so assiduous in creating paramilitary groups in Kashmir and friendly neighbors out of the Taliban in Afghanistan? Is its president, General Musharraf, the successful head of the deep state, or its oft-embarrassed creature? (It begs credulity to think of Musharraf in this context as a victim.) While American deep staters fume, they seem unsure of the state(s) to which Musharraf is a part, or they know and are either powerless or pleased.

In Italy, a deep state thrived throughout the postwar period, abetting the Mafia, suborning bomb-throwing neofascists, and punishing native Communists. For a long while, it seemed institutionally unable to cope successfully with the leftist terrorism. Many people then and now have wondered whether the deep state was using left terrorism as a weapon against the communists themselves (by the eighties, they were its primary victims), and as part of a campaign to turn the country further to the right. American involvement helped the development of the deep state along. The US CIA during the Cold War had organized and bankrolled its own version of a Masonic lodge called Gladio through which key politicians, generals, state bureaucrats and business people stood ready to step in to stop a left-wing takeover and to cover up American breaches of Italian sovereignty. Another self-described Masonic lodge, the P-2, bankrolled by influence-peddlers and most likely the Mafia, struggled to erect a deep state of a more domestic, entrepreneurial sort, though the membership list often overlapped that of Gladio. The P-2 list, however, added a key Vatican banker and illustrious Silvio Berlusconi, former Italian premier, monopolist media magnate, and one-time Mafia money launderer. P-2 was exposed and discredited, and the Gladio story surfaced after the Berlin Wall fall as just another tale of how the cold war had created deep states in many sensitive political outposts of the American empire. Along with the fall of the Italian postwar political elite in the beginning of the nineties, the Italian deep state seemed done for, though ordinary Italians found it hard to shuck the impression that nothing in their country’s political life is what it seems.

But America’s worldwide war against terrorism had need of one once more and began in Italy under Berlusconi to create one, this time based largely (as is known so far) in the intelligence services. The deputy head of the Italian CIA was arrested several weeks ago for helping the US CIA kidnap and deport a certain Abu Omar from a Milan street to an Egyptian jail for torture and possible private execution. Italian magistrates are now trying to figure out how far the conspiracy goes, but no one would be surprised if Berlusconi, America’s self-proclaimed best European friend, were finally shown to be cognizant of the plot.

Omar’s kidnap by the CIA was one of scores conducted throughout Europe. The European Parliament has traced over 1000 secret, unauthorized flights flown by the CIA in European Union territory over the past five years. The purpose of the flights was to kidnap EU citizens or residents like Omar and to deliver them to secret locations worldwide for “rendition,” torture under an Orwellian tag.

So our deep state meets their deep state(s). The tracks between us and them, as in the Cold War, are becoming deep furrows once more. The American war on terror, and the legitimization of our deep state’s coup, have quickened the pace of illegal, undemocratic acts by it among many and fostered the growth or revitalization of deep states around the world.

And finally we return to the Turks, for whom we might thank for the highly ingenious concept of the deep state. In thanks, we might warn them that they had better watch out. For some time, relations between the US deep state and the Turkish deep state were quite cordial. The Turks were the right kind of Muslims (secular), and their military was determined to keep Islamists from weakening Attaturk-inspired secular state. Its military and ours have had strong links since World War II, and our government, overtly but often deep state-wise covertly has supported several Turkish military coups. The Turks gave Americans air bases for no-fly Kurdish zones after the first Iraq War. Turkish generals had developed strong ties with the Israeli military, and had stood against Turkish Islamic movements seeking a more religiously friendly domestic politics.

But the Turkish state refused to open up or permit a northern front against Iraq in the 2003 war, a source of lasting pique among American deep staters. A recent blog reported that Defense Secretary Rumsfeld expressed concern that Turkey was moving toward Islamic fundamentalism. Policy institutes close to the Defense department, it was said, were sounding an alarm that current Islamist premier Recep Erdogan was using the EU admission process to both weaken the deep state-involved military and to make Turkey more Islamic at home and abroad.

One wonders what might happen if Turkish internal tensions increase. Now that America is a unitary state and the deep state is in charge, Turkish politicians probably shouldn’t expect the usual American split-the-difference advice, consisting of the ambassador that supports the government, and the Pentagon general that supports the coup. America now speaks with one voice, and the Turks among others should beware.

Letter from Beirut III

by Rasha Salti

[NOTE: See Rasha’s earlier communications here.]

Every day, I have to ask at least twice or three times what day it is, where we are now in July (Please tell me this war will be a July affair only). The calendar of the Siege barely sticks in my head. It’s Day 16 or 17 when I am writing now. I don’t know.

I have also tried to the best of my abilities to keep up to date with professional commitments from my former life. It’s almost impossible, but if I stop I know I will fall apart entirely. It is surreal to write emails following up with work. The world outside is decidedly distant. The mental image of my apartment in New York is practically impossible to summon. Avenue A, the deli at the corner and the Yemenis who own it, all lapsed. This is what happens when you are under siege. Or these are the first effects of the siege, maybe when time will pass, my perception of the world will change and my imagination will be back at work, I will have this imagined geography of where I once was and people I once knew. I know I am not alone in this. My friend Christine said to me yesterday that she forces herself to go to the office to keep from going insane, but she cannot remember anything about her work before the siege started. The renowned Lebanese novelist, Elias Khoury, said this morning on al-Jazeera that he is so reminded of past experience with Israel’s wars that he feels he is living between a time of memory and the present time. This war is not exactly a replay of 1982, but we cannot help recalling 1982. I keep joking that the “veterans” of 1982, those of us who endured that Israeli murderous folly, should get some sort of a break, a package of mundane privileges, free internet, free coffee, parking spots.

Beirut has been spared and life has resumed an almost normal pace. The sound of Israeli air raids comes every so often just low enough to spread chills of horror and fright. But the droves of displaced who arrive here every day have transformed the space of the city. Their wretchedness is the poignant marker of the war.

We live from day to day. The scenarios for the conclusion of this war seem very difficult to articulate, even to imagine. The US is intent on the continuation of the war, Israel has suffered a defeat and the goals it has set to determine some sort of victory don’t seem fathomable. The Israeli press was beginning to ask a few intelligent questions until the IDF suffered losses in an ambush set-up by Hezbollah. One damn ambush, a mere handful of soldiers, and the entire press corps went ballistic overnight. They were all about flattening Lebanon, hurting the government, bringing out the big guns, more troops. One damn ambush where a mere handful of soldiers were faced with a reality they were not prepared to contend with: that Hezbollah guerrillas are well trained and will fight without blinking to defend the land from a ground invasion. What a funny army! What a funny society! What do they expect when they go to war with a guerilla?

One of their pundits (or officials) said that Israel was only using 10% of its military capacity. Imagine, 10% for a mere 3 or 5 kms squares! The arithmetics in Israel are suddenly emerging. For a very long time I have wondered what the equation is between the death of brown people and a single “white” life. There must be some sort of a secret arithmetic someplace in someone’s drawyer that guides “outrage” in the western world. Off course Rwanda came to shatter all notions of an arithmetic. Then came the killing of Rachel Corrie, a white face with a brown heart. She did not count. Or at least it took a lot of pull to make her death a reason for outrage in the mainstream of the western world. In this war, other equations have emerged, for the still breathing life of a single Israeli soldier, the deaths in Gaza are enough to crowd a cemetary. And just recently, we had the famous equation, for every shell in Haifa, 10 buildings go down in the southern suburbs of Beirut. (This was verified on Tuesday: 23 shells brought down 10 buildings). But I digress… It’s a losing battle and they should negotiate a settlement and avoid more bloodshed and wretchedness for us all. This a time to be smart, not bloodthirsty.

The shelling in the south has been astounding. People are trapped in villages for days without anything: no food, no water, no electricity, no medicines. They were sending out calls for help and no one could get to them because the Israelis would not let ambulances come near (two were shelled in the past two days). The UN has been allowed to deliver some basic rations of food and medicine but they have been scarce. The Beqaa has been shelled ruthlessly as well.

The humanitarian tragedy is beyond description. One of the local television stations airs the cries of help from citizen trapped in their homes under shelling: so and so has not eaten for a week, so and so needs diabetic medicine, so and so needs his chemotherapy, so and so needs to be let out, so and so, so and so… The messages scroll, and scroll, and that’s all I can see and hear. I can think of very, very little else. In fact, I obsess over these messages, of people trapped under shelling, bodies under rubble. I keep having fantasies of a huge, huge civilian procession of human shields walking alongisde convoys of food, medicine, ambulances, that defy Israeli’s military superiority in the air. A similar mass of people that took to the street when it was aggrieved by former Prime Minister Hariri’s death that walks fearless and relentless to the south. A human convoy of hundreds and thousands of people just taking back the country and lending their bodies to rescue their brethren trapped in villages. Civility turning the tide on barbarism. A crazy dream that ought neither be crazy nor a dream. Perhaps one day…

My Palestinian friends are irked again that because Lebanon is “sexy”, the world watches Lebanon while Gaza is being sliced and bled. This is due to the ruthlessness and savvyness of the western media. On the Arab media, there is as much coverage of the Israeli horrors in Gaza as there is of the dose administered to Lebanon. In all cases, as Israel is now waging a war on these two fronts (in addition to its adventures in Nablus), something unexpected has happened. The two fronts are now inexorably linked. Gaza is nothing like the entire geography of Lebanon, politically, sociologically, culturally the two geographies could not be more different, and yet, as the same shells explode and kill there and here, and the flow of images from there and here is uninterrupted, the geographies have merged. The tacit alliance between Hamas and Hezbollah could not have achieved this proxiness. Their dead are now our own, our siege is theirs, there is a tandem of solidarity, of tragedy, of resilience, of defiance.

I have stopped accompanying journalists, I started to hang around the schools and other sites where the displaced have been relocated. I go from disappointment to outright rage at the governments’ failure at responding appropriately to the humanitarian crisis. The other face of this country’s victory is and will be its handling of the humanitarian crisis. The challenge is of an unimaginable scale. It is clear that the government neither has the wherewithalls or the know-how for handling it (and I would add will because when there’s a will, there is a way). Closer to a third of the population is displaced. The Ministry of Social Affairs, the Ministry of the Interior, the Ministry of Health, and a slew of other public institutions have been subsumed in the pettiness of internecine political fighting. Not a single appointed official has had the guts or displayed the resolution to tend to the problem appropriately. If a crisis will erupt and I believe it will, they will have to be held accountable.

They parade on TV and in the streets, with their neat hair and pressed suits, moving from their air-conditioned meeting rooms to restaurants for “power lunches” and so-called coordination meetings, while hundreds and hundreds of volunteers are actually carrying the burden of this problem. What a shame this political class has proven to be. To make matters worse, they whimper and nag about how the Lebanese state has to be “reinforced” to diplomats and foreign envoys, while their OWN people sleep on mattresses (if they are lucky to have been given one) and walk around barefoot in circles wondering how they are expected to make a living.

In wars, there are two fronts: the battlefield and the civilian front. The critical civilian front in this war is not the unaffected handsome and well-to-do of Lebanon, but the 800,000 displaced. If Hezbollah are waging the war on the battlefield, the other field has been left to be tended to by bands of NGOs and charity organizations. The NGOs have shouldered the brunt of the burden, but only a handful charity organizations are not attached to the extremely petty ambitions of a political figure or group. And the ugliness of their short-sighted calculations (just as during the parliamentary elections that followed March 14th) have prevailed as they hand over sacks of sugar and rice. Some charity organizations have had the arrogance to force those who receive relief aid to hold up a photograph of the so-called political figure! Others ask them to pledge their loyalty or simply pledge their vote! This is how the political class is “rallying” around the country! This is how they face Israel’s might!

I spent the afternoon yesterday in Karm el-Zeytoon, a neighborhood in Ashrafieh (that translates literally to “olive grove”) where some schools have been opened to house some of the displaced from the south and from Beirut’s southern suburb. I went to visit friends who were in charge of the Nazareth Nuns school (a public school). A band of dashing young men and women, not yet thirty years of age, that have taken upon themselves the task of ensuring the well-being and safety of some 120 or so men, women, children and elderly. Some in that band of volunteers belong to the Democratic Left movement, and the school, as are two neighboring other schools, are under the charge of the Samir Kassir Foundation.

Although they have established a schedule of shifts so as not to have their entire lives taken over by their volunteering, still, their entire lives are on hold and all they do in effect is tend to the displaced. The atmosphere inside the school was convivial, slow-paced but a low-grade tension is impossible to ignore. All throughout my visit I was smitten by their grace. They have had to organize every single aspect of everyday survival in that school: spaces where people sleep, the use of bathrooms, the overall hygiene of the place, “house-cleaning”, collection of garbage, preparing meals, keeping stock of supplies, medicines, medical needs of the group, fun and games for the kids, security of the site, etc. That night, they were going to have the first attempt at screening a DVD in the school’s open air courtyard (Finfing Nemo). They are not yet thirty years of age and yet they have to sort through the everyday problems that arise between adults their parents’ age.

A nine-year old boy came nagging to T. (one of the main volunteers), as he and I chatted in the makeshift “salon” (a broken table and school bench at the side of the gateway to the school). He wanted T’s permission to go to a printer’s shop where he had heard he could find work on a day to day basis. He implored him. T. promised he would talk to the boy’s father that night and they would see. The boy told him that some man in the group assured him that he would find him work. T did not have the heart to lecture him about the ills of child labor. The boy was in turmoil over the humiliating state of his family and was eager to share the burden with his father (a taxi driver whose earnings have gone extremely low).

At the opposite end of the open courtyard, R. (another volunteer) was trying to settle a dispute between two women. Khadijeh was upset with Hanadi because Hanadi had gotten all uppety and defiant that day and reneged on her duty to clean the bathroom and her sleep area. Khadijeh had cleaned in her place just to avoid a clash with other people in the group. Hanadi and her were related by marriage, Hanadi had provoked her. She had gotten uppety because her husband Ali, who works as a mechanic somewhere in the southern suburbs had gone back the day before and opened shop and earned some hard-needed cash. He claimed to have come back with 1,000$ in his pocket, bragged about not needing hand-outs and charity. It was probably a lie, but his wife was so tired of the brunt of humiliation she no longer felt obliged to abide by the rules that regulated their lives in that shelter. The women’s screams got loud at some point, until Khadijeh walked away. It took some time for them to cool down. The other residents looked away, a discreet gesture to give the two women space for privacy. That’s all the privacy afforded to people there, a gaze turned away. Otherwise, strangers have had to live with each other, their privacy shattered, their intimacy stripped.

Half an hour later, R. went to the back of the school building, I saw her, Khadijeh and Hanadi sit around a pot of freshly brewed coffee and cigarettes, sorting things out in gentler tone.

Another volunteer walked in carrying medicines for the group. He held a list in his hand and the bag of prescription drugs in the other. He went looking for each one, he knew them one by one. An hour later, a volunteer doctor came in, and that same volunteer went over the cases with him. He knew them one by one, who was allergic to what, who was breastfeeding and could not take that particular prescription, who had not reacted well to that medicine… I was in awe.

R. finished her seance with the two women and came back to sit with me. I played cards with a six year old with one elbow in a cast and eyes sparkling with humor. An elderly overweight woman came over and asked R. to find her and her sister a room. She could not tolerate the heat or the mosquitoes in her old age and health conditions. She begged her. She wanted to die in dignity, not like that, on a mattress in a school. She could barely hold back her tears.

I left them reluctantly. I was worried about the volunteers as much as the displaced. Until when could they go on on like that? Civil society is not equipped to supplant the government in that daunting task.

Two days ago, a TV station caught Walid Eido (a parliamentarian from Beirut, and one of the particularly mentally challenged from Hariri’s al-Mustaqbal movement –God forgive Hariri for plaguing us with his own band of court-jesters), lounging on the beach, playing cards. They split their screen and aired images of the hapless displaced. The contrast was sinister. The next day, this illustruous representative of Beirut rushed on television to seem busy and babbled on as if he were in the “know”. I hope that this war will be the end of his ability to walk the streets of Beirut. Do you understand my rage?

In my last siege note, I ranted about the Arab political class. Yesterday morning Hosni Moubarak served me with another stellar illsutration of his mugnificence. On his way back from Saudi Arabia to Egypt, he stated publicaly that Egypt would never go to war with Israel for Lebanon. Egypt is a country that is currently struggling with its development and was negotiating growth and could not put all this at risk for the sake of Lebanon. That same morning, the Egyptian government raised the price of gas by 30%!

Dignified! Contrast that sense of dignity with the Lebanese injured who refused to be flown over to Jordan for treatment because of the King’s support of the Israeli war on Lebanon.

On a final note I would like to correct something I wrote from my last “siege note”. I said that the Arab League is complicit in the destruction of Lebanon. I need to ammend that and say that the Arab League is complicit in the destruction of Gaza, in the increase of settlements in Palestine, in the construction of the apartheid wall and in the genocide in Darfur. These are its 2005-2006 achievements that linger in my memory. There could be more.

Colonial Tourism

44 years after the Algerian War of Independence, the pied noir return to Algeria in a new “colonial tourism”. I wonder what Fanon would have made of this.

Josiane, an imposing former schoolmistress with forearms like sandbags, came out of the terminal building into the white African sunshine and made a speech.

“This is where we come from! This land belongs to us all, it’s all of ours! No-one can take that away from us! No-one!” she cried, breaking into tears.

A polite round of applause. A “Bravo Josiane”. Everyone was a bit tired after the flight, not really up for this.

But as people carried on getting on the coaches, she started up again.

“We never should have left! We would have made Algeria the most beautiful country in Africa!”

From a round of applause to a ripple. What with the heat and everything, Josiane was getting a bit carried away.

Colonial tourists, and their sometimes rather unusual items of political baggage, are returning – on package holidays to the past, to a time when they were young, and “Algerie” was “Francaise”.

Sen on (Other) Faith Schools in the UK

Amartya Sen on Britain’s faith schools.

[Sen] wanted mainstream British schools to broaden their curriculum to include more on the contribution of, say, Muslim mathematicians to science, he added that faith schools “are a pretty bad thing. Educationally, it’s not good for the child. From the point of view of national unity, it’s dreadful because, even before a child begins to think, it’s being defined by its ‘community’, which is primarily religion. That also drowns out all other cultural things like language and literature. I am a believer in the importance of British identity.”

But he wanted the definition to be framed in such a way that allowed the evolution of a “plural multi-cultural society”, rather than a “mono-cultural” one in which different groups lived side by side with little interaction. “We have many different identities because we belong to many different groups,” he said. “We are connected with our profession, occupation, class, gender, political views and language, literature, taste in music, involvement in social issues – and also religion. But just to separate out religion as one singularly important identity that has over-arching importance is a mistake. One of the problems of what is happening in Britain today is that one identity, the religious identity, has been taken to represent almost everything.”

Shooting Photos in Gaza

All eyes are focused on Lebanon, but this piece in Slate at a photographer’s experience in Gaza (as well as his photos) is worth more than a glance.

While it may seem odd to commute between Gaza and New York, I’ve been working here off and on for almost three years, and the situation now is as bad as I have seen it. My photographer friends here tell me that Israel’s incursion into Rafah in spring of 2004 was worse—so many bodies piled up in one neighborhood that locals had to keep them in a walk-in vegetable cooler—but I wasn’t here for that. More than 100 people have died since what the Israelis are calling “Operation Summer Rains” began, and while a lot of them were militants, a lot of them were not.

Most days here in Gaza begin in the morgue. My driver and fixer, Mahdi, picks me up at my occasionally air-conditioned hotel in the morning and we head to whatever hospital is closest to wherever the Israelis are currently. The Israelis have been moving around a lot—a few days here, a few days there. The militants tend to operate only in their own neighborhoods, so the press corps has been speculating that the Israelis are trying to attract the most intense militants in each area to the tanks and then kill them all. Whatever the plan is, that has certainly become one of the results. The problem, of course, is that these clashes are taking place in and around residential neighborhoods, so every time a tank shell misses the militants, there’s a good chance it’ll hit someone’s home or someone’s kid.

Out of One, Many

From The New York Times:

Iraq_2 Two new books set out to improve our understanding, each providing a window into particular aspects of the current situation in Iraq. Both authors are fascinating, indeed idiosyncratic figures, and each has played a role in the events of the last three years: Fouad Ajami, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, has been a regular White House visitor as an unofficial adviser to the Bush administration. Peter W. Galbraith, a former Senate staff member and ambassador to Croatia, has been a constitutional adviser and political counselor to the Kurdish leadership in Iraq.

If Ajami is the self-made outsider from the Lebanese hinterland who has reached the corridors of power, Galbraith is an aristocrat of American foreign policy who has thrown in his lot with the stateless Kurdish people. A son of the economist John Kenneth Galbraith, presidential adviser and United States ambassador to India, he first encountered the Kurds during his long tenure as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff. Although his book is titled “The End of Iraq: How American Incompetence Created a War Without End,” nearly a third of it is devoted to the story of Hussein’s oppression of the Kurds and Galbraith’s efforts on their behalf before and during the Kurdish uprising that followed Operation Desert Storm. When President Clinton sent him to Croatia in 1993, he not only turned his attention away from Kurdistan but also became a second-generation ambassador.

More here.

Hunger dictates who men fancy

From BBC News:

Eat A study of 61 male university students found those who were hungry were attracted to heavier women than those who were satiated. The hungry men also paid much less attention to a woman’s body shape and regarded less curvy figures as more attractive. Although it is not clear exactly how hunger exerts an influence on attraction, past research suggests social, cultural and psychological factors are involved.

In some societies where food is a limited resource, such as the South Pacific, higher body weights are revered. In others where food is abundant, such as the West, lower female body weights are preferred. Evolutionary psychologists believe this is a survival preference. What you are looking for in a mate is the best chance of healthy offspring and in an environment where food is scarce, a heavier woman is deemed a safer bet for this.

More here.

Hoodbhoy on the US-India Nuclear Deal

This past week, the House approved the US-India nuclear deal. At the Pugwash site is an article from a few months ago on the consequences of the agreement by Pervez Hoodbhoy.

For all who have opposed Pakistan’s nuclear program over the years – including myself – the US-India nuclear agreement may probably be the worst thing that has happened in a long time.

Post agreement: Pakistan’s ruling elite is confused and bitter. They know that India has overtaken Pakistan in far too many areas for there to be any reasonable basis for symmetry. They see the US is now interested in reconstructing the geopolitics of South Asia and in repairing relations with India, not in mollifying Pakistani grievances. Nevertheless, there were lingering hopes of a sweetener during President George W. Bush’s furtive and unwelcomed visit in March to Islamabad. There was none.

This change in US policy thrilled many in India. Many enjoyed President Musharraf’s discomfiture. But they would do well to restrain their exuberance. The nuclear deal, even if ratified, will not dramatically increase nuclear power production currently this stands at only 3% of the total production, and can at most double to 6% if all currently planned plants are eventually constructed and commissioned. On the other hand, Pakistan is bound to react – and react badly – once US nuclear materials and equipment starting rolling into India.

One certain consequence will be more bombs on both sides of the border.

At CAP, The Debate on Net Neutrality

A little more than a week ago, the Center for American Progress had a debate on net neutrality. The audio is available here. Pete Backof summarizes:

In navigating the complex issue of “net neutrality,” the government should protect consumers’ rights amid a rapidly changing and dynamic Internet. Two experts agreed on that much Monday during a panel discussion hosted by the Center for American Progress, but they disagreed on how to do that without stifling innovation.

Bringing together two of the Internet’s founding figures, the Center welcomed Vint Cerf, Vice-President of Google; and Dave Farber, Distinguished Career Professor of Computer Science and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University. Carl Malamud, the Center’s Chief Technology Officer, moderated.

Cerf began by quickly surveying the history of net neutrality. From its inception, the Internet has been open to any kind of application or content provider, and those providers could be accessed by any Internet user over a neutral network. “People didn’t have to get permission” to try new ideas, said Cerf, which “helped to stimulate and sustain innovation.”

Beyond Marriage

As the struggle for equal civil rights and freedoms for lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgendered people continues, a new, broader approach to securing them emerges.

The time has come to reframe the narrow terms of the marriage debate in the United States. Conservatives are seeking to enshrine discrimination in the U.S. Constitution through the Federal Marriage Amendment. But their opposition to same-sex marriage is only one part of a broader pro-marriage, “family values” agenda that includes abstinence-only sex education, stringent divorce laws, coercive marriage promotion policies directed toward women on welfare, and attacks on reproductive freedom. Moreover, a thirty-year political assault on the social safety net has left households with more burdens and constraints and fewer resources.

Meanwhile, the LGBT movement has recently focused on marriage equality as a stand-alone issue. While this strategy may secure rights and benefits for some LGBT families, it has left us isolated and vulnerable to a virulent backlash. We must respond to the full scope of the conservative marriage agenda by building alliances across issues and constituencies. Our strategies must be visionary, creative, and practical to counter the right’s powerful and effective use of marriage as a “wedge” issue that pits one group against another. The struggle for marriage rights should be part of a larger effort to strengthen the stability and security of diverse households and families.

(Hat tip: Linta Varghese.)

Yevgeny Zamyatin


IT IS WITH REGRET that I see, instead of an orderly and strict mathematical epic poem in honor of the One State-I see some kind of fantastic adventure novel emerging from me.” So laments D-503, mathematician and rocket designer, halfway through Russian writer Yevgeny Zamyatin’s dystopian novel “We.” Completed in 1921, but not published in Russia until 1988, half a century after Zamyatin’s death, it appears this month from the Modern Library in a new English translation by Natasha Randall.

Zamyatin’s vision of a totally controlled society, one in which unresisting citizens eat, sleep, work, and make love like clockwork-and in which thinkers and writers sing the glories of “the morning buzz of electric toothbrushes and . . . the intimate peal of the crystal-sparkling latrine”-was considered too dangerously satirical by the early Soviet state, and it was smuggled abroad in samizdat form. Written a decade before Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” its influence can be seen in George Orwell’s “1984,” and it has been hailed as a warning of the totalitarian dangers inherent in every utopian scheme.

more from Boston Globe Ideas here.

identity and violence


It is often claimed that it is impossible to have, in the foreseeable future, a democratic global state. This is indeed so, and yet if democracy is seen in terms of public reasoning, we need not put the possibility of global democracy in indefinite cold storage. It is not an “all or nothing” choice. Many institutions can be invoked in this exercise of global identity, including the United Nations, but there is also the possibility of committed work, which has already begun, by citizens’ organisations, many non-government institutions, and independent parts of the news media.

There is an important role for the global justice movement. Washington and London may be irritated by the widely dispersed criticism of their strategy in Iraq, just as Chicago or Paris or Tokyo may be appalled by so-called anti-globalisation protests. The protesters are not invariably correct, but many of them do ask relevant questions. There is a compelling need in the contemporary world to ask questions not only about the economics and politics of globalisation, but also about the values, ethics and sense of belonging that shape our conception of the global world. But global identity can begin to receive its due without eliminating our other loyalties.

more from Sen’s book at The New Statesman here.

mindy shapero


Shapero’s present-day epic is a self-invented version of the classic fairy tale that bespeaks and relieves anxiety. It is also about fear of monstrosity and our own potential to engender it. Her narrative starts out with a cute little patch of fur that has always been around, sitting “like anthrax does in the middle of a place seldom traveled by humans or animals,” when suddenly it becomes activated. Driven by a yearning to be loved, it steals the eyes of everyone in a village, and, discovering that “these eyes could advance its progression and growth,” engulfs even more eyes. Learning to see with eyes that it has stolen enables it to steal even more eyes. Growing to the size of a large sack, it becomes like King Ubu, the fantastical character imagined by French teenager Alfred Jarry more than a century ago who would later become a fixation in Surrealist practice. Although Shapero’s sack threatens to engulf everything in the world, ceding to the economy of fairy tales its very growth is ultimately turned against it. Once it becomes visible and threatening, people protect themselves.

more from X-TRA here.

Book of signs

From The Guardian:

Koran642 The earliest copies of the Qur’an were written in a script called Kufic Arabic, which had no vowel signs. It was not until the rule of the Umayyad Caliph ‘Abd al-Malik (685-705) that the first written version of the Qur’an with diacritics was produced. Seven different ways of reciting the Qur’an were also fixed, but that occurred still later, ca 934 CE. The same seven forms of Qur’an recitation have remained a canonical standard ever since.

Revelations are sorted out into chapters and verses, and the causes of each revelation provide context for its content. The number of revelations exceeds 200. They came to the Prophet Muhammad via a divine mediary (the Archangel Gabriel) between 610 and 632 CE. They are now arranged in 114 chapters. All but one begin by invoking God’s Name, then qualify the Name as at once Compassion and Compassionate: “In the Name of God, Full of Compassion, Ever Compassionate”. Different people close to the Prophet Muhammad heard these revelations as he uttered them. They remembered the words and repeated them orally. A few wrote them down. In all they total at least 6,219 verses. The contents of the surahs (chapters) and ayat (verses) are informed by the causes of revelation – that is, by events and circumstances that marked the Prophet’s life and the early Muslim community.

More here.

Genome Human

From The New York Times:

Crick_2 Francis Crick has never before been the subject of a significant biography. His personality, however, is the subject of one of the best-known lines in science literature. “I have never seen Francis Crick in a modest mood,” James Watson declared in the first sentence of “The Double Helix” (1968), his celebrated account of how he and Crick came to identify the structure of DNA in 1953. Thus the popular image of Watson’s scientific partner: a brash and boastful figure who shared responsibility for a singular breakthrough.

Now, two years after Crick’s death at age 88, the science writer Matt Ridley is attempting to revise the historical record. Ridley’s short biography examines the paired strands of Crick’s life and work, but gives the work a further twist: in his account, the heart of Crick’s career merely began in 1953, and lasted until the mid-1960’s, during which time Crick, having deduced DNA’s form, led the scientific charge to understand how it functions. Ridley claims this effort was “in many ways a greater scientific achievement than the double helix,” and his own effort to explain it should deepen his audience’s understanding of both Crick and DNA itself.

More here.

sean penn anti-ode


Must Sean Penn always look like he’s squeezing
the last drops out of a sponge and the sponge
is his face? Even the back of his head grimaces.
Just the pressure in his little finger alone
could kill a gorilla. Remember that kid
whose whole trick was forcing blood into his head
until he looked like the universe’s own cherry bomb
so he’d get the first whack at the piñata?
He’s grown up to straighten us all out
about weapons of mass destruction
but whatever you do, don’t ding his car door with yours.
Don’t ask about his girlfriend’s cat.

the rest of Dean Young’s poem at Poetry Magazine here.