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February 16, 2006

Will Blog for Book Deals -- Part 4

It's time for another installment of "Will Blog for Book Deals," wherein we peruse the latest batch of publishing deals announced by bloggers' agents. For previous listings of blogger book deals, see this and this and this:

* One-time teen prostitute/blogger turned bestselling memoirist in Brazil (now 22 and retired from her previous profession) Raquel Pacheco's THE SCORPION'S SWEET VENOM, to Unieboek in Holland at auction; Sonzogno/Rizzoli in Italy at auction; Planeta Argentina for Latin American Spanish rights; Edicoes ASA for European Portugese rights; Tramvay in Turkey; Tammerraamat in Estonia; and Vinabook in Viet Nam; with an auction underway in Germany; all sold within the past week.

* "Hog on Ice" blogger Steven H. Graham's GOOD MORNING, NIGERIA! How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Spam, in which Graham scams the con artists whom everyone has come to hate, the Nigerian spammers in the tradition of Ted L. Nancy's Letters From a Nut series, to Citadel, for an advance up to $50,000.

* James Beard Award winner, Time magazine columnist, and Food and Wine Magazine award winner for her blog "Veritas in Vino" Alice Feiring's THE BATTLE FOR WINE AND LOVE (OR HOW I SAVED THE WORLD FROM PARKERIZATION), a chronicle of the author's crusade against wine critic Robert Parker's palate and her search for real wines around the world, from the last riojas in Spain to true champagne, to Harcourt.

* Constitutional scholar and attorney Scott Gant's WE'RE ALL JOURNALISTS NOW: The Transformation of the Press and Reshaping of the Law in the Internet Age, an analysis of a brewing battle in which bloggers and other citizen journalists will vie for rights and privileges enjoyed by professional journalists, and offers legal and philosophical ammunition for their struggle to gain equal standing under the law, to the Free Press.

* Former Wonkette blogger Ana Marie Cox's first nonfiction book, on the next generation of political activists, again to Riverhead, reportedly for "mid-six-figures" (Washington Post).

* New Yorker, Playboy, and Radar contributor, and blogger Daniel Radosh's RAPTURE READY!: Adventures in the Strange Pop Culture of the Religious Right, an investigative account of the burgeoning multi-billion dollar Christian media industry, to Scribner, at auction.

* Seth Godin's SMALL IS THE NEW BIG: And Other (Little) Ideas that Change Everything, a small collection of big articles - from blog posts, ebooks, and magazine articles, to Portfolio, for an advance somewhere between $100,000-$250,000.

December 07, 2005

1,000 Days in Iraq Versus World War 2

To commemorate Japan's sneak attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, conservative bloggers are bemoaning the fact that -- in their view -- the American public (and especially the American media) doesn't have the stomach to fight a long war anymore. Typical was this comment:

As soon as it became apparent that [Iraq] wasn't a war that could be fought and won overnight, our society of "instant gratification" became nonplussed. Support for the war waned, and Hollywood and the mainstream liberal media took it upon themselves to launch a NEW attack on America...an attack of words, designed to undermine the war effort and the administration of our President.

Instead of blaming the people, perhaps these pro-war bloggers should consider that it's the strategic and tactical incompetence of the Bush administration that's the real cause of the quagmire of Iraq.

As my pal Dick Haggart of Anchorage -- who wore a "No Hard Feelings" tee-shirt to lunch at Pete's Sushi Spot today --put it, Do the math!

He notes that December 7, 2005 marks the 993rd day since we invaded Iraq. In that time, we've organized a couple of elections. But the insurgency is deadlier than ever, sectarian chaos is growing worse by the day, basic services and oil production are at lower levels than before the war, the Iraqi army which is supposed to stand in for us is a joke (according to articles in the military's own newspaper, Stars and Stripes), and we seem to be no closer to victory -- i.e., a stable democratic Iraq -- than when we began this mis-adventure.

By comparison, 993 days after Japan put most of the Pacific Fleet on the bottom of Pearl Harbor, we had leap-frogged two-thirds of the way back across the Pacific, gutted Japanese naval and air power, were preparing to invade the Phillipines and Iwo Jima, had run the Germans out of North Africa, Sicily, and half of Italy, had pulled off the greatest seaborne invasion in world history by landing in Normandy on D-Day, and had already liberated most of France. Meanwhile, our Soviet allies, pushing from the East, had destroyed several German armies and were already closing in on the Third Reich's eastern border.

In other words, the war was basically won, and it was just a matter of time before our enemies were finally crushed and forced to surrender.

So instead of mouthing platitudes about "staying the course," perhaps the administration's supporters should ask themselves why the United States could accomplish so much in less than 1,000 days against the greatest military and sea powers of World War 2 -- Germany and Japan -- yet can't seem to make any significant headway against a third world rebel force that doesn't own even a single tank, ship or airplane.

The answer, of course, lies in Bush's fatally-flawed war on terror policy. We invaded the wrong target, we fractured our own alliances in doing so, we turned vast sectors of the world's population against us, we refuse to even supply our own troops with the proper equipment, translators, etc., and we've turned the country into a factory for the mass production of suicide bombers.

Way to go, Bush!

The truth is, the White House botched it. And the polls show people know it.

December 02, 2005

Yes, But Can They Shoot Straight?

President Bush keeps promising us that, "As the Iraqi Army stands up, we will stand down."

But if a report this week in Stars and Stripes, the official newspaper of the U.S. military, is to be believed, we're not going to be "standing down" until a good while after hell freezes over. Here's the lead paragraph from the Stars and Stripes article:

HAWIJA, Iraq — Despite having spent a year in the Iraqi army, Pvt. Juma Ali Khalaf, who says he does not know how to read or write, has never been formally taught how to fire his AK-47, which he carries daily in his job as a checkpoint guard in northern Iraq.

The 21-year-old Sunni Arab soldier, who says he joined the army for one reason — “I need the money” — had a chance to learn basic soldiering skills this month during a weeklong basic training crash course taught by members of the 1st Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division of Fort Campbell, Ky.

But wait, it gets worse. The one week training course, which is held on the grounds of Forward Operating Base McHenry, is supposed to prepare these Iraqi troops to fight in what Stars and Stripes concedes is "one of northern Iraq’s most active insurgent areas." Unfvortunately, the results, noted the article, were not exactly encouraging:

Despite rosy predictions, the first group’s initial day of training got off to a shaky start. The small group of soldiers who showed up Saturday morning — originally they numbered 33, but two showed up five hours late — were scantily equipped for the mission. Between them, they carried six helmets. One complained that his boots did not fit. Others made a litany of requests for basic equipment.

The American trainers tried their best to mold these recruits into warriors capable of taking on hardened Jihadist fighters. However, as the Stars and Stripes piece noted:

Just an hour into shooting practice, a group of soldiers retreated to a nearby berm and put down their weapons, saying they did not want to continue.

But no matter. So as not to conflict with Pentagon and White House claims that over 200,000 Iraqi soldiers have been trained and equipped, all 35 of these Iraqi troops were deemed "ready for action" and graduated with full honors at the end of the training course.

Well, actually, the training was shortened to only five days, presumably because they couldn't keep the guys from wandering off any longer than that.


November 30, 2005

Soldier Blames Government, Not Public, for Poor Morale

Is public criticism of the war in Iraq hurting morale among the troops there? Here's what one active-duty officer in Iraq told me:

Morale is pretty lousy where I am, but I don't hear guys complaining about the lack of support back home. By "morale," of course, I don't just mean "I feel good." Morale describes how much troops believe in the mission at hand.

Now if the mission at hand is actually to bring democracy to this country, than frankly morale was shot a long time ago. The first time I was down here I heard troops saying that we just needed to bomb this country into oblivian and go home. That's a standard gripe and not entirely serious, but then, it does show that there is a certain lack of faith in the idea of spreading democracy here.

I have actually tried to ask fellow soldiers, "So do you think we're really spreading democracy down here?" That question elicits various responses from blank stares to outright laughter. Not once have I heard a soldier answer in the affirmative.

Morale is poor for a number of reasons, and it's true that support from home plays a role. But it's not the support of the common American people that we are lacking most, but the support of our government leaders who have repeatedly undermined -- and are still undermining -- this war by failing to provide the proper numbers of troops, training, and resources that we need.

So if we're going to dick around instead of treating this mission seriously -- and empty platitudes to "stay the course" don't count as taking the mission seriously -- we might as well go home.

November 28, 2005

Of Bloggers, Hollywood, and Unpopular Wars

Conservative bloggers are buzzing over the news that Bruce Willis is set to make a pro-war film about the conflict in Iraq based on the dramatic reportage of blogger Michael Yon.

Says blogger and screenwriter Roger L. Simon (who gave a fascinating interview for my book):

Finally a pro-democracy, pro-US involvement feature film about Iraq. I'm placing a bet right now this movie will go through the roof, to the consternation of many of Willis' peeers.

Now, I respect Roger, both as a blogger and as a novelist/screenwriter. But I think he's letting his frustration with the public's declining support for our Iraq mis-adventure get in the way of his better judgement here. For as Roger ought to know better than any of us, the last time Hollywood tried to pump up support for an unpopular war, the result was a disaster.

Remember The Green Berets, the 1968 pro-war epic starring John Wayne? Critics at the time called it "unspeakably stupid," and not just because it substituted white men in blackface for the dreaded Vietcong, Georgia pine forests for the tropical jungles of Vietnam, and a sun setting to the east off a beach in Da Nang for the usual place where the sun sets for the rest us in the real world (i.e., the west). The script was godawful, the characters aburd, and as a piece of political propaganda it was about as effective in generating public support for the war as General Westmoreland's "light at the end of the tunnel" speech -- which is to say, not effective at all.

Plus, it was a box-office yawner which, despite its big-budget special effects, generated only $21.7 million domestic compared to such 1968 hits as Funny Girl ($58 million), 2001: A Space Odyssey ($56.7 million), The Odd Couple ($44.5 million), and Bullitt ($42.3 million).

To be fair, Simon hedges his bet a bit by noting that his faith in the success of the forthcoming Bruce Willis flick is "a risky prediction in the movie and political worlds." But he says that given a new poll of public opinion showing that 70 percent of people surveyed say criticism of the war by Democrats hurts troop morale, he "feels pretty secure" about the film's ability to tap what he feels is a deep vein of latent popular support for U.S. involvement in Iraq.

Simon, however, is mis-reading the meaning of those poll numbers. Of course most Americans -- including that majority of Americans who oppose the war and believe that the Bush administration misled us into it -- recognize that lack of public support for the war is bound to hurt troop morale. How could it be otherwise? If you're a soldier on the ground in Iraq and you realize that you're risking your life for a cause that the majority of your countrymen no longer believe in, how could this not affect your morale to some degree?

But the alternative is to allow this futile war to continue without question or criticism, and thereby sacrifice many more troops than would otherwise be lost if only the current war policy were changed to reflect the reality of conditions on the ground in Iraq -- including the reality that it's the presence of U.S. troops itself that is fueling much of the insurgency and chaos in that country.

At bottom, I think what's driving Simon's enthusiasm for Hollywood's latest attempt at war propaganda is the mistaken belief that it's the media's unflattering portrayal of the situation in Iraq that is responsible for the declining public support for the war.

The same was said about the media's role in the loss of public support for the Vietnam War, of course, but in neither case was this true. In fact, a slew of studies -- most especially this one -- have demonstrated conclusively that while media coverage can have some modest, short-term effect on public support for a war, its impact pales before what Clausewitz, in his seminal work On War, viewed as the only two truly decisive determinants of public support for a war -- 1) whether or not the government has a clear and decisive war policy, and 2) whether the objective situation on the ground is getting better or worse.

If either or both of these are going against you, then no amount of gung-ho media coverage or pro-war cinema is going to maintain public support. And the real-world proof of that lies in the distance we have traveled since May of 2003, when it seemed (for a short while after Saddam was toppled) that Bush and his neocon planners really knew what they were doing in Iraq -- and when, as a result, 76 percent of the public supported the war effort.

Now -- post-failed WMD intelligence, post-Abu Ghraib torture, post-daily suicide bombings, post-political gridlock in Baghdad, and post-an insurgency that never really is on its "last legs" like the war apologists keep assuring us -- we know that the White House's war policy was really no policy at all. It was all just hubris, combined with the neocons' willingness to sacrifice the lives of working-class men and women to their ideologically-driven and negligently-planned campaign to remake Iraq and the Middle East into a pro-American bastion.

All they've accomplished -- apart from the deaths of 2,100 Americans and about 50,000 Iraqis -- is to transform Iraq into a factory for the mass production of Jihadists and the Middle East into a cauldron of anti-Americanism.

And because those are the facts on the ground, all of Hollywood's action stars together can't put this humpty-dumpty war policy back together again or reverse the majority view in America that this war is a lost cause.

November 04, 2005

Free Speech Scares (Some) Progressives

DailyKos has a nice riff exposing the histrionic fears of liberal reform groups such as Common Cause and Democracy 21 who worry that unless campaign finance laws are applied to blogs, we'll end up with "billion dollar Halliburton blogs" exercizing mind control over the brainwashed masses.

Free speech has always been scary stuff for ideologues of the left and right. But in recent years, it seems that while rightwingers has been content merely to question the patriotism or morality of those who challenge their views, the left and so-called "progressives" have borrowed a page from the old-time reactionaries of Scopes Trial days and have either pushed for outright bans on so-called "hate speech" or have just stuck their heads in the sand and refused to address issues with which they are uncomfortable.

Whether it's their refusal to truly engage the right over what real "family values" mean -- e.g., which would be more helpful to America's families, banning gay marriage or getting affordable health insurance? -- or its apoplectic freakouts whenever someone like Bill Cosby challenges conventional wisdom on what African-Americans in this country truly need, the liberal wing of the Democratic Party shows that it lives in fear.

Fear of debate. And fear of rolling up its sleeves and truly battling it out in the marketplace of ideas.

The result is that they have ceded to the rightwing a monopoly on addressing the crucial moral, spiritual and political questions of the day. That's a much bigger problem, it seems to me, than whether some companies fund a few more pro-business or anti-labor blogs.

October 25, 2005

The Tyranny of Dreams: A Memorial

Four years ago today, my friend the great Afghan patriot and guerrilla leader Abdul Haq was tortured and executed at a secret Al Queda military installation just south of the capital, Kabul.

Like his comrade in arms, the legendary resistance leader Ahmed Shah Massoud (who was murdered by Al Queda only two days before the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington), Abdul Haq represented the best of a proud people who had been broken by a quarter century of war that turned one of every three Afghans into a refugee or a corpse.

In my 27 years as a journalist, I have had the privilege of meeting a few national leaders. I've had tea with Deng Xiaoping, coffee with the former Iranian president and democratic leader Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, wine with the Kurdish rebel leader (and current president of Iraq) Jalal Talabani, and coconut milk with Ieng Sary, the foreign minister of the maniacal Khmer Rouge government of Pol Pot.

But in the years since Abdul Haq was murdered, I have often wondered at the unique moral and emotional hold that he has continued to have over me. Why is it that some men and women seem to be able to rise above the petty self-interested fears that afflict all of us, and go on to become popular leaders capable of bringing out the best in their people and their nation?

The World War 2 journalist and secret agent for the OSS (the forerunner of the CIA) Louis Huot put it well, I think, when after parachuting into Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia, he described his first meeting with the communist resistance leader Tito:

"Here was no simple warrior, no primitive leader of fighting men. Thinker, statesman, artist ... he appeared to be all these, and soldier as well. There was a light in his face that glowed -- a light that comes only from long service in the tyranny of dreams."

Abdul Haq, too, served many years in the tyranny of his dream of a free and democratic Afghanistan. As a teenager, he joined the student movement against the growing Soviet presence in his country. Then, after the USSR invaded Afghanistan in full force in December of 1979, he picked up his gun -- a 1903 British Enfield rifle left over from the last failed British invasion of his country -- and rallied his fellow Pashtuns to fight for their freedom. His exploits were legendary, especially against the heavily-fortified Soviet garrisons in and around Kabul. Indeed, he gained worldwide attention when he blew up a massive Soviet ammunition depot in the city.

His acclaim, of course, soon brought Abdul Haq to the attention of the CIA. But although like other guerrilla leaders of the Cold War era, he was happy to accept aid from wherever it could be obtained, he was no puppet of American intelligence. Indeed, the CIA described Abdul Haq as "unruly and immature" -- spook-speak for putting the interests of his own people ahead of Washington's geo-political game-playing.

Indeed, Abdul Haq was publicly critical of the U.S. bombing campaign that followed the 9/11 attacks, even though his own beloved wife and 11-year-old son had been assassinated by a Taliban/Al Queda hit squad just two years before. Instead, he urged Washington to rely on the patriotic Afghan resistance to topple the Taliban, as in fact it eventually did.

Perhaps that's why, when Abdul Haq led a small 20-man unarmed force into Afghanistan to rally the tribes against the rump Taliban/Al Queda regime, the CIA left him twisting slowly in the wind when he was betrayed by Jihadist elements within the Pakistani secret service. Surrounded by an elite Al Queda strike force, he was captured, tortured and executed the next day.

I will always remember Abdul Haq as a big teddy-bear of a man, gentle at heart and with a song always on his lips in the great tradition of the 17th century Afghan warrior poet Khoshal Khan Kattak.

My fondest memory of him was the night he made dinner for me and a woman I was seeing in his walled compound in Peshawar, Pakistan, which then served as the rear-area base camp for the anti-Soviet resistance. After the meal was finished and shots of whiskey passed around, we watched a few home movies his men had shot of their attacks on Soviet installations near Kabul. There was Abdul Haq, of course, clearly visible in all the mayhem and smoke hopping around on one leg -- he had lost the lower part of his other leg to a Soviet land mine -- literally laughing in the face of death as he fired his Kalashnikov.

Finally, when the movies were over, he pulled from his satchel a small jar of Nivea hand cream and rubbed some onto his hands and face. Noticing our amusement, he offered: "It is a small pleasure, not important." Then, with a mischievous smile, he added: "You know, we Afghans have a saying ..."

To which I rolled my eyes, for I knew what was coming. Abdul Haq, as I knew, was a great practitioner of the art of the landay, those often-bawdy Afghan couplets that have a first line of nine syllables and a second line of thirteen.

With a twinkle in his eye for my woman friend, Abdul waxed poetic:

"Give me only two things, then let the Russians come.

A gun that won’t jam, and a girl who will love."

My friend laughed in delight. For my part, I tried to rescue her romantic interest in me by reciting one of the very few landay that I knew:

"Your face is a rose, your eyes candles.

Faith, I am lost! Should I become a butterfly or a moth?"

She laughed and applauded my effort, as did Abdul Haq. "Not bad ... not bad at all," he offered. My woman friend, meanwhile, was clearly waiting for Abdul's riposte. He did not disappoint her. Giving her a flirtatious wink, he sighed:

"Call it romance, call it love.

Whatever. Pull up the blanket now and let's go to sleep."

She blushed, and we all laughed.

I always considered it a great honor to be bested by the gentle Afghan warrior poet Abdul Haq.

October 21, 2005

Another Missed Opportunity in the War on Terror

The most unfortunate part of President Bush's October 15 radio address was not his call to "stay the course" in Iraq -- it is now clear that this White House intends to go down with the sinking ship of its Iraq policy no matter the cost to the nation or even its own party. Rather, it was the President's failure to recognize a momentous split within the Jihadists' ranks that could prove as significant to the war on terror as the Sino-Soviet split was to the ultimate victory of the democracies in the Cold War -- if only we take advantage of it.

In his radio address, the President quoted from a July 9, 2005 letter in which Al Queda second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri reminded the organization's chief deputy in Iraq, Abu Masab al-Zarqawi, of the "collapse of American power in Vietnam." Mr. Bush naturally used this Vietnam remark to reinforce his oft-stated claim that "the terrorists know their only chance for success is to break our will and force us to retreat."

But what President Bush missed in the letter were signs of a sharp difference in policy between Al Queda headquarters and its nominally-subordinate command in Iraq over the latter's bloody attacks on innocent members of the Shia community. "Many of your Muslim admirers amongst the common folk are wondering about your attacks on the Shia," Zawahiri warned in the letter. "This matter won't be acceptable to the Muslim populace however much you have tried to explain it, and aversion to this will continue."

As Zawahiri tried to remind Iraq's terrorist mastermind Zarqawi: "We are in a battle, and more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media. We are in a ... race for the hearts and minds of our [Muslim people]."

In response, Zarqawi basically told Bin Laden and Zawahiri to go to hell. Not only did he continue his massacres of innocent Shia civilians throughout the summer, but in late September, for the first time, Zarqawi publicly called for total war against the Shia population.

To be sure, Zarqawi is no fool. Rather than publicly reveal the existence of a split between his organization and Al Queda headquarters -- and quite likely be blamed for causing divisions within the global Islamist movement -- Zarqawi simply called the letter a "fake" after it was made public by U.S. intelligence authorities two weeks ago.

With this savvy response, Zarqawi was merely borrowing a page from the playbook of a previous generation of absolutist ideologues, the Marxist-Leninists. When rumors of a Sino-Soviet split first emerged in the early 1960s, if you recall, the Chinese and Soviet communists both denied there were any cracks in international Marxist-Leninist solidarity. And for years afterwards, sadly, U.S. policy continued to treat international communism as monolithic.

Only later, with President Nixon's opening to China, did policymakers finally begin to seize the significant Cold War advantages that could be gained by helping to foment and exacerbate divisions within the communist ranks. It was those divisions that ultimately helped fuel Chinese cooperation in helping to end the war in Vietnam, as well as China's support in hemming in Soviet expansionism -- including by providing substantial (albeit covert) material support for the anti-Soviet resistance fighters in Afghanistan.

Today it appears that Zarqawi is playing the role of Maoist ultra-leftist to an Al Queda that be believes is going "revisionist" (i.e., getting soft). And therein lies the opportunity.

President Bush should have used his radio address to exacerbate this emerging split by, among other things, signaling America's willingness to negotiate a peaceful solution to the Iraqi quagmire, just as President Nixon did the Vietnam quagmire. In addition to quite possibly leading to progress in a resolution of the Iraqi conflict, such a move could not help but further isolate among Muslims worldwide those, like the Zarqawi faction, who have made a fetish of ultra-Jihadist violence to satisfy their bloodlust.

Unfortunately, taking advantage of divisions within the enemy's ranks seems beyond a president who cannot seem to grasp the fact that the war on terror can ultimately only be won politically -- by separating the Jihadists first from each other and then from the Muslim silent majority. Indeed, if there's one thing you can say about President Bush's White House, it's that it never fails to unite the enemy and divide our friends.

What kind of "war on terror" strategy is it, after all, that embarks upon a dangerous military adventure in defiance of world public opinion, fractures our own alliances while uniting and strengthening the enemy's, drives increasing numbers of Muslim moderates into the political embrace of Islamic extremists, and turns a troublesome but largely contained Iraq into a factory for the mass production of Jihadist suicide bombers?

Some might call it a neo-conservative strategy. I call it just plain dumb.

October 20, 2005

The War Crime They Forgot to Mention

Reports that the Pentagon has already launched a criminal investigation into the burning and desecration of the bodies of two slain Taliban show just how worried this administration is about another torture and war crimes scandal further inflaming Muslim opinion against the U.S.

But those reports failed to mention that U.S. troops may have committed an additional war crime besides the desecration of enemy bodies. According to the transcript of the Australian TV news magazine Dateline report, U.S. soldiers interrogating an apparently-innocent Afghan villager threatened collective punishment against the whole village if he did not cooperate.

U.S. SOLDIER: I am trying to do what I can right now to find the bad guys because we don't want to end up having to punish everyone.

VILLAGER (Translation): I have no knowledge of the Taliban themselves. I do not know the person who reports to the Taliban in this village or who from the Taliban side is asking about the Americans.

U.S. SOLDIER: I'll say it again. What my commander wants to do is round up everyone in this town since no one is helping us and nobody is turning over the people in this village who actually are part of the attack. So this is going to be your last chance to try to help yourself.

Under the 1949 Geneva Conventions, collective punishments are a war crime. Article 33 states: "No protected person may be punished for an offense he or she has not personally committed," and "collective penalties and likewise all measures of intimidation or of terrorism are prohibited."

What strikes me about this entire incident -- besides the illegality and immorality of it -- is the utter stupidity and lack of cultural awareness of the U.S. Army Psychological Operations troops involved in this affair.

Baiting the Taliban by calling them "lady boys" in hopes they'll come out and fight? C'mon, that sort of thing barely works on 15-year-old boys, let alone hardened Taliban fighters. Can the U.S. Army really be this stupid?

Besides, Afghans (Taliban and otherwise) have had more than 25 years of constant war to learn how to emotionally adjust to the desecration of bodies. They are not going to be baited into exposing themselves just because some punk from Ohio or wherever pours gasoline on their comrades' corpses.

Once more, Don Rumsfeld's Pentagon proudly shoots America in the foot.

October 18, 2005

Were Judith Miller and I. Lewis Libby Lovers?

Among the many, many mysteries about New York Times reporter Judith Miller's strange behavior in the Valerie Plame affair was this exceedingly strange portion of her October 17 account of her testimony before a grand jury empaneled by special counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald. The testimony concerned her contacts with I. Lewis Libby, chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney.

When I was last before the grand jury, Mr. Fitzgerald posed a series of questions about a letter I received in jail last month from Mr. Libby ... [He] also focused on the letter's closing lines. "Out West, where you vacation, the aspens will already be turning," Mr. Libby wrote. "They turn in clusters, because their roots connect them."

How did I interpret that? Mr. Fitzgerald asked.

In answer, I told the grand jury about my last encounter with Mr. Libby. It came in August 2003, shortly after I attended a conference on national security issues held in Aspen, Colo. After the conference, I traveled to Jackson Hole, Wyo. At a rodeo one afternoon, a man in jeans, a cowboy hat and sunglasses approached me. He asked me how the Aspen conference had gone. I had no idea who he was.

"Judy," he said. "It's Scooter Libby."

And that's the end of Miller's explanation. Even more odd, that's the end of her whole article.

Now I have three questions about the above.

First, does anyone seriously believe that Miller and Libby just happened to "accidentally" stumble into each other in Jackson Hole, Wyoming?

Second, why is the hard-nosed chief of staff to the even harder-nosed Vice President of the United States of America writing cryptic poetic notes to the female national security reporter of the New York Times?

And third, how many New York intellectual Jewish women in their 50s do you know who are such rodeo fans that they would go 517 miles out of their way to attend one?

Actually, I have two more questions:

Did Judith Miller and I. Lewis Libby have a secret love affair?

And was that what she was trying to protect by going to jail?

Remember, sex has a way of making people do strange and self-destructive things. Just ask Bill Clinton.

October 14, 2005

First, Assume a Can Opener

The "invisible hand of the market" so famously postulated by economist Adam Smith 250 years ago has proven to be the most remarkable engine of economic growth and social progress ever devised by human beings. And yet still, after all these years, much of its inner workings remain a great mystery.

Which explains, no doubt, the continued popularity of the old joke about how an economist opens a can of soup -- i.e., "First, assume a can opener."

Indeed, economics -- and especially economic forecasting -- is still largely an exercise in making assumptions. Even with all the mountains of quantitative data at their hands, economists still cannot tell us with even a modicum of certainty whether the stock market will rise tomorrow or fall, whether consumer purchasing will be up next month or down, whether employment growth will continue or level off. That's because the so-called "science" of economics assumes that individuals make rational decisions in the marketplace, and as anyone who has ever observed a parent and child in a toy store can attest, the truth is a rather different matter entirely.

Perhaps what's needed is better qualitative data -- economics with a human face. Just as "product definition" blogging may tell R&D; managers not only what new products their customers want but why, maybe "economics blogging" -- a statistically-valid sampling of consumer and business blogs -- could enable economists to get a better handle on the often less-than-rational but always deeply-human motivations behind consumer purchasing and business investment and hiring.

Maybe what was invisible in Adam Smith's "invisible hand of the market" was not the hand, but the heart and soul behind it.

October 12, 2005

For the Child Who Has Everything (Except a Freakish Fear of Terrorism)!

I know you're all racking your brains over what to get the kids for Christmas, so I thought I'd pass along this keen idea, courtesy of Eugene Archibald via Marvin Plettner of the WELL:

That's right folks, it's the Playmobil Security Check Point!

Unfortunately, Amazon features one less-than-stellar customer review:

I was a little disappointed when I first bought this item, because the functionality is limited. My 5 year old son pointed out that the passenger's shoes cannot be removed. Then, we placed a deadly fingernail file underneath the passenger's scarf, and neither the detector doorway nor the security wand picked it up. My son said "That's the worst security ever!" But it turned out to be okay, because when the passenger got on the Playmobil B-757 and tried to hijack it, she was mobbed by a couple of other heroic passengers, who only sustained minor injuries in the scuffle, which were treated at the Playmobil Hospital.

The best thing about this product is that it teaches kids about the realities of living in a high-surveillence society. My son said he wants the Playmobil Neighborhood Surveillence System set for Christmas. I've heard that the CC TV cameras on that thing are pretty worthless in terms of quality and motion detection, so I think I'll get him the Playmobil Abu-Ghraib Interogation Set instead (it comes with a cute little memo from George Bush).

P.S. Amazon appears to pulled this review shortly after it was posted.

October 06, 2005

The Future of Political Blogging: 6 Predictions

1] Blogs have broken the monopoly of the mainstream media over political discourse and recast the traditional political agenda to include long-ignored voices and issues. Moreover, by challenging the historic media pose of "objectivity," blogs are leading America "back to the future" of a much more diverse and openly-partisan media -- to a revival of the 19th Century "broadside" and "penny press."

2] Blogs are to politics today what TV was to the Nixon-Kennedy campaign of 1960 -- the midwife of a new paradigm in campaign strategy. From now on, victory will go not just to the master of the television "sound bite," but also to the candidate best able to mobilize and direct what author Hugh Hewitt calls blog-fueled "opinion storms" around key issues.

3] "Sound bite" politics, of course, was an artifact of media "scarcity" -- most especially the limits of the 90 second TV story format. But in the new era of media "abundance," in which any citizen can broadcast and publish at will, blogs will very likely result in more substantive issues-oriented political campaigning.

4] Although some worry that blogs are deepening the polarization and divisions already present in American politics, their participatory and popular character cannot help but engender a significant resurgence in citizen involvement in the political process and in voting. The days are over when only 50 percent of eligible voters will show up at the polls on presidential election day.

5] Blogs are not simply political persuaders, however. They are also "collective organizers" of grassroots political action that are already beginning to weaken top-down party control of the political process, erode Big Money's absolute domination over the selection of candidates, and enhance the ability of insurgent candidates of all political hues to emerge and compete effectively.

6] Indeed, bloggers' unique and unprecedented ability to mobilize the "long tail" of electoral politics -- i.e., the myriad streams of independent political opinion in America whose collective vote-getting ability, if only harnessed and directed, could potentially rival that of the two main parties -- could very well fuel the emergence of viable 3rd party candidates by the end of this decade.

Your thoughts?

October 05, 2005

O'Reilly's Sneak Attack on Bloggers!

Last night I appeared on the conservative TV talk show The O'Reilly Factor, ostensibly to talk about political blogs and the impact they are having on the American political process.

Or so I was told by the two producers for the show who spent over an hour pre-interviewing me. Unbeknownst to me, however, the show turned out to be a total set-up job in which host Bill O'Reilly and guest Jed Babbin spent the entire time attacking the web site Media Matters for having posted commentary in the past critical of them both.

If you're interested in how shows like the O'Reilly Factor work, then let me explain how the ambush against Media Matters -- and against political blogs in general -- came about.

I got a call yesterday morning from Rob Manaco, a producer with the O'Reilly Factor. He said they were interested in having me appear on a segment they were preparing on political blogs -- what makes some of them credible and influential and others not, and how they were changing the political process. Monaco told me that I didn't need to mention any non-credible or "loony" political blogs by name, since neither the show nor the producers were interested in slandering anyone.

Fine, I said. For one thing, it seemed like a good opportunity to showcase my new book and discuss the important ways that blogging is already transforming politics. Having seen the O'Reilly Factor once or twice in the past, I assumed that O'Reilly would try to spin the dicussion to imply that conservative blogs were more reliable and influential, but I could deal with that. I was actually eager to discuss how blogging was going to be as transformative of political campiagning as the advent of television was 50 years ago.

Then I got a second call -- this time from Monaco's boss, Ron Mitchell. He said he was concerned that the segment might not be "juicy" enough as presently conceived, and would I be willing to talk about some of the loony ideas being circulated by some of the more conspiratorial-minded bloggers. No names, he assured me. Just mention some of the unreliable political comments you can find online.

That still seemed fine with me -- I mean, the O'Reilly Factor isn't the only show that depends upon controversy and polemic for its ratings -- so I said sure.

But I told Mitchell: "Look, if you're hoping I'm going to trash political blogs as harmful to the country, forget it. Because I think they're the best thing to happen to American politics since ... well, since the advent of the TV talk show. They encourage public participation in the democratic process."

"Perfect," said Mitchell. "That's exactly what we want."

And then they did the old bait-and-switch.

There I was, sitting in the remote studio location, and as our segment goes on, I hear the following over my earpiece:

O'Reilly: "Tonight: political smear sites! They operate on both sides of the political spectrum. There are no rules. These people will do and say pretty much anything to harm people with whom they disagree politically."

Whereupon O'Reilly and the other guest, conservative commentator Jed Babbin, begin complaining about the so-called smear attacks each claims to have received from Media Matters. The whole segment, as it turned out, was devoted to slamming Media Matters for having published material critical of the two.

Nonetheless, I did manage to get one half-way smart comment in:

KLINE: "Let's not be babies about the partisanship. The kind of partisanship that you're seeing on the Web with these blogs, yes, some of it is vicious, some of it is just loony. But it's not all that different than what used to go on in the media before the advent of corporate media. I mean, most people before World War II grew up with 10, 15, 20 newspapers, all with different points of view. And what's interesting about those times, and I think we're going back to those times with a very partisan media, is that the electorate was much more engaged, and people were much more involved in the democratic process."

To which O'Reilly replied thusly:

O'REILLY: "Absolutely valid, excellent point. But here's the problem: these people are so vicious, and they -- the media is so corrupt in taking their uncorroborated, as Mr. Babbin pointed out -- defamation that most people now won't run for office, sir. They won't do television and radio commentary. They won't put the -- when we had to book this segment, I couldn't get people to come on and say what you guys are saying, because they were afraid that Media Matters would go after them. They -- I couldn't -- I had people turn down this segment -- a bunch of them -- what are you, crazy? I'm going to criticize these assassins? They'll come after me. And that's a chilling effect."

Which, as I found out today, is not exactly true.

According to this report, conservative Powerline blogger John Hinderaker (”Hindrocket”) told readers that his partner Paul Mirengoff would be appearing on last night’s O’Reilly segment about bloggers:

Paul will be interviewed on the O’Reilly Factor tonight. It should be a fun conversation, and I’d encourage our readers to tune in.

But later in the day, Mirengoff posted an update, saying that O’Reilly had chosen to go with someone else:

I won’t be appearing on the Factor after all. They’ve decided to take the segment in a different direction.

Anyway, I have two regrets about my appearance. First, not being familiar with Media Matters, I could not defend them or refute O'Reilly's and Babbin's accusations. And second, I wish I had managed to tell O'Reilly that, given his national forum and his audience of millions, he was just being a baby for whining about being criticized by bloggers.

Postcript: When I got back to my office after the show, I had a voice mail from O'Reilly Factor producer Rob Monaco:

MONACO: "We just wanted to thank you for appearing on the show. I realize the segment didn't turn out exactly the way we had discussed, but we think you did a great job. And Bill was very pleased."

I'll bet.

UPDATE:
To all those who have taken me out to the woodshed for a good whacking, thanks for your comments. You're right, of course, that I should have known about Media Matters and should have done a better job on the O'Reilly show.

By way of context (not excuse), I want to point out that my research on this book over the last year has been focused on the ways in which blogs are changing politics. When I interviewed Markos at DailyKos, or former Howard Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi, or one of the earliest online democracy activists Jon Lebkowsky, or other left and conservative bloggers, my focus was NOT on their respective messages or viewpoints but rather on the ways in which they have been able to achieve political influence, mobilize citizens, organize grassroots activists, raise funds for campaigns, and reshape the way campaigning is conducted.

I looked at their strengths -- e.g., their ability to cement the all-important activist core. And I looked at the weaknesses of political blogs -- e.g., their inability to date to reach across the red state-blue state divide and decisively influence the undecided middle voters.

So it was much less important to me to follow closely the specific political messages and back-and-forth debates between left and right media and/or bloggers. I was more concerned with the overall effects of blogging on the political process itself.

And I certainly never claimed to be an expert on blogging. I only claim to have written a book that offers a snapshot look at an evolving phenomenon and that hopefully provides some interesting food for thought about where it all may be heading. (More on that in a second.)

In retrospect, of course, I should have assumed that O'Reilly would use his show to attack particular opponents, and then spent an hour or two researching who those bloggers might be so I could be better prepared for whatever came my way.

One point about O'Reilly that I want to reiterate (again!): Of course I know who he is and what his shtick is. Like most thoughtful Americans, though, I simply can't stand to watch his show. I am in awe of those of you who have the stomach to watch him regularly.

In any event, that's my self-criticism. If I were pleading in a court of law about not being prepared to defend Media Matters, I would plead "guilty -- with an explanation, your honor."

If any of you feel my performance on the O'Reilly Factor disqualifies me as anyone worth reading, I understand and thank you for dropping by.

Meanwhile, I invite the rest of you to join in a discussion of where political blogging may be heading and what larger effects it may have on the democratic process.

To kick-start that discussion, I offer the following "6 Predictions for the Future of Political Blogging."

I look forward to a (ahem) lively discussion.

September 12, 2005

Clueless in the "Progressive Blogosphere"

If you haven't seen the new study from the liberal New Politics Institute on "The Emergence of the Progressive Blogosphere: A New Force in American Politics," check it out. Its well-intentioned yet infuriatingly self-satisfied "analysis" of the supposed differences between the conservative versus progressive blogosphere reveals (once again) how the still waters of myopia and denial continue to run very deep indeed within Democratic circles.

According to authors Chris Bowers and Matt Stoller, both veteran activist bloggers, the conservative blogosphere merely recreates "the top-down, coherent messaging structure that characterizes the conservative movement" offline. The progressive blogosphere, on the other hand, has "forged a new constituency, a new set of leaders, and a new forest of social relationships."

Bad, dictatorial conservatives. Good, empowering progressives.

What's more, claim the authors, "conservatives use the same tactics on blogs that they do (sic) in mainstream politics -- attack the media and attack progressives." Progressive blogs, on the other hand, "offer forums where people can actively engage ... in political dialogue."

Mean old nasty conservatives. Nice, friendly, issues-oriented progressives.

(And no, progressive bloggers would never "attack the media" for it's uncritical toadying to the White House, right? Nor would they ever "attack" our conservative president for his idiotic, counter-productive and horrifically destructive policies in Iraq. No, progressives are just too ... well, they're just too nice to do anything like that.)

Anyway, the authors conclude by noting that, "The right wing tends not to build independent online communities, using their existing offline communities [instead] to generate web sites that reinforce their politics and their ideology." In contrast, progressive blogs supposedly "build communities of activists and generate new [and independent] political activity online." Unlike conservatives, they claim, the "progressive blogosphere is introducing new actors into the political scene."

First of all, the above is just horse-pucky. As the authors themselves note elsewhere in their study, conservatives have built potent online communities throughout the blogosphere, especially at the state and local level. And as some Democrats have learned to their dismay, these bloggers have introduced many thousands of new readers to online political activism.

But even if it's true that conservatives tie their blogging activities to offline political organizations more closely than progressive bloggers do, what's wrong with that? I mean, the point is to actually organize people to WIN elections, right? Which, in case Bowers and Stoller hadn't noticed, still take place offline, in the real world, where flesh-and-blood people actually live.

The main problem with Bowers and Stoller's so-called "strategic overview of the comparative advantages of the progressive and conservative [blogosphere]" is its head-in-the-sand avoidance of the real reason why conservatives -- online and off -- have been kicking progressive butt in recent years.

I'm referring, of course, to the maddening inability of progressives in general -- and Democratic candidates like Kerry in particular -- to connect with the majority of heartland voters on the issues that they most deeply care about.

As the Harvard University political theorist Michael J. Sandel put it: "The Democrats have ceded to Republicans a monopoly on the moral and spiritual sources of American politics. They will not recover as a party until they again have candidates who can speak to those moral and spiritual yearnings" and put forward viable alternative solutions to these concerns.

That's the elephant in the room that Bowers and Stoller won't talk about.