Archive for the ‘Heroism’ Category

The Two Towers

June 28, 2015

Although The Lord of the Rings is almost always referred to as a trilogy, that was not Tolkien’s intent. Tolkien meant for The Lord of the Rings to be a novel composed of a single volume divided into six books. The publisher’s decision to divide the The Lord of the Rings into three volumes, each comprising two of Tolkien’s books was dictated by the economics and shortages in post war Britain and once established, Tolkien’s work has remained a trilogy even when there is no particular why it shouldn’t be published as a single volume.

The trilogy concept works well enough for The Fellowship of the Ring and the The Return of the King. Books one and two are in strict chronological order and there is only slight overlap in books five and six. The Two Towers chronicle the adventures of the scattered members of the fellowship with book four focusing on Frodo and Sam while book three deals with the other hobbits and their companions. Placing two books covering the same period of time with no interaction between the main characters of the two sections gives the impression that The Two Towers is really two novels somewhat arbitrarily placed in one volume.

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This impression is mistaken, however. Books three and four actually complement one another. Book three begins small with just the hobbits Merry and Pippin led captive by orcs across the plain of Rohan with Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli following in a seemingly vain hope of catching up and rescuing them. Both the hobbits and their would be rescuers encounter other peoples and forces, the Ents and the Rohirrim, and get drawn into the larger world as part of the war against the traitor Saruman. In book four, the plots remains focused on Frodo and Sam. They take Gollum as their guide, they meet Faramir son of the Steward Denethor, and they see the Morgul army as it marches out to destroy Gondor, but throughout it is simply Frodo and Sam. The first part keeping growing into the wider world while the second part narrows to two hobbits.

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The Two Towers shares the themes found throughout the Lord of the Rings. Once again it is the small and the humble who get things moving. The two hobbits rouse Treebeard and the Ents into marching against Saruman. The seemingly insignificant Gandalf in a tattered gray cloak is revealed as the mighty Gandalf the White. And of course, Frodo and Sam accomplish the nearly impossible by traveling into Mordor.

The sense of loss found in the Fellowship of the Ring is even greater in the Two Towers. In this book, Men and Orcs are the actors. Except for Legolas and Gimli there is not an Elf or Dwarf to be seen. Their time is passing and Middle Earth will become a world of Men, whichever side wins. King Theoden is amazed to learn that Ents still exist but laments that much that is unknown to him will be ended by the war. Faramir admires the Elves but does not seek them out. Men and Elves have become estranged and each walks further down their separate path. His own people, the Dunedain, have declined over the centuries and are now hardly better than other Men. The Ents have lost the Entwives so no new Entings can be born. The old world is passing into a newer, and lesser world.

 

Patrick Stewart Channels Voltaire

June 11, 2015

Voltaire is supposed to have said, “I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” He probably didn’t really say it but Patrick Stewart effectively did. I have read about this in various places, but here is the story at the Christian Broadcasting Network.

Actor Patrick Stewart is supporting the free speech rights of Christian bakers from northern Ireland who declined to decorate a cake with a pro-gay-marriage message.

An Irish court fined the owners of Ashers Bakery £500 for not writing the slogan “Support Gay Marriage” on a cake.

The bakery owners say they’re happy to bake a cake for anyone, but reserve the right to decline messages that are contrary to their religious beliefs.

Stewart, who is known for his roles in “Star Trek” and “X-Men,” told BBC “Newsnight” that no one should be forced to write things they disagree with.

Gay activists have been attacking Stewart for his comments.

Boldly going where few actors dare to go

Boldly going where few actors dare to go

Sadly, it has become increasingly rare in our politically correct world, with its microaggressions and trigger warnings, for anyone to adopt Voltaire’s view on permitting freedom of speech, even for those you don’t like and Patrick Stewart deserves some praise for doing so. Naturally, he was subjected to the usual criticism from the supporters of tolerance and diversity and he felt he had to clarify his position on his Facebook page.

As part of my advocacy for Amnesty International, I gave an interview on a number of subjects related to human rights, civil rights and freedom of speech. During the interview, I was asked about the Irish bakers who refused to put a message on a cake which supported marriage equality, because of their beliefs. In my view, this particular matter was not about discrimination, but rather personal freedoms and what constitutes them, including the freedom to object. Both equality and freedom of speech are fundamental rights— and this case underscores how we need to ensure one isn’t compromised in the pursuit of the other. I know many disagree with my sentiments, including the courts. I respect and understand their position, especially in this important climate where the tides of prejudices and inequality are (thankfully) turning. What I cannot respect is that some have conflated my position on this single matter to assume I’m anti-equality or that I share the personal beliefs of the bakers. Nothing, absolutely nothing, could be further from the truth. I have long championed the rights of the LGBT community, because equality should not only be, as the people of Ireland powerfully showed the world, universally embraced, but treasured.

There are a couple of things about this statement that bother me. Why does Patrick Stewart feel the need to declare his fealty to politically correct orthodoxy. I feel as if he is saying that he supports the right of thought criminals to speak freely but he is certainly not a thought criminal himself, or that he is most offended by the idea that he might be one thought of as one of those ignorant mouth-breathers who are opposed to same-sex marriage. I understand that Stewart does not want his views on this issue to be misconstrued and that he probably doesn’t intend his statement to be taken this way, but this assurance that he is on the right side gives a somewhat begrudging feel to his defense of free speech, as if he is saying he supports their right to be wrong. But, maybe I am reading too much into it.

The other thing that bothers me about Patrick Stewart’s statement is that he had to make any clarifying statement at all. I do not know precisely what his critics have been saying, but it seems that their reasoning is that the only reason that Patrick Stewart would support the right of a baker to refuse to decorate a cake with a pro gay marriage message is that he must agree with the baker. The idea that one can support the free speech even of people one disagrees with seems not to have entered into their minds. Voltaire’s statement could be left untranslated in the original French for all the good it does people like this.

Is Voltaire’s concept really so hard to grasp? Does it not ever occur to these people that defending the free speech of others is the only way to protect one’s own free speech, or that once free speech is abridged, they might be next? Do they never consider that the other side might be right but if they shout them down, they will never learn any better, or that if the other side is wrong, compelling outward compliance to orthodoxy does not persuade anyone? Perhaps they don’t think much at all.

Patrick Stewart stated that freedom of speech and equality are fundamental rights. I would say that freedom of speech is far more important. If we have freedom of speech, we can speak out about whatever changes are needed to ensure equality. Without freedom of speech, we can do nothing. The real danger here in America and throughout the West is that there seems to be an increasing number of people who either believe freedom of speech is, at best, a secondary right inferior to the struggle for social justice and equality or that freedom of speech is not a right at all. I’m glad at least one person from Hollywood is willing to publicly support the right to dissent from liberal orthodoxy. I hope others follow Stewart’s lead.

Memorial Day

May 25, 2015

Today is Memorial Day, the day we honor those who have fallen fighting for their country and for freedom.

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Memorial Day first started to be observed after the Civil War. That war was the bloodiest in American history and the casualties of that war were unprecedented. The number of killed and wounded in the three previous declared wars, the War of Independence, the War of 1812, and the Mexican War, were insignificant compared to the slaughter house that the Civil War became. After the war people in both the North and South began to commemorate the soldiers who died for their country. The date of this commemoration varied throughout the country until it settled on May 30.

In 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Holidays Bill. This law moved the dates of four holidays, including Memorial Day, to the nearest Monday in order to create three-day weekends. This, I think, was unfortunate. I believe that converting the day on which we honor our fallen heroes into a long weekend tends to diminish the significance of this day. It becomes no more that day to take off work and for businesses to have sales. There should be more to Memorial Day.

 

Ben Carson for President

May 7, 2015

Retired neurosurgeon and conservative icon Dr. Ben Carson has announced his bid to run for president in next year’s election. I cannot say that I support Dr. Carson’s campaign for president. While I have no doubt that he was a competent, even brilliant neurosurgeon and he certainly seems to possess more wisdom and courage than most, I question whether he has the right experience. He has never held any political office. Telling off President Obama at a National Prayer Breakfast is not, in itself, a sufficient qualification for the presidency.

He looks the part anyway.

He looks the part anyway.

As the former head of pediatric neurosurgery at John Hopkins Hospital,  Dr. Carson has had some experience in executive leadership, perhaps more than the current occupant of the White House. It is not clear how well directing a division at a hospital will translate into skill in national politics. A candidate may have all the right ideas on solving the nation’s problems, but unless he has spent some time getting to know some of the influential people in Washington and learning the culture, he will find it very difficult enact his ideas. The presidency is not an entry-level position and giving the job to a person with no experience is asking for trouble. Barack Obama held only a single term as a Senator from Illinois before being elected to the presidency and his relative lack of experience has caused him to make mistakes that a more experienced politician might have avoided. While Dr. Carson may be more suited for the job of president temperamentally, it is hard to imagine he won’t be any better than Barack Obama as avoiding missteps. I would be happier if Dr. Carson began his political career running for Congress. If he does well, I would have more confidence in supporting a presidential bid.

I am, however, glad that Dr. Ben Carson has decided to run for president. For the past six years, the progressives have insisted that the only reason conservatives have disliked Barack Obama is because he is African-American. It has to be racism. It couldn’t possibly be President Obama’s extreme left-wing politics. If a White president had proposed the same policies, the Republicans would have supported him all the way. It will be interesting how these same tolerant progressives treat a Black conservative who is running for president. My guess will be that he will become the latest Emmanuel Goldstein.

Goldstein

Goldstein

I expect that as the latest subject of the two minutes hate, Dr. Carson will be subject to the worst sort of personal abuse, including blatantly racist insults. The liberals can’t stand for any members of the groups they think they own; Blacks, women, gays, Hispanics to wander off the plantation. Once again, we will get to see the tolerant, compassionate, diversity loving liberals show their true nature as the worst sort of intolerant bigots.

The First World War

February 12, 2015

The First World War was the single most important event of the twentieth century. Every event that followed that war, all the other wars, the great movements and revolutions, and even the scientific discoveries and inventions, began in some way, direct or indirect, from the great and terrible happenings of the years 1914-1918. A world in which that war had not occurred would be a very different and perhaps better world.

Despite the importance of World War One, I have never known very much about it. I had some knowledge of the general outlines, which countries fought on which side, and which side won. I knew the names of some of the battles, the Somme, Verdun, but nothing in detail. I had some familiarity of the conditions of the Western Front but knew almost nothing at all about the Eastern Front, save that Russia ended up losing. I do not think that I am alone in knowing so little about World War One. The First World War tends to be overshadowed, in contemporary minds, by the still greater and more catastrophic Second World War. Yet, had the first war not been fought, it is very unlikely the second war would have broken out. At first the nature of the combatants would have been different, no Nazis in Germany and no Communist Soviet Union. In the United States, World War One tends to get little attention because we only entered the war in its last year. While the US contribution was crucial to the Allied victory, the war did not hurt us as badly as it did the European powers that fought it. Unlike France, Germany or Britain, America did not lose much of a generation in the fighting.

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To learn more about this war, I turned to The First World War by the eminent military historian John Keegan. I am happy to report that Mr. Keegan does a truly marvelous job in relating the course of the war, from its beginnings, in the plans by the military staffs of the various combatants to fight the next war, to the assassination of Franz Ferdinand that sparked the war, through the years of trench warfare when massive armies butted heads to no avail, all the way to the last desperate attempt by the Germans to knock Britain and France out of the war before fresh American soldiers arrived to reinforce them. He seems to pay equal attention to both the Western and Eastern fronts. I learned quite a lot about the fighting between Russian and the German-Austrian alliance, not to mention the fighting in the Balkans where the war started.
Keegan mostly dwells on the military aspects of the war and has relatively little to say about the domestic politics of the European nations. He does go into some detail about the diplomatic maneuverings the nations of Europe engaged in during the Balkan crisis that led up to the war. It is somewhat poignant to learn that neither side really wanted a general war in Europe, but no one seemed strong enough to end the crisis. Keegan speculates that if Austria-Hungary had launched an immediate invasion of Serbia in retaliation of their support for terrorist activities, the crisis would have ended before it had grown out of control. As it happened, Austria-Hungary waited for support from Germany, and the wait proved fatal for Europe.

Keegan challenges some myths and ideas that have grown up about the war. He argues that the various generals were not as incompetent or unconcerned about casualties as is often supposed. As he points out, they tried to fight the war as best they could, but technological development was at an awkward phase for fighting a war. Barbed wired and the machine gun made defended positions nearly impregnable, while the technologies that would have aided the offensive, tanks and airplanes were only beginning to be developed. Improvements in transportation, especially trains, made it possible to send many thousands of men into battle, but the generals had no way to keep in contact with their armies once battle had begun. It was no longer possible for generals to lead their men in person; the battles were too large for that. Telephone and telegraph wires were easily cut. Radio was still in its infancy. The generals were removed from the battlefields because they had no choice. They sent their men to be slaughtered because wars cannot be won without attacking the enemy and attacking the enemy’s positions killed thousands.

I enjoyed learning about World War One from John Keegan’s book and I think it serves as an excellent introduction to the war. It covers all the major battles and aspects of the war without getting bogged down in details. Best of all, it can be understood easily even by the reader not familiar with military affairs. I can highly recommend The First World War.

 

Whose Side are They On?

January 18, 2015

There have been some encouraging developments in Egypt recently, particularly in the speeches and actions of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, which somehow have been underreported in the mainstream media. Raymond Ibrahim has written a little about this at PJMedia. Although born in the US, Ibrahim’s parents are Coptic Christians from Egypt, so perhaps he has a better understanding of Middle Eastern affairs and Islam than many who comment on such topics.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi continues to be the antithesis of longstanding mainstream media portrayals of him.

First there was his historic speech where he, leader of the largest Arab nation, and a Muslim, accused Islamic thinking of being the scourge of humanity — in words that no Western leader would dare utter.  This remarkable speech — which some say should earn him the Nobel Peace Prize — might have fallen by the wayside had it not been posted on my websiteand further disseminated by PJ Media’s Roger L. Simon, Michael Ledeen, Roger Kimball, and many others, includingBruce Thornton and Robert Spencer.

 

Next, Sisi went to the St. Mark Coptic Cathedral during Christmas Eve Mass to offer Egypt’s Christian minority his congratulations and well wishing.  Here again he made history as the first Egyptian president to enter a church during Christmas mass — a thing vehemently criticized by the nation’s Islamists, including the Salafi party (Islamic law bans well wishing to non-Muslims on their religious celebrations, which is why earlier presidents — Nasser, Sadat, Mubarak, and of course Morsi — never attended Christmas mass).

Accordingly, the greetings Sisi received from the hundreds of Christians present were jubilant.  His address was often interrupted by applause, clapping, and cheers of “We love you!” and “hand in hand” — phrases he reciprocated.

Sisi stood side-by-side with Coptic Christian Pope Tawadros II — perhaps in remembrance of the fact that, when General Sisi first overthrew President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, Pope Tawadros stood side-by-side with him — and paid a heavy price: the Brotherhood and its sympathizers unleashed a Kristallnacht of “reprisals” that saw 82 Christian churches in Egypt attacked, many destroyed.

It is also significant to recall where Sisi came to offer his well-wishing to the Christians: the St. Mark Cathedral — Coptic Christianity’s most sacred church which, under Muhammad Morsi, was, for the first time in its history, savagely attacked by both Islamists and the nation’s security

Yet, he reports, the mainstream media’s coverage of al-Sisi has been generally very negative.

Instead, MSM headlines on the day of and days after Sisi’s speech included “Egypt President Sisi urged to free al-Jazeera reporter” (BBC, Jan 1), “Egyptian gays living in fear under Sisi regime” (USA Today, Jan. 2), and “George Clooney’s wife Amal risks arrest in Egypt” (Fox News, Jan. 3).

Of course, the MSM finally did report on Sisi’s speech — everyone else seemed to know about it — but, again, to portray Sisi in a negative light.  Thus, after briefly quoting the Egyptian president’s call for a “religious revolution,” the New York Times immediately adds:

Others, though, insist that the sources of the violence are alienation and resentment, not theology. They argue that the authoritarian rulers of Arab states — who have tried for decades to control Muslim teaching and the application of Islamic law — have set off a violent backlash expressed in religious ideas and language.

In other words, jihadi terror is a product of Sisi, whom the NYT habitually portrays as an oppressive autocrat — especially for his attempts to try to de-radicalize Muslim sermons and teachings.

Why is this? Whose side is the mainstream media really on? Do they really want to see Egypt turned into another Iran or Afghanistan? They are, of course, on the same side Barack Obama is on, whichever side that might happen to be.

There is, of course, a reason the MSM, which apparently follows the Obama administration’s lead, has been unkind to Sisi.   One will recall that, although Sisi led the largest revolution in world history — a revolution that saw tens of millions take to the streets and ubiquitous signs and banners calling on U.S. President Obama and U.S. ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson to stop supporting terrorism (i.e., the Brotherhood) — U.S. leadership, followed by media, spoke only of a “military coup” against a “democratically elected president,” without pointing out that this president was pushing a draconian, Islamist agenda on millions who rejected it.

That Sisi remains popular in Egypt also suggests that a large percentage of Egyptians approve of his behavior.  Recently, for instance, after the Paris attacks, Amr Adib, host of Cairo Today, made some extremely critical comments concerning fellow Muslims/Egyptians, including by asking them, “Are you, as Muslims, content with the fact that today we are all seen as terrorists by the world?… We [Egyptians] used to bring civilization to the world, today what?  We are barbarians!  Barbarians I tell you!” (More of Adib’s assertions here.)

I must here give a very short synopsis of recent Egyptian history before proposing a thought experiment. In January of 2011 the long reigning autocratic president Hosni Mubarak was overthrown by a popular revolution. In the election that followed in November of that year, Mohamed Morsi, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood was elected president in what was apparently the first free and fair democratic election in Egypt’s history. Once in power, Morsi began to place fellow members of the Muslim Brother in positions of power and to rule as a dictator. The Egyptians did not seem to want to replace one dictator with another nor to live under a theocracy and protests broke out all over the country. The army overthrew Morsi in a coup in June 2013 and Field Marshal al-Sisi became the new president. As Ibrahim writes, al-Sisi seems to be genuinely popular among the Egyptians and perhaps his religious views better reflect those of the relatively liberal views of the Egyptian Muslims.

Consider this thought experiment. Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in January of 1933. He hardly won the post in a landslide, despite the claims of later Nazi propaganda. Although the Nazis had become the largest single party in Germany, they never managed to obtain more than about a third of the vote. Although Hitler was probably the most popular politician in Germany, there were many Germans, especially in the army and civil service who didn’t approve of him. What if the Wehrmacht had overthrown Hitler in a coup when it became apparent that he intended to seize total power and become dictator? Would Barack Obama have called for the reinstatement of the democratically elected Hitler as Chancellor and Fuehrer? Would the New York Times have denounced the generals’ autocratic behavior?

Whose side are these people really on?

Je Suis Charlie

January 11, 2015

That’s what everyone is saying in support of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo. Right now everyone is standing up for the editors and cartoonists’ right to satirize and ridicule whatever they choose even in the face of violence. I am afraid, however, that once the dust settles and the shock and memory of the recent attack fades, there is going to be an almost irresistible temptation for some people to blame the victim and propose craven counsels. The cartoonists and editors brought their trouble upon themselves, the argument will run. They should have known better than to mock the prophet of such an easily offended and potentially violent following. Certainly, they have a right to print whatever they want, but surely they should exercise some degree of  prudence and only mock safe targets, like the Pope.

Consider this partial transcript of a White House press briefing, provided by Breitbart.com,  from a earlier time when Charlie Hebdo published offensive cartoons way back in September 19, 2012.

REPORTER: The French government has decided to temporarily close their embassies and schools in several Muslim countries after a satirical weekly, Charlie Hebdo, that published cartoons mocking the Prophet Muhammad. Is the White House concerned that those cartoons might further fan the flames in the region?

CARNEY: Well, we are aware that a French magazine published cartoons featuring a figure resembling the Prophet Muhammad, and obviously, we have questions about the judgment of publishing something like this. We know that these images will be deeply offensive to many and have the potential to be inflammatory. But we’ve spoken repeatedly about the importance of upholding the freedom of expression that is enshrined in our Constitution.

In other words, we don’t question the right of something like this to be published; we just question the judgment behind the decision to publish it. And I think that that’s our view about the video that was produced in this country and has caused so much offense in the Muslim world.

Now, it has to be said, and I’ll say it again, that no matter how offensive something like this is, it is not in any way justification for violence — not in any way justification for violence. Now, we have been staying in close touch with the French government as well as other governments around the world, and we appreciate the statements of support by French government officials over the past week, denouncing the violence against Americans and our diplomatic missions overseas.

Sure, they have a right to publish what they want, but they shouldn’t if what they publish leads to violent objections. As a call for freedom of speech and the press, this is somehow not quite as bold as Voltaire’s apocryphal, “I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”, or even Patrick Henry’s, “Give me liberty, or give me death”. It seems more like, “Give me liberty, unless someone is offended enough to shoot or bomb me.” Ian Tuttle has some more recent examples of this rush to blame the victims, National Review Online.

The reason that Muslim terrorists attack publications like Charlie Hebdo is because they have good reason to believe that such attacks will be successful in achieving the goal of silencing criticism of Islam. This strategy wouldn’t work if the political elites in Europe and America really believed in freedom of speech or at least had any real courage in confronting the threat that Islam poses  to Western civilization. As it is, they are all too ready to condemn any criticism of Islam as racism, bigotry, and Islamophobia. The Terrorists hardly needed to bother with shooting anybody. Given time, I am sure the French government or the EU would have been happy to shut down Charlie Hebdo for its hate speech.

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The problem with this sort of censorship against commenting on an increasingly obvious threat is that it cannot work in the long run. The average French, German, or British citizen is aware that there is a problem, no matter how much his betters try to reassure him. If the mainstream parties and politicians of Europe will not address the problem with reasonable solutions, European voters might well turn to the people who will talk about it, the real racists and fascists. Their solution is not likely to be reasonable or pretty, though perhaps more desirable than a Islamized Europe.

Kurdistan

December 29, 2014

Lately,the news from Iraq has seemed very bleak, with the fanatics from the Islamic State (which has nothing to do with Islam, the Religion of Peace) poised to take over the country almost unopposed, but there is at least on group of people who have successfully managed to fight off the IS and is now getting help from the United States, the Kurds. There is even some chance that the Kurds will managed to finally get a state of their own, even though this is opposed by all the actors in the region.

The Kurds deserve their own state far more than the Palestinians. Unlike the Palestinians, they are a real nation with a language and culture of their own. They have lived in their homeland since at least the time of Alexander the Great and probably for centuries before. The Kurds have contributed their share of great people, including the Muslim warlord Saladin. What more do they need to get their own state?

Here is a story I read about their fight from the Bloomberg View.

With Cuba and North Korea dominating the headlines, Americans may have missed the good news from a corner of the world that has provided very little: Iraq. Kurdish peshmerga fighters have inflicted a series of defeats on Islamic State forces, freeing a broad swath of northern Iraq from the jihadists’ control.

These battlefield victories underline an equally striking change in U.S. policy: Starting in 2015, the U.S. military will be training three brigades of peshmerga and spending more than $350 million equipping them for battle with the fanatics tearing Iraq apart. While the Kurds have been semi-independent since 1991, with their own government, militias and foreign policy, this is the biggest step yet toward Washington allowing them to have a state of their own.

To understand the significance, recall that for the almost the entire Barack Obama presidency, the Kurds and the U.S. have been at odds. In Obama’s first term, the White House asked the highest-ranking Kurd in Iraq’s government, President Jalal Talabani, to resign his post in favor of Iyad Allawi, the secular Arab whose party won the most parliamentary seats in the 2010 election. (Talabani declined.) Obama’s diplomats consistently acceded to the sensitivities of Iraq’s Shiite-led government and refused to send promised equipment and weapons directly to Kurdish fighters. When the Kurds tried to fend for themselves by selling oil on the international market, U.S. diplomats warned oil companies not to purchase it.

The Kurds happen to be the most pro-American faction in Iraq, so of course Obama didn’t care for them. Smart diplomacy is helping your enemies while slamming your friends.

But then came the Islamic State. After Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, fell in June to jihadists using vehicles and weapons the U.S. had provided to Iraq’s army, Obama realized that the Kurds are America’s only competent friends left in Iraq. Indeed, last week Kurdish forces finally broke the Islamic State’s siege of Sinjar near the Syrian border.

This dependence on the Kurds to stop the jihadists complicates U.S. foreign policy tremendously. Since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, Presidents George W. Bush and Obama have supported a “one Iraq” policy that commits the U.S. to discouraging Iraq’s Kurds from declaring themselves an independent country. Militarily, this meant the U.S. was committed to standing up a national Iraqi Army, not a regional militia that could challenge Baghdad’s monopoly of power.

“The unity of Iraq is absolutely essential both for longstanding U.S. policy and for regional stability; for American credibility and predictability with other partners; and for defeating IS,” James Jeffrey, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq between 2010 and 2012 told me last week. Current U.S. officials working on the Iraq file echo this view. In short, Washington cannot be perceived by Iraq’s neighbors to be encouraging the dissolution of the country. For one thing, it could very well spur Turkey and the Persian Gulf States to defect from the international campaign against IS.

To understand why an independent Kurdistan is a problem, you have to look at a map of the region where the Kurds live.

Kurdistan

As you can see, the Kurdish population not only lives in the northern part of Iraq and western Iran, but they also make up a considerable part of the population of eastern Turkey. After the Ottoman Empire was overthrown in 1922, the secular Republic of Turkey was formed by Kemal Ataturk. Ataturk wanted to bring Turkey into the modern age so his government deemphasized the role of Islam and promoted Turkish nationalism and every Turkish leader since Ataturk has insisted that Turkey be ethnically homogenous. The Greek population of Asia Minor which has been living there since before the time of Christ was expelled in the 1920s. The Kurds have been harshly persecuted by various Turkish administrations. There language and culture has been outlawed and there identity taken away. According to the Turkish government there are no Kurds in Turkey. Those people are Eastern Turks or Mountain Turks. Naturally, the Kurds in Turkey have not taken kindly to this treatment and there have been several revolts each brutally suppressed. The Turks have eased up on human rights violations against the Kurds in recent years, in order to be considered for acceptance into the EU, but the Kurds are still treated poorly. The Turks fear that an independent Kurdistan in neighboring Iraq will encourage the Mountain Turks to rebel once again, or at least demand to be part of the new state.

A new state may happen, whatever the Turks, and others might wish.

Yet the question of a Kurdish state is getting harder to avoid. In July, Massoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan region, came out in support of a referendum on Kurdish independence from Iraq. The month before, Kurdish fighters had taken up posts abandoned by the Iraqi army in Kirkuk, a strategic city at the heart of disputes between Baghdad and the Kurdish region.

Even though Kurdistan is landlocked, it’s no longer such a stretch to imagine it being independent. Kurdish customs officials already stamp your passport at its airports. The Kurds have their diplomats and lobbyists in foreign capitals. And now, thanks to an oil deal reached early this month with Baghdad, they have staved off financial collapse and gotten Baghdad to agree to pay the salaries of their Peshmerga fighters. Over the summer Israel’s prime minister,Benjamin Netanyahu,  came out for an independent Iraqi Kurdistan.

The one thing the Kurds do not have, however, is a modern army. The peshmerga own some tanks, some rifles and have in the past worked very closely with American special-operations forces in Iraq. But they are still organized like a militia, with various commanders more loyal to local Kurdish political leaders than to the Kurdistan Regional Government, or KRG. Between 1994 and 1997, forces loyal to the two major Kurdish parties fought one another in a civil war.

On a visit to Washington last month, Fuad Hussein, Barzani’s chief of staff, told reporters that his government was now beginning the process of creating a centralized Kurdish army. And this is where U.S. training of three Kurdish brigades could make a major difference. If the peshmerga transforms from a localized guerilla militia into a modern army, then one of the remaining pieces necessary for Kurdish independence will fall into place.

 

For now, the Kurds are partners in helping to destroy the makeshift caliphate that has effectively erased the border between Syria and Iraq. For this the world owes them a debt of gratitude. But by training and equipping a modern Kurdish army to achieve this task, Obama may find that he is helping destroy Iraq in order to save it.

Perhaps “Iraq” is not worth saving. Like many other states formed in the aftermath of decolonization, Iraq doesn’t really correspond to any real nation. The region of Mesopotamia is composed of many ethnic groups and religions and it may be that only a dictator like Saddam Hussein could possibly hold it together. It might be wise to partition Iraq or to create some loose confederation on the model of a country like Switzerland. I think that the Kurds, at least, should be independent. They are already their own nation and the Kurdish region of Iraq has already adopted many of the attributes of a sovereign state. If the Turks don’t like it, well they haven’t exactly acted as our allies lately. I think a free Kurdistan should be American policy.

English: Flag of Kurdistan

English: Flag of Kurdistan (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Thanksgiving

November 27, 2014

Today is Thanksgiving in the United States. It is most unfortunate that this day has become little more than an excuse to gorge on turkey. Even worse, the obscenity known as Black Friday has begun to creep back into the holiday making what ought to be a day of giving thanks to the deity a day of frenzied shopping. We in America have perhaps more to be thankful for than any other nation in history and we are probably the biggest ingrates.

Well, anyway, the whole mythology surrounding the Thanksgiving holiday,with the turkey meal, etc is based on the Thanksgiving celebration held by the settlers of Plymouth colony in 1621. They had a lot to be thankful for. These Pilgrims had decided to immigrate to the New World so that they could practice their religion freely. They had intended to settle at the mouth of the Hudson River but their departure from England on the Mayflower had been delayed and the trip across the Atlantic had been rough. They reached America farther north then they had intended,at Provincetown Harbor in November 1620. While they did not really have a legal right to create a colony in what is now Massachusetts, no one really wanted to spend the winter at sea so on December 21, 1620 the Pilgrims began to build the settlement at Plymouth.

Model of a 17th century English merchantman sh...

Would you spend any more time in a leaky ship like this than you had to? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The first winter at the new colony was very hard. About half of the colonists had died by spring. By what must have seemed incredible luck or divine providence, the colonists were able to make contact with two Natives who could speak English. One of these was named Samoset and he had learned some English from English trappers and fishermen. He introduced the Pilgrims to the other man, Squanto, who had a truly remarkable life. Captured by Englishmen, he was taken to England and instructed in the English language in the hope that he could serve as an interpreter. When he was brought back to New England, he was captured again, this time by members of John Smith’s expedition who planned to sell captured Indians as slaves in Spain. In Spain, some friars learned of this plan and had the Indians freed and instructed in the Catholic religion. Squanto was able to make his way back to England and then across the Atlantic. There, he discovered that his whole tribe had been destroyed by the diseases, probably smallpox, that the Europeans had already unwittingly brought to the New World.

Squanto was willing to help the Pilgrims and taught what they needed to know to survive in New England.The harvest in the summer of 1621 was good enough that the Pilgrims did not need to fear starvation that winter. They had a feast that Autumn to celebrate their good fortune and to give thanks to God. This celebration was not considered to be anything very remarkable. Thanksgiving celebrations were fairly common at the time, especially among people who had successfully made the difficult and dangerous voyage across the ocean. It was not really the first Thanksgiving.

The First Thanksgiving, painted by Jean Leon G...

The First Thanksgiving, painted by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1863–1930). The First Thanksgiving took place in Plymouth in 1621. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There were proclamations of thanksgiving at various times in American history, especially during the Revolutionary War, but the holiday we know of as Thanksgiving really began in 1863 when President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation that a national day of Thanksgiving was to be celebrated on the final Thursday of November. It might not seem that there was all that much to be thankful for in the middle of the Civil War but the tide was turning in the North’s favor after the victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg that July and the country was continuing to grow in strength and prosperity despite the horrors of the war. Lincoln’s proclamation set the date for the national holiday that has been celebrated ever since. Franklin Roosevelt set the date a week earlier in 1939 in the hope that an earlier date would mean a longer shopping season for Christmas, thus helping the economy still mired in the Great Depression. This was not without controversy and in October 1941 Congress officially set the date of Thanksgiving on the fourth, and almost always the last, Thursday in November.

So,enjoy your turkey but please spare a moment or two to give thanks to the deity you worship. If you happen to be an American you really are one of the luckiest people on Earth.

The Bubble Boy Cured

November 20, 2014

One of the funniest episodes of the sitcom Seinfeld was The Bubble Boy, which naturally featured a boy with a severe immune disorder who lived in a “bubble”. The main characters of the show; Jerry, Elaine, George and George’s girlfriend Susan are all going  on a trip to Susan’s family’s cabin with a stop along the way for Jerry to meet a young fan of his who happened to be a bubble boy. Driving in two separate cars, the group becomes separated and George and Susan arrive at the bubble boy’s house not knowing where Jerry and Elaine are or how late they might be.

 

This episode aired back in 1992 and advancing technology has rendered the premise of a party being lost and separated obsolete. In our age of ubiquitous cell phones, Jerry Seinfeld and his friends could have easily kept in touch with one another. Even better, recent advances in medical research may soon make the whole concept of keeping children with severe immune disorders in sterile environments, or bubbles, as obsolete as the iron lung or bleeding with leeches. Here is the article from Time with the good news.

Alysia Padilla-Vaccaro and Christian Vaccaro owe their daughter’s life to stem cells. Evangelina, now two, is alive today because she saved herself with her own bone marrow cells.

 

Evangelina, a twin, was born with a severe immune disorder caused by a genetic aberration that makes her vulnerable to any and all bacteria and viruses; even a simple cold could be fatal. But doctors at University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) Broad Stem Cell Research Center gave her a new treatment, using her own stem cells, that has essentially cured her disease. She’s one of 18 children who have been treated with the cutting-edge therapy, and the study’s leader, Dr. Donald Kohn, says that the strategy could also be used to treat other gene-based disorders such as sickle cell anemia.

Known to doctors as adenosine deaminase (ADA)-deficient severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID), it’s better known as “bubble boy” disease, since children born with the genetic disorder have immune systems so weak that they need to stay in relatively clean and germ-free environments. Until Evangelina and her sister Annabella were 11 months old, “We were gowned and masked and did not go outside,” says their mother Alysia Padilla-Vaccaro. “Our children did not physically see our mouths until then because we were masked all the time. We couldn’t take them outside to take a breath of fresh air, because there is fungus in the air, and that could kill her.”

 

The only treatments for SCID are bone marrow transplants from healthy people, ideally a matched sibling; the unaffected cells can then repopulate the immune system of the baby with SCID. But despite being her twin, Annabella wasn’t a blood match for her sister, nor were her parents. Padilla-Vaccaro and her husband, Christian, were considering unrelated donors but were concerned about the risk of rejection. “We would be trying to fix one problem and getting another,” she says.

That’s when the doctors at the Children’s Hospital at Orange County, where Evangelina was diagnosed, told her parents about a stem cell trial for SCID babies at UCLA, led by Dr. Donald Kohn. “As soon as they said trial, I thought, ‘my kid is dead,” says Padilla-Vaccaro of the last resort option. But a dozen children born with other forms of SCID—in which different mutations caused the same weak immune systems—who were successfully treated by Kohn convinced the couple that the therapy was worth trying. Kohn had one spot left in the trial and was willing to hold it for Evangelina until she matured more. Born premature, she was diagnosed at six weeks old and needed more time for what was left of her immune system to catch up to weather the procedure.

When she was two months old, Evangelina was admitted to UCLA and had bone marrow drawn from her tiny hip. It contained the stem cells that go on to develop into all of the cells in the blood and immune systems. Kohn treated them with gene therapy, co-opting a modified virus to carry the healthy ADA gene so it could infect the stem cells from Evangelina’s bone marrow. The idea was that by transplanting these healthy ADA-containing cells back into Evangelina, she would soon be making her own healthy immune cells. And because they were made from her own cells, her body wouldn’t reject them.

“After the transplant of this miraculous tube of stem cells, which literally took five minutes, we had to just wait and see for a good six weeks,” says Padilla-Vaccaro. “The week after Christmas [in 2012], Dr. Kohn came in and told me, ‘It worked.’ It worked. Those words…besides the birth of my children, that day will always be the best day in my life.”

There is more about how Dr. Kohn developed his procedure.

This is truly wonderful news and I hope that the techniques used in cases like this can be used to treat or cure other genetic diseases. As Glenn Reynolds might say, faster please.

 


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