Adam Ash

Your daily entertainment scout. Whatever is happening out there, you'll find the best writing about it in here.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Bookplanet: NY Times 10 best books of 2005

1. KAFKA ON THE SHORE by Haruki Murakami.
This graceful and dreamily cerebral novel, translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel, tells two stories - that of a boy fleeing an Oedipal prophecy, and that of a witless old man who can talk to cats - and is the work of a powerfully confident writer.
2. ON BEAUTY by Zadie Smith.
In her vibrant new book, a cultural-politics novel set in a place like Harvard, the author of ''White Teeth'' brings everything to the table: a crisp intellect, a lovely wit and enormous sympathy for the men, women and children who populate her story.
3. PREP by Curtis Sittenfeld.
This calm and memorably incisive first novel, about a scholarship girl who heads east to attend an elite prep school, casts an unshakable spell and has plenty to say about class, sex and character.
4. SATURDAY by Ian McEwan.
As bracing and as carefully constructed as anything McEwan has written, this astringent novel traces a day in the life of an English neurosurgeon who comes face to face with senseless violence.
5. VERONICA by Mary Gaitskill.
This mesmerizingly dark novel from the author of ''Bad Behavior'' and ''Two Girls, Fat and Thin'' is narrated by a former Paris model who is now sick and poor; her ruminations on beauty and cruelty have clarity and an uncanny bite.

6. THE ASSASSINS' GATE: America in Iraq by George Packer.
A comprehensive look at the largest foreign policy gamble in a generation, by a New Yorker reporter who traces the full arc of the war, from the pre-invasion debate through the action on the ground.
7. DE KOONING: An American Master by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan.
A sweeping biography, impressively researched and absorbingly written, of the charismatic immigrant who stood at the vortex of mid-20th-century American art.
8. THE LOST PAINTING by Jonathan Harr.
This gripping narrative, populated by a beguiling cast of scholars, historians, art restorers and aging nobles, records the search for Caravaggio's ''Taking of Christ,'' painted in 1602 and rediscovered in 1990.
9. POSTWAR: A History of Europe Since 1945 by Tony Judt.
Judt's massive, learned, brilliantly detailed account of Europe's recovery from the wreckage of World War II presents a whole continent in panorama even as it sets off detonations of insight on almost every page.
A prose master's harrowing yet exhilarating memoir of a year riven by sudden death (her husband's) and mortal illness (their only child's).

Weird World: pensioners form rap group

A dozen British pensioners have formed what they believe is the world’s oldest hip hop collective. Silver Rappers met on a music course for the over-50s at Newcastle College, reports the Sun. They decided to set up a band after being thrilled by a lecture on rapping. Margaret Hall, 80, of from South Shields, said: “We’re learning a lot and having fun. I’d no idea what rap was before.” And Ann Moore, 65, of Bedlington, Northumberland, added: “My granddaughter calls me Mrs Puff Daddy.” The group perform their first gig in Gateshead next month.

US Diary: dumb-fuck Bush unaware he's installing Islamofascism in Iraq

1. US Occupation Is Worse Than Hussein -- by Robert Scheer
    So, it is mission impossible that Bush has accomplished: A terminally inept US occupation of Iraq now threatens to make the despot we overthrew look good by comparison. But don't take my word for it; hear it from the United States' No. 1 ally in that increasingly nightmarish land.

    "Authorities are doing the same as [in] Saddam's time and worse," former interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi told the London Observer, of human-rights abuses by the US-backed Iraqi government. "It is an appropriate comparison. People are remembering the days of Saddam. These were the precise reasons that we fought Saddam and now we are seeing the same things." Allawi, one of Hussein's victims, became a trusted CIA asset and later was handpicked by the United States to be the leader of the new Iraq. He now is the leading secular alternative to the Shiite theocrats expected to win the Dec. 15 election.

    What Allawi is decrying is the brutal behavior of new security forces empowered by the US invasion but beholden, according to most reports, to Shiite religious parties intent on controlling Iraq. To accomplish their mission, they're using the kind of "ethnic cleansing" terror seen so recently in Rwanda and the Balkans.

    "We are hearing about secret police, secret bunkers where people are being interrogated," said Allawi. "A lot of Iraqis are being tortured or killed in the course of interrogations. We are even witnessing Shariah courts based on Islamic law that are trying people and executing them."

    Allawi was not alone in painting a grim picture this week of what our president trumpets as an emerging democracy.

    "Hundreds of accounts of killings and abductions have emerged in recent weeks, most of them brought forward by Sunni civilians, who claim that their relatives have been taken away by Iraqi men in uniform without warrant or explanation," reports the New York Times. "Shiite Muslim militia members have infiltrated Iraq's police force and are carrying out sectarian killings under the color of law, according to documents and scores of interviews," reports the Los Angeles Times.

    Through our careless and uncaring attempts at "nation-building," the United States has put itself in the position of providing a convenient shield for what is increasingly looking like a takeoff on the Cambodian Killing Fields - down to the continuing targeting of academics of all ethnicities by self-appointed executioners. Civil war is no longer a possibility; it is a reality.

    Amazingly, in Bush's Iraq, just as in Hussein's, you're either a victim or a victimizer - often both. The grim ironies of this Darwinist nightmare are everywhere. For example, while the military is defending the use of white phosphorus on the battlefield - "shake and bake" in US military slang - by citing loopholes in chemical weapons restrictions, it can't look good to the world that one of the human-rights crimes Hussein himself is charged with is - you guessed it - shelling Kurdish rebels and civilians with chemical weapons in 1991.

    When presented with such consensus depictions of Iraq as it is, not as our cloistered and purposely ignorant president believes it to be, those who still defend the occupation make two main claims: This is all just the birthing pains of a democracy, and the civil war will get worse if we leave. I don't agree with either prediction; the US presence fuels both the Sunni insurgency and Shiite radicalism. The argument, however, should be moot anyway, because both the Iraqi and American publics have clearly signaled they want us to get out, starting now.

    Yet, as investigative reporter Seymour Hersh reports in the current issue of the New Yorker, it is unclear what it's going to take to convince our increasingly isolated commander in chief to change course. Bush, according to a highly placed unnamed source Hersh cites, thinks his razor-thin win in 2004 is "another manifestation of divine purpose," and that history will judge him well.

    "The president is more determined than ever to stay the course," a former defense official told Hersh. "He doesn't feel any pain. Bush is a believer in the adage, 'People may suffer and die, but the Church advances.'."

    Maybe that is not the thinking that motivates Bush, but can anyone come up with a more rational explanation for his determination to stay the course that leads into the abyss? It is time we called a halt to our mindless messing in other people's lives. As we wind down the third year of an occupation that has killed and maimed tens of thousands of Americans and Iraqis and cost US taxpayers upwards of $300 billion, isn't it time to give the Iraqis the chance to see if they can do better - on their own?

2. Political Islam vs. Democracy: The Bush Administration's Deadly Waltz with Shiite Theocrats in Iraq and Muslim Brotherhood Fanatics in Syria, Egypt, and Elsewhere -- by Robert Dreyfuss

Nearly three years into the war in Iraq, the Bush administration tells us that it wasn't about weapons of mass destruction or Iraqi ties to Al Qaeda, but about America's holy mission to spread democracy to the benighted regions of the Middle East. However, postwar Iraq is anything but a democracy. In fact, if Iraq manages to avoid all-out civil war, it is likely to end up with a government that is fiercely undemocratic -- a Shiite theocratic dictatorship that rules by terror, torture, and armed might.

What President Bush has wrought in Iraq is just the latest in a long string of U.S. efforts to make common cause with the Islamic right. But like the Sorcerer's Apprentice, the Mickey Mouse character whose naïve and inexperienced use of magic blows up in his face, American efforts to play with the forces of political Islam have proved to be dangerous, volatile, and often uncontrollable.

The problem goes far beyond the Shiites in Iraq. In the Sunni parts of that country, the power of Islamism is growing, too -- and by this I do not mean the forces associated with Al Qaeda but the radical-right Muslim Brotherhood, represented there by the Iraqi Islamic Party, and other manifestations of the Salafi- and Wahhabi-style religious right. In Egypt, Syria, and elsewhere, the radical religious right is also gaining strength. Meanwhile; sometimes deliberately, sometimes by sheer ignorance and incompetence, the Bush administration is encouraging the spread of political Islam. Were we to "stay the course," not only Iraq but much of the rest of the Middle East could fall to the Islamic right.

Does this mean that Al Qaeda-style fanatics will take power? No. Whether in the form of Iraq's Shiite theocrats or the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood in Syria and Egypt, the Islamic right cannot be compared to Al Qaeda. Yet, just as the U.S. Christian right has its clinic bombers, just as the Israeli Jewish right spawned the assassin of Yitzhak Rabin and settler-extremists who kill dozens at Muslim holy sites, the Islamic right provides ideological support and theological justification for more extreme (and, yes, terrorist) offspring. Even the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization with a long history of violence, which once maintained a covert "secret apparatus" and a paramilitary arm, has not convincingly renounced its past, nor demonstrated that it sees democracy as anything more than a tool it can use to seize power.

Shiite "Islamofascists" Rule Iraq

The case of Iraq could not be clearer. In 2002, as Vice President Dick Cheney pushed the White House and the Pentagon inexorably toward war, it was increasingly obvious to experienced Iraq hands that post-Saddam Iraq would be ruled by its restive Shiite majority. It was no less obvious that the dominant force within that Shiite majority would be the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI, and a parallel force associated with Al Dawa (The Islamic Call), a forty-five year-old Shiite underground terrorist party. From the mid-1990s on, and especially after 2001, the United States provided overt and covert assistance to these organizations as part of the effort to force regime change in Iraq. Like Ahmed Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress, with which both worked closely and which had offices in Teheran, SCIRI and Dawa were based in Iran. SCIRI, in fact, was founded in 1982 by Ayatollah Khomeini and its paramilitary arm, the Badr Brigade, was trained and armed by Iran's Revolutionary Guards. Certainly, to the Bush administration, SCIRI and Dawa were known quantities.

David Phillips, the former adviser to the State Department's war-planning effort and author of Losing Iraq: Inside the Postwar Reconstruction Fiasco , has assured me that, in the run-up to the war, many of his colleagues were well aware that SCIRI-type Islamists, not Chalabi, would inherit post-Saddam Iraq. Other insiders, too, have told me of foreign-policy professionals and Iraq specialists in the U.S. intelligence community who warned (to no avail) that SCIRI would be a major force in Iraq after any invasion. The point is, whether they bothered to pay attention or not, the Bush-Cheney team was informed, well in advance, that by toppling Saddam there was a strong possibility they would be installing a Shiite theocracy.

Today, the unpleasant reality is that 150,000 U.S. troops, who are dying at a rate of about 100 a month, are the Praetorian Guard for that radical-right theocracy. It is a regime that sponsors Shiite-led death squads carrying out assassinations from Basra (where freelance reporter Steven Vincent, himself murdered by such a unit, wrote that "hundreds" of former Baathists, secular leaders, and Sunnis were being killed every month) to Baghdad. Scores of bodies of Sunnis regularly turn up shot to death, execution-style.

The latest revelation is that SCIRI's Badr Brigade, now a 20,000-strong militia, operated a secret torture prison in Baghdad holding hundreds of Sunni detainees. There, prisoners had their skin flayed off, electric shocks applied to their genitals, or power drills driven into their bones. SCIRI and Al Dawa are the senior partners in an Iraqi government which has imposed a unilateralist constitution on the country that elevates the power of the Shiite-dominated provinces and enshrines their vision of Islam in the body politic. Two weeks ago, during his visit to Washington, D.C., I asked Adel Abdul Mahdi, a top SCIRI official and Iraq's deputy president, about the charges of death squads and brutality. "All of the terrorists are on the other side," he sniffed. "What you refer to is a reaction to that."

Perhaps the ultimate irony of Bush's war on terrorism is this: While the President asserts that the war in Iraq is the central front in the struggle against what he describes as "Islamofascism," real "Islamofascists" are already in power in Baghdad -- and they are, shamefully, America's allies.

Of course, among the Iraqi opposition, too, the Islamic right is growing. The forces of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's Al Qaeda in Iraq have gained some limited support from Iraqis, and Zarqawi is using the war in Iraq to rally support from jihadists throughout the region. More broadly, the U.S. occupation is pushing ever larger numbers of Sunni Arabs toward support for Islamists. In Iraq, the Muslim Brotherhood is represented by the Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP). Although it draws much of its strength from radicalized Sunnis who hate the occupation, the IIP has shown itself to be the part of the Sunni opposition most willing to cooperate with the U.S.-allied Shiite theocrats. It has, from time to time, taken part in the various interim governments that the United States has set up in post-war Iraq; and, in October, the IIP endorsed the ersatz Iraqi constitution, setting itself apart from the vast majority of Iraq's Sunnis. (For that, its headquarters in Baghdad was attacked by the resistance, and many of its offices around the country were blown up or assaulted.) Still, the growth of the IIP and other similar manifestations of the Islamic right among Iraq's Sunnis has encouraged some Shiite theocrats to envision a Sunni-Shiite Islamist partnership in the country. However unlikely that may be, given the passions that have already been inflamed, the growth of the radical right among Sunnis cannot possibly be a good thing for Iraq, for the region, or for U.S. interests.

Syria: The Muslim Brotherhood Waits

Now, consider the broader issue of Bush's supposed push for regional democracy. That effort, it should be noted, is being coordinated under the know-nothing supervision of none other than Elizabeth Cheney, the vice president's daughter. She is currently the principal deputy assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs and is charged with the task of democracy-building in the "Greater Middle East."

Undeterred by the failure of the U.S. experiment in installing democracy in Iraq, next on the chopping block -- that is, next to receive the benefits of U.S.-imposed democracy -- is Syria. That small, oil-poor, militarily weak state is, at the moment, feeling the full force of Bush administration pressure. Its army and security forces have been driven out of Lebanon, at the risk of sparking civil war in that country again. It has been targeted by the Syrian Accountability Act (reminiscent of the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act) and hit with related U.S. economic sanctions. It has been accused, by John Bolton and other neoconservatives, of maintaining a weapons-of-mass-destruction program far beyond the very limited chemical arms it probably possesses. It is accused, by many U.S. officials, including our ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, of sponsoring the resistance fighters in Iraq -- though there is nearly zero evidence that it is doing so. Liz Cheney and other top U.S. officials are already meeting with Chalabi-like Syrian exile leaders to plot "regime change."

As in Iraq, where Islamic fundamentalist Shiites stepped in to fill the vacuum, so in Syria the most likely power waiting in the wings to replace the government of President Bashar Assad is not some group of Syrian secular democrats and nationalists but Syria's Muslim Brotherhood.

The Brotherhood, founded in Egypt in 1928, is an underground secret society with a long history of terrorism and the use of assassination. With financial and organizational help from Saudi Arabia's Wahhabi establishment, the Brotherhood has spread to every corner of the Muslim world. Although it now officially eschews violence, in recent years it has given succor to, and even spawned, far more radical versions of itself. One of its chief theoreticians, Sayyid Qutb, created the theological justification for Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda. Even today, the Brotherhood and Al Qaeda are at least fellow travelers. It is far from clear how to draw the line between the Muslim Brotherhood and other forces of "conservative" political Islam and those associated with radical-right, violence-prone Islamists. Certainly, many experienced U.S. diplomats and intelligence officers disagree about where one stops and the other starts.

Because Syria -- with a mostly Sunni population (though, as in Iraq, highly complex with a rich mix of minorities) -- is a closed society, it is impossible to say just how powerful the Muslim Brotherhood is there. But with an exile leadership in London and other cities in Western Europe, with a network of supporters among the Sunni Arab petit bourgeoisie, and with power centers in a string of cities from Damascus to Homs, Hama, and Aleppo, it is widely considered a major player in future Syrian politics. Recently, the Brotherhood joined with secular intellectuals and others in an ad hoc, anti-Assad coalition, but the rest of the coalition has few forces on the ground. Only it has "troops." In that, this coalition is reminiscent of the one that formed in 1978 to overthrow the Shah of Iran. After the Shah's fall, Ayatollah Khomeini's gang picked off its erstwhile allies one by one -- the communists, the National Front (the remnant of the nationalist forces associated with Prime Minister Mossadegh in the 1950s), the intellectuals, and finally the moderate Islamists such as President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr -- to establish the authoritarian theocracy that is the Islamic Republic of Iran.

It cannot be that the Bush administration is unaware of the power of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria. Rather, they evidently simply don't care. Their enmity for the Assad government is so all-powerful that, as in Iraq, they evidently are willing to risk an Islamist regime. How can it be that Mr. War on Terrorism blithely condones one Islamic extremist regime in Baghdad and courts another in Damascus?

History shows that there is precedent. In the 1970s and early 1980s, two U.S. allies -- Israel and Jordan -- actively supported the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood in a bloody civil war against the government of President Hafez Assad, Bashar's father. The Israeli- and Jordanian-sponsored terrorists killed hundreds of Syrians, exploded car bombs, and assassinated Soviet diplomats and military personnel in Syrian cities. All of this was known to the United States at the time -- and viewed benignly. The Syrian civil war came to a brutal end when Rifaat Assad, the president's brother, led elite units of the military into Hama, where the Muslim Brotherhood had seized power and where hundreds of Syrian government officials had been dragged from their offices and murdered. Rifaat Assad carried out a massive repression in which many thousands died. Yet the forces of the Brotherhood recovered, and today the Bush administration seems content to squeeze the brittle Assad government until it collapses, even if it means that the Muslim Brotherhood takes power.

Middle Eastern Dominos?

Aficionados of the Cold War domino theory often suggested that communism, allowed to topple a single state, would then be able topple country after country; that if communism was victorious in South Vietnam, then Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines and other distant lands would follow. That may have been silly, but in the Middle East a domino theory might actually have some application. At the very least, it is important to understand that the Muslim Brotherhood is a supranational force, not simply a country-by-country phenomenon. From Algeria to Pakistan, its leaders know each other, talk to each other, and work together. In addition, the virulent force of religious fanaticism, fed by anger, bitterness, and despair, knows no national boundaries.

Egypt, the anchor of the Arab world and by far its most populous country, is threatened with a Muslim Brotherhood-style regime. Virtually all observers of Egyptian politics agree that the Muslim Brotherhood is the chief opposition party in Egypt. Mere prudence suggests that the United States should not press Egypt too hard for democracy and free elections, given how difficult it is to transition from an authoritarian state to a democratic one. Moreover, it is arguably none of America's business what sort of government Egypt has. The very idea that democracy is the antidote for terrorism has been proven false, most authoritatively by F. Gregory Gause in his essay, "Can Democracy Stop Terrorism?" in the September/October issue of Foreign Affairs magazine.

Yet the Bush administration is pushing hard for its brand of democracy. Two weeks ago, at a regional forum in the Gulf, Egyptian officials bluntly rebuffed the imperial U.S. Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, who seemed stunned that the government in Cairo did not want meddlers from the National Endowment for Democracy, USAID, and other agencies pouring money into Egyptian opposition groups. President Mubarak, a long-time American ally, was considered indispensable by a succession of administrations during the Cold War. A fierce anti-communist who kept the peace with Israel and helped the United States in its anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and again in the 1991 Gulf War, is now regularly denounced as a dictator by the likes of Newt Gingrich and Richard Perle.

Because of Egypt's history as an ally, no Bush administration official (and not even many neocons) dare say that they want "regime change" in Cairo, but that is precisely what they do want, and many of them may be willing to risk the creation of a Muslim Brotherhood-style regime to get it. Reuel Marc Gerecht, a leading neoconservative strategist and former CIA officer who is now a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote the following in his book The Islamic Paradox , comparing Ayatollah Khomeini favorably to Mubarak:

"Khomeini submitted the idea of an Islamic republic to an up-or-down popular vote in 1979, and regular elections with some element of competition are morally essential to the regime's conception of its own legitimacy, something not at all the case with President Husni Mubarak's dictatorship in Egypt. … Anti-Americanism is the common denominator of the Arab states with ‘pro-American' dictators. By comparison, Iran is a profoundly pro-American country."

True, Mubarak rigs Egyptian elections, but in recent parliamentary elections, the Muslim Brotherhood still showed tremendous strength. With a third round of elections still to go, it is on track to win up to a quarter of the seats in the new national assembly. Gerecht isn't worried: "It is certainly possible," he writes, "that fundamentalists, if they gained power in Egypt, would try to end representative government. … But the United States would still be better off with this alternative than with a secular dictatorship."

In the 1950s, British intelligence and the CIA worked with the Muslim Brothers against Gamal Abdel Nasser, the founder of modern Arab nationalism. Said Ramadan, the son-in-law of Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna, who set up the organization's global nerve center in Geneva, Switzerland, was a CIA agent. Twice, in 1954 and in 1965, the Brotherhood tried to assassinate Nasser. From this period to the present, the Brotherhood has received financial support from the ultra-right Saudi establishment.

A Formula for Endless War in the Middle East

Iraq, Syria, and Egypt are not the only places threatened by fundamentalism. In recent Palestinian elections, Hamas -- the official branch of the Muslim Brotherhood there -- has shown remarkable strength, threatening to undo the Palestinian Authority's accomplishments and wreck any chance of a Palestinian-Israeli accord. Ironically, a great deal of Hamas' present power exists only because of the support offered its founders by the Israeli military authorities in decades past. From the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967 well into the 1980s, Israel supported the growth of Hamas-style Islamism as a counterweight to the nationalists in the Palestine Liberation Organization. Ahmed Yassin, Hamas' founder, was backed by Israel during those years, as his followers clashed with PLO supporters in Gaza and the West Bank. Too late, Israel recognized that it had created a monster and began to wage war on Hamas, including assassinating Yassin.

From Israel and Palestine to Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and beyond -- in Algeria, Sudan, the Gulf states, Pakistan, and even Saudi Arabia -- the region is beset by Islamist movements. The right way to combat this upsurge is not through military action or a Bush administration-style Global War on Terrorism. That, as many observers have pointed out, is likely to further fuel the growth of such movements, not subdue them.

Only if the temperature is lowered throughout the region might the momentum of the Islamic right be slowed and, someday, reversed. Unfortunately, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq have raised that temperature to the boiling point. So has the long-term American military build-up in the Persian Gulf and Central Asia. So have the proclamations from President Bush & Co. about a nonsensical "World War IV" against "Islamofascism." So has the Israeli policy of expanding settlements and building a giant barrier that virtually annexes huge swaths of the West Bank for Greater Israel. All of these policies cause Islamist sympathies to grow -- and out of them bubble recruits not only for organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood, but for Al Qaeda-style terrorist groups.

The Bush administration has put into operation an utterly paradoxical and self-defeating strategy. First, its policies inflame the region, feeding the growth of political Islam and its extremist as well as terrorist offshoots. Then, as in Iraq -- and as seems to be the case in Syria and Egypt -- it seeks "regime change" in countries where it knows that the chief opposition and likely inheritor of power will be the Muslim Brotherhood or its ilk. This is a formula for endless war in the region.

(Robert Dreyfuss is the author of Devil's Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam . He covers national security for Rolling Stone and writes frequently for The American Prospect, Mother Jones, and the Nation. He is also a regular contributor to, the Huffington Post, and other sites, and writes the blog, "The Dreyfuss Report," at his web site.)

Bookplanet: stiff competition in Bad Sex in Fiction Award

Here they are. The chosen long list for the Guardian's Bad Sex in Fiction Award. I think Updike takes it by a dick, with author Marlon Brando a cunt hair behind.

1. Villages by John Updike (Hamish Hamilton)

A flock of crows, six or eight, raucously rasping at one another, thrashed into the top of an oak on the edge of the square of sky. The heavenly invasion made his heart race; he looked down at his prick, silently begging it not to be distracted; his mind fought skidding into crows and woods, babies and Phyllis, and his prick stared back at him with its one eye clouded by a single drop of pure seminal yearning. He felt suspended at the top of an arc. Faye leaned back on the blanket, arranging her legs in an M of receptivity, and he knelt between them like the most abject and craven supplicant who ever exposed his bare ass to the eagle eyes of a bunch of crows.

Faye took him in hand. He slipped in. He became an adulterer. He went for the last inch. She grunted, at her own revelation. His was that her cunt did not feel like Phyllis's. Smoother, somehow simpler, its wetness less thick, less of a sauce, more of a glaze. It was soon over. He could not help himself, he was so excited, proud, and nervous. When he was done, he opened his eyes, and saw this stranger's face an inch from his, seemingly asleep, the closed eyelids showing a thin pulse, her long lips curved self-lullingly.

2. Fan Tan by Marlon Brando and Donald Cammell (William Heinemann)

In a moment Annie was on his side, Madame Lai was like a plant growing over him, and her little fist (holding the biggest black pearl) was up his asshole planting the pearl in the most appreciated place.

"Oh, Lord," he cried out. "I'm a-comin'!"

She could not answer. It is the one drawback of fellatio as conscientious as hers that it eliminates the chance for small talk and poetry alike. But nothing is exactly perfect in this life, and for Annie Doultry the delicate but firm pressure on his rear parts was in perfect harmony with the eruption of his cock. He came and he came - we are dealing with a hero here. At one point his lover backed away to inspect the unaltered gush of it, like a plumber saying to a customer, "Don't blame me. This water supply will stop when the dam's empty."

The bed creaked and its old springs twanged as he levered into action with his hungry stomach and his big slippery mouth. Annie was at work again. With a practiced flick of the wrist designed for heavier work, he eased the cheongsam's slit wider to expose the entire butterball thigh. Without perceptible movement, her legs were now definitely farther apart, and their musculature was unresistant and frothy, as if they were no longer bearing her weight. In a sense, she seemed to float upon the musty air like an arrangement of balloons. Evidently the dexterous licking of the inside of her left knee was contributing to her support, as it would soon to her downfall.

When it came, it was a float rather than a fall. Annie's left hand was completely occupied, each finger playing a separate tune upon the delicate complexities of her pussy, so it must have been the right one that slid under her ass and elevated her and floated her onto the bed - or more precisely, onto Annie, onto his broad stomach, the sturdy muscles beneath expressly relaxed to provide the comfort of a mattress of familiar Celtic flesh. An unintelligible muttering sound came from Yummee as she subsided on top of him. It could have been a prayer to one of her goddesses, or a threat. ...

3. Winkler by Giles Coren (Jonathan Cape)

And he came hard in her mouth and his dick jumped around and rattled on her teeth and he blacked out and she took his dick out of her mouth and lifted herself from his face and whipped the pillow away and he gasped and glugged at the air, and he came again so hard that his dick wrenched out of her hand and a shot of it hit him straight in the eye and stung like nothing he'd ever had in there, and he yelled with the pain, but the yell could have been anything, and as she grabbed at his dick, which was leaping around like a shower dropped in an empty bath, she scratched his back deeply with the nails of both hands and he shot three more times, in thick stripes on her chest. Like Zorro.

4. The First Casualty by Ben Elton (Bantam Press)

He stood there, his head thrown back with the rain falling on his face, as he felt fingers reaching into his fly and searching for a way into his long johns. Murray was a nurse and used to undressing men; it was not long before she had found what she was looking for and liberated his straining manhood, and then he gasped out loud. The warmth of her mouth on him was almost too much to bear.

"Oh Jesus. Yes!" he gasped as her lips and teeth closed savagely around him and he felt the tip of her tongue poking and probing. Then, just when he was beginning to think that he must explode, her mouth was gone and in its place he felt her hands once more and he smelt the unmistakable smell of oiled rubber.

"Glad this wasn't hanging on the line to dry when you saw my room," he heard her say. "I think even I would have been embarrassed."

She slipped the big thick rubber sheath over him and then pulled him down to her. Kingsley soon discovered that beneath her skirt she was wearing nothing. He felt the thick, luxuriant bush of soft wet hair between her legs and in a moment he was buried inside it.

"Ooh-la-la!" she breathed as he smelt the clean aroma of her short bobbed hair and the rain-sodden grass around it. "Oooh-la-jolly well-la!"

And so they made love together in the pouring rain, with Nurse Murray emitting a stream of girlish exclamations which seemed to indicate that she was enjoying herself. "Gosh", "Golly" and, as things moved towards a conclusion, even "Tally ho!"

5. Shalimar the Clown by Salman Rushdie (Jonathan Cape)

" ... Let's, you know, caress each other in five places and kiss in seven ways and make out in nine positions, but let's not get carried away." In reply, Boonyi pulled her phiran and shirt off over her head and stood before him naked except for the little pot of fire hanging low, below her belly, heating further what was already hot. "Don't you treat me like a child," she said in a throaty voice that proved she had been unsparing in her drug abuse. "You think I went to all this trouble just for a kiddie-style session of lick and suck?"

6. Lovers and Strangers by David Grossman (Bloomsbury)

She touched it and her fingers were light and became excited at once, and he started mumbling, "Good, good, good." She listened with wonder. This wasn't like the moans she had heard from thousands of others, but like someone suddenly recognizing something they had previously only heard about, like a boy who sees an airplane in the sky for the first time, not in a story-book, and he stands and cries out: Airplane, airplane! When she looked at him, a sigh escaped her. He was so beautiful at that moment, as if a boy and a girl were twisting inside him like two ropes or braids, intertwined, like something you see only in dreams, she thought, or in the Indian shrines, and even there it's not like this, not this pure and whole and glowing. She whispered to him eagerly, "You can do everything, you'll see, nothing will stand in the way of your courage."

7. Memories of my Melancholy Whores by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Jonathan Cape)

On the night of her birthday I sang the entire song to Delgadina, and I kissed her all over her body until I was breathless: her spine, vertebra by vertebra, down to her languid buttocks, the side with the mole, the side of her inexhaustible heart. As I kissed her the heat of her body increased, and it exhaled a wild, untamed fragrance. She responded with new vibrations along every inch of her skin, and on each one I found a distinctive heat, a unique taste, a different moan, and her entire body resonated inside with an arpeggio, and her nipples opened and flowered without being touched. I was beginning to fall asleep in the small hours when I heard something like the sound of multitudes in the sea and a panic in the trees that pierced my heart. I went to the bathroom and wrote on the mirror: Delgadina, my love, the Christmas breezes have arrived.

8. Blinding Light by Paul Theroux (Hamish Hamilton)

She was racing ahead, reading with emphasis.

The sound of his pleasure came slanting from deep within his lungs and seemed like an echo of a softer sighing in her throat. Her breasts were in his hands, his thumbs grazing her nipples. Her touch was surer and so finely judged that she seemed to feel in the throb of his cock the spasm of his juice rising - knew even before he did that he was about to come. Then he knew, his body began to convulse, and as he cried "No" - because she had let go - she pushed him backward onto the seat and pressed her face down, lapping his cock into her mouth, curling her tongue around it, and the suddenness of it, the snaking of her tongue, the pressure of her lips, the hot grip of her mouth, triggered his orgasm, which was not juice at all but a demon eel thrashing in his loins and swimming swiftly up his cock, one whole creature of live slime fighting the stiffness as it rose and bulged at the tip and darted into her mouth.

9. The Olive Readers by Christine Aziz (Macmillan)

We made our way to the summerhouse and hid in its shadows. We lay on the cool floor and I twined my legs around Homer's body, gripping him like a hunter hanging on to its prey. He made love to me with his fingers and I came in the palm of his hand. He stroked my breasts and neck. "Don't wash it away" he said. "I want to be able to smell you tonight."

10. Lobster by Guillaume Lecasble (Dedalus Ltd)

She reached the staircase and climbed the first step but the cold was numbing her mind. She fainted, upright and motionless with seawater up to her belly. Lobster swam to her purple feet. Cut off the bloodless hand with his pincers, and climbed up the inside of the leg as far as the clenched knees. He was amazed at the pleasure he felt from being held in this way. His pincers slipped between the thighs, prising them gently apart. His feelers were just able to reach the satin of the panties. They fluttered, made the labia quiver. Under the shimmering material a hint of life was returning. Angelina's thighs relaxed. Lobster pulled back his feelers. Tensed and released his tail. His strokes were fast and powerful. He was making headway. He sank himself into her warming muscles; his tail did not falter. He moved forward, a centimetre at a time. Yes! Suddenly he could see the fabric clearly, glistening, pearl-like.

11. The Alchemy of Desire by Tarun Tejpal (Picador)

Leaving everything else for later, I went looking for where her hair began and worked my way through its musky trails to where there was none. And having found her burning core, and having drunk of it, I left it, and wandered her body, only to keep circling back to it for sustenance.

We began to climb peaks and fall off them. We did old things in new ways. And new things in old ways. At times like these we were the work of surrealist masters. Any body part could be joined to any body part. And it would result in a masterpiece. Toe and tongue. Nipple and penis. Finger and the bud. Armpit and mouth. Nose and clitoris. Clavicle and gluteus maximus. Mons veneris and phallus indica.

12. The Last Tango of Labia Minora. Circa 1987. Vasant Kunj. By Salvador Dalí. Draughtsmen: Fizznme.

Fizz screamed silently through it all - through gritted teeth, through wide-open mouth - and only those who have known a woman screaming silently in orgasm know how loud it is. It ripped through the room and set me to pounding frenzies.

Poem of the week (Zagajewski)

Try To Praise The Mutilated World by Adam Zagajewski (translated by Renata Gorczynski)

Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June's long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of wine, the dew.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You've seen the refugees heading nowhere,
you've heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth's scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the grey feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

If Al Gore had been president

1. We’d have a surplus instead of a massive deficit. We wouldn’t be owned by China.
2. We’d be admired by the world. Everybody would love America.
3. We wouldn't be fighting any stupid wars. Our troops wouldn't be dying for nothing.
4. Our government wouldn't be lying to us.
5. Saddam would be contained inside his two-bit desert borders.
6. Bin-Laden would’ve been caught and standing trial in The Hague.
7. We’d be breathing cleaner air.
8. There’d be two more women sitting on the Supreme Court.
9. There'd be hybrid cars galore and even hydrogen-powered cars on the road.
10. We wouldn't be famous for torturing people to death -- and for defending this practice.
11. Our President wouldn't be making the same speech over and over and over again.
12. We’d be proud to be Americans, and the world would be proud of us.
13. One negative: we’d be totally bored by Vice-President Joe Liebermann. There'd be a special TV channel that plays his speeches from 11 pm onwards to help insomniacs sleep.

Iraq: the shithole down which America's reputation is vanishing

Mystery Train -- by William Rivers Pitt
    The Abu Ghraib images were bad enough. There they were, fresh-faced American soldiers presiding over the systematic torture and humiliation of Iraqis with big smiles and thumbs up. There was the Iraqi corpse, wrapped in a bag and festooned with blood, and a toothsome female American soldier grinning like a kid at Christmas as she leaned over the body. There was the man menaced by a dog being restrained on a leash by an American soldier, and there was the same man in a subsequent photo with a huge, bloody chunk ripped out of his leg.

    Now we have these videos, these so-called Aegis videos, allegedly showing contractors in Iraq driving the road between Baghdad and the airport. In the video, men speaking with Irish or Scottish accents use an assault rifle to indiscriminately blast other cars on the road. The video shows cars peppered with bullets careening to and fro, crashing into each other and rolling into the trees. In the background, Elvis Presley can be heard singing "Mystery Train."

    The UK Telegraph, reporting on the video, states, "The video, which first appeared on a website that has been linked unofficially to Aegis Defence Services, contained four separate clips, in which security guards open fire with automatic rifles at civilian cars. All of the shooting incidents apparently took place on 'route Irish', a road that links the airport to Baghdad."

    "The video first appeared on the website," continued the Telegraph. "The website states: 'This site does not belong to Aegis Defence Ltd, it belongs to the men on the ground who are the heart and soul of the company.' The clips have been removed."

    The road where these videotaped attacks took place, continued the Telegraph report, "has acquired the dubious distinction of being the most dangerous in the world because of the number of suicide attacks and ambushes carried out by insurgents against coalition troops. In one four-month period earlier this year it was the scene of 150 attacks."

    That last paragraph begs the obvious question: who exactly is doing the attacking along route Irish, and elsewhere in Iraq for that matter? The fact that this unspeakable act was captured on video, soundtrack and all, does not in any way preclude the probability that this was not the first time a non-Iraqi decided to pass the time by slaughtering innocent people.

    An investigation into the substance of this video is onging.

    Indeed, there is a substantial body of evidence to suggest that private security contractors in Iraq (who can simply be called mercenaries once we dispense with the euphemisms), who operate beyond any rules or controls, have often engaged in attacks upon Iraqi civilians. One such body of evidence is, in fact, a body.

    His name was Ted Westhusing, and he was a colonel in the US Army. A scholar of military ethics and a full professor at West Point, Westhusing volunteered to serve in Iraq in 2004 because he believed the experience would help him teach his students the meaning of honor in uniform. Once in Iraq, he was tasked to oversee a private security company from Virginia called USIS, which had received a $79 million contract to train Iraqi police in special operations.

    As the months passed, Westhusing's mood darkened. He received reports that USIS contractors and their Iraqi trainees were killing Iraqi civilians, and that USIS was ripping off the US government by deliberately shorting the number of trainees in the fold so as to increase profits. Westhusing the ethicist became despondent, finding no honor whatsoever in his Iraq service.

    One day in June, Westhusing's body was found in a trailer with a bullet wound to the head. His service pistol was found beside him, along with a note. "I cannot support a mission that leads to corruption, human rights abuse and liars. I am sullied," the note read. "I came to serve honorably and feel dishonored. Death before being dishonored any more."

    Westhusing's body was flown home to the United States, where it was greeted by his wife, Michelle, and an unidentified lieutenant colonel who had befriended Westhusing at West Point. The lieutenant colonel asked Michelle what had happened to her husband. She replied, simply, "Iraq."

    An Army investigation into the allegations raised against USIS is ongoing.

    Highly-paid mercenaries are not the only ones who are apparently indiscriminately killing Iraqi civilians. The New York Times editorial board, in an article titled 'Shake and Bake,' published on Tuesday, felt the need to scold the US military for using horrific chemical weapons in battle - weapons that reportedly have caused serious civilian casualties.

    "White phosphorus, which dates to World War II, should have been banned generations ago," wrote the Times. "Packed into an artillery shell, it explodes over a battlefield in a white glare that can illuminate an enemy's positions. It also rains balls of flaming chemicals, which cling to anything they touch and burn until their oxygen supply is cut off. They can burn for hours inside a human body. But white phosphorus has made an ugly comeback. Italian television reported that American forces used it in Fallujah last year against insurgents."

    "At first," continued the Times, "the Pentagon said the chemical had been used only to illuminate the battlefield, but had to backpedal when it turned out that one of the Army's own publications talked about using white phosphorus against insurgent positions, a practice well known enough to have one of those unsettling military nicknames: 'shake and bake.' The Pentagon says white phosphorus was never aimed at civilians, but there are lingering reports of civilian victims. The military can't say whether the reports are true and does not intend to investigate them, a decision we find difficult to comprehend."

    The charges against Aegis have not been proven. The charges against USIS have not been proven. The charge that the US military aimed white phosphorous chemical weapons at civilians has not been proven. In each instance, however, the charges are supported by substantial evidence.

    Journalist Seymour Hersh, in a recent New Yorker article titled 'Up In the Air,' described the administration's view of the spiraling madness taking place in Iraq. He recounts the comments of a former defense official who served in Bush's first term. According to Hersh, "'The President is more determined than ever to stay the course,'" the former defense official said. "'He doesn't feel any pain. Bush is a believer in the adage "People may suffer and die, but the Church advances."'"

    "He said that the President had become more detached," continued Hersh, "leaving more issues to Karl Rove and Vice-President Cheney." "'They keep him in the gray world of religious idealism, where he wants to be anyway,'" the former defense official said. Bush's public appearances, for example, are generally scheduled in front of friendly audiences, most often at military bases. Four decades ago, President Lyndon Johnson, who was also confronted with an increasingly unpopular war, was limited to similar public forums. "'Johnson knew he was a prisoner in the White House,'" the former official said, "'but Bush has no idea.'"

    We are all prisoners on this mystery train. God only knows where it will lead.

The Invisible Hand is to economics what Intelligent Design is to biology: bullshit

Smith vs. Darwin: like Intelligent Design, the idea of the Invisible Hand stubbornly persists in the face of overwhelming evidence – by James K. Galbraith

In today's great God-versus-Science debate, both sides maneuver for the middle ground. Though he's otherwise tolerant of nothing, George W. Bush calls for evolution and Intelligent Design to be taught together in the science classes of public schools. Meanwhile, our great gray citadel of secular humanism, the New York Times , finds it comforting to tell us (on the front page on August 23) that there really are good Christian scientists out there who do evolution on weekdays and church on Sunday. So what's the problem?

In his wonderful book on American pragmatism, The Metaphysical Club , Louis Menand explains what the problem is. God and science really don't mix. Darwin didn't invent evolution. He invented Godless Evolution. Menand writes: "On the Origin of Species was published on November 24, 1859. The word 'evolution' barely appears in it. Many scientists by 1859 were evolutionists -- that is, they believed that species had not been created once and for all, but had changed over timeÖ. The purpose of On the Origin of Species was not to introduce the concept of evolution; it was to debunk the concept of supernatural intelligence -- the idea that the universe is the result of an idea."

Before Darwin, when scientists gazed on the natural world, they imposed categories on it: order, families, genera, species, with Homo sapiens sapiens coming out on top. Evolution meant progress; order and progress were signs of God's plan. Darwin shifted the focus to individuals, to mutation, and to the processes of natural, sexual, and social selection. Order now recedes. Variations are key, and they occur entirely by chance. God is left out. "What was radical about On the Origin of Species ," Menand writes, "was not its evolutionism, but its materialism."

Economists, on the other hand, have been Intelligent Designers since the beginning. Adam Smith was a deist; he believed in a world governed by a benevolent system of natural law. Consider this familiar passage from Wealth of Nations , published in 1776, with its now mostly forgotten anti-globalization flavor:

"By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry [every individual] intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intentionÖ. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it."

Smith's Creator did not interfere. He simply wrote the laws and left them for events to demonstrate and man to discover. The greatest American economist, Thorstein Veblen, observed that "the guidance ofÖthe invisible hand takes placeÖthrough a comprehensive scheme of contrivances established from the beginning." What is this if not Intelligent Design?

But to Veblen this was, precisely, unscientific. And so he made a mighty effort back in 1898 to move economics into the Darwinian age. In a magnificent essay entitled "Why Is Economics Not an Evolutionary Science?" Veblen pointed out the problems of classical economics: too much preoccupied with classification schemes and higher purposes, too little with material process and "cumulative or unfolding sequence." Economics could become a science, but only if it detached itself from the idea that change intrinsically led to improvement.

Yet economists resisted Veblen's message. Sentences like this one -- though my favorite in all economics -- might possibly help explain why he didn't quite get through: "If we are getting restless under the taxonomy of a monocotyledonous wage doctrine and a cryptogamic theory of interest, with involute, loculicidal, tomentous and moniliform variants, what is the cytoplasm, centrosome or karyokinetic process to which we may turn, and in which we may find surcease from the metaphysics of normality and controlling principles?"

(Don't get it? Sorry, can't help you.)

More than a century later, economics has not escaped its pre-Darwinian rut. Economists still don't understand variation; instead they write maddeningly about "representative agents" and "rational economic man." They still teach the "marginal product theory of wages," which excuses every gross inequality faced by the laboring poor. Alan Greenspan even recently resurrected the idea of a "natural rate of interest" to justify raising rates, though that doctrine had been extinct for 70 years. Economists still ignore the diversity of actual economic and social life. They say little about forms of ownership and the distribution of power, and almost nothing about how pointless product differentiation and technical change now shape and drive the struggle for survival among firms.

Metaphysics still persists in economics. It takes the form of "competitive equilibrium" -- the conditions under which selfish individuals and tiny small businesses in free competitive markets interact to produce the best results for social welfare. Competitive equilibrium is a state of perpetual economic stagnation, its study an exercise in mental stasis. This is because there is nothing to study: The idea dominates textbooks and journals but has never existed in real life.

In each generation since Veblen, some economists have fought for evolutionary ideas, but the ID types keep coming back. Today their most lethal champions call themselves the "School of Law and Economics." This group holds that markets are self-policing, that fraud is really impossible except where publicly provided insurance creates "moral hazard." Get rid of regulations, they believe, and we won't much need the SEC, the FTC, and the Justice Department to protect us from Enron, Tyco, and WorldCom. Now that John Roberts has taken over at the Supreme Court, we'll see how this touching faith works out.

Modern economics resembles religion in other, more prosaic ways. The American Economic Association (AEA) runs like a priesthood; its flagship Review is as unreadable as a Dead Sea Scroll. And when heretics gather in the Association for Evolutionary Economics and elsewhere, Inquisitors keep after them. (At the annual academic meetings, the AEA sends seat counters to the heretical sessions, looking for groups small enough to cut from its rolls.) To borrow an old line from Robert Kuttner, the evolutionists are "a tiny and despised sect that stubbornly refuses to disappear."

Yet we're a threat. For Darwin cannot be erased; his material, randomized, godless view of change informs every aspect of the way real scientists investigate physical, biological, and social problems, from cosmology to the study of political or technological change. The new mathematics of chaos and complexity are evolutionary, for they study how simple determinate processes can give rise to lifelike diversity. These techniques yield many new insights into the origins of pattern and structure. (For a fun example, download John Conway's "Game of Life" and have a look at what it can do.) One day, they may break through even in economics, and Veblen's long-delayed evolutionary revolution will be complete.

Evolutionism, in the Darwinian form that cannot be reconciled to God's design or even to the Invisible Hand, remains a pure -- if I were religious I would say sublime -- product of free human thought. Religion has other virtues, but it isn't, generally speaking, a domain of free inquiry. And you cannot relabel a quasi-religious doctrine as "science" and thereby make it free. That is why Intelligent Design in biology and the Invisible Hand in economics must have well-heeled foundations to promote them, while Darwinian evolution grows up everywhere on its own.

And so, the real issue facing the United States in this matter is quite simple: Do we want free human thought to continue to flourish here? Or do we want to suppress it? If we choose the latter, rest assured, free thought, the future of science, and also the future of economics will eventually crop up somewhere else. Evolution promises us: If a niche appears, sooner or later something will come along to inhabit it.

And as for the raw merits of the debate, consider this easy proof of evolution's explanatory power. Intelligent Design cannot explain Darwinian evolution. Darwin's whole point is that variation and change are random and without higher purpose. We cannot imagine that God designed the disproof of his own existence.

But can evolution explain Intelligent Design? Easily. After all, it was less than a century back -- when William Jennings Bryan prosecuted (and Clarence Darrow defended) the Scopes case -- that the fundamentalists Bryan represented demanded that only a literal biblical account of creation be taught in public schools. They didn't want evolution taught at all. Bryan won in court, but in the schools Darrow and Darwin ultimately prevailed.

And what is Intelligent Design, now seeking its niche in a culture conditioned by tolerant and pliable minds, which pretends to want a peaceable coexistence with evolution rather than to supplant it? What is it indeed, if not the mutant offspring of creationism, born into the world that evolution made? It's a political adaptation. Q.E.D.

US model sucks: nobody wants to be like America anymore

From Newsweek: Dream On America
The U.S. Model: For years, much of the world did aspire to the American way of life. But today countries are finding more appealing systems in their own backyards -- by Andrew Moravcsik

Not long ago, the American dream was a global fantasy. Not only Americans saw themselves as a beacon unto nations. So did much of the rest of the world. East Europeans tuned into Radio Free Europe. Chinese students erected a replica of the Statue of Liberty in Tiananmen Square.

You had only to listen to George W. Bush's Inaugural Address last week (invoking "freedom" and "liberty" 49 times) to appreciate just how deeply Americans still believe in this founding myth. For many in the world, the president's rhetoric confirmed their worst fears of an imperial America relentlessly pursuing its narrow national interests. But the greater danger may be a delusional America—one that believes, despite all evidence to the contrary, that the American Dream lives on, that America remains a model for the world, one whose mission is to spread the word.

The gulf between how Americans view themselves and how the world views them was summed up in a poll last week by the BBC. Fully 71 percent of Americans see the United States as a source of good in the world. More than half view Bush's election as positive for global security. Other studies report that 70 percent have faith in their domestic institutions and nearly 80 percent believe "American ideas and customs" should spread globally.

Foreigners take an entirely different view: 58 percent in the BBC poll see Bush's re-election as a threat to world peace. Among America's traditional allies, the figure is strikingly higher: 77 percent in Germany, 64 percent in Britain and 82 percent in Turkey. Among the 1.3 billion members of the Islamic world, public support for the United States is measured in single digits. Only Poland, the Philippines and India viewed Bush's second Inaugural positively.

Tellingly, the anti-Bushism of the president's first term is giving way to a more general anti-Americanism. A plurality of voters (the average is 70 percent) in each of the 21 countries surveyed by the BBC oppose sending any troops to Iraq, including those in most of the countries that have done so. Only one third, disproportionately in the poorest and most dictatorial countries, would like to see American values spread in their country. Says Doug Miller of GlobeScan, which conducted the BBC report: "President Bush has further isolated America from the world. Unless the administration changes its approach, it will continue to erode America's good name, and hence its ability to effectively influence world affairs." Former Brazilian president Jose Sarney expressed the sentiments of the 78 percent of his countrymen who see America as a threat: "Now that Bush has been re-elected, all I can say is, God bless the rest of the world."

The truth is that Americans are living in a dream world. Not only do others not share America's self-regard, they no longer aspire to emulate the country's social and economic achievements. The loss of faith in the American Dream goes beyond this swaggering administration and its war in Iraq. A President Kerry would have had to confront a similar disaffection, for it grows from the success of something America holds dear: the spread of democracy, free markets and international institutions—globalization, in a word.

Countries today have dozens of political, economic and social models to choose from. Anti-Americanism is especially virulent in Europe and Latin America, where countries have established their own distinctive ways—none made in America. Futurologist Jeremy Rifkin, in his recent book "The European Dream," hails an emerging European Union based on generous social welfare, cultural diversity and respect for international law—a model that's caught on quickly across the former nations of Eastern Europe and the Baltics. In Asia, the rise of autocratic capitalism in China or Singapore is as much a "model" for development as America's scandal-ridden corporate culture. "First we emulate," one Chinese businessman recently told the board of one U.S. multinational, "then we overtake."

Many are tempted to write off the new anti-Americanism as a temporary perturbation, or mere resentment. Blinded by its own myth, America has grown incapable of recognizing its flaws. For there is much about the American Dream to fault. If the rest of the world has lost faith in the American model—political, economic, diplomatic—it's partly for the very good reason that it doesn't work as well anymore.

AMERICAN DEMOCRACY: Once upon a time, the U.S. Constitution was a revolutionary document, full of epochal innovations—free elections, judicial review, checks and balances, federalism and, perhaps most important, a Bill of Rights. In the 19th and 20th centuries, countries around the world copied the document, not least in Latin America. So did Germany and Japan after World War II. Today? When nations write a new constitution, as dozens have in the past two decades, they seldom look to the American model.

When the soviets withdrew from Central Europe, U.S. constitutional experts rushed in. They got a polite hearing, and were sent home. Jiri Pehe, adviser to former president Vaclav Havel, recalls the Czechs' firm decision to adopt a European-style parliamentary system with strict limits on campaigning. "For Europeans, money talks too much in American democracy. It's very prone to certain kinds of corruption, or at least influence from powerful lobbies," he says. "Europeans would not want to follow that route." They also sought to limit the dominance of television, unlike in American campaigns where, Pehe says, "TV debates and photogenic looks govern election victories."

So it is elsewhere. After American planes and bombs freed the country, Kosovo opted for a European constitution. Drafting a post-apartheid constitution, South Africa rejected American-style federalism in favor of a German model, which leaders deemed appropriate for the social-welfare state they hoped to construct. Now fledgling African democracies look to South Africa as their inspiration, says John Stremlau, a former U.S. State Department official who currently heads the international relations department at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg: "We can't rely on the Americans." The new democracies are looking for a constitution written in modern times and reflecting their progressive concerns about racial and social equality, he explains. "To borrow Lincoln's phrase, South Africa is now Africa's 'last great hope'."

Much in American law and society troubles the world these days. Nearly all countries reject the United States' right to bear arms as a quirky and dangerous anachronism. They abhor the death penalty and demand broader privacy protections. Above all, once most foreign systems reach a reasonable level of affluence, they follow the Europeans in treating the provision of adequate social welfare is a basic right. All this, says Bruce Ackerman at Yale University Law School, contributes to the growing sense that American law, once the world standard, has become "provincial." The United States' refusal to apply the Geneva Conventions to certain terrorist suspects, to ratify global human-rights treaties such as the innocuous Convention on the Rights of the Child or to endorse the International Criminal Court (coupled with the abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo) only reinforces the conviction that America's Constitution and legal system are out of step with the rest of the world.

ECONOMIC PROSPERITY: The American Dream has always been chiefly economic—a dynamic ideal of free enterprise, free markets and individual opportunity based on merit and mobility. Certainly the U.S. economy has been extraordinarily productive. Yes, American per capita income remains among the world's highest. Yet these days there's as much economic dynamism in the newly industrializing economies of Asia, Latin America and even eastern Europe. All are growing faster than the United States. At current trends, the Chinese economy will be bigger than America's by 2040. Whether those trends will continue is not so much the question. Better to ask whether the American way is so superior that everyone else should imitate it. And the answer to that, increasingly, is no.

Much has made, for instance, of the differences between the dynamic American model and the purportedly sluggish and overregulated "European model." Ongoing efforts at European labor-market reform and fiscal cuts are ridiculed. Why can't these countries be more like Britain, businessmen ask, without the high tax burden, state regulation and restrictions on management that plague Continental economies? Sooner or later, the CW goes, Europeans will adopt the American model—or perish.

Yet this is a myth. For much of the postwar period Europe and Japan enjoyed higher growth rates than America. Airbus recently overtook Boeing in sales of commercial aircraft, and the EU recently surpassed America as China's top trading partner. This year's ranking of the world's most competitive economies by the World Economic Forum awarded five of the top 10 slots—including No. 1 Finland—to northern European social democracies. "Nordic social democracy remains robust," writes Anthony Giddens, former head of the London School of Economics and a "New Labour" theorist, in a recent issue of the New Statesman, "not because it has resisted reform, but because it embraced it."

This is much of the secret of Britain's economic performance as well. Lorenzo Codogno, co-head of European economics at the Bank of America, believes the British, like Europeans elsewhere, "will try their own way to achieve a proper balance." Certainly they would never put up with the lack of social protections afforded in the American system. Europeans are aware that their systems provide better primary education, more job security and a more generous social net. They are willing to pay higher taxes and submit to regulation in order to bolster their quality of life. Americans work far longer hours than Europeans do, for instance. But they are not necessarily more productive—nor happier, buried as they are in household debt, without the time (or money) available to Europeans for vacation and international travel. George Monbiot, a British public intellectual, speaks for many when he says, "The American model has become an American nightmare rather than an American dream."

Just look at booming bri-tain. Instead of cutting social welfare, Tony Blair's Labour government has expanded it. According to London's Centre for Policy Studies, public spending in Britain represented 43 percent of GDP in 2003, a figure closer to the Eurozone average than to the American share of 35 percent. It's still on the rise—some 10 percent annually over the past three years—at the same time that social welfare is being reformed to deliver services more efficiently. The inspiration, says Giddens, comes not from America, but from social-democratic Sweden, where universal child care, education and health care have been proved to increase social mobility, opportunity and, ultimately, economic productivity. In the United States, inequality once seemed tolerable because America was the land of equal opportunity. But this is no longer so. Two decades ago, a U.S. CEO earned 39 times the average worker; today he pulls in 1,000 times as much. Cross-national studies show that America has recently become a relatively difficult country for poorer people to get ahead. Monbiot summarizes the scientific data: "In Sweden, you are three times more likely to rise out of the economic class into which you were born than you are in the U.S."

Other nations have begun to notice. Even in poorer, pro-American Hungary and Poland, polls show that only a slender minority (less than 25 percent) wants to import the American economic model. A big reason is its increasingly apparent deficiencies. "Americans have the best medical care in the world," Bush declared in his Inaugural Address. Yet the United States is the only developed democracy without a universal guarantee of health care, leaving about 45 million Americans uninsured. Nor do Americans receive higher-quality health care in exchange. Whether it is measured by questioning public-health experts, polling citizen satisfaction or survival rates, the health care offered by other countries increasingly ranks above America's. U.S. infant mortality rates are among the highest for developed democracies. The average Frenchman, like most Europeans, lives nearly four years longer than the average American. Small wonder that the World Health Organization rates the U.S. healthcare system only 37th best in the world, behind Colombia (22nd) and Saudi Arabia (26th), and on a par with Cuba.

The list goes on: ugly racial tensions, sky-high incarceration rates, child-poverty rates higher than any Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development country except Mexico—where Europe, these days, inspires more admiration than the United States. "Their solutions feel more natural to Mexicans because they offer real solutions to real, and seemingly intractable, problems," says Sergio Aguayo, a prominent democracy advocate in Mexico City, referring to European education, health care and social policies. And while undemocratic states like China may, ironically, be among the last places where the United States still presents an attractive political and social alternative to authoritarian government, new models are rising in prominence. Says Julie Zhu, a college student in Beijing: "When I was in high school I thought America was this dreamland, a fabled place." Anything she bought had to be American. Now that's changed, she says: "When people have money, they often choose European products." She might well have been talking about another key indicator. Not long ago, the United States was destination number one for foreign students seeking university educations. Today, growing numbers are going elsewhere—to other parts of Asia, or Europe. You can almost feel the pendulum swinging.

FOREIGN POLICY: U.S. leaders have long believed military power and the American Dream went hand in hand. World War II was fought not just to defeat the Axis powers, but to make the world safe for the United Nations, the precursor to the —World Trade Organization, the European Union and other international institutions that would strengthen weaker countries. NATO and the Marshall Plan were the twin pillars upon which today's Europe were built.

Today, Americans make the same presumption, confusing military might with right. Following European criticisms of the Iraq war, the French became "surrender monkeys." The Germans were opportunistic ingrates. The British (and the Poles) were America's lone allies. Unsurprisingly, many of those listening to Bush's Inaugural pledge last week to stand with those defying tyranny saw the glimmerings of an argument for invading Iran: Washington has thus far shown more of an appetite for spreading ideals with the barrel of a gun than for namby-pamby hearts-and-minds campaigns. A former French minister muses that the United States is the last "Bismarckian power"—the last country to believe that the pinpoint application of military power is the critical instrument of foreign policy.

Contrast that to the European Union—pioneering an approach based on civilian instruments like trade, foreign aid, peacekeeping, international monitoring and international law—or even China, whose economic clout has become its most effective diplomatic weapon. The strongest tool for both is access to huge markets. No single policy has contributed as much to Western peace and security as the admission of 10 new countries—to be followed by a half-dozen more—to the European Union. In country after country, authoritarian nationalists were beaten back by democratic coalitions held together by the promise of joining Europe. And in the past month European leaders have taken a courageous decision to contemplate the membership of Turkey, where the prospect of EU membership is helping to create the most stable democratic system in the Islamic world. When historians look back, they may see this policy as being the truly epochal event of our time, dwarfing in effectiveness the crude power of America.

The United States can take some satisfaction in this. After all, it is in large part the success of the mid-century American Dream—spreading democracy, free markets, social mobility and multilateral cooperation—that has made possible the diversity of models we see today. This was enlightened statecraft of unparalleled generosity. But where does it leave us? Americans still invoke democratic idealism. We heard it in Bush's address, with his apocalyptic proclamation that "the survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands." But fewer and fewer people have the patience to listen.

Headlines in the British press were almost contemptuous: DEFIANT BUSH DOES NOT MENTION THE WAR, HAVE I GOT NUKES FOR YOU and HIS SECOND-TERM MISSION: TO END TYRANNY ON EARTH. Has this administration learned nothing from Iraq, they asked? Can this White House really expect to command support from the rest of the world, with its different strengths and different dreams? The failure of the American Dream has only been highlighted by the country's foreign-policy failures, not caused by them. The true danger is that Americans do not realize this, lost in the reveries of greatness, speechifying about liberty and freedom.

(With Christian Caryl in Tokyo, Katka Krosnar in Prague, Mac Margolis in Rio de Janeiro, Tracy Mcnicoll in Paris, Paul Mooney in Beijing, Henk Rossouw in Johannesburg and Marie Valla in London.)

U2: the band as business paradigm

Media Age Business Tips From U2 -- by David Carr

IN pop culture, nothing lasts forever. But U2 is coming close.

On the surface, the formula U2 used to send 20,000 fans into sing-along rapture at Madison Square Garden last Tuesday night was as old as rock 'n' roll: four blokes, three instruments, a bunch of good songs. Add fans, cue monstrous sound system, light fuse and back away.

But that does not explain why, 25 years in, four million people will attend 130 sold-out shows this year and next that will gross over $300 million and how their most recent album, "How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb," has already sold eight million copies.

For that, you have to look at U2 less as a band than as a multimillion-dollar, multinational media company, one of the smarter ones around.

"We always said it would be pathetic to be good at the music and bad at the business," said Paul McGuinness, the band's manager since the beginning. And while U2 hasn't become a Harvard Business School case study (at least not yet) it offers an object lesson in how media can connect with their customers.

MEET THE CONSUMERS WHERE THEY LIVE For years, the U2 fanzine Propaganda was used to feed the tribe. The band's Web presence was restricted to temporary sites for specific tours. But in 2000, U2 opened an extensive Web site, with an index to every song and album, lyrics, tour news that is refreshed nightly and subscriber features - for those die-hards willing to part with $40 - that allowed them access to tickets, exclusive content and streaming downloads of every song and video the band has ever made.

APOLOGIZE, THEN MOVE ON With the Vertigo tour, it became apparent that some of those fans who had paid good money to join U2's Web site had been elbowed aside by scalpers in the scrum for tickets. The band's response was to apologize immediately and promise to do better.

"The idea that our longtime U2 fans and scalpers competed for U2 tickets through our own Web site is appalling to me," the drummer Larry Mullen wrote in a statement issued by the band as soon as the problem arose. "I want to apologize to you who have suffered that."

EMBRACE TECHNOLOGY While other big acts were scolding and threatening fans for downloading music or, in the case of Metallica, suing Napster, U2 was busy working on a new business model.

A collaboration with Apple yielded a U2 special edition iPod that was a smash hit and gave visibility to the band at a time when most radio station playlists don't extend much beyond a narrow selection of pop singers. With iTunes, U2 produced what may be the industry's first downloadable version of a box set, offering the band's entire musical history for $149.

"We thought it was an opportunity to be taken with both hands," said Mr. McGuinness. Contrast that statement with anything from Hollywood on digital technology in the last three years.

DON'T EMBARRASS YOUR FANS Sure, U2 has recorded some clunkers (1997's "Pop" comes to mind) but the band works and reworks material until it has a whole album's worth of songs, no filler. Last Tuesday, the band played at least four of the songs from the current album, giving the songs a shot at entering the pantheon and affirming U2's status as a contemporary band, not a guilty pleasure or retro musical act that covers their own earlier greatness. (Quick, what's the last Rolling Stones' album?)

"Don't embarrass your fans," Bono told The New York Times last year. "They've given you a good life."

BE CAREFUL HOW YOU SELL OUT U2 has been offered as much as $25 million to allow a song to be used in a car commercial. No dice. They traded brands, not money, with Apple. Bob Dylan may wander around in a Victoria's Secret ad and The Who will rent "My Generation" to anybody with the wherewithal, but the only thing U2's music sells is U2. Just because it will fold and go in someone's pocket - The New Yorker publishing ads illustrated by its cartoonists comes to mind - does not mean it will be beneficial over the long haul.

EMBRACE POLITICIANS, NOT POLITICS I watched Bono, during the Republican Convention last year, hold Bill O'Reilly of Fox News rapt with a lengthy discussion of AIDS in Africa. Last summer, he posed for a photograph with President Bush, congratulating him for the work his administration had done for Africa.

"Their credibility is very strong," said Gary Bongiovanni, editor in chief of Pollstar, a trade magazine covering the concert industry. "I don't think there is anybody who doesn't believe that they are sincere in what they are doing."

(Bono came close to jumping the shark by donning a blindfold and miming a prison torture scene during "Bullet the Blue Sky," the band's fatwa against United States military intervention and then saying at the end of the song, "This is dedicated to the brave men and women of the U.S. military." Which of these things, Bono?)

IT'S CALLED SHOW BUSINESS FOR A REASON In 1980, I was standing with my sister at First Avenue bar in Minneapolis watching a then little-known band from Dublin take the stage. The Edge, the band's lead guitarist, kicked into a chiming, ringing salute, the opening chords of "I Will Follow." Bono ambled out, absently drinking a glass of water and when the drummer kicked in, Bono tossed the water into the lights above him, a mist enshrouding him - and us - as he stepped to the mike.

Much theatrical and musical combustion ensued, on that night and in the decades since. The current show is a testament to reinvestment, with a huge lighting and stage structure that managed to make Madison Square Garden seem like a cozy church, the backdrop for a secular sacrament. The Vertigo tour included seven curtains of lights, consisting of 12,000 individual bulbs, and a heart-shaped runway that may have wiped out a few hundred prime seats, but allowed thousands more to feel engaged as The Edge and Bono strode out along it during songs.

SEIZE THE MOMENT, BUT DON'T STEAL IT For years, U2 declined invitations to play at the Super Bowl, but the first one held after the attacks of Sept. 11 had special significance. Bono, in the middle of singing "Beautiful Day," slyly opened his coat to hundreds of millions of viewers and revealed it was lined with the American flag. The band adopted industrial and electronic motifs into their music in the 90's to give currency to their sound and then promptly stripped it down for the current tour. Not every gesture and instinct resonates: Let's not forget Bono's decision to go with a mullet in the mid-80's.

AIM HIGH As the central icon in the Church of the Upraised Fist - a temporary concert nation of gesturing frat boys, downloading adolescents and aging rockers reliving past glories - Bono can command his audience to do anything. During the concert last Tuesday, Bono asked the audience to send, via text message, their full names to One, an organization that fights AIDS and global poverty. They happily complied and their names were flashed on screen between encores. MTV's "Total Request Live" may attract a wider audience, but its members probably aren't made to think they are part of something bigger.

White phosphorus: now US acts like Saddam

NY Times Editorial: Shake and Bake

Let us pause and count the ways the conduct of the war in Iraq has damaged America's image and needlessly endangered the lives of those in the military. First, multilateralism was tossed aside. Then the post-invasion fiasco muddied the reputation of military planners and caused unnecessary casualties. The W.M.D. myth undermined the credibility of United States intelligence and President Bush himself, and the abuse of prisoners stole America's moral high ground.

Now the use of a ghastly weapon called white phosphorus has raised questions about how careful the military has been in avoiding civilian casualties. It has also further tarnished America's credibility on international treaties and the rules of warfare.

White phosphorus, which dates to World War II, should have been banned generations ago. Packed into an artillery shell, it explodes over a battlefield in a white glare that can illuminate an enemy's positions. It also rains balls of flaming chemicals, which cling to anything they touch and burn until their oxygen supply is cut off. They can burn for hours inside a human body.

The United States restricted the use of incendiaries like white phosphorus after Vietnam, and in 1983, an international convention banned its use against civilians. In fact, one of the many crimes ascribed to Saddam Hussein was dropping white phosphorus on Kurdish rebels and civilians in 1991.

But white phosphorus has made an ugly comeback. Italian television reported that American forces used it in Falluja last year against insurgents. At first, the Pentagon said the chemical had been used only to illuminate the battlefield, but had to backpedal when it turned out that one of the Army's own publications talked about using white phosphorus against insurgent positions, a practice well known enough to have one of those unsettling military nicknames: "shake and bake."

The Pentagon says white phosphorus was never aimed at civilians, but there are lingering reports of civilian victims. The military can't say whether the reports are true and does not intend to investigate them, a decision we find difficult to comprehend. Pentagon spokesmen say the Army took "extraordinary measures" to reduce civilian casualties, but they cannot say what those measures were.

They also say that using white phosphorus against military targets is legal. That's true, but the 1983 convention bans its use against "civilians or civilian objects," which would make white phosphorus attacks in urban settings like Falluja highly inappropriate at best. The United States signed that convention, but the portion dealing with incendiary weapons has been awaiting ratification in the Senate.

These are technicalities, in any case. Iraq, where winning over wary civilians is as critical as defeating armed insurgents, is no place to be using a weapon like this. More broadly, American demands for counterproliferation efforts and international arms control ring a bit hollow when the United States refuses to give up white phosphorus, not to mention cluster bombs and land mines.

The United States should be leading the world, not dragging its feet, when it comes to this sort of issue - because it's right and because all of us, including Americans, are safer in a world in which certain forms of conduct are regarded as too inhumane even for war. That is why torture should be banned in American prisons. And it is why the United States should stop using white phosphorus.

Monday, November 28, 2005

US Diary: Molly Ivins says we have some things to give thanks for

Give Thanks, Look Forward -- by Molly Ivins

AUSTIN, Texas — Since the political world ranges from poor to icky these days, you may think we are gratitudinally challenged this Thanksgiving season. But a mere soupçon of sunny optimism goes a long way toward getting us to dwell on how lucky we are. We are abundantly blessed with lemons. Let us make lemonade.

I am grateful for the extraordinary number of readers who sent along their ideas on How to Fix All This. The ideas ranged from the sublime to the practical, from the universal and global to the price of milk. The country is teeming with good ideas, all of which we need.

I was particularly intrigued by this thought from peace activist Gen Van Cleve: It's 2009 and the Bush people are gone, leaving in their wake fury, suspicion, distrust — basically, our name is mud, whether we've left Iraq by then or not. Most of the rest of the world considers us: A) insane, B) imperialist and C) morons. What to do?

Remember when John F. Kennedy announced that America would go to the moon within 10 years? That we would put all our technological, scientific and government expertise into making a grand project happen? And we did.

Suppose we announce a new project: to find and make available inexpensive forms of renewable, nonpolluting energy. We could put all our available federal resources in science and technology into making that happen and enlist the private sector — and also announce our intention to share this technology with the rest of world. Not to own it exclusively, but to help spread it all over the world. Good for them, good for us, no downside — except for the oil companies.

I am also grateful that Vice President Dick Cheney — that little ray of sunshine, that bouncing ball of light and happiness spreading joy where'er he goes — is so well prepared for a brilliant second career. He's perfect to play the heavy in films. Not since Jimmy Cagney was a gangster have we seen a sneer like that. In the remake of "Jaws," Cheney can play the shark.

The Progress Report has come up with some dandy things to be thankful for, starting with American troops. It also lists:
-- Rep. Jack Murtha, D-Pa., for showing it's patriotic to speak your mind.
-- The 90 senators who stood up to Cheney to say that torture is not an American value.
-- The 79 senators who demanded the Bush administration detail a plan for Iraq.
-- That Sen. Bill Frist is not our physician.

Consider these additional delights: Tom DeLay is under indictment, Heckuva Job Brownie is no longer on the public payrol and, for some inexplicable reason, the administration found a Republican prosecutor in the Plame affair who seems to care more about the law than politics.

I am grateful for the Rev. Pat Robertson, who was upset by the school board election in Dover, Pa., where the creationist-supporting candidates lost. Quoth he: "I'd like to say to the good citizens of Dover: If there is a disaster in your area, don't turn to God — you just rejected Him from your city. And don't wonder why He hasn't helped you when problems begin, if they begin. I'm not saying they will, but if they do, just remember, you just voted God out of your city. And if that's the case, don't ask for His help because He might not be there." On the other hand, the same is true of FEMA.

If that's the voice of Christian love, mercy, compassion and forgiveness, I'm a monkey's uncle. I am grateful Pat Robertson does not speak for me or the Lord.

The Progress Report urges us to look at it this way: At least Judy Miller won't be reporting on WMD programs in Iran for The New York Times ... and we don't have Scott McClellan's job.

There's music in poor bleeding New Orleans again, Ted Koppel and his hair put in a commendable 25 years, some terrific new films are out, my puppy has not eaten a shoe for an entire month now, and the Mountain West is moving from red to purple.

So it's still a great country, even if it is a little strange. I am grateful for all my fellow citizens — how would we know it was America if we didn't hear regularly from the nincompoop faction?

The women of Africa: girls sold to older men

Forced to Marry Before Puberty, African Girls Pay Lasting Price -- by Sharon LaFraniere

CHIKUTU, Malawi - Mapendo Simbeye's problems began early last year when the barren hills along Malawi's northern border with Tanzania rejected his attempts to grow even cassava, the hardiest crop of all. So to feed his wife and five children, he said, he went to his neighbor, Anderson Kalabo, and asked for a loan. Mr. Kalabo gave him 2,000 kwacha, about $16. The family was fed.

But that created another problem: how could Mr. Simbeye, a penniless farmer, repay Mr. Kalabo?

The answer would shock most outsiders, but in sub-Saharan Africa's rural patriarchies, it is deeply ingrained custom. Mr. Simbeye sent his 11-year-old daughter, Mwaka, a shy first grader, down one mangy hillside and up the next to Mr. Kalabo's hut. There she became a servant to his first wife, and, she said, Mr. Kalabo's new bed partner.

Now 12, Mwaka said her parents never told her she was meant to be the second wife of a man roughly three decades her senior. "They said I had to chase birds from the rice garden," she said, studying the ground outside her mud-brick house. "I didn't know anything about marriage."

Mwaka ran away, and her parents took her back after six months. But a week's journey through Malawi's dry and mountainous north suggests that her escape is the exception. In remote lands like this, where boys are valued far more than girls, older men prize young wives, fathers covet dowries and mothers are powerless to intervene, many African girls like Mwaka must leap straight from childhood to marriage at a word from their fathers.

Sometimes that word comes years before they reach puberty.

The consequences of these forced marriages are staggering: adolescence and schooling cut short; early pregnancies and hazardous births; adulthood often condemned to subservience. The list has grown to include exposure to H.I.V. at an age when girls do not grasp the risks of AIDS.

Increasingly educators, health officials and even legislators discourage or even forbid these marriages. In Ethiopia, for example, where studies show that in a third of the states girls marry under the age of 15, one state took action in April. Officials said they had annulled as underage the marriages of 56 girls ages 12 to 15, and filed charges against parents of half the girls for forcing them into the unions.

Yet child marriages remain entrenched in rural pockets throughout sub-Saharan Africa, from Ghana to Kenya to Zambia, according to Unicef. Studies show that the average age of marriage in this region remains among the world's lowest, and the percentage of adolescent mothers the world's highest.

Many rural African communities, steeped in centuries of belief that girls occupy society's lower rungs, are inured to disapproval by the outside world.

"There is a lot of talk, but the value of the girl child is still low," said Seodi White, Malawi's coordinator for the Women in Law in Southern Africa Research Trust. "Society still clings to the education of the boy, and sees the girl as a trading tool. In the north, girls as early as 10 are being traded off for the family to gain. After that, the women become owned and powerless in their husbands' villages."

In villages throughout northern Malawi, girls are often married at or before puberty to whomever their fathers choose, sometimes to husbands as much as half a century older. Many of those same girls later choose lifelong misery over divorce because custom decrees that children in patriarchal tribes belong to the father.

In interviews, fathers and daughters here unapologetically explained the rationales for forced, intergenerational unions.

Uness Nyambi, of the village of Wiliro, said she was betrothed as a child so her parents could finance her brother's choice of a bride. Now about 17, she has two children, the oldest nearly 5, and a husband who guesses he is 70. "Just because of these two children, I can not leave him," she said.

Beatrice Kitamula, 19, was forced to marry her wealthy neighbor, now 63, five years ago because her father owed another man a cow. "I was the sacrifice," Ms. Kitamula said, holding back tears. She likened her husband's comfortable compound of red brick houses in Ngana village to a penitentiary. "When you are in prison," she said, "you have no rights."

In tiny Sele, Lyson Morenga, a widower, financed his re-marriage two years ago by giving his daughter Rachel, then 12, to a 50-year-old acquaintance in exchange for a black bull, according to his new in-laws. Mr. Morenga delivered the bull to his new wife's family as a partial payment, said his wife's uncle, Stewart Simkonda. Mr. SImkonda said Mr. Morenga had promised to deliver a larger payment after the impending marriage of Rachel's younger sister.

Malawi government officials say they try hard to protect girls like Rachel. Legislation before Parliament would raise the minimum age for marriage to 18, the legal age in most countries. Currently, marriages of Malawian girls from 15 to 18 are legal with the parents' consent. Women's rights advocates say they welcome the proposal, even though its effect would be limited because many marriages here, like much of the sub-Saharan region, take place under traditional customs, not civil law.

The government trained about 230 volunteers last year in ways to protect children, especially girls. Volunteers for Malawi's Human Rights Commission, Roman Catholic Church workers and police victim-protection units also try to intervene. In Iponga village, for example, Mbohesha Mbisa averted a forced marriage to her uncle at age 13 last year by walking a half-mile to the local police station, where officers persuaded her father to drop his plans to use her to replace her deceased aunt as a wife and mother.

"I was really scared, but I wanted to protect myself," said Mbohesha, now in the sixth grade.

Still, Malawi officials say that this region's growing poverty, worsened by AIDS and recent crop-killing drought, has put even more young girls at risk of forced marriage.

"This practice has been there for a long time, but it is getting worse now because there is desperation," said Penston Kilembe, Malawi's director of social welfare services. "It is particularly prevalent in communities that have been hard hit by famine. Households that can no longer fend for themselves opt to sell off their children to wealthier households."

"The gains which were made in addressing early marriages are being lost," said Andrina Mchiela, principal secretary for the Ministry of Gender.

Women's rights advocates want to abolish marriage payments, or lobolo, saying they create a financial incentive for parents to marry off their daughters. But even the advocates describe the tradition as politically untouchable.

In its most benign form, lobolo is a token of appreciation from the groom's family to the bride's. At its most egregious, it turns girls into the human equivalent of cattle. In much of northern Malawi, lobolo negotiations are typically all-male discussions of down payments, installments, settlements and the occasional refund for a wife who runs off.

Jimmy Mwanyongo, a 45-year-old village headman in Karonga, explained the marriage of his daughter Edah much as he might any commercial transaction. Several years ago, he said, sitting on a straw mat in his six-room house, he promised to care for his neighbor's two cows.

Instead, he sold the cows to educate his adopted son. When the neighbor, Ridein Simfukwe, lost his wife a year later in 2002, Mr. Mwanyongo said he felt obliged to offer his daughter as a replacement. "Because I had sold the two cows, I had no choice," he said.

Edah was 17, doe-eyed and voluptuous. Even with an illegitimate son, her neighbors and relatives say, she had her pick of suitors. Mr. Simfukwe was 63, with nine grown children and a flock of grandchildren.

Mr. Simfukwe said he considered Edah a bit young for him. But "her father decided that although I am old, I am the right person."

"I think it was a tribute to my character," he said. "Edah was willing. I didn't tie ropes around her neck and drag her."

Edah said her father did everything but that. For nine months, she said, she held out until "I thought I would die of sorrow."

"My father refused to allow me to eat," she said. "He chased me from the house. He said, 'Go find somewhere where you can sleep!' He said, 'Go to your husband! If you don't want to go there, I will whip you to death!' "

Her mother, Tabu Harawa, sided with her daughter, to no avail. "I told him, 'It is like you are killing her,' " she said. "It was shameful."

She said, "If it happens again, I will divorce him."

Now 20, Edah has an 11-month-old girl and is racked by fears for her future. "My husband is old," she said, sitting on the porch of her tiny thatched hut. "He may die soon. Most likely he leave me with more children. So where will I go?"

Her life, she suggested, is about as free as that of the two prized oxen her father now hooks up to his wooden cart for springtime plowing. "I am like a slave," she said.

Some of Edah's neighbors pity her. Others joke that she has married her own grandfather. Their reaction is one hint that even the most traditional Africans are starting to frown on marriages of young women to old men, as Edah's mother said, "for the sake of cows."

Mwaka Simbeye has her fellow villagers in Chikutu to thank for her return to her parents' home after her sojourn in her neighbor's hut. Now back in the second grade, she is still young enough to be charmed by a simple game of toss. Her body remains that of a child's.

At Mr. Kalabo's, she said in a barely audible whisper, "I had to do all the household chores. Washing the plates, cleaning the house, fetching water, collecting firewood, cooking when the first wife wasn't around."

Her father, Mapendo Simbeye, who repaid his $16 debt with Mwaka, said he took her back after hearing that the police could arrest him. In a clearing that serves as the village social center, he said he underestimated her, adding, "My daughter is worth more than 2,000 kwacha."

"I did it out of ignorance," he said. "I had five kids, no money and no food. Then Mr. Kalabo wanted the money back so I thought of selling the daughter. I didn't know I was abusing her."

Mwaka's mother, Tighezge Simkonda, looks like an older version of her daughter and is no less shy. "I did object," she said softly, glancing nervously at her husband chatting nearby. "I said, 'My daughter is very young.' "

"But the control is with the man," she said. "The daughters belong to the man."