Adam Ash

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Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Adam's blogbox: how to make capitalism democratic

A fact of American democracy that is never discussed is how undemocratic our business lives are.

Many of us spend most of our waking hours on earth working under circumstances that are totally undemocratic.

In a big company, tens of thousands of workers can be fired because of one man’s decision. The CEO of an American company has as much power as an old-fashioned monarch. Life in a modern American corporation is about as democratic as Germany under Hitler or Russia under Stalin. Our CEOs are today’s version of Genghis Khan.

The basic fact of corporate life is that you have to obey your boss.

Hence the corporate duty of sucking up to the boss. The phenomenon of phalanxes of yes men. The underlying fear in everything a company man does: what will the boss think of this?

It’s amazing that innovation can blossom under such a system. But think how innovation happens: you need to get the boss on your side before you can do anything. It had better be something he likes. It had better be something he can take credit for.

One-man rule: that’s how American business operates.

Of course, democracy and capitalism are not natural bedfellows. A good case might be made that capitalism does better under a dictatorship: witness the runaway success of Singapore and China.

Perhaps an interesting line of enquiry might be to explore how capitalism might work if it were organized along democratic lines.

Let’s engage in a thought experiment: how would one organize a company along democratic lines? What would something as paradoxical as democratic capitalism look like?

A good place to start would be with the workers of the company. We might call them the citizens of the company, like one refers to the citizens of a country or nation.

Just calling them citizens immediately changes how one thinks about them, doesn’t it?

As citizens, the workers would have some rights and some say in how their company is run. Like, for example, the right to elect their leader.

Imagine what would happen to a company in which its citizen workers get to vote for a new CEO every three or four years.

Come election time, there would be campaigns from qualified would-be CEOs inside the company (or outside the company, for that matter) directed at the citizen workers to win their votes.

What kind of campaigns would these CEO candidates run?

Obviously, they’d come up with policies that show how they’d make more money for the company than the next candidate, and how they’d spend that money better than the next candidate.

Now think about this: it would not get these CEO candidates many votes if their motivation for making more money was to return more dividends to the shareholders in the company.

In fact, to get the most votes, they’d have to promise that a solid chunk of the profits generated by their policies would be returned to the voters -- the citizen workers -- themselves. Come to think of it, they’d have to provide really good reasons why they wouldn’t return a 100% of the profits to the workers. (Think of the motivating effect if citizen workers were to make more money when the company makes more money.)

But what about the shareholders? Shouldn’t they be getting dividends?

Certainly. But it very much depends who the shareholders are.

Here’s where things get interesting.

How would you organize a company in which shares are divided between workers and shareholders and owners?

Let’s float an idea that may sound off-the-wall, even though it’s not intended as a cast-in-stone solution. Think of it as a line of enquiry for people to explore, debate, rebut, refine, develop and run with. In other words, a thought experiment. A new model for a new kind of employee-owned corporation.

Here goes. Say you have an idea that could make money. So you start a company. It’s yours, you own it. Because you have a good idea, your company starts to grow. You add more employees as you make more money so that your expanding company can make you even more money.

Here’s the thought experiment: what if corporate life was arranged –- regulated by law -- as follows.

You are the owner of the company as long as your business employs under a 100 workers. You’re the dictator. You’re free to support your employees, or exploit them, as much as you want or need to.


The day you decide to expand to the point where you need more than a 100 workers -- the minute you employ your 101st worker –- the second you find you need to employ more than a 100 workers to expand even bigger and faster to make megabucks –- at that point, a new change kicks in, legally mandated under the new democratic corporate regulations of our thought experiment.

This law says you now have to share ownership of the company with your workers. The minute you have more than 100 workers, you have to give your workers 51% of your company.

After this, if you and the citizen workers decide to take the company public, you can offer only up to 49% of the company to outside shareholders. Out of your share.

The shares of the citizen workers can never be alienated. They’re not even allowed to sell their shares themselves. If they leave the company, their shares go back to the company, i.e. to the other citizen workers.

In other words, the workers will always own at least 51% of their company.

So when you as the owner get to a 100 workers employed, you face an existential decision. You can decide to stay at 100 employees and be a dictator. But if you want to expand to make more money on a bigger playing field, you have to change your company from a dictatorship to a democracy.

You have to share ownership with your workers. You also have to share power, because now the citizen workers get the right to vote for their leader every three or four years.

They will keep voting for you, the original owner, if the company does well and makes money for them. But they will vote for someone else if you start to blow it.

If they vote for someone else, he or she starts running the company. You still own your 49% of the shares, but you have no power anymore.

If the citizen workers decide to sell shares to the public, they can do it without your say so. They can raise capital for the company by selling up to 80% of your 49% share of the company. The capital they raise goes to the company, not to you. You can decide to sell your 20% of your 49% share of the company in the IPO if you want to cash in.

It gets better (or worse, depending on your point of view).

Every year, if there hasn’t been an IPO, you have to give away 5% of your 49% to the citizen workers until the last 20% of it, which you can keep forever and pass on to your kids. Or sell to the citizen workers in what used to be your company, or sell to shareholders.

Crazy, isn’t it?

But is it any crazier than what we have now? Who says it’s better to have a board-appointed CEO than one democratically elected by the workers? Who says it’s better to have outside shareholders in your company who may never have stepped foot on your factory floor and only bought the shares on the recommendation of a broker – what you might call a class of absentee landlords? What’s so logical about that?

One idea behind our crazy thought experiment is that it’s OK to be the dictator of a 100 people, but not of more than a 100. In fact, the workers who sign up with your dictatorship are there because they’re hoping your company will grow beyond a 100 workers into a democracy.

This is not meant as a hard and fast plan, but as a basis for discussion. A way to deconcept the logic of undemocratic capitalism and point out how democratic capitalism might work. You may have your own ideas.

What cannot be gainsaid is that the capitalism as it is practiced in the US today is totally undemocratic.

Under a more democratic system of capitalism, not only are power and assets shared, but also motivation and incentive.

When everyone is an owner, behavior changes. Everyone in the company, from the CEO down to the janitor, owns shares and will be thinking about how they can make more money for the company –- how they can do their job better, how they can save monet for the company, how they can maximize profit. The company’s money is their money. Isn’t that more true to capitalist ideals than it is for the workers to rely solely on a fixed wage?

My contention goes further: I say a democratic corporation will beat an undemocratic corporation, run by a board-appointed CEO and owned by absentee shareholders, hands down. Every time. It stands to reason: a company owned and run by many capitalists who actually work in the company, will work harder and smarter and more cost-consciously and more profit-mindedly and more competitively than any other.

The workers will work smarter and harder. The bosses will work smarter and harder. The CEO will work smarter and harder. They’re all working for each other as well as for themselves. They're all accountable to each other. They all want each other to do better, because that way they themselves will do better. They win by sharing. The CEO knows he keeps his job only while his decisions and actions do well for the people working under him.

The workers will follow a CEO who makes good money for them with a 110% of their smarts, goodwill and effort.

This could be the perfect model of a perfect company.

If workers could vote for their CEOs today, which CEOs would survive? Steve Jobs of Apple would, for sure. But how many others?

If you’re a CEO, engage in your own thought experiment: do you feel the cold breeze of democratic accountability raise the hairs on the back of your neck?

If only more of our American CEOs labored with that breeze down their necks.

If only our capitalism worked in a more democratic way.

But under our widely accepted and highly admired system, we just have to cope with the results of dictatorship-predator capitalism: cars and burgers that wreck our environment and endanger life on earth; HMOs that deny us operations that could save our lives; and CEOs who make more money in a day than their workers make in a year.

We’re stuck with the capitalism we have instead of the capitalism most of us may prefer, if only we knew about it.

Call me a dreamer. But if democratic capitalism actually happened, you yourself might find that, ohmigod, there’s a dream out there worth following.

(This is from my forthcoming book: Invisible Dictatorship and the Sovereign Self: Why America is a Dictatorship Cross-dressed as a Democracy and How to Live Free in it. Comments are welcome.)

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Friday, July 13, 2007

Adam's blogbox: waiting for the Barbarians to leave Washington

What will Washington be like when the Barbarians leave town next year?

Will this hapless burg -- home of flagrant hypocrites and BS ejaculators, stuffed from snout to stern with an indigestible lumpen elite of corrupt souls, moral myopics, and wannabe-messiahs -- feel the relief of an epic enema?

We know what Washington has become since the Barbarians took over in 2000. Who back then, when Bush was campaigning as a “compassionate conservative,” could have foreseen what his Cheney presidency would bring us?

1. The deaths of tens of thousands of innocent Arab men, women and children, and nearly four thousand Americans -- not counting the thousands of severed limbs dropped on Iraqi soil.

2. The hatred and contempt of the world.

3. The turning of our proud Army and CIA into low-life torturers.

4. The creation of thousands of fresh, motivated, diehard Al Qaeda terrorists and hundreds of suicide bombers.

5. The staggering amount of $5 to $9 billion poured every month into a cesspool called the Iraq War (so far, more than $440,000,000,000 of our taxes).

6. The tactic of the big lie to con us into war (it worked for Hitler, it worked for Bush).

7. The selling out of America to China (we’ve given them the power to dump us into a depression whenever they fancy).

8. A headlong plunge from a comfortable surplus into a tsunami of debt, making us the #1 debtor nation on earth.

9. The absurd incompetence of FEMA after Katrina.

10. The rampant arrogance of cronyism. (You’re against abortion? Great, that qualifies you to be an administrator in the Green Zone.)

11. The suspension of habeas corpus. (Why have we locked you up without a trial for the past five years? Hey, it’s just the way things work in a democracy like ours, dude.)

12. The rebuilding of Al Qaeda in Pakistan. (Pakistan is on our side, isn’t it?)

13. The trashing of our Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

14. The trashing of international agreements and laws, such as the Geneva Conventions.

15. The breaching of the separation of Church and State (that would be an evangelical church – Jews and Muslims need not apply for our faith-based funding).

16. The breaking of laws by the President. (I’m above the law because I’m your Commander-in-Chief.)

17. The doctrine of “pre-emptive” war. (Didn’t you know? We had to stop the Iraqi Army from crossing the Atlantic en masse to come and bomb us with their scary nukes.)

18. The handing over of our Middle East policy to Israel.

19. The trashing of our environment.

20. The trashing of the middleclass and the poor.

21. Letting a member of Congress get away with chasing interns whose parents thought their kids would be safe in Washington.

22. Helping lobbyists to con Indian nations and others.

23. The enrichment of the already rich, to the point that beneficiaries like Warren Buffett and Bill Clinton are apologizing for it.

24. The use of US attorneys to accuse Democratic Party candidates of whatever it takes to turn the vote.

25. The employment of mercenaries – hired goons -- by the thousands.

26. No-bid contracts for Cheney’s old firm Halliburton.

27. The creation of a Supreme Court that now openly espouses racism and the exploitation of workers by their companies.

28. The refusal to implement laws passed by Congress by the extravagant use of presidential “signing statements.”

29. A foreign policy that has strengthened our arch-enemy Iran to become the #1 player in the Middle East.

30. The wholesale bungling of the occupation of a foreign country.

31. The fostering of a civil war in Iraq.

32. The wholesale spying on American citizens.

33. The wholesale outsourcing of American jobs overseas.

Truly, we’ve had six years of government by the Barbarians. No administration in US history has racked up a more odious record of incompetence, stupidity and venality. It’s like the sacking of Rome from the inside. The cons are running the prison. Darth Vader rules the galaxy. Child molesters oversee the nursery.

During Watergate, pundits proudly stated that the system worked. Well, in the case of the Barbarians, the system worked all right, but it was not the system we call democracy. It was something new in America – dictatorship lite.

Our so-called democracy, this supposedly robust system established by our founding fathers, of a separation of powers, of checks and balances, of an actual written Constitution, of equality before the law, was hijacked by no more than twelve men with a wacky agenda – Dick Cheney, George Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, Lewis Libby, Douglas Feith, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Elliott Abrams, Zalmay Khalilzad, John Bolton, Philip Zelikow, and Attorney General Gonzales.

The shame of it is that they were ably supported by not only the usual suspects -- the Weekly Standard, National Review, Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, the “scholars” of the American Enterprise Institute, the batty "Rapture” Evangelicals and creationists, the rightwing radio windbags, the flag-waving “uberpatriot” imbeciles, the greedy military-industrial complex slurping up our tax dollars -- the whole pea-brained troglodyte spastic chorus of hate-speech-spouting Bible-thumping crooked free-market monopoly capitalism liberal-decrying family-values war-on-terror gay-baiting women-suppressing stem-cell-fearing enemies-under-our-beds science-ignorant paranoid fetus-pitying SUV-driving beer-bellied gun-toting bash-the-poor hysterical racist ideologues who’ve made America the laughing stock of the civilized world, given noble conservatism a bad name, and caused Barry Goldwater to puke on the worms in his grave.

These twelve Barbarians -- who in any other country would be marginalized on the far-right loony fringe -- were also enthusiastically cheered on by the self-proclaimed stalwarts of our “democracy” like the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, CBS, NBC and ABC. These highly intelligent and liberal media fell for the most obvious lies, and became the useful idiots of the Barbarians.

Twelve Barbarians hijacked the country, and the country was only too willing to be hijacked. Hey, we may be against gay marriage, but that doesn’t stop us from bending over when our elite waves a big dick our way.

So much for our so-called democracy. Turns out it can be easily busted by a few determined wingnuts.

Even an election win by the Democratic Party has made little difference. Our kids are still being killed for no good reason in Iraq. The Barbarians, bloodied but unbowed, still rule. Nobody has thought to impeach the most impeachable President and Vice-President in history.

Our system of “democracy” has failed us. The truth is, the system never works. It’s people who make the system work, and we’ve elected the wrong people to make our system work. Nancy Pelosi doesn’t want to impeach, and that’s that. The electorate never gets a proper alternative to the dictatorial powers-that-be.

It doesn’t really matter which party is in power. The credit-card companies will still get to write the bankruptcy laws. Big Pharma will still be writing drug laws. HMOs will be writing healthcare laws. Big Oil will make sure they’re subsidized by our taxes. The American people will still find themselves eternally ass-up-in-the-air, steadily buggered by their Barbarian elite.

The Barbarians are in charge because a nation of Barbarians put them there, and it took our nation of ignoramus hicks all of six years to find out exactly how Barbarian their chosen Barbarians are. At last Bush’s approval rate sleeps with the fishes, and most Americans want the end of a war most of them now think was a mistake to begin with, but wouldn’t you know? Bush is still on TV, refusing to get his butt out of Iraq.

Now that we know how easy it is to turn our “democracy” into a dictatorship (in the current jargon, a “unitary executive”), what can we expect future administrations to get up to?

Don’t think you can trust an administration run by Democrats to be more “democratic” than the Barbarians. The template has been set. It’s just too easy to hijack our “democracy.” Our media are simply too compliant. Our citizens are simply too ignorant (how many of them realize they make no more money than they did in 1970, even though they’re way more productive and work much harder?). And our business leaders simply buy too many profit opportunities under the Barbarians. Heck, they love the war; they’re making a killing in Iraq.

That shrewd old Nazi, Hermann Goering, explained the whole thing at Nuremberg: "Naturally the common people don’t want war. But after all, it is the leaders of a country who determine the policy, and it’s always a simple matter to drag people along whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. This is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and for exposing the country to danger. It works the same in every country."

It sure worked here. The Barbarians took over, planning a war on Iraq long before 9/11 for their Barbarian dream of yet another puppet regime in the Middle East. Now they’ve afforded future administrations a shining example of just what a few determined men can do when they want war, or tax cuts for the rich, or the right for corporations to foul up our air, or however they want to screw the average American. The spiders spin, and we sit trapped in their web, being sucked dry, while those who should be warning us are basking in access to power instead of speaking truth to it.

Will anything happen to our Barbarians? Let’s take just one example: pundit William Kristol, the editor of Rupert Murdoch’s conservative vanity publication The Weekly Standard. He told NPR when the Iraq War started: "There's been a certain amount of pop sociology in America, that the Shia can't get along with the Sunni … There's been almost no evidence of that at all.” What happened to this massive fool, whose brain has been squatting in his bowels for his entire life? Time Magazine made him one of their columnists. The stupider you are, the bigger the forum you’re given to be stupid in. The more you screw up, the likelier you are to get a Medal of Freedom pinned on your incompetent backside by our Barbarian-In-Chief.

Even now, our nation of Barbarians have no idea how truly Barbarian their Barbarian rulers are. Three of our GOP presidential candidates don’t believe in evolution. All of them are for torture. How can this happen in an educated society of rational grownups? We’re talking about idiocy on a massive scale here, a kind of dark age of the human spirit. Our leaders may be jokes, but what they do is not funny at all, since it usually entails thousands being ripped off or killed. (Last week’s joke from the NY Times: “Former Surgeon General Richard H. Carmona told a Congressional panel ... that he was ordered to mention President Bush three times on every page of his speeches.” America, never forget you voted for this pustule on a warthog’s butt.)

The American experiment with democracy is over. We need a new De Tocqueville to write not “Democracy in America,” but “Kleptocracy in America.” Here’s the definition of kleptocracy: a government that extends the personal wealth and political power of government officials and the ruling class at the expense of the population. Rings a bell, doesn’t it? Especially when we see our pols, after they lose elections, automatically become lobbyists to cash in big-time. And you thought they were there to work for you.

We can now look forward to Barbarian rule in perpetuity. Sometimes it will be Barbarian Heavy, like today, and sometimes it will be Barbarian Lite, like it will be under Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. Hillary or Obama might make a cosmetic difference, but Paris Hilton will become a nun in the Congo before any administration actually SOLVES our problems of education, healthcare, energy, the environment, campaign funding and income inequality, as opposed to Congress paving them over with a thin coat of superficial law-making. Until public schools are funded equally and not by property taxes, until there's a single-payer healthcare system, until big business is forced to clean up after themselves, until corporate welfare for big oil and other businesses stop, until the rich pay their fair share of taxes, until we stop exporting our jobs overseas, until CEOs stop making more in one day than their workers make in a year, things will go on as before.

The Barbarians have won. Under Bush/Cheney, government of the people by the people for the people has perished from the earth. Sorry, Abe. Our Constitution never stood a chance against our 21st century elite. You thought you birthed a democracy, founding fathers. Tsk, tsk. Long live government of the Barbarians by the Barbarians for the Barbarians.

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Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Even the New York Times, who did all it could to get us into the Iraq War, says it's high time to get the fuck out

1. The Road Home
New York Times Editorial

It is time for the United States to leave Iraq, without any more delay than the Pentagon needs to organize an orderly exit.

Like many Americans, we have put off that conclusion, waiting for a sign that President Bush was seriously trying to dig the United States out of the disaster he created by invading Iraq without sufficient cause, in the face of global opposition, and without a plan to stabilize the country afterward.

At first, we believed that after destroying Iraq's government, army, police and economic structures, the United States was obliged to try to accomplish some of the goals Mr. Bush claimed to be pursuing, chiefly building a stable, unified Iraq. When it became clear that the president had neither the vision nor the means to do that, we argued against setting a withdrawal date while there was still some chance to mitigate the chaos that would most likely follow.

While Mr. Bush scorns deadlines, he kept promising breakthroughs - after elections, after a constitution, after sending in thousands more troops. But those milestones came and went without any progress toward a stable, democratic Iraq or a path for withdrawal. It is frighteningly clear that Mr. Bush's plan is to stay the course as long as he is president and dump the mess on his successor. Whatever his cause was, it is lost.

The political leaders Washington has backed are incapable of putting national interests ahead of sectarian score settling. The security forces Washington has trained behave more like partisan militias. Additional military forces poured into the Baghdad region have failed to change anything.

Continuing to sacrifice the lives and limbs of American soldiers is wrong. The war is sapping the strength of the nation's alliances and its military forces. It is a dangerous diversion from the life-and-death struggle against terrorists. It is an increasing burden on American taxpayers, and it is a betrayal of a world that needs the wise application of American power and principles.

A majority of Americans reached these conclusions months ago. Even in politically polarized Washington, positions on the war no longer divide entirely on party lines. When Congress returns this week, extricating American troops from the war should be at the top of its agenda.

That conversation must be candid and focused. Americans must be clear that Iraq, and the region around it, could be even bloodier and more chaotic after Americans leave. There could be reprisals against those who worked with American forces, further ethnic cleansing, even genocide. Potentially destabilizing refugee flows could hit Jordan and Syria. Iran and Turkey could be tempted to make power grabs. Perhaps most important, the invasion has created a new stronghold from which terrorist activity could proliferate.

The administration, the Democratic-controlled Congress, the United Nations and America's allies must try to mitigate those outcomes - and they may fail. But Americans must be equally honest about the fact that keeping troops in Iraq will only make things worse. The nation needs a serious discussion, now, about how to accomplish a withdrawal and meet some of the big challenges that will arise.

The Mechanics of Withdrawal

The United States has about 160,000 troops and millions of tons of military gear inside Iraq. Getting that force out safely will be a formidable challenge. The main road south to Kuwait is notoriously vulnerable to roadside bomb attacks. Soldiers, weapons and vehicles will need to be deployed to secure bases while airlift and sealift operations are organized. Withdrawal routes will have to be guarded. The exit must be everything the invasion was not: based on reality and backed by adequate resources.

The United States should explore using Kurdish territory in the north of Iraq as a secure staging area. Being able to use bases and ports in Turkey would also make withdrawal faster and safer. Turkey has been an inconsistent ally in this war, but like other nations, it should realize that shouldering part of the burden of the aftermath is in its own interest.

Accomplishing all of this in less than six months is probably unrealistic. The political decision should be made, and the target date set, now.

The Fight Against Terrorists

Despite President Bush's repeated claims, Al Qaeda had no significant foothold in Iraq before the invasion, which gave it new base camps, new recruits and new prestige.

This war diverted Pentagon resources from Afghanistan, where the military had a real chance to hunt down Al Qaeda's leaders. It alienated essential allies in the war against terrorism. It drained the strength and readiness of American troops.

And it created a new front where the United States will have to continue to battle terrorist forces and enlist local allies who reject the idea of an Iraq hijacked by international terrorists. The military will need resources and bases to stanch this self- inflicted wound for the foreseeable future.

The Question of Bases

The United States could strike an agreement with the Kurds to create those bases in northeastern Iraq. Or, the Pentagon could use its bases in countries like Kuwait and Qatar, and its large naval presence in the Persian Gulf, as staging points.

There are arguments for, and against, both options. Leaving troops in Iraq might make it too easy - and too tempting - to get drawn back into the civil war and confirm suspicions that Washington's real goal was to secure permanent bases in Iraq. Mounting attacks from other countries could endanger those nations' governments.

The White House should make this choice after consultation with Congress and the other countries in the region, whose opinions the Bush administration has essentially ignored. The bottom line: the Pentagon needs enough force to stage effective raids and airstrikes against terrorist forces in Iraq, but not enough to resume large-scale combat.

The Civil War

One of Mr. Bush's arguments against withdrawal is that it would lead to civil war. That war is raging, right now, and it may take years to burn out. Iraq may fragment into separate Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite republics, and American troops are not going to stop that from happening.

It is possible, we suppose, that announcing a firm withdrawal date might finally focus Iraq's political leaders and neighboring governments on reality. Ideally, it could spur Iraqi politicians to take the steps toward national reconciliation that they have endlessly discussed but refused to act on.

But it is foolish to count on that, as some Democratic proponents of withdrawal have done. The administration should use whatever leverage it gains from withdrawing to press its allies and Iraq's neighbors to help achieve a negotiated solution.

Iraq's leaders - knowing that they can no longer rely on the Americans to guarantee their survival - might be more open to compromise, perhaps to a Bosnian-style partition, with economic resources fairly shared but with millions of Iraqis forced to relocate. That would be better than the slow-motion ethnic and religious cleansing that has contributed to driving one in seven Iraqis from their homes.

The United States military cannot solve the problem. Congress and the White House must lead an international attempt at a negotiated outcome. To start, Washington must turn to the United Nations, which Mr. Bush spurned and ridiculed as a preface to war.

The Human Crisis

There are already nearly two million Iraqi refugees, mostly in Syria and Jordan, and nearly two million more Iraqis who have been displaced within their country. Without the active cooperation of all six countries bordering Iraq - Turkey, Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria - and the help of other nations, this disaster could get worse. Beyond the suffering, massive flows of refugees - some with ethnic and political resentments - could spread Iraq's conflict far beyond Iraq's borders.

Kuwait and Saudi Arabia must share the burden of hosting refugees. Jordan and Syria, now nearly overwhelmed with refugees, need more international help. That, of course, means money. The nations of Europe and Asia have a stake and should contribute. The United States will have to pay a large share of the costs, but should also lead international efforts, perhaps a donors' conference, to raise money for the refugee crisis.

Washington also has to mend fences with allies. There are new governments in Britain, France and Germany that did not participate in the fight over starting this war and are eager to get beyond it. But that will still require a measure of humility and a commitment to multilateral action that this administration has never shown. And, however angry they were with President Bush for creating this mess, those nations should see that they cannot walk away from the consequences. To put it baldly, terrorism and oil make it impossible to ignore.

The United States has the greatest responsibilities, including the admission of many more refugees for permanent resettlement. The most compelling obligation is to the tens of thousands of Iraqis of courage and good will - translators, embassy employees, reconstruction workers - whose lives will be in danger because they believed the promises and cooperated with the Americans.

The Neighbors

One of the trickiest tasks will be avoiding excessive meddling in Iraq by its neighbors - America's friends as well as its adversaries.

Just as Iran should come under international pressure to allow Shiites in southern Iraq to develop their own independent future, Washington must help persuade Sunni powers like Syria not to intervene on behalf of Sunni Iraqis. Turkey must be kept from sending troops into Kurdish territories.

For this effort to have any remote chance, Mr. Bush must drop his resistance to talking with both Iran and Syria. Britain, France, Russia, China and other nations with influence have a responsibility to help. Civil war in Iraq is a threat to everyone, especially if it spills across Iraq's borders.

President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have used demagoguery and fear to quell Americans' demands for an end to this war. They say withdrawing will create bloodshed and chaos and encourage terrorists. Actually, all of that has already happened - the result of this unnecessary invasion and the incompetent management of this war.

This country faces a choice. We can go on allowing Mr. Bush to drag out this war without end or purpose. Or we can insist that American troops are withdrawn as quickly and safely as we can manage - with as much effort as possible to stop the chaos from spreading.

The thirst for a final, crushing victory is firmly woven into the country's history

BAGHDAD – Perhaps no fact is more revealing about Iraq's history than this: The Iraqis have a word that means to utterly defeat and humiliate someone by dragging his corpse through the streets.

The word is sahel , and it helps explain much of what I have seen in 3 _ years of covering the war.

It is a word unique to Iraq, a friend explained. Throughout Iraq's history, he said, power has changed hands only through extreme violence, when a leader was vanquished absolutely, and his destruction was put on display for all to see.

But in this war, the moment of sahel has been elusive. No faction has been able to secure absolute power; that has only sharpened the hunger for it.

Listen to Iraqis engaged in the fight, and you realize they are far from exhausted by the war. Many say this is only the beginning. President Bush, on the other hand, has escalated the U.S. military involvement on the assumption that the Iraqi factions have tired of armed conflict and are ready to reach a grand accord.

"We've changed nothing," said Fakhri al-Qaisi, a Sunni Arab dentist turned hard-line politician. "It's dark. There will be more blood."

I first met Mr. Qaisi in 2003 at a Salafi mosque in western Baghdad, when the Sunni Arab insurgency was gaining momentum. He articulated the Sunnis' simmering anger at being ousted from power. That fury has blossomed and is likely only to grow, as religious Shiite leaders and their militias become more entrenched in the government and as Kurds in the north push to expand their region and secede in all but name.

Caught in the middle of the civil war are the Americans. To Iraq's factions, they are the weakest of all the armed groups in one crucial respect: Their will is ebbing, and their time here is limited.

"Everyone – the Sunni, the Shia – is playing the waiting game," an Iraqi leader told me over dinner at his home in the Green Zone. "They're waiting out the Americans. Everyone is using time against you."

Four years into this war, Sunni and Shiite attacks against the Americans are expanding. There is little love among Iraqi civilians for the troops, though many fear the anarchy that could follow an American withdrawal.

"I'm still sticking by my principle, which is against the occupation," Mr. Qaisi said. "I'm Iraqi, and I think the Iraqi people should have this principle. We have the right to defend our country as George Washington did."

As long as I have known him, Mr. Qaisi has rejected the idea that Sunni Arabs are the minority in this country. To him and many other Sunnis, the borders of Iraq do not delineate the boundaries of the war. The conflict is set, instead, against the backdrop of the entire Islamic world, in which demography and history have always favored the Sunnis.

For the Shiites, who make up 60 percent of Iraqis, the unalloyed hostility of the Sunni Arabs only reinforces a centuries-old sense of victimhood. So the Shiite militias grow, stoking vengeance.

The Shiites have waited centuries for their moment on the throne, and the war is something they are willing to tolerate as the price for taking power, said the Iraqi leader who had invited me to dinner. "The Shia say this is not exceptional for them; this is normal," he said.

The belief of the Shiites that they must consolidate power through force of arms is tethered to ever-present suspicions of an impending betrayal by the Americans. Though the Americans have helped institute the representative system of government that the Shiites now dominate, they have failed to eliminate memories of how President George H.W. Bush allowed Mr. Hussein to slaughter rebelling Shiites in 1991. Shiite leaders are all too aware, as well, of America's hostility toward Iran, the seat of Shiite power, and of its close alliances with Sunni Arab nations, especially Saudi Arabia.

"In the history of Iraq, more than 7,000 years, there have always been strong leaders," said Sheik Muhammad Bakr Khamis al-Suhail, a respected Shiite neighborhood leader in Baghdad who supports democracy. "We need strong rulers or dictators like Franco, Hitler, even Mubarak. We need a strong dictator, and a fair one at the same time, to kill all extremists, Sunni and Shiite."

I was surprised to hear those words. But perhaps I was being naive. Looking back on all I have seen of this war, it now seems that the Iraqis have been driving all along for the decisive victory, the act of sahel , the day the bodies will be dragged through the streets.

3. Private contractors outnumber U.S. troops in Iraq
New U.S. data show how heavily the Bush administration has relied on corporations to carry out the occupation of the war-torn nation.
By T. Christian Miller/LA Times

The number of U.S.-paid private contractors in Iraq now exceeds that of American combat troops, newly released figures show, raising fresh questions about the privatization of the war effort and the government's capacity to carry out military and rebuilding campaigns.

More than 180,000 civilians — including Americans, foreigners and Iraqis — are working in Iraq under U.S. contracts, according to State and Defense department figures obtained by the Los Angeles Times.

Including the recent troop buildup, 160,000 soldiers and a few thousand civilian government employees are stationed in Iraq.

The total number of private contractors, far higher than previously reported, shows how heavily the Bush administration has relied on corporations to carry out the occupation of Iraq — a mission criticized as being undermanned.

"These numbers are big," said Peter Singer, a Brookings Institution scholar who has written on military contracting. "They illustrate better than anything that we went in without enough troops. This is not the coalition of the willing. It's the coalition of the billing."

The numbers include at least 21,000 Americans, 43,000 foreign contractors and about 118,000 Iraqis — all employed in Iraq by U.S. tax dollars, according to the most recent government data.

The array of private workers promises to be a factor in debates on a range of policy issues, including the privatization of military jobs and the number of Iraqi refugees allowed to resettle in the U.S.

But there are also signs that even those mounting numbers may not capture the full picture. Private security contractors, who are hired to protect government officials and buildings, were not fully counted in the survey, according to industry and government officials.

Continuing uncertainty over the numbers of armed contractors drew special criticism from military experts.

"We don't have control of all the coalition guns in Iraq. That's dangerous for our country," said William Nash, a retired Army general and reconstruction expert. The Pentagon "is hiring guns. You can rationalize it all you want, but that's obscene."

Although private companies have played a role in conflicts since the American Revolution, the U.S. has relied more on contractors in Iraq than in any other war, according to military experts.

Contractors perform functions including construction, security and weapons system maintenance.

Military officials say contractors cut costs while allowing troops to focus on fighting rather than on other tasks.

"The only reason we have contractors is to support the war fighter," said Gary Motsek, the assistant deputy undersecretary of Defense who oversees contractors. "Fundamentally, they're supporting the mission as required."

But critics worry that troops and their missions could be jeopardized if contractors, functioning outside the military's command and control, refuse to make deliveries of vital supplies under fire.

At one point in 2004, for example, U.S. forces were put on food rations when drivers balked at taking supplies into a combat zone.

Adding an element of potential confusion, no single agency keeps track of the number or location of contractors.

In response to demands from Congress, the U.S. Central Command began a census last year of the number of contractors working on U.S. and Iraqi bases to determine how much food, water and shelter was needed.

That census, provided to The Times under the Freedom of Information Act, shows about 130,000 contractors and subcontractors of different nationalities working at U.S. and Iraqi military bases.

However, U.S. military officials acknowledged that the census did not include other government agencies, including the U.S. Agency for International Development and the State Department.

Last month, USAID reported about 53,000 Iraqis employed under U.S. reconstruction contracts, doing jobs such as garbage pickup and helping to teach democracy. In interviews, agency officials said an additional 300 Americans and foreigners worked as contractors for the agency.

State Department officials said they could not provide the department's number of contractors. Of about 5,000 people affiliated with the U.S. Embassy in Iraq, about 300 are State Department employees. The rest are a mix of other government agency workers and contractors, many of whom are building the new embassy.

"There are very few of us, and we're way undermanned," said one State Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity. "We have significant shortages of people. It's been that way since before [the war], and it's still that way."

The companies with the largest number of employees are foreign firms in the Middle East that subcontract to KBR, the Houston-based oil services company, according to the Central Command database. KBR, once a subsidiary of Halliburton Co., provides logistics support to troops, the single largest contract in Iraq.

Middle Eastern companies, including Kulak Construction Co. of Turkey and Projects International of Dubai, supply labor from Third World countries to KBR and other U.S. companies for menial work on U.S. bases and rebuilding projects. Foreigners are used instead of Iraqis because of fears that insurgents could infiltrate projects.

KBR is by far the largest employer of Americans, with nearly 14,000 U.S. workers. Other large employers of Americans in Iraq include New York-based L-3 Communications, which holds a contract to provide translators to troops, and ITT Corp., a New York engineering and technology firm.

The most controversial contractors are those working for private security companies, including Blackwater, Triple Canopy and Erinys. They guard sensitive sites and provide protection to U.S. and Iraqi government officials and businessmen.

Security contractors draw some of the sharpest criticism, much of it from military policy experts who say their jobs should be done by the military. On several occasions, heavily armed private contractors have engaged in firefights when attacked by Iraqi insurgents.

Others worry that the private security contractors lack accountability. Although scores of troops have been prosecuted for serious crimes, only a handful of private security contractors have faced legal charges.

The number of private security contractors in Iraq remains unclear, despite Central Command's latest census. The Times identified 21 security companies in the Central Command database, deploying 10,800 men.

However, the Defense Department's Motsek, who monitors contractors, said the Pentagon estimated the total was 6,000.

Both figures are far below the private security industry's own estimate of about 30,000 private security contractors working for government agencies, nonprofit organizations, media outlets and businesses.

Industry officials said that private security companies helped reduce the number of troops needed in Iraq and provided jobs to Iraqis — a benefit in a country with high unemployment.

"A guy who is working for a [private security company] is not out on the street doing something inimical to our interests," said Lawrence Peter, director of the Private Security Company Assn. of Iraq.

Not surprisingly, Iraqis make up the largest number of civilian employees under U.S. contracts. Typically, the government contracts with an American firm, which then subcontracts with an Iraqi firm to do the job.

Stan Soloway, president of the Professional Services Council, a contractors' trade group, said the number of Iraqis reflected the importance of the reconstruction and economic development efforts to the overall U.S. mission in Iraq.

"That's not work that the government does or has ever done…. That's work that is going to be done by companies and to some extent by" nongovernmental organizations, Soloway said. "People tend to think that these are contractors on the battlefield, and they're not."

The Iraqis have been the most difficult to track. As recently as May, the Pentagon told Congress that 22,000 Iraqis were employed by its contractors. But the Pentagon number recently jumped to 65,000 — a result of closer inspection of contracts, an official said.

The total number of Iraqis employed under U.S. contracts is important, in part because it may influence debate in Congress regarding how many Iraqis will be allowed to come to the U.S. to escape violence in their homeland.

This year, the U.S. planned to cap that number at 7,000 a year. To date, however, only a few dozen Iraqis have been admitted, according to State Department figures.

Kirk Johnson, head of the List Project, which seeks to increase the admission of Iraqis, said that the U.S. needed to provide a haven to those who worked most closely with American officials.

"We all say we are grateful to these Iraqis," Johnson said. "How can we be the only superpower in the world that can't implement what we recognize as a moral imperative?"


The back story

Information in this article is based in part on a database of contractors in Iraq obtained by The Times under the Freedom of Information Act, which allows the public access to government records.

The database is the result of a census conducted earlier this year by the U.S. Central Command.

The census found about 130,000 contractors working for 632 companies holding contracts in Iraq with the Defense Department and a handful of other federal agencies.

The Times received the database last month, four months after first requesting it. Because the Freedom of Information Act law requires an agency to provide only information as of the date of the request, the census is based on figures as of February. During interviews, Pentagon officials said the census had since been updated, and they provided additional figures based on the update.

Contractors in Iraq:

There are more U.S.-paid private contractors than there are American combat troops in Iraq.
Contractors: 180,000
U.S. troops: 160,000


Nationality of contractors*
118,000 Iraqis
43,000 non-U.S. foreigners
21,000 Americans


Top contractors:

Company: Kulak Construction Co.
Description: Based in Turkey, supplies construction workers to U.S. bases
Total employees: 30,301

Company: KBR
Description: Based in Houston, supplies logistics support to U.S. troops
Total employees: 15,336

Company: Prime Projects International
Description: Based in Dubai, supplies labor for logistics support
Total employees: 10,560

Company: L-3 Communications
Description: Based in New York, provides translators and other services
Total employees: 5,886

Company: Gulf Catering Co.
Description: Based in Saudi Arabia, provides kitchen services to U.S. troops
Total employees: 4,002

Company: 77 Construction
Description: Based in Irbil, Iraq, provides logistics support to troops
Total employees: 3,219

Company: ECC
Description: Based in Burlingame, Calif, works on reconstruction projects
Total employees: 2,390

Company: Serka Group
Description: Based in Turkey, supplies logistics support to U.S. bases
Total employees: 2,250

Company: IPBD Ltd.
Description: Based in England, supplies labor, laundry services and other support
Total employees: 2,164

Company: Daoud & Partners Co.
Description: Based in Amman, Jordan, supplies labor for logistics support
Total employees: 2,092

Company: EOD Technology Inc
Description: Based in Lenoir City, Tenn., supplies security, explosives demolition and other services
Total employees: 1,913

Note: Data are as of February, which is most current available.
*Approximate - numbers rounded
Sources: U.S. Central Command, Times reporting


NATO knows how to fight in Afghanistan; the US never did (is there anything Bush can do right?)

NATO Didn’t Lose Afghanistan

Kandahar, Afghanistan

WHEN things go wrong — touchdown passes are missed, products come out defective, wars are lost — it is typical to blame the equipment, or the help. In the case of the unraveling situation in Afghanistan, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has become the favorite whipping boy of American officials and military personnel. NATO countries aren’t sending enough troops, we hear. Those who do arrive are constrained by absurd caveats that prevent them from engaging in combat. NATO lost Helmand Province to the Taliban.

In fact, after watching rotation after military rotation cycle through here since late 2001, I see NATO as an improvement over its American predecessors.

One key difference is NATO’s training program, born of the challenge of gathering troops from different countries, speaking different languages, into a cohesive fighting force. In March, I joined about a dozen civilians who had lived and worked in Kandahar for years at the final training exercise for the NATO officers who recently took over Afghanistan’s Regional Command South. We spent 10 days briefing them, fielding their questions on everything from tribal relations to the electricity supply, eating meals with them and playing roles in a simulation of three days in southern Afghanistan.

“Uh ... we’ve got a bit of a situation here,” I heard one of my fellow teachers, an Australian who was a top United Nations security official, say calmly into the phone. He threw me a wink. He was starting the simulation by reporting the sounds of a large detonation and small arms fire. Later, on another line to an officer training to run public information, a sociological researcher played the role of a journalist, her voice incredulous: “Are you sure you want to say that?”

With the help of these seasoned civilians, experienced NATO officers and some Afghans, the new team was rigorously tested on the many aspects of its mission that go beyond combat tactics. Three months later, after these trainees had taken up their new jobs, the training staff traveled to Kandahar to debrief them to learn which aspects of the training had been useful and which needed improvement.

Given the constant disruption caused by short troop rotations, competent training is key to improving officers’ effectiveness as soon as they hit the ground.

The American troops’ training, in contrast, seemed ad hoc, usually carried out by each unit on its own, rather than by a dedicated training staff. And it involved very few civilians, despite the crucial humanitarian and political aspects of the mission here. (I have occasionally been invited to address American officers, but only when a friend in the unit has convinced a commander that I might have something to offer.)

NATO’s second advantage is continuity, despite its multinational makeup. I observed rivalry between American units lead to confusing policy reversals each time new troops came in. The best American commanders were those who understood that Afghanistan is no toy-soldier battlefield, that they would have to bone up on anthropology, diplomacy and civil engineering. But such commanders were rare, and their replacements — seeking to make their own mark — usually undid their work within weeks.

NATO has tried to reduce the disruption of replacing troops and officers en masse. Rotations are staggered. This may cause some logistical headaches, but it reduces abrupt changes in direction.

But if NATO is doing better than the United States, why is Afghanistan doing worse? The answer is twofold. NATO was brought in too late, and under false pretenses.

Within days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, NATO voted to invoke Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty — its core principle, which states that an armed attack on one member will be viewed by the others as an attack on themselves. Never before in the history of the organization had the principle been activated. The American reaction was thanks but no thanks. Our government was sure we could go it alone in Afghanistan, that allies would be an inconvenience.

In 2003, NATO moved peacekeeping forces into Kabul and parts of northern Afghanistan. But not until 2005, when it was clear that the United States was bogged down in Iraq and lacked sufficient resources to fight on two fronts, did Washington belatedly turn to NATO to take the Afghan south off its hands. And then it misrepresented the situation our allies would find there. NATO was basically sold a beefed-up peacekeeping mission. It was told, in effect, that it would simply need to maintain the order the United States had established and to help with reconstruction and security.

In fact, as was clear from the ground, the situation had been deteriorating since late 2002. By 2004, resurgent Taliban were making a concerted push to enter the country from Pakistan, and intensive combat between American forces and Taliban fighters was taking place north of Kandahar. By 2005, top Afghan officials could be blown up in downtown Kandahar without drawing much of a reaction from either the Afghan government or ours. Notorious drug lords governed the three main southern provinces to which we were dispatching our allies. It was the bloodiest and most belligerent situation since the fall of the Taliban.

NATO should have been brought in from the start and given the kind of muscular peacekeeping mission it learned to conduct in the Balkans. Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai, begged for peacekeepers, spread throughout the country, in those early years when they could still have made a difference.

Having snubbed our allies when we should have accepted their help, and having stuck them with the most difficult, yet most strategically critical, part of Afghanistan, the least we could do now is offer gratitude and support, rather than blame our friends for our own follies.

(Sarah Chayes is the author of “The Punishment of Virtue: Inside Afghanistan After the Taliban.”)


If Jefferson were alive today, he'd lead a revolution to overthrow our new King George

Take the Revolutionary Road
The US has been the world’s principal anti-revolutionary force for almost a century. As Thomas Jefferson would have said, it’s time to rebel.
by Michael Hardt / the Guardian/UK

It cannot but feel rather odd discussing Thomas Jefferson , who occupies such a central position in the US national pantheon, as a figure of modern revolutionary thought. For almost a century, after all, the United States government has served as the principal anti-revolutionary force in the world, striving to suppress revolutionary movements, openly plotting to overthrow successful revolutionary governments, and supporting surrogate counter-revolutionary forces in countries throughout the globe.

National political traditions, however, are not cut of whole cloth but rather contain sometimes surprising divergences and contradictions. The present anti-revolutionary vocation of the United States, in fact, makes it all the more interesting to find the thought of a revolutionary such as Jefferson at its core. When reading some of Jefferson’s most radical writings it is hard not to be struck by the vast gulf that separates his thinking from that of the current United States, its ideology, its constitution, and its political system and culture.

After this initial surprise at the fact that Jefferson’s thought belongs to the revolutionary tradition, we should recognise how it still has important contributions to make, and can help us move beyond some of the central obstacles to thinking about revolution today.

Jefferson’s declarations of independence throughout his life not only mark the separation of the colonies from the colonial power but also, and more importantly, seek to keep alive the pursuit of freedom within society - striving to conceive of how the revolutionary process can continue indefinitely, how what 18th century revolutionaries called “public happiness” can be instituted in government, and ultimately how self-rule and democracy can be realized.

Like all great revolutionary thinkers, Jefferson understands well that the revolutionary event, the rupture with the past and the destruction of the old regime, is not the end of the revolution but really only a beginning. The event opens a period of transition that aims at realizing the goals of the revolution. The concept of transition, however, is today a fundamental stumbling block of revolutionary thought and practice. The (often authoritarian) means employed during revolutionary transitions frequently conflict with and even contradict the desired (democratic) ends; moreover, these transitions never seem to come to an end. The travelers on the long journey through the desert end up getting completely lost, no nearer to the promised land, and that leader with a big stick starts looking a lot like the old Pharaoh.

In fact, whenever revolutionaries start talking to you about “transition” today, you had better watch out: they are probably trying to put one over on you. Jefferson’s thought, however, poses a novel conception of transition, which can help steer revolutionary thought around its current obstacles. He provocatively brings together, on the one hand, constitution and rebellion and, on the other, transition and democracy. The work of the revolution must continue incessantly, periodically reopening the constituent process, and the population must be trained in democracy through the practices of democracy.

The first key to understanding Jefferson’s notion of transition is to recognize the continuous and dynamic relationship he poses between rebellion and constitution or, rather, between revolution and government. A conventional view of revolution conceives these terms in temporal sequence: rebellion is necessary to overthrow the old regime, but when it falls and the new government is formed, rebellion must cease.

In contrast to this view, Jefferson insists on the virtue and necessity of periodic rebellion - even against the newly formed government. The processes of constituent power must continually disrupt and force open an establishment of constituted power.

“The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions, that I wish it to be always kept alive. It will often be exercised when wrong, but better so than not to be exercised at all. I like a little rebellion now and then. It is like a storm in the atmosphere.”

Rebellion against the government, he maintains (pdf), is so virtuous that it should not only be tolerated but even encouraged.

Rebellion is not just a matter of correcting wrongs committed by the government, and thus only valuable if its cause is just; it has an intrinsic value, regardless of the justness of its specific grievances and goals. Periodic rebellion is necessary to guarantee the health of a society and preserve public freedom. “God forbid we should ever be 20 years without such a rebellion,” he writes. In Jefferson’s view, rebellion should not become our constant condition; rather, it should eternally return. By my calculation we are well overdue.

(Michael Hardt is a literary theorist and political philosopher. Associate Professor of Literature and Romance Studies at Duke University, USA, his recent writings deal primarily with the political, legal, economic and social aspects of globalisation. He has written several books, including the world renowned Empire. His most recent is a new edition of Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence)


Sicko: nobody tells it like it is like Michael Moore

Michael Moore's Sicko

About forty minutes into Sicko , Michael Moore's excellent, frustrating new documentary about the American healthcare industry, Ronald Reagan makes his first and only appearance. It's surprising, if only because, unlike in his previous film Fahrenheit 9/11 , Moore focuses relatively little attention on the villains in his story, choosing instead simply to allow their victims to tell their tales. It's a montage of hard luck and innocence. But after introducing us to the horror stories all too typical among even the 250 million Americans fortunate enough to have health insurance, Moore takes a few moments for a brief history lesson. How, he asks, did we get here? And it's in this time warp that we encounter the Gipper. This is not Gipper the Governor or Gipper the President or even Gipper the B-list actor. This is Gipper, silver-tongued shill for the interests of capital.

It's a little-studied chapter of Reagan's career, but perhaps the most formative. As chronicled in Thomas Evans's The Education of Ronald Reagan: The General Electric Years and the Untold Story of His Conversion to Conservatism , Reagan was employed by GE first as a spokesman and later as a kind of employer-to-employee ambassador. With management facing a restive labor force, an obscure PR guru named Lemuel Boulware hatched the idea of using the emerging techniques of public relations to turn factory-line workers against their own unions. Reagan would be the vessel for this message, and it was in the hours he spent propagandizing the working class about the benefits of free markets that he forged the distinctive Reagan appeal: hard-right economics delivered in the sunny cadence of an amiable uncle.

So as momentum for national, universal healthcare built during the Truman Administration, foes such as the American Medical Association sought to build grassroots opposition. In an ingenious stroke, as Moore reports in Sicko , it organized thousands of coffee klatches across the country where suburban housewives could sip coffee, gossip and listen to a special recorded message about the evils of socialized medicine, a message delivered by the one and only Ronald Reagan.

The presence of Reagan in the film, making an argument that is the inverse of Sicko 's, is fitting. Moore's entire post- Roger & Me career can be understood as a multimedia attempt to undo Reagan's great achievement: persuading blue-collar factory workers and other members of the working class to embrace his heady brew of jingoism, anticommunism, contempt for government and admiration for the virtues of unfettered capitalism.

For years Moore has, like Ahab pursuing the whale, been hunting the elusive Reagan Democrat--the heartland-dwelling, beer-drinking, blue-collar guy (or gal) who bowls on the weekend, loves his country and is fighting to stay afloat in winner-take-all America. He may look on the left with contempt, but it's not because he doesn't intuitively share its views: He is a visceral collectivist and unionist and an enemy of corporations. He is ready, Moore believes, to come over to our side, if only we would talk to him.

That's why Moore spends the final chapter of his first book, Downsize This! , talking to Norman Olson, a co-founder of the Michigan Militia: "You know, you guys were right in the sixties," Olson tells him. "The government lied to us.... So when we finally wised up in the nineties after all these jobs were lost, where were you liberals when we needed your help?" Writing in this magazine in November 1997, in an article titled "Is the Left Nuts? (Or Is It Me?)," Moore asked a variation of the same question, "just who the hell is reading this? Who is the Nation readership? Is it my brother-in-law, Tony, back in Flint, who last night was installing furnace ducts until 9 o'clock?"

It is Tony the furnace-installer who haunts Moore's work like a specter, and for whom the rotund and slovenly Moore acts as a kind of aw-shucks proxy. But the central paradox of his career is that his success in reaching the Tonys of the world is spotty at best. Though he's always communicated his politics in a comedic, accessible, populist vocabulary, his public image is that of an ideologue, a lighting rod, a polarizing figure: more Barry Goldwater than Ronald Reagan.

In what may be a tacit acknowledgment of this unfortunate fact, Sicko is different from Moore's last two efforts. Not just because of an absence of gimmicky gotcha moments, or a reduction in screen time for Moore himself, but because its topic isn't fundamentally polarizing in the way his previous works were. There's a whole lot of Americans who love their guns, and in 2004 there were a lot of Americans who loved their President, but it's pretty hard to find anyone who loves their health insurance company.

Moore's solution is simple: Get rid of the health insurance companies. Don't just tinker with the healthcare system, banish profit from the delivery of healthcare altogether. Socialize it. Make it a public good. It's a testament to the health insurance industry's power that as "universal healthcare" lurches toward the political middle, this proposal seems in some ways more radical than ever. Moore recognizes that if single-payer is ever going to come to America, it's going to be over the insurance companies' dead bodies. One way of understanding Sicko is as the opening salvo in a battle to make that happen. The movie alone can't do that, which is part of the reason Moore has teamed up with the California Nurses Association/National Nurses Organizing Committee, the labor union most zealously committed to single-payer. It'll be sending its members, along with like-minded doctors, to every single showing of the film's opening night to talk up single-payer to audiences. And it's currently rolling across the country in a multicity tour designed to leverage the film's publicity to push single-payer back into the national conversation.

But Sicko is more than a potent weapon in the battle for single-payer, because in a deeper sense, the movie isn't really about healthcare. At its best, it uses healthcare as a kind of gateway drug to much harder stuff: a robust social democratic vision, articulated eloquently by legendary British Labour gadfly Tony Benn, who waxes poetic in the film about the radical promise of democracy to move power from the "wallet to the ballot." It's the extension of the logic of democracy into provisioning of public goods that provides the philosophical justification for socialized medicine. "The principle," as Benn says, "is solidarity."

As we sat in a movie theater in Bellaire, Michigan, an overwhelmingly Republican town where Moore and his wife, Kathleen, own a house and where Kathleen is vice chair of the local county Democratic Party, I asked Moore if the movie was intended as an argument for social democracy. His eyes lit up. "That's correct," he said. "You know, it works for the fire department, why can't it work for healthcare? They're both life-and-death issues, and we agree that profit should have no interest at all in how we run our fire department."

It's a message at once subversive and nonthreatening. Look at Canada, Moore argues in the film, or England or--gasp--France, where Moore even spends one scene reveling in the bourgeois comforts of a "typical" French couple as a means of rebutting arguments about the country's onerous tax burden. Or look at the United States: We "socialize" a lot of things here in America, Moore notes, as clips roll by of police officers and schoolteachers and public libraries. Why not this most crucial and important service?

That's the argument in a nutshell. "It's a simple thought," Moore told me, "but I think people get it when you put it like that." Oprah sure did. During Moore's recent appearance on her show, she was careful not to seem to be endorsing anything too radical, and Moore obliged by saying that healthcare wasn't a "partisan issue" and he was looking to reach across the aisle. Then Oprah turned to the audience and said she finally "got it" when in the film Moore points out that we don't charge for the services of firemen or think profit should have anything to do with firefighting. Then she told her audience to go out and see the film.

It's not surprising to find commentators noting, as Oprah did, that this film is less political than Moore's previous offering. It's less caustic, less outraged. But to call it less political than Fahrenheit 9/11 is a category error. Fahrenheit was an intensely partisan project, focused with laserlike precision on building a damning brief indicting the Bush Administration. And like a lawyer, Moore was only too happy to grab whatever argument he could find, even if it was at the expense of internal consistency. The film, while effective as propaganda, suffered a bit from this ad hoc approach, like the old law school chestnut about "arguing in the alternative": The kettle was in perfect condition when I returned it; it was broken when I borrowed it; and I never borrowed the damn kettle in the first place.

Sicko is far, far less partisan than Fahrenheit , but much more ideological. And as such, it is more consistent in what it offers--with one major caveat. The film's final half-hour, in which Moore takes 9/11 rescue workers to Cuba, serves only to reinforce the decades-old slander that equates social democracy with repressive socialism. It's a major miscalculation and nearly squanders the first hour and a half of the film in which Moore so deftly guts arguments that socialized medicine represents the vanguard of Marxism. But that final section aside, the film functions as a compelling advertisement for an alternative way of ordering society, one in which, as in France, there's vacation, paid sick time, doctors who make house calls and even, amazingly, a state-supplied nanny who will come to your house and do your laundry after you've had a child. Who wouldn't want that?

The healthcare industry, for one, and it's betting that itcan once again persuade Americans not to want it either. At a press conference after the American premiere, Moore said that in response to the film we should expect to see all the old chestnuts rolled out by the health insurance industry: "Canada's bad, they've got long lines they wait in, you know, blah, blah, blah," said Moore. "In the Canadian system, there is no wait if you have an emergency situation, if it's a life-and-death issue. The wait to see a specialist or if it's elective surgery, I think the most recent statistic I saw was that it was down to four weeks. But you know, sometimes that's what you have to do when you share with everyone--you have to wait."

Moore continued, "When you share the pie, sometimes you have to wait for your slice. Sometimes you get the first slice, sometimes you get the third slice, sometimes," Moore chuckled, "you get the last slice. But the important thing is that you get a slice, everybody gets a slice of this pie. That's not what happens in this country."

"There are no easy answers," Reagan once said, "but there are simple answers." Social democracy as pie. The Gipper himself couldn't have said it better.


Bookplanet: remembering The Alexandria Quartet

A Seductive Spectacle
The languid bazaar of Lawrence
Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet
still beckons 50 years later
By Charles Trueheart/ THE AMERICAN SCHOLAR

Speak the name Lawrence Durrell, as I have been doing recently, and you will have little trouble prompting the title of his masterwork, the four-novel cycle he called “The Alexandria Quartet.” Yes, everyone read it back when. Or some of it. Justine . . . Balthazar . . . The well of memory tends to run dry about there, leaving only the wistful fragrance of the little remembered but not quite forgotten.

Yet half a century ago, when Justine appeared, it elicited a rush of critical superlatives that announced the birth of a literary classic. Almost at once the novel established an outlandish reputation for Durrell, previously known for a precocious first novel and some sublime travel writing. He was confidently placed in the big shoes of Joyce, Proust, Henry Miller, and D. H. Lawrence, among other modernist forebears. “The novel may indeed be dying,” declared the critic Robert Scholes, “but we need not fear for the future. Durrell and others are leading us in a renaissance of romance.”

At 45, the preternaturally energetic Durrell leapt into the awaited moment of his fame, churning out the rest of the volumes—siblings, he called them, not sequels— one after the other, faster than a publisher could keep up with them: six weeks to write Balthazar , he said, 12 weeks for Mountolive , and eight weeks for Clea , the last to appear, in early 1960. Within months of Justine , rights to the whole opus, to his poetry, to Bitter Lemons , a book on Cyprus, were snapped up around the world. Durrell was able to give up nearly 20 years on the British Foreign Office payroll and buy a house in southern France, where he lived ever after, receiving royalty checks, accolades, and pilgrims in inexorably dwindling numbers.

Durrell had found his voice and located his literary identity in a particular place, Alexandria, Egypt’s second largest city, a seedy polyglot seaport of bygone luster. There is no denying Durrell’s extraordinarily retentive powers of observation, but he was the first to say that his city was woven from many cities in his mind. He was stationed in Alexandria for less than a year, starting at the end of 1944, and once considered setting the whole quartet in Athens, which underscores the invented and nearly arbitrary nature of his terrain. Be that as it may, for George Steiner, another serious critic then and now, “Durrell’s Alexandria is one of the true monuments to the architecture of imagination. It compares in manifold coherence with the Paris of Proust and the Dublin of Joyce.”

Alexandria, in fact, is the central character in the Quartet—the fabric that, if anything does, holds together the threads of narrative. Durrell gives the city personality and moral will: “Alexandria, princess and whore. The royal city and the anus mundi .” Alexandria: “the capital of Memory.” And how lovingly he describes

streets that run back from the docks with their tattered rotten supercargo of houses, breathing into each others’ mouths, keeling over. Shuttered balconies swarming with rats, and old women whose hair is full of the blood of ticks. Peeling walls leaning drunkenly to east and west of their true centre of gravity. The black ribbon of flies attaching itself to the lips and eyes of the children—the moist beads of summer flies everywhere; the very weight of their bodies snapping off ancient flypapers hanging in the violet doors of booths and cafés. . . . And then the street noises: shriek and clang of the water-bearing Saidi, dashing his metal cups together as an advertisement, the unheeded shrieks which pierce the hubbub from time to time, as of some small delicately-organized animal being disembowelled.

If Durrell’s Alexandria has a mind and soul of its own, the same is not always true for his human characters, whose exoticism and wordiness hide more than they reveal. The more Durrell tells us about them, perversely, the fuzzier they become. He was carefree, or careless, about imputing thoughts and behaviors to characters as the spirit moved him, not as their integrity would demand. Durrell’s fondness for grotesques, like his fondness for place, was an attraction to surfaces. Form revealed content, or shrouded it—a nascently postmodern ethic that worked best in miniature. In any case, the principal players of the Quartet tend to be impressionable, transient, self-absorbed, and fallen—or well on the way.

Ifirst encountered Durrell, in my early adolescence, drawn by the clothbound pastel editions on my parents’ shelves, by the idea of a quartet of novels, and by the aroma of decay and sexuality they managed to exude. This would have been in the mid-1960s. I was not much beyond John Steinbeck and Wilkie Collins at the time, and could not have anticipated the seductive spectacle of Durrell’s languid bazaar, the world-weary eccentrics and tortured adulterers who while away the hours drinking and smoking and screwing and talking. How they talked and talked, about love, death, art, and the universal questions. My young brain and soul drank this in like—like absinthe, I suppose. I feel sure that it was in the pages of The Alexandria Quartet that I was first exposed to abortion, lesbians, hookah pipes, incest, Spanish fly, female circumcision, cross-dressing, and child prostitutes, to say nothing of the agonies and imponderables of love.

Just as seductive for a would-be writer was Durrell’s literary style: its lushness and near abandon, its pervasive eroticism and reckless profundity, its dazzling vocabulary (“Phthisic”! “Eburnine”! “Usufruct”!), its tales within tales within tales, its palimpsest of versions, its mistrust of certitude. The narrative was hard to plumb, allusive to a fault, slippery in intent; like poetry, it bore rereading. Now I appreciate the novels of the Quartet better as writers’ books. But at the time, like Durrell himself, apparently, I barely noticed that half the characters were novelists or artistic illusionists of some kind, that their preoccupations toggled between the pleasures of the senses and the meaning of life, and that they never paused to earn a living, change a diaper, or wait for the bus.

Durrell’s indulgence in aphorisms also tickled a young reader’s fancy. On a single page I found these three tossed off: “You can’t put a soul into splints.” “Nothing matters except pleasure—which is the opposite of happiness, its tragic part, I expect.” “Real innocence can do nothing that is trivial, and when it is allied to generosity of heart, the combination makes it the most vulnerable of qualities under heaven.” You would think Durrell’s main ambition was to appear in Bartlett’s Quotations ; if so, it was frustrated. Not that his aphorisms are all bad. Pombal, the French consul, has a good one: “Women are basically faithful, you know. They only betray other women.”

Lawrence Durrell—you say Durl , not Dur rell , unless you wish to be understood—was born in India in 1912 to middle-class English parents who had made their lives in the Raj; his father built railroads in the Himalayas. Twelve-year-old Larry was shipped back to England to be schooled for an eventual return to the civil service in India, and his father died before he ever saw him again. Durrell failed his university entrance exams, hated England, and left as soon as he could for the writing life in Corfu. He took with him not just his new wife, but his mother and siblings, including Gerald, 13 years his junior, who went on to become a famous naturalist and nature writer.

Lawrence Durrell remained an expatriate for life, but that was a state of mind (and money) more than a state of anger, as his biographers Ian MacNiven and Gordon Bowker make clear. Short and barrel-chested, Durrell was pugnacious, charming, generous, and moody; a prodigious drinker too. For two decades off and on, he renovated humble dwellings on Mediterranean islands, befriended the locals in their taverns, and sat at his typewriter. In the 1930s he began corresponding with fellow writers and other literary folk, notably Henry Miller, also little known at the time. A fan letter about Tropic of Cancer triggered a lifelong friendship (and a fine collection of their letters). Miller, T. S. Eliot, Durrell’s patron in London publishing circles, and Anaïs Nin, another lasting friend, applauded Durrell’s youthfully brash decision to refuse the offer of a British publisher to issue The Black Book (1938), his overwrought early novel, only if they could make prurient emendations (“f—k,” for example). Durrell had it published in Paris with the full text and was none the worse for it; it didn’t appear in Britain until 1973.

Like many British writers of his generation, Durrell was employed during World War II and long afterward by the British government as a public information officer, which meant he could do a novelist’s research on the public purse. He served in Cairo and Alexandria, in Argentina (which he hated) and Yugoslavia, in Rhodes and Athens. Despite his short stay in Alexandria, he did come away with a second wife, Eve Cohen, widely regarded as the model for Justine.

Durrell was versatile and prolific. He published 13 volumes of poetry. He was an agile humorist in his vignettes of diplomatic life—homages to Wodehouse— Esprit de Corps (1957), Stiff Upper Lip (1958), and Sauve Qui Peut (1966). His books about Corfu ( Prospero’s Cell , 1945), Rhodes ( Reflections on a Marine Venus , 1953), and Cyprus ( Bitter Lemons , 1957) confirm him as superb memoirist, journalist, and travel writer whose literary heirs include Peter Mayle, Bruce Chatwin, and John Berendt. He also wrote a pretty good espionage yarn called White Eagles Over Serbia , which appeared the same year as Justine ,Bitter Lemons , and Esprit de Corps . Nineteen fifty-seven was in every sense a peak year for Durrell.

Justine is a memoir of a love affair between Darley, the novelist-schoolmaster-narrator, and Justine, the haunted Jewish wife of a wealthy Egyptian Copt named Nessim Hosnani. The story has internal accounts of the triangle and interlocking others to cite and is based on what may be Justine’s diaries and a novel about her by a former lover, as well as by Darley’s own beliefs and secondhand knowledge. Upon Justine is layered Balthazar , named for a homosexual mystic who finds a draft of Darley’s memoir and sets out to correct it. He is the “Great Interlinear,” revealing to Darley and to us that not all is as it seems—notably that Justine’s dalliances with Darley were a beard to hide from her husband her real love affair with another novelist named Pursewarden, who has since committed suicide. Mountolive is the most conventional novel of the first three and, today, the most satisfying: a third-person account of the same events from the point of view of the eponymous British diplomat who returns as British ambassador in Cairo (and to his own past love affair with Nessim’s mother). Here we see Darley as others see him, not always flatteringly. Clea , the fourth book, is Darley, elegaic, returning from island exile to Alexandria after the war, sifting through memory and desire to reach some kind of reconciliation with the city and the past.

Durrell had a fancy construct for the Quartet, which he laid out in a brief prefatory note to Balthazar . Voraciously self-taught—and with a sizable chip on his shoulder from his thwarted university education—he described “a four-decker novel whose form is based on the relativity proposition.” The first three novels are three versions of the same story, set in Alexandria on the eve of World War II, and the fourth is a look back at events of the first three. “Three sides of space and one of time constitute the soup-mix recipe of a continuum,” Durrell wrote.

My reading of this today is that he was infatuated with the concept but not deeply engaged by it; the shrugged use of “soup-mix” acknowledges as much. In the many discussions of form and structure by the Quartet’s characters, as well as in answers he gave to solemn literary interviewers, Durrell comes across as someone who takes himself very seriously and yet is eager to prove that he doesn’t. Of Darley, one of several Durrell doppelgängers in the Quartet, another writer says: “Poor Darley’s books— will they always be such painstaking descriptions of the soul-states of the . . . human omelette?” Or take this fragment from Clea in which someone discusses the structure of a very similar novel:

A continuum, forsooth, embodying not a temps retrouvé but a temps délivré. The curvature of space itself would give you stereoscopic narrative, while human personality seen across a continuum would perhaps become prismatic? Who can say? I throw the idea out. I can imagine a form which, if satisfied, might raise in human terms the problems of causality or indeterminacy. . . . And nothing very recherché either.

Such a passage is self-lampooning, defensive, and poignant all at once.

The novels are not plotted in any conventional sense, although they don’t seem nearly as experimental today as they did when I first read them. The stories are about doomed relationships, the impossibility of truly knowing oneself or another, the hold of memory and the elusiveness of truth. They are punctuated with events—a masked ball, a hunting party, a mysterious murder, a shocking suicide, a gunrunning plot—but display more interest in states of mind and the vagaries of fate than in the connection between action and consequence, in moral choices, or in any of the other wheels that turn tales. These novels are unabashedly interested in themselves, in their own art and architecture.

In rereading these books, I was struck by how subdued a place Alexandria was even during wartime. There are always gunships in the harbor, and allied troops are going to or coming from battle in the desert. The plot by a Christian Copt cabal to supply arms to Jewish guerrillas in Palestine provides the only real-world intrigue to lift the reader from the hermetic inwardness of the novels. Looking back now, from an age when the Islamic world has a dramatically different face, the Quartet’s detachment from its milieu—an intimacy with which is supposedly its strongest suit—is disconcerting at best. Durrell has taken the affects and atmospherics of Muslim culture and left Muslims mostly out of the core of the plot.

Icame back to Durrell with mixed feelings, and as I read through the four novels for the first time in 40-plus years—encountering my own youthful enthusiasms in the margins— was sporadically impatient or mortified (for me, for him) when I came across examples of what Durrell himself called his “over-efflorescence.” These lines from the opening page of Justine had merited heavy underlining when I was young: “I see at last that none of us is properly to be judged for what happened in the past. It is the city which should be judged though we, its children, must pay the price.” Today, I might have scrawled: Oh, please .

How can an author capable of subtlety and originality also write potboiler sentences such as these?

“Who invented the human heart, I wonder? Tell me, and then show me the place where he was hanged.”

With every succeeding mile I felt anxiety and expectation running neck and neck. The Past!

“Come now,” he said suddenly; he was dying to possess her, to cradle and annihilate her with the disgusting kisses of a false compassion.

There came over her an unexpected lust to sleep with him— no, with his plans, his dreams, his obsessions, his money, his death!

If Durrell touted the Quartet as “an investigation of modern love,” I’m not sure he truly got it about men and women. The evidence in his personal life (five wives and many more lovers) doesn’t settle the question—as in his fiction, perhaps he was more interested in the trees than the forest. His rendering of lovemaking can be swollen to the point of narcissism, and it’s telling:

The kiss did not for a moment expect itself to be answered by another—to copy itself like the reflections of a moth in a looking-glass. That would have been too expensive a gesture had it been premeditated. So it proved! Clea’s own body simply struggled to disengage itself from the wrappings of its innocence as a baby or a statue struggles for life under the fingers or forceps of its author. Her bankruptcy was one of extreme youth.

Durrell was the toast of the town, but he did not convince everyone. The novelist Anthony Burgess dismissed Durrell’s magnum opus in 1962 as “sadistic-sentimental exotic escapism.” Later, in 1975, Time magazine critic John Skow said the effect of Durrell’s prose was “that of Berlioz played by an orchestra of gondoliers,” which is pretty mean and pretty funny. And in the same year, the novelist and critic Edmund White cited, not unkindly, Durrell’s “willingness to run the risk of seeming ludicrous,” which I think gets at the heart of my ambivalent reading and rereading of the Quartet.

Running the risk of seeming ludicrous, I think, fairly states the burden on a poet. Durrell called poetry “an invaluable mistress . . . because poetry is form, and the wooing and seduction of form is the whole game,” a conviction that his novels do not contradict. We permit our poets rhetorical ambition, verbal gymnastics, wordplay, allusion, aphorism, the concrete and specific in a soup-mix with the vast and ineffable. Why does the prose form render the same words less effective? Break the quoted paragraph on lovemaking on this page into lines of verse and see if it doesn’t sound different, and even better.

The kiss did not for a moment
Expect itself
To be answered by another—
To copy itself . . .

If 1957 marked the end of Durrell’s lifelong struggle to make ends meet— publication of the Quartet permitted him to move into a house he bought with his third wife in the French village of Sommières, where he lived until his death in 1990— something else ended in that season. The eight novels he wrote after the Quartet, including an inchoate set of novels he dubbed the Avignon Quintet, were tepidly received, disappointing his hopes—and not just his—that lightning would strike a second time. Perhaps his hunger was gone, or the creative well was dry, leaving only self-caricature. It’s also possible his public lost patience. The Alexandria Quartet is a tour de force, but a little Durrell goes a long way.

Memory and distance throw light on what The Alexandria Quartet was a half century ago—a dying burst of romance in the heyday of realism, an appeal to credulity on the eve of so much skepticism, a bold experiment in form that in only a few years literary experimentalism would render almost pallid. But the books do bear rereading for the same reasons, as a sweet remembrance of things from not so long ago. “Art occurs at the point where a form is sincerely honored by an awakened spirit,” Durrell once aphorized. By his lights and mine, The Alexandria Quartet remains a work of art.

(Charles Trueheart, a contributing editor of THE AMERICAN SCHOLAR, lives and works in Paris.)


The author of The Dangerous Book for Boys tells what made him write it

In Praise of Skinned Knees and Grubby Faces
By Conn Iggulden/LA Times

When I was 10, I founded an international organization known as the Black Cat Club. My friend Richard was the only other member. My younger brother, Hal, had "provisional status," which meant that he had to try out for full membership every other week. We told him we would consider his application if he jumped off the garage roof -- about eight feet from the ground. He had a moment of doubt as he looked over the edge, but we said it wouldn't hurt if he shouted the words "Fly like an eagle!" When he jumped, his knees came up so fast that he knocked himself out. I think the lesson he learned that day was not to trust his brother, which is a pretty valuable one for a growing lad.

I wrote "The Dangerous Book for Boys" as a handbook for boys with scenes like that from my childhood in mind. I wasn't trying to please anyone else. I was just trying to free boys to be themselves again, the way we were when my brother and I were growing up.

Back in the 1970s, our father was a schoolmaster and part of his job was caning boys. He was prepared to do this on the job, but the only time he ever brought his work home was when I stole money from him and somewhat naively put it in my moneybox. Perhaps because that punishment was a unique event, I've never stolen anything from anyone since that day.

Looking back, I realize now that my father was an incredibly patient man. He loved wood, and whenever a school threw out an oak table or mahogany benches, he would rescue them and bring them home. One day, my brother and I took all that wood and nailed it to the tree in the front garden. It was perhaps the ugliest treehouse ever built, and my father was not impressed. In fact, I think he was close to tears for a moment.

He was born in 1923. He has seen a different world -- one before television, before mobile phones and before the Internet. He flew in Bomber Command during World War II, and when he tells stories, they're always grim, but funny at the same time. He lost half a finger in one bad crash, and at various times in our childhood, he told us that he'd worked in a sausage factory and pushed the meat too far into the grinder, resulting in the best sales the factory had known; that a German sniper had recognized him flying overhead and thought, "That's Mr. Iggulden, I'll just fire a warning shot"; or that he was the new Bionic Man, but the British government could afford to replace him only a bit at a time.

His generation understood the cars they drove, could hang wallpaper and fix just about anything. In his 80s, he is still an immensely practical man, but at the same time, he still quotes poems he learned as a boy, demonstrating that a man can love a good line as much as a good dovetail joint.

Of course, my mother was important to our childhood. An Irish Catholic, she gave us a faith that endures today, as well as an appreciation for literature that made me want to be a writer from a young age. She kept chickens in a garden no more than 30 feet square in a suburb of London, and the neighbors complained about the cockerels waking them up.

When she gave birth to me, the nurse walked down a line of babies saying, "This one will be a policeman and this one will be a footballer." When the nurse came to me, she said "Ah, but this one has the face of a poet."

My father, though, made me the man I am. He was playing bridge on the night I was born. When he saw me the following morning, he said, "I hope he never has to kill anyone."

We had books in the house with titles such as "The Wonder Book of Wonders" or "Chemical Amusements and Experiments," showing their age with instructions directing you to buy "a shilling paper of Potassium Permanganate." I read them all, and I'm lucky to have all my fingers. We made bows and arrows every summer, cutting them green and hunting in the local woods. We managed to trap a raven, though I think it must have been ill. I had an idea about training it to attack so that I would be the terror of the local park. Sadly, we found it cold and stiff one morning in the chicken run.

The Black Cat Club gathered in the garden to give it a warrior's cremation. We used my father's lighter fluid and poured it over the bird where it lay in a nest of bricks. We lit it and stood back with our hands clasped in prayer. The flames roared, and I think we wept until the flames died back down again and the bird was still there. We poured more lighter fluid, and eventually realized we'd cooked the bird instead of cremating it.

When I had a son of my own six years ago, I looked around for the sort of books that would inspire him. I was able to find some practical modern ones, but none with the spirit and verve of those old titles. I wanted a single compendium of everything I'd ever wanted to know or do as a boy, and I decided to write my own. My brother, now a theater director in Leicester, a city in the midlands of England, was the obvious choice as co-writer. I had dedicated my first book "To my brother Hal, the other member of the Black Cat Club." It was official at last. I persuaded him to come and work with me 12 hours a day for six months in a shed.

We began with everything we had done as kids, then added things we didn't want to see forgotten. History today is taught as a feeble thing, with all the adventure taken out of it. We wanted stories of courage because boys love those. We wanted stories about men like Royal Air Force fighter pilot Douglas Bader, Scott of the Antarctic, the Wright Brothers -- boys like to read about daring men, always with the question: Would I be as brave or as resourceful? I sometimes wonder why people make fun of boys going to science fiction conventions without realizing that it shows a love of stories. Does every high school offer a class on adventure tales? No -- and then we complain that boys don't read anymore.

We added sections on grammar because my brother once said, "If anyone had told me there are only nine kinds of words, I'd have damn well learned them." Boys like to see the nuts and bolts of language. Of course they can empathize and imagine, but they need the structure as well. Why should the satisfaction of getting something right be denied to those who have been educated since the '70s?

We filled our book with facts and things to do -- from hunting a rabbit to growing crystals. As adults, we know that doors have been closed to us. A boy, though, can be interested in anything.

Finally, we chose our title -- "The Dangerous Book for Boys." It's about remembering a time when danger wasn't a dirty word. It's safer to put a boy in front of a PlayStation for a while, but not in the long run. The irony of making boys' lives too safe is that later they take worse risks on their own. You only have to push a baby boy hard on a swing and see his face light up. It's not learned behavior -- he's hardwired to enjoy a little risk. Ask any man for a good memory from childhood and he'll tell you about testing his courage or getting injured. No one wants to see a child get hurt, but we really did think the bumps and scratches were badges of honor, once.

Since the book was published, I've discovered a vast group that cares about exactly the same things I do. I've heard from divorced fathers who use the book to make things with their sons instead of going out for fast food and a movie. I've received e-mails from 10-year-olds and a beautifully written letter from a man of 87.

I thought I was the only one sick of non-competitive sports days and playgrounds where it's practically impossible to hurt yourself. It turned out that the pendulum is swinging back at last. Boys are different from girls. Teaching them as though they are girls who don't wash as much leads to their failure in school, causing trouble all the way. Boys don't like group work. They do better on exams than they do in coursework, and they don't like class discussion. In history lessons, they prefer stories of Rome and of courage to projects on the suffragettes.

It's all a matter of balance. When I was a teacher, I asked my head of department why every textbook seemed to have a girl achieving her dream of being a carpenter while the boys were morons. She replied that boys had had it their own way for too long, and now it was the girls' turn. Ouch.

The problem with fighting adult gender battles in the classroom is that the children always lose.

I expected a backlash. If you put the word "boys" on something, someone will always complain. One blog even promoted the idea of removing the words "For Boys" from the cover with an Exacto knife so that people's sons wouldn't be introduced to any unpleasantly masculine notions such as duty, honor, courage and competence.

The dark side of masculinity may involve gangs and aggression, but there's another side -- self-discipline, wry humor and quiet determination. I really thought I was the only one who cared about it, but I've found many thousands who care just as much.

I know there are women who can lift heavier weights than I can, but on the whole, boys are more interested in the use of urine as secret ink than girls are. We wanted to write a book that celebrated boys -- with all their differences and geeky love of knowledge, skills and stories. There just isn't anything wrong with trying to do that.

We all care about our sons -- scabby knees, competitive spirits and all. It's about time we let our schools and governments know how much we care. Let the pendulum swing.

( -- Conn Iggulden is a novelist in London)