Gallery of art and thoughts

The cartoons and contemplations of a twentysomething copy editor.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

A new war in the Gulf?

Harvard history professor Niall Ferguson predicts a new Gulf War erupting in 2007 and lasting until 2011. He shows none of the extended analysis of, say, Harry Turtledove's fiction, and limits his hypothesis mainly to this year. His main point is that if the United States and the United Nations ignore the looming nuclear threat of Iran, the following scenario will occur: "As in the 1930s, an anti-Semitic demagogue broke his country's treaty obligations and armed for war."

This time, the demagogue in question is Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Aided by French and Russian money, Ahmadinejad could make his country into a nuclear threat, and his anti-Israel rhetoric makes him appear as dangerous as Saddam Hussein once seemed.

Just as worse, according to Ferguson, is that this is a year of lost leadership: a reluctant Dubya, a battered Blair, an incapacitated Sharon. As a result, the only course to pursue is through diplomatic wrist-slaps.

Is Iran really that formidable, and is the West really that helpless? Iran has not fought a war since the 1980s, so it is hard to gauge the effectiveness of its army. The American and Israeli militaries remain two of the best technologically-equipped fighting forces in the world. That said, the US is pursuing an ambitious agenda with forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan; this could make it difficult for the US to invade other countries. However, the American forces in Iraq would seem sufficiently strong to withstand any Iranian attack across the border.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Misdiagnosing Massachusetts

Massachusetts is losing residents. Between July 2004 and July 2005, the net loss for the state was 8,600 people, which represents a population decline of 0.1 percent. This continues a trend: Over a 12-year period (1990-2002), when you subtract the number of arrivals in Massachusetts from the number of departures, the end product is 213,000. Why is this happening?

Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe blames the state's politics. "I suspect that fewer and fewer people want to call Massachusetts home not because of its oppressive winters but because of its oppressive and demoralizing political culture," he claims. Among such political oppression: "A state legislature that stays in session year-round? A supreme court that turns same-sex marriage into a constitutional right? Public 'authorities' that answer to no one? In most of America, no way. In Massachusetts, no problem," Jacoby writes.

Like any good debater, Jacoby considers the counterarguments. "Yes, overpriced real estate and a high cost of living are serious issues in Massachusetts," he acknowledges. "But they are serious issues in California, Florida, Hawaii, and New Jersey, too, yet none of them is losing population."

The trouble is that the liberalism Jacoby loathes here is equally present in the four alternative states he lists. Does he really think that the Supreme Judicial Court is more liberal than, say, San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom, who briefly allowed same-sex marriage in his city? Does he think that immigration in Massachusetts -- "On Beacon Hill last week, the big issue for Massachusetts lawmakers was whether tuition should be reduced for illegal aliens at the state's public colleges," he writes -- is any more of an issue than immigration in Florida? And while Jacoby decries the Democratic dominance in the Bay State, symbolized by Senator Ted Kennedy, he omits to mention that Democrats are equally represented among the senators or former senators of California (Barbara Boxer, Dianne Feinstein), Florida (Bob Graham), Hawaii (Daniel Akaka, Daniel Inouye), and New Jersey (Bob Corzine, Frank Lautenberg).

Jacoby is wrong. It is the high cost of living in Massachusetts that is forcing people out. Just look at the real-estate prices. A Coldwell Banker report surveyed 300 cities across the United States to gauge the value of "a 2,200-square-foot house with 4 bedrooms, 2 1/2 bathrooms, a family room and a two-car garage" in a neighborhood that is "typical for corporate middle-management transferees." Only two states had cities with prices above $1 million: California and Massachusetts.

This is a serious problem. Coupled with the demise of rent control, high prices for apartments and homes are making it hard for people to find affordable housing. It makes sense to migrate to a red state because you can buy a car and rent an apartment in Arkansas for the same amount that it would cost you to rent an apartment in Boston, Cambridge or Brookline.

The large number of colleges and universities in this state only adds to the number of people competing for jobs each year. As people marry and have children, it becomes even more sensible, financially, to move someplace cheaper. Having an inexpensive apartment or house is, of course, an asset during a layoff or downsizing.

Issues like gay marriage or Kennedy's stance on Samuel Alito don't directly affect the majority of Massachusetts residents. But housing is, and its cost is rising beyond the reach of many people in this state. Until someone solves this problem, Jacoby's argument makes no sense.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Dealing with death

The Boston Globe has a good article about dealing with the death of a loved one. According to freelance writer Judy Foreman, "the emerging view among mental health experts is that grieving for a lost loved one is really a disorderly, highly idiosyncratic process." This means, Foreman writes, "that there are no set stages to go through and no 'normal' or 'right' ways to do it."

Having lost my grandmother in November (she was 85), I am dealing with my own grieving process. It's hard when someone who was so much a part of your life is suddenly, irreplaceably gone. While this country emphasizes stoicism, different people cope with death in different ways. A friend of mine said that it takes up to a year to reconcile yourself to the death of someone close to you. I wonder if she meant the "acceptance" part of the five-stage process described by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross.

The Globe article is at its best when Foreman makes practical suggestions for grieving. She quotes Lynn Osborn, a 48-year-old woman from Belmont who lost her husband to Lou Gehrig's disease four years ago. Osborn suggests "record(ing) your loved one's voice" and, as Foreman paraphrases, "to treasure the time you do -- and did -- have with the person you love."

My suggestions? When facing the loss of an older family member, don't just spend more time with him or her. Ask questions about their life. Family histories -- especially immigrant family histories -- disappear when the older generation dies, and the younger generation doesn't show enough interest. Identify people in old photos and compile albums. It's important to pass family heritage on to children so they know where they come from.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

The Democrats' future

Profiles about liberal bloggers have been popular in the news during recent months. The Washington Monthly has one on Markos Moulitsas Zuniga (The Daily Kos), while Vanity Fair profiled Arianna Huffington (The Huffington Post) in November.

If the Republicans have become the party of the think tank, the Democrats have become the party of the blog. One can imagine an elephant at a Heritage Foundation cocktail party, discussing Hannibal's tactics with Victor Davis Hanson and laughing at John Kerry with Grover Norquist. Likewise, one can imagine a donkey busily blogging in the wake of another Jack Abramoff scandal.

Let's focus on the Democrats. The blog is portrayed as a less effective tool than the think tank. Washington Monthly writer Benjamin Wallace-Wells explains: "Moulitsas is just basically uninterested in the intellectual and philosophical debates that lie behind the daily political trench warfare." Wallace-Wells adds that "the more that the Democratic Party turns to Moulitsas for help, the more the limits to his movement become apparent, the less the raw animus of many liberals for the Iraq war seems likely to translate into any lasting liberal movement, and the more the current obsession with his brand of Winnerism looks misplaced."

Is this a legitimate critique? Are voters really seeking a philosophy behind candidates? George W. Bush and the Republicans have profited by exploiting red-state Americans' feelings about issues that don't directly affect most people: the estate tax and gay marriage, for instance. There is an element to Republican politics that is as visceral as any Howard Dean speech.

That said, the Democrats must settle on a response to the Republicans. They still haven't done so. Some ideas:

National security. If the Democrats really think that we should leave Iraq, they should join people like Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania. There are persuasive reasons for it: The war is too costly, no weapons of mass destruction have been found, and Osama bin Laden hasn't been apprehended, wherever he may be. Meanwhile, American servicemen continue to die and the Bush administration has yet to come up with an exit strategy.

Health care. Many Americans remain uninsured. The Democrats need to make an ideological case for universal coverage. In 1994, the insurance industry used its "Harry and Louise" ads to scare Americans away from the Clinton health-care plan. It seems that a viable solution will be hard to find -- in Europe, the wait for a doctor can be excruciating -- but it is rather callous to deny health care to those who need it, and the Democrats ought to keep searching for a way to provide it to all.

Squeezing the middle class. From student loans to credit cards to mortgages, Americans are getting into debt. Life for Generation X is comparable to the financial hardships of colonial America, when newcomers signed up for lives of indentured servitude. The Internal Revenue Service already allows people to deduct student-loan interest on their taxes, but more deductions (for a certain amount of principal) should be offered to allow young people to save more money.

Education. This is one area where the Democrats have long been committed to helping the cause of minorities in this country. More than 50 years since Brown v. Board of Education, minorities frequently remain drastically underserved in our nation's schools. What can be done? The Republicans want school vouchers (if they even care about the issue at all). Like it or not, the Democrats may have to deal with the teachers' unions, who are resistant to enforcing standards among educators.

The Democrats need to create a workable agenda for the 21st century. They have been defining themselves according to what President Bush has done, and this is a weak, reactive policy. The problem is that the Democrats are now split into several wings: the establishment, which includes James Carville and the Democratic Leadership Council, and the insurgents (Howard Dean pre-2005,, Al Franken). The problem is that the establishment is too pragmatic, while the insurgents are too hysteric. Yet both of these camps have the same policy: React to what Bush does. It is the challenge of the Democrats to pursue a more independent policy based on a coherent ideology that will make this party once again attractive enough to voters to carry out its agenda in Washington, DC and across the country.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Ariel Sharon's surgery

If Ariel Sharon dies of his cerebral hemorrhage, Israel will have sustained a loss as grave as that of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.
This conclusion has developed after watching Sharon serve Israel as its prime minister since 2001. Just as negotiation with the Palestinians was the right strategy of the 1990s, so was unilateralism the correct move in the first decade of the 21st century.
When Sharon first took office after defeating Ehud Barak, I regarded Israelis' choice with trepidation. Here was the man who had been found indirectly responsible for the massacres at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in 1981. Here was the man whose idea of the best thing to do during the riots of 2000 was to make a controversial visit to the Temple Mount. Here was the man who would repudiate the hard work of Oslo in 1993 and Camp David in 2000.
Instead, Sharon has brought Israel its best hope: a situation of perpetual cease-fire. His withdrawal from Gaza and construction of the security barrier has accomplished several objectives. The security barrier prevents Palestinians from crossing into Israel from terrorist strongholds such as Jenin. The departure from Gaza shows the world that Israel is ready to hand over territory to the Palestinians. Meanwhile, his policy of targeted assassination has claimed the lives of some notorious terrorist leaders, including Hamas' Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi.
The problem with Sharon's solutions is that they are those of a politician, not a statesman. Sharon's successors will have to contend with a serious problem: what the Christian Science Monitor, in 2003, called "the growing realization that Israel is losing the demographic war with the Palestinians, even as it emerges more or less triumphant from the battles of recent years." Coupled with the demographic problem is the likelihood that many of these newborn Palestinians will have unhappy lives, if the people governing them combine the incompetence of the Palestine Authority with the fundamentalism and xenophobia of Hamas.
There does seem to be some hope when power will be passed to Sharon's deputy, Ehud Olmert. The Monitor reported that Olmert "intimated that Israel would have to remove settlements and cede control much of the West Bank and Gaza Strip," and quoted him in a Yedioth Ahronoth article: "Above all hovers the cloud of demographics...It will come down on us not in the end of days, but in just another few years."
The decisions to make will be difficult. Should Israel relinquish more of the West Bank, but not the parts containing the region's valuable water deposits? Should Israel continue on turning its attention within its own borders, ignoring the burgeoning Palestinian population mired in poverty and anger? And what happens if Hamas continues its success in Palestinian elections?
The problem with a cold war in the Middle East is that it can erupt into a hot war at any time. Sharon's surgery puts his country in a precarious position. With so many unresolved issues, it is necessary for Olmert -- and all of Israel -- to be on high alert.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Happy 2006!

What better way to celebrate a new year than by going retro? The Boston Globe has an article by Joanna Weiss on a staple of childhood during the 1970s and 1980s: the After School Special. The article is a delightful blend of nostalgia and narcissism, showing my generation's tendency to imbue its past with the same sort of importance that Gen-Xers lavish on themselves.

Here is Josh Schwartz, the 29-year-old creator of "The O.C.," having young Seth make fun of his dad, Sandy, when Sandy decides to intervene to stop his wife's drinking problem. "Is this, like, an After School Special?" Seth sneers. This despite the fact that none of the members of Generation Y watching "The O.C." have any idea what an After School Special is.

Fear not, we aging individuals of the Me Decade are rushing to fill that educational void. "In the last two years," Weiss notes, "distributor BCI Eclipse has issued box sets of 'Martin Tahse's After School Specials,' in packages that look like a locker, a school bus, and a Trapper Keeper notebook." The director of acquisitions for BCI Eclipse is Jeff Hayne, who is -- surprise, surprise! -- 26 years old. Weiss tells us that he "has hosted nostalgia screenings for friends in his apartment."

It could be worse. Weiss notes that the young people of today live in saltier times. Weiss writes that "today's teenagers are precociously cynical; raised on Harry Potter and MTV, (Emerson College professor Martie) Cook says, they are more accustomed to dark themes and quick cuts. They prefer TV to talk to them sideways, from odd angles." So in 20 years, we'll get Harry Potter collector's editions and Real World reunions -- oh, wait, they're already doing that last one already.