Monday, November 30, 2009

Recognizing Kim Seong-Kon at the Daesan Literary Awards Ceremony

Daesan Literary Awards Logo
(Image from Daesan Foundation)

Though I didn't recognize the author Ch'oe Yun at last Friday's Daesan Literary Awards ceremony, I did happen to recognize someone else whom I'd also never met before. I had just arrived at the 20th floor of the Seoul Press Club building and greeted the translator Brother Anthony, whom I've known for years now.

To be precise, I've known Brother Anthony ever since my days at Hanshin University way back in 2001, when I first learned of his Sogang University website and contacted him by email about something or other having to do with English literature. I think that I was asking his advice about how to establish myself as a literary scholar in Korea since my background was history and religious studies. I can't say that I've been especially successful, academically, but I have managed to publish regularly as a scholar and critic . . . which might or might not be relevant to this anecdote.

At any rate, I greeted Brother Anthony, who told me that he couldn't stay for the ceremony due to the scheduled weekly prayers required by his Taize monastic community. He had decided to make a brief early appearance at the celebration because he had also served as a literary judge on the same board as I. Anyway, as we were speaking, Brother Anthony stopped a Korean man who was passing by and started to introduce us. I didn't catch the man's name, but he looked so familiar that I was certain that I had seen him before. As we shook hands, I said:
"You look very familiar. Perhaps we've met at a conference?"
I looked more closely as his face came into focus for me, and I knew who he was.
"Oh, now, I recognize you from your photo. You write for the newspaper! I read your weekly column."
The man looked briefly puzzled, then realized what I was talking about.
"Ah, the Korea Herald."

"Right," I agreed. "I really enjoy your column."
We then parted, and I was feeling good about having recognized the man's face since I'm often very poor at placing people's names and faces. In fact, I once failed to recognize the president of Korea University when he greeted me in the hallway outside my Korea University office even though he had personally interviewed me only weeks before when I had applied for my position there. That was one of my most embarrassing moments. In my defense, I should note that I had been up since 3:00 a.m. that morning, grading student essays.

I was thus feeling good -- as I said -- about recognizing the columnist's face. I recalled, also, that he was a professor at Seoul National University. I could not, however, dredge up his name, but a few minutes later, as I sat down at my table, he showed up again and handed me his card.
"Kim Seong-Kon," I read aloud, then rummaged around in my bag for my own cards and handed him one.

He looked at it carefully, then exclaimed, "Ah, the famous Dr. Hodges!"
I laughed, assuming that he was joking, and we parted again. But I then wondered if he had been joking. I had probably better hope so, for if I'm 'famous', then my fame is likely to be of the infamous sort since I've done nothing here in Korea to gain any positive fame.

But rather than go into the details of my infamy, I'd better just leave things at that . . .

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Sunday, November 29, 2009

Meeting Ch'oe Yun

Ch'oe Yun

On Friday evening, I attended the Daesan Foundation's annual literary awards ceremony because I had acted as one of the judges for the best recent English translation of Korean literature. This might sound surprising to those who know me since they also know how dreadful my Korean is. I am also surprised. I can only surmise that the generous Daesan people wanted my participation on the committee of judges as a literary critic who is also a native speaker of English.

At any rate, I was a judge (제프리 하지스) and was given the enjoyable opportunity to read about ten volumes of mostly fine Korean writing in English translation. Selecting a best volume was not easy, but I think that the right choice was made in awarding the Daesan Literary Award for Translation to Bruce Fulton and Ju-Chan Fulton for their translation of Ch'oe Yun's volume of three stories, There a Petal Silently Falls. This volume is published by Columbia University Press, which well describes its contents:
In this collection's title work, There a Petal Silently Falls, Ch'oe explores both the genesis and the aftershocks of historical outrages such as the Kwangju Massacre of 1980, in which a reported 2,000 civilians were killed for protesting government military rule. The novella follows the wanderings of a girl traumatized by her mother's murder and strikes home the injustice of state-sanctioned violence against men and especially women. "Whisper Yet" illuminates the harsh treatment of leftist intellectuals during the years of national division, at the same time offering the hope of reconciliation between ideological enemies. The third story, "The Thirteen-Scent Flower," satirizes consumerism and academic rivalries by focusing on a young man and woman who engender an exotic flower that is coveted far and wide for its various fragrances.
Despite my ardent appreciation of these well-written and well-translated stories, I committed the faux pas of failing to recognize the author herself although she was seated beside me at dinner during the awards ceremony. Actually, my failure is not so surprising in itself. I had never seen a photograph of Ch'oe Yun. The actual false step was in failing to recognize her name when we exchanged cards:
"Only two names?" I remarked. "That's unusual for a Korean. Koreans usually have three, don't they?"

"It's a pen name," she explained.

"Oh," I said. "What have you written?"

"The translation of my book," she explained, smiling, "was awarded this year's literary prize."

"Oh!" I exclaimed. "That's you! I was one of the judges."

"Did you like the book?" she asked, still smiling.

"Very much," I assured her.
The forgiving Ms. Yun and I then had a most interesting conversation, which I probably shouldn't detail here since she is somewhat of a public figure, and our talk was likely considered off the record. Suffice it to say that we spoke of our years in Europe and the changes that we've seen wrought there by immigration and multiculturalism, particularly the widespread disappearance of Christianity's cultural influence in much of Europe.

More important, anyway, is her writing, so here are the opening lines -- translated by the Fultons -- from There a Petal Silently Falls:
As you pass by the grave sites scattered throughout the city, you may encounter her, a girl whose maroon velvet dress barely covers her, a girl who lingers near the burial mounds. Please don't stop if she approaches you, and don't look back once she's passed you by. If your eye should be drawn to the flesh showing between the folds of that torn soiled dress, or drawn to something resembling a wound, walk away with downcast eyes as if you hadn't seen a thing.
If that interests you -- and I do quite like it -- then read more at what the Google Books site offers. With respect to this translation, I should note that I also met the translators, Bruce Fulton and Ju-Chan Fulton, but had little chance to speak with them, as they sat at a different table, though I did manage to express my admiration for their work, which was outstanding.

But you can see for yourself . . .

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Saturday, November 28, 2009

Americans learning a little history . . .

Korean Academy for Educators
(Image from Korea Herald)

Speaking as a historian, I'm all for people learning more history. Indeed, if folks generally were more interested in history, I'd likely have an academic position somewhere teaching that subject . . . rather than one in which I spend my time trying to teach students the fundamentals of essay writing. So when An Ji-yoon reported in the Korea Herald on "Educating U.S. teachers about Korea" (November 26, 2009), I thought that this sounded like a good thing:
The Korea Academy for Educators is a private, nonprofit, nonpartisan organization based in Los Angeles, dedicated to informing American educators about Korean history and culture and the general Korean-American experience in order to promote cross-cultural understanding.
I especially appreciate the fact that the Korea Academy for Educators (KAE) is nonpartisan . . . or is it? Mary Connor, director of the KAE, offers an example of what they teach:
"For instance, Koreans should work to educate Americans about . . . the role of the U.S. in Korean history and the fact that we divided a country that had been unified for centuries."
I suppose that in an interview, one doesn't always speak with precision, but Ms. Connor's way of putting things doesn't sound especially nonpartisan. Saying that America divided Korea sounds remarkably like a talking point for the very partisan, 'progressive' Korean left. Based on the evidence, I'd have to agree with Robert Koehler, whose blog alerted me to this article, and echo his opinion that the KAE folks sound like the last people who ought to be teaching Americans about Korean history if the aim, as reported by An Ji-yoon, is to "ensure that Korean history and culture are correctly taught":
"In American courses on the history and culture of other countries, China and Japan are well covered, but Korea is not. This is one of the main reasons for my commitment to educating Americans about Korea. I want to help fill that void and ensure that Korean history and culture are correctly taught in American classrooms."
Teaching American instructors that the United States "divided a country that had been unified for centuries" isn't the best way to "promote cross-cultural understanding." It sounds more like one of those typical but inaccurate formulas found in politically 'correct' projects that promote American feelings of inferiority and guilt.

In a pseudonymous comment posted to Koehler's blog entry, a certain Seokso alluded in irony to the implications of expecting Americans to know detailed history on every part of the world:
Frankly, I was disgusted by my American teachers who totally failed to teach me about Korea and its important position in the world. Not only that, but they also neglected to teach units on Afghanistan, Albania, Algeria, Andorra, Angola, Antigua, Argentina, Armenia, Australia, Austria, Azerbaijan . . . . See where I'm going with this?
Netizen Kim, however, objected to Seokso's analogy:
Well, if you live in an Empire, the history book of the Empire is bound to be rather thick. It stands to reason, however, that the parts of the world that the American Empire has affected greatly (like as in millions of people dying in a war) should at least get more than a footnote treatment. Unlike, say, Andorra.
Aside from yet another instance of the currently very popular, but also very imprecise and misleading use of the term "empire," I have to agree that Netizen Kim has a point. There is, however, a downside to Americans learning more history, as I noted:
Agreed, NK. Andorra's historical drama gets sufficient attention from Max Frisch and thus needs no additional scrutiny from the US, especially given the American way of learning about foreign countries. I believe that it was Ambrose Bierce who quipped that "War is God's way of teaching Americans geography," so all of you out there grousing that Americans are still too ignorant of the world, take care in what you wish for . . . you might just get it.
Let's keep that in mind . . .

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Friday, November 27, 2009

Turkey Day Joke


Yeah, I know, today's not Turkey Day here in Korea, but for all of you readers from the States, this is the day . . . as I was reminded just this morning by an email from a fellow hillbilly still residing in the Ozarks who sent me a joke:
A game warden was driving down the road when he came upon a young boy carrying a wild turkey under his arm.

He stopped and asked the boy, "Where did you get that turkey?"

The boy replied, "What turkey?"

The game warden said, "That turkey you're carrying under your arm."

The boy looks down and said, "Well, lookee here, a turkey done roosted under my arm!"

The game warden said, "Now look, you know turkey season is closed, so whatever you do to that turkey, I'm going to do to you. If you break his leg, I'm gonna break your leg. If you break his wing, I'll break your arm. Whatever you do to him, I'll do to you. So, what are you gonna do with him?"

"The little boy said, 'I guess I'll just kiss his ass and let him go!"
I found this amusing, but I was kind of baffled by part of the punch line, so I inquired of my friend:
Kiss the turkey's ass? How'd a damn donkey get into this story?!
I'm still waiting to hear the answer, and I'm sure that all of you are, too. Meanwhile, have a Happy Thanksgiving.

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Thursday, November 26, 2009

Guess he didn't see that one coming . . .

Breaking 'Noose' from Saudi Arabia
(Image from Yahoo News)

As a foreigner in Korea, I occasionally complain about how I'm treated by the Koreans. For instance, from my wife and kids -- Korean citizens all -- I don't get no respect! Yes, there's a dangerous field rigged with landmines awaiting the unwitting foreigner who treads too boldly into Korean territory.

But for those foreigners here who complain overmuch, consider the words of that expat Belial in Paradise Lost 2.163-164:
. . . is this then worst,
Thus sitting, thus consulting . . . ?
Exactly right! We foreigners here in Korea can sit around our computers debating pretty freely about our future prospects in this country, and things really don't look so bad. Things could indeed be much worse. Look what's happening to this forward-looking fellow who recently visited Saudi Arabia:
A man has been sentenced to death in Saudi Arabia for witchcraft because he makes predictions on television.

Ali Sibat is not even a Saudi national. The Lebanese citizen was only visiting Saudi Arabia on pilgrimage when he was arrested in Medina last year.

A court in the city condemned him as a witch on November 9.

The only evidence presented in court was reportedly the claim he appeared regularly on Lebanese satellite issuing general advice on life and making predictions about the future.
The poor fellow is clearly innocent since he manifestly failed to foresee the consequences of stepping onto Saudi territory! At most, he should only have been found guilty of 'charlatanry', for that carries a lighter punishment:
In 2006 a Jeddah court convicted an Eritrean national Muhammad Burhan for "charlatanry" because he possessed a phone book that contained writings in the Tigrinya alphabet used in Eritrea . . . . [Prosecutors] classified the booklet as a "talisman" and the court accepted that as evidence, sentencing him to 20 months in prison and 300 lashes.
If only the incarcerated Mr. Burhan hadn't demanded his right to a phone call, the Saudi police might never have noticed that 'talisman'. So much for its talismanic powers! But I'd bet that Mr. Sibat is dying for a punishment as light as those 300 lashes, given that he'd also be provided with 20 months to recuperate.

Remind me -- if I should happen to forget -- never to go teach English in Saudi Arabia . . . and never to forget how good we foreigners have it here in South Korea.

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Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Ansar Al-Mujahideen: Communiqué on Nidal Malik Hasan

Ansar Al-Mujahideen Jihadist Forum

The Memri website, usually a site that translates Islamist announcements from various languages into English, has this time reported on an Islamist communiqué that was itself already released in English by the Ansar Al-Mujahideen jihadist forum. I've borrowed the Ansar Al-Mujahideen image via Memri, but a fuller viewing of the printed text justifying Hasan's attack on his fellow soldiers at Fort Hood is available on the site Internet Archive (or even at Ansar Al-Mujahideen itself).

I think that I should point out that in addition to the usual Islamist support for Hasan's action, Ansar Al-Mujahideen's reasoning would implicitly have supported Hasan even if he had not been in the US military and had instead opened fire in a shopping mall. Here's the reasoning:
The general principle is that it is not allowed for the Muslims to live permanently in the lands of the infidels.
This general principle allows of exceptions, but only if Muslims can practice Islam properly:
There are scholars who have stated its permissibility, but with the condition that the Muslim is able to practice the tenets of his religion properly, from the most important of which is matters of alliance and disavowal (al-wala wal-bara -- the clear declaration of alliance with the believers and enmity and disassociation from the disbelievers). For most people living amongst the polytheists, this is not something possible.
Islamists such as those at Ansar Al-Mujahideen would argue that Muslims cannot properly practice Islam while living amidst the polytheists -- among whom they include Christians as tri-theists -- for Muslims in a polytheistic society are not allowed to follow shariah fully.

The Islamist implication from this inability to practice Islam properly is then derived from the Qur'an:
They ask you concerning fighting in the Sacred Months. Say, "Fighting therein is a great (transgression) but a greater (transgression) with Allah is to prevent humankind from following the Way of Allah, to disbelieve in Him, to prevent access to the Sacred Mosque, and to drive out its inhabitants, and fitnah is worse than killing . . ." ('Al-Baqarah: 217)
The "Sacred Months" were those months of the year when fighting was not allowed, according to Arabic custom, but some Muslim followers of Muhammad ambushed a Meccan caravan during that sacred period -- if I recall correctly -- whereupon Muhammad 'received' a revelation justifying the attack as having been prompted by Meccan restrictions on the practice of Islam. What is meant by fitnah? Let's see what the Islamists of Ansar Al-Mujahideen say:
Mujahid and others said that the word fitnah here means disbelief, meaning, "your disbelief is worse than our killing them." The majority said, "The meaning of fitnah here is putting Muslims through trials which may turn them away from Islam and be destroyed," and that this is a greater crime than their killing in the forbidden months.
The Islamists present two possible interpretations, fitnah as disbelief on the part of non-Muslims and fitnah as trials imposed by non-Muslims upon Muslims. The former would legitimate the actions of any Muslim in attacking and killing any non-Muslim. But this is a minority view, as even the Islamists of Ansar Al-Mujahideen acknowledge. The latter interpretation, however, is not much better, for any restriction upon shariah could be viewed as a 'trial' that might turn Muslims away from Islam.

Since a secular society like that of the United States does restrict shariah, and that severely, then according to the reasoning employed by the Islamists of Ansar Al-Mujahideen, Hasan would have been permitted to kill Americans even if he had not been a US soldier and even if he had opened fire not on a military base but even in a shopping mall.

Or in a church. Or a synagogue. Or a Buddhist temple. Or anywhere.

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Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Saudi Liberal Mansour Al-Hadj on Shahid Intercession

Medina Mosque
Saudi Arabia
(Image from Wikipedia)

I've previously noted that contrary to what one ordinarily hears of Islamic teaching about the limits of sacrifice -- namely, that one person cannot act as a redemptive sacrifice for another, which is stated as an objection to the Christian view of Christ's vicarious sacrifice -- Islam also has a view similar to the Christian one.

One finds this view expressed most often in Islamist writing. According to Memri (Special Dispatch, No. 2663), the "reformist writer Mansour Al-Hadj, one of the . . . senior reporters [for the liberal Muslim e-magazine Aafaq], described the Islamist education he received as a youth in Saudi Arabia, which stressed the culture of death and the glorification of martyrs." Here's the money quote on intercession by the shahid (martyr):
"[In Saudi Arabia], we were also taught that every martyr has six privileges . . . . [the sixth being that] he can intercede on behalf of 70 of his relatives, [ensuring that they join him in Paradise after their death]."
The intercession here means that the martyr's death qualifies him to act as a redemptive intercessor based on his sacrifice of his own life, which earns paradise not only for him but even for seventy relatives.

Actually, there's a lot to sort out on this point, not just precisely what the 'redemptive' act entails -- in what way it is redemptive and what the redemption is from -- but also what Muslims mean when they deny the Christian view of Christ's redemptive act . . . and in fact, I'd like to find an instance of the denial, now that I think about it.

But not this morning, for work calls.

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Monday, November 23, 2009

Inherent Vice: Laced with Acid?

Laced with Acid?
(Image from

There's a rumor going around that Pynchon's Inherent Vice has a punctuation mark laced with acid.

Since I consider this rumor questionable, might the punctuation in question be a question mark? Certainly out of the question is a dash -- an acid trip lasts a long time -- so perhaps we should consider a period. The Brits call this a full stop. That sounds too final. Like a bad trip with an even-worse-than-penultimate end. Let's stick with American terminology on this point. Yet even a period looks objectionable . . . so final. More to the point is a comma, the pause that refreshes. But this all sounds like a load of BS: colon therefore. Or it might be only half BS; semicolon is then the sign.

Still, I'm merely guessing, and your wild stab (quotation mark? hyphen? ellipse?) is as good as mine, but we won't be left wondering for long, I'd wager, since some individual from among the great hordes of Pynchonatical fans will surely test the truth of this rumor, though not by licking every single mark of punctuation in the book's entire 384 pages, oh no, for licking is too superficial -- the only sure method is to completely chew up that first period at sixteen words into the novel and then each succeeding punctuation mark until the very one sought for is found (or proven by empirical taste test not to exist) . . . and some Pynchonite will surely attempt this feat.

Pynchon's Inherent Vice -- it's a trip!

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Sunday, November 22, 2009

Research Paper Spot: Translating into English

Yesterday, I praised the Research Paper Spot (RPS) essay mill service for their clever business strategy of offering papers written so poorly as to be indistinguishable from the poorly written papers that students themselves actually write. One of my colleagues, however, has pointed me to a sentence in the RPS advertisement that slightly alters my opinion:
In order to serve you at crest and in order reduce every single inch of skeptics we ensure you with . . .
This is worse than the writing of actual students. It doesn't even sound quite like English! I therefore suggest that the RPS professionals have gone too far in their laudable aim of writing badly.

Now, suppose that you're a student who's already purchased a research paper from RPS, and you realize that the paper is too poorly written to be credible. What do you do? Despite the RPS guarantee, you're unlikely to get your money back or to obtain a perceptibly better written paper, so I suggest that you translate the paper into slightly better English. Not good English, of course, for that would defeat the aim of fooling your professor. Just a bit better so that you don't fail the course.

Naturally, you won't wish to waste your valuable time translating the paper yourself. You'll want to use an online service . . . like Google Translate. By way of demonstration, let's again take the sentence in question:
In order to serve you at crest and in order reduce every single inch of skeptics we ensure you with . . .
Let's now use Google Translate to turn it into German and then back into English to see if a better sentence emerges:
To serve you to comb and to reduce every single centimeter of skeptics we are sure that you are with . . .
Note that the unit of measurement has been reduced from the inch to the centimeter -- a more global standard of skepticism, to be sure, and Kilomètres Deboutish would stand proud, even if Quentin Tarantino might be royally put out -- but the sentence is not appreciably improved. Let's take this new version and try the same Germanic trick again:
In order to serve you and to comb every single centimeter of the skeptics, we are sure that you cut with . . .
Grooming your skeptical professor in simian fashion might work wonders . . . but there may actually be some post-summer-of-love rule against that sort of teacher-student interaction at your university, so let's try this newer version and go the Germanic route again:
In order to serve you and for every single inch of the skeptics comb, we are sure that you cut. . .
That sounds a bit worse, just too ironic an inch Teutonic, actually, so I'd suggest either you either go 'ape-shite' or try a different language than German at this juncture. Take this newest version, and translate it into, say, Korean and back:
Comb every single inch in order for the skeptics, we cut you make sure you provide . . .
I suspect that your professor won't appreciate the implied physical threat in this one. Let's go back a step and try through Chinese:
In order to meet you and skeptical per inch of comb, and we believe you qualify . . .
Believe? Merely believe?! You better know that your professor qualifies! Go back a step, and try through Hebrew:
To serve you for every inch of the comb skeptics, we're sure that you cut . . .
Hmmm . . . "comb skeptics" . . . . Rather intriguing to imagine skeptics who disbelieve in the existence of combs. But your professor might be a comb believer, and you won't want to alienate the one who'll be grading 'your' paper. Go back a step, and try now through Arabic:
In order to serve you and every single inch of comb skeptical, and we are sure that you cut . . .
Very close in wording to what we arrived at through the Hebrew route. I think that the Israelis and the Palestinians are close to an agreement! There's just that disagreeable inch between "skepticism" and "skeptical," but a road map might get us through that remaining distance, given sufficient time, a measure of good will, and a series of trust-building procedures.

But I'm getting into geopolitics here, which goes far beyond my original purpose, and you surely see by now what to do in your own attempt at ever-so-slightly tweaking that anglically challenged RPS paper to make it look like something in English that you yourself might have written.

By way of reminder, let's summarize. Take your paper. Use Google Translate. Pick the language of your choice. Experiment. Enjoy.

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Saturday, November 21, 2009

Plagiarism: "victim of the blow"?

Custom Research Paper
(Image from Research Paper Spot)

The time of the academic year has rolled around when a student's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of that procrastinated paper, but as you see from the above advertisement, help is merely a cursor click away! One need only go to this Research Paper Spot (RPS), purchase a "100% NON PLAGIARIZED research paper," and obtain "A Guarantee on an A Grade Paper"!

You can trust RPS because the staff offers not just expertise, but even empathy:
Are you also a victim of the blow listed 5 Research Paper writing problems?
Such a heartfelt word: "the blow listed"! The people at RPS worry about your status as "victim of the blow." Here's the first of the problems listed 'blow':
Where to find Research Papers Help when you are writing a Collage Research Paper for the first time?.
I don't assign 'collage' homework, but many of my students turn in cut-and-paste papers anyway, which is easy enough these days with the proximity of the ubiquitous internet. Such students usually get caught, often quite easily, but not those smart students who turn to RPS:
We GUARANTEE you a 100% NON PLAGIARIZED Research Paper so that you may not have to feel mortified in front of your supervisor for copy and pasting.
But beware of promises guaranteed with the modal verb "may" . . . and of implicit promises that you'll no longer be the object of idolatrous reverence:
Finally accelerate towards a high quality custom written Research paper without squandering the time sitting idol against web browsers, e-books, journals, articles etc.
Or was this supposed to say that you can now accelerate without sitting idle, whereas one previously had to sit idle while accelerating? I guess that RPS also means "revolutions per second" -- the rate at which those accelerating engines turn! At any rate, the RPS folks offer not only the above-mentioned "Collage Research Papers" but also even "College Research Papers," and they reveal their expertise in a section labeled "Common Problems for College Research Papers":
Nowadays, Students are worried about their research papers especially college students as it directly affects their academic career, these papers need to be unique along with lots of research, efforts and time consumption. It must follow the academic standards like if you are writing a college research paper then it should represent that it is made by a college student.
This passage not only reassures prospective customers that the RPS folks understand the problems faced by today's student, it even reveals their expertise by demonstrating the errors characteristic of typical student writing: arbitrary capitalization of common nouns, sentences spliced together by commas, and -- best of all -- weirdly expressed reasoning. But why would the RPS folks write like this? They don't do so just to reassure the typical student that they understand the typical student's writing problems. They do it because a paper written too well would alert the professor:
If you write your research paper like a master's or PhD student for your college research paper then the teacher must assume that the research paper is made by someone else not by you.
There you have it. That's why the RPS papers are guaranteed to be so badly written. A well-written paper would too obviously be a case of plagiarism.

Clever folks, those RPS people.

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Friday, November 20, 2009

Big Science and the American Cutting Edge?

Target Chamber
Lawrence Livermore Lab
(Image from Newsweek)

Somewhat recently, I posted an entry on a talk by one of my former Berkeley professors in the history of science, John Heilbron, who reported on the rise of 'Big Science' in the United States for UC Berkeley's 2006 Bancroft Centennial Symposium in his lecture on "Big Science and Big Bridges."

As things turn out, the torch for big science in the US that was originally lit by Ernest Orlando Lawrence may be passing from America, say not merely a few experts, but some very large-scale science is still going on with the partly government-funded fusion project in the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore Lab, as Daniel Lyons reports for Newsweek in "Could This Lump Power the Planet?" (November 14, 2009):
Big technological breakthroughs require taking big risks. They always seem hopeless and expensive -- until they work. Sequencing the human genome seemed impossible until thousands of researchers around the world got it done -- in 13 years, with $3 billion in government funding, plus investments by private companies. Like the genome project, fusion energy is something that requires a long-term sustained effort. This isn't like creating the next version of the iPod, or a new application for Facebook. These are scientists operating at the very edge of our knowledge about how to manipulate tiny particles of matter.

If fusion works, it's the ultimate green energy source. But NIF has other goals, one being to help scientists gain greater understanding of the universe itself; for example, they will be able to study conditions that exist inside stars.

Given all that, even if NIF fails -- if the whole place turns out to have been a $3.5 billion fiasco -- it seems to me that the risk will have been worth taking. The NIF team still will have made lots of smaller breakthroughs in laser design, optics, and materials science. They will have advanced the state of laser science. Then they will go looking for money to build an even bigger laser so they can try again.
That sounds good. Even if it fails, it succeeds! But what about those naysayers who argue that the torch of technological innovation -- whether government-funded or privately financed -- is passing from America? Here's what Fareed Zakaria reports for the same Newsweek issue, writing in his article "Is America Losing Its Mojo?" (Nov 14, 2009):
[T]wo studies of global innovation have been released this year, both comprehensive, and both relying entirely on government statistics and other hard data: one produced by the Boston Consulting Group, the other by the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation. In both, the United States does considerably worse, coming in eighth in the BCG study and sixth in the ITIF one.

Like a star that still looks bright in the farthest reaches of the universe but has burned out at the core, America's reputation is stronger than the hard data warrant.
How depressing. Only apparently shining brightly, our enterprising American core is already burnt utterly out. But we might manage to re-ignite that core even without a laser beam from the National Ignition Facility -- if we can just learn from the example of Israel, as Dan Senor and Paul Singe show in "Soldiers of Fortune," Newsweek (November 14, 2009), opening with a question:
How does Israel -- with fewer people than the state of New Jersey, no natural resources, and hostile nations all around -- produce more tech companies listed on the NASDAQ than all of Europe, Japan, South Korea, India, and China combined? How does Israel attract, per person, 30 times as much venture capital as Europe and more than twice the flow to American companies? How does it produce, for its size, the most cutting-edge technology startups in the world?
Hint: It ain't because Israeli Jews manipulate the world's markets through a secret hierarchy of Zionist elders intent on world domination. Quite the opposite of a hidden hierarchy, Israel offers a society with a culture of open discussion, even in the military:
It creates an openness to challenging, debating, and probing -- even of one's superiors -- that permeates the Israeli startup scene; it helps produce unconventional solutions to tough business problems. Nati Ron is a lawyer in his civilian life and a lieutenant colonel who commands an Army unit in the reserves. "Rank is almost meaningless in the reserves," he says. "A private will tell a general in an exercise, 'You are doing this wrong; you should do it this way.'"
Well, I wasn't in the military during my year in Jerusalem, but I noticed much the same attitude in the seminars that I attended while doing postdoctoral work at Hebrew University's Mt. Scopus campus. I'd say that we need more of this bold, assertive attitude in the States (and throughout the world), so long as the whippersnapper has the expertise . . . or even if the whippersnapper has none, for how better to learn than by asking sharp questions and properly challenging authority?

And if you're wondering, by the way, why I'm getting so much information from Newsweek this fine day, here's the scoop. My wife has a subscription to the Korean edition, and Newsweek has been kind enough to send along the English edition as well . . . unasked. I don't know why Newsweek is doing this generous thing, but I'm not one to look a gift horse in the mouth and count its teeth.

Though I suppose that one ought to check the belly of the beast, just in case of a Trojan horse . . .

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Thursday, November 19, 2009

I ride the rails ironic . . .

Hoegi Station
Seoul Subway
(Image from Wikipedia)

As I passed by Seoul Subway's Hoegi Station yesterday en route from Ehwa Womans University to the station nearest my apartment, I read in Holbrook Jackson's Anatomy of Bibliomania, within a larger passage enumerating various types and odd specimens of intrepid readers, the following words:
It is the same with all those happy readers who take the book of their choice in the place chance dictates, regardless of rules and advice. Picture Henry Crabb Robinson outside the Bury Coach on a mid-January day devouring Goethe's 'Autobiography' with great pleasure [2] and Madame de Sévigné reading alternately her Breviary and Corneille in the carriage on her journeys from Paris to her country seat in Brittany; [3] Dr. Johnson with Pomponius Mela de Situ Orbis in the stage-coach en route for Harwich, and very intent upon ancient geography, as Boswell notes; [4] Edward FitzGerald [5] communing with Sophocles, Virgil, Don Quixote, Montaigne and Boccaccio, in his fishing-boat off Lowestoft; Ramsay Macdonald passing the time with Hazlitt when flying from London to his native Lossiemouth; John Addington Symonds travelling from London to Florence reading Guicciardini all the way, regardless (says Maurice Hewlett) of the growing attractiveness of the journey and increasing gravity of the book: a man, he well adds, who could read that book on a journey to Italy could read Milton on top of a motor 'bus; [6] Symonds could have done even that, for he was a trained and hardened reader, imperturbable amid noise and movement; it was his constant habit to do a considerable amount of hard study while travelling, and he found it difficult to enumerate how many heavy German and Italian books on history, biography, and criticism, how many volumes of Greek poets, and what a library of French and English authors had been slowly perused by him in railway stations, trains, steamers, wayside inns, and Alpine chalets. [7] (Jackson, Anatomy, page 254)

[2] Diary, i, 246. [3] Letters, i, 150. [4] Life. Hill, i, 465. [5] Letters and Literary Remains, i, 101, 307. [6] Hewlett, Extemporary Essays. 119. [7] 'A Page of my Life', Fortnightly Review. December 1889.
I was quite taken with the mental image of Symonds reading Milton perched atop a motorbus, though I'd hesitate to attempt such a feat on some bus here in Seoul if it were to be driven by a Korean 'hell-driver' -- as my kids and I like to call so many of Seoul's bus drivers, given how they swiftly bound over speed bumps, slantly careen around sharp curves, and rashly lunge through red lights.

Though if I were to try the atop attempt, I suppose that Paradise Lost would be most appropriate since I'd likely fall and not survive . . .

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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Islam hasn't always been puritanical . . .

Old Map of Mecca
1787 Turkish Map
(Image from Wikipedia)

In addition to learning of Sayyid Qutb's position as a bridge between the Muslim Brotherhood and Wahhabi Islam, I learned something else intriguing from reading Samuel Helfont's monograph, this time concerning the Wahhabist assualt on Ottoman Mecca, a place that hardly differed from any secular 'sin-city' at the turn of the 19th century:

Even more revealing of Wahhabism were conflicts in the first decade of the 19th century with the Ottomans in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.[20] The Wahhabists made drastic changes, many of which were intended to expose the faults of Ottoman Islam. Wahhabists criticized orthodox Ottoman theology and Sufi practices and faulted the Ottomans for failing to implement even the more lenient interpretations of Islamic law. As one historian explains, "The status of the holy city [Mecca] made its inhabitants feel superior to all other Muslims and led them to excuse a certain lewdness of behavior. Whole blocks of Mecca had belonged to prostitutes, who even paid a tax on their occupation. Homosexuality was widespread. Alcohol was sold almost at the gate of the Kaaba and drunkenness was not uncommon."[21] (Samuel Helfont, The Sunni Divide: Understanding Politics and Terrorism in the Arab Middle East, page 6)

[20] Esther Peskes and W. Ende, s.v. "Wahhabiyya," in Encyclopedia of Islam, eds. P. Bearman, C. E. Bosworth, E. van Donzel, W. P. Heinrichs, and Th. Bianquis (Leiden: Brill Online, 2006), Volume XI.
[21] James Wynbrandt, A Brief History of Saudi Arabia (New York: Checkmark Books, 2004), p. 136.
This account of Mecca is hard to imagine today, but I see where the Wahhabi Muslims' puritanical impulse originates, for they criticized the Ottomans for being so little Muslim that "even the more lenient interpretations of Islamic law" were neglected in favor of purely 'infidel' practices -- such as trafficking in alcohol and sex -- and Wahhabists have thus had to maintain purity ever since or lose their legitimacy entirely.

The Wahhabists in power have therefore had far less interest in implementing "even the more lenient interpretations of Islamic law" than did the Ottomans, albeit with an opposite result -- rigor over neglect.

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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Samuel Helfont on Qutb and abd al-Wahab: Convergence

Al Qaeda Board Meeting
Wahabi Islam (Bin Laden) Meets Muslim Brotherhood (Zawahiri)
(Image from The Raw Feed)

In a couple of recent posts, I noted that Samuel Helfont, who is working on his doctorate at Princeton University in its Near Eastern Studies Department, had written an article for the Foreign Policy Research Institute's E-Notes. The article, "Politics, Terrorism, and the Sunni Divide," had left me with a puzzle over Helfont's division of Sunni Islamism into a Wahabist faction and a Muslim Brotherhood faction, as I noted in both posts:
One problem with Helfont's analysis, however, is that it does not very well account for the rise of Al Qaeda, which combines aspects of both types of Islamism -- as Helfont notes -- for given the stark distinction drawn between the two, one wouldn't expect to find such a combination.
Mr. Helfont noticed my original blogpost and notified me of a longer version of his article -- in monograph form at 74 pages -- that resolves the puzzle. I posted a pre-reading note on this in a recent post, "Samuel Helfont: More on the Sunni Divide," and have since had time to read much of the monograph (and skim the remainder): The Sunni Divide: Understanding Politics and Terrorism in the Arab Middle East. Here from Helfont's monograph is the resolution to my bafflement, for the passage reveals the link forged between Wahabi Islam and the Muslim Brotherhood by the person of Qutb and his reflections on Islam:
In declaring the Muslim world non-Islamic, Qutb crossed a line that few in Islamic history had dared to traverse. With few exceptions, Islamic scholars had accepted the legitimacy of a ruler as long as he declared there were no God but God and that Muhammad was the last of the Prophets. Qutb's position on this matter resembles that of abd al-Wahhab but differs from al-Banna's position in two very important ways. First, and most obviously, abd al-Wahhab and Qutb are two of only a handful of Islamic scholars to excommunicate other Muslims. In this, they were similar to, and were influenced by the important medieval theologian ibn Taymiyyah. Al-Banna, in contrast, never even approached Qutb's position on this matter.As Gilles Kepel, a prominent historian of Islamic movements, notes, al-Banna "never dreamed of accusing the Egyptian society of his day of being non-Islamic." Second and equally important was that Qutb began to make his arguments on the basis of his interpretation of Islamic sources. In prison, his isolation allowed him to put modern considerations aside. He argued for the restoration of Islam on Islamic terms. Gone were the nationalist and socialist justifications for an Islamic society. Qutb argued that the Quran and hadith had all the information a Muslim needed to organize society. Similar to abd al-Wahhab's theory that Islam had become a stranger, Qutb argued that Muslims had allowed non-Islamic ideas and practices to contaminate Islam and that living a truly Islamic life required Muslims not only to believe but to act in accordance with Islamic law. (Helfont, The Sunni Divide, page 21)
The upshot of this was that Qutb's followers have gravitated towards a politicized Wahabist Islam that tries to retain its premodern outlook, whereas those who followed al-Banna stayed within the Muslim Brotherhood's mainstream, an Islamist movement that compromises with Western Modernity.

For greater clarification on this point, see Mr. Helfont's monograph.

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Monday, November 16, 2009

Irishman threatens to kill British soldiers!

Terry 'K' Kelly
(Image from Times Online)

Nicola Smith, writing for The Sunday Times (November 15, 2009), tells us that some fanatical "Irishman wants to kill" British soldiers:
"I've already picked up a gun and done target practice to make myself familiar with weapons. The other day I learnt how to use an M-16 [rifle] in five hours," he said. "Next week, . . . I could be . . . fighting a British soldier."
What's he got against the Brits? He doesn't like soldiers?
"Why is it such a big deal that I want to do this? Have I not got the right to do the same thing as a guy going into an army recruitment centre?" he said. "As long as we have no security, you will have no security. We'll kill and bomb you as you have killed and bombed our lands."
Oh, I see. A militant Irish nationalist. One of those men with a long memory stretching all the way back to the 12th century, when the Anglo-Normans conquered Ireland. A man who would shout out with The Pogues, "A curse upon you Oliver Cromwell," along with the rest of the lines to "Young Ned of the Hill," as a call to remember the atrocities of that English Protestant Cromwell in his reconquest of a rebellious Ireland during the 17th century. A man who recalls the 1916 Easter Rising and the 1922 division of Ireland. He must be some hardline IRA member, ready at any moment to attack the British:
Ireland is also a legitimate target, according to Kelly. "Ireland has a US embassy so it is open to attack," he stated.
Eh? Mr. Kelly wants to kill Irish citizens, too? And, apparently, Americans? What the hell is his motivation?
"I was living a cushy Western lifestyle, in a three-storey house with a swimming pool. I was your average Western racist."
Good Lord, I'm nearly tempted to become an 'average' Western racist if that'll get me a three-story house with a pool! But what specifically turned Mr. Kelly against the West? Did he turn 'Third-Worlder' from some encounter with injustice?
In 2000 . . . he was serving time in . . . prison . . . for bootlegging.
That sounds more like an encounter with justice. Somehow, that seems to have led to Mr. Kelly's turn against not only the British but even the Irish, the Americans, and the entire West!

I wish that I could explain what's gotten into this man's bitter heart, but for the life of me, I can't figure it out, so perhaps a few of my faithful readers could check out Ms. Smith's article and explain to the rest of us precisely what has so radically transformed Mr. Terry 'Khalid' Kelly.

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Sunday, November 15, 2009

Austen's Irony: A Mode of Thoughtful Hypocrisy?

Twisted Sense?
(Image from WSJ)

One of my regular readers, Cynthia, offered an off-topic comment to yesterday's post and kindly provided a link to a thoughtful Wall Street Journal article by the novelist James Collins about Jane Austen's moralism: "What Would Jane Do?"

Collins argues that Austen's novels have moral relevance even in our own time and can teach us how to live our lives with integrity:
I find that reading Jane Austen helps me clarify ethical choices, helps me figure out a way to live with integrity in the corrupt world, even helps me adopt the proper tone and manner in dealing with others. Her moralism and the modern mind are not, in fact, in direct opposition, as is so often assumed.
I cannot say that I've learned that much from Austen, but I am impressed by the seriousness of her moral reflection and have recently written an article to be published in Persuasions, "Darcy's Ardent Love and Resentful Temper in Pride and Prejudice," which analyzes the moral development of Darcy as his love for Elizabeth overcomes his resentment toward her, for he feels both of these emotions. Let me turn to a remark by Collins for a brief elucidation of my meaning:
Austen's value system can be thought of as a sphere with layers. The innermost core might be called "morals," the next layer we could call "sentiments," and finally the surface "manners."
In this schema offered by Collins, I would say that Darcy's initially cold courtesy is at the outer layer of manners, and his resentment is obviously at the middle layer of sentiments, but his love -- though it might be thought of as also belonging to the sentiments -- goes deeper, to the layer of morals, for it extends its roots down into the core Christian ethic of charitas. Darcy's problem lies in finding a way to show through a kinder courtesy -- and through commmitted action -- that his love is true and thereby to win Elizabeth's disdainful heart, and he must do so without betraying his dignity.

That's Darcy's particular case, but what of more general cases? How does one reconcile the dilemmas that morals, sentiments, and manners present? Collins thinks that Austen recommends irony:
Irony is not just Austen's characteristic mode of expression: It is her characteristic mode of thought. Austen's irony reflects a perfect understanding of all the ways the world is wretched and the belief that although you can't really fight it, you can at least separate yourself from it. In her ironic sentences, there is movement with stability. She moves toward the object of criticism, then away from it, and then provides a gentle snap of closure at the end. This rhythmic motion serves as an ideal for both accepting and rejecting the ways of the wretched world while maintaining balance.

The irony of Austen's characters also gives those of us who believe in decorum a way to handle hypocrites. Sense and Sensibility's Elinor Dashwood is rarely ironic, but she provides a good example. Recall the conversation when the odious John Dashwood, who has reneged on the deathbed promise to his father to help his half-sisters, suggests to Elinor that Mrs. Jennings will leave them a bequest. Elinor replies, "Indeed, brother, your anxiety for our welfare and prosperity carries you too far." John Dashwood lacks generosity and integrity. Elinor insults him, but she does it in the politest possible way.
And that courteous slap is most gratifying to hear, but does Mr. John Dashwood feel it? Or does he rather feel somehow gratified at the superficial hint of praise without recognizing the deeper disdain? Irony perhaps works best when the one upon whom it is used fails to perceive the deeper truth. But doesn't that make irony a mode of hypocrisy? Isn't it pretending to be something that it isn't? Dashwood is a hypocrite because he pretends concern for his half-sisters' welfare despite having done nothing material to provide for their care even though it lay in his power to do so. Is Elinor a hypocrite for wrapping a stiff insult in apparent praise?

Perhaps not.

Irony covers the truth but leaves the form of that truth sufficiently visible for the hearer to ascertain what lies beneath, whereas hypocrisy hides the truth in hope of that truth never being uncovered.

But I'm not entirely persuaded that irony is commendable as a "characteristic mode of thought" if it leads one to conclude generally that "the world is wretched and . . . [that] you can't really fight it," for that would counsel inaction in the world and advise that you "separate yourself from it" even where something could be done.

Irony in such a sense as this would appear to end in bitter cynicism, and I can't see Jane Austen pointing us in that direction.

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Saturday, November 14, 2009

Side Effect of Last Winter's Ozark Ice Storm?

A Nice Storm Baby?
(Image from KAIT8)

Most readers will vividly recall the images of ice from last February's ice storm that paralyzed the Ozarks and other regions of northern Arkansas and southern Missouri. That was nine months ago last month, as KAIT8 of Jonesboro, Arkansas reminds us:
Who can forget the paralyzing effects of the ice storm earlier this year? Communities, entire cities in total darkness for days at a time. Months later -- nine months later to be exact -- many people are remembering the natural disaster, as not such a bad time after all!
Well, it seemed pretty bad at the time:
Mother nature's fury. Unrelentless in its devastation. Tree limbs coated in ice brought down power lines... northeast Arkansas plunged into darkness. Transformers blew up and sparks flew -- both outside and inside.
I remember reporting on just about all of that as family and friends slowly came back online and sent emails. But they didn't tell everything . . . such as what went on in the cold darkness of their homes as they huddled to keep a spark of warmth:
In fact, there's a bit of a baby boom in northeast Arkansas.

"We're seeing a little over a 12% increase in deliveries," said Dr. Charles Dunn, an OB-GYN. "If we look at when the ice storm was and the date of conception, . . . [the increase in deliveries] would have pretty much happened during the month of October."

"I think I've just delivered my sixth baby this week," said Dr. Karl Hasik, an OB-GYN. "So that's in less than three weeks. We've been very busy and we're not finished yet."

55 babies were delivered during the month of October at Arkansas Methodist Medical Center. Normally they have 35 to 45. NEA Baptist Memorial delivered 66 babies in October. That's a 20% increase over a year ago.
Now if there's a baby boom being reported in Jonesboro, which is in northeastern Arkansas, then I'm going to suggest that the same boom has hit northcentral and northwestern Arkansas as well, where the Arkansas Ozarks are found. Yet if I turn out to be wrong about this, then the blame lies not with me but entirely with my fellow hillbillies!

I expect some truth-telling from friends and family, and you'uns can start by posting comments to this blog entry.

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Friday, November 13, 2009

Regret Over Missing November 9, 1989: The Whinge of History?

Professor Niall Ferguson
(Image from Wikipedia)

Professor Niall Ferguson, a Harvard historian who knows a lot more about money than I do, also knows a lot more about history than I, for he knows that the fall of the Berlin Wall, celebrated for its twentieth anniversary this past week, was not the world-shaking event that it's commonly thought to be:
Was the fall of the Berlin Wall not really History with a capital H, but just news with a lower-case n -- a wonderful story for journalists but, 20 years on, actually not that big a deal? Could it be that what happened 10 years earlier, in the annus mirabilis 1979, was the real historical turning point?
Ferguson may sound as though he's merely raising the question here, but he's already persuaded himself, or he wouldn't be writing this article, "The Year the World Really Changed" (November 16, 2009), for Time Magazine.

So when did the world really change? Ten years earlier:
[T]he events of 10 years earlier -- in 1979 -- surely have a better claim to being truly historic. Just think what was happening in the world 30 years ago. The Soviets began their policy of self-destruction by invading Afghanistan. The British started the revival of free-market economics in the West by electing Margaret Thatcher. Deng Xiaoping set China on a new economic course by visiting the United States and seeing for himself what the free market can achieve. And, of course, the Iranians ushered in the new era of clashing civilizations by overthrowing the shah and proclaiming an Islamic Republic.
He has a point -- or, more precisely, four of them, which he emphatically expounds upon:
Today it is the Americans who now find themselves in Afghanistan, fighting the sons of the people they once armed. It is the free-market model of Thatcher and Reagan that seems to lie in ruins, in the wake of the biggest financial crisis since the Depression. Meanwhile, Deng's heirs are rapidly gaining on a sluggish American hyperpower, with Goldman Sachs forecasting that China's GDP could be the biggest in the world by 2027. Finally, the most terrifying legacy of 1979 remains the radical Islamism that inspires not only Iran's leaders, but also a complex and only partly visible network of terrorists and terrorist sympathizers around the world.
Ferguson is obviously a pessimist, intent on proving that the world is far worse off today than twenty years ago and that it is worse because of watershed events thirty years ago. But I'm willing to consider his position for we have something in common. Both of us missed the breaching of the Berlin Wall, a gap in our life experiences that I, for my part, have long regretted and that Ferguson, for his part, initially admits to having regretted:
What exactly was the historical significance of Nov. 9, 1989? Having spent much of the summer of that year in Berlin, I have long bitterly regretted that I was not there to join in the party the night the wall came down. I mean, what kind of an aspirant historian misses history being made?
But rather than wallow in the mire of bottomless regret, he constructs a ladder of interlocking counterfactual questions and climbs out. I should perhaps borrow his ladder and climb out as well.

I can then stop kicking myself for going to bed instead of to Berlin that Tuebingen night of November 9, 1989, for like Ferguson, I didn't miss history after all.

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Thursday, November 12, 2009

Nidal Malik Hasan: Islamist?

"The Koranic World View
As It Relates
Muslims in the U.S. Military"
Nidal Malik Hasan
(Image from Wikipedia)

The above image is slide number 49 of 50 in toto from a PowerPoint presentation given by Nidal Malik Hasan in June 2007 at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center during the senior year of his residency there. The entire series can be seen at the Washington Post's site "Hasan on Islam," but is also available for faster reading at Robert Spencer's Jihad Watch site on pdf.

Without knowing what Hasan actually stated in his presentation, I cannot conclusively affirm that he was stating his own opinions about what Islam truly teaches or simply reporting the opinions of others. But whatever he intended at the time of his presentation, by November 5, 2007, his actions clearly demonstrate that he had come to adopt an interpretation of Islam that he must have thought justified him in killing 13 people and wounding 30 others.

The question that many people are asking about Hasan at the time of his shooting rampage is this: Was Hasan a disturbed individual, or was he an Islamist?

I think that he was both, but not so profoundly disturbed as to render him less than responsible for his actions. David Brooks, writing "The Rush to Therapy" (November 9, 2009) for the New York Times, has some interesting thoughts on the tendency of too many pundits and other public figures to absolve Hasan, and his article should definitely be read in its entirety. In the course of his analysis, however, Brooks makes a remark that is certain to generate some controversy:
The conversation in the first few days after the massacre was well intentioned, but it suggested a willful flight from reality. It ignored the fact that the war narrative of the struggle against Islam is the central feature of American foreign policy. It ignored the fact that this narrative can be embraced by a self-radicalizing individual in the U.S. as much as by groups in Tehran, Gaza or Kandahar.
Did Brooks really mean to say that "the war narrative of the struggle against Islam is the central feature of American foreign policy"? That isn't the war narrative at all, and the statement doesn't sound quite like the Brooks that I know. Did he mean to write "Islamists"? Or "Islamism"? Or "radical Islam"?

The line drawn between Islam and Islamism is a fine one, to be sure, but it's a pragmatically useful one to draw even as we debate precisely where to draw it, for Muslims need to see that we non-Muslims recognize a difference, and that we therefore perceive a choice between a moderate version of their Muslim religion and a radicalized one.

There are, manifestly, moderate Muslims, they are the only hope for the peaceful integration of Islam in our contemporary world, and their existence reminds us of why we need to draw the fateful line with prudence.

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Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Manny's Unconquerable Mind?

Manny Pacquiao and Freddie Roach
(Image from New York Times)

The sports writer Greg Bishop has some surprising facts to share about Philippine boxer Manny Pacquiao in an article for the New York Times, "Out of Chance Meeting, a Formidable Pairing," which is something of a human interest story about the fighter and his American trainer, Freddie Roach.

I don't keep up with professional sports despite having played basketball and baseball as a kid, and later a year of judo and a semester of badminton at university. My older brother can recall specific details of athletes' achievements that he saw on television or read about, but he's got brains to spare for that sort of thing. I save my brain space for history and literature because I don't have as much volume, apparently.

But that's what interested me in the article by Bishop, who makes Manny sound like a wunderkind:
The boxer has taken months off, recording music and running for political office, and he returned to each camp stronger, as if the training never stopped . . . . [He] possesses an innate ability to block out the world, to box for millions of people but not feel their collective weight. Inside the Thai restaurant [near Roach's gym], with fans pressed against the glass outside, Pacquiao strummed his guitar, surrounded by his entourage yet very much alone. This complex world suits a complex man. Pacquiao dabbles in darts, basketball and billiards. He has a photographic memory, learned to play the piano in one week and, when he is not training, often sleeps only three to four hours a day.
My first question: Is this hype? Or does Pacquiao truly have a 'photographic' memory? Did he really learn to play the piano in one week?

My second question (actually, my fourth): How is the name "Pacquiao" pronounced? Apparently, "pa'kjaw." (But how is that pronounced?)

And about his ability to go without training and return stronger, I also wonder (hence his wunderkind status). Is he some sort of superman? A Nietzschean Uebermensch?

I recall from the early 1980s reading a newspaper article -- I think that the paper was the San Francisco Chronicle -- about a scientist working in his Bay Area laboratory who would take two weeks off every summer to climb Mt. Everest. The peculiar point was that he never trained for the climb. He would simply fly to Nepal, join his climbing team, and ascend to the highest point on earth as if out for a mere stroll. Fellow scientists who studied such things told him that what he was doing was impossible. But he did it anyway.

I've forgotten the man's name. Wish I had Manny's unconquerable mind so I could recall.

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Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Samuel Helfont: More on the Sunni Divide

Some readers will recall a blog entry of nearly one month ago posted on Samuel Helfont's article for the Foreign Policy Research Institute's E-Notes, "Politics, Terrorism, and the Sunni Divide." If the article interested you, then a longer version in monograph at 74 pages will likely interest you even more:
The Sunni Divide: Understanding Politics and Terrorism in the Arab Middle East
Mr. Helfont is a doctoral student in Princeton University's Near Eastern Studies Department -- hence the logo above even though the monograph comes by way of the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI), where he is an Adjunct Scholar.

I have not yet had time to read Helfont's monograph, for he -- having noticed my blog post on his FPRI article -- sent me the link only yesterday, but it looks interesting and informative.

Helfont's counterintuitive argument is that the Shia-Sunni divide is not the truly significant one. Rather, a divide internal to the Sunnis is far more significant, the divide between Wahabism and the Muslim Brotherhood.

I'm particularly interested in reading the monograph because I need something explained to me, as noted in my previous post on Helfont:
One problem with Helfont's analysis, however, is that it does not very well account for the rise of Al Qaeda, which combines aspects of both types of Islamism -- as Helfont notes -- for given the stark distinction drawn between the two, one wouldn't expect to find such a combination.
Perhaps I'll find the explanation when I get into the monograph, and if so, I'll report back, but meanwhile, readers can see for themselves what Mr. Helfont has to say.

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Monday, November 09, 2009

Park Wan-suh: A Writer's Vocation

Park Wan-suh
(Image from

As some readers have probably noticed, I've been working to finish a short review of Park Wan-suh's autobiographical 'novel' Who Ate Up All the Shinga?, and I've now completed a rough draft, from which I provide the following material that makes up part of my introduction:
The author herself appeared somewhat late on the Korean literary scene with her first novel, Namok (The Naked Tree), published in 1970, when she was nearly forty, and though one might imagine that she had also come late to recognize her vocation as a writer, Shinga tells otherwise. In the penultimate paragraph of the final chapter, significantly titled "Epiphany," the bewildered and frightened Park finds herself and her family trapped during the Korean War in an utterly abandoned Seoul confronted with the threat of its imminent reoccupation by Communist forces, apparently a cul de sac:
But an abrupt change in perspective hit me. I felt as though I'd been chased into a dead end but then suddenly turned around. Surely there was meaning in my being the sole witness to it all. How many bizarre events had conspired to make us the only ones left behind? If I were the sole witness, I had responsibility to record it. (248)
In the passage that follows, which is the final paragraph of the book, Park adds, "From all this came a vision that I would write someday, and this premonition dispelled my fear" (248). The abruptness of her epiphany might suggest that Park's development as a writer stemmed from that moment as its initiatory point, but the author herself shows us that the process was already long in motion.
The remainder of my short review looks briefly at this process, but I'll report on that after the review is published . . . if it gets published.

One never knows . . .

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Sunday, November 08, 2009

Fort Hood Shootings: Motivated by Islamism?

Bernard V. Benjamin II (Left)
Duane Reasoner Jr. (Right)
Major Nidal Malik Hasan
(Image from New York Times)

Michael Moss, writing for the New York Times in "Muslims at Fort Voice Outrage and Ask Questions" (November 6, 2009), notes the shocked outrage felt by many of the local Muslims near Fort Hood, where the recent mass shooting by Major Nidal Malik Hasan occurred . . . but also the questions asked by some. Or the questionable remarks:
"When a white guy shoots up a post office, they call that going postal," said Victor Benjamin II, 30, a former member of the Army. "But when a Muslim does it, they call it jihad. Ultimately it was Brother Nidal's doing, but the command should be held accountable," Mr. Benjamin said. "G.I.'s are like any equipment in the Army. When it breaks, those who were in charge of keeping it fit should be held responsible for it."
Mr. Benjamin has expressed himself oddly in assigning responsibility. I wouldn't refer to people as "like any equipment" that "breaks," but I would agree that the army seems to have ignored clear evidence that Hasan was a profoundly disturbed man. Unlike Mr. Benjamin, however, I doubt that Hasan's actions can be so easily distinguished from "jihad" since the words he is reported as crying out at the beginning of his rampage suggest religious motives on his part: "Allahu Akhbar!"

We will have to wait for the full report to determine what motivated Hasan, and since he's still alive, we may learn a great deal indeed. The early evidence, though, does point to religion as a significant factor, as we learn from Duane Reasoner Jr.:
It was Major Hasan, though, who increasingly felt let down by the military, and deeply conflicted by his religion, said those who knew him through the mosque. Duane Reasoner Jr., an 18-year-old substitute teacher whose parents worked at Fort Hood, said Major Hassan was told he would be sent to Afghanistan on Nov. 28, and he did not like it.

"He said he should quit the Army," Mr. Reasoner said. "In the Koran, you're not supposed to have alliances with Jews or Christian or others, and if you are killed in the military fighting against Muslims, you will go to hell."
The explanation given by Mr. Reasoner, that Muslims are not supposed to have alliances with non-Muslims, seems to be attributed to Hasan, but I suspect that Mr. Reasoner himself believes this as well, given his manner of citing the Qur'an on this point. I also suspect that this Duane Reasoner would be the same "young Muslim" named "Duane" interviewed by the BBC's Gavin Lee at the Islamic Community of Greater Killeen the day after the killings at Fort Hood, available in video on You Tube:
Duane: I'm not going to condemn him for what he did. I don't know why he did it. I will not, absolutely not, condemn him for what he had done though. If he had done it for selfish reasons I still will not condemn him. He's my brother in the end. I will never condemn him.

Gavin Lee: There might be a lot of people shocked to hear you say that.

Duane: Well, that's the way it is. I don't speak for the community here but me personally I will not condemn him.

Gavin Lee: What are your thoughts towards those that were victims in this?

Duane: They were, in the end, they were troops who were going to Afghanistan and Iraq to kill Muslims. I honestly have no pity for them. It's just like the majority of the people that will hear this, after five or six minutes they'll be shocked, after that they'll forget about them and go on their day. (Transcript from You Tube)
According to a report in the Stars and Stripes by Leo Shane III, "Fort Hood deals with aftermath of shooting as details of accused gunman emerge" (November 7, 2009), Duane Reasoner Jr. is "a recent Muslim convert who had been having dinner regularly with Hasan" because "Hasan had taken 18-year-old Reasoner under his wing, mentoring him in his new faith," so I think that we're hearing from the same guy in the BBC interview.

At any rate, the "Duane" in the BBC interview sounds to me to be a radical Islamist who would approve of the killing of any soldier headed for Iraq or Afghanistan, and if he was being mentored in his "new faith" by Hasan, then I infer that we can attribute the same Islamist views to Hasan.

And given that the Stars and Stripes article notes that Hasan gave a lecture "U.S. war in Iraq: A war against Islam," the inference is strengthened -- and will be strengthened even more if Hasan really did compare "Muslim suicide bombers to U.S. soldiers who've thrown themselves onto grenades to save their fellow soldiers," as he's alleged to have done on a website last May.

But let's see wait and see where the evidence leads . . .

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Saturday, November 07, 2009

Joshua Stanton: Red-Baiter?

Professor Elaine Kim
UC Berkeley
(Image from East Bay Express)

Robert Koehler of the The Marmot's Hole has posted a short blog entry siding with Joshua Stanton of One Free Korea against Christine Ahn, who accuses Stanton of 'red-baiting' her in having called her a "North Korean apologist" several years ago.

The accusation comes in an article favorable to Ahn published in the East Bay Express, one of the papers that I used to read for free back in my Berkeley days and now discover that I can read for free online . . . not that I'm much inclined to.

And just to ensure that you get both sides of this story, you can read Joshua's so-called 'red-baiting' of Ahn from several years ago as well as his recent response.

The East Bay Express article isn't just about Ahn, but also about several left-leaning activists pushing for peace and negotiations with North Korea, including Professor Elaine Kim, coordinator of UC Berkeley's Asian American Studies Department, who tells us:
Many Americans also may be unaware that North Korea's economy was doing quite well during the 1960s and 1970s, even surpassing that of its southern neighbor. But a reduction in trade with the Soviet Union, and the impact of the American embargo and sanctions, helped freeze North Korea's development. "The reason they don't have energy for all their infrastructure is . . . the US and its allies who embargo them don't allow them to trade with anybody the US trades with," said Kim. As a result, for example, there are streetlights, but no electricity in them. Many North Koreans are extremely slight and seemingly malnourished. "This is a crime," she noted. "Talk about human rights -- this is a crime against humanity that was allowed to happen. And they're trying to say that it's because Kim Jong Il is a dictator and wants to keep everybody enthralled, that's why it's like that?" she asked, incredulously. "Hello! Let's have some reality here."
Professor Kim may be well-intentioned, and I'm no expert on North Korea, but even I can see manifest flaws in her argument just from my having kept up with the news in the daily papers for the past 30 years. The North's economy in the 60s and 70s was being subsidized by the Soviet Union, so it looked as though it were "doing quite well" when it in fact was decaying like all communist economies modeled on the Soviet one. Moreover, it was already clearly declining in the 80s despite continued Soviet subsidies. Finally, when the Soviet subsidies stopped after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 90s, the North Korean economy didn't just 'freeze' in its development, it immediately went into a very steep decline and effectively collapsed despite the North Korean state's coercive power for mobilizing the workforce. This collapse is not because "the US and its allies . . . don't allow . . . [the North] to trade with anybody the US trades with," a statement that is obviously incorrect, for North Korea has extensive trade with China, one of America's biggest trading partners. As for the lack of electricity to the North's city streetlights, a bit more of it might be available for city lighting if the electrical grid weren't constructed primarily to serve the ruling elite, whose mansions receive much of the available power. And as for malnourishment, this is due to North Korea's state-run agricultural sector, a Soviet-model system that just doesn't work and that has fundamentally collapsed. The North could feed itself if it allowed a free market in agriculture, but the ruling elite isn't willing to relinquish any control for fear of losing complete control. And yes, it is "because Kim Jong Il is a dictator and wants to keep everybody enthralled." Let's do "have some reality here."

Joshua Stanton may be brusque in his statements about North Korea, but he offers an honest reality check.

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