Thomas Pakenham’s The Boer War

I have this odd fascination with England and her Empire. I also have this odd fascination with Germanic peoples and languages) Of course South Africa and her Afrikaners then are a natural subject toward which I tend to gravitate. Plus, I am a sucker for war and various other misery, so hell, why not learn about the Tweede Vryheidsoorlog, or the Boer War [actually, the Second Boer War].

I first learned about the Boer War from watching Breaker Morant. [NB One is not allowed to live freely in Australia without watching Breaker Morant, period. I think it is a condition for obtaining a visa.] Breaker Morant, of course, takes place during the Boer War in 1902, rather late in the game. The Boers have gone guerrilla on the British, who in desperation get their colonial subjects to pick up the slack. Breaker Morant his his chum Handcock [am I the only one to notice that this is a rather unfortunate name?] are part of an Australian regiment, the Bushveldt Carbineers. They get into a battle with some Boers who kill their leader, Captain Hunt. Morant and Handcock, as vengeance, kill a bunch of Boer prisoners and a German missionary. Morant and Handcock are arrested, tried and found guilty of murder, for which they are put to death by firing squad. Bloody evil Poms!

For all the rage this incident caused in Australia, it is but a single paragraph of the 700-page history weaved together by Thomas Pakenham, one of the finest popular works of history I have ever read. There are 3 reasons why Pakenham’s account stands out from so much of the other fine works I have read. First, his timing is impeccable. This book was written over 10 years in the 1970s, a period in which Pakenham was able to track down over 50 surviving veterans of the war. [The youngest veteran was 86 years old!] By getting access to these men and so much first-hand material, Pakenham is able to provide incredible detail in every facet of the agonizing story, especially in describing many of the battles.

Second, Pakenham does more than simply recite the facts and weave them into a narrative. Pakenham is able to make a case that the previous histories were biased and faulty. For example, Pakenham works hard throughout the work to resurrect the reputation of Sir Redvers Buller, who was blamed for the sorry state of the early part of the war and left South Africa with his reputation in tatters, despite a long string of victories. Pakenham details the infighting in the War Office and the Army and concludes that, in many cases, the British were their own worst enemy. Pakenham is also able to present the Boer perspective based on his primary sources.

Finally, Pakenham can bloody well write. This work of history reads like a novel. Because Pakenham takes a stand on certain topics, there are clear heroes and villains and this makes for a terrific popular history. Further, Pakenham provides just the right level of detail in his maps: every feature marked in the maps represent a significant point of discussion. Despite the length, this is a lean work presented with efficiency.

I cannot recommend this book more highly.  That is, unless you are Australian and believe Breaker Morant was sacrificed by Lord Kitchener on the altar of international intrigue.

Sarah Palin, Literary Maven

OK, I’m gonna jump into the snakepit. I am a fan of CS Lewis. I read the entire Narnia series to my son when he was 6. I also read The Screwtape Letters and found it very enjoyable and well-written.

So Sarah Palin finds Lewis an inspiration. Her defenders, like this slob in the WSJ, jump on Palin critics like the execrable Joy Behar, who shows off her vapidity by stating that Lewis is a children’s author:

In both interviews Mrs. Palin cited C.S. Lewis as a favorite author she looks to for inspiration. This prompted talk-show host and comedienne Joy Behar of “The View” to deride Mrs. Palin and her choice of reading, asking: “Aren’t those children’s books?”

O the horror!  Of course Behar should be exposed as the imbecile she is, the sort of knee-jerk lefty incapable of any brain activity except those incurred by pure impulse.

But seriously, is Behar a cause by which to defend the at least equally vapid Palin?  I mean, the article makes for a nice promotion of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, a, um…children’s book whose movie version is currently in theaters [and in my humble opinion, rather disappointing].  Yes, a children’s book!  It may have very religious themes that adults can appreciate but the book is written for children.

This Flaherty guy seems to be stretching to make Palin a natural heir to Lewis, while lobbing bombs at the crash-test dummy persona of Behar:

Lewis would likely have appreciated making Mrs. Palin’s reading list. But he probably would have appreciated the questions about it even more. For Lewis, one of the best ways to know a person was to know what they read…

Mrs. Palin is on the right track by giving C.S. Lewis a prominent place on her reading list. Yet Ms. Behar and other Palin critics have dismissed Lewis’s work, forgetting that Lewis was a medieval and renaissance scholar at Oxford and the author of several brilliant Christian apologetics. Ms. Behar’s dismissal of children’s books as less than important makes her a modern-day Eustace, the type of bully who mocks readers of fairy tales as simpletons

Who are these Other Palin Critics who have dismissed Lewis’s work?  Lewis absolutely had his share of critics [for instance, this guy], but I can’t imagine them being put into the same intellectual camp as, um, Joy Behar.  [Or maybe that’s what Flaherty is trying to do.]  Nor can I recall any of them specifically speaking out against Palin and Lewis simultaneously, although I guess if you hate Lewis for his non-PC themes, I guess you won’t be such a Palin fan.  But let’s get Flaherty to provide specific examples, which of course he can’t.

Flaherty can’t because the article is an A Number One example of Shit-For-Brains-Ultra-Right-Wing writing.  It is bits of meat for the alligators in the pit.  No facts required.  Or logic.  Consider that Flaherty defends Palin from the charge of being inspired by a writer of children’s books by citing…a children’s book.  [Why not cite Mere Christianity or The Screwtape Letters?]

Nor can Flaherty provide an example of Palin citing why Lewis as an inspiration in her own words?  Why not?  Likely Palin hasn’t read much Lewis beyond The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.  Of course, how would I know?  But seriously, for someone who seems to want to appear like she, uh, reads, she does a lousy job of it.  [And of course, it is obvious that reading is not a part of her family tradition.  How many of her kids have gone or are going to college?]

So, if this is what Palin defense looks like, please let’s have more of it.

Helen Thomas, Jew-Hating Dirtbag

I assume you remember this little gem:

A debate ensued: anti-Semitism or anti-Zionism? My opinion is that when someone tells The Jews to go back to Germany or Poland, at the very least they are demonstrating galactic levels of ignorance, if not anti-Semitism. One can be opposed to the Zionist idea, it happens. [Not without being wrong, but that’s for another time…] But usually a sign of “moderation” is, say, a bi-national state or something. Mass expulsion of Jews back to countries which annihilated them 60 years previously demonstrates an insane level of insensitivity.

So, she got canned. And we have been hearing thankfully little of her as of late. But she still lurks. And she is really erasing any doubts about her opinions of Jews:

“I can call a president of the United States anything in the book but I can’t touch Israel, which has Jewish-only roads in the West Bank,” Thomas said. “No American would tolerate that — white-only roads.”…

“I paid the price for that,” said Thomas, a longtime White House correspondent. “But it was worth it, to speak the truth.”

“The Zionists have to understand that’s their country, too. Palestinians were there long before any European Zionists.”

Thomas claimed that “You can not say anything (critical) about Israel in this country.”

Thomas, of Lebanese descent, followed up with this crock only those completely ignorant of Jewish history like to use:

Asked by the Free Press how she would respond to those who say she’s anti-Semitic, Thomas said:

“I’d say I’m a Semite, What are you talking about? Who are you?”

I don’t blame Thomas for being upset at her humiliating exit. But one would think it time to look inward and find out what they have done to bring it on. Instead, she becomes the oldest cliche in the book: The Jews did it to me. Anti-Semite me? But I am a Semite!

In case anyone is wondering at this point, the term anti-Semitism was cooked up by a notorious Jew-hater, Wilhelm Marr. The idea was that Jews were the Semites [and the only ones they thought about] and Semites were inferior to Aryans. The term stuck. That’s it. Not very hard to understand.

Thomas is a prime example of how antipathy toward Israel creeps into Jew-hatred. It is done through complete ignorance of Jewish people and Jewish history.

John Derbyshire gets left behind

My thoughts about John Derbyshire are complex because I am such a fool for math. But his argument concerning PEPFAR had to be addressed. Pete Wehner, with whom I usually have serious problems, has written one of the most eloquent defenses of PEPFAR and, consequently, a comprehensive slap at Derb and his Shockleyian attitude:

Here are a few facts that undermine Derbyshire’s case: (a) Africans have fewer sex partners on average over a lifetime than do Americans; (b) 22 countries in Africa have had a greater than 25 percent decline in infections in the past 10 years (for South African and Namibian youth, the figure is 50 percent in five years); and (c) America’s efforts are helping to create a remarkable shifts in how, in Africa, boys view girls — reflected in a decline of more than 50 percent in sexual partners among boys.

So Derbyshire’s argument that our AIDS efforts are “more likely to be negative than positive” because they will continue to subsidize and encourage “unhealthy, disease-spreading habits” is not only wrong but the opposite of reality.

Because Wehner has written this better than I could ever have, you really must read the whole thing.

One thing Wehner addresses which is something I remember seeing in The Corner some years back is a reference to a sinking of an overcrowded Egyptian ferry in the Nile. In response, Wehner notes this passage from the Derb:

In between our last two posts I went to Drudge to see what was happening in the world. The lead story was about a ship disaster in the Red Sea. From the headline picture, it looked like a cruise ship. I therefore assumed that some people very much like the Americans I went cruising with last year were the victims. I went to the news story. A couple of sentences in, I learned that the ship was in fact a ferry, the victims all Egyptians. I lost interest at once, and stopped reading. I don’t care about Egyptians.

The point is not that what Derb is saying is what many of us sort of feel anyway. [I recall Jonah Goldberg defending Derb some time later with this.] The point is, as Wehner so elegantly puts it:

Cultivating what Adam Smith (in The Theory of Moral Sentiments) called “sympathy” and “fellow feeling” is a complicated matter. Suffice it to say that very few of us care about the suffering and fate of others as much as we should. Yet most of us aren’t proud of this fact; we are, rather, slightly embarrassed by it. Not John Derbyshire. He seems eager to celebrate his callousness, as if it were a sign of manliness and tough-mindedness. I haven’t a clue whether this is a pose, done for shock value or some such thing, or real. All we can do is judge Derbyshire by his public words. And they are not only unpersuasive; they are at times downright ugly.

Sorry Derb, you deserve this. Maybe you wear it as a badge of honor. But we must all venture into this world containing all people, each of whom is as stupid and repulsive as you. What you seem to lack, on paper anyway, is an appreciation that we are all human. The treatment that Bill Shockley got at the hands of the public was sad, but right. He was a genius operating as an Asperger’s kid. Someday, we may write the same about you.

The Decline and Fall of John McCain

I think David Foster Wallace is turning over in his grave. What has become of John McCain since that late August day he picked Sarah Palin as his running mate is just too horrifying for words. So, we;re now stuck with an image of an out-of-touch old man who is hanging onto senatorial power by submitting to his electorate’s worst instincts. Watch and weep:

One wonders if he really believes this bullshit:

As for their superiors, McCain casually mentions the commander in chief and defense secretary, “neither of which I view as a military leader.”

Is this all about his being a sore loser? Anyway, it gets worse:

We send these young people into combat, we think they’re mature enough to fight and die. I think they’re mature enough to make a judgment on who they want to serve with and the impact on their battle effectiveness.

One wonders if Harry Truman pondered this as he integrated the Army in 1948.

Andrew Sullivan has been following this debate, well, most of his adult life. He has read the Pentagon Report on DADT whose findings McCain is working very hard to dismiss, and…well, from the horse’s mouth:

Anyone who doubts the professionalism of today’s military would do well to read the Pentagon Report on DADT. First, it’s a massive undertaking, involving hundreds of thousands of responses, 95 face-to-face meetings, and a range of views from everyone who might be affected. It’s one of the most impressive reports I’ve ever read from a government agency.

It’s also extremely calm and fair. If you’ve been in the thick of this debate as long as I have, you’ll know how rare that is. The tone is empirical, and judicious. It does not gloss over some serious objections – such as moral and religious ones – and grapples directly with some of the more emotive issues, such as sharing showers or sleeping quarters. It feels in no way skewed or prejudged.

And the report is absolutely clear that straight servicemembers by large majorities have few problems with openly gay servicemembers. 69 percent of them acknowledge they have fought or worked alongside gay men and women already. A staggering 92 percent of those were fine with lifting the ban. Again: when you know someone is gay, all the fears and stereotypes tend to evaporate. This is not a surprise. The men and women of the US military are among the finest in the land; they want to do the job at hand, not deepen social division or posture politically. They are not bigots.

I remember once – this is in 2004 I think – when I started working at one of my jobs, I was on an Advanced Technology Project [ATP] within the National Institute for Standards and Technology [NIST]. I was on a treadmill watching ABC News when I saw the figure of McCain attacking the ATP as Corporate Welfare. I knew right there that our project would be the last ATP project any of us would ever see. If I saw the McCain of today attacking it, I would just have a chuckle. A feeble old guy and his mouth. The world has moved on without him.

The Best Hanukkah Song Ever

Ocho Kandelikas, as performed by The LeeVees:

Is it me, or does this sound like it belongs in a Tarantino movie?

The song is in Ladino, a dying Judeo-Spanish language still spoken by 100,000 elderly Jews in Israel and not very many other places. The song is only 25 years old; you can get the background on the composer here.

Of course, there’s an even more hardcore version by Hip Hop Hoodios that makes for a better video experience and, while the song is very cool, I still like the one by The LeeVees better. But make up your own mind:

Close the Washington Monument!

Bruce Schneier explains why:

An empty Washington Monument would serve as a constant reminder to those on Capitol Hill that they are afraid of the terrorists and what they could do. They’re afraid that by speaking honestly about the impossibility of attaining absolute security or the inevitability of terrorism — or that some American ideals are worth maintaining even in the face of adversity — they will be branded as “soft on terror.” And they’re afraid that Americans would vote them out of office if another attack occurred. Perhaps they’re right, but what has happened to leaders who aren’t afraid? What has happened to “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”?

An empty Washington Monument would symbolize our lawmakers’ inability to take that kind of stand — and their inability to truly lead.

Conflicts everywhere in Massachusetts

As a response to the galactically stupid attitude taken by our State House and Senate leaders toward the practice of recommending relatives and friends and campaign contributers for state jobs, the Globe has an editorial stating the obvious:

But the two top legislative leaders deeply undercut any pro-reform message Monday, when they insisted that recommending people for state jobs is part of what lawmakers do. “We get thousands of requests a year,’’ Murray said. DeLeo, who recommended his godson for a probation job, insisted that he does not “put any undue influence on anyone.’’

But any administrator would have trouble ignoring a recommendation by someone who, in his legislative role, controls the state budget. That’s why innocuous-sounding recommendations can be so insidious. Lawmakers see them as an extension of their perks and power. But they result in a culture of favoritism that betrays taxpayers and undermines the legitimate goals of government. Murray and DeLeo shouldn’t pretend to be unfamiliar with the history of legislators protecting underperforming employees and treating state jobs as giveaways.

I should mention that the Ware report itself, while extremely valuable, only takes care of the Executive side of things. Legislators are still free to do what they do until Massachusetts citizens vote them out of office. Because we do not take their elections seriously enough [being overshadowed by the Big Elections, like President or Governor], these guys manage to stay in the system until they die or get arrested.

Dave Wedge of the Boston Herald [and fellow member of Brockton High School Class of 1988] explored another avenue of conflict: the fact that Ware’s firm, Goodwin Procter, gave loads of money to State politicians:

Goodwin Procter employees have donated a total of $207,000 to Bay State politicians since 2002, including contributions to key players named in the scathing Probation patronage investigation led by Paul F. Ware Jr. a partner in the Hub firm: former Senate President Robert Travaglini, former House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi, Sen. Mark Montigny (D-New Bedford) and outgoing Treasurer Tim Cahill.

Wedge is right to question the connection between what is essentially a contractor and the donations made by the contractor. But I think there is a more insidious problem here which sort of cancels things out: every big law firm in Massachusetts, especially those in Boston, give loads of money to politicians at every level. Further, when the politicians with law degrees are voted out of office, these firms provide very nice jobs.

Besides, one other quibble I have with this otherwise insightful piece is, while Ware did not directly attack Montigny, Cahill, etc., it did implicate them. So much so that these guys will have indelible stains on their records. [Can you imagine Gov. Cahill now? Seriously?!?] I do not see how money could have influenced the report. Then again, it was noted to me that perhaps these politicians could, at the very least, return the money donated to them from Big Law. This could also help in reducing conflict throughout the Commonwealth.

The Meanie of Hanukkah, Cont’d

So our Governor and Mayor of Boston, like many dignitaries across the country and perhaps the world, lit the Hanukkiah last night:

Governor Deval Patrick and other dignitaries attended a menorah lighting ceremony at the State House this afternoon to mark the beginning of Hanukah, the eight-day celebration that commemorates the victory of a small army of Jews, known as the Maccabees, over the much larger Syrian Greek army in 139 B.C.

State Senate President Therese Murray, House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Rabbi Rachmiel Liberman of the Congregation Lubavitch Jewish Educational Center participated in the event.

Of course I like to see such symbolic events. Lord knows Jewish people could use some acceptance these days. [That is, unless some protesters were bussed in from Somerville excoriating the crowd not to buy Tribe hummus, but the article doesn’t mention any of that.]

But here I go again. Such symbolism has a price, and the price is the impression to everyone that Hanukkah is our most important holiday. I mean, for what other holiday does a sitting Governor make such a symbolic gesture?

I guess, if there is to be some gesture towards the Jewish citizens, then Hanukkah offers something easy. The Governor just has to stand above one of these gigantic Hanukkiot and symbolically “light” the first candle. No muss no fuss and very visible.

But I mentioned already other holidays which are way more important than Hanukkah. Maybe instead of lighting the candles, the Governor can do something else:

  • Blow the shofar at Rosh Hashana [takes practice, risk of making idiot of self]
  • Shake a lulav and esrog in a sukkah [has to be shown, risk of doing it wrong]
  • Dance the hora holding a torah during Simchat Torah [risk of slippage, dropping torah which would be hugely bad in so many ways, risk of getting shittied on bad scotch]
  • Ask the four questions at a seder [English OK, accompanied by sufficiently cute little kid who asks them in Hebrew]

Look, I don’t mean to be ungrateful.  I am so thankful for the extraordinary accomplishment of not only Jews in America but America itself in producing a society in which Jewish people can thrive without losing their identity.  And I do smile whenever I see the spectacle of a figurehead lighting the Hanukkiah.  But if we are ever going to have our neighbors learn anything about our religion [just as we Jews could use a bit of learning about our neighbors’ religions], perhaps we should begin by dispelling the myth that Hanukkah is really so fundamentally important in the first place.