Clearing the Fog
in the
War of Words


  logomachy--1. A dispute about words. 2. A dispute carried on in words only; a battle of words.
logomachon--1. One who argues about words. 2. A word warrior.



More records John Kerry won't release

Yes, the election is over, but that doesn't mean we can't enjoy a bit of snarky gossip you can dine out on for the New Year. I have to protect my source, so I will just say he is a friend and a trustworthy eye-witness.

The lacrosse squad at a major, academically top-hole East coast university has scouting reports going back to . . . oh, the Medes and the Persians. Before the election, the coaches got e-mails and phone calls from alumni, asking them to look at the scouting reports on Yale from the mid-1960s.

The coaches were laughing at what they had found when my friend walked in. They showed him the report from 1965 for John Kerry. Overall, it was a pretty positive evaluation, but down at the end of the page was this sentence:
Weak on defense.


Two Wheelers’ Three Laws of Motion

I recently cast a cold eye on Becca Hutchinson’s complaint that drivers in Newark, DE, don’t show proper consideration for her when she rides her bike to work. My impatience with her didn’t arise just from her bad writing and the fact that she sounds like a humorless scold who wants everyone else to change because she feels unhappy. Based on my own experience, I believe her problem is the result of her own self-centered bad attitude.

For three years during and after grad school, I lived and cycled in Newark. I have been a bike commuter in Washington, D.C., and Pittsburgh, and this past Summer I commuted by bike to a consulting gig in Center City Philadelphia, where I learned that the way to deal with traffic is the Way of the Urban Deer.

Urban Deer

Three decades ago a writer in a cycling magazine described cyclists as “urban deer”, slipping silently through the noisy city, flitting along their own invisible trails, unhindered by One-Way signs or traffic signals, fleet, agile, alert, and aware. Some people might conclude from this description that cyclists scoff at the rules for cars and pedestrians, but that is wrong. We just interpret them differently, in the light of the Two Wheeler’s Three Laws of Motion: Don’t get hit. Don’t hit anything. Don’t stop.

But make no mistake. Bicyclists’ ability to flout the letter of the law—OK, flagrantly disdain every scintilla of order and restraint—depends on automobiles’ adherence to the law. We can run red lights and ride between the lanes because we know that drivers wait for the green and keep in their lanes. In turn, we mustn’t do anything that inconveniences or startles a driver. We don’t interrupt their traffic flow; they let us ride to our own rhythms. Viva USA!
Anyway, whenever a driver gives me an opening, I wave my thanks.

Granted, in Newark, Becca doesn’t have the advantage of learning the True Practice of the Way of the Urban Deer from its Supreme Adepts, the bicycle messengers. Listen and take heed, o pilgrim! The key is not to think of yourself as fighting the cars for the road, as Becca does. To the urban deer, the road and the traffic are one, as the pebbles and flowing water are one to the brook trout.

I learned this from watching the messengers, like this encounter on the Chestnut Street bridge over the Schuylkill River.

Learning the Way

I had started following the messenger when he passed me on Chestnut. We were moving as fast as the cars on the bridge when he left the bike lane and moved left to ride the center stripe. I knew why he wanted to avoid the curb lane. Just across the bridge there’s a light: the bike lane disappears, cars make right turns, and the pavement looks as though it was last repaired by Ben Franklin.

A gap between cars gave me an opportunity to get on the center stripe, but I didn’t do it the way the messenger had. I cautiously took a position in the right lane, as though I were a car, then moved to ride the stripe. Conceptually, I was riding on a stationary road trying to avoid the cars whizzing by. The messenger rode the traffic flow the way a fish swims in a river. The lane he wanted was the “lane” on the centerline between two rows of cars. The entrance to that “lane” was next to the left bumper of the car ahead of him. He just swam diagonally through the traffic to the entrance and rolled down the “lane” between the cars.
When I had started bike commuting into Philly, the morning ride took 45 minutes. After watching and learning from the Supreme Adepts, I brought the time down to 30 minutes and sometimes less. For example, a few mornings after I followed the messenger, I was coming down the hill toward 42nd St. A college kid on a trail bike swung onto Spruce and pedaled hard up the long hill toward 40th St. This was a challenge.

I caught up to him as he slowed behind a truck blocking the bike lane at 41st. I swung to the centerline, passed the truck on the left, and zipped across the intersection. The kid must have taken it as a challenge, too. When I slowed to check the cross traffic at 40th, he passed me. On the flat beyond 40th, a solid line of cars kept me on his fender in the bike lane, but as we headed down the slope toward 38th, I again cut through traffic to the centerline to swing around the pedestrians and the cars turning right. I was across the broad 38th St. intersection before the kid even entered it, and sailed smugly down the hill toward the river.

As was now usual, I rode the painted line between lanes across the Schuylkill bridge. When a bus’s butt blocked me, the driver in the right lane made a space for me to get around. When she came even with me at the light, she smiled up through her window and says “You be careful”.

Cherry cocky

Finally, a word of caution. After a couple of weeks of building skill and confidence, I got into the cherry cocky zone, that level of experience just past the first flush of competence, which afflicts pilots (I’m told) and motorcyclists (as I know from personal experience). I began taking chances without realizing they were chances.

And sometimes I took chances that I knew were chances.

One morning in University City, a bus blocked the curb lane, and a large Fed-Ex van was in the next lane. I rolled between them, feeling anxious as the sky closed above me. There was very little chance that the drivers knew I am there. I had to duck to get my shoulders under their mirrors. I beat them across the intersection, but they passed me and again blocked the road at a light. Without a thought, I went between them again, this time pedaling to keep my speed up. (It is counter-intuitive, but faster is better in tight spaces. You spend less time in the danger zone.) I ducked the mirrors, popped out in front of the bus as the light changed, and was around the corner before they started moving.

Imagination is the enemy of action.

For details, see my bicycle-commuter log.


Narcissism on wheels

A case study in thinking locally and acting globally

What do you think of when you get on a bike? That it is a ”noble form of transport” that makes you less selfish than motorists?

Whatever you are thinking, you can’t be more lofty-minded than Becca Hutchinson, for whom cycling to work is a way “to save the world or improve myself” or ““to make a statement about saving the Alaskan wilds or ending the war in Iraq, and whatever benefits the Earth might reap”.

If this sounds too good to be true, just look at her picture. Sometimes you can judge a book by its cover, and one look at Becca and you know she is not a woman to be trifled with. She is of a decidedly stern, no-nonsense demeanor. It is clear that she suffers no fool gladly, and she is never beguiled by frivolities or distracted by the unrighteous. Seeing her picture, one is comforted by the knowledge that the English language holds in reserve the expression “crack a smile”, should it ever be needed.

What the picture tells us, the thousand words of her essay confirm, for nothing can hide from her those opportunities to bike for good, even though she began biking to work in the cozy hamlet of Newark, DE, because she “just wanted to save some Franklins on parking.”

Nor does she falter as the miles roll by. Her eye is fixed on the most unselfish and virtuous behavior, even though it eludes her in practice.
I'd like to be able to say that since those early days I've done a 180 and broadened my focus, boxed up the money I've saved on parking and gas, and mailed it off to a worthy organization such as the Sierra Club or Doctors Without Borders, but that's not the case.
For Becca, bicycling has been an invaluable occasion for moral preening of her sensibilities. But enough about her. After only one of her allotted three columns, she turns her attention to others and discerns areas where her fellow commuters could stand some shaping up, especially in their attitudes toward her.
Pedaling to work each day, fighting cars for my share of the shoulder, has started me thinking about greed and excess and what it means to tune out the other guy in the name of progress.
She is impelled to both struggle and these melancholy meditations on her fellow man because she is being attacked by the weighty auras of hostility projected by passing drivers.
On a bike on any given workday, the aggression you feel from passing cars is immediate and powerful enough to shave you off the shoulder in an instant. . . . It's amazing what a few layers of metal and glass can do to dull a person's humanity, and more amazing still what having a full tank of gas and the spare change to buy it can do to boost his false sense of entitlement. [Ed.A-hem! His] His]]] Does dulling a person’s humanity ipso facto make him or her male?]
Isn’t it enough that ”you suck a fair amount of exhaust as a cyclist”?

Amazingly, her—apparently unremarkable—ability to read the minds of her fellow commuters has not enabled her to ameliorate this insufficient concern for her, the noble cyclist. Her sedulous efforts to arouse drivers from their dulled humanity have been unavailing:
You can flip as many birds to as many selfish drivers as you like, but your feeble attempts to humble them are like the voice of the wind down the road.
The frustration of her attempts at gentle one-on-one suasion has not discouraged her. The nature of the road block to Becca’s utopia is clear, and Becca doesn’t boggle at the solution:
If more motorists put down their car keys and hopped on their bikes . . . the shift couldn't help but improve bike lanes, traffic and attitudes.
She offers her modest proposal with some initial diffidence . . .
I don't know where an answer for the question of road-sharing lies. But if the wheels in my head are spinning in the right direction, I'm certain that some sort of balance can be reached.
. . . but only at first. The gas-free “revolution” is just too good not to share . . . with the whole wide world.
. . . imagine [Imagine!] what the world, or at least my town, would be like if everyone went gas-free. It's been years since all the places we need to get to have existed within walking or biking distance. If we downshifted from motors to manpower, even on a small scale, the possibilities for change would outstretch I-95.
You may be wondering why I am bothering to lift the rock from a blogress so self-centered, ungenerous, judgmental, severe, irritable, frustrated, and passive-aggressive. How can we expect any wisdom from someone who displays in such pure form every twitch and trope of the narcissistic liberal psyche?

Look at her last paragraph. Is she saying the world should change for her convenience, or that making her life easier will induce earth-shaking changes? Either way, it’s pretentious megalomania. If cars are necessary, then in a carless world change wouldn’t be a “possibility”, it would be necessary and unavoidable. What change does she anticipate? What change would be desirable? She hasn’t thought about it at all, let alone imagined it. All she knows is the liberal credo: A better world is possible; I am justified because I wish for that better world.

So, why? Well, first, she is not a blogress. She laid bare her spiritual failings and macadam persecutions in My Turn, Newsweek, 4 October 2004. More important, her essay is a distillation of liberal rhetoric: Moral posturing with politically correct clichés to excuse a lack of moral action. Projecting her own anger onto others, and casting them as the sinners. Arguing from hypotheticals. Thinking it is sufficient to put words together in a sentence, no matter how discordant their meanings. Seizing the victim’s mantle. Confusing levels of abstraction. Confidently deploying convenient scientific factoids (contrary to Becca, cyclists inhale less pollution than car passengers (see here , here , and here).

And then there is the bad writing. In service to all the bien-pensant boiler plate, she deploys platitudes, false antithesis, consequences without antecedents, absurd redundancy (”a full tank of gas and the spare change to buy it”), and phrases of judicious reflection to introduce shibboleths that were cut, dried, and canned long ago. I urge you to read it, for the sheer wonder of it.

Second, my mother clipped the article for me.

And third, I have some experience with other solutions to Becca’s “problem”, and I will write more about them soon.


Did Rachel Corrie's Parents Kill Arafat?

Just when you thought that AIDS would be best story about Arafat's death--after the mere fact of it--the ever reliable Little Green Footballs places Rachel's parents at the head of the line of suspects: motive and opportunity; the means may always be a mystery. (hat tip to the Corner)

Geo-politically, AIDS would be better. The Jordan would run white from the frothing mouths of the Judean Arabs.


Cleansing Sword of Allah redux

Earlier, I noted the excerpts from Steven Vincent's In the Red Zone at NRO and repeated my belief that the US had missed an opportunity by not making the Iraqis take responsibility for Saddam, acknowledge that he had oppressed and humiliated them, and accept that America had rescued them when they could not help themselves. In a word, we should have “rubbed their faces in it”.

The NRO series constitutes Chapter 4, "The Resistance", of In the Red Zone. It explains how Western opinion and policy makers have misunderstood the nature of the Sunni insurgency because they are casting it inappropriately into the conceptual framework of 20th-century "wars of national liberation". I had some reservations after the first excerpt about where Vincent was going to go, but the whole series turns out to be very, very good.

Vincent's first article (The Power of Shame) describes how even apparently rational Iraqis hate the US for having liberated them.

America the Omnipotent reports on the fantasies into which the Arab mind escapes:
It is tempting to discount Ahmed's analysis [that Saddam was kept in power by the Jews] as typical of the anti-Semitism one finds with tedious regularity in Iraq. But it reveals many of the demons that lie beneath the surface of the Iraqi national character: historical grievances, conspiratorial thinking, and a kind of bi-polar superiority-inferiority dynamic. Moreover, his comments point to another, equally troubling impulse that confuses Western observers and informs the nature of the Iraqi "insurgency": an unwillingness to take the blame for Saddam.[Ed. Emphasis added.]
The Oppressive Occupier? records the bitterness of the people in the Sunni Triangle, who believe that things were better under Saddam. For Sunnis, in many ways, they were. For nearly 500 years the Ottomans and then the British had cultivated the Sunnis as a bulwark against the Shi’a Persians to the east. Then, "Under Saddam, a Sunni himself,
the religious sect reached the apogee of its power, thriving under a system of patronage and government benefits that awarded them top positions in all aspects of Iraqi life. In 2003, the American war machine ended their reign; suddenly, the jobs, pensions, and prestige the Sunnis used to lord over the Kurds and Shi’a were gone.
Rage Against the Foreigner continues his tour of the Sunni Triangle. He finds the root of the Sunni insurgency and its “air of pointless, self-destructive violence” in the Sunnis’ tribal structure and its multifaceted concept of honor.
For my part, I discovered this cultural and psychological phenomenon [the compulsion to expunge the “living death” of public dishonor by violent vengeance] throughout the Sunni Triangle. While conversing with dozens of residents, I felt much less the anger of a population that was "occupied," "oppressed," or "enslaved" than the self-loathing of a people in disgrace. After decades of imperious rule, the Sunni Ba’athists were crushed by America—shamed, humiliated, they felt they had lost something perhaps even more precious than jobs or political power: honor.
The Wrong Words reviews the rhetoric of the, um, well that’s the problem: Is it a Resistance, or an insurgency, or a guerilla war against an American Liberation, or Occupation, or US-backed Provisional Government. The romantic, conventional models of the 20th century don’t fit; the terms may be technically accurate, but the moral connotations are all wrong. The murdering savages are ill-lit in the heroic glow of Resistance, and the Coalition is not an oppressive, Nazi Occupation. Clarity requires “we see in all their glory the anti-Coalition forces
so admired by many on the left and in the media: ex-Ba’athists who kill American troops out of a sense of humiliation and dishonor, and foreign jihadists who wish to see the U.S. "occupiers" remain in the country in order to justify additional attacks against their fellow Muslims.
What kind of "Resistance" is this?
Terms like "paramilitaries" and "neo-fascists" would better describe these Ba'athist and mujihadin killers, whose primary victims are the Iraqi people. The left-tinged press, says Vincent, hasn’t adopted them because it is still fighting the last war.

Steven Vincent blogs about Iraq at In the Red Zone.



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