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Michael Ubaldi, August 22, 2006.

Earlier this summer I caught up with cultist fans of Joss Whedon's television series Firefly and, in a marathon DVD viewing of the three-fifths of a season Whedon managed to produce before a 2002 cancellation, found a favorite show that never really was. If Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry were still alive and didn't immediately take offense to Whedon's mockery of his jumpsuit, egalitarian determinism, he might have been impressed by a literal interpretation of his famous concept pitch for "Wagon Train to the stars," complete with horses, corrals and Wild West paraphernalia amid the starship docks. Within a month I watched Serenity, a 2005 feature film that elaborated on Firefly's fifteen episodes.

Firefly was patently libertarian. The cast played the crew of a transport vessel led by an independent man who fought for independent governance and — in an interstellar war reminiscent of Star Wars — lost before absconding to the Milky Way's rural fringes. Government, said the captain, does one thing best, and that is to get in the way. The Alliance, authoritarian galactic victor, was an oligarchy whose vision was more ponderously and dangerously insipid than evil. In Serenity the consequences of the Alliance's bureaucratic insouciance were made sordidly clear, but throughout Firefly's television run viewers were presented with a rarely sincere critique of statism.

Jonah Goldberg, traveling and privy to cable, celebrates Whedon's narration of "a capitalistic freebooter" defying "the egalitarian — democratic — 'Parliament.'" He does so with reservations, being "a big skeptic of trying to overread pop culture through partisan ideological lenses." Still, his observation is sharp, so one wonders: what is Goldberg's interpretation of Fruity Oaty Bar?

Michael Ubaldi, August 17, 2006.

Rightist Heather Mac Donald has been debating National Review's Ramesh Ponnuru on the centrality of God, the father of Jesus Christ, in moral law. Mac Donald, by her own admission "amused" that there is mooring to be gotten from the divine, protests that "The claim that we are overseen by an omniscient, omnipotent God who also loves every human being and treats every human being with justice, does not square with the slaughter of the innocents that I see every day."

Mac Donald assumes that omnipotence and omniscience invite totalism, asking questions for which the Bible has a clear answer. Because free will eventuates sin God will not restrict the autonomy of man, manifest in Scripture and vividly illustrated in C.S. Lewis' The Great Divorce, wherein an angel defers to a pathetic lecher on the latter's redemption for some time because the angel "cannot kill [sin] against [his] will. It is impossible."

And what is "justice," in the universal sense, exactly? The rule of law serves us in our earthly concerns but metaphysics will overwhelm a book of statutes. In his devotional My Utmost for His Highest, Oswald Chambers delivered exegesis with a vehemence for self-abnegation, and in one of his many passages on suffering wrote "God is not concerned about our plans; He doesn't ask, 'Do you want to go through this loss of a loved one, this difficulty, or this defeat?' No, He allows these things for His own purpose. The things we are going through are either making us sweeter, better, and nobler men and women, or they are making us more critical and fault-finding, and more insistent on our own way."

It is vexing enough for the Christian to accept that his life and supernatural being are invaluable to God but for purposes larger than and often unrelated to him personally; supplication is the painful remedy. The patience of the irreligious, meanwhile, runs out, as the only medium through which the least understanding can be reached is through faith — which is, by design, just like the marriage of infinite power to infinite grace, beyond mortal comprehension.

Michael Ubaldi, August 15, 2006.

Reviewing Norman Podhoretz's most recent defense of George W. Bush's "forward strategy of freedom," National Review editor Rich Lowry cites a "pet peeve" of his, asking "Why do conservatives have such a problem with the term 'insurgency'? It's not necessarily a positive term. There are good insurgencies and evil insurgencies."

He needs to look the word up — its denotation and connotation are neutral, almost benign. Merriam-Webster notes that the word carries the implication of "a rebel not recognized as a belligerent," whereas identification in this instance is trenchant. What Iraq faces is a) a violent farrago that is b) almost totally composed of criminals and psychopaths, unlike traditional armies and militias, and which c) often behaves as if it is as interested in slaughter as it is in political gain. To be precise, Iraq faces terrorists.

A pet peeve of rightists who are averse to the use of "insurgency"? Those not having examined a word eagerly deployed by the left — often used interchangeably with "rebels" — for three years. That aside, if "terrorist" doesn't suit, whatever is wrong with "the enemy"?

Michael Ubaldi, August 15, 2006.

The rightist debate over democratism proceeds — if not altogether discreetly, ardently. At National Review, Andrew McCarthy, contra John Podhoretz, errs with most foreign policy conservatives. In imputing failures of polity on the very institution of democratic practices, he appears to blame coercive, terroristic acts of authoritarian intransigents on the very populations struggling, and dying, in an effort to liberalize. Sycophancy found in Beirut is obstructive, yes. But does Hezbollah ask the Lebanese for support, or does it exact obeisance through belligerence and murder? Following McCarthy's logic, a country must be unanimous in its move from dictatorship or else reformation is subject to failure.

Another oversight is McCarthy's claim that the Near East has been colored by cultural messianism for generations — when, just half a century ago, the region was off on a honeymoon with secular fascism. Victor Davis Hanson makes this last point repeatedly. Finally, as with conservatives, McCarthy has not presented a substantial alternative method to democraticism for wiping out non-state authoritarians.

Michael Ubaldi, August 14, 2006.

Solo, the upbeat narrative of Saul Singer plays against a prevailing minor. "Let's call it," Singer writes of Israel's halted northward offensive through Lebanon, "a squandered opportunity." But, he argues, fortune will favor diligence. "We destroyed most of [Hezbollah's] most dangerous missiles. We demonstrated we weren't afraid to subject our population to bombardment and that barrages of over a hundred missiles a day only caused our public to say 'fight harder!'" It's true that the Israeli operation did not prove Hezbollah's invulnerability.

Intractability — OK. Syria and Iran's joint venture performed above expectations reserved for a terrorist group — efficacy is not to be found where trained, uniformed soldiers oppose, and it was reported that Hezbollah gangs were more organized and more lethally fit than anticipated. And deaths of Lebanese civilians, real and presumed, in spite of the Israeli Defense Forces' pre-bombardment cold calls, were made a lurid show through the manipulative dexterity of terrorists entwined with the long-ruined Arab state. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, however, appeared in a broadcast to derive victory from a) Hezbollah's not having ceased to exist, and b) the group's refusal to disband. "This isn't a time to disarm," Nasrallah said, which is the obverse of the statement "This is a time to re-arm" — a precarious stance assumed while in close proximity to a national will and army like Israel's.

If the invitation these days is to draw parallels to the latter 1930s, think of a Rhineland investment that was — departing from history — met, matched and clove into ribbons and streaks. During their advance the Israelis faced only political strictures, and reached points on Lebanese soil that their civilian command intended; if short of where some demanded. Hezbollah, meanwhile, lost more than agents and materiel. In the course of the fighting two signal terrorist assets — collusive press agencies and foreign impresarios — were exposed. Editors for the Associated Press and Reuters, caught with fascist propaganda in and among their reports, could only temporize. Damascus and Tehran were drawn out and, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's eschatological gibberish aside, the respective regimes briefly given to contemplate a war that cannot, against major democratic powers, be fought openly. Democracies shrink from sinuous campaigns but none is quite like Israel. From Jerusalem, all major parties speak of "the next war."

Michael Ubaldi, August 11, 2006.

What's that — chatter about politely asking dictatorial regimes who mean to do us harm more time, a little more time before they go through with it? The success of jury-rigged detente is said to embody Washington's relations with countries like Egypt and Pakistan.

But both of those countries manufacture non-state authoritarians — terrorists following counterfeit Islam — as readily as adversaries like Iran and Syria. Remember, the most poignant collective fact of the nineteen September 11th hijackers was that nearly all of them were citizens of putative allies. Our lesson learned from Cold War clientage is that, absent revolution that transposes an authority and reestablishes political and cultural mastery, radicalism will spurt from failing dictatorships as if from a safety valve — this can be studied under the historical index of "upheaval."

And this says nothing of despots who are actively deploying irregulars against us. All bargains made with tyranny are Faustian; they can't be seen as ends in themselves.

Michael Ubaldi, August 10, 2006.

The editors of National Review, mindful of what penumbral discussion they are choosing to enter, define sectarian gang killings centered in Baghdad with a diagnostic compromise. Supporters of the Iraqi campaign are unwilling to concede anything to oppositionists for whom the phrase "civil war" is mnemonic for "Tet Offensive," and National Review splits the difference: No civil war, but one that menaces, and internecine strife "violent enough to qualify."

National Review's editors are fair to the Bush administration and Iraq's elected leaders, and offer reasonable suggestions. But that advice could be delivered apart from the antecedent; entertaining the idea of civil war, the editors commit two errors in their sociopolitical calculus. First, for the violence to cause a civil war, religious and ethnic groups must be taken to be unanimous; second, collective blame must be laid for the actions, however disproportionately destructive, of a very few. Civil wars, even nominal ones, require some kind of popular participation, and if that were the case it would be obvious. Lacking this the editors appear to rely on conjecture, and that leads to overbroad conclusions. The Badr militias claim to be Shiite? Well then, Shiites must be Badr. Al Qaeda, Ba'athists and violent tribes are Sunni? These groups must be cadres around which Sunnis rally.

A weak association is made between Iraq and misjoinder federations. Bedlam in Iraq, the editors write, could be managed like "the wars of the Balkans." Yugoslavia's aftermath? It was eventuated by secessions and populated by standing armies and militias. Those leading Slovenians, Croatians and others away from Belgrade sought political independence, not — as is the case in Iraq — wanton murder in the streets. Who, precisely, leads each faction? From where? To what end? Why is most of the slaughter occurring in Baghdad, for no other reason than an abundance of civilian targets? Why are Kurds, who would be best equipped for secession, not involved in the carnage? What is the significance of Iran's direction of one criminal menagerie, and Syria the other? Has anybody stopped to ask why — after thousands of deaths from car bombs and alleyway murders, dozens of incursions on religious sites — all that was needed was a brief series of well-publicized mosque bombings before "death squads" materialized as if on cue?

Declared enemies of freedom are attempting to frighten Western patrons of Iraq with the factious dysfunction of a former police state. It's a clever little travesty, and National Review, which at certain times during Iraqi reconstruction has gone docile, is willing to suspend disbelief. Civil war? The finest answer to this question came in one sentence from the steps of a bus: "By my definition of a civil war, which is a collapse of government and warring factions taking control of the country, there is not a civil war." The source of it is also one of irony, Joe Lieberman.

Michael Ubaldi, August 7, 2006.

Michael Ledeen, checking in from sub-Saharan Africa, documents violence and oppression having very little to do with Islam. Africans "are dying," he says, "at the hands of marauders, of tyrants who starve them to death and then beg the West to provide money and food to the regimes who caused the artificial famines in the first place." Democracies are best familiar with the threat known as "Islamic-fascism" and "Islamo-fascism," yet while those labels are OK for the purposes of making concept manifest, there is, as I wrote last year, some risk that the prefix will be accepted as the semantic root.

Westerners have a tendency to not view dictators and terrorists simply as adherents to compulsory rule, but to order them by brand, that is, whatever particular doctrine is claimed to inspire assaults on humanity; and then assign brands degrees, first of danger and soon enough of tolerability. Operational priority is a good excuse, democracies obliged to face adversaries as practicable. Construing parties with "bad" and "bad-bad," though, leads to strange and harmful equivocation. Trying to secure a meaningful difference in sociological consequences of, say, the Third Reich and the Soviet Union — maybe respectively hyphenated as "Teutonic-fascism" and "collectivist-fascism"? — is like choosing between defenestration and arsenicism.

Three misinterpretations are residual, being a) an "Islamic" enemy perceived as the only threat to liberal society, or b) a range of enemies that defies category, or c) a host of countries and parties not even recognized as deadly and fascistic. Most Americans are not as insensible as Congressman John Dingell, who recently withheld absolute support of Israel so he wouldn't short Hezbollah, but some polls do show a certain public temptation to regard Hezbollah — whose token irredentist license is six years revoked — as one would a league of concerned citizens.

And there is trouble with the labels themselves. How Islamic, strictly speaking, is the conduct of terrorists when referenced Koranic excerpts are removed from context — if the holy book that guides most Muslims through irenic lives is referenced at all? Disambiguating assorted enemies as authoritarians, period, is prerequisite to defending against and destroying them.

Michael Ubaldi, August 3, 2006.

French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy's characterization of the regime of Iran as playing "a stabilizing role in the region" has been contravened by the regime of Iran. Executive designate Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called for the destruction of Israel, as he has several times before, and even though Ahmadinejad's malediction was qualified — adding "at this stage an immediate cease-fire must be implemented" — Monsieur Douste-Blazy was driven to censure. In a series of statements broadly addressed to Tehran, the minister expressed what might translate as "Keep your mouth shut for more than a couple of days when we compliment you."

Now, diplomats are known to euphemize, not so much to hallucinate. The problem of how Iran's regional and global machinations carried out by a passel of contracted terrorist organizations represents stability, then, can be solved by supposing Douste-Blazy considered how long the Khomeinists have been at work — almost thirty years — and thought "reliable, damned reliable."

Michael Ubaldi, August 2, 2006.

Brat-pop rockers for want of endearing, onstage commercial flair can stop looking: the Mitsui Group's chain emporium, Mitsukoshi Ltd., has set a rare Hello Kitty-stamped Fender Stratocaster out on the counter. The guitar's pickups, bridge, and volume and tone controls intrude a bit on the cartoon feline's minimalist outlines; players may also find it disconcerting, in using Hello Kitty's jaw as a pickguard, to have gradually engraved a smirk. Against this are the possibilities for fret marking raised by a nacre-white, cursive signature running down the neck.

A price tag of $21,000 will keep the instrument out of reach of all but wealthy and larcenist dilettantes. And while stars have the cash, style may be a restraint. However appropriate Kitty's bubbly insouciance might be for, say, the diminutive Angus Young and his scrubbed schoolboy uniform, it would never happen — AC/DC's lead guitarist, don't you know, only plays a Gibson SG.